Archive for January 2012
Today has left me feeling overwhelmed—not just with the Spirit, which has been spilling over in me every day, but with new information and insights about this place and its people, both ancient and modern. In the spirit of this blog as my place for pondering rather than reporting, I will not try to recount everything I saw and learned today. Instead, I’ll focus on a few questions and ideas that I want to process more deeply. I will throw in a few extra pictures to share more of our day.
Our focus scripture for the day came from Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples had ventured into the territory of Caesarea Philippi, which is the same territory we ventured into for the day. In that region, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the first confession of Jesus as Messiah: “You are the Christ.” We were invited to ponder: Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is, to you and for you and in your ministry?
That question took on new meaning when we laid eyes on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, which housed more than 20 temples to Roman gods. Many of the ruins we saw were built in the decades after Jesus, but the spirit of the first century city came clear. Palestine in the Roman era was not a monotheistic culture, and Caesarea Philippi was an amalgam of Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish worship. When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, it was not a question about where he stood in relationship to the One True God, or about how his ministry related to Temple Judaism. That question from Jesus invited the disciples to contemplate how his teaching and his path might be unique among all the multitude of competing cults in their world. With all this diverse religious worship, where did Jesus fit in?
Rather than contemplate the answer to the question, I have been more interested in the source of the question. Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was he setting them up for a test of faith? I doubt it. Was he in need of an ego boost, someone to tell him he was great and his ministry was important? I doubt that even more. Was he taking the temperature of his followers, to assess their level of understanding and commitment? Maybe a little bit, but probably that wasn’t all.
All of us, from time to time, ask our friends and family and even strangers to tell us who they think we are. We all do it, but why? We have an image about ourselves, who we are and what matters most to us and how we present ourselves. Yet we wonder if the world sees us the same way that we see ourselves. We need those around us to reflect back to us what they see, to correct our misperceptions, our blind spots, our sins. Honest feedback is the source of truth about our identity, not just as we perceive ourselves but as the world perceives us.
I did it myself this afternoon. I didn’t connect it to Jesus’ question until I started this writing, but the two belong together. My roommate is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a pastor, and this afternoon during a break we started talking about the Enneagram. She uses it frequently in her work, and we began together to figure out my type. She made a guess, and I probed her with questions about what that type said about who I am. Because I was resisting her characterization, she produced an application on her Ipad to let me take the official test. In the end, the test proved her right, and I spent the rest of the afternoon peppering her with questions about what that type said about who I am.
Who do you say that I am? I asked over and over again, in different ways and with various nuances, to her and to the test. What did I want to know? I wanted to know if their perceptions matched up to my self-perceptions. I wanted (especially from the Enneagram) to gain insights into my strengths and challenges. I wanted to hear affirmation of the deep longings of my heart. I wanted appreciation for how I think and how my heart moves. I wanted confirmation that the faults I wrestle with are indeed the faults I need to wrestle with. I wanted to be seen and known rightly.
Perhaps that is all that Jesus longed for as well—to be seen and known aright.
According to scripture, Peter is the only one who answers the question, and I always imagine his answer arriving in an outburst that surprises everyone, including himself: “You are the Christ!” It is a confessional moment, when he calls out the truth as he sees it. As with all true confession, it startles everyone with its boldness, even as everyone who hears it knows its power.
We continued to process the question as a group tonight: who do you say that Jesus is? One member of the group responded like Peter, with a confessional outpouring: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” He spoke with confidence and assurance. Others spoke with hesitation and doubt. Theirs too was a confession, an admission of their struggles to know who Jesus is in their lives. It was more like the confession of a father whose son received healing: “I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief!” Many in our group spoke about how their understandings of Jesus had changed throughout their lives, with some ideas and identities taking on prominence as others receded or were even rejected. Things got a little tense, as Christologies tangled with one another, with doubters doubting and proclaimers proclaiming.
For me, right now, the confession comes easily. Not quite as easily as Peter’s, and I might meddle with the exact word choices, but I can confess my faith with joy. At other times in my life, doubt held greater sway, and I might not have been able to confess faith, only questions. Even though I can confess easily now, questions remain.
Why did it matter so much? Why such passion and tension in our amiable group? Because who we confess Christ to be is who we confess ourselves striving to be. At the cornerstone of all orthodox theology is the belief that our identity as human beings is dependent upon God. Several members of the group referred to their catechism: “I profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism (from our UCC tradition, although held loosely) begins with the absolute connection between our identity and Jesus’:
What is thy only comfort in life and death?
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Who Jesus is determines who we are. Confession—You are the Christ! My Lord and Savior!—is only the beginning. From that moment on, our answer to the question of who Jesus is becomes the answer to who we are. When we confess ourselves as followers of him, we vow to be “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” If Jesus is a teacher, we are learners and teachers ourselves. If Jesus is a friend, we are friends to others. If Jesus is an advocate for social justice, we too are builders of peace and justice for all. If Jesus is a healer, we are healed and healers too. The source of our identity is found in Jesus.
