America, Israel and Palestine – Lynne Hybles

Few Evangelical Christians are active peacemakers. Why?

Lynne HyblesSome Christians see Israel’s modern state as the fulfillment of prophecy. Others feel the opposite. Both sides caricature the other. Far from Peacemaking, many Christians only fuel the conflict.

Lynne spent much time with both Palestinian & Israel; communities. She learned that,

We disagree on some points of theology, but we agree on the basic human dignity of all peoples in the Holy Land.Continue reading

I Must Be Crazy

This is the final installment of The Beard Goes Home, a chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

A Canaanite worship site dating to around 3000 BCE, uncovered on Mt. Megiddo.Over the course of this trip, I have traveled to three continents, engaged three major world religions and more interacted in at least a half-dozen cultures.  I’ve been further outside my comfort zone than ever before in my life, and all in the name of following Jesus.  Of walking where he walked and seeing the things he saw, as much as possible.

Thomas and I at the pyramids at Giza, which were built about 2500 BCE.I was certainly without most of the comforts of home – I was much less connected to the Internet than I’m accustomed to, and between that and the 6-7 hour time difference, I felt very disconnected from my wife and community in the US.  I met new persons every day, and all of them were in some way the Other.  I learned that two weeks is more than long enough to spend adrift and apart, with no place to put down roots.  I understand now why we create colonies, little islands of our own culture, when we go to a new place.

The old Jebusite wall of the oldest part of the city of Jerusalme, fortified by later Judean kings. Dates around 1000-800 BCE.I learned that I’m a lot more xenophobic than I thought I was.  I spent the whole trip as the consummate outsider.  Even Thomas was at home among his Dominican brothers; each of our rest stops offered something familiar for him, a place he understood and knew how to function in.  Initially I only felt a sense of shame at my suspicion towards the Arabs or my indignation at the disgust I felt from the Jews.  My fear of being alone in Rome.

Ruins of the Temple to Saturn in the Roman Forum from the first century BCEBut the longer I’ve been gone, the more I’m trying to cherish these uncomfortable moments.  I am learning in a way I never have before what it means to be a Stranger, an Alien.  Amanda and I chose ‘Forasteros’ as our last name because it is the Spanish word for this very idea.  Because we both want to be that and to learn the art of hospitality, of welcoming strangers and aliens.

Ruins of the first century synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus taught, healed and cast out demons in the late 20s CEIn Middle Eastern cultures (Jewish, Muslim OR Christian), there are two categories of person (as I was just discussing with one of my new Dominican friends): Family and Enemy.  The Arabic phrase for ‘Welcome’ roughly translates as ‘I make smooth the path for you to come into my family’.  If you’re not a part of my family, then you’re my enemy, and I have full freedom (and possibly even an obligation) to cheat you.  I certainly don’t have to welcome you.

This makes the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger even more powerful.   As the Israelites were preparing to enter into the Promised Land, Moses reminded them:

Heading down the Mt. of Olives towards Jerusalem, as Jesus would have durind Passover week around 30 CE.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19

The altar over the slab on which Jesus' body was laid and from which he was resurrected around 30 CE.This would be a radical teaching in the Holy Land today.  It was at least as radical then.  If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s radical in the good ole’ U.S. of A. too.  We’re not much better at making strangers feel welcomed in our country, let alone our homes.  Especially if they don’t speak our language or look like us.

But welcoming the stranger is fundamentally what it means to follow Jesus.  His Incarnation is the ultimate sojourn.  God became human.  He took on flesh and moved into our neighborhood.  And we killed him for it.  Which only goes to show that God’s commands to God’s people didn’t take hold very well.

Vatican Square, including St. Peter's, renovated in the 1600s.

A plea for peace on the wall the Israelis built around Palastine, using mostly concrete from Palestinian suppliers just a few years ago.And we who follow Jesus today aren’t any better.  We still play favorites.  We still stick close to our families (whatever we decide those look like) and we do little to step outside our comfort zones.  We usually actively avoid it.  Intentionally becoming a stranger is difficult.  It’s not a vacation (which is why we build resorts that have all the comforts of home but still let us feel exotic).

And yet again and again the New Testament appropriates the metaphor of stranger/alien/sojourner to describe the Christian life.  We are on a journey in a foreign land.

About to enter into Armageddon (Mt. Megiddo), the site of John the Revelator's apocalyptic final battle.All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16

Here’s the end of my story: I took a trip and it turned my world upside down.  You should try it sometime.  If you want a tour guide, let me know.  It helps to travel with friends.

