For The Someday Book

Archive for February 2012

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans, Zondervan, 2010, 232 pp.

I first encountered Rachel Held Evans when several of her blog posts received dozens of “shares” in my Facebook news feed. She wrote with wit and insight, with a cutting critique and a sense of kindness and grace. That voice has come through again and again, even as her blog has expanded to rock star status. I was eager to read Evolving in Monkey Town to hear more of her voice, because I expected it to be humorous, faithful, inspiring and fun. I made myself save it as a treat for the airplane ride to the Holy Land, and I was not disappointed.

Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, better known as “Monkey Town,” the site of the 1925 Scopes Trial which put Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in a battle over evolution, faith and fundamentalism. Evans grew up on the losing side of that trial, in a fundamentalist enclave of church and Bible college. The isolation and insularity of that community, however, made her feel like they were on the winning team in all things. That is, until she began to ask questions and express doubts.

Evolving in Monkey Town tells the story of her journey into a different kind of faith. Unlike so many other authors who write about leaving behind fundamentalism, Evans is not bitter. She does not express animosity toward her upbringing, although she does write about the pain of rejection, the frightening wilderness of doubt and the loneliness of the struggle. She maintains grace and humor for her detractors.

Evans’ story feels familiar in many ways. It parallels the stories of so many who have left fundamentalism behind. She talks about being an “evolutionist,” which is not a claim about her understanding of science. She writes:

Just as living organisms are said to evolve over time, so faith evolves, on both a personal and collective level. … I’m an evolutionist because I believe the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions, but to hold them with an open hand. … If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith. (21-22)

The central claim of the book is that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is what allows faith to survive and grow. Evans works through a familiar list of doubts and questions. Does God really send all non-Christians to hell? What kind of God would condemn people who by “cosmic lottery” were born in a time and place where they didn’t know Jesus? How can you maintain that there is a biblical world view when the Bible is so full of contradictions? If God’s ways are not our ways, why can’t God exercise grace and forgiveness—not angry judgment and casting out of all who are different? Shouldn’t following Jesus inspire us to generosity and compassion, not just certainty about our eternal future?

Evans answers the familiar doubts of those moving beyond fundamentalist faith with humor, openness and room to grow. Her relative youth brings a fresh perspective to these longstanding debates, and her honesty invites us all to explore our relationship to the “false fundamentals” (207) that hold us back. Her writing is accessible to all kinds of readers, and the book is full of engaging stories and beautiful turns of phrase. It would make a great group study for those who are questioning their faith or engaging a path out of fundamentalism, but that is not the limits of its audience. Anyone looking for fresh insights about the path of faith and doubt would find a good companion in Evolving in Monkey Town.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Philip Brooks certainly could never have imagined modern Bethlehem when he penned those lyrics in 1867, but today’s Bethlehem represented for me the meeting place of hope and fear, the place where everlasting light shone in dark streets.

Today’s Bethlehem is in the occupied West Bank. To visit the place of Jesus’ birth, we had to pass through the Israeli checkpoint and giant security wall erected to prevent the Palestinians from having access to their land or Israel. After listening to Noora’s story the day before, we had a chance to see with our own eyes the conditions of occupation.

The security wall blocks all view of Bethlehem from outside, erasing its presence from the landscape.

As tourists, we were not subject to the same scrutiny as local Palestinians, but we saw the long lines as we passed by the checkpoint. We saw the teenagers with machine guns looking warily at old men and young women with babies. We drove on a road built for the Israeli settlers, a road that Palestinians were not allowed to use to access their own towns, a road whose impassibility created a barrier that separated families from one another. The wall cut across the land like an ugly scar. Once we got inside the wall, we saw the passionate expressions of resistance painted on it.

Graffiti inside the security wall

This is the town of Jesus’ birth.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus too was born under an occupying army, cut off from his family by a Roman decree that sent them on the road to Bethlehem.

The fortress-like exterior of the Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, is built like a fortress. It’s the oldest surviving church in the country, built by the Byzantines in the fifth century. It was only saved from destruction by the Persians because it had a mosaic over the entrance featuring the three wise men. Their image resembled the Persians themselves, so they left the church intact. When the Crusader armies became the occupiers, they built major fortifications around the building, and expanded the church with new art and decoration. They even blocked up the doors so they were only four feet high, so that no soldier on horseback could enter in battle. Jesus’ birthplace looked a lot like the checkpoint—one narrow entrance into the space behind the high wall.

Members of our group waiting to enter the narrow door to the Church of the Nativity

The narrow door of the current checkpoint for Palestinians to enter or exit Bethlehem

The church itself was dark, and the supposed site of Jesus’ birth was buried underground in a tiny grotto, laden with tapestries and candles and stones and silver décor. It didn’t feel to me at all like a humble stable. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was oppressive with the weight of Christendom, rather than the light of the living Christ.

An immense number of decorative lamps in the chancel of the Church of the Nativity

Ornamental altar area at the Church of the Nativity

Beneath this decorative display is the traditional site of Jesus' birth.

But the everlasting light does shine in the dark streets of Bethlehem today, bringing hope into this place of so much fear. The Christ-light is alive and well at Diyar, the Palestinian Christian organization founded by Dr. Mitri Raheb, author of I Am a Palestinian Christian and pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. We met with Dr. Raheb for an hour, and listened to his theological reflection on what it means to be a pastor in Bethlehem today. His words, his presence, his church’s ministries are giving birth to hope in Bethlehem today, and they inspired us with hope as well.

Raheb himself was immediately impressive as a theologian with the heart of a pastor and skill of a visionary leader. I was captivated by his analysis of contextual theology for Palestinian Christians, who dwell in the land where it all began. He spoke powerfully of the deep losses sustained by the Palestinian people since 1948. The greatest loss, he said, was not the land—it was their narrative. They had lost their story, their continuity of worship from the time of Christ, their culture as a people. This, he said, was far more important to reclaim—and, thankfully, reclaiming it is not dependent on political liberation, change from the outside or the end of the occupation. That work begins right now.

His congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, stepped out in faith to begin this work in their community, to become an outreach community by founding Diyar. As he told the story of Diyar’s founding, his church could have been anywhere, in any location. They were a small church, only about 220 people. When he first had a vision of launching a community outreach program, the congregation was hesitant. They were already struggling to pay the bills—how could they take on more? Weren’t they there to worship God first? How could they reach out to others when they were barely taking care of themselves? Shouldn’t they just hunker down and do their best to keep the church going through occupation? Instead of those questions of scarcity, they focused instead on the theological questions of mission: Where is God? Who is my neighbor? What is the vision of the best possible future, and how do you get there? Christ’s call to service prevailed, and God’s grace has been abundant.

The sign for Diyar, listing many of the programs they offer.

Founded in 1995, Diyar now serves more than 60,000 people a year (Muslims and Christians) through their programs. Diyar means “home,” and they describe themselves as a “Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented organization serving the whole Palestinian community.” They offer cultural programs and civic engagement training, health and wellness ministries (including a women’s sports league), higher education, and programs for children, parents and seniors.

The congregation itself is still small (no one can move into or out of the West Bank, conversion is not a reality in Israel, and the community is predominately Muslim), but they no longer see themselves as barely holding on. Their ministry to the community has revived their sense of mission and their vitality as a congregation. Following God has given them a sense of freedom and purpose that no amount of oppression or occupation can suppress.

All the fortifications of occupying armies and all the might of empires, whether past, present or future, cannot keep hope from being born again and again and again in the City of Bethlehem. The hopes and fears of nations and their peoples meet in this tiny place. May God’s everlasting light continue to burn brightly there.

After the morning at the Holy Sepulchre and the early afternoon at Wujoud, I felt emotionally and mentally exhausted. It’s taken me all these days and hours of writing to begin to grapple with the information and experiences and revelations of that day. When a few members of our group planned to continue on to the Western Wall, in spite of the intensity and length of the day so far, I first thought they were crazy. I just wanted some time away to think and pray over everything we had experienced. In my writing up to this point, I have made sense of my feelings and had some time to process the day. On the day itself, and especially at this moment, I just felt worn down and broken apart by the experience. I wanted to huddle under the covers and cry. That’s when I realized that the Western Wall was exactly where I needed to go.

The Western Wall

Of all the sites in the Holy Land, the Western Wall has always been the place I most longed to see. My spirit is captivated by the idea of a place where people go to mourn. I first learned of the wall as the Wailing Wall, where the Jewish people mourned the destruction of the temple. I think there is a part of me that has never felt like I had permission to lament, like weeping was somehow a sign of my failure, or that it communicated to the people around me that they had failed me. Yet the truth is that much of what is broken in our lives and in our world deserves lamentation. The older I get, the more I think that the world needs our weeping as much as our rejoicing, calling out all that is broken, crying over the pain and sorrow that afflict us, and mourning for what cannot or will not be. The Western Wall, in my mind, was the place to take our sorrows, cry out to God, and know that God hears our affliction.

I knew before we arrived that the Wall might not match my expectations, but I was still drawn there. The women’s side is only one-third the size of the men’s side, so it was crowded. There were women of every age—young mothers wearing their babies, old women with canes and walkers, and an enormous number of schoolgirls in uniform, each one bowing toward the wall with their faces buried in prayer books. I found my way to one of the plastic chairs, about three people back from the wall itself. As soon as I closed my eyes and opened my heart to God, the tears started to flow, just like I’d always imagined. Many others had tears on their faces, but no one was really wailing. Still, my sniffles and occasional sobs were drowned out by the mumbled prayers of the women around me and singing of the men on the other side, so I felt completely free to lament. My heart’s sorrows poured out before God, like crashing waves hurling themselves on the shore until they flattened out and returned calmly to the sea.

Sign at the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza

I began with my personal lament for the day—for the exhaustion, and for my longing for home and family and church as I knew it. Then I cried for the pain we had seen that day—for the brokenness and fighting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for the way that Christendom has piled gold on Jesus’ tomb rather than finding the living Christ, for the hardship of the Palestinian people in Noora’s community and the Jewish people praying next to me, for the convoluted and seemingly intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for all the wars of the world.

When I had finished weeping for those things, I drew myself together to find the prayers from my congregation. I had invited anyone to send written prayers with me, and promised to pray for each one of them and tuck them into the cracks in the wall. I had not opened the prayers at all until I pulled them out of my backpack at the Western Wall, and began to read the outpouring of people’s deepest concerns and longings. The tears began to flow again immediately. I have been the pastor of this small community for more than six years, and I have come to know each family very well. I know many of their pains and sorrows and struggles very well, and I love these people dearly. As I made my way through their prayers, I lamented for the brokenness that each one carries. When I finished the written prayers, I went through the list of names and imagined each person sitting in their place in the sanctuary. I cried for their sorrows, for their worries, for the heartbreaks of their lives. I wept because I loved them, and their pain deserved lament.

I moved on to my family, my friends, myself—just letting the tears and the grief flow freely. I felt like I was leaving the grief in the place where it belonged, with all the accumulated sorrows of others. I wasn’t leaving it behind, but I was sharing it with God, laying it out plain, refusing to hold it inside anymore. Lamentation was liberation, and the Wall was everything I needed it to be—a safe place to weep, for as long as I desired.

The prayers from my church, prayed for individually and placed together in an opening in the Wall.

The challenge came when I was ready to leave. I made my way forward to the Wall itself, and found a hole big enough to hold the entire envelope full of prayers from my congregation. I noticed that the Jewish folks around me were walking backwards away from the Wall, as a sign of respect and deference for the former Temple Mount. I started to walk backwards away, keeping my eyes on the Wall, but my soul was ready to turn around. I wanted more than anything to turn my back on the weeping and face the world again. Backing up made me feel tied to the sorrow, to the longing, to the lamentation, rather than to the hustle and bustle of the people passing on the plaza. In spite of all that is broken in this pain-filled world, we have life and have it abundantly. As the Psalmist says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.” I was ready to turn toward the dawn.

