Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Pilgrims we depart

Crosses etched in the walls of
a church by pilgrims during
the Crusades.
JERUSALEM -- This is my lasting posting from the Holy Land. We depart today for the long journey homeward. At some point in the next few days I will offer a few words of reflection about our journey. My instincts tell me that it will take a lifetime to understand the full meaning, and that to begin to understand, I must have some distance from this place.

Please keep us and our fellow pilgrims in your prayers, and please pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all the world. Blessings to all.

-- Jim

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Holy Land Journal: On an old crumbling Roman road

The old Roman road to the place Jews in
the time of Jesus called "Ammaous."
JERUSALEM – Our time in the Holy Land is drawing to a close, and we are beginning to feel the tug of the homeward journey ahead.

On Tuesday we completed our pilgrimage by taking a walk a few miles away in an Israeli suburb. We walked up a hill, past a few houses, and then left the pavement and disappeared for a time into a ravine.

We wended our way through thistle bushes and under low lying pine branches to reach a crumbled gray footpath that was once a Roman road. Then we walked as far as we could on the old Roman road.

We walked on the road to Emmaus.

You may recall the story in Luke 24:13-35: Two of Jesus’ followers – Cleopas and another disciple unnamed– flee from Jerusalem after the execution of Jesus. A stranger joins them on the road and asks them what they are talking about:
They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”
As they walk along, the stranger explains the Scriptures to them; how the messiah would not be a mighty warrior but would be a servant who would be put to death. He explains the entire Bible to them as they walk. When they reach a town called “Emmaus,” the pair of disciples invite the stranger to join them for dinner.

As the Gospel of Luke continues:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
I adore this story. If I had only one story in the Bible I could keep, this would be it. Everything about the Gospel is here – surprise, divinity, servanthood, resurrection and a great meal. It is a tale of how all of us miss seeing the Holy – the Christ – in the people we meet because we are too busy to see what is right in front of us. It is a tale of how we especially miss seeing the Christ in strangers, in people who are different than us. It is a tale of opportunities still before us if we walk down the road and open our eyes to see.

Today we walked along this old Roman road, we walked to Emmaus. We walked the same path as Cleopas and his companion walked. We worked our way up the ravine until we could walk to further, and we paused to look.

The Arab town that had once been there was completely destroyed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. All that remains is the Roman road and piles of trash along the way.

On a gravel footpath before
reaching the old Roman road.
There are no gift shops, no amenties, no signs marking the place. There is no huge basilica, no tour buses. No one hawking pottery. Yet, we knew we were in a very special place. A team of archaeologists were nearby excavating a few yards from our trail.

I had brought a small stone with me to leave in the Holy land: a piece of quartz from Shrine Mont, Virginia. I’ve been looking for just the right place to leave it. Here is where I left it, on the Road to Emmaus.

Was this the actual place of Emmaus? Scholars disagree, as they do on everything else in the Holy Land. There are at least four candidates for Emmaus.

The place we went was once known as “Colonia” by the Romans because it was a “colony” for aging veteran Roman soldiers. The Arabs later rendered “Colonia” into “Qualuyna.”

But in the time of Jesus, the local Jews called it “Ammaous.”

Emmaus? Perhaps so.

Australian Anglican Bishop Godfrey Fryar
celebrates our Holy Eucharist with Jerusalem's
skyline as our backdrop.
We walked back down the road, chatting quietly, and returned to our bus. We were taken a few miles away to the top of a hill, to a convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame, a French order. The convent marks where it is thought that King David kept the Ark of the Covenant for 20 years before bringing it to Jerusalem when the Temple was built. It is also another candidate for “Emmaus,” though it seems much to high up on a hill to be a place where anyone would lodge on their way to somewhere else.

Here we celebrated our Holy Eucharist one last time as fellow pilgrims, and we looked out from this hill and could see the entire skyline of Jerusalem, old and new.

As we prayed, sang, and shared in the bread and wine, we could hear gunshots below the hill – presumably someone was target practicing. At least that is what we all hoped.

As we finished, we were invited to pray for peace. We prayed earnestly for the peace of Jerusalem and for the peace of the whole world.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Walking the ancient Way of the Cross

Inside the dome of the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
JERUSALEM – We awoke before dawn on Monday and assembled in the courtyard of St. George’s College.

In the early cool morning breeze, we began our Walk of the Way of the Cross, tracing the footsteps where countless pilgrims over countless centuries have trod to remember the agony and death of Jesus on the Cross.

We walked in silence to each stop on the way. He broke our silence at each stop with prayers, scripture readings and chanting of, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One.”

We agree we would take no photographs until we were through.

For those uninitiated in the Way of the Cross, or “Stations of the Cross,” it is a traditional exercise of veneration at each of the 14 points where the tradition holds that Jesus stopped on his way to be crucified. Many churches worldwide offer this practice during Holy Week, using icons or artwork depicting each of the stops.

On Monday, we walked to the stations the Cross marked along the route on buildings were pilgrims, like ourselves, have paused for centuries of veneration.

Entering the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre after our
Walk on the Way of the Cross
To reach the Old City, we walked past the Israeli police station where we have spent so much of our time in the past week. A few police officers and heavily armed soldiers milled about in front next to their armored cars.

We walked through Herod’s Gate into the Muslim Quarter and found ourselves at the first station, the place where Pontius Pilate’s headquarters is said to have stood. We heard the story of Jesus being condemned to death by the Roman governor. We prayed, we chanted, we kept walking.

We were soon followed by another group of pilgrims, from Romania. Their chants, more melodic than ours, pleasantly filled our ears. As we would leave one station, the Romanians would following at a respectful distance, would take our place.

The sun rose above the rooftops; we could soon feel the heat. As we walked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, the Old City began to wake up. Tractors pulling carts of produce rumbled past, their noisy engines drowning our prayers and chants. We hugged the walls to avoid having our feet run over. People hustled past on their way to work, or to their own worship, kept on the opposite side of the street from us.

The ground was wet, hosed down in the early morning hours before our arrival. The smell of rotting garbage filled our nostrils. There was no sweet smells on the Way of the Cross.

At the third station, marked on a wall with “Jesus falls for the first time,” two Israeli soldiers stood talking. They quietly moved away so we could stand there. A car honked at us to get out of the way so it could pass, the driver barking at us as he drove by.

We moved onto the next stations, trying to imagine Jesus on this walk, carrying the crosstree of the executioner’s tool up these narrow streets. Yet, we were very aware that these were not the steps Jesus walked – the streets where he walked are deep beneath the ground, deep beneath our feet, buried under centuries of rubble left by the multiple destructions of this tragic city over 2,000 years.

