Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Day 9: BethPhage/Dominus Flevit/Gethsemane/Princess Basma/Dead Sea

The altar at Beth-Phage
The WiFi here at St. George's is acting a little jiggy tonight. I can't seem to get my pictures to upload. It's very annoying. I guess I'll just have to try again tomorrow. God knows we'll have time while I'm at the airport waiting for the midnight plane from Jerusalem to JFK.

Note: I just got a few pictures to download and will post the most pertinent ones. 

Today was yet another very full, intensely emotional day. We started out in the Garden of Gethsemane which was so deeply moving. We chanted the Taize "Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray. Watch and pray." I couldn't finish singing it for the lump in my throat. It's an emotional chant anyway, but chanting it there, in the Garden, was just too powerful for words.

We went onto Beth-Phage, the House of Figs, where Jesus called for a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. We walked the Palm Sunday walk, putting our feet in the actual places on the actual path where the first century Palestinians threw down palm branches and their coats before Jesus, whom they hailed as King of the Jews.

Jesus weeps the first time over Jerusalem
We walked from there to Dominus Flevit - the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem for the first time.

The church there is designed like a teardrop and the altar has a beautiful mosaic of a mother head trying to gather up her chicks under her wing.

I wish I could show you the pictures I took of the Caiaphas Palace, now known as St. Peter in Calicantu ("crowing rooster"). It was there that Jesus was thrown into The Pit.

I had no idea that Jesus was lowered down through a hole in the ceiling into The Pit.  It doesn't say that in scriptures but it's pretty clear that this is what happened to prisoners at that time and in that place.

We joined another church group that was there who started singing "Alleluia" and "How Great Thou Art" in at least four-part harmony while we were in that pit. The beauty and the poignancy just about did me in.

We'll continue the journey tomorrow morning at 5:45 AM when we walk the Via Dolorosa ("The Way of Sorrows" using John Peterson's meditations on the Stations of the Cross. We'll also go to Emmaus and then have a free afternoon before we get ready to take our leave for the airport.

We did make a brief stopover to visit an amazing place known as "Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children on the Mount of Olives". The Center is home to those who suffer with many types of birth trauma or deformity, debilitating injuries, autism, and other physical and emotional needs.

There is a new live-in unit for mothers and their children where mothers learn the physical therapy techniques they need for the child to function at an optimum level. That unit can hold 24 mothers and children.  The day school numbers 450 and is fully integrated.

We visited one classroom of first graders who sang, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" - in English. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to hear that song again the same way. Every.

We also visited a workshop where older teens and adults learn to make tables and chairs and various woodwork and tile which is sold and raises money to continue to keep this project sustainable.

I encourage you to click on the link here or above and check it out.  It was wonderful to see so many Episcopal Dioceses and individual churches supporting this important work with generous donations.

We had a lovely lunch at the Jerico home of our guide where we exchanged meaningful gifts with our prayer partner on this pilgrimage (more on that later) and then it was off to the Dead Sea where the water was warm enough to swim in and even those who can't swim were able to float like a cork.

Folks slathered the black mud on their bodies, letting it cake on and then they washed it off in the showers provided. We were repeatedly cautioned not to swim face down or get the water in our eyes or in our mouths.

Of course, you no doubt know that the reason the Dead Sea is dead is that water flows into it from the mountains and underground aquifers and springs but it does not send it on.

It receives but does not give. And so, it is dead.

Powerful metaphor, right there in nature.

I'm too exhausted tonight for any other profound thoughts, so I'll leave you with that.

I'll have more time to reflect and write after we leave here tomorrow.

For now, all I can say is that I can not only feel the transformation in my own soul, I see it on the faces of my fellow pilgrims.

I  wish you all could be here to experience it for yourselves, but if this has helped one of you to get a vicarious bit of an insight into The Holy Land, I'll be delighted.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Day 8: Church of the Resurection

Who moved the ladder?

Today was another fascinating day in the Holy Land. It was a day of contrasts between the Christian belief in the Resurrection in the ancient city of Jerusalem, and a trip to the Yad Vashem (Holocaust) Museum in modern Jerusalem.

And, much of the day and my experience of Jerusalem is summed up in the story about this ladder you see there under the window. I'll come back to that in a moment. 

We began the day with Morning Prayer at the Chapel of St. George's Cathedral and walked the Cardo to the Constantinian Entrance to the Church of the Resurrection to the Holy Sepulcher.

We then went onto to St. Mark's Church which is the reported site of the Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples ate their last meal together.

The shrine at Golgatha
We had lunch at the Lutheran Guest House and then off we went to the light rail which took us on a 45-minute ride through modern Jerusalem and out to the Yad Vashem Museum. Turns out, today is the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of 7,000 prisoners from Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

In case you're wondering, my iWatch reports that I have taken 11,061 steps today, or walked 4.06 miles, all told. But, you know, who's counting.

So, Constantine's mother was named Helena and she is credited with overseeing the construction of churches on Holy sites. She is also credited with finding the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. I'm not sure she had the church of St. Helena built in her name but that's the church where the cross was found.

I am fascinated to see various people respond to various sites. There are people here from all ove the world but today there seemed to be a very large number of Asian people visiting. I noted some Japanese, Philipino and some Chinese.

