It’s been a year … definitely.

A year ago today I wrote my first blog post and I spent time saying goodbye and finishing my packing. I remember that day vividly but it seems a world away and I guess in some ways it is. This year, I got to see so much and at times understand so little. I could tell stories for hours. People have asked me since I returned home, how have you changed? A tough question and one that I’m not really sure how to answer yet, I think time will let that answer be known… What I do know for sure is through all the ups and downs of an amazing year, repeatedly, it’s been the people. Varied and textured, supportive and a challenge, it’s the people I think about, reflect on and for whom I pray. I hope that has come through my blog.  The idea that people are more than an idea, a culture, neighbors or enemies but we are all humans breathing the same air, drinking the same water and inhabiting the same earth. We might treat life and each other differently but we are all here whether any one person or group likes that or not … we are all here.

Thank you for traveling with me this year and reading and considering my reflections. I write this not because I want to stop thinking or stop blogging but because it’s time to mark time.  In the upcoming weeks and months I may post some more reflections and pictures, maybe under this blog title maybe another, but for now I turn my focus to a new adventure, the adventure of finding a call.  I leave you with some (not all) of the faces that will never leave me. Many blessings to you!

The Other Side

One thing that I am constantly reminded of in Israel/Palestine is that just about everything is smaller and closer together than I had imagined. We can look at a map, even pictures and try to get a sense of things but the scale is not always so clear. The Sea of Galilee was yet another example for me, it’s not small, it’s just smaller than I thought. Unless the haze is too thick you can always see the “other side.” The other side… there is always the other side … often vague but ever present, the other side.

A few times in scripture we hear about Jesus going to the other side, “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.” (Mark 5:1) “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” (Luke 8:22) “And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.” (Mark 8:13) Even the Priest and the Levite walked on the “other side” of the road. (Luke 10)

The upside, downside, right side, wrong side, inside, outside, even the blind side, there are multitudes of other sides. The many sides of the Sea of Galilee were the backdrop to seeing many sides of Jesus. Around the Sea, he cured the Gerasene Demoniac, he calmed the sea, he feed the multitudes with fish and bread, he preached the Sermon on the Mount, and he lived out his ministry amongst the many sides of the Galilee.

Inside the Tabgha Church (Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves)

Tabgha Church Detail

Church on what is known as the Mount of Beatitudes .

The sign that welcomes you at Capernaum.

Inside the church at Capernaum

The other side … some place all together different … or is it? Crossing from one side of the road or the lake might take time and even have its challenges but when we get there, exactly how “all together different is it? I keep finding people with pretty similar goals: food, water, shelter, family, safety, a future… hmmm.

Yes the world would be rather flat without the multiple sides that give us so much dimension and variety, curiosity and insight. But oh if the multiple sides would lend themselves more to creativity, understanding and mutuality instead of to division, fear and hate…

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

They lived in Nazareth.

… the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)

The Basilica of the Annunciation celebrates all things Mary especially the biblical announcement of Jesus Birth. It is the largest Church in the Middle East and built on the traditional site of the home of Mary and Joseph (a cave which appears to have had some structural and cosmetic enhancements through the years…)

Enhanced or not, it is a beautiful focal point for the lower church.

The upper church is massive and houses large representations of the Virgin Mary (with or without the baby Jesus) from 20 different countries.




The Basilica had numerous details depicting biblical stories and genealogies, creative and extravagant art along with cordons and arrows to direct. The representations of Mary were the most interesting, reminding all that care to see that the message of Jesus is heard by many and has the ability to transcend culture, time and place.

The Church of St. Joseph reminds us that Jesus had an earthly Dad. It honors traditional stories of Joseph.

Joseph teaching his son to be a carpenter…

Jesus and Mary comforting Joseph in his death.

The Synagogue Church was my favorite, but apparently not the favorite of many others. As I spent my visit in solitude. Reading:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-19)

Of course this wasn’t the actual Synagogue, it was a Crusader room built on the traditional site.

