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Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Road from Emmaus...

Many of us know the story of the Road to Emmaus in Luke's Gospel where Jesus mysteriously shows up as his two friends/disciples are walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus.  Here in the story Jesus not only opens the scriptures to them, but reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.  Christians often see this as an assurance of still finding Jesus in the Sacrament of the table...he still shows himself in the breaking of the bread.

Yesterday I was at two of the three sites that hold claim to being the true Emmaus.  Both are beautiful, one Emmaus Nicopolis which hosts some impressive archeological evidence on its side, and some early connection from Eusebius and others.  The other hosts a later Crusader veneration and is in the Muslim village of Abu Gnosh.  
Ruins of a 5th century basilica and great
archeological evidence connecting
this site as Emmaus.

Both sites now host monastic communities.  And each of these communities works hard to establish connections with their neighbors.  At Abu Gnosh, brother Oliver told us stories of the Israeli army bringing new recruits to come and visit the monastery in an attempt to help them better understand the history of the place.  Together they sang the 23rd psalm in this Crusader church, inside a Muslim village and before leaving the commander asked Brother Oliver to bless these young recruits--none of whom are Christian.
Beautiful courtyard at the monastery in Abu Gnosh

The monastery here at Abu Gnosh is Benedictine, the same order as the monastery I visited in Oceanside, Prince of Peace.  With two big differences:  There is also a convent here at Abu Gnosh, and here at Abu Gnosh I was invited/allowed to take communion with the community.   Imagine that:  an open table where our unity in Christ which already exists trumps the insecurities of "right thinking."    As I traveled the road away from Emmaus it seemed clear that Christ is still present whenever his people dare to reach out in love, in community, in mercy toward each other.  And I also leave with a strong conviction that I have to do a better job of not only listening to the stories of those around me; but of providing ways for the Christian story to interact with all the competing narratives that surround us.  
After Mass --a welcoming
community of French

I say goodbye in a few hours to Tantur and I leave more confused than ever; but more focused as well, if that makes sense.   I'm off to Augusta Hospital for a week and my guess is that I'll meet Jesus there. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The more I learn the less I know....

In Hebron there are examples everywhere of
people who want you to hear and
understand their story.
We had a brilliant lecture from a Jewish woman who decided to get her doctorate in Early Christianity in order to fill the gaps in her understanding of Christians.  Sometimes she teaches Jewish text to Jews, sometime Jewish texts to Christians, sometimes Christian texts to Jews and sometimes Christian texts to Christians.   Her story is quite compelling, growing up in New Jersey she was surrounded by Christians and Christian culture; but she admits to never having a Christian friend. That didn't happen until she moved to Jerusalem!

She had no interest in Christianity, but found her pursuits in Judaica to be more than satisfying.  Then she was invited to an interfaith text study group.  She had no interest in such things, but went once and was hooked.   We had a wonderful text study today looking at Genesis and Leviticus and the Talmud and the Mishnah and the Gospels...all around the theme of "The other."  

What was interesting is that she shared with us that growing up she was not to enter a Christian church, she was not to read the New Testament and she was not to have any association with Christians.   Partly this goes back to a very famous Jewish Rabbi named Maimonides .   She teaches a class here in Israel where she encourages her students to visit Christian churches to get a better understanding of who we are.  However each year several will not show up.  Being pious Jews they consult their Rabbi and are told they should not go into a Christian church. 
Same neighborhood, but a very different story
being told.

My point is not how bad this is to think of Christians this way; but how sad it is that we know so little about each other.  We hold on to stereotypes and misconceptions that color our "narratives" in such a way that we are unable to hear each others story.   We Christians act surprised that some of our Jewish friends have some reservations about Christians.   Our Jewish friends have a story that is based on thousands of years of being treated as less than human, of being outcasts and unwelcome by others.    A story of governments who were seemingly prepared to see the Holocaust happen and who did very little about it.  Even the US did not allow Jewish immigrants to come to the US after WWII until after the state of Israel was formed.  I've come to see that some of our Jewish friends rightfully don't trust anyone and this is understandable. 

I know this may shock you, but for some of our Jewish friends they are pretty much prepared for the moment when good folks like us will be lining up to do them harm.  And historically they should be concerned, it has happened over and over again.   This is why Israel is so important for them:  it is a place where a Jew can finally be safe.  

Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
This also makes the modern day conflict with the Palestinians so difficult, because any critique of Israeli national policy is often seen as one more example of being anti Jew at best or continued anti-Semitism at worst. 

