Monday, 30 April 2012

How green is my valley

The human eye can discern approximately twice as many tones of green than it can of red or blue. That's why greens generally appear subtle whilst blues and reds can be more in your face. When you spend a few days in the desert all of that becomes irrelevant. You discover that your eyes can discern an alarming number of shades of brown and not much else. Do not seek out an optician, this is simply the reality of being in the Negev. Also, you're not that likely to find an opticians in the middle of a wilderness, and if you think you might, well, you need to drink more water with it.

Brown, there's a lot of it about. That's why when you go somewhere that is different, somewhere blessed by a regular supply of water, the verdancy of the green vegetation hits you right between the eyes. Have a look at the photo with this blog. Now, doesn't that look lusciously green to you? If the answer is no, you're wrong. There's never been anything so green before. Never.

This place is called En Gedi. It is an oasis on the Dead Sea coast where a permanent spring of water feeds a rich variety of flora and fauna for about a kilometre before it picks up so much salt that it is effectively dead. There are many water courses along the shores of the Dead Sea but almost all are ephemeral, dry for most of the year and only running after a large, and rare deluge.

En Gedi is where David hid from King Saul (1 Samuel 23). As a hiding place it made sense. The Dead Sea area was the kind of place you didn't want to go unless you really had to. Hot and desolate, you could easily find yourself several days from the nearest water source; water that wouldn't kill you if you drank it, that is. A place such as En Gedi was an oasis in the truest sense, offering all not only water but also food and shelter. Anyone pursuing you would have to be pretty determined.

Well, if you read on in the story you find that King Saul was rather determined and also rather foolish. He pursues David to En Gedi but ends up at David's mercy. David spares Saul and exacts from him a pardon.

The story fits the place. In a land of death, life is given in an oasis of life. The Bible often does this; fits the story to the setting, or maybe it's the other way round.

ps. I actually tweaked the photo to make it appear more green and lush than the original image.

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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rubbing a little salt in the wound

Today (Sunday) at 2.55pm I went below sea level, and I didn't get wet. Well actually I did. After driving through a surreal landscape with roadside signs bearing such helpful information as; "firing on both sides", "do not stop at side of road", and "no photography, military zone" (all of which rather pointlessly try to hide Israel's nuclear weapons facility) I entered the Dead Sea region,.... and it rained! You could see the stuff sheeting down from the clouds. Fewer that a dozen drops must have touched the windscreen though as the rest evaporated before it could reach the ground. I guess that's what happens when the temperature reaches the high thirties.
Anyhow, it did scotch my plans to go up Mount Sodom, and walk its (by all accounts) beautiful wadi. The nature reserves people immediately close off access to wadis if rain is forecast. I suppose there is the added danger that the landscape itself is soluble: The mount is 97% salt.
Still, I did manage to get a good view of Lot's Wife. Now nobody is suggesting that this is the actual petrified wife of Lot (Genesis 19:26), rather a suitably placed, and visible, lump of rock salt that serves to remind us of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I wrote in the last blog about the importance of hospitality in Middle-Eastern culture. In the story of Sodom the two messengers who had gone with God to meet Abraham carry on to the city of Sodom. There they are offered hospitality by Lot, who knows how unfriendly the locals can be. True to form, later that night the local rowdies show up demanding Lot hands over his visitors. So important is his offer of hospitality (and safety) to Lot that he does everything to dissuade them, even going so far as to offer his own daughters in their place (there's other issues such as women as property there, but that's one to save for another time). The locals will have none of it, and the visitors have to step in to save Lot and his family. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, along with the surrounding countryside, and a legend is born.
It sounds a fantastical tale, but the Dead Sea region is a place that demands fantastical tales. The normal just doesn't work here: the sea is so salty that it's impossible to sink in it; the surrounding land is so desolate that few have been able to survive here for long, the first permanent settlement being built by the British in the 1920's; you're 800m below sea level and the temperature can reach the 40's, but the dense atmosphere means its difficult to get sunburnt; and, the dense atmosphere is oxygen and mineral enriched, meaning you feel as if you have lots of energy and yet are very relaxed. Normal, it ain't!
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah and its total destruction is a story of punishment for a lack of a commonly accepted standard of hospitality. It's not about sex or sexuality. That's something that has been read back into the story later on to answer the questions of a much later generation. Indeed, homosexuality is barely mentioned in the Bible, and most references are more concerned with the idolatry of religious prostitution. Jesus had nothing to say about it that anyone thought worth recording.
Strange how the modern day Church has got so caught up with this issue that our saviour seemed indifferent to (in comparison that is to say, adultery, or putting religious practice aside for the sake of justice, or giving your all for the sake of God's Kingdom). Why do you think that is? Could it be an example of displacement? When you're faced with something you don't want to do you make something that doesn't affect you so personally so important that you justify it displacing what you originally needed to do (and still do). Does the Bible truly make human sexuality a big issue, or has the Church done that in order to avoid more pressing, and demanding issues, such as the one to love your neighbour as yourself? I suppose that's actually at the heart of what I'm looking for in this sabbatical: What is the essence of what God is calling his Church, and me, to be? If I had to put the peripheral to one side for a moment and write a single sentence saying what it means to be a Christian Church, what would I write?
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Saturday, 28 April 2012