At the sixth station, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” an elderly nun paused to touch the stone marking the station, then crossed herself before continuing on her way.

We walked uphill, up slippery stone steps, up past shopkeepers beginning to open for the day.

Our ears filled with many sounds, not just our prayers or the wonderful chants of the Romanians behind us. Everywhere, it seemed, we could hear cats crying. The clanking metal of shop door opening echoed through the allies. More tractors lumbered past.

Finally we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the stony hill where Jesus was crucified. This is one place where scholars generally agree we are in the right place: Golgotha, the “place of the Skull.”

The place of death.

In the time of Jesus, Golgotha was an abandoned rock quarry that stood just outside the city gates. It was a perfect location for the Romans to hang criminals for all to see – and be warned.

Looking down on the domes of the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We
took this photo a few days ago
from the tower at the Lutheran
Church of the Redeemer
Now a huge basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, covers the spot. The quarry is buried beneath centuries of Christian tradition and conflict. The basilica has been built and rebuilt many times since the 4th century. The Place of the Skull has not seen sunlight in 1,600 years.

We would go in, but not yet.

We finished our Stations of the Cross in a sunny courtyard, trading stations with the Romanians. An African Coptic monk, clad entirely in a black robe from the top of his head to his toes, swept the courtyard as we prayed and chanted.

Finally we heard the biblical passages of how Jesus breathed his last, and was lowered into his mother’s arms from the Cross. Some in our group wept.

But I looked up at the sun glistening on the church domes, and all I could think of was this:

“He is not here! He is Risen! He is everywhere!”

+ + +

When we finished the Way of the Cross, we walked a short distance to the Lutheran Hospice for breakfast. Our group remained quiet, everyone lost in their thoughts. Some ate then went to sit quietly and write in their journals.

Soon we went back outside to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place I have heard and read about but never seen until today. It is built upon Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull,” or “Cavalry” as some call it. Within its walls is also the place thought to be the tomb where he was laid, and where the women came on the third morning to find that his body had disappeared.

It is certainly the most holy place in all of Christianity.

The traditional spot where it is said
that Jesus' body was anointed with oil.
A marble slab covered in oil
marks the place.
The spot remained largely as it was for three centuries. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and commissioned a magnificent basilica on Golgotha. He commissioned his mother, Helena, to go find it. It was she who declared that this was the spot. Later evidence showed she likely got it right.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The church now standing is magnificent, but it smaller and less spectacular than the original in it glory.

In later centuries, the church was chopped up into sections for warring Greeks, Coptics and Armenians.

Walls divide each sect’s section from the other, and cut off full views of the magnificent domes and nave inside. The division and territoriality in the basilica is a perfect metaphor for the divisiveness in Christianity, and in all of humanity itself.

Huge Paschal candles guard the tome
of Jesus. Lightbulbs are atop
each candle.
Yet I still found the church oddly moving.

As we entered the basilica, we were confronted by a slab of marble representing where Jesus might have been anointed with oil after his death. Lamps hang above, and the slab is covered with olive oil. We took turns blessing each other with the oil.

Up a steep staircase is an ornate altar the stands at the highest point on the hill that is encased inside this church. It is thought that this is the spot where Jesus hung on the Cross. It is hard to imagine except for a series of gray rock outcroppings nearby, underneath glass cases.

The rock is the color of a skull.

We went back down another stone staircase to where Jesus’ tomb is said to be. At the time of Jesus, the tomb would have been one of many small caves carved in the hillside. In the 4th century, Constantine’s laborers carved the entire rock assemblage away from the hillside and then enclosed it in a shrine.

The spot is now inside a large boxy edifice, covered in lamps, icons and all manner of bric-a-brac. Huge Paschal candles with guard the entrance to the tomb. The candles have light bulbs on top, and some of the bulbs are the new energy saving twirly type.

With all of that adornment, I found it very hard to imagine this place as a Jewish tomb in a hillside.

Entrance to ancient crypt
in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Our pilgrimage guide, Mark, wanted to show us something else. He led us through a small door, and down a passageway only a few feet away from the official tomb.

We entered a round room, carved into the hillside, lit with a single light bulb. On the ceiling we could see the dimmest outline of ancient Byzantine paintings, long faded. The walls were blackened with the soot of centuries of candles and oil lamps.

Off to one side was another small door, no more than four foot high. I climbed inside with a flash light, and I found two small crypts, carved into the hillside that is now under this massive church.

Two crypts deep inside the hillside
underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Each crypt could have held a single body.

In ancient Jewish practice, bodies would be encased in these tombs until the flesh decayed, then families would return in about a year to retrieve the bones and then keep them in an ossuary.

It was here, in a place like this, that I could imagine that Jesus might have been laid after his death, and where the women came the next day to look for his body.

And then I all I could think of was this: “He is not here! He is Risen! He is everywhere!”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Sunday in Jerusalem

Tour buses and tourists
mobbing the Church of All Nations
JERUSALEM – Today is Sunday in this holiest of cities, and like everything else here, it is a day of contradictions, contrasts and confusions.

Friday belongs to the Muslims, Saturday belongs to the Jews, and Sunday belongs to the Christians.

As someone told us the other day, "there are no agnostics in Jerusalem."

We began our day by taking a taxi to the top of the Mount of Olives, to the place that it is said Jesus began his final entry into Jerusalem on what is now remembered as “Palm Sunday.”

We saw no palm trees. The route is now lined by rundown Palestinian houses.

At the top of the mountain, there is a small church that marks the traditional spot of where Jesus found a colt to ride into the Holy City where he would be arrested an executed.

When we arrived, a Catholic mass was underway. We stood outside and could smell the incense.

House demolished by Israelis
Next to the church is a house that was owned by a Palestinian family. It was demolished because they did not ask permission of the Israeli government to add a second story for one of their sons.

We worked our way along the traditional route of Jesus’ path into Jerusalem. For two millennia, this path is packed every Palm Sunday with tens-of-thousands of the faithful. Today is taxis and small cars.

Next we entered the Church of the Flavitis, about halfway down the mountain. It is where tradition says Jesus paused and “wept for Jerusalem.” The church on the site is shaped like a teardrop.

It was then that things began to take on the flavor of a theme park. A man in Arab garb greeted us with a donkey. He kissed my hand three times and we paid him a few shekels.

Another Catholic mass was underway when we were arrived. We did not stay long, but paused for the view of the Temple Mount which was breathtaking.

