Tuesday 27 June 2017

Why did the world’s largest supplier of lentils choose to invest in Saskatchewan?

That's about as esoteric a title as you'll see here.

About second or third post down in my LinkedIn feed there was a photo of an enormously fat man in a grey suit with a small balding head on top and the title of this post underneath.

Take home message - eating lentils makes you very fat, and they are bringing the problem to Sask so that everyone there can be obese too.

I'm told they make you fart as well, so the state could well become a major producer of greenhouse gas too. Those of you who moved west - looks like a well-timed escape. ;-)

Thursday 22 June 2017

Is teaching in churches an unwanted throwback?

As we're moving into a post-Christian era and the church, at least in North American and the UK, is heading towards missional communities and outreach by social interaction, I'm wondering if strong, clear teaching is becoming a preserve of leaders and the old people, while the younger ones are all socially motivated to just eat together and enjoy a bit of worship every couple of weeks.

That was a long sentence.

We're making the trip, somewhat against my better judgement (hey, twice in one year) to our church groups annual camp together. What used to be a time of challenge, of inspiration and aspiration, amazement and above all great teaching, seems to have become a bunch of people telling us how to outreach using their testimonies as examples. Perhaps there is a certain Pauline precedent (maybe that's why people fell asleep on him!) but as I recall Paul taught a lot of much deeper theology than simply relating how he went to foreign synagogues and talked about Jesus.

I had the slightly bizarre experience of being complimented last night on helping someone with a Christian background and a need to become connected into a church family become connected into a church in another area. It was done in the context of evangelism, but it was not outreach - purely pastoral care and being a father.

Perhaps I'm becoming a post-outreach Christian?

I'm already moving towards the opinion that the 'great commission' was nothing of the kind, and was quite specifically aimed at the disciples there & then. It's only mentioned that way in 1 gospel, while in every other gospel Jesus commissions specific people to go out - if it's such a fundamental understanding surely at least a second writer would mention it? Certainly some people are called to be evangelists, but that seems a relatively uncommon calling. What about being ready to share the reason for our hope then? Yes, but that's NOTHING like being sent to outreach.

It seems I've been diverted from the original point.

Historically the church seems to have taught the uneducated, and a large part of what they needed to do was impart basic understanding, in so many ways, to those people. Now our society is well educated, able to access an enormous amount of information at will. Is the flip-side of a drift away from teaching people, a hope or even push for them to self-educate? I wonder how Christianity will shape up in the latter half of the 21st century - will looser relationships and a stronger social conscience become the hallmarks of this era, just like evangelism damp-squib was for the latter half of the 20th?

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Darn that's hot

33.5'C indicated by the car thermometer while driving (i.e. not sat in the sun) at 6.30om this evening.

Tarmac on the roads has melted & torn up in places.

Offices without aircon were not nice places to be today.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Don't look back in anger

or regret.

Holidays don't often generate this many mixed feelings, generally being sources of significant pleasure and just occasionally considerable disappointment.

The reason we did this trip was probably not good: certain friends had been on similar trips organised by the same people, and come back exulting over how wonderful it had been, including a friend who is generally similarly inclined to question things in the way that I do. And it is THE place with so many significant historical sites that have influenced Middle Eastern and European culture for the last 2000 odd years, so of course we *should* see it.

Stepping back for a moment, I'm aware of my feelings oscillating about the whole thing, sometimes damning the experience and sometimes thinking that I *should* have enjoyed it (and asking why I didn't).

And that's hard to answer.

Curiously, I didn't find the traditional church stuff especially jarring or wrong, and it was the times of contemporary worship and even bible reading that grated as being out of place, getting in the way of understanding what happened and where I was. It felt a little like trying to impose pop-culture on something deeper, when silence would have been better. I'm guessing some of the others felt it too, when some noted the silent time while floating on the sea of Galilee was most significant for them.