I knew how to get to the lamentation at the Wailing Wall, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. As a Christian, my usual place of weeping is the cross, which always points to the resurrection. For those pious Jews around me praying at the wall and carefully backing away so as to keep it in their sights, what is the path from lamentation to joy? I know it is there (see Psalm above), but I don’t know the way. As I watched the schoolgirls backing away, I wondered how they turned mourning into dancing (again, a reference to the Hebrew scriptures). In deference to the traditions of the holy site of another faith, I dutifully backed away from the Wall, but what I really wanted to do was to place the prayers in the Wall, literally and figuratively, then turn and walk away without looking back. As important as it is to have a place of lament for this broken world, it is even more important to turn and face forward again with hope, to look toward the things of life and walk boldly into them.

When I was finally able to turn away from the Wall and face forward again, I felt exhausted, but somehow lighter than before. All the angst and conflict of the day had been left behind, but I was spent. I made my way back to the hotel for evening prayer, thanked God for familiar comfort food like spaghetti on the hotel buffet at dinner, and crawled in bed by 8:30 p.m. It’s taken me three days of writing to finally work through the power of that one holy day.

By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.

Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.

After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.

Noora Qertt sharing her inspiring stories.

Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.

One of the sample hearths in the small museum

The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.

View from the roof of the Wujoud building, looking down at the street.

That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.

Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.

I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?

Sitting and listening to Noora was like being in church, and I felt the Spirit in our midst.

Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.

It’s Sunday again, and we got an early start to worship at the holiest pilgrimage site in Christianity—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were led by Hana Bendcowsky, who is Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, which handles relationships between Jews and Christians right here in Jerusalem. Although she is Jewish, she is the foremost expert on the Church, and the chief appreciator of the Christian worship that takes place in it. The history of the church is one of inter-Christian conflict, as churches vie for every inch of space they can claim in this holy place.

In the course of two hours, we made a progressive worship journey through six different services, all taking place within the various chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, right on top of one another. There was a seventh service also happening, but it was a Roman Catholic Mass, which all of us have attended before (although maybe not in Latin). As a group of Protestant pastors, all the various orthodox forms of worship were completely foreign to us, as were the languages in which they were performed. Yet we found ways to connect with each of them in different ways. (There are no photographs from these worship services, because I attended to worship, not to tour, and it felt inappropriate to take pictures. The photos are from the visit we made on Saturday, or on Sunday after worship was completed.)

We began with the tiny Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof outside the church itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox used to have a place in the church, but they did not have enough money to pay their taxes, so they were kicked out. They forcibly occupied their current chapel less than 50 years ago, and the local authorities have ruled that they can stay. We entered toward the conclusion of the service, as the bishop was offering the blessing. Even though the service was in a foreign language, with foreign customs, we all recognized immediately what was going on, as each member of the small congregation (less than 25 people) removed his or her shoes to enter the altar area, and then approached the bishop. They kissed his cross, and he blessed them. While the custom and power of the bishop is foreign to Protestants, the act of blessing at the end of worship is just like home.

The tiny chapel of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

From there we moved on to the Coptic Christians, who have permission to use the very back side of the structure above the tomb, but only until 8:45 a.m., when they have to be out of the way so the next service can begin. This service was right out in the center of things, where tourists were beginning to roam, but the faithful gathered around carefully. They were very welcoming to us, once they realized we were with Hana and we were attending with the spirit of worship. As we arrived, the bishop was sprinkling everyone heavily with water, to remember their baptism. People received the abundant water with prayerful glee, rubbing it over their faces and into their scalps. A large basket emerged from a back storage room, overflowing with fresh, round bread, similar in size and shape to a pita. The basket moved hand to hand overhead to the bishop, who blessed it. Then the worshippers crowded in, hands extended, reaching out for bread, pushing their way forward (gently) to get a piece. It was a huge basket for just 25 or so worshippers, so everyone got a big piece. We held back, unsure if we were allowed to partake. Hana whispered that this was not communion (which would be closed to us), this was blessed bread, and if they gave it to us we could have it. And give they did—generously! Each of us received a big hunk of bread to taste and enjoy. I don’t know what the symbolism or meaning of the blessed bread is for the Coptic Christians, but for me it was a symbol of welcome and inclusion. It reminded me of Jesus feeding the 5,000—there is bread enough for anyone who is hungry, and it has been blessed just for you. It tasted great, too! Later in the morning, we crossed paths with the Coptic bishop again, and he invited us up to his home for tea. Although we had to decline, I knew his welcome was warm and sincere.

The booth that holds the altar of the Coptic church.

Behind the Coptic space, buried in a tiny chapel, was the Syrian Orthodox worship service. We visited their empty chapel on Saturday, and saw its shameful state of disrepair. The altar was falling apart, the glass covered in dust, the walls covered in soot. All this stems from a dispute between the Syrians and the Armenians over the chapel. The Armenians claim ownership of the chapel, but the Syrians have a right to worship there. To clean the chapel is to claim rights to it—so the only way they have kept the peace is to have no one clean or repair it. When we returned on Sunday, however, the whole chapel had been transformed. Bright tapestries covered the crumbling walls, altar clothes rendered the broken wood invisible, and the red and green and gold vestments of the clergy made it the most colorful service we had seen. We could only peek inside, because the door landed us at the front of the chapel and there was no non-intrusive way to enter.

The chapel used by the Syrian Orthodox, in disrepair on Saturday.

My glimpse at the Syrian transformation reminded me of all the storefront churches I’ve known. A Haitian church that I worked closely with in Boston worshipped in a former synagogue. An African-American church met in an abandoned grocery store. My college church met in a transformed bank building. They all renovated and transformed the church with decorations and furniture to make it feel like a sanctuary. Sacred space need not be built-in, it can be created in any kind of space where people gather.

