Jun 132011
 

[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]

Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialThe visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.

But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.

Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.

Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.

What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.

I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.

There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.

Jun 052011
 

Hebron SoukA visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.

The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.

Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.

Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.

Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.

IMG_6110.JPGThe afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.

Jun 032011
 

After an afternoon catching up on some rest, a smaller, ‘intrepid’ group set out to walk down to the City of David and, from there, walk back up to the Old Town, through the Dung Gate, meet the rest of the group and then find a vantage point to view the gathering at the Western Wall as the Sabbath approached.

It was a lengthy walk and we took a wrong turn which extended our wander. the City of David is an Arab part of the city and can be an area for trouble. Our word of warning was to answer only in English so as not to be mistaken for Jews, getting caught out with an incorrect reply to a greeting. It was an uncomfortable walk, with an ever-present sense of tension. I’m sure we were probably quite safe, but we were definitely under scrutiny. We were of particular interest to an Israeli Police patrol driving through, getting hard looks from the police officers. I guess we were a potential source of discontent from the locals. It was a definite sense of relief that we arrived back at the main walls and went through.

Earlier in the day we had found a good vantage point to view the Western Wall from and we made our way there. It was occupied by a group of American Jews on a trip ‘home’. We did manage to squeeze past to get to the part overlooking the Western Wall,but it was fascinating to listen to the various speakers addressing the large, all-age group of Jewish Americans. One of our group observed that it was in the best tradition of a more evangelical CU or SU group. It’s fascinating to observe, and slowly begin to get to grips with, the whole issue of identity being so bound up in faith and culture. Western culture has largely compartmentalised many of these things.

Observing the Sabbath gathering was also an experience. Perhaps a little irreverently I couldn’t help but think of a good-natured football crowd, with the different groups and clothes and chants. Again, there’s that whole issue of identity – faith, and its expression, is not simply something you ‘do’, but who you are. An interesting lesson for Western Christianity which still seems very tied to the ‘do’ model.

Jun 012011
 

The title should, arguably, be T-2 given that we won’t actually be arriving in Israel until very early on Friday morning, but we do set off tomorrow and that’s what counts. So T-1 it is.

I was looking up the places we’ll be staying and they have guest wi-fi, so the laptop will be coming with me and I’ll try and post something each day, if I can (and I’m awake).

Virtually everyone I have spoken with who has been to Israel, however briefly, have all spoken of the impact it made on them. Whether it was the sense of stepping into history or the challenge of the separation barrier, there was something that left an indelible impression.

So, I’m not really sure what to expect. Indeed, I am going with no expectations and simply will wait and see what strikes me each day and even each hour of each day. I’ve also been encouraged to keep an audio diary (for future radio show use) so I’m hoping that the ‘pressure’ to reflect on what I’m seeing and doing will not become the overriding sensation and that they will, more naturally, flow from the experiences.

There’s a bit of me that acknowledges that the trip is, in some respects, ‘external’ to my faith. I don’t need to see the places or walk the paths or experience the history in order for my faith to be ‘real’. But it’s an opportunity to add ‘colour’ to that which we read of in black and white. It’s also an opportunity to share some of that experience with others who are on the same journey and I find that more exciting in many ways. And all the more exciting because it is that shared experience, not simply a second-hand description of a place, an event or a conversation.

One thing I can be sure of though – I suspect I will have enough material to see me through Guild talks and kids’ addresses for the foreseeable future.

Time to finish packing.

May 252011
 

With all the focus on the issue of same-sex partnerships and ministry at the 2011 General Assembly, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing else of any significance on the agenda. Far from it. Without wanting to downplay the importance of that discussion, there are matters before the Assembly on Wednesday and Thursday which could have major impact on the way the Church of Scotland operates.

Wednesday sees the report of the Panel on Review and Reform. It is proposing a major shake-up of how presbyteries are structured, their purpose and function. Now some may suggest that focusing on how the Kirk does business is a distraction from the church’s business, the business of Christ’s mission. But that’s a simplistic view and ignores the fact that that how the Kirk does business very much affects its effectiveness in performing the church’s business. There is a danger that already overstretched ministers and elders will have to deal with further layers of bureaucracy – although the stated aim of the Panel is to make the ‘layers’ more focused and efficient. I struggle with the concept of increased complexity bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness, but I’m just a cynic at heart. Either way, this is not a trivial issue for the Kirk either.

