Saturday, April 12, 2008

Proclamation and Reconciliation - through the Jordan, back to Capernaum, down the mountain, on to the sea and on to the sea shore

Our first port of call was the point at which the Jordan River ran out of the Sea of Galilee.

This had been designated by the Israeli Government as the spot for Christians to mark the baptism of Jesus. Brother John noticed how brackish the waters were, not the flowing waters they should have been. Fr Ian recalled the old Sunday school story of the living Sea of Galilee with waters that flow in and flow out, and the Dead Sea where there is no life, because the waters only flow in and have nowhere to flow out to. Br John pointed out the Kingfishers. They were beautiful.

There were so many. At first it seemed tacky. But then it was moving. As Philip later pointed out, side by side was the joy of an Orthodox celebration accompanied by sprinkling water all over the crowd and an African, exuberant baptism celebration.

The Jordan: Living Water: Teshuva and Metanoia

Henry led us in reflections. Taking as his theme Tushuva and Metanoia, he suggested that the symbol of baptism in the river Jordan was highly significant. It was not only the notion of cleansing, or even especially the notion of cleansing, it was rather the notion of passing through from one side to the other. And then a turning to pass through again. A re-living of Exodus, of arrival in the Promised Land.

He suggested that John the Baptist would not have been alone in doing such baptism. People would have been led out of Jersualem and re-enacted passing through the Jordan, going away, turning and coming back again - as if they were re-enacting a taking possession once more of the land. This was one in the eye for the Romans. What kind of a 'turning' was it that John was preaching.

One thing was certain, it was in the tradition of Elijah and the prophets!

Our reflections over we were invited to go into the Jordan. Rosemary and our Baptist friends spoke movingly of their tradition. They were among the first to go into the river Jordan. I thought I wouldn't. But something prompted me to take my sandals off (yes, I have been wearing sandals without socks for the whole time!) and enter the Jordan by one entry, and come out not quite on the other side but by the other point of entry to the water.

It was strangely moving.

On the way to the bus Br John pointed out a post card with a St Peter fish on it - it was just like the dead fish we had found on the quay side the previous evening!! We had caught a real, genuine, Sea of Galilee fish!

Driving back through the resort area that led from the Jordan round the Western side of the lake to Tiberias, it really felt as if it was Israeli Jerusalem by the sea. You couldn't help but feel that those living on the West Bank and in Bethlehem could not make it to the sea. A troubling thought.

We drove through Tiberias around the shore and joined the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, and made for Capernaum.

This was for me one of the most moving sites we visited.

Capernaum and the Ancient Synagogue

The city of Capernaum had only been discovered by archaeologists in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Their excavations disclosed a remarkable town. When Jesus had to leave his home town of Nazareth because he was hounded out of the Synagogue, and had made controversial teachings there about the good news for the poor reaching out to the non Jews as well as the Jews he had made, quite naturally as the geography demonstrated, for Capernaum which became his home and the base for his teaching ministry, for the ministry of proclamation of the Gospel and for his healing ministry.

Far from being the backwater up in the quiet Galilean hills of my imagination. It was a busy place, not far from a border, on the main thoroughfare from the coastal plain through to Caesarea Philippi and Syria.

This was a highly strategic place to base his ministry.

More than that, on the northern shore of the lake, you looked due south across the lake in the sure knowledge that you were looking due south to Jerusalem, only about 60 miles away as the crow flies.

It made such eminent sense. The tradition in John of Jesus going down to Jerusalem was quite plain. Usually it would have been straight down beside the river. In his final journey he made a detour into the mountains of Samaria and went through Samaria.

You could see what a deliberate and controversial decision that must have been. How the geography provided a wonderful commentary for the text.

Reflection: Black Fire and White Fire: Torah and Midrash

Entering the archaeological site, Henry stood us by a set of lintels that had been rescued from a fourth centry synagogue we were later to sit in. He pointed out the decorative door and demonstrated the shape of the roof. Over tle lintel was a vine branch, symbol of Israel.

And then a picture to the side of it that in Henry's view was the finest photo in the ancient world.
It illustrated the significance here, in such a different place, of the Synagogue over against the Temple.

And it was over against the Temple.

He suggested the carving was a picture of the Synagogue. You could see the door, you could see its columns. But it was on wheels. Why. Henry asked for ideas about what it looked like. It wasn't long before someone suggested the Ark of the Covenant - transported as it would have been on a cart.

This, suggested Henry, was a massive claim. Not just in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in the Synagogue, the presence of God was to be felt. He began to get very excited about the different views there were among different schools of Pharisees and about what goes on in the Synagogue.
Later we sat in the fourth century Synagogue built of limestone imported specially from teh mountains, built on the basalt foundatioins of an earlier first century Synagogue. This was where Jesus visited. This is where he gathered in the Bet Knesset, the HOuse of Assembly, sitting around the benches that went round three sides of the Synagogue. This was where he discussed the words of the Scriptures as a 'teacher' and with other teachers, openiing up the Scriptures in the Bet Midrashim, the house of opening up the Scriptures.

In all that Henry had to share I became more and more excited.

Congregational Churches find their roots in the Synagogue

Early on, I shared with the group, why for me this was as moving as it had been to sit on the steps up to the Temple. I spoke of what is most dear to me as the one Congregationalist in the group. I suggested that just as the Orthodox and the Catholics find their roots in the worship of the Temple, and our charismatic friends find their roots in the worship of the cosmopolitan Corinthian church, so we in our Congregational churches and indeed in other free churches that have a focus on preaching, praying and singing, find our roots in the Synagogue tradition of the New Testament. I recalled the thrill of visiting Pastor Robinson's church in Leiden and of their custom to follow their morning worship with an afternoon time together when Pastor Robinson, the Cambridge educated Pastor would preside over a time of sharing in which all were invited to share their responses to the word of God. Here I felt my roots. And here we were as much in the presence of Christ as we had been on those steps to the Temple. I suggested this was the very 'hybridity' Miroslav Volf had spoken of in Exclusion and Embrace both in the world of Jesus' day and in the world of the church today. It was a hybridity or a diversity we should rejoice in. I recalled how much I had valued Fr Ian's explanation of the significance of the Orthodox church with clear echoes of the Temple, and shared my equal excitement at the account of the Synagogue.

Rightly or wrongly, I referred to one of our favourite texts. "Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." I noticed that the word 'gather together' is the Greek word synago. An ordinary every day word meaning 'gather together' it has the same root as the word 'synagogue'. It was as if Jesus was saying that were two or three, not ten men, synagogue together, there he is in the midst of them, there the presence is.

How wonderful that here at Capernaum Henry should prompt me to reaffirm my roots!

Opening the word together in the Synagogue

Sitting in the Synagogue it was wonderful to spend the best part of an hour exploring with Henry the Scriptures and all they have to say.

He spoke of the way their weren't so much 'professional' rabbis, but rather rabbinical schools of thoughts. Just as the Saducees were based around the aristocracy in Jerusalem and among the priestly families, the pharisees would have been to the fore in the Synagogue opening of the word.

But they followed different schools of thought. In particular there were two rabbinic schools, the school of Shammei, quite fierce in its views of Sabbath observance and the like, and the school of Hillel, very much more touched with compassion and understanding of people. Henry suggestted that many of Jesus' teachings were in line with the teaching of Hillel.

The discussions are so often interpreted as hostile debates ... but Henry suggested this kind of question and answer was exactly the rabbinic approach to the Scripture shared in the Synagogue. The teaching of Jesus is very much in line with one of those schools of thought. Hillel was an older contemporary of Jesus.

Fascinating to see how our picture of Jesus was growing ... a picture of Jesus that I have been familiar with. All the more exciting to encounter it here in Capernaum.

I couldn't resist the temptation to get Lisa to take a picture of Fr Ian, myself and Matthew (in that order!) representing the Orthodox rooted in the Temple, the Congregationalist rooted in the Synagogue, and the House Church rooted in Corinth!

Over the road to Peter's house

Just outside the Synagogue are the foundations of rows of houses, built out of the local basalt. And about fifty metres away one house in particular. When it was excavated, a series of churches were discovered. An octagonal crusader church, a rectangular byzantine church of the fourth century each built over an ordinary house. But there was something remarkable about the 'ordinary' house. There was painting of early Christian symbols on its walls dating back to the first century.

Why should such church buildings have been located there? One answer leaped out at you standing in that site. It's the answer that prompted the Franciscans to build a modern church over the excavated remains in such a way that you can still see the original house and from teh church church look through a glass floor at it.

This was in all likelihood the house that Jesus made his base in Capernaum, Simon Peter's house, the place Jesus went to after healing the paralysed man on the sabbath. That was something entirely in line with rabbinic teaching in the school of Hillel. Fascinating that the crowds respected the teaching of the sabbath and waited until sundown to approach Jesus.

From Capernaum, the bus took us on short detour off back along the Via Maris and up one of those low hills to a church marking the mount of Beatitudes.

The Mount of Beatitudes

We got off to purchase light refreshments at a stall run by a Palestinian much in need of our custom. Our bus driver squeezed oranges for us and the orange juice was delicious. I bought a banana, one of the loveliest I had tasted, fresh from the many banana plantations that had sprung up on the fertile soil.

