Friday, 25 July 2008


It’s an odd dichotomy being up in Galilee. On the one hand as a pilgrim its easier to feel closer to Jesus here, as everywhere you go there are connections to Jesus and the gospels and yet we are staying at a lovely beach hotel on the shores of the lake, are program is lighter leaving plenty of time at the end of the day to swim and relax and it can feel rather to like we are on holiday!

Thursday saw the start of the Jesus tour… first stop the Mount of Beatitudes – where it was lovely to have some time for quite and reflection on these most challenging of verses – The problem is that this is one of the main stops on the tourist trail and so there was a constant flow of people coming and going often noisily, many not really that interested in worship or reflection. But then what do you do? Its always a problem here that those who are here on pilgrimage are cheek by jowl with the tourists interested in antiquities, sunbathing and shopping This can lead to a conflict of interest at the Holy Sites. For example when we were at Armenian Vespers the other week in Jerusalem, there was a tour group in for whom this was clearly not a time of worship but a rather quaint sideshow that had been put on just for them. They were wandering around during the service trying to find good camera angles for their video and taking photos all the way through and thought nothing of going right up to the monks at worship and taking a flash photo of them at prayer – it was deeply offensive to those there to worship and deeply disrespectful to the monks. But at the same time many of these same churches have extensive gift shops and cafĂ©’s – understandable as a fund raiser to maintain these wonderful churches – and yet surely giving mixed messages as to what they are about?

So having snarled at some noisy Taiwanese tourists (me that is, not the whole group…) we headed down the mount to Tabga to see the rock that the loaves and fishes were multiplied on and then next door to the Church of Peter’s Primacy to see the rock on which Jesus declared to Peter that he would be the rock on which the church was founded. Though both lovely churches I do find it amazing that in the fields full of rocks around here they can tell which were the exact ones on which these events took place!

By now it was nearing midday and it was incredibly hot – with the added joy we have come up against here of incredibly high humidity, so when we got to Capernaum and found the place jam packed with tour parties it was hard to get enthusiastic. It is an amazing site – the base for much of Jesus’ ministry and a place he spent a great deal of time, but of course this draws the crowds, It has done since the very early days of pilgrimages. The site of Simon Peter’s house, the place that Jesus lived, is placed with a deal of certainty as people have been visiting this particular house and leaving Christian messages on the wall since the 1st century less then a hundred years after Jesus death, when the site would have still been well remembered. Not that any of the house is left these days it was ripped out in the 4th century and a church built on the site and a modern church has since been built over that ancient one. So I must admit my attention at Capernaum was mostly taken up by trying to get a space in the small areas of shade that the site afforded!

Things got a lot cooler after this as we took a boat ride across the lake, stopping for a scripture reading half way – thought not an attempt to replicate the walk mentioned in this passage! and then on to a late lunch were all the non-vegetarians got to try the local speciality St Peters fish. – which was apparently tasty but I was rather distracted as it was served with its head and tail still on which I can’t say, as the tables loan vegetarian, I was too pleased about.

The best part of the day – definitely when we got back to the hotel and at last were able to dive into the cool, clear waters of the Sea of Galilee. As a place to swim its unparallel, the view is divine and the waters crystal clear and like nectar at the end of a long hot day – blissful!

The signs are getting stranger...

Jesus presumably wouldn't be welcome then!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

And you thought you had got rid of me for a while…

Apologies if you were hoping for a blog free few days but it turns out that our hotel in Tiberius has Wi-Fi access for £1 a day :o)

The view from the window’s not bad either...

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Unexpected delights

Sadly most of the Israel museum is closed at the moment for major renovation, so when we went along to look at the dead sea scrolls I was not expecting the most exciting of afternoon. If truth be told I was feeling pretty grumpy as this museum has a superb art collection including a particularly good selection of Chagall’s which I would have loved to have seen.

