Love Never Ends

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I am quoting these very familiar verses from the second reading, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, as I spend my last full day in the Holy Land where I have been leading a group of students, spouses, and alums from Luther Seminary. How’s that for irony? The Corinthian issue is a divisive community. I have spent the last thirteen days in a divisive country. In fact, while writing this column I heard both church bells and the Muslim call to prayer in the span of only twenty minutes. There is no end to opinions about the conflict here, there is no end to solutions, and there is no real end in taking sides.

The lection from Luke is another divisive situation. When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth for his inaugural address, the sermon goes well until Jesus specifies just who are the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. And when the poor and captive and oppressed are those whom we don’t like or don’t trust in the first place or even fear, Jesus’ sermon becomes more difficult to hear. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is only the beginning of the division that his words, and eventually his church, will provoke.

We are no strangers to the kind of division in communities of which Paul speaks — racial, denominational, and political. And our strategies for negotiating these divisions leave much to be desired. It often comes down to choosing sides, as if the spectrum between the two poles did not exist. It would be better if we only chose sides. Instead, we choose which side we are on and then, to make ourselves feel better or justified about our decision, we proceed to suspect, demonize, and tear down the other side. But as Elias Chacour (Father Chacour is the Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Catholic Church for Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee, an advocate for non-violence, working toward reconciliation between Arabs and Jews with whom our group had a chance to meet) says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”

We are also no strangers to the kind of division that the gospel provokes. And sometimes we forget just how divisive the gospel can be. Choosing regard over rejection, respect over diminution, love over hate, peace over conflict is not as easy as we hope it could be, as we wish it would be. It seems like it should be easy — and that’s the problem. Why is it that we find it so difficult to make what appears to be a rather obvious choice? A choice for love? What stands in our way? What is at stake for us that we are reluctant to admit or to say out loud?

A couple of evenings ago on our trip we had a presentation by the Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. The representatives who spoke to us were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall. “No wall, not matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one determined suicide bomber and the one determined peacemaker,” said one of the fathers. They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.

In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.

When we gathered together as a group on this trip, our primary question was always, “where did you see God today?” What do you preach on this last Sunday before the Transfiguration? This second to last Sunday of the season of Epiphany? You preach the presence of God. You preach the truth. That no matter where we go or who we are, there is and will be disagreement and division. The answer is not to erase, pretend it doesn’t exist, or think it will eventually go away, but to embrace more fully how to live into it, among it, and with it in love — because God is love.

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Greater Works Than These

Day 9 of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land included a visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital and the Church of the Ascension, walking the Palm Sunday Road, seeing the church that commemorates Peter’s denial, hearing a presentation by a representative from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, icahd.org), going to the Western Wall at sundown for Shabbat, and ending up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where we witnessed the locking of the doors to the church, a nightly ritual executed by representatives from the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Franciscan churches yet, at the end, the locking of the doors is done by a representative from a Muslim family dating back at least nine hundred years. Why a Muslim? Because the denominations that have altars and worship space in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot agree. The Muslim is the neutral presence.

The last time I led this trip, we did not go to the church commemorating Peter’s denial, The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. There are roosters that lead the way to the site and a rooster weather vane tops the dome of the church. The dungeon below is believed to be the cell where Jesus was held after his arrest. Perhaps it was because this was my first visit to this site, the theme of denial seemed most prominent this day. Augusta Victoria Hospital is primarily sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation and has held a critical role in health care for Palestinians who have been denied decent health care. Walking the Palm Sunday Road that ends at the Garden of Gethsemane therefore ends in denial. ICAHD fights diligently for those denied housing. Being at the Western Wall reminds you of that which is denied our Jewish brothers and sisters. And the door closing ritual at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre represents a denial of unity.

