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!!

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