Jerusalem

We arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, and are spending our last days of the trip here in this famous city. On our first night, some of us walked to the western wall, also known as the wailing wall, which was in full post-Shabbat glory. As we entered the courtyard, I was stunned to find two very different scenes. Near the wall, which I vaguely understood to be a place where great emotional suffering is commemorated and expressed, groups of men and women rocked back and forth, praying. The courtyard, however, was filled with a celebratory crowd: adults chatting and laughing, children dodging in and out, and groups of youth singing what sounded like pep rally songs while jumping up and down in circles. I was overwhelmed by the contrasting emotions: great sorrow and great joy, great reverence and great tumult, happening all at once. 

The evening exemplified for me much of the dissonance I’ve experienced while visiting Palestine and Israel. I’ve often felt like we’ve been on a ship in stormy seas, tossed from one side of the boat to the next. We’ve visited ancient ruins where the first century is palpable and the next moment been confronted with modern political debates; we’ve entered spaces that many find highly sacred and exited through gift shops selling tchotchkes made in China; we’ve come into Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, through a checkpoint manned by armed guards; we’ve heard conflicting religious and political views and we are acutely aware, thanks to the pope’s visit, of how even a celebratory occasion can put an army sniper on the roof. 

I have found myself marveling at the integrated way I live my own life, at how nothing much jars me on a day to day basis (whether it should or not), and I have found myself wondering how those people for whom Jerusalem is home integrate what seems to me to be such dissonance into their daily existence. How does the crash and jostle of busy crowds and conflicting narratives and divergent faiths affect them?

Several of us have noticed the difference between our time in the cities–Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jerusalem–versus our time in the Galilean countryside, where many of the harsher aspects of the modern situation were discreetly tucked away under a tourist facade. While we were there, we took an evening boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and we read the story in Matthew 14 of Jesus walking out to the boat on the water. What struck me most from our reading of that passage was a detail I’ve always gotten wrong–I’d always imagined Jesus calming the waves before he walked on water. Why wouldn’t he? Who would choose to walk through crashing waves when placid waters were an option? But he doesn’t. He walks out into the storm, and invites Peter to do the same. The wind doesn’t die down until both are back in the boat. 

My first instinct when being tossed in choppy waters is to hold tight to the boat, to what is familiar, to what I know has kept me safe in the past. But God has invited us not only into the still waters of the Psalmist, but into the raging storm of the Galilean Sea. Here, in Jerusalem, where there is suffering and rejoicing and holiness and hostility and wealth and poverty and all the busy hustle of everyday life, we have been invited to step out of our human-built boats and into the storm. We cannot simply cower in the boat and wait for Jesus to snap his fingers and make everything peaceful; we are called to walk with Christ in the crashing waves. Peter began to sink, and sometimes so will we. If we have learned anything from this trip, it is that humans fail and fall in so many ways. But Jesus caught Peter, and that is the God we trust in, whose hand is outstretched as we do our best to pick a path amidst the wind and waves.

It is far easier to stay in the boat, to put on the blinders and hope (even pray!) that the storm dies down soon so we can get back to shore and get on with our lives. We will arrive home on Thursday, and I cannot help but feel lured by the promise of an “average day” with no human rights violations or religious conflicts or police blockades in my way. It is my hope, however, that this trip has taught me a little more of what it means to walk in the storm, and to be unafraid to step out of the boat and stretch out my hand to those who have no choice but to live in the storm every day, and to take other hands as they are offered to me. 

We pray for the still waters, but we must also be willing to step out of the boat and into the waves, however wet and cold and seasick we may be, since it is in those waves that we meet Christ. 

–Carol Ferguson

Wading in the Water

Today we visited Beth She’an, the Jordan River, and the Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem, but the experience that stood out to me most was our time at the Jordan River. To get there we drove from Beth She’an through the West Bank. Along the way, we traveled through checkpoints that reminded us of the harsh realities of division. We passed burned-out mosques and settlements of Palestinians whose basic rights, including the right to travel freely, have been taken from them. We drove by synagogues flying Israeli flags, with memories of crematoriums still all too present. We walked alongside areas with landmines left by people fighting over the same land that we call holy, and we saw Israeli soldiers casually toting semi-automatic weapons even in the midst of this sacred space. It is in this context that we gathered at a muddy river bank to remember our baptisms in the same place that a dark-skinned man from a poor little town under the shadow of Empire came to the water and began his ministry.

