Friday, March 27, 2015

FOREVER GARDEN



Garden Tomb, 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!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

WALL OF PRAYERS



Western Wall, Old City Jerusalem, Israel
Wall of Prayers, Old City Jerusalem, Israel


Throughout the ages, the Western or Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem is where Jews have gathered to express gratitude to God or to pray for divine mercy. It is a relatively small section of the walls surrounding the sacred area called the Temple Mount where the golden Temple of the Dome is located. The Jewish holy temple was built and destroyed twice in ancient history on this site and Jewish people also came to grieve the loss of their temples. There are those who believe that when it is once again rebuilt, this will be one of the prominent signs of the beginning of the end times.

The sandstone walls of nearly three miles surrounding the Old City were finished in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent above the ruins of the old first century walls that stood when Jesus walked the narrow cobblestone streets. They glow a spectacular rosy-golden color as the sun sets and rises each day over Jerusalem. The Western Wall section is venerated as possibly the sole remnant of the Holy Temple or at the very least a remnant of the walls surrounding it. It is also the closest of two possible foundation stones where the Holy of Holies, God’s sanctuary, stood when the Temple existed. Since the gate of heaven is near the western Wall, it is also believed that all of Israel’s prayers ascend to heaven from this sacred place.

People of all religions the world over come to the Western Wall to place slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the Wall. More than a million notes are placed there each year. Our group entered the large courtyard behind the Wall in the bright afternoon sunshine. A smaller, seemingly security wall buffered the courtyard from the confines of the Wall and directed pilgrims to the left so that everyone could be better monitored. Loaner head covers were provided for those without any hats, etc.

As I approached the overwhelming Wall above me, I was surprised to find an opening next to a group of orthodox Jewish men dressed entirely in black. They were reciting readings in Hebrew and offering their own personal prayers. A group of young school children further over had arrived and began singing a haunting song in their native tongue. The scene was serene but not totally silent as I had expected. You could see the anticipation on the faces of those of us that were approaching this sacred place known the world over as one of the most recognizable places of prayer on the planet. But this was not a carnival atmosphere for the crowd but one of focused reverence. I had written a short prayer for peace, strength and healing for family, friends and our world. I placed the palm of my left hand on the stone wall and inserted the folded paper into a crevice with my right hand. The man in black next to me continued his worship experience uninterrupted as I slowly backed away. It’s considered disrespectful to immediately turn your back on the Wall as you leave.

As I exited the open air worship area in front of the wall of prayer, I walked over to the temporary wall on the right side of the courtyard. And I once more was drawn back into the reality of this long troubled Holy Land as I observed the armed Israeli soldiers gathered at the ready in the possible event of someone bent on destroying this peaceful gathering of those who only wish to be in communion with their God.



CAPERNAUM SYNAGOGUE


Framed View of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Israel

Framed view of the Sea of Galilee from the remains of an ancient synagogue across from the home of Peter's mother-in-law in Capernaum where Jesus taught and healed the woman along with a disabled man his friends had lowered through the home's thached roof

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

LIFELESS LAKE



Dead Sea, Israel
Dead Sea Float, Israel


The Dead Sea is a salt lake that is ten times more salty than the oceans, so no life can exist there. Therefore, it would seem that it is more of a lifeless lake than a dead sea. At 1,400 feet below sea level at its surface it is the Earth's lowest elevation on land. Ironically, people use its salt and minerals to create and use cosmetics and it has some healing powers. We actually ran across a complete line of Dead Sea mineral cosmetics in Jericho. You can see the clear water from the Jordan River entering in the center of this photo and the more dense waters on the perimeters along with a Jordanian city on the hazy eastern shore.

We were advised prior to our journey to this Holy Land that floating in the Dead Sea was quite probably on the bucket list of many folks these days. However, due to the composition of the water it would be advisable to bring along a swim suit that you no longer had any attachment to keep. It would simply be easier to jump in, once you get past the muddy footing, and then upon retreating simply abandon the suit. I had also read that it was imperative to keep the water out of your eyes due to extreme irritation. When we arrived at the Dead Sea it was closed for swimming, but a few brave souls jumped in and briefly floated on its surface. Needless to say, I remained on the shoreline and took a few photographs. People say I’m salty enough anyway.

Zechariah prophesized that “living waters will go out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea (the Dead Sea) and half to the western sea (the Mediterranean Sea)". It would seem that during the end times, this lifeless lake will also be restored to its original creation and abundant new life as a new heaven and earth are created!

Friday, March 6, 2015

JUDEAN WILDERNESS RENEWAL




Judean Wilderness, Qumran, Israel
Jordan River Renewal, Dead Sea, Israel
Security Patrol, Dead Sea, Israel


Moisture-laden winds move to the east off the Mediterranean Sea and rise against the western side of the central Judean Mountain range. As the winds rise, the air expands and cools, forming droplets of rain on this side. As the air descends the eastern slopes it condenses and warms over the Judean Wilderness in what the locals call the rain-shadow. This arid land is harsh, but was ideal to preserve the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the caves of Qumran. John the Baptist lived out his life in this Judean Wilderness west of the Dead Sea. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was the one that the prophet Isaiah foretold would be the voice crying in the wilderness to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight”!

After walking among the remains of Qumran we traveled to the present site on the Jordan River where it is now believed that John baptized Jesus. It was here that the heavens opened and the Trinity was revealed as the Spirit in the form of a dove descended and the voice of God proclaimed, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased”. Not long after, Jesus initiated His ministry by fasting and praying for forty days and forty nights in this wilderness. The Jordan River was flowing at bank full as the rains further to the north around the Sea of Galilee were washing silt into the river. Actually, in Kansas we would call this stream a creek due to its relatively narrow width at this point before it empties into the Dead Sea. A mosque resides here directly across the Jordan and the colorful Jordanian flag was waving in the breeze next to a bell tower and golden dome.

James Harnish has written that “Methodists celebrate baptism in worship because it marks our entry into the body of Christ and affirms our connection with one another. The water symbolizes the grace of God, which cleanses us from sin and gives us a new identity as children of God”. We believe that in baptism God claims every one of us as his child. As we all individually knelt down next to the flowing waters of the Jordan, our ministers dipped their hands into the water and placed the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the encouragement to remember our baptism. The outdoor sacrament in the crisp morning air and bright sunshine in this sacred place was very moving as the green river reeds swayed in the wind.

And as I turned to depart this place, a sobering reality of our world once more came into focus. I passed by two young Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons standing in the background, assuring our security even as we were renewing our affirmation of the God who moves on the wind in this unsettled land—a God who recognizes all of us as his sons and daughters.