For me, faith is far more about living with the question than knowing the answer. Who do you say that I am? I want to leave that question open, both about me and about Jesus. I follow a God of mystery and surprise, who is always revealing to me new understandings of Jesus and of myself. As I practice my faith and grow into the person God has created me to be, I will need to revisit the question over and over again. What does it mean for Jesus to be my Lord today? What is Jesus saving me from right now? What is Jesus saving me for in this moment, or the next? Who is Jesus to me today? What is Jesus asking of me today? How can I “live unto him?”
Praise be to God, for questions and confessions, for doubts and decisions, for tensions and resolutions, for growth and change, for the source of our life and who we are.
Today’s excursions had a spirit of exploration and adventure. We first visited the archeological site at Bethsaida, followed by a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and visit to a museum housing a first-century boat.
Bethsaida sits atop an ancient tell (human-made mound), and was a fortified city back to the time of the Hebrew Bible. It held a strategic location where the Jordan River empties into the Sea of Galilee, although the Sea has since receded 1.5 kilometers from Bethsaida’s hilltop. Bethsaida translates as “House of Fishermen,” and it completed our tour of the towns in the Galilee where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. “House of Fisherman” proved an accurate name, since they uncovered a home or compound that showed evidence of all sorts of fishing implements. We could walk through what was once the courtyard (where fish were cleaned and processed), kitchen and residences. There was also a winegrower’s house, complete with a wine cellar originally full of wine jars and pruning hooks.
The most fascinating part of the ruins, however, was the ancient city gate, which was only unearthed in the last year. Only town residents were allowed inside the gate, but the area immediately outside was the spot for all public meeting. We saw where the market would have been held, trades would have been negotiated, and judgments rendered in crimes and civil disputes. Atop the gate itself was a memorial to a Roman cult, and an image of an armed bull sent the message that the town was strong and protected. In Jesus’ day, the Via Maris (the major road to Damascus) would have passed by the city gates, and there was a stone manger with water for animals outside the gates. No synagogue has yet been discovered in Bethsaida, but much of the town remains buried under layers of rock and dirt.
The major outing of the day was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We met the boat at Kibbutz Ginosar, just south of the site of ancient Magdala. Everyone in the group was excited by the ride, even though the day was chilly and damp and some feared seasickness. Those fears were not unfounded. The first 20 minutes of the ride were quite bouncy, as the waves close to the shore rocked the boat from side to side. Once we got out, though, things calmed down. We all kept turning to one another and laughing, “Can you believe it? We’re on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee!”
From the boat, we could see all the sites we had visited: the Cliff of Arbel, Tiberias, Magdala, Tabgha, Capernaum, Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, even the Pilgerhaus where we are staying. I was amazed to observe how close together they all are. None is more than a half-day’s walk from the other. It’s no surprise that people from across the region were able to hear Jesus’ message, and seek him out no matter which town or hillside he wandered into. With praise, we sang rounds in Hebrew and a rousing version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore!”
On the boat, we gathered to read the scriptures about Jesus calming the storm at sea and walking on the water. As I was listening, I followed my old habit, closing my eyes to imagine the story in my mind. After a few seconds, I realized: “Open your eyes! You’re here! Picture it happening right in front of you!” Being in the place where Jesus walked has taught me to imagine with my eyes open. Today I pictured Jesus walking across the sea to us, or arguing with the town leaders at the city gate in Bethsaida. I have imagined him delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or dining at Peter’s house, or praying at the synagogue in Capernaum.
But imagining with my eyes open is more than that—it is imagining Jesus’ story living on 2000 years later in those of us who follow him. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the connection between Jesus feeding the 5000 and our church feeding the hungry in our community. I imagine with my eyes open when I envision myself living out the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount in my life, and try to follow that vision. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the hardworking people fishing and farming today in the Galilee or back home in Indiana, and imagine how Jesus would connect his message of love to their stories and their labors. I hope, when I return home, I will not close my eyes, but will keep on imagining with my eyes open, and picture Jesus happening right there.
Connected to the boat docks, also on Kibbutz Ginosar, is a museum containing the only first-century boat ever discovered by archeologists. We heard the story of its preservation from the sea, and all that archeologists have learned from it. The boat itself is made of 12 different kinds of trees, showing how much it was patched and re-patched over the years of use.
This site was our first exposure to the tacky aspects of the tourist trade here in the Holy Land, as we browsed the museum gift shop. (You can browse too at www.jesusboat.com.) I actually find cheesy tourist shops highly entertaining, and I found a treasure today. I did not buy it, but I did take a picture for all of you to enjoy.
We saw some children’s art projects, organized by the kibbutz every summer to bring together Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in the region with art as the common language. Then, we adjourned to a local roadside stop (not a typical tour bus destination) for my first falafel since I’ve been here. As a big fan of falafel, I was eager to eat it in Israel, and I was not disappointed. Yum!
Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George, IVP Books, 2006, 179 pp.
What a disappointment this book turned out to be! I ordered two books about pilgrimage to take with me on this journey, in hopes that they would center me in the tradition of sacred journey during my time in the Holy Land. This book started out great, and I thought it would nurture me well—in the end, the theology turned sour and the spirituality seemed shallow.
