Friday, April 4, 2008

In the footsteps of Jesus

First, the good news. This afternoon I crossed through the checkpoint on my own, itself a forbidding experience, and had a solitary encounter with a host of taxi drivers. Having been advised by my joint host for the afternoon, not to pay more than 15 shekels, I tried my hand at bargaining. After being asked out of one taxi I had already sat in, and after facing off five others convinced that 20 shekels was the going rate, I had my lift. A very gracious conversation followed my handing over a 20 shekel note. By the time we arrived at Manger Square, my driver knew I was a minister, why I was visiting, and I knew of the sadness of living behind the wall. Anxious whether or not I would get any change, i was delighted to receive my five shekels change. Assurances of the honesty of the bargaining system and of the taxi drivers was borne out. That was the good news.

The day had begun with communion at 6-45 and an early breakfast. We were on the bus and departing through the gates of Tantur at 8-00. Once again we were in the company of Hannah, our Jewish Israeli guide who was going to take us around the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem and to visit the archeological park under the Temple Mount.

Getting off the coach we were taken first to David's Tomb. Nowhere near the city of David's time, a building dating back only a third of the three thousand years back to David but nonetheless revered as the site of David's Tomb.

The building encapsulated the coming together of the three great Abrahamic faiths in the Holy Land. On the ground floor we went into what is now effectively a Synagogue, a place where at the supposed site of David's tomb men and women (separately) will recite psalms. I read Psalms 121 122 and 123 - it was moving to do so.

From there we went upstairs to the upper room. And there we were in the room that has been set aside as the place Christians visit as 'the upper room'. It was upstairs. It was a room. And it reached back half way towards the time of Christ. Then it was that our Guide said a thing that I found helpful.

She explained that with so many of these sites the precise location is clearly not known. But you do know that the place was somewhere round here. It's not so much the location, she said, as what you feel in here. As she said that she tapped her heart.

That's it, exactly. She had gone to the point. The places have left me cold. More than that I am uneasy about the very thought of a 'holy place' in a 'holy land' for a Christian following the Jesus who suggested that Temple, the place where God's presence located is in himself, subsequently in all who hear his words and act on them, for as Paul said each one of us as a follower of Jesus is a 'temple' of the Holy Spirit. In the New jerusalem there will be no temple.

And yet! And yet! It is strangely moving to think of David in that ground floor synagogue and to read from the Psalms. It is strangely moving to stand in that upper room and think of the last supper, looking at a remarkable sculpture placed there by Pope john Paul II on his visit of a tree with three branches (the three faiths), with a branch of olive leaves (for peace) and beside it the fruit of the vine (grapes) and wheat (for bread). A wonderful sculpture.

Wonderful because the room had become a mosque and had all the furnishings of a mosque with towering over that upstairs room a minaret.

Three branches coming from the root of Abraham.

From there we walked through the Jewish Quarter.

Straightaway it felt different from the walk we had done through the Muslim and Christian quarters. It was so much more recent, wider alleys, much cleaner, much richer. The area had been destroyed in the 1967 war ... and so it had all been rebuilt.

The main market street followed the line of the main market street, the Corda, from Roman times. [NB I may be getting some of these names wrong - I will correct them later!!]

We emerged from the Jewish quarter overlooking the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. We stood by the Menorah we had seen on our first walking tour of the city. This time Hannah explained it was made of gold in such a way that it could be placed in a re-built temple.
An ominous note.

We then went through the security checkpost to the Western wall. It used to be called the wailing wall. But now Jews are back in israel and in Jerusalem we were told it is now called the Western wall. That is because it is the closest point on the wall of the Herodion plaza where the Temple once stood, that you can get to the Holiest of Holies, where God's presence was said to dwell. It is not actually the wall of the temple. It is the wall of the box which herod built in order to accommodate his re-furbished temple. it was moving to join the men, mostly clearly jews and orthodox too, and to spend a moment in prayer at the western wall. I found myself reciting the Lord's prayer. Why, I'm not sure. But it seemed strangely right.

On the way to our meeting point we passed some Ethiopian Jews who were marking the
presentation to their 6 year old children at a Religious school of their first prayer book at the Western wall. Hannah explained that they were among those Jewish people airlifted out of Ethiopia by Israel in the 80's and 90's in response to the famine. They claimed to trace their ancestry as Jews back to the exile. The story of the Falasha Jews is a fascinating one.

Then we went on to the archaeological site under the walls of the Temple Mount. Right under the Al-Aqsa Mosque we sat on the steps that led up the Hulda Gate. Hulda we were told could be the Hebrew word for 'rats' or it could refer to the wonderful prophet, a woman, who held Josiah to account and was responsible for an earlier re-furbishment of the temple initiated by Josiah. One of my heroes of the Old Testament story!