Actual Synagogue or not, it was exceptionally peaceful and contemplative. I found myself at ease and wanting to spend some time there. I wondered if on another trip others might like to join me there doing just that, spending time, reading and contemplating scripture?

Holy Places…

I’ve been at a lot of them this year. Some felt, or at least I understood them as, holy, while others I had to be told they were holy, sacred, important…

I visited some holy places in Haifa. Haifa is a port town in Northern Israel on the Mediterranean Sea, running from water’s edge up and over the biblical Mt. Carmel. While there, I visited the Baha’i Gardens with its 19 levels of garden terraces that adorn Mt. Carmel starting at its base and continuing for one kilometer up to the Summit. It’s quite lovely and unbelievably meticulous in its design and maintenance.

Before you enter the gardens, you are reminded that this is a holy place… (It’s actually the second most holy site in the world for the Baha’i.)

And the gardens are impressive …

I also visited Elijah’s Cave which is at the base of Mt Carmel not too far from the Baha’i Gardens. As I walked through the Birthright presentation that was going on just outside the cave, I overheard the leader remind the group that this site, this cave of Elijah was important to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze alike. The sign reminds visitors of its sacredness…

It’s a simple cave, rather forlorn, with few visitors …

I also visited the Stella Maris Monastery Church with its “traditional” Holy Lands Christian approach of building a church over some remnant of something old once used to house someone from scripture. This church is built over Elijah’s cave. … Oh I already talked about Elijah’s cave you say, well this cave is the one Elijah lived in; the other one is where he hid out after killing the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18-19), report the traditions…

I am not knocking the varied interpretations and understandings of holiness or their connections to history but instead wondering about how we perceive and understand what is holy. How do we know that we are walking on holy ground or breathing in a holy place? Does something have to be connected to a biblical figure, a religious text or an oral history to be holy? And if it is connected, must it automatically be holy? Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal and then fled to go and hide, holy?

What if the assertion of one’s groups understanding of holy conflicts or even somehow harms another group? What happens when defending all that is holy becomes something riddled with mockery, manipulation, strife, and violence? Are we then making what was once holy … un-holy?

As much as I continue to enjoy walking through these various interpretations of holy, taking in their beauty, mystery and lore, I can’t help but think about the history and theology of each of these holy places that led them to be considered holy by some or many … and with those thoughts come to the tenuous reality that the holy and the un-holy seem to be inextricably intertwined …

There once was a woman…

…she met Jesus at a well…

I saw that well. I touched its stones and its water. I went to the well to see the place where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, in “a Samaritan city called Sychar[1], near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water…” (John 4:5-7)

There are holy sites all over the holy land. Some for the Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, some for multiple faiths, some are more disputed and some seem more certain. Jacob’s Well, some say is considered one of the most authentic sites in the Holy Lands and Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims all associate the well with Jacob.

I saw that well. I touched its stones and its water and more than anywhere else I have been in the Holy Lands I was moved. I stood there in awe of being in the place where Jesus spoke about the water that gives life to an unknowing woman who had just been going about her day and happened across a man that would tell her everything she had ever done and change her faith and her future forever…

People still go regularly to drink the water and see the well, I hope they feel and remember Jesus there too. I hope they touch that well and that the well touches them. Seeing the well made the story (John 4:5-42) more real somehow and my faith in the Jesus, who gave and gives the water of life, refreshed.

Over the well a church has been built repeatedly through the years. The most recent one was completed in 2007. It has a beautiful mosaic in front of the entrance and has been built in the basilica style from Crusader times.

To get to the well you have to take some steps down to the crypt. They ask you to not take pictures but the internet is full of them – so check them out.

I traveled there with a group of lovely people from North America and the Middle East. The Priest in residence was quite a sport as well…

[1] At different biblical times the city was also referred to as Shechem. Today the city is called Nablus.

What is it that holds us together?

And for that matter, what is it that holds us apart?

Is it will, circumstances, opportunities, restrictions? What is it?

Is it a bit of all of these?

