Friday, May 9, 2008

Return of the Pilgrim

I'm home now, and it is a good and joyful thing! There was a distinct division in our group over the last few days: there were the ones whose minds had already returned to the states, and there were the ones whose hearts longed to stay in Israel. One in our group, Sara, prayed this prayer one morning: "We pray for those who are ready to go home, and we pray for the ones who are not. Let them not irritate each other." It was a perfect prayer - it accurately named our situation, and it recognized the potential danger we faced. In the end, we all parted ways as good friends.

In "The Cost of Discipleship," Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that there is a two-part surrender to God: for Abraham, he gave up his homeland to start a family as a stranger in a strange land, but then was asked to give up his son; for Peter, he gave up fishing to become a member of Jesus' inner circle, but then he gave up being a disciple; for Martin Luther, he gave up the life of a worldly priest to become a cloistered monk, but then gave up the monastery. In each of these examples, the one who gave up everything to follow Christ ended up back where they started, yet at the same time, everything was different for them: Abraham kept his family, but understood his family in a new way; Peter returned to fishing, but became a fisher of people; Luther lived out his years as a priest in the world, but as a Protestant rather than a Catholic. For me, as I return to the very same life I left two weeks ago, I am pondering my two-part surrender. I gave up approaching the Bible as an historical document years ago. How can the infinite God be contained by a finite history? What I have surrendered on this pilgrimage is the idea that historicity and reality have to be the same thing. The mystery of faith that we proclaim may not be a historical fact, but it is most definitely an historical reality:

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Early in the Morning at the Tomb

Just as the women got up early in the morning to go to the tomb, a group of us got up early yesterday morning and went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As the group processed our experience, many of us felt like we missed something. So, we left our hotel at 5:15 AM and arrived at the church at about 5:40 AM. When we arrived, there were about 35-40 there. The major difference, other than the amount of people, was that these 35-40 were gathered to pray. There was a reverence and a respect ... not only for the site, but for each other. People were gracious in allowing each other the time they needed at the different places in the church for prayer and reflection. It was absolutely beautiful; so much different than the day before.

It seems the major difference between the two days was that on the first day, the church was filled with spectators, and on the second day the church was filled with participants. On the first day, the church was filled with people who had a goal to complete (see this, touch that, etc.); on the second day, the church was filled with people who had a relationship to maintain. In both cases, the way the individual approached God was very similar to the way the individual approached the surrounding people.

As we were finishing our morning time at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the first tour groups were beginning to arrive. Having had the opportunity to experience this holy site in a more appropriate way, I was able to experience the crowds in a more appropriate way. I am glad I went back to the tomb early in the morning ... and I pray that I will grow to experience God in the midst of a broken, searching, yearning humanity.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Behold, the Lamb of God!

I have to admit, I am extremely troubled after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the traditional location of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Right now, the church is under the control of six different Christian communions: Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox. The tensions between these groups is so high the that actual keys to the church are in the possession of a Muslim family that unlocks and locks the church every day. This picture shows the Greek Orthodox (left) and Roman Catholic (right) expressions of devotion to the place where Jesus died - you can even stick your hand in the hole where Jesus' cross sat in the ground:

There is a line on the floor that divides the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sides. Of course, the other communions are represented in other parts of the church.

Why is this so bothersome to me? When I think about sin, I am motivated by Paul Tillich's suggestion to think of "estrangement" as the primary expression of sin in modern times. In other words, our state of sin derives from our estrangement (separation) from God, and plays out in our estrangement from our neighbors. Here, on this very holy and sacred site, is the place where we are most able to proclaim, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin (estrangement) of the world!" Commemorating the most important act of divine reconciliation in the history of creation, stands a church that is not so much a church as it is a temple: Behold, on the very site where the Lamb of God reconciled God and sinners, stands the Temple of Estrangement!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The End of the World as We Know It

Yesterday was a travel day, and I wasn't able to write. We are now in Jerusalem. I will talk about our first day in Jerusalem later ... right now, I am still pondering our trip to Megiddo.

The fortified city gate at Megiddo

The history of Megiddo can be traced back to the 4th century B.C.E. - in other words, it was settled at least 6000 years ago. The site of the city is in the Jezreel Valley, along what was the main road between Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was a very important city in terms of commerce and military power, and thus much coveted by ancient rulers and warriors. The best the archeologists can tell, the city of Megiddo was settled, built up, occupied, conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt no less than 25 times during its time as a city. The good King Josiah lost his life in a battle with Pharaoh Neco II at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:28-30), which has led to the belief that at this place, where so many battles have been waged, the ultimate battle between good and evil will happen, with good finally triumphing for all time. In the Christian tradition, John of Patmos referred to this location as the "Mountain of Megiddo" - or in Hebrew, Armegeddon.

Above is a picture of the Jezreel Valley from Megiddo ... it would have been very easy to see ancient travelers between Egypt and Mesopotamia approaching the city, and so it's easy to see why it was so important to control this city in the ancient world. In our modern world, however, the commerce value of this particular route has been greatly reduced. In short, it's not really worth fighting over anymore. I can't imagine this being the literal site of the final showdown between good and evil, but I am far more appreciative of the rich symbolism in John's prophecy after being here, given the very real history of this city. Indeed, the history of humanity is one long history of battle after battle - attempts to establish security and prosperity - as individuals and as societies. Our hope - as individuals and as a people - is the reign of peace, security, and prosperity forever.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Today was a day of rest; nothing planned for us. I walked back to Capernaum with Ray McGhee, a fellow pilgrim, and visited the Greek Orthodox church that we were not able to see during our official trip to Capernaum. It is fascinating how different people can experience Christ, and respond to their experiences in such completely different ways. The Greek Orthodox church was absolutely nothing like the Roman Catholic churches - and neither look like what Protestants would offer if the Protestants had a chance! I found the Orthodox church to be stunning. It was full of icons, and the monks were chanting as we visited.