This was one of the first moments I was really moved by 'place'. These were the very steps that led up to the entrance to the temple - the ones that Jesus would have walked up. This was really where Jesus had been.

We went round the corner and we saw where the market traders would have been. We went down to a pool of purification. We stood under the great high tower where each sabbath a trumpter announced the start of the sabbath - maybe figuring in Jesus's temptations! Then we went down to a lecture room and Hannah took us around a computer simulation of the Temple. Wonderful!!!

A wonderful experience.

Then many set off for more adventures in Jerusalem, including a walk through the tunnels. I set off for Tantur, a lovely lunch and then my first real adventure.

On my own I set off through the checkpoint and into Bethelehem. I negotiated my exciting taxi ride and ended up in Manger Square. With the five shekels change in my pocket and the taxi disappearing into the traffic I arrived at the Bad News of the Day!

In my excitement at getting a good price for the taxi ride I had left my hat [vital in the sun!] behind in the taxi. It cost considerably more than the five shekels!!

No matter, I soon met my two friends We had tea in the Casa Nostra hotel opposite the church of the Nativity.

It was fascinating to go in another taxi through Bethlehem to visit a Refugee camp.

To hear the story of a family at first hand was moving. In 1948 the parents lived in a small village near what is now Tel Aviv, Bet Shemish. As Israeli soldiers moved in, they were moved out of their village into a refugee camp called Deheisheh in Bethlehem. For two years they lived in tents. Then they were given concrete blocks to build a one storey house. Since then the family has remained. Now the five members of the family live in a top floor flat, while other members of the family live lower down.

I was given a wonderful welcome with first arabic tea and then arabic coffee. Delicious.
The hurt and pain of the family was plain to see. He had married his wife nearly twenty years ago. She too had parents who lived in a village in the north in 1948 and had been placed in the Refugee camp.

I was taken to the roof. He showed me six tanks for water and more. Explaining that Israel shuts off the water sometimes for as long as month. It was painful to see. I took a photo of him. I am amazed how close it is to Jerusalem. There was Jerusalem over his shoulder. No further than Bishops Cleeve to Cheltenham [at least to the outskirts of Jerusalem].

He explained that he has not visited Jerusalem for more than ten years. He cannot. Israeli citizens have not been allowed to visit the West bank for a similar period. He acknowledged that there are many Israelis who think positively and support a two state solution to the Holy Land as he would do. But he has not seen a 'nice' Israeli for ten years. He is not allowed to. The only ones he has seen are the soldiers who come into the narrow alleys of his camp from time to time.

12,500 people living in 550 houses in half a kilometre square.

This was disturbing. Very disturbing.

He and his brother in law took me to the check point and then had to return.

I said good bye. They could come no further. This was very, very disturbing.

I returned in time for supper.

Our evening speaker was Alex Awaad, Dean of the Bethlehem Bible School. This is somewhere supported by Rachel Jacques who had given me a recent newsletter and asked me to see if i could make contact. I passed on greetings after the talk.

He proceeded to tell us his mother's story.

It could have been Yousuf's family story.

It covered the same period. It told a similar tale.

It even included a photo of the Dehesheh Refugee camp shortly after it had been set up. It was impassioned.

It gave a theological underpinning of the kind of view of location and place and its UNIMPORTANCE to Christians that I had been reflecting on.

He told the story of land acquisition by Israeli Government. Yes, a security border may be needed. But the wall has been instrumental in taking land from the Palestinians.

His story echoed the story told by Elias Chacour in Blood Brothers. Like Chacour Awaad spoke of the way his parents had taught him forgiveness. Don't look back, look only to the future they had said.

His story was designed to help us feel the anger of the Palestinians and to seek an understanding of their desire to retain and defend their land.

He sought to give us understanding, not to justify violence. Indeed, he spoke of his indebtedness to the Quakers and the Mennonites in his being a pacifist.

Pastor of a Baptist Church in East Jerusalem, he made my mind up. It is to his church that I will go on Sunday.

But before we get to Sunday, we have an interesting Saturday in store.

Lest I forget. My story of Bad News and Good News did have a happy ending. Joanne had a spare sun hat completed with label she had not used. As she was returning to Britain tomorrow she let me have it. I hope the fashion she chose when she bought it suits me.

She showed me the Bethlehem Passport she had been presented as a high bonour by the Open Bethlehem movement on Tuesday. It was great to hear her story ... and begin conversations about the possibility of leading a group from Highbury.

As I said before I came, watch this space!

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