"There is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder." Bernard Lonergan

"It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by ccumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Wendell Berry

"Do not be afraid, my little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


We leave in a few moments.  I will blog about our final day, with pictures, from Yad Vashem, the Shrine of the Book, and the National Museum of Israel.  This is including the 2nd Century Model of Jerusalem.

I spent the day walking around the city and the city wall.  The Old City wall that is.  What an amazing city.  Just incredible.  Incredible city for an incredible land.

I close as we leave for the airport with two pieces.  The first is a prayer written by our guide, Peter Sabella.  Peter has guided us through Jerusalem with skill.  He says he is writing a tourist guide to Jerusalem.  If he should finishing it, it will be a masterful piece of information and perspective.

This first piece is a prayer he has written and has shared with groups over the years.

He calls it a Pilgrim's prayer.  It is his work, not mine.  And we began each of our days in Jerusalem with these words:

Pilgrim's Prayer
O Lord Jesus Christ, you simply said two words to Apostle Peter, and he left everything behind him and followed you. From the very beginning he was open to the possibility of having his identity and faith challenged. 
I too, O Lord want to follow you. I am also open to the possibility of having my identity and previous faith perceptions challenged. I have come to seek you. I want to walk with you, see you and hear your voice like the other disciples did. I surrender myself to you. 
Write your Gospel in my heart, open my mind to receive your grace. Help me gain a new insight into my true self. Help me relax my anxieties and frustrations when things don’t seem to go my way! Help me become a permanent pilgrim instead of a passing tourist!
Teach me the way to embrace my brothers and sisters on this pilgrimage and in this land with love, as you have embraced your cross with love.
Lord, I have left family and friends behind. I ask you to keep them in your care and grace.  Grant them patience and peace of heart knowing that I am seeking a transformed spiritual relationship with you.   
I am following in your footsteps, O Lord, hoping that the one who returns home will be a better person than the one who set out!

The second piece is Psalm 67.  I recited it in pews all over this land.  I offered it at the Western Wall.  I offer it to our church today as a prayer.

Psalm 67

The Nations Called to Praise God

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
May God be gracious to us and bless us
   and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
   your saving power among all nations. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you. 

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you. 

The earth has yielded its increase;
   God, our God, has blessed us. 
May God continue to bless us;
   let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Yes indeed.  May the way of God, the way of peace, be known in all the earth.  And may all the people praise, praise, praise with their words of love and lives of service.

Thanks for reading.  May you be blessed.

Monday, March 24, 2014

O Little Town of Bethlehem

"O little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie...."

I am no good at politics.  I don't know enough to comment effectively.  So I cannot tell you precisely why this wall has been built in the middle of Bethlhem.  

But I can show this picture.

I am not sure how to explain it or to sugar coat it.  It divides Bethlehem and cuts it off from Jerusalem.  In my mind, Bethlehem has always been far from Jerusalem.  

I have been wrong.  

It is maybe 5 or 6 miles.  And they are cut off from one another.  The birthplace of Jesus cut off from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem Bible College hosted an international conference last month called "Christ at the Checkpoint."  They invite our church each year they have it.  The premise:  if Jesus were born today he would have to go through checkpoints.  Joseph and Mary would have to go through checkpoints (some say as many as 300) from Nazareth to Bethelehem (which is pretty far it turns out).  So what should the church do or say in light of this?  What would happen to the church if Jesus had been detained at a check point?   

The truth is that no American, including us, knows what it is like to live with such walls in the middle of our neighborhoods.  We don't have checkpoints to go to work.  Neither do with live with Israel's security and safety threats.  Or with Israel's memories of the Holocaust.  It is not our reality.

But the walls in the middle of the city of the nativity of the Savior?  6,000 people a day go through the checkpoint at these walls - lining up at 4 AM.  Some days it takes hours.  Like the walls that block the road to Jericho, these broke my heart.  How can these walls be part of any effective solution for peace in this troubled land?

Love wins?  I believe as much.  May it be so in Bethlehem.

(A widow at the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.  This window commemorates John 6, "I am the bread of life.")

We visited the Lutheran church, which also hosts a small university for Bethlehemites.  It was amazing.  Founded in the 1890's, it is the one Protestant church in Bethelehem.  Years ago, they switched over to Arabic language services which is the language of the Palestinian people here in Bethlehem.  Thus the Arabic in the dome of the church.  Just a lovely, lovely place.

The woman who gave us the tour (the lead Pastor is in the States) said that she prayed for peace and knew it would come, because God had come to Bethlehem once and given the world the gift of peace in the Prince of Peace.  Keep in mind, she has seen tanks roll by her church.  She has swept up after the people in the streets and the army went to blows.  So she has seen what happens when peace is shattered.  And so her deep belief in the Prince of Peace is not casual.  Her words were not empty.

One more thing about the Lutheran Church.  During an expansion project, they found a 2nd Century Cave under the church.  A cave that was a home.  It was replete with cooking instruments, etc..