We were then invited to make our way down the hill on a rough track, through recently harvested corn fields.

After all the words we had shared we walked in silence.

The views were magnificent, the cornfields golden, the silence wonderful.

After half an hour we sat in the shade of some olive trees and Sister Mary Beatrice read the Beatitudes. I couldn't help but remember the challenge of Elias Chacour who invited us to think of them, not just as a comfort, but also as a programme for action in the task of justice and peacemaking.

The silence was broken by masses of teenagers following the same route. They had their ghetto blasters. At first it seemed an intrusion. But they became part of the walk for all of us as well. They were precisely the ones for whom such peacemaking was so vital.

We broke off from the track and made for a remarkable memorial stone to someone who had loved that spot and given a life time of Chrsitain service to the people of that locality.

It was at a spot overlooking the lake and facing due south to Jersualem. But at the same time looking towards the pass that led the Via Maris through to the Jezreel valley and on to the heart of the Roman Empire.

On the stone was a cross. Around the top 11 marks, representing the 11 disciples who had met the risen Christ back in Galilee. And underneath five letter 'c's represernting the five hundred anonymous people mentioned by Paul who had seen the risen Chrsit in Galilee too.

Henry suggested that it was wonderful to recall not only the named of the past who had seen the risen Chrsit and borne testimony, but the un-named too.

I couldn't help but feel the power of the commision from the risen Christ to his disciples to go into all the world!

There was a thrill in the location itself.


We made our way down to the main road, and on to a lovely cafe where lunch was waiting for us. Another wonderful salad lunch.

Then through a kibbutz, part of an early socialist movement to live in communes, that had been a means of Jewish people returning to the land.

Here it was that a remarkable discovery had been made in the mud of the sea in a particularly dry year when the water level had dropped, as recently as 1985.

Nof Ginosar Museum - the Ancient Boat

A Boat had been found dating back to the time of Christ. At the time it was remarkable to see the display, and to marvel at the size of the boat and to sense it was in just such a boat as this that the disciples had set out on to the sea.

Returning home I got hold of John Dominic Crossan's latest book, Jesus and Rome Then and Now! In it he devotes a few pages to the boat. He notices how well worn it was. Patched by numerous different kinds of wood. He suggests it indicates fish farming on an almost industrial scale to satisfy the greed of the Herods. The patching of the boats, he suggests, indicates the difficult circumstances the fishing families would have faced. Lining himself up with those fishermen, Jesus was lining himself up with the poor.

Those thoughts were for later!

On the Sea of Galilee

Meantime, we were to board a similar, albeit slightly larger boat, and set off on to the Sea of Galilee.

Everyone had told me how moving it would be. I hadn't really believed them. How wrong I was. It was immensely moving.

In the middle of the lake the engines were switched off. Matthew 14 was read. For me the reference to the first part of the chapter and the beheading of John took me back to the violence of Jesus' day and the violence we had witnessed in Rome. I could understand Jesus reaction. I shared it. Hearing the news he wanted to withdraw to a quiet place. I could understand the crowds too. I shared their reaction. They wanted to hear more of his teaching, to hear more of his proclamation of the kingdom to receive more of his healing. And so they followed him. And all five thousand and more of them needed feeding. And they were fed.

Going off on his own, the disciples set off on the boat themselves, only to be confronted by a storm.

As Jesus walked through the storm to join them, his words hit home at me. It is I; don't be afraid.

Simply the presence. That was what the Christian Peacemaker team was bringing to Hebron. That was the life's work of Elias Chacour taking seriously those beatitudes, that was what we too needed. And here on the lake we sensed it.

The reading over we sat for twenty minutes in silence.

It was the sound of sheer silence ... save for the battering of the occasional wave.

The silence over, one of the crew took out a drum and sang the most wonderful Hebrew folk song, a prayer for peace, Shalom, Salaam.

Once again I found tears coming to my eyes.

Tears for this man and so many others for whom peace was such a longing, and such a prayer.

Tabgha: Reflection: Do you Love Me? John 21

And so to the end of our journey of reconciliation and a wonderful communion in an open air chapel by the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

When we reached the Gospel reading in silence we walked down to the shore itself and read the acccount of Jesus appearing to the apostles in John 21, the catch of fish and the repeated question, do you love me? It was immensely moving!

Just at the end the organiser within got the better of me ... but any difference was resolved very congregationally and we shared the peace as Michael suggested.

Back to Tiberias for a final reflection

We returned all too quickly to the bus, to the hotel, to pack, to shower, and to enjoy one more meal together.

After the meal we shared our thoughts in response to the stay in Galilee.

We couldn't express our appreciation enough to Michael Roberts for leading us on our journey of reconciliation. Matthew startted it and we all joined in with a standing ovation.

One thing he asked, that we publicise Tantur and its offer of three week courses for all, and of three month study periods for those who want to avail themselves of its wonderful facilities.

To the front for an elementary Hebrew lesson

We made our way down to the front for one last evening out. I photographed some of the signs, not least Macdonalds, in the company of Father Ian, in the hope of getting a Hebrew course off the ground. The sight of Macdonalds in Hebrew lettering really is something else.

Not too late to bed. And then we were up at 3-00 ready for a 4-00 departure for the air port.

Up to Sea Level and on to the Plane!

I sat with Father Ian and enjoyed one last good conversation together. As we drew out of Tiberias he shoed me the sign I had missed before. Rising high out of the town at 600 feet we reached sea level. I had always known the Dead Sea was below sea level, in fact the lowest point on earth, I don't think I had realise how much beneath sea level the Sea of Galilee was too.

It seemed strange.

On the bus to the airport, Henry bade us farewell, and came down the bus with his card. He had one last thing to share with us. A new initiative he is getting under way. Kidz 4 peace. Its purpose is to bring Israelis and Palestininan children who otherwise would not meet, together to get to know each other. Already a USA chapter has been founded. Henry will later this year be in the UK to set up a British chapter too.

That set my mind thinking ... but more of that later!

On the flight home, there was to be one more fascinating conversation.

One last significant conversation

I changed my seat and was delighted to have a window seat for the return journey. Next to me was a couple both of whom were lawyers living in London. Secular Jews they expressed their longing for a settlement of the land that would enable both Israeli and Palestinian to share the land, and their frustration at the religious extremists who seemed determined to destroy any such hope.

What a fascinating discussion.

Hopes and Expectations

I ended up by making the last entry in my journal. I returned to the six hopes and expectations I had begun my journal with and reflected on the way in which our journey of reconciliation.

All I can say for now is that it had far exceeded them.

What next remains to be seen!

All too soon, we made our way out of the town of Capernuam and off for a lovely lunch. Yet another wonderful salad.

Back on the bus we then went

Crisis and Response - to Galilee via Mount Carmel

7-00 seemed an early start. But it was worth it!

We said farewell to Tantur and made our way by bus out of Jerusalem to the North West, making for Mount Carmel.

We hadn't been going more than ten minutes when Dr Henry Carse, director of special programmes at St George's college began to describe the countryside we were going for.

Many years ago I fell in love with the deserted mediaeval villages of Leicestershire, thanks to the inspirational work of W.G.Hodgkins in The Making of the English Landscape. He pioneered a way to study history by reading the landscape alongside reading the text of historical documents. Henry Carse had a wonderful ability to do just that, reading the landscape of the Holy Land alongside the text of the Bible and other contemporary writings, especially Josephus, in such a way as to bring the history, the sociology, the politics and the theology of the Bible in a new and refreshing way.

This was what caught my imagination so much on Wednesday.

Reading the Landscape

As we began to drop down from Jerusalem at 2,600 feet through the limestone mountain ridge that runs the length of the Holy Land, towards the maritime plain, we first went through extensive afforestation. I was sitting with Prem, a Roman Catholic Chaplain at Warwick University, who comes from Sri Lanka. He was spotting features similar to the landscape in Sri Lanka. Initially, the trees were quite stunted and low. The terrain was very rocky. Through the gaps between the trees you could make out the characteristic terracing of the age-old Palestinian agriculture.

We learned that the trees now covered what at one time had been the rich agricultural land that until 60 years ago had provided Jerusalem with its food and its produce. Rich is not quite the right word! It was land that was tough to work. But with hard work it had been productive. And it was the land that had fed the city of Jerusalem in Jesus' day as well.

But the villages had been cleared, the land covered with forestation.

As we dropped lower, not only did the vegetation become fuller but the soil too became much richer. We were now into the state of Israel, within the borders defined back in 1948 by the United Nations. We would be remaining within Israel's borders for the remainder of our stay.

We stopped for coffee and the atmosphere seemed already different, more relaxed. Away from the disputed city of Jerusalem, away from the occupied Palestinian territories.

Descending to the maritime plain the agricultuarl land was clearly very productive, the coastal strip occupied by major industrial cities.

Visiting the Carmelite Chapel of the Muhraqa ('Burning')

We headed towards Mount Carmel: hold the thumb of your right hand out and that's like the fairly low, Mountain that juts out into the sea towards the North of the coastal plain.

We ascended the mountain, and went up on to the rooftop of the Carmelitye Chapel of the Muhraqa, the 'Burning'.

The views were breath-taking.

