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Posts Tagged ‘Holy Land

Banias Waterfall, one of three sources of the Jordan River

Today has left me feeling overwhelmed—not just with the Spirit, which has been spilling over in me every day, but with new information and insights about this place and its people, both ancient and modern. In the spirit of this blog as my place for pondering rather than reporting, I will not try to recount everything I saw and learned today. Instead, I’ll focus on a few questions and ideas that I want to process more deeply. I will throw in a few extra pictures to share more of our day.

The long and winding path down to the waterfall. You can only see about half of the steps in the photo.

Our focus scripture for the day came from Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples had ventured into the territory of Caesarea Philippi, which is the same territory we ventured into for the day. In that region, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the first confession of Jesus as Messiah: “You are the Christ.” We were invited to ponder: Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is, to you and for you and in your ministry?

Waters headed into the Jordan River at Banias, the town known as Caesarea Philippi in Jesus' day.

That question took on new meaning when we laid eyes on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, which housed more than 20 temples to Roman gods. Many of the ruins we saw were built in the decades after Jesus, but the spirit of the first century city came clear. Palestine in the Roman era was not a monotheistic culture, and Caesarea Philippi was an amalgam of Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish worship. When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, it was not a question about where he stood in relationship to the One True God, or about how his ministry related to Temple Judaism. That question from Jesus invited the disciples to contemplate how his teaching and his path might be unique among all the multitude of competing cults in their world. With all this diverse religious worship, where did Jesus fit in?

The grottoes are all that remain of the Greco-Roman temples at Caesarea Philippi. Was Jesus asking for a grotto like these? Clearly not.

Rather than contemplate the answer to the question, I have been more interested in the source of the question. Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was he setting them up for a test of faith? I doubt it. Was he in need of an ego boost, someone to tell him he was great and his ministry was important? I doubt that even more. Was he taking the temperature of his followers, to assess their level of understanding and commitment? Maybe a little bit, but probably that wasn’t all.

The grottoes of Caesarea Philippi. The large cave once stood behind the Roman Temple of Pan.

All of us, from time to time, ask our friends and family and even strangers to tell us who they think we are. We all do it, but why? We have an image about ourselves, who we are and what matters most to us and how we present ourselves. Yet we wonder if the world sees us the same way that we see ourselves. We need those around us to reflect back to us what they see, to correct our misperceptions, our blind spots, our sins. Honest feedback is the source of truth about our identity, not just as we perceive ourselves but as the world perceives us.

Collecting water from the source of the Jordan River, to bring back home for baptisms.

I did it myself this afternoon. I didn’t connect it to Jesus’ question until I started this writing, but the two belong together. My roommate is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a pastor, and this afternoon during a break we started talking about the Enneagram. She uses it frequently in her work, and we began together to figure out my type. She made a guess, and I probed her with questions about what that type said about who I am. Because I was resisting her characterization, she produced an application on her Ipad to let me take the official test. In the end, the test proved her right, and I spent the rest of the afternoon peppering her with questions about what that type said about who I am.

Our group atop Tel Hazor, the site of an ancient Canaanite city and a city of Solomon's kingdom.

Who do you say that I am? I asked over and over again, in different ways and with various nuances, to her and to the test. What did I want to know? I wanted to know if their perceptions matched up to my self-perceptions. I wanted (especially from the Enneagram) to gain insights into my strengths and challenges. I wanted to hear affirmation of the deep longings of my heart. I wanted appreciation for how I think and how my heart moves. I wanted confirmation that the faults I wrestle with are indeed the faults I need to wrestle with. I wanted to be seen and known rightly.

Perhaps that is all that Jesus longed for as well—to be seen and known aright.

The remains of the city gate at Hazor, "Solomon's Gate," where all who entered the city were required to state who they were and why they were there.

According to scripture, Peter is the only one who answers the question, and I always imagine his answer arriving in an outburst that surprises everyone, including himself: “You are the Christ!” It is a confessional moment, when he calls out the truth as he sees it. As with all true confession, it startles everyone with its boldness, even as everyone who hears it knows its power.

At Tel Hazor, the discovery of an ancient tunnel to get water from the source at a spring outside the city gates. In times of siege, they went through the underground tunnel to collect water from the source. Constructed in the time of Ahab, approx. 900 years before Christ.