Here is a poor picture of it.  Bethlehem is riddled with these caves.  This is likely the kind of cave Joseph and Mary stayed in during Jesus' birth.  It was not this cave where Jesus was born.  The cave is elsewhere.  Here is what to note in this picture.  See the steps and how it rises?  That little rise was the "upper room" in a 1st century cave.  Here their cave is set for hosting meals - some church groups want to come and have an authentic supper the way Jesus might have had a meal and so the cave is prepped for this activity.  But you might get the idea.  It is this type of structure that Jesus likely spent his life eating, sleeping, and growing up in.  Note:  as these caves are found, there are mangers carved inside of the doors of nearly all of them.  This is true of this one too.  The manger so that they animals who were brought in on cold winter nights could eat.  Thus the archaeological theory goes that mangers were readily available for Mary to rest her child in the overcrowded little city.

It is believed that Bethlehem had 300 - 500 people living in it at the time of Jesus birth.  For many, many reasons, it is believed that Jesus was born in a meager and simple house (perhaps like the one above) likely owned by realtives (Luke uses "inn" -- as in no "room at the inn."  But there are some translation issues there that I will skip over at this point in time).

The oldest continuing church and congregation in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which like the churches in Jerusalem, is built directly over the cave and carved out manger that bibically, historically, and archaeologially fit the criteria to be the place of Jesus' birth.

It is an incredible structure.  Old.  Falling down around itself.

This is why there is a major renovation project ongoing.  Much of it is being restored and refurbished.

We waited in another massive line to see the manger, the little room, the meager, dug out home where Jesus is said to have been born.  And I think that on the balance of the evidence, if it wasn't exactly here, it was very near.

I didn't have any of my pictures from the the journey down into the birth site turn out very well.

Peter (the guide) gathered the group up and we sang some Christmas carols together only feet away from the area of the little stone manger.  Singing felt pretty good.  And felt right.  A good and simple way to say thanks to God for the incarnate birth of Christ.

One of the reasons people think the Church of the Nativity is authentic is because of St. Jerome.  St. Jerome died in Bethlehem in 420 AD - he had made this church his home.  So dating back into the 300's one of the geniuses of the faith was an eye witness to the stewardship of the site.

The above photo is of the cave just adjacent to the meager cave of the nativity.  This is the original tomb of St. Jerome, and he was buried in the room where he translated the Bible into Latin, from Greek and Hebrew. That's right:  the guy who translated the authoritative version of the Bible -- the authoritative version for more than 1,000 years, worked in this very room.  

Look at the plaque.  Here lies St. Jerome, "Presbyteri et ecclesiae doctoris."  This means elder and church doctor of course.  How about the word Presbyteri in there?  Our guide saw it immediate, and as he does not know many Presbyterians, we had a discussion about theology and ecclesiology in the tomb and study of St. Jerome.  Are you kidding me?  My inner theologian was smiling from ear to ear.

I geeked out a little bit.

We visited a shop owned by the grandson of the man who first described the Dead Sea Scrolls to the world.  And this jar is the actual jar in which the Isaiah scrolls were found.  That is unreal, really.  

I think our group has done really well.  We have seen many of the stones of the bible, of the ancient world, and of the time of Jesus.  We have greater grasp on what it may have looked like, felt like, and been like.  Ultimately any trip here will be the question - did these stories look and feel the way I thought they would?  That is the point of pilgrimage and study.  I'll never read Sea of Galilee, Mountain of Olives, Gethsemane, or many others again and not think of this week.

The ground may be different today.   But the distances are the same.  With a little prayer and imagination you can almost see how it might have all looked and transpired.

And that is good.

It is a treasure to walk in the footsteps of grace.  A real blessing to cover the earth Jesus and his disciples once covered.  I leave tomorrow with my imagination expanded, and my love of the stories transformed.  What a gift!

We also saw the living stones of this place.  The Muslim men praying at the Temple Mount.  The Jordanian shepherds.  The Jews praying at the Western Wall.  The gracious Palestinians.  The passionate Israelis.  And their collective future is very much in doubt, very much up in the air.

Again, I don't know everything about the walls we have seen, and the flagging peace process.  But I do know this.  Should the living stones of this place find no peace?  Should the beautiful and mysterious Jews and Palestinians who live here and work here side by side, but go home to deeply segregated lives, should these living stones be able to find no peace?  Then the day will come when we who seek the ancient stones will not be able to see and touch and walk in this place.  That would be a two front tragedy.  

A tragedy that peace had failed.

And a tragedy that we are cut off from the story of our faith.

As one of our speakers said, "That's our history, our collective history out there in the Jordan River, we have to both protect it and share it!"

It has been spiritually deeping and humbling to see the places where our Lord was.  They are real and it is powerful to see the the geography of the stories first hand.

