Our month at Tantur Ecumenical Center began with a horizon tour of Jerusalem. The Tantur campus is located over the hill from the Mount of Olives and we are just about a mile from Bethlehem which is our view from the dining hall window. There are currently twelve of us in our month long study group: 2 from Australia; 2 from England; 1 from Zimbabwe, 1 from Poland and 6 from the States. The group consists of 2 women and 10 men; 2 educators; 2 United Methodist pastors; 2 brothers (1 a Franciscan and the other a Christian brother); 3 priests; 1 seminary student of the Anglican church and me. We have a family that will be joining us soon.
Our guide for our driving tour around the perimeter of Jerusalem is Jared: a high energy extraverted Jewish born American and now Israeli citizen. We drove around East Jerusalem/Bethlehem which are Palestinian neighborhoods and part of the Occupied Areas (Palestinians make up about 20% of Israel’s population). With so many Palestinians leaving the West Bank and Israel for school and job opportunities elsewhere, less than 1% of the population is now Christian. The Israeli’s make up about 80% of the State of Israel and many are both religious Jews and conservative. We drove through a significant ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood and began noting the variety of dress based on their country of origin before 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel.
We finished our driving tour as we left West Jerusalem and approached Hebrew University, the Mount of Olives, and the walls of the Old City Jerusalem. It was thrilling to get our first view of the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock sitting atop of it. I did not realize that the Temple Mount of the Old City of Jerusalem was not the highest point in the area but rather is surrounded by higher hills and at the base of those hills, a valley – the Kidron valley. The Temple Mount is more like a hill in the middle of a bowl with the edges of the bowl being higher than that hill. It reminds me of my mom’s grapefruit juicer which had a ridge in the middle that enabled us to twist the grapefruit back and forth and the juice to run into the round cavity at its base. Anyway, we are here! There is so much to see, learn and experience.
Today is Friday, July 5th. Jerod arrived bright and early so that we can get to the City of David before the rush. It totally surprised me to discover that the City of David lies outside the Old City wall. 3000 years ago the people who lived in the Jerusalem area were called Jebusites. The walled city was small and because it was located on a hill, the water source – the Gihon spring lay outside the city wall. To protect that spring from the enemy, they created a water shaft so they could get water undetected. After David conquered the city of Zion, a man by the name of Hezekiah figured out how to move water inside the city. We walked through that amazingly long water tunnel – about 40 minutes in knee high water, with a ceiling that caused us to duck down at points and was very high at times. It was an adventure.
We also sat at the now dried up Pool of Siloam (John 9) where Jews came for purification and where Jesus healed a lame man. My faith is strengthened by sitting in and walking around the places where Jesus met and ministered to people. While I have been here before (35 years ago), I am more amazed than ever as we experience the 5th gospel: This physical place where it all happened. The fact is that excavations are still underway and many new discoveries are happening all the time.
We concluded our time in the City of David by hiking up the Roman sewer system (no longer in use) into the Old City of Jerusalem. Nope, no skid marks or poop smells remain!! We hiked to the southern steps of the Temple Mount. The Second Temple sat on top of the Mount until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. We will visit the Dome of the Rock later next week.
Paul Wright from Malta, IL (Dekalb County) spoke to us about the geography of Israel and the West Bank. He has taught and served as President of a University in Jerusalem for the past 25-30 years. Paul helped us to see how the geography of the Middle East has determined so much of what has unfolded in this region. Access to water is the number one factor in the movement of people in this fertile crescent. On a personal note, we had fun chatting about our shared experiences in Northern Illinois. I saw and experienced God in his passionate and gracious nature. Anyone who can make geography interesting at the end of a long and hot day, now that is a gift!
Saturday, July 6 – We visited the Shepherd’s Field where the angels announced the birth of the Savior; the old city of Bethlehem, and were blessed to be part of a mass at the Grotto where the Lord was placed in the cattle manger in the oldest church building in the world, built in the fourth century. I never thought singing Christmas carols in July would be meaningful but singing them in our small group in a small cave and in a small chapel touched my soul deeply. I felt the presence of God in warm and profound way in this place. “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!”
Our Palestinian guide on this day was Kamal. He is a Christian native of Bethlehem who loves his city and his people. To be in Bethlehem today is to be in the West Bank of Palestine. Let me just say that the tension between Palestinians and the Israeli’s is palpable. The situation is complex and injustice is evident. Please pray for peace and justice in the Middle East. Jesus is often referred to as the Prince of Peace and his presence and the need for peace is true more than ever.
While singing and celebrating the body and blood of Christ in the old stones of the cave and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was extremely moving, we experienced the “living stones” of faith and hospitality at Kamal’s home where his dad had prepared a meal for our group. Sharing a meal together shapes our conversations. Eating a meal in someone’s home, moves us from strangers to acquaintances and in time, friends. Kamal was Christ to us when he opened his home and his table to us.
We concluded our day with Kamal and his mom, who is also a tour guide, by visiting the Herodion, a hilltop palace complex built by Herod the Great between 24-15 BCE. Let me just say that while it offered us a great view of the Judean desert/wilderness, hiking up a big hill on a hot afternoon is demanding. Granted, I am not 39 any longer but we were all feeling the heat of the desert. This was Herod’s summer palace where he entertained the likes of Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus Caesar. As one who invested in construction of all types of building throughout Israel, Herod valued this location enough that he was to be buried there. Ironically, there is no evidence of his personal grave at Herodion.
