An Ecumenical Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Will you come and follow me?

Welcome to our ecumenical pilgrimage of the Holy Land.

Friends from Highbury Congregational Church, St Luke's, St Gregory's, St Matthew's, St Margaret's Alstone, Trinity, Charlton Kings Baptist Church, the Congregational Federation and the Congregational Federation Training Course join together on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from 28th April to 7th May, 2009.

It may be possible to update our Blog ... but equally that may not be possible on our travels!

We travel to the Holy Land, to Tel Aviv airport and then by coach to the Star Hotel, Bethlehem, where we check in just in time for dinner.

After breakfast there will be a talk about the history of the holy places, and instructions on making the most of our pilgrimage.  We will make our first visit to Bethlehem, visiting the Church of the Nativity, the monastery of St Jerome and the Milk Grotto.  After lunch there will be an opportunity to stop at a shop which is one of the best ones for souvenir shopping.  AFter our evening meal there will be time for first reflections and prayers.  We welcome Alex and Brenda Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College and the East Jerusalem Baptist  Church as our guests for dinner.  After dinner jAlex will share his reflections on his own life story with us.

A walking tour of the old city of Jerusalem.  Visiting the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall), St Anne's Church, the siter of hte Pools of Bethsaida, the Church of Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) on the site of the house of Pilate.  We walk the route of the Stations of the Cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  AFter a short lunchbreak, we walk to Mt Zion, to teh Last Supper Room, and the Church of St Peter in Galli-cantu.  We take a coach back to the Star Hotel, Bethlehem.

We travel to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, visit the Church of Pater Noster, then walk down the Mount of Olives and see 'Dominus Flevit' (the Lord wept) where there is a lovely church with a wonderful view of Jerusalem.  From there we continue our walk to the Church of All Nations, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Chapel of Betrayal.  We travel by bus to Emmaus and worship there.  If time allows we will vist the Garden Tomb later in the afternoon.  We welcome Fr Michael McGarry of the Tantur Institute as our guest for dinner.

This is an oppportunity to gather breath and reflect on our experiences so far.  There will be an opportunity to visit places in and around Bethlehem, and enjoy local hospitality for lunch.  Our day will finish with dinner and a time for sharing and prayer.

We will will worship at the  East Jerusalem Baptist church and those who wish will take Mass at a local church.  We will then take the road down to Jericho, up to the Mountain of Temptation and then take to the waters in the Dead Sea.

Today we travel to the North and to the Galilee.  We visit Cana and then move on to Nazareth.  We make our way to the C Hotel in Tiberias where we will stay for a couple of nights.

We start the day with a boat ride on teh Sea of Galilee, and then have a pilgrimage communion at the place of St Peter's Primacy.  Avisit will follow to the Church of the multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, and then we go on to Capernaum.  Lunch today will be in a restaurant where they serve wonderful 'St Peter's Fish', unique to the Sea of Galilee and the ones caught by the fishermen of Galilee in Jesus's day.  Very tasty!  In the afternoon we will visit the Church of the Beatitudes.

We will visit Mt Carmel, and then go on to Haifa, exploring Elijah's territory and making connections with the story of Jesus.  On to the Church of Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, near the beautiful gardens of teh Bahai Temple with views of Haifa Bay.  If time permits we will go to Acre, a Crusader City on teh other side of the bay.

We check out of our hotel, and visit Mt Tabor where the Transfiguration may have taken place.  We will travel to teh top of the mountain in taxis, and worship there in thanksgiving for our pilgrimage.  Then we will have an early lunch and make for the airport for the flight back to Heathrow.  We are scheduled to arrive in Heathrow at 20-20 and get back to Chetlenham around 23-00.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Thursday - Back down to earth, ready for the journey home

And so our pilgrimage comes towards an end, or is it just the beginning?

A very early start and our bags were taken to teh lobby at the back and checked on to the coach.

We were on the road by 7-30.

It wasn't long before we climbed to sea level and made our way to Mount Tabor.

One last opportunity to talk kplate tectonics with a responsive reading, in which I invited everyone to fill in the blank words here indicated in capitals!

We began with the call of the twelve including Simon, called peter THE ROCK

We went on to think of Simon Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi where Matthew tells us that Jesus said on THIS ROCK I will build my church.

And we finished by thinking of the climax to the Sermon on the Mount:  All who hear my words and act on them will be like the  Wise Man who built his house on THE ROCK.

Never let it be said Jesus was only interested in sowing seeds and harvesting crops in his teaching.   Rocks were just as important!!!