You know the line from the prophets, "he shalll be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace."  May there be peace.  Deep peace.  The peace of God, which passes all understanding.  May my prayer be that the sons and daughters of God, the lovely and amazing people we have met on both sides of the borders, and the people who care about this place --  may we all be found by that peace.

Peace enough that the ancient stones and ancient stories might live on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on.....  

Tomorrow we head home after a visit to Yad Vashem.  This is a critical and important stop in Jerusalem and is a must for any visit here.  Then to the airport.  I hope to blog tomorrow, but am not sure I'll have WiFi access.  But I will post one or two more blogs, whether I have internet tomorrow or not.



Sunday, March 23, 2014

Holy Chaos

The guide called it Holy chaos.  That would sum up today.  A moving, powerful, and important day.  It was sensory overload in the fullest sense.  A wonderful and touching day that brought together all the themes which have been swirling around us all week.  Bible.  History.  Archaeology.  Complexity of the current situation.

(The line to get into the Temple Mount.  This are the people behind us more than 30 minutes before it opened.)

(Our guide in Jerusalem, Peter, tells the group about the unbelievably complex and intiricate history of the Temple Mount, the focal point for the religion and the debate about the Holy City.)

"You are sitting in the most valuable real estate in the world," Peter told us.  And yes, it is.  So valuable it is controlled by two different security check points.  The list of items that Christians cannot bring in is long, long, long.  Because, afterall, this Muslim Holy site is sitting atop the holiest site in all of Judaism.  

You may go and read the history of the Temple Mount at any time.  How it is where Jesus got lost as a boy.  How it is where Jesus overturned tables once.  How Jesus predicted its destruction.  Read about the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall.  The Dome of the Rock.  Al Asqa.  The Holy of Holies.  Alll of those things.  Right there or near to where our group sat this morning.

(Trying to take it all in.  The mound itself is huge.  Like a giant park.  Only with policemen in riot gear at every gate and with Army soldiers walking around eveywhere.)

In any other time and place it would have been a glorious morning.  It might have been a fantastic stroll through a large park.  A nice place to take in the hills and elevation changes.

But instead its present state is as complex and convoluted as its past.  This site has seen temples come and go.  Fires.  Wars.  The crusaders swept through here killing hundreds upon hundreds on the very stones where we walked.  It is a troubled past.

And as we sit there, one Jewish Youth walks past.  He cannot be more than 24 years old.  He walks a path from which he will not deviate, as he does not want to walk over the site of the Holy of Holies.  He is one of only 2 or 3 Jews who might come in today.  And as he walks by he is flanked by two soldiers.  One a soldier of Israel, making sure that the Youth does not pray, enforcing the no prayer ban handed down years ago.  No prayers other than Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount.  The second soldier?  A member of the Islamic guard which has some jurisdiction at the site observing the Israeli soldier and the Jewish Youth.  One kid.  Two soldiers.  It is a troubled present.

Holy chaos indeed.

The Jews here do pray, of course.

At the Western Wall.  At the foot of the Temple Mount.  

I prayed at the wall.  I touched it.  I wrote a prayer for my family.  I wrote "Psalm 67" on my paper.  And then I tucked it into the wall and closed my eyes and prayed the Psalm as best I could.  As I opened y eyes I was next to an old, old, old man who was praying.  His face was pressed onto the wall.  He was repeating Hebrew phrases.  That was to one side.  To the other was a young soldier.  Praying at the wall. Praying with one hand on the wall and with the other hand on his gun.

I turned around.  Very little boys were running around.  A huge crowd of boys on a bar mitzah trip came pouring in.  And over the wall which separates men and women into two groups at the Western Wall, a young couple held hands over the top of the seperation wall for as long as they dared.

Holy Chaos.

From there to lunch outside of the Old City, and back into the Old City area through the Damascus Gate.

It would not have looked like this in Jesus' time.  2,000 years is a long time.  And most of these walls are 15th and 16th century.  Hadrian (yep, that Hadrian) once built an arch here spanning the bridge and gate that was long ago torn down.

Inside the Damascus gate is an explosion of sight, sound, smell, color, and commerce.  But that is how you get to the Via Dolorosa.  

And the great stations of the cross.

When walking the way and walking the roads and streets, elevations are always changing.  Layer upon layer of the city needs to be unpealed to understand.  There are times when it is hard to tell if you are above ground or underground or under a building.  

Up many ramps and flights of stairs sits the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (place of crucifxion and the tomb of Christ) at the end of the journey.

I cannot begin to explain the history here.  But six different churches have claimed parts of it.  This is so contested that it is actually a Muslim family which keeps the key - the six churches couldn't agree on which one should have the key -- and this has been the case for (I think) at least 1,000 years.

I could write 5,000 words about my feelings being there.  It is a crusaders church in every sense.  It is simultaneously wonderful to be there -- because there are legends and archaeologists who believe that the hill of crucifixion and the tomb of resurrection are located about 30 yards from each other right here  in what now is this massive, ancient, and incredible church.

