Our Trip to Israel in January

Biblical Imagination Trip to Israel

The video will open a new page on Vimeo

We were privileged to spend a couple of weeks in Israel with the Biblical Imagination team. Our church family and a number of friends we have met over the years helped us get there – a blessing to our entire family. After we got back, we tried to show people the pictures but we had hundreds ourselves and then hundreds from our new friends. In the end, any slideshow presentation did not do the trip justice.

Jeff Jones, our videographer, just sent us the video journal of our trip. You can watch it and see us among our “congregation on the move” during the trip. The video is set to music and narration from Michael Card as well as some of the instruction from our tour guide, David Miller.

My Advice to Future Pastors

My Advice to Future Pastors

I am in my tenth year as a solo pastor. In that time, I have led our congregation through a lot of changes. Our first Sunday together, I candidated for a down and out congregation that had just moved into a newly renovated space. They had already offered the pastorate to someone else, who had decided God wanted him on the mission field instead. I was their second choice. That was August, 2004. In November of that year, the congregation called me to be their pastor.

Five years later, with our lease expiring and our funds dwindling, God led us to another congregation and I was privileged to help lead the two congregations in a merger that resulted in Bedford Road Baptist Church. That process took over 18 months from beginning to end.

Now, after nearly ten years, I finally feel like I have something to give to the next generation of pastors – in the form of a single piece of advice.

If you can live without doing this job, do something else.

I say this in all seriousness and without the slightest reservation.

If you can do something else, do it. The pastorate is not something you do because you think it will be neat or a challenge. It is something you do because there is a fire burning deep inside your gut and God won’t let you do anything else.

Look, I am a pastor’s kid. I know just how much being married to a pastor or having a pastor as a dad sucks.

As a pastor, you will put your family through more garbage than you would ever wish on anyone else. You will have bouts of depression and frustration. You will have days of complete exhaustion. Sometimes, you will cry for no reason other than the disparity between the way you thought your life would go and the way it has.

Make no mistake about it.

You have to be called into this gig.

If you can do anything else, do it. If you can be anywhere else, be there. If there is someone else, then let them do it.

Being a pastor is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is tiring. It is frustrating. It is painful. It is trying. It is brutal. It is emotional.

And I can’t imagine myself doing anything else because God dragged me kicking and screaming into this gig – so I know it is His work, not mine.

Casual pastor-wannabe? Get out while you can, before this thing consumes you. It isn’t for those who aren’t called, because it isn’t about you.

Praying in God’s Theater

What roles do the Scriptures play in your prayer life?

This is a question that I am not sure many Christians, especially those of the evangelical traditions, consider very carefully. We read our Bibles. We pray. But do these things intersect?

Most prayer that I encountered as a pastor’s kid was what I call laundry list prayer. We would get a nice long list of people’s booboos and then present the list to God, usually accompanied with a lot of “Oh God” and “Please, Lord”. Sometimes there was event fervent mumbling and occasionally tears. These times of prayer would go on for quite awhile.

Since I am not much of an emotional person and I cannot keep my eyes closed for more than about five minutes without falling asleep, my mind would wander and my imagination would kick in. Before we got caught, a friend of mine and I used to play a game of keeping track of the sanctified stutters – those things people say when they are trying to think of the next thing to say.

During my adult experience of the Christian faith, I have gravitated toward a more careful form of prayer than I was used to hearing from people. It was not that the folks I grew up around were insincere or that they were somehow unspiritual. But at the same time, there was something that I felt like I should be doing that I wasn’t.

For the past decade or so, my pattern of prayer has shifted more and more to a conformity with Scriptural prayers and Scripture as prayer. In our congregation, we often do corporate Scripture reading as prayer – with the pronouns changed to reflect a personal cry to the Lord. In my personal discipline of prayer, I prefer to recite the Scriptures as petitions to the Lord.

So, the opportunity to review Joel L. Watts new book Praying in God’s Theater was too good to pass up. The book is written as a series of prayers and meditations drawn from the Book of Revelation. And if there is one book of the Scriptures that is neglected in the worship of the western church, Revelation is it.

I will be reading the book in the coming weeks, and I will post the review once I am done.

The Church of the Resurrection – Links

We have filled the last three weeks looking at the Church of the Resurrection (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Hopefully, the story of this revered but often neglected site gives us a little bit of perspective on the difficulties faced by the Church in all its various manifestations.

