Sunday, March 23, 2014

Pilgrims, Students, Tourists

I tell groups that they will experience their participation in a study tour in at least three ways: as pilgrims, students, and tourists. 


Tourists come to gather experiences, photos, and souvenirs. As tourists we are consumers. Of course there are now special ways of re-configuring tourism, like "eco-tourism" or "tourism with a purpose," by which is meant doing volunteer work for a time before savoring some beach time. Being a tourist is great fun. And it has its place. I love being a tourist. I have no responsibilities. And I escape the hectic life at home in exchange for a completely different kind of hectic. And that can be rejuvenating for a time.

On a study tour like this one, we find ourselves immersed in learning. We become students for a large part of every day. We visit ancient historical sites. We listen to our guide explain the historical context of the site. We hear the stories of local people, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We ask questions and hope to learn from their experience of living in this troubled land.

And we are pilgrims who come prayerfully. We hope to enter the biblical story not only in our imaginations, but also with our feet firmly on the ground. I don't always understand the pilgrim ways of some of the people I see. I can't kiss the stones in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as some do. Yet I want to enter the story through the land and through its people today. The land, as Saint Jerome put it, can be a "fifth gospel." But it's not holy just because Jesus or Elijah walked here. What's holy is what happens, wherever we happen to find ourselves, as we are transformed to be agents of peace and reconciliation, in genuine community with others (even enemies).



Somewhere I received this quote about being a pilgrim: "There is a reason why the pilgrim’s journey involves going somewhere else. In order to experience transformation, the pilgrim must become vulnerable—he must expand his edges, crossing borders into new and unfamiliar territory. When the pilgrim journeys to a place beyond what he calls “home,” his senses are heightened, his vulnerabilities are brought to the surface and his perceptions are tested. In allowing these different parts of himself to come to the surface, he is able to be fully present in his journey amidst the discomfort and uncertainty, the mystery and the beauty." - From "Pilgrim Principles" by Lacy Clark Ellman, founder of A Sacred Journey Blog

One of the best resources on Christian pilgrimage to the land of the Bible is Tom Wright's book The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). 




Here is the publisher's blurb for the book: "The Way of the Lord is a book to be read with Christian pilgrimage in mind, whether one is traveling to the Holy Land physically or merely in heart and mind. Tom Wright, a world-renowned expert on the New Testament and the life of Jesus, offers a guide to pilgrimage that also serves as an inspirational introduction to the Christian faith. / Wright explores all the sites that travelers usually visit on a tour of the Holy Land, explaining not only what is to be seen but also the context of faith that makes these sites, and the events associated with them, famous around the world. By weaving together Old and New Testament stories, poetry, and original insights, Wright helps readers enter imaginatively into each scene. He also sprinkles his narratives with reflections on the nature of pilgrimage generally and with discussion of vital contemporary issues related to the Holy Land.  Vividly evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the Holy Land, The Way of the Lord is ideal for both individual and small-group study, for anyone planning a pilgrimage or for those just setting out on the spiritual journey of the Christian life."