We continued to process the question as a group tonight: who do you say that Jesus is? One member of the group responded like Peter, with a confessional outpouring: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” He spoke with confidence and assurance. Others spoke with hesitation and doubt. Theirs too was a confession, an admission of their struggles to know who Jesus is in their lives. It was more like the confession of a father whose son received healing: “I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief!” Many in our group spoke about how their understandings of Jesus had changed throughout their lives, with some ideas and identities taking on prominence as others receded or were even rejected. Things got a little tense, as Christologies tangled with one another, with doubters doubting and proclaimers proclaiming.

We had to wind down and down to get to the source of the water underground.

For me, right now, the confession comes easily. Not quite as easily as Peter’s, and I might meddle with the exact word choices, but I can confess my faith with joy. At other times in my life, doubt held greater sway, and I might not have been able to confess faith, only questions. Even though I can confess easily now, questions remain.

Entering the tunnel, with the modern steps paralleling the ancient ones.

Why did it matter so much? Why such passion and tension in our amiable group? Because who we confess Christ to be is who we confess ourselves striving to be. At the cornerstone of all orthodox theology is the belief that our identity as human beings is dependent upon God. Several members of the group referred to their catechism: “I profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism (from our UCC tradition, although held loosely) begins with the absolute connection between our identity and Jesus’:

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Who Jesus is determines who we are. Confession—You are the Christ! My Lord and Savior!—is only the beginning. From that moment on, our answer to the question of who Jesus is becomes the answer to who we are. When we confess ourselves as followers of him, we vow to be “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” If Jesus is a teacher, we are learners and teachers ourselves. If Jesus is a friend, we are friends to others. If Jesus is an advocate for social justice, we too are builders of peace and justice for all. If Jesus is a healer, we are healed and healers too. The source of our identity is found in Jesus.

At last, at the bottom of the dark tunnel, the water source.

For me, faith is far more about living with the question than knowing the answer. Who do you say that I am? I want to leave that question open, both about me and about Jesus. I follow a God of mystery and surprise, who is always revealing to me new understandings of Jesus and of myself. As I practice my faith and grow into the person God has created me to be, I will need to revisit the question over and over again. What does it mean for Jesus to be my Lord today? What is Jesus saving me from right now? What is Jesus saving me for in this moment, or the next? Who is Jesus to me today? What is Jesus asking of me today? How can I “live unto him?”

Praise be to God, for questions and confessions, for doubts and decisions, for tensions and resolutions, for growth and change, for the source of our life and who we are.

A flower on the mountain over Banias Waterfall, in the Golan Heights.

Self-portrait on the Sea of Galilee

Today’s excursions had a spirit of exploration and adventure. We first visited the archeological site at Bethsaida, followed by a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and visit to a museum housing a first-century boat.

Bethsaida sits atop an ancient tell (human-made mound), and was a fortified city back to the time of the Hebrew Bible. It held a strategic location where the Jordan River empties into the Sea of Galilee, although the Sea has since receded 1.5 kilometers from Bethsaida’s hilltop. Bethsaida translates as “House of Fishermen,” and it completed our tour of the towns in the Galilee where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. “House of Fisherman” proved an accurate name, since they uncovered a home or compound that showed evidence of all sorts of fishing implements. We could walk through what was once the courtyard (where fish were cleaned and processed), kitchen and residences. There was also a winegrower’s house, complete with a wine cellar originally full of wine jars and pruning hooks.

Ruins of the Fisherman's House. Front room is courtyard, behind that is residence. Where the people are is the kitchen.

The ancient wine cellar

The most fascinating part of the ruins, however, was the ancient city gate, which was only unearthed in the last year. Only town residents were allowed inside the gate, but the area immediately outside was the spot for all public meeting. We saw where the market would have been held, trades would have been negotiated, and judgments rendered in crimes and civil disputes. Atop the gate itself was a memorial to a Roman cult, and an image of an armed bull sent the message that the town was strong and protected. In Jesus’ day, the Via Maris (the major road to Damascus) would have passed by the city gates, and there was a stone manger with water for animals outside the gates. No synagogue has yet been discovered in Bethsaida, but much of the town remains buried under layers of rock and dirt.

