"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Scandal of Disunity

The place I was most anxious to visit on my recent trip to the Holy Land was the Garden of Gethsemane, because it is there Jesus prayed these words on our behalf:
“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one." (John 17:9-11)
Imagine that. Jesus was about to be betrayed by one of his closest friends, and later sentenced to die on a cross by those he came to save, and he was praying for our unity. I'll come back to this in a minute, but first let me tell you a little more about my experience at Gethsemane.

To begin with, we had just spent three days at the Sea of Galilee and surrounding areas before heading to Jerusalem. Did you know that Jesus spent more than eighty percent of his time in ministry in and around Galilee? It's easy to see why, too, because it is stunningly beautiful...and serene.

On the contrary, when we got off the bus in Jerusalem the word that came screaming to mind was "chaos." The guide had used words like "bustling" and "congested." In my mind, these words are wholly inadequate to describe what it is like, especially when you compare Jerusalem with Galilee. To me, it was more like a full-on assault on the senses.

And so, we arrived at the Church of All Nations, a Roman Catholic church next to the Garden of Gethsemane that enshrines a section of bedrock where it is believed that Jesus prayed before his arrest. Hence, the reason the church is also known as the Basilica of the Agony. Anyway, I am sitting on a stone bench outside the front of the church, near the street, trying to concentrate on what Hana (our guide) was saying. I couldn't. The cacophony of horns blaring in the street and the passersby on the sidewalk was just too much. Thankfully, our group eventually took its place in the queue and we made our way inside the church.

It was obviously much quieter inside the church than it was outside by the street but still there were people everywhere. At first, I was just trying to look over their heads toward the front of the church. Then, I looked up.

The cathedral ceiling overhead, painted like a night sky, is magnificent. As is the painting which stands over the altar, an artist's depiction of Jesus at prayer on the bedrock beneath the night sky.

  Finally, as the crowd in front of me began to slowly dissipate, this came into view.

I knelt... 

I placed my hands on the rock...

and I wept.

From that moment forward, I felt peace. The crowd of people around me no longer bothered me. 

When I stepped through the exit into the garden outside, I no longer heard the din coming from the street.

Before we entered the church, I had felt upset and disappointed that my visit to the Garden of Gethsemane was likely not going to be the experience I had imagined. As it turned out, the palpable presence of God's Spirit in that place elevated my visit there to a level far beyond my hopes and imagination.

Later, in the day I was reflecting on my experience and trying to make sense of it all. It occurred to me that Jesus was likely to have experienced a similar assault on his senses when he arrived in Jerusalem from Galilee. Remember how Jesus wept for Jerusalem when he arrived?
"As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it." (Luke 19:41, CEB)
And that Jesus then cleared the temple?
"When Jesus entered the temple, he threw out those who were selling things there. He said to them, 'It’s written, My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks.'" (Luke 19:45-46, CEB)
I think when Jesus was in prayer at Gethsemane and expressing his concern about our being "in the world" he might, in some ways, have been referring to what he witnessed in Jerusalem. It is obvious from what these passages tell us that what Jesus saw in Jerusalem reflected neither God's will nor his intentions for our life together. So, Jesus prayed...pleaded with God for the unity of all believers, that in spite of the worldly corruptions they were sure to encounter they would learn how to be in the world without being of the world. As one commentator wrote, "John's Gospel views 'the world' so poorly that nothing less than the marvel of the unanimity of Jesus' followers could achieve its conversion." (Interpretation, p. 196) 

Such unanimity has long eluded the church. It still does. I believe that the disunity of the church, along with the palpability of God's presence, is why I wept at the bedrock of Gethsemane. The world is watching the church and if its conversion is in fact reliant upon the "marvel of our unanimity," then I am afraid that such conversion is going to have to wait. And wait some more.

When it comes to the global church, much has been said about Pope Francis and the impact he has already had in his young papacy. Francis, who named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, also recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, Pope Francis prayed at the Western Wall with two of his Argentinian friends who were traveling with him as part of his official delegation...Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheikh Omar Abboud.

