A Holy Land Journal: “Nativity”   


From Manger Square
       it is hard to tell
              where the birthplace of Hope is
It’s more a fortress than a church…
       more a church than a stable.

The Crusaders made sure that it would be difficult to enter…
       two entrances walled up,
       a third reduced in size
              so that each Pilgrim must bend over to enter
              through the four foot door…

Initially, it is not what you might expect
       The Church of the Nativity …
              44 columns with Corinthian capitals flanking the nave…
       Greeks, Romans, Armenians
              all jockeying for position…
       All this is but a covering
              for the Grotto of the Nativity,

       the cave that was a stable…

       the humble birthplace of the King of Kings.

We poured into the Grotto

    under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
              too many tourists,
             too many pilgrims,

    all seeking to find the very place
              where divinity and humanity were joined together
              at one time, at one place.

We jostled each other in the Grotto
       Germans, Americans, Koreans…
              each one trying to get a front row view…
while upstairs
       Romans, Greeks, Armenians

       jostle each other for pre-eminence.

We paused for our daily devotions
       here in the cave that was a stable for Bethlehem’s Inn.
              But where is the stable?
              Where is the cave?
       Altars, Candles, Censors,
       Panelled walls…

We can’t see the cave
       For all the trappings of Christianity.

20 centuries ago

    people jostled each other along the streets of Bethlehem
       too many people
              in a town too small.

Each person with their own regional accent…
       each complaining about ‘having’ to make this trip
              to satisfy governmental bureaucracy…
       many complaining about the accommodations…
       some distraught that they found no accommodations.

How could God choose such a spot

    crowded with jostling, complaining, ungrateful people

       as the birthplace of hope?

How could God choose such a spot

    teeming with the very banal stuff of everyday life
              for anointing the creation through the Anointed One?

May Nativity continue to be accompanied

    by jostling, complaining, ungrateful people
              so that it will include me!

May Nativity happen in each one of us
       again & again & again & again …
As we jostle one another,
              trying to find our way to Nativity,
       May God gently jostle our hearts
              into a rebirth of Hope!

A Holy Land Journal: “Qumran”



        a desolate community in a desolate wilderness
              a place to get away from the violence of the city.
       To escape urban violence into the desert
              is to face the violence within.

Jesus went into desolation
                   into the Judean Wilderness
                             to prepare his ministry.
       The Temptations came …
              the lure of worldly violence

           (disguised as wealth, power, status),
              and the experience of inner violence
                      (staying in control, having it your own way,
                       not paying the price).

Jesus was able to face the Temptation
       and say: “No!”
I face the Temptation
       and say: “I’d rather not, but tell me more!”

Our Biblical forebears heaped up a pile of stones
       to commemorate something special that happened.
Today Middle Easterners throw stones
       when they are angry.

Stones are so plentiful in the Middle East…
              and in our lives

    weapons for our violence and building blocks for our spirituality.

A Holy Land Journal: “Stones”


Today I walked on cobble-stones from the Warsaw Ghetto
and my heart sank within me. Remembering the atrocities, I did not find cause to rejoice at
being a human being.

At the same time I recalled the strength of those who persevered in order that they might tell the stories and keep the remembrances alive. Both are part of me…
violence directed at other human beings and strength of character deep within.

I, too, would wall off
that which I do not understand and those whom I do not know. But when someone else tries to wall me off, the very fibers of my being resist for all they are worth; and I find deep inner strength that I never knew I had.

The stones are repeated again and again and again! The hugh limestone blocks from Solomon’s time that comprise the Western (Wailing) Wall also speak of violence and deep inner strength. Upon the Temple Mount I trembled in fear as I absorbed the pain and anguish of the violence of succeeding generations and empires that have desecrated the sacredness of this holy spot.

At the Wall I trembled in awe as I touched the cold stone and sensed the prayers of the ages and the sweep of history. Violence and reverence around me and within me.

The stone steps of the Via Dolorosa
lead one down and up along winding streets

from Gabbatha (the marble street in front of the Governor’s Palace) to the rocky scarp of Calvary (now hidden under the finery of the Church’s celebrations).

The footing is not as treacherous now
but the walk stretches our fiber violence heaped upon violence. In Truth, the harshness of the walk along Execution Alley is tempered by the tears of Pilgrims… touched at some deep spot within
as they repeat the journey that Christ made. The tears often come
as Pilgrims walk DOWN from Calvary It is as if their own spirits are crying out… “You can’t walk away from Calvary the only way back is through death and resurrection.”