The ancient city gate at Bethsaida

Symbol at the gate, warning people that the town is defended. Below it is a stone manger, a watering/feeding trough for animals passing by on the Via Maris.

The major outing of the day was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We met the boat at Kibbutz Ginosar, just south of the site of ancient Magdala. Everyone in the group was excited by the ride, even though the day was chilly and damp and some feared seasickness. Those fears were not unfounded. The first 20 minutes of the ride were quite bouncy, as the waves close to the shore rocked the boat from side to side. Once we got out, though, things calmed down. We all kept turning to one another and laughing, “Can you believe it? We’re on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee!”

Our boat, the Almagor.

My roommate Nina and I, and another colleague Myung.

From the boat, we could see all the sites we had visited: the Cliff of Arbel, Tiberias, Magdala, Tabgha, Capernaum, Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, even the Pilgerhaus where we are staying. I was amazed to observe how close together they all are. None is more than a half-day’s walk from the other. It’s no surprise that people from across the region were able to hear Jesus’ message, and seek him out no matter which town or hillside he wandered into. With praise, we sang rounds in Hebrew and a rousing version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore!”

One of the best parts of the trip is making new friends with such wonderful fellow pastors.

Looking to shore. On the left is the Cliff of Arbel, where we were yesterday. (See picture of me on the edge of a cliff in the previous post.)

On the boat, we gathered to read the scriptures about Jesus calming the storm at sea and walking on the water. As I was listening, I followed my old habit, closing my eyes to imagine the story in my mind. After a few seconds, I realized: “Open your eyes! You’re here! Picture it happening right in front of you!” Being in the place where Jesus walked has taught me to imagine with my eyes open. Today I pictured Jesus walking across the sea to us, or arguing with the town leaders at the city gate in Bethsaida. I have imagined him delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or dining at Peter’s house, or praying at the synagogue in Capernaum.

Reading scripture on the boat

But imagining with my eyes open is more than that—it is imagining Jesus’ story living on 2000 years later in those of us who follow him. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the connection between Jesus feeding the 5000 and our church feeding the hungry in our community. I imagine with my eyes open when I envision myself living out the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount in my life, and try to follow that vision. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the hardworking people fishing and farming today in the Galilee or back home in Indiana, and imagine how Jesus would connect his message of love to their stories and their labors. I hope, when I return home, I will not close my eyes, but will keep on imagining with my eyes open, and picture Jesus happening right there.

Connected to the boat docks, also on Kibbutz Ginosar, is a museum containing the only first-century boat ever discovered by archeologists. We heard the story of its preservation from the sea, and all that archeologists have learned from it. The boat itself is made of 12 different kinds of trees, showing how much it was patched and re-patched over the years of use.

The "Jesus Boat," a first-century vessel found below the Sea of Galilee

A model of what the boat probably looked like, based on art from the period.

This site was our first exposure to the tacky aspects of the tourist trade here in the Holy Land, as we browsed the museum gift shop. (You can browse too at I actually find cheesy tourist shops highly entertaining, and I found a treasure today. I did not buy it, but I did take a picture for all of you to enjoy.

"Don't Worry, Be Jewish." On a shot glass.

We saw some children’s art projects, organized by the kibbutz every summer to bring together Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in the region with art as the common language. Then, we adjourned to a local roadside stop (not a typical tour bus destination) for my first falafel since I’ve been here. As a big fan of falafel, I was eager to eat it in Israel, and I was not disappointed. Yum!

Mosaic at Kibbutz Ginosar, created by Muslim, Christian and Jewish children.

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.

The Pilgerhaus where we are staying. My room is in the far building.

Today we began the pattern that will shape the remaining days of our journey: awake, morning prayer, breakfast, excursion to holy sites, lunch, afternoon of quiet time, evening reflection, evening prayer, dinner, and more quiet time in the evening.

The other side of the Pilgerhaus, where the lobby and dining area are located.

