District Office, Beckminster Methodist Church, Wolverhampton, WV3 7BQ

District Pilgrimage 2018

Rachel and Ivor are leading a group of people from across the District on a Pilgrimage to the Holy Head.  Rachel is posting regularly on her Facebook Page, where possible I will also share information below.

Day Nine

Pilgrimage Day 9: Golan Heights
It was a strange day to go to the Golan. We heard last night that Trump had pulled the US out of the Iran deal and that shortly afterwards Israeli missiles had hit an Iranian target near Damascus (only 60 miles from here as the crow flies). There is reported to be a high state of tension in the Golan, with community bomb shelters being made ready, and soldiers prevented the coach stopping at a look-out point over Syria, though otherwise everything was normal. (Updated this morning – there has been a major exchange of fire over the border during the night)

Earlier I’d lain in a hammock in the hotel gardens, watching for the kingfisher that we know nests in the trunk of a palm tree. Tucked under the parasol above the hammock I found a dove sitting on her nest. Here’s my reflection (NB “Watching the Kingfisher” is one way that poet Ann Lewin describes prayer)

Morning has broken
in this tiny corner of Eden.
Blackbird plays the Ringmaster
as a pair of Hoopoes parade into the ring all stripes and fancy headgear
Swallows on invisible trapeze
swoop high and low

Shadow over lake
Peace shatters
Cries of alarm
Breaking of branches
Eden to Armageddon in a moment as
Hope is snatched from the nest
and borne away
by the black headed crow

And high above
a bird of prey
crosses the Golan Syria-bound
death clutched in his talons

I watch for the Kingfisher
beside the Galilean lake
and pray that the dove watching me from her hidden nest
Is incubating Peace

Later we visited Banias, site of a spring that is one of the sources of the Jordan river. I took the opportunity to reaffirm my baptismal faith and to commit myself to following Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Following this trip I want to commit myself more to non-violent resistance; to refusing to be anyone’s enemy

Day Eight

Pilgrimage Day 8: The Lakeside Ministry
Who would ever think that a full blown thunderstorm and cloudburst (the first rain Ivor has encountered in 18 years of leading pilgrimages in the Holy Land) could lead to such a wonderful and memorable day? We were a very soggy crowd of pilgrims by the time we got to Tabgha and the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. However the weather began to clear as we celebrated communion outside, with mist over the lake. By the time the engines were cut midway across the Sea of Galilee, there was almost a dead calm. As we held silence after the reading of Jesus’ calming the storm, the only movement I could sense was through a slight alternating pressure between my feet as I stood on deck. Such peace. Such a blessing…..

Day Seven

Pilgrimage Day 7: Mount Tabor, Nazareth, Cana, Sepphoris
Today I walked into a church that completely bowled me over. The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is younger than I am – it will be 50 next year. On a pilgrimage where we are often striving to time-travel back 2000 years, it was a shock to find God so present to me in a 1960’s church.
My favourite term for Mary is Theotokos – “God Bearer”. In a way, the church dedicated to the Annunciation to her is Theotokos too – it bore God to me through the amazing interplay of colour and form and creativity. I was awe-struck, curious and delighted. It also spoke of the God who is present within and across cultural boundaries through the many images of Mary from around the world.
We’re never going to have the chance in Methodism to build something on this scale. But when we do have the chance to build or refurbish, it would be great for us to have the courage and vision of this architect – to invest in features which will delight and inspire as well as be practical and economical.

Day Six

Pilgrimage Day 6: Tiberias via Nablus
Most of today was taken up by the bus journey north to the Galilee (not helped by a lorry shedding its load of metal just in front of us and our being stopped at checkpoints entering Israel). We did however visit the Greek Orthodox Convent in Nablus which houses Jacob’s well in a grotto below the church. This is the well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman who, by tradition, is known as St Photina.
We visited the grotto whilst worship was taking place in the church above – the sung liturgy was a glorious soundscape for our silent meditations below. Here’s my reflection on the story itself:

You didn’t need a Messiah
in those long-ago carefree days
when you slipped the shackles of the house
to go with your sisters
drawing water in the cool of the day;
Labour leavened with laughter

But then whatever happened
left you outcast;
your reputation sullied by a string of men;
Labour cursed with loneliness
and the lassitude of noonday heat

You needed a Messiah then
but I doubt you dared hope for one.

Still –
was it this gift of desperation
that opened your eyes to salvation
where others
might just have seen a
brazen man asking a
fallen woman
for a cup of water?