I visited a thoughtful art museum in Jerusalem, the Museum on the Seam. As the museum’s website describes itself, it is a “unique museum in Israel, displaying contemporary art that deals with different aspects of the socio-political reality.” It’s a museum that “calls for listening and discussion, for accepting the other and those different from us and respect for our fellow man and his liberty.”

Even though the Museum’s name and location, (it is situated on the boundary of East and West Jerusalem and in an old military Israeli forward post of the wars of 1948 and 1967,) it is not a museum about only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it wrestles with conflicts and human adversity from various perspectives from many situations and realities all over the globe.

It puts our conflicts and our disagreements into dialogue. Sometimes I wonder if we are held closer together somehow in our conflict than we are even in our joy and peace. There is a mutual pain that some how binds. I recall the slightly pessimistic, though often practical, advice; keep your friends close and your enemies closer…

This is a provocative land where people rub up against each other and then are separated by walls in their hearts, minds and land, with a few people daring to dance in and around the seam. Just like the clothes we wear it is the seam where different pieces connect and it is the seam that holds it all together. Dialogue and understanding happen in and at the seam because that’s the only place it can.

I’ve loved the people I have met at the seam.

You may not be able to read what is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English (in neon) on the front of the museum, “Olive Trees will be our borders.”

..And yes the building still holds the scares of war. Let the seam be for dialogue not for war.

Bethlehem – Part 1

I love Bethlehem!!! …There I said it.

Jerusalem is fascinating and holy and people from everywhere come here but it’s also a city; busy, noisy and full of tension.

Traffic, light rail, The Holy Sepulchre and the Lutheran Redeemer bell tower

Bethlehem is a city and lots of people come through there but it doesn’t have that busy, noisy feeling of a city. It has the rhythm of a village. I’ve been there twice since I arrived in the Holy Lands and I’m sure I’ll be back a number of times before I go.  It’s only 7 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem.

There is much to say about Bethlehem, the home of Jesus’ nativity birth, but for today I just want to share some of the architectural beauty of the Church of the Nativity.

I’ve heard this Basilica, as it is sometimes called, described as gaudy and overdone. And I’ve heard much speculation about whether this is really the spot where Jesus was born. ‘I mean really, how can we be so certain?’ goes the rationalizing… and maybe we can’t know, maybe we don’t even need to know … exactly where. But I love the place, sure the decorating idea of, “if a little is good, a lot must be great” is a proven philosophy but to me the decoration and adornment speaks much more to the near eastern culture in which and of which it finds itself not to the proof of whether Jesus was born there or not. And I’m OK with following the tradition of this being the spot. If nothing else this “spot” is the oldest continuously operating church in the world, it was commissioned by Emperor Constantine around 326 AD. (Yes it’s been reworked a few times, but its still working…)

For me more than anything the church and the city is a place to go, to revere and to remember the start of a life and an event that changed the world and the hope, I believe, of the world forever. Thank you Jesus, thank you God!

Nativity Church

You can walk from Manger Square or…

— the steps from the nearest street…

you must enter through the door …. the opening has been made smaller through the ages … can you see 3 different door frames?…

The Door of Humility… maybe you’ve been through it a time or two as well?…

once inside you will have much to see… the lower Mosaic floor is from 4th Century Constantine construction…

Everyone wants to see where Jesus was Actually born so you go to the right and follow through this door…

You will find fabulous details…

Maybe even a service happening in the main cathedral….

But I didn’t quite make it to X marks the spot because if I understood the rumors correctly 600 Polish people where in town with their Arch Bishop and he was conducting a service in the Grotto of the Nativity so I decided to come back later…

… and then found that other rumors where true… the crowds will descend and make for a long wait… I think I’ll check it out next time…

Definitely next time…

Focusing on the Holy

What is Holy?

Seems like a good question for Holy Week in the Holy Lands…

Sure there are stories and realities of chaos, disagreement and fundamentalism around business, politics and religion. All you have to do is read a newspaper anywhere in the world to know that. Stories abound that emanate anything but holy.

But to so many, this is the Holy City; Holy City to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Different stories and not so different stories run through the beliefs and traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths.