The churches are filled with beautiful mosaics…

    and the beauty masks the violence of history
              churches built upon the rubble of mosques
              mosques erected over destroyed churches …
                      brothers in Abraham …
                                    to eradicate each other’s holy shrines and
                                    that the other will simply go away if their shrine is destroyed
                                    to face each other as brothers and
                                    let the way of God and of Father Abraham reign.

You can tear down the stones, but you cannot tear down the spirit that strives toward God.

In the Galilee

    the cities where Jesus taught
       are all gone now
              all piles of stone and rubble,
              waiting to be excavated and reconstructed.

These cities were destroyed many years ago…
       human violence visited upon one’s neighbors.
Even more recently
       Galilean cities have seen human violence…
              marauding Zionists
                      taking land
from native Palestinians…
                      destroying buildings,

           creating more rubble in a rubble-filled land,
                      dashing hope upon the rock piles.

And out of the rubble
       arises one like Elias Chacour
              who preaches and teaches…
                      NOT violence,

             but love and peace and neighborliness.

A Holy Land Journal: “Jordan River”

“Jordan River”

The water was flowing abundantly …

RAIN falling gently from heaven, even as God’s grace falls upon us,
RIVER flowing mightily from the Galilee, offering its life to the world around it,
TEARS streaming from eyes of Pilgrims, renewed in faith, touched deeply within.

There was a gentle irony almost Semitic in nature as we held unbrellas over the head of the Pilgrim who was renewing her baptismal vows.

Were we protecting her from the rain? or was it
from the deep chaotic waters of creation that are “without form and void.” We hear the echoes of our ancestors whispering within: “See God and die!”

Does the rain baptize with less efficacy than the river? Is God’s life-giving rain less significant than the waters of the Jordan? And what about the tears? Can we be baptized by the briny water of our tears? or of Christ’s tears?

Waters upon waters
experience upon experience
grace upon grace

and a river runs through it!

A Holy Land Journal: “Capernaum—Village of Compassion”

“Capernaum—Village of Compassion”

In the mist of the late afternoon

A rainbow placed its foot on the ancient village
that we now call Capernaum…
Kephar Nahum …
the village of Nahum

the village of Compassion.

God placed the foot of another rainbow on Kephar Nahum

so many years ago
for it was there that Jesus centered
his teaching ministry in the Galilee.

Rainbow over the Galilee
Sign of the Covenant
God’s promise of Compassion
Pointing toward Life
Touching down at Kephar Nahum
Village of Compassion.

Jesus Christ

Embodiment of Covenant
Incarnation of God’s promise

the Way, the Truth, and the Life
Teaching from Kephar Nahum
Village of Compassion.


And all is connected for this Pilgrim through the prismatic effect of rainbows gently touching the soil of our lives.

A Holy Land Journal: “Kinneret”


Sea? Lake?
Most Holy Font!
Setting for Jesus’ Ministry

To stand at the bow of a boat on the Sea of Galilee
as many of the early disciples must have stood
              rain blowing in my face …
              mist too heavy to see much but the shadowy gray of the surrounding mountains …
              cold wind cutting to the quick …
              sounds of conversation from another boat …
              a piper on the hills along the shore …
              the chanting of the seagulls …

              the lapping of the waters on the boat …
             all break the reverie of early morning.

If you listen carefully in the silence
       you can almost hear
              the echoes of fishermen long past
Listen yet more carefully and you might hear
       reflected from the surrounding hills 
             the echoes of a preacher,
              whose followers called him
                      Tzaddik (Righteous One) and
                      Rabbi (Teacher).
His voice yet hovers over the waters
       and hovers within my heart.

Lake mist, mountain fog …

    and it all begins to emerge more clearly
Yes! the Gospel is written in words on paper.
       But even more, He is inscribed on
              the waters of Lake Kinneret, and on

       the Plains of Bethsaida & Genneseret, and on
               hillsides and mountains …
       The Fifth Gospel the Galilee.

And, of course,
The Sixth Gospel …
       written on the hearts of
              the irascible fisherman named Peter,
              the tentmaker named Paul,
       the friar named Francis,

       the civil rights leader named Martin,
              the Presbyterian pastor named Bart,
       and generations more

    and generations yet to come.

And the writing began in a village named Compassion!

A Holy Land Journal: “Via Dolorosa”

“Via Dolorosa”

Today I walked the Via Dolorosa, the Road of Sorrows, with a brave pilgrim

Dotty had broken her foot before the tour began. She walked every step of the way in pain … over cobblestones, up hills, down hills, all along the winding and tortuous way.