Day Five

Pilgrimage Day 5: Bethlehem
Today my journey was through emotion as well as time and space. Many of our group were tired this morning. Four full days of activity and then the stark picture presented by the Museum of Occupation at the Walled Off hotel last night had left us drained.
For me a turning point in the day was our celebration of communion at the Shepherd’s Fields (Beit Sahour). We sang and prayed and shared bread and wine and laid our burdens at the cross. As the angels brought glad tidings and greetings of peace to the shepherds, we asked how God might use us to contribute to the sum of good news and peace in this place.
After a delicious lunch in the Bethlehem Arab Society hospital canteen we had free time. I was able to engage in my favourite way of experiencing a place which is as a “flaneur” – ie someone who strolls around with no particular destination in mind, turning left or right at will. I fell in love with Bethlehem as I walked….the feel of the town; the people I talked to in the shops; the “Living Stones” keeping the Christian faith alive. Life is not easy here but the human spirit is resilient and this is a far from depressing place to be.
The feeling of gratitude continued and deepened as the whole group gathered in Manger Square this evening for drinks at a local cafe. We passed the “talking spoon” around the group, taking turns to say what had made us thankful this day. There were lovely and varied answers. But the striking thing is that – all this way from home, in the midst of these amazing people and experiences – we seem most grateful for the care and friendship of each other. No matter where you are in the world and no matter what other amazing things are going on -friendship, kindness, feeling that you are part of the group, that you are included and belong and are valued….these are the things that turn out to matter to us most. These are the simple things through which we can transform one another’s experience of life.

Day Four

Pilgrimage Day 4: Bethany, Jericho and Jerusalem.
In 1986 I came to Israel with my friend, Tamsin. We’d been invited by Daniel, a Baptist student minister whom we’d met on a student mission. I can remember arriving in Jerusalem and being really impressed by this secular state that welcomed people of all backgrounds and religion. I bought a postcard of an Israeli Defence Force soldier praying at the Western wall. Daniel was working in Ramallah. I can remember my shock at arriving there to find these people called Palestinians (who I’d never really heard of) that didn’t seem to feature in the story I’d been presented with. I felt like Alice through the Looking Glass, finding a whole new world with a different set of rules.
Our group passed through the Looking Glass today as we came through the separation barrier into the West Bank. We could tell because the buildings no longer have solar panels and an A/C unit on the roof. Instead they have large plastic water butts, to store water on the days when the piped supply is not running. Our guide was up at 5am to shower this morning because the water was running for the first time in several days. People in the settlements here enjoy 400 litres per person per day – some Palestinians get by on around 10 litres. One land with aquifers below. One sky for the rain to fall from. Yet massively different access to water. As water becomes more scarce this can only get worse.
We are through the Looking Glass and there are so many avenues of injustice and oppression to explore that I wouldn’t know where to start, as we saw at the excellent exhibition at the Walled Off hotel. Yes, there are massive injustices in other countries too – but I am here, not there. I came here not for “conflict tourism” but to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. But you cannot do that without wanting to join Jesus in freeing the oppressed in the land of his birth and ministry. For me, that doesn’t mean dividing good people from bad people in my mind….people are people are people and all of us do both good and bad things. For me it means working out who is holding and abusing power and then standing with those who are suffering the consequences.

Day Three

Day 3: We spent today in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. Wilderness can be associated with deep silence; with prayer; with purification – but the major association for me yesterday was desolation and death. We visited Masada, the ancient hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea and site of Herod’s Palace. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70CE, Jewish rebels fled to Masada and fortified it. After a long siege, the Romans broke the defences and prepared to storm the hilltop. The historian Josephus reports that on the preceding night, the men decided that they would kill their families and then themselves in a “Death or Freedom” pact. A community of 960 were killed, leaving just 2 women and 5 children hiding in a cistern.
This is related as a story of heroism and courage. Israeli soldiers make this visit routinely – hearing the “Death or Freedom” message and the promise that “Masada will never again be taken” (which reminds me of the words of “Rule Britannia” that we sing so unthinkingly ‘Britain never, never, never will be slaves).
I found it deeply disturbing. It has too many echoes of the stories of familicide in the UK, which seem horrifyingly common, where a man kills his wife and children and then himself. Who asked the women and children whether they’d rather be dead than taken into slavery?
It also reminds me when we look back at the story of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, the “great stories” where they discovered most about the nature of God begin with the people in slavery (Exodus) and having been conquered and deported (Exile). Is “Death or Freedom” ever really God’s way?
The Dead Sea itself, whilst fun to float in, is a place of death for any fish that make its way downstream here. We were some of the few living things bobbing around in this great body of water.
In Ezekiel 47: 7-12, Ezekiel is given a strange vision in which fresh water flows from the temple in Jerusalem. It enters the stagnant salty waters and they become fresh. People stand fishing beside the waters at En-Gedi and it becomes a place for the spreading of nets.
I long for the cleansing, refreshing love of God to flow through our world, sweeping away violent mentalities wherever they are found and bringing abundant life.