So having seen the scrolls (old bits of parchment with very small writing) I wandered off to find something to do for the hour before the coach returned. In my wanderings I saw that they had a small temporary exhibition of Israeli art produced in the last decade, since they had air conditioning I thought I might as well pop in… Well God was smiling on me that day because it was an extraordinary show with some incredible pieces, so much so that I had to leave way before I had had my fill. One piece in particular really caught me

you don’t get to good an impression of it from this image due to its size but imagine if you can that its on an enormous canvas on its own on a stark white wall. I think it was especially poignant because of all that I have been learning these past weeks about the conflict here…

The photographer is Adi Nes and you can see more of his work here – Its definitely worth checking out.

On a different note entirely, tomorrow we head up to the Galilee for the final days of our trip – much as this will be fantastic it does mean losing access to the lovely free wi-fi I am enjoying here – so it may be a case of bloggus interuptus until I return to the UK at the weekend.

Sing to the Lord…

Whilst here in the Holy Land we have had the opportunity to experience a wide range of worship styles and traditions. Each day at Tantur there is morning and evening prayer led by people staying here (which in itself has been a feast of variety!)

On the first Sunday we headed to Abu Gosh a crusader church with fantastic acoustics where nuns and monks chant Catholic mass in French, Latin and occasional Greek. Apparently, so those that understand French tell me, the sermon was fantastic… but since the only word I picked up was Jesus I will have to take their word for it! The music was heavenly though and in such beautiful surroundings it was a real winner.

We have also been to Armenian Orthodox vespers where I had absolutely no clue what was going on but was seriously impressed in the military precision that the acolytes had when going out in pairs to sense all the icons. Crisply clipping across the church in a liturgical military two step they swung their thurifals in perfectly matched timing – its was a sight to behold!

My absolute favourite those was this last Sunday when we attended Immanual Evangelical fellowship in Bethlehem. The church meets in a basement but they have got it well set up with projectors (yes they still have the cheesy Powerpoint backdrops when projection Arabic worship songs!), a full band, sound system etc. The service was in Arabic but they provide simultaneous translation into English via wireless headsets so we were able to participate. The congregation was a whole mix of ages, but with lots of young families that gave the whole things lots of energy. Lots of worship songs were sung – (we joined in loudly with the hallelujahs as that was the one word we could recognise in the songs!) and some really good and sound teaching was given – though the preacher had clearly been taking tips from American tele-evangelists as he could certainly ramp a crowd up!

Particularly moving was his teaching from Psalm 27 (Here is you are not familiar with it.) Given the state of siege that they live in and all the difficulties they face being Christians let along Palestinians in this land their total faith in the Lord, their desire to forgive their enemies and live at peace in the land is incredibly moving.

Also wonderful was the children who had been given the teaching slot that week. The younger ones sang songs and recited memory verses – they were sooo cute and the older ones put on a dramatic presentation of all the issues that they face as Christians. This was actually a pretty sophisticated message for ones so young and there was a definite sense that they don’t shy away from the tough stuff when teaching the children’s groups, there is a real sense of needing to equip the children well for the many challenges they will face ahead.

But best of all…. well that prize had to go to the wonderful man at the back who was providing the simultaneous commentary. It started off quite staid, translating the opening greetings and the words of the first few songs but it rapidly descended into what can only be described as the religious equivalent of Terry Wogan commentating on the Eurovision Song Contest – When the children came up to do their slot they starting shouting their song into the microphone as small children are want to do and all we heard in our headphones was “They are shouting, why are they shouting I have no idea what they are saying!” and when they were reciting memory verses instead of the verse we heard “oh he is trying John 3:16, that is good, oh he is doing well, amazing he has managed to remember it all – how good” rather then actually having the text translated. We also got the various asides to other people at the back about such topics as the state of the batteries on our headphones “we need atomic batteries these are no good they should be atomic” and we also got to hear is excitement at what the preacher was saying and so when the preacher was ramping things up and starting to shout so was our translator such was his excitement - bellowing in stereo - its amazing we didn’t go deaf. Needless to say we kept getting fits of giggles at all of this – it was great.

For all their difficulties there was a real sense of the presence of God in that place, among that congregation. It was spirit filled, true and courageous and it was an honour to be able to worship alongside them.

Monday, 21 July 2008

And it’s all thanks to Gordon Brown….

… Which those of you that know me well know is not something that I would often say, especially not in a positive context! However yesterday I had every reason to be grateful to him as he inadvertently helped me to experience more fully what the Palestinians have to go through on a daily basis – or at least those who are fortunate enough to have passes to go into Israel.