Sacred Travels purported in its subtitle to be a guidebook to “recovering the ancient practice of pilgrimage.” The introduction and first chapter did just that, and quite well.
George begins by talking about pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline, different than being a tourist or a nomad, because we are sojourners seeking God. He writes:
Pilgrimage belongs to the deepest impulse of the evangelical tradition—reformation. … Pilgrimage (is) a discipline of sanctification, not justification. Pilgrimage does not save us. Rather, it is a grace that reminds us that salvation is a journey with Christ as our guide and heaven as our goal. (16)
This was a helpful way for me to think about pilgrimage as I approached my journey. This trip was a chance to seek God, to be reformed and graced on the way to being a better person and servant of Christ.
The first chapter on “Pilgrims in the Process” also contained some helpful insights. George recounts his trip to Canterbury, and imagines Christians refracting light like panes of stained glass windows, each casting the light in a unique color. He also writes eloquently about the ways pilgrimage is not limited by location, cost or time. Pilgrimage is not about “when, where or how we go. It’s about why we go.”
It moves us from certainty to dependence, it helps us discover God’s involvement in human history, it challenges and stimulates our faith, and it invigorates us to be like our Lord in thought, word, deed and devotion. Pilgrimage is an outward demonstration of an inward calling—to follow Christ, wherever the steps may lead. For hearts that hunger to escape the chaos and find the quiet, pilgrimage is a proven discipline. (25)
The subsequent chapters on Wartburg Castle, Skellig Michael and Assisi were fine, but not particularly inspiring. After that, though, I recommend you just stop reading. The chapter on John Newton glosses quickly over his connection to the slave trade (from which he did subsequently repent) to focus on a storm at sea (while working on a slave ship). The chapter on Nagasaki focuses on 26 Christian martyrs in 1597. Even though he mentions the atomic bomb and a trip to Hiroshima, George devotes a large portion of that chapter to images of Christians as warriors, with the scripture as our sword. This shows a huge disrespect to the peace witness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but it did—the chapter on Taize was all about his unrepentant homophobia.
I cannot recommend this book to you, because George’s theology reeks of a personalized gospel that ignores Jesus’ call to social justice. While there were some helpful tidbits here and there, please don’t buy it. Just check it out from the library, enjoy the first thirty pages or so, and send it back.
Nevertheless, the book did redeem itself by providing a bit of unrelated humor. I picked it up and to continue reading it after my “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee yesterday. Our little group had already been referring to our adventure as “The Plunge,” and even calling ourselves “The Plungers.” Thirty minutes after that great adventure, I encountered this passage in Sacred Travels, where George begins by quoting an English professor talking about the incarnation:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And God took that precious Word, removed its heavenly italics, froze it in human font, and plunged it from its paragraph in paradise into the simple sentence of an earthly stable. And the Word became flesh.”
Why did Christ take the ultimate plunge?
I guffawed when I read that line, and at the thought that our “ultimate plunge” paralleled Christ’s journey from heaven to earth. My fellow “plungers” got a great laugh as well.
Today was just as filled with God as yesterday was, but God treated me a little more gently, and with humor.
Our first stop this morning was at the Mount of Beatitudes, which is the semi-traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. I say, “semi-traditional,” because the tradition does not go back even to the fifth century Byzantine church, but only to the last 100 years. Like Tabgha, it’s best to say that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount on a hillside very much like this one, if not this very one.
It was my turn to lead morning prayer, which took the shape of a Sunday morning communion service in a small, open altar area atop the Mount of Beatitudes, looking out over the whole of the Sea of Galilee. The leaders had already assigned a natural scripture: the Sermon on the Mount, and I knew that all I needed to do was create space to hear those familiar words, and then get out of the way. I divided up the long sermon into short pieces, and various members of the group took turns reading them, with pauses for silence in between each of the 12 sections. When we got to the part containing the Lord’s Prayer, we prayed it together. Afterwards, we sang a confession, shared the peace, served one another communion, and sang the Doxology.
I felt much less of a connection to the world of Jesus’ day while I was up on the Mount of Beatitudes. The entire mountaintop is a well-sculpted campus for the Benedictine sisters, with a chapel, hostel and multiple outbuildings. In my mind, Jesus delivered the sermon on an untamed hillside, not a manicured one. However, the vistas were spectacular and the campus beautiful. They were preparing for a major mass in a few hours, for the Feast of Beatitudes. The nuns were busy setting up chairs and putting out bulletins, preparing for the Patriarch’s visit from Jordan. I felt a connection to all their hustle and bustle, recognizing the work we share in preparing for special occasions of worship in our communities.