And, I also noted that they are especially emotional, wanting to kiss and venerate the place where Jesus was crucified or where his body was laid on a stone. Some were openly weeping. It was really deeply moving to see the free, unabashed outpouring of emotion.

The stone where Jesus' body was laid
One young man went under the altar that covers the spot where Jesus hung on the cross. There's a hole in the ground covered by a silver plate. He crawled under the altar and took a long, thin piece of cloth out of his backpack, stuck it in the hole and wiped it around a few times.

Then, before he came out from under the altar, he shoved it into a plastic baggie, sealed it and then hid it in his backpack before emerging from under the altar.

I have no idea what he's going to do with that piece of cloth, but my immediate reaction was to imagine more questionable things than good.

I did see him later, out in the courtyard, holding onto it and weeping so I'm hoping it means something miraculous to him with which he's going to do some good. 

 The tomb where Jesus' body was buried - the one given by Joseph of Arimathea - was apparently raided a few times, so the Greek Orthodox built an elaborate shrine around the remains of it.

What's impressive to me is the very short distance from Calvary where Jesus was crucified and died to the stone on which they laid him to the tomb where they buried him.

I don't know what I had been thinking but I imagined it a greater distance apart. Indeed, everything is much closer than I imagined it from reading the stories in scripture. The impact of that, at least for me, was very emotional. There was an immediacy to it all that made it much more intense.

We left the Church of the Resurrection and went to St. Mark's Church to the Upper Room. Again, it was all much closer than I imagined. But, turns out, we had to go down to see the Upper Room.

The shrine at the tomb of Jesus
There are two reasons for that. One, the church was built on top of the Upper Room so, of course, we had to go down. It is also true that, in its original state, it was the Upper Room as there is a whole layer of life below that room.

The room itself is actually small. It was hard to imagine 12 men and three women in that space, all eating their last meal or serving food to the men or anointing Jesus' head and feet with oil.

We had a delightful lunch with the Lutherans who run a lovely retreat center and a guest house just steps away from all these Holy sites. It was lovely to break bread with these wonderful Christians.

And then, it was off to board the lite rail for a 45-minute ride out to Yad Vashem Museum.  I must say, it was an incredibly powerful experience. After the emotion of the morning's experience, this was just draining. What made this particular museum so powerful is that they begin in 1933, before Hitler's rise to power. They told ordinary stories of ordinary people and their ordinary lives.

So, by the time they start talking about Hitler's rise to power, you begin to have a window into what it must have felt like to have been caught up in the insanity of anti-semitism.

The ceiling at Yad Vashem
It was also shocking to see how it was that Hitler secured the backing of the courts and then the religious leaders, which gave him such a firm foundation to proceed with his plans.

I felt a cold chill of recognition as I watched Hitler rise to power.

George Santayana is quoted as having said, "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

I suspect there are some who study history do so in order to repeat it.  

If you are ever in Jerusalem, you must come and see this. It's not only very powerful, but it is also instructive.

So, I want to end by coming back to that picture of the ladder at the beginning of this reflection.

Apparently, that ladder has been there for as long as anyone can remember. No one knows why it is there. No one has ever been known to use it. It serves no real purpose. It's just always been there.

One day, in 2007, someone removed the ladder. No one knows who. Just one day, it was no longer there.

And, apparently, people lost their minds. 

Who moved the ladder? Why was the ladder moved? Who had the right, the authority, to move the ladder? Why wasn't anyone told about the ladder being moved? 

The next day, just as quietly as it had been removed, the ladder was returned to its original place. 

And, just like that, peace returned to Jerusalem. 

At least, for a time. 

I think that's quite a metaphor for the tensions that exist today in the Middle East, which is bound by a sense of blind allegiance to antiquity while striving to live into the realities of the present world.

I think it's a great metaphor for the human experience of change. Some of us venerate the status quo, which can, itself, become an idol. 

I'm learning that, as important and wonderful as it is to have all of these shrines that keep alive the memory of the narratives of our faith, the veracity of the location is less important than the commemoration of the historical event. 

The church is the keeper of the story so that lives may be changed and transformed by it.

That's important to remember.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Day 7: Western Wall/Dome of the Rock/Israel Museum

Women have the right side of the wall - farther away from the former Temple
Today we got an unexpected but important glimpse into what the tensions are really like here in the Holy Land.

We started the day as the sun was rising in the East on the Western Wall. It used to be called "The Wailing Wall" from 1948-1967 during the years of Jordanian rule when Jews were not permitted access to The Wall. (Imagine!)

There is security at the wall, of course, with separate scanners: men to the left, women to the right. And there is a wall around the wall, men to the left, women to the right.

Men praying at the left side of the wall - closest to the Temple
The left side of the Western Wall is closest to the remnant of the Temple, so it is closest to the Holy of Holies. The left side is also noisy, the men needing to shout out their prayers from time to time, for no real discernible reason, except, perhaps because they can.

The women are on the right side of the Western Wall. Except those women who drag their chairs to the back partition of the men's side of the wall. They are far from the actual wall but closer to the Holy of Holies.  I know. Go figure.

Many of the women bury their faces in their prayer book and rock back and forth. I noticed some of them weeping silently. Some of them start about halfway back and slowly approach the wall. Once there they embrace the wall, sometimes kissing it, sometimes getting the wall wet with their tears.

