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The Israel trip, Day 4: 4-19-12

I am helping to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. We left the U.S. on Sunday. My plan is to post entries about our trip here as I have the opportunity, but that may not be possible daily.


Even on days when I'm unable to post, however, I'll be giving you some links to learn about the places in Israel that are on our itinerary.

Today, after pausing with all of Israel at 10 a.m. for Holocaust Remembrance Day, we'll stop at the Banias, the source of the Jordan River. Then our group is to travel up to the Golan Heights, passing old Syrian bunkers along the way.

Then we'll take in the view of neighboring Syria from atop Har Bental.

Then we're scheduled to visit the baptismal site at the Jordan River.

* * *

CAESAREA -- Before leaving Tel Aviv, we spent a moving hour-plus at what used to be a home but then became an art museum and finally became Independence Hall when, on May 14, 1948, Israel, led by David Ben Gurion, declared the existence of a Jewish state that would be known as Israel.

The man who gave the presentation was obviously a proud Israeli and committed to the safety and continued existence of this amazing country, but he also was honest about the terrible history that has pitted Arab against Jew here for so long. Both people, he said, believe this is their land, "and neither is 100 percent wrong."

We then moved north to the Galilee, where we visited Caesaerea, Capernaum and Nazareth, the latter being the tiny village that Jesus called home (maybe 400 people tops back then) but today a busy tourist metropolis full of various sites related to the local boy made good.

I'll have more to say later in columns and blog postings about Nazareth as well as Cana, the site of Jesus' first miracle (water into wine at a wedding), where several of us couples on this trip renewed our wedding vows with the help of Episcopal priest Gar Demo.

Eventually we moved to a hotel on a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee before crashing for the night.

As I type this I'm in the lobby of that hotel listening to another man across the way Skyping with his wife back home (he's impossible not to overhear) and I just heard him say something that I think is true for most of the Christians in our group -- which is that although it's been good to see the places where Jesus lived and did ministry, "he's no more real here than he is wherever we are."

Well said for a Skyper.

The photo here shows the hall in Tel Aviv where Israel declared its existence 64 years ago next month.


* * *

P.S.: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at Meyer and Wornall in Kansas City will host the Southwest Early College Campus spring concert in its nave on Wednesday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. The church's Chancel Choir will join its voices with the Southwest Choir on the final portion of the program. Admission is free.

The Israel trip, Day 3: 4-18-12

I am helping to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. We left the U.S. on Sunday. My plan is to post entries about our trip here as I have the opportunity, but that may not be possible daily.


Even on days when I'm unable to post, however, I'll be giving you some links to learn about the places in Israel that are on our itinerary.

Today we are scheduled to visit the ancient site of Capernaum and view the excavations there.

Then we continue to the Mount of Beatitudes. In Tabgha we are to visit the Church of Multiplication and view the intricate ancient mosaics. We'll also stop at the Tel Dan Nature Reserve and plant a tree in a nearby Jewish National Fund forest. We'll continue to Safed, the center of Kabbalah study and practice, where we visit the Ha'ari and Caro synagogues.

* * *

TEL AVIV -- In many ways it's hard to tell Tel Aviv from almost any modern world city , until you turn into old Joppa, as the Bible calls it (see the story of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10).

Joppa, pretty much now surrounded by upstart Tel Aviv (which is a bit more than 100 years old), looks very much like what it is, an old stone community with narrow streets and sidewalks and dozens and dozens of small shops and restaurants that remind me of such open-air (or nearly so) shopping quarters I've seen in such cities as Cairo, Jerusalem and Allahabad, India.

After we landed at the Tel Aviv airport and before we finally got to our hotel, the Dan Panorama, we went on a walking tour of old Joppa, finally winding up for a late evening dinner at a tiny, busy restaurant called Dr. Shakshuka, which Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn swore we'd all love.