Well there we were, having spent the morning at a wonderful church service in Bethlehem (of which I will say more in another posting!) heading back to the checkpoint so that we could get back to Tantur for lunch. There were 10 of us ambling down the road when we get to a group of people stopped in the road and a large number of armed soldiers and policeman blocking there way. Asking around we discover it’s because Gordon is about to come into Bethlehem for trade talks and so they have not only closed the barrier but stopped anyone who was walking or driving in its vicinity. We were stood there for around 10 minutes in the very hot sun with all these guys with guns looking far to seriously like they were prepared to shoot them at any minute when an enormous motorcade screeches past at high speed. Another ten minute wait and then the same motorcade, having picked up Gordon and party at the checkpoint, screeched back at equally high speed taking him to his talks. We did wave but decided he hadn’t seen us since he didn’t stop!
Eventually the solders clicked the safety catches back on their guns and we were allowed to continue on our way… only to be stopped a few hundred meters up the road by a blockage of armoured cars and barbed wire across the road – this not moved for another 15 mins or so. By the time we made it to the checkpoint what should have been a 10 minute walk had taken us nearly an hour – We had given up hope of making it for lunch at that point but were still hopeful of making the bus at 1.30 that was taking us on our afternoon trip to the Israel museum. That was until we saw the queue at the checkpoint – because of course having closed the checkpoint for well over an hour there was now a tremendous backlog of people trying to get through – added to which security was particularly high and so passage through was slower than we had seen before. The hour we spent getting through was a salutary lesson of the reality of life here. We had the chance to talk to many locals in the queue all of whom were amazingly resigned to this sort of thing, many saying that an hour was nothing compared to some times when passage through the checkpoint could take 2 or 3 hours – no joke when you only have a 6 hour pass, the time of which starts ticking down as soon as you enter the checkpoint. How swift passage through the wall is seems to be at the whim of the guards, most of whom are army conscripts and so in their late teens. Tales were told of how, having just got to the front of the queue you find the booth you were queuing at suddenly closed and that your queue is re-routed to another one and so you are suddenly at the back again, or of the air system being turned on or off at random so that it could be unbearably hot then cold then hot again. The people we talked to said “I suppose we should thank the Israelis for teaching us patience” but I am not sure I am able to be so charitable – To me it smacks of people being given to much power at too young an age – and these are people who are instinctively wary and mistrusting of those that they are dealing with. It’s no wonder that such an awful situation has been the result.

So thanks to Gordon we experienced a little of the daily frustrations that face the people of the West Bank and for that I thank him, as I do for speaking out against the wall and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories - It is my prayer that the 30 million pounds he has pledged to help the Palestinians will be the start of something bigger – something that can bring some measure of resolution to this situation – and do so soon.

Sponsorship opportunities.

We have become used in Israel to seeing signs all over the place honouring those who have contributed to the setting up of various institutes and sponsoring their buildings…But this one at the Israel museum did take the biscuit…. Do you think that he didn’t like his brother much??

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Hot to trot…

On what was reputed to be the hottest day we will have this week we are of course scheduled to do probably the hottest thing we will do – such is the joy of organised tours!

An early start saw us heading down the side of the Dead Sea until we reached Masada. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of this place the wikipedia entry is good as background. Thankfully there is a cable car as the 60 minute uphill track would have been a killer in temperatures that were already past 30 degrees at 8.30 in the morning. The main structures on Masada were built by Herod as a place for him to flee to should his enemies gain the upper hand. You can see why he chose it as its defensive position is probably one of the best I have ever seen and the views weren’t bad either! Not wanting to spend a time of siege in any form of discomfort Herod build an enormous palace with every available luxury including a state of the art bathhouse, a synagogue, a swimming pool and terraces hanging off the edge of the cliff to make the most of the views and any breezes that there were to be had.