So how do we break down the walls of suspicion?  How do we move forward together?  Can we forget the past--no!  Maybe we acknowledge the hope that both Jew and Christian share and walk in constant humility.  It is a real puzzle; but I think the beginning is the ability to listen to each others story.  To just listen.  Not try to rationalize it, change it, or even react to it--just listen.  What is your narrative and how willing are you to have it challenged or perhaps enriched by the narrative of the other?
Selfie with his honor Oded Revivi, mayor of

I had the chance to meet and listen to the mayor of Efrat --a Jewish settlement.  And while the issues of Settlements is a very hot topic; it was interesting to listen to him talk as the mayor of a town.  His issues where the running of the municipality.  Trash, water, safety, schools....all things that I want him to do well with.  And trust me he is a very dynamic man, with a very forceful 'can do" spirit.   Here's my point, his narrative is to be a good mayor to the people who elected him. To build bridges and to bring peace "not by signing papers on the White House lawn" but by working together and fostering relationships.  Now we might say, but Settlements are bad and he shouldn't be there....but the reality is that he is; and the Settlements aren't going away.   So, do I condemn his good work in what some would say is a morally precarious settlement or do I rejoice in the gift of good government in that place?

Meanwhile not a couple of miles away a Christian family is being harassed over ownership of land and a farm that is clearly theirs.  Even the military has intimidated them and done harm to their property.  The owners have received calls saying---how much do you want, a blank check, just give a number.  But you see this is their family farm and it's not for sale.   Can we also hear their story, respect it and find a way to see it as of equal worth and not in competition or in conflict with the other stories or narratives in this place?  

One thing for sure anyone who thinks they understand this place, these people, their issues:  either has never spent anytime here or if they did they only talked, ate and worshipped with one particular group, and missed out on several parts of the story. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

So what's your story?

The word of the month for me here at Tantur Ecumenical Institute is NARRATIVE.   It's a fancy word that simply means story, spoken or written about events, real or imaginary that give meaning.  We all have a narrative, a story that helps define who we are.  And at times we have earth shattering events that change our narrative forever.  The addition of a child or an unexpected opportunity can all add to our narrative.   But we also carry with us a narrative from our family of origin and cultural narratives as well.   What's tricky about narratives is that they have a powerful way of helping us make sense of the world but they can also close us off from others and help keep us isolated from truths or situations we don't want to hear.
Beautiful memorial to give a face to the victims of
the Holocaust.

For instance we spent the day today at the World Holocaust museum here in Jerusalem.  It is a powerful place that tells the story of not only the Holocaust but the history of anti-Semitism and persecution that is a part of the Jewish experience.   It is at times an ugly story that makes you confront the reality of millions of people--mostly Jews--being sent to their deaths and that the world and governments knowing about this, did very little to intervene.  

At any rate we had a guide given to us from the museum and had about a 3 hour guided tour.  At the end one of the women in our grouped asked the guide if there is any concern that a people who had gone through so much horror, including the loss of land are treating others in ways that are oppressive.   She was talking about the Palestinians.   The guide was uncomfortable and said, no we don't treat anyone in those kind of ways.   The women pressed a bit, "Well what about the fact that water is often cut off in the refugee camps for weeks at a time?"  The guide very irritated said, "That is a lie!  A libel statement!  We do not do things like that.  And we don't blow up people at pizza parlors or do suicide bombings."  He then turned off his microphone and that was the end of the tour!  (It was over anyways).
What is the story or narrative 
that defines us?

His narrative had no room for the fact that there are issues such as taking of land and displacement of peoples that are very similar,  He had to dismiss as a lie what we have come to know as a truth.  A lie because it did not fit his narrative.  We are not oppressors....we have been the oppressed.

Now I'm not in anyway comparing the current situation with the Holocaust or in anyway suggesting that the suffering of the Holocaust is comparable to modern problems....but it was interesting that he was unable, unwilling, and unprepared to have his narrative questioned.  I think it ran to deep, it had taken on almost God like status and was not to be challenged.

What about us?  What is the narrative that we hang on to in regards to defining who we are?   Is that narrative always truthful?  Is it willing to be challenged?   Do we feel threatened if others seem to suggest a different political, religious, or cultural narrative other than our own?   It was hard today for me to have my narrative challenged by the story of Jewish persecution and anti-Semitism that seems to be in the very DNA of the western world.  The mirror is not always an easy place to stand; but it's honest, and as Jesus said, "the truth will set us free."  Amen

Friday, June 16, 2017

Yes that was gunfire and that is an ISIS held village.