As we gathered for morning prayer this first day, still bleary-eyed from our long journey, I was noticing everyone’s shoes. Looking around the circle, it was clear that many people, like me, had bought new, sturdy walking shoes for the occasion. These clean, pristine, shiny shoes spoke of our eagerness and newness as pilgrims. How long, I wondered, before we get muddy? When we leave, will our shoes look worn and aged? Will they lose their shine and return home instead like familiar friends, comfortable and well-traveled? And will that be true of us as well­—will our travels turn our eager excitement about Israel into familiarity and groundedness? Will we return home muddy, but wise? We sang “This is the day that the Lord has made!” and prepared to receive the gifts of this day.

My new shoe, on a Galilean rock.

The shoes were quickly put to the test. We walked to our first destination, Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. It was a short and easy walk through groves of lemon, mango and olive trees, but the path was shared with animals. I doubt anyone’s shoes escaped the manure littering the path.

Mango trees on our path to the left.

Lemon trees on our path to the right.

Tabgha is one of the “traditional” holy sites in Israel, which means that there is no historic record that the actual feeding of the 5000 took place on this exact hill, although we do know that it was somewhere very close. When Constantine conquered and Christianized the land in the 4th century, he and his mother built churches everywhere they deemed a holy site. Tabgha is the site of a Byzantine church from the 5th century that commemorates the story of the loaves and fishes. There is even a rock that the church was built around, which they hold was the spot Jesus used to break the bread and distribute it to the crowd on the hillside.

Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes

The legendary rock, with the famous loaves and fishes mosaic in front of it.

Whether this is fact or fiction does not matter. If it was not this hill, it was one just like it, right in this region. If it was not this rock, it was one very similar. The site is made sacred by the thousands of pilgrims that have come before, and by the way it enshrines a particular episode of Jesus’ ministry for us to remember in a physical place.

If not this hilltop, then maybe one of these...

The German Benedictines have ownership of the site, but they were not allowed to build a church upon it until after the British Mandate in 1917. When they finally began to build, they discovered the original mosaic floor of the Byzantine church intact under the surface. The floor was preserved, and I was especially eager to see it. When we entered the church, I was astonished to see that the original mosaic floor, 1500 year old, was still the floor of the church, and we could walk right on it, touch it, and see it up close. Especially artistic sections were roped off, and much of the floor had to be repaired. However, they repaired it in black and white, so you can see the difference from the original colored Byzantine tiles. I sat in a chair in the chapel and simply ran my fingers over the pink and white tiles, placed by there by a Christian artist so many years ago.

Byzantine tiles under my chair

A beautiful mosaic of birds and animals.

An artist at work repairing the tiles.

Tabgha was the most moving experience for me today, but not for any reason I expected. I was moved not by what happened so long ago, but by the way Jesus’ meal is recreated over and over again all the time. Jesus stood on that hill, or one like it, surrounded by the beauty of the Galilee, and preached. Then he broke bread and passed it around, so that everyone who was hungry could be fed. Such a simple act, yet so profound. As I sat in the chapel, I thought about the church I serve, which offers a community meal every Saturday for anyone who is in need. We call that meal “Loaves and Fishes,” and imagine ourselves every week recreating Jesus’ miracle. I prayed for that ministry and its leaders, and all the people we serve.

I know our church is not alone—all across the world, churches feed people in Jesus’ name, performing the same miracle over and over and over again. Could Jesus have imagined, when he did something as simple as feed a hungry crowd, that his ministry would be alive and thriving, feeding hungry people two thousand years later?

My vision expanded to include every sacred meal I have shared. I remembered special times of holy communion, breaking bread at Shabbat in the home of a friend, picnics and church suppers, restaurant meals and family holidays. Any time a meal is shared, any time we pause say grace, any time we offer food to our neighbor, we are participating in the same story of Jesus that began right here, on an ordinary hill, an ordinary rock overlooking the Galilee. My heart was so full of memories—corporate memories of Jesus and the church, and personal memories of breaking bread with friends, of eating and sharing and being filled. Thanks be to God.

Our lunch at the Tanureen restaurant, where we broke bread together.

Tom and his St. Peter's Fish, a whole fish, supposedly in the style of the 1st century, fried up just like Jesus would have. Maybe.

Most of our Macedonian Ministries group at the Louisville airport.