Our tour leaders, Geoff and Mary, did an incredibly good job of organising and making sure we saw everything on the itinerary as much as was humanly possible, while trying to include faith moments (even if those faith moments worked against it for me). They gave themselves, and are probably now trying to rest & recuperate, since they aren't exactly young any more.

As for the land itself, Israel seems to be burying much of their heritage under concrete and stone, building everywhere to house their expanding population, although I'm not so sure they've taken care of necessary infrastructure. Galilee area wasn't so bad, but the land around Jerusalem is now ugly - no other word for it really - and apart from the temple area it could be any large, badly managed urban sprawl in a hot climate.

Would I go back or recommend anyone else to visit?

That's difficult. Jerusalem has fascinating areas that could have stood a lot more exploration, and likewise the wilderness has both beauty and bleakness that would justify spending much more time in. Otherwise I'd say no, and to someone visiting I'd suggest avoiding the key religious sites, because whatever meaning they might have for you now, the actuality will almost certainly be disappointing. So what if Jesus walked there - if He's not alive in your heart and much larger than that pavement then it doesn't matter. I still remember the excitement of Raja the coach driver, stopping at the Elvis American Diner compared to how he felt about the rest of the stuff we visited, and that may tell you something.

My attitude will probably soften in forgetting the poor and mediocre, and in remembering the exploration.

Day 8 - final temple and travelling home

We had another early start this morning: alarm call at 6am, bags packed by 7 and on the coach at 7.30, to be dropped off at the gate like a bell (the dung gate).

Under the western wall is a tunnel running a short length of the temple mount, exposing some of the lower stonework and cisterns from Herod’s structure. The tunnel is also used by many Jewish women to pray, because it gets them closer to the place where the original holy of holies was thought to be than they can manage at the women’s section of the western wall.

The tunnel & structures are mildly interesting, with the few scraps of ‘original’ pavement where Jesus may have walked giving a slightly stronger sense of history. There’s a huge stone, estimated at 570 tons, supporting the wall down there too, and it must have been an incredible feat getting it into place. Also impressive is the quality of stone work required to get the stones to butt together with barely a gap between.

Previous excavations made by Warren in the late 1800s come up during the explanations. It seems Warren ‘discovered’ quite a bit, sometimes having to find novel ways to access parts that he wasn't welcome to explore, and plenty of features got named for him.

Eventually walking through the tunnel, we came to a place where the ceiling is high: probably 25 feet above us, and that indicates the height of the current pavement. The original walls would have been very tall, requiring high ramps and stairs for access to the temple area.

After emerging in the city we walk through the Damascus gate to the garden tomb and Gordon Calvary area. We have a brief explanation about the area, why it was considered to be possibly authentic and then visit the wine press, putative Golgotha and garden tomb there. This area looks less unlikely to be authentic than the area given by tradition, but after 2000 years of erosion, it may be rather different in appearance from the time of Jesus - recently a piece of stone forming the ‘nose’ of the skull shape broke off, reducing the resemblance to a skull. A seating area is given for the group's use and we have readings, songs and communion.  In earlier times I’d probably have found it wonderful, but right then I’d have preferred to slip away and have time alone, however in the hope of better things I stuck it out.

At last we made our way back, walking to the hotel, arriving rather sweaty from the heat and the climb but with no chance of a shower. Bags are loaded onto the coach and we’re finally on our way. A quick stop at the town where Emmaus was, then on to an Elvis burger bar to get ripped off $16 for burger and chips. The burger bar is striking and very different, and Raja the driver is ‘in heaven’, but traditional Jewish it ‘aint.

And so to the airport.

After the usual quizzing and security checks we make it through to the departure lounge. Biometric passport readers work very efficiently. There’s a fountain in the middle of the lounge with an annulus in the ceiling through which water pours downwards like rain while the fountain sprays upwards. Quite elegant and unusual.

18.18pm. Boarding starts at 18.50pm.