This image, a potent symbol of interfaith friendship, should be the one to define Francis' trip. These three men represent the faith traditions that inhabit the Holy Land and their embrace portrays hope to a tension-filled land that is desperate for peace. Of this embrace, a Vatican spokesman said, "What can we do? We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace." Amen. We must all pray for peace over Jerusalem.

Of course, all this reminded me of Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane for our unity. It also reminded me of John Wesley's sermon Catholic Spirit.
"But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may." (The Essential Works of John Wesley, Russie, p. 706)
Sadly, there are some around the world who do not view the Pope's visit in the spirit of unity. Rather, some are actually being critical of his failure to choose one side over the other. I believe Pope Francis chose instead to live up to his namesake as a channel of peace. Personally, I do not understand how anyone can disagree with the faithful, peaceful approach that Francis has modeled for us. Is this not an example that a watching world would be more willing to follow? I think so.

I also think it behooves us to pay attention to Pope Francis' example because, closer to home, there has been a growing tension within our own "United" Methodist Church. In fact, when I checked Facebook for the first time after landing stateside, the post at the top of my news feed was from a friend linking an article on umc.org bearing the title "Amicable breakup of UMC needed, pastor group says."  The leading sentence of the article reads:
"A group of United Methodist pastors and theologians is calling for an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable."
To begin with, I take issue with the word irreconcilable, which means "incapable of being brought into harmony or adjustment." Really? Does this group really believe that we are incapable of resolving differences? That we are incapable of living in harmony? I, for one, refuse to accept that. I mean, would Jesus have prayed for our unity if it were an impossibility? After all, aren't all things possible with God?

One reason the group cites for splitting the denomination is that we are in a "crisis of covenant." To a certain extent, I agree that is true. However, I find this group's urging for "an amicable split of the denomination" to be an even greater crisis of covenant than the Discipline violations they point toward. Phrases like "amicable split" and "irreconcilable differences" are almost always associated with divorce and, in effect, divorce is what the group is calling for. I would argue that the issues of infidelity in traditional marriages and a rising divorce rate in our country are greater threats to the church than homosexuality and gay marriage. Yet, these issues rarely seem to be discussed with the same fervor, if they are discussed at all.

Even so, I have no desire to side with either the traditionalists or the progressives on this issue. For now, I am refusing to step into the argument of homosexuality and the church. I am, however, vehemently opposed to talk of schism. In my mind, in a world where so much around us is disposable, where something breaks and you buy a new one instead of fixing the old, covenants are not meant to be broken and thrown away. If schism ends up being the result of all this, then I will view it as an abysmal failure on our part to honor our covenant.

So, what can we do? "We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace." And, in the words of John Wesley, "we think and let think." Despite what this group believes, the issues they claim to be irreconcilable do not strike at the root of Christianity. If they did, I imagine Jesus would have had more to say about them than he did. Jesus did, however, give us a clear mandate...to love one another as he loved us so the world would know we are his disciples. They (the world that is watching) will know we are Christians by our love!

My friends, this is not Pollyanna-ish thinking. The Holy Trinity is one and we are created in their image. So, it stands to reason that we are not incapable of oneness. And, therein lies the scandal of our disunity.

I believe with all my heart that there is a way that transcends schism and choosing sides. The group of pastors calling for a split would have us believe that while it sounds "comforting and Christ-like," a middle-way is simply not possible. It is their belief that neither "side" would find such a way acceptable. I think they are wrong. I also think that they fail to realize that the group of Methodists that are currently standing in-between the two sides is larger than the two sides combined. Whether they care to admit or not, whether or not they are willing to put in the hard work it will require, there is a third way.

My dear friend and mentor, Dr. Steve Harper, has written a beautiful book, For the Sake of the Bride: Restoring the Church to Her Intended Beauty, that is a must-read for anyone who loves the church and is concerned about the dilemma we are facing. In the book, Steve is akin to Pope Francis as a channel of peace, pleading for us to abandon the takes-sides approach and find another way forward using a "round-table process." He writes:
"The process begins by recognizing the place of the round-table. Theologically, it is the place where faith, hope, and love come together. We come with faith, believing that we honor God by gathering in the name of Jesus. We come with hope, believing that if we stay together the Spirit will break through in some way to enable us to move to a place that is better than the current reality. And we come with love, the kind of love we have been describing in the previous chapters of this book. The round-table process is a concrete expression of the ancient Christian trilogy of cardinal virtues." (For the Sake of the Bride, p. 83)
The way forward is the way of unity and love. Jesus prayed these things for us at Gethsemane and is praying these things for us still today. Jesus is also calling us to the round-table and to stay there until we honor our covenant and make things right. The scandal of our disunity must end.

