Sunday, 30 December 2012

On the cusp of a new year

This is sunset over Point Loma from Coronado Beach... a stunning display almost pyrotechnic in its splendour and depth of colour.  We have been experiencing the festive season on the west coast of America. Its rather strange in some ways - scenes of snowmen and lights in the shape of snowflakes adorn many front gardens and houses - and yet the nearest snow is a short plane ride or long car journey away.  Most days are sunny and balmy - high 60's - low 70's sort of weather - but the nights are quite chilly and refreshingly so. 

We have both our 80+ year old mothers with us so that they too can see where their granddaughter calls home.  Both will have a birthday whilst away and we reflected as the first passed that when she was born the thought that this new baby girl would spend a birthday in her 80's watching the sun go down over the Pacific would have seemed impossible for her parents to imagine let alone comprehend.

But time passes and society 'advances' - though I use that phrase to imply that our understanding of technology and the scientific wisdom that underpins it is what moves on. In reality our basic instincts remain the same.  The world is still scarred by misuse of power and injustice, diminished by poverty and greed.  We still witness the destructive forces of war and watch on as innocent masses are displaced or, worse, injured as a consequence.  We watch on impotently as the pain of centuries are perpetuated into the present day.

With each sunset there is the promise of a fresh new day.  With the passing of the year is the hope of a bright new dawn for our world.  Yet we rarely seem to learn the lessons of the past and step out bravely into the future with resolve to improve...

May 2013 be a year of joy and blessing for you and yours

Friday, 23 November 2012

An Open Letter to the church I love

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’  (Romans 10. 12)

Since I woke this morning, I have felt compelled to write this letter.  I sat through the whole debate on Tuesday but not once did I feel moved to speak and offer a chance to engage in debate.  I never had a sense that I could reveal a fresh aspect to the struggle in which we remain engaged.  However, I now feel completely different and am convinced that in my own journey and personal struggle there maybe something that all those who share my love for this our church could recognise. 

The verse above has just ‘popped’ into my email inbox – it is our Patronal festival next week and those will be the first words I read at our Mass to celebrate the occasion.  The timing and their inclusivity leapt out at me and, with that in mind, let me share my journey with you… I hope you will be able to stick with it through to the end.

I had a shock when I turned up my first hustings as a naive candidate in the autumn of 1990, everyone was only interested in one thing – how would I vote on the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood?  (And why hadn’t I referred to it in my election address!)  For me, personally, women’s ministry has never been anything other than obvious.  I am not a feminist and I don’t particularly like inclusive language; I’m happy to be called a son of God.  I was fortunate enough to spend my formative faith years in an open evangelical setting where our Vicar encouraged me to take an active role in leading worship and the decision-making process that is the PCC.  I was standing for General Synod because God had called me to that role and I was testing it.  My address spoke of the numerous issues that motivated me – principally how to spread the gospel to our nation. It was a BIG shock!

I was successful and joined Synod in November 1990 and have been a member continuously since the.  I was there in 1992 on the day when we approved the Measure to allow women to become priests.  I wrote a report for my deaneries after that was titled “No Joy” simply because for me there was none.  How can you rejoice when anxiety is etched on the face of your neighbour? 

As I approached this week, echoes of that day twenty years ago crowded my mind.  I tried to recall whether it had been as dull and miserable on that day too.  I walked into Church House and the tension was palpable. There were moments of great beauty on Tuesday – starting with our worship.

It is hard not to play “compare and contrast” when I’ve had the privilege of being present for both those debates and I now see that in that very exercise I may discover the potential of finding a little kernel of truth that might unlock the gate to a way forward.

In 1992 there was a real sense in which the debate grew during the day.  The speeches were traded across the floor in a respectful manner, of course, but the arguments were developed and built on.  A true debate ensued and by the end of the afternoon when we all agreed the time had come tens of people sat down and there was a sense of grace and generosity in the room.  Some brave people changed their minds that day and their response to the movement of the Spirit through our midst meant that we managed just to attain the two thirds needed in each House.  Though there was no electronic voting, and therefore no public access to how everyone voted, we each walked through a door in full view of our colleagues and friends.  I knew two of those who ‘moved’ in the House of Laity, both were women and both came into that chamber that morning thinking they would vote against the Measure.  The price of their listening was costly.

Fast forward twenty years and I have to admit that I was impressed by the level of speeches that we heard in the morning and again very early after lunch.  However, as the afternoon wore on the speakers become more robust and I detected a sense of entrenchment.  By late afternoon there was something that almost verged on ‘competitive applause’!  The atmosphere “hardened” perceptibly, which was illustrated by the fact that several people, a dozen or more, felt unable to sit down and tried to say something lucid and fresh within a thirty second speech limit.  I failed to pick up that grace and generosity I had sensed all those years ago.  It felt more like the battle lines had been drawn and my heart felt heavy.  The inevitability that we would not pass this Measure hung in the air as the debate drew to a close.  I should mention here though that in many ways we failed to debate the Measure as people stood and gave prepared speeches; there was none of the frission of the verbal sparring we’d experienced before.

So, we are where we are.  As a Synod we are divided; that is the reality.  As a Church we are, at best confused and puzzled.  How could the will of the Dioceses be countermanded?  As a nation we are perplexed, angry and increasingly distanced.  How can gender cause such a furore?  What next?  Where next?  How can we begin to pick up the shattered pieces of the church I love?  Of the church that we ALL love?  And therein lies the kernel of the problem…

We are where we are because we all love this church.  This crazy, broad, colourful, frustrating, annoying, inspirational, national church.  It’s in our blood. It’s formed our lives.  It’s shared our special moments – celebrating our joy and mourning our sadness.  We are all here because we want to be.