Finally, we walked down a steep path to the bottom of the Valley of Kidron and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed and arrested by Roman authorities.

A friendly greeting
When we arrived, a young man thrust olive branches into our hands and then asked us for five shekels. Another was hawking panoramic photos. Meanwhile, the tour buses began jamming onto the street in front, jostling for places to offload their passengers. An Israeli police car blasted it siren several times trying to push the buses along.

We pushed our way inside to the Basilica of the Agony, or “The Church of All Nations,” certainly one of the most beautiful churches we have seen. The church is kept dark, yet gold mosaic tiles glisten on the ceiling and inside the dome.

Another Catholic mass was underway, and we did not linger. We left as a huge throng of Greek pilgrims pushed their way into the Garden of Gethsemane. We pushed our way out.

We took a cab back to our St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, arriving just in time for an English-language Holy Eucharist. I felt I could breath again, thankful to be back with friends and the familiarity of our liturgy.

After lunch, we set off for the City of David, where the first small fortress of David was built before Jerusalem was established.

Lori walking down from the Mount of Olives
We walked through the Tunnel of Hezekiah, a deep underground tunnel built 2,000+ years ago that is only about three feet wide and five feet high. Water from a spring runs along its half-mile entire length, and we sloshed through the tunnel with Petzel lights on our foreheads.

I must admit, it was not my favorite thing to do. But we did it with friends and lived to tell the tale. We got a feel for a secret escape route out of the city in times of peril, and we marveled at an ancient engineering fete.

When we emerged, we took another tunnel – larger and dry – back to where we started.

When we came outside, a long line of Israeli soldiers – all of them very young, all of them with automatic rifles slung under their shoulders – were walking down to enter the City of David and take the same tour we had taken.

This is a city of many contrasts, contradictions, and confusions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Into the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp

DHEISHEH REFUGEE CAMP – The sense of injustice here is as strong today as it was 63 years ago.

No issue in this troubled land has been more intractable for a longer period than the refugee camps housing the Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli war.

On Saturday we had an opportunity to visit the Dheisheh Refugee Camp about a 30-minute drive south from Jerusalem.

To get there, we passed through an Israeli military checkpoint and climbed up into the rugged hills to enter the camp where 13,000 people live crammed into an area than is about quarter-mile in each direction. There is one doctor for all of them.

At the United Nations headquarters in Dheisheh, a young man who was born in the camp met us. He offered to be our guide.

“I will tell you about the war you never hear about,” he told us. I will him “Abdul” – I have changed his name because he fears reprisals from the Israeli Army.

During the 1948 war, the indigenous Palestinian Arab population was caught in the crossfire between the Israelis who were fighting for their independence and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries.

One of the huts built in 1956 for the refugees;
it measures about 10 foot by 10 foot.
The local people fled their homes, or were chased out, never to return after the war.

“If you read the Israeli story they say they entered the homes and they were empty,” said Abdul. “If you read the Palestinian story, they killed a few people and everyone else fled because they were afraid.”

The United Nations put these refugees in camps. At first they lived in tents.

In 1956, the refugees were allowed to build one-room concrete huts.

“When they discovered they would stay longer, they started building more rooms,” our guide told us, showing us his grandparents’ first hut. “I was born here in this camp.”

To call it a “camp” is to understate how permanent it looks. With concrete houses built atop each other, with narrow alleys in between, the “camp” looks more like a Latin American slum.

Meanwhile, the area around Dheisheh has grown to the point where it is now part of a large urban sprawl including Bethlehem. All of these Palestinian cities are enclosed by a massive wall and extensive fence system that separates the Palestinians from the Israelis.

Although our guide has lived his entire life within 30 minutes of Jerusalem, he has never been allowed to go there.

Few people have jobs at Dheisheh – there is no economic foundation for the area. The populous is supported by the largesse of foreign governments and the United Nations, which distributes food every six months.

Our group brought clothing to the camp, donated from the suitcases of pilgrims like us who attend St. George’s Anglican College.

Dheisheh has no independent water supply, although it sits on a natural aquifer. The Israelis pump the water and then sell it back to Dheisheh once a month. Water tanks on the rooftops hold the precious water for each home.

Widely copied protest art; this version
is on the side of a house in Dheisheh
The Israeli Army patrols the camp twice a month, and spray-paints Hebrew markings on the houses to give themselves directions.

The Dheisheh refugees have responded with graffiti protest art, including a widely copied drawing of a small girl frisking an Israeli soldier. Portraits of young men who have been killed are stenciled on the walls of houses.

Our guide Abdul said there is some pressure for the Dheisheh refugees to blend into the larger Palestinian population around Bethlehem. He and his family could change their status and leave Dheisheh. But to do so would be to give up their cause of returning the homes they lost in 1948. Many families still hold deeds issued by Jordan for their land.

“We are still refugees,” he said. “We refuse to leave the camp because we have no place else to go. We want the name ‘refugee’ on our identity card until we get all of our rights.”

Will they ever return to their homes? The people of Dheisheh are at the mercy of foreign leaders and international politics far beyond their control. Yet those we met somehow maintain a glimmer of hope that they will. In the meantime, the United Nations presence is welcome primarily because it serves as an independent witness of life in the camp, and a reminder of how these people came to be living here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Images of Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – A few random images and impressions of this Holy City for you tonight …

+ + +

Where else but here would there be a shrine to a book?

Of course, not just any book, but some of the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, or as Christians call it, the “Old Testament.”

On Friday we toured the Israel Museum and spent considerable time in The Shrine of the Book, which displays some of the Dead Sea scrolls, primarily a long parchment containing a segment of the Book of Isaiah.

The scrolls were found in the desert in the 1940s by itinerant Bedouin tribesman, and through a circuitous route, they eventually made their way to scholars at the Israel Museum. The scrolls are extraordinary.

At least as interesting to me were the manuscripts from the Essenes, an ascetic group that lived in the desert in the time of Jesus. The Essenes cut themselves off from the rest of the world to live as close to the strictures of Torah as they possibly. Before being slaughtered by the Romans, they hid the scrolls in jars, not to be found for 2,000 years.

+ + +

The Israel Museum is basically the Smithsonian Institution of Israel, only instead of telling 400 years of history, it tells 4,000+ years of history. The artifacts tell the story of the Jewish people settling this land, uniting into an empire, losing it and being exiled. The collections are extraordinary, but I must mention my disappointment that the stories (and artifacts) of other people who have inhabited this land are barely acknowledged. There is a fine collection of carved stone from a Crusader church (not exactly the finest moment for Christianity in the Middle East) but very little on Islam (I couldn’t find it but someone told me they did). We could find only one mention to Jesus, described as a “rebel Jew.”

