Tuesday, May 1, 2012

There are always two sides... or more

It's my last full week in Israel. Surprisingly, though it will still be so hard, in the last few weeks I've felt an unexpected peace about leaving. It can only come from God, I think. I don't know how I could create this peace myself.

This past weekend, I had my last field study of the semester -- my 'Historical and Social Settings of Israel' class traveled to the Galilee and the Golan Heights to conclude our study of the modern state's history. It was the best trip possible to finish off the semester, I think -- we spent some time at look-out areas along borders with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and had discussions about Israel's relationships with the neighboring nations. We visited some of the earliest Jewish settlements in Israel (typically, socialist communities called kibbutzim), learning about each of their histories. We toured the prison in Acre (Acco) in which the British imprisoned dissident Jews and Arabs alike during the years of British mandate before Israel became a state. Along the way, we were able to hear from some local Israelis (including the woman who gave President Bush a tour of the country a number of years ago!), which was really rewarding. 

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation, this semester has assured me, as I suspected, that the political situation is so deeply complex -- so complex that it's reductionist to pick or support any "one" side, because it seems that two sides -- two only -- don't actually exist. There are more. There are so many different voices within the Israeli and Palestinian populations -- too many and too different to add up to two distinct sides. But it helps as a framework for sorting all of it out, I guess. When we look at the histories as a whole of both groups -- the Israelis and the Palestinians -- I'm sympathetic to both sides, and I'm angry at both sides; realistically, I don't see how one could not be. 

The events surrounding Memorial Day & Independence Day here (celebrated last week) only reminded me of how difficult it is to figure out how to relate to each "side." Last week, as Independence Day drew near, I went out in the evening with some friends. We heard music even before we arrived at the Old City gates -- a concert was underway in anticipation of Independence Day, and we stayed and watched for a while. During performances, a group of young Israeli kids, all decked out in blue and white, began dancing and playfully invited those of us watching to join in their celebration. Even to join in their dancing would be a political statement; nevertheless, we joined in -- not to make a point of our political beliefs, but simply to celebrate with the people around us. It was so much fun. 

Fast forward a day: I visited an Arab Muslim woman on the Mount of Olives; Elham is the teacher whose classroom I've volunteered in this semester in my work at Princess Basma, a school for disabled children. When we arrived at her house, my JUC peer and I sat down to an afternoon meal with Elham and her husband, and we began asking about their home, their family, etc. As it turns out, most of their family members (less immediate, but members all the same, especially here in the Middle East where extended family ties are traditionally closer) are refugees in Jordan. While much of Israel's population anticipated celebrating Independence Day, this was my friend's reality (there's a reason that what Israel calls the "War of Independence," Palestine calls the "Naqba" -- 'Destruction')... My heart wanted to mourn with my Muslim friend and celebrate with the Jews who'd finally found a homeland at the same time. Possible? Somehow, I think yes... 

There's so much more to say concerning this topic, but for now I've got to do some studying... Finals week here in Jerusalem! 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The nation next door

On Sunday we returned from four days in the country of Jordan for my Physical Settings of the Bible class. I don't even know how to begin sharing about our time in the nation next door! I absolutely loved it. Jordan -- more fully, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan -- has a different feel from Israel in a lot of ways. The geography and topography are similar, but at the same time the land felt a little more open, a little more rugged... As a whole, the place seems a little less developed, a little less put-together (except for the booming capital city of Amman!), and just has a different personality.

The difference in demographics from Israel (here, a majority Muslim population and very minimal Jewish population) allowed me to see Arab culture in a more relaxed environment; in Israel, the sense of tension is perpetual, even if under the surface, but here, there was a deeper sense of uniformity, and the people were more comfortable and more open. This has its benefits and drawbacks, of course -- we've gotten used to casual advances upon and even mild harassment of women by the men in Israel; it's a norm of society here, however displeasing, and in Jordan I think I can say it was even worse. As a plus, however, we got a lot of joy out of watching the Jordanian children -- and sometimes even adults and friendly families -- who couldn't get enough of smiling and waving at us as our bus passed by...

Here's a little photo album of sorts that, hopefully, will provide a snapshot of our time in the Kingdom of Jordan...

This was the first stop of our trip -- it's a site called Tell Deir Alla (the biblical town of Succoth -- see Genesis 33:17). In ancient times, an international east-west route connecting both sides of the Rift Valley passed right along Succoth. Beyond the hill and the trees, you can see to the other side of the Rift Valley -- that's Israel! Usually, the "other" side of the Rift Valley for us is Jordan, so this was a first. 

