For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘travel

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.

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 www.jesusboat.com.) I actually find cheesy tourist shops highly entertaining, and I found a treasure today. I did not buy it, but I did take a picture for all of you to enjoy.

"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.

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.

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.

The first time I was in Summersville, West Virginia was at least 15 years ago. I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and my friend K and I spent our free time driving around the back roads of West Virginia in search of beautiful vistas, quirky towns and unique experiences.

New River Gorge

We journeyed to Summersville one Sunday afternoon on our way to the famous New River Gorge bridge, taking a winding two-lane trail through nameless unincorporated communities. We were hungry, and had no cash. Cash was important, because the local restaurants along the road would not accept a credit card back then. Looking on the map, Summersville appeared to be a sizable town, and we believed there would be a 24-hour ATM there so we could get money for something to eat.

We arrived in downtown Summersville and found at least three different back branches, but not one of them had an automatic teller machine. Not one. We rolled down the window and asked a man walking down the street where we could find an ATM machine. “A what?” he asked. “A bank machine, where you can get money.” “Never heard of that kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe they have one of those down in Beckley.”

Our hungry bellies sighed at another 40 mile journey to Beckley, but we also reveled in the thought that there were still places, in the early 1990s, that did not know what an ATM was. It was exactly the kind of experience we sought in our travels, and I still remember it today.

I have returned to Summersville again this week. A friend and I have rented a cabin for reading, writing and quiet time with God. I was eager to revisit Summersville. The website for the cabin told me that they now had several fast food restaurants and a Super Wal-Mart, so I expected a changed place—at least now they would have an ATM, to be sure.

 

 

Summersville, WV along US-19. This is only one section on one side of the road--there is much more fast food and Wal-Mart just ahead.

I couldn’t believe what I found when we got here. Not only is there a Super Wal-Mart, the leader of cheap consumerism and cultural decline in small-town America, but there are strip malls at every turn. Along US-19, where there used to be rolling Appalachians speckeld with color this time of year, there are billboards and signs for every national chain store, hotel chain and fast-food restaurant you can imagine. We sought a local restaurant in downtown Summersville, and could find none.

While I am sure the people of Summersville and the surrounding hillsides are grateful to eat at Applebee’s, get lumber at Lowe’s, wander the aisles of the Dollar Tree and stock up at Super Wal-Mart without driving all the way to Beckley, I mourn the passing of another unique small town.

Bill Bryson’s book A Lost Continent, which I just completed and did not generally like (see review), describes his search for the perfect small town, which he dubs “Amalgam.” He describes its picturesque streets and quaint personalities, and delights in the fact that it could be located in any state in the union. He never finds that small town.

What I fear we have instead is thousands of Amalgams, only they are not the pleasantly perfect models Bryson imagines. In today’s world of mass consumption and large retail and restaurant chains, every town is Amalgam. Every town has the same restaurants, the same stores, the same products. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, feels the same. Something is lost when Summersville, WV looks just like Summersville, KY and Somersville, OH and Somersville, CT and Somersville, CA. I’m not sure why anyone bothers to leave their own town anymore, just to find the same thing in some other place.


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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