From the Copts and Syrians we made our way to the large Greek Orthodox chapel, where their mass was in its final stages. There were only a few worshippers scattered around the edges of their space, the largest of all the chapels. Our group was far larger than the gathered congregation, but they had occupied the edges of the sanctuary. We were trying not to block their view, to be quiet and respectful and inconspicuous, but it was difficult. As I tried to pass by toward an unoccupied piece of wall, one of the nuns stepped forward and said sharply, “Down! Down!” Another colleague and I dropped to one knee instantly. When it became clear that we were going to be there awhile, we switched to two knees. That was not any more comfortable on the stone floor. At one point, I started to get lightheaded, and slumped down to reposition for a moment so I didn’t pass out. The same nun rapped me on the shoulder immediately. “No good! No good! Up! Up!” Back to my knees I went, and there I stayed until it was time to depart.

A nun sweeping the floor, a sacred act, in the Greek Orthodox chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was a strange experience. Unlike the Copts, this nun went out of her way to make us feel uncomfortable in their worship service. We were uncomfortable already, trying to be respectful and not knowing what to do or where to go or what was being said. It was even stranger because, next to us and the disciplinarian nun, there were three nuns chatting and talking and sharing needlework designs—so close that their skirts kept touching my arm as I kneeled. I’m not sure why they could stand in her way and talk, but we had to kneel. My knees hurt and my legs fell asleep while I kneeled there, so I meditated on the sacrifices and hardships of all the pilgrims who have come before. This was a small measure of discomfort by comparison. Even more, I thought of the people I have known over the years that are just like that nun—and how much I appreciate them, even as they are a pain in my knees. There are always those people in the church who strive to protect the decorum and honor of the worship service because they passionately believe God deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. For this I admire them, even if I wish they would learn how to be more welcoming and hospitable to those who are seeking to worship, but don’t yet know quite how.

Pilgrims performing devotions at the Stone of Unction, a tradition that at first seemed unfamiliar and made me uncomfortable.

I was grateful to finally get up off my knees and move on to the Armenian service on the second floor. All these services happen simultaneously, and the Armenians were by far the best singers—we could hear them singing everywhere we went, which sometimes made it hard to hear the rest. They had plenty of room to worship—or so we thought. The all-male choir was about 30 strong, and they were arranged in two lines in a U-shape, facing the altar. The room stretched back behind them quite a way, so we filled in the back, only to discover that the choir was about to make a procession right where we were standing. A verger of some sort gently instructed us on how to move out of the way. Shortly after, they began something we all recognized immediately—the passing of the peace. The peace began with the bishop, who put his hand over his heart and gave the kiss of peace to the two priests on the chancel with him. They then passed the peace in the same way to the choirmaster, who started it around the circle in the choir. The peace was not simply a greeting each person initiated with his or her neighbors, it was a sacred blessing that was received from the bishop and passed through you and on to the next person, until everyone had received it. I loved the idea of passing the peace in this way, hands on hearts, one by one. It reminded me of the light of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, the way one light is passed from one hand to another until the whole room is illuminated.

Our final stop was with the local Palestinian Christians, who conduct a mass in Arabic in a small chapel just outside the door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These are the Christians who have been worshipping in this part of the world since the time of Jesus. Unlike the other worship services, which are mainly attended by a few monks and nuns and the priests or bishops who officiate them, this was a parish church. There were families and people of all ages. The chapel did not just host the formal weekly masses of a shrine, but baptisms and weddings and confirmations. We were greeted immediately, even though the service had already begun, and the women in the back section moved over to make room to squeeze all 22 of us into a few benches. Rather than simply ignoring us, these women in the back pews pointed out what was happening in the service, and tried to explain it in a few short English words. The moment I most felt God all morning was when one of the women squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, “Paternoster,”—the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. We all opened our palms to the heavens, imitating the gesture they made, and listened to them pray the same prayer of Jesus we all pray, in another language, yet still the same Christ.

My overwhelming impression upon worshipping (however briefly) with all these communities at the Holy Sepulchre is that my own branch of Christianity is just so small. Our United Church of Christ is one branch of Protestantism (which is not even represented at the Holy Sepulchre), and only in one country, the United States. My understanding of how to worship and of the language of God is but one tiny sliver in the grand scheme of Christianity.

There was much that was foreign about worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but it is the moments of familiarity that I will remember most. In spite of our many languages and diverse music and different theologies and divergent aesthetics, we know Christ in the passing of the peace, the sharing of bread, the creation of beauty, the reverence of worship, the Prayer of Our Savior. Thanks be to God.

Jesus looking down from the ceiling of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

(This marathon post represents only the first half of our day, and doesn’t scrape the surface of the lecture and information Hana shared with us. I’ll write another post about the rest of Sunday’s activities—look for it tomorrow.)

This morning we awoke to the sounds of Jerusalem—the call to prayer being sounded from the minaret, the monks singing down the hall, the traffic horns beeping outside.

After breakfast and morning prayer, we rode the bus to Augusta Victoria Hospital, a Lutheran mission outpost in Jerusalem serving the Palestinian population. We delivered over 1200 books to be distributed among the four schools they operate here. The books were collected by students at Wartburg Seminary, and we brought them over with us as an extra checked bag. A local pastor and an intern greeted us and introduced us to their work with the schools and the hospital, the only hospital were Palestinians in the West Bank can receive radiation therapy for cancer treatment, and the only pediatric oncology and dialysis available to the Palestinian community. I was grateful to hear their story, because the discrimination against the Palestinians is often invisible in tourist quarters. I thought about our driver, Talib, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. If they ever needed medical care, this would be the only place available to them. Even though our part in the effort was very minor, we all felt a great sense of gratitude for being able to contribute in some small way to this effort.

Standing atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem.

From there, the bus drove us to the top of the Mount of Olives, with a panoramic view of the entire Old City, including the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and more. I felt like I was staring at a postcard, and couldn’t believe it was the real thing. The place has been so legendary in my mind, and what I see all around me match so well to the images in my mind that I struggle to believe I’m really here.

