Saturday, January 28, 2012

Abraham of Silwan

One of the more abiding memories of our recent trip to Jerusalem has to be our serendipitous encounter with Abraham, whose business card I kept. It reads;
Pool of Siloam Antiquities
Ancient Pottery, Roman Glass, Old Coins
Abraham Siam
Jerusalem, Silwan, PO Box 20230

Not only did Abraham detain us for a pleasurable hour in his shop, but he gave us a human face with which to begin to comprehend the Israeli-Palestinian situation. 

 Evie,  Janna and Abraham in his shop 

I have no doubt that Abraham's penchant for regaling us with tales was aimed in part, at exchanging a small part of his collection of ancient bric-a-brac for our tourist dollars, or even for promoting the interests of his Palestinian community, but he did it in such an endearing way that I could not possibly hold it against him. For the fruit of his labors, I bought my wife a Widow’s Mite pendant; a tiny Herodian coin that he had set in an attractive silver mount. The coin itself would have been like the ones of the subject of Jesus’ observations in Mark 12:41-44  and Luke 21:1-4. The pendant came with a printed card;

Pool of Siloam Antiquities
Abraham Siam
Jerusalem PO Box 20230
This Is To Certify That The Following Are Authentic
Signature [Abraham Siam]

Abraham told us that he was an Israeli Palestinian, whose family had lived in the village of Silwan for at least 150 years. I didn’t ask, but I am fairly certain he was a devout Moslem, because he insisted on reading out a blessing on us from a book with a photo of the Dome on the Rock on its cover (the blessing was gratefully received), and he also had the kind of mark on his forehead that you get when you regularly press your head onto a prayer-carpet, as devout Moslems do.

Abraham also claimed to have been on several digs, including at least one led by Kathleen Kenyon. She was the daughter of Sir Frederick Kenyon, former Director of the British Museum and archaeologist who promoted Biblical archaeology with the firm belief that it corroborated the narrative of the historical records of the New Testament (a belief that has been mostly vindicated by the record). Frederick Kenyon is commonly quoted in his defense of the reliable transmission of scripture; “the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed”. I wonder how these connections with Christian apologetics would have interacted with Abraham’s Moslem faith, but we didn’t get to discuss it. Abraham also told us of his good relationship with one of the local Christian Priests (Catholic, if I recall) who served at one of the many Basilicas in the Old City, and I have no reason to doubt him.

My curiosity piqued at how Abraham amassed his small horde of antiquities. Many years ago, in my previous visit to Israel, I helped with the excavations at Gamla in the Golan Heights. Of course, any glass, coins, flint razors, potsherds that came to light were promptly handed over to the professional archaeologists for logging and preserving. Did Abraham sneak his trophies out in his pockets at the end of a hard days digging and sifting? I doubt it, but the kind of stuff on his shelves was so abundant and commonplace in this part of the world, the professionals might not have been too anxious to keep all of it.

Notwithstanding Abraham's (unconfirmed) Moslem faith, I was impressed at his knowledge and reverence for the Prophet Jesus, and the healing of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam (see John 9). Before you get confused, you must understand that there are two rival sites for the pool, which I will explain shortly. Abraham claimed he had seen at least two healings in “his” pool; one was of a man with a fever who dipped himself in the water and came up well. I have no way of verifying these accounts (were they true miracles or not?), and in a way I have no desire to. If someone’s fever broke during a dunk in the waters, I, like Abraham, thank God. However, I will note my single misgiving, which was the slightest hint that the pool itself was talismanic. Sure, a wonderful event had happened there, but it wasn’t the pool that was special; it was the person who had sent the blind man to it. If I were to talk this over with Abraham, I would plead with him to see that God is not in the pool; He is in the person of His Son, to whom the pool owes it’s special place in history. We all have a tendency to turn God’s visitations into talismans in the hope that the miracle will recur, but that’s a subject for another post.

We chanced upon Abraham’s little shop at the end of a self-guided tour of the City of David. To describe how this inter-relates, I’m going to have to explain some geography, history and some of the messages I perceived along the tour.

