Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Final Reflections on Holy Land Pilgrimage

A wall trivet to remember the trip
Even with 19 blog posts to cover only 12 days of Holy Land travel, much more could be said about history, politics, culture, and the appropriate restroom facilities for ancient holy sites (hint -- soap and toilet paper are always good).  I want to end, however, with just a few reflections about being on this particular pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Iyad passing out maps upon our arrival (Jane photo)
First, we were blessed with a wonderful guide, Iyad Qumri.  I would recommend his tours to anyone.  He does his work with excellence, so he has associates ("cousins" in local Palestinian parlance) who also do their work with excellence.  With his orchestration we got where we needed to be, had appropriate accommodations and meals, and had whatever opportunities we were willing to take advantage of.  More importantly, he knew both his land and the scriptures.  Whether driving around on the bus or stopping at a particular site, he could weave together where we were with what happened in the Bible and the layers of history that had occurred since.  His hospitality and sense of humor were both gifts.

Outside Hadrian's Gate (Jane Photo)
Even more importantly for a successful pilgrimage was the quality of the group traveling together, and we had a phenomenal group.  Rarely have I been with twenty-two other people and had everything go so well.  Certainly many of us had our idiosyncrasies, but we also were able to look out for one another on ancient, uneven stone steps and to encourage each other when the weather was particularly hot, the wake-up call particularly early, or the surroundings particularly unfamiliar.  Everyone also was incredibly respectful at various religious sites that required more modest dress than normal American summer casual, and that attitude allowed all of us a much deeper experience that an average tourist might find.  Through prayer, meals, and visiting sites together, we were able to bond into a real community.

My gift from Mike
Where our sense of community perhaps became most evident was the last night when Iyad invited us for supper at his home in Jericho.  Before dinner, we exchanged our prayer partner gifts.  Each of us had drawn the name of a someone we would pray for throughout the trip and buy a small gift for before we left.  As we took turns presenting our gifts, the bonds formed through the prayers were clear.  Our token presents had a love and a meaning behind them that would be taken home with us, often out of a forged connection with someone we hadn't met before the trip.  Experiencing this kind of intentional community is one of the most important parts of a pilgrimage, and intentionally living it on the trip hopefully makes it easier to create it when we get home.  Even the use of our various individual gifts and talents, whether reading and singing during prayer, pictures taken by the better photographers, or ice cream and other necessities found by our intrepid scouts, was all part of being the Body of Christ in an unfamiliar place.

Bishop Sean celebrating Eucharist at Emmaus (Jane photo)
I speak for all of us on the trip in thanking Bishop Sean for putting this pilgrimage together.  Going to Israel as a Diocese was part of his dream for our 100th Anniversary, and it was a blessing to be part of it.  His work with numerous logistical matters (including finding Iyad), made the trip both pleasant and profound.  He was particularly concerned that we got a balanced view of the political situation, and we were all blessed by his desire to drink from Jacob's well.  The trip would not have been able to be what it was without his spiritual leadership.

Finally, on a personal note, being in Israel with Jane was a great joy, and being able to share this experience will allow us to carry it together much more fully than we could have alone.  Having another set of eyes, ears, and perspectives was both helpful and enlightening.  Her Southern ability to make small talk with anyone created connections with people we met that wouldn't have happened otherwise.  Her photos are a great record of the experience, as well.  
Sailing together on the Sea of Galilee

Monday, August 27, 2012

Adventures in Airport Security

OK, minimal pictures, since one dare not take pictures of sensitive places like airports in Israel (or TSA agents in the US).  But airport security in Tel Aviv and Newark had their interests and frustrations.

As we drove to the airport, our guide did not accompany us.  He said we'd have an easier time with security if he wasn't there.  As we approached, the bus was stopped at a checkpoint and allowed to go through.  We had been prepped to expect a number of us to be asked innocuous questions that we were to answer truthfully by security.  Israeli security checks people more than things.  While bags are screened with high technology, they are primarily looking for people that may be more likely to cause problems.  How people respond to regular questions apparently gives highly trained people insight they need.

The first check was of passports and a large x-ray machine for checked bags that spit bags out onto a conveyer when finished.  One of my bags raised a question, so we were taken aside to an inspection area.  By the time we got to the front of the short line, the agent had a picture of the bag's x-ray on her screen with the problematic area highlighted in green.  What tripped the system was a bag of plastic clothespins held together by metal springs.  The agent asked: "Did you buy these yourself"  "Yes."  "Where did you buy them?" "Jerusalem."  "Why did you buy them?" "To hang up clothes when we washed them."  "Ok, go ahead."  And that was it.

