Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Way of the Cross is the Way of Life

Early this morning, on our last full day in Jerusalem, as the call to prayer was ringing out from the mosques over Jerusalem, we venture into the old city to do the Via Dolorosa. The Via Dolorosa is the stations of the cross through the streets of the old city, ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, each station at the place where the events actually happened. We carried a large wooden cross with us through the streets each taking a turn carrying it to each station. The streets were very quiet as we walked, telling the story of Jesus' passion and death. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we visited mount Calvary, and placed our hand on a rock where Jesus' was crucified, found under an altar. We joined a celebration of the Eucharist at the epicure, or the place of Jesus' tomb and his resurrection. We prayed for those we care for, those we love, peace throughout the world, and our own continued conversion in Christ.

We prayed that we might "...make the way of the cross the way of life..." The prayers ended with a statement that we are all citizens of Jerusalem...truly a place I hope to come home to again. As we left the Church, the sun was in the sky, and the streets of Jerusalem were packed with people. Today was a Muslim holiday, the prophet's birthday, so schools were closed and children filled the old city. It was a reminder to me that the story of the Cross of Christ happens each day, in the midst of all of our lives, each day. These stories of our faith that we have been exploring over the past two weeks are meant to not be artifacts of an interesting past, but a narrative to make sense of our lives and our world, and inspire us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

The waters of everlasting life...

Yesterday, we visited the Taybeh, the only all Christian town in the Holy Land. Taybeh has really suffered from the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land, with many houses remaining vacant, and the town suffering from some pretty severe brain drain, as educated youth choose to move to and work in North and Latin America. We did visit a great sign of hope for the town, the Taybeh Brewing Company. Started by a local man, who while studying at Harvard began to brew his own beer. After studying brewing in the United States he decided to return home and open a brewery. Now the only brewery in the Middle East, Taybeh Brewing is a local business bringing economic development to the region. It took a family's commitment to local business development, instead of immigrating elsewhere, to help bring this economic engine and jobs to the community.

We also visited Nablus, where the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has helped to renovate the emergency room of St. Luke's Hospital, which is run by the Anglican Diocese of Jeruselem. St. Luke's is an important part of the medical network in this economically depressed West Bank town. It delivers 2500 children every year, and promises to serve anyone who comes to it without regard to their ability to pay. Infant mortality in the West Bank is about four times higher than in Israel proper, showing the incredible disparity in the occupied territories. The Episcopal Church here is a really important part of the local social services structures in the West Bank.

From there we visited the site of Jacob's Well, where Jesus met the Samaritan Woman in John's Gospel. It is an amazing site, with a Greek Orthodox Church recently rebuilt by a local priest over it. The priests of the church had been attacked several time by Israeli settlers who have sought to take control of the Holy Site. One priest was killed, and his remains are interred in the church. Broken marble stairs from grenade explosions also remain from the attacks. The faith and fortitude of the local community against great suffering is really incredible. In the basement of the church is the well of Jacob, where one can lower a bucket more than 50 feet down to gather water for drinking. It is here at this well that Jesus said that the water from the well will always leave you thirsty, but that he had the waters of life. It is faith in Jesus that inspires the work of places like St. Luke's Hospital, Taybeh Brewing Company and the Orthodox community gathered around Jacob's Well, not just the stones of the holy sites. Their work and discipleship is truly an icon of God's movement and Christ's living water nourishing lives.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The muddy river and the glistening sea...

Yesterday, we ventured around the land were Jesus lived and spent much of his ministry, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, near the town of Capernaum. We began our day at the Jordan River, the river where John the Baptist preached, and where Jesus was baptized. The river was high due to recent rain, but was not more than 25 feet across. It was also very muddy. There on the shore of the Jordan our group renewed our Baptismal promises, and gathered water from the river that some of us will mix with the water we use at Baptisms in our churches. I also released some of the cremation ashes of a friend of mine into the river, a bitter sweet moment of death being mixed with the waters of Baptism and new life. And again I was reminded what the resurrection life of Jesus we live together in Baptism is all about - it is in places of death that we find new life.

From there, we went on to visit the hills, valley, and the sea where Jesus called and taught his disciples. The land where he worked, and his fame grew. We visited the 1st century town where Jesus lived, Capernaum, after he was driven out of Nazareth. We visited were the synagogue once stood that Jesus taught in, and the house that is believed to be where Peter lived. We stood on a hill where the Sermon on the Mount could have been delivered, and the spot were the loaves and fishes could have been multiplied. We can not be sure if these are the exact locations that these things took place, but we do know that it all happened along this few mile strip next to the Sea of Galilee. It really sunk in for me that Jesus was a real person, who lived in a real place, had a society and a culture that he struggled with, and real friends and companions he worked and ministered with. Jesus' teachings were not just abstractions about life and God, but real teachings, that had to do with the real struggles and experiences of God of his people. Our faith, is about the here and now of our own lives, and meant to be lived out in the real world that we find ourselves in each day.