We could look down to the South along the coastal plain. Round a little to the South East and we were looking down the Jezreel valley. This was the route of the Via Maris, a major trade route in the ancient world.

I have always thought of Jerusalem as the great capital and therefore on a major thoroughfare, and of Galilee as the quiet hills where Jesus could retreat peacefully.

Not a bit of it.

In fact Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the neighbouring villages are in the South on a Mountain top. They have immense religious significance. They are a stronghold in the mountains. They are a tinder box for potential conflict. They were in Jesus' day. But they are not on a major thoroughfare.

Looking down on to the world of Jesus

The via maris was the route taken by invading Greeks under Alexander the Great, and by the Romans up the Jezreel Valley between Mount Carmel and the hill top town of Nazareth, through a pass we would see later, through Capernaum and on towards Syria, via Caesarea Philippi.

This was where the great ancient trade routes passed.

This was where the Romans were building their major capital in Sepphoris at the time of Jesus's birth and childhood. It was further to the NOrth East that they transferred their capital to Caesarea Philippi.

It all made sense!

That made the Galilee that Jesus was growing up in a massively significant, busy, kind of place. Where Rome and the Jewish people came into conflict. The common language of the Roman Empire would have been spoken by those living there: Greek. Jesus would have read the Hebrew of the Hebrew scriptures. He might well have spoken Aramaic, or a kind of proto Mishnaic Hebrew, that some suggest was common at the day.

He might have gone to the theatre in nearby Sepphoris. He would have been in the thick of the tensions with Rome. Thirty years before his time there had been a revolt in Galileel. There would be another thirty years later.

There were 'zealots' among his followers.

Henry had spent some time on the bus explaining the tremendously volatile mix of groups vying with each other at the time.

Among the Jewish people there were tensions.

He identified four main groups.

The Zealots were those who sought rebellion against Rome.

The Essenes were those who retreated to the monastic life of the Dead Sea and sought a deep spirituality.

Then there were the Pharisees and Sadducees, quite wrongly lumped together in our thinking especially as the Bible stories are re-told.

The two sets of people believed quite different things. The Sadducees didn't accept resurrection, confined the Hebrew Scriptures to the Torah, and were linked with the ruling aristroccary, the High Priesthood, that worked along with the Romans in Jerusalem.

The pharisees, on the other hand, were thinkers and teachers who accepted resurrection, drew on a wider body of Hebrew Scriptures and were upright in many ways. We misread the text of the Gospels when we dismiss them all as hypocrites. They were learned teachers, highly respected, not least by Jesus.

That was something we would come back to later when in the Synagogue at Capernaum.

Returning to that roof top scene as we looked down to the foot of Mount Carmel looking East South East there were two valleys, the second of which was the sight of many ancient battles, and the site of the ultimate battle in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writing, the valley of (?) Armaggedo.

Looking to the West we could make out hills again. Moving round, the rounded hill in the distance was Mount Tabor, associated by some traditions as the Mount of Transfiguration. Henry suggested the geography didn't work. More likely would be Mount Hermon, the snow-clad mountain standing as the source of the three tributaries that fed into the River Jordan, not far from Caesarea Philippi.. Next we could see the hills of Galilee. And one of the most prominent on the other side of the Jezreel Valley was Nazareth.

I had never realised what a prominent position Nazareth was in. With the naked eye we could make out the outline of a church on top of the hill. The town Jesus grew up in was in a prominent position overlooking a major trade route, just four miles from the Roman capital of Sepphoris, complete with its baths, its forum its theatre and its Roman way of life! This was straightaway a very different place from the sleepy backwater in the hills of my imagination.

Henry was reading the landscape for us in the most exciting of ways, not least as he brought it alive linking it with the text.

Prophet in Crisis - On Mount Carmel with Elijah, then and now

We came down from the roof top, passed a statue of the triumphant Elijah. And I felt uneasy. Four Israeli soldiers were standing beside it. The slaying of the prophets of Ba'al is one of those stories in the Old Testament I used to read with glee in children's stories, but now find much more difficult.

They have in my mind to be put alongside Jesus and all he had to say in the sermon on the mount.

They also have to be read in the full text of the Scripture, suggested Henry.

So it was we settled down under the trees overlooking the Via Maris and the Jezreel Valley and Janet Tollington and I read practically all of I Kings 18 and 19. All but the bits about Obadiah.

They tell of the crisis Elijah faced as he confronted the prophets of Ba'al. It was a time of famine in the land. The prophets of that other god had been unable to bring rain. Elijah challenged them and turned to his God. With sacrifice, the waters come. The prophets are slain.

But as the story unfolds, Elijah does not feel triumphant. Instead he is troubled and in a vision is transported to the far south to Mount Horeb, and there at the mouth of the cave the voice of the Lord is heard not in the wind, the storm, the earthquake or the fire, but the in the sound of sheer silence.

Even then his problem is not resolved. The crisis continues. New kings are to be anointed, but they too will need a prophet to hold them to account. And so the mantle will pass from Elijah to Elisha.

Any re-telling doesn't do justice to the story. We read it in full.

And then we had to answer two quesetions. First we went round with views of what was going on in the text. What was the crisis for Elijah? It was fascinating to see the different angles to the story that began to emerge.

Then we were asked, what was the crisis for us as we read the story.

Then it was, its message of a prophetic voice holding the King to account began to take off.

Not least because it was difficult to hear.

Not just because we were in the open air. But because the main airstrips of the Israeli air force are on the coastal plain. And this was the second day of the biggest military exercise Israel has held for years. The fighter jets were flying overhead every few minutes. Often we would have to stop until the noise no longer drowned out the word we were sharing.

How we longed for 'the sound of sheer silence'.

This was powerful stuff.

What had it to do with our Journey in the footsteps of Jesus?


Elijah and Jesus

At Caesarea Philippi, the disciples when asked suggested Jesus was another prophet, maybe Elijah? There on the Mount of Tranfiguration Jesus was seen in all his glory alongside Moses and Elijah.

So often we tell the story of Peter's confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi as if they had got it wrong.

Read again, there on Mount Carmel, in full view of anyone living in Nazareth and you cannot help but realise that they had got it right. Jesus had come very much as a prophet. And much more!

The last of our Biblical modules Janet and I had written brought together in a single module, the Gospels and the Prophets. We had begun at Caesarea Philippi. As our next module brings together the Law and the Letters I am prompted to begin in 2 Peter with that account of the mount of transfiguration.

This was powerful, exciting stuff.

Our visit to Mount Carmel over, we dropped down into the Jezreel valley, and made our way by bus through Cana of Galilee to the town of Nazareth now 12,500 strong.

Nazareth: Annunciation and Response

It was time for lunch. We ate our packed lunches on the terrace of a restaurant owned by a friend of Henry and enjoyed Arabic coffee. Then it was on to the Orthodox Church dedicated to the annunciation to Mary. Built over a spring going back to the first century, and the source of water for teh village, it highlighted a difference between the local Catholic tradition that has the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary in a house, and the Orthodox tradition that has the Angel appearing to Mary on her way to or at the well.

It was moving to link incarnation with the living water we could hear running through the church. INdeed, this ancient church was oriented in two directions. One was the traditional one which Fr Ian explained to us was in three parts. The back represented the Old Covenant, the middle where everyone sat, surrounded by wonderful pictures of saints, represetnted the company of believers, past present and future joining together in worship, and the front, the altar area, behind the Iconostatis representing the kingdom of heaven. The other axis led from the door to the spring, forming a cross.

Most moving to hear Fr Ian's explanation, to see the Icon to Mary at the spring, and to reflect on the link between this tradition and the rich temple worship we had been exploring in Jerusalem.

Walking through the town, there was no house of Jesus to see, no carpenter's workshop. I discovered later there is a museum area that has reconstructed life in Jesus' day complete with carpenter's workshop. That would appeal lto some.

With my love of those deserted mediaeval villages of Leicestershire, where so little can be seen by the untrained eye, I was very much drawn to Henry's itinerary. If you want to see a worker's house involved in the building trade as Joseph, the tekton, would have been, quite possibly in nearby Sepphoris, go to the Roman Museum in Verulamium where they have excavated one and reconstructed the workshop in the museum complete with tools.

In Nazareth we were seeing something different. We could see the 'busyness' of this place overlooking the Jezreel Valley and Mount Carmel to the West. We had a sense of the world Jesus grew up in. Quite a different world from the one of my imagination.

Arbel Cliffs: Rebels and Reconcilers in Galilee

Then it was on to the cliffs of Arbel and our first sight of the Sea of Galilee.

It took the breath away!

It was so small, and yet so beautiful.

The high limestone crags were the place of massive fighting not long after the time of Jesus. At our feet the small town of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. Small it may have been. But this was where the Via Maris came through its mountain pass and headed past the Sea of Galilee on through Capernaum and North West to Syria.

Br John spotted eagles soaring in the heights.

It was good just to stand and gaze.

One thing you couldn't miss. The cliffs and mountains we we were on stretched to the South. East of us, at our feet the Jordan River came into the Sea of Galilee and then flowed out to the South and on towards the South.

This side of the Sea of Galilee between the crags we were on, and Capernaum were gently rolling hills, rich with corn. They were volcanic, basalt rock that had spewed out of the ground with great volcanic activity. Some of the volcanoes in the distance were pointed out to us. The other side of the Sea of Galilee, quite different cliffs plunged down to the Sea. These were the Golan Heights. The border with Syria, now occupied by Israel.