Day Two

For me, today’s theme is summed up by Pilate’s question of Jesus: “What is truth?” It’s been the question of the day.
We’ve been to two different sites of Jesus’ tomb and the only certain thing is that he was not laid in both of them! Which one was most “true”?
The garden tomb is on a site which was only discovered in 1867 and is run by a UK based charitable trust as a place of worship and witness. We were offered a number of reasons why this was most likely the place and I found myself becoming more sceptical with each one. Yet I had the privilege of staying in the tomb to offer prayer with our group as they came in in threes and fours. It is so familiar in looking just like all the pictures I saw in Sunday School. And as I prayed that we might know the power of the risen Christ affecting transformation in our own lives, I knew the truth of this as a focused place of resurrection power, because it is soaked in the prayer of so many pilgrims. Many of the group were moved by the experience.
By contrast, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed alien to our Western sensibilities. It was busy with silver icons, and candles, and hanging lamps and busy with people kissing things and prostrating themselves and ululating and there was a huge queue to get into this tomb. It did not speak so strongly to us of “true worship”. Yet these are our brothers and sisters from the Orthodox tradition – churches that today often witness and endure and suffer in the face of terrible persecution. If we do not recognise the same resurrection power focussed in this place too, perhaps we need to ask God to give us a greater breadth of vision.
Later I wandered through the Armenian Quarter, plastered with posters protesting that the world does not recognise their truth that the slaughter of Armenians by Turkish forces in the early 20th century was in fact a genocide. I saw the same posters 20 years ago. The Armenians are still calling for their truth to be recognised.
I then visited the Jewish Quarter and stood on the roof of the Hurva Synagogue. I realised I was looking at the place I’d stood yesterday on the Mount of Olives. My viewing perspective had turned through 180 degrees. That felt symbolic of what I was being asked to do as I looked at a very different narrative of the events of 1948 and 1967 to the one I am more familiar with.
And finally this evening, we’ve been privileged to have my predecessor John Howard with us, now a mission partner at the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem, offering his own first hand evidence about the situation here.
Where is truth in the midst of this most complex of situations?
I’m led back to Jesus in John 18:37: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”. As we enter the maze of different truth claims, I think that seeking to remain open to the truth claims of those we see as “other”; the practice of prayer, and the desire to stay close to Jesus who is himself Truth – all these are our best guides.

Day One

First day of the District Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Nineteen of us have spent the day visiting various sites on the Mount of Olives and churches in Abu Ghosh (the possible site of Emmaus) and Ein Karem (the possible home of Elizabeth and Zechariah)
We celebrated Holy Communion at the church of Dominus Flevit (“Jesus wept”: Luke 19:41-45). In preparing the service I’d incorporated a prayer originating from the Iona Community which includes the refrain: “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female. All are one in Jesus Christ, and for this we praise you.” This turned out to be strangely fitting as we discovered that the Franciscan order that runs the church does not allow women to preside at Communion on site. Fortunately Ivor was able to step in though felt very uncomfortable to have to do so in the circumstances.
In a way this incident stands for all that makes me feel uncomfortable about being in Jerusalem and indeed in the whole of Israel and Palestine. People here are divided from each other in so very many ways – visible and invisible. The most obvious division between Israeli and Palestinian is just one example. Even the Christian real estate here is carved up between different denominations and nationalities. Flags fly literally and metaphorically to stake the competing claims. This city still does, in Jesus’ words, “not understand the ways that lead to peace”. It’s been a very good day, but the centre of it for me was standing in Dominus Flevit, imagining Jesus looking out over our divided world and seeing the tears run down his cheeks as he looks upon us, weeping at how we engage in the activities of division, exclusion and making “other”.
I was reminded of the poem I learned on the Camino and its final lines:
‘But we might waken yet, and face those fears,
If we could see ourselves through Jesus’ tears.’