Peter’s denial has a prominent role in our Christian imagination of discipleship. Why did Peter deny Jesus? How could he? Would we deny Jesus? Or, if we are honest, how do we, day after day? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the question posed to Peter is, “do you know Jesus?” Peter’s response is, “I do not know the man.” Peter’s denial of Jesus is clear – and devastating. I wonder if we forget what it might mean for Peter to choose this action and for Jesus to be the recipient of it. What causes denial? What is its motivation? Is it a breakdown of trust? Does it represent a point where the risk for the other is too much? Is it a threshold you cannot cross because it would jeopardize something at the core of who you are? These are important questions to ask Peter – and to ask ourselves. In the Gospel of John, however, denial takes on a different hue. In the Fourth Gospel, the question to Peter is not whether he knows Jesus but, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” When Peter answers, “I am not,” he both denies Jesus and denies his apostleship. In other words, Peter denies who he was called to be and who Jesus needs him to be. The denial of Peter in John is of his very self.

Where and how have we – and do we – engage in the same self-denial? A denial of our identity as a disciple. A denial of the witness God has called us to be and needs us to be. A denial of the fact that Jesus could possibly rely on us to carry out greater works than we could possibly imagine (John 14:12)? Where we have downplayed our testimony, convincing ourselves that no one will listen anyway and wondering how God could have possibly chosen us, chosen me, to carry God’s love to the world?

When we were at the site of Peter’s denial, a cock crowed. I am not making this up. I was both devastated and yet deeply moved. Why? Because it was a confirmation of what I knew to be true – that my denial is just as possible, of both Jesus and myself. But also, it was an affirmation that there’s the promise of the other side – the side that will continue to seek for ways of justice, critique of empire, and means of empowering the other to move from denial to testimony. Greater works indeed.

 

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Carrying On With Life

Day Eight began with a trip to St. Joseph’s hospital with one of our students concerned about a swollen leg and a possible blood clot. We were very relieved to find out that everything was fine. Earlier in the week, another one of our students experienced leg swelling, as well as fatigue and pain in her legs. On my last trip to the Holy Land, the father of one of our students died and so we made arrangements for him to fly home early. All of this is life. Of course, carrying on with life in a foreign country makes life a little uneasy, a little difficult. The itinerary for the day included a visit to the Dome of the Rock, St. Anne’s Church (the birthplace of the virgin Mary), the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts and exhibit), Yad Vashem (the memorial to the Holocaust), which included a meeting with its Deputy Director, and a presentation by the Parent’s Circle (a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict).

Perhaps the morning’s challenges of negotiating an unfamiliar hospital setting was fitting for the day that followed. You have to carry on with life. This is not to downplay or dismiss those situations that seem to make life difficult, even unbearable. But somehow, we manage to carry on, despite all evidence to the contrary that this could be possible. Yad Vashem is not only a memorial to the Holocaust but also to the resiliency of the human spirit. One of the most moving sections of the memorial is the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, which is a garden of trees dedicated to those non-Jews who risked their lives by helping Jews survive the war. So when the Jewish could have found it virtually impossible to carry on with life, they had the righteous to carry on for them in the meantime.

The representatives from the Parent’s Circle (http://www.theparentscircle.com) were two fathers who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and life before and after the Separation Wall. “No wall, not matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one determined suicide bomber and the one determined peacemaker,” said one of the fathers. They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” This is the gospel.

 

 

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Praying for Peace

Yesterday was our last day in Bethlehem. It started with a visit to the Church of the Nativity. After lunch, we went on to the Jordan River where we held a remembrance of Baptism service on its shores. The spot is directly across from Jordan, only the river separating the borders, a Jordanian guard strategically posted to prevent any border crossing. Yet, we still sang, “Oh sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down, oh sisters let’s go down, down in the river to pray.” Each person received the sign of the cross on the forehead with the familiar words said, “name, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world (over 10,000 years) and the lowest city in the world, 900 feet below sea level, was our next stop. The first point of interest was the Mount of Temptation, where we had the option of riding a camel, because where else would one want to ride a camel? Of course, we went to see the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed so that he might see the Lord. Was it really the tree? Evidently, because it was on the main road in Jericho, there is a very good chance that it was. But even if it wasn’t, “why spoil a good story with facts” as our wonderful guide, Hussam, frequently insists. We ended the day in Jerusalem, settling into the Lutheran Guesthouse in the Old City, with the final leg of our trip in view.