I’ve been in this holy place for six days and despite what could feel rather un-Holy, I appreciate its holiness. There are things you could see and feel anywhere…

A cute kid leading a Palm Sunday procession

Running into a friend – Pastor Ladd

But a lot you can’t. You come to the Holy Lands as a Pilgrim to join in and be part of something larger and longer than yourself. To join in something that through the millennium has been destroyed, rebuilt, forgotten and refortified; to take a step in faith among the faithful and not so faithful, to just be and to walk where literally millions (if not billions) of fellow believers have walked before.

Palm Sunday – walking from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Palm Sunday – walking through the Lion’s gate into the Old City (Jerusalem)

This is the land where my faith, Christianity, as well as others were born. I can’t help but to think of this land somewhat like a parent or maybe better like an aunt or uncle to our faith, it (or they) might be eccentric and hard to understand but it is vital to the fact that we exist, it is full of stories and love and deserving of our attention and respect. Holy Lands – you have two months of my undivided attention.

While I am here I may come up with many unholy thoughts and words … so for now, this Holy Week, I want to focus on what makes this place particular, a testament, a pilgrimage destination and hence, Holy.

Looking up inside the church of The Holy Sepulchre.

Peeking in at the women’s side of the Western (wailing) wall.

A view of the Dome of the Rock.

South Africa – but a brief pause…

Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg… SA you’ve shown me many sides of yourself. And you haven’t been bashful or reserved … for the most part you’ve unapologetically said, “This is us, this is who we are.”

These two months in SA introduced me to people, attitudes and beliefs as different from one another as different can be. It would be similar to putting together a picture of America by visiting New York City, Mobile (Alabama), El Paso (Texas), and Monterey, California. The food and language (if only the accent) change, the common stories, the culture, the weather, the topography, the worldviews … and often very largely the politics take on varied and different images, heroes and villains, mantras and foci … for life looks a little different depending on the vantage point you have. History, choices and opportunities deal different cards and cards dealt don’t necessarily feel very fair or make clear sense.

South Africa I am nowhere near figuring you out …

…so let’s just pause the conversation while I head up to Jerusalem. I’ll be there for a couple months. In the Holy Lands I will begin to experience both the sacred and the secular of a place that provokes many images as well … everything from majesty and triumph to division and fear.

So till next time SA…

May God continue to heal your wounds and bless your efforts to reconcile and find justice. May God bring enough to those who know only want. May God relieve those who burden themselves with hate. And may God bring wholeness to all your people.

There will be people

Nearly a year ago when I was planning for this trip I was gathering ideas and advice, and getting everything from the mundane to the philosophical. Packing advice was popular, “travel light” was the most common refrain … a friend of mine who spoke with his typical subtle wisdom, “Wherever you go … there will be people.” The practical advice of don’t worry, everywhere you go there will be people who need to do the same things you need to, wash clothes, brush teeth, calm headaches – you don’t need to pack for a year, there will be people … you will find what you need…

This has been absolutely true.

This year the phrase has become somewhat of its own refrain for me, “Everywhere you go, there will be people…” struggling and thriving, living and dying, helping and denying, hating and reconciling.

There will be people who come to a lovely lookout point to see the beautiful waterfall.

There will be people who come to the same water as the only way to wash their clothes.

There will be people who have fun, love life, and overcome obstacles.

There will be people who try to get in the way, to trip us up and limit our livelihood and our lives. (The green house is the drug house; the fence is the end of the school yard.)

All that we do and do not do is done and not done by people. Governments, businesses, systems, corporations, grass roots movements, communities, marches, reunions, boycotts … they are done, made and managed by people. We might blend in with them but at their core, they are people.

Sometimes when we look around we see many difficult situations and challenging realities. We can feel that they are just too difficult, too complicated, or too overwhelming to do anything about them… after all, its just the way it is… But what about the reality that there are people right there in the middle of difficult, complicated and overwhelming?

Difficult, complicated and overwhelming are there because of people…

People, people, people…

There is no getting around us, we can only go through us …

Where ever we go, there will be people.