Some women go back and forth between their chair and the wall. But one never - ever!- turns one's back on the wall. One backs out slowly and walks backward until one gets past the library area of prayer books, just as one would do in the presence of royalty.

I had a lovely experience with one woman who was sitting on a chair next to where I was standing. I was reading the list of prayers softly, holding the paper in my left hand and touching the wall with my right hand.

Moi praying at the Wall.
When I finished saying all the prayers I folded up the paper, bent over slightly, and placed it in a crevice of the wall. As I came up, the woman in the chair next to me patted my leg and said, "Is good. Is okay. Is good."

I was feeling emotionally depleted at that very moment and I was pleasantly surprised that she was able to pick that up with her spiritual antenna.

It felt very pastoral, very loving, very kind.

The emotional and spiritual language of women is, in many ways, universal.

From the wall, we went through another security section - men on the left, women on the right - to go to the Temple Mount.

The Mosque there is closed to anyone who isn't Muslim but I didn't see anyone go in to pray. I suppose I was there when it wasn't one of the five times during the day that devout Muslims pray.

We made our way to the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of the Second Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70 CE.  It's the holiest of sites for Muslims. The Fountain Stone on which the Temple was built is said to be the place where God created the world and the first human.

It is also said to be the place where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac, and as the place where God's divine presence is manifested more than in any other place, towards which Jews turn during prayer. This last piece is very important to remember.

Finally, the Dome of the Rock is the place where the Prophet Muhammed was ascended in his "night journey" after his death. Geographically, it is directly across from the place of the Ascension of Jesus.

The healing pools at Bethesda (The Sheep Gate)
Oh, and the fifth chapter of John's Gospel talks about the healing at the medicinal healing pools near the Sheep Gate, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda. 

It's an area rich in spiritual significance for all three Abrahamic faiths.

So, there we were, walking around the Temple Mount, taking pictures, admiring the mosaic, reflecting on the deep, ancient spiritual significance of the place when suddenly, we were very abruptly gathered up and told we had to leave. Now.

A very angry Palestinian Muslim security guard yelled at us to "Get out, now."

We had no idea what was going on or what, if anything, we had done wrong. We just listened to our guide and our leaders and left as quickly and quietly as we could.

When we were a safe distance away, our guide told us that, apparently, the guard had seen one of our leaders sitting on the ground with his eyes closed. (He also happened to be wearing his collar). As he looked around, apparently, he saw other members of our group doing the same thing.

He went to our guide and starting yelling that we were praying and our Christian prayers were not allowed on this holiest of holy places for Muslims.

Our guide tried to tell him that we weren't praying but merely reflecting.

The Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount
That seemed to make him even angrier.

Out! He said. Now!

So, I understand. At first I, too, thought, "Oh, for goodness sake! Prayer is prayer! What the WHAT is wrong with him?"

Well, what is wrong with him is thousands of years of blood-soaked war which were fought over whose prayers are authentic and whose inheritance is valid and who "owns" the place where God created the earth and human beings and Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son and Muhammed ascended into heaven and even the Jews turn toward the Dome of the Rock as the holiest of holies.

It also has to do with the fact that Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank in violation of the agreements so that the Palestinian Arabs, many of whom (but not all) are Muslims and some of whom are Christians, have more and more of their land taken from them.

It has to do with the fact that Israel has built a wall separating the Palestinians from the Israelis and then reinforce that ghettoization with a system of travel that strictly limits Palestinian access to work, hospitals, schools, and families.

A place to wash one's feet
Indeed, after a few days here, one begins to notice that Palestinian homes have one or two or more large black tanks on the roof and the Israeli homes do not.

The large black tanks are filled with water which they sometimes need because the Israeli's have cut off Palestinian access to water and sometimes, for no apparent reason (except that they can), the water will be shut off for days at a time.

The Palestinians have learned to take care of themselves when that harassment begins.

So, it's not surprising that tensions run very high here. The smallest infraction can cause a major scene that could easily escalate and get right out of hand.

I understand. That man was simply holding onto the one thing that he still had control over.  

You should have seen the man's eyes. I know I'll never forget how they burned with outrage!

It doesn't take long to understand that the Israeli occupation of Palestine may be their revenge for years of Arab oppression, but it's also true that turn-about is not necessarily fair play.

All that it seems to be accomplishing is the creation of an incubator for terrorists.

I remembered Yasser Arafat's famous quote, "Whoever stands by a just cause can not possibly be called a terrorist."

We should never let facts get in the way of truth. 'Just' can be different from 'right', and what is right is not necessarily just.

I don't have a solution. I only know that I've caught small glimpses here and there of the tensions Palestinians have to live with every day.

Today provided an even more vivid glimpse into the realities of life here in occupied Palestine.

I think it absolutely breaks God's heart to see Her children waring against one another for centuries, with no apparent end in sight. 

I know I'm going to pray even more fervently for peace in the Middle East in general and Jerusalem and Palestine in particular.

I hope you will join me. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Day 6: Burquin/Nablus/Taybeh

Today was a day for old monks, ancient wells and women with five husbands and the cave of ten healed lepers; it was also a  day for new wine, microbeer, and Palestinian art.

Oh, and the ancient ruins of a church where animal sacrifice continues to this very day. Well, yesterday to be exact. The blood was still in pools on the floor.

I am feeling richly blessed, full measure, pressed down and overflowing.

I don't even know where to begin, so I'll start at the beginning.