By now Mount Tabor was in view.

Last year it mattered.  Is this really the Mount of Transfiguration or is it just a convenient location on the pilgrim route near Nazareth?  Isn't it more likely to have taken place on Mount Hermon, north of Caesarea Philippi, from which point Jesus set out South for Jerusalem?

This year it didn't matter at all.

Last year was a conference.

This year we have been on pilgrimage.

"What does the word 'pilgrimage' mean?" asked Sarah over coffee.  The only way I could respond was by saying, 'it's what we have just done'!  And I wasn't being flippant.

It has felt like a pilgrimage.

The coach dropped us off and we boarded mini-buses to take us to the top of the mountain.

I found myself sitting next to a German called Jehoiachim.

He was from a rotarian group, an evangelical protestant, they were being taken round the Holy Land by a pastor who also belonged to their rotary club.

He spoke of having a mystical experience and coming to faith.  Then he spoke of Quantum Physics and the way it gave sapce for 'miracle' to happen and of the way many physicists come to belive in God.

I responded by pointing to my map and speaking of the geology of plate tectonics in teh HOly Land.

"There is no conflict between science and religion," he stated with conviction.  I agreed whole-heartedly.  Evolution is great and God is greater.  The time scale of geological time is greater still, and God is greater by far.

A few moments as ships passed in the night and email addresses were exchanged.  But they were precious moments!

Up to the top of Mount Tabour and another Barluzzi church, the first.  Mass was going on, a devout congretaion and a worship song I recognised.

With the transfiguration depicted on an apse roof and two side chapels for Elijah and Moses, there seemed to be an irony about the building.  Wasn't the whole point of the story that no booths should be built?!

We moved into the Byzantine ruins.

Jean Challen had passed me a wonderful reading hoping I would read it in our worship.  It made a most moving start to our final reflection and prayer time.

I began with Luke's opening words setting the scene in prayer, then shared Jean's prayer meditation.

We went on to a reading of the Transfiguration story in Mark and a comment on the Elijah link in the seond part of that passage.

What a mountain-top experience our pilgrimage had been.

But mountain-top experiences cannot last for ever, however much we join with Peter in longing for them to be fixed in stone.

Peter, James and John had to come down from teh mountain.

So do we.

They were not alone.

Neither are we!

Jesus is with us as much on the descent as on the Mountain-top itself!

And so the final reading of our pilgrimage was the next story in Mark, of the failure of the disciples to heal a young man.  The father, when challenged to faith by Jesus, says, "I blieve, help my unbelief.'

Those had been the words Robin had invited us to use as our response to prayer at communion.

They seemed important once more.

The passage finishes with a call to prayer.

Robert led us in a wonderful prayer reflection on the way our pilgrimage goes on.

By the time we had sung Brother, sister let me serve you for one last time I was choked up and had to ask Robert to lead us all in the grace.

We really had found ourselves not only laughing with those who laugh but weeping with those who weep.

Robert finished with that wonderful invitation to go in peace.

Those words had a special meaning as our pilgirmage came to an end.  Or was it just beginining?

We went on to the roof top observation platform for one more breath-taking view and the last of my video clips.  With only 2 minutes remaining on the camera's memory card our investment in a new 2 gb card had paid off.

Little did I know what was in store!

Joanne had one final surprise in store.

There was one place I had wanted to visit the previous day.

But Joanne was adamant there wouldn't be time.

She had the surprise up her sleeve and kept it to the very last.

We made our way down to the coast and found ourselves at Caesarea Maritima.  That triumph of civil engineering that Herod the Great had built in 12 years as the Roman capital for his Jewish kingdom.  In Jerualem he built a temple to the LORD God of Israel.  Here he built a temple to Augustus, Son of God.

I was in my element.

And having the Oxford Companion to Biblical archaeology with me in my day bag for the first time, as I wanted it for the homeward journey I shared as much as I could with everyone else!

There was the theatre he had built that doubled up for racing and chariot races too.  There was the Tiberium that Pontius Pilate had dedicated.  And the plaque linking him with it and honouring Tiberius as 'divine'.

This was the kind of place that to me gives an insight into the very nature of the world Jesus came to, the ugliness of its sheer power, and the power of Jesus' alternative.

But the best bit of all was the beach we found ourselves on under the arches of a wonderful Roman Aqueduct the like of which I had never seen.

It was sandy!

Very sandy!!