Then, on Thursday, another mould-breaking day (or at least the potential for it) comes through the report from the Ministries Council. This report calls for a major re-visioning of ministry provision throughout Scotland. It is, in part, a response to the financial realities faced by the Kirk. But it is also an opportunity to find enabling paths to ministry for those with the gifts to serve in this way. It’s of particular interest to me, not simply because it impacts directly on ministry, but it is the context into which my MTh research was targeted.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to follow Wednesday’s debate as I am out and about doing the business of the church. But I do hope to be at GA on Thursday to catch the Ministries Council debate. I can’t help but think you get a better view watching it online, but I’m keen to get a sense of the atmosphere as well.

And yes, the post title is ironic.

May 232011
 

Today, at the Kirk’s General Assembly, a pretty hefty debate took place over the Kirk’s future direction in its relationship with partnered homosexuals in ordained leadership. Unfortunately, due to ‘real’ church business, I was unable to sit through the entire debate, but caught the gist of it and the key vote.

The GA was presented with two ‘trajectories’. One kept to the traditionalist position and extended the moratorium on ordination of partnered homosexuals for an indefinite period. The other set out on a revisionist path which aims to lead to reconciliation with the LGBT community and to open leadership doors to those who are in a same-sex relationship.

It’s not quite the liberal triumph some may be suggesting (nor, for that matter, is it the road to doom and destruction others are suggesting). It simply sets out a possible path towards that reconciliation and opening up of leadership.

The decision allows for a theological commission to explore the issues around what this decision means. From the beginning of this phase of the debate I’ve always advocated the need for the Kirk to set in order its understanding of marriage and partnership as a prerequisite for any decision. If heterosexual marriage and same-sex partnerships can be brought to an equitable footing then there is no further debate to be had. This, I think, was the understanding behind the former Principal Clerk’s amendment to the ‘trajectory choice’ deliverance. I would have been happy for this to have been approved – it would satisfy the systematic theologian in me and help lay the theological foundations for further progress. Just to be clear – it has always been on this point that I have objected to same-sex partnerships in the manse, just as I would object to an unmarried heterosexual couple in the manse. Marriage is the defining structure within which we place committed partnerships. It’s not scriptural – it’s a legal issue. So, unless the Kirk was to make a serious u-turn on its approach to marriage then I always saw this as the primary issue to be addressed.

However, I also note that such a delay would have been entirely unsatisfactory on a number of fronts. Any opportunity to move away from discrimination and oppression ought to be taken at the earliest opportunity. The choice made today doesn’t quite meet that need either, but there is at least a glimmer of hope where there was little or nothing before. And certainly the other choice would pretty much have snuffed it out entirely.

One bigger candle of hope from today was the affirmation of sexual orientation not being a bar to ordination and training. Although it does raise interesting issues on what should happen if a subsequent partnership were to form. Do I detect the rattle of small pebbles precipitating an avalanche?

My biggest fear though is the threat of schism. There have already been rumblings that a vote for the revisionist trajectory would prompt some departures from the Church of Scotland. I’m not sure that a ‘trajectory’ really justifies that and would far prefer to see those voices stay with the Kirk, participate in the ongoing debates which need to happen and hopefully, along with everyone else, grow in grace. I don’t mean that to be ‘Christian-ese’ for ‘agree with me or you’re not a real Christian’, but rather work out how we can agree to disagree yet remain one. I know that there will be some who would say ‘good riddance’, but I think it would be very sad if any sort of schism were to happen.

So, back to the title. Is the trajectory set out upon today enough to satisfy those of a revisionist persuasion? Will there be patience to see through the next couple of years. working towards a more harmonious goal? And will a trajectory be enough to maintain a degree of unity in the Kirk?