We started the day at an old monastery that was built around the cave in Burquin where it is believed the 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus lived. The only one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan.

Jacob's Well
Seeing the cave, however, and how small it was, and thinking that 10 people were in there was more than mind-boggling. I kept imagining what it must have been like for the 9 lepers who had to share such small space with the Samaritan. Bad enough to be a leper, but a leper who has to share a quarantined cave with a Samaritan has got to be lower than pond scum.

And yet, Jesus healed them all. And, only the Samaritan returned.

Then we skipped over to Nablus to visit St. Photini the Greek Orthodox monastery. St. Photini was the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob's well. She was the one with five husbands.

To stand in that cave with Jacob's well in the middle of the room was one thing. To drink from that well was quite another. The Greeks have built up quite an ornate church on top of that well with icons and murals everywhere you look which were all done by the same man - Fr. Justin. He's the really old monk pictured above. And yes, he wrote all those icons.

My favorite was an icon/mural which shows Joseph carrying the boy Jesus on his shoulders. It simply melted my heart.

Fr. Justin said it took him six years to complete that mural. He had hurt his neck doing it so it was slow going for a long while.

Our guide wants us to get a full picture of Palestine so while we were in Nablus, we went over to the business of one of his many and varied "cousins" who runs a pastry shop. He wanted us to watch how it is they make Kenafeh - a cheese pastry made with shredded wheat which is soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup and baked to perfection.


So we watched them shred the wheat on a special machine

And then, they fill it with this amazing sweet cream.

And then, they roll it up and soak it in sweet syrup.

And then, of course, we ate some.

Warm, right out of the oven. 

Can I just say, OMG????

We left there and went over to Taybeh, the only 100% Christian town in the Palestinian Authority. There, we stopped by a microbrewery and winery which is run by Palestinians who had been living and working in Brookline, MA, and then took the money they earned and invested in a distillery where they now distribute wine and beer to 9 countries around the world, including - you guessed it, Brookline, MA.

It as such fun to see the folks in our group who are from Brookline talk with one of the women who works in the family business - she's the daughter of the owner. Her brother is the one who develops the microbrewed beer.

She couldn't have been more delighted to share memories with folks. Indeed, she was just back in Brookline three weeks ago. One of her sisters still lives there.

Her sister's name is Nadim. Just like the wine.

So if you are looking for a lovely Palestinian beverage to have with your meal, see if your local package store carries Taybeh wines or beer. We had a taste. It was really terrific.

After an amazing lunch at another of our guide's "cousins," we went off to visit the ruins of the church of St. George in the Village. I don't have any pictures to show you. This is the church where they still do animal sacrifices - in thanksgiving for a cure for a disease or the safe birth of a baby, etc.

The goat or sheep or lamb is sacrificed and then the meat is cooked and distributed to the poor.

Our guide was quick to point out that they don't sacrifice the animal in the ruins of the church proper but at the doorway to the church. Because, I guess that makes it better.

Yeah, so I didn't stay there long.

We ended the day visiting a Palestinian Artists Collective known as Sunbula.

It's a tiny store with a mighty mission which "began as a small project called Craftaid during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1988 by Carol Morton, the wife of the late Rev. Colin Morton of the St. Andrews Scottish Church in Jerusalem. 

Carol wanted to help Palestinian women across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their efforts to support their families by marketing their beautiful handmade traditional crafts.  She started inside St. Andrews Guest House a modest shop, which became the nonprofit organization Sunbula in 1996. 

In April of 2010, we opened our second shop, “House of Palestinian Crafts,” in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Since being founded Sunbula has become Palestine’s leading fair trade craft organization, and is regarded as a trusted provider of the finest quality Palestinian crafts while directly supporting hundreds of women and their families through income-generation and development work." 

Go check out their website here - especially their Nativity Sets which are ever so much more accurate and authentic.

I can't even begin to explain what it feels like to be in an ancient cave where Jesus was in the morning, and in a microbrewery run by folks with ties to Brookline, MA in the afternoon.

This is the reality of Jerusalem, of all of Israel and Palestine.

Deep roots in ancient history with many branches in modern reality.

Tomorrow morning will find us praying at the Western Wall. I've written down all your prayers and will take them with me to place there in the wall.

My heart is overflowing with gratitude. 

I'm so grateful for all of your prayers.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Day 5: Sepphoris/Caesarea Philippi

The entrance to the tomb

I think this has been the most intense day of this pilgrimage which has been very intense.

There's an awful lot of information, most of which simply shatters all of my assumptions and the information I thought I knew as fact.

I mean, I went into debt to go to seminary and I always thought I had gotten an excellent education so it was worth every penny.

And then, I came to the Holy Land.

I've now got a much better sense of the geography. It made such an amazing difference to stand in the dessert and see Jerusalem on my left and Jericho on my right and realize that it was about 25.6 km or about 79 miles.

So, if the average, strong, young person is able to walk about 20 miles in one day, it's about a three-day journey for Jesus - or the Good Samaritan - to go "from Jerusalem down to Jericho".  You begin to understand why hospitality is so important.

I also understand a bit more about the lives of people who lived in the first century. First of all, there were no houses made of wood. People either lived in caves or they lived in stone houses.