Looking into Syria we could hear the war.
In my blog I can go a little deeper than just sharing pictures and I've been thinking about an experience we had two days ago.  First of all, it is very safe here traveling.  That being said, while looking over into the Syrian border we heard the unmistakable sounds of war.  There was gunfire, explosions and artillery.  It was a bit surreal.  Syria is in the midst of a civil war and there are several factions who are involved.  Along the border that we were following the Regime of Assad is engaged with ISIS.  In fact while we were following the border--something a usual pilgrimage trip doesn't do--we could literally see only a mile away, an ISIS controlled village. 

As we traveled along the border we were reminded that technically we were in 'occupied Syria' as the land was taken in the 68 war, and as we passed the rusting shells of tanks and memorials along the road we were reminded of the Yom Kippur invasion in the 70's and the fact that we were traveling in a part of Israel that has seen its share of bloodshed.  Finally we passed along to the Jordan border, you could see a bridge long ago destroyed, a reminder that it wasn't until the 90's that a peace deal was signed by Jordan and Israel.
See the tank on the hill?  A reminder of the various
wars in this region.

What was interesting was the reaction of the group to the sound of war.  One was very upset and pleaded for us to leave---we didn't.  Several rounded together and prayed, realizing that human life was most likely in peril within our earshot.  And some of us just looked and listened.  Our guide for the day, a seasoned French citizen, lit a cigarette and the bus driver took out his phone and played a video of when he was here before and the sound of fighting was much closer. 

Then someone asked, "and who is the US backing?"  It was a funny question since we were hearing the sound of the Assad regime fighting ISIS and so the answer was neither!  And who does Israel back?  Well they quite frankly are hoping the devil they know--Assad--well stay in power.   But of course the Russians are backing him, and even though Israel and the US are such allies, the US is (at least publicly) backing the resistance.  Meanwhile the Kurds are taking over the north, and while we are allies with Turkey---who does not want the Kurds to have a stronghold, we tend to like the Kurds as they help us fight with ISIS, so Turks have established their own little piece of Syria as well up in the North.  (Remember when the Russian jet was shot down by the Turks a year or so ago).  And we cant forget the Druze who are a distinct people (George Cloney's wife is a Druze) some of whom live in Israel and are loyal to Israel, some of whom live in Syria and are loyal to the Assad regime; but who are most of all loyal to each other.
An ISIS controlled village a mile away in
the distance.

So who are we backing?  Meanwhile pieces of shrapnel and metal projectiles are more than likely tearing through the bodies of soldiers, women, and children just across a border marked with a fence and a UN force that has been in place for decades to help keep the peace between Syria and Israel. 

So who are we backing?  I've come to the conclusion that I want to be on the side of peace.  Of compromise and of life.  Unfortunately no matter where it is carried out there is no "clean war."  This doesn't mean I'm a pacifist or somehow can be put in a box in regards to my political views, it just means but for the lack of mother nature and geography my family lives on this side of the border and I can get back on the air conditioned bus and continue on my way.  If it were my family across that border I would be fervently praying that someone might be on the side of peace and trying to do something to stop the bullets from flying.  
That's Jordan across the green belt.  they and Israel have
been officially at peace since the 90's

So what do you do.  I said a little prayer and found my sit on the bus. But for many reasons it was a little bit less comfortable.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Incarnation epilogue... Ding Dong can Jesus play

Ok this blog post will be short and sweet.  Here in Nazareth I'm staying at the sisters  of Nazareth  convent.  Here's  the thing, several years ago they made a huge discovery.  the convent was actually built on top of a Byzantine ruins of a church.  the dome has kept things preserved and under the dome was also a first century  house and tomb.   Bottom line many think this is the house of Jesus , Mary and Joseph.   and that this was josephs  tomb.  This is not for the public.  it is still being worked.  but tonight we got a private tour.    Google, "CNN Jesus home found" for a full story.  here are the pix.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The puzzling thing about incarnation

I worshipped today at the Lutheran church of the Redeemer here in Jerusalem.  The opening confession had these words:  "O god, even as we celebrate our unity, we know that sometimes we forget the beauty of your three persons.  We hold to your transcendent life as creator and keep at a distance the challenges of Christ.  We bow before your glory and keep your humanness away from the reality of our own lives."

It seems to me that this is one of the great wonders of the Christian faith.  We take seriously that Christ was born, incarnate into the mess of humanity.  That somehow this mess is blessed by God and is even "good" as it crossed the threshold of creation.   But people are irritating.  We don't always love one another as we should.  We don't always act noble and there are times when we willingly and knowingly allow ourselves to rationalize all kinds of wrongs, if not down right evils.