The mud between my toes in the Jordan River, and the glistening sun of the Sea of Galilee, I found to be a profound reminder that God is so often found in the regular, everyday, things of our lives. Right here, and right now, today.

It is funny that I had to go half way around the world to remember that!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Living Stones: Sunday in the Holy Land

They say here that the Living Stones of the Holy Land are not the holy sites of antiquity, or the basilicas built in the 1st, 4th or 12th centuries, but the people who have been keeping the faith in their lives and families since the time of Jesus. Today, being Sunday, we visited some of these "Living Stones," at worship in their churches. These are the same people who have been keeping the Christian faith since the time of Jesus.

For Sunday morning church, we visited St. Paul's Anglican Church in Shafa Amr. This small church lies in a mostly Arab city, which serves as a suburb of Haifa. The worship today was bilingual, English and Arabic, because we were there. Bishop Gayle preached, and the Rector translated the sermon. The Province of the Middle East, which includes the Diocese of Jerusalem, does not recognize woman Bishops, so Bishop Gayle did not celebrate the Eucharist. It was amazing to sing several old English hymns in English, while members of the congregation also sung them simultaneously in Arabic. It truly was a beautiful moment of sharing a tradition across many nations and cultures. During coffee hour we celebrated a parish child, Michael's birthday, with a cake, songs and balloons. Really, it was just like coffee hour at church back home!!

Several of the members of the parish told us about how many of the Christians have fled from the Holy Land over the last 20 years due to the struggles between Israelis and Palestinians. Historically, Christians have played a moderating role in this multi-ethnic and religious land, but the number of Christians has greatly diminished in the last two decades. They worry about being forgotten by Western Christians. They urged us to tell their story, and thanked us for our visits. They asked us to return, to bring others. It reminded me of St. Paul's work of traveling around the Mediterranean taking a collection for the church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts - the importance of knowing and supporting these early followers of Christ.

The Parish of St. Paul had recently refurbished a house next to the church as a local "multi-cultural community center." The land for the house was purchased with a grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and refurbished from donations by the local church. We brought a donation from the Diocese of Massachusetts to help further the work of this center. The center now serves as a center where Christians, Muslims and Jews in the town to gather together for shared arts expeditions and musical performances. It shows the important work of the local Christian communities to build bridges to bring people together, which is the first step in working for peace. I have a lot of admiration and gratitude for the life, witness and work of these "Living Stones" of the Holy Land, and pray for their continued ministry of building the bridges to peace.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

John 1:46

Today, we arrived in the Northern Israeli city of Nazareth. The city that Mary and Joseph were from, and where Jesus grew up. It is a provincial city of about 100,000 people today. At Jesus' time, it was a small cluster of 20-40 caves or grottoes with a population of 100-200. It is on a hill overlooking a large valley below.

When I mentioned the line to a fellow traveler, she replied back with a snark, "that was an early statement..." So far, we have visited many of the sites of the miracles of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. Nazareth and the land around the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus did most of his ministry, teaching and preaching. The life and teaching of Jesus is so often overlooked when we focus on the miracles. Another fellow traveler has asked "why do we not have a holiday to celebrate the Sermon on the Mount, along with Easter and Christmas?" A good question...the teachings of Jesus show us how to shape our lives, and to have our lives shaped by God. That is why we have come to this region, to explore where and what Jesus taught.

Earlier in the day, we visited Jericho, the lowest point on the earth at 1200 ft below sea level, and the world's oldest city at 10,000 years old. We saw the cite of the biblical city of Jericho, where Joshua caused the wall to tumble down, a site still being excavated today. And we also visited a sycamore tree, said to be in the same spot where Zacchaeus climbed in Luke 19, another man inspired by Jesus' teaching.

Outside of Jericho we climbed to a monastery believed to be the place of Jesus' temptation in the desert after his Baptism in the river Jordan. It is not a flat desert like we may think of, but a cliff with caves. Early Christians later inhabited these caves when they left the cities to form early monastic communities.

Tomorrow, we visit a local Anglican congregation that worships in English and Arabic, outside of Nazareth.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The truth about the Holy Nativity...