The ruins have been thoroughly excavated and in some places partially reconstructed and so it’s a great place to explore as you can get a real feel for what it must have looked like in its heyday. Herod never needed to use Masada as a refuge in the end but it earned its place in the national consciousness due to events of 70 years later. Thats when a group of Jewish rebels fled there and holed up atop Masada for seven months defying the best efforts of the Roman army to get them out. When the Romans finally did break through they found that all the people on the hill (nearly 1000) had committed suicide rather then be taken into slavery, the idea of death before slavery has been built up into a noble sentiment that’s so imbedded in Jewish culture that all recruits into the Jewish army swear as part of their joining up oath that “Masada shall not fall again!” Well given that the only invasions it seems to have these days are from coach loads of tourists – I think that’s a fairly safe oath to make.

After Masada we had a lunch stop at the side of the Dead Sea and we took the opportunity to go in for a float (it’s not possible to swim due to the buoyancy, floating is the best you can manage!). I must admit it was an incredibly peculiar experience. Firstly because the sea is no longer anywhere near the beach – The sea level has dropped considerably in the last 40 years and so getting in the sea now involves quite a hike down steep and rocky slopes. Secondly because once you get in you realise it’s the most ungainly thing going - you are lying on your back in the water with your feet poking up and then when you want to get out you realise that you can’t actually put your feet down as the salt content is to high you are too buoyant – you are reduced to sculling back to shore and sort of shuffling out on your bum! Still at least I can now say I have floated in the Dead Sea!

From there we went on to Qumran to see where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered – I must admit by then we were all wilting pretty badly and as the scrolls are no longer there it was hard to be that interested. I think we are looking forward to seeing the scrolls on Sunday in the air conditioned comfort of their current home at the Israel museum.

Though a long and tiring day it was really interesting and it was amazing to be exploring the lowest place on earth – I am looking forward to Friday when we are down there again exploring the Negev – thankfully we have a easier day tomorrow to rebuild our strength!

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Going underground….

Monday was a day of tunnels. We started off in the Western Wall tunnel that runs along, funnily enough, the western wall of the temple platform. The main part of the tunnel was dug by archaeologists in the 1980’s to try and get a better understanding of how the temple was built and it is a great way to do this. You really get a sense of how large the base stones of this platform were, the bottom few layers of cut stone are made up of blocks that weighed over 500 metric tonnes – to put this in context the largest stones in the Pyramids weigh around 50 metric tonnes so this temple had some seriously big blocks in it!. Fortunately the quarry was next to the temple site but even so moving these blocks was an incredible engineering feat.

Part of the way long the tunnel we came to an area were there were a great many women praying, apparently this area is the closet that Jewish people can now get to the place that the Holy of Holies would have been on the temple platform. So similarly to the orthodox Christians in the Holy Sepulchral there is a real sense of needing to be as close as possible to where events happened. This sense of “theology of place” is not something that I really feel and so it intrigues me as it’s clearly very important to others. *sigh* yet another topic to add to the ever increasing list of things I want to read about!

When we left the tunnels we spent some time at the Western (wailing) Wall which is a place much changed since I was last here. Then you could just wander into the plaza and saunter around and move from there up to the temple platform and visit the Dome of the Rock. Now the plaza is sealed off and to get to it you need to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. There is no direct access to the temple platform anymore, you need to move to another area to get up and sadly non-Muslims can no longer enter the Dome of the Rock. I feel really sad that such a holy place has needed to be sealed in so much, that fear is rife even here, a place of prayer.

After a move around to the Southern side of the temple mount to look at the excavations there we went down into the Jerusalem of David’s time which was sited in the valley below the temple mount close to the local water source. The amount of archaeological excavation that has been done and is ongoing there is astounding and new knowledge is being, quite literally, uncovered on a regular basis. But the highlight of this afternoon in David’s city had to be the trip through Hezekiah’s tunnel (2 Chron 32:30) . This is an amazing feat of water management dating from 701 BC that diverts a local spring through a 533 meter, hand dug tunnel, that would have led under the city walls and kept the city supplied with water during times of siege. The entrance to the tunnel is down a steep spiral staircase and then it’s a case of roll up the trousers, turn on the torches and plunge in – for the tunnel still carries the spring to this day. It was a little worrying at first as the water quickly reached hip height but thankfully it levelled of at mid calf for the remainder of the journey. It was an amazing walk that seemed to pass in an instant even though the reality is it takes over half an hour. We were wading through clear cold water in tunnels barely wider then we were and not much more then 2 meters high and often lower – When I had to stoop I knew it was getting low! Towards the end we turned off our torches and walked in total darkness till we turned a corner and quite literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It may not have done much to aid my understanding of Middle Eastern politics or Biblical ecumenism – but boy was it fun!