This is a much richer and more complex country than the Israel Museum shows. The omissions matter because the stories of half the people who live here (Palestinian Arabs) are not told.

Perhaps understanding between the peoples of this troubled land might be enhanced just a notch if the other stories could be told more fully in this otherwise first-rate museum.

+ + +

Our friend, Stephen Carpenter,
dining in the Armenian Quarter
We’ve explored the Old City and the Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim quarters, or neighborhoods. Each has its distinct flavor. The Muslim quarter is crowded, the shopkeepers are aggressive. Spices, textiles and all manner of goods are jammed in tight allies.

The Christian Quarter has its shopkeepers, and they sell icons, pottery and all kinds of devotional items. The Armenian Quarter I wrote about a couple of days ago. The streets on the periphery have a few shops, but the Armenian Quarter is otherwise inaccessible except to residents and invited guests. We were privileged to be invited inside the quarter by a wonderful Armenian family (see my post below).

The Jewish Quarter is modern, with wider streets. The reason is the Jewish Quarter was heavily shelled by Arab armies during the 1967 Six Day War. It has been rebuilt into a clean modern neighborhood with air-conditioned shops.

When entering the Jewish Quarter, the first sensation we had was the wonderful aroma of the pastry shops. Of course we sampled a few.

+ + +

Muslim Quarter in the Old City
The other day, four of us climbed to the top of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. It was a rigorous ascent up a narrow enclosed stone spiral staircase, and with no hand railings. At the top we could see the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and we could see many small domes punctuated by large church domes.

And we could see many pathways on the roofs connecting the buildings. But we agreed that the most dominant feature we could see is television satellite dishes.

+ + +
This was the last Friday of Ramadan, a month-long fast by Muslims who take no food or liquid during the day. Thousands of Muslims entered the Holy City this afternoon to pray at the Dome of the Rock this afternoon, so we stayed off the streets. Green shuttles took the devout to the Old City, and we could hear the “call to prayer” from loud speakers on the minarets in our neighborhood. Outside our compound, Israeli Police directed traffic with heavily armed soldiers nearby.

St. George's Anglican Cathedral
+ + +

This evening I went to Evening Prayer in our Gothic-style St. George’s Anglican Cathedral. The Cathedral is a short walk from our rooms. I sat in a wooden quire stall and on a beautiful cushion hand-stitched with “Canterbury.” I felt right at home.

Our prayers tonight included this:

“That there may be peace to your Church and to the whole world,
We entreat you, O Lord.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Into the Dungeon

Dungeon where Jesus may have been held.
Archbishop Colin Johnson reads from
a book on a lecturn.
JERUSALEM – The day was not the most enjoyable of our Holy Land pilgrimage, but it was certainly one of the more enlightening.

We also have in our prayers and thoughts the earthquake in Virginia and Hurricane Irene bearing down on the North Carolina seaboard. We pray everyone is safe and hunkered down. It feels oddly strange to be here while all of that is going on back home.

We began our day by following orders to report to the local Israeli Police Station down the street. Armored cars are parked in front, and soldiers guard it with automatic rifles. It was our third visit to the Police Station, and it is a profoundly unsettling feeling to be admitted inside.

You may recall that we had a camera stolen by a pickpocket who dug it out of Lori’s bag last week. We received a message a day earlier that a suspect had been caught, and we were required to identify him if we could.

We arrived promptly at 10 am Thursday, as ordered, and after a half-hour wait, we were driven across Jerusalem in a police car accompanied by two officers. Eventually we ended up at a central police station in West Jerusalem, and when we arrived, one of the officers in the car picked up handcuffs and shackles and said “Put these on.”

It was a joke, but not very amusing.

We were escorted inside and Lori and I took turns looking at photographs of suspects on a computer screen. The photos were not very good and neither of us could make a positive identification. We were then led outside. The officer we worked with was friendly but seemed haggard and probably overworked. As we parted, he told us the suspect is in jail "so not to worry." And, no, we didn’t get the camera back.

Entrance to Syrian Orthodox Church in the Old City
Although we had been promised a ride to St. George’s, we were left on the sidewalk to figure out how to get back. The police car that had brought us had disappeared, and our officer had to take off on foot. Fortunately there is a new light rail system – and it is free for two weeks – and we had an escort from the college who knew the way back. On our way back, we got a taste of West Jerusalem, with its European style shops and pedestrian malls, the wealth of that part of Jerusalem that is in sharp contrast to the Palestinian neighborhoods that we've seen.

With our foray into the Israeli criminal justice system, we missed the primary exploration of the day, a walk on the Mount of Olives and several historic churches. But we managed to catch up to our pilgrimage group in the Old City.

In the afternoon, we visited a Syrian Orthodox Church that purports to be the place where Jesus held the Last Supper in the “Upper Room” (biblical scholars dispute that it is the place, but like so many other shrines, it is a place of veneration).

Sister Justinia of the
Syrian Orthodox Church
With centuries of building and rebuilding, the Upper Room is now deep underground. So we descended to the Upper Room, which has a stucco ceiling and plastic chairs. We met Sister Justinia, a Russian nun who sang the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken. She told us stories of many miracles at this shrine.

Finally we went to the Church of St. Peter of the Cockcrow outside the City Walls (so called because it is where Peter is purported to have denied Jesus three times “before the cock crows”). It is a modern Catholic church, built atop the ruins of a Byzantine Church of the 3rd century. I found it one of the more moving places we’ve visited because underneath the church are cisterns that functioned as dungeons during the Roman occupation.

It is here where Jesus may have been taken after his arrest, and it is here where he would have been tortured before being led to his execution.
Jerusalem gate pockmarked
with bullet holes from the
1967 Arab-Israeli war

I climbed down inside one of the holes. The stone is streaked with reddish quartz that looks like blood. It was easy to imagine the pain and evil that took place in these holes. There was certainly no escape.

Jerusalem is a city where ancient conflicts regularly collide with the present. We got a taste of that near these dungeons. Just above the church of Peter is a city gate that is pockmarked with bullet holes from the Arab-Israeli “Six Day War” of 1967.

I was very thankful to leave to leave the dungeons, and to leave the modern police station.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Into the Armenian Quarter

Peter Lepejian, left, and his father, Vic Lepejian
in their shop in the Armenian Quarter.
A version of"Broken Jerusalem," a collage
 of broken pottery hangs on the wall behind them.
JERUSALEM – On Wednesday, we walked through a heavy black iron door that has been here since 1632. We were given entrance to a corner of Jerusalem few outsiders get to see.