A spot of shade and a cup of water

Hospitality is important in the Bible, especially in the pages of the First Testament. There's Rublev's famous icon; Abraham, entertaining three messengers of God at the trees of Mamre (the words for angel and messenger are interchangeable in the Bible, we have generally gone for the more mysterious option in interpretation, not always to our advantage)(Genesis 18). Rublev's icon depicts the three conferring whilst Abraham sees to his duties as host and prepares food and drink.

Hospitality was and still is important to the nomadic people of this region. Water and shelter are scarce, they can not be kept to oneself. If an enemy comes to your tent you are still obliged to offer hospitality, and if another comes to threaten him, the host is obliged to defend him with his life. I'm sure there were and are times when the niceties of these were rules we're set aside, yet what is more impressive is how often they are kept.

Even today, hiring a taxi to visit some remote site often involves and extended trip to the drivers home for coffee or mint tea and to be introduced to the family. And no, the meter is not running.

So why am I writing about this today? Well, let me describe to you where I am sitting right now. If you drive in Israel to the middle of nowhere, take a dirt track for an hour off the road, park your car at the end of the track and walk for a couple of hours, you can sit in the shade of a tamarisk tree (I think) cooled by a gentle breeze and watch the gazelle and onager (a small horse) wander over the most remote and undisturbed wilderness in the land; a stunning landscape of coloured rocks, stripped cliffs and blue skies. The only sound is silence, occasionally broken by birdsong or the stirrings of the breeze. I am here because of the hospitality of a Reserve Warden who responded to my request for information about any good walks with twenty minutes of their time, pulling maps from drawers, outlining walks and the best way to do them, letting me in on secret spots and detours from trails, all because they wanted to share the good they had.

Hospitality, a major and often missed theme in the Bible. One that I hope to return to tomorrow.

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Friday, 27 April 2012


Behold a beautiful pastoral scene: the Jezreel Valley spread out before you; fields, ripe with crops some ready to harvest; in the background, Mount Tabor, the site of Christ's transfiguration (no cloud obscuring the top today). The "V" in the centre the runways of an airforce base; and, towards the right Tel Megiddo.

There's a huge number of stories in this simple scene, from the beginnings of recorded history right through to the present day, even actually to the end of time itself. A Tel is an artificial mound composed of the ruins of successive civilisations built one on top of the other and all covered by the sands of time. Dig down into Tel Megiddo and you will find, amongst other remains, the foundations of one of Solomon's fabled chariot cities (1 Kings 10:26). There are the remains of many military strongholds on this spot. Why? Well, as the picture shows, this is a broad and fertile valley, something rather rare in this land. It runs from the coast almost to the Jordan valley. Whoever could control it could control not only much of the good agricultural land of the region, but could also dominate the northern half of Israel. What was true in Solomon's time holds true today. The last great battle on this site was in 1917 between the British and the Ottoman Empire. The British won, and with that victory took control of the entire Palestine territory. The name of the battle? The Battle of Armageddon. According to certain sources there is due to be another battle here some day.