Not a few people had their shoes and socks off and were paddling in the brilliant blue Meiterranean sea.

I could feel the sand between my toes for the rest of the day!

Could there be a link?

I wonder.

The one who hears the words of Christ and acts on them is like the Wise Man [Solomon] who built his house [the house of God] on the rock [in Jerusalem]

And everyone who hears these words of Christ and does not act on them will be like the foolish man [? Herod ?] who built his house [down in Caesarea by the Seaside].

Who knows!

It's a nice irony that when Herod laid the foundations for the great sea wall that was the pride and joy of the harbour that was a key part of the Romanisation process of commercialiation in this part of the world, he decided not to use great stones.  Instead he filled rectangular boxes or barges, with lots of loose stones.  He then poured in a newly discovered powder that would set under water [Herod the Great pioneered the use of concrete that would set under water].  The barge was sunk in situ and simply rested on the floor of the sea.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor reports in the Oxford Companion to Biblical Archaeology that within a century the harbour wall was beginning to move so much on the shifting sands that it became more of a hazard than a refuge for ships in a storm!

The stoy is almost too good to be true.

That Caesarea Maritima was symbolic of all that Rome stood for, while the Temple of Solomon's day, not Herod's monstrosity, was symbolic of all that the Jewish people stood for is beyond question.

Just as Jesus invests the 'temple' with new meaning, so he offers a new way of being 'kingdom' under God's rule in place of the Roman way of Herod the Great and the Herodions.

It was wonderful to finish there!

A sandwich lunch, we made our way to the airport, said our farewells to Joanne and boarded our light home.

Stunning views of the Greek islands, the dolomoites, the alps and the Swiss lakes kept our geology theme going for a few hours more.

We landed back half an hour late, and with one final prayer as we were approaching Cheltenham our pilgirmage really did come to an end as we arrived home at midnight.

A big thank you to Joanne and to everyone who came.  Thank you to Becky for uploading the texts.

Wednesday - The Elijah Connection

How wonderful to start the day again sitting on our balcony as the sun was rising over the Sea of Galilee!

Our bus journey today took us to Mount Carmel and Elijah.

First, we went into a beautiful chapel and shared in reflections on the connections between Jesus and Elijah.  The notes are in the worship booklet.

As our prayers came to an end we lit a candle for Joan and Ron and remembered them in our prayers.  We had missed them on our pilgrimage.

We made our way to the roof top and enjoyed the stunning views down to Miggido and voer to Nazareth and down to Samaria, overlooking the Jezreel Valley, also known as the valley of Esdraelon.

Then we made our way to Haifa, the gardens of a Bahai temple, and on to Acre, an ancient Arab city, a walled crusader city.   It was wonderful exploring the dark alleys.  It was like Jerusalem without the bustle, and like Hebron without the tension.

A guide book summed it up:  Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays and Haifa works.  It was an enormous industrial city, set in the busiest of modern ports, itself set in an enormous bay.

On the journey back home Richard Major treated us to a reading of the parables of Mark 4 and Luke 15 in the King James version in a broad Gloucestershire accent ... all in tribute to the Gloucestershire born William Tyndale.

Wonderful to hear the seed parables as we passed fields that were being harvested on the way back to the Capernaum area, and to be reading the parable of the lost sheep as we saw a flock of sheep being shepherded through the fields!

For me those three parables in Luke 15 go to the heart of the Gospel of Grace. 

The love of God the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep.

The love of God the seeking Woman who finds the lost coin.

The love of God the Waiting Father who welcomes back th elost son.

On arriving back in Tiberias we went for a short walk, had a small meal, and went into our final meeting where in a spirit of prayer we shared our reflections on the pilgrimage we had shared together.

It was a time once again to recall places, think of people and sense a presence as we laughed and wept together.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Tuesday - the Sea of Galilee

On our way to Heathrow on the first leg of the journey, the morning star, Venus, hung low on the Eastern horizon.  Travelling due East along the M 40 it seemed as if it was beckoning us to follow.

I awoke early to see the same Venus suspended as it were over the Sea of Galilee, with Jupiter a little to the right and higher in the sky.

Maybe it was still beckoning us on.

I couldn't help but think of that documentary about the moon landings where those who landed on the moon spoke of the impact the experience had on them.  See the earth rise from teh moon and you see no political boundaries in the One World God has given us.

And the planet he has given us is alive!  Something we would discover as Tuesday unfolded!

Another breakdfast of salads over and we made our way on to Omah's coach.