David’s City is so called because it’s the ancient Jerusalem that David conquered and made the capital of his dynasty (about 1000 BC). It is located south of the Temple Mount (on which the Dome of the Rock is built), on an unobtrusive spur outside the current city walls which, being medieval, are relatively modern. If you’re at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall” and the geographic centre of the Jewish faith) you turn right, go downhill through the Dung Gate and cross a road. Importantly, the spur of David's City is/was occupied by a Palestinian Village called Silwan, which gets its name from the eponymous pool at it’s southernmost tip. Over several thousand years, the City of Jerusalem has migrated north by a few hundred meters, such that David’s City now lies under the Palestinian village of Silwan.

The Israeli authorities have sustained a well-funded archaeological dig into David’s City and tourists like us can enjoy the findings by a well-accommodated self-guided tour. The cost of the tour varies according to your chosen route; it costs slightly less if you follow the dry tunnel, and more if you wish to adventure through the longer wet tunnel.

The tour of the dig starts at the uphill end of David’s City, over the inauspiciously named “Large Stone Structure”. There is, I understand, some debate over whether this is actually David’s Palace (see 2 Chronicles 2:12 etc), so it retains its uncommitted moniker. On top of the stones that could, or could not, have been David’s famous palace, are parts of the walls that Nehemiah built (Nehemiah 2:17-18, Nehemiah 3 etc). Then comes the tunnel, which forks part way through the caverns to the dry or wet tunnels. The dry tunnel is an early Canaanite drift that previously directed water into the Kedron Valley, probably for farm irrigation. The wet tunnel continues to function as Hezekiah intended, by directing water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam. Sharp-eyed Bible-students will note that Siloam means “sent” (John 9:7), and I wonder if it got it’s name from the water that was sent to it by Hezekiah’s tunnel.

Coming out into the daylight from the Canaanite tunnel, the tour continues southward along the eastern flank of the spur. Here, the signboards point to the ancient Jewish occupation of David’s City, which includes a Mikveh (ceremonial bathtub) cut directly into the rock. Of course, in order to unearth these ancient structures, the archaeologists had to remove the overburden, which is something I’ll return to presently.

A remarkably anachronistic feature of the tour was the preservation of the Meyuchas House, which dates to 1873 and marks the start of the modern Jewish settlement of the site. I found it overtly political. Why preserve a 19th Century Jewish house, whilst displacing the current Palestinian occupants of Silwan? It seems to me that no small part of the reason for the dig was to legitimize Israeli supremacy in the area, which would explain why the dig was so well supported and promoted by the Israeli authorities. We also passed a couple of groups of Israeli Army recruits, who were seated in circles on the grass to receive an education in the ancient history of their homeland. Perhaps there’s a better archaeological reason for the preservation of the Meyuchas House, but it eludes me; more so after hearing Abraham tell his tales.

The tour ends at the Pool of Siloam within the archaeological precinct. Like most archaeology, it’s disputed. Unfortunately for Abraham, the pool to which Jesus sent the blind man was probably this one and not the Byzantine Pool, adjacent to his shop.

I was disappointed to find that the archaeological precinct made no mention of the Gospel story of the healing. Maybe, its because such a story cannot be regarded as archaeology. Anyhow, I wonder if a small plaque would have been in order because of the pool’s significance to the many Christians who regularly visit the site. Again, I was unable to suppress a sneaking suspicion about the dig’s decidedly pro-Israeli agenda. Perhaps it was prompted by yet another small group of Israeli-Army recruits who were being lectured there (in English) about the brave stand made there by the last of the Jewish revolutionaries during the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. The stories of the ancient Jewish Resistance would have been of more interest to building up army morale, than an unscientific tale of the healing of a blind man.

After visiting the Pool of Siloam, we continued through another excavation, which had unearthed the drainage pipe in which the last of the revolutionaries had hidden from the Romans. Then, up an makeshift staircase to the road, where a minibus promised to take us back up to the top of the spur.

Only, through a gate in the wall opposite, there was another stone staircase that led down to the Byzantine Pool of Siloam. It is probably a pool which was dug as part of a Byzantine Church built to celebrate the healing of the blind man. The Byzantine Church was now buried under the rubble of time, but the pool marks the exit to Hezekiah’s tunnel, and there were plenty of trails of wet footprints to indicate the recent traffic through the site. There were no plaques here to explain the site, which is probably because it lay outside the limits of the archaeological precinct; the same reason why Abraham’s tiny shop continues to trade there.