A proper manger to fed animals - or for a newborn babe
I've now been in three cave dwellings in Jerusalem and Nazareth and I have a much better sense of where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The "inn" may have been an upright stone building or it may have been a cave-dwelling.  I'm told that people in this area were still living in caves 100-150 years ago.

Some of the folks I've spoken with remember visiting their grandparents in their caves.

So, the place where Jesus was born was probably a cave-dwelling, in the "upper room" where the animals stayed the night so it would be warmer there.

I've learned that Jesus wasn't placed in a lovely V-shaped manger made out of wood and straw. Well, no doubt the straw was there, but the manger was carved out of stone.

The babe was probably wrapped in "swaddling cloth" because that's what would have been available for newborn lambs.

I don't think I'm going to be able to look at another Nativity Set again without having to turn off and silence my interior critic.

And, don't even get me started about Christmas Pageants. It's a good thing I'm not rector of a church because we'd either have to do a LOT of educational work with the adults and children to re-educate them to the story or we'd just have fun and riff on it with modern characters playing the ancient roles and storyline. 

I mean, scholars have known this for YEARS! I didn't learn this in my fancy-schmancy seminary education which placed me in debt for ten years. And, I want to know why.

Stone stairs leading to the street
I've also learned that "teckton" is the Greek word used to describe Joseph. Somehow, somewhere, that got translated as "carpenter". Actually? It is best translated as an artisan or craftsman or master builder. In many countries, like Greece, that can mean either a stonemason or a carpenter.

It's pretty clear after hanging around Israel and Palestine that chances are very high Joseph was more of a stonemason than a carpenter. It just makes a whole lot more sense.

Does that challenge or change my faith? No. But it does make a difference in terms of my sense of biblical literacy.

I've also learned a lot more about the importance of water in a land which includes a large swath of desert.

Mount Hermon is a majestic mountain range that sits in the north between Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

Israel's sources of water include underground water from the mountain and coastal plain aquifers, groundwater from Lake Kinneret, rivers, the Sea of Galilee (which is a freshwater lake), floodwaters and now, water reservoirs. 

It's important to know this, not only in terms of ancient cultures and their dependence on wells and water for a nomadic people, but also in terms of geopolitical considerations in terms of how boundaries are drawn and who gets access to water. 

I didn't realize that Israel is really only slightly bigger than the state of New Jersey. But, within that relatively small area lie all three of the Abrahamic religions: Muslims, Jews and Christians, and all of the varieties of each of those three main categories. 

It's important to know because each of those religions also claim the right of divine providence over the land. Each one points to something in scripture as proof of evidence that God wants the land for them and not for anyone else. 

The entrance to the cave-dwelling
The bible becomes their "deed" and they own the "mortgage" free and clear. 

When all of that happens in a nation that is just slightly bigger than the state of New Jersey, you begin to understand that tensions can go from zero to 100 in less than ten seconds. 

I could go on and on but I want to tell you about something that happened tonight that just simply knocked off my socks.

So, we've been staying at the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. The sisters came here from France in 1855 and opened a school. That was their primary apostolate. 

They bought the land and built the school and the convent and were very successful and active for many years. 

A few years ago and for a variety of reasons, they decided to switch their mission from education to hospitality and began to renovate and upgrade their property, putting in new electrical and plumbing system and an elevator, and changing the rooms into guest rooms with one floor dedicated for their residence.

In the process, they were amazed to find a cave-dwelling right underneath their school and convent. It has several large rooms which were used as common areas ("living rooms") a section for animals which included a double feeding manger (see above), as well as rooms to sleep. 

As they continued to excavate and dig around, they also found a loose stone on the floor. When they rolled the stone away, they discovered below a crypt with an ante-room where the body would be washed and prepared with spices and then wrapped in bands. 

The dead bodies would then be wrapped and bound and stored in a catacomb that would be sealed shut. I'm told that it takes a dead body approximately two years to decompose, at which point the tomb would be opened and the bones removed and placed in an ossuary, freeing the tomb for another body to be stored. 

A sarcophagus fit for a bishop
There is an Anglican Church right next door to the Convent which also started to check out what was under the church. Turns out there was a tunnel that ran from the Convent to the Church. 

They discovered a sarcophagus in that room and when they opened it up, the body and bones had disintegrated to dust but there was a pretty impressive ring in the coffin. 

This has lead folks to think it was the body of a bishop who was buried under the church, as was often the custom in the early days of the church. 

Other speculation includes the inhabitants of this particular cave dwelling. 

Could this have been the home of Mary and Joseph and Jesus? We know that they lived in Nazareth and this particular cave-dwelling shows evidence of having been inhabited in the first century through the fourth century. 

Could it have been the home of The Holy Family? Or, might it have been a relative of them? Might Jesus have lived or played here as a child?

There is no way to know for certain, of course, but the possibilities are tantalizing.

Here's the thing: We've been staying at this Convent for two nights and we did not know any of this until tonight. Our pilgrimage guide brought us downstairs as a special surprise. 

I actually took the pictures you see here.  

I can hardly believe I captured what I saw, but I'm more amazed that I saw what I did. 

The catacombs where the dead were kept
And, that it's been right below my feet the whole time. 

And, the dining room abuts the place where the bishop's sarcophagus lies in state. 

I wonder how many other treasures lie hidden under these ancient streets. 

I wonder how much more I don't know that I thought I knew.

I really can't put words to how I feel, but here are a few:






Deeply, deeply moved.