Rome Alone

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The Roman Forum. From left to right: the Temple of Vespasian (3 columns), the Temple of Saturn (8 columns), the Arch of Septimus Severus (behind), the Column of Phocas (single column), Temple of Antonius and Faustina (columns in front of Church), Temple of Julius Caesar (small set of three columns), Temple of Castor and Pollux (taller set of three columns), Arch of Titus (behind and right of Castor/Pollux)

Thomas and I landed in Rome on Monday, November 15.  We made it to the Angelicum, a Dominican school where we’d be staying, and settled in for the night.  Just after I’d gone to bed, Thomas came The statue of St. Bartholomew at St. John Lateran. According to tradition, Bartholomew was skinned alive, so in his iconography, he's alwasy holding HIS OWN SKIN. That's messed my room to tell me that a family emergency had come up and he would have to fly home ASAP.  The earliest he could arrange was Wednesday morning, so on Tuesday we met up with a group from his parish in Columbia as originally planned and took a whirlwind tour of the city.

I confess that I was very nervous about Thomas leaving.  I’d never been to Rome and didn’t know my way around; I was also feeling very ready to get back to Dayton.  All of these emotions were strange to me – I’m usually much more adventurous, so I spent some time in prayer and reflection and determined to make the most of my time.

St. Peter's Square. These marble columns all used to be a part of the Coliseum. Jerks.

Rome turned out to be a city where it’s easy to get lost in the trees, but the forest is (relatively) easy to navigate.  Once I’d gotten a good sense of how the famous Seven Hills are laid out, I could figure out how to get back to the general area of the Angelicum.

Seriously. I know THE Michaelangelo designed those uniforms, but those Swiss Guards look RIDICULOUS.We managed to see a good many sites for as little time as we had, though since the rest of my group was Catholic, it mostly revolved around art and the 17 billion or so churches in Rome.  We took in St. John’s of Lateran (the Pope’s actual church), St. Peter’s (including the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s bones and the Sistine Chapel) and several Caravaggio’s.

Yes, that's the Pope-mobile. And yes, they actually call it that.One of the highlights of the trip was our Wednesday audience with Pope Benedict XVI, with about 20,000 people from all over the world.  He addressed us in a half-dozen languages – the same five-minute homily to each group.  After being in Israel, I was shocked at how lax the security surrounding the whole Vatican was (unless those goofy Swiss guard uniforms grant secret superpowers).

The easiest way to get stabbed to death in Rome - mess with a dude dressed as a Roman guard.For me, though, the Roman ruins were definitely what I was most excited to see – especially anything pre-Constantinian (315-330 CE).  This was a lot tougher than I thought it would be because Rome has been Christian for so long.  It turns out that we’ve done a great job of Christian-izing pretty much everything in Rome.  Even the red-granite Egyptian obelisks that are all over the city all have crosses or statues of Peter and Paul on top of them.  All those marble columns that surround Vatican square?  Their marble used to cover the Coliseum.  The grand Circus Maxims, that made Herod’s circus in Caesarea Maritima look like a little league stadium?  It’s basically a big strip of grass with some stairs cut into it.  The Pantheon, a temple built to all the Roman gods is now a church dedicated to all the Christian martyrs.

Approaching the Coliseum, which truly is a ruin compared to its former state.As a person of faith, I get it.  Rome was the capitol of the Roman Empire (I’m sure this is not a news flash).  The monuments to the pagan gods were just as widespread in the city as Christian churches and monuments are now.  But the history nerd in me weeps over the artifacts and monuments that have been lost (or destroyed).  The church (and the Empire) found it expedient to recycle – to tear down old monuments to men and gods long dead in order to build new monuments to the new kings and new God of Rome.  It was cheaper and it erased from history the records of the Other cultures.

The last remains of the Temple to Saturn, one of the oldest pieces of Rome we've uncovered.This is something I’ve seen over and over in this trip – the new cultures and religions cannot abide the old, so they destroy and replace.  Caesarea Maritima was a great example of this – it changed rulers five times before it was abandoned, and each army destroyed what was there and built their own monuments.  Mt. Megiddo was the same.  Not to mention the city of Jerusalem (::cough:: Temple Mount ::cough::).

And, of course, Rome.

But I wonder if we could try something different.  What if, instead of looking at these structures and monuments as Other, we instead celebrated the good in them.

All that's left of the once awesome Circus Maximus.The ancient Temples are beautiful in their way, and they’re certainly marvels of architecture.  I can confess that without praising Roman gods (or Muslim or Canaanite or whatever).  I can wonder at the ingenuity and power of the human spirit that is, after all, created in God’s image without worrying or feeling threatened.  That creative drive that led to the construction of Cairo’s ubiquitous mosques and Rome’s obelisks, columns, arches and temples is the same creative drive that spawned the enormity of St. Peter’s and the beautiful churches that mark all the sacred sites in the Holy Land.  It’s the creative drive that we have been given by our Creator, and I believe that we can celebrate it in a way that honors the Gospel without compromising it.

The Coliseum, with a part of the arena floor restored. If you look closely, on the right side you can see a cross that marks the Emperors box (obviously added after Constantine). This marked where the (Christian) Emperor would sit and cheer as men murdered each other.

From Jebus to Jesus

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The walls of the City of David. The section of wall to the right of the strip that sticks out down the middle of the picture dates back to the Jebusites, so pre-1000 BCE.