As we read the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism and sang “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,” we looked on as people from all over the world – all ages, all races, all nationalities – followed in the footsteps of our Lord and came to the water. Some jumped in eagerly and submerged their whole body without even a moment’s hesitation. Others stepped timidly and maintained a white-knuckled grip on the handrail throughout the entire experience. Children played. An elderly woman emerged from the water overwhelmed with emotion, tears flowing freely. And as our group looked on, voices shook as we prayed together.

Stepping into the cloudy water, I can’t say that I was thinking anything particularly holy. My inner monologue was more along the lines of “I wonder if there are snakes in here” and “Oh, these steps are really slick. I hope I don’t fall.” Like countless pilgrims before me, I smiled and had my picture taken and maybe even had some passing thoughts about Jesus, but the enormity of the moment didn’t hit me until much later. Much like my own baptism as an infant, I didn’t realize what had just happened until what felt like years later. My heart didn’t catch up with my head until I was sitting clean and dry in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus watching the Jordan River fade into the distance.

As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the first words said to me as I emerged from the river – the first human voice that I heard before the water had stopped dripping down my legs and before I even set foot on the bank – indicated that I had “done it wrong.” I felt deflated. How could I have done something so important and sacred wrong? How could something freely given be so complicated that I could manage to mess it up? But beyond my initial reaction, I began to see how common this perspective is among people of faith. I thought about how much of our history we have spent fighting about the “right” or most theologically-appropriate way to do things. We expend so much of our time and energy arguing over who is right and who is wrong, who is included in God’s plan of salvation and who is not, whose truth-claims we give credence to and whose we don’t. Contention and strife run rampant not just in Israel-Palestine, but in our Church, our denomination, and in our hearts, and even baptism cannot insulate us from this human reality. In fact, just as Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness following his baptism, we too must confront the brokenness and hostility of the world around us as a ministry that begins even before the water dries.

As I walked back to the bus and shared these experiences with a friend on the trip, she assured me that I need not worry about “doing it wrong.” Her gentle reminder that “we don’t have to be Presbyterians here” helped me to see that whether we’re sprinkling, pouring, making the sign of the cross in water on our foreheads, or just jumping right in, dry clothing be damned, we all proclaim one Lord and one Baptism, and that’s what really matters.

 

Emily Rhodes Hunter

“We leave you to God’s care”

During our time in Turkey, we had a phenomenal guide and friend that shared our experience. Tosun extended incredible hospitality to us and was able to give us information and insight into the beautiful country of Turky and all of the important sites we we’re visiting.

A common goodbye in Turkish is, “Allahaısmarladık,” which literally means “I leave you to God’s care.”

Thank you for everything, Tosun! Until we meet again, allahaısmarladık.

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Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. (Exodus 3:5b)

Before leaving on this great adventure to the Middle East, I bought a new pair of shoes. Now, I am someone who has more pairs of shoes than I need, but this pair had to be very particular. I wanted a pair of sandals that I could wear throughout our trip. For me, they were the last thing on my checklist that I had to find, and once I had them, I felt like I was finally ready for this adventure.

Then, we arrived in Istanbul and the first full day we have to explore the city begins with a visit to the Blue Mosque, we had to take our shoes off before entering. At that moment, I heard in my head the words of Exodus 3:5b “Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” As I entered that sacred space, with my shoes off and my head covered, I felt something powerful and from that instant forward, I begin feeling my nice, new, perfect shoes as a hinderance between my body and the sacred spaces we were exploring. I found myself in the Hagia Sophia, in the Basilica Cistern, walking through the Chora Church, wandering through spice markets and the ruins of countless temples and cities, wishing to be invited to take off my shoes and more fully embody the sacred spaces I am encountering all around me.