We got to Calvary — steep steps to where the top of Calvary resides under the facade of a Chapel.

“Do you want to climb these stairs?” I asked.
“I’ve come this far, I dare not miss it!” she would say. And on we would go.

So we climbed Calvary. There were tears in her eyes as she came down. These were not the tears of pain (though her foot must have ached something fierce), but the tears of gratitude and the tears of faith.

Earlier I had told Elaine that I was not sure why I had come on this trip to the Holy Land. I was just going to have to discover it, along the way. As I was escorting Dotty along the Via Dolorosa, Elaine came and said to me, “Maybe this is why you came.”

Again it is reaffirmed what God has in store for me is to be a Guide for Pilgrims. No! not a tour guide for the Holy Land, but a Guide for those who journey in faith, for those whose journey takes them inward even when their journey is in Jerusalem.

It was touching when we came to that narrow twisting turn in the road where Simon Cyrene was supposed to have taken the cross. Abed, our guide, mentioned that Simon was probably a Black man. Dotty, who was aware of the differing schools of thought regarding Simon’s skin color, exclaimed: “Oh, So he was Black after all!” and her heart was touched. (Oh yes, Dotty is a Black woman.)

The Via Dolorosa was a long way, but the path was relatively easy to traverse (that is, for those of us with two good feet) especially since we hadn’t been scourged and we didn’t have to carry a heavy wooden crosspiece.

As the group walked along, and as I helped Dotty, I remembered my trip to St. Meinrad’s Abbey. I discovered an old, abandoned Stations of the Cross. Before I realized what the stelae were, I have gone to 3 or 4 of them. And I had started at the end and continued moving toward the beginning. I remember the feeling and the thought that I had
undone the Crucifixion, and now it was time for me to do it again on my own. (Maybe the more theologically appropriate way of saying that would be: to make the Crucifixion my own.)

Today, as I walked with Dotty and sensed some of her deep faith being renewed, I know something more of what it means to make the Crucifixion my own. Dotty’s tears and Christ’s tears mixed with each other (and with the tears of countless numbers of Pilgrims who have walked the Via Dolorosa over the years) and those tears sanctified both the day and the Way.

“Forgetfulness leads to exile,
    while remembrance is the scent of Redemption.”
       – Baal Shem Tov

The confirmation for all this came as we stood atop the Coptic monastery, looking at the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I looked up …

I had encountered her before…

in prayer and meditation,

She had perched on my shoulder,
and winked (as if in confirmation)
at my installation as LPC’s pastor.

And now she was back
A pure white dove …
hovering at the Dome
hovering over Calvary
hovering over the table of preparation
hovering over the Holy Sepulchre
hovering over the end of the Via Dolorosa…
a sign of the Presence of God,
a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit,
a blessing and a benediction!

A Holy Land Journal: “Twice to the Wall on Shabat”

“Twice to the Wall on Shabat”

Wailing Wall
Mortared with Intercessions
“Next Year in Jerusalem”

I came to the Holy Land to find myself instead, I found a Wall …
the Wall that has seen 3000 years of civilization …
King Solomon
& lowly slaves pulling giant limestone blocks into place,

Orthodox Jews & Byzantine Christians,
Ottoman Moslems & Armenians
Hasidim & Presbyterians.

Over the years the Wall has been …
shown off as a great feat, scorned,
knocked down & built back up
again & again & again.

The Wall has been prayed on, prayed over, and prayed through.
Even more, the Wall has prayed.

It has absorbed the prayers…
blood, sweat, & tears…
and so much more
from generation to generation.

When God’s people were kept from the Wall,

the Wall heard their silence and their absence …
and kept them present

I came to the Wall as a Pilgrim
curious, moved, anxious,

but mostly in that confused state we call

I tried to pray;

I said some prayers …
but my tongue turned to ashes
and the words would not come.
I sat in silence and gave my heart to God …
but my heart turned to stone.
I wanted something to happen
but no thing happened.

And still,

in my silence,
in my aloneness,

in the chill of the evening air,
the coldness of the Stone touched me
and the Wall prayed me.

I looked up …

in the cracks and clefts of the wall all around me
were the prayers of thousands of pray-ers…
small pieces of paper, rolled tightly, placed lovingly,

but, above me all over the face of the Wall…
another kind of life
growing in the cracks and clefts… green
the color of God’s creation bursting forth all around me
and over me a canopy of protection…
a bush growing out of the wall.