While we were waiting for everyone to go through the first round of baggage security, Donna B. was approached by someone who asked that she take a picture of her.  The conversation covered all the basic questions that we were told to expect from Israeli airport security.  The woman volunteered no information about herself.  We seem to have been surreptitiously checked-out.

The metal detectors we then passed through with our carry-on baggage didn't require us to take off belts or shoes, and were pretty straightforward compared to the US.

The dangerous snow globe
When we got to Newark, however, we experienced a problem.  Changing from the international to domestic flight meant going through customs and leaving the secured area.  So we had to go through security again.  We checked our bags and went to the security screening.  All was fine, except for the small snowglobe we had bought for Julia.  Jane had read a new TSA policy before we left saying that snowglobes were now permitted and Tel Aviv security had no problem with it (and Tel Aviv is the world's most secure airport).  But the folks in Newark were not going to allow it through, even though the ball part couldn't have held more than 3 oz of liquid.

So I took it outside security and went to ask to get the checked bags back and put it there, at the recommendation of TSA.  (We hadn't originally checked it since we were afraid of it breaking with pressure changes or rough handling.)  The person at the baggage desk said it would be no problem and would take about an hour.  We had about four hours before our connection, so that seemed fine.  After two hours of waiting, I went back to the desk.  They said that the bags had already been sent to the other terminal for putting on the plane and they couldn't get them.  Apparently they knew this more than 90 minutes earlier, but no one came to tell me.

As I left the baggage counter, a woman who worked for an airline was walking by, and she felt like the right person to bestow a snowglobe upon.  I asked if she had a daughter, and when she said yes, I gave it to her.  She was very grateful and said she collected snowglobes.  At least it found a good home.   Julia ended up with one from the New York airport, taken in a carry-on onto the plane, but bought on the other side of security.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Political Reflections About Israel

As we were preparing for our Israel Pilgrimage, the Bishop told us that he expected us to be more confused about the political situation after we were there.  Certainly any simplistic or one-sided understandings were quickly thrown out the window.

One of the biggest problems is that both the Israeli and the Palestinian side have their own compelling and internally consistent narrative that has almost nothing to do with the other side's.  We could see these narratives as we traveled, and their lack of congruence was discussed by both Israeli and Palestinian speakers with some self-awareness.  Add to that the Christian experience as a religious minority among the Palestinian minority, as well as the disproportionate influence of the United States government and private US funders, and the whole situation is quite tricky.  For the sake of explanation, below is a brief summary of both narratives, probably way over-simplified.

Rabin, Arafat and Clinton at the signing of Oslo Accords
The Israeli narrative starts with being oppressed almost everywhere they have lived since the fall of the Roman Empire, especially in Europe.  They were accused of witchcraft because they were smart enough to have cats who ate rats during the plague so that more of them survived. They were resented for growing wealthy by lending Christians money when other Christians weren't allowed to do so.  They were killed by Russian pogroms.  At the end of the 19th Century, a Zionist movement began to bring the Jewish people back to their own homeland.  (At some point, Uganda and South America were considered as a homeland, in addition to Palestine.)  Between then and World War II, Jews moved to Israel.  After the Holocaust, the state of Israel was created out of a much smaller portion of Palestine than it now occupies.  Over the next twenty years, as their neighbors attacked Israel, it overcame their attacks bolstered by the fulfillment of the divine promise of land to the Patriarchs, the mandate of the United Nations, and the military support of the United States, gaining more territory in the process.  In 1967, Israel's neighbors attacked it in the Six-Days War, resulting in the Israeli annex of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, primarily for security purposes.  Since 1967, it has controlled these areas, but not integrated them into Israel proper.  In 1993, Israel recognized the Palestinians existence in the Oslo Accords, and a number of other peace agreements with neighbors followed.  Portions of the occupied territories were turned over to Palestinian control as part of those agreements.  The Israeli narrative sees the Palestinians as walking away from a proposed two-state solution during negotiations in the late 1990's.   In 2000, a wave of suicide bombings began.  In response, Israel put up security walls and fences through the middle of the occupied territories.  The Palestinians don't like them, but they work, including for Palestinians in Israel and Jerusalem who want to live their lives without suicide bombings.  At times, such as in Gaza in the mid-2000's, Israel has unilaterally pulled out of areas and dismantled settlements only to have rockets launched into their territories in return.  Overall, the Israeli narrative is that they have a right to be there and will do what is necessary to defend themselves, including putting settlements into Palestinian areas that are considered illegal under international law.