Plane leaves at 7.50pm. The movie on the tiny screen ahead of me is ‘Gold’, but the controls built into the seat arm don’t work, so the only audio channel is French and the volume is at maximum. And the chap next to me is breathing out some serious garlic, so effective that even the plane air con can’t completely remove it. Ho hum, pigs bum as Kita used to say, only another 4 hours - at least I've been able to write up the day.

Mr Fragrant next door speaks to the stewardesses and they go away & reboot the system several times, after which last occasion the English audio can also be heard, volume etc is now adjustable. It’s not all bad then.

We eventually arrive at Luton. Long queues for passport control, and this time I am rejected by the biometric scanner and get sent to another desk where I wait and wait, eventually being cleared. We get bags, say goodbye and the put warm clothes & jackets on to face the winds and rain waiting for us at the bus stop. Car collected, and our friends drive us home by a slightly curious route, to arrive around 1.15amUK/3.15am Israeli time. Glad I booked Tuesday off.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Day 7 - ‘Free’ day - walking the walls of Jerusalem, Hezekiah’s tunnel, getting lost

Another retrospective writeup, though as I try to relive the memories it may become written as if in the present.

There were several options possible for the day, including visiting the Israel museum, the holocaust museum, walking the city walls, visiting the city of David ruins, Hezekiah’s tunnel to the Gihon spring or just generally walking round the city. Chris had wanted to do the tunnel, and the wall walk also seemed a sensible plan, so finding ourselves ready to go a little sooner than the suggested start time, we go a taxi from the hotel to the Damascus gate, then bought tickets for the wall.

I’m wondering a little what to write about the actual walk. It’s just what you might expect: you’re high up on a wide stone wall, looking down on roofs and into people’s back gardens. There are areas of steep stone steps and metal railings, the occasional fortification used by the Jordanian army during the first war in 1948. In places there is barbed and razor wire to discourage uninvited guests, and the roofscape consists of water tanks and heaters, plus in many cases a certain amount of rubbish plus the occasional cross or Islamic cresent. Sometimes the view is good, peering down into street scenes or catching interesting individuals passing beneath, while sometimes it’s just squalid.

The wall walk is in 2 halves, norther and southern, and we tackle the northern first, from the Damascus gate to the Lion gate before lunch, then making our way across Jerusalem, picking up the southern route afterward.

We started out with Nick, who we’ve known vaguely for a long time. He wanted a chance to take pictures properly too, and he came equipped with 2 Fuji XT-2 bodies plus standard, wide and super zoom lenses and a bunch of other kit. It becomes obvious fairly quickly that we need to separate so that he can take his time. About half way round we are caught up by some other members of the group who started off after we had, taking the tram into Jerusalem from near the hotel (more on this later).

Eventually we complete the walk and head off for lunch to Israel’s answer to Starbucks - Aroma - which we were told was so successful that it put starbucks out of business there. Lunch is a sandwich and a bottle of drink for the equivalent of £10/CAD15 each.

After lunch we go our own way, heading up to the south section.

Sunday afternoon seems to be a day for schools to go out on field trips. The school children here are some of the most obnoxious I have met anywhere, elbowing and barging passers-by, walking at and blocking tourists, generally behaving with a sense of entitlement I’ve never experienced in children before - God help Israel if this generation don't change before adulthood. We run the gauntlet of the school parties to access the steps up - the day is hot again, and there’s no shade on this part of the wall.

This section has generally less exciting stuff to see, although the views over the Kidron valley are OK. Once we reach the end point we make our way back to the area around the old city of David and buy tickets for Hezekiah’s tunnel.

The tunnel itself is cut through solid rock for around 533 meters, is wide enough for a man that isn’t fat and in places so low as to require me to duck uncomfortably, a lack of lighting requiring that walkers take a torch as they wade through the water that varies between ankle and mid-thigh deep - all fine then. ;-) 

Unfortunately we get stuck between a group of teenage schoolgirls, screaming and throwing water over each other, and a group of students in their late teens & early 20s who shout & sing. The girls frequently stop, which makes for discomfort when standing in a tunnel that feels about 4 feet high, and by the time we reach the zigzag section that marks roughly half way, we are ready to stop.

