Pool of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s

This is the twenty-second post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

First thing in the morning on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Israel, we gathered outside our hotel and made our way out the New Gate. Our first stop of the day was on the other side of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter, just north of the Temple Mount and close to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.

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We were here to visit what remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man according to John chapter 5. It is quite large and deep, and you can descend the steps into it (there is very little water in it now).

After an introductory talk from our group leader, Tim, the group split up and poked around in the ruins for a few minutes while we tried to imagine what it would have been like to be at this pool when it was a gathering place for “the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” who were waiting for an angel to trouble the waters.

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Then we went into Saint Anne’s Church, which is right next to the pool. It’s a medieval church built by Crusaders, and in virtually any description of Saint Anne’s in any tour book you will see a mention of its remarkable acoustics. When you enter the church, you have an overwhelming urge to sing. So we gathered in the space in front of the altar and did.

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Then we went back outside to the leafy courtyard between the church and the street and split up into our “family groups”—bunches of about four people each that we always kept an eye out for when we moved from place to place so we didn’t lose anyone. We then spent some time sharing prayer requests and praying for each other.

This stop, with an ancient site right next to a medieval church, gave me a window into a very different kind of trip to Israel. Our trip was largely focused on archaeological sites, which I was very grateful for; I loved being able to walk around the ruins, feel the heat, and imagine what it would have been like to have been there during biblical events.

A different kind of trip would have focused more on Christian history—on the ways in which the church over the centuries has commemorated biblical events and taught about them. I’m glad our trip focused on archaeological sites, and I’m glad we got to go to some sites that you don’t always see on an Israel trip itinerary, like Arad. And we did visit a few churches—St. Anne’s, of course, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church built over Peter’s house in Capernaum.

If I ever go back to Israel, though, I think it would be nice to supplement this first experience by exploring a few of the churches we didn’t make it into, like the Church of the Beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity.

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Shrine of the Book and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is the twenty-first post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 PM

Once we got to Jerusalem, the hiking part of the trip was largely over. On this day, we had gone to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Herodium, and Bethlehem, and had barely broken a sweat. The final stop in the afternoon was the air-conditioned and comfy Shrine of the Book, where several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display along with the Aleppo Codex. The roof of the building looks like a lid on one of the clay jars where the famous scrolls were found.

fullsizeoutput_2764The Shrine of the Book is on the grounds of the Israel Museum, which is focused on art and archaeology. Also on the grounds, close to the Shrine of the Book, there is an open-air model of what first-century Jerusalem looked like before the revolt that began in AD 66 and ended in the destruction of the city, including the temple.

We weren’t able to visit Qumran during our time at the Dead Sea during this trip, but I’m glad we made it to see the scrolls themselves. And the model is fascinating. Here’s a panoramic view of it, looking toward the temple complex from what would have been the Mount of Olives:

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We boarded the bus and passed by the Knesset, then returned to our hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. My dad and I wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was not far from our hotel in the Christian Quarter, so we hustled over there and looked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel in time to eat. But at dinner, our group leader, Tim, said he would lead anyone who was interested to see the church, so my dad and I went back and spent a bit more time inside.

Is978At this point I can’t remember what I noticed on the first visit versus the second visit a couple of hours later, so I’ll just give some overall impressions. Just inside the entrance to the church is a large stone slab. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw several people (mostly women) kneeling around it with bags they had brought with them. Out of these bags they took items like small crosses or pieces of cloth and rubbed them on the slab, then put them back in the bags. I found out later that this is called the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was allegedly prepared for burial.

Both the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also supposed to be inside the church. To get to the site of the crucifixion, you climb some stairs just inside the main entrance to the right. The site of the burial is in a rotunda on the main floor, to the left of the Stone of Anointing. In the center of the rotunda is a shrine, a small building called an aedicule, outside of which pilgrims form a line so they can be let inside a few at a time by an unenthusiastic priest. When we were there, the aedicule was encased in scaffolding.

