Saturday, October 30, 2010
Jordan was an eyeopener. The scenery, the welcoming of the people (they all greet you with 'welcome, welcome!) and the sites we visited were tantalizing introductions to a place many of us would want to revisit.
In Petra, our accomodation was a hotel built in a renovated stone village. Initially it was a bit tricky for some to find their rooms, but all settled into comfort and the beauty of the place. We visited Petra, a world heritage site, Little Petra, and a Crusader castle, Madaba and Mt. Nebo, before heading into Amman. As we drove from the Gulf of Aqaba north, we followed an ancient route for caravans, through the hills, known as the Kings Highway. The views were spectacular, over the stark barrenness of desert and hills, and we passed Bedouin camps, small farms (very dry, rocky sites the Bedouin raise crops on, marked by stones) and drove through smaller towns.
Why is it significant to have visited these sites, on what is particulary a 'pilgrimage' to 'holy lands?' We ask this question, and as I think about the sites seen in Jordan what I am struck by is the panoramic nature of it all: scenery, landscape, history, human story, and the layers of meaning which merge between landscape, politics, religion, peoples. The story of Petra begins with the Nabateans, but continues with Romans, Byzantine and even modern Bedouin history, and places of worship have been used by all types of religions and styles of worship. Our story as human beings is linked by our common nature, of flesh and blood, as well as spirit. Our story as people of faith is tied together in our shared reverence for our creator, respect for creation, and an awareness that we are not the centre of the universe, but God is. As I entered Petra, in hot sun and through the long Siq, surrounded by cliff face and carvings which have existed for millennia, I found myself transported in time, into another time, culture, and surrounded by the challenges which faced those living in the desert, facing challenges simply for survival most of us can only imagine. Yet imagine, I did, and what came through was the connection we have as humans, in these fragile bodies, life hanging on each heartbeat, each intake and exhale of breath, no matter the time we live in or the challenges we face. The glory of Petra is found in what remains of carved rock face, evidence of a people who cherished life, respected death, reverenced their creator, and found joy, beauty and meaning in living.
Standing in Petra I imagined watching camel trains, loaded with spices and silks arriving. I could hear the boots of the Roman army marching on the roman roadway, and I could see small children running around the marketplace, while grown ups went about their commerce, and daily chores as the centuries passed by. I imagined Moses arriving, with the people of the Exodus, seeking shelter and receiving what was necessary for survival in their journey. Centuries later I saw Magi, enroute from their homes while following a star, seeking sustenance and counsel for the road ahead. And I saw a young family fleeing their homeland, enroute to Egypt, and safety from a King.
It is one thing to read about history, another to breath in the hot, dry, dusty air, to see and smell the camels and donkeys, to hear many languages and accents spoken in a marketplace, to taste food and feel the dust between my toes. This is an immersion which results in my own being taking in the very nature of the place, something which changes my makeup, right down to a cellular level. Some of the shifts taking place (we keep saying "Shift happens") are obvious. Some are more hidden, deeper, and will take time to emerge.
In the midst of it all is a deep gratitude for being able to experience these places, this history, this moment in time that is my life, and to share it with these fellow travellers.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Petra was a hidden city, on a major trade route. There is good reason to believe that Moses and the people of the Exodus would have used Petra as a waystation during their 40 years of wandering. This would also have been a stop for the Magi, following the signs leading them to a new king.
We spent an amazing day visiting Little Petra, which was a place to keep animals away from the main town, for saftey, in case of invasion, then walking into the hidden city.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Today we visited Mt. Nebo, the place where Moses was said to have been told by God that this is where his journey was to end.
It is a pretty spectacular location for this scene in Moses' life.
We arrived on our bus, 25 minutes before the site was to close for the day. 5:35pm. The sun was a firey ball of red overhead, as we walked from the parking lot out onto the high spot above the great Rift Valley, where the dead sea reflected the sunset into the hazy air.
At the viewpoint, we stopped, and gazed outwards. From here I could just make out the Jordan river, a dark gash in the landscape far below. The hazy air kept me from seeing the land below clearly, but the lake, the hills to the West, and spots of land were highlighted. In the foreground, the hills slope downwards and away, a road twisting down into the valley with hairpinned turns. Scattered on the brown slopes are a few spots of green, and, right near where I stood, pine trees filled the view.