  1. Constantine and the Ancient Building (330-614)
  2. The Persian Wars and the Rise of Islam (614-692)
  3. Sidebar on the Dome of the Rock (685-692)
  4. The Mad Caliph Destroys the Church (1019-1042)
  5. The Crusader Church (1042-1187)
  6. Turkish Control and the Status Quo (1187-1856)
  7. The Earthquakes and Conflicts (1853-1965)
  8. Barluzzi, Italy, World War II (1933-1947)
  9. Restoration at Last (1965-1997)

We haven’t exhausted this subject, and I might return to it at a later date.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 9

The Church of the Resurrection, part 9

The fetters of the status quo account for the state of dirt and dilapidation which is characteristic of many parts of the building. (Archer Cust, The Status Quo in the Holy places, 1925)

When the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917, the Turkish governor fled – taking with him over 400 years of documents concerning the Status Quo of Christian holy sites. He also took the Greek patriarch, Damianos.

Damianos did not care for the British, and he absolutely insisted that the Status Quo be maintained. At every turn, efforts to repair the damage from the 1927 earthquake and the cumulative effects of centuries of patching were blocked. Over the next twenty years, Damianos and his successor Timotheos resisted any efforts to care for the Church of the Resurrection on the grounds that they would grant privileges to the Latins.

The problem lay in Ottoman law, which unlike British common law, did not allow for the possession of a religious site. The site was instead subject to waqf, a kind of endowment that provided for the use of a site by a religious group but specifically prohibits ownership. In a complicated, and not completely understood, arrangement, many of the Christian holy sites throughout Israel had been placed under a kind of waqf law, which was what necessitated the Status Quo and all the firmans on who could do what and when.

The British had difficulty interpreting the waqf, partially because all of the official Ottoman documents were missing and partially because they simply did not understand Ottoman law. On top of these issues, both the French and the Vatican took issue with the British control of the Holy Land, since Great Britain was a Protestant nation. Distrust and bureaucratic stalling delayed any attempt to repair the Church. The difficult task of governing the troubled region actually contributed to their surrender of their League of Nations mandate in 1948.

While confusion reigned, architects and clerics bickered, and the British were paralyzed. With their mandate expiring, the rule of the city and all of its holy sites passed to King Abdullah bin al-Hussein of Jordan.

Abdullah had been an ally of the British during World War I and had been appointed the Emir of Transjordan under the British Mandate. An educated and world-wise moderate, Abdullah attempted to control the excesses of all of his constituent groups, including the Christians.

His father Hussein had been the Sharif of Mecca and briefly declared himself the king after rebelling against the Ottomans in 1916. The Saudis put this to an end in 1924, and Hussein was forced to leave the Saudi kingdom. He joined his son Abdullah in Transjordan, and he was buried in Jerusalem.

Abdullah saw himself as the Sharif of Jerusalem, just as his father had been the guardian of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. So, when the Mandate ended in 1948, Abdullah wished to protect the city from extremists. He ordered troops into the city, and they fought both the Jews and the Arab extremists who were led by Mufti Mohammad Amin al-Husayni.

If the Mufti was allowed to establish a Muslim Palestinian state, the region would descend in to chaos. Equally, Abdullah did not want such a volatile group under control of what was going to emerge as the Jewish state of Israel. Originally, he had hoped to be able to create an autonomous Jewish canton within his kingdom, but the Jews refused to accept anything short of full independence.

Abdullah walked a delicate balance, fighting the Israelis and absorbing the Palestinians into his kingdom. In the end, Abdullah wound up with possession of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. This possession included the administration of the decaying Church of the Resurrection.

One of Abdullah’s most significant contributions to the protection of the Church came in 1949. During the evening of November 23, a fire broke out in Anastastis rotunda. Thanks to the concrete coverings put in place during an earlier attempt at restoration, the fire was restricted to the dome itself and did not spread to the rest of the Church.

The day after the fire started, Abdullah was on site. He called a meeting of the leaders of all the communities. It was the first time that a sovereign had invited the leaders of the faith communities to actually meet and discuss the care of the Church of the Resurrection. Although the meeting accomplished nothing and the communities continued to bicker, at least they were bickering across a table.

(It is mind-boggling that no one thought of this until 1949! As amazing as it sounds, when William Harvey was surveying the building in the 1930’s, the other communities never thought of having their experts meet with him. They sent his reports all over the world without considering that a face-to-face meeting might lead to a quick resolution.)

Sadly, Abdullah was shot dead by a Palestinian extremist in 1951 while attending afternoon prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. His son Talal served as king for a year, but he was forced to abdicate and Talal’s son Hussein became king. Hussein would rule Jordan for the next forty-seven years and make it one of the most stable and moderate states in the Middle East.

With Hussein on the Jordanian throne, the Church of the Resurrection was still decaying. What was needed was a moderate Orthodox patriarch who would work with his Arab king, the European-dominated Franciscans and the other Eastern communities in the Church. Timotheos died in 1955, and the patriarchal throne remained vacant for two years.

Ultimately, the moderate Vasileos Papadopoulos was affirmed as Patriarch Benedict I, and he immediately set to work finding a compromise that would be amenable to all parties. For nearly thirty years (1961-1980), Benedict took the lead in massive restorations of the Church.

