Looking Back & Looking Forward

As I write this, sitting here in my room, in my jammies, with the Giants/Green Bay game on in the background [this Israeli ESPN channel is fabulous! I know the game already has bee decided, but I did not wake up to see it at the ungodly early hour this morning–only for the Broncos do I make such sacrifices!], my group is on the bus, on their way to the airport. We had a nice closing Eucharist, dinner, and then a quick game of Euchre [This, I have been told, is the proper spelling–who knew?!] before we said good-bye. I was sad to see them go, but ready for “Israel-phase two,” also! The text Marty chose for the service tonight was one of my very favorites: she read from Isaiah 43, including verses 18 & 19: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In this chapter, Isaiah first reminds God’s people of all God has done for them in the past, and then, somewhat surprisingly, calls them to turn away from those memories, those deeds, and look instead to the unknown future–to the wonderful acts of God as yet only promised, as yet unseen. As I was reflecting on that passage, I was thinking about how hard it is to turn from the past to the future, to let go of the known and face the unknown, to relinquish what is secure, familiar, and comforting in favor of what is new, untested, and unnerving. In addition to all the mundane examples one might give [people staying in terrible relationships because of familiarity; people continuing unhealthy patterns because breaking out of them seems so threatening; people refusing to try new foods, think new thoughts, do new things because the “same old” is so much easier–and again, let me say that as a creature of habit, I am sympathetic to these attitudes!], I was thinking about a religious context, and how our clinging to the past can so dramatically hamper our ability to walk into the new life into which God is calling us–both individually and as communities of faith. We met with the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, Munib Younan–he is also the current president of the Lutheran World Federation, by the way–and of course, he talked about the religious tensions in these countries today [and in the Middle East as a whole]. Being here, it is hard not to feel like part of the problem is our inability to look forward, and instead clinging desperately to the past [the phrase “hanging on like grim death” takes on an unfortunately literal meaning here]. Now, to be sure, I don’t think forgetting the past is either possible or desirable; but when we try to reproduce the past in the present, when we superimpose the past onto the present/future, and when we deny the future for the sake of the past, something is wrong. Instead, I think part of what it means to have a future [which is really what being alive actually means–those who are dead do not have a future, and hence their existence has ceased] is to be continually reinterpreting the past, understanding it anew, seeing it fresh, and allowing it to make meaning for us in the present/future in a new way. This is probably an over-generalization, but as a rule, I think it is better when we allow the future to determine the past instead of the past determining the future [recognizing, of course, the necessary mutual interplay between them, where each influences and shapes the other in a constructive way, in response to that new revelation of God, that new thing that God is constantly bringing forth]. Again, I am thinking about that past/future dynamic with my own work as well, as I seek to allow the inter-religious conversations that I have with people, texts and places to inform my understanding of Christianity afresh, and see my own tradition with new eyes. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, this work really is a response to the future into which I hear and see God calling me in this time and place. I don’t know where I am going to end up, ultimately, but here, surrounded by my fellow “siblings of the book,” I find myself thinking, “If that old man Abraham could do walk into an unknown future, surely I can do it, too!” So, not much more to say today. We started the morning at the Israel museum, and I must say, it was even more amazing than I was expecting. [We didn’t have nearly enough time–I think I am going to have to go back. We’ll see.] They have a large, detailed model of the city of Jerusalem in the 2nd Temple period [around 66 BCE]–so big you can walk all around it and really see everything as it was in that time. It was actually nice seeing it after we had been here for some days, so we could get a better sense of the big picture, and orient ourselves by the places we had seen. Then we went to the “Shrine of the Book,” a gorgeous space dedicated exclusively to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was neat to see the original manuscripts themselves, especially after we had been at Qumran; and I was particularly heartened that the center of the whole exhibit is the Isaiah scroll [well, a facsimile, sadly], which is the largest intact scroll that was found. I LOVE Isaiah! In the basement of the Scrolls exhibit, there was another VERY interesting exhibit on the Aleppo Codex, which I actually found more interesting than the exhibit on the Scrolls themselves, in some ways. Here is the story, copied from http://www.aleppocodex.org: “The Aleppo Codex is a full manuscript of the entire Bible, which was written in about 930. For more than a thousand years, the manuscript was preserved in its entirety in important Jewish communities in the Near East: Tiberias, Jerusalem, Egypt, and in the city of Aleppo in Syria. However, in 