If you want to be amazed at complexity, do some internet research on the administration of this church.  

It is medieval and dark and stuck through agreements to be exactly as it is.  

I wish I could give you a clear picture of Calvary hill, but it is covered by the church.  

It was probably in or near a rock quarry.   

It was on the outside of the walls at the time of Jesus' death.  

I was very near a set of 1st Century Jewish tombs. 

It was 40 or 50 feet high, though it is hard to tell.  The church is built up here upon layers and layers of buildings and levels and levels of city and streets.  So when one enters you are already "ascending" the small hill of rock.  And then, as you climb the steps of the church you are "ascending" Calvary, or at least the rocks of Calvary.  

Imaging building a giant church level by level over a small rocky hill.  That is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church which the sanctuaries are built around the hill itself.  And what is not built around the hill is built around the tomb.

Remember, it is medieval archtiecture.  

So it is dark and very Eastern in style and form.

I found myself saying like many before me, "I am baptized.  I am baptized," thanking God for the many promises which keep us.

I found myself praying thanksgivings for the courage of Jesus and for his resurrection.

But I was easily distracted.  I think the entire Russian Orthodox Church was there with us.  The noise is non stop.  So loud it is like a hum.  Some are people praying and singing.  But a lot is people jockeying in line.  Calling on cell phones.  Priests trying unsuccessfully to get people to be quiet.

There is a lot of veneration going on.

But it is hard to tell how much sacred is happening.

All around is Holy chaos.

These are the most sacred places of faith.  And yet I prayed to God to remind me of Jesus' deepest lessons even in the vicinity of Jesus' greatest acts.  Even in the midst of venerated and miraculous sites, I strained to remember his teachings and his words.  I tried to remember his lessons.  Lessons like the church Jesus loved most was not any one building, but people doing his will, making peace on the earth, proclaiming love, forgiveness, salvation in his name.  Lessons like welcoming children, feeding the hungry, and singing joyfully from the heart.  The church he loved most is the one which talks about, and prays about, and gives witness to the kingdom of God.  

Please don't hear this wrong.  These sites and this place is as special as any I can imagine.  I tremble when I think of the site of Christ's death.  I am awestruck each time I consider resurrection and the promise that knows no end.  And to be so close is a rare blessing!

It is just hard to get to the heart of the matter, to the rocks and the word and the words beneath the rocks, to the core of what is most essential here -- it is hard to get to it through all the things that history, squabbles, tradition, have added onto it.  Jesus came to build a church in our hearts, and one has to peel back the layers of the ones we see to remember this.  Or, if you'll allow, the way this has been built and handed on century after century after century -- it can be difficult more difficult than necessary to see Jesus, the living stone, because of the stones of the church building itself.

As I write at the end of a long day, I think back to Bible school at the Episcopal Church, the Baptist Church, and sometimes with friends, at other churches.  It seemed we always sang, "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together," no matter where we were.  Good reminder that God seems to care a great deal about the living stones of faith.  A great deal indeed.  I left wondering about the church I will leave behind one day to my family and community.  I left wondering about my ministry. In light of the power of resurrection promise, and in light of the call of Jesus to follow, how am contributing to the building up of the living stones in my midst?

Again, Peter put a good end to the day of Holy chaos.  "No matter what else, good, bad, easy, hard -- all of this happened because of Jesus and what he gave to the world."

Should you come here, remember this.  This city is disorienting for a simple guy like me.  There are traditions and mysteries here older than any memory.  Every inch of the dirt unlocks secrets.  Level upon level.  The interwoven nature of Bible, tradition, history, liturgy, practice, and politics is knotted and tight.  It is impossible to seperate one from another.

(Look at this photo.  I know 1% of what I am looking at.  But look at it.  In the background are all the Jewish graves facing the "golden gate" of Jerusalem - graves on the Mount of Olives.  Before us is a compound that runs parallel to the southern wall of the Old City.  This whole compound is a dig and discovery site.  Once the 15th / 16th century walls stop to the left - the high ones - do you see how other walls keep going just on the ground in front of it and perpendicular to it?  Notice that they are deeper.  Now imagine those partial walls and all that you see there as being under streets, under ground, under buildings.  Can you see those two arches in the left third of the picture, under the gray dome?  Those would have been tunnels, or breezeways, or something, but they would have been understreet, underfoot, underground at some point as well.  And then to the right another wall, built by who or when, I have no idea.  And this is just one site.  So in this city, levels beget levels.  Maps beget maps.  It is the archaeological puzzle of lifetimes!  And many of the sites we visit go up and down, all through these levels to reach the level where things were 2,000 years ago.  It is like Holy archaeological chaos.  I have always appreciated archaeologists.  My respect for them has exponentially increased on this trip.)

But in the midst of the chaos and the crowding, a good reminder sets the heart and the mind and the soul on a good path.

A path that leads to a cross.  The real one, yes, but also the ones we carry with us.

And a path which leads to empty tombs.  The real ones, yes, but so too the ones we carry with us.

