Pilgrimage, Day 6: All Jesus All the Time

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We spent the majority of the day today in Capernaum and on Mt. Arbel. I’m not able to express my feelings about these experiences in words just yet, so I’ll share some of my thoughts instead.

Capernaum was Jesus’s “home base” during his ministry. The town sits on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee (a glorified lake, really), firmly within Jewish territory but not too far from Gentile settlements. It makes great practical sense–Capernaum lies near the international trade routes and near many of the other major settlements of Galilee. Even more, archeology indicates that Capernaum was a manufacturing center for grain and olive oil–meaning that people from all the smaller villages nearby likely came to the town with their raw materials, allowing Jesus’s ministry to reach farther more efficiently.

There were other realizations today. Prime among them, which has been building since we got here, is just how poor my mental imagery of Biblical scenes had been–the imaginative equivalent of a painted-craft-paper background in an elementary school play. This land is diverse in form and terrain, beautiful and full of life (both plant and animal). More than this, I’m starting to realize just how visual Jesus’s mode of speaking and teaching is. It’s axiomatic to say that Jesus spoke in parables that would make sense to the disciples, but it’s another thing altogether to say that Jesus had the objects he used in his analogies before him at the time he spoke the parables. This makes good pedagogic sense as he’s attempting to use the mundane to explain the complex and supernal. When you see a donkey mill–the kind of mill often used for milling grain in 1st Century Israel–and know that the device was so common that there was almost certainly one in front the disciples when Jesus says that it would be better to tie a millstone to your neck and throw yourself into the ocean (the Sea of Galilee, too, is likely in view at the time, a wholly different and more complete understanding comes into focus.

As Dr. Beck argues in his books and on this trip–very rightly so, I think–Jesus made great use of geography and the things that could be seen at the locations where he gave particular lessons and made particular statements.

This takes us to Mt. Arbel, the likeliest location for the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission. Rather than rehashing, I’ll refer you again to Dr. Beck’s books for the full laying-out of the argument. But, sitting on the mountain, going through the Sermon on the Mount, listening to Jack’s explanation, I could not help but be moved. Until today, I had not had the visceral emotional response to being were Jesus walked and taught that I had hoped to have. Today, though, things became real at a very fundamental level. There’s something about putting Jesus’s words into geographical and visual context that makes them feel more embodied (and therefore more “real” and relatable) and at the same time more spiritually profound.

I’m also realizing just how perfect the place and time of the Incarnation was. As I mentioned in previous posts, the Roman Empire makes a perfect example for the kind of craving for wealth, power and dominance that Jesus argues against. That Israel represents the great international route between the Middle East and Egypt by land and is linked to Europe and the rest of Africa by sea, means the message has a way to reach the world. The place itself and its history provides the context for a revelation that directly addresses the people of the place and yet remains universal in applicability.

For me, especially, with my heavy philosophical bent, this journey is really convicting me of the embodied, present and concrete nature of Jesus’s life teachings, and Passion. When we arrived, we were told that, like Abram, God has called us to Israel, that there is something for God to reveal to each of us here. This confrontation with the Incarnation as something no longer abstract and far away in time and place may be just the thing God brought me here to show me. It’s certainly something I needed, even if I didn’t know that I needed it.

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Pilgrimage, Day 4: First Revelations

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Today started at 5:30 a.m., as we scrambled to get our bags packed, eat breakfast and portage said bags out of the Jaffa Gate and down to the bus to leave before 7. Uncharacteristically for me, it’s about 11:00 p.m. local as I write this. Something about the combination of this place and the fellowship of those journeying with me has given me more energy than I typically have.

Our day started with a whirlwind trip through Ceasarea Maritima and its aqueduct, then to Muhraqa Carmelite Monastery (for its position on Mt. Carmel near where Elijah confronted the priests of Baal), to Tel Megiddo, to Nazareth (particularly Mt. Precipice, where the photo above was taken. Er–the photo that would be above if the internet would allow me to upload it) to our hotel on the eastern (formerly Gentile) side of the Sea of Galilee.

In case it wasn’t apparent, the day was packed, with over six miles walked and at least five hours in the bus.

I have much to say about the day’s experiences, but I’ll focus on one idea in particular and leave the rest to germinate further.

Consider on the one hand Caesarea Maritima, a piece of Rome in the Middle East created at the command of Herod the Great, lover of all things Roman as well as power and luxury. And perhaps genius builder. Herod wanted to have a palace (complete with swimming pool) that appeared to float on the sea. He also wanted to create an artificial harbor (reportedly larger than the Athens harbor) on the dangerously shallow coast line where Strato’s Tower had stood.