On our last day in Jerusalem, Father Kevin took Thomas and I to experience one of the coolest (in nerd-speak) sites in the city – the City of David.  Bethlehem is sometimes called ‘the City of David’ because David was born there, but the name was also given to Jerusalem.

A shot from more-or-less the top of the City of David's walls. You can see the Mt. of Olives descend into the Kidron Valley. So when David fled from Absolom (2 Samuel 15), he would've run along this route.

According to 2 Samuel, David’s first act upon becoming king of Israel was to take the city of the Jebusites, Jerusalem (in around 1000 BCE).  The Jebusites seem to have been a small clan that lived in the southern part of Israel, in the midst of the lands given to the tribe of Benjamin.  They built a pretty substantial (for its day) walled city on the top of Mt. Zion, and David managed to take it.  Probably because it was a great location, David made Jerusalem his capitol city (2 Samuel 5:6-10).

Looking up from the City of David towards the Temple Mount. The dome visible is the mosque that sets at the South end of Herod's Temple Mount.After David’s death, his son Solomon became king, and built a Temple to God on another hill overlooking Mt. Zion.  Solomon’s Temple was one of the greatest temples in the ancient world, and even after Israel divided into two kingdoms (thanks to Solomon’s son, Rehoboam), the Temple ensured that Jerusalem remained the capitol of the kings of Judah (which is what the Southern kingdom was called) until Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE.

As Judah’s power and presence in the world waxed and waned, later kings did what they could to continue to expand and reinforce the City of David.  The city gradually grew towards the Temple so that the original city complex was at the south end of the growing town.

Today, the City of David is being excavated, and it stands outside the city walls built by Herod the Great.  As we walked down the stairways, we could see the layers of history.  Walls built into the hillside by the Jebusites peeked out from under and behind fortifications added by later kings and even some of the ruins of Nehemiah’s rebuilt walls.

In one of the taller stretches of tunnel. We couldn't see to take pictures, so we just snapped and hoped for the best. This one turned out nicely because you can just barely see Thomas looking up. At what I have no idea because it was PITCH BLACK.Without question the most spectacular experience of our visit to the City of David was our trip through Hezekiah’s Tunnel.  King Hezekiah carried out one of the largest and most important innovations to the town during the 7th century BCE (2 Kings 20:20).  Jerusalem’s water came from a spring at the base of the city.  The problem (much like at both Masada and Mt. Megiddo) was that in order to get the water, a person had to leave the city walls.  Which is not a problem unless your city is besieged by a foreign army.

In Hezekiah’s time, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire (in 722 BCE) and Judah existed in an uneasy tension.  Hezekiah had a tunnel carved beneath the city that diverted the spring inside the city to a pool that was called ‘Siloam’.

Me standing in Hezekiah's Tunnel. Did I mention how dark it was in there? PITCH. BLACK.Armed with flashlights, we entered the tunnel where the spring emerged from the rock, wading quickly into water that flowed up around our waists.  For most of the trip, the water ran around our ankles as we walked through passages that were usually high enough for us to stand.  A few times we nearly had to crawl, and it was rarely wide enough that I did not hit my shoulders on the walls.  With no lights except for our small flashlights, we plodded through the tunnel’s 530 meters (1,740 ft., or about 1/3 mile) in just under 45 minutes.

We finally emerged at the site of the current Pool of Siloam – because of changes to the City’s geography, the water has gathered in a few different spots.  This pool is famous because Jesus healed a blind man by making mud (with dirt and spit), smearing it on his eyes and then sending him to wash in this pool (John 9).

Without question, this was one of the highlights of our trip.  We were literally walking through biblical history spanning 3,000 years.  Moreover, the tunnel was dug from both sides, just like the Chunnel, but without the advantages of modern technology.  It’s amazing what we can accomplish, and how much of it is now little more than a tourist attraction.

The Pool of Siloam where Jesus sent the blind man to wash, which healed him (John 9).

How to Be a Villain

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.The remains of Caesarea Maritima's harbor. You get only the vaguest impressions of what was one of the primere harbos in the entire ancient world. Herod did not mess around.

After we visited Armageddon, Thomas and I made our way to the Mediterranean coast of Israel, to the ruins of Caesarea Maritima.  It’s a beautiful ruined harbor built by Herod the Great just before Jesus was born (10-8 BCE).

The only archaeological reference to Pontius Pilate was found in Caesarea in the form of an inscription. The original is now in the Israel Museum, so they made this replica to display.After the last of the Hasmonean kings died out, Rome conquered Israel and made Herod the Great king of Israel.  Since Herod wasn’t technically Jewish, the Jews were not thrilled with this decision, and Herod spent his entire reign walking a fine line between sucking up to Rome and keeping the Jews happy enough that they wouldn’t revolt.  Because the only thing Rome liked less than an unconquered territory was a territory they’d already conquered that was unruly.