And we had a lovely time before finally getting some sleep and preparing to go to such places the next day as Caesarea, Miggido, Nazareth and Canan, each of which plays a role in the stories of faith the Bible tells, though in the case of these cities, more in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So with the Mediterranean slapping the shore across the road from our hotel, we settled in, modern travelers in an ancient, wounded land, a land whose people seek hope.

Oh, what in the world is the photo here today? It's the ceiling full of hanging pots and pans at Dr. Shakshuka's restaurant, and somehow it symbolized for me the compelling -- even engrossing -- but bizarrely complicated nature of politics here in the Holy Land, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I may be the only one who saw that metaphor in all of that jumble above our wary heads.

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column is scheduled to be posted some time today. Look for it here.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: It's National Columnists Day. Take a columnist to lunch and say thanks.





The Israel trip, Day 2: 4-17-12

I am helping to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. We left the U.S. Sunday. My plan is to post entries about our trip here as I have the opportunity, but that may not be possible daily.


Even on days when I'm unable to post, however, I'll be giving you some links to learn about the places in Israel that are on our itinerary.

Today we are scheduled to leave Tel Aviv and drive north to Caesarea, where we view the Roman ruins, including the Roman Theater and Aqueduct. We are to continue to Megiddo, site of the Biblical Armageddon. Then we visit Nazareth, where we see the Basilica and St. Joseph's House. Next we stop in Cana, site of the first miracle attributed to Jesus. Finally, we arrive at our kibbutz in the Galilee, then visit the Ancient Boat Museum.

* * *

NEWARK, N.J.-- We gathered in a loosely formed cirlce -- the 19 of us making this journey to Israel -- here at the Newark airport before our scheduled 10:50 p.m. flight to Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn gave us a brief description of what we'd do after we landed late the next afternoon and then, following a Jewish custom, gave each of us a dollar.

The tradition, he said, is that you give travelers to Israel a dollar that they use for charitable purposes once in the country. That, in turn, is to ensure safe travel and a good trip.

I was already carrying such a dollar given to me by another Kansas City rabbi, Mark Levin, along with his good wishes.

Jacques then offered a brief Jewish prayer -- both in Hebrew and English -- that was a blessing for travel.

Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

Some kind of water pipe equipment on our United 777 jumbo jet had broken.

Our 10:50 p.m departure became a 1:50 a.m. lift-off, meaning we arrived in Tel Aviv nearly at 7 p.m., almost three hours behind schedule.

But we were both safe and blessed and ready to experience Israel as a group of both Jews and Christians together, returning to the land that both our faiths, along with Islam, consider holy and historic.

* * *

I have written a series of poems from airplanes over the years. Here's one I wrote on this trip:


The electronic screen

on the seat in front of me, 22-L,

tells me the lushness,

the richness, the Rome-ness

of Italy is below this

777 jumbo jet.

But all the wondowshades are closed

for this overnight flight

and I'm up here imagining,

just imagining it all.

Sometimes the pictures are better

in my head, but I'm ready

to land in Israel

and have its onioned reality

open up peel by peel

before my watering eyes.




The Israel trip, Day 1: 4-16-12

I am helping to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. We left the U.S. yesterday. My plan is to post entries about our trip here as I have the opportunity, but that may not be possible daily.


Even on days when I'm unable to post, however, I'll be giving you some links to learn about the places in Israel that are on our itinerary.

After we land in Tel Aviv today, we are to visit Independence Hall, site of the 1948 signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence. Later we have scheduled a walking tour through the ancient port of Old Jaffa, with views of historic landmarks including St. Peter‟s Church and the House of Simon the tanner.

By the way, the first time Peter shows up in the New Testament is in Matthew 4:18. As for Simon the tanner, read Acts 10:6.

* * *


What role will religion play in the upcoming presidential election now that Rick Santorum is out of the race? The Philadelphia Inquirer has this perceptive editorial that offers one answer to that question. (I hope you're not imagining this race as Mormon against a Muslim. If so, put on your dunce cap and go to the corner.)