Mind you so was the shower when I got back – it’s extremely hot here and set to get hotter this week – eeek!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Another brick in the wall…

Crossing through the “separation barrier” into Bethlehem is a depressing experience. Passport checks, metal detectors and x-ray machines are a daily chore for the Palestinians that cross the barrier each day to work. This inconvenience pails into insignificance though when we face up to the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians cannot get permits to travel thought the wall and so are effectively trapped, unable to visit family, seek medical treatment or work in Israeli territory.

We visited the Holocaust museum at Yad vashem a few days ago, a profound place that has probably the most comprehensive collection of holocaust information in the world. There was a gallery there documenting life in the Warsaw ghetto and how harsh life was for those imprisoned within its walls… Its hard to imagine how a people who have survived such a thing as this can now effectively be perpetrating the same thing on others … for many Israeli’s the barrier its seen as a necessary evil that has brought some measure of peace to their land. That is as may be, but surely there must be some other way?

Images from the barrier wall

The Fifth Gospel…

No I haven’t gone potty in the heat and decided I have discovered a whole new book of the bible, rather it’s what some people round here call the land of Israel.
We were told this when we first arrived and I must admit I didn’t get it… but I think a week in I may just be starting to…

There is something about being here, being in this place, seeing for yourself the places that are talked of in the bible that brings a whole new perspective to what we read. There is a real sense that we can never read it in the same way again.

An example… on Friday we went down to Jericho and on the way we stopped on the hill leading down to the city at a place called Wadi Quelt. Here, in this dried up river valley, runs the ancient road down to Jericho from Jerusalem. It was here that the Good Samaritan cared for the pilgrim in desperate need whilst everyone else crossed to the other side. When you are there and you see the absolute desolation of the landscape, the total barrenness that stretches for miles around you suddenly realise the utter peril that that pilgrim was in, this is not a landscape to tarry in and anyone injured would not survive long. The other thing you realise is the large effort people would have had to make to avoid the injured man. This is no two lane highway with a convenient pavement on the other side to cross to – this is a narrow track at the bottom of a dried up gully. To “cross over to the other side” would have meant scrambling up a dry and dusty slope and climbing along it for some distance, a difficult and uncomfortable task. This was a very deliberate and telling act. This is what is meant by the “fifth gospel” it is the one that alters how we read the other four.

On another note entirely I was very impressed by the Palestinian authorities facilitation of us all to sin – Thanks to American grant money a cable car has recently been built at the Mount of Temptation… no more must we struggle up the mountain to our temptations, rather we can be whisked there in a matter of minutes in air conditioned comfort and they even sell ice creams at the top – isn’t modern life wonderful!

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Jesus Wept…

Today was a day when we visited some of the sites of Jesus’ grief.

We began the day at Bethany, at the tomb of Lazarus were Jesus wept for his friend. Of course, you guessed it, there is a church that’s been built on the spot! just above the tomb. Ironically the weight of the churches over the years has caused the tomb below to collapse and so the tomb that you can now go in to is shored up with modern stone and there is little of the original left!

From Bethany we went to the Mount of Olives were of course Jesus wept for Jerusalem. You get really great views over the city from here and from this angle particularly you can really appreciate just how vast the temple complex would have been. For travellers who approached the city they would have crested the hill to see the city laid out before them dominated by this vast temple complex at the centre of which was the Holy of Holies. This was totally sheaved in Gold leaf, shinning so brightly that trying to look at it was like trying to look at the sun. It must have been totally awe inspiring!

We walked down the mount following the road that Jesus would have taken. It was pretty steep in places and I was grateful for the tarmaced surface and stout walking sandals. It was very moving to be walking down the route that Jesus himself used. Though of course it would have been rocky then and he was on the back of an untrained colt – literally trusting his life to the sure footedness of that animal. At the bottom of the hill we entered the Garden of Gethsemane a place where again he trusted his life another. I had such a sense this afternoon of how perilous his life was and yet how much he trusted – it was a humbling.

