Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pilgrims' Progress, Day 4: On To Galilee

That's pilgrim Leslie leading the way at the Israel Museum yesterday afternoon. This morning we leave early for the Judean desert and some time of prayer and contemplation while looking down on the Jericho road, where, as Jesus told his followers, a good man from Samaria was walking along one day, minding his own business. We'll visit the Mount of Temptation and then head north to Galilee.

For our two nights as guests of the Sisters of Nazareth, we'll be without easy access to wireless. I'll check in as often as I can, and our other pilgrims will post on Facebook to the extent allowed by the gracious mercy of their international data plans. In the meantime, pray for us, as we shall for you this evening, in the Basilica of the Annunciation, in the home town of our LORD. And pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

Sunday Sermon: "The Street Lights Are On"

The Epiphany light from the manager must have been wondrous. It surely shown in the faces of pilgrims Jan and Deb yesterday morning in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But not every light bulb that goes off in our heads illuminates the path that goes in the right direction in our lives. Whether in the eyes of babies on their baptism day or from automatic weapons fire in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, all the flashes of light we may see give us an opportunity to discern what is best for others as well as ourselves. My sermon for the first Sunday after the Epiphany is here.

Pilgrims' Progress, Day 3: Birth To Death To Life

Visiting Bethlehem from Jerusalem means that pilgrims see beautiful and ugly things the same day -- the face of pilgrim Loreen beholding the sights in the Church of the Nativity, for instance, and the forbidding face of the Israeli security and separation wall hemming in the city of David.

It's been an even busier day than we expected, the result of pilgrim Pam slipping on a sidewalk this morning and suffering a small fracture in her left tibia. Treated by doctors in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Pam was back among us at St. George's by dinnertime, with a bright red cast (she picked it to match her toenails). The good news is that she'll still head to Nazareth with us tomorrow.
Pam's accident notwithstanding (we give thanks it wasn't worse), a day in the Middle East is full enough if it encompasses the birth and death of Christ. We reached the Church of the Nativity early enough that, thanks to one of Canon Iyad Qumri's famous and ubiquitous cousins, each pilgrim was able to visit the grotto where the church believes Jesus was born.Iyad could only accomplish this by asking us to crowd onto the steps leading to the grotto and wait for a young man who was purposely blocking the way to decide to let us through. He was protecting the prerogatives of the Greek Orthodox priest who was celebrating mass in this, the heart of the Church. The Armenian Orthodox were planning a service immediately afterward, so Iyad wedged the pilgrims through the tiny space in under five minutes. From the other side, we watched the Armenians get under way.
Then we went to the nearby St. Joseph chapel, read from Luke's birth account, and sang "O Come all Ye Faithful." After taking care of Pam, we returned to Jerusalem and Easter: A glimpse at the magnificent model of Second Temple Jerusalem at the newly renovated Israel Museum, which shows, experts believe, an exhausted rock quarry that was used both for Mt. Calvary and Jesus's burial and which became the site of his resurrection. Here a pilgrim points at the spot.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holy Smoke

Hookahs and olive wood creches in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City

Wandering Out Of The Box

In case you didn't notice, the world didn't end on Wednesday afternoon Jerusalem time, when a young woman in jeans and sneakers entered the worship area in front of the Western Wall that is reserved for men. Women are required to stay in a much smaller enclave where, Kathy told me, it was so crowded today that it was hard even to get to the wall to leave a prayer.

As I watched, the man in the photo who's wearing a dark sweater and khakis backed away from the wall, as pious Jews sometimes will, until he walked past the woman and did a noticeable double-take. It's possible someone barked at her in Hebrew, because a moment or two later, she turned toward me with a cheerful smile and made her way back to the 21st century.

Pilgrim's Progress, Day 2: Transfigured

Hey, preachers! You might consider hanging some ostrich eggs in front of the pulpit, as in one of the ornately decorated Greek Orthodox chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We St. John's pilgrims learned from the man in charge that ostriches don't incubate their eggs after laying them. Instead, they watch over them from a certain distance. Accordingly it's thought that ostrich eggs hanging in front of the iconostatis compel the congregation's attentiveness to the preacher.

More modern knowledge about ostriches is considerably more harrowing if also, perhaps, still ecclesiastically helpful. Ostriches do incubate their eggs, though in communal nests, with females (after removing the eggs left by weaker females) sitting on them during the day and males doing the honors at night. So it actually sounds like another good argument for women's ordination.

Ostriches also don't stick their heads in the sand. Nor could we pilgrims this morning, after we had begun our day with breakfast (plentiful pita and humus!) and morning prayer. Our guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, asked each of us to say what we'd left behind and what we hoped to take home from the Holy Land. Some moving stories were told and tears shed. One pilgrim worried about a chronically ill relative. Another said she'd come because this time last year, she collapsed in her home, where she might've died if an attentive church friend hadn't checked up on her.