* * *

P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook is scheduled to be posted online some time today. To find it, click here and then search on my last name using search box on the upper right side of the page.

Another P.S.: We're safely in Tel Aviv after a 3-hour delay on a 10-hour flight.

Passionate sacred music: 4-14/15-12

As many of you know, especially if you're Christian, the full Easter season lasts seven weeks, until Pentecost.

BachAnd so even though a week after the traditional celebration of the holiday most Easter eggs and candy now have disappeared -- and the Easter Bunny is on a 364-day vacation -- Christians continue to live through this season of Easter in celebration.

Music is one way to do that, and perhaps no other piece of music has been more honored in this season (well, starting in Lent, really) than "Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Matthew," known as "St. Matthew Passion," by Johann Sebastian Bach (depicted here). Indeed, many scholars and musicians consider it the masterpiece of all sacred music.

This weekend is an especially good time to think about this music because it was on April 15, 1729, that Bach conducted the first and only performance of the Passion during his lifetime. Which seems odd because he lived until 1750. Maybe one performance wore him out.

I thought this weekend I'd give you a few tastes of the Passion. Here's a 7-minute sample on YouTube.

And if you want a bunch more, here's a performance of it that lasts well over an hour.

The Passion is so beautiful and moving that people of any faith can enjoy it.

* * *


The Vatican library is joining forces with an Oxford University library to digitize a huge collection of ancient texts. A grant will pay for this important work. Old books sitting on library shelves are, of course, much less accessible to scholars than online digitized files.

* * *

P.S.: As part of my congregation's AIDS Ministry, I'll be participating again this year in the annual AIDSWalk Kansas City on April 28 to raise funds for the AIDS Service Foundation. You can help in a click or three by going here. Many thanks.

Let's talk about evangelism: 4-13-12

Earlier this week I spent most of an hour talking about evangelism on an Internet radio show, Fairness Radio, and it was an opportunity to begin to unpack what we mean by evangelism and evangelicals.

EvangelismTo hear the whole show (I was on about half of it), click here.

Let me give you a couple of exchanges that were part of the show with hosts Patrick O'Heffernan and Chuck Morse.

To begin, Patrick asked me what drives people who are aggressive, in-your-face Christian evangelists.

Me: "In my experience, I think it has a lot to do with having false certitude. Many of them believe that their approach to religion is exactly the right approach and that everyone else is dead wrong  -- dead in an eternal sense -- and it's their job to make sure that everyone else adopts their approach."

Patrick noted that "Christianity is not the only evangelical religon. . .They can't all be right, but they could all be wrong."

Me: "It seems to me that at some point every individual has to vote about what you believe about eternity and the creation and its source and all of the eternal questions. Once you commit yourself to an answer, as I've committed myself to the answer of Christianity, I think we still must leave room for the reality that I am a finite human being trying to understand an infinite creator and I'm not capable of doing that. So it's possible that I'm wrong about some stuff, which is where humility comes in. And I think that's what's often lacking in what I would call the more aggressive evangelists out there who simply want you to adopt their way of thinking and will condemn you if you don't."

In response to my comments, Chuck said that "it makes me think of my experience as a conservative coming from a left-wing family and dealing with a lot of left-wingers over many, many years. . .in fact, I just had a weekend with left-wingers, my in-laws, who are to the left of Stalin. But I can tell you that they believe in what they believe in with absolute certainty and they view anyone who doesn't believe with them as less than human."

And he was right that no group has a monopoly on false certitude.

Well, as I say, the conversation went on for more than 40 minutes, and you're welcome to listen to it all plus the guest who followed me.

But as you do I hope you'll give some thought to how you think people of faith should talk about that faith with others -- if at all.

(By the way, one reason I was invited to be on the show is because of this column about evangelism that I wrote recently for The National Catholic Reporter.)

