Theology in Israel and Palestinian Territories

22 students from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology — led by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program — are participating in a Palestine-Israel immersion course from Dec. 29 through Jan. 13, 2014. Their itinerary includes lectures and interaction with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and scholars, and travel throughout the region, including to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, the Sea of Galilee, and more.

Follow Dr. Hunt on the Perkins Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/25844609000/ and the blog of Perkins student Scott Gilliland at http://scottandraegan.blogspot.co.il/

The Perkins Global Theological Education Program helps prepare students, pastors, and other Christian leaders to guide congregations into more culturally sensitive, competent, and effective mission both within and outside the United States. The program offers significant hands-on immersion experiences, grass-roots inter-religious dialogue, and exposure to cross-cultural ministries. Learn more at smu.edu/perkins.

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From Jerusalem to Nazareth

An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at http://scottandraegan.blogspot.co.il/

Goodbye Ezra, Hello Johnny!  We made the shift these past two days from the Jewish perspective of Israel (with the help of Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Marcie Lenk, and Ezra the Incredible Tour Guide) to the perspective of Johnny the Tour Guide. Just for reference, Johnny is an Arab Christian who lives in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He is very knowledgeable, occasionally (a tad?) inappropriate, and overall about a 180-turn from the leaders of our last week.

Johnny "I've Got Jokes" the Tour Guide.

Johnny “I’ve Got Jokes” the Tour Guide.

Of course, we have Dr. Hunt with us as always, but it’s hard to compete with, “I don’t mean to offend women, but…” (an actual Johnny quote).  Note: When someone begins a sentence with “I don’t want to offend you, but…” or “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not saying I’m in favor of killing kittens, but…,” they are, in fact, about to say all those things.  To his credit, Johnny has not advocated killing of kittens… yet.

We left Jerusalem early in the morning and made our way out to the coast to the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima, a city built by King Herod during his reign over Judea to appease the Caesar at the time.  I must admit, I was a little disappointed because evidently things that are 2000 years old (and occasionally invaded) have the tendency to fall down.  The palace of Herod, the homes, the chariot arena all required imagination to envision – though Phil Dieke and I managed to re-create a magnificent horse race for all the tourists present.

 The theatre in Caesarea Maritima.

The theatre in Caesarea Maritima.

After Caesarea Maritima, we headed in the direction of Mt. Carmel, near the site of one of my personal favorite Old Testament passages.  Go look up 2 Kings 2:23-25 and then read it to your kids and then answer the door for the CPS agents.  Unfortunately, no pictures there, because the view was pretty hazy and there wasn’t much else to look at.

Bahá-í Gardens

Bahá-í Gardens

From there we went to Haifa, en route to Nazareth, and stopped at the beautiful Bahá-í Gardens. Bahá-í (pronounced bah-high) is a faith that grew out of utilizing elements and traditions from many major religions present in the world (Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to name a few).  The gardens were gorgeous, and very picturesque, but we were all excited to get to Nazareth for the evening.

We then went to Nazareth, and immediately noticed the increase in Santas on billboards and storefronts.  I am increasingly aware of the “Jesus DisneyLand” effect (as my fellow student Thomas puts it). Cutting through the marketed nature of these places is not easy at times, and honestly there are places and moments when I think, “Eh… this isn’t really getting me like I thought it would.” Maybe it’s because I set the bar too high to have a religious experience at every site, or maybe it’s because there are gift shops at every church that sits over every rock where someone says something happened.  I don’t mean to sound cynical (because, as you’ve read before and will read again, I’ve had some very spiritual moments in these places), but I also want to remain transparent during this 17-day journey.

In Nazareth, we’re staying in a hotel that was converted from a convent because so many pilgrims wanted to stay close to the Basilica of the Annunciation (containing the site of Christ’s childhood home). It might be prudent to say here that many of the sites on this pilgrimage cannot be verified as historically factual sites for a number of reasons, which raises the question of what makes a site holy or sacred?

 Basilica of the Annunciation

Basilica of the Annunciation

For some it is critical to believe the sites are the actual precise locations where biblical events took place, but I would argue something else. Take, for instance, the Basilica of the Annunciation.  Is the small stone room within the historical location of Mary and Joseph’s starter home?  I honestly don’t know. Neither does anyone else in terms of the anthropological measures.  But it was someone’s home during the time that Jesus lived, that we do know, and seeing the space and breathing the air and walking up to the point of almost touching the place where, 2000 years ago, a mother and father and children lived, ate, prayed, and grew… that is a sacred place.  And it could easily have been Jesus’ home. It’s as likely as any other ancient home in Nazareth, so why not imagine him there?  For me, the sacredness comes in seeing the home, seeing Jesus as a boy with a mom and a dad trying their best to make life work in Nazareth.  It’s a beautiful picture (unfortunately for you, the dim light in there made for not-so-beautiful actual pictures, so here’s the exterior of the church instead).

We went to a church where Joseph supposedly had his workshop, but it didn’t really affect me, and so I’m not going to say much here.

We woke up early today and I can finally say I’m on the right sleep schedule! Yay!  It only took a week.  Today was probably my favorite day in terms of sites visited, next to our first day in Jerusalem.  Enjoy the following pictures/comments so that I can spare you too much more writing.

Mount of the Beatitudes.  Beautiful mosaic work inside the church; mosaic is kind of a big deal around here.  Phil Dieke (fellow student, friend, and expert on Rome) had a great devotional asking us to consider the teaching "blessed are the peacemakers"in light of the conflict surrounding the Holy Land.

Mount of the Beatitudes. Beautiful mosaic work inside the church; mosaic is kind of a big deal around here. Phil Dieke (fellow student, friend, and expert on Rome) had a great devotional asking us to consider the teaching “blessed are the peacemakers”in light of the conflict surrounding the Holy Land.

Synagogue at Capernaum, dated around 400-500 CE (AD).  Capernaum is the most impressive historical site I've seen so far, for the simple reason of how many original stones and buildings are still intact.  The two outer columns are original.

Synagogue at Capernaum, dated around 400-500 CE (AD). Capernaum is the most impressive historical site I’ve seen so far, for the simple reason of how many original stones and buildings are still intact. The two outer columns are original.

The stone where Jesus is said to have laid the loaves and fish and blessed them before feeding the 5000.  You might recognize the mosaic in front of the stone from communion plates and cups in your local church.  This site had the greatest spiritual effect on me of any of the holy sites so far.  I love the juxtaposition of a simple, unassuming rock (it couldn't have stood higher than a foot tall at the tallest point) as the place where Jesus performed the largest miracle in his ministry before the cross.  We should never take for granted the places we've come to as potential places of incredible impact.

The stone where Jesus is said to have laid the loaves and fish and blessed them before feeding the 5000. You might recognize the mosaic in front of the stone from communion plates and cups in your local church. This site had the greatest spiritual effect on me of any of the holy sites so far. I love the juxtaposition of a simple, unassuming rock (it couldn’t have stood higher than a foot tall at the tallest point) as the place where Jesus performed the largest miracle in his ministry before the cross. We should never take for granted the places we’ve come to as potential places of incredible impact.

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