And we heard a story that is nearly hidden from the rest of the world – the story of the Armenians who found refuge here after the 1915 genocide committed against them by the Turks.

The dominant story of the Holy City, for at least the last half-century, has been the conflict between Muslims and Jews.

But that is not the only story of Jerusalem.

St. James Armenian Cathedral
The Armenians have had a continuous presence in Jerusalem for centuries, and the Armenian Church is among the oldest in Christianity, somehow managing to survive persecution, massacres, crusades, and the pressures of existing in this long conflicted part of the world. Armenia was long subsumed into Turkey and the Soviet Union before the Russian-controlled part became an independent nation in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR.

All of that history, like so much other history, seems immediate here in Jerusalem. The Armenians maintain a memorial monument to the genocide, and their national flag flies in their quarter of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – four distinct neighborhoods. The largest, the Muslim Quarter, dominates the northeast and central core of the Old City, while the Christian Quarter is in the northwest corner.

The Jewish Quarter is in the southeast corner nearest the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, the holiest shrine in Judaism.

The Armenian Quarter is a self-contained enclave on the southwest corner adjacent to the Citadel of King David. The center of the Armenian Quarter is the Cathedral of St. James, said to have the relics (bones) of both the St. James who followed Jesus, including his brother, James, who was successor to Jesus as the leader of Christianity immediately following the crucifixion. James was martyred by the Romans in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, our pilgrim group was divided into teams, each assigned to explore a Quarter and discover all we could in a day. Our team: Lori, Anne, Stephen Carpenter and myself. Our assignment: the Armenian Quarter.

We hit gold in meeting Vic Lepejian, 61, and his son Peter Lepejian, 33. They own a pottery shop just inside the gates to the Armenian Quarter.

“I have Arab friends, Armenian friends, Jewish friends,” said Vic. “We don’t interfere in politics.”

He explained that his parents fled Turkey and the Armenian genocide, eventually settling Joppa in the 1920s in what was then the Palestine ruled by the British in the aftermath of the First World War.

Following the Second World War, Israel declared its independence as a Jewish nation, sparking a war with the surrounding Arab countries. The Lepejians again lost their home, and fled to Jerusalem, considered safer because it has been respected as an international city.

“I was born here. I love here,” said Vic.

Armenian flag above the Armenian Quarter
Note the Frosty the Snowman above door
The Armenian Church patriarch functions much like a mayor of the Armenian Quarter. After the Armenian genocide, and the later Arab-Israeli wars, the patriarch began giving apartments to as many Armenian refugees as he could. At one point there were 70,000 Armenians crammed into the quarter. There are now about 2,000.

Vic said there were 22 members in his high school class of 1968. He is the last one who still lives in Jerusalem. The others have moved to California and Australia.

Peter showed us around the quarter that is his home. Mostly what outsiders and tourists see are a few narrow streets with shops and a few restaurants. But those are on the periphery. To see the real Armenian Quarter, Peter led us through a huge iron door that was installed at the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in 1632. A guard gave us special permission, thanks to Peter, to enter the Armenian neighborhood.

Inside the quarter there are wide plazas, with apartments facing each other. The Patriarch assigns the apartments to families – they don’t pay for their apartments, but they don’t own them either. If a family leaves, the apartments go back to the Patriarch to be assigned to other families.

Children can play freely in the Armenian plazas. "There are no strangers here," said Peter. "We know everyone." Children can be educated through high school without ever having to leave the quarter.

Wide plaza inside the Armenian Quarter
Peter is well-educated, with a master’s degree from Hebrew University. He has chosen to stay, but his younger brother left to get a degree at the University of Kansas, and is now an oil field engineer in Bakersfield.

“Opportunity here – there isn’t much,” said Peter. “Most of the young generation leaves the country to go to Canada or the U.S. to get educated, and then they stay because of the situation here.”

Peter decided to stay to help his father. “I love Jerusalem. I don’t want to leave.”

He married four years ago. His wife teaches sociology and social work at the “Promise School,” with mixed classes of Christians and Muslims.

In one of the oddities of the “situation,” as Peter calls it, the Armenians are given Jordanian identification and travel documents. Jordan had ruled Jerusalem up until 1967 when it withdrew after the “Six Day War.” Peter now has an Israeli passport, while his father has kept his Jordanian travel documents.

I asked Peter what nationality he considers himself. He paused for a moment and replied “an Armenian in Jerusalem.”

When there are wars or civil unrest in Jerusalem, the iron gates close and the Armenians can hunker down in their quarter, as happened in the 1967 war when there was intense shelling of the Jewish Quarter nextdoor. Peter showed us the wells that are around the Armenian Quarter that can be used in an emergency.

In 1987, Palestinians began an uprising against the Israelis. The uprising, known as the “first intifada,” brought a much tighter Israeli security measures and heightened tensions between the ethnic and religious groups in Jerusalem.

Vic Lepejian said he was heart sick at the violence, and then late one night knew what he had to do to express how he felt. He went to his shop the next morning. “I began breaking plates,” he said.

He smashed cups and plates with a Jerusalem motif – and then reassembled them into a collage of pottery. The title of the piece: “Broken Jerusalem.”

That piece eventually went to a collector in Washington DC, and a second one was given to President Obama. A third hangs in his shop.

Lunch of traditional Armenian food
Also on hanging in the shop is a tile showing Jerusalem cut in half by a wall, and an inscription from Ephesians 2:14, “Christ is our peace, he has broken down the dividing wall that is the hostility between us.”

After our tour of the Armenian Quarter, Peter parked us at a restaurant that seemed to be not much from the outside. But inside it was adorned in Armenian art and ceramics and we had possibly the best meal of our trip, with an assortment of Armenian dishes.

We were very blessed -- and full -- pilgrims.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Onto the Temple Mount and into a police station

JERUSALEM – It was a day when we witnessed the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in all of its splendor and contrast, richness and contradictions. And all of this religious fervor took place within a few yards of each other at the Temple Mount of Jerusalem.

The day ended with me sitting in an Israeli police station, an experience reminding me that that Jerusalem is not immune from ordinary crime.

We began our day at the Temple Mount; the massive stone remains of the “Second Temple” built by King Solomon and rebuilt by King Herod the Great. The Temple was burned and torn down after the Jewish revolt of 60 A.D. The mount was abandoned until the rise of Islam and the construction of the gold-plated “Dome of the Rock” atop of the remains of the Temple.