Temple Mount with Al Aqsa Mosque (Jane photo)
The Palestinian narrative begins in the early 600's, when Jerusalem was taken by the Muslims without bloodshed.  The Patriarch of Jerusalem, as the Christian religious leader in charge of the city, was glad to have their protection and governance.  The Muslim conqueror did not go to Christian religious sites to pray or make them into Mosques, and only built a Muslim holy site at the Dome of the Rock because no Jewish or Christian prayer centers had been built there since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD.  With the brief interruption of the Crusades, Muslims ruled Jerusalem for nearly 1500 years, longer than Jews, Christians or pagans, and allowed freedom of religious worship for all "people of the book" (Jews, Christians and Muslims).  As one Palestinians said to us, "We have always lived alongside Jews and Christians in Jerusalem without a problem.  At the end of the day, we're all Arabs.  But why are these Polish people coming here?" (Referring to the immigration of Eastern European Jews.)  Or, as another said, "Why do we suffer and lose our land because Westerners mistreated Jewish people?"  The take issues with the original Zionist slogan, "A land without a people for a people without a land," noting that the land did have people on it.   Some Palestinians were driven out of their homes into refugee camps when Israel was created.  In 1993, Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat, acknowledged Israel's existence.  But, as one of our speakers admitted, "The suicide bombings [in 2000] were bad politically for us, in addition to the innocent lives lost."  The security walls put up by the Israeli government over the past decade are a huge issue both ideologically and practically, since they cut Palestinians from their family members and isolate communities socially, politically and economically.  The settlements are an even bigger problem, since many of them bring very ideological Jews with a black/white worldview from places like Brooklyn and drop them in the middle of a complex Mid-Eastern situation that goes back millennia.  In addition, the political status of Palestinians can be problematic.  In the West Bank, Palestinians are part of the Palestinian Authority.  In Israel proper, they are Israeli citizens.  In East Jerusalem, they are practically stateless persons, often carrying a Jordanian passport and an Israel resident document.

Graffiti on Security Wall on Jericho Road (Jane Photo)
The United States has an enormous influence in the area.  US military support is crucial to Israeli security.  American Jewish and Conservative Christian money finances much in Israel.  Liberal US money, as well as USAID, supports humanitarian projects in the West Bank.  The peace process in Israel/Palestine has been shepherded when successful by American Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  The US influence is why much of the graffiti we saw on a security wall, as well as various Palestinian political billboards near Bethlehem, were in English.  The audience is American visitors, not young Palestinians.  Probably no significant movement forward for peace will occur without strong American pressure on every side.

Currently, no one seems to hold much hope for a political solution in the near term.  All sides are doing a lot of political posturing, without providing much concrete opening for negotiations.  Ideology abounds, with very little practicality.  Additionally, since the peace process stalled in 2000, person-to-person interactions between Palestinians and Jews have diminished significantly.  Some of this is ideological -- if we are in a state of war, why consort with the enemy.  But some of it is practical -- given security measures, Palestinians' movement into Israel proper is restricted and Israelis have little reason to go into Palestinian regions.  While young people seem less ideologically hidebound then older generations, the opportunities for cosmopolitan mixing are scarce.

Miracles remain possible, however.  On the last Friday of Ramadan this year, the Israeli government opened all checkpoints into Jerusalem.  Many people were able to come and pray in the Holy City for the first time in their lives, and the day went off without incident.  Some commentators felt that if this could happen for one day, maybe it could happen for good.  Maybe it can.  While peace is hard and always tenuous, there have been times in Jerusalem's history when people of different faiths and ethnic groups have lived together more or less peacefully.  To get from here to there, three things seem to be necessary.  The first is people on both sides will have to be more interested in a just and peaceful society than in defending their ideologies, ignoring their own harmful deeds, or avenging past harms.  Second, contact between average Israelis and average Palestinians needs to increase.  All sides need to learn about each other's religious beliefs, history, fears and aspirations.  Finally, God needs to give all his children, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, the healing, the courage and the love needed to make peace possible.  We can all help with God's important work by doing what Psalm 122 commends us to: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may they prosper who love you."  If enough of us pray for peace to the God of Abraham, maybe all those who love Jerusalem of every race, tribe, people, and language will truly be able to prosper together.