The relationship between Abraham’s shop, and the archaeological precinct, however, was strained. He railed that the Israeli authorities would not let him erect any signs pointing people to “his” pool or his shop, which had starved him of legitimate business. When we pointed out that someone had taken a spray-can and graffitied the words “Pool of Siloam” on the stonework at the gate to the Byzantine Pool, Abraham returned a knowing smile; it was the only advertising he could do. I can understand his frustration that “his” pool was not part of the official narrative, and hence it, and his occupation, was officially overlooked. Abraham had resorted to drumming up business by spruiking at the gate, which he did with disarming effectiveness.

I don’t have the records, but I feel sure that I passed by Abraham’s shop when I was last in Jerusalem, about 25 years ago. At that time, there were no fences, fees and turnstiles, and the trek through Hezekiah’s tunnel was made hazardous by the potential sewage infiltration from the village above (a problem the authorities appear to have fixed in the intervening years). It might be just my impression, but the Jewish presence seems to have grown, together with its assertion of Jewish supremacy. That was certainly Abraham’s complaint. He felt that he and his family, who had been there for many generations, were being pushed out.

We thanked Abraham for the instant coffee that he insisted on giving us, and for the delight he took in showing us his curios and the stories that they told. We took the minibus back up the hill, which dropped us off at the entry gate. On the other side of the road, the excavation had expanded to consume a whole village block, which was something new since my previous visit. In years to come, I’m sure this area will be fitted out with another trail for us tourists to wander.

Looking through the hoarding that ringed the new excavation, I wondered if they would they find David’s Palace below. As I did so, I also wondered how many Palestinian homes they had to remove to continue their explorations there.

My thoughts came to haunt me a few days later, as we drove to the airport past the security walls and razor wire that separated the Palestinian villages from the Jewish Settlements; and as we waited for our plane at the airport. At the immigration desks, we queued behind a large group of American Youths, presumably on their way home, wearing blue tee-shirts with the slogan “Israel Birthright”. Who told these people, who had been born half way round the globe, that their “birthright” was currently someone else’s home? Did they not know that in order to take up residence in the land of their “birthright”, they might have to displace someone who is not on the official agenda? Reluctantly, I recalled that the nation of Israel draws its legitimacy from the legacies of the Ghetto and Lebensraum (we visited the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, on another day), and I hope that the looming irony is not lost on the current generation of Jews, both resident and living overseas.

My loyalties to Jew and Palestinian, which previously veered towards the historic sons of Abraham, never felt more divided. Neutrality is not an option, but neither is the imperative to deal with the issues humanely and with open eyes. Perhaps that’s the only way forward. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all it’s inhabitants (Psalm 122:6).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who goes up and who goes down?

A recent Facebook post reflected on the passage in Isaiah 10:12-15 that warns us against trying to exalt ourselves. In the NASB, it reads as follows;
How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.
(Incidentally, I’m inclined to use the NASB because it seems to do a better job of preserving word order than the NIV).

On commenting on Mormonism, the Facebook poster commented, “It is kind of a problem when the goal of your religion is the first sin of Satan.”

This reminded me of a similar passage in Romans10:6-8, which was written some 700 years later. Reading the Isaiah passage again, I think the two passages have something to say to each other (by way of complement, not rebuttal).
But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching...
I think that one of the issues that Paul is tilting at is unhealthy speculation about who will go up and who will go down. Another way of putting it is that Paul is urging us to avoid complicated schemes for allotting people to heaven or hell.

An important inference from this is that the Christian life ought to be focused on the here-and-now because the Word is here and now. That doesn't mean we should lose all concern for "eternal destinies", but rather they should not be our principal occupation. If we live by faith today, then we can rest assured that God will take care of tomorrow. And that applies to the rest of the human race, too.

Paul's ellipses are even more intriguing ("…(that is, to bring Christ down)"...). My reading is that Paul says something like "don't try to bring Christ down from heaven, and don't try to raise him up from the dead". Why not? Because God has already brought Christ down from heaven and raised him up from the dead.

This is of principal relevance to Paul's Gospel of Grace, because it's not our efforts that either bring Christ down or raise him up. These are the works of God, and it is our prerogative to live in the works that God has already finished (see Ephesians 2:10).

