Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rowan in the Dock

The news broke on Episcopal Cafe this past week that the Archbishop of Canterbury will be making a visit to Anaheim during General Convention this coming July. This is not in itself big news; all of Dr Williams' recent predecessors have done the same one or more times during their tenures. 

But the Anglican climate being what it is, the announcement has provoked what is at least a teapot-sized tempest in its venue-of-origin, as well as on the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv (HoBD), though, while I have not done an exhaustive search, apparently not elsewhere in the blogsphere. Those from the port side of the vessel who have ventured to opine are near-universally cynical about the prospect, with suggestions ranging from sending him across the street to Disneyland for a photo session with Goofy to granting him no more than a booth in the Exhibit Hall.

Leaving aside the obvious observation that Rowan really won't have to go to Disneyland to have his picture taken with Goofy--a group shot with either house of General Convention would serve that end--there are some recurring themes among his liberal critics (his conservative critics, who are legion, being largely silent on this one) that would seem to merit at least a small degree of attention.

It has been suggested that Rowan has never actually taken the trouble to listen to the voice of the Episcopal majority, while he has gone out of his way to be hospitable to American dissidents like Bishop Robert Duncan and Southern Cone Primate Gregory Venables. So, if the Archbishop comes to Anaheim, it should be as a listener rather than a talker. He needs to learn who we are as Episcopalians and how we do things in "this church," since, despite his prodigious academic accomplishments (the man can write a book faster than I can read one), he is under-educated in those areas. I find the combination of naivete and hubris in such suggestions mind-blowing. I have no doubt that Dr Williams understands the Constitution and Canons of TEC better than most members of the House of Deputies and that he is eminently up to speed on all the relevant dynamics of how controverted issues are dealt with on this side of the pond. To infer from his behavior that he is somehow not sufficiently "curious" about our church is to manifest myopia trending toward megalomania.

The perception of Rowan's cluelessness is to some degree fueled by an inordinate obsession with whether he has actually ever worshipped in a congregation of the Episcopal Church since taking offce. (He has had multiple opportunities to do so, having recently spent a sabbatical in Washington, D.C.) No one actually spells out precisely why this is important, but the implication seems to be that he is intentionally avoiding contamination by post-Robinson Episcopalian cooties. Could this perhaps be to maintain his street cred among the Nigerians and other assorted Africans and North American Anglicans who are beholden to them? If so, it is an astonishingly unsuccessful strategy on his part. Just scan the comments on any number of Stand Firm posts for a quick read on this Archbishop's standing in that community.

Rowan is also taken to task for having thrown Jeffrey John under the bus way back when. Dr John, currently dean of St Alban's, was named to the (suffragan) See of Reading in 2003. He was known then, and still is, to be in a partnered gay relationship. At the time, he offered assurances that the relationship was no longer sexual in nature--making him, some contend, a virtual "poster boy" for the sort of gay cleric that even a conservative could accept in high ecclesiastical office. Yet, in the midst of loud and constant pressure from the Evangelical party of the C of E, the Archbishop entreated Dr John to step back from the appointment, which he then did. Dr Williams was wise in making the request, and Dr John was wise in acceding to it. In a visible and highly-charged political environment, it is indeed not enough to simply be doing the right thing. One must be seen doing the right thing. In an ideal world, whatever goes on between Dr John and his partner would be nobody's business but their own. Alas, this is not an ideal world, and as their domestic arrangements have the appearance of impropriety, Dr John is not an appropriate candidate for the episcopate. Rowan did not throw him under the bus. Rowan enabled the Anglican Communion to live to see another day. That is a noble end, and that the means to that end were awkward and unpleasant does not make them morally illicit.

I am glad that the Archbishop will be in Anaheim. By virtue of his office, he will personally encapsulate for us the rest of the Anglican Communion. If, as it seems plausible to expect, we continue our slow but steady journey away from the mainstream of Anglicanism and toward sectarian isolation, we will have to do so while we look Rowan--and, through him, the rest of the communion--in the eye. It will be good for our character.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two Tales of a City

It is perhaps not the worst of times, but it is certainly not the best of times.

I first encountered Stockton, California in 1972, when the woman I would later marry brought me home to meet the parents. (“Home” at the time was actually Lodi, which is effectively a Stockton suburb, and she had lived in Stockton until her mid-teens.) For the next 22 years, it was on my personal radar screen as a place we visited (or at least drove through) regularly as we lived first in Santa Barbara, then in the Salem, Oregon area, then in Wisconsin and Louisiana. In 1994, I accepted a call to become Rector of St John the Evangelist, the historic downtown Stockton parish, and the city became my home for the next 13 years. My mother-in-law still lives there, as do other members of my extended family-by-marriage, to say nothing of a host of friends and former parishioners. It’s still very much on my personal map.

Stockton is part of the “unknown California.” In the Midwest, where I live now, people tend to carry the visceral impression of California as one big beach town, where you can catch rays 365 days a year. The vast central valley—larger than all of New England, draining the San Joaquin River from the south and the Sacramento River from the north—tends to fly under the radar, even to many coastal Californians. Only a few days ago I had a conversation with a resident of Orange County who referred to Stockton as the “armpit of California,” assuming, from its name, that it was a center of the cattle business, imbued with fetid slaughterhouse odors. In fact, Stockton, with its environs, is a population center housing more than 350,000 people. In my now home state of Indiana, it would be the second largest city. There is a highly-acclaimed private university there, a fine symphony orchestra, and a bunch of other cultural amenities. Yes, lately, it’s also been Foreclosures R Us, but that’s a passing factoid.

St John’s Church is (was?—that’s kind of what this post is about) the third-oldest Episcopal congregation on the west coast, founded in 1850. In 1911, the San Joaquin Valley was spun off by the Diocese of California (centered in San Francisco, 80 miles to the west) and became the Missionary District of San Joaquin. Some fifty years later, San Joaquin became a full-fledged diocese of the Episcopal Church, and St John’s was long its northern anchor (St John the Baptist, Lodi being the actual northernmost congregation), which stretches 200 miles south to Bakersfield and then over the Sierras to the Nevada border, encompassing such isolated communities as Bishop, Lone Pine, and Mammoth Lakes.

In the arena of secular politics, the San Joaquin Valley has tended to swim against the larger California tide. California may be solidly a “blue” state, but there are a great many “red” counties in the interior (though San Joaquin County, with its seat in Stockton, went narrowly for Obama in the 2008 election). This general agrarian cultural conservatism has been generally reflected in the life of the Episcopal Church there. Bishop Victor Rivera, who served from 1968 until 1988, was in harmony with the critical mass of his diocese, which tended to stay the course theologically as the much larger coastal dioceses moved steadily to the left. Bishop Rivera’s successor, John-David Schofield, continued this direction and gave it a steroid shot. The majority of clergy and laity within the diocese grew steadily more disenchanted with the general direction of the Episcopal Church during the 1990s and into the new century, a rising tide of discontent that was not caused by the bishop’s leadership, but was certainly fueled by it.

Nonetheless, for most of this time, clergy of varying theological and ideological perspectives managed to maintain cordial and cooperative relationships with one another in pursuing local ministry and mission. In my own deanery, the eight (at the time) congregations pooled resources (from each according to its abilities) in 1997 and called a full-time youth minister, an arrangement that had some marked success during the years it lasted. I met regularly for lunch with my colleagues, the Rectors of St Anne’s, Stockton and St John the Baptist, Lodi. We were friends. We respected and liked one another. The youth of our congregations began to form relationships across parish lines. 

Of course, there was always thunder rumbling in the distance. I distinctly remember calling attention to this thunder at one of our lunch meetings eleven or twelve years ago. In one of those makes-the-blood-run-cold moments of prescience, I compared that moment to a shared repast between young U.S. Army officers in, say, the late 1840s, some being from New Jersey and Massachusetts, and some being from Virginia and South Carolina. You can see where I was going with that, although the analogy doesn’t play out with complete accuracy, because, by the time of the actual split in December of 2007, all three of us had moved away from the diocese. Yet, both of their parishes are today connected to the Episcopal Church, while mine stayed with Bishop Schofield and is now a parish in the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, en route, no doubt, to becoming part of the emerging Anglican Church of North America.

So, today, there are two Anglican congregations in the city of Stockton. One is the mother of the other; St Anne’s on the north side was begun in 1950 as a parochial mission of St John’s downtown. Over the decades, parishioners have moved between the two of them at various times for various reasons—some noble and some petty. Divergent cultures evolved in each parish, but that was seen largely as a good thing, providing a sort of safety valve for those who felt stifled by the predominant conservatism of St John’s or insecure in the predominant liberalism of St Anne’s. Until the most recent unpleasantness, both wore the label “Episcopal” comfortably, even proudly.