From West Bank Story
Also worth mentioning is a great film, West Bank Story, that our guide showed us on our last evening.  An Oscar-winning short film, West Bank Story is a hopeful and humorous look at Jewish-Palestinian relations in the form of a West Side Story-esque romance between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian cashier at the Hummus Hut.  Definitely worth ordering and watching.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Stations of the Cross

On the final morning we left the hotel at 5:45am to do Stations of the Cross along the route that Jesus might well have walked.  Ideally, perhaps, they would be done at noon, as is usual for Lenten Stations at St. John’s and other churches.  By noon, however, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the last stations are done, is filled with visitors and pilgrims making it very hard to be in a group praying meditatively.  Also, our last day in Jerusalem was also the last Friday in Ramadan, when hundreds of thousands of Moslems were going to fill the Old City.  So we started early. 

Early morning embodied prayer of something like the Stations of the Cross has its own power.  We can easily feel like the important part of prayer is how we feel during it or what we are thinking about.  While those aspects matter, they are generally not as important as showing up and allowing God to work with us, however we are thinking or feeling.  Being sleepy and walking a few miles before caffeinated beverages and breakfast makes it harder to eliminate all distractions.  But in many ways such distractions give us a deeper understanding of what the original way of the cross was like, with hustle and bustle, soldiers pushing and pulling, women wailing and men deriding, and lots of dull aches and excruciating pains.   When Jesus falls on the way to his crucifixion he is probably not thinking about how that stumble could be a metaphor for the spiritual life.  As we walked the stations, we were often more aware of keeping everyone together over uneven stone steps, or of staying out of the way of others as we stopped to recite the stations, or even of the monks and nuns that brushed us aside in the middle of our prayers to reverence the stations as they went about their morning business.
On a number of occasions, we were also photographed by Moslems coming for prayer.  The Israeli government opened all checkpoints for the day, so that anyone was allowed to enter Jerusalem.  Some people came who had been waiting all their lives for such an opportunity.  Many of them had little or no idea what the non-Moslem sites were for, or why people were there.  But they came to look around, perhaps entering a Christian church for the first time.  Our early morning stations were the Christian witness they would receive that day, however little or much they understood what was going on.    

Altar Above Golgotha (Jane photo)
Perhaps the most moving part of the morning was stopping at Golgotha.  Most of the rock where Jesus was crucified is now under glass since pilgrims had a habit of breaking off pieces to take home with them.  But we can touch it through a small hole under an altar above the rock.  As we took our turns to have a few seconds of contact with the place where Jesus died, a mass was going on at an altar about 10 feet away.  To me, the best way to be in contact with the place of Jesus' death physically was to touch it in the context of the celebration of the sacred mysteries of his life, death and resurrection according to his command to “do this in memory of me.”  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Donkeytown, Jerusalem

Making peace after a near trampling
Regular blog readers will remember that early in our trip, my wife was almost trampled by a runaway horse.  Well, we found out more of the story.

About half a block up from our hotel is a small park.  Jane went running through it one day, and saw a number of horses and donkeys being offered for rides.  While a few adults supervised, most of the work was done by youngsters, beginning at about age five.

Jane going for a ride
Anybody for a ride? (Jane photo)
After her run, Jane started a conversation with the folks there, even allowing one of the youth to take her photo as she rode a horse.  Later she took the horses some apples, which they seemed to enjoy immensely.  As is the case in all cultures, the children were feeding the horses quickly, while the adults were scolding them with whatever the Arabic is for, "slow down -- one piece at a time."  Before we left for Jerusalem, Jane also bought some candy and took it for the children.

Meanwhile, another member of our group, Tim B., also had an encounter with children and their animals.  In fact, he is the one that coined the term "Donkeytown" for that area of the park.  While he was sitting on a rock, observing the horses and the children, the youngest of them started riding the smallest donkey.  Unfortunately, the animal was still a bit much to control.  The child had a small green hose to urge the donkey on, but was unable to reach its haunches, so it hit the donkey around the face crying, "Yallah", the Arabic word for "let's go."

Still learning to steer (Jane photo)
As the donkey moved forward, it started toward the rock where Tim was sitting.  Wherever the child hoped the donkey would go, it ended up going right into Tim.  After a small bump, the donkey took a step back.  However, the child pushed the donkey forward with another "Yallah," and the donkey took another step into Tim.  Nothing quite like having a donkey run into you, take a step back, and run into you again to make you feel welcome in a foreign country. 