Eventually daylight is seen in the distance, and we emerge at a pool of siloam (possibly not THE pool of siloam).

There are 2 options for travelling back at this point - either past the pool and up on the road, or via a tunnel that runs back up the hill to the CoD - though the signage doesn’t express it like that. By happy chance we decide to take the tunnel - probably part of the Roman-era sewer system that ran below a wide stairway & ramp that went from the temple area to the pool at the bottom - and get a much better sense of how the 2 might have been connected 2000 years ago over the roughly 600-800 meter distance. After this we walk past some of the CoD ruins, out into the current city & carefully read the map to negotiate our way to the Damascus gate again.

At this point we then make a mistake - trying to use the tram system to get back.

We caught the tram in the right direction after getting advice from the local tourist information centre, alighting at Ammunition hill.

Where is Ammunition hill????

A quick search on the maps on my phone suggested that the Ambassador hotel was just a few hundred yards away, but the location suggested turned out to be the main police depot for the area. A passerby can’t help us either, and in the end we try to use a combination of phone and tourist maps to navigate us to something we might recognise.

Now before the obvious mockery, we are usually pretty good at this kind of thing, finding our way to all sorts of places in foreign lands.

Not this time.
We walk for an hour before discovering that we are on the Jericho road, about level with Jerusalem, but to the east side. Along the route we pass many landmarks that we've seen from the coach, but none of them allow us to place our location. After our experience a few nights before I pray for a merciful taxi & and lo and behold a man walks out of a café and gets into the driving seat of a taxi right beside me, but when I ask for the Ambassador hotel he holds up his hands and shakes his head.

So we do it the way we’ve had to so much now - we figure it out ourselves.
Having finally found where we are on the map - where we REALLY are now - we navigate gradually back to the Nablus road that we should have been on. A hotel receptionist on the way is able to direct us (incorrectly as it turned out) to the Ambassador, and after around another 20min we finally get back, sweaty, sore of foot and exhausted.

The relief is huge.

Saturday 17 June 2017

Day 6 - the Easter bit.

The itinerary describes this as the easter journey – a day, mainly on foot, in the steps of Jesus.

I’m writing this and the next day retrospectively, and right now I remember odd details from the time, but Bethphage is missing from my consciousness – I’ll go look up the pictures in a moment. Most memorable part initially was the incredible slipperiness of the path down from the Mount of Olives to the Kidron valley, but there’s quite a bit swimming around in the back of my head too.

So we went into a pleasant enough church at Bethphage (apparently the name means house of figs) with a viewpoint that looks out over the wall that Israel built to separate the Palestinians and prevents someone from walking directly from Jerusalem to Bethphage now. There’s other views as well, that are typical of the area, with concrete houses plus towers sticking up above for religious reasons. The wall looks tall, ugly in a harsh landscape, and from stories we’ve heard has only worked to deepen resentments and division.

The coach took us back to Olivet again, in time for a group photo ($10 each - the togger knows his stuff and the shot is good, with Jerusalem as a backdrop). From there we walked north along the ridge on the top of the mount & down that slippery slope I mentioned to the top of the Kidron valley, passing the Jewish cemetery, pausing to look at 1st century ossiaries.

Passing by Dominus Flevit, a chapel that is supposed to be shaped like a teardrop (perhaps if you squint a bit?) we arrive at the chapel of All Nations where a service is going on. We pass below an orthodox basilica with shining golden onion domes modelled on one in Moscow. Then cross the road and descend the Kidron/cedron/chadron valley, passing Absalom’s tomb on our left, then stopping just before the tomb of the sons of Hezir under a shady overhang beneath the cemetery. Here we get a bit more ‘easter story’ that makes it all seem much less, rather than more real.