This is at the top of Tell Deir Alla, where some excavation has been done. The most interesting find at this site to me was a text on plaster from around the 8th century B.C. that mentioned Balaam, the prophet in the Bible (Numbers 22-24) who was hired to come curse Israel but could only bless Israel. Interesting! We don't know exactly which people group lived there, or why they had a text concerning Balaam on their walls, and unfortunately, the text we have is badly fragmented (my class and I actually got to see part of the original in a museum in the city of Amman), but I was so impressed that anyone could make sense of the little pieces that had been salvaged. 

Here's a snapshot of a market along the streets of a small town... I mostly wanted to post this to marvel at the beautifully decorated trucks that we saw all over the country! Take a look at the green one on the right side of the photo. I don't know why they're like this, but it's a fun little touch...  

This photo is from a site called Gedara -- what's interesting to notice here (among many things!) is the difference in colors of the pillars. The lighter ones in front are more typical of pillars that the Romans constructed when they began to plant themselves in this land, but the ones in back -- a darker color -- are unique to the northern regions because they're made of basalt, the local building stone formed from volcanic overflow. In Israel, I've become more thrilled about different rock types than I ever imagined! 

This is the same site -- Gedara -- and from here, on top of the hill, one can see (looking northwest) the Sea of Galilee! The far side disappears into the haze and behind the hills, but wow, what a view... 

A little friend that we met at Ramoth-gilead, a site farther south -- well, not really a friend. I'm not so fond of scorpions as it is, but I was thankful that we came across a black one -- there are little white ones here that can kill a person in 8 seconds (well, so the rumor goes; a few hours is probably more realistic. Don't worry, Mum). To be honest, I've been nervous about encountering a little white one all semester, but God surprised me with a reassurance that I didn't expect -- later, on the bus that trip, I was having an unrelated discussion with some peers about the character of Satan in the New Testament, and we finally located a verse that someone was thinking of in Luke 10. I began reading, from the middle of the chapter: "He [Jesus] replied, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you...'" My friends knew that I'd been nervous about encountering these unpleasant little creatures, and we all had a good laugh... I admit, I sometimes think little connections like that are cheesy or coincidental, but honestly, this was such a blessing! 

We spent our first night in Jordan's capital city of Amman -- a busy, busy place! This city in particular is a good reminder that the present appearance of things is not always the best indication of the historical personality or role, and I've learned that this is so important to keep in mind in this land. The city only started developing like this since the 1940's -- historically, it's been nowhere near this central or bustling. One would never guess.  

The next day in Amman: these are the remains of the temple of Hercules at "the Citadel," the old fortress area of the city (which used to be called Rabbah when it was the capital of the Ammonites). As my professor often says, when the Romans came they left heavy footsteps in the land -- footsteps like this! Incredible. 

In case you ever wondered what the oldest human statue looks like... I guess this is him. 
This is at Jordan's national archaeology museum in Amman, which is small but packed with absolutely incredible stuff. The caption reads: "The earliest statue done by man. Found at Jericho. Pre-pottery Neolithic period." WOW. There was a similar statue nearby from around the same time but with two heads... If you have an explanation, I'd be glad to hear it! I'm baffled.  

... This is when I'm thankful to be living when and where I'm living -- actually, the practice is still used in some less developed countries around the world. Wow. 

This is Gerasa, later named Jerash -- there's a reason it was nicknamed the "city of a thousand columns"! This place was simply huge and had enough sights to fill an entire day. It was a Decapolis city in the early A.D. years -- i.e. one of ten Greco-Roman cities that dominated the area south and east of the Sea of Galilee. Not all of the sites we visited in Jordan were sites of biblical events, but they're still of enormous cultural significance. 

You never know what you'll come across in Jordan (or Israel, for that matter) -- here, at the Roman theatre in Jerash, we stumbled upon some Arab men performing with drums and bagpipes! One of my JUC peers, a percussionist, jumped in to join in the performance; you can probably tell which one he is. ;) 

A traffic jam, Jordanian style! This we did not expect to come across while traveling through the countryside! (the town was having some sort of fun get-together, complete with an inflatable Spiderman slide. Awesome.) This alone might explain why our bus drivers are our heroes by the end of each field study -- in my entire time here, we've never hit a single thing. They have maneuvering skills that I could never even hope to attain!