It was a short twenty minute ride past Magdala to teh Kibbutz and museum that's home to the Jesus boat.

We didn't go to see the boat.

And I bit my tongue and didn't tell anyone what gloriees were h iding behind that door!!

Last year was then!

This was now!

Then on our journey of reconciliation at Tantur we were immersed in high level biblical study.

Now we were on pilgrimage.

How glad I was that I kept mum!

How right Joanne was to want to keep to a different schedule.

You can find out all about the Jesus boat by clicking here!  We were to do something which for us that day was far more important.

We boarded the boat four times the size of the first century boat that had been discovered back in the 80's.

We headed off towards Capernaum and then sat in the boat in silence.

Peace be still.

Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.

The words of Jesus speak down through the centuries to us in the storms we experience and to our world as well.

Back to the coach we made our way round to the church of St Peter's Primacy.

Around an outdoor table we shared in a communion service modelled on John 6.

In silence we walked to the shore.

There we read John 21 and shared bread once again.  The fish wee shared later over lunch!

We finnished with the words of Jesus, "Follow me."

And sang once again our pilgrimage hymn, Will you come and follow me?

Our service over, I looked for the basalt pebbles on the beach.  I had forgotten the shells.

Just above the water line there was a wonderful line of shells.  Myriads upon myriads of them!

This was the limestone of millions of years hence.

Geology and theology touched once more.

To hold a fossil in my hand as I had done at  Emmaus makes me see things from a different perspective, as it were from God's perspective.

Having put the troubles of now into God's perspective I can return to them and face them with new resolve.

Have faith in God!

Here at Capernaum by the sea something else happened.  Holding a fistful of shells tiny as they were, I felt as if God's future was in my hands ... or maybe better that my future was in God's hands.

Take heart.  It is I.  Do not be afraid!

A little along the shore is the church of the Tabgha marking the feeding of the 5000.

A wonderful 5th century mosaic depicting the four loaves and the two fish (the fifth being the one we break in communion) is at the focal point of the church.  It had been the design on the cup and the plate we used for communion.

Robin had taken part in the communion service.  He and Sandra shared the cup and plate we had used, Robert Pestell who had taken the service at Cana received another cup, and Felicity and I  added a plate to the cup I had brought back last year.  It was good to share as three colleagues and friends together.

Best of all here were the swallows.

One alone in a nest, brooding.  Another feeding its young.  Wonderful!

On to the coach and we shared the reading from Luke 9 about the birds of the air and the nests they make their own.

It was the shortest of rides to Capernaum.  We admired the wonderful picture of the synagogue 'on wheels', and reflected on the significance of 'synagogue' using the notes in the worship book.

We looked at Peter's house, identified when it had been excavated as the only house to have inscriptions on the walls dating from the mid first century saying, Jesus is Messiah, Jesus is Lord.  This was not hereabouts.  It was here that Jesus made his base for the preaching ministry he shared around Capernaum and Galilee.

We sat in the synagogue and explored the teaching and learning process that Jesus was steeped in, a process that involves not simply taking everything that is written in scripture as important, but goint to to the nub of the matter by asking what you read in Scripture.  We noticed the way Jesus teahes through enquiry and discovery.   What a wonderful way of teaching.

From the shore we made our way towards a wonderful lunch of St Peter's fish.  At the restaurant we were given another lovely welcome by someone who hugged Joanne and was delighted to meet her again.  A one-time Mayor of Magdala he plans to stand again for the Knesset at the next election.  A follower of Netanyahu, Joanne was delighted to be able to talk politics with him.

How wonderful to see the welcome given to Joanne not only by her Palestinian friends but also by her Jewish friends too.

On the Mount of Beatitudes we enjoyed another modern Barulzzi church and its wonderful gardens and balconies.

Felicity read the beatitudes and challenged us to think of ourselves as salt and light.

And then came an ugly and inappropriate altercationi with a guide who claimed we should not be doing that there.  A few minutes later he was doing the same thing with his group in the same spot.

I couldn't but do my YouTube video clip in that very spot, once he had moved on.

It was a spot that had a commanding view down to the sea and over to Tiberias.  I had not realised how close Tiberias was.

It was almost as if Jesus was in a stand-off with the Roman City across the water.

He had an alternative to teh Romanisation process of urbanisation and commercialisation.  His way of doing kingdom was different!

The city built on the hill of the sermon on the mount, the kingdom of God Jesus had come to inaugurate, cannot be hidden!!

Another new way of reading a familiar text!