David read the passage from Exodus that is the end of Moses story and the beginning of the story where Joshua leads the people into that valley before me. I kept thinking about Moses, looking down, seeing the river, the salty lake, the possibilities, and knowing that his time was now over, gone. Seeing what was to come, knowing he could no longer lead the people. Realizing that it was time for his story to end, and another to begin.
It felt bittersweet. Joanne commented that she thought it was no coincidence that we were on Mt. Sinai for the sunrise, and on Mt. Nebo for the sunset.
It also felt alright.
All of us have our role to play in life, our task to complete. It is a good thing to come to the end of our life and feel that the part set out for us is one we have completed. Not many of us know what will happen after we die, or are able to predict the outcome of 'the rest of the story' which has, until now, been ours, and is now being transferred to the next generation.
Moses had a vantage point for the future. He could see what was ahead in the valley, the river to cross, the town of Jericho which lay on the opposite shore. He could lay his burden down, the burden of leadership, responsibility, planning, strategizing, encouraging, teaching, and always, showing others the way to go. From Mt. Nebo he could look out and see what was ahead, and know his task was done.
Walking away from that view has an emotional thing. The promise ahead is hard to let go of. Moving from living for the future to living in the present is challenging, especially when the present is in the presence of death. Yet every death also holds a new beginning, a promise, and this is what we hold on to. Central to our faith isn’t a task to do or a role to play but a love which never lets us go.
Well, it has been a busy few days.
We had a lovely Sabbatical time on Sunday in Taba. The air was lovely and fresh, the ocean was delightful and many of our group took the opportunity to rest up after jet lag and a very packed schedule in Egypt. "Coming Down" after our mountain top experience on Mt. Sinai, Moses' mountain, required some reflection, and some time to sleep after a day that began Saturday at 2am.
Dave and I got out our swimming gear and went looking for a spot to snorkle. Three hotels down there was a dock, and from the steps at the end we plunged our masks underwater to a world of color and delight. We saw lionfish, with their fanned fins and tails, and delighted in schools of fish, some tiny and multicolored, others long, nearly opaque with long snout like mouths 'hanging out' in the underwater current. The coral was spectacular, and the water fairly warm.
We gathered most of the group together for a time of worship in the early afternoon. Singing, prayer, silence, and reflection about holy moments experienced so far brought us to realize how much we had been feeling, seeing, experiencing and learning. Wonder, awe, mystery were all part of our first days, and there were tears and laughter shared around our smaller circles of conversation. We have seen God and known God with us on the journey.
Monday morning we awoke early, for our farewell to our wonderful Egyptian tour guide and passage through the borders from Egypt, through Israel and into Jordan. We left the hotel around 7:30 am and were through all the customs and on our way in Jordan at noon. Zaid, our Jordanian guide met us and, with box lunches in our laps on the bus, he began to introduce us to this new country as we left Aqaba on the Red Sea and headed to Wadi Rum.
Wadi Rum is a place made famous in recent history by Laurence of Arabia. It is desert, with mountains and canyons. But the history of this land and importance to the world as a route for the transfer of goods from India and China through to Europe goes back for centuries.
The ancient Nabateans included Wadi Rum as part of their kingdom. In jeep trucks we travelled out into the Wadi (which means dry valley) to visit a place that was a way station for camel trains, a place where there was water, essential for survival. Our first stop took us to see the source of the water, high in the hills, and a rock which had Nabatean 'graffiti' on a rock. Most of the writing names sweethearts left behind by the camel train drivers, which just goes to show that times haven't changed as much as we may think!
Our next stop, across the Wadi, went into a canyon . There we again saw petroglyphs, this time of people, and footprints, animals and words. An amazing sight in a very unique place. Underfoot, the red sand was soft. The canyon sides and hills surrounding are a wonderful and astonishing display of rock weathered by wind, sand and some rain over millenia. We marvelled at the few trees, with roots that reach deed into rock clefts to find a source of moisture for their survival. We also hope our roots reach deep, so we can survive drought, and rocky times in our lives.
As we began to travel again, we stopped at a huge sand dune, shaped by wind pushing sand against a rock wall. Many of us climbed upwards for the view, and the fun of running barefoot downhill, in the silky softness underfoot. The dune is made only of material that the wind can carry, and there is no hard or sharp bits underfoot.
Wadi Rum is truly a unique and harsh environment for survival. It has been the home to Bedouin people, and to sojourners throughout the ages. Those ancestors who survived this place truly deserve our admiration and respect.