Paul previously argues that Christians are also already buried and raised from the dead, because they are "in Christ" (Romans 6:4-9). Like the resurrection of Christ, this is not something that we achieve by “trying”, but a work of God. The Christian life does require effort; however, it’s not an effort to secure our eternal destiny, or even to bring Christ into our present circumstances, but the effort to live out the (already secured) resurrection-life in our here-and-now. In other words, it's the effort required to align what we do to the reality of the situation that we find ourselves in, by the Grace of God.

Contrast this with the warning from Isaiah. In Isaiah the "Star of the Morning" tried to raise himself to heaven, rather than live by faith in God. The consequences worked out in exactly the opposite direction to those desired.

So, Isaiah and Paul unite in urging us to put our faith in God, rather than trying to exalt ourselves to Heaven. Our prerogative is not to try to lift ourselves up, or to speculate on who will go down, but to live by faith in the circumstances that God has put us in.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Restaurants without music, and Other Hen's Teeth

I hate hearing recorded music in Restaurants, Pubs or other eateries.

No, really, I hate it.

It makes me feel very uncomfortable and it seems to shut down my mental ability to initiate and sustain a conversation. My family think I'm weird, which is a sure sign that I'm in a tiny minority. That's OK, but I would like to be able to find that tiny minority of Restaurants that cater for my preferences and play no music. Yes, no music at all. Zero. What blessed relief!

I have found one - the sublime refreshment rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The decor and ambience would render it a pleasure to drink molten lead but, thankfully, the victuals on offer are infinitely more palatable.

I thought I found another - the New Queen pub near Ringwood, Dorset but when, after a satisfying pie and beer, I congratulated the management on the brave stance it had taken against the rising tide of sound pollution, I was informed that the CD player was broken. It was an unintended coincidence for which I was most heartily grateful, but the prospect of the inevitable repair or replacement to the blasted machine would effectively deter me from ever returning.

This evening, my family and I sat down to an evening meal in Istanbul, which I anticipated with relish. I had hoped to savor the local cuisine in a genuinely indigenous setting, but then the patron decided to impose some globalized, generic Kenny Gee jazz on us by turning on the CD player after we had taken our seats. This produced in me a very gloomy mood, that prompted much chiding from my intimates. As the food had already been ordered, I was instructed not to spoil the evening by inviting a confrontation with the waiters, management, other diners present and, as far as I know, the entire population of Europe and Asia combined.

I would have loved to have listened to the wood fire crackling in the grate and the quiet murmur of the other patrons' conversations. But no, I had to endure some pre-recorded saxophony that I could easily have experienced in a car-park lift in Luton. I began to look forward to the trams rumbling outside the window for some relief, but half a bottle of red provided at least some degree of anaesthetic.

I have no idea why music is considered compulsory. Who wrote the rule? I know most peoples' experiences vary between indifference and enjoyment, but I'm not wired that way. I don't hate music either (I'm a competent hobby musician). I would just like to be asked.

And when my family tells me that I'm not in charge, I try (and usually fail) to tell them in my most non-confrontational voice that, actually, as the one paying the bill, I am.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Church of the Holy Sephulcre

Recently, we visited the Church of the Holy Sephulcre in Jerusalem. Standing under the central dome, my wife commented that the place did nothing for her faith, and she asked me how I viewed it.

I can understand her perspective; centuries of tradition had overlaid the unadorned events of Christ’s passion with gold leaf. My wife was also mindful of the shameful fistfights that periodically break out amongst the priests and monks who share the church, usually because someone moved a chair, or left a door open.

Even so, if I were to sum up my feelings towards the tawdry hag of the edifice, it would be something not far removed from love. This might come as a bit of a shock to those who desire (probably rightly) to strip back the accumulation of tradition so that they can behold the un-guilded Jesus of the Gospels, but what I see in it is an allegory of the True Church – the spiritual building that God has built in the life of the community of believers.

Just like the Christian community, the building is in parts beautiful, in parts dilapidated; in parts light and airy, and in parts dark and oppressive. Some of its limbs are blind alleys, like the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, and there are some corners that seem forever locked away. What explanations there are, are written in foreign language (for us English monolinguals), which is an alarmingly accurate parallel to how the True Church must appear to the uninitiated.