To all ordained women and those whose vocation has been tested and are in training I want to say that I share your anger and frustration, your deep pain and shock. It’s only human to feel all those raw emotions and much more.  I want to thank you for the new perspective you have given to our church, your ministry has been a breath of fresh air.  But equally, I want to urge you not to vent your disappointment in a way that fails to acknowledge the cornerstone of our Christian faith – to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Hold fast to the truth that our church, your church, wants to see some of you in the servant role of bishop.  That is undoubted and has been passed with a great majority.  I know many who voted against the Measure who long to see you take your rightful place alongside your brother bishops.  The biggest challenge I face in my life is genuinely to show Christ’s love to those I find instinctively unlovely.  To search through the haze of distaste and see God reflected in their eyes.

To all those who voted against the Measure this week I want to say you can trust our church, your church.  I know you feel marginalised and under threat, unwanted and misunderstood.  But, I heard the reassurance I needed to in the debate from those who lead us.  Their promise to continue to welcome, nourish and cherish your ministries was clear to me but obviously not to you.  I don’t want to be part of a church that loses its inclusivity.  I recognise that you have actively chosen to stay within our church, not to deliberately thwart women’s ministry out of spite but because this is your church too.  It formed you as it formed me as it formed our ordained sisters.  I completely recognise that in many cases it would be easier to walk away (as some have done) but I want to thank you for staying,  It’s the harder road to take but it does mean we have a chance of retaining our distinctive rainbow church that is the envy of many.  I believe that you have listened but I want to urge you to engage with those you currently can’t trust; to revisit the theological issues that are proving a stumbling block for some and to work through why the law of the land feels more secure than the word of your father’s in God.

To the House of Laity not just in General Synod but for all those who faithfully sit in our pews I want to say that I know we all feel perplexed, possibly even embarrassed.  I hear people all around me asking ”how did it come to this?”.  Recent history has shown that our House has always been on a knife edge when it comes to all the ‘big issues’ so this should come as no surprise.  What I would say to everyone in our parishes and deaneries is that we must learn to value and use our votes carefully when it comes round to the next election in three years time.  Take an active interest, challenge the views of those who stand.  We need  a robust House of Laity.  What we must not do is rush into anything precipitate or look for a scapegoat.  We must start to listen to and engage with one another in a different way.

To the House of Bishop’s I would beg you to remain firm, continue to show leadership and model acceptance of one another’s difference in love.  I think the Measure is a hair’s breadth away from being acceptable.  I would urge you to think about how we can bring it back in the life of this Synod, we must finish what we have started because we hold the collective memory of what has already been said; we have the responsibility to see it through.  I firmly believe we have time.

I want to end on a personal note because in the act of penning this letter I have been rather presumptive in assuming that I have anything distinctive to say to you all.  However, I feel that I personally encapsulate this struggle.  I’ve already shared my place of birth and formation as being from the very evangelical wing of our beloved church.  But, I’ve been on a journey, especially in the last fourteen years when my job moved me to London to live and work through the week.  My instinctive reaction was to find a church that I could join, that would be a locus in the week and provide me with a group of like minded people to meet.  God led me to a wonderfully eccentric church that has expanded my experience of being church and allowed my faith to deepen; even blossom.  This year, having been an active member for eleven years, the annual meeting agreed that I should shadow the current wardens with a view to potentially becoming a fully-fledged one next spring.  I know it has no legal meaning but I feel proud to be their ‘deputy’ warden, maybe even their warden ‘designate’.  That church is very much from the Anglo-Catholic tradition but in it I have found my spiritual home.  To say we are an eclectic bunch would be a big understatement but we share a deep love for our God and a profound love of our church, the Church of England.  It was to that church I went on Wednesday evening feeling drained and deflated.  It was there I sat next to my dearest friend who had voted against the Measure.  There, together united in our pain, we sought the balm of the sacraments and the comfort of hug of peace.  I love and cherish my fellow pilgrims who gather in that place.

I do not want to be part of a church that does not cherish those fellow pilgrims; it would be a paler reflection of God’s immeasurable diversity.  I truly believe that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”.  I urge each and everyone of us to call on His generous love that we might begin to see one another as He sees us and learn to humbly live out that love to those we find unlovely.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Going back!

Its now just over a week since we arrived in Jerusalem after a full on day that took in farewell to Galilee, the Jordan River, Masada, the Dead Sea and Jericho!

The next morning - Wednesday, a week today - we set out to 'do' Holy Week and I've already blogged about some of it but not all... 

As I told you, we started early, in fact we so early we were the very first group into Pater Noster church. I loved the way Khalil described as being like a French embassy - the land belongs to France so the flag flies there.

Khalil is full of pearls of wisdom and little sayings that capture the essence of something. This morning's gem was - Jerusalem is a mosaic of peoples. The more you experience the city the more it becomes patently true. From there we took our palm crosses and started our journey following Christ's last week in a day. From adulation to agony and beyond pain. It was hot and the path very steep - so not an easy route to take. We had Mass under the olive trees in Gethsemane... Another privilege.

The way of the cross or Via Dolorosa was not as crowded and bustling as it had been last time but still you could get an impression of what it must've been like carrying the cross. Through the heat and heckling, being jostled and jeered. To 'escape' that and find yourself on the top of Calvary (in the shape of the Orthodox Ethiopian church) is in many ways a relief. You know journey is nearly over...

We ended up (as usual) on the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Ethiopian part of the church. When our devotions were over, and the obligatory group photo had been taken, two of us stayed on to attend Vespers in the Ethiopian church. Its rather hard to explain the wonderful deep tonal chanting in a way that will do it justice but observing the ritual was a truly uplifting experience. They lean on their wonderful wooden 'crutches' that tuck neatly under their arms, occasionally stopping to have a little conflab about who will do the next bit... or so it seemed - though i could be wrong.  it was simple but beautiful.  Now great choir or musical accompaniment but just delightful worship.