From Wadi Rum, we continued our journey, and shortly turned onto the Kings HIghway, the ancient travel route through the mountains of Jordan, which runs from North from Amman and south to Aqaba. This is the place where the spice traders, camel trains, and Magi from the East would have travelled. It is the route which would have been one of the ways the people of the Exodus would have followed. The mountains provide some safety, as travellers have some protection, hidden in the hills. On either side are plains, and travellers would be exposed. Some of the views from this high way are exceptional. We passed Bedouin tents, small farms, and some herds of goats, many in spots we couldn't imagine survival in. We saw little sign of vegetation for goats to feed on, or water for any form of life. Zaid told us that last year this area had snow on it! Hard to imagine. As we travelled, we saw the sun set in a ball of red and orange. In the darkness, we saw ahead the lights of our hotel, and arrived to find a warm welcome, a safe and comfortable place to stay, and a beautiful meal prepared. 'Welcome to Jordan! We are so glad you are here!' is the refrain.
We, too, are glad to be here.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
We were aided by a brilliant full moon, which illuminated the surrounding peaks. As camels with riders ascended, in the foreground as they gained the top of a rise, often they would be 'back lit' by the moonlight, looking a great deal like pictures of the magi on Christmas cards. It was exhilarating, wonderful, a real 'bucket list' moment in life that I will never, ever forget.
Walkers were in a more crowded situation. It was about 15C, and there were thousands on the mountain. Dodging rocks and other people was tricky; avoiding being rearended by camels as they ascended was a whole other challenge.
The final third of the height is scaled upwards over more than 700 steps. As the steps were crowded, the pace was pretty managable. Most of our group made it the entire way, with a few choosing to sit below, in quiet contemplation, surrounded by camels, small children and adults hawking their wares, and other pilgrims, speaking in every language you can think of.
The sunrise was magnificent. It was a true mountain top experience. So far on this trip, every day has had either a 'bucket list' item on it or one of the 7 wonders of the world. We are exhiliarated, exhausted pilgrims.
And now, to sleep.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Cairo is a city of faces. High overhead we pass by in our tour bus with windows that allow for views. Down below while we sit in city traffic we find the faces of three small boys, clowning for the tourists, mugging it up for the sheer fun of having their own 'paparazzi tourists' making them famous. In the crammed VW vans which are mini-bus taxis, we often catch the eye of someone who is enduring another commute to work, or home, the doctor, or to buy groceries.
We catch glimpses of lives. Snapshots of moments in time.
5 men sit in the darkness of the street, gathered around a table, something non-alcoholic in front of them and the cooler night air reason enough to bring them into the street. Around them sit others: two men playing chess, another smoking a shisha pipe, a third, quite old, leans against the wall and may be sleeping.
In the day time I see two young women with brightly colored hijabs walk by arm in arm. They are discussing something with such animation I wonder if it is something from school or perhaps the gossip of boys and friends and weekend plans that has them so occupied.
Cairo is a city of confusion. To avoid paying taxes, most buildings, it seems are incomplete. Parents build on floors above their living spaces for their children to move into on their marriages. Often it is the top floors but sometimes many floors remain unfinished. The appearance as we pass by is of whole sections of the city which are incomplete. Apartment buildings, row on row, mile it seems after mile, stand, many with vacant windows spanning 4-10 floors, and often, with one unit in the middle of the floors, looking finished and inhabited, while many floors below and around it appear to be vacant and unfinished. It is an odd feeling, seeing this . At ground level, the warrens of streets are narrow, almost medieval looking, and certainly they are the living rooms, grocery stores and places of commerce for all who live above.
Egypt has been a place of refuge for refugees for milennia. From the people of Israel, to those who today flee Sudan and famines in Ethiopia and other desperate places, millions of souls have come here as a place to make a transition from the past to the future. How does the story of a modern day Exodus unfold ? Who will let these people go? And where is their promised land?
The Pharaohs and the people of their day spent an enormous amount of energy focused on preparing for an eternal afterlife. When one sees what this life is like for many people, it is not hard to see why.
Arrival in Cairo went smoothly, but for a bit of a slow start getting our visas to us. David Robertson walked right by his own name displayed on a proffered sign, much to our amusement. What would any of us do with our name up in lights? Ignore it, most of the time.
Greater Cairo is made up of two cities on either side of the Nile River. Cairo itself is slightly smaller in population than Giza, but combined there are 17-29 Million people living in the area. To know the exact number, you can go count for yourself! Every day, there are several million visitors to the city area. Several million.