One reviewer on the amazon.com website offers a few perceptive comments on pilgrimage, and on the book: Gregory of Nyssa went out of his way to criticize the practice [of pilgrimage], arguing that it is important to be close to God and one's neighbors and that pilgrimage made no contribution to accomplishing either imperative. And in more recent times, C. S. Lewis asserted, "The significance of the incarnation is not that God is a god of one place to the exclusion of others; it is that he is a god of all places, active in his world . . . God is to be found especially in people; namely those in need and in the gathered community of the Church . . . It follows that to set off on a journey to grow nearer to Christ is at best a complex matter. It might be that the true search is among those in need . . ." For the ardent pilgrim, Lewis commends the words of Matthew 28.6: "He is not here; he is risen." There is a certain logic to Lewis's position, but at the same time, it misses an important point. Pilgrimage is not about going to a particular place to find God. It is about putting ourselves in a particular place so that God can find us. For people who struggle with the concept of pilgrimage and who are inclined to side with Gregory or Lewis, Tom Wright's brief, readable work on pilgrimage will be a welcome guide. Former Dean of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, England, and the new Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, Wright grew up in the evangelical tradition. He heard little or nothing about pilgrimage early in his life and his first exposure to the practice left him with doubts not unlike those expressed by Lewis. But much to his surprise, he discovered that "one can learn to discover the presence of God not only in the world, but through the world." This growing realization prompted him to write this sage little work that not only serves as an introduction to the practice of pilgrimage but is also, by design, "a refresher course, from an unusual angle, on what might be called `Christian basics'." Using locations in the Holy Land where Jesus walked, talked, and healed, Wright takes the reader on a virtual pilgrimage, combining biblical scholarship with catechesis and inspirational challenge. But Wright is never facile or dogmatic. His closing paragraph provides a taste of the rest: "We do not go on pilgrimage, then, because we have the answers and want to impose them. That would make us crusaders, not pilgrims; the world has had enough of that, and I dare say God has had enough of that. We go on the pilgrim way, we follow the way of the Lord, because he himself is the way - and, as he said himself, the truth and the life as well. We go to meet him afresh, to share his agony, and to pray and work for the victory he won on the cross to be implemented, and for his way to be followed, in Israel and Palestine, in our own countries and in the whole world."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Qumran & The Dead Sea Scrolls


Our first stop on May 6 will be in Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Palestinian shepherds. 

"The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Discovered between 1947 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls comprise some 800 documents but in many tens of thousands of fragments. The Scrolls date from around 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. and were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; they contain Biblical and apocryphal works, prayers and legal texts and sectarian documents" (Biblical Archaeology Society).


Photo source

Begin by taking a look: view the 360 degree panorama or here. The Bible Places website also provides a visual orientation along with an overview of various aspects of the Qumran site. There  you will find a short list of related websites, including, for example, links to The Shrine of the Book (which we will be visiting) and its many resources, including an Interactive Virtual Tour, the Library of Congress Dead Sea Scrolls page (Washington, DC), and many others. For photos of the various caves, click here

One of the best websites for information about the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Biblical Archaeology Society's "Bible History Daily" page. Click on the various links on that page to read about the history and controversies surrounding the discovery of the scrolls. For example:

Have a look also at the following:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

PETRA: UNESCO World Heritage Site


Petra, one of our first stops in Jordan, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We'll have a full day of exploring with an expert Jordanian guide. We expect to be out in the sun more or less all day, which does wonders for resetting the body's clock.

One website I saw recently said this about preparing for a visit to Jordan: "The best advice I heard before going to Jordan was 'don’t read anything about it.' A friend wanted me to be surprised. 'Especially before you go to Petra, don’t read anything.'" I agree that you shouldn't read anything if all you want is to be surprised by everything you see. I think, however, that the best visit is done by preparing ahead of time, immersing yourself in the experience during your visit, and then reflecting and doing more reading after returning.

The website Visit Jordan has a good page on Petra. "Often described as the eighth wonder of the ancient world, is without a doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome."

The links on the left side of that page offer you entry into pages on history & culture, religion and faith, fun and adventure.



The Bible Places website has a good description along with a list of related websites. Of course Wikipedia will also provide a good general overview and photos.

Better yet, peruse these resources:


While in Petra we'll stay at the delightful Taybet Zaman Hotel, which is a restored 19th century Jordanian village.

Petra is a magical place. You will likely be drawn in by skillful Bedu children selling colourful jewelry.



But don't become distracted. Keep your eyes open for that unexpected sight.






Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Halva Kingdom: One of My First Stops on Our Free Day in Jerusalem!



I have a long list of things to do on our free day in Jerusalem (check out the link on the right side of this page). Since our free day is a Friday this year, it will be important to get to the Machane Yehuda market on Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem fairly early. I expect it to be crowded. I will go straight to Halva Kingdom and I will buy more than I did last time. Coffee Halva is my first pick.

