Friday, February 27, 2015
Grace, Tabgha, Israel
As you might imagine, any visit to spiritual sites is generally crowded with other pilgrims. Two of these sites that I was most interested in experiencing are located on the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee. A Spanish pilgrim, Egeria, wrote about them in 380:
“Not far away from there (Capernaum) are some stone steps where the Lord stood. And in the same place by the sea is a grassy field with plenty of hay and many palm trees. By them are seven springs, each flowing strongly. And this is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and two fishes. In fact the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar. Past the walls of this church goes the public highway on which the Apostle Matthew had his place of custom. Near there on a mountain is a cave to which the Savior climbed and spoke the Beatitudes.”
Most all of the historical sites where Jesus lived and performed miracles have been preserved by building churches over them. The good news is that they now preserve approximate locations for pilgrims to gain an intimate sense of the momentous events that occurred over 2,000 years ago around the Son of God. The bad news is that in many cases, the unspoiled natural area has generally been obscured. Since so few people recognized His true nature until after the fact, hardly anyone immediately commemorated the sites and the sands of time obscured many of them. But then, there seems to have been a master plan to leave only His Word, which is all we really need anyway. So you must come to these places with an open mind to simply reflect and meditate on the significance of the event in this Holy Land.
We waited outside the Roman Catholic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish while other groups were gathered inside the small sanctuary. Some groups were gathered outside on the outer veranda overlooking the Sea of Galilee and singing impromptu hymns. Since childhood I listened to Sunday school teachers tell of how Jesus performed the miracle of receiving five loaves of bread and two fish from a small boy who was willing to share all he had to eat with the crowd of five thousand. And it’s quite feasible that the one who was involved in the creation of the universe simply multiplied them so that the large gathering was fed. After all, he had also initiated his three year ministry by turning the sacramental water in large clay jars into the finest wine the wedding steward had ever tasted. But I also believe that it may be even more difficult to turn the hearts of men to generous sharing with those who are in need. The many pilgrims in the crowd may have quite possibly been moved to open their hearts and baskets in response to the generosity that Jesus demonstrated to them.
Our group was finally able to enter the church and experience the simple stone alter over a large rock outcropping that tradition says Jesus stood on to bless the offering before sharing it with the multitude. We all took a few photographs, paused awhile in this spiritual place and then began to disperse outside to make room for others. Because visiting this location was one of my primary reasons for making this long journey, I lingered behind to fully take in the experience and study the ancient mosaic of two fish and four loaves in front of the alter. We’re told that we are still receiving the fifth loaf.
When I turned to leave, I became aware of a nun quietly lighting candles just behind me. I hadn’t heard her approaching and she didn’t speak to disturb me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but somehow we were the only two beings present in the church. I silently took a photograph of her lighting the candles to commemorate the moment. She turned and gestured without speaking to take my photograph by the candles. So I gave her my camera and she returned the favor. It hadn’t occurred to me to document my presence in this place that I had been studying for quite some time. I thanked her and left the empty sanctuary refreshed to catch up with my friends as another group arrived.
I believe that the lines between angelic beings and people being angelic become blurred at times. I believe that God is still a very living presence among us and His grace is still dispensed through those willing to be vessels for others. It seems plausible that angelic beings also walk among us dispensing that grace. Our sixth sense may even detect their presence at times.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Valley of Doves, Nazareth, Israel
As we drove through the Galilee region of Palestine we pulled off the road into the Valley of Doves bounded by steep hills. Another mountain trail lay at our feet winding into the green underbrush at the valley floor. And a small gurgling stream ran beside the trail which led to Nazareth. The trail had occupied this place for centuries and Jesus and his disciples quite probably used it as they walked from town to town, healing and preaching in the local synagogues. Since the principle mode of travel in those days was on foot, it helps to explain why most of Jesus’ life was spent within a fifty mile radius, even though his influence ultimately reached around the world. Walking the trail was a good diversion to leave the bus seats and stretch our legs. And besides, how often do you get to go for a walk and trace the footsteps of Jesus? That short walk alone was worth the trip to Israel.
The partly cloudy day was giving way to twilight and the valley was beginning to darken as we walked about a half mile through the valley between the towering hills. Some of our party had split off and was attempting to traverse a rather steep trail directly up one of the hills to a series of natural caves in the outcroppings. They were reluctant to turn back in spite of the diminishing light and the severity of the climb. As I panned my telephoto lens over the surrounding hills, I spotted movement up ahead just off the trail. It was just far enough away that all I could make out was a dark animal foraging in the brush. It had the appearance of a black bear and we shouted to our adventurous group on the other trail that it might be prudent to head for the bus. They didn’t need to be told twice.
