Friday, April 17, 2015

HAZY GOLAN HEIGHTS


Golan Heights, Israel

Snowy Headwaters for the Jordan River & Sea of Galilee

SPORTS STARS & FANS


Sports Stars, Internet

The sports pages have been singing the praises of Jordan Spieth since he won this year’s Masters Golf Tournament. I hardly knew the young man until then, but I’m now much better acquainted with him. And there’s a lot to like. The phrase we’ve been hearing all week is that the young 21 year old is “wise beyond his years”. His family was gathered around the 18th green for his final winning putt. But his father reminded Jordan to lap the green and thank the fans who were applauding him. Everyone close to Jordan was there except his 14 year old sister whose neurological condition places her on the autism spectrum. He’s repeatedly stated that she’s the one special person in his life that keeps him grounded and he’s in constant awe of how she and her friends embrace life. She’s always expecting him to win and is so vocal on the course that she unfortunately wasn’t present last Sunday. But she’s obviously Jordan’s constant reminder that he’s playing a sporting game while she’s dealing with the tougher realities of life. The folks at Under Amour are still smiling, as they recently renegotiated his contract with them to a new ten year deal. The wire-to-wire four days in Augusta is estimated to be worth about $34 million in free advertising for starters. He really doesn’t seem to have any “kinks in the amour” either--with the possible exception of yelling at his golf ball like a craps player yells at the dice.

And then this morning I turned to the sports section of USA Today and quickly saw the pathetic headlines that read “Ego, Excess Bring Hernandez Ruin”. The follow up headline on page two read “Hernandez story a cautionary tale”. Aaron Hernandez had signed a $40 million contract before his 24th birthday. He was a super star throughout his football career. He threw it all away as a convicted murderer. The "unconditional adulation of us sports fans, the absolution of his handlers and the delusion of celebrity" led to his spiraling fall from grace. Surprisingly, Aaron was raised in a loving and stable environment. But he seemed to start going off the rails at 16 when his father died as he started his ascension in football. As life evolved, his Florida State Gators won a national championship and his New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl in 2011.

Both of these young men were born with a very special gift to excel at the top of their chosen sport. In Aaron’s case, the article concluded that “It’s an important reminder for every athlete. But it’s even more important for the coaches, agents, hangers-on and, yes, even fans who feed these athletes’ egos, enabling their boorish behavior. They might not have pulled the trigger, but they all had a hand in making Hernandez believe he could”.

Isn’t it ironic that we humanoids always seem so surprised when sports figures that we’ve elevated to god-like idols turn out to be flawed human beings? Since these gifted athletes are likely not well grounded, I suspect that they’re probably more surprised than we are at the time. I’m convinced that Jordan is standing on solid ground. I kinda thought that about a tiger I first met in 1997 when I got his rookie autograph in Florida. But then his father died too and the rest is history. We fans should do our best to keep any sport and its stars in the same perspective as this new young Phenom for the sake of us all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

MELONCOLY HAIKU



Window Pane Rain Drops, Chicago, Il
Two Rain Drops, Jamestown, NC


Listening to the Stan Getz cut of “Spring Can Really Hang you Up the Most” while April rain drops on the window pane complete the perfect expression of melancholy.

Window pane rain drops,
and meloncoly sax notes,
hang you up the most.

Friday, April 3, 2015

MARY OF MAGDALA





Torah Table End, Migdal, Israel
Magdala Synagogue, Migdal, Israel
Valley of the Doves, Migdal, Israel
Torah Table Top, Migdal, Israel


Mary Magdalene was among the few who had stood by Jesus at his crucifixion and watched in horror as her Lord was killed on that infamous Black Friday. She had entered the garden tomb before daylight to anoint the body on this first Easter Sunday and found the tomb empty. She stood in the garden crying because she thought the Romans had taken the body away. And as she turned, Jesus appeared and asked her why she was crying and who she was looking for in the garden. Mary mistook the resurrected body of Jesus for a gardener until he called her name, “Mary”. And she cried out in Aramaic “Rabboni!” which means teacher. He instructed her to go and tell the disciples that he was alive which left her with the Augustine legacy of the “Apostle to the Apostles”. Women had no status in this first century culture, but Jesus acknowledged women as equal reflectors of God’s image. Given this male dominated society, revealing himself first to a woman provides even more credibility for the resurrection. A purely fabricated account would have quite probably written a male into the role.

