On Pilgrimage: Bethany, a Place of Friendship

The city of al-Eizariya is roughly 2 miles from the city of Jerusalem on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives.  It is the likely location of the biblical village of Bethany, a place of friendship for Jesus.

Bethany Sign
A sign offering scripture and devotion to Bethany’s visitors.

While some may question that this is the site of Bethany of the Bible, Christians have been worshipping in this place for centuries.  It is the site of a cavern tomb that many believe to be the tomb of Lazarus whom Jesus revived from death (John 11).  Interestingly, CNN’s series, Finding Jesus, focused on Lazarus just a few days ago.  As I watched clips, I found myself saying, “I was just there!”

Bethany was the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6-13). The home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (Luke 10; John 11-12; etc). The likely site of Jesus’ Ascension (Luke 24; allusions in Acts 1).

Sanctuary of Bethay
The Sanctuary at Bethany with artwork that commemorates Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, were dear friends of Jesus.  We can see this when Lazarus dies in John 11.  The sisters send for Jesus to come at once saying, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”  Also, we can see the depth of their relationship again in the short verse, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  We see the depth of human emotion that Jesus felt at Lazarus’ death.  Some scholars believe that Lazarus is the unnamed “Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel of John.

lazarus tomb
The Entrance to Lazarus’ Tomb.

When Jesus travels to Jerusalem, he stays at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  This is explicit in John 12, when Jesus comes to their house 6 days before his final Passover.  It is at this time when John reports Mary anointing him with perfume–an act that Jesus interprets as a burial anointment.  A similar story is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, but this time at the house of Simon the Leper (also in Bethany) and with a stranger anointing him.  Maybe they both happened.  Maybe the different writers remembered it differently.  Who knows?

What we do know, however, is that, for Jesus, Bethany was a place of friendship.  For many years, when Jesus would have made his regular required trips to Jerusalem, he likely stayed with his friends in Bethany.  He would have gotten to know them well over the years.  Similarly, they would have shared meals, religious fellowship, and ever-growing friendship.

Bethany is a place for friendship.

When we visited the site of Lazarus’ tomb, I remembered the miracle of him walking out of the tomb.  I remembered that I was standing in very close proximity to where Jesus spent his last days and where he likely ascended into heaven.

All of these things were very meaningful to me.  Yet, it was Jesus’ friendships that moved me that day.  Jesus wasn’t a lone ranger.  He had deep, meaningful relationships with people.  He was formed in community and continued to be formed in community.  And he was vulnerable with those who were close to him.

My Bethany

I visited Bethany with friends.  Some of the most intense, formative, and meaningful experiences of my life were lived with Mike, Meg, and the people of the Isle of Hope United Methodist Church who were my fellow pilgrims on this journey.  I had made new friends, too.  Those who I met and got to know on our travels.

Additionally, I thought about how God has continued to bless me with new friendships.  Over the past 3 years, I have developed deep and meaningful friendships with the members of the Lyons First United Methodist Church.  Nearly 2 years ago, I had the blessing of forming a Study, Sabbath, and Service (S3) Group with 7 other young pastors in our Annual Conference.  This has been a deep blessing to my life.  Additionally, there are 2 particular men who have become brothers to me in recent years.

Lone Ranger to Community

To be honest, there was a time when friendship wasn’t a priority for me.  I filled my life with apprenticeship in ministry, seminary, and focusing solely on excellence in ministry.  While those are noble things, this is not the model that Jesus lived.  Life without valuing my meaningful friendships left a deep emptiness in my life.  I learned along the way that discipleship requires friendship.  The Christian faith is a relational one, and while solitude and discipline are vital parts of our spiritual formation, community is a means of grace that cannot be dispensed with (for me, at least).

In community, I learn about myself; learn to receive grace;  and practice vulnerability in a safe environment.  This vulnerability leads to deeper communion with God and a greater capacity to love (which I am sure that my family is grateful for).

Friendship challenges me. It brings me comfort.  I have trusted people who can lovingly reflect back to me what I am putting into the world and can gently guide me into the deepest paths of love and away from self-deception.