1947, after the United Nations Resolution establishing the State of Israel, it was damaged in riots that broke out in Syria. At first people thought that it had been completely destroyed. Later, however, it turned out that most of the manuscript had been saved and kept in a secret hiding place. In 1958, the Aleppo Codex was smuggled out of Syria to Jerusalem and delivered to the President of the State of Israel, Izhak Ben-Zvi….The Aleppo Codex, as it reached Israel has 294 parchment pages, written on both sides. Examination revealed that many pages were missing as a result of the damage to the Codex in 1947. Mainly the first part of the manuscript was damaged, the Pentateuch, of which only the last eleven pages remained. Almost all the Five Books of Moses had been lost, except the final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, which were preserved. The final pages of the Aleppo Codex are also missing, including part of the Song of Songs, and all of Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. In the rest of the books of the prophets, some pages are missing. In all, the Aleppo Codex originally had 487 pages.” Now, here is where it gets interesting: “Many efforts were made to locate the missing pages of the Aleppo Codex or to reconstruct what was written in them. Despite these efforts, it is difficult to determine clearly today what happened to the missing pages. Were they burned or destroyed? Or were they, perhaps, hidden somewhere? These efforts met with many disappointments. Nevertheless, there were two successes: an entire page of the Aleppo Codex, from Chronicles, reached New York and was preserved by a family from the city of Aleppo. Eventually, that page was given to the National Library in Jerusalem and added to the Aleppo Codex. And another clue was discovered, from the missing part of the Pentateuch: a piece of a page from the Book of Exodus had been preserved in the United States in the wallet of a man from Aleppo, who used it as a kind of lucky charm. This piece of parchment has not yet reached Jerusalem, but a photograph of it has been published.” Did you get that? Someone is walking around with a piece of this incredibly old, incredibly sacred text IN HIS WALLET, because a rabbit’s foot just wasn’t working for him. How many times have I said on this trip that holy objects are very important to human beings–especially religious people?! [Can you imagine holding on to something like that? Can you imagine KEEPING IT IN YOUR WALLET?!] Then, I bypassed all the authentic old rocks [As I think I have mentioned before, most of the cool stuff we have seen at the archeological sites have been copies–EVERYTHING of value now rests in the Israel museum.], in favor of the “Wing for Jewish Art and Life.” It was, in a word, spectacular. It was divided into five sections: The Rhythm of Life [including images of wedding garments, circumcision knives, marriage contracts and jewelry]; The Synagogue Route [including synagogue interiors from three continents–India, Italy, and Suriname]; The Cycle of the Jewish Year [I was TOTALLY blown away in this room–the spice boxes, the sabbath candle holders, the passover plates, torah ornaments, etc., etc, etc.]; Costume and Jewelry [clothes and jewelry: Did I love this section? You know I did!]; and Illuminating the Script–the manuscripts here were breathtaking, there is just no other word for it. I NEVER by museum books–I just figure they never get looked at–but I DID by the book that focused specifically on these items. I just couldn’t hold them all in my head, and I wanted to keep the images with me, and learn more about them. I also looked it some exhibits of modern Jewish art, as well as a gorgeous exhibit focused on Rubens’ picture, The Death of Adonis. [View it here: http://www.imj.org.il/imagine/galleries/viewItemE.asp?case=17&itemNum=202049%5D. The time went too quickly! After the visit to Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Old City [I hope to go back for their noon service in German!], where we met Bishop Younan, we had free time to wander the Old City for a few hours. I took advantage of the time to walk for an hour and a half, both inside the walls and outside, imagining myself tomorrow, here alone, in a new way. OK–last thing for the night. I have been thinking a lot about the designation “The Holy Land.” One advantage, of course, is that it is one inclusive moniker that can be used to describe Palestine and Israel together, without having to “name names,” if you will. I do get that, of course, and I know that this land is holy to the three Abrahamic religions; but I guess I have just worked too much with Buddhism & Hinduism not to feel slightly offended by the term. [Both those religions have holy lands & holy places just as old, if not older than these countries.] This is what I am thinking: “A” Holy Land I would be happy to accept, but “The” Holy Land just seems to exacerbate the problem–if there is only one “holy land,” then of course, aren’t we all going to fight tooth and nail to hang onto it, to define it, to construct it, to administer it, etc. I keep thinking about the Jewish understanding of “chosen-ness”–it is not for their own sake, but for the sake of the world: they receive their gift by becoming a gift to others. What would it look like if the “holiness” of the Holy Land was interpreted outward, as a gift to the world, for the sake of the neighbor [maybe even especially for our religious-other neighbor] rather than something to be hoarded and kept for oneself? I am hoping to have more insights on all of this when my week here is done!

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