* * *


Authorities in Kuwait are considering legislation that could give the death penalty to anyone accused of insulting God or the Prophet Muhammad. I'm not in favor of such insults, but I don't get why a religion needs a government to protect it from mere words and thoughts. That indicates a defensive, weakened religion. Surely Islam is not that. So why can't Islam defend itself without help from a noose-happy government?

Birth of a Pentecostal church: 4-12-12

On a day when some folks are remembering FDR's death on this date in 1945 and Harry S. Truman moving up to the presidency, others in the Pentecostal movement are noting the formation of the Assemblies of God denomination at a conference that ended on this date in 1914.

Ag-shieldFor a history of that denomination, with a fuller explanation of that conference in Hot Springs, Ark., click here.

The Pentecostal movement in the U.S. is fascinating. People within the movement, which dates from the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2 and given at Pentecost still are available today.

For a brief but pretty good history of Pentecostalism, click here.

Pentecostalism, of course, has spread far beyond the U.S. Indeed, some scholars at one time predicted that by the end of the 21st Century South America would be a Pentecostal continent. Well, maybe, but I suspect it will be much more complicated religiously than that.

And just so you know, the largest black Pentecostal church in the U.S. is the Church of God in Christ.

* * *


The now-inevitable nomination of a Mormon to be the Republican presidential candidate this year has other Mormons preparing for a backlash, Utah's major newspaper reports. I hope all Americans remember that there is no religious test for public office allowed in the U.S. Still, that won't prevent anti-Mormon bigotry from rearing its ugly head.

* * *

P.S.: I'll be participating again this year in the annual AIDSWalk Kansas City on April 28 to raise funds for the AIDS Service Foundation. You can help in a click or three by going here. Many thanks.

Was Jesus really real? 4-11-12

Nearly 2,000 years later, it seems at first glance a little bizarre to be wondering whether Jesus of Nazareth really existed.

Did_jesus_existI cannot, for instance, think of anyone about whom more books have been written than this same Jesus. Why waste times on all that if he was just a figment of someone's wild religious imagination?

And yet in the past few weeks I've read works by serious (if quite controversial) religious scholars who felt they had to address the question of whether Jesus really existed. First was John Dominic Crossan in The Power of Parable, which I introduced you to here. Jesus' existence wasn't his primary focus, but he did spend some time on the question. And he concluded that, yes, Jesus was a real historical figure.

Now comes University of North Carolina religion scholar Bart D. Ehrman and a whole new book called Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman, too, is insistent that Jesus in fact existed.

So why all this attention to what seems like a fringe question? Well, one answer is that there are fringe scholars out there insisting that, in fact, Jesus was just made up. They refer to themselves as the mythicists, and Ehrman -- who describes himself as an agnostic who leans toward atheism -- wants to undermine their position.

He says, in fact, hardly any of the mythicists is a serious scholar with credentials and thus need not be taken seriously. And yet instead of simply dismissing them with a wave, Ehrman repeatedly comes back to them in his new book and slams them again and again -- perhaps giving them much more attention than they deserve.

Still, Ehrman concludes that "whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist."

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that we've come to the point where scholars now have to defend the idea that Jesus was a real man who lived at a specific time in a specific place. Many scholars have been at work in the last 100-plus years trying to find this historical Jesus. What almost always seems to happen, however, is that these scholars do not find the historical Jesus but, rather, the historian's Jesus -- someone who looks and sounds a lot like them.

Couple that with scholarship that has sought to understand how the New Testament, especially the gospels, was written and by whom -- scholarship that has undermind a lot of the naive beliefs of biblical literalists -- and eventually you have an atmosphere in which the logical question is, "Well, did Jesus even exist?"

I'm not for a minute suggesting that this biblical scholarship was useless or unnecessary. Indeed, much of it has been of great benefit to both Christianity and Judaism, though as Ehrman notes, "very conservative and fundamentalist Christians do not agree with what other scholars have long said about the Bible."

What I am suggesting, rather, is that once you introduce the idea of uncertainty about sacred texts into the conversation, there really is no limit on where that goes. Thus we get questions about Jesus' existence.