We have arrived! We travelled from Louisville to Newark, then from Newark to Tel Aviv. At the airport in Tel Aviv, our tour bus picked us up for a two-hour bus ride to the Sea of Galilee. From home to hotel, my travel time was exactly 25 hours, and we crossed seven time zones. We are staying at the Pilgerhaus, which is on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, just yards from the shore and north of the city of Tiberias. We arrived after dark, so I have not yet seen the view.

Apartment buildings on hillside. These kind of apartment buildings are everywhere, especially in cities and Jewish territories. They were built to house all the immigrants arriving to Israel from around the world.

Traveling, for me, is both terrible and terrific. Airplane seats are tiny and cramped, the food was awful, and I slept less than an hour on the 11-hour overnight flight. My body is stiff, sore and exhausted. And yet, I watched three movies in a row, read books galore, and had lots of time to simply sit back and think and pray myself into pilgrimage. Hours in transit offer a liminality that helps disconnect me from ordinary life at home and enter into a different mode of being. In airports and airplanes, you are in a time out of time, no longer certain of the date or even whether it is day or night—yet somehow, when you arrive, after a good night’s sleep you are refreshed and ready to begin anew.

Preparing my heart for pilgrimage made me appreciate the sight of a beautiful rainbow as a true gift from God.

Speaking of books, any of you who know me (or have ever surfed this blog) will know that books are very important to me. This is especially true when I travel. Here are the books I am traveling with:

Two books about pilgrimage, to set me right for this special journey:

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau

Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George

Two books about the life of Jesus, to put me in touch with the places we’ll visit:

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan

Two books for fun on the plane:

Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans

Rudy, by Ann Hood

I also have my Bible, a notebook, and a travel guide prepared by the Macedonian Ministries Program, unique to this trip and the sites we will explore.

On the plane, I read the first several chapters of both books about pilgrimage. Both spoke to me deeply about the sacred longing that pulls us into a pilgrimage. They also reminded me of the hardships and struggles of earlier generations of pilgrims of all faiths, who traveled on foot for years, faced disease and starvation, and death along the way. Twenty-five hours on a plane is a small price to pay, and physical discomfort is part of the process.

View of the Jezreel Valley, looking south toward Jenin

On the ride from the airport to our hotel, I began to get a sense of the land for the first time. It is the rainy season, so everything is green and lush for a short while. However, the hillsides are thick with stones, craggy boulders that made the land ill-suited for house or farm. One of my colleagues commented, “It sure doesn’t look like the land of milk and honey.”

View of the Jezreel Valley toward the north. This actually does look a bit more like the land of milk and honey, but the surrounding hillsides do not.

It was raining for part of our journey, and I watched the muddy water running off the hills without soaking the soil, channeled instead into gulleys and pathways. I imagined it rushing away to a safe location, where it would wait and return to the land again through the irrigation system that will make food for the people all year. Water makes life in the desert. Living water.

Can you find the guy on horseback in the parking lot?

One of the things that surprised me was the abundance of animals I saw on our short journey. Before we had even made it far from the airport, I looked out the window to see a flock of sheep and goats wandering through a green valley. I didn’t see a shepherd in sight, but it was as if every scripture of sheep in the Galilee, from Psalm 23 to Jesus’ parables, had all come to pass before my eyes. I confess: it was such a stereotype that, rather than a sense of awe, it just made me giggle. Besides the sheep, we saw a man riding a horse through a parking lot, and a field full of camels dancing and prancing around, including a baby one that was all white.

Not a great picture, because it was through the bus window, moving fast. But look, frolicking camels! Even a baby all-white one!

Already, the overlapping of the distant, mythical past and the modern, urban life of Israel are ever-present in my experience. I saw sheep and camels, biblical places like Nazareth, Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor, but I also saw the Security Wall closing off the Palestinian territories. I saw Jewish settlements, and kids playing soccer, and families walking to Shabbat services at sunset. We got stuck in traffic due to a six-car pile-up, and watched the ambulances try to get through. We drove along the edge of the West Bank and saw the battling Palestinian and Jewish architecture in local villages. This clash between past and present, the simultaneous presence of mythical places and all-too-real ones will, I expect, continue to shape my understandings and experiences here.

A Palestinian village in the West Bank, with Jewish settlements. Our tour guide Claudia explained that the flat-roofed houses are Palestinian or Arab, because they always plan to expand and add another level for each new generation. The red roofed houses are Jewish, because they build in a more Western style single-family home. You could then see, as we drove along parallel to the West Bank territory, the Palestinian villages with their minarets, and the Jewish homes built right next to them.