Shared stories and experiences are already helping our pilgrims, who come not just from California but Iowa (pilgrim Debbie) and Florida (pilgrims Carl and Virginia), bec0me a family -- or at least a highly mobile new congregation. Just today we explored a first-century excavation beneath the Damascus Gate, worked our way through the Muslim Quarter, heard the Book of Acts read out by an Ethiopian priest, lunched at a Lutheran guest house on a sturdy meal of schnitzl, potatoes, and beans (our last meal without humus for the next ten days), left our prayers in the Western Wall, caught a glimpse of the the latest Israeli demolition project roiling the politics of east Jerusalem, said evening prayer in the chapel of historic St. George's Cathedral, and heard a young Nazareth-born Arab-Palestinian-Israeli priest, the Rev. Canon Hosam Naoum, talk about his four-square identity and the challenges of being one of 170,000 Christians left in Israel and the West Bank.

So much more to say about our first day of pilgrimage, and so many extraordinary days to come. The happy obligation of leading compline in a few moments and the lead weight of jet lag tugging on my eyelids prevent my writing more -- except to add that my wife, Kathy, has once again been transfigured by the Holy Land.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pilgrims' Progress, Day 1: Safe At St. George's

While Farid, a member of the staff at St. George's pilgrim guest house in east Jerusalem, always welcomes me (and everyone, I imagine) with a bear hug, this is the first time I stopped and asked where he's from. "Zababdeh, in the West Bank," he said -- and that was a Holy Spirit moment, because we 30 St. John's pilgrims will visit his home town a week from tomorrow. Farid's a Roman Catholic. We'll meet his Episcopal friend and colleague, the Rev. Nael Abu Rahmoun, at St. Matthew's in Zababdeh and get a tour of the Penman Clinic, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, the hosts of our 12-day pilgrimage.

The spirit has surely been with us so far. Because of the storms in the southeast, nearly 2,500 U.S. flights were canceled Monday, mostly in Atlanta. For us to make it to Jerusalem tonight, three Delta flights into or out of Atlanta had to operate -- the two we were on and the one supplying the 777 for our outbound flight to Tel Aviv. Above you'll see a concourse the busiest hub in the world at 8 p.m. Sunday evening. The airport was so empty that the security guard in our part of the terminal spent an hour in the lounge, watching the Oregon-Auburn game with pilgrims Andy and Duane. Sure, we left Atlanta nearly four hours late, which included a noisy, hour-long chemical baptism for the 777, aka a deicing. But it's pretty amazing under the circumstances that we even made it out of California.

Our guide and friend Canon Iyad Qumri met us at Ben Gurion airport and joined us in reading Psalm 87 as we began to make our way by bus up to Jerusalem. It's the psalmist's miraculous vision of a city embodying the fulfillment of God's vision of perfect unity for his people: "Of Zion it shall be said, 'Everyone was born in her'." Within two hours of our arrival in Tel Aviv, we were gathered over a late-night snack in the St. George's dining room, marveling at the practical miracles that had brought us so far against such odds. Pilgrims Kathy and DJ even ventured onto the roof for a glass of pilgrim Chardonnay.

We'll spend tomorrow getting our bearings in the Old City, whose Damascus Gate is a 20-minute walk away down Nablus Rd., past the U.S. Consulate. We'll be the Lutherans' guests for lunch and get our first look at the ineffable Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It will be hard for days 3-12 to top that -- but remember, as people here always say to explain every surprise, ambiguity, and sheer wonderment they encounter: This is the Holy Land. We anticipate a great pilgrimage, and not just because God and Delta Airlines expended a considerable amount of energy getting us here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cold 'Lanta

A rumor surged through our pilgrim band Sunday night that our Monday evening flight from Atlanta to Tel Aviv had been canceled. Remembering that our LORD's way up to Jerusalem, while not snowy, was also not easy, we shook off the temptation to discouragement and arrived at LAX this morning bravely girded for rerouting. Then word came (via Pilgrim Pam's insider contacts at Delta) that if there was one flight from LA that the airline was going to operate into the teeth of the mighty storm today, it was ours.

We arrived in snowbound Georgia 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Our Tel Aviv connection is one of the few flights still scheduled tonight. Deb and Cheryl (right, above) and our friend from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Fulleton, Nancy, received a humble pilgrim's welcome in the food court of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. In a few hours, we'll set our faces for gate E-16.