One of many postcard-perfect pictures of Jerusalem.

After snapping a few (dozen) pictures, we began to walk down the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and back up into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, then followed the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the same path Christ would have followed during his last week, according to the biblical narrative. On Palm Sunday, he rode down the Mount of Olives into the city through the Lion’s Gate. Then he and his disciples left the city to pray on the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was arrested and returned to the city again, then carried his cross out of the city down the Via Dolorosa. The crucifixion took place on Golgotha, outside the city gates, and he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimithea. Both of those traditional sites are housed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had expected the sites in Jerusalem to be packed with pilgrims from every nation, unloading from tour buses just like ours. I had expected the sites to be laden with the things of Christendom, packaged and enclosed in darkened sanctuaries. I had expected the onslaught of vendors trying to sell us every kind of souvenir as we went. I also expected to feel somehow connected to the story of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection along this journey. My first three expectations were met within moments of arriving at the top of the Mount of Olives. My last one took more effort to discover, but I did find God’s presence throughout the day.

Our first stop as we wound down the hill was at the Dominus Flavit (Jesus Wept) chapel. This beautiful little chapel reminded me of the sites in the Galilee—a simple church with a beautiful clear glass window framing the city of Jerusalem, reminding us that Jesus sat on this hill and wept for Jerusalem. With the window framing both the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the state of Israel, it was poignant to contemplate that Jesus would still be weeping over this city and its conflicts. As in the churches in the Galilee, I was touched by the way this simple shrine connected the ancient story of Jesus to the ongoing story of God in the world. It was my favorite spot on the whole route.

Dominus Flavit Church, looking through the window to the city of Jerusalem.

From there we arrived at the traditional Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is a small, fenced-in grove of olive trees, no bigger than a nice suburban backyard. Biologists claim that some of the trees were alive at the time of Christ. They were beautiful in their gnarled branches and teardrop leaves and shady trunks. We were only allowed on the perimeter, so we could not touch them or enjoy their shade. There were also many other tourists packed in around us. Still, as we read the story from the Gospel, with a little imagination you could picture Jesus and the disciples relaxing in the shade after a long day of preaching and walking through Jerusalem. Next to the small garden was another church, supposedly built upon the rock where Jesus prayed before his arrest. The church was always kept dark, to simulate night in the Garden, but it was simple and lovely.

Olive trees at the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane

Mass underway at the church of Gethsemane

We crossed the Kidron Valley and began to make our ascent into Jerusalem via the Lion’s Gate (which was covered over for construction). As soon as we arrived, the energy and crowdedness of the Old City closed in on us. The Lion’s Gate enters into the Muslim Quarter of the city, so there were many Muslims entering the city to pray at the mosques in the Old City.

The Lion's Gate, under scaffolding

Our first stop was at St. Ann’s Cathedral, a Crusader church next to the excavation of the pool of Bethesda. The church might once have been covered in beautiful art, but now it was just a simple stone building (having survived during the Muslim rule by being turned into a Quran school). The building’s true beauty is aural—its acoustics are stunning. We were the only group gathered at the time, so we stood in a circle and sang, first a round in Hebrew called Hava Nashira, then Holy, Holy, Holy. God felt so near in the beauty of the sound resonating off the walls and echoing in our worship. The 1,000 year old church delivered us into the Divine Presence not because of the antiquity it enshrined, but because it was a vehicle for our voices to sing praise now.

The acoustical ceiling at the Church of St. Ann

Just a few short blocks away, a man was carrying dozens of circular loaves of sesame-covered bread on a platform on his head. One of our group leaders wanted a taste. She didn’t have proper change, so she just bought three loaves. In the middle of the crowded street in the Old City, we broke the bread and passed it from one to another. It was fresh and delicious, and it was communion. Together we broke bread, and shared it, and Jesus was in our midst.

There were no words of consecration, but this sure felt like communion to me.

From there we followed the Via Dolorosa, which was a crowded street full of vendors vying for our attention and our dollars. The various stations were enclosed in churches along the way, but one blended into the other. To be honest, I was more fascinated by the color and sound and smells of life in the street than I was in remembering a solemn walk from 2,000 years ago. There were mostly Arabs, but also a few Jews and lots of pilgrims from all over the world. I could smell spices and incense and lunch being cooked. I could see all colors of skin and styles of clothing. I could watch people making the trip of a lifetime next to people making a daily trip to the market. God was present to me not in the ancient blood and suffering, but in the beauty of the people and their lives today.

The Via Dolorosa

At last we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusader church housing the traditional site of Golgotha and of the empty tomb. There are no words, no photos that can capture the immense sensory experience inside. (On Sunday, we returned for worship and a more complete tour, so I will write more about it then.) The building is falling apart, and the various Christian groups inside have been vying for space and ownership for so long that they cannot agree to repair it unless it is absolutely critical to safety. It is dark and cramped, but worn with pilgrims’ prayers. Everywhere you look, you can see someone kneeling, someone praying, someone else taking a picture, someone else looking lost.

One of the chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Once upon a time, this site would have been an outcropping of rock outside the city walls. It may have been the site of the crucifixion, which meant it would have seen many other executions during the Roman era. For thousands of years, it has also been revered as the site of Jesus’ tomb, which meant it would have been a graveyard for many others. Today, it is an enormous religious edifice, the site of prayer and pilgrimage, the cause of much of what is ugly and shameful in our Christian history (like the Crusades), and the reason for ongoing conflict between competing Christian groups.

The structure (inside the main church dome) covering the tomb that supposedly belonged to Christ.

One of my colleagues said, as we stood under one of the enormous domes, “I don’t really feel God here. I feel us here—the weight of 2,000 years of history piled on us in this place.” That was my experience exactly. When I arrived at the Holy Sepulchre, I felt the weight of Christian history upon my shoulders. Jesus left us a living legacy, an invitation to sing praise to God, to break bread in his name, to serve one another, to love all people—and we have built a shrine on the site of a tomb and an execution. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre made me want to ask for forgiveness from God for all the unholy things we have done in Jesus’ name.