The Ethiopian church is clearly not as affluent as its close neighbours. There is also someone on each of the three levels - the roof, the upstairs chapel and the ground level one. All three 'guards' - because that is how they appear - sit there silently or quietly reading the Scriptures all day every day. I know that their vows drive them but I suspect there is also a need to protect property... and to try and ensure that their building isn't used as a thoroughfare at the most inappropriate times. Its a shortcut to the church of the Holy Sepulchre that sadly gets rather abused as people rush to see the 'main show'!

I was happy to just 'be' there

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Its fascinating hearing myself reply to the variations of "how was your holiday"?

For a start it didn't feel like a holiday at the time and even more so now on my return.  It was draining but then I expected it to be.  However, I still feel like I want to grumpily refute the contention that it was a holiday.  Yes - I got on a plane.  Yes - I stayed in lovely hotels in great locations.  Yes - I visited a lot of special sites, some more tourist-y than others. But I never once saw it as a holiday, nor did it feel like one.

The other popular question is did you enjoy it more than last time?  The answer to that is quite simple... there is no way that I can compare the two.  One was virtually all new and fresh.  The other was mostly familiar.  The two groups I travelled with were similar, with some common pilgrims but even so the dynamics were different.

So it was a pilgrimage, definitely not a holiday, and it was not comparable with the previous trip.

The next question is invariably "what was best"?  Now that one has caused me to chew it over even more.  All sorts of ideas came to mind but only one stuck there.  The best part of the last few days were the "A" team.  Our driver, Riyadh, and our guide Khalil.  They both made our journey so special and so illuminating.  Yet both were - are - Muslims... however, there was not one person on our journey who didn't agree with that evaluation.

Pilgrimages are about journeys and the companions we find along the way.  Often it is those people, those friends who make or break the journey.  The "A" team made it and were undoubtedly were the best feature!

By the way - the physical unpacking of clothes and other sundry bits - still has to be attacked but that will eventually get done once I get back home - to Norwich...

Monday, 11 June 2012

Inappropriate clothing!

One of the things that you're constantly aware of in the Holy Land is making sure you're wearing the right clothes.  Knees should be covered - for men and women, I've seen some rather fascinating innovations in terms of sarongs on men.  Shoulders should also be covered and sleeves should really reach your elbows - or at least approach them.  In some cases heads have to covered with hats - that's mainly aimed at women though.

Yesterday when we visited Temple Mount I was very aware of all that and wore full length light linen trousers, a long sleeved knee length shift and a beautiful hand-embroidered shawl I'd bought the evening before at the hotel over my head.  I sort of felt I looked the part - rather Middle Eastern!

However, the title of this post refers to my dress today!!  We landed safely at five minutes to midnight last night and I'd booked into a hotel at Luton airport.  I eventually turned the light off at 1.30 am but was wide awake at 6.30 so got up and came into work. 

The problem was what to wear!  I had to attend a meeting with the Minister this morning so nothing too 'casual' would do.  But all I had in my case was attire suited to hot weather and its the monsoon season in the UK at present.  I got some funny looks from people in boots and winter coats as we waited for the train on a blustery Luton station.  They clearly queried my sanity as I stood there in summer clothes, a thin cardigan and sandals!!

I am truly the most inappropriately dressed person in London today!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Beginning the long journey home!

The alarm went off at a reasonably sane time this morning - 07:30 hrs.  If anyone asks me how my 'holiday' was I may get a little grumpy!  Pilgrimage is hard work - though the 'partying ' is optional the early starts and exacting schedules to ensure you get the most out of the precious time here means you need stamina in bucket loads!

Today will be a long one, we land just before midnight UK time which will be 02:00 hrs in our current time zone and for many its work and school tomorrow morning! I am staying at the airport over night and going straight to the office - luggage and all!  It will be a very stark contrast!

Last night we continued our engagement with people who live here.  On Wednesday night my friend Alice and her boyfriend Moritz told me/us about their work for UNRA (I hope I've got the acronym right!) and the Holocaust Museum respectively.  Moritz is sponsored by the German Roman Catholic Church to work in the museum - pretty powerful stuff there.  Alice works with schools in Gaza.

Then Friday night Donald McIntyre (spelling? hope that's right too) the Independent's Jerusalem correspondent came to share his own views of this complex land having lived here for eight years.  Fascinating insights from a journalistic point of view.

Saturday night Abigail a young Israeli woman originally from London came to share her own experience having moved here recently.  She lives in Jerusalem but lectures at the university in Haifa where her students are both Israeli and Palestinian.  Her fresh insights were fascinating.

So plenty to chew on there then!!!

Must sign off - church beckons... and so begins the long journey home... or is home where we have been?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Behind the wall...

Today we have spent the whole day in Palestine, visiting the Shepherds Fields and the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and then finally, a trip to Aida refugee camp.  Quite a varied programme and one that will continue to resonate in me for a while yet.  We spoke of living stones at the end of the afternoon as we were driving away from the checkpoint... The stones are we have seen and experienced have been both hewn from the ground and also human stones.  We've learnt so much about the rich fabric that it the Holy Land. Its cultures, its peoples, its history, its theology.  We have one more person to meet tonight, Abigail a friend of Fr Brian's who is an Orthodox Jew.  Then tomorrow we prepare to come home but not until we've been to Mass at St George's and then visited the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

Apparently we're a 'lucky' group.  It certainly seemed so today as we arrived early for our Mass 'slot' at Shepherds Fields and were able to start straight away and then after lunch we virtually walked straight into the cave where the place that mark's Christ's birth is to be found.  Shepherds Fields was the most emotional moment to date for me.  We sang a modern version of O Little Town of Bethlehem - I wasn't the only one struggling to sing as the tears welled in my eyes.  We looked out and saw how much had been built in the valley since we were there two years ago.  The settlements advance inexorably. However, we learnt that the Palestrina's have taken to building new dwellings on their land, especially that land on the border, though that might not always work.  We heard yesterday about the demolition of homes at little or no notice.