But St John’s and St Anne’s are now, using the idiom of this era, walking apart. The differences don’t seem huge at first. Both buildings look the same as they did before the 2007 convention, save for a new sign at St John’s striking “Episcopal” and replacing it with “Anglican.” Both use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in their worship—as far as I know still, Rite I early on Sundays and Rite II late—and both still sing from the Hymnal 1982, supplemented by more contemporary sources. Both retain a corporate memory of being linked to one another—sometimes joyfully and sometimes uneasily—cooperating in diocesan camping programs, sharing services (and choirs) on Ascension or All Saints, being part of the same extended family.

But no more. Last month, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church elected to hold its regular winter meeting in Stockton, for the express purpose of demonstrating solidarity with those congregations that chose not to follow the majority to the Southern Cone. Some, at least—and I would suspect most if not all—of its members worshiped at St Anne’s over the Sunday of the meeting. It was a decision rich with irony, since, until the split, one of the members of the Executive Council was a resident of Stockton and a member of St John’s. Yet, before the split, it would never have occurred to the Presiding Bishop or the President of the House of Deputies to schedule a meeting in Stockton, or anywhere else in the Diocese of San Joaquin. That was considered “enemy territory.” Yet now, members of Executive Council have blogged about their discovery of Stockton, what a wonderful place the San Joaquin Valley is, and how excited they are about the continuing ministry of the Episcopal Church in that area. One wonders whether such a visit—say, ten years ago—not with the intent of intimidating but with the intent of listening, might have contributed to an atmosphere of trust that could have forestalled the secession of a diocese. I’m glad the leadership of the Episcopal Church has discovered Stockton. But I’m afraid their visit was an exercise in shutting the barn door long after the horses are nowhere in sight.

Last Saturday, my successor was installed at St John’s. He shares the theologically and morally conservative views of his parishioners, but lest anyone think these are in any way generational issues, it is worth pointing out that he’s 29 years old, and, trust me, there are a lot more young Anglicans where he came from, so to speak. The preacher on the occasion was the Bishop of Fort Worth—not the newly rehabilitated entity that continues in union with General Convention, but the ongoing entity that is also now part of the Southern Cone.

So the “walking” continues, and the “apart” is now a whole lot further.

These two tales of one city are, I believe, microcosmic. They are part of the same narrative that we can find all over the ruins and remains of what was once a united Anglican presence in this country. We seem to be able to interminably parse the meaning of schism—what it is and what it isn’t, exactly, and whether or not it’s worse than heresy. I don’t have any additional wisdom today on those questions. What I do have is a heavy heart about the damage that has already been done in the last several months—damage done for very principled reasons by both sides, I realize, but real damage nonetheless, damage that was accomplished as quickly as “calling the question” at a convention, or signing a deposition notice or a legal complaint.

And I suppose I also have a hope—not a visceral hope, but an intentional hope, in the sense of affirmatively cultivating a virtue—that, as we try to figure out the way ahead for Anglican Christianity, people on both sides of the divide might endeavor to do as little damage as possible to the institutional infrastructure of our common life, that, if we must walk apart, that we try to walk apart a little closer together, not so far apart that we have to shout to be heard, and occasionally, perhaps, close enough on parallel paths that we are still able to join hands as we walk. As the ACNA emerges, may its members foster a culture of generosity toward their Episcopalian neighbors. It now matters more how we walk apart than that we walk apart. And in the light of the latest communique from the Primates, and the report of the Windsor Continuation Group, may a similar generosity of spirit emerge in the Episcopal Church—at 815, and especially at General Convention this summer.  

If we can do that much, it will be a far, far better thing that we do than we have ever done.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, VI

Monday, January 26, our last day in Israel.

Usual breakfast and boarding time. We're grateful that the hotel is not over-crowded, thus making it possible for us to keep possession of our rooms until the late afternoon.

It would be an understatement to describe the first item on our itinerary as "emotionally challenging." It's Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I'm not going to attempt to give anything resembling a comprehensive account of this experience, for a number of reasons. I had to make myself watch Schindler's List (though I'm glad I did) and Brenda is still trying to get me to see Life is Beautiful. The subject is way beyond depressing. If I had been visiting Jerusalem on my own, and not been effectively forced to visit this place, I might not have chosen to do so. If you are ever there on your own, don't make that mistake.

The place is a coherent work of art in itself, composed of several smaller works of art. The columns in the above installation are manifestly incomplete; they lead nowhere, cut off before maturity, thus representing the children whose lives were snuffed out by the Nazis, nearly erasing an entire generation and ending a centuries-old tradition of Jewish culture in Europe. 

Our next stop takes us back to the area of the old city--just outside the (northern) Damascus Gate. In the 19th century, the British General Charles Gordon came up with an alternative theory, contradicting St Helena, as to the actual location of Golgotha. He noticed a hill that still looked like a hill, with some caves that looked like eye sockets and--voila--the Place of  a Skull. Not only that, but there is a nearby tomb that, in fact, dates from the first century, and has demonstrably fourth century Christian symbolism painted on an interior wall. 

The "Garden Tomb," as it came to be known, is now owned and operated by a private British foundation. Our guide there is a retired British Methodist pastor. It is clear that this place, because it looks and feels plausibly "authentic," resonates with those who have the "historically accurate tourism" mindset (Holy-Land-as-Christian-theme-park) and are put off by shrines that are redolent of liturgical and sacramental spirituality that is foreign to them. Free church evangelicals and even some oldline Protestants find themselves much more naturally affected by the Garden Tomb than by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I certainly don't begrudge them that, but I am personally not much impressed.

Time-certain visits militate against efficient urban transit today. When we're back on the bus, we retrace most of our route from earlier in the day, through high-density but often slightly upscale residential neighborhoods in west Jerusalem, past former (and likely future) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's condo (there seem to be no free-standing houses in this part of town), and past the Knesset building, to a museum complex that houses both a magnificent outdoor scale model of Jerusalem as it was on the eve of its destruction by the Romans (what you see below is a view from the east, only with the Holy of Holies standing where the Dome of the Rock now is), as well as the original scrolls found at Qumran. 

While it would not have been logistically feasible, I actually wish we could have seen and studied this model before going up to the Mount of Olives. The amount of detail is incredible, and it is a great help in mentally consolidating all the territory we had covered the previous day.

All week long it has been a mystery as to whether we would get to go to Bethlehem. From the end of the British Mandate after WWII until the 1967 war, Bethlehem, along with east Jerusalem and all the other territory now referred to as the West Bank, was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Christian pilgrims had relatively easy access; indeed, the majority of the residents of the town were native Arab Christians. In that war, however, Israel conquered these territories (along with the Golan Heights, the Gaza strip, and the Sinai peninsula). Because the residents of the West Bank were not actually Jordanians, but Palestinians, Jordan, while officially indignant, seems to have been privately just as happy to have it off their hands. In the meantime, the more ardent of Israeli Zionists, seeing the territory as "Judea and Samaria," part of the ancient Jewish patrimony, began to establish settlements. At present, then, there are three categories of real estate in the West Bank: 'A' areas, populated entirely by Palestinians, and under the control of the Palestinian authority; 'B' areas that are populated entirely by Jewish settlers; and 'C' areas, i.e. everythere that is not either A or B. Israeli citizens are forbidden by Israeli law from entering 'A' areas. Palestinians are forbidden from entering 'B' areas. Anyone can live and work in 'C' areas. Got it?

Anyway...I tell you all this because Bethlehem (along with Bethany, Jericho, and other places that would be of interest to pilgrims both Christian and Jewish) is an 'A' area. Most of these arrangements have come about since the Intifada that began early in this decade. Before that, both Israelis and Palestinians were able to move around in the West Bank with what now seems like an remarkable degree of freedom. It was in everyone's best interest. Since the Intifada, however, the Israelis have understandably tightened security, resulting in the A-B-C system, and in the high walls shielding populated areas of Israel from potential threats. 

What this means is that the 'A' areas can be a little touchy from a security standpoint even for harmless tourists. However, since we are harmless tourists with money to spend, every effort is made to work things out. Yossi has been in touch with his on-the-ground sources all week and announced to us on Sunday that Bethlehem is a "Go." Unfortunately, it's no-go for him, since he's an Israeli citizen. This means that there needs to be an arrangement with someone on the inside, and a coordinated handoff at the checkpoint (literally a "hole in the wall"). After what appears to be a potential last minute glitch is resolved by cell phone, we get off the bus, show our passports to the guards, and walk through one of those intimidating vertical turnstiles. On the other side, we are met by an Arab Christian guide and a minibus for our tour of the "little town of Bethlehem", no longer in deep and dreamless sleep.