For centuries, Jews have worshipped at the base of the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall,” while Muslims have built mosques on top of the Temple Mount. Although the Temple plays a prominent role in the story of Jesus, oddly Christians never built anything on the Temple Mount even when they controlled it in the Middle Ages. Just outside the Temple gates is a Medieval Crusader church next to the pools of Bethesda where Jesus came to heal the sick.

As we approached the Temple Mount, we joined Jews, Muslims and Christians all jostling to get access to their corner of this sacred space. We flowed along with throngs.

We started in the Jewish section. On Mondays and Thursdays, Jews are allowed to hold bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs near the Western Wall. With permission of an American family, we joined their Bat Mitzvah for their daughter. The rabbi told the bat mitzvah, in English, “Take this ritual, take this confidence, and continue to live as a Jew in America.”

We then went to the Western Wall itself – the Wailing Wall – with men going to one side and women to another. I donned a kippa (one I brought with me), and went down to touch the wall. I expected the area near the wall would be solemn but the atmosphere was like a festival. Soldiers posed for pictures at the Wall, while others rocked in prayer facing the wall.

Next we ascended to the top of the Temple Mount, walking over a bridge that crosses over the Western Wall enclosure.

Atop the Temple Mount was breathtaking. It is a huge expanse of stone, with the stunning gold “Dome of the Rock” that encloses the rock outcropping where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac (or Ismaal, as the Muslims would maintain). Women in full burkas walked past, while others took off their shoes to go inside. We did not go inside.

We walked across the Mount to an exit leading to the Crusader Church at the pools of Bethesda. They were a place where in the time of Jesus, people who were sick went hoping to find healing in pools fed by natural springs.

As one of our guides explained, the religious authorities were not serving those who went to the pools; they were considered unclean and not allowed to go inside the Temple. Religion had failed them, and so they went to the pools hoping for healing. The pools were the closest to a secular place there would be in ancient Jerusalem. And it was there that Jesus went to find them.

Lori and Anne on steps
Jesus would have walked
to go up to the Temple
We went inside the simple stone church and sang a hymn, and then departed for lunch.

Was I inspired by all of this variety of religious expression? I am not sure. I felt a great sadness that all of these great religions must carve out their own spaces, walled off with fences, bridges and metal detectors. How can God really be pleased with any of this? Yet, I also felt awed by the rich breadth of religious expression. I looked on as outsider, not really connected to any of this, but grateful for the friendly smiles and the human yearning that there must be more to life than what we see now.

Our afternoon was spent walking around the bazaars and shops of the Old City. We saw jewelry and Bedouin tapestries, and the biggest assortment of spices, candies, fruits and breads I have ever seen in my life. Alas, in all of the jostling, an aggressive young man hawking postcards managed to steal our newest camera from Lori (the photos here were taken with an older spare camera I’ve been carrying).

I went with one of the St. George’s staff people to an Israeli police station to report the theft. It was a stark neon-lit building and, let us just say, chaotic. I am thankful that all we lost was a camera, and we are going to take a break and rest at St. George’s on Tuesday.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Pebbles on the beach of the Sea of Galilee

JERUSALEM – I have not posted in a couple of days because we’ve been at a German Benedictine monastery on the Sea of Galilee. Although we have been in wonderfully comfortable accommodations, there was but one computer available for guests, and the keyboard kept switching from English to Hebrew to Arabic. So one post on Friday seemed the extent of my abilities.

We are back in the Holy City of Jerusalem and I am typing on our own laptop computer and using the reliable Internet connection at St. George’s College.

Let me begin by mentioning I have received a number of emails and Facebook comments expressing concern for our safety given the violence along the Egyptian border and in Gaza. Truthfully, you probably know more about this than we do. We’ve heard snippets of news but not much, and in our travels, the people we encounter appear to be going on with their lives without missing a beat.

Everyone we meet – Jew and Muslim – is friendly and hospitable, and I get the impression that they have long learned to live with the cycles of violence and conflict that is so much a part of this sadly troubled land. Whatever is happening to the south of here doesn’t seem to have had much impact on anyone we’ve met, at least outwardly. We feel quite safe in our travels.

We spent two days by the Sea of Galilee, a serene lake in the desert that felt far, far away from the concerns and conflicts of the world. I understood for the first time why Jesus spent so much time here – it was a perfect place to work things out, to be with God, to pray, to teach, to be with his followers. The politics of Jerusalem and the Roman world must have felt very distant, and who in authority would have even heard of this obscure Jewish rabbi in this remote place.

On my first morning at the Sea of Galilee, I got up early and went to the shoreline alone to read Morning Prayer. The lake was green-gray, and the sky misty blue. I sat on a pebbly beach, and the air was warm even before the sun came up burning red-orange. I could easily imagine Jesus sitting here in silence and prayer.

Soon the fish were jumping after insects, and my first reaction was wondering why Peter had such a hard time catching fish (all he needed was a fly rod). I sat on a rock and read the psalms and biblical lessons for the day, but soon realized that the place is more powerful than any Scriptural passage. I could almost hear Jesus sitting on a nearby rock teaching a small group sitting there with him. The words on the biblical page seemed but a thin reflection of what that must have been like.

According to the scriptures, Jesus told Peter somewhere near here that he would be “the rock” upon which he would build the church. I was struck by how many rocks and pebbles there are on this beach. It seemed to me that is the many small rocks and pebbles upon which the church is built, not just one big rock. I took a handful of pebbles with me.

Later in the morning, I was the celebrant at a Holy Eucharist at the Church of Peter’s Rock, built upon the supposed rock of the biblical story. The church is under the stewardship of the Franciscans who let us use an outdoor altar.

I brought my pebbles from the beach and put them on the altar with the bread and wine of our Communion. I mentioned in my homily about how we are the pebbles and how all of us add up to be the Kingdom of God.

I must say it was one of the greatest thrills of my life to celebrate the Eucharist by shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

On Saturday evening, we went to Vespers at the German monastery, which is built upon the remains of a 3rd century church. To my delighted surprise, it is the home of the mosaic of the “loaves and fishes,” possibly the most reproduced mosaic in the world. The monastery is built upon the site of where legend says Jesus fed the 5,000 with only a few baskets of bread and fish.

Today is Sunday, and for our Holy Eucharist, we ascended Mount Tabor, the mountaintop of the Transfiguration. For those who don’t remember the story, Jesus took two of his disciples to the mountaintop to pray, and they saw him turn a dazzling white with Moses and Elijah at his side. The disciples asked if they should build a dwelling place for each of them, and Jesus said not to build anything.