Mary was from a small fishing village on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee called Magdala. Magdala was destroyed by the Romans about the time the second temple was also leveled in 70 AD. She was also referred to as the Magdalene in the Bible. Jesus had cast out seven demons from Mary, but that may be a reference to a complex mental or physical illness instead of any form of sinfulness. The male culture of those days who were uncomfortable with a female apostle may have intentionally merged Mary with the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Mary was not a repentant prostitute and these efforts to demonize her in particular and disempower women in general though the centuries are unfounded. She is now considered a saint by the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches with a feast day of July 22.

Father Juan Solana, a Roman Catholic priest, had a dream. He envisioned building a serene spiritual retreat for Christian pilgrims on the northwest shores of the Sea of Galilee. This Galilee region in Israel was the primary location on earth where the Son of God lived out his human existence while teaching and preaching about the Kingdom of God for mankind and healing the sick and disabled outcasts of society. A routine archaeological requirement in Israel with its centuries of history is to carry out a salvage dig on any potential building site prior to excavation. This work began in 2009 and almost immediately Father Salona described the miraculous discovery of a stone slab as providential. The subsequent discovery of a local coin dating from the year 29 confirmed the existence of a first century Galilee synagogue. And further excavation revealed a marketplace, water pools to cure the famous Galilee fish, and a large public building. It soon became clear that they had just discovered the ancient little fishing village of Magdala.

An ornately engraved stone that was found in the synagogue ruins was quite probably used as a table for reading the Torah. The time period places the synagogue right in the sweet spot of Jesus’ ministry and he quite probably read from the Torah on that table in this place. The Valley of the Doves contains a 22 mile trail from Nazareth to Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. The base for Jesus and his disciples was in Capernaum, just five miles away and their footsteps were all over this country. Our tour group not only traced their footsteps in the Valley of the Doves, but now we were also walking in and around the small village of Magdala where they visited and the Magdalene resided.

Mary of Magdala was present at the beginning of a movement that transformed the world. She was quite possibly more of a disciple than the disciples, but the culture of her time wouldn’t acknowledge her. As we move on into the twenty first century, God has revealed the birthplace of one of the most influential women in Christianity with the opportunity to also discover the woman who lived there. And now we all have the privilege of walking in the footsteps of the Apostle to the Apostles from Magdala and recognizing her rightful role as an early Christian leader and the first to announce the good news of the miracle of the resurrection!

The Hope of Easter, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

FOREVER GARDEN



Easter Garden, Jerusalem, Israel
Via Dolorosa Station IX, Jerusalem, Israel


I’ve always been a bit of a visual learner, so it was a challenge for me to associate with some of the sacred places in the Holy Land which humans had basically covered with well-intentioned reverence. Ironically, two such places included the site of Jesus’s birth in the Church of the Nativity and the site of his death at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Both locations included exceptionally ornate surroundings of a literal hole in the marble flooring. You could stand in line to insert your hand into the hole to touch the rock below--or you could simply meditate on the event that occured in close proximity.

We walked the narrow crowded streets of Old Jerusalem amid the variety of small shops selling brightly colored scarves, pottery, olive wood carvings, and fresh foods. Along the “way of sorrow” (Via Dolorosa) we stopped and remembered the events at the Stations of the Cross regarding Jesus’ agonizing walk to his crucifixion at Golgotha. The walk was made more meaningful by an intermittent rain that accompanied us along the way. Our walk ended at Station IX which recognizes the third time Jesus stumbled on his path to destiny. This station is located next to the entrance of a monastery and the subterranean Chapel of Saint Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We then queued up inside the church to go inside a Greek Orthodox Church that had been constructed around a cave tomb where tradition says the body of Jesus was laid to rest and was resurrected. Christians consider this the holiest place on earth. The interior was fully decorated with brass and glass.