A glimpse out the bus window as we were traveling along... Most of the young kids got a thrill out of waving and grinning at us as we passed by (and also chasing after us to wave us on our way -- don't miss the little one in front!). We figured that several of the areas we managed to squeeze through didn't often see buses of visitors, which might shed a bit of light on their excitement! 

Walking to Petra in Jordan! This one is not a biblical site, though the people who lived here -- the Nabateans -- were not unknown to the people of the Bible, as they played a crucial role in the trade routes in the Arabian desert. The rock here -- sandstone -- is just incredible. 

The famous shot of Petra, the "rose-red city half as old as Time"... I think I heard myself gasp in amazement before my mind realized how amazed I was! 

"The Treasury" at Petra -- this was Indiana Jones' destination (though we weren't allowed to go inside to check out any treasure!). The structures at Petra were carved right into the cliff face -- absolutely amazing. Facades like this one actually functioned as tombs -- honoring ancestors had a definite importance in Nabatean culture.

A smiling friend at Petra! We got plenty of offers to ride these guys, often for more money than we cared to spend... 

An incredible view at Petra -- we were thankful to have arrived early in the morning, before the clouds broke and the sun came beating down... At the end of the path just left of the center, you might be able to make out a tiny dot of a person standing at the edge of the cliff -- at 6'7", that's the tallest member of this semester's JUC class... And if Steve looks that small, you know it's a big place! 

Amazing rock. In about the center of the photo you can see a small enclave -- a window-like area. Several of these dotted the cliff faces at Petra -- little homes for the gods and goddesses, so to speak. 

From the inside of one of the tomb areas in Petra. Massive, massive, massive. 

A furry friend at Petra. In addition to the camels, we were bombarded with offers to ride these guys, too, but we opted to hike instead. And hike we did -- by the end of our six hours of tramping around Petra, we were totally exhausted.  

A little boy waiting to advertise the postcards in his hands -- all around Petra, the natives had little tents set up with trinkets and souvenirs to sell to the tourists, and the kids were in the sales business, too. 

Okay, last picture of Petra, I promise! Another rock-hewn structure -- this one's called the Monastery. Who knows why -- it was also a tomb, I was told. 

A stark contrast to the environment of Petra! This is a black iris, Jordan's lovely national flower. It's a bit rare, and we were pleased when our professor stopped the bus on a lonely road so we could hop out and snap some photos. 

This is a fun one! Called the 'Madaba Map' (only part of it is shown in the photo), it's a 6th century A.D. mosaic map of the land of the Middle East. The oval section in the center of the photo depicts Jerusalem -- the straight line running through long-ways represents the 'Cardo,' the main north-south road of all Greco-Roman cities, and around it you can see white pillars with dark spaces in between. Halfway down the Cardo, looking a little upside-down to us with a yellow dome, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre! Wow. The mosaic makes up part of the floor of what is now St. George's Greek Orthodox Church. 

And finally, the last stop of the last field study of our Physical Settings of the Bible course: the traditional location of Mount Nebo. In the last chapter of Deuteronomy (34), Moses climbs Mount Nebo and God speaks to him. My professor had told us that on a clear day, you can see all the way across the Rift Valley to the towers on the Mount of Olives (there are three tall and distinct ones), the hill on the east side of Jerusalem. I'd hoped for a clear day in order to see across the vast river valley, and was initially disappointed that there was such a heavy haze that hot afternoon. As it turned out, however, it made for the best lesson: when the Israelites approached the land from this direction, whether they had a clear day or not, they couldn't see what was before them -- that is, the land and their future, tied together. They had no idea what was in store -- only that their God was leading them into an unknown land and was going to care for them. Their future was -- our future is -- a haze from which God beckons. My lesson of the day, then -- and a good lesson to end the course with -- was, in the words of my professor, to whom I am grateful for many lessons: walk into the haze. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Steps of the Franciscans

It’s Holy Week in Jerusalem! For the Western Church, that is (the Eastern Church celebrates one week after the Western Church this year). Accordingly, I thought I should probably post my Palm Sunday update before Easter Sunday arrives... :]    

Palm Sunday was a delightfully busy day; I was able to celebrate at two morning services – Catholic and Anglican – and by taking part in the procession down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, an annual event that commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. The combination of the three kept me -- and a number of my JUC peers! -- on my feet from 8 in the morning to 5 in the evening, and here I’ll provide a glimpse of just one…