The photo is taken from the top of a nearby hill, Mount Carmel, where there is a religious house (Carmelite, of course). It's a beautiful place, with friendly staff, a simple yet beautiful chapel, and shaded groves where you can sit and write your blog. It's also the spot where Elijah had a run in with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:16ff), so yet another place of conflict (sometimes I find it amazing just how many events have been packed into so small a country. You don't have travel to all of them, you can simply choose a good hill and see several at once).

The story of Elijah and the Priests of Baal is one of those episodes that challenges us about how we read the Bible. To recap on the story: There is a dispute about whose god is the true God. The nation is divided. So Elijah makes a challenge; the Baal Priests and he will offer identical sacrifices, calling on their respective deities to consume the sacrifice with fire. Whichever deity does the deal is judged the true god (we're not told what happens in the event of a tie, but possibly marks would be given for artistic effort). Well, the Priests of Baal take the first slot. They prepare the sacrifice, place wood around it, and dance round it in an ever more frenzied fashion, calling upon Baal to consume it with fire. They keep this up for hours, even whipping themselves (literally) to greater frenzy. Nada. Up steps Elijah. Likewise he prepares the sacrifice, places the wood, and then pours wast quantities of water over the whole thing. There's no dad dancing this time. Elijah simply calls upon his God and "whoosh", the whole lot goes up in flames. God of Elijah 1, Baal 0.

Now of course you can take this as a straight historical account of actual events. You can do that with the whole of the Biblical text if you want. But may I suggest that if you do you miss out on some of its vast richness. It would be like reading all of Shakespeare's plays as straight drama - no poetry, no comedy, no sharp political comment. Elijah and the Priests of Ball is a comedic moment. There are the Priests of Baal, a serious and devout bunch, convinced that if they do the right thing in the right way that it will be sufficient. And there is Elijah, doing everything within his power to make the desired outcome unlikely, making things as hard for God as possible. Yet it is his God who is shown to act. It is comedy. It is also propaganda, saying to the wavering reader; look, these other gods might have the right form on the surface, the whole religious setup and practice, but our god is God whatever we try to do to prevent it.

The Bible presents its message in various genres. The stories it tells are not the less for this, but greatly enriched. Yes, you can read the Bible literally (whatever that means), but you should first read it as literature.

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Location:נחל מישר,Mitzpe Ramon,Israel

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Casual classic

Twenty-six years ago I spent three months working for the main nature conservation organisation in Israel, mainly on the local river, a small coastal stream that rose in the Carmel hills and emptied into the Mediterranean just a couple of miles north of the picture below. "Nahal Tanninim" means "Crocodile River", though the last of these was killed off over a hundred years ago. Conservationist though I was I wasn't too disappointed to hear this news given the amount of time I needed to spend in the water. The data I was helping generate contributed to the Israeli government declaring this ecosystem a national park a few years later. It's good to know I achieved something lasting, and more to the point it got me a free pass to visit Israel's national parks when I mentioned this to the warden on duty at the entrance!

Anyhow, one day the manager of the field centre where I was working decided we needed a new bench for the garden outside the office. With no budget to buy one the manager tells me to get in the truck with him. He drove out through the bush for a few minutes and pulled over at a weed grown pile of rubble. Out jumped, poked about with a stick with a bit to scare off the snakes, and shouted for me to grab the winch and tow rope. Soon we were returning to the field centre with a Roman column on the bed of the truck, which we backed up to where it was needed and rolled it off onto its new home. Job done! And before anyone criticises us for cultural vandalism, just take a look at the picture with this blog. It's from Caeserea, just a couple of miles to the south. The site was built by Herod, added to by the Romans, rebuilt by the Byzantines, Marmelukes and others, before finally falling into lasting ruin. Whoever built this new harbour wall was happy to reuse columns from an earlier period, and just chuck the spares aside for later use, maybe, say, as a bench.