Tim also noted that the animals, who didn't seem to be in the best of shape, got water to drink from the park's drinking fountains after the children took their drinks. 

Tim recuperating in the Dead Sea after donkey collisions (Greene photo)
A better preacher than I could probably connect all of these to the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22, but we'll end here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Various Photos with Captions

Jane took over 800 photos during our trip to Israel.  Below are a smattering of ones that are more human interest than various holy sites.  All photos are by Jane, unless she is in them. Captions are by me.
New World Trade Tower from Newark Airport

Olives on the tree in August -- they'll be ripe in October

Fabric acting as a roof in an outdoor room of a restaurant -- photo taken looking straight up.

Candy booth outside of Damascus Gate

Spices in an Old Jerusalem storefront

Fresh fruit market between Damascus Gate and our Hotel

Jane at the Western Wall

An Old Jerusalem City street decorated for Ramadan

 A pyramid of za'atar -- thyme with sesame seeds and sumac

Buying Postcard Stamps at the Jerusalem Post Office

At the spice store

Adam and William, the caretaker at the Bethlehem Church who also had his picture taken with popes and presidents.

Coffee shop in Bethlehem

Jane and the Fr.. Nael's wife, Mira, in Zababdeh

Adam and Iyad, our guide

Bishop Sean in the Wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho


Under a Sycamore Tree, like the one Zacchaeus climbed

Nazareth Coffee Shop

Bishop Sean and Father Fuad

Jane and the girl who reminded her of Lily in the ice cream shop in Shefa’Amr

The White Hand of Saruman??  No, just an international stop sign.

Adam pointing to Cave 4 at Qumran

How not to end up dead in the dead sea...

Jane's Dead Sea Spa Treatment

West Jerusalem Mass Transit Trolley

Dress shop near our hotel where we plan to buy Lily's prom gown

Photography blimp over the Old City for security during Ramadan Fridays

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Galilee, Part 2

Mona Lisa of Galilee (from Wikipedia)
We made two other stops in the region of Galilee, Sepphoris and Mount Tabor.

Sepphoris isn't mentioned in the gospels, but was the main Roman city in the area around Nazareth. When Nathanial says, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" he expresses a reasonable attitude toward a small town where people live in caves.  Sepphoris, on the other hand, was a larger city being built up on a Roman model, and ruins have been excavated both from around the time of Jesus and from later centuries when it was a significant center of Jewish learning after Jerusalem was destroyed.  The Jewish Mishna, which is a compilation of Jewish law, was written in Sepphoris in the third century.

Part of why this city is important is that Jesus is referred in Mark 6:3 as a tekton, and it is assumed his father Joseph would have been, as well.  Traditionally, this word has been translated into English as "carpenter", but, as our guide repeatedly said to us, "How many trees do you see around here?"  A better translation is probably "master builder" or "stone mason."  During Jesus life, the city of Sepphoris was being built up, and master builders from the region would probably have been employed there.  Some of the remains we saw could have been the handiwork of Jesus and Joseph. 

A number of beautiful mosaics dating to the third and fourth century have been found there.  One depicts levels of the Nile River, many show Greek or Egyptian mythological themes, and one is of a beautiful woman, sometimes referred to as "The Mona Lisa of Galilee."

Church of the Transfiguration (Jane photo)
We also went to Mount Tabor, one of two likely sites for the Transfiguration.  The church and the gardens are beautiful.  Besides the main sanctuary, the church had small chapels to Moses and Elijah (which does seem somehow not the point).  The Elijah chapel pictured Elijah standing between two altars on Mount Caramel.  One was on fire, representing God taking his offering, as opposed to the altar to Baal.  On the altars were the sacrifices, depicted as you might find pieces of meat in a butcher shop in a Looney Tunes episode. (Unfortunately, I don't know that anyone has a photo of it.) 

Most memorable, however, was the ride to the top of the Mount where the church was.  We got off the bus and into small vans carrying about 8 people each.  The drivers rode quickly up numerous switchbacks.  At least some of the vans had handles on the steering wheel, so that the sharp curves could be navigated with one hand.  This feature allowed a cell phone to be held in the other as the van avoided traffic from the other direction while careening down the side of a mountain.  Our guide was correct when he told us we would appreciate our bus driver more after our ride.


Roman Soldiers' Game (Jane photo)
In an earlier post, I mentioned a game carved by Roman soldiers into the floor of their watchtower.  Here is the photo of it.  If anyone knows how to play, please share!