The sheer geography was stunning, more so, the geology.

This was the beginning of the Great rift valley that would make its way down the Jordan Valley, down to the Dead Sea, beyond through the red sea, beyond through Africa and Kenya and on to Madagascar.

The Sea of Galilee is a natural border now with all its tensions. It was in Jesus' day too. Just beyond Capernaum was the border country - this was where the Roman tax collection points would have been in profusion, where might was at its greatest. It was dangerous land. It still is. My health insurance did not cover me to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and enter the Golan heights.

It was dangerous country in Jesus' day too.

No wonder Henry had described it as volcanic.

On to Tiberias

Back to the bus we dropped down into Tiberias, the Roman built town, that now has become a seaside resort, we guessed for Israelis from Jerusalem to get away for the weekend.

It had all the noise of a seaside resort. And heavily guarded. An armed police guard sat by the door of the hotel as we entered.

A lovely hotel, a good meal, we then went down 'to the front' for a good evening. It was not the Sea of Galilee of my imagining as the disco boat made its way with music blaring to and fro.

As the youngsters got off and passed us by we couldn't help but notice a couple of them with rifles slung over their shoulders.

I was no longer sharing with Matthew, but now with Paul. And so the evening came to an end.

The first day of our excursion to Galilee. What a day it had been!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Would that you had known the things that make for peace

The briefest of blogs at the end of a long, long day.

Following the awfulness of all we shared yesterday morning, today was quite different. It began at 6-30 with Mass and another reading from John 6. And then we went to Bethany. The bus took us past the wall that has cut off the main street to Bethany. On Sunday our prayers had been for a proposed birthing clinic and midwifery support for expectant mothers who now because of the wall are cut off from easy access to hospital facilities. To see how close Bethany or Bethphage is to Jerusalem and to see a wall separating one part of its Palestinian community from another was disturbing.

We visited a church associated traditionally with the Ascension for Christians, with Hulda, the prophet's, burial place for Jews and equally important for Muslims.

We also went to the church of the Our Father where the Lord's prayer was in many world languages, not least Welsh! And Polish too! Another timely prayer thinking of Jan, and a candle to light by St Therese of Liesieux which I think he would appreciate.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus into Jerusalem

And then we walked up the hill from Bethany on the route Jesus took on Palm Sunday, turned round a bend, came down on the other side and there, across the valley was the city of Jerusalem, now with the Dome of the Rock in all its splendour, in Jesus' day with the Temple.

We paused at the spot where tradition has it Jesus wept over Jerusalem. We shared his tears. Would that you had known the things that make for peace!! Those words resonate so today. The church there was built in the shape of a tear drop by a 20th Century architect.

On to the House of Caiaphas and into the City for one last time

On to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the most moving sense of being among Olive trees stretching back so far. A beautiful garden with wonderful flowers now – I couldn't help but think of all those wonderful Easter gardens our flower arrangers have done for us over the years.
Then it was to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, the Church of the Cockerel. Once again, I was a bit skeptical. Another 'traditional' place. But behind and beneath the church a dungeon and the remains of a splendid house worthy of a High Priest, and steps going up leading towards the Temple that would have been visible in the distance. And all those archaeological remains dating back to the time of Christ. It made you think. And it was one of those moving moments. Places do something to you!

And then into the city. More places to visit, another visit to the Garden Tomb. A visit to the Bethsaida Pools from John 5 and a sense of the place where again in all likelihood the lame man was healed.

Home on the 124 bus again and with not a minute to spare into a time of prayer that touched me out of my tradition. I had been longing to arrange the chairs in a circle (those who know me well, won't be surprised) and to sit around a simple table. The table had a candle, a broken loaf of bread and a jug of water. It was a time of peace as again we visited John 6.

And so to Galilee!

And then straight into our next lecture from Henry Carse.

A wonderful lecturer from St George's college – I couldn't help but think what a wonderful time one of our students on the course I teach on, Frank Wroe must have had in St George's on the CWM face to face programme.

He was preparing us for our journey to Galilee.

I had supposed it would be to the tranquility of a peaceful place for us to unwind by the sea.

Not a bit of it! Well, we would experience some sense of tranquility we were assured.

But he whetted our appetite for a wonderfully rich world of Galilee that we would actually be entering. A world of a major ancient highway, the Way of the Sea, a world where languages and cultures met, a land of commerce, a land of upheaval.

Then came the most wonderful bit of all. Not only would we be touching on the history, the politics, the language, the culture, the theology of Galilee but we would also be immersed in the thing that made sense of it all!

Those who again know me well at Highbury may already have guessed!

The Geology!!!

Absolutley wonderful, and not a little unexpected.

From the beautiful limestone landscape of Judaea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and all its caves to the volcanic, black basalt of Galilee. A lush, fertile landscape. But also a landscape on one of the world's greatest rifts. The Great Rift Valley. Stretching from north of Galilee right through Kenya to Madagascar it is one of those places where tectonic plates move against one another. Once, long ago volcanoes … now earthquakes. A place of turbulence which tomorrow we shall be exploring.

But if our 6-30 start was early today, tomorrow it's even earlier, with a 6-00 breakfast and on to the coach by 7-00. Lectures will begin on the coach and we head for Mount Carmel, and then on to The Sea of Galilee where we shall be staying for two nights.

That session over we went into the most valuable of all the session so far.

Drawing the threads together

In his own gentle way, Michael McGarry presided over a session pulling all the threads together of our stay in Tantur.

There's too much to share for this evening … but something to come back to later.

The day began at 6-30 with prayers, it is ending now at 9-55 and I still have my packing to do before a 6-00 breakfast tomorrow!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Words give way to Silence

The roller coaster of extremes of emotion and understanding moves on apace.

With a non-stop programme of guided tours, lectures and discussions carrying on over meals and coffee breaks well into the late evening there have been a lot of words to enjoy, to reflect on. It’s very easy to sink under the weight of those words. Sometimes words fail you; and sometimes they seem inappropriate.

Today was one of those days.

But without words you won’t get a taste of today.

So let me start at the end of the day and work backwards. That way, I can leave you without words and in silence.

To begin at the end

Before the chocolate and the very end of the evening, I hope to enjoy my first bit of ecumenical table tennis. Apparently, the Roman Catholic monk from Sri Lanka is quite some player. That remains to be seen.

It’s 8-45 and I have just emerged from a conversation that began over the meal table back at 6-00 with friend Phil from Gloucester and others too! It ranged over the world of the New Testament, touched on the Cotswolds and Roman Britain and was (as those who know me well can imagine) great fun!

Prayers at beginning and end of the day

At 5-30 we had had a lovely, quiet time of evening prayer for 25 minutes. Led by Celia who works on inter-faith relations for Churches Together in England and lives in a (?) Foucalare Community, it was a much needed peaceful time. It had been good at 7-00 this morning to begin the day with a morning communion service led by Janet Tollington, a member of staff at Westminster College Cambridge and a URC minister. It was good to have a service that touched our tradition of communion by having unfermented wine. In a strange way I appreciated that … and the way it was valued by everyone else too.

She had reminded us that in a couple of days we will mark the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at the hands of the Nazis as the war drew to a close. A pacifist, opponent of the Nazi regime, he had been involved in a bomb plot to assassinate Hitler that failed. And had been imprisoned. As one of those implicated in that plot he was executed as the war draw towards its close.

Our reflections centred on the martyrdom of Stephen and the invitation of Christ to draw our spiritual sustenance from him as the bread of heaven.

Immediately before those prayers, we had just had an hour and a half in the company of Dr Petra Heldt, a Lutheran theologian who had specialized in the theology of the early church and clearly fallen in love with the Orthodox Church.

Christians in the Holy Land

Dr Heldt's talk was aimed at giving us an understanding of the Orthodox church and its nature. How pleased I was that Felicity had lent me a marvelous introduction to the Orthodox Church by a friend of hers called Gillian Crow. [Gillian Crow, Orthodoxy Today (SPCK, 2008)] Reading the book and listening to the lecture his evening and the following discussion made me realize how a little bit of that Orthodox understanding of the faith and of the church had seeped into me when I had studied with Kallistos Ware back in the early 70’s. His successor as Priest in the Orthodox church in Oxford, Fr Ian is at this moment at the next computer to this one!

She was attempting to help us see through the eyes of the Orthodox and realize the very different way of thinking they have and the very different ways of thinking there are in the Middle East.

It was so helpful in appreciating the different ways in which people look at something we might think of as so basic, human rights.

every speaker so far had prompted us to laugh with a note of derision at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a place where the division of the church was all too apparent. That’s because we think of Christian unity and Ecumenism in a particular kind of way.

Dr Heldt saw in that church not a sign of disunity, but a remarkable sign of unity. Here in that place people had prayed since ? 326. Those continual years of prayer gave that place a very special sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In that place many different streams from Western and Eastern Christianity meet and share. And there oneness works in a remarkably effective way. The occasional clashes, often arising when priests who have been fasting for a long time are coping with massive numbers in a very confined place, lose their patience and momentarily fall out with each other.