I've come to realize that this is one of the reasons why I like the Holy Sepulchre so much.  It's because it is utterly divine and so painfully human at the same time!  Standing reverently
to touch the hill of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified and died; people are pushing and cutting in line and quite frankly ticking me off!  So many seem to have no reverence for the place and no appreciation for the faith.  I'm looking for a spiritual experience and they seem to be on more of a field trip.  And then it hits me....Christ died for them!  For me!!  For this unfaithful, selfish lot we call humanity.  Christianity is not a retreat from the mess; but a reminder that God loves it, and there is good in the midst of it.  Even with our inevitable patterns of sin and brokenness.  God still comes to us each and every day!

I of course come to the Sepulchre as often as I can, but during this season I come especially not to touch the hill of Golgotha or go to the tomb; but to look at the ladder.   You see in 1852 there was so much fighting and bickering among Christians in the Holy Land that the law of Status Quo was
put into effect.  It states that nothing can change from how it was in 1852. So what ever you were allowed to do in 1852, what ever boundaries there were---they have to be the same today.  That's why it takes minor miracles to get anything done in the Sepulcher.  Well in 1852 the Franciscans were allowed to have a ladder in place behind the stone of purification for a hundred days or so from Easter onward
See the ladder to the left?

Here's a better view from up top!!  It's there
because it CAN BE BY GOD!
.  So...BY GOD...they put a ladder back in that place every Easter.  Not because they need it, but because THEY CAN!!!  And no one is going to take away their right to have a ladder there.  So, every time I walk in....I look at that ladder and chuckle.  Yes, even for such stupidity s this...Jesus came.   We are a strange people.  Stubborn and stiff necked just as the Bible claims.  Yet God still loves us all!   Keep those ladders God!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Christians, Jews and Muslims...Oh My!!

Coming toward us is a "Provocation Visit" to the
site of the Dome of the Rock.  Led by police and
followed by soldiers these visitors are there
to make a political statement and to cause tension.
This week in my program at Tantur is a constant mixing and matching of the three great traditions that call this land holy.   I have been at the Western wall amidst devout and praying Jews and at Al Aqsa mosque and inside the Dome of the Rock amidst devout and praying Muslims.  Tomorrow I'll spend time at a Refugee camp breaking the daily fast of Ramadan with a Muslim family and Friday I'll be celebrating Shabbat at a local Orthodox synagogue.  Meanwhile we meet as a Christian ecumenical group and struggle with issues of land, Biblical interpretation and authority and how we walk together in this land called Holy.  And of course this is not just a question for here in the Holy Land but how do we walk together in lands called America, or United Kingdom, or Singapore?
the ever popular selfie
at Al Aqsa compound.

Today we studied a document from the year 2000 entitled "Speaking the Truth."  It was prepared by a group of Jewish leaders as a point of discussion with the Christian world.  It offers 8 brief statements about Christian and Jewish conversation.  The 6th statement is this:

"The humanly irreconcilable differences between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.  Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition.  Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition.  That difference will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other, nor by exercising political power over the other.  Jews can respect Christians' faithfulness to their revelation just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our revelation.  Neither Jew nor Christian should be pressed into affirming the teaching of the other community."
Inside the Dome of the Rock.  A real privilege during

There is much to think about in this little statement; but what intrigues me is this idea of being able to respect each others  faithfulness without having to affirm the teaching of each other.   It sounds so simple.  And yet it seems lately in the United States we can't even give to our neighbors on either side of the aisle respect with affirming their position.  Instead we are taught to hate, to challenge, to dismiss anyone who thinks differently or who holds faithfully to a different set of ideals and principals.  

Can we ever reach a point when it's OK to respect the other, even while not affirming their particular position.   One would hope so!  
We came in through the northeast gate, not
the Tourist ramp you usually take.

Grounds as you approach the Dome of the Rock on
this northeast side.