Jesus escaped the tomb, but the church has not. We still worship at tombs—not just the shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but in liturgies that care more about preserving the past than conveying the gospel into the future, with buildings that are falling apart because no one can agree on what color the new carpet should be, in church business that cares more about preserving the church than serving the community. I saw Jesus today not at the tomb, but out walking around, resurrected—in songs sung to stones, in books given in peace, in bread broken with love, in people of every color and language. I am moved to confession over the ways I have not always followed that Jesus, and inspired to rededicate my life to the living Christ.

The door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus is not held in or out by any door.

Today was the longest, busiest day by far since we arrived in Israel. I feel overwhelmed by the depth of information and experiences to process today. I was thinking earlier that I felt like I covered 5,000 years of history today, and I realized that’s about right. We left the Pilgerhaus this morning at 7:45 a.m. (after a 6:45 morning prayer service and 7:00 breakfast). It was a terribly early hour, but it enabled me to catch the sunrise over the Galilee before we left, which was spectacular.

Sunrise over the Galilee

From there we went to Megiddo, which is a tel above the Jezreel Valley, between Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor. The city was occupied from approximately 4,000 BCE to 400 BCE. Archeologists have excavated 28 separate layers of occupation, from the Canaanite period, the Israelite period and beyond. The site has a horse stables and training ground, a giant below-ground granary, a Canaanite temple, an Israelite palace, city gates from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and connections to the kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. By far the most impressive feature, however, was the underground water system. Similar to the one at Tel Hazor, this was an underground pathway to a spring to maintain the town’s water supply during times of siege. It also dates to the 9th century BCE, but the tunnel was longer and deeper than the one at Tel Hazor. The ingenuity and engineering is amazing.

Below-ground granary at Megiddo. Notice two steps of steps around the outside---one going up, one going down.

Looking down into the entrance of the water system. It didn't look like a big deal to walk down.

Until you get inside, and realize you've only just begun your descent.

When you finally get to the bottom, you have to walk through a long, dark tunnel, around 10-15 yards long.

Until you at last reach the water source. (And then you have to go back up.)

We travelled on to Caesarea Maritima, which was built by Herod the Great as a way to please the emperor in Rome and prove his loyalty. It is also the city home to Cornelius, whose conversion by Peter is told in Acts 10. The site has the ruins of a theater and hippodrome, a Roman aqueduct, Herod’s palace and more. It also has remains from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, including massive Crusader walls and a fortress. Best of all, though, Caesarea Maritima was a harbor city, with the first century’s largest Mediterranean harbor. That meant we got to see the Mediterranean Sea, and even had 30 minutes of free time just to walk on the beach. And, you know by now, that meant I was in the water up to my knees and splashing all around.

The Roman theater at Caesarea Maritima

Oh no! The ancient lion head is about to eat me!

The remains of the hippodrome (racetrack).

Roman aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima

Posing before the remains of Herod's palace, by the Mediterranean Sea.

Splashing around in the Mediterranean waters

After that brisk sea walk, we piled into the bus for the two-hour ride into Jerusalem. We could see the landscape begin to change very quickly. The peaks grew less mountainous, and the ground grew drier and more full of rocks. Traffic got thick in Jerusalem, as everyone hurried home in time for Shabbat. We entered from the northwest side of the city on the road from Tel Aviv, and passed through several neighborhoods of orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews. Apparently, the police even close the roads in those neighborhoods during Shabbat, since orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath.

Driving into Jerusalem toward the Old City, we caught a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the walls of the Old City. We are staying at the Notre Dame, which is right across from the New Gate (only 100 years old) into the Old City. The first thing I noticed is the noise. In addition to the traffic and city noises, there seems to be music everywhere. Walking down the street, sitting in our hotel room, in the lobby or out in front of the hotel, you can always hear music coming from somewhere. Usually, it sounds like prayer, but it’s hard to tell if it’s in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, or something else entirely.

The New Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem (built in 1889), which is across from our hotel.

We had 45 minutes to check in to the hotel and change clothes before heading to Shabbat service ourselves at Kehillat Yedidya. The description of this particular synagogue made me think at first that it was an oxymoron: a progressive orthodox synagogue. Indeed, that was the perfect description. The members of the synagogue followed orthodox practices such as seating men and women separately and following kosher and Shabbat laws with the strictest attention, but they also expressed a desire that their religious practice would make them more open and inclusive to the world, not less so. Debbie Weissmann, a founding member of the congregation, gave us an introduction to their vision and philosophy, but she also preached the sermon in this rabbi-less congregation. Tomorrow, they have planned a women’s service, where women will even read the Torah. Their facility and worship is specially designed to be welcoming to people with special needs and disabilities, and they see welcoming visitors (especially non-Jews) as a core part of their ministry. She even used the word “inclusiveness” repeatedly, which made me feel like I was back home in my United Church of Christ. I never imagined that I would find an orthodox congregation that shared our values, although lived out in such a different way. It was so refreshing to hear that message that is at the core of my own ecclesiology reflected in another tradition. Even though the service was in Hebrew, so I couldn’t understand it, I followed along in the English-language prayer book and felt a profound joy in knowing that the message proclaimed there echoed back home in my own congregation.

It’s no wonder I feel exhausted at the end of the day. We were on the go from sun-up to sundown, and we crossed thousands of years of history. At one point in Megiddo, we entered the city gate and then walked up a short staircase, no more than 10 steps. Claudia, our tour guide, said, “We just went up 1,000 years on that staircase.” That’s what this day has been like. In just a few short hours, we have traveled from Canaanites to the Israelites to the Romans to the Crusaders to modern Israel, and even to cutting-edge Jewish religious practices.

The Notre Dame Hotel at night.