And so we pray and we ask God to help us by praying together these words from the Book of Common Prayer that the Holy Spirit used to transform my friend, Steve, and compel him to write his book.
 O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 818)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Foto Friday - Israel day 7

Day 7...
We began the day at the Garden Tomb, one of the suggested sites for Jesus' crucifixion and burial. This is known as "Skull Hill," of which only the eyes are visible, where Jesus may have been crucified.
The Garden Tomb. Prior to taking this photograph, the entire group from the Florida Annual Conference shared Holy Communion in the adjacent garden.

We left the Garden Tomb and headed over to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mt Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. This spot is believed to be the location of the High Priest Caiphas' house, where Jesus spent the last night of His life after being arrested.
The property in the foreground is a Greek Orthodox monastery built on the "potter's field" that Judas purchased with the 30 pieces of silver he received for his betrayal of Jesus. It is also believed to be the place where Judas committed suicide.
The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.
The Sacred Pit where Jesus spent the last night of His life. He was lowered into the pit through the opening on the right. While standing in the pit, we listened to Psalm 88. It was a powerful moment, providing vivid imagery of what it must have been like for Jesus as He prayed and waited for the events of Good Friday.
Our next stop was the Upper Room.
After some free time for lunch and shopping in the Jewish quarter, we ended our day with a visit to the Western (Wailing) Wall, the sole remnant of the Holy Temple, for prayer...a fitting conclusion to our pilgrimage.
This is the side for women to pray.
The men's side.
A man in prayer at the wall near what separates the men from the women.
A young boy in prayer. Here you can see written prayers of the faithful left in the crevices of the wall.
A man in prayer before the Torah ark within Wilson's Arch, a covered area to the left of the open plaza. This is one of several photographs I took here, I will likely share more later, but the thought that came to my mind while I was in this place was, "This is what prayer looks like." A holy place, a holy moment.
One of my last photographs from the trip and one of very few that I am in. I had the privilege of spending most of my last day with Dr. Bob Tuttle, a much beloved professor from Asbury who has been to Israel more times than he can count. He rode with me on the bus and walked with me, sharing his own insights as we went. Our time together was a highlight of the trip.
Well, this concludes the daily summaries of my pilgrimage, though I plan to post more Foto Fridays in the weeks to come that will include more photographs from the trip.

Up next, Faces of Israel, Flowers of Israel, and more.

Foto Friday - Israel day 6

Day 6...

The day began with a sermon by Bishop Carter on the original steps of the Hulda Gates that lead to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount.
As we were making our way back to the bus, I was excited to see this group come through the gate for a bar mitzvah. I'll post a few more photographs from this in a later blog.
We left Jerusalem for the day to visit the Judaean Wilderness and the Dead Sea. Our first stop was Masada, where Herod the Great built a fortified palace for himself between 37 and 31 BCE. The Romans surrounded Masada toward the end of the First Jewish-Roman War. Outnumbered, 960 Jewish rebels and their families committed mass suicide rather than be captured into slavery. Masada is one of the Jewish people's greatest symbols and is the most popular tourist destination next to Jerusalem. This is the view of the cable car leading up from the visitors center to the top of Masada.
Our cable car on its return trip to the visitors center.
A view from the top. The Dead Sea can be seen through the haze.
My favorite picture from Masada. This is the view from Herod's palace.
The second bar mitzvah of the day, this time on the peak of Masada.
A good view of the surrounding mountains.
From Masada we traveled to the oldest city in the world, Jericho, for lunch and shopping. This is the only picture worth showing from Jericho...a 2,000 year old sycamore tree. "Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today." (Luke 19:1-5)
From Jericho, we went to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. This is cave 4, where the largest number of scrolls (900) were discovered. It rarely rains here but when it does, flash flooding can come down the center of the mountain that stands over the cave. The Essenes who once lived at Qumran had a rather sophisticated way of collecting such rain water for use throughout the year.
We ended the day by the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, which is the lowest spot on earth at approximately 1300 feet below sea level.
Next up, day 7...more time in Jerusalem on our last day in Israel.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Foto Friday - Israel day 5

Day 5...