May 192011
 

We had a meeting today to go over the itinerary for the trip to Jerusalem in a couple of weeks. There’s a lot of stuff crammed in there, but all worth doing and we also have some excellent guides with us. So, what are we up to? Here it is:

Thursday-Friday:

Travel – and somewhat tedious it is too.
Depart Edinburgh 13.35, arrive Tel Aviv 2.30, Friday morning!!!!
Arrive St. Andrew’s hostel, 4.30/5.00am !!!!!!

Friday:

After a whole 3 hours kip, it’s up and out and walking round the Old City, taking in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Lunch and siesta (or whatever the Israeli equivalent is).
Early and late evening, more Old City walking and the start of the Sabbath at the Wailing Wall.
Dinner.
Worship.

Saturday:

Early start, heading for Hebron, Herodium and Bethlehem, including a visit to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
Dinner.
Worship.
Sabbath worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sunday:

Long lie – breakfast at 8.00.
Worship at St. Andrew’s, Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Thinking time.
Dinner.
Worship.

Monday:

Early start, heading to Masada, the Dead Sea, Qumran, Jericho.
Tiberias and a swimming pool!
Posh dinner.
Communion at St. Andrew’s, Galilee.

Tuesday:

Early-ish breakfast.
Sail on Sea of Galilee with morning worship on the boat.
Mount of Beatitudes, Tabha.
Caesarea (not Philippi).
Head back to Jerusalem.
Worship.

Wednesday:

Haram (Dome of the Rock, Aqsa Mosque).
St. Anne’s / Pool of Bethesda.
Mt. Scopus, Mt of Olives.
Worship.

Thursday:

‘Flexi-day’. Time to explore on our own or to revisit sites.
Communion.

Friday:

Outrageously early start to head home.

May 102011
 

I’m wondering what has happened to the month that has passed since I last posted anything. Once again, it’s not a case of nothing happening; more just a case of lots of little things which eat away at the time and are, in and of themselves, not really worth a blog post. But I suppose that’s a reminder of just how quickly time slips away when there’s constant activity. And that’s a reminder in itself that things come around all too soon and before you know it it’s a bit of a panic to get everything sorted that needs done.

I was speaking with someone recently who was asking what I was up to in the next wee while. By the time I’d rhymed off what was definitely in the diary I realised that a chunk of May had been accounted for, June was a complete goner and July signalled the time for my final report in anticipation of the review in mid-August.

Time, it seems, is not willing to stand still to allow me take stock for a bit. And when I do snatch a moment, I keep thinking in terms of, “But I’ve still to do…” or “I’ve never done…” And, of course, there are all the things that I’m blissfully unaware of that will hit me from out of the blue. But when I snatch a moment and look back at all that I have done, I realise that there has been a lot packed in to what seems a ridiculously short time. And it will soon be time to start dredging it all up and putting it together for a report.

It also came as a shock that I had passed that halfway point and the second half of probation looked an awful lot shorter than the first half. I’m really not convinced that time is constant at all. I think there is some bizarre warp effect that comes into effect the moment you take your eye off the clock to do something. Or maybe time is just downright sneaky.

Anyway – a couple of tangents.

I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s,  The Contemplative Pastor and have decided that it should be required reading for all ministers. More to the point, it should be mandatory reading for all vacancy committees.

I’ve also been getting agitated reading recent postings and comments on many of the US-based theology blogs I subscribe to. The issue, of course, is bin Laden. I can’t decide whether to be irritated or saddened by much of the rhetoric that passes for ‘Christian justice’. The, generally, triumphalist attitude is really quite sickening and when respected UK voices are pilloried for daring to question the tone and the actions then I do begin to realise just how vastly different US and European culture actually is. I don’t particularly want to unsubscribe from some of the blogs, because it’s mainly commenters I take issue with, but I see very little response from the bloggers to gainsay them. I’m generally quite happy to read stuff I disagree with, but this recent activity has just left a particularly sour taste.

Jan 172011
 

The recent probationers’ conference was packed with challenging and encouraging seminars. There was little that wasn’t potentially useful and even the one session I didn’t find very interesting still contained little nuggets of wisdom. And within the little nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the sessions there were some excellent gems especially worthy of mental note and future reflection.

One such was the suggestion that all the people who do all the stuff that congregations do shouldn’t be referred to as volunteers.

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Jan 102011
 

I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.

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