Part of this harbour complex contains the ruins of the Roman Governor's palace. It was here that the Apostle Paul was held for over two years, caught between the Jewish leadership's desire to kill him, and the hopes of Governor Felix to extort a bribe from him. Paul was then brought before Festus, the new Governor ( why he replaced Felix we do not know, but maybe the good Felix was dipping his hand in the till a little too often), and, facing another dead end, claimed the right of a Roman citizen to appeal directly to the Emperor ( Acts 24 & 25). This was to initiate Paul's final journey to Rome, where he was eventually to die.

Paul's teachings gave new life to old beliefs. He was gifted with giving fresh understanding, not only to those of his own Jewish faith, but also to peoples of many other faiths. He did this not by trampling underfoot all they had previously believed and held dear, but by building on old foundations with a new vision which placed Jesus of Nazareth at the centre. Just like those who rebuilt Caeserea he incorporated the past into the new. Christianity, the same old thing, with a new twist,.... just like using a Roman column as a park bench,... maybe?

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Heathrow's sacred broom-cupboard

Among the glitz and glamor (and tat) of the Terminal 5 departure lounge, a "multi-faith room" is carefully hidden away. With time to spare before my flight I decided to go and take a look, wondering how architects and airport management would cope with a place of spiritual meaning for peoples of varied beliefs looking for something of the numinous amongst the loud shouts of travel and commerce.

Their answer is both simple and ingenious. They have produced a room that contrasts with both the cutting edge and ultra-modern architecture of the Terminal building, and challenges the overwhelming consumerism of the duty free shopping area. The approach itself leads you to suspect you are departing from the public areas of the Terminal and entering a service area (no, not that kind of service). This "suggestion" is enhanced as you enter the actual multi-faith room itself. I nearly backed out, assuming I had just opened the door of a broom cupboard ( albeit a generously proportioned one), for the walls were a tatty white, and apart from a few Islamic prayer mats in the corner, devoid of fixture, fitting or facilities of any kind.

What did keep me there though was the invitation to talk from the only other occupant of the room, a Moslem, also waiting for his flight. For him this was his mosque where he had just met with fellow Moslems to pray at one of their set times. He passed through Heathrow frequently, popping into the mosque if the timing was right to pray with any fellow Moslems present and who he would probably not see again. I liked his attitude. Yes, this was a most unimpressive mosque/church/place of prayer, call it what you will; but it became a holy place through the faithful action of a group who chose it to pray in; and they were united, not through the place, but through their shared prayer.

I'm going to visit some impressive and historical mosques, synagogues and churches. I'm looking forward to it. But the continuance of these places, as something more than museums, depends not on their architectural merit or historical significance, but on people, pilgrims on a journey, making of them a simple place of prayer.

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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Let's start at the very beginning...

Well this is it, my first blog, so I guess you're owed an explanation. There are a few things in my life that I haven't done that gnaw at the back of my mind. One is, to write a book. Various people at various times have suggested that I should give it a go. For one reason or another I have always demurred. Sometimes because I though they didn't have a clue about what they were saying, it must be said, but mainly because I'm not convinced I have the staying power to see a book through. At last, someone with greater wits suggested I blog and just see where it takes me. A blog can be as short or as long, as deep or as shallow as suits the author, and that, I think, suits me.
In a couple of days I start a trip to Israel & Palestine. I hope to be more than a tourist and to become a pilgrim. I hope also to blog, whenever time and an Internet connection allow, and to keep on blogging when I return.
For now, a quote from the great bearded wonder, Dr Rowan Williams; "A pilgrimage that is more than pious tourism is always going to take us a bit closer to the cross and resurrection, because that's what lies at the centre of wherever we go in the company of Christ. And one of the things that's distinctive about pilgrimage to the Holy Land is the experience of being 'in the company' of the soil and weather and sky that Jesus knew. So, if we're willing to take part and absorb that, part of what happens is entering further into what we all hope and pray for - to be taken into the life of Jesus."
Just let me know if I get a little too pompous or narcissistic, okay?
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