Benedict had served as what might be considered the Chief Financial Officer of the patriarchate. He had important financial connections to the national government of Greece, who had been on the side of the victors in both world wars and with the demise of the Ottomans, was now more prosperous than any time in its history. He won a narrow election against Demianos’ nephew and was the first patriarch not from the island of Samos in over a century. Clearly, things were going to be different under his rule.

Living in the shadow of the 1956 Suez War, which had heightened opposition to European involvement in the region (which included the Israeli state), Benedict met with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and both encouraged the other Orthodox communities to find common ground and unity with each other and the Roman Catholics.

The Greek government began budgeting to match the contributions of the Greek Church. The Jordanians likewise got behind the project, which they saw as the continuation of the work of King Abdullah but also as a way to block Soviet power (the geopolitics of the Church are always confusing).

Benedict fought through obstacle after obstacle for nearly a decade. In the wake of their enormous losses in the second World War, the Latins were willing to guarantee the status quo. All the major parties signed an agreement for the work in 1958, over thirty years after the earthquake.

Eventually, a Dominican friar named Charles Coüasnon was chosen to lead a restoration team that included representatives of all the faith communities. Work finally got underway in 1959 although it did not begin in earnest until the 1960’s.

The continued work required a strong hand. Benedict was constantly seeking out funding for the work and resolving conflicts. His contribution was so significant that when he died in 1980, the parties immediately fell to squabbling again and it took another seventeen years before they could agree how to remove the scaffolding around the Anastasis rotunda.

It is hard to believe that a project that was begun when my father was still in elementary school (in 1959, he was 7) was still lingering when I traveled to Israel as a college student (in 1997, when I was 20). But that is the story of the Church of the Resurrection almost since it passed into the hands of the Crusaders in 1099.

There is so much more that could be written about the Church. I haven’t even touched on so much of significance, but after three weeks of posts exclusively on this topic, let’s put it aside for a while.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 8

The Church of the Resurrection, part 8

Wouldn’t it make sense to tear down the decrepit and untended Church of the Resurrection that had stood for over 800 years?

The Franciscans entertained that idea in the 1930’s. They contracted Antonio Barluzzi to design a new, magnificent temple. His resulting design, published in 1940 was sweeping, contemporary and enormous.

Of course there was no chance it would ever be built. It would have required completely discarding the Status Quo and it would have given the Latins a greater control of the sacred site. It would have also required the demolition of nearly a third of the Christian Quarter.

On top of that, Barluzzi was a Fascist and by 1940, Europe was at war. The British would not allow it, even if the Orthodox churches had agreed.

But, under the terms of a treaty between Mussolini and Hitler, had Rommel’s Afrika Korps succeeded in taking Egypt, then Jerusalem probably would have fallen to the Axis Powers. In the hands of the Italians, the Status Quo would have certainly been abandoned and the new church built. Think of the history that would have been lost.

By the end of the war, it was clear Jerusalem would pass to the Jordanians and they would never approve the project.

(As a personal note, I find Berluzzi churches to be garish and unattractive, so I for one am glad that this particular church was never built.)

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

At the dawn of the 20th century, a Church of the Resurrection had stood on the same site for nearly 1700 years. The building that presently occupied the site was an amalgamation of a Byzantine complex, Crusader additions, and contentious projects. The positions of the various factions inside the church had been established by a firman of 1853 and then codified into international law in the Treaty of Paris.

It is hard to understand today just how impoverished Jerusalem was under the Ottoman Turks. At the time of the 1853 firman, the city was home to less than 20,000 people. In his 1867 book Innocence Abroad, Mark Twain estimated the population at around 14,000 while the official 1851 census gave a much larger number of 25,000.

One thing was certain. The Ottomans had mismanaged the site. Everywhere, Jerusalem was falling apart. Atop of the Temple Mount, known now as the Haram al-Sharif or Sacred Place, the Dome of the Rome sat decaying on an all but abandoned overgrown platform.


The Dome of the Rock as seen in 1875

Although in slightly better condition, the Church of the Resurrection was also in a state of disrepair. The warring factions inside the Church and in the world at large had robbed the site of most of its external funding.

View of the Anastasis rotunda from the south. You can see the minaret of the Mosque of Umar to the right and the Crusader bell tower between the rotunda and the minaret.

The best thing that ever happened to Jerusalem was the decline of the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. As their central government weakened (and you might remember that the English and French had to protect them from Russia in the Crimean War), the Ottomans released their strangle hold on Mediterranean traffic. As a result, it was much easier for travelers to get to Jerusalem  – a fact that brought people like Mark Twain there.

The weakened Turks had allowed various European powers to have diplomatic access to Jerusalem, and it was under these auspices that early archaeologists began to arrive and work in the city. Men like Edward Robinson and Charles William Wilson came to the city and began to uncover all kinds of interesting things.

