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. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Treasures in the hills

It's hard to decide just what to blog about; there are so many moments and sights here in Jerusalem that I'd like to share! As a student of linguistics, I treasure words, but must admit that at the end of the day, they are no replacement for the feeling of the afternoon breeze or the smell of spices wafting through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. My words can't accurately describe the accents of my Jewish professor or Arab shopkeeper friend. I can't describe the vastness of the hilly Judean landscape viewed from the Old City ramparts (or our campus roof!) on a clear, sunny day. Nevertheless, I believe that words are a gift, and even if they can't ultimately do justice to the "real thing," they have a wonderful power that shouldn't be wasted. With that in mind...

By now, I have begun to feel more familiar with the streets of the Old City (which, by the way, I was somewhat wrong about in a previous post -- they are not all just fit for foot traffic. Several are fairly wide -- I just didn't realize it during the day when the shopkeeper's merchandise spills out from inside their shops to crowd the alleys! Additionally, there are several more open areas than I realized. The more I explore, the more I learn...). I have begun to form friendships with students from all over the States and world, and I love and admire each of my professors already. Last weekend, I walked the ramparts of the Old City with a group of friends, and had my breath taken away by some fabulous views of Jerusalem and the surrounding land -- high hills, densely packed with houses from valley to peak. The ramparts standing today were constructed by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century or so, but the base of the wall is older, and sometimes one can even see original bedrock! One of the most exciting slabs of stone that I have laid eyes on so far is from Herodian times -- it's a pair of stone gates just a minute from JUC that led into Jerusalem. Jesus -- and countless others -- very well may have passed in or out of them. Here they are, in fact (the two center slabs):

This past Sunday was our second "field study" for a mandatory course here at JUC -- "Physical Settings," which is a fun (and mind-blowing) exploration of historical geography. On field study days, we leave campus for the day to study on location in a certain region or city in the country, tracing biblical events, characters, and texts as we go and taking looks at archaeological excavations. It's truly experiential learning, as they call it, and so far, it's been simply incredible. I can't express how much deeper understanding I feel I've already acquired of certain biblical texts. I'll share an example from the Psalms that was particularly meaningful to me, but take a look at the photo first:

This is a view of the Judean hills surrounding Jerusalem from the City of David National Park; if you take a look at a map of Jerusalem, this is on the eastern side of the city, not far from the Temple Mount (the photo faces south). The valley running through the photo on the left side is the Kidron Valley, and the settlement on the left hill in the foreground is an Arab town called Silwan.

From a rooftop in the park, our group read a portion of Psalm 121: "I lift my eyes to the hills -- where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth" [121:1-2, NIV]. If David penned these words (it's likely he did), he may have been a little lower on the hill than this (archaeologists have identified a possible location for David's palace lower down), looking up at these very hills. In our field study we asked: what does the psalmist mean -- and feel -- when he lifts his eyes to the hills? It's likely that he had enemy troops in mind! Jerusalem is not actually on the highest peak in the immediately surrounding region -- how frightening it would have been to think of enemy archers shooting across the Kidron Valley at you on the hillside. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be, in fact -- I am so far removed in time and space from that culture. In the midst of this very practical fear, however, David commits to trusting the Lord.

That's amazing in itself, but here's something that made it even more amazing to me: Psalm 125. Here the psalmist says, "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people both now and forevermore" [125:2, NIV]. This is striking, because here the author uses the very same concept (the hills) to illustrate a completely different understanding of the land! Rather than feeling fear, he emphasizes how closely -- almost protectively -- the hills surround Jerusalem. As the hills envelope Jerusalem, the Lord embraces his people. What a powerful image.

There are so many treasures in these hills.

I have studied the connection between God, people, and "the land" for five semesters -- now I am beginning to see a bit of the intimacy of that connection. I can't express how much I wish anyone who wanted to could experience this -- that's the tough part of all this. Already, I am thinking about how I will ever "translate" what I experience here into the world I know back in America. The land and people are teaching me so much as I get to know them better and love them more... I don't know what else to say other than that I know I am blessed, and hope not to forget it. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tea time in Jerusalem

My heart feels at home in Jerusalem, as it has in many places -- but uniquely in each place. The church bells from the Greek Orthodox church next door ring faithfully each morning at 7 a.m., and continue by quarter hour throughout the day. I can hear the rain falling outside as I type, and when the wind picks up, the roof sounds like it's going to either fly away or collapse on us (they assured us from the start that it will not. So far, things are good). This morning, shortly before 7:00, I awoke to a loud crash of thunder -- an occurrence my professor tells us is actually fairly unusual, despite the 24 inches of rain that Jerusalem receives annually. From our classroom, we can hear the incessant honking of traffic on Hebron Road, a sound which would seem to be an annoyance but is actually a familiarity that I have become affectionate toward.

In the Old City, the streets are narrow -- fit for foot traffic only, except at the perimeters -- and constantly descending by limestone steps and ascending once again, and again, and again (the number of steps I have already covered in less than a week here -- in streets, buildings, and wherever else Jerusalem can fit them in -- is baffling)... Shops and shops line both sides, advertising colorful merchandise, candy, spices, bags, and clothing from hooks or in barrels. Young boys weave in and out of the crowds with platters of tea to deliver, and men with wooden carts transporting goods or produce -- hundreds of ripe strawberries filled one, miraculously without spilling over -- make their way up and down the streets. The transition from narrow street to open space is abrupt, and I am often surprised at how quickly I come to the end of a street and find myself face to face with an enormous church or synagogue that was blocked from view by the tall buildings enclosing the streets. 

Yesterday my two roommates and a friend visited a shopowner in the Old City named Shaaban who has long been friends with the faculty and students of JUC. Upon our arrival, Shaaban quickly instructed a young boy in the shop in Arabic, and the boy vanished and returned momentarily with small cups of tea for each of us. The black tea here is sweet, and mint leaves were added for extra flavor. We sat down on stools in the shop while Shaaban disappeared behind his counter and then emerged with pita bread spread with a mixture of hummus, chic peas, and brown beans for us to try. When we asked him where the handbags hanging  overhead in the store were made, he smiled and said, "Do you want the truth or do you want the shopkeeper's answer?" We all laughed. The bags were made in India. Shaaban is one of the few shopkeepers from whom we know we can expect honesty. He pointed out other bags, however, that were made by the Druze, a northern Israeli community whose roots lie in a break with mainstream Islam in the 11th century. More expensive, but more authentic. At the end of our stay, we exchanged our American dollars for Israeli shekels (Shaaban is also a money exchanger and provides a fair rate, another reason JUC appreciates him), thanked him, and left to explore the streets some more.

To conclude, I should note: this is only a slice of the big picture. The romantic version, you might say. It's not any less real because it's romantic, but it is true that it is only a slice of reality. In that experience, I felt some of the charm of the Old City, but it is also true that the Old City is a center of tension, cultural divides and misunderstandings, and painful historical realities. It is also true that the new city -- the more modern and developed expanse of Jerusalem -- is quite different, even quite Western feeling sometimes. But those are stories for another day...