We had a great treat at evening prayer today. I have been attending the Lauds service at 6:00 AM all week long, but tonight I was invited to go to the Vespers service at 6:00 PM. The person who invited me, Jay Vorhees, attended last night and liked it very much. He knew how much I enjoyed the morning, and invited me to go with him. Two others (CeCe Nickolich and Nancy Anderson) also joined us. It was a beautiful service, as always - and in German, as always! After the service was over, and we were heading out, the abbot (who leads the service) approached us and thanked us for our regular attendance. He was a genuine and caring man. He told us about how the land on which the church stood was sold to the Emperor of Germany by a Sultan in the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800's. Bedouins were living on the site at the time. The German Benedictines were granted stewardship of the land, and they excavated to find the site of the Feeding of the 5000. Now, the brothers are dedicated to peace and reconciliation for the people of Israel. He told us that he feels an extra responsibility for this work, given Germany's poor history in relation to the Jews. Then he asked us to pray for his order and their work. It was an amazing conversation. He also told us that he lives in Jerusalem, and is here in Galilee for a one-year term as abbot to this particular community of Benedictine brothers. I hope to greet the Jerusalem brothers once we arrive there (we leave tomorrow!).

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

City Hall and the Airport Chapel

Today we visited two sites that are far north of the region we have been exploring. The first site was an archeological site called Tel Hazor. Hazor was the site of the palace for Canaanite kings, 14th-13th centuries BCE. This particular city was detroyed by fire during Joshua's conquest of the Promised Land (Joshua 11:10-13). Although Hazor was never an important Israelite city, experiencing the city gate has given me a new (and more accurate!) understanding of what actually happens at the city gate. When, for example, we read about Boaz securing the right to marry Ruth, it happens at the city gate (Ruth 4). I have always imagined a bunch of guys standing around under some trees ... but this is not the case! In ancient days, fortified cities had "meeting rooms" built into the walls next to the gate into the city. This way, if foreigners had business in the city, they could be received at the gate and taken to one of the meeting rooms - they never had to actually enter the city. So these meeting rooms at the city gate served in much the same way a City Hall serves today - it's the place where the city's business was conducted. If you wanted to get a building permit for a new shed, you'd go to the city gate! But instead of heading "downtown" like we do today, you would head to the edge of town.

The second site we visited was Caesarea Philippi, the traditional location of Peter's confession to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" Many of us wondered what Jesus was doing all the way out here ... and how did he get from Caesarea Philippi to Mount Tabor for the Transfiguration in only six days? (Or was it eight days, as Luke suggests? Or perhaps the Transfiguration happened on the much closer, but less traditional, Mount Hermon ...) My answer: I don't know. I do know, however, that the physical characteristics of the locations for both of these stories add a dimension to their depth. Caesarea Philippi is the site of the Sanctuary of Pan, a Greco-Roman god. Because of the multi-cultural nature of the Roman Empire, and particularly of Caesarea Philippi, the Sanctuary of Pan was recognized as a holy site by many different groups of people. So - if the ancient "city gate" was equivalent to the modern-day city hall, the ancient Sanctuary of Pan might be compared to an interfaith chapel at an airport - many consider it sacred space, but few agree on the details of its sacredness.

Jesus' two questions to his disciples are meaningful questions, but the fact that the story is located in such a multi-cultural (dare we say "relativistic") location as Caesarea Philippi adds a whole other dimension:

"Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

"Who do you say that I am?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Different Perspective

I wasn't able to write yesterday for two reasons. First of all, our morning excursion ran late; I promised to help our "theologian in residence," Roberta Bondi, on some rather difficult Su Doku puzzles but since we got back late, I didn't have time to do my reading and reflecting in the afternoon. After dinner, I was exhausted, so a bunch of us just hung out for a little while before bed. It was fun - not very productive, but extremely re-creational.

Secondly, I thought I didn't have a lot to write about yesterday, anyway. We took a 3-hour boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and we went by the places we'd already seen the past two days. All we did was see the same old things from a different perspective ... then I thought, yes, that's the whole point, isn't it - to experience these sites, these stories, these traditions from a different perspective?

Speaking of a different perspective - it has finally happened ... I've been spiritually and emotionally moved. Or as Wesley said, "my heart was strangely warmed." And it happened, of all places, at the Grotto of Mary, traditional home of Jesus' mother. It looked like a home much more than Peter's house did, and our tour guide said that graffitti had been discovered in it ("Ave Maria," etc) that dated back well before the early Church was trying to identify holy sites. I was expecting to see a big gaudy display, but I was very impressed both with the holy site and the church that above it. The Franciscans have done a wonderful job in terms of their stewardship of these sites (well, in my humble opinion - I know some who would strongly disagree!). So, did I see the actual home of Jesus' mother? I have no idea. But I am strongly reminded again, not just intellectually but existentially, that even though I don't know what happened here 2000 years ago, I am absolutely sure in the core of my being that SOMETHING happened, and it was pretty significant, and the world is still responding to it, and whatever it was, my life is better because of it.