Destinations count.  So do journeys.  This trip has been a fine reminder of as much.    

Are their answers to be found here?  Of course.  But one doesn't have to come here to find them.  Find the answers -- find them somewhere between the difficulty of sacrifice and the loveliness of grace, between the paradox of suffering and the power of hope.  

Jerusalem, it seems, for all its permanence, exists in this liminal space.

Like each day since we arrived, it is hard to know what to write about.  Each day SO many things happen.  Each day we see SO many biblical and historical keystones.

I want to share some quieter moments with you.  A Korean Youth choir sang Amazing Graces at St. Anne's church, sitting next to the pool of Bethesda (John 5).  A WMPC choir member actually joined in and sang with them.  It was amazing and simple and lovely.  Best acoustics in the Holy Land we were told.  They didn't disappoint.  

We worshipped at the Church of Scotland today.  St. Andrew's.  Lovely old church and lovely people.  Pretty sanctuary to boot.

Then at 5 PM (our time) we worshipped again.  With a very familiar congregation!

And there you have it.

Sunday in Jerusalem.  It began with bells ringing all over the city.  Old fashioned church bells.

Holy chaos and divinely inspired calm...


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Jerusalem, Day 1, Part 2

If you have not read part 1 yet, please go back and read it.  Scroll down.  Up.  Whichever way it is on yoru computer or browser.  

At least read the introduction to part 1 so this part 2 of the blog will make sense.

Did you ever get a problem you just couldn't solve?  Even though you know you are smart, and everybody in the world is trying to help?  Even though everyone is praying and hoping that it can be solved?
Such is the reality of the living stones of this region, the Palestinians and Jews of Jerusalem.

I hope that if you have never read any history of this region, you will take the time to do so.  There is nothing like it, no place like it on earth.  

I'll leave it at that.

I am not educated, informed, or learned enough to make suggestions.  But I did make some observations.  

This is how the Jericho road comes to a screeching halt in East Jerusalem.  I did not know until we drove it.  I am such a novice -- so naive as to how and why things like this are built.  But the walls are here.  And they are seeking to divide people.  How can that be good?

I don't find a single verse in the mouth of Jesus saying to divide ourselves from our neighbors.  Or our enemies for that matter.

This is the irony of Jerusalem.  So many stories intersect here.  And one wonders - if the walls keep going up, will the stories intersect anymore?  The wall has stopped the ancient road to Jericho (the most important road in Jesus's life?  Just maybe).  How can that be good?  How can that be a way to make peace?

This ancient and modern beautiful intersection of so much of the world - past, present, and future, has those walls stopping the Jericho road just miles away.  Only unlike the walls in this picture (which is near the Jaffa gate in historic Jerusalem) which have gates, the walls in East Jerusalem along the Jericho Road have no gates at all.

We met with two young women today who shared their work and passion for a peaceful future for Israel.  I have not shared their names as I did not get their permssion to do so.  I'll say they both described themsleves as activitsts.  We met with them because, quite frankly, they were willing to meet with us.  And available.  We don't meet with many activists.  I don't really know very many - a few in North Carolina, but not that many.  We all did wonder how the story would be different if we spoke to and Israeli army officer.  But they don't say much on street corners, at check points, or when they board the bus. 

I will say the women were fair.  They did not condemn the army, they understood the threat Israel faced, and they were sympathetic to check point officers.  I think they want a future for Israel which is different than the one in which they were raised.  One with less fear.  And I think that they think that the walls and the settlement movement only increase the fear in their country.  

I should note they were both Israeli citizens.

As we overlooked Jerusalem, this huge fire burned to the South.  It was late in the afternoon and it made this eerie effect.

The smoke sort of covered the sun.

I don't go looking for metaphors or signs.  But what of this?

Can Jerusalem survive?  Will its future drift away like smoke on the breeze?  What of the living stones here?  The people who live and work side by side each day but who rarely say one another's names or know one another's children?  What of the future?  Will it be as conflict prone as the past?

There are more players, interests, and politics here than I have time to write about.  That is for sure.

What is equally sure is this question - call it the connundrum of this place.  Will the people who live here care as much about the living stones who are their neighbors as they do about the ancient stones which undergird their faith?

"Almighty God:  Jesus wept for this city.  Does he still weep today?  Hear the cries of your people Lord:  peace, peace, peace.  In the Savior's name we pray.  Amen."

Jerusalem, Day 1 Part 1

I am going to write two different blogs today.  Because we had two different days, even though it was technically the same day.

This is part 1.

Let me say this:  there are lots of ways to come to Jerusalem, to the Holy Land, to Israel and Palestine.  Some come and see only biblical sites.  Some come and see biblical sites and new testament era sites.  Some come and see biblical sites, new testmanent era sites, and shrines.  And some come and see biblical sites, new testament era sites, shrines, and try to meet people living in the current reality of this place which is complicated at best.  