Three friends and I awoke in time to arrive at the Catholic Palm Sunday service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- a note on the Holy Sepulchre, before I go any further: it’s perhaps the most magnificent church in the Old City in terms of history and general grandeur; originally built in Constantine’s time, it’s seen several stages of destruction and repair. It’s a particularly encouraging symbol of a step in the direction of Church unity: here, Eastern and Western Christians share the space for services and worship (wow!). Back to Palm Sunday, though: my friends and I weren't the first to arrive -- as we made our way to the outskirts of the crowd gathered by the Franciscan chapel, hushed voices and shifting feet marked the atmosphere of anticipation. The Franciscan chapel is next to the traditional place of the burial tomb of Jesus Christ, which is actually inside the walls of the church. A towering monument marks the location, and above it is a massive domed ceiling with a window at the top that allows sunlight to stream in from above. Here's a look at it:

Within ten minutes, the Franciscan priests filed out and the service began. The richness of liturgy and incense filled the church and sent echoes bouncing off the massive stone walls surrounding us. The priests, robed in red and white and bearing palm branches, began to process around the tomb of Christ, with those holding staffs and flickering candles leading the way. The deep voice of the organ joined in, and the crowd parted to let the line of priests through. When they had passed, a woman hurried over to our side and shared a bunch of olive branches (quite plentiful in this land!) with a man on my side. He took some and passed the rest around – and so I acquired my own little sprig of olive. The congregants had begun to follow in the steps of the Franciscans, and my friends and I joined in. At each Hosanna! (‘Save now!’ – the expression that the people used to usher Jesus into Jerusalem those many years ago), each palm and olive branch was waved high in the air, remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

As we processed around the tomb, I realized that while I was swimming in a mass of strangers and foreign languages, the sense of unity in the place was incredible. I looked around and found that I could see -- albeit only partially -- into the souls of people I didn’t know; the radiance on the Franciscan priest’s face, the anticipation of the expression of the man beside me, and the smile of the silent woman across from me each revealed such deep authenticity that they didn't seem so much like strangers at all.

As we continued around the monument, the faithful drumbeats of the priests’ staffs on the old stone floor as they walked echoed in the church and in my mind, and I thought about the richness that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity have preserved. It’s incredible to think about the years and years of accumulated practice, rehearsed hundreds of thousands of times, and again played out here, one more time. Part of the beauty that I find in such tradition is its holistic nature – that is, how fully it incorporates both physical and spiritual aspects of our humanity. Here, we worshipped with our eyes, taking in the sight of palm branches held high above the crowd and the faint morning light through the window high above; we worshipped with our ears, listening to the liturgy and the organ and faithful beat of the priests’ staffs; we worshipped with our sense of smell, the incense reminding us of our prayers and praises rising to heaven; and with our lips, if we knew the Latin or Italian (several of us did not, but we could join in with the Hosannas, or even in the liturgy if we happened to glimpse a copy of the text held by a neighbor beside us!); and with our fingers, as we waved our own palm and olive branches; and with our feet, as we walked together, remembering the procession of people who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. 

The rest of Holy Week here has been something of a blur, involving a number of other services and events in anticipation of Passover and Easter, a lot of research as those once-distant deadlines are beginning to draw near, and not quite enough sleep! It's worth it, for sure -- we all figure we can catch up on sleep later. (: For now, though, I wish each of you a meaningful Good Friday and a rich & joyous Passover! More photos from Palm Sunday below...

Above: Palm Sunday morning at Christ Church, the Anglican church just a few minutes' walk from JUC. They make good neighbors!

Above: Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives toward the Old City of Jerusalem. On the right just over half-way up the photo are the walls of the Old City, and to the left of them, the modern road weaving its way around. 

Above: Remembering. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Little Things

Well, it has been a while since I've updated this! Yes, I am still alive and well in Jerusalem, and the last few weeks have been a wonderful blur of three days in the Negev, four days in the Galilee (this past weekend!), a number of midterms, a paper on the role of women in the Israeli Defense Force, live music in the Old City, a trip with my archaeology class to the remains of where the Jewish priests most likely lived in Jerusalem, and the land bursting into colors of spring before my eyes...Yes, it's been a wonderful last few weeks. I hope to post some pictures of those experiences soon, but for now I want to share a bit about this morning:

On Tuesday mornings, I volunteer at a school for handicapped children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. It's one of several volunteer opportunities that JUC students have to pour some positive energy into the lives of others while we're here. I signed up at the beginning of the semester to be a 'teacher assistant' of sorts, and it's hard to describe how emotionally difficult -- yet wonderful -- the experience has been so far. School is conducted entirely in Arabic, so the language barrier is a constant challenge and, despite my deep love for foreign languages, often a discouragement. The teacher whose classroom I work in knows enough English to communicate tasks to me, and I've learned just enough Arabic to ask the children their names, share mine, teach them English numbers and learn theirs, etc. From the beginning, then, my time at Princess Basma (the name of the school) has been a journey of figuring out how to best interact non-verbally with those around me. It's tough to know less of the language than the pre-schoolers around me, and I often wish I could communicate in more than just crayons and puzzle pieces and hand motions. The children are so fun, though, and I have a good time being creative with my time with them. One thing that never fails to make us all laugh is high fives -- if I offer my hand for a high-five, they all rush over, pushing past each other to give the high five first, and then again... and again... and again...

This morning, my teacher handed me some foamy paper, scissors, and a stapler, and asked me to make some flowers, scrunching up the light green foam as an indication of what kind of 3-D creation she preferred. I said I would do my best, and got to work cutting out and stapling together flower petals. She liked my flowers, and I learned that the goal was to create spring-time objects and animals that would be strung around the room to celebrate the season. She asked if I would make butterflies and rabbits, and seemed thoroughly impressed with my little cut-outs. "Very good!" she said, and then, "Not 'very good' -- excellent!"  The other teachers came over to examine the colorful creations, and spoke quickly in Arabic to each other. One of them tried to take a butterfly, and was quickly shooed away by my teacher, who was guarding them for her own classroom. The other teacher asked if I would make a butterfly for her, and as I completed it, she took it and, teasing my teacher by waving it in the air with a grin, left the classroom. 

My teacher sat down across from me, wanting to learn how to create a flower, and gave it a try. Despite my encouragement and her concentrated efforts, her model lacked adequate petals, and when I told her it was okay, she simply burst into laughter, shaking her head, and handed the scissors back to me. Another teacher asked me, "Why did you not tell us you have a good hand? You could have prepared many things for us!" I didn't think the world of my creations, but their enthusiasm was such an encouragement to me; with the language barrier perpetually inhibiting our communication, sometimes it's difficult for me to feel useful or helpful at all. I've spent many a morning at Princess Basma cutting out crafts or creating English alphabet games for the children, feeling -- admittedly -- a little lonely and useless, and that the best service I could offer them here was what anyone else could do with their hands. But this morning was a reminder that the ways that we get to serve others are not always what we would expect, or hope for. As much as I'd like to help through words, here I am, working in other areas -- humbling ones -- and being surprised that things like my artistic tendencies could play a little role in lessening the challenge of the language barrier between me and those around me.

As I prepared to leave to return to JUC, the teacher who I'd made a butterfly for strode into the classroom, headed to the craft table, and declared, "I want butterflies!!" My teacher responded with a "No!" and rushed to the table, shielding the little creatures with her arms. "Yes!" said the other, and "No!" said my teacher. "Yes!" "No!" We all laughed. I have never seen them act so silly before. Usually they are so composed and serious, conducting their classrooms and keeping the energetic children under control. Such a fun morning.

As is so often the case, then, the 'little things' were really the 'big things' -- i.e. seemingly trivial moments like laughing about foam cut-outs of flowers and turtles were the most beautiful moments, the ones that mattered most and had things to teach me; the ones that I will remember.

Final thoughts: if I can keep myself accountable, photos of my Negev and Galilee adventures are soon to come! 

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Protestant Church has much to learn...

... from her Jewish ancestors and modern-day Jewish neighbors. I say 'Protestant Church' because that is where the majority of my own experience lies and because my time with the Catholic & Orthodox traditions has typically involved richer experience, though I realize this is a subjective claim.

So: the Protestant Church has much to learn from her Jewish ancestors and neighbors. This I learned in a class entitled 'Modern Jewish Culture' at Gordon College, and I am forever indebted to the professor who opened my eyes and heart to embrace the Jewish roots of Christianity. I continue to learn and grow to love the Jewish people and traditions more deeply, and my time at JUC has reinforced that so far.