We spent a lot of time and almost as much money (between us) in the Bethlehem Co-operative - they hand make beautiful goods and they are a group of Christian families who are desperately trying to make sufficient to stay in the Holy Land.  It is clear that there are fewer tourists.  This could be for a number of reasons - its getting hot, too hot for many Europeans.  The impact of the economic collapse cannot be ruled out either.  Finally, some may be put off by what is happening close by in Syria.

I will post more about the rest of the afternoon later but it was an incredible experience to meet people who are working on what they call "The Beautiful Resistance".

Last day...

Where has the time gone to?  These days in Jerusalem have just flown by!

Yesterday we sang Mass in St Anne's church which has the best acoustic ever!  The echo resonates for approximately 20 seconds or more. Everyone wants to try it out but other groups respected our devotions and didn't sing while we were worshipping.

From there it was up to the City of David. Lots of on-going excavations greeted us and the whole complex has been added since I was last here two years ago but some of us went down the dry tunnel that connects the city with the water supply. The main feature of yesterday was the incredible heat and the seemingly endless steps up and down.

In the afternoon we visited the birthplace of John the Baptist - lots more heats and steep inclines to negotiate. But more of that later as the bus is waiting... to take us to Bethlehem and later a refugee camp!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Too early!

I set the alarm on my mobile phone for 03.10 hrs today.... I haven't reset the time for Jerusalem but even in the right time zone, 05.30 is an early start.  But it was my own choice.  I had agreed to go to the church of the Holy Sepulchre with Jim and Aoife, possibly John. (In the end all four of us made it!)  It was worth it.  Being one of the first people in that amazing place was quite awe inspiring.  Listening to the tonal chanting of the monks as we visited the holy sites was almost other worldly.

Being in the Old City so early was also a revelation as we witnessed the city waking up.  The old women who sell herbs were already setting out their wares.  The odd little cafe was open, religious folk were making their devotions and as we walked back to the hotel people were beginning to pace the pavements on their way to work.

I haven't got time to catch up with Wednesday, let alone begin to do justice to Thursday... but I'm making lots of notes so as not to lose the essence of what we're finding out. 

However, in a nutshell yesterday started to introduce us to some of the peoples of this land in a much more immediate fashion.  We visited the orphanage in Bethany and saw the real improvements that had been made to the place since we last visited two years ago.  We also went to the traditional site of Lazarus' tomb.  Some of our party were literally at the bottom of the cave on their hands and knees crawling into the 'tomb' when the electricity was cut!  Pitch black is quite scary when you don't expect it.  After a delicious lunch in the Armenian Quarter we went on an eye-opening trip guided by a Rabbi for Human Rights.  These people put their necks on the line in the name of justice.  They challenge injustice wherever they see it and try and provide for needs.  We saw a 'temporary' school that they had built for the Bedouin children and the tunnel under the road that allowed them safe passage.  But I'll tell you more about their work when I can find more time...

Must stop - but not before I mention that Jim was chosen to be the Sultan at last night's Sultan's Feast! There was mush merriment and its still resonating this morning at breakfast! Our group really party well!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Home sweet home

I'm writing this early on Thursday morning because Wednesday was just sooo busy!

We started the day at Pater Noster - the very first people in there - gosh! - and ended it at the church of the Holy Sepulchre having down Holy Week in a day... exhausting in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

However, (hopefully) more of that later. Because the biggest privilege we had yesterday was to visit our guide Khalil's family home.  He took us into the old city and down the usual little 'streets' and then he told us he would show us where the 'most important' person had been born. Of course, it was his family home.  It had been in his family since the 14th century and from the outside was approximately 8feet wide.  It had a single door and through it you could just glimpse the white ceiling daubed with bright coloured spots of paint.  The traditional way to celebrate returning from a Haj.

Khalil told us about the deeds that his ancestors had established and how they are opened up every five years for new names to be added (and I assume others to be removed... on death?).  He told us how he has a room in the house and that others, his uncles, his brothers, his cousins also have rooms there.  He spoke about the work that had been done over the centuries to increase the living space, how a first floor 'yard' area had been developed to add a washroom and how his father had mourned the lost space for sitting together in the afternoon to drink tea.

Then he took us into his home.  That's why it was such a privilege. It was currently 'empty' as they were adding more rooms.  Behind the small exterior the building opened up backwards and upwards into an amazing living area. He showed us the room where he had been born.  He explained that as he now has a wife and four children it is too small for all of them to live there so they live about ten minutes drive away. But due to the checkpoints it takes about an hour and a half to get into the city in the morning.

There is something rather special about showing people your home.  It can define who you are.  It is quite clear that Khalil is unbelievably proud to be born in and a resident of Jerusalem.  He has great pride in the city of his birth.  And we were all the more aware of how close he was born to the centre of the Old City when he took us a very short walk to Ecce Homo where we were to lunch and then afterwards start the stations of the cross...

Oh, and I mustn't forget his introduction to Uncle Moustache who runs the best falafel stall in Jerusalem!

What a wonderful day and an incredible, unexpected experience.

Have to stop!  The bus leaves soon for the orphanage, Lazarus' cave and then an afternoon with a Rabbi for Human Rights! Another 'quiet' day!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Road to Jerusalem - at last!