Given all that, Ehrman's book makes an important contribution by offering readers the various sources and contexts they need to answer the question of Jesus' existence in the affirmative. Ehrman himself worries a bit too much about how readers will react to his book and thus sometimes is too much in the way of his conclusions. Still, this is a good addition to the Jesus literature by an author who, like Dom Crossan, has not been a favorite of traditional Christians.

* * *


Here's a writer who properly decries the trashing of religion in the midst of political considerations. He refers to Andrew Sullivan's cover story in the current issue of Newsweek magazine. It's worth a read.


What are Jewish values? 4-10-12

As Jews celebrate Passover now, those of us who aren't Jews might do well wishing more of the world would adopt American Jewish values.

StarofDavid-1What are those values? A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute provides an answer.

High on the list: Seeking justice and caring for the widow and the orphan.

Also way up there the concept of "tikkun olam," or repairing the world, along with welcoming the stranger.

If these sounds like biblical values, it should be no surprise.

No one is arguing that Jews have perfectly lived up to these values for all of Judaism's nearly 4,000 years of existence. But the values, if lived out fully, would surely make this world a better place.

As you will see if you read the full survey, it also deals with political judgments, attitude toward Muslims and much more.

It offers us a pretty good picture of American Judaism today, though one almost certainly should say American Judaisms and one also ought to recognize that's a moving target.

By the way, my friends over at were a day ahead of me on this survey and published this summary yesterday.

* * *


Are you a "reverter" in religious terms? That's someone, like me, who walked away from the faith of his or her childhood but eventually returned. It's an intriguing phenomenon, and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today does this account of that group.

Remembering Bonhoeffer: 4-9-12

On this date in 1945 -- less than three months after my birth -- Hitler's collapsing Nazi regime executed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (pictured here) a Lutheran pastor, thus turning him into one of the most famous Christian martyrs ever.

BonhoefferThe Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer at the Flossenberg Concentration Camp for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

As explained in the "Foreward" by Eric Metaxas to Who Stands Fast, a small collection of Bonhoeffer's writings, on the day of his death, Bonhoeffer "was thirty-nine and engaged to be married. Three weeks later, beneath the smouldering ruins of Berlin, the man who had ordered Bonhoeffer's execution would himself scuttle into another world and the twelve-year nightmare of the Third Reich would finally be over. Tempting as it is to regard Bonhoeffer's death as untimely and tragic, it may also be regarded as the fitting crown of a life lived in wholehearted and dedicated obedience to God. . ."

So on this anniversary of Bonhoeffer's execution, let's hear a bit from the man himself about death from the Who Stands Fast pamphlet:

"In recent years we have become increasingtly familiar with the thought of death. We surprise ourselves by the calmness with which we hear of the death of one of our contemporaries. We cannot hate it as we used to, for we have discovered some good in it, and have almost come to terms with it.

"Fundamentally we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death. . .; we are too inquisitive for that -- or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life's broken fragments.

"Nor do we try to romanticize death, for life is too great and too precious. Still less do we suppose that danger is the meaning of life -- we are not desperate enough for that, and we know too much about the good things that life has to offer, though on the other hand we are only too familiar with life's anxieties and with all the other destructive effects of prolonged personal insecurity.

"We still love life, but I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly, through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted."

The final words we have from Bonhoeffer reflected his acceptance of death and his faith that it was not, for him, the end: "This is the end -- for me the beginning of life."

* * *


Speaking of Germans, World War II and the Holocaust, German poet Gunter Grass is catching all kinds of hell for his recently published poem that criticizes Israel. And, in my view, he deserves it. He lost all credibility on Jewish issues with me when he finally admitted in 2006 that as a teen-ager in the war he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Israel, which I'll visit next week, certainly is not above criticism, but a critic who once was part of the Nazi machinery of death seeking to wipe out European Jewry has lost his standing to have his opinions about the Jewish state taken seriously.