It was hard to leave Bethlehem. There is something about this city, its people, its location, which tugs at your heart. The city relies on tourism for its economy, yet there are groups that will not stay in Bethlehem. Why? Why not stay in the birthplace of Jesus, the Messiah? Fear, plain and simple. With the exception of the Church of the Nativity, it would be a city overlooked, even forgotten, just as it was in Jesus’ time. When I was here three years ago, I purchased a nativity scene made out of olive wood, all one piece. It’s a typical nativity, with the manger, Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, and a star – with one exception. Blocking the way to the manger for the three wise men is the Separation Wall. They can’t get through to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why? Because fear rules.

What is the opposite of fear? What is something that is as motivating? As powerful? As potent? It is an important question to ask ourselves, here in this place, but also when we return home, wanting, wishing, to share our story and stories of this place, with the desire that some of the fear might dissipate. Is the opposite of fear, hope? Is it, as some of us were discussing the other night, self-expression? Is it courage?

I have begun to wonder if it is peace. The photo included with this post is a dove, but not just any dove. This dove was perched on the roof of one of the worship structures at the baptismal site on the Jordan River. It seemed as if it was watching over us as we waded in the water, listening in as we once again heard God’s words to us of love, belonging, and community. Its presence alone was peace.

I then recalled my trip to the Holy Land three years ago and our celebration of Holy Communion on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Just as my colleague, Kathryn Schifferdecker, read Matthew 6:26, two beautiful green birds emerged from a hole in a tree above us, alighted on its branches, and remained there the entirety of our worship service. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Communion, baptism – green birds and white doves showed up during these promised means of grace because that’s what our God does. Over and over again, God figures out ways to break through barriers to be with us. Over and over again, God finds ways to burst into our present, tearing apart the heavens, tearing apart the curtain. Over and over again, God shows up and says to us, “I am here. Do not be afraid.” Shalom

 

 

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It’s Complicated

Our sixth full day in the Holy Land was spent at Dar Al-Kalima (http://www.daralkalima.net/index.php?&Lang=1), with Mitri Raheb (http://www.mitriraheb.org) at the International Center in Bethlehem, and at the Shalom Hartman Institute (http://hartman.org.il). Dar Al-Kalima is an educational center that seeks to improve the life of Palestinians, particularly through artistic self-expression. Dar Al-Kalima means “house of the word” in Arabic, so that the mission of the school is to provide a space where the “Word might become flesh” through its students. We brought books for the library because they cannot get books. There is no country code for Palestine, which makes ordering books online impossible and when books are sent, they are confiscated before they reach the school. In the words of the representative who met with us, “We are trying to build a library so we can build a country.”

Dar Al-Kalima is under the larger umbrella of the Diyar Consortium. Mitri Raheb is its founder and president and its vision is “To build a country; stone by stone.

To empower a community; person by person. To create institutions that give life in abundance.” Raheb’s message to young Palestinians is simple: “We want you to live, not die, for Palestine.” He works tirelessly for the means by which Palestinians might know “life abundantly” (John 10:10).

The Shalom Hartman Institute “is a pluralistic center of research and education deepening and elevating the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world. Through our work, we are redefining the conversation about Judaism in modernity, religious pluralism, Israeli democracy, Israel and world Jewry, and the relationship with other faith communities.” We met with a research fellow for over two hours and discussed the Proclamation of Independence in 1948 for the establishment of the State of Israel in depth. That was some fascinating exegesis.

In other words, it was a complicated day. The extremes of the Palestinian refugee camp and the Israeli settlement were now an almost simpler day as the ends of the spectrum started to come closer together. When conflict starts to take on flesh and blood, it gets more complicated. When you start realizing the levels of issues, the many matters at stake, it gets more complicated. When you learn that the events in history leading up to today are not just those in the recent past, but also those related to people and places going back thousands of years, it gets more complicated. Taking sides is not as easy as we want it to be or wish it would be. And taking sides, which conflict is prone to demand, then exposes whom you are against. And maybe, taking sides is not the answer.

We ended the day gathering again to share, to mourn, to ask for forgiveness, to pray for peace. In the end, there were no words, so we let the Psalmist utter the words we tried so desperately to find:

How very good and pleasant it is

when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord ordained his blessing,

life for evermore.              Psalm 133

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Into the Wilderness

Day 5 was a wilderness day. We traveled first to Masada, the hilltop fortress and palace built by Herod the Great. While he only spent about a week a year there, the fortress staff was to be ready for his arrival at any time. Because of the wind and the prediction of a major sandstorm, however, we were not able to go up to the ruins because to ride up the gondola would not be safe. A disappointment for sure, but such is the nature of life in the wilderness. We then visited Qumran, the archeological site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Our next stop was floating in the Dead Sea – and you really do float, without even trying. On the way back to Bethlehem we drove through the town of Bethany where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and was anointed for his burial by Mary.