Those are the ones I can most easily and readily identify and name. 

We're heading back to Jerusalem tomorrow, stopping by Burquin where Jesus was passing by on his way to Jerusalem from Nazareth and healed ten lepers who were isolated and in quarantine in a cave

We're also going to visit St. Photini the Greek Orthodox Monastery. St. Photini is said to have been the Samaritan woman who Christ visited at the well when he asked her for a drink. We'll visit Jacob's well there, where the Samaritan woman met Jesus. 

The living area of the dwelling
We're also going to stop by Taybeh, the only 100% Christian town in the Palestinian Authority where we'll visit St. George's church in the village. 

We still have 5 more days left on this pilgrimage. 

I feel as though I've learned so much and yet there's so much more to learn. 

My faith is strengthened and renewed by everything I've seen and every conversation I've had.

This is such a blessing.

There's lots more to explore and learn, including Sunday at the Western Wall and worship at St. George's Cathedral 

Thanks for joining me on this pilgrimage. 

I've felt lifted and supported by every one of your prayers.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Day 4: Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, Capernam/Beatitudes

The Sea (Lake) of Galilee
This has never happened to me before.

I'm pretty much over the jet lag but this particular Pilgrimage has been very intense. The experience of being here on this Holy Ground where billions of seekers have placed their feet in the same places as Jesus and his disciples is almost overwhelming at times.

When you begin to understand the physicality and geography, understand some of the politics of the day, and then have some of what you've been carefully taught shown to be incorrect - well, it's all a bit much to take in much less digest.

So, I knew we were going to have an early morning. Up at 5:15 AM, breakfast at 6 AM and out the door to beat the crowds at 7 to head to the Jordan River.

I was exhausted, but I had taken a hot shower, washed and dried my hair, got into my warm jammies, and, as I got into bed, I thought, "Oh, this is going to be The Best Night's Sleep in the history of Best Night's Sleep."

And, it was.

I woke up feeling pretty refreshed. I turned on the light and went to the bathroom. I washed my face, took my vitamins, combed my hair, brushed my teeth and then decided, since I hadn't heard the alarm go off, to check the time.

It was 2:43. AM.

That is NOT "in the morning." That would be more aptly described as "in the middle of the night."

I was stunned. I checked my watch, my phone, and my computer.

It was 2:44. AM.

I turned off the lights and absolutely WILLED myself to go back to sleep.

I'll tell you what: 5:15 AM came awful quick and awful early.

The banks of the River Jordan
Even so, I don't think even a full night's sleep would have prepared me for a day like today, which was full and rich and amazing.

We started off at a small, isolated area of the banks of the Jordan River where we all stood on the bank of the river and listened to the gospel story of the baptism of Jesus.

We then renewed our own baptismal vows.

One of our leaders then went down to the water and soaked a bundle of olive branches and "asperged" us real good.

I and another woman is who is a clergy colleague then were privileged to anoint the foreheads of those who cared to come forward. I used the same words God used after Jesus was baptized.

Making the sign of the cross with oil, I said, "You are God's child. You are beloved of God. With you, God is well pleased."

And then, one of our clergy leaders did the same to me.

I can't even begin to describe the experience except to tell you the facts of what happened. And, to tell you that there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that God was in that place.

One of the houses in Capernaum, near Peter's house
We were off, then, to Peter's house in Capernaum which was a real eye-opener on several levels. First of all, I had imagined Peter's house being made of wood. Because, well, Sunday School and Bible Books for Kids, etc.

Um.... not.

And, it's probably so that Joseph was not a carpenter but primarily a stonemason.

And, when Jesus went to the home of Peter, scripture says he "ran from the synagogue to meet him.

For some reason, I always imagined that he ran, not just out ot immediacy, but because it was a long way away and he had to hustle.

Well, really, the synagogue is probably about 1/2, maybe 3/4 of a city block from Peter's house. 

Which was made of stone, oh, by the way.

We were then on our way to the Mount of Beatitudes, where we read and meditated on the Beatitudes.

It was there, in the chapel, where a group of Orthodox Christians suddenly broke out into song, singing a hymn that one of them told me later was about the Beatitudes.

Chapel of Loaves and Fishes
The sincere piety of these folks. who had obviously sacrificed a great deal to be there, to make this journey, just warmed my heart and humbled my spirit. I discovered an even deeper understanding of what it means to be "blessed."

We also made our way to the Primacy of St. Peter's church there by the Sea of Galilee.

Which isn't a sea, you see.

It's really a lake. It's about 15 miles by about another 5 or 6 miles. So now, I'm going to have to start calling it The Lake of Galilee.

Or, maybe I won't.

Scholars have known for centuries that it's not the Sea of Galilee but rather, a lake. So, I can just chill.

We ended the day on a boat ride on that Sea of Galilee, which was pretty amazing.  The boat was a replica of the boats of that day, which was cool.

What was even more of a delight is that we got out to the middle of the water and the captain turned off the motor. We then read and meditated on the Gospel story of the storm coming up and the disciples were terrified and Jesus calmed the seas and walked on water.

There is something pretty amazing about being in the actual place where the ancient story took place and taking in the scenery as well as taking in the story on an even deeper level.

I don't think I'll ever be able to read or hear those stories again without remembering the images I saw today.