As we neared the end of our Holy Land journey, “the arena of God’s revelation of himself to humankind”, our last stop in Jerusalem became one of the most meaningful. We traveled to the Garden Tomb where many Christians go to celebrate the resurrection. These tombs carved out of the ubiquitous rock outcroppings indigenous to the area had been discovered at a later date. There is no absolute certainty of where Jesus’ resurrection actually occurred. But this setting has been developed to visually pull even the most casual pilgrim into the experience of the resurrection. Jesus told one of the two men crucified on either side of him that he would be with him in paradise. Paradise is a Persian word for “walled garden”. When a Persian king chose to honor one of his subjects, he invited him to walk with him in the palace garden.

We gathered in a small shelter on the site and celebrated a short communion service with small olive wood cups of wine and flat bread. The experience was a great remembrance of Christ’s passion, presence, grace and love for His creation. It also became a reflective last meal for a group of disciples that had been drawn together by a common bond, in the spirit and land of the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his twelve disciples. The light rain subsided as we left the shelter and entered one of the garden tombs in silence. When I turned to exit the stone tomb I noticed a wooden sign over the opening that proclaimed, “He is not here—for He is risen!” And as we departed the garden grounds to begin a rather arduous trip back home, we passed by branches of fresh cherry tree blossoms framing the empty tomb—a very natural and visual sign of the Easter promise for new life and hope in a beautiful forever garden!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

HEADWATERS





Mount Hermon, Golan Heights, Israel
Banias Cave, Caesarea Phillipi, Israel
Headwaters of Jordan River, Caesarea Phillipi, Israel
Banias Waterfall, Caesarea Phillipi, Israel


Our Holy Land pilgrimage took us to the northern borders of Israel in the Golan Heights next to Lebanon and Syria. We explored the beautiful Banias grounds of the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve at the base of Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon’s highest peak reaches over 9,000 feet above sea level and it is snow covered two-thirds of the year. The porous Jurassic limestone of the mountain functions like a giant sponge to channel snow melt that feeds springs at the base. Many of these springs emerge at the base of the Banias Cave. The main tributaries called the Sa’ar, Si’on and Guvta streams merge into the Hermon Stream as it forcefully flows south through a steep canyon producing scenic waterfalls. Then the Hermon unites with the Dan and Sinar streams to form the life-giving Jordan River which empties into the Sea of Galilee and beyond. The Sea of Galilee remains relevant even to this day because it receives the Jordan waters and then dispenses them on out into the world. The Dead Sea remains essentially lifeless because it receives and retains these life-giving waters without passing them along—sort of how some folks receive grace.

Greek culture was brought to this area after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and a temple was constructed for Pan, the god of nature. The city was renamed Paneas. After Herod the Great died his Roman kingdom was divided among his three sons and the northern kingdom including the Golan Heights was awarded to his son Philip. He renamed the city Caesarea Philippi and made it his capital. Agrippa II continued to develop the city in the first century CE with a large palace and statuesque temples. We walked in Jesus’ footsteps here among the ancient ruins outside the large Banias Cave and dipped our fingers into the cool spring waters.

Jesus and his disciples centered their mission around the Galilee region, walking from town to town, healing and preaching in the local synagogues and out where the people congregated. Church fathers have identified Caesarea Philippi as the place where Jesus healed the outcast woman who had been bleeding for many years as she touched the edge of his cloak in the crowd. The gospels also record that Caesarea Philippi was the location where Jesus declared that he would build his church on Peter, the Rock. He then went on to predict that the Son of Man must suffer many things and that he must be killed and rise again after three days.

Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain--quite possibly Mount Hermon. God had previously appeared to Moses and Elijah on mountains, which are associated with closeness to God. Then both Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus as he became radiant with a pure white transfiguring light. A cloud enveloped them as God declared, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Peter and the disciples did listen to Jesus and absorbed his teachings, much like the porous limestone on Mount Hermon. And once they fully understood the language of his life, death and resurrection after he joined them once again on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they were inspired to rush out from their base in the Galilee and channel God’s grace and good news throughout the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SACRED ROCKS




Nativity Rock, Nazareth, Israel
Loaves & Fish Rock, Tabgha, Israel
Table Rock, Sea of Galilee, Israel


It didn’t take very long for our tour group to begin referring to the next archeological site in Israel as another “rock farm”. Rocks are one resource that are more than plentiful in this country! Many of the digs scattered throughout the country consist of the stone foundations of ancient buildings which were long ago destroyed by war, earthquakes and time. However, I did change my image of a desolate land of rocks and desert after we spent the better part of our trip in the Galilee region and along the Jordan River Valley. We traveled from the Jordan’s northern headwaters at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights through the Sea of Galilee and on down south to the river’s termination in the Dead Sea. The Jordan River’s irrigation systems and Mediterranean rainfall have given life to vast fields of grain and large almond, olive, date, grape and banana farms among other commodities. We didn’t venture south of the Dead Sea in east-central Israel and on into the Negev desert towards Egypt.

It recently occurred to me that many of the historical sacred sites in this Holy Land are built over significant rock outcroppings. The Holy of Holies, God’s sanctuary, in the destroyed Jewish temple was built on a solid foundation rock. It still exists close to the sacred limestone Western prayer wall. I would imagine that if you were tracing the footsteps of Jesus through this country to establish worship sites, you might settle on approximate locations which contained a surviving physical feature. The Church of the Nativity where pilgrims gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth was built over a stone cave. An altar has been built over the cave and there is a dark hole in the marble floor which enables folks to insert their arm and touch the cool rock. Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre resides a similar arrangement over the rock outcropping of Golgotha where it’s believed Jesus was crucified and died. The spiritual meditation in both locations is combined with a tactile experience of touching an unseen presence.

Churches like the Church of the Multiplication have been built over a large rock commemorating Jesus’ blessing of five loaves and two fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand. This is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels besides the resurrection. Further up the shoreline is St. Peter’s Church enclosing a large table rock. It may have been used by Jesus when he shared a breakfast of bread and grilled fish with his disciples after his resurrection--manifested in a new being that had been created in the universe. And there’s a large rock imbedded in the floor of the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is where it is considered that Jesus knelt and vehemently prayed to his Abba while sweating drops of blood in the stressful hours before his betrayal, arrest, imprisonment, trial, beatings, crucifixion and burial--all within the following twenty four hours.

Jesus used many analogies in his teaching which he drew from observing his surroundings such as the potential of mustard seeds, grape vines garnering substance from the branches, growing seeds on rocky ground versus fertile soil, and building a house on sandy ground versus a rock solid foundation. When Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responded by revealing Peter’s true identity and role by renaming him Peter (which means rock) and proclaiming that “on this rock I will build my church”! Shortly after, Jesus begins to predict his death in Jerusalem and prepare his disciples to carry on.

Later, when Jesus entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives to join the people in the Passover feast he was extremely well known. He rode in on a colt to fulfill the prophesy in Zechariah. They placed cloaks and palm branches on his path in celebration while shouting “Hosanna!” in expectation of a liberating warrior king. When the anxious religious leaders asked Jesus to rebuke everyone, he replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out!” for he was establishing a Kingdom of God on earth.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter and the other disciples carried on and facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout the world. Peter was later crucified upside down in Rome for proclaiming the good news of the gospel. Although the Romans also took Peter’s life, God is always at work bringing good out of man’s perpetual free will inhumanity to man. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is now considered the greatest church in Christendom. And Peter the Rock is buried under the altar of that magnificent church!