The references to the wilderness are many in the Bible – the wilderness wanderings in Numbers, the wilderness baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Driving down to Masada, you have no doubt that you are in the wilderness. It is desolate, dry, and at the Dead Sea you are at the lowest point on the earth – 1400 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is called the Dead Sea because there is nothing that can live in it. The salinity is too high, at 34.2%. For all intents and purposes, this is the land of the dead. Very little is able to live or survive in this wilderness.

Yet, while it rarely rains, when it does, plants that have been dormant for months, spring to life for a few days, only to dry up again. The Dead Sea, where nothing lives, provides healing for a number of ailments and salt for the world. The community of Qumran clearly knew a life that was full of life in the midst of the desert. The angels served Jesus while he was in the wilderness. And so we were reminded of God’s words to Job (38:26-27), our God who chooses “to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass.”

Really. What kind of God is that? A God who provides when it seems that life has ceased.

We needed that reminder. There is a point in this trip when you hit a wall – and I mean that literally and figuratively. This is an exhausting trip – on many levels.

There is, of course, the basic physical exhaustion with a different schedule and the unpredictable effects on your body. For many, it is far more exercise in a day than usual and so various aches and pains, swollen ankles and such, start to surface. Fatigue is felt in separation from family, in navigating new countries and cultures, and in the sheer amount of information in every minute. Fatigue is known in trying to live with 31 others whom you do not know very well or have never met. And you feel tired at unexpected moments, when something hits you with such force that it feels like you can hardly hold your head up.

That’s how I felt at the end of the day 5. Now I know why I was unable to write a blog last night. I was so tired and still stayed up to attend the midnight Christmas worship of the Armenian church at the Church of the Nativity. You just don’t want to miss a thing. When will I ever attend again a Christmas service in the Church of the Nativity? Why was I so tired? It was not a day that seemed terribly intense or spiritual or mindful. And I was sure to drink plenty of water after floating in the Dead Sea. Maybe the fatigue came when I thought about the last Jewish men at Masada who chose death for their families and themselves before becoming slaves to Rome. So they cast lots for the one who, after killing the other nine, would commit suicide, a sin against God in that time. Maybe the fatigue was because of imagining the painstaking task of putting scraps of ancient texts together, like a jigsaw puzzle, in the hopes of solving a manuscript mystery. Maybe the fatigue set in because of the drive through Bethany, being reminded of the events leading up to the last week of Jesus’ life.

Or maybe the fatigue was simply because of the energy spent in the recesses of your mind figuring out what all of this means and will mean. Unsure of your reactions, unclear when and where something will trigger an emotion or memory that causes tears, uncertain of the next stop and its effect, you live and exist in an in between time, a time marked by the simultaneity of hope and anxiety, interest and overstimulation, eagerness and the grief of having to move on.

Indeed, a wilderness kind of experience.

 

 

 

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Angels We Have Heard On High

Our fourth full day in the Holy Land began with a visit to Shepherd’s Field, the site that tradition says the angels appeared with the good news and great joy of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night. I suspect that I will never forget the look on the faces of our group as we sang together the Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard On High” in the Chapel of the Angels, one of the Holy Land churches designed by Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi. It was a look that represented the convergence of belief and disbelief; wonder and reality; hope and yet the knowledge of truth.

Their faces of the morning would be that which would then represent the day that followed. We attended worship at Christmas Lutheran, a two-minute walk from our hotel in Bethlehem. The worship service was mostly in Arabic, but the Gospel was still heard – and sensed in a profound way. Sitting beside our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers and our neighbors in faith from Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Minneapolis, the Gospel was a unifying force of peace and justice and love, deeply felt in word, in song, in confession of sins, and in confession of faith. While the sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 was in Arabic, it didn’t matter. We had heard the verses read to us in English, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” and our experience in those pews proved it to be true.