Bethany was a place of friendship for Jesus.  A place of vulnerability, joy, and grace.  I am thankful that God has given me a Bethany of my own–deep and lasting friendships.

Israel: The Day My Heart Broke

This post is part of a series exploring my recent trip to the Holy Land.

There’s something about coming to the end of your own resources that gives God room to speak and work in your life. By Monday, we had been traveling for a week. Every bit of it was amazing and exciting; but I was tired. Not overwhelmingly so, but tired enough to welcome a bench on the path and a moment to sit alone for a second. I was coming to the end of my own resources and there wasn’t enough espresso in Jerusalem that would replace a nice long nap.

Ramp to the Temple Mount
Approaching the Temple Mount. The Wailing Wall is below.
When My Heart Became Heavy

We woke up at 5:15 a.m. and got on the tour bus by 7 a.m. It was important to get an early start because we were going to the Temple Mount. We would have to go through a security checkpoint in order to get there. Also, we wanted to beat the crowds.

The Temple Mount is the location where the Jewish Temple was built. It was built on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, before God intervened by sending a lamb for the sacrifice (Genesis 22). Around the time Jesus walked that ground, Herod the Great had greatly expanded the grounds around the temple. He added to the courtyards around the temple, building up the top of the mountain with retaining walls. Today, some of these walls still stand.

Portions of Herod’s Western Wall are still accessible today. Residential buildings and earth cover other parts of it.  (It is worth remembering that Jerusalem is a living city, continually building on the foundations of it’s past inhabitants). The Western Wall Plaza is the section of the wall known also as The Wailing Wall. It is the place that is in the closest proximity to the most scared area of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Therefore, it is a holy site. Daily, Jews come to pray at the Western Wall.

The appointed time for organized prayer at the Western Wall had begun as we arrived at the security checkpoint for the Temple Mount, located above the wall.  We heard the prayers and chants of those leading prayer; and we heard whistles, too. People blowing whistles. Our tour guide didn’t seem disturbed. It was a normal occurrence. But it was disturbing for some of us, so we asked about it. “Probably another protest,” he said, as we walked up the ramp, over the prayerful, and toward the Temple Mount. I’m not used to the counter-melody of prayer and protest.

People have asked me if I saw a lot of guns on my trip. That’s partly because this region of the world has a reputation for militancy. We saw a few here and there, mostly because every Israeli citizen, male and female, spends time in the military. On the way to the Temple Mount–that’s when we saw the presence of arms.

Along the way, we saw a sign with a rule put forth by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel:

“Announcement and Warning. According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.”

Why? Because it is unclear as to which part of the Temple Mount is the site of the Temple and, in particular, the Holy of Holies where only the chief priest was allowed to go.

This is an interesting sign because there is another point of tension: the Temple Mount is currently the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Mount Moriah, today, and for the last few centuries, is a Muslim holy site.

Police and armed guards patrol the Temple Mount. While it is under Israeli sovereignty, Muslims have religious sovereignty. Therefore, it is lawful for Jews (typically reformed Jews who would be less inclined to heed the Chief Rabbinate’s warning) to visit, but not to pray. The police will stop a Jewish person from praying on the mount. They will also stop any visitor whose appearance or actions don’t demonstrate proper decorum.  (This is why the women in our group had their heads covered with scarves).

At one point, we saw a group of Jewish visitors walking the Temple Mount. They walked in a square, with an Israeli police escort on each corner. Guards eyed them continuously as they walked by.

We could hear the prayers below at the Western Wall; we heard the whistles; we saw the guards; and we heard the history. At some point, the minarets called out the start of prayers for the Muslim people.

“If anything were to happen, it would happen here,” our guide said of the geopolitical and religious tension.

That tension was palpable, even on a day of relative peace like that Monday. It was a somber morning for me. My spirit was heavy. Not with questions of the veracity of the Muslim faith or the Jewish faith; or with presence of one religious group or another on the Temple Mount. Not because I had a sense that anyone was approaching their stance in anything other than their own good will according to their own beliefs. My spirit was heavy because I was in a place that illustrated the brokenness, division, and tension throughout the world

The place we walked is one of the most contentious places in the Middle East, if not the world. It is the cradle of religious, geopolitical, and cultural differences. As such, it is rife with tension and has been for many, many years.