This accorded with the views of the group who had stayed over night in that church as they had reported that sense of reverence, sincerity and prayerfulness that had immediately been present as the tourists went and the place became once more a place of deep devotion.

Dr Heldt invited us to see the specialness of that ‘holy place’ through the eyes of the Orthodox. For us in the West it is described as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of Christ’s Tomb. In the East the same church is known as the Church of Resurrection.

Wonderfully different and powerful insights into the nature of the church and its unity, the importance of ‘place’, the focus on the glory and the grace of God, the very thought that God became human that we might by God’s grace take on divinity.

My words are running away with me and I am running out of words.

Stimulating thinking. A wonderful invitation to see things through other people’s eyes and so to seek a deeper reconciliation.

That lecture began at 3-30.

A Quiet Afternoon

Prior to that I had enjoyed my first after dinner snooze of the fortnight. Considering the early starts, full days and late finishes that’s not bad going! I had also enjoyed going out of the main door by reception to the side of Tantur that looks down on the Checkpoint and the separation wall with Bethlehem.

It was good just to sit and reflect.

It was good to have space.

Without words.

Yad Vashen

After that morning communion we were on the coach by 8-30 and arrived at Yad Vashen at 9-00. When we were told to be back on the bus by 12-00 it seemed a long morning.

The time flew by. And by the end had to be hurried.

Yad Vashen is the Holocaust memorial.

I was struck by the repeated use of the word ‘murdered’. And I was struck by the stories of people. Not numbers. People. People just like me.

Words cannot express what it felt like to be confronted with the reality of the Holocaust.

These are the words that came to my mind … and then the words that stand at the entrance to the vast gallery that contains the personal stories of each individual murdered in the Holocaust, a gallery that has yet to be completed. Those final words are by Benjamin Fondane and are entitled ‘Exodus’. After that … silence.

Benjamin Fondane was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

6,000,000 did not die
6,000,000 people died
6,000,000 people did not die
6,000,000 people like me died.
6,000,000 people like me did not die
6,000,000 people like me were killed
6,000,000 people like me were not killed
6,000,000 people like me were murdered
6,000,000 people like me were murdered by people like me.

Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal
On that day I too had a face
marked by rage, pity and joy,
quite simply a human face.

Days Of Elijah

Days Of Elijah: "Days Of Elijah
These are the days of Elijah,
Declaring the word of the Lord:
And these are the days of Your servant Moses,
Righteousness being restored.
And though these are days of great trial,
Of famine and darkness and sword,
Still, we are the voice in the desert crying
'Prepare ye the way of the Lord!'

Behold He comes riding on the clouds,
Shining like the sun at the trumpet call;
Lift your voice, it's the year of jubilee,
And out of Zion's hill salvation comes.

These are the days of Ezekiel,
The dry bones becoming as flesh;
And these are the days of Your servant David,
Rebuilding a temple of praise.
These are the days of the harvest,
The fields are as white in Your world,
And we are the labourers in Your vineyard,
Declaring the word of the Lord!

There's no God like Jehovah.
There's no God like Jehovah!
Copyright © 1997 Daybreak Music Ltd."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

People and Places

And so to Sunday and something of a dilemma. Is church about people or places?

Here in Jerusalem that's not just a theoretical question. It's a buring question as Holy Places take on such significance.

I was drawn to step out of my tradition and go with places. That's part of the wonderful opportunity this place, Tantur gives!

A Place to Worship through the Night?

A group of us had decided to take the opportunity to go to the church of the Holy Sepulchre towards the end of the evening on Saturday. There they would remain past midnight when the doors would be locked.

This morning at breakfast I heard from Ian, the Orthodox priest from Oxford who is part of our company. He had found it a wonderfully inspiring night vigil, sharing not only in a deeply moving time of prayer but also in a liturgy with which he was very familiar.

He was not alone. And this is the genius of this week!

He was joined by friends, Dan and Phil, one in training for ministry, the other candidating for the Baptist ministry and by the person I am sharing a room with, Matthew, from a free evangelical church in South Wales.

This evening I have just had a conversation with Matthew who reported in equally moving terms from a totally different perspective how wonderful the night had been. For two and a half hours they had been part of a small number alone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre able to wander freely to the Golgotha and to the cave of the resurrection. It had been deeply inspiring, he commented.

What moved him in particular was the way in which the monks seemed to change and come into their own as the doors were locked. They were no longer keeping watch over the hordes of tourists, little more than janitors. Straightaway they turned to prayer. They were so sincere in that prayer, Matthew commented. Not only that, but they were very welcoming, delighted to be joined by their visitors once they gathered that they were there to pray in silence too.

And then they were joined by ?? a party of Ukrainians for a liturgy which Matthew commented was so strange and alien to him, and yet strangely moving, but which Ian was completely at home in.

What a wonderful mix.

In one way I was sorry to miss it!

A Place to Journey through the Afternoon?

I was also drawn this afternoon to join Kathleen as she led a group along the Via Dolorosa following the Stations of the Cross. Those who accompanied her found it a very moving experience at first in spite of the jostling crowds, and later, as a URC minister, Richard, commented almost because of those jostling crowds. That was as it would surely have been. Hostile crowds. He noticed, however that they were not at all hostile. The shopkeepers when they saw what they were doing didn't interrupt them or hastle them at all. At each station they read the words from the leaflet, words of scripture and words of commentary, one person had been allocated each station and shared a short reflection. Then they prayed the prayer of St Richard (I should really have been there!) and then sang Jesus remember me. As they sang those words on one occasion a Muslim shopkeeper asked them, quite sincerely to ask Jesus to remember him as well.

What a wonderful experience that would have been. But I didn’t' share it.

A Place to Worship Seven Miles from Jerusalem?

One group were going to a Benedictine Monastery at Abu Ghosh, the location of Emmaus. Following in my father's footsteps and having now preached on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday Evening (first my father and then me) for 68 years that was a big draw.

It was an opportunity to worship outside of my tradition. And that is what the Tantur experience is all about.

But then I thought again.

Today I chose people, not places.

And not just any people!

Joining 'My' People

I chose my people, the people I am familiar with, the people I feel at home with. In the free church tradition. As close to where I am at home. Not a Congregational Church, but a Baptist Church.

So it was that I went with a small group, including Rosemary who works with Graham Sparkes for the Baptist Union in their ecumenical and social justice work. Rosemay is also married to the principal of the Baptist College in Luther King House in Manchester and so knows Graham Adams well, to the East Jerusalem Baptist Church.

We took the 124 Arab bus from outside the Tantur gates down into Jerusalem and the Damascus Gate. We made our way past St George's cathedral and found the Baptist church to discover we were 45 minutes early. We enjoyed coffee in a little café opposite.

There the service was led in a wonderfully gentle way by Alex Awad, who had been our speaker earlier in the week. The music group led us in some lovely worship songs, and some lovely hymns.

A couple I want to sing again! If anyone reads this in time to make some changes on Sunday that would be great!

These are the days of Elijah had a haunting melody and was beautiful. 'O God of every nation' not only had words that spoke very much into our journey of Reconciliation. Not only that but we sang it to a beautiful Welsh tune Llangoffan.

The music group played in a way that was just right for me and very much as Hy-Spirit leads us back home at Highbury.

All the international visitors were welcomed and gave greetings. One group had come from a United Methodist Church in Birmingham Alabama to re-decorate the church. They had done a marvelous job. A couple of the Christian Peace maker team were there, others of whom we had met in Hebron. We gave our greetings. We had been asked if we wanted to to share a verse. A wonderful old Welsh Chapel custom that I had experienced when I was little and when I was a student at Penrallt English Baptist Church. The verse that came to my mind was the verse that has meant so much to Ivy Saddler and has meant a lot to me as well.

1 Peter 5:7. Cast all your anxiety on him and he will care for you.

I couldn't help but notice that Alex Awad quoted the verse differently. Cast all your anxieties on him, and he will care for you. As had occurred to me when I had read the CWM daily devotion and the same change had been made, it is not only that we can place our state of anxiety on to Christ, but we can also put into his hands, one by one, as it were, the anxieties that go to make up that state of anxiety. And Alex, as he had already shared with us, and shared with us again after the service, and his people have many, many anxieties.

Prayers were moving too. We were asked to play for people and for places, not least Bethany. Almost surrounded now by new Settlements and by the Settlers Road it is often not possible for Palestinians living there to access the hospitals facilities in Jerusalem. So we were asked to pray for a new birthing centre that money is being raised for and for midwives to staff it so that those who are pregnant can access hospital facilities.

After the prayers we came to what for me was the most moving part of the service. For the third time in our week here I was moved to tears. During the sharing of communion we sang Isaac Watts' hymn When I survey the wondrous cross, finishing with a triumphant extra verse The wonderful cross.

It was mainly the words, and the act of sharing communion in that Gathered church there in Jerusalem in the city where Jesus shared the last supper, but in a small way it was also because this was part of me. This was one of 'my' people. Isaac Watts from a dissenting church, a Congregational church, was one of those with whom I had grown up. This was my. This was where I belong. And this is the One to whom I belong.

Very moving. The tears came down my cheeks.

The preacher reflected on the healing of the boy with an evil spirit and focused on the way all things are possible for God. And then the service came to an end. A full 2 and a bit hours after it had started.