For all Herod’s faults, he was an incredible builder (remember – he was the one who first turned Masada into a luxurious, nearly impenetrable fortress).  His dream was to create a harbor in Israel that would rival Alexandria.  He came to the shores of the Mediterranean and literally created a city out of nothing.  The city was a marvel of the Mediterranean – everyone who saw it agreed that Herod had accomplished his goal.

Remains of the harbor... you can see more of the breakline submerged under the wavesThe coast had no natural harbor, no natural water breaks, so Herod utilized cutting edge technologies to create an artificial harbor.  He built giant wooden boxes and floated them out onto the water.  Once they were in place, they were filled with volcanic ash that, upon contact with water, hardened into a salt-water-resistant concrete.  The breakwaters gradually dissolved and after a few hundred years (and a couple of earthquakes), the harbor sank.  Today, you can still see the remnants beneath the waves.

The Temple Mount, where Herod's temple to Roma and August stood. It would've been the first thing a ship entering the harbor would've seen.Because Caesar Augustus had made him king of Israel, Herod named the city Caesarea (Herod’s son, Philip, built his own Caesarea north of the Sea of Galilee; to differentiate between them, Herod’s became known as ‘Caesarea on the Sea’ or Caesarea Maritima, while Philip’s became Caesarea Philippi).  Facing the harbor, on the highest point in the city, Herod built a temple to Roma and Augustus, his patron.  As you can imagine, this infuriated the Jews, so to appease them, Herod massively renovated the Second Temple, transforming it into the largest temple complex in the ancient world for nearly 100 years (Rome destroyed it in the First Jewish War in 70 CE).  After Rome was Christianized under Constantine, the Temple was leveled and a large octagonal church built in its place.

The Theater is just on the other side of the Palace from the Circus. You know, so Herod never had to walk very far from his pool.

In addition to the temple and harbor, Herod also built a Circus and Theater to entertain the citizens of Caesarea.  The Circus held chariot races, and possibly gladiatorial events by the end of the first century CE.  Each of the buildings could hold 10,000 persons and both looked out onto the Mediterranean.  Herod also built himself a massive, luxurious palace (of course), complete with a sweet-water pool for public bathing.

The room in which Paul was most likely presented to Festus.

As the Christian movement began to spread, Caesarea played a major role.  The apostle Philip moved here (Acts 8:40), and the first Gentile convert to Christianity, Cornelius was stationed here (Acts 10).  Paul used the port at Caesarea frequently in his travels.

After Herod Antipas died and Rome took over direct control of Israel, the Roman governors stayed here.  When Paul is brought before Festus (Acts 25), he is brought to Herod’s Palace in Caesarea.  You can walk into the ruins of this room today when you visit.

You can tell that I am a tremendous actor by how enthralled my audience behind me is.In the 600s, Caesarea fell to Muslim invaders, who leveled the 4th century church building and constructed a mosque over it.  But in the 1000s, Crusaders reconquered the city and tore down the Muslim buildings, constructing a new church building and massive wall around the city.  In the 1200s, a huge Muslim army You probably didn't know this, but I'm a HUGE fan of chariot races. True story though. Absolutely huge.besieged the city and took it.

Maybe because he was sick of all the drama, that general leveled Caesarea and abandoned it.  The city lay that way until it was rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century.  It’s still being excavated, but it’s now also a popular vacation spot.  You can fish, snorkel, swim or lay on the beach.  It’s not quite the bustling harbor town Herod imagined, but it’s got a little something for everyone.

The remains of Herod's swimming pool. I guess all those oceanside hotels that have pools in them aren't crazy, just following time-honored traditions.I can’t help but see Caesarea Maritima as a fascinating chapter in Israel’s history.  Before Herod’s renovations, the Second Temple was a pathetic echo of the temple Solomon had built.  But thanks to Herod, it became the envy of everyone who saw it.  But Herod had no interest in God (remember – he’s the one who tried to kill baby Jesus!).  He renovated the Temple to prop up his own political power.  He knew he had to keep the Jews  – well, not happy exactly, but at least not miserable enough to revolt.  And so while he labored on his true passion – a monument to his own greatness – he also transformed God’s Temple into the envy of the ancient world.

Of course, then Jesus said, “Tear this Temple down, and I’ll raise it again in three days.”  And while all that’s left of Herod the Great is a bunch of ruined, excavated palaces, the baby he tried to kill has had a gorgeous, enormous house of worship built over every spot his followers even think he might have done something.  Which is a nice commentary on what happens to the guys who trust the kingdoms they build instead of the kingdom of God, right?

The Circus, where the chariot races took place. As you can barely make out, one side is all seating, while the other is the Mediterranean. Very cool.

The End of the World, A Few Years Early

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

Thomas at the entrance to the ruins of Mt. Megiddo. He looks pretty happy for a guy at the end of the world.