Our trip was designed in this final category.  The way Dan (the fellow who organized the trip) and I describe it as we want to see the ancient and biblical stones of this place, and we want to meet and hear from the living stones of this place too.

So the first part of the morning was spent on the Mount of Olives.  And the afternoon and evening were spent with two young women working for peace in this place who showed us many places and many things that made the conversations about walls and check points very, very real.  

So today was a day for making things real.  The valleys and hills of biblical Jerusalem -- they are real.  The 24 foot walls dividing villages -- they are real.

This first blog is about biblical Jerusalem and what we saw on our way around it. About the first day we had here.

This is the route that Jesus likely took down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday.  Our group is in the background on the road.  Behind me are the acres of graves, Jewish and Muslim, seeking to be near the temple mound and the now sealed "golden gate."  If I was a more apolocalyptic theologian or pastor, I would write a great deal about this.  But instead I'll talk about what was there today.  

Here on the slopes of the Mount of Olives - the ground is crazy steep.  Like Blowing Rock or Boone steep.  Down, down, down it goes until it ends at the Garden of Gethsemane at the base of the Kidron Valley.  There to my left is a somewhat sacred Jewish site.  Notice the fence and the wire to prevent vandalism.  Irony:  Jerusalem is called the "city of peace," and yet there is security everywhere.  Checkpoints.  Young men with guns.  Young soldiers with guns.  Cameras, cameras, everywhere.  That is one just over my left shoulder on a thin white pole.  Cameras dot the whole way down the Mount of Olives.  And I get that. 

I understand their necessity.  

They just break my heart.

To my right is a beggar.  He was loud and desperate.  You should know I rarerly, if ever, give money to beggars.  This is for many reasons -- and all of them intellectually interesting and acute.

If you read the gospels Jesus goes us to Jerusalem from Jericho.  In Jericho Jesus meets Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus.  Batimaeus is a blind man who gets louder and louder and louder.  Jesus stops.

So here we were on the Mt. of Olives, and a beggar shouted louder and louder as we appraoched him.    We are on the same route Jesus took.  We are on the same Mount of Olives where the road to Jercho in Jesus' time both began and ended.  The city was before me.  The words of Jesus to "do to the least" of these echoed in my ear.

So I broke all my neat intellectual rules and I gave the man all the money in my pocket.  Don't know how much (I think about 5 dollars).  And it really doesn't matter.  There were too many synergies to deny the man a brief success.  If even for a moment, I hope he saw in it the top-pence I offered him the  mercy I intended.

(There are 1.000.000 pictures of the Garden of Gethsemane on the internet.  This is my contribution to the library of the photographs.  It really is as cool and wonderful as I hoped it would be.  It looks like the kind of place where one could get lost in prayer.  Is there a more tragic and/or sacred place for the intesction of the human drama that at Gethsemane?)

At Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations, or the Church of the Rock of Agony, people stream in from all over the globe.  Africa.  Asia.  Europe.  And us.  It is wonderful.

Here is the inside of the church.  It is the most visually elegant of the churches we have visited.  As I listened to the catholic mass and prayed for my family in this space, I tried to imagine the many who have come before me praying and praying for those they love and for the world.  

Again, I find myself looking at these ancient stones.  From the walk down the Mount of Olives, to the survey of the great city, to the place of Jesus' final prayer and arrest.

I find myself staring at the ancient stones and wondering what they remember. 

Jesus weeping over Jerusalem?

His long walk from Gethsemane to the home of the high priests, to the Romans, to Herod.  Do they remember that?  What secrets do they hold in the unalterable past?

And then I hear the voice of a beggar growing louder.

I hear the song of what sounded like 1000 Nigerians singing as they march down the hill.

I see the Ethiopians dressed in costumes which make them look like kings as they march the way to Jersusalem proper.

I see all that and I realize that these dormant stones yet support a living faith.

And I am glad for our part in it.

Friends, the city, at a distance really is as wonderful as you have imagined.  Its scope and place in world history is simply unmatched.

But the Nigerians singing, the people crowding, and the small group of North Carolinians who gathered together tightly to pray the Lord's Prayer this morning?  

Well, they are beautiful too.  And for each of these, I am, as I am for this city, prooundly grateful.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lessons from Mar Elias

I looked at him and I said, "Thank you for your work.  My wife is a 7th grade teacher, her mother was a teacher, so was her father.  And my mother," I told him, "has been an educator for 45 years.  We are a family full of teachers."

"Your work has touched my heart."

Perhaps it is that I have been away from my family for a while.  Perhaps it is that school is an every day, sometimes hour to hour, conversation at my house.  Maybe it is because I love teachers because the people I love most are teachers.  Maybe it is because I believe - personally and theologically - that education is the most important community undertaking and responsibility.  But when I said the above words to the Headmaster of Mar Elias School, a school in Ibillin, in Northern Galilee, I said them from the heart and I'll confess to choking back a tear.