Refreshments in the garden gave an opportunity to chat with Helen Awad and with Alex again. Rosemary made contacts as from the Baptist Union.

And then came the bonus.

People in a Special Place

Because of the 'people' we had worshipped with, we were able to visit a very special 'place' after all.

The Garden Tomb.

Others had been rather dismissive of this Protestant 'place'. We had hoped to visit it on the way to church but it had been closed on Sundays.

The people who run this British run 'Holy Place' had been with us in church. Reg and ? Elaine ? invited us to look round.

In their company a group of four of us were treated to a tour of the Garden Tomb site. Discovered and acquired in the late Nineteenth Century by someone called Gordon, it was quite different from the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It was on a site that 'could have been' the site of the crucifixion and the resurrection. The hill was on top of an old quarry that had the appearance of a skull, not only because of the arrangement of caves in the rough-hewn quarry face, but also because of the white limestone. We were told it was a quarry that Herod would have used to create his new Temple.

Through the beautifully kept quiet, empty gardens, free of 'tourists' we made our way down to the tomb itself. A Roman period tomb, that clearly had been owned by a wealthy person, it had the 'feel' of the 'kind of' tomb that Jesus was buried in. Over it a Byzantine church, long since gone, had been built and some of its remains could be seen.
Inside the tomb, lit by an opening was a place where the body would have been laid to rest.

As our guides who lived on the site explained, it wasn't so much the importance of the place, after all the Tomb had had a use only for three days! After that it was no longer of significance! Rather its importance was as a visual aid. It gave the feel of what the place would have been like.
A moving time, not least because of the people who showed us round.

At this point our group split again and I found myself joining Rosemary and making our way through the Damascus Gate and into the Arab market where we found a lovely restaurant and enjoyed a feast at a reasonable price too!

Then it was back to the bus station and on to the 124 Arab bus for Bethlehem for the princely sum of 4 Shekels, less than 50p.

Back to Tantur and on to the next adventure of the day.

Once again, it was people not places that drew us back through the checkpoint and into Bethlehem.

People in Prayer

This time on the other side of the wall Rosemary and I passed through the taxi drivers, my first taxi-driver greeting me with a smile once more, and there we waited for the taxi that would pick us up to take us to another service where we joined in worship for the second time in the day.

We returned to John 6 and the account of the storm on the lake and the presence of Jesus with his people. A theme that I seem to be coming back to!

During the prayers my mind turned to home, to Felicity and the family and to Jan and Angela and Natalie and Stephanie. It was somehow good to share in prayers for Jan and the family there in Bethlehem. I felt he would have been touched. It is strange how places can sometimes feel significant.

At the end of the evening Rosemary and I caught another taxi back to the checkpoint and might have been in the company of one our speakers.

People united in Christ and yet divided by a wall

Within his family he had a wonderful mix of traditions, but told us that all that counts, is that we are one in Christ. Jew and Christians as friends.

The route back to the Checkpoint took us past Rachel's tomb. It's exactly over there he said, fifteen feet away. But ten feet from the car was a twenty metre high wall. There was scarcely the width of a car between the wall and the houses next to it. And then he showed us one house surrounded on three sides by the wall, ten feet away.

With a heavy heart we returned to the check point.

We walked through the caged walkway a good 100 metres and more to the first turnstile gateway. A mother and three children were waiting there. We waited five minutes. When there was no activity someone coming through the other way called through the bars of the fence that we must go back and go round to the vehicle entry.

We followed the little family, the children carrying heavy bags and another two who we met coming up the path as we went down it. There was no indication it was closed. No instructions what to do or where to go.

We walked through a deserted car park, about a quarter of a mile up another road to the vehicle exit.

There we waited in turn.

Each of the men had to wait and lift up their shirts and their trouser legs before going through one at a time. The mother and little child went first, the other two next.

Then it was our turn.

There was another wait by the next turnstile. One of the bags was dropped and lots of potatoes rolled over the floor.

And then another queue, before we were ushered through another turnstile and through to the other side of the wall.

It was twenty minutes since our taxi had dropped us and quite some walk back to Tantur on the main road and round to the main entrance at this time of the evening.

A good conversation followed, and a late packed lunch that served as the usual Sunday evening meal.

Fun conversations highlighted what others had done, not least one group who had been swimming, or rather bobbing, in the Dead Sea. Maybe another time!!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It is I. Do not be afraid.

Much has happened once again today.

But before I describe it ... aren't the pictures great!! Thanks to Felicity for her creative work! I am thinking of you all and you are very much in my thoughts and prayers. Hope you get some ideas for more pictures and links today!

I have also come up with some thoughts for prayer - hope they can be passed on too!

I am thinking of you all for tomorrow's service, please pass my greetings on to everyone and especially to Chris Lammiman and to Marion Hartwell as they take our services.

How much to write?

Michael McGarry in his introduction back at the beginning of the week told the salutary tale of three people who had visited the Holy Land.

One stayed for a week and wrote a book on his return.

One stayed a fortnight and wrote an article.

One stayed a month and could write nothing.

As we move from one speaker to the next, from one situation to another, we see things from yet another perspective.

The complexities of the Holy Land are immense. The more you learn the more you realize how little you know and understand.

Morning Prayers

The day began at 6-30 with a Catholic mass and a reading from John 6 and the disciples caught in a storm on the sea. Jesus joins them over the water and says, "It is I. Do not be afraid.

Evening prayers came back to the same story, half remembered for a reason that will become apparent.

It was a moving passage to begin and end the day with. In the middle of the storm, a presence, the presence of Christ who says, It is I. Do not be afraid. Simply a presence. A presence that takes away fear.

Well, I'll eat my hat ... on the other side of the wall in Bethlehem!

Morning prayers over and breakfast finished, I packed my bag, complete with my new sun hat and set off for the check point. On the other side who should I meet but a bunch of taxi drivers. One seemed to recognize me. I mentioned my hat. I soon had a crowd of taxi drivers around me, one of whom opened his boot and presented me with a hat.

My trust in human nature was restored. As was my hat!

I didn't have to bargain for a taxi today, however, as I was to going to be picked up by my friend's van.

Owner of a wonderful souvenir shop, I hoped agains hope that his van would turn up.

In due course the van turned up. We had to wait for another party who turned out to be from Papua New Guinea. One of their number was from the Uniting Church of Papua New Guinea, one of our mission partners through the Council for World Mission. He lived in Port Moresby … but didn't remember Maureen Williams who spent a couple of years out there with CWM more years ago than my new found friend could remember!

The bus deposited me at the shop just as a contingent of my fellow travelers on our Journey of Reconciliation at Tantur arrived, hot and sweaty, on foot. They had set off before me and I had arrived first. I felt a bit sheepish getting out of a mini bus … but my friend, the shop owner, was only too pressing that the others should come and sample the delights of his shop and get a good discount too!

I took my seat with my friend's father by the door of the shop and was soon enjoying a Palestinian Mint Tea and talking with the 86 year old. His father and grandfather before him had served as priests in the Church of the Nativity.

Fluent in seven languages, English, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Greek and one other, it made you realize what an international and world city Bethlehem was.

Only two of his seven sons were still in Bethlehem with their families and each owned a shop. The other five were in the States, one a neuro-surgeon. One branch of the family had emigrated as long ago as 1917, arriving in the States at the Statue of Liberty that year.

There was a sadness about him as he felt the sadness of losing his wife, but also as he felt the sadness of the plight of his people in Bethlehem.

By now many of our walking friends were on the way back and they all came into the shop, to Johnny's delight and to their pleasure with a good discount available too!

The morning came to an end as those who wanted it were offered a lift back to the check point.

I followed on in another car and negotiated the check point on my own. The indignity of the residents of Bethlehem was all too plain as I waited in line behind a queue of Palestinians.

Through the checkpoint I was back for lunch at 12-30 and in time to get on the bus at 1-15 for Hebron.

To Hebron - a Peace-making Presence

An ancient city that claims to be the location for the tomb of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Rebekkah. It is a big city on the West Bank, accessible only on a 'settler road'. Those are the roads closed to Palestinians and open only to cars with an Israeli number plate, officially licensed minibuses and coaches like ours.

Our visit started with a troubled charity facing a very uncertain future.

Where are the rights and wrongs? Their appeal to us was to publicise their plight. Do we know enough to do so? Who can investigate? Does this kind of thing make it to our news? If not, why not?

We met members of the Christain peacemaking team, one of whom knew a predecessor of mine long ago. A Quaker, he told of us the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accopaniment Programme. That is another initiative that simply sends Christians to be alongside people on the West Bank and in other trouble spots. Being simply 'a presence' there often made all the difference.

In Hebron, their work is simply to be a presence in the old part of the city.

In the heart of the ancient city centre is a Jewish settler presence of 400 people. They are guarded by 2000 Israeli soldiers, with a massive number of road blocks. The settlers often harass children particularly of Palestinian families as they go to school. The Christian Peace Makers simply go along to the road blocks and accompany the children to school. That way they are a calming presence in the town.