Listening to the Sermon on the Mount in that place, in its entirety, gave me a better imagination about the images Jesus used to illustrate his message. Anyone gathered on that mountainside, or any other in the area, has a view of the whole of the Galilee, its towns and roads and the Sea itself. When he talked about a city on a hill that cannot be hid, you could look out and see Upper Tiberias to the south, and knew that Chorazim was on a hilltop behind you. When he talked about rain falling on the righteous and the unrighteous, his audience could look out over the whole territory surrounding the Sea of Galilee, including the pagan city of Tiberius and the Samaritan towns considered unclean. When the reader got to the part about looking at the birds and how God cares for them, we heard the chirping in the trees above our heads. “Consider the lilies of the field” makes perfect sense when you are gazing out on a field of flowers in bloom. I cannot imagine ever reading or hearing the Sermon on the Mount again without imagining the Galilean landscape.
We then traveled a mile or two behind the Mount of Beatitudes, away from the sea, to the ruins of Chorazin. These ruins were made of black volcanic stone, like those in Capernaum, but we were free to wander among them and enter reconstructed homes and synagogues. Chorazin was not one of Jesus’ favorite cities—the only mention made of it in the Gospels comes when Jesus cursed the town in Matthew 11:21. We saw another 5th century synagogue, but this time also saw a ritual bath. Chorazin was destroyed by earthquakes in the 4th century, but rebuilt and occupied until the 17th century.
From Chorazin, we traveled down into the valley and back up again, through the modern city of Tiberias, making our way to the Cliff of Arbel. This cliff plays no particular role in Jesus’ story (that we know of), but it is an amazing view of the Galilee region. Along the sides of the cliff are a series of caves, which have been popular hideouts for rebels across the centuries, including the Zealots in Jesus’ day. We hiked over rocks and through mud puddles from the parking lot to the top of the cliff. In spite of the overcast day, we could see for miles and miles—Mount Tabor (site of the Transfiguration), the Horns of Hittim (site of the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187), Mount of the Beatitudes, Magdala, Tabgha, Capernaum, Tiberias and the Golan Heights. It was glorious, and these photos will never do it justice.
From the top of the cliff, we went all the way to the bottom of the valley—after a quick stop for lunch at a kebab shop in Tiberias. Several fellow pilgrims and I decided to take a “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee. Although the air temperature was 60 degrees, and the water temperature a mere 54, we were determined to take a swim. So, with much joy and laughter and a little bit of shrieking, we did! It was absolutely awesome.
Water has always been a source of spiritual healing for me. Growing up near the ocean, I would make a pilgrimage to the ocean almost daily as soon as I could drive a car. Sitting on the shore, I can always find God’s voice in the sloshing waves. As soon as we got to the Sea of Galilee yesterday, I had to put my feet in it. When someone suggested a full immersion, I immediately agreed. It was cold enough to take my breath away, but I felt a sense of overwhelming joy and renewal being in that water. I laughed harder and more freely than I have in a long time. Once I got in, I didn’t want to get out, even as cold as it was. The water was liberating, piercing, cleansing, like baptism.
Tonight during our evening reflections, our leader asked us for one word that spoke to our feelings and experiences of the day. One of my fellow “polar plunge” people replied, “breath-taking,” and we all broke out in uncontrollable giggles. We had enjoyed breath-taking views all morning, and an icy swim that took our breath away in the afternoon. As I laughed until tears rolled down, I shared that my word was “unfettered.” Running into that water today felt like washing away all the accumulated burdens of the world, and emerging unbound, open and ready for God anew. I may have spent the morning on the top of mountains, but my mountaintop experience came at the bottom of valley in the chilly Sea of Galilee. I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.
Oh, and after we’d all come in, enjoyed hot showers and warm clothing, we learned that another member of our group had wanted to participate, but didn’t get word it was today. So, she asked if anyone would do it again tomorrow. Every single one of us said yes. We can’t wait to do it all over again!
From Tabgha, we walked a short way down the road to the chapel of the Primacy of Peter. The small church is set atop a giant rock at the very edge of the Sea of Galilee, which is supposedly connected to the story told in John 21. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples at the shore, redirecting their empty nets to the other side of the boat for a miraculous catch of fish; frying them up some breakfast; and installing Peter as the leader of his post-resurrection followers by telling him three times to “feed my sheep.” This rock was a likely stopping place for all the fishermen, a place to rest and eat and prepare the catch for market.
The term “Primacy of Peter” was new and perplexing to me. The scenes in John 21 are not connected to the place Jesus says of Peter, “upon this rock, I will build my church.” I began thinking, however, about the meaning of “primacy,” and all the ways in which Peter was first. He was the first to drop his nets and follow Jesus on the shore. He was the first to get out of the boat and try to walk on water. He was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Messiah. Peter was first in a lot of things. Sometimes, he acted impulsively and made mistakes, but he also had courage to act when no one else did. He was willing to go first. (There is a sermon here for our United Church of Christ, which often takes pride in being the first to do things like ordaining women and LGBT people.)
From there, we got on the bus for a two mile trip to the ancient town of Capernaum, the site of so many stories in the Gospels. It was Peter’s town, where he and his mother lived and his fishing business thrived. It was Jesus’ central location in his Galilean ministry, where he healed the paralytic, taught in the synagogue “as one with authority,” called the disciples, and spread his message throughout the region.