As it's already after 2 PM and we haven't eaten anything since breakfast, lunch is our first priority. The bus delivers us to a restaurant, which is next to a large gift and souveneir store, all owned by the same family, which is the same family that owns our bus and employs our guide! We're the only patrons in the rather large restaurant, and there's a long table all set up for us. They bring out a generous supply of pita bread and hummus and the veggies that usually accompany such things. After a while, most of us assume that's all there's going to be, and we chow down. Then they bring out some room-temperature falafel, which I personally welcome as at least it bears some resemblance to protein. And just as we're all well stuffed, out comes two kinds of shish kebab--chicken and ground lamb. I'm grateful for this, but now wish I hadn't eaten so much pita.

It's not hard to figure out that the restaurant and the tour are pretty much loss-leaders for this operation. Their bread and butter lie in the gift shop, so we're taken there before anywhere else. We all understand the dynamics and try to be accomodating. I would like to have purchased a fairly large olive wood nativity set (carved on site below the store) for my church, but the price tag is $17,000 (including shipping, and probably negotiable), and I left the church credit card at home (note to St Anne's vestry members: that was a joke). I do, however, manage to part with close to $100 buying gifts for family members. (We each had our own effective "personal shopper" encouraging us in our buying decisions. I was just wanting trinkets but it felt like an auto dealership!)

When we've re-boarded the minibus, it's off to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. 

Once again, there are Greek, Armenian, and Roman sections to this building, though no irascible young monks telling us where to go. Above you can see the plaza leading to the entrance. For some reason, the original (Byzantine? Crusader? I'm not sure) grand door has been reduced twice and now an average-size adult has to crouch to get through it. Something about humility, as I recall.

Below is the inner sanctum marking the spot of the actual Nativity. A few feet away is the site of the manger.

Our knowledgeable guide takes us down into the crypt of the Roman Catholic section and I am surpised and delighted to find there the tomb of St Jerome, the fifth century translator of the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin--i.e. the inimitable Latin Vulgate, the Bible for the western church until the Reformation.

The photo below is in the main (Greek Orthodox) section. At certain spots there are intentional gaps in the (raised) current floor that allow one to see the original mosaic from the time of Helena, still in excellent condition.

On our way out of town we pull over for a look at the "Shepherd's Field" (see photo below). The hillsides have been terraced and planted since then, and there's a lot of urban construction that now occupies the view, but it's not too hard hard to imagine shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night in this place.

What you see below is the "inside" view of the wall as we proceed toward the checkpoint, where our familiar bus will meet us. Notice all the taxis. They are awaiting Palestinians who live in Bethlehem but commute to Jerusalem for work. There's no vehicular traffic allowed through the checkpoint. The graffiti tells the real tale: Both Israelis and Palestinians alike know that tourist dollars are their life's blood.

Between having to wait at the checkpoint for our regular bus to arrive, and dealing with very thick rush hour traffic, we arrived back at the hotel with only about 45 minues in which to shower (in ancticipation of not being able to do so for about the next 28 hours), pack, and check out. The bus then drove us to a restaurant on the west side of Jerusalem, in a very cosmopolitan neighborhood, where we were treated to a farewell dinner, consisting pretty much of exactly what we'd been served for our late lunch in Bethlehem! There are no complaints, though, as both the food and the fellowship are quite enjoyable.

Shortly after 7:30, we're back on the bus for the last time. It's only about a 35 minute drive to Ben Gurion Airport. Once again, we have to deal with the intimidating scrutiny of Israeli security officers. Even knowing that all you have to do is tell the truth, it can still be nerve-wracking. I've probably seen one too many movies and TC shows about the Mossad! They ask me the name of my parents--a pretty easy and innocent question!--and I actually have a long moment of hesitation before I can get the answer from my brain to my lips. God help me.

Our flight isn't until 1:00 AM, so we have a lot of time to kill. Fortunately, even after we clear security (why is it that the Israelis, who set the gold standard for air security, have found a way to not require passengers to remove their shoes, and our own TSA can't seem to do so?), there is plenty of room in which to roam and lounge and buy snacks. I'm amused to look at the departure board and see a direct flight to Warsaw listed. Somehow, it probably doesn't go to Indiana. 

On our flight is a group of about a hundred American Jewish teenagers returning from a pilgrimage. They are wired, and I am more grateful than ever for my chemical assistance in sleeping. We land back at JFK at 6 AM local time, which is 1 PM in Israel, and it's still dark. Talk about a long night! Fortunately for us three Hoosiers, our connecting flight (to Detroit, and then another one to South Bend) is not until 9, so there's plenty of time to find our way to where we need to be and get something to eat (pork sasuage!--I'm feely very pork-deprived). We touch down in South Bend on schedule at 1 PM, and I'm home by around 3:30. Believe it or not, I grab a shower and show up to celebrate 5:30 Mass for the Conversion of St Paul (delayed a day because nothing liturgical happens at St Anne's on Mondays--long story). 

I am very grateful for this trip. It refreshed me spiritually, intellectually, and, I think, pastorally. The plan, still quite tentative, is for the Diocese of Northern Indiana to sponsor a tour in about two years' time. It would be quite similar to what I've described in these postings, though possibly a day longer so as not to feel so rushed. It would be tailored to Anglicans, and Bishop Little, God willing, would be the lead "teaching guide" (a capacity in which your humble blogger might find himself assisting) even as we would also have a Jerusalem Tours guide for the local stuff. Stay tuned for the details!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, V

Sunday, January 25. "Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem." (Ps. 122)

Yossi has a sense of the dramatic. For our first day in Jerusalem, he takes us first to the top of the Mount of Olives, looking down on the city from the east. To our left and slightly behind us is the village of Bethany (now a walled Palestinian enclave, one of the no-go zones for Israeli citizens), which we can see because, like Bethlehem (to the south, also behind a wall), it sits on a hilltop; it feels like you can almost reach out and touch these towns, now, after 2000 years of urban sprawl, no longer isolated from Jerusalem (except for that darn wall). It was in Bethany where Jesus' friends, the siblings Mary and Marth and Lazarus, lived, and where he spent the night before what we now call Palm Sunday. 

His route that day took him to where we are now standing. Immediately in front of us, down the hill just a bit, is a Jewish cemetery--quite ancient but still with some vacancies if you know the right people. Beyond it is the Garden of Gethsemane. Beyond that is an ancient Christian cemetery, leading down to a ravine known in biblical times and now as the Kidron Valley. From there the ground rises sharply through a Muslim cemetery until it hits the massive stone wall of the old city. The acutal wall that is there now dates from Byzantime times and later (remember, the Romans did a typically thorough job of destroying Jerusalem in AD 70). In the middle of that eastern wall is the main gate on that side of town, known as the Golden Gate. It was through this gate that Jesus passed atop a donkey in his "triumphal entry." It was sealed shut by the Turks during the Crusades in view of the Jewish tradition that the messiah woul enter through that gate. (Note to the Turks: He already got in. You were too late.)

After posing for a group picture (available to us about 90 minutes later for $10), we proceed on foot down the very route Jesus and his entrourage traversed. Along the way there are legions of peddlars of sourveneir trinkets, some as simple as a sprig from an olive tree. My instinct--a good one, actually--is to keep my hands in my pockets and not make eye contact.

We pass by a small shrine church marking the spot where Jesus is thought to have wept over the city of Jerusalem (the lament about a hen gathering her chicks). The Garden of Gethsemane itself is still partly a garden, though there is a shrine church there, of course, and since it's Sunday morning, there is a Mass about to begin as we arrive, so we can't look around much. It's built (once again, bear in mind Yossi's wise comment that "tradition is stronger than history") around the rock at which Jesus agonized in prayer until he sweated blood. But what is now, in effect, the churchyard, is planted in olive trees that are clearly quite ancient, and there is no reason to disbelieve the tradition that this area has been an olive garden for three millenia, since the time of David. Olive trees are among the most long-lived of plant species, and if these particular trees were not on the scene on the night Jesus was arrested, then their parents or grandparents certainly were. For anyone with the "historically accurate tourism" mentality, this is as good as it gets.