On our way back to Jerusalem, Thomas and I decided to stop off at Mt. Megiddo.  We left Tiberius and drove southwest, passing just a few miles south of Nazareth and through the Valley of Jezreel.  Jezreel was the site of quite a few bloody battles, and most of them did not turn out well for Israel.  By the 7th century BCE, the place had already acquired a pretty awful reputation (God told Hosea to name one of his sons Jezreel; this would be sort of like naming a child today Auschwitz).  It was sometimes known as the Valley of Slaughter.

The round rock formation is the ancient Canaanite altar that has been uncovered. It's about 5,000 years old. That's when you start calling idolatry a legacy, I think.Mt. Megiddo is at one end of the Jezreel Valley, and it was inhabited steadily from about 3,000 BCE until the 4th century BCE or so.  The Canaanites first lived there, and today you can see an ancient Canaanite worship space – archaeologists have identified 17 layers of Canaanite temples.  The Canaanites’ chief god was Ba’al the storm god; Israel often turned away from God to worship Ba’al and his goddess wife, Asherah.

After Israel conquered the Canaanites, Mt. Megiddo was fought over by pretty much everyone.  It’s been ruled over by Egyptians, Israelites and Assyrians.  In fact, the Egyptians killed King Josiah – one of the most faithful of Israel’s kings – at Megiddo.

A shot of the Jezreel Valley from the top of Mt. Megiddo. Looks dangerous, doesn't it?Another of Israel’s kings, Ahab, turned Mt. Megiddo into one of his three major centers of government.  Much like Herod did to Masada, Ahab transformed Mt. Megiddo into a luxurious palace complex complete with stables for hundreds of horses.  He even dug a tunnel through the mountain (which is really more hill-like) to the spring at the foot of Megiddo, so that during a siege the city still had access to water.  Ahab was one of Israel’s most politically successful kings, but the Scriptures judge him as a failure because he openly embraced Ba’al worship thanks to his wife, Jezebel.  Mt. Megiddo’s long history of Ba’al worship The place had an eerie silence about it. Not quite in a creepy way, but it still feels very abandoned.might be part of what drew Ahab there in the first place.

After the Assyrians conquered Israel (including Mt. Megiddo), they fell to the Persians and Mt. Megiddo lay an abandoned ruin at the edge of the Valley of Slaughter.  It had a long history of idol worship and warfare, and was a place of shame and sin in the Hebrew culture.

The Hebrew word for ‘mountain’ is har.  But the New Testament was written in Greek, which doesn’t have an ‘h’ sound, so Har Megiddo became Armegiddo.  Here’s what John saw in the Revelation he received:

I'm at Armageddon, and you'd better believe I brought my game face!I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast and from the mouth of the false prophet.  These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.  And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. – Revelation 16:13-16

That’s right, everyone.  I made it to the end of the world.  I just showed up a little bit early (Which was fine with me).  With everything that Mt. Megiddo represented to a person shaped by the Old Testament, is it any wonder that John chose this place as the site where the Unholy Trinity would gather their forces to wage war on the Kingdom of God?

The ruins of Mt. Megiddo, with the Valley of Jezreel spread in the background.

Jesus’ Neighborhood

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The view of the Sea of Galilee from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes. Sort of makes you want to sit down and say some things that will fundamentally altar the course of civilization, doesn't it?

After our visit to Masada, Thomas and I drove North through the West Bank to the Galilee.  We stayed in Tiberius, on the Southern end of the Sea of Galilee.  Because it was a Roman city, Jesus probably never went there (no pious Jew would have).  Ironically, today the city is a favorite weekend getaway for many of the Orthodox community in Southern Israel.  The next morning, we got up ready to experience the places Jesus spent most of his time ministering.

Me, standing in the Sea of Galilee. 'Sea' is generous - this is not a very big lake at all.Whether you follow John’s chronology (which has Jesus visiting Jerusalem at least three times, and possibly as many as five) or the Synoptics’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke, in which Jesus visits Jerusalem only once, and it kills him), Jesus spent most of his days ministering in the Northernmost part of the country – the region surrounding the Lake of Galilee.

Remains of Capernaum's first-century synagogue, the one where Jesus taught and performed a couple of miracles!Capernaum became his home base – probably because Peter and Andrew lived there.  Capernaum was a tiny village (as most of the towns on the Galilee were) whose Hebrew name was Kfa Nahum – the village of Nahum; in Greek (the language all four Gospels were written in), it became ‘Capernaum’.  Because it was the first town a person coming into Herod Antipas’ territory (from his brother, Phillip’s territory) reached, there was a taxing station, which was probably where Jesus called Matthew (Mark 2:14).  Because this was Jesus’ home base, he did tons of miracles here.  He healed the centurion’s servant, the hemorrhaging woman, and Peter’s mother-in-law, along with many other unnamed people (Matthew 8:5-16).  Plus, Capernaum had a synagogue (which the non-Jewish Herod Antipas had built for the Capernaumites because they were so poor).  A man named Jairus was a prominent leader in this synagogue – Jesus raised his daughter from the dead (Matthew 5:21-43).  He also cast demons out of a man in this synagogue (Luke 4:31-36).