Academic interests paralleled another movement that focused on Israel generally and Jerusalem specifically – Zionism. European Jews, constantly the targets of pogroms and unfair laws, began to migrate to Jerusalem. At first, it was a trickle but by the 1880’s, they outnumbered both Muslims and Christians in the city. After the Ottomans lost control of the city in the wake of World War I, the trickily became a stream.

In 1931, on the brink of World War II, there were 51,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, more than half of the population. Most lived outside of the Old City, as defined by Suleiman’s walls. They built a new city, known as West Jerusalem. When the Jewish state of Israel was declared in 1948, Jerusalem was declared the capital.

Then in 1967, the Jews took over the Old City. An Israeli flag flew from the top of the Dome of the Rock before the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) handed the Haram back to the Jordanians as a religious site. In 1980, the Israeli state officially annexed all of Eastern Jerusalem, but there is still no official international recognition.

What happened to the Church of the Resurrection while all of this was going on?

The 1853 firman had been meant to be a temporary measure, but with the long, slow decline of the Ottomans, the arrangements of the Church became something of a back drawer matter. The British and French secretly met and made arrangements for the division of the Ottoman territories, and in 1917 these lands were mandated to them by the League of Nations.

The various factions inside the Church petitioned the British Mandate to update the status quo. The Protestant British, unwilling to step into a religious matter that did not pertain to them, simply restated the 1853 firman. To deal with the situation, they established an Antiquities Department which would ensure the upkeep of the holy sites of all religions, but would not have executive authority.

Mark Twain visited the Church in the late 1860’s and told about his pilgrimage in a book The Innocents Abroad. He described the Church this way:

When one stands where the Saviour was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic Church. He must remind himself every now and then that the great event transpired in the open air, and not in a gloomy, candle-lighted cell in a little corner of a vast church, up-stairs
–a small cell all bejeweled and bespangled with flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste.

Twain uses the word gloomy half a dozen times in describing the interior of the Church, and he makes it plain that he does not approve of it in the slightest. Every inch of the building was covered with some kind of memorial or relic – including the tombs of both Adam and Melchizedek. To Twain, it is a sad commentary and a sad place. It is pretty apparent from his description that the church was relatively well-maintained, even if “in execrable taste.”

Sixty years later, the Church was in terrible condition. This is how one British pilgrim described the Church’s state in 1927:

The condition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is deplorable. Probably there is no church or cathedral of any importance in the whole world that is so hopelessly shabby. (Anonymous, “The Diary of a Pilgrimage”, Church Times, August 26, 1927)

Although still revered, the Church of the Resurrection simply did not get that much attention. The disrepair of the place was known around the world. It was quite literally falling apart. There were massive cracks everywhere. The ceilings were sooted and falling in. And then, things got worse.

In the afternoon of July 11 1927, an earthquake hit Palestine. A number of holy sites were severely damaged. The first people on the site of the Church of the Resurrection, however, could not find any reason to be concerned. Although many other places were piles of rubble, the only damage the Church seemed to have seen was the caving in of the smaller dome over the katholicon.


A picture of Jerusalem after the 1927 earthquake.
The Dome of the Rock is in the background.

Various projects of renovation were presented, and in 1930 each faction inside the Church began work to repair the building. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that the Church needed far more extensive and comprehensive repairs than any of them could handle. The delicate balance of the medieval arches required considerations beyond anything available to the people on site.

That balance, however, have been disturbed by eight centuries of progressive deterioration and the 1808 fire, not to mention twenty-three recorded earthquakes. No real consolidation or conservation had ever been carried out. Apart from the visual evidence, common sense dictated that the stability of the building was likely to be seriously compromised. (Raymond Cohen, Saving the Holy Sepulcher, p 41.)

In 1933, the great British architect and conservator William Harvey journeyed to Jerusalem to conduct a full survey of the site. His findings, published in 1935 by Oxford University Press, were beyond daunting.  On the first days of his survey, he informed the Antiquities Department that the entire structure was “structurally in imminent danger.”

Such was the in-fighting and squabbling of the various groups inside the Church that they refused to listen to Harvey even though stones were actually falling from the ceilings to smash to the ground in the midst of worshipers. The Greek Orthodox retained two experts who demonstrated the the satisfaction of the clerics that Harvey’s survey was inconclusive. The Franciscans brought in an Italian architect, Luigi Marangoni, who actively detested Harvey and simply refused to agree to any of Harvey’s reports. Whatever Harvey said, Marangoni attempted to refute.

At every turn, the conservation effort was thwarted and the Church continued to fall apart – literally, as the exterior walls slowly continued to lean outward under the weight of the roof.

Nothing would be done until 1965, thanks to a remarkable man named Vasileos Papadopoulos who, in 1957 became Patriarch of Jerusalem.

And his story will be next.