The site itself is an archeological excavation of the majority of the first century town. You can see the foundations of the homes and buildings and alleys that Jesus would have known. There is a synagogue there. Although the current reconstruction is of the Byzantine synagogue, it was built upon the ruins of the first century synagogue that would have been the site of Jesus’ praying and teaching. You can see those foundation stones, and walk around the same floor plan in a synagogue where Jesus would have prayed and taught. I was impressed by its size (bigger than our sanctuary!) and by all that remained of it.
I gained a new appreciation for Peter’s primacy in Capernaum. His house forms the heart of the holy site. This place is a less “supposedly” site. When the Byzantine Christians arrived, there was a Christian church there, a home that had been converted into a house church. It makes sense that this would have been Peter’s home, converted into a church by the early apostles. When the Byzantines excavated, they found the home itself and built an octagonal church around the remains. That was destroyed by earthquake in the eighth century, and rebuilding was forbidden by the ruling powers until the 20th century. When the Franciscans did reclaim their right to build after the 1948 war, they constructed a modern chapel hovering over the remains of the house, house church and octagonal Byzantine church. The chapel has a glass floor looking down into the remains.
Our tour guide Claudia gave me new insight into Peter’s life and livelihood. Contrary to what I’ve always thought, there is no reason to believe that Peter was a poor fisherman. He owned a sizable home, separate from his mother. He owned a boat, which was a sure sign of wealth and success in a town like Capernaum, where most people had to do their fishing from the shore. He was also the only one who entered the high priest’s house at Jesus’ trial, which leads one to believe he had connections. He was likely a wealthy and powerful leader in Capernaum in Jesus’ day. Peter must have shared that wealth and power abundantly with Jesus, providing him food and shelter, opening the access to the synagogue, and using his influence to protect Jesus from the kind of threat he faced in Nazareth.
In this description, I recognized Peter immediately, in the solid, go-to leaders in the congregations I have known. Every church has a few individuals who keep the place going. It might be their generous gifts, their hard work, their leadership, or their courage. Occasionally, like Peter, it’s all of the above. I have known several Peter-like figures in my ministry, and they are a great gift. They have wealth and connections and influence, yet it is always used in the service of others and the church, not for their own gain. They are willing to lead and take risks, and others follow because of their faithfulness and humility. I found myself remembering these Peter-figures, in my church and in other churches I know and love. I prayed for these women and men by name, in Peter’s synagogue and beside his home. I prayed that the church would be blessed with more leaders like Peter, with the resources and faithfulness they bring to Jesus’ mission.
I also came to appreciate a different aspect of Jesus’ ministry—his attention to strategy. I always attached cunning political theater and community organizing to his Jerusalem pageant, but this took it back to Galilee. Why did Jesus choose Capernaum when he got kicked out of Nazareth? It was one of the largest towns around, and perhaps he had already developed a friendship with Peter. Capernaum is located along the Via Maris, the major Roman highway to Damascus, so news of events in Capernaum would quickly spread throughout the region. There is evidence for that in the crowds that quickly flocked to him there in search of healing. He knew he could find supporters, access to a bigger audience at the synagogue (Nazareth only had a few hundred residents, Capernaum had several thousand), and chances to grow the mission.
It is tempting in the church to divide our conversations about strategic planning, church growth and giving from the more “sacred stuff,” like worship or Christian education. However, even Jesus paid attention to strategic decisions that would help grow the ministry. The energy and time we devote to ministerial strategy is not about self-aggrandizement, it is about spreading the word of Christ. And he did it too.
When we arrived, the monks were holding a mass in the modern sanctuary, so we could not enter. As I walked around, I heard them singing a song that resembled the praise tune, “Holy Ground.” Tabgha felt like holy ground, like an altar for worship and reverence. Capernaum felt more like the church kitchen and meeting rooms—the place where daily life in the church happens. It felt like where decisions get made and fellowship takes place, where the chores of fishing and working and tending animals exist side-by-side with the sanctuary of prayer and the mystical experience of healing; where children play and people are fed and God is made known in the midst of all of it. This, too, is indeed holy ground. After all, the heart of site is just someone’s house, transformed by their willingness to open their home and their lives to Jesus. May we all be inspired by Peter, to use our resources, our homes, our lives, as places for Jesus’ mission to grow.
Today we began the pattern that will shape the remaining days of our journey: awake, morning prayer, breakfast, excursion to holy sites, lunch, afternoon of quiet time, evening reflection, evening prayer, dinner, and more quiet time in the evening.
As we gathered for morning prayer this first day, still bleary-eyed from our long journey, I was noticing everyone’s shoes. Looking around the circle, it was clear that many people, like me, had bought new, sturdy walking shoes for the occasion. These clean, pristine, shiny shoes spoke of our eagerness and newness as pilgrims. How long, I wondered, before we get muddy? When we leave, will our shoes look worn and aged? Will they lose their shine and return home instead like familiar friends, comfortable and well-traveled? And will that be true of us as well—will our travels turn our eager excitement about Israel into familiarity and groundedness? Will we return home muddy, but wise? We sang “This is the day that the Lord has made!” and prepared to receive the gifts of this day.