The Wall breathes life!

The Wall breathes life into me!
The Wall breathes me!

And in that sense that is true throughout all creation
The Wall is me.
Having embraced me and adopted me as its own,
The Wall breathes life.

And, as the Wall breathes I, too, breathe life.
L’ Chaim, Old Friend, L’ Chaim!

A Holy Land Journal: “Walking” (Thoreau)

Pilgrimage means setting aside the hustle and bustle of everyday living and develop the disposition of a  saunterer. Thoreau describes it best:


I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking … who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy Lander. … [Those] who do go there [i.e., metaphorically to the Holy Land] are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean..

—Henry David Thoreau


Co-author, Wayne Purnitun, are celebrating the completion of the preliminary draft of our book (Stirring Waters:Wrestling with Faith in a Wrestless Worldand are departing for our next adventure—a pilgrimage to Nova Scotia.

I have done a lot of traveling since I retired at the end of 1997—mostly by car, with a plane trip or two sprinkled in. I’ve been to Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, California, North and South Dakota, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. In every case I was going to some specific destination in order that I might see some particular people or do some specific things. Travel is about destination and what’s there. Pilgrimage is different—no destination but, instead, a journey.

So, if pilgrimage is about not focusing on a destination, why Nova Scotia?

As Wayne and I, as intended fellow pilgrims, began our discussions and planning we Googled “pilgrimage travel.” We discovered a lot of tour agencies that were willing to plan a trip to traditional destinations such as Mecca, Lourdes, El camino de Santiago, or many, many more. This is not what interested us. Before we could narrow down exactly what we were looking for, Nova Scotia seemed to offer itself as a possibility. As we investigated those possibilities, we began to sense a nudge, that became an insistence, that became a call.

Nova Scotia calling—a Canadian maritime province with a strong Scottish & Gaelic history and culture. Moreover, prior to the arrival of any European explorers or settlers, a thriving culture of the Mi’kmaq, a First Nations people. Add to that the history of French settlement and Nova Scotia is a living history of the interaction of various cultures.

Many of the Scots who settled in Nova Scotia were victims of the Highland Clearances. Divested of their land and their livelihood, they sought a new start in a new land—a New Scotland (Nova Scotia). The British removed the French (Acadian Expulsion) from much of the land they had occupied.  Part of that story is told in Longfellow’s Evangeline.

As a beginning, our pilgrimage is about engaging these people and hearing their stories—attempting to understand, to some degree, why they are where they are and how they inhabit their world. Of course, if this is all we do, it will be more a research project rather than  pilgrimage.

As we listen to their stories, we can’t help but explore our own stories. How do I inhabit my world? How do I engage those who are Other (different from me)? How do I interact with the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable?

Nova Scotia also mean going away from urban living—away from the conveniences, away from the distraction, away from the threats. Instead, this pilgrimage will be about engaging people—the hosts at our bed & breakfast accomodations, the local people at various Ceilidhs (Gaelic music celebrations), the Mi’kMaq people, and, of course, the docents at a couple of national historical sites.

Pilgrimage means more than just taking in the world around me. Pilgrimage means reflecting, recalling—rehearsing who I am, who is around me, and what I am encountering at the present. And it means doing that in community—in the community I bring with me (my fellow pilgrim) and in the communities I encounter along the way.

Pilgrimage is not about driving lickety-split or running at top speed to get from one place to the next. Instead, pilgrimage is about sauntering. Thoreau speaks of sauntering as listening to an internal Peter the Hermit urging us to engage the Holy Land. Such sauntering is walking like a camel, which ruminates as it walks. Pilgrimage is about journeying while musing about the Holy Land upon which you are traversing and the people who inhabit that land. Nova Scotia beckons as a place for Holy Land sauntering.

I am not taking my laptop to Nova Scotia, only my journal. We have agreed that part of each day will be spent, by each of us, writing in our journals—reflecting on our experiences and their implications for our respective spiritual journeys.

For the month of July (which includes our Nova Scotia pilgrimage) I will be sharing observations from a previous pilgrimage—a 1993 trip to the Holy Land. I wasn’t aware, at the time, that it was a pilgrimage; but it was. I didn’t have a laptop at that time. I didn’t take a camera. I did take my journal and I wrote about my experiences—inner and outer. Those I will share with you about every third day. By the end of July, I hope to have transcribed my journals and prepared those observations for sharing on this blog. Stay tuned!