We can't actually enter the old city from the east like Jesus did, so our journey across the Kidron Valley is by bus, which is magically waiting for us in front of the church. It takes us to the Zion Gate, on the south side, toward the southeast corner. When we get out of the bus, which this time we will not see again for several hours, we cannot help but notice a contingent of about 20 or 30 Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Yossi explains that, periodically, Sunday is a mandatory "culture day" for them, in which they have to visit a museum or attend a concert or hear a lecture or some such. So these young men, and two or three young women, are out getting some culture. It's a virtual certainty that most or all of them had only a few days earlier been in Gaza getting something other than culture. I am struck by how young they all look--barely out of their teens, if that. (Military service is universally mandatory in Israel for both sexes.) But more than that, I am struck to see them each carrying a loaded M-16, even though they're off duty. One of our companions, an Iraq veteran, explains to me that, when you're in a "hot zone," you always carry your weapon, because the difference between "off duty" and "on duty" can be a matter seconds. And when you live in that neighborhood of the world, you're always in a hot zone. Sobering.

The area where we are is outside the Byzantine wall, but was inside the city wall in more ancient times. Our first stop is the Tomb of David--the idealized King of Israel, the one who politically unified the nation for the first time since their arrival from Egypt, the proto-messiah. The men among us are required to don headgear. Pious Jews would wear a yarmulke, but my Jerusalem Tours baseball cap is completely adequate, I am assured.  This is hugely counterintuitive to the way I am acculturated; indeed, in Christian holy places, we are exhorted to remove our hats. Hard to keep track of without actually engaging the brain. In any case, this is obviously a very sacred location to Jews, and there are many there engaging in various forms of formal personal devotion. 

Nearby is the supposed site of the Upper Room--where Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper, when the Risen Christ met them behind closed doors on the evening of his resurrection, and where the Holy Spirit fell on them on the Day of Pentecost. No one claims that this is the actual room in the actual building, both of which have long since been reduced to rubble and build over several times. Nonetheless, in the orthography of Christian pilgrimage-cum-tourism, this is the spot. (Yossi says about David's Tomb: "As an historian, I have my doubts that the David is actually buried here. As a Jew, this is David's Tomb." I guess I would have a similar attitude toward this room.) 

Upon emerging from the warren of narrow streets that make up this part of town, we find ourselves back near where the bus had deposited us, but now we actually go through the Zion Gate, inside the Byzantine south wall. We're in what is known as the Jewish Quarter, and Yossi marches us through a parking lot, which is where the residents have to park because the streets are way to narrow and winding for vehicular traffic. Soon we are in the Muslin Quarter, home--ironically, some would say--of the most sacred spot in Judaism, the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall). This is a large section of the actual western wall of the Temple ("Herod's Temple") that the Roman legions neglected to dismantle when they destroyed the city. (The eastern wall of the Temple doubles as the eastern wall of the city itself.) The plaza leading up to the wall is about 15-20 feet higher than it was in the time of Christ, but it's the same wall. The sexes are segregated here (as they were at David's Tomb), and disposable paper yarmulkes are available for men who don't have headgear with them. With those restrictions, we are allowed to approach the wall.

Then, primarily because Jerusalem Tours is so well-connected, and made reservations for a time certain six months in advance, we are treated to a tour through the (still ongoing) excavation along the entire length of the Western Wall, completely beneath the current street level of the city. We are able to walk on the actual pavement that was at street level at the time of the Temple's destruction. A long way, I might add. Although some of us are reaching the point of archeological satiation by this time, it is really quite compelling, moreso than I can find words for.

When we emerge back into the light of day, we are on a narrow street, near the site of the Praetorium (only several feet higher), which is where Pilate finally condemned Jesus to death, and, hence, the first Station of fourteen along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. It was a little surreal here, because even though this is a place of pilgrimage, and Christian pilgrims walk this route in formal procession quite frequently, we are proceeding at a pace that can hardly be described as contemplative. Nor is the ambience conducive to contemplation, with all the shops hawking Christian trinkets and knick-knacks of widely varying degrees of quality and expense. 

Nowhere is this disjuct so apparent as at a spot where the path makes a left turn (from westward to southward) at the place of the Seventh Station (Jesus Falls a Second Time). Yossi points to a section of paving stones that look distinctly different from all the others. Some years ago, when they were excavating for some infrastructure improvement (sewer? electricity? fiber-optic cable?), they encountered the actual pavement from the time of Jesus. They obviously couldn't bring the street back down to that level so they did the next best thing and brought a section of the ancient paving stones up to the present street level. In walking the Via Dolorosa, we can walk on the actual stones that Jesus walked on carrying his cross. 


But right at that spot--I'm talking right beside those new-old paving stones--there's a pizza place ("Best Pizza in Jerusalem") and since Yossi knows the owner (an Arab Muslim), we stop for refreshments. Yes, the pizza was pretty good, and the Diet Coke really hit the spot. But I can't help feeling a little guilty, you know? I mean, Jesus could have really used a pit stop here, right? After all, it's right where he fell the second time. But it was not to be. I'm not sure I'll ever finish my inner processing of this little anomaly. 

Most of the Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land were identified and established as such by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century. Shortly before our pizza break, we turn and pass through a gate that was, at the time of Christ, part of the western wall of the city (not to be confused with the western wall of the temple). Helena identified a rocky rise in the terrain as Golgotha, the "place of a skull," and built a shrine church there that encompasses not only the site of our Lord's crucifixion, but the site of his burial as well (the gospels do indicate that Joseph of Arimathea's tomb was, in fact, nearby). 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it is named, is under the joint--though often not amicably joint--control of the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox ... and you have to walk through part of a Coptic Orthodox monastery to get there! The instability of this relationship is signified by the fact that the actual keys to the church are held by a neutral third party-- Muslim family. The same family has performed this service for hundreds of years, and we are able to meet the current warden of the keys in the plaza outside the church. Even so, I heard that an actual physical fight broke out recently between Roman and Greek monks inside the walls of the church!

As we enter the church, I feel some sympathetic pity toward our evangelical companions, because I don't think they have much working familiarity at all with the spiritual geography that governs such places. Without a spiritual "map" by which to negotiate the darkness and candles and icons and pervasive aroma of incense, etc. I can only imagine that they would have been both a little lost and a little annoyed. (Their moment in the sun will arrive, of course, the next day when we visit the so-called Garden Tomb.) The three Episcopalians, happily, all have a piety that swings way in the Catholic direction, so very little, if any, "translation" is required in order for us to find it a soul-enriching experience. 

In the center of the large church, right under the mosaic-covered dome, is a building-within-a-building that marks the site of the tomb. Within that structure, there is a small inner chamber that is the very spot-within-the-spot. Only about four people can fit comportably in that chamber, and there's only one narrow passageway that serves as both an entrance and an exit. A young Orthodox monk--he apparently drew the short straw at Chapter meeting that morning--serves as a traffic cop. He evidently doesn't enjoy his job very much, because he's very curtly--no, actually, rudely is more like it--harrassing everyone to "keep moving, no time for lingering, that's long enough," etc. etc. 

OK, I've waited my whole life and come however many thousand miles, and here I am in the spot where Christ trampled down Death by death and bestowed life to those who dwell in the tomb, and some snot-nose monk is telling me I can't stay long enough to say so much as "Thank-you, Jesus"? 


So I'm in a slightly bristly mood when I emerge from the tomb. (Hopefully, Jesus had a better attitude at that same point in his emergence.) But after desolation, as the spiritual masters say, comes consolation. Only this time, I don't see it coming; it totally ambushes me. Several yards away from the sepulchre shrine, up some steps, is a shrine marking the site where Our Lord's cross was placed, and I head in that direction. But blocking my path is another shrine, about halfway between the cross and the grave. It's a stone slab meant to represent the stone slab on which the body of Jesus was laid and anointed for burial. (Remember, it was a rush job because the sun was setting on the eve of the Sabbath.) Instinctively, I drop to my knees and bend over to kiss that slab. (Others are doing the same.) Now, if you know me, you are aware that I am not exactly renowned for my emotional effusiveness. Mr Spock, the Star Trek character, was my personal hero when I was in high school; I wanted to be just like him. OK, you get the picture, right? So I drop to my knees and kiss the stone and, all of a sudden ... Niagara Falls. My tear ducts just burst open and I'm sobbing like ... like ... I don't know what ... like I've very seldom ever wept. They are tears of awe and tears of gratitude as I imagine the Incarnate Word's crucified body lying on that slab, but not tears of grief. I don't know how long I am there, but when I get up, it's because I think I should, not because I actually want to. There is a sweetness in that moment that is indescribably special, and is the indisputable highlight of my trip.