This is a very, very different pilgrimage than the Camino but it is every bit as powerful and, in many ways, equally strenuous.

Replica of ancient boat on Sea of Galilee
My Apple Watch is reporting an average of 5 miles a day. I'm blasting through my Move, Stand and Exercise goals every single day.

I'm half expecting Siri to send a message asking, "Everything okay, hon?"

We're almost halfway through this pilgrimage. Tomorrow, we're off to Sepphoris/Zippori, the Golan Heights and Caesarea Philippi.

It's expected to rain all day, which is wonderful for this area which has been so dry for so long, it has threatened wildlife and the fish in the sea and the lives of the people who live and work here.

It will be our last night in Nazareth before returning to Jerusalem.

As exhausted as I am, I am all the more grateful for this experience.

Thanks so much for coming with me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Day 3: Judean Desert, Jericho & Nazareth

This pilgrimage day began when my alarm went off at 4:15 AM. We had a silent breakfast at 5 AM and then departed in silence for the first part of our journey to Wadi Qelt - part of the Judean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho - where we continued our silent meditation, walking about the desert as the sun slowly rose in the East.  

After the Gospel was read, one of our guides gave a stirring meditation on the desert as a metaphor for longing. He reminded us that we find ourselves saying, "I wish . . .," or, "I want . . .," it may be that God is speaking to you because that is the desire of God as well.

Or, as an old monk once said to me on retreat, "What if the desire of our heart is really the desire in the heart of God?"

A young Bedouin boy on his donkey
While we were preparing for Eucharist, we were joined by a Bedouin family - a father, two young sons and a young daughter - eager to sell us their wares - prayer beads, scarves, jewelry, etc. Like most "independent street vendors" they were pretty persistent and sometimes ever so slightly aggressive.

The three little kids - looking like something right out of a novel, one riding a donkey - presented a powerful emotional draw to give them something for their labors and get a little trinket and a story to tell in return.

Talk about being tempted in the desert!

Before I go on, I do want to tell you something that was told to us by our lead guide.

This morning was very cold and very windy - especially before the sun came up. Being up on the top of a ridge in the desert made us even more exposed to the harsh wind.

The person chosen to read the Gospel put the laminated paper with the Gospel passage written on it under her foot so it wouldn't blow away until it was her turn to read and then, even after the reading.

The adult male in the Bedouin family called our lead guide over and, with no small about of distress, said, "Look. She is stepping on the Word of God. That is the Word of God. She should have more respect. Stop her."

Now, there are many layers to that little anecdote, including an obvious measure of sexism. Clearly, the Bedouin are a patriarchal, Muslim desert people. 

A widely quoted Bedouin apothegm is "I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my cousin and I are against the stranger."

A young Bedouin boy
The saying reflects a hierarchy of loyalties based on the proximity of male kinship, beginning with the nuclear family and then the paternal tribe.

But, the other truth is that, of the three Abrahamic religious strains, Christianity places a lower value on the written word - no doubt because we believe "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

I do have one other anecdote to share about the Bedouin children. After Eucharist, there was a good amount of bread and wine leftover.  I turned to the presider and asked if I could share it with the children.

I really meant that as a question of courtesy. I wanted to feed them, especially since they looked hungry. A secondary concern was that I didn't want to offend them by offering these young Muslim children something that their religion my forbid them to partake.

But, the look in the eyes of the presider revealed another level that I knew was there but really was not of great concern; that is, clearly, they are not baptized. And, we know what the canons of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican communion have to say about that.

He said, "Well, it's okay by me." And then, I got what HE was saying. I said, "I'm just concerned about feeding these kiddos. "Absolutely," said the presider.

Well, turns out, the kiddos were properly trained. They shot a concerned look at their papa and then declined the bread. Which was fine. I just wanted to make sure I offered.

It's amazing how many levels of communication were going on right in that one little exchange.

The sun rising on Wadi Qelt
Eucharist at sunrise in the desert is an experience that defies expression in words.

When they come to me, you'll be one of the first I share that with. For now, just look at some of these pictures and let the images sink in.

So, when Jesus told the story of the man who was "going down from Jerusalem to Jericho," this is about where he was when he was attacked and left to die on the side of the road.

We could see Jerusalem to the left and Jericho to the right. It's probably about a seven-mile schlepp - probably a day's journey, considering all the hills and valleys. It's not easy to walk in the sand, either, which would slow down your travel time.

I became keenly aware of how easy it would be to hide out in one of the deep crevices or around a corner of a twist or turn in the road.

The story suddenly became even more alive for me than it ever has before.

Then again, that's one of the reasons I'm on this pilgrimage.

I want to go deeper into the narratives of my faith. I long to center my energy on the source that animates my sense of ministry and take that energy into the work I do.

View from my convent room, Nazareth
So, if the preacher was right this morning, maybe God wants a deeper place in the narratives of my faith. Perhaps God longs to more actively animate my sense of ministry.

This is Day 3 of my 10-day Pilgrimage. I am in Nazareth as I write this, staying in the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. This afternoon, I wandered around the streets here, imagining Jesus running and playing in these streets.

When I heard a mother calling her son, I imagined that Mary's voice once rang out in this town, and Jesus obeyed her. 

When I saw women buying large heads of fresh cauliflower and bartering over the price, I closed my eyes and saw Mary among the women there.