It was alive and filled with potential energy. And it weighed on me. I brought up the rear of the group and had very little to say as we toured the area.

When my Heart Broke

A tour doesn’t always offer time for reflection or decompression. We have a lot to see, we have appointments at sites, and the Holy Land is a living place. So we immediately left the Temple Mount and began our tour of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.

We began at the Antonia Fortress which adjoins the Temple Mount. This is the place where Jesus received his sentence and his cross. We journeyed down to the basement where the guards would have kept watch over prisoners. The pavement in this area is dated to the time of Jesus. It is one of the few places where we can say, with some level of certainty, these exact stones touched Jesus’ feet.

The Via Dolorosa would not be a reflective experience. As it was in Jesus’ day, it is lined with active shops and residences. Tourists and residents make the path busy.  So, knowing that for many of us, this was the most important experience along our tour, we insisted on taking a moment to reflect and prepare in the basement of the Antonia Fortress.

There, in one of the rooms where Jesus may have awaited his cross, we sat and read Luke 23 and then sat in silence. I had no indication that I would feel anything. I was tired, burdened, and ready to get started. But there in that silence, I recognized the tension that I felt in that square footage had been felt for thousands of years. Religion, politics, power, and culture had clashed in this place over and over and over again. They clashed when Ciaphas, Herod, Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus met there.

When Jesus stood up in this place, he rose from the last time that he would sit during his earthly life. From here he would carry his cross, sometimes falling, but never sitting in rest, to Golgotha. To be crucified. To die.

Slowly the tension built in my spirit. Slowly the tears filled my eyes. But suddenly the sobs wracked my body.

I had no more energy to hold it back. I didn’t want to weep. I definitely wasn’t interested in people seeing it. But I was at the end of my resources, and God was using that moment to minister to me in the heaviness of my spirit.

The tension that I felt there exists in the world. It exists in our own land. In our own lives. Within each of us. But it doesn’t have to overtake us. Because one day, it all fell upon a man and crushed him. He was buried. And he rose from the dead. And he spoke to a man named John and said:

“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:4-5).

The cracks in a broken heart can make room for God to work grace in our lives. And, just as they have in the city of Jerusalem, God will continue to build new things on the rubble of our brokenness. What God builds is good.

Emotionally and physically tired, yet comforted and blessed, we continued our journey on the Via Dolorosa.

Dust: Living Lent with God & Others

Dust“From dust you were made, to dust you shall return.”  This is the message of Ash Wednesday; the entry way to Lent.

This is a universal truth and message.  Regardless of your station in life;  your socio-economic status; or how well-liked or despised you are: we are but dust.  We are mortal.

We spend a great deal of energy in our lives running from that fact.   Pursuing money, influence, quality of life, and health.  There is nothing wrong with these things.  However, we must be careful that they don’t create a false impression that we are any better off because of them.

Yet, the truth is that all of us were created by God.  We are not self-made people.  Also, we will one day die.  Nothing we can do will change that fact.

In short, Lent reminds us that we are on a level playing field with every other human being.

Before we get the impression that this is bad news, let’s remember the Good News.  The second declaration of Ash Wednesday is: “Repent and believe the Gospel.”

In the same way that God gave us life, we find that God gives us new and everlasting life through Jesus Christ.

What Can We Do?

So, while we remember that we are dust, we can renew our attention towards Jesus Christ.  Therefore, we can give less energy to those things that we can’t take with us beyond the grave and give more energy to the One who truly fulfills our lives.

Second, we can consider the way that view and treat other people.

In a world where we disregard people based on political opinion, whether or not they are poor, and what people look like, we can instead find our common ground give our differences to God.  We are all in the same boat with one way to life.

Living Lent

So, this Lenten season, I invite all of us to two things.

1. Renew our attention to Jesus Christ

2. Do our part to put away false distinctions between people.

For we are all dust.  And we will all return to dust.  No ideology or social status will change that. But repentance and faith add meaning to the life between the dust and everlasting life in resurrection.

Find the person that you might otherwise disregard.  Remember your common ground and remember this posture:  “The Christ in me meets the Christ in you.”