Then I ascend the steps to the site of the crucifixion. Pilgrims of many different nationalities and ethnicities (per John the Seer's vision of "every tribe, people, language, and nation"?) are reverently filing by, some politely taking turns crouching under the mensa of the stone shrine altar and offering a prayer while kissing the floor. This is nearly as moving as my prior experience, and some more tears flow. I flash on thirty consecutive Good Fridays of kissing a wooden cross during the ceremony of Veneration, and realize I am at the very font of all those memories, even though it is my first visit. 

Soon--too soon--Yossi's deadline arrives (he gives us one in every place) and the 13 of us are marching through the narrow streets of old Jerusalem, past inummerable shops selling an array of items catering to the needs and desires of tourists. In one of these shops is a T-shirt with the familiar logo of the Chicago Cubs, only with "Chicago" and "Cubs" transliterated into Hebrew characters. That I cannot resist, and make everybody wait while I buy one. It may be my only moment of utterly selfish indulgence in the whole trip. 

Eventually, after viewing remnants of late first century Roman reconstruction of the city they had just destroyed, we find our exit--the familiar Zion Gate--and our bus, and, after fighting our way through some very 21st century urban traffic, our hotel. 

What a day.

Friday, February 06, 2009

A Brief Word on the Primates' Statement

Yesterday the Anglican primates concluded a significant meeting in Alexandria, Egypt. I will have more to say in due course. There's already a lot of good commentary out there in cyberspace. (Please do make the Covenant site your primary source.) I will weigh in when some of the dust has settled, but in the meantime I am very encouraged by Archbishop Rowan's thought summarized in the Anglican Communion News Service Report:

The need for a shift of focus in the life of the communion from autonomy of provinces with communion added on, to communion as the primary reality with autonomy and accountability understood within that framework.
Spot on.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, IV

Saturday, January 24, on the Dead Sea. We have the morning off! Load-em-up-and-move-em-out time isn't until noon. The idea, no doubt, is that we have an opportunity to take advantage of some the amenities of the place, which include floating in the Dead Sea itself--which can apparently be accomplished in nearly any body position because of the high salt content--covering oneself with the local mud (supposed to be therapeutic), or patronizing the full-service spa located in the hotel (with more varieties of massage than there are items at some sushi restaurants). Alas, a bathing suit is the one item I neglected to pack and all the massage openings are booked. So I'm left with a very familiar passtime--walking. I go out to the beach, stand on an artificial peninsula, and just soak in the moment. This is the lowest spot on earth, some 1500 feet below sea level. The rumor is you can't even get a sunburn at that (lack of) altitude, and that it's good treatment for a whole range of ailments, including depression. I get a chuckle out of a sign leading into the beach area: "Nightly bathing is forbidden." So every other night would be OK? I can infer the actual intent, of course, but the non-idiomatic English reminds me of something I first learned traveling in Brazil, which is that, no matter how well you think you know a language not your own, run it by a native speaker before you put it on a sign or a website or in a magazine. Nobody is exempt from this rule.

At noon our bus began to transport us northward along the western shore of the Dead Sea. It's gradually receding because the inflow of fresh water is diminishing due to getting used by the 7 million people who live in Israel. We can see evidence of this slow environmental train wreck in the form of sink holes between the road and the shoreline. 

Our interim destination is Masada. To anyone who knows the story, the very word is evocative of strong emotions associated with the strong actions that human beings are capable of taking under extreme circumstances. The place was built, on a virtually impregnable mountaintop, by Herod the Great just in case he needed to get out of Dodge for a few months, so access these days is via a cable car ride that last about three minutes (a bit of a challenge for me; I don't "do" heights). It turned out Herod never used it, but it was certainly ready for him, complete with immense storerooms, an intricate system for trapping rare and precious rain water, and an amazing room that wasn't called a sauna, since Herod wasn't Swedish, but which, for any practical purpose, functioned like one. Once again, I'm in awe of the engineering prowess of our ancient forebears.
The most sobering archeological find in Masada, of which we are shown a picture, was the ten pottery shards on which were written the names of the last ten men in the community. After it became clear that the Roman seige would imminently succeed (after the patient construction of an immense earthen ramp), each man slew his wife and children. Then these ten killed all the other men. The pottery shards represented a lottery: The man whose name came up killed the other nine, and then took his own life. Masada is a keystone of the "never again" narrative that binds Israeli Jews together, despite their immense differences. As Yossi explains it: "Never again will we die like sheep [referring to the holocaust] and never again will we take our own lives." Any analysis of the recent mess in Gaza that fails to take account of Masada just doesn't "get it."

Not far up the road from Masada is Qumran. At the time of Jesus, there was what amounted to a Jewish monastic community--an ascetically strict and ideologically apocalytic community--that lived there, the Essenes. There is credible speculation the John the Baptist wa greatly formed and influenced by this community prior to his public ministry, and that this influence rubbed off on Jesus himself. Like the Christian monks of the European middle ages, one of the things they got good at was making backup copies of biblical texts, which they were wont to roll up and stick in clay jars, which they squirreled away in caves conveniently located on nearby hillsides. In 1947, a Bedouin mother got fed up with her boys and told them to get their hind ends out of the tent and go play. So they started throwing rocks at caves (rocks are as ubiquitous on the ground in Judea as they are in Galilee), and one of their rocks hit one of the clay pots and that's how we got the Dead Sea Scrolls--for biblical scholars, the Powerball lotto of acheological finds.

Now we learn why the scriptures always talk about "going up" to Jerusalem, no matter what the direction of travel. It's because, from anywhere in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee, going to Jerusalem involves traveling uphill. This is especially true when one's starting poing is the Dead Sea! As we wind our way upward on the highway, Yossi does his best to psych us up for the experience of seeing the Holy City for the first time. Rather that just taking us directly to our hotel, he had Meier drive us to the summit of Mt Scopus, from which we can look down on the old city (and a good bit of the newer city). We get out of the bus and take it all in (and bundle up a bit; it's at least 20 degrees cooler that what we've lately become accustomed to). 

It's nearly sunset, and the Muslim call to prayer begins blaring from the minaret of a nearby mosque. This occasioned one of the few moments of awkwardness arising from the differences between the varieties of Christians that made up this group of 12 pilgrims. In response to the Muslim call to prayer (admittedly, IMHO, too loud and quite irritating), somebody alluded to Jesus' exhortation to not pray with "vain repetition as the Gentiles do." This made me bristle, not because I'm a particular friend of Islam--truth to tell, I think it's a quite dismal religion--but because a good deal of Christian prayer that means a great deal to me is also formulaic and repetitious, and I wondered whether the person who made the remark might similarly condemn forms of prayer that I find life-giving. On my own, however, I probably would have been inclined not to make a big deal of it. It was just an ignorant remark. But then one of our other travel companions muttered, "What an ignorant thing to say!" Whereupon I thought to myself, "Indeed. But some truths are better left unspoken." I can't recall the precise turn of events, but I soon found myself in ... shall we say, a "Socratic" exchange with the source of the "vain repetition" statement, during which he assured me that the Muslims down the hill would be more than happy to welcome me into their fellowship. I was also assured that while Muslim prayers may not be meaningless to Muslims, they certainly are to God.


Here's my edudite analysis: The noise emanating from the minaret was like a red flag to a fighting bull. It set off an explosion that was already poised to happen. There is a certain brand of American evangelical Christian whose inner mental template of the Holy Land--and we had just arrived at the Big Top of the Holy Land--is that of a Christian theme park staffed by Jewish employees. In this idealization, there is no room for Islam or Muslims. They are interlopers, tresspassers. They spoil the view. So here we are, Christians looking down on the seat of Judaism, and what do we see? The Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine, right on the peak of the Temple Mount, right where the Holy of Holies should be, right where the veil was rent at the moment of Jesus' death. And what do we hear? Vain repetitions that we can't understand blaring from a cheap sound system. It's not a suprise we had a Socratic exchange between Christian brethren on Mount Scopus. It's a surprise nobody went truly postal. 