In the shared silece of beautiful gardens and stunning views I scanned the Sermon on the Mount.

It is a magnificent sermon.

The beatitudes and following verses give a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about and of what it means to belong to the kingdom.

Chapter 5 then demonstrates what it takes to love your neighour.

It comes to a climax with a one-liner in the last verse.  "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."  That is not a plea for an unattinable perfectionism that can become an obsession.  It is a challenge to leave no part of our lives untouched by the Gospel of Christ and the love of neighbour.  Be whole and complete people in your commitment to Christ, leave no part of your lives untouched by his Spirit.  The word 'perfect' is a similar word to the one Jesus uses from the cross, the last of those sayings we had quoted in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is finished.

It is as if Jesus is saying, keep going in this Christian faith, until you come to the point at which you too can say with your dying breath, it is finished, it is accomplished, it is completed.

This is the Kingdom to be part of!

We went round to enjoy freshly squeezed orange juice from a stall whose business had been squeezed almost out of existence by new dining arrangments in a recenly opened car park.  Joanne wanted us to support him, just as we had done last year!

Then we went on a wonderful ride round the whole of the Sea of Galilee.

It was time to test the geology I had read about.

And it was just asI had expected!

The area around Capernaum with a great deal of volcanic activity in the distant past is richly fertile, making it the only part of the countryside around the Sea of Galilee that fits the kind of mountain top envisaged in Matthew 5, the kind of parables spoken in Mark 4.

Over the Jordan and on to the Syrian side of the Sea, the Golan Heights now occupied by Israel, and the terrain changes completely.

We have moved from the African Tectonic plate to the west of the Jordan valley over to the Arabian Tectonic plate on the Eastern side.  And it was so different.  The very different, sandier rocks, plunged down into the sea.  They had more of a desert appearance to them, having moved up from the deserts of further south.

We started around Capernaum in what would have been Herod Antipas's Galilee.  As we crossed the Jordan we crossed over into the Gaulanitus that was controlled by another of Herod the Great's sons, Philip.

Before long we crossed over into the Decapolis, the Gentile territory, where we briefly marked the feeding of the 4000 and the gathering of 7 baskedt of left-overs.  Then we stopped at teh foot of the cliffs to read the story of the Gadarene swine.

It's Ched Myers, in his commentary on Mark Binding the Strong Man, who makes a great dal of the political significance of this miracle.  Not only does it have something to say in the context of Jesus' ministry, but it also has something to say to teh church community Mark was writing for, maybe the Galilean community based in that house church we had visited in Capernaum.  In the mid 60's it was a small community trying to hold its own in following the Jesus way.  War was coming closer as Jewish rebels took Jerusalem and the Roman legionaries prepared to march down from Syria past Capernaum to re-take and sack Jerusalem.

Hold on to Christ's way for he will cleanse the Legions of their evil force, and will remove the threat to health and well being they pose.

It is powerful stuff that speaks straight to today's situation.

We travelled down to the southernmost end of the Sea and over the Jordan back on to the African Tectonic Plate and our by now familiar Limestone ridge.  At this point we returned to the Galilee of Herod Antipas.

We caught a glimpse of the baptisms going on in the baptismal theme park just where the Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee.

It had been more exciting to have passed the site of John the Baptist's wilderness baptisms in the Judaean wilderness earlier.

We arrrived back at Tiberias in time for an ice cream on the front, dinner and a lovely evening back down on the 'promenade'.

Monday - North to Galilee

An early start on Monday to avoid traffic. 7.15am!  We said our farewells to Yusef and the Star Hotel and made our way slowly through the check-point and then through the Jerusalem traffic.

We had one last look at Temple Mount just before the road swept into a tunnel and headed down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It wasn't long before we were heading up the Jordan Valley,, a transform fault or rift valley, where the Arabian Plate is slipping past the African Plate.  It has wonderful geology and was all shrouded in mist!

We passed the location of John the Baptist's baptising in the Jordan, accessible only from the Jordanian side of the river.

And then we made our way up to Nazareth to the one and only spring where you know Jesus came with Mary. 

  We had a lovely lunch at the YMCA and glimpsed the new Nazareth theme park exploring life and society in the time of Jesus.

We went on to the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation and shared thoughts on the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, Jesus' childhood, and went on to reflect on the very first preaching he shared at the synagogue in Nazareth and the way it set out Jesus' program of good news for the poor, release for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.