Now there is a large Italian church on the top of the mountain, with huge chapels (dwelling places) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

We celebrated our mass at an outside altar, and the celebrant was one of our fellow pilgrims, The Rt. Rev. Colin Johnson, who is the Anglican Archbishop of Toronto. He wore gold vestments, graciously provided by the Church of the Transfiguration. He reminded us that our experience is not about the dazzling dwelling places, but about our catching a glimpse of the Risen Christ who is traveling with us.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Walking by the Sea of Galilee

THE SEA OF GALILEE -- I have long pictured this place in my prayers.

Today I got put my feet in the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee. And, yes, it was something like what I had imagined.

And I began to feel for the first time that we were on ground where Jesus walked.

On our fourth day of our Holy Land pilgrimage, we toured Roman ruins on the Mediterranean, and drove inland to the northern mountainous region of Israel. We ate lunch in Nazareth, once the tiny village where Jesus grew up and now the most populous Arab city in Israel. Then we crossed another mountain range and descended into the great rift valley.

We are spending the next two nights at a German monastery on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The biblical accounts of Jesus mention this place many times. It is here where Jesus taught, preached, prayed, healed and recruited his first followers. He retreated to here from all the attention, and sometimes walked into the rocky hills nearby to pray alone.

It is in this inland "sea" (a lake, really) where Jesus fished with Peter. He and his followers crossed this choppy body of water in a boat more than once. The Biblical accounts say that Jesus even walked on water here. And as the Gospel of John says, Jesus was seen here by his followers after he died, and cooked them breakfast on a beach.

This is a calm place, and an enormous contrast from the chaos and tension of Jerusalem. I can see why Jesus spent so much time here, time away from the religious politics of the capital city, time away from sects and arguments and fanaticism. Olive groves dot the shoreline, and I can picture Jesus sitting beside a tree and talking with his followers, or simply walking silently down a road with them, or gazing at night into the clear starry sky.

Tonight Lori, Anne and I walked down a short road in the twilight to a simple stone church in the groves, and we joined a dozen German monks as they chanted Compline (night prayers) in their native language. They didn't look particularly monkish -- some wore t-shirts and shorts. But their voices were enchanting.

When we entered the church, the monks moved over on their benches so we could sit, and opened the German prayer books for us so we could follow along. I hummed a few bars, and I have no idea what we were chanting, but I felt a great holiness and happiness in this place. That was such a contrast from the sectarian strife ridden shrines near Jerusalem we saw the previous day. I collected a few pebbles from the shortline to bring home.

Tomorrow I have been asked to celebrate the Holy Eucharist for our pilgrim group along the shoreline. I expect it will be one of the most holy experiences of my life.  Blessings to all this night.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Touching the ground of Jesus

Crawling through a portal
at the Church of the Nativity
BETHLEHEM -- We stood at a tiny stone portal leading inside a large ancient church marking the spot where it is said Jesus Christ was born in a manger.

Inside was dark, hot, and stuffy. We stood in a long line with other pilgrims from all over the world, and then went through another portal into yet a smaller room. The ceiling was adorned with hanging ornate lamps, a few with Christmas bulbs hanging beneath (it is always Christmas in Bethlehem).

We were on the Greek side of the church. The Armenians, meanwhile, were chanting prayers on the other side of the church, and the Roman Catholics soon began singing Taize chants in yet another nearby chapel.

The competition between the Christian sects was on full display.

We then crawled down a steep narrow stairwell into a cave under the High Altar, said to mark they very spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. A star beneath a small altar was supposed to be the very place where Jesus came out of her womb. And next to it was a “grotto” where the baby Jesus was laid in the manger.

I have to say I wasn’t buying it.

How could anyone know this was the exact place of Christ’s birth? Someone in our group remarked it felt more like a dungeon than a Christmas crèche.

I had to remind myself that this was about veneration, not historical accuracy. This was about the faith of the ages, not biblical exegesis.

Lori at the church where it
is said that John the Baptist
was born
On our third day in the Holy Land, we left the confines of Jerusalem to travel to shrines marking moments in the life of Christ. We went to an Italian church marking where it said that Mary met her cousin Elizabeth while both were pregnant, and then a short walk away, a beautiful Spanish church marking where it is said John the Baptist was born. We also past the ruins of the “Church of the Spasm” – the place where it is said Mary experienced her first birth pang.

Our bus took us through an Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem, which is enclosed by a massive high wall (more on that in another post). We went to a small church on a hilltop marking where it is said that the shepherds in the field saw the angel summoning them to the manger of Christ’s birth.

Did I feel Christ’s presence in any of these places? No more so than anywhere else here or in California or in Virginia. If anything, I felt the thick smoky layers of church history – the creedal arguments, the schisms and crusades, and the legends built on top of legends in these places. I felt the density of how all of that stands between me and the Jesus who walked this earth long ago. I don’t picture Jesus born in a “grotto” under a massive stone church; I picture Mary giving birth in a quiet rural village somewhere far from all of this.

Later, at dinner, a pilgrim in our group, our dear friend Anne, said something that helped me a great deal. I asked people at our table what was their favorite part of the day.

Anne said it was in touching the dirt on the ground and the stone in the caves – the physicality of the prayerful energy of centuries embedded in these places. She expressed it well; it is easier to feel the presence of Christ, who might have walked these places, by touching the ground than in gazing upon ornate churches.

Indeed, throughout the day I had traced my fingers across ancient graffiti, and touched the crevices in the walls. I could feel those who had touched these places before me. And perhaps Jesus had walked this same ground, too.

What did I like the best during the day? The sounds. We followed a group of Brazilian pilgrims through much of the day. Rather than compete for being in the same places, we began enjoying it together. And at the little shrine marking the shepherds, we sang Christmas carols to each other. The Kingdom of God felt very present with us in our singing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jerusalem: Gazing on Heaven and Hell in front of us

JERUSALEM -- We stood on the roof of a French Benedictine monastery to the south of the Old City. We could see clearly the massive Temple Mount, site of the Jewish Temple built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Romans. Glistening in front of us: the gold Dome of the Rock, the third holiest shrine in Islam, built atop the ruins of the Temple.

Turning to the northeast we could see across to the Valley of Kidron, and the Mount of Olives where Jesus went many times to pray. Churches mark the places where he was thought to have walked, prayed and wept.

Turning to our left, and far below us, we could see a deep canyon – the Valley of Hinnom. Two millennia ago, it was the refuse dump for garbage and humans, where the sick, the tortured, the insane, and the dead were dumped. It is said to be a place even where child sacrifice took place. It was known as the Valley of Hell.

