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.

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).

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.