The shoes were quickly put to the test. We walked to our first destination, Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. It was a short and easy walk through groves of lemon, mango and olive trees, but the path was shared with animals. I doubt anyone’s shoes escaped the manure littering the path.
Tabgha is one of the “traditional” holy sites in Israel, which means that there is no historic record that the actual feeding of the 5000 took place on this exact hill, although we do know that it was somewhere very close. When Constantine conquered and Christianized the land in the 4th century, he and his mother built churches everywhere they deemed a holy site. Tabgha is the site of a Byzantine church from the 5th century that commemorates the story of the loaves and fishes. There is even a rock that the church was built around, which they hold was the spot Jesus used to break the bread and distribute it to the crowd on the hillside.
Whether this is fact or fiction does not matter. If it was not this hill, it was one just like it, right in this region. If it was not this rock, it was one very similar. The site is made sacred by the thousands of pilgrims that have come before, and by the way it enshrines a particular episode of Jesus’ ministry for us to remember in a physical place.
The German Benedictines have ownership of the site, but they were not allowed to build a church upon it until after the British Mandate in 1917. When they finally began to build, they discovered the original mosaic floor of the Byzantine church intact under the surface. The floor was preserved, and I was especially eager to see it. When we entered the church, I was astonished to see that the original mosaic floor, 1500 year old, was still the floor of the church, and we could walk right on it, touch it, and see it up close. Especially artistic sections were roped off, and much of the floor had to be repaired. However, they repaired it in black and white, so you can see the difference from the original colored Byzantine tiles. I sat in a chair in the chapel and simply ran my fingers over the pink and white tiles, placed by there by a Christian artist so many years ago.
Tabgha was the most moving experience for me today, but not for any reason I expected. I was moved not by what happened so long ago, but by the way Jesus’ meal is recreated over and over again all the time. Jesus stood on that hill, or one like it, surrounded by the beauty of the Galilee, and preached. Then he broke bread and passed it around, so that everyone who was hungry could be fed. Such a simple act, yet so profound. As I sat in the chapel, I thought about the church I serve, which offers a community meal every Saturday for anyone who is in need. We call that meal “Loaves and Fishes,” and imagine ourselves every week recreating Jesus’ miracle. I prayed for that ministry and its leaders, and all the people we serve.
I know our church is not alone—all across the world, churches feed people in Jesus’ name, performing the same miracle over and over and over again. Could Jesus have imagined, when he did something as simple as feed a hungry crowd, that his ministry would be alive and thriving, feeding hungry people two thousand years later?
My vision expanded to include every sacred meal I have shared. I remembered special times of holy communion, breaking bread at Shabbat in the home of a friend, picnics and church suppers, restaurant meals and family holidays. Any time a meal is shared, any time we pause say grace, any time we offer food to our neighbor, we are participating in the same story of Jesus that began right here, on an ordinary hill, an ordinary rock overlooking the Galilee. My heart was so full of memories—corporate memories of Jesus and the church, and personal memories of breaking bread with friends, of eating and sharing and being filled. Thanks be to God.
We have arrived! We travelled from Louisville to Newark, then from Newark to Tel Aviv. At the airport in Tel Aviv, our tour bus picked us up for a two-hour bus ride to the Sea of Galilee. From home to hotel, my travel time was exactly 25 hours, and we crossed seven time zones. We are staying at the Pilgerhaus, which is on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, just yards from the shore and north of the city of Tiberias. We arrived after dark, so I have not yet seen the view.
Traveling, for me, is both terrible and terrific. Airplane seats are tiny and cramped, the food was awful, and I slept less than an hour on the 11-hour overnight flight. My body is stiff, sore and exhausted. And yet, I watched three movies in a row, read books galore, and had lots of time to simply sit back and think and pray myself into pilgrimage. Hours in transit offer a liminality that helps disconnect me from ordinary life at home and enter into a different mode of being. In airports and airplanes, you are in a time out of time, no longer certain of the date or even whether it is day or night—yet somehow, when you arrive, after a good night’s sleep you are refreshed and ready to begin anew.
Speaking of books, any of you who know me (or have ever surfed this blog) will know that books are very important to me. This is especially true when I travel. Here are the books I am traveling with:
Two books about pilgrimage, to set me right for this special journey:
The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau
Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George
Two books about the life of Jesus, to put me in touch with the places we’ll visit:
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg
Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan
Two books for fun on the plane:
Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans
Rudy, by Ann Hood
I also have my Bible, a notebook, and a travel guide prepared by the Macedonian Ministries Program, unique to this trip and the sites we will explore.
On the plane, I read the first several chapters of both books about pilgrimage. Both spoke to me deeply about the sacred longing that pulls us into a pilgrimage. They also reminded me of the hardships and struggles of earlier generations of pilgrims of all faiths, who traveled on foot for years, faced disease and starvation, and death along the way. Twenty-five hours on a plane is a small price to pay, and physical discomfort is part of the process.