Looking up at the main dome

By far the most enchanting example is the story of the immovable ladder. It appears that some time before 1852, someone put up a wooden stepladder against one of the windows over the entrance, possibly to give it a bit of a clean. Unfortunately for the ladder’s owner, it was up there when the current Status Quo was enforced by the City Authorities, in which the custody of the church building was primarily assigned to the joint care of the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches. Doors and window ledges were deemed common ground and, to this day, no one has dared remove the ladder for fear of offending one of the other joint owners. How many of our modern traditions are still in place for exactly the same reasons?

Like the Church of the Holy Sephulcre, we have all overlaid our cultural expressions on the Gospel. My own faith tradition is rather Spartan and cerebral; we don’t like bells and smells and we tend to shun ritual. One of our particular failings, of which I’m becoming acutely aware, is that we have almost no idea of community, and no clue about how to create or sustain one. So, this is how I (and we) tend to view Jesus – as a plainly clad, solitary ascetic, who feels at home in the desert and concerns himself with deep theological meditations.

I think there is an aspect of Jesus that fits that description, but I miss the aspects that don’t. The picture that emerges from the Gospels is that though Jesus was radically different, he was still embedded in his community, and that means he would have joined in with the community life of a first century Jewish peasant, including weddings, funerals, festivals, and all the cultural expressions that came with them. Jesus was circumcised, and observed the rites; if he had not been he would not have had the free access to the Temple that the Gospels describe. My vision of Jesus as the lonely theologian is sadly skewed.

My point is that it seems unfair to accuse others of overlaying their cultural expressions onto the image of Jesus, when I (and we) subconsciously do the same. In any case, why deny the Orthodox or Catholics an expression of Christ within their own cultural vernacular, including the bells, smells and gold leaf? As in all things, I don’t think we have to embrace the whole to receive the good, and I think there is much good in these traditions that would benefit me in my devotions.

As I looked up into the central dome of the Church, I came to another realization. Say what you will about whether the Church’s cultural overlays had obscured Christ, but the fact remained that he was still there. In fact, he was there in the highest place, gazing down from the apex of the dome, so high that you almost had to break your neck to see it. Below him were the twelve apostles, and beneath them, set into the apexes of the four arches that supported the dome were the titles of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The community of Christians might not be united in everything it does, but it unites under the image of Christ, and under the scriptures that we now call the Gospels. What disunity there is amongst us usually comes from a perceived threat to this image, not because we want to supplant this image with something else.

If the image of Christ, and the message of the Gospels give shape to the heavens above us, then the Church of the Holy Sephulcre also gives meaning to the ground below. For, as far as we can tell from the archaeological record, these were the very stones that Jesus walked on as he went to the cross. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone can tell for sure if this was the exact spot where his cross was posted into the ground, or if his lifeless body was prepared for burial on that exact stone slab, or if that tiny cave was the actual site of his burial and resurrection. But I believe that these stones, or stones like them, are the silent witness to these events.

The crucial thing for me is that the message of the Gospels is not some theoretical philosophy that has perpetuated through the centuries because it sounds like a good idea. It is something that is grounded in real events, and in real time, even if subsequent generations (especially mine) have struggled to interpret it within their own cultural context.

So, like the Church of the Holy Sephulchre, what I see is Christ himself in his Passion, seen and interpreted by the diverse peoples of the world and celebrated through their own cultures and traditions. The overlays are undeniable, but what is more undeniable is that they all emanate and radiate from this One Man and the one Gospel that He inspired.

You could, conceivably, remove the tradition from Christ just as you could demolish the building (which is not something that I would recommend). However, the Gospel will remain and perhaps even inspire a new structure with dimensions and decorative overlays that we could scarcely visualize. What you cannot do is remove Christ. It would be like trying to remove the foundations from under the building and expect it to remain undamaged – the traditions are built on Christ, not the other way round.

Skeptics may point to the disunity in the shabby, old edifice that we call the Church as evidence of its failure to connect to God. To an extent, they are right. Too often we have broken out in fistfights over apparent trivialities. However, the Church of the Holy Sephulchre reminds me that, whatever cultural tradition we Christians come from, Christ is beneath our feet and over our heads, and it is ours to live and worship in the space between.