The ruins of Capernaum. Now if you imagine some thatched roofs over those houses, all you'd need is a parapalegic and you're ready to reenact a pretty awesome miracle of Jesus!

**Bonus: Capernaum is also the site of one of my favorite of Jesus’ miracles. Check out Matthew 17:24-27**

Peter's house. The room in the center is the room in which his mother-in-law was healed.They’ve excavated much of Capernaum, so you can now see the 4th century synagogue built on top of the one where Jesus would’ve worked (but you can see in a corner the first-century excavation!  You can also see the first-century homes, which don’t have roofs anymore because they were made of thatch – which you could cut through and lower someone down (Mark 2:1-12).

Peter’s home – and the room in which Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law – is excavated and protected by a massive church that has been built on stilts over the site.  You can look into the room itself, which is a pretty incredible feeling.

The rock under the altar was Jesus' table when he multiplied the bread and fish. It's been moved a few times, so this is probably not the spot where it happened.Very near Capernaum is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish.  In case that is unclear, this church preserves the rock on which Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44).  The site is less than a 20 minute walk from Capernaum and sits at the bottom of the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus (probably) gave his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The Sermon on the Mount is one of Amanda and I’s favorite passages of Scripture – it is the theme of her tattoo sleeve and she has the whole thing memorized! – so needless to say, the Mount was a particularly special place for me.  The Church on the grounds is a small but beautiful octagonal building (to represent the 8 Beatitudes) and the grounds themselves are a beautiful, well-kept garden looking out over the Galilee.

Inside the Church of the Beatitudes. Above the altar are eight stained-glass windowns, one for each beatitude.

Only a few hundred yards down the beach from the site of the miracle of the loaves and fish is the spot The rock on which Jesus cooked breakfast and by which he restored Peter to leadership in the Church.where Jesus made himself known to Peter and the Beloved after his resurrection (John 21).  Again, being at this site provided me with some amazing perspective.  Peter had been a fisherman before Jesus called him.  After Jesus died, Peter – crushed and defeated – returned home to the only other trade he knew.  He and some other disciples sailed out from Capernaum and, because they weren’t catching anything, had sailed a few hundred yards down the shoreline.  A man cooking food on the shoreline called out to them, told them throw their nets on the other side of the boat, and when they did, they began to haul in a miraculous number of fish.

A cool shot I got of the Church of the Beatitudes Just me, sailing on the Sea of Galilee, just like Peter and Jesus used to do. Except for the motor.Peter realized right away that it was Jesus, so he dives in and swims for shore, leaving the other disciples to bring the boat.  He gets to shore and is confronted by Jesus.  Because Peter denied Jesus three times, at this site Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him.  When Peter said yes, each time Jesus told him to take care of Jesus’ sheep.

The church preserves the rock on which he cooked their breakfast is preserved in the church, and I found it to be a great place to pray for everyone I have the privilege of serving as a pastor.  To be entrusted with the responsibilities I have as a minister has been an awesome privilege, and I found walking in Peter’s footsteps to be a special, unique experience I’ll treasure for a long time.

Remember the Masada!

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The view of Masada driving up to it. Even from here it looks intimidating!After saying Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the morning of Thursday, November 11, Thomas and I picked up our rental car and left Jerusalem.  After getting turned around only once, we headed East and South, towards the Dead Sea and Masada.  The transformation of the countryside was immediately evident as we quickly entered the Judean Desert.  Any trace of greenery vanished and we were left with large, brown hills sloping endlessly away in all directions.

We turned and headed south at the tip of the Dead Sea, and it wasn’t long before the Sea fell away before us on our left while the caves of Qumran – where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered – loomed high on our right.

Looking out over the Dead Sea. The haze is actually chemically produced by all the crap in the Dead Sea.

In almost no time at all, we reached Masada, a mesa rising out of the Judean Desert surrounded by nothing and looking out over what was once known as the Devil’s Sea.  It feels like the loneliest place on the whole planet.

A model of the Northern Palace, complete with private baths and everything. It's three levels and built into the northern cliff face. Which is awesome.

History of Masada

Masada was originally the site of one of Herod the Great’s palaces, built as a sort of ‘last resort’ in case things got really bad for him.  It’s grotesquely inaccessible, but Herod managed to deck the whole top of the mesa out with nothing but the best, including two palaces, a full swimming pool (in addition to public and private baths), three small ‘guest palaces’ and of course two full fortresses.  He also devised an ingenious system for delivering water up to Masada, so that the whole complex could be endlessly self-sufficient.

Looking down from the top level of the northern palace to the lower two levels. The original stairs from levels 1-2 were destroyed in an earthquake. Which totally made me feel safe.After Herod’s death, Masada was basically abandoned for 70 years.  During that time, Rome increased their hold on Israel until in 66 CE, rebellion broke out.  This First Jewish War (66-73 CE) brought the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple (70 CE) and was a major turning point in the history of both Judaism and Christianity.