On the ride from the airport to our hotel, I began to get a sense of the land for the first time. It is the rainy season, so everything is green and lush for a short while. However, the hillsides are thick with stones, craggy boulders that made the land ill-suited for house or farm. One of my colleagues commented, “It sure doesn’t look like the land of milk and honey.”
It was raining for part of our journey, and I watched the muddy water running off the hills without soaking the soil, channeled instead into gulleys and pathways. I imagined it rushing away to a safe location, where it would wait and return to the land again through the irrigation system that will make food for the people all year. Water makes life in the desert. Living water.
One of the things that surprised me was the abundance of animals I saw on our short journey. Before we had even made it far from the airport, I looked out the window to see a flock of sheep and goats wandering through a green valley. I didn’t see a shepherd in sight, but it was as if every scripture of sheep in the Galilee, from Psalm 23 to Jesus’ parables, had all come to pass before my eyes. I confess: it was such a stereotype that, rather than a sense of awe, it just made me giggle. Besides the sheep, we saw a man riding a horse through a parking lot, and a field full of camels dancing and prancing around, including a baby one that was all white.
Already, the overlapping of the distant, mythical past and the modern, urban life of Israel are ever-present in my experience. I saw sheep and camels, biblical places like Nazareth, Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor, but I also saw the Security Wall closing off the Palestinian territories. I saw Jewish settlements, and kids playing soccer, and families walking to Shabbat services at sunset. We got stuck in traffic due to a six-car pile-up, and watched the ambulances try to get through. We drove along the edge of the West Bank and saw the battling Palestinian and Jewish architecture in local villages. This clash between past and present, the simultaneous presence of mythical places and all-too-real ones will, I expect, continue to shape my understandings and experiences here.
The journey has only just begun. The day has been long and arduous, but this is as it should be. Now, to rest.
Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.
Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.
And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.
The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t? What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.
There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.” The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)
I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?
I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 418 pp.
James Carroll’s book is like the inverse of Karen Armstrong’s book. Armstrong carefully catalogs the facts of history, and lightly draws inferences of some overarching themes in Jerusalem’s history and lore. Carroll sees mythic stories at work and uses the facts of history to document a narrative of the psychic and spiritual idea of Jerusalem. One is a primarily a historian of religion who is also an adept writer and storyteller. The other is primarily a writer and storyteller who also engages in the history of religion.
I will not try to weigh in on the accuracy of the history as Carroll retells it, but I did not read anything that seemed shockingly different than any of the other histories I have read in recent weeks. What was far more surprising about this book is how little it said about the history of Jerusalem at all. Much of what Carroll discussed in this broad, sweeping tale of human history was the history of sacred violence, from the first hunters who killed to eat to the temple cults of sacrifice to monotheistic theologies to American wars for the mythic ideal of freedom. Carroll attempts to document the phenomenon of “Jerusalem fever,” a captivating obsession with fantasies about what Jerusalem is and what it means. While sometimes that Jerusalem fever intersects with the history of Jerusalem itself, Carroll’s narrative talks as much about prehistoric hunting as it does about King David, more about Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop than it does about Saladin and Sulieman, and most of all about the human psychology of sacrificial violence.
In the end, I thought Carroll told an interesting story. Like a good journalist, he took the facts and made them into a narrative. He used the idea of Jerusalem throughout history to explore and explain the connection between violence and the sacred. He hypothesizes that religion is born to make sense of the sacrificial killing (38), but the Bible enshrines a counter-narrative of peace, that “God does not sponsor violence, but rescues from violence” (54) and monotheism, when God is the God of all people, offers an opportunity for conflict resolution (61). The book often feels like traveling down a series of rabbit holes, like following an interesting train of thought and ending up somewhere unexpected.
There were several of these explorations that were particularly interesting:
- The Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple originally held the Ark of the Covenant. After the first destruction by the Babylonians, the Holy of Holies was forever left empty. That emptiness expanded with the destruction of the temple, and then the Western Wall, where people come to pray for what is not there. With this nothingness comes the theology that God is beyond all representation, all idols, all human knowing and captivity—an idea that has potential to overcome conflict and violence. (303) This actually reminded me of a thesis in one of Karen Armstrong’s other books, A History of God.
- He documents the move in Christian theology from the worship of Jesus for his life and ministry to the worship of Jesus for his sacrificial death and resurrection. That shift is intimately connected with Constantine’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and the “discovery” of sacred sites there, which is directly connected to the relationship between Christianity and empire.
- He connects the 15th century explorers to the legacy of the Crusaders, including a letter from Christopher Columbus in which he expresses his desire that all the bounty of his discoveries be spent in the recovery of Jerusalem. (153)
- Lincoln resurrects the vision of America as a New Jerusalem, creating the narrative of the quest for freedom, in order to justify the enormous bloodshed of the Civil War. National “union” was not enough to merit such sacrifice, but a vision of freedom and a New Jerusalem was. Apparently, Lincoln spoke to his wife of his desire to see Jerusalem just moments before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (231)
- Jerusalem was the imagination and inspiration for Britain during World War I, as General Allenby desired to inspire the people by conquering the city as a “Christmas gift,” and poet Wilfred Owen compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. (235)
In his conclusion, Carroll projects a struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion promotes peace, equality, unity, tolerance, and revelation of God. Bad religion involves coercion, violence, dominance, and salvation from God. This struggle is the story of Jerusalem, in myth and in reality.