I spot a largish lizard, all spiky bits & claws, clinging to the rocky wall next to a formation that looks very anatomical. The valley bottom here has attractive pink flowers that Chris could probably identify and one of our group has a butterfly land on his hand.

After that we moved across to the other side of the valley, where the path went downwards behind and below Palestinian housing. Here rubbish has accumulated, apparently from being thrown from windows over many years in heaps and piles, with plastic materials failing to break down and disappear. The houses above seem to have been built on older dwellings in time-honoured fashion, and it seems amazing that with the height, they don’t all come crashing down into the valley. Some of the housing looks good, but quite a lot does not. There are video cameras on lamp posts at strategic points.

We have gone down below the ‘city of David’ as ancient Jerusalem is now called, and turn uphill to find the newly discovered pool of Siloam (apparently it isn’t *that* pool of Siloam, but never mind) which is closed for the day but the gate isn’t shut. We don’t go in, but do photograph from the open doorway.

From there it’s a long, hot climb back up into the city to walk along bits of the via Dolorosa.

Somewhere in there we ate lunch, but I have no memory remaining of that. We may have also caught the coach at some stage.

We pick up at a possible site for the house of Caiaphus including a pit where Jesus may have been held awaiting trial. From there we head into the city through the Lion gate, passing piles of rubbish (the guide says it’s not normally like that, blaming Ramadan, but those who’ve been before say it’s always like that).

We arrive at St. Anne’s church (St. Anne was by tradition Mary’s mother, and by some traditions that was also a virgin birth). Built by the crusaders, this building has an 11 second reverb time - virtually useless for speaking, and requiring songs to be sung very slowly. Which of course we do. How Great Thou Art sounds pretty good - I made a video of one verse with the phone. The group that follow us in have someone sing the same song as a solo, and she does it very well indeed.

We seem to have visited some more ruins outside the church that show how much lower ground level was once, and also a cistern that’s still full of water.

From there it’s into the city on the Via D, next visting an underground room/chapel that’s full of nuns when we arrive - this may be the judgement hall ‘Gabatha’ - and we do the singing/reading thing again. There are ancient pavements etc here too that would apparently have been in the outside air at one time, shown by grooves cut in the stones to offer grip for horses.

Back to the Via D, we pass a shop sign naming prop. Jelly Ibrahim, which Chris finds funny. There were vendors selling tee shirts with anti-UN slogans, as well as signs telling us that our guides would lie, cheat and brain wash us about prices, and if we wanted the best bargains then we should come in alone.
We turn down some side streets to arrive at the house of Raja, our coach driver. He had invited us to visit him at home, and we meet his mum and aunt there. Raja is a Coptic Christian, the copts having suffered badly in Egypt at the hands of Isis, and we are made warmly welcome. Before we leave we are able to pray blessing on the family there and for Raja’s up-coming wedding.

Back on Via D to visit the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre, and we pass through an Ethiopian Christian area before getting to the COTHS.

The interior of the building is mixed and a little muddly, architecture appearing to have been progressive rather than intentional. The interior is slightly misty with incense smoke, there are people everywhere doing religious things like kneeling, kissing artifacts, plus more general tourists just peering at stuff and taking pictures.

We take pictures and peer at stuff.

The ceiling is spectacular, there are huge marble pillars, painted walls and religious art everywhere. Incongruously, there is a tatty old aluminium step ladder in the hall containing the stone on which Jesus was supposed to have had his body prepared for burial. My understanding is that this ladder is a source of disagreement between the various church traditions responsible for the building, and no-one can move it because to do so would alter the balance of power between the groups.

After we escape the melee to the courtyard outside, a ‘parade’ of chaps in clerical gear, led by a man in a dark suit & red fez, thumping a wooden staff on the ground at each step, proceed past. A beggar with a pram full of stuff, hump on his back, walks through the now crowded courtyard, up a ramp and disappears. We head back through the narrow streets to the coach for a shower and dinner at the hotel.