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Posts Tagged ‘Galilee

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.

Looking west at Capernaum and the Golan Heights from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.

Today was just as filled with God as yesterday was, but God treated me a little more gently, and with humor.

Looking east toward Tiberias from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.

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.

The Church of the Beatitudes

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.

Our communion table on the Mount of Beatitudes.

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.

"Consider the lilies" as the flowers bloom atop the Mount of Beatitudes.

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.

Ruins of the town of Chorazin

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.

Inside a first-century home excavated and rebuilt in Chorazin.

An ancient ritual bath, used before entering the synagogue.

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.

Looking east, away from the Sea of Galilee, from the Cliff of Arbel.

On the right, the Horns of Hittim. On the left (in the distance), Mount Tabor.

Me on the edge of the Cliff of Arbel.

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.

Here we go!

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.

All the way!

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.

Woo-hoo! This is awesome!

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!

Still smiing, after the plunge. Ready to do it again tomorrow!

The Primacy of Peter

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 rock inside the chapel.

The rock extends underneath and outside the church, including these stone steps that would have once gone from the boats in the Sea of Galilee directly into the church. (The Sea has since receded about 20 yards from the chapel.)

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.)

My favorite part of the chapel was its proximity to the Sea of Galilee.

Those who know me well know that I had to get my feet in the water immediately. This made my day.

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 town of Capernaum. The black, volcanic stones are from the first century (Jesus' era), and the white limestone at the back is the 5th century synagogue.

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.

The synagogue at Capernaum. The pillars and stones have been reconstructed from the remains of the 5th century building lost in an earthquake. The floor plan is likely similar to the synagogue on the same site in Jesus' day.

The small back door would have been the women's entrance. These stone benches are reconstructed from the original.

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.

View from the ancient synagogue looking back to the modern church hovering over the ruins of Peter's house.

Inside the modern church, with the glass floor at the center.

Looking through the glass floor into Peter's house.

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.

Outside view of octagonal Byzantine church remains, with remains of Peter's house enclosed below and modern church hovering above.

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.

This is not the Western Wall, but the rear exterior wall of the Capernaum synagogue. It also had paper prayers stuffed inside. I stood here and prayed for the Peter-like leaders in the churches I know and love.

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.

Can you imagine daily life in this bustling first century town?

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.

One thing that pictures can hardly convey is simply how beautiful the landscape is here in the Galilee. Just beauty everywhere.


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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