This required an unprecedented use of hydraulic cement–that is, cement that will set even underwater. The Romans had invented the stuff and used it to build bases for piers and other small-scale projects, but Herod used it both to lay the foundation of his palace and breakwaters for the harbor. The site had no potable water, so Herod built a Roman-style aqueduct to bring water in from thirteen miles away.

Not to be without the finer elements of Roman culture, Ceasarea Maritima boasts a large ampitheatre and a chariot stadium that could have fit 20,000 people. Unwilling to have the same beige limestone look as Jerusalem, marble and granite were imported by sea to create columns, statutes and sheathing for those facades that were not plastered and covered with frescos. Intricate mosaic tilework covered the floors of many buildings and homes, which had indoor heating through the innovative Roman technology for underfloor steamworks and used the tides to sweep latrine waste out to sea twice a day. The remnants of clay pipes providing running water remain evident.

The city must have passed the test, because Pontius Pilate lived in Herod’s Palace there as much as he could (when business did not call him to Jerusalem), as did later provincial overlords. Caesarea Maritima boasted trade (at least for the import of luxury items), the latest in first century CE technologies, and art and architecture worthy of the Empire.

On the other hand, consider Nazareth. If, as I was before today, you’re not familiar with the geography, here’s what you need to know: Though an urban sprawl today, Nazareth was a tiny village in the first century, perhaps a dozen homes and just enough land cleared for subsistence farming. Those homes–they were mostly caves, perhaps expanded for a little extra comfort, but caves nonetheless. These dozen or so cave-homes occupied an elevated bowl shape surrounded on all sides by rugged mountain terrain. Until the Israelis literally (I assure you that the word is being used correctly) cut through the mountainside to build a road, there was no easy way to get to Nazareth. Pick the spot you think will be easiest to climb, and set aside several hours to do it.

This is probably exactly how the people of Nazareth liked it. Given their proximity to the ultra-fertile Jezreel Valley below and the numerous nearby settlements (Nain and Shunem, to name two) where they could have lived, this village’s isolation must have been highly intentional. A handful of Jewish families willing to scratch out an independent living to practice the faith of their forefathers and to avoid contamination by the Greco-Roman culture seducing their many peers. The kind of place our dear President would likely call a “shithole.”

When Jesus uses Rome as an example of the often-corrupting influences of wealth, status and power, he can point to Caesarea Maritima (named for Augustus Caesar) on the coast as a very concrete example of his meaning. At the same time, the King of Kings himself hailed from the unlikeliest and humblest of origins–a dirt-poor and poorly-regarded settlement of religiously-fanatic survivalists. The juxtaposition of these two real, geographically significant places brings sharply into focus the tension between those seductive but ultimately unfulfilling vanities with the extent to which God proved willing to condescend to be present with us in the world. Two very different ideologies (and here I mean God’s in choosing to use Nazareth, not the Nazarene peoples’s own ideas) placed in such close proximity in the same land.

Let it sink in.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend much of the day in the Golan Heights, visiting a first-century synagogue where Jesus almost undoubtedly preached, the village of Dan in the far north of the country near the borders with Lebanon and Syria (if the weather is clear enough, it might be possible to see Damascus from there) and Caesarea Philippi. It’s hard to think that on this pilgrimage we’ll be so close to the continuing devastation and heartache of the Syrian civil war.

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Pilgrimage, Day 3

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Today has been a long day. We started the day at the Jerusalem University College campus for a briefing on Dr. Jack Beck’s approach to geography in the Bible.

If it’s not clear that I’m a nerd, this may have been my favorite part of the day. By my understanding, Dr. Beck’s approach is essentially existential–the geography of the land formed a crucial and central part of the worldview and cosmic understanding of the Biblical authors. Understanding the geography of the Holy Land helps us to understand the way that they thought and felt about the subjects about which they wrote.

This existential–and unfortunately, mostly intellectual–understanding informed my day today more than I had anticipated.

After our morning classroom session, we proceeded through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, the part of the late retaining wall built for the Second Temple that is closest to where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many of those traveling with our group felt the tangible presence and power of the Lord in approaching the wall. I, unfortunately, did not. I saw a pile of old stones. Historically and religiously significant, of course, but no more directly relevant to my spiritual understanding than any rock formation built from Creation. In some ways, I envy those whose experiences were more profound than my own, and I take some solace in the fact that that’s the majority of our group.

But my own experience also directly relates to some points that Dr. Beck has made as well as more expansive conversations I’ve had with fellow pilgrims. Both Judaism and Islam have significant attachment to physical location Christianity, focused ultimately on the person of Jesus Christ (and, perhaps, on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy), does not have as strong a (institutional or faith-wide) focus on geographically significant places.