Battles were fought all over Israel (including on Mt. Megiddo, which we’ll see on Saturday), but the Jewish Rebels’ last stand was here at Masada.  The rebels climbed the mesa and dug in as the might of Flavius’ Roman army spread around them.  The siege lasted three months, during which time the Romans constructed a ramp that allowed them  to break down the walls of Masada.  On April In a fierce battle, the Romans breached the walls of Masada near the end of the day; because it was so late, and because victory was now assured, the Romans broke for the night, intent on finishing off the Jews the following day.

The view of the Judean Desert and Dead Sea from the top level of the Northern Palace. The large dirt squares are the outlines of the Roman encampments. These completely surrounded Masada, along with a siege wall.

Here you can still see the ramp the Romans built to ascend the side of the western cliff face. The Romans BUILT A RAMP UP THE SIDE OF A CLIFF. Do not mess with Rome, my friends. They will get you NO MATTER WHAT.That night,  the Jewish rebels made a terrible decision: rather than face certain defeat and enslavement, they would kill themselves and their families.  They set fire to the store rooms and killed themselves.  When the Romans came onto the mesa the next morning, they were greeted only by corpses.  In the wake of the mass suicide, Masada was abandoned for nearly 2,000 years.

The Masada Shall Never Fall Again

The public SWIMMING POOL Herod built. Dude loved him some freestyle. Probably not the rap kind though.Until the mid-1800s, we knew about Masada only through Josephus (a Jewish writer from just after Jesus’ time).  But archaeologists located Masada and began to excavate it, and it quickly became a pilgrimage site for Jews from around the world (remember that this was about 100 years before the state of Israel would exist).

Today Masada has entered into the popular Jewish cultural imagination.  They speak of a ‘Masada-complex’, which is basically a ‘you’ll-have-to-kill-me-first’ mentality.  Some divisions of the Jewish Defense League are sworn in on Masada, with the phrase, “The Masada shall never fall again” included in their oath.

The stairs leading down from the second to third levels of the Northern Palace. The original stairs. That's way old.What struck me most about the Masada was how little connection I have to it.  It doesn’t play an important role in my history, and as a non-Israeli, I relate to the story of the Jews there less even than I do to the story of the Alamo (because I’m not Texan, either).  The introductory film presentation and all the literature (maps and signage) make it very clear, however, that Masada is a vital piece of the Israeli identity.

The story that’s told is one of Jews who would rather die free than live as slaves.  And as rhetoric goes, it’s great stuff.  But that’s not really the whole story.  The Jews weren’t just any Jewish rebels.  They were Sicarii – a radical splinter group who had broken off from the Zealots (who were already pretty radical) because they weren’t radical enough.  The Jews at Masada were not typical first century Jews.  They were a fringe movement, lead by a charismatic (but probably slightly unstable, as leaders of these movements tend to be) guy who, when the chips were down chose the easy way out.  I couldn’t help but think of Jonestown (where, granted, the CIA threat was much more imaginary than the Roman Empire).

Remembering Masada Well

Looking out into the Judean Desert from the Southern Tower, built over the one weak spot on Masada. This is NOT where Rome chose to build the ramp. Why go the easy way when you could do it the hard way? Just so everyone knows not to mess with you EVER.I think what disturbs me about Masada is that what happened there was not the result of normal, everyday persons put into extraordinary circumstances.  The Sicarii were fringe revolutionaries.  But because of the way we are now reimagining their stories, their response to a cause that seems overwhelming and insurmountable has become laudable.  What’s working into the Israeli psyche (and that of any visitor to Masada) is that the most courageous response to overwhelming violence is a stubborn refusal to compromise and bitter acquiescence and passivity.

This cannot be true.  We must never give up pursuing peace.  Masada ought to be a reminder of the dangers of following zealots.  A lesson that meeting overwhelming force with force only ends badly.  That if we want something better than death, we’d better get more creative.  Masada ought to be a tragedy, not an inspiration.*

*Of course, I’m the comfortable American who says this not having been a part of a people without a land for 2,000 years.  In that way, it’s impossible for me to know fully what Masada means to the Jewish people.  But I do not believe that remembering a glorified, sterilized Masada is helpful or redemptive.

Peace is Coming

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Jerusalem, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption! If you want to see a bigger version of a picture, just click on it!

The exterior of the Church of the Nativity, shot from Manger SquareOn Tuesday, November 16 we got a real treat – Father Gregory, a Dominican who shares my love of Zombie fiction, took us to the Notre Dame Pilgrim House where we joined a group on the roof for a look around the city.  From the top of Notre Dame, we could see:

  1. 1. The Dome of the Rock, where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed
  2. 2. The hills of Moab, one of Israel’s constant enemies during the Judges
  3. 3. The hills of Ramah, where Israel demanded a king
  4. 4. The outskirts of Bethlehem, where David and Jesus were both born
  5. 5. The Mount of Olives, Upper Room and Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which houses both Golgotha and the Tomb).