From the website:

"Eli Mamman knows all the family secrets. Rooted in his Moroccan family, his recipes create this well-known Jerusalem-based sweet sesame treat. The halva sold at Halva Kingdom is only available at Machne Yehuda market, and the brand makes over a 100 different flavors and types.

The first Halva Kingdom store opened in 1947 in the Old City. After the Jews were deported from the Old City, the family opened up the store at the Machne Yehuda market. The halva is manufactured at a factory in Mishor Edomim. The process includes imported sesame from Ethiopia, millstone grinding of the seeds, and mixing the blend with sugar until it's as sweet as it gets."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It seems as though this series is no longer available, at least in Canada, via the internet. Still, look for it on CNN or on DVD.




A friend alerted me to this unconventional CNN documentary by Emmy Award winner Anthony Bourdain. He confesses to being "instinctively hostile to any kind of devotion" even though he seems to love food a lot (which is a kind of devotion, I'm sure). For those considering being part of a study tour to Israel and Palestine, this documentary will whet your appetite for good, honest, and difficult conversations, along with good Middle Eastern cuisine. Bourdain is irreverent. The documentary is quirky (meet the Speed Sisters who like to race their Peugot sports car). Watch it here:

This from the CNN website: "In the season premiere of "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown," the host and crew make their first trip to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. While the political situation is often tense between the people living in these areas, Bourdain concentrates on their rich history, food and culture, and spends time with local chefs, home cooks, writers and amateur foodies."

Click here to watch the entire 42 minutes.



Wednesday, October 9, 2013




Beyond Bells and Smells:

The Gap between Eastern and Western Christianity
  
A short while ago I received an email newsletter from Musalaha, a ministry of reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians. Salim Munayer, the director, laments the fact that western study tours often do a fine job of teaching about the ancient biblical sites and historical geography of the region, but rarely provide an opportunity for tour participants to learn about Eastern Christianity. Salim is one of the guest speakers on my tour. He has given me permission to repost his article. It can also be found on the Musalaha home page (although in time it may be moved).


By Salim J. Munayer

This past week, as America commemorated the tragedy of 9/11, much was said about the gap between the Western world and the Muslim world.  One important aspect that was overlooked in this discussion is the gap between the Western and Eastern church.  I would like to share some of my experiences and observations in this area.
 
I regularly teach American Christian students on short-term study trips in the Holy Land. I often notice a weakness in their curriculum, as much time is spent studying biblical history, particularly the first and second temple periods, and the apostolic period. But when we begin to discuss the ecumenical councils and their resulting doctrinal schisms, I find that my students have spent little time studying the historical and political contexts in which church history took some of its most significant turns. Instead, their curriculum fast forwards hundreds of years to the sixteenth century, into the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent politics and history of this period.
 
Such a selective reading of church history tends to focus on the contribution of the Western Church which is understood as the normative framework of Christian theology and church tradition. Consequently, the development of the Eastern Church, in which the Arabic speaking community plays and has played a large role, is often completely ignored. Furthermore, a new branch of study in post-holocaust theology has created willingness and attached importance to understanding contemporary Jewish faith and practice. This is rarely matched with inquiry into the Eastern Church. This has led me to believe that there are far too many passionate evangelical Christians in the West who are unaware of the history, theology, and contemporary situation of the Eastern Church.
 
This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, this means that the role of the Eastern Church in developing and shaping both Western and Eastern Church doctrine is not properly understood or appreciated. Secondly, a wealth of theological tradition has been ignored by many in the evangelical and wider Protestant community to the detriment of their theological appreciation and understanding. Thirdly, the precarious positions of the Arabic speaking church around the world, and particularly in the Middle East, means that we are in great need of acknowledgement, encouragement and support from our western evangelical brothers and sisters. This short article will therefore attempt to explore some of the reasons why the western evangelical church is unfamiliar with Arabic speaking Christianity as a preliminary attempt to remove some of these barriers and encourage mutual understanding between the traditions, as well as to further us along the path of reconciliation in the Holy Land.
 