That’s a perfect metaphor for the City of Jerusalem, and for this land as a whole. “We just went up 1,000 years on that staircase.” This place exists simultaneously in past and present and future dreams, as well as in our mythological imagination. As we move from one place to another in the city, we will be journeying across years of history in just a few short steps. That is the uniqueness of Jerusalem, and its power.

Today was our free day, designed by the Macedonian Ministries Program to give us space to reflect, pray, wander, and rest during this powerful experience. And, at last, we had beautiful weather! Temperatures rose into the 60s, and the sun shone all day long. We all felt re-energized by the sunshine and the soft schedule of the day.

View of the Sea of Galilee, looking south from Tiberias.

I traveled with a small group into the closest town, Tiberias, which is about 12 miles away from the Pilgerhaus. We caught a public bus at the main road, and just wandered around to see the sites and experienced the local culture. We meandered into local shops, enjoyed a “falafel complex” where vendors offered all kinds of free samples to coax you to stop for lunch, found the tourist district and boardwalk, and even visited the tomb of Moses Maimonides.

Promenade in downtown Tiberias

Tomb of Moses Maimonides, also known as RamBam

This was the first time since I arrived in Israel that 20th century history was in evidence more than ancient history. Waiting at the bus stop, we saw several caravans of Israeli Defense Force vehicles accompanying UN vehicles. They were headed toward the Golan Heights, perhaps to the Syrian border as that country verges on civil war. Tiberias was the first place we have visited on the trip that was not designed for foreign tourists, and we made an effort to seek out local culture and observe ordinary life. When we read Mitri Raheb’s book I Am a Palestinian Christian, he talked about looking in the Holy Land for the “living stones,” the people who live in this land and whose stories intertwine with the history and place. In Tiberias, I went to see the living stones.

Goofing off with the guys at the falafel stand where we ate lunch. They let Tom in the booth to pose cutting the meat.

Tiberias was originally a Roman city in the time of Jesus. After the exile of the Jews in 135 CE, many settled in Tiberias, where they lived together with the local population. The town was very important during the Middle Ages, and houses the graves of two important rabbis, Akiva and Moses Maimonides. However, by 1948, Tiberias had a strong Arab population. They were forced out in the 1948 war, and there were tensions that followed.

The ruins of the city wall in Tiberias, built in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We saw all around us evidence of this tense 20th century history. There were city walls, erected in the 18th and 19th century by a Bedouin ruler, that had fallen into ruin. More haunting, however, were the abandoned mosques. As we turned a corner from the main shopping thoroughfare, we entered a small plaza with an old building at the center. Just as we were beginning to investigate, a clear American voice behind us said, “It’s an abandoned mosque. It was a beautiful mosque, but there was trouble and fighting during the Intifada, so they had to close it down.” She introduced herself as Dina. Originally from Flatbush, New York, she had emigrated to Israel 30 years ago. She said she was meeting with a group the next day headed by a pastor from something called “Return Ministries.” I can surmise from that connection that Dina is a Jewish Zionist who has allied herself with evangelical Christians who advocate the return of all Jews to Israel as a precondition of the Second Coming. A disturbing collaboration has developed between the Christian and Jewish fundamentalists in which government policy is being shaped by right-wing religious ideology.

Abandoned mosque in downtown Tiberias

View through the window into the vacant mosque.

The array of cultural costumes was much more on display in Tiberias, as we began to see more ultra-orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The Hasidic Jews may or may not have been ultra-orthodox, but they were definitely not friendly toward Americans. I was struck by the different pattern of restrictions around dress. In most conservative religious cultures, the strict attention to garments applies mostly to women. In ultra-orthodox Judaism, the implements of religious dress belong almost exclusively to men—the distinctive curls, the hats and suits, the phylacteries and tefillin are all male garments. The women were dressed modestly, but they were indistinguishable from other women on the streets.

We also saw large numbers of young soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces. They are striking in their youth, as all citizens serve after their 18th birthday. Men serve for three years, women for two. One member of our group pondered aloud, “What would these kids do if things got messy?” All of them, men and women, moved through the shops and restaurants in uniform. Even though they were clearly not on duty, they all had large automatic weapons strapped to their shoulders.

As we head toward Jerusalem, I know these modern political battles will be increasingly a part of our experience. The security wall will be in plain sight everywhere, and we will cross through checkpoints to get to Bethlehem. The pace will be faster, and city life bustling with crowds of people. The teeming energy of the city will, I suspect, overpower the beauty of the natural landscape that was so powerful in the Galilee.

I have to confess: I don’t want to go to Jerusalem. It has been beautiful here by the side of the lake, so peaceful and spacious and serene. Jerusalem seems dirty and crowded and noisy by comparison, and I wish we could linger here for another week of peace.

I also resist because I know what happens to the story in Jerusalem. Not only does it become noisy and crowded, but violent. Jesus in Galilee is a preacher of peace on hillsides, a bringer of food at the lakeshore, a healer of the sick in the homes of his followers. Jesus in Jerusalem is a political threat, an agitator of the Temple authorities, a constant source of conflict, and eventually a victim of violence via Roman execution on a cross. I am not eager to face this part of the story. I wish Jesus’ story began and ended in Galilee, with nice stories of village life and people living in harmony.

View of the lush Galilee, from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.

But that was not the ending of Jesus’ journey, and neither will it be the end of ours. On to Jerusalem we must go, and face the consequences.

Before we left, I went down to the Sea of Galilee to say goodbye. I didn’t plunge all the way in this time, but I did take off my shoes, roll up my jeans and wade out. I wanted to feel the water again, to remember its healing power and cleansing strength before the dust and dirt of Jerusalem began to accumulate. I stood knee deep, scooping up a handful of water, throwing it into the air, and letting it run down my hands and arms and over my head. I have played in the water like this since I was a child. If there is water, I want my feet to be in it, and this was as close as I could get to swimming without getting soaked. It is a prayerful, playful act for me, and it always brings me to God. The living water of the Galilee has brought me deep healing on this journey.