The very low doorway into the Church of the Nativity. I'm not sure if they were just very short back then, or if they wanted to make sure you bowed on your way in...It was pretty incredible to see all those pieces of Salvation History from that one location, and amazing to think that it all happened within just a few miles of land.

After our tour, we made our way by taxi to Bethlehem, which isn’t very far, except that – since Bethlehem is a Palestinian territory, we had to cross through an Israeli checkpoint.  We got to Manger Square with only a little hassle (our cab driver tried to take us to a store because if we bought something he got commission).  I was surprised at how plain the Church of the Nativity appears from the outside.  It’s huge, but not very ornate.

The original 4th century mosaic tile floors, under trap doors to keep them safe.The Church dates clear back as far as we have records.  St. Jerome (the one who wrote the Vulgate) came here in the 4th century and made this church his home and office (which, if you’re taking notes, means he wrote the Vulgate here).  The current church building has been built over the old site, and the original 4th century mosaic floors have been preserved under trap-doors they open during visiting hours.  The network of caves that originally provided the ‘back room’ of the 1st century Bethlehem homes are now under the building, along with Jerome’s office (now a chapel) and tomb, both also in caves.  After wandering through the cavernous chapel, we headed downstairs (accidentally cutting in front of about 1,000 or so pilgrims because we used the exit stairs. That’s what they get for poor signage).

The altar over where Jesus was born; there's a hole in the middle of the star where you can reach down and touch the cave floor.As I’d come to expect in Jerusalem, the original cave has been transformed into a shrine.  Pilgrims come down the stairs in a line and kneel under an altar, kissing the star that surrounds a hole through which you can touch the actual cave floor.  Just behind the kneeling pilgrims is a second altar that marks where the manger sat, where Jesus was laid after he was born on the hard cave floor.

It’s hard to describe what it meant to stand in the place where Jesus was born.  This was the spot where the impossible happened.  Where God became a person.  Two things that couldn’t be joined – the divine and the human – became one, without compromising, without cheating either the godhood or the humanity of Jesus.  It’s what we call the The shrine over the spot where the manger stoodIncarnation – the ‘enfleshment’ of Jesus.  Even while we – the whole human race – were enemies with God, God became one of us.  God crossed the uncrossable boundary not to make war on us, but to bring us peace.  That’s what we celebrate at Advent (coming up in just a couple of weeks!): Jesus coming into our mess and saving us, rescuing us.  That’s Good News.

It’s the great mystery of the Church, that which makes our faith possible.

Jerome's tomb, under the Church of the NativityThese are the thoughts that filled my mind and heart as we set out to return to Jerusalem.  We stopped in an excellent olive wood souvenir store owned by some Arab Christians on our way out, and they gave us instructions on how to get back into Jerusalem.  We took a taxi to the checkpoint and then had to walk through.  Being Western (read: white with American passports), we were waved through at ever point, while Arabs were detained at every point.

Once on the other side, we asked several people which bus would take us to the Old City and kept getting different answers.  Was it Bus 74 or Bus 21?  We finally got on 21 and as we passed several girls wearing headscarves, everything clicked into place.  There are two different bus systems in Jerusalem (though I think it’s unofficial) – the Arab and Jewish buses.  This confirmed for me everything I’d been feeling since our failed trip to Bethany.

Thomas walking up the barred walkway to the Bethlehem checkpoint.I have found it easy to feel sorry for the Palestinians in Israel; they’re essentially living in an Apartheid system.  And when I see the huge walls the Israelis have built to keep the Palestinians locked away and controlled, I can’t help but wonder how they forgot so quickly about the Warsaw ghettos.  But the truth is, if the situations were reversed, and the Arabs had power, they wouldn’t treat the Jews any better.  As one of the priests here said,

The Jews and the Arabs are both right, the Jews and Arabs are both wrong, and they both have blood on their hands.

It seems like everything in Jerusalem is divided.  The Old City is broken into clearly discernable quarters.  The buses.  The checkpoints and walls.  And so I wondered as Thomas and I journeyed back from The House of Bread (that’s what Bethlehem means in Hebrew) to the City of Peace (Jerusalem) where the Bread of Life was broken to purchase peace for the world.

This wall is a shame on all of us... that we live in a world where we allow this to be the best option.I really do believe that Peace is coming into the world.  I really do believe that we can get along despite all our differences.  That if we would learn to live together we would find a beauty we can’t even imagine yet.

I believe that the walls in Israel can be torn down and used to build homes and that Jews and Arabs and Americans can all learn not just to tolerate but love each other.  Because if God can become human, then anything’s possible.

As we were walking back into Jerusalem, we saw some shepherds in the hills, tending their sheep.  They reminded me of a story I heard once…

Actual shepherds in actual fields watching actual sheep. We did not see any angels though.There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to humanity on whom his favor rests.”

Graffiti on the Israeli wall that looks a lot like a Nativity set in my opinion.When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

— Luke 2:8-18

May the Peace of Christ that passes all understanding rule in your hearts and in our world.