The Early Church Schisms
Contrary to popular belief, the early church schisms in the fourth and fifth centuries were not exclusively, or even primarily, a result of doctrinal differences, but occurred to some extent as a consequence of political struggles for territory, governance and authority.  These political struggles were then couched in theological language at a time when the early church was attempting to combat heresy and articulate a basic statement of core beliefs for the faithful. Imperial and ecclesiastical agendas became somewhat intertwined.
 
In the early fourth century, Christianity had five main centres throughout the Roman Empire: Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Constantinople and Antioch. Each territory was presided over by a Bishop with authority over the churches in his district and into its hinterland. The Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to unify these disparate territories as a way of asserting political control.
Consequently, he invited Bishops from all over the Empire to attend a council in Nicaea near Constantinople in 325 AD in order to obtain this theological and political unification. The ecclesial framework of these churches’ relationship and interaction was established at early councils such as this one. Subsequent church conflicts were not only theological, but political.[1]
 
Linguistic, Cultural and Ethnic Separation
Much later, the Pope in Rome excommunicated the Patriarch in Constantinople and the latter responded in kind. It is important for us to view the doctrinal controversies in this wider political context and not as exclusively theological issues. Doing so will hopefully remove some of the religious and theological objections that western evangelical Christians may have toward the Eastern Church. The primary consequences of these splits for us today are the ethnic and cultural barriers that were erected as the churches spread to different parts of the world – the Western Church into Europe, the Orthodox Church into the Arabic speaking world, and the non-Chalcedonian churches into Asia and Africa. Bringing us into the present, it is the cultural and ethnic barriers resulting from these ancient political decisions which I believe are currently the main source of estrangement between western evangelicals and Catholic or Greek Orthodox Arab Christians, not the theological differences between the churches. As such, these can be overcome through increased contact between the cultures which will increase understanding and address mutual alienation and misunderstanding.
 
There have of course been far-reaching theological consequences as a result of the linguistic and cultural barriers which now exist. Arabic and Syriac are not widely read in the evangelical church in the way that Greek and Latin are. This has meant that the theology and church teachings of the Eastern Church have not been available to most Western Christians. This wealth of theological tradition has therefore played little role in developing and shaping the theology of the West, to the detriment of the Western Church.
 
Perceived Theological Differences and Difference in Church Practice
Although there are clearly many differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, these differences do not need to be viewed, as they often are, as a source of conflict or disagreement, but should instead be understood as an attempt to contextualize the Christian faith within the social context of each church community. In the West, more emphasis is placed on individual autonomy in theology and church practice. For example, the doctrine of justification is one which deals with individuals and one’s particular relationship with God.[2] While worshipping as a collective body, we often simply sing side by side. In the Eastern Church, the emphasis on liturgy and sacraments is driven by communal identification. It is understood that these traditions tie Christians to the global church body, and to the saints in heaven. All too often the evangelical church criticizes these historical practices as indicating a stagnant church, in contrast to the lively worship style of the Western Church, and in so doing, misunderstands the deep theology and religious commitment behind these rituals.
 
Similarly, the Western Evangelical Church places a strong emphasis on the immediacy of revelation and understanding through personal experiences with the Holy Spirit in the charismatic church, and through Scripture in more conservative evangelical traditions. In contrast, the Eastern Church places a strong emphasis on the historical nature of revelation. Revelation is viewed as a more collective endeavour over centuries of church teaching, study and theology by numerous clergy and laity, and this revelation is intrinsically tied to church tradition as implemented in church practice. The Eastern Church emphasizes that  Scripture is never immediately applicable but that the text today has a history which is intimately related to the history of the church as the church has sought to relate the revelation of Jesus to contemporary discourse over the centuries. [3] While one attains to truth therefore through rigorous engagement with scripture - and our biblical criticism must always concede to the need for such an acceptance of the canon - we must nevertheless recognize that the text we receive is already interpreted for us by church tradition, and that this interpretation has a measure of authority.
 