On a hillside halfway between the Valley of Hell and the Temple is a small church, St. Peter in Gallicantu, marking where it is believed Jesus was taken when he was arrested, and where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. The steps where Jesus would have walked have been cleared off.

On that spot, Jesus stood between Heaven and Hell itself.

I must admit I am having a difficult time understanding why this parched landscape could have been thought to be the holiest place on earth, and why people still fight over it. In ancient times, it had no strategic or economic value. It is dry, rocky, hard to reach, and not much grows here.

I think it must have had something to do with seeing the Temple – Heaven come to earth – and the Valley of Hell so close together. King David established Jerusalem, and I think he put it here precisely because it is remote and desolate.

People have come here for thousands of years to touch the God who is so elusive to them, so hard to comprehend, so hard explain. They come to see what cannot be seen, to name what has no name. Perhaps it is because this landscape has nothing else to distract from that quest that people could catch a glimpse of the ineffable, and more than that: They could see Heaven and Hell, and all at once.

Yet is also hard to escape the conclusion that human beings have been busy creating God in their own image here in this place. Jewish, Muslim, Christian sects have been here a very long time, each with their shrines, each with their own ways of praying, and their own story told their own way. All have put their stamp on this terrain, and some have stamped very hard. This city belongs to all, and therefore belongs to none.

And I am left wondering: as beautifully diverse as all of this is, can God really fit into only the shrines and languages humans create? Human hands created the Temple – and human hands created the Valley of Hell. Human minds and hearts wrote the stories, and human minds and hearts are still creating heaven and hell on this earth and in this city.

Yet isn’t God even larger than all this?

Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson

We enter the gates of Jerusalem

Abraham, who sells carved religious art
“Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
Psalm 122:2

JERUSALEM -- I read those words as we entered Israeli airspace early Tuesday morning. It was the psalm assigned for the day.

We are in Jerusalem after a long journey through the air and a short bus ride from Tel Aviv. We boarded our flight in Toronto, connecting from San Francisco, and the airplane ride itself was a holy adventure.

During the flight, a group of ten Jewish men stood in a galley and prayed the Kaddish for someone who had died. In the back of the plane, an Hasidic Jewish rabbi, in long coat and black hat, faced a wall and said his prayers, rocking as he recited them. As for me, I read Morning Prayer at my seat using my iPhone. We are products of our culture, are we not?

We are at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem, not too far from the YMCA (a very huge building) and the American Colony Hotel. We are to the north of the Old City, only a short walk to the ancient gates. The college is on the grounds of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, which is a gothic stone cathedral that would look more appropriate for the green hills of Kent than the parched landscape of Jerusalem. Every Christian sect has a foothold in Jerusalem, and this is ours.

Lori and I and a few friends took a walk soon after we arrived. We made it as far as the Damascus Gate. We walked through Muslim food stands, ducked into a shop with carved olive wood crosses, and feasted on the sights of so much in such a small space. It is Ramadan, and so the Muslims are fasting. The restaurants and cafes were mostly closed but we found one that served us lunch of roasted chicken sandwiches and cucumbers.

This land is bathed in prayer, and all one needs do is walk down a street to feel it. The prayers are those of many religions, and many sects of each religion, and are said in many tongues from many nationalities. For now I see and listen as an outsider, and give thanks for our safe arrival.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Jerusalem: Why we go

For the LORD looked down from his holy place on high; from the heavens he beheld the earth;

That he might hear the groan of the captive and set free those condemned to die;

That they may declare in Zion the Name of the LORD, and his praise in Jerusalem;

When the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms also, to serve the LORD.

Psalm 102:19-22
+ + +

We soon depart for Jerusalem. We have packed and repacked a dozen times. We are as ready as we can be. We are traveling light, carrying one bag each for the next two weeks.

As I read the Friday morning lectionary readings, I am struck by the passage above from Psalm 102. It left me reflecting on a very basic question:

Why are we going?

We will gather soon with fellow pilgrims, first with our friends and fellow sojourners from Northern California. Then we will gather with fellow pilgrims in Jerusalem -- and not just Christians. We will be with pilgrims from all over the world, drawn to this birth place of three great world religions. The Holy Hill of Zion, the place where it is said that Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac; where it is said that Jesus challenged the religious (and Roman) authorities; where it is said that Muhammad ascended to Heaven.

Pilgrims will be there from everywhere on this globe, bringing with them very different perspectives, very different stories, and very different interpretations of our common story. We will converge on a city many of think is the the home of the Almighty, the navel of the world. And we will be in a place with a long, bloody history of conquest, pogroms, purges, Crusades, occupation, warfare, intifada, unrest -- the most disputed and fought-over piece of ground on earth.

Why are we going?

The Psalmist helps me to articulate an answer, and perhaps it is only the beginning of an answer: We are going to the ground where the Psalmist says God heard the groans of the captives; the ground where God came to set free those who are condemned to die -- to heal them. To heal us.

From my Christian perspective, I see this ground as the place where Jesus came as the embodiment of God's compassion, the One who suffered on the Cross as a lowly human being -- as a condemned captive -- to show us a different way to live, a way of freedom and healing. And it happened right there in the Holy city where we go. We go to touch this place, to hear the story and be where all this happened. We go to feel the dust in our shoes, to enter into the story as our story.

And, as the Psalmist declares, we go to praise God in Jerusalem, "to declare the Name of Lord," and to hear others praise God, each in their own languages. We go to listen. I cannot yet imagine what that will sound like. But I can hardly wait to listen to the words, the tones, the ring of praise.

Finally, we go to serve: "When the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms also, to serve the LORD." 

I don't yet know what that service will look like; I don't yet know where this pilgrimage will take us in serving when we return. But ultimately, for this pilgrimage to be legitimate, it will lead to serving in a new way. Somehow.

How to find out what serving will look like? That is the point of going.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The mountains know everything

As you read this, I am in Sacramento, the capital city of California and the most prominent metropolis of the Central Valley, and a place where I've lived since the mid-1980s.

But there is so much more to the Valley than Sacramento, including our poets and artists. Above Central Valley towers the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I've been taking a few days for hiking and enjoying the clean clear mountain air.

Yesterday came the announcement that a native son of the Central Valley, Phillip Levine, has been named the nation's Poet Laureate. He is a professor at Fresno State University, and his honors include a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. Here is a poem he wrote about the Central Valley that I share with you:

Our Valley
By Phillip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
Painting, Flatland River, 1997, Wayne Thiebaud