While I enjoyed reading this book, it was a challenge to follow Carroll’s many threads. There was no clearly developed or cohesive argument that I could outline, just a general thesis about the connections between the ideas of Jerusalem, religion and violence. Carroll is a good storyteller, and I appreciated the tale he wove in this book. He is also dogmatic in his pacifism and in constant struggle with his Catholic heritage, and both those strident attitudes came through strong in the book, for good and for ill. I’m not sure I gained a depth of understanding about its history, but I learned a lot of interesting bits and pieces about how Jerusalem functions in the dynamics of Western history, politics and national psychologies.
Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner, Paraclete Press, 2003, 161 pp.
Last week, a high school friend who I had not seen in nearly 20 years contacted me on Facebook to let me know he was passing through my town, and invited me out for coffee. It was a delight to catch up, and the conversation flowed free and easy even after so many years. For me, it was a special treat to talk to someone who knew me before marriage, motherhood and pastoral life—as if he could unlock a more primitive version of myself, one that I have already unearthed a bit during this sabbatical time.
As it always seems to with me, conversation turned toward the realm of the spiritual and the religious. (I realized in this reunion that this sort of thing always happened way back in high school too, not just with him but with all my friends. I guess my calling was inevitable.) My friend described himself just like he did in high school—not a believer, but someone with a deep fascination and appreciation for the spiritual realm and the mythos of religion. He expressed a sentiment like, “I wish I could believe, but no one has been able to show me more than the man behind the curtain.” At the time I responded somewhat pathetically with a torrent about liberal Christianity, welcoming doubts, honoring questions and joining as Jesus-followers even if we weren’t sure what we believed.
What I really should have said, and what I am coming to believe ever more deeply, is the premise of Mudhouse Sabbath: that religious life (aka spiritual life) is not about belief, it’s about practice. Following a religious tradition is not about conforming your mind, it is about cultivating a way of life. Religious life is about taking on habits of living that have led seekers to God and transformed wayward souls into faithful followers for millenia. Whether we believe or do not believe, whether we “feel it” or not, religious practitioners continue to follow these ways of life—not because we have a blind allegiance to tradition, but because the practice of spiritual discipline shapes us in ways that make belief possible and mystical experiences knowable.
Lauren F. Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath is a unique approach to this ongoing conversation about practices of faith. Winner was raised in an observant Jewish household, but converted to Christianity as an adult. She loves her Episcopalian church life, but misses the disciplines of her Jewish roots. This book, then, takes a look at a host of Jewish spiritual disciplines, compares Jewish and Christian practices, and imagines how Jewish ideas and habits might shape a Christian spiritual life as well.
It is important to note that Winner begins the book by refuting my claim about belief versus practice.
Action sits at the center of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity… for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (ix)
For Christians, however:
Spiritual practices don’t justify us. They don’t save us. Rather, they refine our Christianity; they make the inheritance Christ gives us on the cross more fully our own. … Practicing the disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. … The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith. (xii-xiii)
I am no longer convinced of Winner’s claim that the practices do not make us Christians. I do agree that our spiritual practices do not justify us—God’s grace does that. However, I question how we can call someone a Christian when they believe all orthodox doctrine, but do not let it influence their life decisions in any way by practicing love, generosity, prayer and compassion. The same is true in reverse: if you follow Jesus as the shaping influence of your life through acts of love, generosity, prayer, compassion and worship, but you are not sure what you believe, I think you are still a Christian. In this light, I doubt Winner would disagree, but it is something I continue to wrestle with, as someone whose life often has more doubt, more practice, and less confident belief.
None of that is the heart of the book, however. Winner’s book is primarily a description of the Jewish spiritual disciplines, a comparison to Christianity, and an invitation to Christians to make these practices a part of our lives. She describes eleven different practices: Sabbath, fitting food (keeping kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings and doorposts (hanging mezuzot on doorposts).
What drew me to her book was what has always drawn me to Jewish spirituality—its embodiedness. So many traditional Christian spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, lectio divina, silence) focus on the mind and spirit. The practices Winner describes are much more physical—stopping work on Shabbat, caring about the kinds of food we eat and how they are prepared, placing physical markers in our homes and on our bodies to remind us of our faith. I have always been cautious about adapting any of these practices as my own, since I am not grounded in the community that shapes them. Winner has opened the door for me to imagine ways to incorporate these kinds of practices into my Christian life, with an appreciation for their Jewish origin and not a presumptuous attempt to imitate Judaism. I wrote recently about the spirituality of housework, which works for me in the same way as the practices Winner describes and reminds me of the Shabbat preparations she discusses.
This is a great introduction to spiritual disciplines that is accessible to everyone. It is a short book that would make a great subject for a church book discussion group or Sunday school class. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.