We heard the sound before we saw anything. We were underground in the ancient stone tunnels beside the Western Wall (Jews prefer this name to Wailing Wall), and it was claustrophobic in the tunnels, but we heard the sounds of celebration advancing, and then the Bat Mitzvah appeared--a 13 year old boy arriving at maturity, carrying the Torah at the front of a HUGE procession of relatives and friends. He looked impossibly young to me, and he walked by our group as we pressed against the cold stone, followed by his proud father, his family and a whole crowd of beautifully dressed women singing, wearing 4 inch heels as they danced down the uneven passageway.
Partway down the tunnel, our guide, David, a Messianic Jew, told us that the "women's section" of the underground tunnel was ahead of us, and the women of our group were invited to step in and see what was going on. We did, but only got partway into the room, which was filled, packed, stuffed with all those women from the passageway--100 or more in a tiny room, ululating (google it!), and looking down through glass walls on the Bat Mitzvah who was surrounded by hundreds of men as he prepared to read his section of Torah aloud for the first time as an adult.
It was both ancient and contemporary at the same time--a celebration of maturity, the welcoming of a young man into his role as adult in the community. The room below us was a sea of white kippas (yarmulkes) and dark suits milling around the hewn stone room that has been there for well over a thousand years. The intersection of faith and community, of history and story telling was before us.
We felt that again when we stood with our guide at the steps of the ancient temple facing the Mount of Olives. I really like our guide so much. Israeli guides need to to take a 2 year course of study, and pass several exams before they are certified, and David is truly amazing. In any case, he said in his inimitable fashion, "There is zero chance that Jesus did not walk here," which meant, of course, that Jesus DID walk here, that my walk up the temple steps may have intersected and crossed over the places where his feet had been.
Everywhere I go in this city of Jerusalem, bible stories come alive. As we stood warming our hands in front of a small fire lit outside an Arabic cafe, drinking thick Turkish coffee brewed with aromatic cardamom, Bishop Neil told us that he had heard someone theorize that Peter's denial of Jesus at the time of crucifixion occurred as he warmed his hands at the fire. Perhaps Peter didn't want to leave the warmth of the fire, perhaps he never intended it to become a denial the way it did.
We understood that. We have been literally freezing all day, soaking wet and walking over 7 miles as we went to museums, walked under tunnels, visited the Western Wall, walked outside the Dome of the Rock where no Christian is permitted entry. The tiny garbage can fire, the warmth of mint-muddled tea and Turkish coffee, gave us enough comfort that we would have given up things to remain there. What things? I don't know, but we had real difficulty leaving that tunnel cafe and heading out into the snow and rain and wind. Hands and toes froze. I ended up buying a pair of gloves at the Columbia store in the new mall located nearby after my leather gloves split at the seams. We were so cold, so tired, and our agenda has been ambitious, to say the least. What would I give up to be comfortable? I could think of many things.
Walking resolutely on, we talked amongst ourselves--how would Jesus have dealt with this kind of weather? It must have happened at some time in his life. But there were no hot showers, no wam fuzzy socks, no Columbia brand gloves, no North Face, no central heating. And that was the least of his worries, I imagine. Because he continued through all the challenges he faced and continue used on his path to Jerusalem, toward the place of the Skull, the place of crucifixion.
Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem. Can you believe it? It is our only 'passport day' when we must carry our passports or we will be denied entry. Bethlehem is in the West Bank under Palestinian rule, and there is great fear about what people might be led to do in the place where Jesus was born, where his story and our stories really come alive.
The greater the difficulty we face because of our faith, the more challenging it is to claim it as our own. Today has been a day where we have seen the beauty of claimed faith in the flushed face of a 13 year old boy, where we visited the Western Wall and saw people pass through security gates just so that they could pray, where we saw clusters of riot gear and heavily armed soldiers guarding the spaces where people ate and shopped, where Muslims prevented us from carrying our bibles or using the word "temple" in public as we stood outside their mosque on the former Temple Mount.
How much does my faith mean to me? What am I prepared to do to defend it or claim it? How much of the story am I willing to tell and how much of the history do I claim as my own?
Jerusalem raises more questions than I can answer right now, and as tired as I am, I know that I am going to be figuring out the answers for a long time. It isn't just that Jesus has walked here; now I have walked here too. The dust of my rabbi, Jesus, surrounds me and claims me.
It is 10:30 pm now, and only 3:30 pm where you are. Even the time difference is challenging, but I have managed to adjust. I pray that you are comfortable and warm. I pray that you are surrounded by those who love you. I pray that the dust of the rabbi Jesus covers and claims you as well.
Blessings and peace to all. Our friend Paul is much better-thank you for your prayers!
Eating lunch at an Armenian restaurant that looks like a Bedouin tent. The real deal, believe it or not.
(below) Real pita breads ready to be made at the Armenian restaurant.
(Below) Turkish Coffee at the Muslim Cafe
"Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Atah..." we sang in Hebrew, which, translated means "Holy, holy, holy Lord..." The beauty and simplicity of the worship music remains with me still.
Christ Church Jerusalem is the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East. It is home to some of the 160,000 Christians in Israel (out of 8 million residents). To be Christian is to be in the distinct minority, in other words, and that is not a familiar feeling for most of us. But this trip is reinforcing, over and over again, how much Christ calls us out of the familiar, out of our comfort zone, and into kingdom service.