When we returned to the safety of the bus, our guide informed us that there were no bears in this country, but we were late in departing anyway. Later, as I reviewed my camera images on a computer screen, the animal turned out to be a wild pig. We actually weren’t all that far from the south end of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus exorcised a legion of demons from an outcast man living among the tombs. They recognized Jesus as the Son of the Most High God and begged to go into a herd of nearby pigs that were feeding on the hillside. The pigs then rushed down a steep bank into the lake. Who knows? Perhaps this wild pig was a descendent and we tuned around just in time.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Bedouin Shepherd, Qumran, Dead Sea
It was a Bedouin shepherd looking for lost sheep in 1947 who first accidentally discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls by throwing a rock into a cave and hearing a clay jar shatter. — at Qumran, Dead Sea.
Monday, February 23, 2015
2,000 YEAR OLD OLIVE TREE, GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE, ISRAEL
If I got nothing else out of a trip to the Holy Land in Israel, my narrow view of the landscape as rocks and desert was changed. As we drove through the northern areas and along the Jordan River Valley in the Galilee region there were endless orchards and grain fields. Colorful green and yellow Banana fields were plentiful. The orchards we passed were ripe with oranges, lemons, dates, almonds and olives. We learned that olive trees can live indefinitely as the old wood is pruned back and new growth continues to nourish the harvest. The olive branches are turned into beautiful wood carvings with distinctive wood grains that randomly reveal pieces that are as unique as snowflakes.
The olive trees have been an integral part of the landscape since ancient times and dominate the Garden of Gethsemane which lies in the Kidron Valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Jewish tombstones lie throughout the valley since the Jewish people believe this is where the final judgment will take place. Gethsemane means “olive press” in Hebrew which would be expected amid an orchard of olive trees. Olive trees in this garden have been carbon dated to over 2,000 years old, which means they were alive when Jesus and his disciples found solace in this place. It was here that Judas betrayed Jesus before he was led off for trial and crucifixion. Judas was expecting a warrior king that would lead the Jewish people in overthrowing their Roman oppressors, not a peaceful savior for all mankind.
These olive trees were witness to the agony of Christ in the moonlight of his final hours of abandonment and isolation. It was here that he prayed so fervently to his Abba that he sweat beads of blood. The stone that received these drops of blood is enshrined inside the Basilica of Gethsemane for pilgrims to lightly touch and ponder His sacrifice. Coming to grips with the surreal inevitability of these final hours and subsequent trials must have been excruciating. But he is resigned not to his will, but His Father’s will. He knows that His hour has come in this place and the destiny of all mankind awaits.
If only these trees could talk.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Galilee Boat, Sea of Galilee, Israel
I’ve often said that if God goes somewhere to meditate it could easily be in the Maroon Bells National Park outside Aspen, Colorado. Two jagged, snow covered mountain peaks form a backdrop to a clear placid lake surrounded by white aspen trees. At sunset the mountains and their reflection in the lake turn a maroon color that is beyond description. I’m sure there are other locations as well, including the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent much of his time living, teaching and healing. It was here that he called his disciples to drop their nets and become fishers of men. He used the natural sound acoustics of the bay areas to teach from a boat just off shore so that his voice could be heard by thousands without the aid of modern electronics. He fed 5,000 with the example of trusting generosity and only five loaves of bread and two fish, as many of the pilgrims in the vast crowd opened their hearts and baskets. And one of his final acts on this earth was to prepare a breakfast of bread and fried fish on the Galilee shores for his disciples before his ascension.
We cast off on a replica of one of the wooden boats from the first century and powered our way along the awakening morning shoreline of the Galilee lake. First century people considered this vast body of water a sea, but present day maps now label it as Lake Kinneret. The day was overcast with scattered rain squalls drifting intermittently across the open waters. The winds were noticeably calm this morning, as it’s not uncommon for them to funnel through the 2,000 feet surrounding hills down to the 680 feet below sea level shoreline and whip up serious waves in the relatively shallow 200 feet deep waters. Jesus was asleep in such a gale when his frightened disciples woke him and exclaimed that they were about to parish. Jesus rose up, rebuked the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” At once there is a great calm. The disciples incredulously respond, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
As our boat motored out to the center of the lake, the engines were silenced and we began to quietly drift along the placid waters. The stressed-out, crazy-busy, merry-go-round world also drifted away and both the wind and the sea obeyed the command to be calm. God councils us in the Psalms to be still and know that he is God. Everyone in the boat fell silent as gentle rain drops briefly sprinkled on the surface water around us as time slowed to God’s time. And we all seemed to sense that the divine presence was drifting along with us in this sacred place on the calm waters of the Galilee.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Cave 4, Qumran, Israel
As I was standing in the bright desert sunshine at the northern end of the Dead Sea in Israel, the wind was rushing over the sandy outcroppings before me. They say that God is in the wind and as a boy growing up in the windy central Kansas plains I came to instinctively know this as well. Jesus mentioned that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.” The sunshine was reflecting off the Dead Sea behind me as I gazed at the site of one of the most famous discoveries of the past century. I was within a stone’s throw of the cave (4) where all fifty two chapters of the ancient Old Testament Biblical book of Isaiah was discovered. Other caves in this desolate and difficult to reach region also contained many other scrolls of Biblical books along with other writings. They had been copied and later hidden in clay jars by an ascetic sect called the Essenes who had retreated from the broken world around them between the second century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., thus preserving some of the earliest copies of world famous writings. The occupying Romans conquered Qumran in 68 C.E in response to the great Jewish revolt of the time and dispersed the people.