The journey has only just begun. The day has been long and arduous, but this is as it should be. Now, to rest.

Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One suitcase, one carry-on bag. Ready to go.

The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.

Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.

And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.

The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t?  What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.

There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.”  The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)

I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?

I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1996, 482 pp.

This was the final book I was asked to read as part of my participation in the Macedonian Ministries project. Whew! What a tome!

Karen Armstrong is always brilliant, always thorough, always helpful in her analysis of broad sweeps of history. I always feel smarter for reading her books—and yet I always find it such hard work. I suspect that the breadth of the material is what makes me feel so overwhelmed by it. I have another Armstrong book on my shelf (The Battle for God). Even though I had hoped to read it before my trip to the Holy Land, I don’t think I have the energy for another one yet.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths is exactly what it says it is—a history of this sacred city at the heart of three faith traditions and the center of so much violence and conflict. Armstrong starts with the earliest evidence of settlement in the area, some pottery shards from 5200 years ago. She then traces all the various rulers and peoples in the area that is now Jerusalem. Here is a brief list, which captures in short form a timeline of the various groups who controlled the land: the Canaanite people and the conquest of Joshua; the Jebusites who first settled on the Ophel hill that became Jerusalem; the kingdom of David and the building of Solomon’s Temple; the Assyrian and Babylonian exile and return; Greek and Roman rule; the destruction of the temple and city in 70 CE; the Roman city Aelia Capitolina built on the ruins; the Byzantine rule; Caliph Omar’s peace and tolerance; the mad Caliph al-Hakim and other Fatamid rulers; the Crusades; Saladin’s restoration and peace; the Mamluk conquest; the Ottoman empire; the British Mandate; Zionism and modern Israel.  Each group destroyed some monuments and built others; displaced some residents and brought in others; honored some religion(s) and not others. Armstrong’s chronicle makes it clear that no one faith tradition can lay special claim to the city or its history—each have been responsible for building and cultivating Jerusalem, as well as destroying it.

One of the most interesting themes that winds through the book is the connection between Zion and social justice. From the pre-Yahwist Canaanite worshippers of Ba’al, Mount Zion was a symbol of a heavenly kingdom marked by peace and social justice. Many of the words we hear in Isaiah and the Psalms about the holy city of Jerusalem echo the vision of those Bronze Age Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al, who tied the sacredness of the city to the justice and peace it practiced. All who conquered the city—regardless of their faith—shared scriptures and religious beliefs that implored them to practice justice and peace, to care for the poor and respect their neighbors. Over the centuries, some rulers sought to build that kind of Holy City; others let their jealousy for the land itself override any sense of compassion or justice. The vision of the heavenly city of peace has persisted for thousands of years, yet it still feels very far away.

I felt like this book was excellent preparation for my journey to this city. I had little illusion that I would see the city of Jesus, or that the holy sites we visit will be original and untouched in any way. However, this book gave me a more profound sense of just how political Jerusalem’s holy sites are. Each attempt to build or destroy or even to clean and maintain a square of land is seen as an act of seizing control, usually at someone else’s expense. Every site currently open for tourists is the result of intense and frequently violent negotiations and claims.

I cannot predict how this will impact my experience of the city. It’s possible that knowing the history of battle and bloodshed will make it all seem pointless. It’s also possible that the same history will lend an import and weightiness to the places, no matter their inaccuracy as biblical places. I suspect it will be some mix of the two.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 577 pp.

This novel is absolutely stunning in its depth, beauty, profound characters, emotional contours, and intricate portrayal of the personal impact of war. It feels almost like a betrayal of its thick interweaving of words and images to even describe it to you. Just read it for yourself. It’s amazing, you won’t regret it.

To the End of the Land centers on Ora, an Israeli mother of two young adult boys. One of the boys, Ofer, is about to complete his military service when he must return to the front. Ora is overcome with panic and runs away to hike in the Galilee. She is estranged from her husband Ilan, so she picks up her old friend Avram along the way. Avram was her best friend and lover as a teenager, but he was tortured as a POW in the Six Day War and returned unable to live and love Ora or life itself. Ilan and Avram were best friends as well, and the three of them shared an intense bond that was broken when Avram’s spirit was broken in the war. Avram has never met their two sons, and refused to know anything about Ilan and Ora’s life after his captivity, even though they remained his friends and caretakers.