(Most students have Fridays off here.  This is one of the few places anywhere in this country where Muslims, Jews, and Christians study and go to school together.  Here are the students who came in today to be our lunch hosts - these youth are all 9th and 10th graders.)

(Earlier in the day 11th and 12th graders gave members of our group a tour of the school.)

(We made a donation on the part of our group to the library.  Mostly fiction books requested for the older students taking English classes, but also hard to import books on teaching excellence and teaching theory.)

(Other members of our group visited a regional program for gifted students hosted at the schools.  These students are among the top 1.5% in their grades, and they come from all over the region on Fridays - 30 Fridays a year - for an extra day of school to be in class with other exceptional students.  These 6th and 7th grade girls are taking a class which encourages them to think about cities of the future.  What architectural, environmental, and artistic needs will they have?)

(These 8th graders - also part of the 1.5% program - are in debate class.  As we entered they were practicing point and counter-point about raising the legal age of marriage.  They wanted to know the legal age of marriage in the United States.)

(The high school building.)

(The Melkite Catholic Church at the center of the school.  The Beatitudes -- see Matthew 5 -- are inscribed in four languages going up the steps.  The school is currently 60% Muslim, 40% Christian, and welcomes many Jewish teachers.  The faith of this church community drives all they do.  From the Beatitudes, the words of Jesus which call for peacemaking.  To the call of Jesus to welcome children in his name.  This is the driving faith of this school).

(Members of the group prepare to hear the school's founder, Archbishop Elias Chacour speak.  We were joined by a group of students from Notre Dame as well as Kate Tabor, PCUSA's new facilitator for peace making partnerships in Israel/Palestine.)

(Archbishop Chacour address our group.)

Here is where the blog will get thin.  For two hours Elias Chacour told us stories, called us to action, told us that peacemaking was the primary call for Christians (as in others will know who God and Jesus are by the peace we make in the world), talked about the children of the school he founded, and told of his friendships with incredible people all over the world.  It was spellbinding.

And not just because of the qualities of the stories.

Because of the qualities of the man.  The faith of the man.  The courage of the man.  The way his devotion to Jesus and to the beatitudes have guided his witness in this small town of Ibillin and then, across the planet earth.  If you have never read his book, Blood Brothers, I hope you will read it.  And soon.  It is an important a book as I have read in many years.

He said so many things.

He speaks with courage and conviction about the violence that has hurt his land.  He calls all to remember that Jewish folks are created in God's image.  He calls all to remember that Palestinian folks are created in God's image.  He calls all to remember that there is ministry to do, there is faith for Christ and the love of Christ to share, where ever anyone of us may be ("I came to Ibillin for a one month assignment, but my bishop forgot me, and I forgot myself, and I have been here for almost 40 years").

And then he said this, "Please tell your friends in America that the Palestinians and Jews don't need to learn how to live together in peace...tell them that we just need to remember how we did it long ago."

I pass that on to any who read it, as I was asked to do.

There are people who talk about what they should do to make peace, help a need, love a neighbor as themselves and make their actions a witness for Christ.  No matter where we are there is a need for our faith and for our helping hands in our zip codes, county, or country.

And then there are those who do what is needed.  Who break ground.  Till soil.  Raise a helping hand.

Archbishop Chacour is a doer.  Devoted to God, lover of Christ, he has devoted his time and attentions to doing precisely what Jesus said.

When such a great example of service to God and the kingdom of God -- when something like this occurs in your midst, it is good to take notice.

I noticed today.

And it brought tears to my eyes.  It reminds me of the idealism with which I began seminary.  And it made me proud of our shared faith.   It made me humble before the  Lord, the  Lord Archbishop Chacour has so devotedly served.

(I write these words tonight from the Old City in Jerusalem.  The calls to prayer have just begun.  They echo through the city and its tight streets.  Darkness has fallen.  Tomorrow will come, and with it, Lord willing, the dawn.  And with the dawn explorations into the complexities of this city and explorations into the trial, death, and resurrection of Christ.)

We have come up to Jerusalem.  This trip - from Jordan, through the Negev, to Galilee, now to here, have given us much to think and pray about.

"Jerusalem - city of so much pain and joy.  The drama of crucifixion.  The wonder of resurrection.  Help us O God to see our faith clearly through what has happened here.  And then help us O God to see Jerusalem today - that we might know how to pray for peace in this complicated land.  Carry us forth to discover your good news, for these things we pray in your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen."


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Zippori? Nazareth?

(This is Zippori.  Actually, me in Zippori.  I'll write more on Zippori later in this blog.  I am never sure how many picutres of myself to include in these posts...) 

Today we went to Zippori.  Dan (the other organizer of this trip and honestly the person who has done the vast majority of the work for it) and I really wanted to come here.  In the picture above I am in Zippori, now an Israeli National Park.  Zippori was the "capital of Galilee," next to the major Roman highway the Via Maris.  And it is only 2 or so miles from Nazareth.  At the time of Jesus' boyhood, Nazareth would have been a village of 200 or so people, most of whom lived in caves.