After a drop or two of ceremonial wine, and a special blessing from our Jewish hosts, we head down into the city and our hotel (not far north of the old Damascus gate). Since it's the eve of the Lord's Day, and our itinerary for Sunday looks jam packed, my two Episcopalian colleagues and I score some challah bread and a small bottle of wine and, after dinner, repair to my room, joined by a United Methodist companion, and celebrate Mass for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, III

Friday, January 23. Back to a more reasonable "all aboard" call time of 8:00 AM. Today will be our longest travel day of the trip, as our ultimate destination is a resort town on the Dead Sea, well to the south of the Galilean venue where we have spent two nights. I will miss this storied lake. The night was mild enough that I could keep the balcony door in my hotel room wide open all night, and even being on the ninth floor and a full block from the beach, I was soothed by the rhythmic lapping of the water on the shore. As we leave Tiberias, I am mildly astonished to sea actual crashing surf such as one might observe on Lake Michigan on a breezy day, and more impressive than the Gulf of Mexico ever is along the Mississippi coast. 
Driving south on the highway that parallels the Jordan River (only on a straighter path), we arrive thirty minutes or so later at Beit She'an, which is both a national park an a "live" archeological dig. For anyone with even the slightest interest in archeology, it is an amazing experience. At the height of its develpment as an urban center, in 8th century, an earthquake leveled the city. Excavations over the last several years have gradually uncovered that moment of destruction, frozen in time. The twelve of us were spellbound by Yossi's narrative; he had personally work on the site early in his professional career. We experienced the uncanny acoustics of the ampitheatre, inspected the public toilets, and witnessed multiple layers of pavement as the keys of the city were passed from Romans to Byzantines to Arabs to Crusaders to Turks. I came away from the entire trip with many things, but one was certainly a profound respect for the engineering prowess of ancient civilizations.

In a politically neutral world, we would have proceeded to our Dead Sea rendezvous on the same highway that had brought us from Tiberias to Beit She'an. That's the route Jesus would have walked, taking him through the Decapolis and Samaria en route to Judea. But today we'd be talking about the heart of what is still officially the "occupied West Bank," so it was deemed prudent to make a large letter C.  We backtrack a little bit north and considerably east, through the Jezreel Valley once again, and then head south at 70 mph on what is still a new toll road along what had been, before 1967, the border between Israel and Jordan. It was an unsettling juxtaposition of 21st century technology ("open road tolling" and very attractive rest areas) with ancient feuds, signified by fortified barbed wire all along the way on our left, with the periodic appearance of a 20-foot high concrete wall shielding this Israeli highway and nearby Israeli towns from potential hostile projectiles emanating from the Palestinian communities that we were whizzing by. It's a sad and complicated reality.

Gradually, as we head south, the appearance of the countryside begins to shift as if we were driving from, say, the San Diego County coastal area to the Coachella Valley to Palm Springs, only compressed into a much smaller area. Soon we cross the freeway that could have taken us either back to Tel Aviv to the west or Jerusalem to the east. I see exits for Ashdod and Ashkelon and realize that we're probably only 30 miles or so from Gaza, as those communities had taken Hamas rocket fire only a week or so earlier. I don't for a moment feel unsafe, but it was sobering to be in such temporal and physical proximity to a war zone. Soon we're in Beersheba (spelled several different ways--this is the one I remember from my old King James bible). This is territory associated with the proto-patriarch Abraham, and we're on the edge of the vast Negev desert that takes up nearly half of Israel's territory. 

In Beersheba we turn left (east) and head into some truly desolate territory--dry and hilly. From time to time we see a small settlement consisting of a handful of ramshackle structures made mostly of corrogated metal and black plastic sheeting, with a few children kicking around a 
soccer ball while some goats or sheep wander around, and maybe with a pickup truck or two on sight. Once in a while there might even be some camels. These, it turns out, are Bedouin camps, only they're not so much 
"camps" anymore because the Bedouin have pretty much given up their nomadic ways because, for a number of reasons I do not completely understand, they no longer have to chase pastureland in order to survive. Now, driving past these little communities, one is tempted to infer that they live in abject poverty. Indeed, I've seen some of the infamous favelas in Brazil that look several notches more upscale. But the truth is--so we're told, at any rate--that they've essentially lived this way for millenia, only now they have a few more perks, so they actually think they've struck the Mother Lode. Everything is relative, I guess.

As it turns out, we're headed for a made-for-tourists iteration of a traditional Bedouin camp. Instead of plastic sheeting, the tent material is wool woven in attractive decorative patterns, but the components of the substructure looks like they could have been purchased at Home Depot. So we plop down on some cushions while a guy in a caftan squats by a fire and cooks fresh pita bread in a large pan while we watch. Some among us are a little squeamish about the sanitation conditions, but it's nearly 2 PM and we're all pretty hungry. So when the bread arrives, along with the ubiquitous hummus and vegetables and kebab (it's turkey today, we're told, though I look around later and never see any turkeys on the premises, while there is a herd of goats off in the distance, to say nothing of a burro or two), we wolf it down.

Then it's time for a camel ride. These are truly exotic beasts, and I have to say, they didn't seem entirely happy with their lot in life. I wonder whether they let out a collective moan whenever they see a tour bus pull in. "Crap! Not again!" We're told not to let our fingers get anywhere near their  mouths--that is, if we care about our fingers. To allow a rider to mount, these poor creatures have to kneel, first on the front end, then on the back. It's a slow and apparently tortuous process, and herein lies, I think, my perception of their endemic angst. And for the rider, it's akin to being on a sl0w-miving roller coaster. And for the record, camels are wider than horses. I would have been much more prepared for the experience were I a 15-year old female cheerleader at the peak of training ... if you catch my drift. 
But wait ... there's more. Back onto the tent cushions for some sweet hot tea chased by some uber-strong Arab coffee, followed by a sort of lecture-recital from a Bedouin with a degree in musicology (ah, my old field!) singing and playing a plucked/strummed five double-string instrument and talking to us about Bedouin culture.

Once we were safely back on the bus, with the camels in our driver's rearview mirrow (much to the camels' satisfaction, I'm sure), we headed a few miles back in the direction from which we had come, headed for a junction in the town of Arad, a relatively new town populated largely by sephardic Jews from Ethiopia and reflecting Israel's determination to settle and subdue the desert. The community has a quite pleasant feel to it, reminding me, once again, of any number of towns in arid parts of California. 

By sunset we are pulling in to the resort town of Ein Bokek (and the Hotel Daniel, I am pleased to discover), on the western shore of the Dead Sea. By this time, it is officially the Sabbath in Israel, so one of the elevators automatically stops at every floor, sparing its observant passengers the labor of pushing a button. It's such a beautiful evening that our dinner tables are set outdoors on a patio overlooking the pool, which is fed by the 
saline waters of the Dead Sea itself. Yossi and his wife (who drove from Jerusalem to meet us there) and Sara and Meier (our bus driver) lead us in the traditional Jewish prayers and the ceremonial blessing of wine and bread on the evening of the Sabbath.  After dinner, as has been my custom every night, I pay for some internet time on a public computer--about $8USD for an hour--and check email and update my Facebook status. Not enought time, however, for blogging.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, II

First, a catch-up note: I forget to mention in my last entry that we also visited the village of Cana, site of Our Lord's first miracle (in John's schema), changing water into wine at a wedding feast. We made this stop between Nazareth and the fishing boat museum. There was, of course, a shrine church there, and several shops hawking "wedding wine," whatever that may be.

Wake-up call on Thursday (the 21st) was the earliest of the trip--we needed to be on the bus by 7:30--packed, fed, and checked out. From the peace of Ginosar-by-the-Sea our bus took us around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and across the Jordan River, which both feeds and drains the lake. (Aside to any readers in the San Joaquin Valley: The Jordan is certainly not a very impressive stream, despite its symbolic significance. It is quite comparable to the Calaveras.) Very soon, we are climbing (the Sea of Galilee is below sea level, and our immediate destination is 2500 feet above sea level) into the region known as the Golan Heights, which, before the 1967 war, was part of Syria; Israel has since formally annexed it. The book of Acts never tells us precisely where on the "Damascus Road" St Paul had his life-changing (world-changing, actually) encounter with the risen Christ, but, in any case, we are on that road. 

By 9:30 we will be overlooking Syria, some 40 miles or so from its capital, within sight of the U.N. border checkpoint. But first, Yossi tells us, he
 has a surprise for us. When they were excavating for the present road, they discovered several ancient tombs hewn out of the hillside. These were actually "suites" of a sort--with an entryway, a common area, and several niches radiating therefrom. Common practice in the ancient semitic world was to recycle tombs. Bodies would be wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a niche long enough for the flesh to decompose. When only the skeleton remained, the bones would be placed, more compactly, in a stone or ceramic container known as an ossuary, thus liberating the tomb niche for another occupant. When we reached one of these sites, the bus pulled over and we were able to get off (carefully, since we were near a blind curve in the road) and inspect the arrangement for ourselves. We were, of course, at least 100 miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was (temporarily) buried. But what we were looking at dated from the same era, and looked very much like Joseph of Arimathea's "own new tomb which had never been used" would have looked ... complete with a rolling stone to seal the entrance!