We left the Dead Sea stopping briefly to take a photo of the magical mirror-like quality of the water. We chased a sighting of an ibex but only found more hyrax! I could understand why the ibex weren't wandering around - it was sooo hot! Any sensible ibex would be in the shade somewhere having a siesta!

Two more stops to take in before our destination. The first was Jericho where we saw the monastery on the Mount of Temptation and then did some shopping in a local co-operative. I got carried away and bought some saffron...

Then a brief journey to St George's Monastery. Part of it was the old road to Jericho. It was very windy and steep so gave a sense of what the path that features in the Parable of the Good Samaritan would've been like. The landscape was almost unreal, weather smoothed chalk hills with only scant vegetation looked more like a lunar scene.

The extra detour was worth it. Yet again I feel like I'm running out of superlatives. The monastery clung to the side of the valley. It was huge from where we were standing above it looking down. The bottom of the valley was full of palm trees and other plants. It was just mystical. A place of hospitality and peace. A place of welcome and refreshment.

As we got back into the coach I could only describe my feelings as that of utter satiation. How can a day provide more than that...?

As a postscript to that when we arrived at the hotel McCabe had arranged for Paul and Katie to be greeted by champagne - which meant the rest of us got some too!  What a fantastic end to the day!  We met on the roof garden after supper to share some laughter and enjoy the cool evenings of Jerusalem.

Khalil came out with another profound saying:  as we reached Jerusalam he said "welcome home. We don't live in Jerusalem, Jerusalem lives in us."

Road to Masada

The one stunning fact we learnt on the way to Masada was how far the water level had plummeted. We passed a mark on the rock that was above the height of our bus and the road itself was several feet above the current level of the water. The mark had been made in 1917 by a British soldier in a boat!

We saw sink holes. Huge gashes in the landscape that fill with flood water and eventually that turns salty.

Masada almost defies words. Extremely dry. Unbelievably hot. Just above sea level - so given you start at a couple of hundred feet below it towers way above the surrounding land. Its a feat of architectural and mechanical brilliance and - I suspect - endurance. Josephus Flavius in his book War of the Jews tells the story of the zealots who chose death over being captured by the Romans. Hollywood glamorised it even more to the point that it begins to possibly distort it all. But according to Josephus only two women and five children survived the massacre and told the tale to the Romans.

We saw some intersting 'creative' archeology. Where stones have been added onto the remaining structures to better define them. Yes, they were there so did obviously come from some building but I'm not sure I agree with that much restoration. On the other hand we saw some fantastic frescos, their original colours still strong and vibrant.

Everywhere at Masada there were the most beautiful bird. Black with tan edges to their wings. They had a melodic song and loved to pose for the camera!

From there to lunch at the Lot Hotel and afterwards a float in the Dead Sea. Though I'd been in before I decided to give it a go. The texture of the water is silky smooth, like satin. But its hard to conquer the bouyancy and requires different skills and approaches to normally simple tasks like standing up!

The Road to Jerusalem

The day turned out to be longer than we anticipated but not in a bad way!  The whole itinerary took 12 hours - hence the delay in posting these.  But long bus journeys help!


The day started early - again! I've left my watch on UK time and seeing it was only 4am didn't help!

However, I ate my last breakfast by the Galilee. If you told me that I'd enjoy eating taramasalata (is that how you spell it?! Will it be in spellcheck?) for breakfast I'd have denied it before my first trip to the Holy Land but somehow it just fits perfectly. Especially with a pile of olives and some delicious soft cheeses! Oh and pitta bread! Then the whole meal is rounded off with a piece of honeycomb and fresh grapefruit. Yummy! I'll start the diet later!

We saw a stunning but very noisy kingfisher as we left Tiberias. Its colouring was just spectacular. Dark turquoise back, bright white chest and vivid red beak. (I have a photo!)

So we've already seen Jordan - that makes it three other countries in the last 24hrs. The proximity of these borders really does give you an idea of the way in which the topography moulds the politics. Never has the expression cheek by jowl seemed more appropriate.

Khalil has just explained about Bet She'an being a pagan, Philistine place where historically the Israelites didn't travel through - as we did. As a result their journey was made longer by the detour. Hearing about the battle near there at Gilboa and how King David cut down Saul's body after it had hung three days and then burnt it seems more real - and in this heat - more putrid. Its easier to imagine the raw brutality.

Make that five countries - we're now in Palestine. The contrast is immediate. Five minutes ago I saw fields being watered - though as a keen gardener I would always water at sunset myself! Here the greenhouses lie abandoned. We're now driving parallel to the border between Palestine and Jordan and the contrast between the two sides of the river. The far side is green and covered with greenhouses - literally thousands of them. This side is yellow and barren. Flocks of goats graze on the dry grass. Of course one is more evocative of the land that Christ knew - though I imagine the banks were always farmed with such a ready water supply.

Apparently there are two camels waiting to be ridden at Jericho - Shoo shoo and Mi shoo! I think I'll give that treat a miss!

I nearly forgot to mention last night! We gathered on the terrace tocollect all the gifts for the orphange and hear about the second half of our pilgrimage. As we started to listen gardually everyone's attention diverted to a huge honey golden moon that was rising over the hills on the other side of the lake. It quickly became clear that all talking should cease! Moon rise is spectacular - not least because you can watch it all without fear of damaging your sight.