Sanity And Boehner Rising

You want sensible reactions to Saturday's tragedy? Two out of three ain't bad. From this morning's New York Times:

“I don’t understand how anybody can be held responsible for somebody who is completely mentally unstable like this,” an adviser to Ms. Palin, Rebecca Mansour, said in an interview with a conservative radio host, Tammy Bruce. Responding to accusatory messages on the Web, Ms. Mansour added: “People actually accuse Governor Palin of this. It’s appalling — appalling. I can’t actually express how disgusting that is.”

Ms. Mansour said that the cross hairs, in fact, were not meant to be an allusion to guns, and agreed with her interviewer’s reference to them as “surveyors symbols.”
Two problems with that. First, it's almost impossible to believe that they weren't intended as cross hairs. Mansour helps neither Palin nor the country by claiming otherwise. Second, "disgusting"? She may think that, but playing the victim when the only victims were in Tucson is, again, poor form. Palin must find a way to adjust her public posture. She can acknowledge the reality of an unfortunate situation -- the correlation between recent events and her frontier rhetoric and choice of graphics -- without taking any personal responsibility. If she doesn't, I don't see how she avoids becoming a marginal figure in U.S. politics.

Meanwhile, at the White House:
Mr. Obama was considering delivering a speech about the greater context surrounding the shooting, but advisers said it was premature to do so until Ms. Giffords’s condition stabilized and more became known about the gunman’s motives.
Sounds just right, especially in the light of the comments by a Clinton administration veteran:
“The only way you gain political advantage is by doing absolutely nothing to take advantage — and not have a lot of people backgrounding about how clever your political strategy is,” said Michael D. McCurry, who was Mr. Clinton’s press secretary at the time of the Oklahoma bombing.
This is a situation where political advantage and the moral high ground may well coincide, not only for Obama but the GOP. Regardless of what we learn about the suspect, in fewer than 48 hours it's become a commonplace to say that we have to restore some civility to our political and media conversation. But the only way to do that is just do it. Scapegoating Palin or anyone else for Tucson is an escalation in the political wars. So is the Palin camp's own harsh, defensive rhetoric.

One Republican who has gotten it right is the speaker of the House, John Boehner. He's done so, as far as I can tell, because of the quality of his heart, which has been much derided recently. We could do worse than having his tear-stained face as the new face of responsible conservative leadership.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Come With Us Pilgrims. Come To Jersualem!

While there's no wrong time to go to Jerusalem, a moment of trauma -- whether global, national, or personal -- may be the best time of all.

Weather permitting, 30 pilgrims from St. John's Episcopal Church depart tomorrow, LAX-Atlanta-Tel Aviv, and then, on Tuesday afternoon, up to Jerusalem by bus. If the Holy Spirit is at our backs, we should be standing before the Damascus Gate of the Old City by dinnertime, the abundant life of the Muslim Quarter swirling around us. If past experience is any guide, we'll be exhausted -- it will feel like the end of one long day -- and exhilarated at the same time, the way anyone feels coming home after a long journey.

I took the photo above on an earlier pilgrimage, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the light seems to embrace the small inner chapel where the church believes that Jesus Christ's body was laid after his crucifixion. Experts' best guess is that his death, burial, and Resurrection all occurred inside of a few hundred square feet. Surely there's no better place -- along with the Western Wall -- to take our prayers for Rep. Giffords and Saturday's other victims, their alleged attacker, ourselves, our families, our church, our country, and all who are in need in our glorious, broken world.

If you like, follow along with us by checking in here every day. Eight nights out of 11, we'll be at the pilgrim guest house at St. George's Cathedral in east Jerusalem, where visitors enjoy the peace of Christ and free in-room wireless.

Anti-Semitism And The Attack On Rep. Giffords

Information emerges about some troubling "far-right" associations of Jerod Lee Loughner. I put far right in quotes not to minimize that element by any means but because among his passions, at least according to this initial information, is anti-Zionism, a sentiment which is also sometimes associated with the left.

The possibility of an anti-Semitic dimension to the attack on Rep. Giffords hadn't occurred to me before now. Obviously that would dramatically complicate any effort to associate Loughner with any one political bloc, as many of us seem driven to try to do. If you want to read thoroughly uncivil and even bloodcurdling rhetoric, go to any blog where the Middle East is discussed, such as Matthew Yglesias' (I refer not to his language but to that of some of those who leave comments).

The Quintessence Of Courage

The New York Times:
Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik of Pima County described a chaotic scene of terror and heroism as the shots rang out. He said one woman who was injured in the shooting fought to wrestle a magazine of ammunition away from the suspected gunman as he tried to reload. He succeeded in reloading, the sheriff said, but was then tackled to the ground. Officials, who did not name the woman, said the attack could have been more devastating had she not tried to stop the suspect.