On our way to the Syrian border we pass by several small
military installations, both active Israeli bases and defunct Syrian ones. Soon we are in the shadow of Mount Hermon, definitely not "skip[ping] like a young wild ox" per the Psalmist, and, moreover, shorn of the mantle of snow it usually wears at this time of year, which is a source of no small anxiety, as the snows of Mount Hermon feed the Jordan, and the Jordan feeds the Sea of Galilee, and the Sea of Galilee supplies all of Israel with fresh water. The concern with the depth of the snowpack reminded me eerily of the years I lived in central California. As we exit the bus at an observation point, the air is much brisker than it was in the valley. Before us lies Syria; we can see at least two distinct towns. Behind us is a bluff housing an Israeli military post, with a raft of sensitive surveillance equipment. One of our number somewhat naively turns to take a picture in that direction and is startled to hear our bus driver honking his horn. Apparently the soldiers who staff the outpost are a tad humorless and not shy about descending suddenly in a jeep and confiscating the cameras of curious tourists. 

Our route continues in borderland, first with 
Syria, then with Lebanon. The landscape is green and arboreal (the famous Cedars of Lebanon), with Druze villages and ruins of
Crusader fortresses darting in and out of our view as we traverse the windy mountain road. A ski resort in the distance is quiet because the terrain is quite devoid of snow. The next stop is Caesarea Philippi, still in the territory of the Golan, but not so much in the "heights" anymore. This is a major archeological site that once houses a temple to the Greek god Pan. It was here, of course, that Jesus put the question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Simon Peter gets the answer right. One can picture this exchange taking place at the site of the pagan temple, with Jesus turning his back to it and facing south toward Jerusalem even as he began to clue his followers in on what would take place there.

Here, as in many other places on our route, the 13 of us find ourselves dodging a group of about 700 Nigerian pilgrims, who pretty much get to go wherever they want to go, because there are so many of them and so few of us. 

From Casarea Philippi we back down to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and visit three more holy spots: the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 (Taghba), and the village of Capernaum, Jesus' adopted home town. They are all in close proximity to one another, though not walking distance for pilgrims in a hurry. The Mount of the Beatitudes, centered on a shrine church with a panoramic view of both the hillside and the lake below, is crowded with tour groups. As we approach the entrance to the area from where our bus is parked, a wind suddenly blows from the west, whipping up the waves on the lake. It is, right there, easy to see how Jesus' disciples could have set out in a boat into calm water, only to find themselves in peril, struggling to maintain control of their craft only a few minutes later. The shrine 
Taghba is, in my opinion, particularly beautiful. In front of the altar, some of the mosaic floor from the orignal 4th century church are preserved--an image of loaves and fishes that I have seen replicated many times, only now I was looking at the original. Capernaum certainly does include a shrine church--on the site of Simon Peter's house--but it is friendlier to the "pious historical tourist," since it was largely abandoned late in the firstr century, eclipsed by the nearby city of Tiberias. Some of the ruins have been re-assembled, giving an impression of the community's ambience at the time of Christ. The ruins of the synagogue are particularly impressive, and while the structure dates from an era several decades later than the New Testament, I found myself wondering whether it may be on the same site as the one that figures so prominently in Jesus' early ministry.

By this time it was after 1 PM, and we were hungry, though we had been warned that lunch would be late. Not to worry, though--our next destination was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, across from where we had spent the night, via the "territory of the Gadarenes" (aka Gerasenes), the keepers of swine into whom Jesus allowed a legion of demons to enter after casting them out of the man they were occupying. We pull up to a large dining facility that caters exclusively to busload after busload after busload of tourists. (Yep, the Nigerians are still with us.) Lunch consists of broiled tilapia--tilapia being the signature edible species of this body of water, both in ancient times and now. Preparing our meal was not exactly a labor-intensive endeavor, as the only thing they did before cooking the fish was to gut them: Head, tail, skin, and bones are all on the plate along with the edible part. It's just a matter of digging in.

After our repast we climbed down into a boat--rather larger and more high-powered than the ones used by Jesus and his friends--for a brief excursion out into the lake. It's a beautiful clear day, with air temperature in the mid-70s farenheit. We can see both ends and both sides of the lake. The significance of it all is getting too much to even process.

Back in the bus, and back to the Jordan River, only this time to a spot south of the lake, where it begins it long windy path down to the Dead Sea, nearly 100 miles to the south as the vulture flies. We stop at the most kitschy tourist trap of the whole trip, a spot where the west bank (speaking literally, not poltically) of the river has been dug out and paved, making it convenient for visitors to get into the water and do something related to baptism, whether its actually getting baptized, baptizing somebody else, or
just getting wet in such a way that enables some sort of reconnection with one's baptism. They even have changing areas and white smocks available to facilitate the encounter (not to mention a large gift shop). I got my hands wet, just to be able to say I'd done so, but was not moved to do anything more demonstrative than that. I just didn't have a good feeling about the place, probably related to the fact that it was nowhere near the actual spot where John the Baptist did his thing, which was way south in the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea. Of course, that actual area is in poltically sensitive territory these days, hence this more convenient (and bucolic, what with all the trees lining the banks) northern alternative. But hey, if there'd been a shrine church there, 
I'd have probably been all over it!

Mercifully, tourist attractions in Israel all shut down around 4:30 PM, so our day is done. I'm tired just remembering it. We could easily have gone back to the same kibbutz-run hotel, but in the interest of exposing us to various alternatives for when we lead our own tours, our tour company has booked us into a different place, this one in the city of Tiberias, once again on the western shore, just a little south of our previous Ginosar location. 

Tiberias seems to have something resembling a "night life," and it's fun to walk up and down the main drag, and along the seaside promenade, in the couple of hours of free time before dinner. Now it's a Jewish Israeli community, though it was not so in antiquity, and it was a particularly popular hangout for the Crusaders for the couple of centuries during which they were on the scene, leaving behind buildings and walls the remains of which are simply integrated into the contemporary city in a mostly non-pretentious way.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, I

The Holy Land (Latin: Terra Sancta) has always been on my "definitely someday" list of travel destinations. So when I was approached last November about joining a couple of colleagues from my diocese on a "familiarization tour," the timing seemed right to say Yes. The trip was organization by a tour company based in Columbus, OH that is owned by Israelis and Israeli ex-pats. The twelve participants (including me and my two Northern Indiana colleagues) were all Christian ministers of one stripe or another. (More about the various "stripes" later.)

We gathered in the El Al check-in area at JFK in New York on the evening of 19 January (a Monday), and were joined by Sara, an Israeli-American who is one of the owners of Jerusalem Tours. El Al, the Israeli national airline, is renowned for its security screening procedures. Every passenger is interviewed by agents trained in behavior profiling. (After 9/11, they were the primary "trainers" for the TSA.) As we milled around the rope line, one of our number apparently didn't fit the profile of "pastor." He's a thirty-something Associate Pastor of an Assemblies of God congregation in Texas. His dress and grooming are typical of a member of his generation who is travelling, which on this cold New York day, featured a knit stocking cap. I admit, he did look a tad menacing. Anyway, they pulled him out of the line pronto and quizzed him for what seemed forever. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he came back with a validated passport. My own interrogation was brief, but it made me nervous nonetheless.

Our departure was scheduled for midnight, but while we boarded the 747 on time, it was a least 90 minutes between boarding and wheels up because of the need for de-icing. We heard later that ours was the last plane out of JFK that night; the weather was on the nasty side. Being a veteran of overseas travel in four of the last five years, I knew to ask my doctor for a prescription sleep aid, a technique I now swear by enthusiastically. I popped the little magic pill somewhere over the Candadian maritimes and came to somewhere over the Austrian Alps. It's the only way to fly.

Traveling eastbound as we were, of course, we passed the sun on our respective opposite courses and chased down the advancing darkness. As we began our descent into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, the sun was already beginning to set over the Mediterranean. By the time we actually landed, at around 5 PM local time (which was 10 AM EST) it was already dark. Even while en route we began to get the feel of our destination, as several Orthodox Jews stood at various times to recite their obligatory prayers (the equivalent of our Anglican Daily Office).

Probably because of our Hebrew-speaking Israeli-born leader, passport control and customs went very smoothly. Everyone's bags arrived, which is always an occasion for thanksgiving, and we were shepherded through the quite beautiful airport to the 50-passenger capacity tour bus that would be our daylight-hours home for the next week. There we met Yossi, the guide whom we would come to regard with great affection. Yossi is 60ish, Israeli-born, the son of Polish holocaust survivors, a veteran of the 1967 war in which he helped Israel take possession of the 
Golan Heights, holding a university degree in archeology, and a veritable walking encyclopedia on all things Israeli, both ancient and modern. Though Jewish, he is thoroughly versed in those parts of the New Testament that would be of interest to Christian tourists, and in the Christan theological significance of the places we would visit.