The worship service, partly in Hebrew, partly in English was low church by our usual standards, and yet, as I wrote on Facebook, it felt like warm oil being poured over me and I felt so welcomed into this family of God. The sermon lasted 45 minutes and the entire service just over 2 hours. I liked it so much that I went back for the evening service, which once again lasted 2 hours, but with a much smaller group of pilgrims. The morning service was over-full and chairs had to be set up to accommodate everyone, but the evening service had about 25, and we stood in a circle during the prayers at the table, one family from all around the world.
During the morning service I had the opportunity to go to the intercessory prayer team, and I was blessed to have prayers said over me in Arabic. We spend so much time being afraid of people who are different from us, and the sound of this completely unfamiliar language made me realize, once again, how broadly God's arms reach. Muslims and Christians place themselves at great risk when they choose to follow Yeshua, or Jesus. This young man who prayed for me may have left family, job and friends behind in order to minister here in Jerusalem. I have already met several different pilgrims who have done just that, left jobs and family in order to volunteer here at Christ Church--one from South Africa, one from London, one from the US. The woman from the US who is volunteering, Mary, is paying her own way for a YEAR while she works here for free!
Something calls Christians to this country, something they cannot seem to let go of even with the challenges and the tensions. One of the concerns that brings them here is compassion for refugees. The weather here today was unlike any weather I have ever been out in--lashing buckets of rain, wind that wrecked umbrellas in seconds (including mine), and temperatures that are close to freezing. Refugee families will not have additional warmth or clothing to face this. They will not have the warm, spicy homemade tomato soup that I had for dinner. Tents will be torn away from people and children by the force of the winds, and they will have no protection from snow, sleet or freezing rain. Imagine that this is the pathway to a better and safer life! At least that is their hope, but on a night like tonight it will feel like hope has been lost.
I'm going to say something shocking that a refugee worker passed on to us today. Mike Niebuhr has been working with refugees from Turkey, and now Syria, for the past 25 years and he said that being a refugee feels like you have been violated in the worst possible way. He compared it to a kind of rape of the spirit, and know that I am hesitant to write that because it sounds so brash, but he's right. Refugees are both ashamed and betrayed. They feel somehow cursed, that they are like the untouchable class in India--people are afraid to have anything to do with them as if what they are is contagious. Our worship service included time for prayers offered on their behalf, but I am aware that my actions, my money, and my time also offer living prayers that provide concrete help.
After lunch today, I left with a group of women to shop the bazaars, and it was a torrential rainy and dismal cold day for it. Street after street has vendors that display holy land trinkets, most made in China or Vietnam. After wandering down one alley that we called Butcher Alley because the windows held whole sides of meat red with blood, men cut slabs of meat in windows, and the ground was littered with huge thigh bones from cows, stripped of flesh, we decided we had taken a wrong turn. So we turned around and walked further in the opposite direction, and found ourselves in a lovely, but rainy and windy, courtyard. The entrance to a church was nearby and we ducked in quickly to escape the weather.
The sound of chanting and the smell of incense greeted us; ornate Turkish lamps hung in clusters, and candles burned everywhere. "What is this place? Where are we?" I kept asking. A procession of 20-30 Orthodox monks was gathered nearby and their chanting was beautiful. We walked slowly inside and someone finally realized--we were in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher --the shrine built over the place where Jesus was crucified. It is a huge complex and we saw only a tiny bit of it today, enough to fill us with awe.
We walked by one place that had a Franciscan monk 'guarding' a small doorway that you had to stoop to enter. "Right here! Right here!" he said to us, gesturing for us to come over, to enter the small doorway. He assumed we had come to see this, and on a rainy day in January, the lines are short, especially at the end of the day when we were there. So I went first, bending through the doorway with an Orthodox woman who immediately knelt and bent down to touch a marble slab in front of us. There was only room for two of us in that tiny place, and I knelt beside her. This was the site where Christ's tomb is enshrined behind layers of stone and marble so people could not touch it or steal it. The marble slab had worn spots from the millions of Christians who come here to worship, and whose lips have worn down this marble with their kisses on the cold rock. Christ's tomb. We had stumbled into the place where His body had been laid.
It would be easy to be dismissive, to let the trappings of the ornate church blur the truth, to let the impatient Irish monk define our unexpected experience, but those things cannot steal the emotion of knowing that I was only feet away from the place where the crucified Christ had been entombed. I knelt at the place where Easter began, where new life defied the bonds of death, where my hope came to life centuries before I was born.
And then we were back in the rain, the wind, the weather that defied description, but I found myself still back at the tomb, wreathed with incense, kneeling next to a strange woman, placing my lips on the stone where countless pilgrims have done the same.
At church tonight we sung a song about the gates of Jerusalem, and one of the men on the trip with me began to cry as he realized he was singing a song about the City of David while he stood within her walls. In just one week, we will sing with memory rather than reality, and it made the time feel more precious.
Please pray for one of the member of our trip, Paul, who is very sick and had to go to the hospital tonight. He was scared, and I pray that all is well with him. I continue to pray for all of you.
(See 2 photos below) The Church of the Holy Sepulcher: a shrine over the place of Jesus' crucifixion. What a humble entrance for the very ornate basilica inside! At least six denominations share ownership of the church. Today the Greek Orthodox were conducting a prayer litany inside the church--haunting and beautiful.