So what does the Church need to learn -- or, perhaps, re-learn? A lot of things, I think -- one of which is how to celebrate. This morning I was leaving the Old City with two friends, and as we approached Zion Gate -- our route out of the city -- we heard a great commotion of voices and clapping, and, as we drew nearer, saw a fantastic crowd of people shuffling along, holding up a cloth canopy and playing trumpets. When we saw the young boy sporting a yamaca under the canopy, we knew it was a bar mitzvah. They were probably headed to the Western Wall, a popular venue for bar mitzvahs. We moved to the side to let the procession through, and clapped along in time with their upbeat music. "Hevenu shalom aleichem, hevenu shalom aleichem, hevenu shalom aleichem, hevenu shalom, shalom, shalom aleichem!" they sang -- we bring you peace, we bring you peace... As they passed by, a woman tossed small wrapped candies into the air, and when she passed in front of us, she held out her bag for me to take one! I laughed and told her todah rabbah -- 'thanks very much' in modern Hebrew -- and felt honored to be included in a little part of their celebration. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that the Church needs to imitate this or that it should necessarily institute some sort of coming-of-age communal celebration for its youth. But I am suggesting that sometimes Christian thought and culture gets so caught up in looking toward the future that we forget how to -- or even to -- celebrate the sanctity of life here on earth. We casually throw around phrases like, "This world is not my home --  I'm just a-passing through," or talk so much of heaven that we are shy of discussing celebrating our lives here on earth. There is a teaching in rabbinic literature, I learned, which says that in the world to come (the Jewish way of referring to the afterlife in general), one will be punished not only for the things that he enjoyed that he shouldn't have (i.e. sin), but also the things that he didn't enjoy that he should have (i.e. the gifts of God)! God created our world and called it good, and since every bit of life is sacred because he created it, I suppose we had better celebrate our blessings in genuine gratitude. It's true that not all of life is pleasurable or beautiful -- the Jews will always be among the first to recognize that, I believe -- but I do believe there is much to celebrate.

Nor I am saying that we should let the pendulum swing to the other extreme and allow ourselves to become absorbed solely in our lives here on earth -- of course not. But I think that, as is the case in so many other areas of life, we need a balance, and the ideals of Judaism do a good job of reminding us of that. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bits & pieces: snapshots of a week in Israel

It's Friday evening in Jerusalem. I love Friday in Israel, as it’s the day of anticipation for Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The Jewish people traditionally usher in Shabbat with an evening meal, complete with the lighting of candles and blessings and song. At JUC, I'm delighted that we do the same. It's a beautiful and unifying tradition, and helps to put our minds in the right spirit for celebrating Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat a "palace in time” – a dwelling place with God that surpasses the spatial realm, even though it certainly (and joyfully) includes it…

As an update from the past week or so, here are some snapshots of a few of my recent experiences in Israel…  

This is a Romanian Orthodox Monastery that my ‘History of the Church in the East’ class visited in Jericho – my instructor explained that it functions not only as a monastery but also as a hospital and visitor’s center, and some of it is soon to be designated as a study space. Their method of ministry is beauty, she told us – they don’t go out to find people; rather, people see beauty and life, and come in to find them…

This beautiful mosaic is situated on the ceiling at the threshold of the church at the monastery pictured above; the angels mark the territories on the corners as a visual reminder of one’s entrance into the presence of God.

Inside, the church’s walls are richly decorated with vibrant illustrations of saints and historical events of the faith. Even if you are in the church alone, then, you are reminded of the body of believers who walked before you, and it is still a place of community.

Above is an illustration of Jesus’ temptation in the desert by the devil, and he wields the Scriptures as his defense and answer. Near the monastery, in the chalky cliffs of the wilderness (you can see some of them on the left in the picture below), lies the traditional location of the temptation.

A Greek Orthodox monastery resides at that traditional location in the cliffs, and we hiked up to visit it. No photography was allowed, but I can still picture the small caves and cliff-side hallways that comprised much of the monastery. The priest there blessed each of us upon our departure, tapping us five times each at various places on the head and murmuring in Greek. Later, my professor explained that he’d blessed each of the five holes in the head – two eyes, two ears, the mouth – because those are the avenues out of which or into which can come blessing or curse. What a beautiful blessing.

As you can tell in the photo above, Jericho is indeed an oasis! I have now been twice to Jericho, and I can’t get over how lush and green it is. Plenty of palms, plenty of fields, plenty of greenhouses... Along with the fertile valleys along the Mediterranean coast, Israel has Jericho to thank for much of its fruit & vegetable produce!