The garden was lovely – the olive trees were about 1000 years old and there was a real sense of history and antiquity there. Sadly you can’t go into the garden – how wonderful would it be to sit in peace under one of these trees but you could sit around the edge in the shade which was a lovely place to reflect.

Next stop was the pools at Bethesda. For some reason I had always imagined that these were fairly small, sort of like a large garden pond – don’t ask me why! But in reality these pools were vast. There were two main pools which served as resevoirs for the temple, each incredibly deep and wide. The current church on the site is a lovely simple church with the most amazing echoes. We sang “Amazing Grace” in the church and it sounded wonderful – apart from the verse where we all mumbled because we couldn’t remember the words! Its funny how natural doing such things seems, normally I would be embarrassed by doing such things in public but here, in the Holy Land, these things seem somehow very normal!

From Bethany we went to the Garden Tomb – the second site that claims to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The guide we had was well versed and was incredibly passionate about the garden and it clearly meant a great deal to him that this was the place. In many ways I wanted this to be the place as this fitted my stereotype of what I thought the tomb should be, a peaceful place, a hill, a garden an empty and un-adorned chamber that has been left in its natural state. Was this the place? It doesn’t have the following that the Holy Sepulchral has that’s for sure and its “pedigree” is much more recent but does this mean its not? and does it matter anyway? Whether this was the tomb or not it certainly gave us a better idea of how the place that Jesus died would have looked, something that isn’t possible at the Holy Sepulchral church.

So we have four contenders for the shepherds fields and two for Golgotha, thank goodness there is definitely only one Sea of Galilee!

It’s Wednesday so it must be…

Its only day 3 and I am already behind myself… The program is so packed with visits and lectures that finding time to think and reflect is at the moment hard to come by.. so I was intending to combine day 2 and 3 into one post but it was getting way to long so I shall have to get back to day 3 later,,,

Day 2 saw us head into Bethlehem. This of course required us to pass through “the wall” – the 8 meter (24 feet) high security barrier that separates the Israeli and Palestinian territories. This was in itself a profound experience, and one I want to blog about at a later date when I have had a chance to re-visit it both in terms of thinking about it more and physically going back through it.

Our first stop of the day was Bethlehem Bible College were we had a chance to look around and to talk with some of the people that run it. This was a fantastic opportunity to get a real insight in to what life is like for the Palestinian Christians who live in the West Bank. The Christian population, once 70% of those living in Bethlehem is now only 30% and forms only 2% of the population of the Palestinian territories as a whole. The college aims to support those who continue to live in the territory through education, the provision of public services such as a library and through job creation schemes to try and help people who want to stay in the territories but have no way of earning a living. It’s an amazing place, full of committed people and full of hope. We were fortunate to have the chance to talk to some of the people that work there and to hear a Palestinian perspective on what is happening in Israel. Again this needs to be a separate post, as I want to wait until we have had a chance to hear all sides of the story as we will later in our stay have a chance to speak with Jewish and Muslim people.

From the college we went to the shepherd’s fields, or should I say one of the shepherd’s fields – for there are at least four claimants to that particular title, each promoted by a different religion and each, of course, with a church attached! We went to the Greek orthodox one and jolly nice it was to, though singing “while shepherds watched…” on a boiling hot July day was somewhat surreal, even if we were supposedly standing on the spot that the events described took place!

The tour proceeded ever onwards at a pace and we were duly dispatched to manger square and the Church of the Nativity. Again a nice old church and it was good to see that the tiny door that you have to enter by really does exist and is not just a preachers construct to make a point in a sermon!… but I was struck by the same problem I had at the Holy Sepulchral church that the elaborate ritualisation of these sights leaves me spiritually cold. They are interesting and I am really glad that I have a chance to see them, but I feel like a tourist, not a pilgrim when I visit them and that makes me sad…I am at the (supposed) birthplace of Christ – should I not feel something?!?

Day 3 was a little better on this score, perhaps because it involved some of the smaller pilgrimage sites and it was easier to reflect in the simpler, quieter places? But that’s a tale for another post….