Visited the delightful Muslim
museum on the site


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Christmas in June and the story of Omar

The oldest church in the Holy Land. Floor mosaics inside
date from 339 AD!!
By now you know that I am in the Holy Land, living right next to Bethlehem and Beit Jale and basically each day I get a chance to hear lectures about the land, the people, the politics, the Scriptures and then go out and visit.   What amazes me is how much more I learn each and every time I come to the Holy Land.  Let's take Bethlehem for instance.  Pretty much got the story of Bethlehem down pact.  Old Testament, David born here and Ruth meet Boaz here.  New Testament, Jesus born here (shepherds, angels, magi, Inn, census) got it.  But of course there is always more to learn.
Original floor from 339 AD

Let me tell you about Omar.  We Christians don't know anything about him.  He was the second Muslim Caliph.  Having conquered the Holy Land he traveled to Bethlehem in 637 AD to issue a law that would guarantee the safety of Christians and clergy.  He was asked if he would like to pray in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he declined.  However he did want to pray at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.   So here's where the story gets interesting.  In order to accommodate Omar, the leaders knew that he would need to pray toward Mecca, and that there couldn't be any images in the area where he prayed.  So they enlarged a side door in the direction of Mecca and to this day there are no icons or images in that part of the church.  This was over 1400 years ago!  Still it remains empty for Omar!
Here you see the door and the white plain wall.

In order to make sure there would be no problems, Omar decreed that Muslims could visit the Church of the Nativity, but should not pray there.  Instead he built a mosque across from manger square for the Muslims to use for prayer.   The mosque of Omar.   I guess what I find amazing is that in a land that is often known for its extremes, here is a decision that involved compromise, mercy, and mutual respect for each other; while fully realizing that there are differences between us. 

How I wish we had some folks with the wisdom of Omar today!!

Where St. Jerome translated the Bible
into Latin
Of course the Church of the Nativity is being renovated so it is a mess...but the renovation is much needed.  It is also the place where St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  He did this while living at the Church of the Nativity.  He died in 386 AD.  You can still see where he lived and worked. 

Finally, you'll have to wait until December, but I've learned a few new things about the birth of Jesus as well.   It doesn't change the wonder of the story, but it seriously challenges one of our most deeply held 'folk tales' about that night.   Ask me when I get back and I'll tell you....or just come to church on Christmas eve!

At the end of the day, visiting the shepherds fields--where we  had communion and the caretaker of the beautiful church let us ring the bells as we sang "Angels we have heard on high."  And being in the oldest church in the Holy Land, singing "Silent Night" right near where he was born whose name is above all, that is quite the Christmas present.
Cave at Shepherds field set for Holy Communion.

Shepherds field

Church at Shepherds Field.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Three land, one God.

Looking out to the modern city of Jerusalem.
When I host trips to the Holy Land I prefer to have a Christian guide.  It's just my preference.  Here at Tantur we get to experience folks from Christianity, Judaism and Islam and today we had a Jewish guide to take us around the city of Jerusalem to explore its outer edges before experiencing the center of the city tomorrow.  First of all, what a wonderful opportunity that time allows us this luxury.  Usually you can't "waste" time driving around the outside of the city because your itinerary just doesn't allow for it.   You are reminded of how big Jerusalem is, 850,000 souls and how the modern is just as important part of the city as the ancient streets. 
The western fringe of Jerusalem looking out toward
the valley where the Israelites camped opposite
the Philistines and their champion Goliath.

What struck me was the different narrative that comes from a Jewish perspective.  It's not wrong, it's just different.  The accents and stresses are simply put on a different part of the story.  The question today was "WHY JERUSALEM?"  We struggled with the ancient texts which never give us the name of the city until much later.  We talked about Abraham and Rachel and Moses and Joshua.  We talked about conquest and looked out to see the valley where a yet to be King David went to meet the Philistines in battle and took Goliath's head. We stood atop mount Scopus and where asked to imagine the Jewish pilgrim coming to Jerusalem and how the individual call to piety would be reinforced by his/her fellow pilgrims joined together by a single narrative.  Coming to the Temple to worship the God of Israel.

All wondrous and true....but no need for Jesus!  He was only mentioned in passing as that "other guy from Bethlehem."  What's humbling is to remember that while I can't come to Jerusalem without thinking about Jesus; others have a story to tell that has little if anything to do with him.    Their narrative is also mine, but in some ways I have to respect the fact that it is also self contained and can stand on its own.   And I have to contend with the fact that sometimes the two narratives have different perspectives.  Today we stood on Mount Scopus to look down into the Old city.  The Christian in me so wanted to stand on the Mount of Olives, for a more familiar view.  "Mount Scopus, Mount of Olives, all the same our guideproclaimed."   Indeed much in common, but not the same.  Similar view...but a very different path.
The view from Mt. Scopus with the Mount of Olives on the left and the tower of
Augusta Victoria's Hospital "Ascension Church" on the left and the Dome of
the Rock on the right. Kidron Valley in the middle.  Great view... not my
my mountain!