The next day, my ‘Physical Settings of the Bible’ class visited a few locations from Jericho (just north of the Dead Sea) to Gezer (farther west near the coast). The photo below is part of the Judean wilderness in the morning. We were there on a gorgeous day, as the dark clouds and early sunlight cast shadows and patches of gold on the crests of the hills…

I am always deeply and strangely drawn to the wilderness. It has its own kind of desolate beauty, and from our lookout point, our professor reminded us of something interesting: when the Israelites left Egypt, they traveled around the east side of the Dead Sea, and then crossed west over Jordan River. But before they crossed, what was their view of the “promised land” across the Rift Valley? …Something very similar to THIS. Barren. Desolate. Seemingly lifeless. Umm… Moses? What’s going on? 

And he told them:

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. [Deut 11:10-12].

In other words, not like Egypt = not necessarily going to be easy -- but along with that, the message that somehow they'd have it better here, because of the Lord's care. Staring straight into the Judean wilderness, I can only imagine what some of them must have been feeling... And this is interesting to reconsider in light of the visions of the “promised land” (a phrase that my professor informed us never actually occurs in the Hebrew) that we paint in the modern Protestant Church. Yes, God did say milk and honey. Yes, he said mountains and hills that drink from the rain of heaven. But I suppose he didn’t say it wouldn’t be hard, or that it wouldn’t take a tremendous amount of faith to believe that the barren wilderness before the Israelites somehow led the way to more fertile, inhabitable land – which it did. One of the most amazing things about this land is its striking geological diversity; there is wilderness like this, but there are also lowlands and high hills and flat coastal plain and fertile valleys and extensive wadi systems and chalky cliffs… The list goes on. So what is the land that God promised? Whatever it is, it’s a land of trust, we concluded, as what is guaranteed is that it is a land that God cares for and it attentive to.  

And, as if to reassure us of that, here’s what was in the sky that morning! (look hard; it’s a little faint):

One more fun note about our time in the wilderness – we learned to never fool ourselves into thinking we were alone. In the most empty, seemingly uninhabited places, the Bedouin often know you’re there! Here’s one of our little visitors:

He and his father came to sell us necklaces at terribly unreasonable prices, and later, another Bedouin came along on his camel and offered $3 rides -- it seems there is always someone who wants to sell you something… My professor, Dr. Wright, let us in on his “code” language for those situations – if he tells us their prices are a “good deal,” then we know that they’re unnecessarily pricey (i.e. not worth our money), but if he tells us the price is a “really good deal,” then we know the price is somewhat reasonable. It works well because it allows him to be courteous to the sellers, but it gives us a clue as to whether they want to take complete advantage of us!

Later that day, as our bus ascended a particularly steep pass through the high hills in the rain, imagine how we felt when Dr. Wright assured us that our driver was a “good driver” – someone from the back of the bus immediately responded with, “You mean he’s not a really good driver?!” But we made it safely…

… To this! This is St George’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, located in the Wadi Qilt. We took a pleasant little hike down to it in the sprinkling rain. The further down you get into the canyon, the more the lush it becomes, because of the rainwater flowing through the bottom (but this only goes for the rainy season! In the dry season, it's essentially stripped of life and the heat can be pretty sweltering). When we arrived at the monastery doors, they ushered us in, and we found this waiting for us:

Delicious sweet coffee! Perfect for a rainy day and good company… We stayed a short time at the monastery, and then traveled west to the land of Benjamin until the terrain starting looking more like this…

And our last stop was even greener:

In ancient times, the area pictured above was Gezer, a major city on the coastal plain. While we were here, we saw some ruins of a gate built in Solomon’s time as well as a beautiful sunset in the west out toward the coast…

Those are some of the sites from last weekend, then – all-day field studies typically leave us pretty exhausted, and they are absolutely worth it! 

Here’s a fun look at life a little bit closer to home…

This is Dopey, one of our campus cats! There are TONS of cats in Jerusalem, and we just have a couple of campus. The day I took this picture was a lovely warm afternoon in the garden, and Dopey took full advantage of it by dozing in the sun…

I wanted to share this one just for the little flowers along the staircase – the stairs lead toward our campus entrance, and these bright patches of yellow are popping up all over the place in Jerusalem – in the JUC garden, along walkways, and in the Hinnom Valley, upon whose eastern side our campus buildings are nestled. Spring is well on its way!

And lastly…  

A precious view of Jerusalem from our campus roof as dusk sets in; the rooftop is one of my favorite places on campus, both in the daytime and at night. If you look closely, you can see the first couple stars of the night making their appearance in the sky; did I mention that I love being here? :]

Shabbat shalom! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventures in the land...