And they ALL go to Giza to see the pyramids, and the Sphinx.
At least that was our impression.
We began our day, Wednesday morning with a bus ride out to the step pyramid at Sakkara. It was about 35C in the shade, and the humidity high. We all gaped at the wonders of the construction, both of the funerary temple and the pyramid itself. Here is where the pyramids began, with a construction built for a kings last resting place, a design which was modified and improved over time and with good design principles. Many of us were especially awed to be taken down a steep ladder into the burial chamber under a ruined pyramid, where the artistry on the walls, the colors and the solemn burial vault stand as testimony to one mans life. Overhead in the tomb are many starfish shaped stars, a witness to the ancestors who watch over all of us.
The pyramids at Giza are some of the most famous in the world, mainly because of their location in this major population area and the Sphinx itself. Most of us had no idea that they pyramids had been buried, mostly, in sand, and have themselves been excavated. Poor Sphinx has stood out in the desert and was a target over time for soldiers and others who have marred its face. Sweat dripping down our backs and hawkers couldn't take away from the awe of the sheer size of the place. The question is, looking at all the sand that lies between Giza and Sakkara, what is buried beneath?
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
But I get before myself.
Monday evening we began a journey at the Calgary airport. 38 people whose lives have followed parallel paths have now intersected, and we moved instantly from being strangers. People who had just met began taking photos of one another; conversations began about where we grew up, what we had done to prepare for this journey, and details about coping with travel and jet lag and airline food, among other things were wide ranging.
It is always a gift to share your life with others. On pilgrimage, part of the process is opening your heart and mind to others anticipating that there is a reasons your lives have intersected, and that there will be a gift shared and received, from each person to the The other. The key is being receptive, a spiritual habit which always needs to be exercised, in order to be in good shape. Pilgrimage opens us up in a way that this habit becomes much more natural, much less hard work.
Our flights went smoothly and well. Many were able to stretch out from Calgary to Heathrow on a half-full flight. The 5 hours to Cairo were on a full Air Egypt plane.
It was 33C at 9pm last night. Cairo has 18 million people, in what is two cities on either side of the Nile: Cairo and Giza. This morning brings the sound of traffic, horns beeping, honking, hooting and even a few musical sounding riffs. It was a short night sleep, but I was instantly awake. Welcome to Africa! 33 years later, I am home, again.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Perhaps part of why we go on pilgrimage is precisely so we will forget. In a way, this is an opportunity for us to 're-set' our tendency to have 'gerbil brains' constantly spinning on a wheel of busyness. Stepping outside our day to day routine, getting off the treadmill, even, as is this case, shifting around our internal clocks, as we move ahead in time 8 hours, allows us to see everything with new eyes, because for once, our vision is not obscured.
Sitting in our kitchen in Calgary it is hard to imagine that tomorrow we will be sleeping in Cairo. Who knows what this journey will reveal, what impact it will make on our living? We are open to the changes that will come, to new insights and understanding, the challenges and new experiences. And, I must say, at this moment, we are really getting excited!
Peace, Love, and Courage.”
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Saturday, October 16, 2010
NRS Genesis 12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb. 10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife'; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account." 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone." 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
We are headed to the Middle East, to the lands that provide the setting for most of the stories contained in our Scripture. These are holy lands for three great world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The land of Israel itself is the site of one of the world’s longest standing and bitterest ethnic and political conflict. These are lands that are both strange to us (in custom, language, and culture) and also strangely familiar, so much a part of our spiritual identity. These are “thin places” indeed, some of the wonders of the world, places to encounter the depths of humanity, our own roots, and God, the Holy One of Israel.
This blog is an adaptation of a study guide which each member of the journey may follow as we make this journey together. Our hope is that the blog will be a place for those who wish may journey with us, from armchairs and office desks, through the landscape and story of our faith.
Each section will correspond to one of the major areas to which we’ll be traveling, and invites us to consider the interior space that might connect to that geographical territory. Bible readings and questions for reflection will allow the link to be made between the location of the tour and the stories of people of faith in history and today.
Individuals are welcome to offer their reflections and to post comments here. We hope this will allow the sharing of an exploration of faith through an experience of being immersed in geography and landscape and through the sharing of our stories, part of Gods much larger Story.
May we all be blessed (and what profound realities can be referenced by that simple word!) in this experience of a lifetime.