We needed that feeling to carry us through the rest of our day because we left the morning’s sense of community and connection to travel the vast terrain between the Palestinian refugee camp, Deheishe, and the Israeli settlement, Efrat. We needed that feeling of peace that only the gospel can seem to guarantee. We needed that feeling of hope that only God’s grace creates. We needed that radical experience of hospitality that happens when persons of faith, regardless of any boundaries we might erect, gather as one.

Why? The answer is both clear and complicated. It is clear in that our hopes for figuring out what might be possible between the two poles of commitments, between the two extremes of existence, lies in how we first choose to be with each other. And how we choose to be with each other has to be grounded in the gospel’s truth of love. It is complicated in that the issue is rarely the issue. One tug on a loose thread begins the unraveling of what we thought was an easy solution. And suddenly, that which we thought could bring us together is now tearing us apart.

The only way forward is to come together again, somehow, some way – which is exactly what we did tonight. After dinner, we gathered as group to process, to share, to grieve, to disagree, to forgive, to love. And in the end, we found ourselves back at Shepherd’s Field, giving witness to the glory of God in the highest. Because at the end of a day like today, we have to testify to the ways in which God’s glory can still be seen and heard and felt, for the sake of our own faith, of course, but – and this is, in part, why we are here – for the sake of the other.

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A Place in History

The ability of humanity to figure out and fortify its survival is rather remarkable. Yet, how it keeps on inventing and imagining, creating and constructing, building and battling so as both to maintain its present and secure its future is a mirror into which we would often rather not look.

This is the theme that surfaced for me on this third day in the Holy Land. We went from the cloistered life of a kibbutz to a city closed off – Bethlehem. Life in the kibbutzim is a deliberate choice of shared resources so as to safeguard community. Life behind the Separation Wall is chosen for you. In the meantime, we traveled through the fertile valley of Jezreel, reminded of the need for agriculture to sustain life. We toured the ruins of the strategic city of Megiddo, the site of twenty-six civilizations that knew control of Megiddo would mean security. We wandered along the Mediterranean Sea, amazed at the leftover grandeur of Caesarea Maritima, Herod the Great’s extraordinary vision for a port city and palace so grand so as to protect his position, but also to obtain his escape if needed.

That which is necessary for survival is, of course, beyond the basic demands of food, water, and safety. The amphitheatre and hippodrome at Caesarea point to the fact that survival also seeks beauty and leisure, aestheticism and fun. It seems that humanity also figured out that guaranteeing the basics of survival can’t be the only way to live.

In the strata of Tel Megiddo (a tel is an archeological mound that has been created by the establishment and abandonment of many human civilizations over time) we imagined the nations and empires that came and went and witnessed the ways in which they erected that which they needed for their survival – a tunnel to carry water from outside the fortress walls to the city on the inside. At Caesarea, we walked through the archways of the massive aqueduct built to bring fresh water to the seaside city. Yet, in both places, we stood in the ruins of what once was – a rather pointed reminder of our own place in history.

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A Man from Galilee

Elias Chacour told us a story of when he showed up at the residence of a rather important person in the United States government unannounced. “Do you have an appointment?” he was asked. “No,” replied. “Men from Galilee do not make appointments. They make appearances.”

When the man from Galilee we know as Jesus made an appearance, everything changed. Today we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and listened to the words of Jesus stilling the storm. We went to the Mount of the Beatitudes and heard Jesus’ call to a new way of righteousness. We visited Tabgha, the site where Jesus fed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish (the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels). We went to the Primacy of Peter, where the small church is built on top of and around the rock where Jesus served breakfast for his disciples after a miraculous catch of 153 fish and before Jesus says to Peter, “I need you to be the good shepherd now.” And finally, we visited Capernaum, where Jesus taught and healed in the synagogue, and made Simon’s mother-in-law well again. You see, when Jesus shows up, everything changes.