This is a rich place to do this work of discernment.

This is Day 3 of my 10-day Pilgrimage. Only Day 3. Tomorrow, we head out to the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and Capernaum.

I am awash with an inexplicable and deep sense of gratitude.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Garbage and Graffiti: Pilgrimage Day #2

I am officially overwhelmed.

And, it's only the second day of our Palestine Pilgrimage.

We were up early (5 AM) for an early breakfast (6:15) so we could leave by 7:15 to be at Shepherd's Field to beat the crowds who would be visiting a 1st-century cave there. Our guide wanted us to get a very clear sense of what it was like to live in a cave and deliver a child there among the animals.

It's pretty clear that none of the "nativity scenes" we have come anywhere near what it must have actually been like for Mary and Joseph to have delivered a child in a cave. There was no wooden manger. There was a carved stone feeding trough.

It was important to have that experience, under the earth, encased by stone before we ventured off to The Church of The Nativity which is where, for centuries, Christians thought was the site of the birth of Jesus. It is the oldest Church in Christendom, constructed by Constantine in AD 326.

You can see how the wall cuts through the land
The manger and birthplace are, presently, quite an elaborate affair.

It must make the angels who were there that night giggle with delight as, once again, humans get it all wrong.

Or, as one of our guides likes to say, "Don't ever let the facts get in the way of the truth."

In between those two experiences was an incarnation of another sort.

We visited the Separation Wall at Rachel's Tomb.

This would be the part where I am overwhelmed.

No words can hold the emotion of seeing that wall, cut through the land like a jagged scar.

And, the graffiti.

And, the garbage.

The experience was made even more intense by having that early morning experience of The Holy in the cave dwellings. When we were below the surface of the earth, I felt safe. Secure. It was only after we emerged from the cave that we were able to see the negatives and the positives of what humans have done to the gift of creation.

I was very much disturbed by the garbage on the side of the street. I finally worked up my courage to ask one of our Palestinian guides, in the most gentle and non-judgmental way possible, why there was so much garbage on the side of the road.

The separation wall at Rachel's Tomb
"Well," said Iyad, "when you do not have a lot of money, you have to make a priority of what service you want to pay. Palestinians in Bethlehem have chosen to pay for police protection rather than to clean up the environment."

I most certainly understand that, but I am troubled by the fact that the garbage is there in the first place.

Why are people allowed to dump bags and bags of trash on the side of the road? Is it an outward manifestation of anger? Or, depression?

I don't know what I would do if the country that I loved was not only walled off and oppressed but occupied by another nation.

What I found hopeful, however, was the graffiti.

Such beautiful anger.

Such an outward and visible expression of an inward and spiritual turmoil.

Such a creative way to deal with things that are out of one's control.

Then, there are the flashes of humor from the business community.

I loved the hotel named "The Walled Off Astoria."

And, the name of the coffee shop that replaced the Starbucks that left Bethlehem after the wall went up: "Stars and Bucks"

Let me show you some of the graffiti:

This is Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump

"The legal frameworks on which the world order has been predicated since WWII are under unilateral attack." Chris Gunness, former UNRWA  Spokesperson 17 January 2019

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians" - Nelson Mandela

There are lots of images of Donald Trump. One I saw earlier was of him praying at the Wall. The caption says, "Don't worry. You won't be alone. I will build you a brother in America."

"Someday, we'll all be free".

All along the wall are posted the words and testimonies of those who have experienced the oppression of the wall and the military state of occupation.

One that touched my heart was that of a mother whose 6-year-old son came home from school. Two armed soldiers had followed him as he made his way through his street that was now split in half by the wall. He had to walk all around it in order to get home.

When he walked in the front door, his mother said he was hysterical. He didn't know what he had done wrong. Why were the soldiers following him? Were they going to take him away?

As the mother tried to console her son, the soldiers knocked on the door. They wanted to know why the boy was crying. The mother say, "You have terrified him. He's crying because he is scared out of his mind."

The two soldiers looked at each other, smiled broadly, slapped each other on the back and walked away. The mother reported that they seemed to be congratulating one another on a "mission accomplished."

"They want us terrified," she said. "That's part of how they control us."

I couldn't help but think of what has been going on in our own country.

We have been living in fear for three years. We have physical walls going up on our own border but it's the walls that we build around our hearts that are the most dangerous.

The garbage I saw on the roadside concerned me.

The graffiti on the wall gave me hope.

As long as the creative spirit of the people is alive, as long as people who are oppressed try to control the narrative of their own lives, and as long as the resistance to oppression is strong, there is hope.

I never thought I'd live to see the Berlin wall come down, but it has.

I have hope that this wall will also, one day, come down.

Meanwhile, Rachel still weeps for her children. 

One of our guides read this passage from Ephesians 2:14: "For he (Jesus) himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."

There are no words to describe seeing the wall, close up.

There is no cogent way to describe the destruction it creates in the human family.

There is a deep, tragic irony that it should be happening here, especially here, in the city of Bethlehem, the place of the miracle of the Incarnation, in a cave of rocks, deep in the earth.

Amidst the garbage and the graffiti, I have hopes that once again, in this place where "the hopes and fears of all the years" were once met in Jesus one Holy night, can be met once again.

We just can let the facts get in the way of the truth that God's love is unconditional, inclusive and beyond our wildest imagination, for all of God's children.