It was fascinating to see another Catholic church with its table in the centre and seating all around it.  It was fascinating hearing some of our Roman Catholic friends speaking of the way in which there are movements within the Roman Catholic church to return to the simplicity of the pre-Constantinian church and to have a focus on 'breaking the Scriptures' as you gather around the table.

We shared our reflections over an archaeological dig in the grounds of the church exposing houses, shops and a street from  Roman days.

Here Joseph, the tekton, would have plied his trade, quite possibly working on the re-building of the nearby Roman city of Sepphoris.

Our pilgrimage took us on to nearby Cana, where we made our way to a beautifully peaceful church, where Robert Pestell led our service celebrating marriage and family life, and remembering partners who have died.

It was one of those special moments in our pilgrimage.

Our worship over, we made our way to our next destination, the resort town of Tiberias, a Roman city established by Herod Antipas as Jesus was growing up.

We made our way to the hotel and checked in.  During the evening we had a planning meeting and then drew the evening to a close.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Sunday - in Jerusalem and beyond!

I slept through the dawn call to prayer but was woken by the Bethlehem bells summoning us to church.

Robert responded to the call of the bell and went down to the church of the Nativity for prayer in the early morning. He said how moving it was to share in quiet prayer in one part of the church, and to be part of the orthodox worship in another.

We made an early start and made our way first to the Western Wall. The coach took us past Hezekiah's tunnel and up the hill towards the temple mount. Reading Psalm 122 as we approached the temple mount was moving as we read the invitation to 'go up to the house of the Lord' and 'pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

It was for the peace of Jerusalem that I made my prayers at the foot of the western wall.

We then made our way to a Franciscan monastery that marks the place, there or thereabouts of the upper room and the last supper. We sat in a beautiful rose garden where the scent hung heaily in the air and read through the account of the disciples following the man with the pitcher of water through the streets of Jerusalem to an upper room where the passover meal had already been prepared for them. We read through the account of the foot washing in John 13 and summarised the words of comfort and prayer of Jesus in John 14-17, before moving on to the resurrection and the day of Pentecost.

Our readings over, we had a time of silence in the garden. At the end of 20 minutes the Polish pilgrimage who had been saying mass in the chapel came out and we were able to go in. I spoke to the priest in charge of the pilgrimage who was a professor of New Testament studies in Warsaw university who had spent 10 years studying in Jerusalem. He was a great advocate of the need to read the fifth gospel alongside the other four.

Then it was into the most beautiful of small chapels with a modern bronze of the last supper beyond the altar. Five minutes more of silence and a prayer with the promise of peace from John 14;27.

On the way round to the East Jerusalem Baptist church I recounted the story of Margaret Stansgate, Tony Benn's mother and the first president of the congregational Federation. A Hebrew scholar, she had visited Ben Gurion shortly after the founding of the State of Israel with her husband who at that time was minister for air. When he saw her reading his Hebrew bible, he commented, "We'll never make a good zionist of you: you know too much Hebrew!'

A library in the Hebrew Unjiversity on Mount Scopus is named after Margaret Stansgate.

It was then down to the Baptist church where Robert gave greetings, I preached at Alex Awad's invitation - on the theme of 'the presence' and 'moving immoveable mountains' using the notes in the worship book. It was wonderful, and entirely unplanned, that our service finished with communion.

Refreshements outside over, we got on to the coach and made our way to Jericho and the Mount of Temptation.

I gues we succumbed to temptation and had lunch at the most wondeful of restaurants. We read the story of the Good Samaritan on the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Zaccaheus story beside a sycamore tree (the very one!!!!). With the story of Blind Bartimaeus we made our way down to the Dead Sea.

We stopped off at Qumran, site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of a monastic community that pre-dates the time of Christ.  It was this kind of ascetic life that John the Baptist lived.

It was surreal coating ourselves with 'asphaltic' mud and then entering the waters of the sea only to float almost immediately!!! What an experience lying there and reading Highbury News!!! Pictorial evidence will follow!

Most weird was to think as my face was at the level of the water that I was at the lowest point on the surface of the planet, and no one was lower than me!!

Back in the coach, one more stop for retail therapy and back up to Jerusalem.

A final dinner in Bethlehem was coming to an end when all the lights in our panoramic restaurant ent out and a trolloey came in with a wonderful birthday cake complete with candles and inscription for Felicity.

And now we have come to the end of our stay in Bethlehem. It's a 6-00 call in the morning ready for a 7-15 start for the Galilee. And a lot of geology as we make our way up the wonderful rift valley of the Jordan.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Saturday - visiting friends and joining Scouts

A day with a difference today!