Tomorrow morning* we will be invited to remove our shoes for a more secular purpose, to go through security at the airport on our way from Turkey to Tel Aviv, but I am looking forward to keeping tabs for the rest of the trip on the moments of holiness that take me by surprise and make me feel the desire rooted deeply in my religious heritage to remove my shoes, remove what it is that separates my body from the sacred, and be blown away by the Spirit and power of God, God’s creation, and all of God’s people.

Peace.

*This post was written on Thursday night but not published until Friday. At the time of publishing, we have made it safely to Tel Aviv, I didn’t have to take my shoes off in the airport, but I was able to spend some sacred barefoot time in the Mediterranean Sea.

Beth Olker

Ruins and Foundations: Assos and Pergamum

Today our group toured three major ancient sites as we made our way from Cannakale to Ephesus: the Acropolis at Assos, the city of Pergamum, and the Asclepion at Pergamum. Like Troy yesterday, these sites existed for hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and continued to function for hundreds of years after, although all that is left of them now is “old rocks.”

As a former classics major, I can’t help but love these ancient sites on their own terms–the incredible Hellenistic culture, the astonishing architectural marvels, the amazing fact that we can touch the column a high priestess of Athena leaned on over two thousand years ago. My peers seemed remarkably understanding as I geeked out over the poetess Sappho, Greek inscriptions, and remarkable amphitheaters!

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As we wandered around these sites, the complexity of ancient life became astonishingly clear. Far from living in “simpler times,” the ancient people who lived in these cities, who in the first century CE built up the early church, navigated the same complexity of faith, culture, tradition, commerce, family requirements, and social stratification that we do. At Pergamum, for example, early followers of Christ were expected to venerate not only the goddess Athena and god Asceplion but the Emperor Trajan, whose temple featured prominently in the cultic practice there. This human ruler was dubbed, according to one surviving inscription we read today, “thalass[a] kyrion,” which translates “Lord of the Sea.” That “kyrion” is the same word used for Christ in the New Testament. In Pergamum, Christians were faced with a crisis of allegiance–to profess the name of the emperor, who came in warships and imperial glory, or Christ, who suffered and died a humiliatingly commonplace death. For that reason, as Prof. Gench reminded us today, the author of Revelation referred to Pergamum as containing “the seat of Satan.” What caused those early Christians to give up all their certainty about their carefully circumscribed gods and dedicate their lives to a god whose life and death broke all boundaries of commonsense religion? As we look back at Christianity’s earliest roots, I am again reminded of how astonishing our faith tradition truly is, that a person born in Bethlehem and killed in Jerusalem should have his name praised in the windy heights of a pagan Anatolian city. Our heritage is itself far more unlikely than we tend to remember–and far more miraculous.

These ruins are our foundation stones. What a transformation!

–Carol Ferguson

Stumbling (unwittingly) through Church History

One of the fascinating aspects of walking around Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) is that we consistently find ourselves surrounded by names and places that made up much of Church History I. Constantine, Justinian, and John Chyrsostom are three of the most well known names that impacted this city and whose memory is present (even after the Ottoman rule). Many times, these names and places are marked by signs, icons, or massive churches–turned mosques–turned museums (like the Hagia Sophia).

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While this element of the trip was expected, we were also consistently surprised by the layers of history and religious change in Istanbul. These layers of history and conquest (not to mention the ongoing impact of modern life in a city of 13-15 million) can often cover over sites of great importance,leaving little to nothing behind…

One such place was Chalcedon.

On Sunday night, a group of 14 or us heading by tram and ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul to eat at a place named Çiya. I had been told by a Turkish-American friend that this was one of his favorite spots to eat in all of the city and that it was worth the effort to find. The food, the boat ride, and encountering the people of the city beyond the tourist stops made for a great evening. What surprised us as we headed back from the restaurant was our discovery that this bustling modern neighborhood of Istanbul is also the ancient city of Chalcedon, the site of that pivotal ecumenical council of 451. Unbeknownst to those of us making the trip, my craving for culinary adventure had the fortunate side effect of allowing us to stumble through Chalcedon (and walk past a small church that still serves the Orthodox community there).

Stumbling, often oblivious, through our own Christian past wasn’t a bad way to spend 3.5 days in Istanbul.

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