I can't believe it is half-way through February already! I feel like I have only gotten started here in Jerusalem, and at the same time I realize I have already done so much -- field studies (our off-campus, on-site day trips) certainly keep us busy and on our feet. This weekend I have two field studies, each for a different class: on Saturday my 'History of the Church in the East' class will travel to Jericho and a town called Abu Ghosh (biblical Kiriath-Jearim) to visit a number of Eastern monasteries and churches, and on Sunday my 'Physical Settings' (historical geography) class will travel into the land of Benjamin, a major historical center where lots of Israelite history unfolded. I can't express how excited I am about both trips, even though I know that my peers and I will be thoroughly exhausted by the end of the weekend!

Today is a cloudy day in Jerusalem. I am sitting in my favorite off-campus area to study, a small coffee shop adjacent to Dormition Abbey, a beautiful structure built by the Germans at the turn of the 20th century. It's a good example of the kind of diversity I've discovered in Jerusalem -- who would have guessed that I would find myself frequenting a German-run coffeeshop that plays Beatles music five minutes from my college in Jerusalem? I certainly didn't expect it! This place is like a mosaic, they say, and it's true -- each little piece of a mosaic is purely one color, but contributes to a larger colorful and diverse image. Jerusalem is like a living mosaic, with lots of little contributing pieces. 

What I want to share today is how I spent last weekend: on a field study for my Physical Settings class, we traveled to Herodium, King Herod's magnificent hilltop "fortress palace" that he constructed to impress the Romans (and to create a perpetual commemoration of himself). After Rome laid claim to the area of Judea (63 BC), Herod apparently got right to work trying to make a good impression. When the Roman emperor's son, Marcus Agrippus, paid him a visit to check out the province, Herod had a lot to show him. Here's a picture from our day at Herodium:

Wow. I learned that this structure used to be several stories high, and included a bathhouse, a central living space, frescoed staircases, gardens, towers... It was an architectural masterpiece. I can't imagine the kind of work that must have gone into a project like this in the first century B.C. 

The view from atop Herodian was breathtaking. We had a beautiful warm, sunny, breezy, and mostly clear day. Here's a picture I took, looking east: 

I could have sat on the top of that hill for hours. The warm Israeli sun and soft breeze balanced one another perfectly, and we were so high up that all we could hear was one another's voices and an occasional sound from the small towns below -- bells from cattle and sheep going out to graze, or occasional vehicles making their way slowly along the road. The expanse of chalky-looking desert beyond is the Judean wilderness, a sight that I never got tired of gazing at. Dry, hot, and desolate, but somehow very beautiful. Beyond the wilderness, you can just make out the Dead Sea and the plateaus beyond it. 

The way the make-up of the land shifts is incredible here. The greener foreground in the photo is the very outer edge of a harder limestone base -- one that holds water and therefore supports vegetation and life. Beyond that, the desert's base is a softer dry chalk that doesn't hold water; the only water sources in the wilderness are dry stream beds (wadis) that filter rainwater down to the Dead Sea, and occasional small springs. From this spot on Herodium, my class and professor read Psalm 23 aloud together; David, as a shepherd, would have known this kind of land very well: 

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures, 
he leads me beside quiet waters, 
he restores my soul... 

Only a few lines into the psalm, we have a lot to think about! Green pastures: where? Closer to Bethlehem, where David lived, there certainly were green pastures, but I learned that in the winter when the ground was being plowed for crops, shepherds had to take their sheep out toward the wilderness area to graze on whatever scrub or brush they could find. Wow! David must have known how tricky it was the find good green pastures, how precious it was to find "quiet waters" in these desolate canyons, and how dedicated a good shepherd had to be to supply these things for his sheep... 

Here's a picture of a wadi that a group of us hiked on Sunday (it was amazing! This is Wadi Arugot by the Dead Sea) -- steep chalky canyon walls, with a little stream of water running through the bottom. We followed the wadi upstream to some small waterfalls and even found a little spring feeding into the wadi! It was beautiful -- pure, flowing, refreshing, living water. What a treasure. Moments like that have helped me connect to the characters in the Bible better as actual people (David, for example), beyond their recorded names in history. It's like getting to know family members better -- long lost relatives,  I suppose... 

Well, I'll stop here for now. When I blog, it's difficult for me to decide what to share. My mind is often overwhelmed (in a good way, but nonetheless overwhelmed) with all the academic, spiritual, cultural, relational, and other experiences that I'm having here... I only hope that what I choose to share somehow blesses others as it has blessed me.