Caves like this one, preseved by the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Zippori was cosmopolitan, Roman, and a major center for Jewish learning.  Along the Via Maris, it is a place where Jesus would have been exposed to the cutting edge Jewish thought of his day and to hours on end of Old Testament commentary and discussion.  It was also, as a Roman city where Herod built a palace/fortress a place where Jesus would have seen many, many gentiles.  Thus, many scholars think most of Jesus' formal education took place in Zippori.  It is impossible to know.  What we do know is that when he arrived in Capernaum after that long period in his life between his visit to Jerusalem at 12 and the time when he called his disciples, he became wise and learned and grew in his understanding (see Luke 2:52).

So Zippori is an important, and often overlooked stop when visiting the Holy Land.

(Zippori was a Roman city, and reached its apex in the 2nd century.  The Israeli's call it the jewel of Galilee, in part because after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the Jewish leaders resettled there in Zippori.  This means that Zippori was integral to the formation of the Talmud and the Mishnah, critical texts for Judaism even until today.  Above are chariot tracks -- this is for my kids:  P, G, and A these are real chariot tracks on the Cordo Maximo in Zippori! -- which is evidence of its value as a commercial center.)

As we pulled into Nazareth, one of our group members (I'll call him "J") started singing The Band's song, "The Weight."  You may know it:  "I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead."

Nazareth in the days of Jesus was a little village.  Today it has 100,000 or so people.  It is bustling and crowded.  Cars going every which way.  Vendors selling everything under the sun.  Noisy, smelly, and, especially when counting the pilgrims here, international.  At our hotel, which seems to be owned and managed by Palestinian Christians, we have met Palestinians who were born in Georgia, who live here but travel to Europe monthly, or who have family currently in the U.S..  Nazareth (google this phrase, "what good can come from Nazareth?") is not overlooked town anymore.

(Members of our group on the bus headed to Nazareth today.)

(The streets of the old city are crammed and covered.  Here is our guide, Tony, with members of the group milling around and shopping in the crammed streets.)

(Here we are walking to our hotel in Nazareth.  The streets are so tight the bus has to drop us off and we walked the rest of the way.)

Nazareth has Christians, Jews, and Muslims -- native Palestinians and people who have moved here from around the world.  There is graffiti.  There is Western Music -- I heard "Thrit Shop" by Maclemore booming from the health club and the aerobics class on one side of the hotel.  On the other side middle-school boys with Premire League team shirts played soccer on the playground at the Greek Orthodox Church and school (P,G, and A - I have a video!).

Nazareth also has pilgrims.  The Basilica of the Annunciation is the largest church in the Middle East.  Its scale is unmatched by any church we have seen.  Nothing is even close.

The annunciation is, of course, the announcement from Gabriel to Mary, in Nazareth, that her child would be Jesus.  And that is kind of a big deal.  And people - Catholics, Pentecostals, Europeans, Africans, Arabs, people speaking Chinese, and at least 19 North Carolinians -- people stream from all over the world to pray here and gaze upon the church.  Here is what you need to know:  the church is built over 2 or 3 other churches which had occupied the site before.  And on the bottom floor of the church is the cave where many believe that Gabriel spoke to Mary (though this is contested).  The architecture is stunning.  My pictures do not do it justice.

I will share this:

And this:

This the front of the church.  Carved into the limestone are the Latin words, "Verbus caro factus est et habitavit in nobis."  From the Gospel of John - "And the Word became flesh and lived among us."

Incarnation. It doesn't start in Bethlehem.  It starts in Nazareth.  That is why Mary is so venerated and why the church is so important here.

There are people who have a mystical experience when they come here.  I get that.

As we sat in the Basilica, an English speaking priest read the anunciation story from Luke in English to the people he had brought here.  To hear that story, Gabriel saying to Mary, "greetings favored one!" in this church over that cave!  A moment!  And I get that.

But beyond the mystical is this.  Jesus was not invented.  He was real.  Flesh and bone like you.  Like me.  He had a history and place.  And it is all around.  And no the history since then is not clean or easy or simple.  Yes it is contested and debated.  There are points, counterpoints, and everything in between.  To many of my friends the church must seem more like crossfire than peacemaking.  

Even in light of all of that, it is a claim we can make becaue the Savior was real and he was here.  Blocks from where I sit.  At some point in time, he walked this hill as we do today.

And the real-ness of that claim cannot be undone.  Even the simplest person has a real history and a real claim.

And this claim about Jesus?  Well, as I said yesterday, it is available for any.  And if we listen to what he said, and give witness to who he was?  My goodness...

My goodness...

My goodness.  That is grace abundant.

"And now our God, grant us peace for the night. That here in Nazareth we might see something of the story of our Savior that we have never seen before.  And seeing it, we might ever seek to share, that others might hear of your love, your peace, your grace, your forgiveness.....  Amen."