After a tour round Bethlehem we joined Joanne's Bethlehem friends for a rooftop Palestinian lunch that was superb.

There were stories to share with the family and the warmest of welcomes.

The afternoon was shorter than usual, and we made our way back to the hotel to be met by a friend who was going to act as interpreter as we met up with a recently founded Scout and Guide Group.

He took us through the busy streets of Bethlehem, buzzing with Saturday afternoon shopping. Vegetables spread out on trays on the pavement, small dusty and enticing shops.

We made our way to a school where we were ushered into a reception room to meet the head and one of the teachers who had recently started a Scout and Guide group.

Johnny, the teacher, spoke of the way the Scout and Guide Group had recently been formed. Soon Michael, the Head joined us. He told us about the school, the reasons for forming a Scout group and shared with us some of the problems they face as a school, not least the difficulty of organising trips out of Bethlehem.

We then went to join the Scouts. They were busy in the school yard, and quickly gave us a Scouting welcome. They were doing knots and Felicity, Christine and Elaine joined in.

Felicity is the Group Scout leader at the first (Highbury) Cheltenham scout group back at home. She also is responsible for international links for Gloucestershire's Scouts. Recently a UK Arab link had been made by Scouting in the UK and Felicity was planning to make links with Palestinian Scouts. Christine leads Holy Trinity Brownies that also have links with Highbury, and Elaine is a Guider near Bedford. We were also joined by Jonathan, who had worked his way right through Scouts over in Ireland.

Having tied enough knots, Johnny asked our three leaders to lead a game. They introduced 20 Scouts and Guides to Cat and Mouse and all had a lot of fun. It's hard enough trying to explain games in English let alone having to translate into Arabic.

The games over, the Scout and Guide meeting came to an end with a closing ceremony and we all moved into the Scout hut, and the Scout leader's office.

It was great seeing a film about scouting in Bethlehem, and then moving on to exchange gifts.  Felicity shared gifts from Highbury and Christine from Holy Trinity's Brownies and from Guiding.

We heard their new band playing some newly learned pieces. Then we filmed a wonderful Christmas greeting to go with the Peace Light ceremony. Make a note - the Wednesday before Chrsitmas, 6-30 at Highbury.

Four of us accepted an invitation to a money raising party and dance at a hotel at the bottom of the street - it promises to be fun and explains my early blog!

We're off to the East Jerusalem Baptist church in the morning where I have been invited to preach. And then it's off to the Dead Sea!

We are all thinking of you in our prayers as we remember all the churches represented on our pilgrimage.

If you pick this up before your service tomorow, then here are some thoughts for prayer.

Please pray for the people of Bethlehem and particularly the Christian communities as they seek to work for peace and justice.

Please pray for the people we have been meeting and the difficulties they face.

Pray for Alex Awaad and the work of the Bethlehem Bible College and the Shepherds' Society as they seek to provide development and humanitarian aid not only here in Bethlehem but also in Gaza.

Pray for Fr Michael McGarry and the Tantur Ecumenical Institute as they not only provide a place of study, but also a space where Israeli and Palestinian can meet and listen to and learn from each other.

Pray for us as our pilgrimage continues and for me as I preach tomorrow.

And above all pray for the peace of Jerusalem and peace for the people of this place.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Friday - cross and resurrection: from Gethsemane to Emmaus

Today has been a very special day for me.

My father started in the ministry in 1940 and died shortly after his retirement in 1980. Each Easter Sunday evening of that 40 year ministry he preached on Luke 24 and the Road to Emmaus. It is a tradition I have tried to continue since entering the ministry in 1977. That means that since 1940 my father and I between us have preached on the Road to Emmaus on no fewer that 69 Easter Sunday evenings.

As we have followed in the footsteps of Jesus down the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to Calvary and beyond to Emmaus and resurrection I have had my father and mother very much in my mind, and acknowledge how much I owe to them for the Christian faith that has become more and more important to me over the years.

The coach dropped us off on the Mount of Olives at the church of Pater Noster. Queueing up to go down into a cave supposedly used by Jesus to share teaching with his disciples, we found ourselves following and being followed by groups of Christians from Cochin in Kerala State in India. Sue Cole was delighted to make contact with people from a part of the world she knows so well, supporting as she does the work of Chiks, Children's Homes in Kerala State.