My mind connected to a time many years ago when I was standing at the edge of a great canyon in Mesa Verde, Colorado and gazing in wonder at ancient cliff dwellings. The Anasazi Indians occupied these cliff dwellings as the wind circulated in a timeless Bernoulli effect through the canyon. They also lived in mountain caves and clay dwellings and occupied them between the sixth and fourteenth centuries. The Anasazi planted life giving corn on the “green tables” above them and retreated to the cliff dwellings for protection from the elements and warring tribes. Archaeologists speculate that a 24 year drought finally drove the people to abandon their community.
When we were walking the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings I noticed a display that was seared in my memory to this day. The archaeologists exploring the site had discovered a very important find. It was a large clay pot thrown and decorated in the ancient Pueblo Indian style. And it contained the most priceless treasure that the people possessed. The departing people had hidden a cache of seed corn for another season of planting. Agriculture societies must always set aside enough of the harvest to provide seeds for the next year’s life sustaining crop. Interestingly, the Essenes had accomplished the same objective by hiding these priceless scrolls in clay jars so that scholars could have the benefit of examining some of the earliest Biblical writings in existence 2,000 years later. The arid climates and caves had preserved both the seed corn and the scrolls for future generations. And once they had been exposed to the light, they both could germinate into new life!
Monday, February 9, 2015
Clock of Time, London, EN
First of all, we need to establish that time is a concept invented by humanoids to make sure we’re a fashionably ten minutes late for a party. God is timeless and has no need for clocks. Will Shakespeare has observed that “Time is very slow for those who wait. Very fast for those who are scared. Very long for those who lament. Very short for those who celebrate. But for those who love, time is eternal”.
Perhaps Will had romantic love in mind when he penned those words. But they aptly apply to agape love as well. We’ve all known folks that died all too young and were cut off in the prime of their lives, but still left a lasting legacy. Then there are those who simply lived lives of quiet desperation and slipped unnoticed into the sands of time. But those who love God and love their neighbors will always respond by making a difference in their own lives and the lives of others and they will have an eternal legacy to enjoy. Those two criteria should be the benchmark by which all other laws are measured.
And it’s good to benchmark the time of our lives not by calendars or clocks, but by the life moments that matter!
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Frozen in Time, Central Kansas Farm
Dreams & Memories
I took this image years ago while driving through central Kansas in the dead of winter after a snow storm and recently transferred it from an obsolete slide to a computer file. I still like the bleak landscape with a lone ice covered tree standing beside the stark farm house and outbuildings which are unmercifully exposed to the raw elements. The blinding icy white snow reflects the intense light radiating amongst the corn stubble. And the memory of that cold sunlit afternoon still sends chills down my spine as the Canadian winds relentlessly blew unchallenged across the central plains in the heartland of America.
Northern winds and subzero temperatures pierce the very core of your body and reduce its internal temperature below normal. Rabbits had burrowed underground and quail coveys were backed into tight circles in the shelter of wild plum bushes to ward off the wind chill. A lone hawk anxiously circles on the horizon in a vain attempt to satiate hunger pains, but the wild creatures below are not foraging at this hour. The clear skies and sunshine betray the unseen high pressure area that hovers ominously over the fallow fields, as the temperature plummets below zero rendering the scene frozen in time--like an old memory or a long forgotten photograph.
Begin life with dreams, but depart with memories.
Monday, February 2, 2015
New Life, Overland Park, KS
I confess that I’m not always paying attention in church. I suspect that I’m not alone based on my vantage point at the back of the sanctuary when I operate the PowerPoint presentation. I never actually plan to be inattentive. Sometimes it just happens. I like to learn and process what I’m hearing in church. Part of the reason I show up is to understand my very existence in the dance of life. We humans have always used the dance to connect with the life forces around us. We dance for joy, for rain, for war, for worship, for expression, for celebration, and we generally dance with others as a community. St. Augustine defined community as “members united by a common love of something other than themselves.” We are all participants in the larger circle of the dance of life.
Our service this Sunday celebrated the sacrament of communion, symbolically remembering the ultimate sacrifice and presence of our Savior. I was struck with the realization that we were all here worshiping a Divine Being with a faith that has been described as an attitude of the heart to trust in the mystery of the dance. And I was reminded of the nagging questions of why I’m here, who I am and where am I?
I was jolted out of my thoughts by the soft cry of a newborn baby that a young mother had quietly brought to the back of the sanctuary. Then an echo of something I had read years ago entered my consciousness to remind me that the answer to the mystery of the dance lies somewhere between a baby’s cry and a distant star. And the very real miracle of new life was laid at my feet to assure me that this community dance was real and meaningful. It was a message not conveyed by words, but an image of new creation orchestrated by a power beyond total comprehension, revealed in the eyes of a newborn baby and a young mother’s loving smile.