We went through an Israeli checkpoint and saw the most incredible as we headed to the River Jordan. An abandoned church stood in the middle of a minefield but on the Jordanian side of the there were three Orthodox churches, two resplendent with shiny gold domes. We renewed our baptismal vows and had water from the Jordan splashed or crossed onto our heads. We sang a hymn the third verse of which is really pertinent:

We are pilgrims on a journey and companions on the road we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

Then it was off to stop two on our itinerary today. Qumeran where a shepherd found the Dead Sea Scrolls. Khalil had met the man before he died and he retold the whole story. We walked round the site and I had to shield my eyes from the glare off the white stones abd soil beneath our feet. They are still excavating the site but scholars think that John the Baptist might have been one of the community for a short while. It does make sense in many ways...

Bring on Masada!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Beehives and barbed wire. Mosaics and minefields

Where do you start with such a long list of things to recount?

Maybe with more praise for Khalil! His background is archaeology but he also has an extensive breadth of knowledge that includes geology and theology. Pretty obvious for a guide here I know but its the depth of his insights that we are all enjoying. Today he has also added quite a bit of modern politics to his repertoire. Its a tricky line to take because you must be careful to put over all aspects of the arguments. He managed well though there was one issue about which you could sense the struggle to remain balanced. Water...

But let's start at our first site - Korazim. One of the three villages where Jesus performed miracles and then 'cursed' them because they failed to recognise what was in front of their eyes. The other two were Capernaum (we went on the second day) and our next stop Beth Saida. However, before I leap ahead of myself, Korazim was incredible. Barely anyone else there - it was even the first visit for Fr Brian and he's been a pilgrim 16 times! - the site was remarkable for its synagogue. It had the most beautifully carved "Moses chair" and the remains of lots of traditional family homes. One of the most fascinating revelations was a carving of Medusa that had adorned the temple. The Jews were heavily influenced by Hellenic culture and apparently often carved various Greek mythological creatures and gods in their synagogues. It struck that there really is nothing new in human nature - we still find other cultures attractive.
From there it was a short hop to Beth Saida. Given that it was a fishing village 2000 yrs ago it was blatantly evident how much the Sea has shrunk. It was easy to see how close it was to Korazim which stood on the top of the hill nearby. The stones that were used to construct the villages were local and a wonderful dark charcoal colour - reflecting the volcanic nature of their origin. They were full if holes - as if it had solidified while still rather hot. The excavations at Beth Saida are still in their infancy - though Khalil had worked there over 20 years ago - but it was possible to get a sense of the bustling town with its main street running through it.

Our last stop before heading off towards Syria was Kursi where it is said that Jesus cast out the evils spirits from a man and sent them into a herd of swine that then ran down the hillside and into the Sea of Galilee. Here we were treated to some stunning mosaics. If I sort out my camera I'll add in some shots from there. Symbols everywhere you looked. Fruit, flowers, leaves and baskets to name but a few as well as fabulous intricate patterns that decorated the borders. Breathtaking!

Then into the coach for a 1.5 hour journey to and through the Golan Heights. This is when we were treated to some real gems of interesting info from Khalil. He gave us more insight into the complexity of being a Arab Jewish Palestinian and quoted some famous examples of Israeli leaders who had Palestinian passports. We learnt abort the catastrophic decline in the number of Christians living in the Holy Land - Khalil said that the Holy Land has no meaning without the presence of Christians (and all three great monotheistic faiths.)

I had no idea that its not possible to convert to be a Druz and that they have nine reincarnations. Nor did I realise that there are only 752 Samaritans left and they live in or around Nabblus. They are the only group of people who speak the ancient Hebrew. The one spoken today is a modern construction aimed at bonding the many different groups of Jews who returned there in the mid-late 20th century.

Yesterday evening as we sat by the pool two Apache helicopters went by - I thought of  my son-in-law Colin and his boss George. (They manufacture foam for those aircraft!)  That sort of activity meant that there was likely to be more problems over the border.  We stood on the top of a hill looking out to the border between Syria and Israel.  It was as close as 10 metres from our bus as one point later on.  It seemed impossible to imagine that such a short distance away there is civil unrest and rebellion... Khalil told us more about the Assad regime - it was enlightening to hear his perspective, balanced and moderated as ever.  One of the great things about these sorts of journeys is that you learn far more than you ever anticipated.

The lunch at the Lebanese restaurant was yummy.  Fresh spicy pickled salads with homemade falafel, stuffed vines leaves and shish kebabs... with lashings of hummus of course.  Catherine even tried a red chili pepper - far more daring them us oldies!

After the tranquil pleasures of Baniass - one of the springs of the River Jordan we headed back to the hotel for our last night there.  Halfway through in some ways already though tomorrow is a day of transition.

From the coach I randomly saw all sorts of things that stuck in my mind.  Endless beehives that were only out-numbered by the number of signs about minefields - sadly.  Of course those areas were protected \by barbed wire.  I saw a family of wild hogs running through the tall dry grass. we saw the signs of the previous wars - shelled villages and an old tank and then the fortification at Nimrod. somethings never change...

Forgive the typos and spellings I'll check this when I have more time but I want to capture as much as poss while its still fresh.

Still takes too long to load a photo - not sure why but be warned when it does work there'll be a flood of them!!

I'm off to cool down in the pool!

The silence of eternity

I swam in the Sea of Galilee yesterday.  It was delightfully cool – though there was a moment of panic when John dived in and forgot he was wearing his glasses until he felt them brush his foot on the way to the bottom!  The lifeguard didn’t save his life but he did find his glasses at the first attempt.
However, having seen dawn, then swam and finally sat under a huge full moon watching its passage across the sky, its reflected light in turn reflected by the water, it got me thinking.
In particular it got me thinking about the privilege of being able to come here for the resources and the time that so many others don’t have. Equally so many who might don’t feel inclined because the word pilgrimage puts them off or makes it sound too religious. Of course faith floods through what we do but our guide Kahlil is a Muslim and yet it works. Not because its his job – even though it is – but because he has respect and that shines through.
As we sat in an ever growing group of fellow pilgrims last night, sharing laughter and fun – especially when Fr Brian decided to go for a swim with his daughter in his shorts and t-shirt – it made me realise the power and purpose of pilgrimage.  Its much more about being on a larger journey than this short trip.  Its about working out who we are and why we are.  And even where we fit in.  Its about welcoming and inclusivity.
For me Galilee – as we come to the end of our time here tonight – is summed up by the words of a hymn:
O Sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above, where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love… interpreted by love
Love was and is all around us – we saw evidence of that yesterday in a very human sense but also in a growing awareness of bonding with each other.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

What a day!