Today, which happened to be Christmas Day in the Armenian Orthodox calendar, we visited Bethlehem, the City of Jesus's birth. In visiting the city, I learned a lot about how the birth of our Lord really happened...

First of all, it was amazing for me to see that Bethlehem lies on a hill about four miles outside of Jerusalem. Following a star to the city makes a lot more sense, when it lies on the mountain ridge looking up from the valley below from the East. Looking up to the city, I can see clearly how the magi were led there by a star.

At the time of Jesus, most people in a small village like Bethlehem didn't live in houses, but in caves. A village would be a grouping of caves, maybe with some rocks built up around the entrance to create some more room. The animals were brought into the caves at night, and pushed into the back side of the cave, and the family would sleep in the front. The word that is translated as "inn" in our biblical account of the nativity, is actually the word for "dwelling places"... There was no room in the cave where the people usually slept, so Joseph and Mary were placed in the back of the cave, with the animals. A manger was a hewn out rock, to feed and water the animals. Our Europeanized visions of the nativity are wrong.  Jesus was born in a cave.

The Church of the Holy Nativity bears this out. The birthplace of Jesus is below the church, in a cave. You enter under the altar of the church of the Holy Nativity, and below in a cramped cave, you see where Jesus was born...

Learning all this, and seeing it with my own eyes makes the story of the birth of Jesus even more amazing to me, even more true. And it all happened on Christmas Day!

Check out this link below for a video I took of the Armenian Patriarch entering the Church of the Nativity on Armenian Christmas Day:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Praying...and being a tourist

We woke up very early this morning to go, see and pray at the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the still remaining wall of the second Jewish temple, and considered the holiest site for modern Jews. Thursdays are one of the days that boys have bar mitzvah at the wall, so the place was teeming with families and 13 year old boys coming for the ceremony of manhood.

As I went into the the area next to the wall, I was given a yarmulke and went to the wall to pray. At first, I didn't know what to do. There was an orthodox Jewish man next to seeming lost in ecstatic prayer, rocking back and forth, and chanting. I wondered whether I belonged, was this not my faith tradition, and I should just go, what to do...I felt like a tourist! But, then, I saw a tiny slip of paper, with a prayer on it sticking out from the wall in front of me. It said "love to all." Somehow reading that prayer, left by some other visitor, rearranged my inner anxieties and allowed me to submit to the moment. To, in a way, submit to God. I felt the smoothed stones before me, where thousands had prayed before. I could feel the energy of the holy, almost like it pulsated through my fingers, and into my soul. Psalm 33:22 ran through my mind

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you.

I then was able to truly pray...I prayed for my family, for my church, for people I know, for peace around the world, peace in this place. And then the sounds around me stopped, and I was just there. My head placed against the stone wall, where thousands had prayed before. I felt so small, yet so loved by God. I left a page of prayers stuck into the wall, into the hands of God's loving kindness.

When I stepped back from the wall, one of my fellow travelers pointed out a dove sitting on the rock above. A sign of the holy spirit and a sign of peace.

And then I was a tourist again, on to another site...another gift store, another place to take a photo.

Later in the day, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place that marks the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, I saw a wall with crosses carved in it. I realized that crosses has been carved into these walls by visitors for almost a thousand years. Pilgrims, tourists...

A friend of mine told me that tourism is about going and seeing, pilgrimage, is about going, seeing and returning changed. How this experience will change me is still to be discovered, but one thing I am sure, my faith will never be the same.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Coming home to Jerusalem

Yesterday, I came home to Jerusalem. I have never been here before, but this city is a special place representing God's presence on earth for Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is a spiritual home - a place that has dwelled in my imagination and study for years - though my preaching and teaching of Holy scripture. And so here I am, the real deal, Jerusalem.

I am traveling with a group from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, led by our Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris. There are 16 of us, we come from a handful of different parishes around the Diocese. Each of us has brought a different reason for going on this adventure, and I think that in time we may all discover the real reason we have come. As with any pilgrimage, we will discover more upon the way.

This city is enfolded in prayer. We hear the Muslim call to prayer through out the day. The first time I heard it, I was unpacking in my hotel room. I rushed to the window, and threw it open to hear, but already its beautiful sounds are becoming common place in this amazing Holy city.

Today, we went to the Mount of Olives, and walked down the mountain to the City of Jerusalem the same walk Jesus took on Palm Sunday and then on to the the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his capture.

It continues to amaze me how close everything is, how the stories of Jesus' passion take place in a very small geographic area. Every site is marked by a church. We read the scripture associated with the site, and have a chance to pray. I am looking forward to exploring my spiritual home more over the days to come...