Sunday, July 7 – was a quiet day for us. Having been to a powerful worship on Saturday, we slept in. After breakfast, we went to the library where Jody worked on her evening prayer she led on Sunday evening (we have evening prayer each evening at 5:30 pm before dinner) and I read. The library here is amazing and offers so many insightful books on faith, the Middle East and other related topics. I currently have 8 books checked out that I am reading whenever I get a chance. PS: Jody did a fantastic job of leading chapel on Psalm 46.
In the afternoon, Jody and I walked to Bethlehem and where she got her sandals fixed at a local shoe repair shop. The old city is filled with little shops selling meats, clothing, shoes, spices, fruits and vegetables, jewelry, cooking wares, religious things like candles and crosses made out of olive wood, etc. It was a nice but demanding 2 1/2 mile walk in the heat with elevation and many taxis wanting to give us rides. We took a taxi home. Exercise is nice but when you have sweated out your shirt, a ride is nice too.
Monday – July 8 – Today we went early to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our group had special permission to hold a mass in the grave of Christ. At the time of Christ, this location was located outside the walled city of Jerusalem. Today, the wall has moved at it sits inside the walled Old City. Christians had likely known and worshipped for years at the site where Jesus died and at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. In the fourth century, when Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, a church was built over the site of Golgotha and the tomb. Later, this church was burned and torn down and still later, rebuilt.
In our 40 minutes in the tomb, we held our mass, received Holy Communion and had time to go in from the grotto to the tomb of Christ. There is an altar built over the top of the tomb. I felt deep awe when I knelt down and laid my head on the traditional site of Christ’s tomb. The small banner located under the altar reminded me: “Christ is Risen!” Thank you Jesus for dying for me and for the sake of the whole world.
We toured the church which contains not only the tomb of Christ but also Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus died. This site is located on the second floor of the church. Below this holy site on the first floor, the bedrock of the hill is exposed and the rock is cracked from the time of the earthquake that shook the city when Jesus died. This church is under the direction of the Greek Orthodox Church and includes access by the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Church and the Coptic Church (based in Egypt). What an amazing place to explore and people watch!
We ate lunch at a local café as enjoyed pita and humus and shared stories from our day. After lunch we visited the Western Wall of the Temple Mount where Jews come to read the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and pray. The love of God and the Torah was very evident.
Tuesday – July 9 – Stephanie writes stories she collects from refugees in and from the Middle East. She lives at Tantur with her family and her husband serves as the program director. Stephanie grew up in San Antonio and came to the Middle East twenty years ago to learn Arabic in Damascus. The wars in Iraq and Syria has resulted in tens of thousands of displaced people many who are refugees. She has traveled to cities in northern Syria, Iraq and to refugee camps to listen and gather the stories of refugees. She shared stories of Syriac Christians, Yazidi’s and Muslims. Each story was heart wrenching.
Below is a quilt that one woman made after she and her whole Syriac Christian village were driven out leaving everything behind to flee for their lives. She made this quilt to tell the story of her family and village. Stephanie also found an elder of the church who had taken pictures on his cell phone over the years that became the only record of this village that was destroyed. These are tragic yet stories of resilience and faith. Fact: 70.8 million people have been forced from their homes; 25.9 million are refugees and 50% of the refugees are under the age of 18. Many others have died because of the wars. Death, destruction and dislocation.
Why am I so blessed Lord God while others have suffered so much? I do not know. I am no more deserving than anyone else. My heart is broken for those who have lost so many and so much. Jesus, you were a refugee when your family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt. While you lived, other children in your village died. Our world drips with the blood of the innocent. Your family was received into a foreign land. Why do we fear refugees and people different than ourselves? Did you not create us all? Do you not say “Blessed are the poor?” Teach me to love those you love and to set fear and judgement into your hands.
Stephanie made a presentation on Muslim Christian dialog in the afternoon. From the crusades and wars we know that much bloodshed has happened in our history in the name of religion. She shared stories of Muslims who have risked their lives and some who have died to save the lives of Christians. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for another. What she described as most effective is not words but actions: how we live our faith. Christians and Muslims are at our best when we live the gospel which Jesus said is love. Below is a cross painted by a man Stephanie met who called it the Christ of Mosul, Syria.
Wednesday, July 10 – This morning we returned to the Old City to visit the Dome of the Rock and the el-Aksa mosque. We were granted a rare treat because of the relationship of Tantur with the mosque officials. We were granted access to both sites on the Temple Mount. This is the third most holy site in Islam following Mecca and Medina. It was here where Mohammed travelled to heaven and spoke with God. Like the story of Abraham who negotiated with God about the number of righteous it would take for God to spare the people of Sodom, Mohammed negotiated about the number of times each day his followers are to pray. God said 50 times but Mohammed got it worked out as 5 times a day at 10 minutes each = 50 minutes.
Jody and I walked around the Old City of Jerusalem this afternoon. We ate our peanut butter sandwiches and fruit we packed and did some shopping. This has been an incredible week. We have seen the presence of God in our prayers, conversations, and in the people we have been honored to meet. We are so grateful for this opportunity. The community of Grace is in our daily prayers. Thank you for supporting us in going and for keeping us in your prayers.