Considering the journey I’m on, with its particular focus on geography, that statement requires some unpacking. For Jews, the physical presence of the Lord within the Temple constitutes a central locus for the religion. For Islam, the Holy City of Mecca represents a physical place strongly tied to the faith it represents and embodies. For Christianity, however, the focus of embodiment is a focus on God adopting human flesh, not upon a geographic locale. And the God who dwells among us is simultaneously more universal and more ephemeral than geography–that is the way of all flesh. In some sense, that perhaps undermines the (temporal) power of Christianity. Ultimately, though, it makes the theology of Christianity far more applicable and far more enduring than those of the other “faiths of the book.”

If that is the case, then the geography of the Holy Land holds power to better help us understand the person and words of Jesus Christ without itself verging on idolatry as the physical bearer of what the Hawai’ians might call “mana.” But the land itself is not a source of salvation as it might be considered to be in Judaism and Islam. This analysis, I hope, is what influenced my lack of strong emotional response to the Western Wall. I found myself more moved by the significance of the devotion of worshippers at the site than the site itself.

After the wall, we traveled to the City of David, that hill to the south of the Temple Mount that likely represents Jerusalem after David seized it from the Jebusites (and, indeed, the city had been called Jebus before the Israelites conquered it). I found the geography here fascinating for its claustrophobic space–an entire settlement containing only 10 acres. Solomon would follow his father by building the First Temple of the Lord, expanding the are of Jerusalem to something closer to 32 acres. The archeology, which has been ongoing for over 20 years at the site, made it clear that the location matched both the Bible in description and the material culture for the period of David.

We had intended to travel through the “wet” tunnel built by King Hezekiah to bring water from the Gihon Spring in the Kidron valley to the Central Valley on the other side of Mount Zion (the ancient mount Zion on which the City of David was built, not the more modern “Mount Zion” partially contained within the Old City walls, on the outside of which the JUC campus sits) but were hindered by scheduling difficulties. We were only able to pass through the earlier Canaanite “dry” tunnel that allowed passage to the pool tower to which water from the spring flowed from behind the fortification walls. This was quite enough.

After that, we walked down Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam (and then back up) and back to through the Old City to the hotel. My Fitbit marked over 15,000 steps before the end of the day.

After dinner, I went to find some baklava near the Jaffa Gate to debrief on our experiences. The camaraderie certainly vied for the best part of the day, though I have to say that, ultimately, it’s sharing these experiences with K that ultimately does that.

Tomorrow, very early, we leave to head to Caesarea Maritima, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

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Fortune and Glory

I am concerned about the way we talk about God’s glory in the modern church. Not because there’s something wrong with wanting to pursue God’s glory, but because I think the focus we have on God’s glory skews our theology in problematic ways.

I began preparing for this post by studying the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible translated into English as “glory”. I thought to go through each of them, but they are similar enough in meaning as to be amendable to summary. The Hebrew words (Strong’s H155, H1926, H1935, H1984, H3367, H3519, H6286, H8597) translate to “glory, splendor, dignity” in most senses, but occasionally “reverence.” There is a strong intimation in the Hebrew (at least for H3519, the most commonly-used word) of importance and weight, as in when we say that something has “gravity” in English. The Greek words (Strong’s G1391, G2744) include “a high opinion” and “splendor or brightness, as of the stars,” in addition to the specific meanings “the majesty belonging to God (or Jesus)” and “an exalted state or glorious condition to which Jesus was raised after the crucifixion and to which true Christians shall enter after the return of the savior from heaven.”

In much of the Bible, when the “glory of God” is mentioned, the intended understanding is that “glory” is an attribute of God, something that is revealed to humanity in the presence of God. I would venture to speculate that “glory” is our crude way of describing the existence-altering experience of a confrontation with the all-powerful and loving uncreated creator of all things. In other places, we are told to “give glory to God.” When the words are used in this fashion, the intent, I think, is to give reverence and deference to God, not to attempt to add to the majesty of God.

I want to dwell on that last idea for a moment, because I think that’s what’s held in mind in the modern usage of doing something “for the glory of God.” God is. When God tells us that God’s name is “I am,” we need to read the full mystery into that precise but expansive statement. God is complete in and of God’s self. Part of the theological definition of God (as omnipotent and sovereign) is that God does not need anything and is self-sufficient. By that understanding, God’s glory is something that simply is, that cannot be added to by humans, because if it could, it would no longer be complete within itself. So, to be clear, our actions do not give God glory in the sense that we add to God’s glory. And so, we must be very careful when we say that we are doing something “for” or “to” the glory of God.