While it would be naive to disregard these important theological and ecclesial differences, they do not need to be a source of estrangement. However there is a tendency in the Western Church to understand itself as normative, having developed within a majority culture, meaning that anything which deviates from this normative theological or ecclesial framework is in some sense heretical. Through embracing our ecclesial diversity however, we enter a richer faith community.


Political Barriers
The Arab conquests in the seventh century coupled with the spread of Islam and the subsequent wars between Christians and Muslim political powers such as the Arab invasions, the Crusades, the Ottoman invasions of Europe, World War I, the creation of the State of Israel and now two Gulf Wars have also disrupted the relationship between the Eastern and Western Church.
 
By the early nineteenth century, western travellers in the Muslim world became more common and painted a vivid Orientalist picture of this ill-understood other. This was perhaps an improvement to the very limited contact between East and West that preceded it, however this began a rather skewed relationship between those with the power to narrate and those whose lives were ostensibly narrated in such discourses. Even our contemporary understanding of Arabic speaking Christians, and Eastern Christianity more generally, comes largely through western media which is influenced by geo-political interests which often ignore the situation of the church. We know little about the recent history of the Assyrian church in Iraq, or the Armenian Church in Ottoman Turkey for example, because reporting on these situations of persecution and genocide would harm international relationships and alliances.
 
Conclusion
It is clear from the brief overview given above that there are many things which have historically contributed to the current state of estrangement between the western evangelical church and the wider Protestant community and the Eastern Churches. Cultural and linguistic barriers pose the most significant challenges which are often couched in unnecessary theological language. While there are clearly theological differences between the two communities, these are often a result of their interaction with secularism in the West, and Islam in the East as opposed to significant doctrinal variations. The possibility for increased mutual understanding and interaction is, therefore, significant.
 
It is incredibly important that these current barriers are explored and overcome, not only as engagement with the other would enhance the richness of each side’s respective theological resources, but in a climate of political instability (particularly in the Middle East), Arabic speaking Christians are in desperate need of recognition and support from their western brothers and sisters. Additionally, understanding the differences between the two ecclesial traditions will allow us to bridge some of the gaps between the Messianic Jewish community and the Palestinian Christian community, as the Messianic community is influenced more by Western theology than Eastern theology, and the opposite is true of the Palestinian community. Furthermore, engagement could help lessen the existing prejudices between the Eastern and Western Church.  A global church seeking increased unity and understanding would surely be a testimony to Jesus’ reconciling activity in the world today, as well as a source of strength to the universal church itself.
 
Further Reading
 
·         Bailey, Kenneth. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 2008).
·         Cragg, Kenneth. The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Kentucky, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).
·         Pacini, Andrea, eds. Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998).
·         Parry, Ken, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity (West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2010).
·         Strengholt, Jos. Gospel in the Air (Boekencentrum, Zoetermeer, 2008).
·     Tarazi, Paul. ‘An Orthodox Christian Response to the Inclusive Language Lectionary’. Word Magazine (Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 1984).
 
 


[1] For more information, see the section for further reading at the end of the article.
[2] It should be noted, however, that recent scholarship such as the New Perspectives on Paul, has challenged the individualism of the doctrine of justification.
[3] Tarazi, Paul. 1984. An Orthodox Christian Response to the Inclusive Language Lectionary, Word Magazine, Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 8-11.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians—Really?

Why I refuse to be cynical about the current talks.
"As the world continues to debate how to resolve conflicts in Syria, Egypt, and too many other places, negotiators have quietly, and mostly confidentially, continued peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The talks, which began mid-August, have taken place in Israel and the West Bank behind closed doors and with little public posturing.

Cynics are quick to criticize these peace talks, which they believe will prove to be just another in a failed series. Others see them as a futile exercise that will only raise expectations and create more bitterness. And then there are those who have written off the entire Middle East as "a mess" and are simply disengaged from the issues.

But I'm not one of those people. I continue to pray, hope and believe in peace for the Holy Land. I support the talks and believe that they can succeed. And I ask other Christians to join me.