As we drove away from the hotel in our coach our guide, Kahlil, said what a happy group    we were/are... Within an hour we had outpassed that in a spectacular way...

We started in the town of Cana - so maybe that gives you a hint!  We saw the huge limestone jar that had been excavated in the town that might well have been the very ones or similar to the ones that feature in the first miracle.  I have decided that it really doesn't matter whether or not that is right or wrong, true or false.  The fascinating insight today was that only priests had limestone jars because of ritual cleaning, everyone else had the usual terracotta things...  Two couples then renewed there vows and while they were doing that two of our party had snuck away to a quiet corner and Paul proposed to Katie who accepted - queue lots of cheering and even more happiness. They met two years ago on the same pilgrimage... so what next?!

There will be some celebrations tonight - I'm sure!

Kahlil is an amazing guide and I have learnt so much already.  He spoke about National Service - men have to do 3 years and women 2 years but Orthodox Jews don't have to serve at all.  That - as you might imagine - can cause some problems between those of faith and those who now consider themselves secular Jews.

We went to Mass at a local church - Christ Church - it was incredible listening to a service in Arabic.  They were prepared for English speaking visitors - copies of the BCP and English Hymnal came out and a liturgy that had English and Arabic printed alongside each other.

I've noticed before how - when I am worshipping in another country - there is a 'lilt' to the spoken words that means you can catch where you are in a familiar prayer.  The same is true for Arabic - well mostly.  There were some prayers though where I finished quite a bit earlier... so there must be some phrases in English that need a lot more explanation in Arabic.  There was a celebration for the birth of a baby (14 years in the waiting).  The people were so friendly and served us with cake and coffee.

We sat in the synagogue in Nazareth and read the piece from Luke where Jesus goes there on the Sabbath - it made the hairs on my neck stand on end.  It may not have been exactly there and the building will have been restored and rebuilt a number of times but somehow in the heat and the noise and the hustle and bustle it seems much more real.  More immediate.  More powerful.

The colours in the churches are so vivid.  We went to the Church of the Annunciation and the brightness of the glass and the paintings/wall coverings made me realise how that echoes what is all around.  The flowers we see by the wayside are all extraordinarily wonderful, nothing insipid.

We went to the top of Mount Tabor and saw the amazing church at the top there.  The roof was originally thin white alabaster so that the light could shine through - sadly it started to leak to they covered it with metal.... But apparently it will be repaired so I have to come back and see that!

I've said too much already and need to go and get ready for supper.

We sang the National Anthem yesterday - as the Union Jack was raised on the Sea of Galilee... so we've done our bit!

(Apols for the lack of photos - technical hitch!  I'll try and resolve it!)

Day 3 already!

This will be a very quick post as we're about to board the bus for Cana and then onto Nazareth! For some reason last night I suffered connectivity problems! Annoying as there is so much to say!!

I want to tell folk hit by the drought that there is hope.  Last time we came the Sea of Galilee was desperately low, this time it much higher and it was teaming with life.  Tiny shoals of little fish - literally small fry were visible close to the shore and larger ones became clear - both in size of fish and number - as we went out to the boat yesterday afternoon.  It spoke volumes about bountiful provision...

This morning I woke early enough to see dawn... though I decided not to wait for the sun to come over the hills.  However, looking out on that scene the timelessness of it all hit me in a powerful way.

I promise to add photos later to today but the bus waits for no-one!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Numbers - and I don't mean the book in the OT

There is something almost quite decadent about starting a post by saying you're sitting on the shores of the Sea of Galilee... It felt solast night. Today has been our first full day of visits to sacred sites.

The thing that struck me as we went round was the significance of numbers in our society/cultures.  We started with the number 8 on the Mount of the Beatitudes.  There are 8 saying in the famous Sermon on the Mount and we were shown a modern mosaic whereby the current earthly Jerusalem is linked to the heavenly city by angels carrying the words of the sermon. 

Then we went on to Capernaum where the remains of a house church - said to belong to St Peter's mother-in-law - were found to be octagonal or eight-sided.  The new rather futuristic church on top of it is eight-sided and this echoing of the number rang in my mind.

Then it was off to the seven springs at Tabgha - the site where the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is said to have taken place.  Seven springs, two hot which produced algae which drew in the fish... Then the twelve baskets of leftovers and the 5000 was really more likely to be 12000 - as women and children weren't counted....

More numbers!  Our last stop before lunch was Mensa Christi - the Table of Christ.  Here we read the story of the risen Jesus preparing a fish barbecue for breakfast.  I had never heard why 153 fish - which is what they caught - was so significant before.  It is a mystical number in Judaism.  A number that points to God.

Lunch was delicious, fillets of freshwater fish and lashings of pickled salads. The fresh bread was so soft, perfect with the unbelievable hummus!

But we been fed spiritually too.  Mass by the shore of the Galilee... birdsong to accompany our singing.  Crickets to tap out our silent prayers.  A trip on the water beckoned and in the silence after more from the Bible it was impossible not to be moved by the beauty and serenity, the peace and awesome splendour of the landscape...