I wanted a way to remember this moment, to find my way back to God again through this path. I remembered the ancient practice, dating back to Jacob and his forefathers, of building a pillar of rocks at a sacred place. Jacob does it at Beth El, where he wrestles with God, (or dreams about a ladder climbing to heaven). Rocks are everywhere here, so this practice makes sense to me in a way it never has before. I decided to climb out of the water and build a pillar of rocks to point me to this sacred space once again.

My pillar of stones. In Scotland, they call it a cairn.

I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I began to pile rocks on top of one another. They would slip and fall, and I would try again in a slightly different way. I was drawn to certain rocks for unknown reasons—this one or that one just felt right. I was anxious not to simply build it as high as I could, in a manner of striving, but to build it just right. After several failed attempts, it finally felt finished. I found the crowning stone and knew it was complete, not because it couldn’t go higher, but because it represented what I needed it to represent. The top, flat stone was similar in shape to an arrowhead, or even the Sea of Galilee itself. I pointed the tip toward the Sea. Remember, I prayed, if you get lost again—look to the water. Follow the stones, the living stones, toward the water, the living water. Come to the sea, over and over again. Plunge deep or just wade in up to your knees. Throw water in the air and remember your baptism. The rocks will point the way, the water will heal.

I hope to carry this message with me into the drama of Jerusalem, and all the way back home. Follow the stones, the living stones, toward the water, the living water. The rocks will point the way, the water will heal.

Follow the stones, living stones, to the water, living water.

Today was miserably chilly and pouring rain all day. The thunderstorm blew in around 4:00 a.m., and we saw whitecaps on the Sea of Galilee when we looked out the window in the morning. I was surprised by my own reaction to the weather. I expected to feel disappointed that we could not see the sweeping vistas, or catch a glimpse of Mount Tabor, or take pictures of the ruins. That would normally be my response. On this journey, however, I feel like everything is such a gift. Every moment, every site, every experience is pure gift, so I am not complaining about what isn’t there. In addition, we have been hearing so much about the water crisis in the region that I have begun to celebrate every raindrop, like the locals do.

Gray skies looking down on modern Zippori.

In the morning, we drove through Cana and before visiting Sepphoris. In Cana and Nazareth, the holy sites are in the midst of thriving modern cities, but Sepphoris is only ruins of the ancient Roman city built in the first century. The modern Zippori is set down the hill. In Sepphoris, we saw amazing mosaics preserved for 2000 years, the Roman cardo (colonnaded street), a Crusader citadel, and a theater. We also got very wet.

A beautiful mosaic on the floor of a former Roman villa. She is called the precursor of the Mona Lisa.

The very wet Roman cardo. If you look closely, you can see the wheel ruts in the stones.

Our next stop was Nazareth, home to the Church of the Annunciation. The Church of the Annunciation is built atop the traditional (since Byzantine times) site of Mary’s grotto, the cave home in which she would have received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that she was about to bear God’s son, while yet a virgin. I have long struggled with this story, wrestling with a host of theological and sociological questions. I still have more questions than answers about Mary, her virginity, God’s paternity, and what the whole thing says about womanhood and women’s sexuality. I am uninspired by the angelic, weepy images of Mary I usually see. So I did not expect to like or connect with a church dedicated to enshrining that story as though it were historical fact, rather than faithful storytelling.

The Church of the Annunciation

The Mary I met at the Church of the Annunciation was a Mary I could understand and admire. Before we went inside the church to see Mary’s grotto, we toured the excavated cave area outside the church. We saw a typical cave home in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. It was tiny, but had several smaller spaces within it—an upper area for sleeping, a back area for the animals at night, and a front area for cooking.

A cave home in the town of Nazareth. (The pillars are not original, they were added for support.)

Peasant life in the first century would have been tough. Nazareth was a tiny town, no more than 400 residents. Mary’s daily life would have involved making trips to the town well (now a mosque, closed to non-Muslims) to tote water, cooking over an open fire, caring for animals, making clothing and raising children. Seeing that cave house, so primitive and humble, replaced my image of the watery-eyed waif in the blue gossamer gown with a hearty, muscular peasant woman who lived among the harsh realities of life and tried to make a way for herself and for her family.

Looking up into the dome of the Church of the Annunciation.

The current Church of the Annunciation was built in 1969, atop the ruins of a smaller Franciscan church, a Crusader church and a Byzantine church. The Roman Catholic church, in the building process, solicited donations of art (and money) from around the world. Countries around the globe sent their own artistic renderings of Mary to display at this holy site. Inside the sanctuary and all along the outside wall enclosing the church campus are beautiful, colorful portraits of Mary showing the traditions and devotions of her followers of every race and nation.

Mary from Brazil

I was moved by the ways Mary had travelled, and how her story had clearly moved the hearts of women and men around the world—not just in this era, but for centuries. In the mosaics and other artwork around the Church of the Assumption, Mary did not look at all like she does in European Renaissance art. She looked like members of every race and tribe on the planet. She looked Japanese, and African, and Filipino, and Portuguese, and Indian, and Mexican, and many, many more. I came to understand the cult of Mary in a new way. Jesus as Christ was too remote, to removed from humanity for us to relate to him. Mary is like us, human and fragile, yet faithful and strong. She is our best selves, the part of us that says “yes” to whatever God asks us, the part that ponders things in her heart, the part that preaches the justice of the Magnificat, the part that weeps at the violence of the world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, from Mexico

Of all the images of Mary, the one that drew me into a place of prayer was the one from the United States. Others in our group did not care for her shiny face and harsh edges, and dubbed her “The Iron Maiden.” But I loved the Iron Maiden because she looked like no Mary I’d ever seen. She was powerful and radiant, moving out of the flat picture we want to paint of her. Her strength and determination and fierceness moved me to worship. My relationship with Mary will never be the same.

"The Iron Maiden." This picture does not do justice to the power of this portrait.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

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