Overcome by a mother’s love and magical thinking, Ora believes she must protect her son Ofer by keeping him constantly in her mind. As she and Avram hike outdoors and journey across the terrain of northern Israel, she tells the story of Ofer, of her older son Adam, of her relationship with Ilan, and of her own life since Avram has been absent from it. The novel unpacks this journey across the Galilee, Ora’s tale, Avram’s heart, and the toll the war has taken on their humanity.

In a word, this novel is stunning. The characters and the story captivated me from the very first page. Ora and Avram come to life immediately, and then Ora’s tale gives life to Ilan, Adam and Ofer slowly as the book proceeds. Grossman details the contours of a mother’s love, friendship, passion, loneliness and despair in ways that illuminate and expose the human soul. I found myself wondering how he managed to put words to such deep, intricate emotion.

The land is a profound part of the story. Grossman describes the terrain that Ora and Avram hike in the Galilee with detail and beauty, and a touch of magical realism in the characters they encounter and the dangers they overcome. The ideal of the land of Israel has cost these characters a significant portion of their souls. Always in the background floats the question: how much is too much of a price to pay? In the treatment of the Palestinians, in the disruption of families, in the human lives lost or forever broken, in the souls bruised by acts of violence—the price to maintain Israel as a Jewish state is almost unbearably high. To the End of the Land ponders what ends human beings must go to in order to protect and live in this land.

I have read (and am still reading) many books on the land of Israel, its history and politics. But I know when I journey to the Galilee in a few weeks, Ora and Avram will be foremost in my mind. I will still be remembering and working through the complexities of their story, and the way it explores the dynamics of the land and its people. I will be watching for Ora and Avram to appear around the corner of every Galilean trail.

God’s Land on Loan: Israel, Palestine and the World by W. Eugene March, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 131 pp.

This is another book I am reading as part of the Macedonian Ministries program.

People devote lifetimes to understanding the complex intertwining of present-day living, history, scripture and theology that shape the Holy Land of Israel/Palestine. The conflicts and questions are impossible to unravel and rooted in thousands of years of warfare, conquest, faith, self-understanding, culture and religion. If you don’t know where to begin to sort through it, or if you don’t have a lifetime to devote, W. Eugene March’s book is an introduction that can be read in just a few hours and give a broad-based yet grounded account of the whole picture.

God’s Land on Loan is grounded in the theological perspective evident in the title: that all land belongs to God, and we who “own” it in this world are merely stewards, with responsibilities to work the land for God’s purposes. March begins the story of the land currently called Israel not at the beginning, but in the present. He paints a picture of the people passing through the two main gates to the Old City in Jerusalem, carrying on their daily lives. Then he gives voice to more than a dozen individuals currently residing in Jerusalem, each speaking the truth of their perspective on the centuries-old conflict over the land, and expressing concerns related to their daily lives.

Only after the reader has been saturated with the complicated diversity of contemporary Jerusalem does March venture into the past. Then, in a concise 40 pages, March tells “The Realities of History,” the stories of occupation, displacement and violence over the last 2,000 years. Again, only after this foundation in contemporary life and factual history, March leads the reader into a chapter on the biblical stories related to the land, followed by a chapter on the theological questions surrounding the land. The concluding chapter returns to the theme of the title: how to tend to the earth-keeping responsibilities for this shared space of sacred and political history.

March’s theology and politics seem far more even-handed than most other accounts. He relates to scripture with a scholarly, historical-critical integrity, while honoring the faith and devotional role that the texts and stories play in shaping our lives. For example, he eloquently describes the role the Bible as helping us ask the right questions, rather than providing all the answers:

For people active in faith communities, the issue is not whether to consider the Bible when dealing with the tough questions of life, but how. … The task is not to determine which view is correct, oldest, or most authoritative. Rather, the goal is to listen and reflect upon the events that God’s people have experienced and the reports they have passed along in the hope and with the conviction that God continues to care for and give guidance to those who seek to place God’s agenda foremost in their lives. (66)

March’s chapter on the theological questions about the land is particularly insightful. Piece by piece, yet in succinct form, he deconstructs many of the misconceptions Christians hold, such as the conflation of the nation Israel with the biblical Israel, supercessionism, or understanding chosenness as rights instead of responsibilities. Always, the image of the title comes through: we are keepers of God’s earth, which is only ours to borrow, and whose use is meant to be for God’s purposes alone.