Of course the land looks different now but the shape of those hills and the foliage that covers them echo back to the time when Christ walked and preached, lived and healed there..

Friday, 1 June 2012

Day 1 - the last instalment

 The journey from the airport to the hotel was stunning.  We went a different way from the last time I came and were treated to the most amazing views of the plains of Armageddon and Mount Tabor with the outline of the church clear. 

We also saw the separation wall for the first time as it ran alongside the road for a short distance.  It looked innocuous from the road but its electrified and about 4 metres tall from the other side. 

But the best view was saved 'til last.  Our first view of the Sea of Galilee was unbelievable.  It took our collective breath away,  And in the the photo above - a pale reflection of the reality - we could see three countries: Jordan, Syria and Israel. The confluence of countries and landscapes.

Supper was as delicious as I recalled - a salad bar to die for.  Delicious roast garlic.  Herbs and fresh tastes that get your taste buds zinging.  Then a meeting by the shore of the lake... the sound of the water lapping gently... a gentle zephyr... and we joined in prayer.  A perfect end to the day!

Day 1 - part deux

We've only been 'on tour' for 24 hrs and already there is so much to report!  First and foremost our pilgrimage leader woke yesterday morning with his back in some chronic pain.  An emergency doctors and osteopath appointments were arranged.  With needles, manipulation and serious pain relief he managed to make it to the hotel. Fortunately his wife and a daughter were in the party so they could help carry bags.

This morning he appeared with some other pain relief - a hot water bottle but I'm pleased to say that as the day has worn on so it appears the various treatments and masses of prayer are working.

I have to say that EasyJet was a great experience.  The flight was on time - even landed earlier than expected.  The pilot was a hoot and clearly considered he'd missed his true vocation as a stand-up comic.  In fact the lack of extra security you understandably have on El Al made it all rather pleasant.

We're about to have our first official meeting so I'll blog so more later but we're a fab group with lots of diversity in terms of ages, background, profession - all sorts. But we started to bond last night over a meal and the odd glass of something... as you do!

Its nearly 9pm and we're sitting outside... its almost too warm but there's a pleasant breeze.  Some of the younger members of the party are in the swimming pool! Pretty blissful really!!

I'll try and add in some photos later too!

day 1 (still early!)

This is a first! Blogging from the plane as we wait for the refuelling to finish

The alarm was very early and it feels like I've been up for ages!

The young woman next to me is trying to buy travel insurance!

The airport chaplain was great - spending time with us in the queue.

Most unusual sight was a young man in a net tutu - bright pink - and very little else! Probably not on a pilgrimage! Though who knows... I suspect stag do's are a sort of spiritual journey!

The insurance has been purchased - phew!

Next post from Tiberias!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Day -1!

Well its here - or it almost is!  Tomorrow morning we'll be off to the Holy Land - bright and very early.

I'm currently sitting in my hotel room just drawing breath after a rather manic week and an even more frantic day. Last night's journey didn't help as we crawled through Essex my suspicions being aroused by the lack of speed... the conductor informed us there'd been a land slip so we'd be stopping at the next station until it was assessed.  Fortunately it wasn't that bad. Somehow the last minute chores got done and I even managed to pack!  Just as well I wrote a list - I was so distracted I wouldn't have managed without.  (I nearly forgot my swimsuit! Serious omission!)

The journey to Luton Airport, courtesy of Pete, was hassle free thank goodness so I've just ordered some extra sugar flowers for Naomi and Colin's blessing cake and am currently considering whether to bid on some rather fetching stars n stripes bunting! 

It isn't quite as spectacular as the 'bunting' in the photo.  I was in Oxford Street on Monday evening and it was just buzzing!  It didn't cross my mind when I booked this but there is a real sense that the UK is going to celebrating the life and work of a remarkable woman this weekend!  I even know a beautiful boat that will be in the Thames pageant - the delightful Maxime.

But I am sure we'll enjoy the celebrations vicariously - as will Naomi and Colin who have decorated their balcony in San Diego with the Union Jack!

So not much there about prep for a pilgrimage but in some ways it sums up why I can't wait - it will be so good to get away from the hurly burly of ordinary life and consider some very different issues.

I have been reading a really good book though - having read the review about it in the Church Times.   "Holy Land? Challenging questions from the biblical landscape"  Published last year it current and real, congrats to the author Andrew D Mayes.  Its certainly got me thinking!

For now my biggest challenge is to decide whether I want "soft" or "firm" tonight... Pillow choice is a new one for me! But before I struggle with that I shall head to the lounge/bar to see if I can find some fellow pilgrims but an early night beckons as the alarm will be set for 4am!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Its nearly a year since I last posted anything on this blog!!  Where HAS that time gone to??

The reason I'm writing now is that in just one week's time I shall be on the verge of going on my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land and - like last time - I intend to capture my thoughts as we travel.  I hope that you we follow me as I spend 10 days based in Galilee and then Jerusalem.

Last time I came back with my mind buzzing with the sights and sounds, aromas and vistas. I was challenged by what I experienced, both in terms of what I learnt but also where my preconceptions were turned upside down.  It's strange being confronted with the "reality" of all the carefully built up images that you've constructed over the years - but then how much of that is real??  If you expect certainty then for the most part you will be disappointed... much of what you see is received wisdom.

However, the Holy Land is much, much more than that - as the recent book and television series by Simon Sebag Montifiore demonstrated.  Its a vibrant melting pot of peoples and faiths.  Of traditions and beliefs. It is utterly fascinating and I can't wait for next week to come round.

I may not have much time between now and next Thursday to post anything else but once I'm 'on the way' I intend to start this journal with a vengeance! 

And maybe there will be photos as well...