It was about a half hour drive, via a six-lane freeway that appeared to meet every standard for a U.S. interstate highway (including the familiar white on green directional signs, the contents of which generally appear in three languages: Hebrew, 
English, and Arabic), from the airport to the Dan Panorama Hotel just south a downtown Tel Aviv, right across the street from the beach. We check in to our rooms (definitely the Five Star caliber they were touted to be) and them reassemble in the dining room. Dinner is buffet style (the norm for our entire trip), and there is a great deal to choose from. After dinner I bought 30 minutes of internet time (on a computer in the hotel lobby) for about $7USD. I was able to update my Facebook status, but not get into either gmail or Blogger because they came up in Hebrew and I couldn't decipher the error messages!

Wake-up call Wednesday morning was at 6:30 AM. We had to have our luggage outside the door of our room by 7:00 and then head down to breakfast. The morning buffet was quite sumptuous, though lacking in anything resembling pork sausage! We were on the bus by 8:00 AM. Yossi invited one of us to lead the group in prayer, after which he broke out into (what I call the "happy clappy" version of) "This is the day...", which became a daily norm. 

Our route puts us back on the freeway heading north out of the city along the coastline, tracing the route that St Peter traversed from Joppa (the ancient city that is now effectively south Tel Aviv) to Ceasarea in response
 to the entreaty of the centurion Cornelius. I am amazed at how much the territory reminds me of southern and central California--beautiful sunny 
January weather, similar vegetation (lots of eucalyptus and date palms), similar ocean view. Yossi informs us that Israel occuplies a land mass equal to that of New Jersey, though I'm aware that about half of this area makes up the Negev Desert and is very sparsely populated, thus putting some 7 million people (roughly 5 million Jews and 2 million Arabs) into an area the size of half of New Jersey. 

In less than an hour's time we arrive in Ceasarea. This was a coastal city build by the Roman Governor-King Herod the Great the honor Caesar 
Augustus. It was the seat of Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate, who journeyed from there to Jerusalem at least annual to be present for the celebration of Passover. It was in Caesarea that St Paul was held for over two years after his arrest in Jerusalem and before he was sent to Rome for trial before the Emperor. There are still substantial ruins of the grandeur that Herod built there, and it remains an active archeological site.

Back on the bus in relatively short order, we drive past Israel's only golf course and turn inland, heading for Mount Carmel, site of Elijah's epic encounter with the prophets of Baal in the 9th century B.C. in the 9th century B.C. (a narrative I was particularly fond of in my Sunday School days and which I have appreciated in adulthood as the basis for Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah). There's a shrine church at the peak that is operated by Roman Catholic Discalced Carmelite monks, which leads me to recall that there is a devotion (and 
feast day) to Our Lady of Mt Carmel

EXCURSUS on Holy Places, Shrines, and Pilgrimage vs. Touring: I probably knew at a cognitive level before my trip that none of the places a Christian would be interested in visiting would be in pristine condition, looking essentially like it did when Jesus walked the earth. Nonetheless, I was brought up short by the experience of finding a shrine church at every such place. Almost invariably the ones that are open to visitors are under the control of Roman Catholics, even though the Holy Land is outside the natural geographical ambit of the Western Rite. For some reason, the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic shrines, when there are any, are not as hospitable. Seeing reality thus as it is put me in mind of what seems an apposite distinction between the expectations of a pilgrim, strictly speaking, and those of what one might call a "pious historical tourist." The latter is interested in replicating, insofar as is possible, the sensory experience of those who were present on those sites in biblical times. In their ideal world, the Holy Land would be a sort of theme park that is as close as possible to being "historically accurate" ... but with convenient and clean restrooms. Shrines and churches, while possibly beautiful in themselves, are largely an annoying distraction from such an end. A pilgrim, by contrast, yearns to connect in a more mystical dimension with the spiritual reality represented by those places. Shrines and churches are therefore a welcome medium toward such an end. Based on my own limited experience on this trip, unless one has a 
consuming interest in archeology, a visit to the Holy Land is most satisfyingly approached with the mindset of a pilgrim.

Looking eastward from the top of Mount Carmel one is treated to a spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley ... aka the Valley of Megiddo ... aka (via the structure of Hebrew grammar) Armageddon. The kings of Israel and Judah fought there. Napoleon fought there. According to currently popular interpretation of some biblical texts, there will yet be at least one more decisive battle in that valley. If you look at a map of ancient trade routes you can see how strategic its location is. Today it's the breadbasket of Israel, rich with diverse agriculture. And it was impossible not to notice in the distance runways marking an Israeli air force base, from which, presumably, missions had recently been launched against targets in Gaza. 

On the other side of the valley, Yossi pointed out the hill on which sits thecity (certainly no longer a village) of Nazareth (on our itinerary yet the same day), and turning the eye south from there, Mount Tabor (sadly, not on our itinerary at all), the traditional site of Our Lord's Transgifuration. On our way down the mountain we stop for lunch in a Druze village--falafel in pita bread, or, for the less adventurous, deep-fried chicken breast. It was in that location that I sampled the hottest peppers I have ever tasted.

We then headed through the valley we had just seen from above and thenup another hill to Nazareth. The site of ancient town is now a 100% Arab city, though there is a Jewish community (founded since 1948) of the same name nearby. Yossi tells us that the population is now about 35% Christian (divided between Greek Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox, and Latin Rite Roman Catholic) and 65% Muslim, tough, until relatively recently, the Muslim-Christian distribution was more even; this reflects a steady attrition of the Christian population across the Middle East. For the first time on our trip, we experience a distinct "third world" ambience. Our only stop in Nazareth (and it involved some walking, since the narrow streets didn't accomodate our tour bus) was the Church of the Annunciation, built as a shrine on the traditional site of the angel's appearance to Our Lady. The current structure is relatively new, and is gorgeous. Yossi described the Christian theological significance of the carvings on the doors with a fluency that belied his Jewish identity. Inside is the ancient grotto marking "the spot." Sadly, for us, there was a Mass being celebrated--in what language I know not, though I could certainly tell where they were in the liturgy and wanted to sing along with the Psalm refrain--which prevented us from visitng the grotto close up. My pilgrim soul felt deprived; I could have lingered there happily another hour or so--long enough to slowly pray the Angelus, at least--but it was not to be. 

Back on the bus again (now becoming an all-too-familiar move) to travel the same route Jesus walked between him home town and the Sea of Galilee, the venue for most of his public ministry. I was forced immediately to forever alter my mental map of the area. Being raised an Illinois flatlander, I had always pictured a nice level plain all over Galilee. Not so. There is some serious up and down movement for anyone living in the territory--easy enough for a diesel bus, more challenging on foot. It was a breathtaking moment laying eyes on that legendary body of water for the first time. The terrain was much greener than I would have imagined. (Of course, Israel is an aggresive tree-planting society; it's the only country in the world with more trees at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning.) I'm also struck by the abundance and ubiquity of stones scattered across the landscape. Buildings and fences are all made of stone, and it's not hard to see why. It gives new meaning for me to Jesus' comment that if no one else praised him, the very stones would sing. And it's also not difficult to see why the normative method of capital punishment there in ancient times was ... stoning. 

As we drawn near to the water's edge, near the village of Ginosar (nee Genessaret in the New Testament) we pull into the the parking lot of a museum dedicated entirely to one archeological discovery that was made in that place only a few years ago--the relatively intact remains of a fishing boat from the time of Christ. Presumably, it is substantally the same sort of vessel that Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee brothers would have used to ply their trade, and which Jesus used as a preaching platform. Conveniently, adjacent to the museum is our hotel for the night, which is operated by a nearby kibbutz. The ambience is distinctly rural and peaceful, in contrast to our accomodations in Tel Aviv. 

After getting settled in my room, with time before our buffet dinner, I stroll through some lovely gardens out into the lake on a pier. Waves are gently lapping the shore. The air is pleasantly warm (probably mid-60s farenheit), unseen packs of canines of some variety (dogs? coyotes?) trade long howls with one another. It is surpassingly beautiful, almost transcendant. I turn and look westward, away from the lake, toward the mountain pass Jesus used to travel to the sea from Nazareth, and realize that, with all that has changed in two milennia, that particular view has not, and that he doubtless watched the same sun set over that same hill many times, perhaps not more than a few feet from where I was standing.

This is obviously more than I can do in one day. More to follow in due course!