They were invited into Hebron back in the early 1990's when an Israeli soldier attacked and machine gunned a group of Palestinians before himself being shot by other Israeli soldiers. The Hebron authorities invited the Christian Peace Maker team to come in and simply be a presence.
A great number of people have told us how wonderful there work has been in de-fusing and calming a very troubled situation.

It was troubling to walk through the city as we made our way past roadblocks and soldiers to Abraham's tomb, through the souk and back.

We returned to our coach and left that troubled city.

By now we had missed our evening prayers and were late for dinner.

No matter, as we drove along the settler road, past Jewish settlements deep into the Palestinian territory three of our number led us in our evening prayers.

Evening Prayers ... on a bus

One of our number shared the bible reading. He did it from memory, reminding us of the story. It was the story of the disciples, scared out of their minds in a storm on the sea. And Jesus came to them over the troubled water and simply said, 'It is I. Do not be afraid'

How remarkably moving those words were now. Simply the presence of Christ took away their fear.

It had been simply the presence of those Christian peace Makers that had made all the difference. Never mind all the holy places we have visited, here we encountered the presence of Christ.

We sang the Taize chant, Jesus remember me. But those weren't the words we used … Jesus remember them, we sang, as you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember them … That was our prayer.

Then Phil, the son of the Baptist minister of the church in Gloucester where Ernest Bratt and his wife are members.

Phil's prayers were intensely moving. The reading had simply been the lectionary reading for the day … and yet it had taken on such meaning. He had prepared and written his prayers long before the experiences of the afternoon in Hebron. And yet in the most moving of ways they were so appropriate.

He invited us to go back to creation and sense the spirit of God moving over the chaos of the waters. He invited us to share a response. I cannot quite remember it. In the confusion, God, make good.

It was a curious response … and yet most moving.

The appeal to the God of creation was so moving. The limestone landscape with its brilliant white has haunted me. I sometimes think the God who is greater than all creation in its geological age, smiles at the inhumanity of humanity in its brief period on this globe. Over the confusion the spirit;s presence was felt – in that Confusion, God, make good!

We went on to think of the confusion we had just witnessed, the chaos on the streets of that city, the fear. And we prayed in that confusion, God, make good.

And then we thought of our own confusions, all our inadequacies. God, make good.

How powerful the prayer!

Words weren't necessary for the remainder of the journey, though I did recall my story of the trilobites in other rocks of fond memory to my weary companion on the coach. The assembly came to mind that I had taken. How one tiny trilobite had left its mark 400 million years ago. Maybe the little gesture for peace leaves a greater mark than we might imagine.

Simply the presence!

What can we do?

A lovely supper and on to our next speaker. An hour with one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Council gave us the opportunity to hear how church leaders are coming together to engage with the authorities. Coming together with each other, but also getting together with leaders of other faith communities as well.

He dwelled on the diminishing numbers of Christians and spoke again of the importance of simply the presence of those Christian people.

He spoke of the Ecumenical Accompaniment programme we had already learned of that afternoon and of the immensely important work it is doing.

How important that presence is. Continually this afternoon and evening we have been coming back to that.

The council had accomplished four things – they had open a line of communication between all the Christian church leaders in the event of trouble flaring up in Israel Palestine and especially in Jerusalem. They had initiated a mechanism to monitor harmful things that are said from one church or faith community to another, things that will damage relations. They had initiated a new education programme to work for peace. And they had reflected on a long term solution for the status of the churches in Jerusalem.

Small things, and yet with significance.

He spoke of the call they had given to churches throughout the world, first to pray with churches living under occupation. He suggested finding and using a prayer written jointly by the leaders of the Jerusalem churches for the peace of Jerusalem and for the peace of Israel and Palestine. It can be found on the World Council of Churches website.

Secondly, there was a need to educate people about the situation in Israel/Palestine.

Third, there was a need to lobby political leaders to make a difference. In particular, he recalled the recent Anapolis Agreement when Israel agreed to cease any further settlements, and yet since then settlements continued to be built – and we can see them going up all around us here at Tantur! Why aren't the leaders of the nations doing anything about it, he asked.

As Israel celebrates the 60tn Anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, the Palestinians will be commemorating the 60th Anniversary of what they call the catastrophe when 700,000 were moved, often forcibly, from their homes into the very kind of refugee camps that I had visited only yesterday afternoon.

For some a celebration. For others a commemoration.

For all, at the moment, a stormy time with apparently no end in sight.

And for us as Christians.

A Date for the Diary

He invited us to note the dates 4th to 10th June. That's when the churches of Israel/Palestine invite churches all over the world to think of them especially.

I don't have my diary with me … but hopefully that's a moment when I shall be able to have a special evening to share my experiences and reflect on all that I have encountered.

An Invitation to Prayer

Maybe, now the end of the day really has arrive, we need to come back to those simple words.

It is I.

Do not be afraid.

Simply a presence. Maybe we can do no more.

Maybe in being such a presence we are doing all.

I had hoped to list some prayer requests for tomorrow. There is so much to pray for I cannot get my mind round making such a list.

More important is to pray that Christ's presence may be felt. In the middle of the storm, wherever that storm may be and whatever form it may take may Christ approach through the stormy waters and may his voice be heard.

It is I.

Do not be afraid.

Friday, April 4, 2008

In the footsteps of Jesus

First, the good news. This afternoon I crossed through the checkpoint on my own, itself a forbidding experience, and had a solitary encounter with a host of taxi drivers. Having been advised by my joint host for the afternoon, not to pay more than 15 shekels, I tried my hand at bargaining. After being asked out of one taxi I had already sat in, and after facing off five others convinced that 20 shekels was the going rate, I had my lift. A very gracious conversation followed my handing over a 20 shekel note. By the time we arrived at Manger Square, my driver knew I was a minister, why I was visiting, and I knew of the sadness of living behind the wall. Anxious whether or not I would get any change, i was delighted to receive my five shekels change. Assurances of the honesty of the bargaining system and of the taxi drivers was borne out. That was the good news.

The day had begun with communion at 6-45 and an early breakfast. We were on the bus and departing through the gates of Tantur at 8-00. Once again we were in the company of Hannah, our Jewish Israeli guide who was going to take us around the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem and to visit the archeological park under the Temple Mount.

Getting off the coach we were taken first to David's Tomb. Nowhere near the city of David's time, a building dating back only a third of the three thousand years back to David but nonetheless revered as the site of David's Tomb.

The building encapsulated the coming together of the three great Abrahamic faiths in the Holy Land. On the ground floor we went into what is now effectively a Synagogue, a place where at the supposed site of David's tomb men and women (separately) will recite psalms. I read Psalms 121 122 and 123 - it was moving to do so.

From there we went upstairs to the upper room. And there we were in the room that has been set aside as the place Christians visit as 'the upper room'. It was upstairs. It was a room. And it reached back half way towards the time of Christ. Then it was that our Guide said a thing that I found helpful.

She explained that with so many of these sites the precise location is clearly not known. But you do know that the place was somewhere round here. It's not so much the location, she said, as what you feel in here. As she said that she tapped her heart.

That's it, exactly. She had gone to the point. The places have left me cold. More than that I am uneasy about the very thought of a 'holy place' in a 'holy land' for a Christian following the Jesus who suggested that Temple, the place where God's presence located is in himself, subsequently in all who hear his words and act on them, for as Paul said each one of us as a follower of Jesus is a 'temple' of the Holy Spirit. In the New jerusalem there will be no temple.

And yet! And yet! It is strangely moving to think of David in that ground floor synagogue and to read from the Psalms. It is strangely moving to stand in that upper room and think of the last supper, looking at a remarkable sculpture placed there by Pope john Paul II on his visit of a tree with three branches (the three faiths), with a branch of olive leaves (for peace) and beside it the fruit of the vine (grapes) and wheat (for bread). A wonderful sculpture.

Wonderful because the room had become a mosque and had all the furnishings of a mosque with towering over that upstairs room a minaret.

Three branches coming from the root of Abraham.

From there we walked through the Jewish Quarter.

Straightaway it felt different from the walk we had done through the Muslim and Christian quarters. It was so much more recent, wider alleys, much cleaner, much richer. The area had been destroyed in the 1967 war ... and so it had all been rebuilt.

The main market street followed the line of the main market street, the Corda, from Roman times. [NB I may be getting some of these names wrong - I will correct them later!!]

We emerged from the Jewish quarter overlooking the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. We stood by the Menorah we had seen on our first walking tour of the city. This time Hannah explained it was made of gold in such a way that it could be placed in a re-built temple.
An ominous note.

We then went through the security checkpost to the Western wall. It used to be called the wailing wall. But now Jews are back in israel and in Jerusalem we were told it is now called the Western wall. That is because it is the closest point on the wall of the Herodion plaza where the Temple once stood, that you can get to the Holiest of Holies, where God's presence was said to dwell. It is not actually the wall of the temple. It is the wall of the box which herod built in order to accommodate his re-furbished temple. it was moving to join the men, mostly clearly jews and orthodox too, and to spend a moment in prayer at the western wall. I found myself reciting the Lord's prayer. Why, I'm not sure. But it seemed strangely right.

On the way to our meeting point we passed some Ethiopian Jews who were marking the
presentation to their 6 year old children at a Religious school of their first prayer book at the Western wall. Hannah explained that they were among those Jewish people airlifted out of Ethiopia by Israel in the 80's and 90's in response to the famine. They claimed to trace their ancestry as Jews back to the exile. The story of the Falasha Jews is a fascinating one.