That’s part of what it means to take this pilgrimage. You show up and you never know when God will do the same. Tonight we gathered as group for some check-in and sharing and this was our question for the evening – where have you seen God? Of course, only two days in and God seems to be everywhere, but also in ways you could never have anticipated or imagined – when dancing on a boat as you sailed across the Sea of Galilee; in the faces of your friends singing during the distribution of the bread and wine on the Mount of the Beatitudes; in looking down at your feet submerged in the clear waters of the Sea of Galilee, your toes grasping its rocky bottom; in ancient mosaic floors that give witness to God’s provision that have been miraculously spared the ravages of both time and fire; in the cool touch of majestic columns that make up the structure of the synagogue where Jesus likely taught for a good portion of his life before he showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized and everything changed – for him and for us.

As followers of Jesus, we too are people from Galilee. And when we make appearances because of and for the sake of God’s love, we have to believe that everything will change. Whether we show up unannounced or by appointment, our presence for the sake of God’s presence will change everything. That’s also part of what happens when you take this pilgrimage. You can no longer be a distant disciple, content to observe the ministry of Jesus and his disciples from a stance of “If only I was there…” No, you are here – now. And everything has changed.

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On the Shores of the Sea of Galilee

To wake up in the morning and find yourself on the shores of the Sea of Galilee for the first time ever – imagine that. That’s what I experienced this first full day on our Holy Land trip – not for myself, because I have been here before, but through my students. We landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, January 13, 2016, loaded up the bus, and went directly to Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. After a bus break down, something to do with the hydraulic system, we arrived at night, ate dinner, and all went to our respective rooms. Admittedly, even when anticipating a first trip to the Holy Land, excitement and expectation are somewhat tamed after two days of travel.

But not so when the sun begins to rise. I will never forget pushing back the curtains our first morning in the Holy Land to catch my first look at the Sea of Galilee, only to see my students, standing on its shores – not in groups, not even in dyads, but each alone. As if they knew that their initial experience with these waters would require solitude and silence. Why? Because we all need our own space on the Sea of Galilee – to speculate what we would say if Jesus said to us, “follow me.”

One begins to wonder if sitting on the shores of this lake would itself be enough to satisfy the sense of connection that takes hold when you arrive in this land. You could sit for hours, I suspect, rereading, reliving, reimagining the stories you know so well, that you have heard so often, and suddenly, miraculously, here you are. You have become part of the story, a fellow disciple, a follower – not that you were not before, but there is something about being here that makes it more true. You start to believe it differently, because you have chosen to make this pilgrimage.

When your day begins with your first steps on the rocky shores of this famous body of water, continues with traveling through the Golan Heights, hearing Mark 8:27-9:1 read to you at Caesarea Philippi, experiencing the history of Tel Dan, visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation, picturing Jesus preach his first sermon according Luke, listening to the witness of Elias Chacour (http://www.pilgrimsofibillin.org/about-us/abuna-elias-chacour/), and enjoying a St. Peter’s fish dinner, it is more that hard to believe that this is only day one of your journey to the Holy Land. Father Chacour asked us why we are here. It is an obvious, yet most difficult question. It is obvious in that it is simple – we want to be where it all started, to “walk in the footsteps of Jesus and his followers,” to visit the holy sites connected to important acts in Jesus’ ministry, to make connections between the land and scripture, to enable the Bible to come alive in our own lives and then for the sake of those whom we will accompany in ministry.

At the same time, it is a difficult question because our answers seem rather trite. The simplicity of our desires seems to pale in comparison to the magnitude of what this trip means. But maybe that is exactly the point. The goal of being here is not to “get” anything, but to realize that the wonder of our God continues to be more than even geography, archeology, Biblicism, and history can ever grasp.

A trip like this is grounding and anchoring yet at the same time inspiring and life-moving. That is hard to get your head around, because it seems like these are two different ways by which we might move in the world. How we will go about our sense of ministry post our Holy Land experience when we might feel both grounded and yet stimulated in our faith? This is not an easy question to ask. The Holy Land pilgrimage is both anchoring and troubling; solidifying and seismic, affirming and afflicting. There is no placid result for this experience – nor should their be. There is too much history here, both past and recent present, that demands our questions, our conflictions, and our confessions. At the same time, there is a profound sense of comfort and hope when you hear again the ageless witness to God’s work in the world and realize that because you are here, you are now a part of that witness. In the end, we are surrounded by the testimony of the love of God for God’s people and, because we have been here, we now get to be witnesses to that testimony in new and profoundly different ways. Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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