The morning began with this view of Jerusalem from Mount Scopus, where Bishop Carter gave a devotion.
Next, we walked the Via Dolorosa.
The culmination of the Via Dolorosa is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the last four stations of the traditional fourteen stations of the cross.

Station XI: Jesus is nailed to the cross.  Located in the right corner of the room, the scene is depicted here on the wall.
Station XII: Crucifixion and death. This station is on the left side of the room and represents where the cross was erected and Jesus died. Here pilgrims are waiting their turn to crawl under the altar to touch a silver disk which marks the location of Jesus' cross. The line was very slow moving and by the time it was my turn they had begun to rush people along. As a result of my haste, my photograph failed to turn out.
Station XIII: Jesus is taken down from the cross. This station  includes the stone of the Anointment, where Jesus' body was laid and anointed with a mixture of myrrh and oils.
Station XIV: Jesus laid in the tomb. The tomb lies in the center of the the church. It is divided in two - the ante-room known as Chapel of the Angel, and the inner room where the tomb itself is located. I was unable to go inside because of how long the line was to enter.
A beautiful photograph of the ceiling over the tomb.
After walking the Via Dolorosa, we left the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the Israel Museum, which displays this 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem during the second temple period. Built stone by stone, it is an impressive sight.
Another attraction at the Israel Museum is the Shrine of the Book which houses the state of Israel's most treasured artifact...the complete scroll of Isaiah found with the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Photography inside was prohibited.
Finally, our day ended with a somber visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust History Museum. Photography was prohibited inside, however, this breathtaking view of Jerusalem Forest was waiting from the balcony of the museum's exit.
Next up, day 6...

Foto Friday - Israel day 4

On the fourth day, we departed Galilee for Jerusalem...and the scenery changed dramatically.

The advances Israel has made in agriculture are amazing, as evidenced by this lush field of corn in the middle of the Judean wilderness.
This photograph is self-explanatory, nonetheless it was taken from where our bus dropped us off to begin our walking tour.
Mount of Olives, where Jesus stood and wept over Jerusalem.
Mount of Olives - Jewish cemetery that has been used for over 3,000 years and holds approximately 150,000 graves.  Many Jews have wanted to be buried here based on the tradition that when the Messiah comes, the resurrection of the dead will begin here. (Zechariah 14:4)
The Golden Gate, the oldest of the current gates in Jerusalem...across the street from the Garden of Gethsemane.
Church of All Nations. The Garden of Gethsemane is seen to the left of the church's facade.
Inside the Church of All Nations.
The bedrock where Jesus is believed to have prayed. I experienced my most holy moment of the trip while praying here.
The sign at the entrance to the Garden of Gethsemane. I included this photograph only because of the "face" that seems to be reflected in it.
The Garden of Gethsemane.
We left Jerusalem and traveled to Bethlehem, Palestinian territory. This is a Franciscan church at The Shepherd's Field, believed to be the location of the angelic announcement.
The Shepherd's Field.
The Shepherd's Field, inside a cave representative of the one Jesus was likely to have been born in.
Next, we visited the Church of the Nativity, where two churches, one Greek Orthodox and the other Roman Catholic, stand over the site believed to be the actual birthplace of Jesus. Pictured here is the fourteen-point silver star that marks the spot. Pilgrims wait in very long lines to kneel here and reach into the opening to touch the rock which lies beneath.
I took this while waiting in line to show how ornately decorated the Greek Orthodox church is. The gold wall pictured, with all the lamps and icons, stands behind the altar of the church. The birthplace of Jesus is housed behind and beneath this wall.
The Roman Catholic church is obviously much more understated. I love this cathedral ceiling.
Next up, day 5...