The word “glory” functions in the Gospels in much the same way; when God’s glory is spoken of, word “glory” seems to signify God’s awesome (in the classical sense) and transformative presence. On the other hand, when the words appear to “give glory” to God, the meaning is to praise. A very notable exception that seals this interpretation for me appears in John 17:24, when Jesus asks that the believers see the Glory which God has given to Jesus. This exception proves the rule because the meaning of the given glory is Jesus’s exultation and divinity, not praise or fame or reputation. The use of the same word (in Hebrew, English and Greek) for two very different ideas is confusing.

Looking at Romans, Paul seems to have the same understanding of the usage of the word “glory,” as when he says that men “…exchanged the incorruptible glory of God for an image in the form of corruptible man…” Romans 1:23. Likewise, in Romans 4:20, Paul uses the phrase “giving glory” in the sense of praise.

In Romans 2:9-10, he states that “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. I believe that what Paul has in mind here is a promise of glorification in the same way that God glorified Jesus. But the inclusion of the words “honor” and “peace” make us think of glory in the context of fame and reputation—the human understanding of the word. And therein lies the real problem.

In the scriptures, as a descriptor of God, “glory” is ontological: it is an aspect of God’s being. In human uses, “glory” is teleological: it is based upon achievement and reputation. Thus it is that Indiana Jones speaks of “fortune and glory,” the rewards of the treasure hunter—er, archeologist.

The first entry under “glory” on www.dictionary.com says: “very great praise, honor or distinction bestowed by common consent; renown.” Only farther down the list do the Biblical definitions occur.

The linguistic mistake, then, comes with the assumption that all glory comes from the opinion of others. Were that the case, we could add to God’s glory by changing the opinion of others. But, as I said above, God’s glory simply is. The pursuit of God’s glory is a pursuit of God’s presence and being, not cheerleading, or marketing or (as is the sexy term these days) “branding.”

In a sense then, it is entirely appropriate to do something for the glory of God—if the meaning is that one is moved by the experience of relationship with God to do something. But when I hear the phrase used, it seems that the usage of “for” means “for the benefit of.” And in this sense, the phrase “doing something for (or to) the glory of God” is not for God, it is for self.

Such a statement must of course be defended. Let me use an example—sports teams. When fans talk about a sports team they favor, they usually don’t say, “the Patriots won;” they say “we won,” or “my team won.” Psychologists and sociologists attribute this to a pleasure derived from associating oneself with success. Sports on some subconscious and abstract level allow us to appropriate the human glory of others and to claim it personally. This thought is supported by the prevalence of fan superstitions: lucky underwear, ritual action, or even whether one must be watching (or attending) a game in order to assist the team’s chances of success. These superstitions allow us to rationalize our appropriation of the glory of the team; we can tell ourselves that we personally (in some supernatural way, perhaps) contributed to the team’s victory.

Let’s take that back to God. If we believe that God’s glory is in the opinion of others, then by raising God’s reputation we are raising our own reputation as God’s children. There are two fallacies here: that God’s glory becomes our glory by anything other than grace and that God’s glory is dependent on something outside of God.

I’ve been working on this post for a few days now, mulling it about in my head (it still seems clear as mud). Last night I attended a non-study study group at my church led by a young pastor I greatly admire. The subject for that night and several weeks to follow was “Christian Words”: those words we use so commonly as Christians but often fail to think about what they mean, leading to shallow or misguided theology. Use of the word “glory” fits squarely on this list, I think.

So perhaps we are misusing words when we talk about God’s glory. That could perhaps be a minor thing except for the emphasis Christians (particularly American evangelical Christians) place on God’s glory. If we’re going to emphasize God’s glory, we’d better make damn sure we use the words right.

What I see is a belief that, perhaps second to going to heaven, our focus is mainly upon God’s glory, but understood under the human definition as reputation. This idea is so pervasive that I have spoken with many Christians who, some avowedly, believe that the purpose of humanity’s creation was “to give glory to God.”

This is not attractive to the unchurched. In one sense, this can be construed as postmodern—God is only as powerful as we all agree God is. Hmm. Worse, we get the image of a narcissistic God who cares only about being praised. Thankfully, neither of these ideas are theologically sound.

We need to be clear to ourselves and others about the place that God’s glory has in our theology. God does not need our praise and we cannot add to God’s glory. Therefore, God’s own glory is not God’s purpose in creation, nor some demanded obeisance from us.

Of course, it is just and right and proper for us to “give glory” (in the Biblical sense of acknowledgement and praise) to God—God has given us much to be thankful and grateful for. More important, I think, is that one who has a personal experience of God cannot but be in joyful awe.

We ought, then, to focus on helping others to experience God’s glory; that is, to have a personal experience of the transformative glory of God. It is in relationship with Jesus that God’s glory is experienced—once experienced one’s opinion is forever changed. That relationship, I think is God’s purpose in creating us and should be our purpose in making disciples of others.