March offers an excellent introduction to the history of Israel/Palestine and the biblical and theological ideas that have played such conflicting roles. It would work well in a church setting, with lay or clergy groups. I commend it to you as readable, accessible, even-handed and faithful.

I Am a Palestinian Christian by Mitri Raheb, Fortress Press, 1995, 164 pp.

This is the first in a series of books I am reading in preparation for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this January and February. (I fully expect to blog the experience, so you’ll be hearing more. It’s a journey for pastors called the Macedonian Ministries program, sponsored by the Cousins Foundation.)

I have had a compassionate heart for the plight of the Palestinian people since I first learned their story about ten years ago, when I was involved with the Friends of Sabeel North America Conference in Boston. The stories of displacement, disenfranchisement and discrimination are appalling. I expected Raheb’s book to confirm this perspective, to add to my knowledge about this injustice, and tell again the story of how it has all unfolded. While I Am a Palestinian Christian did share again the Palestinian perspective, it also did much more.

Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian Christian (a Lutheran pastor) who explains how being a Christian who lives and hails from the site of Jesus’ life and death makes a difference in his perspective as a Christian. He also explains why it should make a difference to Christians that he and other Palestinians like him maintain a presence in the region.

A kind of symbiosis exists between the land of Palestine and Christian Palestinians. Each has influenced and imprinted the other deeply. … The fate of the Christians is bound up with the fate of their holy sites. The fact that Christian Palestinians have refused to abandon these holy sites despite massive  pressure demonstrates that the holy sites are almost meaningless to them if there is not a Christian community living and worshiping there. The stones of the church need the living stones, but we living stones need a space and a locality in which to live and to celebrate. (4)

I had never considered the importance of a living Christian community native to the sites in the Holy Land. Something indeed would be lost if the holy sites and cathedrals were all maintained only by European Christians, and worship every Sunday was populated only with tourists and pilgrims. The true church is the “living stones” who live out the kingdom of God week in and week out in their community. What a loss if those communities were lost in Jesus’ own homeland.

The first half of the book describes the life, theology and political circumstances of the Palestinian Christian community. He talks about Arab Christians as a minority in Palestine, and the role they play in negotiations between Muslims and Jews. He talks about the modern history of the Holy Land, the injustice of the Occupation, the hardships of increased settlements and security, and the need for a two-state solution.  Raheb notes the unique relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East, especially the Holy Land, where the two cannot peacefully and justly separated. He puts forth an outline of a contextual theology for Arab Christians, which includes the above intertwining of religion and politics, ecumenism, an emphasis on incarnation, attention to the poor, the sacredness of the land, and more.

The second half of the book offers biblical interpretation from the perspective of Palestinian Christians. Raheb begins with a list of principles for biblical interpretation in the Palestinian Christian community, moving beyond allegory but avoiding ahistoricism and fundamentalism. He then offers perspectives on the Exodus, the promise of land, Jonah, the love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount and more. Most interesting to me was his chapter on “Election.” He writes:

Election, correctly understood, is therefore a promise to the weak, encouragement to the discouraged, and consolation to the desperate. But election can easily become “claim,” and a statement of faith can then turn into a dangerous ideology. This occurs especially when a person, a religion, or a people becomes strong, secure or rich. It is alarming to have a promise turn into a claim. … Election is not a special privilege. It is much more a call to service, above all a service “to the other.”

If we believe ourselves to all be God’s chosen ones, we have no claim to special authority or privilege (or land)—we have only mission in God’s name.

Raheb’s book is an excellent introduction to the history, impact and theology of Palestinian Christianity. Raheb himself is an astute and authentic writer, whose perspective claims both personal and intellectual authority. There is nothing heavy-handed or politically charged in the book. He just speaks his truth, and that truth is powerful.


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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