Then we went on to the archaeological site under the walls of the Temple Mount. Right under the Al-Aqsa Mosque we sat on the steps that led up the Hulda Gate. Hulda we were told could be the Hebrew word for 'rats' or it could refer to the wonderful prophet, a woman, who held Josiah to account and was responsible for an earlier re-furbishment of the temple initiated by Josiah. One of my heroes of the Old Testament story!

This was one of the first moments I was really moved by 'place'. These were the very steps that led up to the entrance to the temple - the ones that Jesus would have walked up. This was really where Jesus had been.

We went round the corner and we saw where the market traders would have been. We went down to a pool of purification. We stood under the great high tower where each sabbath a trumpter announced the start of the sabbath - maybe figuring in Jesus's temptations! Then we went down to a lecture room and Hannah took us around a computer simulation of the Temple. Wonderful!!!

A wonderful experience.

Then many set off for more adventures in Jerusalem, including a walk through the tunnels. I set off for Tantur, a lovely lunch and then my first real adventure.

On my own I set off through the checkpoint and into Bethelehem. I negotiated my exciting taxi ride and ended up in Manger Square. With the five shekels change in my pocket and the taxi disappearing into the traffic I arrived at the Bad News of the Day!

In my excitement at getting a good price for the taxi ride I had left my hat [vital in the sun!] behind in the taxi. It cost considerably more than the five shekels!!

No matter, I soon met my two friends We had tea in the Casa Nostra hotel opposite the church of the Nativity.

It was fascinating to go in another taxi through Bethlehem to visit a Refugee camp.

To hear the story of a family at first hand was moving. In 1948 the parents lived in a small village near what is now Tel Aviv, Bet Shemish. As Israeli soldiers moved in, they were moved out of their village into a refugee camp called Deheisheh in Bethlehem. For two years they lived in tents. Then they were given concrete blocks to build a one storey house. Since then the family has remained. Now the five members of the family live in a top floor flat, while other members of the family live lower down.

I was given a wonderful welcome with first arabic tea and then arabic coffee. Delicious.
The hurt and pain of the family was plain to see. He had married his wife nearly twenty years ago. She too had parents who lived in a village in the north in 1948 and had been placed in the Refugee camp.

I was taken to the roof. He showed me six tanks for water and more. Explaining that Israel shuts off the water sometimes for as long as month. It was painful to see. I took a photo of him. I am amazed how close it is to Jerusalem. There was Jerusalem over his shoulder. No further than Bishops Cleeve to Cheltenham [at least to the outskirts of Jerusalem].

He explained that he has not visited Jerusalem for more than ten years. He cannot. Israeli citizens have not been allowed to visit the West bank for a similar period. He acknowledged that there are many Israelis who think positively and support a two state solution to the Holy Land as he would do. But he has not seen a 'nice' Israeli for ten years. He is not allowed to. The only ones he has seen are the soldiers who come into the narrow alleys of his camp from time to time.

12,500 people living in 550 houses in half a kilometre square.

This was disturbing. Very disturbing.

He and his brother in law took me to the check point and then had to return.

I said good bye. They could come no further. This was very, very disturbing.

I returned in time for supper.

Our evening speaker was Alex Awaad, Dean of the Bethlehem Bible School. This is somewhere supported by Rachel Jacques who had given me a recent newsletter and asked me to see if i could make contact. I passed on greetings after the talk.

He proceeded to tell us his mother's story.

It could have been Yousuf's family story.

It covered the same period. It told a similar tale.

It even included a photo of the Dehesheh Refugee camp shortly after it had been set up. It was impassioned.

It gave a theological underpinning of the kind of view of location and place and its UNIMPORTANCE to Christians that I had been reflecting on.

He told the story of land acquisition by Israeli Government. Yes, a security border may be needed. But the wall has been instrumental in taking land from the Palestinians.

His story echoed the story told by Elias Chacour in Blood Brothers. Like Chacour Awaad spoke of the way his parents had taught him forgiveness. Don't look back, look only to the future they had said.

His story was designed to help us feel the anger of the Palestinians and to seek an understanding of their desire to retain and defend their land.

He sought to give us understanding, not to justify violence. Indeed, he spoke of his indebtedness to the Quakers and the Mennonites in his being a pacifist.

Pastor of a Baptist Church in East Jerusalem, he made my mind up. It is to his church that I will go on Sunday.

But before we get to Sunday, we have an interesting Saturday in store.

Lest I forget. My story of Bad News and Good News did have a happy ending. Joanne had a spare sun hat completed with label she had not used. As she was returning to Britain tomorrow she let me have it. I hope the fashion she chose when she bought it suits me.

She showed me the Bethlehem Passport she had been presented as a high bonour by the Open Bethlehem movement on Tuesday. It was great to hear her story ... and begin conversations about the possibility of leading a group from Highbury.

As I said before I came, watch this space!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Into Bethlehem

'Tantur' simply means 'Hill Top'. From our meeting room we look down at the checkpoint and the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and over the wall to Bethlehem.

This morning we set off by coach through the checkpoint and through Bethlehem into the West Bank. Driving along a road designated for Jewish settlers in the west bank we went up to the 'Herodion', the summer palace built by Herod. In a commanding position at the hill top palace had commanding views over the Judaean wilderness to the Dead Sea, glinting in the distance.

Beyond were the hazy Moabite hills.

There was something imposing, powerful and disturbing about the palace. It was a statement of power. Built by the Herod who had re-built the second temple and had been responsible for the slaying of the innocents, it had been the base for the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century AD.

Just below the palace was an Israeli army outpost, and beyond two settlements.

We returned to Bethelehem and the Shepherds fields. The site of a monastery going back to the very beginnings of the monastic movement in the 4th century, it was moving to sit in the kind of cave that might have been used by shepherds looking after their sheep and read the account of the shepherds from Luke 2 and then to sing Silent night.

From the Shepherds fields we made our way to Manger Square and the church of the nativity. Again, I had major problems with 'location'. Does it really matter? Michael McGarry suggested that as Hadrian had located a temple on the spot Helen, iConstantine's mother, later identified as the place of the nativity it was quite likely.

I did not go down into the grotto, but instead went into a neighbouring church and another cave. It was quite moving. It was associated with Jerome's translation of the Bible. The white clad walls, and the limestone rock with all its layers, made caves exactly what you would expect. They were the kind of caves that could easily have been used in the way the bible describes. Strange and yet strangely moving.

After Manger Square we made our way through the busy, narrow alleys, up the hill to the Lutheran centre, a wonderful new building with a very impressive design that was host to a Lutheran church community serving the communtiy in Bethlehem.

The Rev Dr Dimitri Rahab, a Palestinian Lutheran Pastor, spoke to us of his vision for church work in Bethelehm. He felt very much called to a ministry of preaching the good news that so needs to be heard, of teaching and of healing. He spoke of the very significant work of social service that church is carrying out. He made five observations:

1) This is a very biblical time and place ... as in the time of Jeremiah too many people talk the language of peace without living a life of peace. There is a call, he suggested, to work for peace with justice.

2) There's too much politics - instead of working 'up there' in the higher echelons of 'politics' it was more important to work on the ground, caring for the society and making a difference there.

3) There's too much religion - and a need for more sprituality and prayer.

4) There's too much humanitarian aid - and not enough work aimed at development

5) There's too much 'pess-optimism'. Optimistic one day. Pessimistic the next. There should instead be hope that takes seriously the present situation, where Dimitri Rahab saw little change for two generations, and at the same time works for the good that will come in the future. Hope sees what's going on and still plants olive trees.

Our session came to an end and we left for lunch, while a group of German parliamentarians followed us to be addressed by the same Pastor. It is wonderful to see the way inwhich we are treated to such high powered speakers.

Lunch over, we walked through the streets of Bethlehem to the Wiam centre for reconciliation and an equally inspiring address by Zoughbi Zoughbi, who last year came over to Britain with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on a speaking tour.

He spoke of the need for the work of reconciliation to be done at the local level, bringing healing where rifts were caused often as a result of the conflict. Again, most moving.

Walking back towards Tantur instead of taking the bus, we headed for Rachel's tomb only to find it's inaccessible from Bethlehem and the other side of the wall. A visit to a Palestinian exhibition centre included an unexpected meeting with a family whose story I will tell later.

The walk back took us through the check point on foot. A menacing experience and that was just for us.

AFter prayers and our evening meal we had another high powered lecture this time from Deborah Wiseman, an Orthodox Jew. She refused the epithet moderate and spoke of her passion for her religion, but eqully of her commitment to a tolerance that was tolerant of the other, a pluralism that could see other people believed differently, and an openness that was prepared to learn from others. AFter the two earlier speakers of the day we were offered another view of the very same barrier: this time while opposing the occupation of the West Bank and the settlements, Debborah Wiseman advocated a state for Israel and a state for the Palestinians but could see the value of the security wall. She spoke of her passionate commitment to human rights and to change.

Another moving and troubling day came to an end, with answers to questions as elusive as ever. But at the same time a very real sense of the vital importance of coming alongside people, seeking understanding and seeking to make a difference.