We went down into the cave and shared in a reading of Jesus' teaching on prayer, and a recitation of the Lord's prayer. Singing 'through our lives and by our prayers, your kingdom come' we opened our day in prayer.

We then walked down the Mount of Olives following the route (more or less) that Jesus would have taken. Mark tells us that the crowds through their cloaks on the road and waved branches they had taken from the trees in the fields. What makes us think they were palm branches, symbol of regal power? Might they not have been Olive branches, calling to mind the olive leaf brought in the beak of the dove once the waters of the flood had abated? It is a thought that the branches waved by the people were a recognition of the peace that Jesus too was bringing.

We made our way to the church of Dominus Flevit (the Lord wept), and there we had the most spectacular view of the old city of Jerusalem. The temple mount lay before us, with the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the hill just above.

Was Jesus impressed with they stunning architecture of the newly re-built temple that Herod had created in place of the former second temple? Or was he incensed at the almost obscene symbol of sheer power that could be seen in the very stones of the building itself?

My father's house is a house of prayer for all the nations, and you have made it a den of thieves, he said with rage as he turned the money changers out of the temple. But who is the 'you' he is referring to? The money changers ... or the Herodions and their supporters who had taken forward the power politics of Herod the Great?

When Jesus saw the city, he wept over it. 'would that you had known the things that make for peace! he lamented, but now your eyes are kept from seeing them.

And we shared the tears, praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

Our journey took us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We enjoyed the garden with its beatiful flowers, the beautiful new church and had a lovely group photograph taken against the backdrop of the olive trees.

But it was only after that the day began to have a wonderful sense of peace to it.

We moved into a part of the garden not open to the public but booked by Joanne. Under the Olive Trees we read the readings telling the story of the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and the arrest. In our mind's eye we followed Jesus through his trial to the cross and heard the seven words ffom the cross. And through all that we shared we listened to three sonnets, one of which had been specially written for Robert Pestell and the people of St Michael's church after this year's stations of the cross.

It was most moving, to keep a silence in that place.

Coming out we were hard pressed to catch our coach as it was holding up the traffic. But catch it we did and then made our way the 11 kilometres to Emmaus.

Be it said there are half a dozen places that have a claim on being Emmaus. This one was special. On the journey there we read part of the story. The road took us through a checkpoint, alongside a brand new settler road that is reserved only for Jewish settlers, even though it is in the Palestinian territories and to the village and monatstery where we to remember the events at Emmaus.

We took our places around a cross-shaped table in the beautiful grounds of a Dominican monastery, alongside a Roman road. With stunning views across the limestone ridge of mountains, we read more of the Emmaus readings, reflected on the identity of Jesus and read soem of the prophetic passages from Isaiah that Jesus himself may well have reflected on with the two friends.

Supper over we celebrated the resurrection of Christ before setting off for the return journey to Jerusalem.

Before we left there was just time to look round the church, to have someone take a photo of 'the two on the road to Emmaus' and to meet a remarkable young man.

Only 20 shekels was his cry, a cry we are quite familiar with by now.;

But what he was selling was not a concertina of photographs. They were 50 million year old, snail-like fossils he had collected over the years from one small place he knew just down the valley side. Anyone who knows my love of fossils and geology, not least in the Cotswolds, can imagine my delight! More fossils to add to my collection!

Then it was back on the bus ... and on to the Garden Tomb.

Here we concluded our Emmaus readings, read the account of resurrection from John 20, and again celebrated that wonderful hope at the heart of our Christian faith that nothing in life or in death, no height, no depth, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Whether or not this was the place, it was here or hereabouts, and the tomb, typical of tombs of the first century set in a beautiful garden, prompted a sense of celebration at the joy of resurrection.

It had been a good day ... and one full for me of thoughts of my father and my mother and the influence they have had on my ministry.

At dinner we were joined by Fr Michael McGarry, Rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. After dinner he told us a little of his own life story and gave us a glimpse of the work of the Tantur Institute.

Set up after Vatican II in order to bring together the Christian traditions it continues its ecumencial work, but now also provides a safe place where people from different religious traditions and from the different nationalities of the Land can meet to listen to and learn from each other.

It was wonderful to hear Fr Michael, and to be reminded of how special a place Tantur is, not least in the impact our Journey of Reconciliation last year had on me.

Another long day has come to an end. And once more we must pray ... for those touched by the moving moments of today ... and for those who were not touched so much as well.

Maybe we can think specially in our prayers of those who have gone before us in the faith and give thanks for their memory, and for those more recently bereaved and pray for their comfort.