It’s another sign I tell you…

Apologies for yet another sign but I saw this on the portico of the Gethsemane church and couldn’t resist bloging it… Fill in your own jokes about Gafcons recent “pilgrimage” in Jerusalem, the Lambeth conference or any church you know…

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Its a sign I tell you.....

Do you think the wise men had trouble getting their camels up there??

Israel – first days

Being back in the Holy Land is in many ways familiar, walking through the Jaffa Gate into the old city on the first morning was instantly recognisable from my trip here in 1998. At the same time it’s very different. In 1998 I was here on a Guide and Scout conference, my focus was secular and when we visited the old city it was as tourists. Now we are here as a pilgrims. Our days start and end with prayer, we read the scriptures at various points and 10 years and half a theology degree later I look at things through different eyes.

That said I am wary here of thinking that I have any clearer picture now then I did then. In our first lecture – where we were introduced to some of the cultural and political issues you come across in this land – it was rightly said that the longer that you are here the less you know, and I am conscious of that fact especially as I will be blogging as I go along. So I start my musings with a health warning (or should that be a reality check?) that what I say at the beginning may differ from what I say at the end – but then I suppose that that is what this trip is all about :o)

So the first morning we went to the old city and among other things we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a real eye opener and is a great introduction to the myriad differences that exist within the Christian community. It’s a great sadness that, at this most holy of sites, the church that is believed to encompass the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and his tomb, division is one of the things that hit me first. We came into the church through the back way, over a low roof where the Ethiopian Orthodox monks live, having been kicked out of the main church several centuries ago, in a disagreement that is somehow is still relevant and ongoing many generations later… then into the body of the church where each of the five Christian groups that are guardians of the church have their own areas and chapels, that they guard jealously. Worst of all though is that the keys of the church are in the guardianship of two Muslim families, because the various Christian factions cannot be trusted to deal with access fairly…. whatever the rights or wrongs of this situation, the witness it is to those looking in is anything but positive about the Christian faith.

Inside the church are several holy sites – The hill of Calvary, with the hole in ground into which Jesus’ cross was placed, the slab on which his body was anointed and of course the tomb in which he was laid.

To be honest these sites don’t do a great deal for me, I struggle to find any sense of Jesus through the vast ornateness of these monuments. I think that a lot of this is tied up with my Anglican and British sensibilities that looks for God in silence and simplicity, that can’t quite get away from the fact of questioning how do they know that was the actual hole where the cross was? or Indeed that this was even the hill of Golgotha? What you can see however is how much these sites do mean to other pilgrims there, especially those from the orthodox Christian communities. Everywhere around the church you see people reverently touching the artefacts, rubbing photos on them (to bless those who couldn’t make the trip perhaps?) and in the tomb of the Christ emotions run especially high. Kneeling before the stone slab said to be where Jesus body lay many people weep and in some cases sobbed in an almost hysterical manner, there was a real sense that, to be there, to be able to physically experience these places was the pinnacle of their lives. It was both humbling and moving to be among these pilgrims but also to some extent sad, sad because somewhere along the way in the western church we have lost the sense of the physical in worship. This is particularly so in the protestant churches and I think, based on what I witnessed, we are in some way lesser for it.

So something for me to ponder, the first of many things no doubt! It remains to be seen what effect they may have on me and my thinking over the coming weeks and months…

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Useful phrases..

Having arrived safely in Israel, I thought it would be a good idea to try and learn a little of the local language. What I love about phrase books is the seemingly completely random phrases that they think are top priority. Witness the phrases that Lonely planet think are the most likely to be needed on a trip to Israel

Joseph eats falafel, Joseph’s fat.
The cappuccino is for David.
Are koalas from Australia?
Ilana studied Chinese in Paris.
The student is as stupid as a wall.
Don’t drink all the vodka!
The opera singer that sang all night is my friend.
I don’t mind watching, but I’d prefer not to participate.

Somehow I think I may be sticking to English…

On an entirely separate note Blogger is to clever for its own good. Sensing that I was in Israel it decided to very helpfully give me all the log in information in Hebrew… case of guess which button you press to log in!