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The aedicule and the dome above

 

Once inside the aedicule, you crouch through a low doorway, three or four at a time, into a cramped space with another stone slab (smaller than the Stone of Anointing) on the right. Under this slab is, according to tradition, where Jesus was buried. You kneel for a minute or so in front of the marble slab. You can touch it. Then the unenthusiastic priest tells you your time is up. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but National Geographic ran a photo essay last fall on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that included this picture of the inside:

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Source: Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations

Being inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was, for me, a cultural experience more than a spiritual experience. It began with the trinkets being rubbed on the Stone of Anointing, and continued throughout. I was constantly looking around to see what other people were doing, and wondering why they were doing what they were doing.

It’s not that I don’t think the site has significance. The site of the crucifixion and burial don’t look anything like what they would have looked like in the first century, but I have no reason to doubt that these are really the places where Jesus died and was buried. Because longstanding tradition has placed it here, I do think this is likely where it all happened.

But as I wandered through the church, from the site of the crucifixion to the Stone of Anointing to the aedicule to the Chapel of Adam, deep in the bowels of the building, this was my prayer: I’m so glad you’re not here anymore. It’s amazing to think that a site could be so important because Jesus rose from the dead and left it: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.

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Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.

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The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.

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After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.

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In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.

How Do We Think about Privilege? (Review)

When The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege was published earlier this year, I wanted to read it and I didn’t want to read it. I requested it from the publisher for review, because I knew it would be good, and then it sat there for most of the summer. Because as good as I knew it was going to be, I knew it would also be challenging. Even if you are committed to racial equality, it’s still hard to confront how you have benefited in life merely because of the color of your skin.

Ken Wytsma knows this, and that is why he wrote this book. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College, and founder of the Justice Conference—and he’s white. When Helen Lee at IVP asked him to write a book on racism, he balked at first. What could he say that couldn’t be said better by a person of color? But the more he thought about it, and saw racial bias in person, the more he thought that some white people were simply able to hear this message better (at least initially) coming from someone like them.

4482The book comes in three parts. In Part I, Wytsma briefly tells the story of race in America, from the age of exploration to modern segregation. In contrast to those who might argue that we have now largely moved on from our racist past, Wytsma maintains that “one of the central arguments of this book, as we uncover the roots of injustice and privilege, is that the effects of state-sponsored racism in America are very much present today” (75). But even now among the dominant evangelical culture, civil rights for minorities are not a priority: “A thin personal gospel, along with an oversimplified understanding of deeply entrenched racial systems (what I’ve called ‘the myth of equality’ in this book), has often allowed race to be made secondary to other foreign, domestic, and spiritual concerns” (65).

In Part II, Wytsma looks more closely at this “thin personal gospel.” He says that many of us have what he calls an “aristocratic itch,” where we place our own comfort above working for justice: “It is common for me to talk to people want to pursue justice but only after they have taken care of themselves first” (90). He also argues that the gospel of Jesus, properly understood, is not just about personal salvation. It is a gospel of reconciliation, which inevitably involves justice issues, but white American Christians have been blinded to this fact by our adoption of the dominant (and un-Christian) cultural narrative of consumeristic individualism. Instead of living according to this narrative, Wytsma calls the church to prophetic engagement in justice issues.

In Part III, Wytsma challenges white Christians to become more aware of implicit racial biases. Again, this goes against a commonly held narrative, and so is hard for many white Christians to hear. Wytsma writes, “I often encounter people who tell me that we may not have equality of outcome in America, but there is definitely equality of opportunity. I used to believe this, but it’s not true. Implicit racism in the United States today leads to the same results as the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era” (144, emphasis added). And again, “For Christians who are working for a society of the equality amid diversity that is God’s dream for the world, implicit bias is the battleground where we need to fight the hardest” (145). White Christians need to not stop at including different voices; we need to share power and opportunity, answering the biblical call to community. In sum,

We have to challenge the impulse and aspiration toward aristocracy—power and privilege permitting a life of leisure. We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will get it perfectly right, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor, and life in the communion of saints. (191)

This is the first book of Wytsma’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed. He does a masterful job of anticipating objections and arguing for a biblical view of racial justice. I was most grateful for his blending of humility and boldness throughout. He knows that the privileged do not always respond well to being told that they are privileged, and he does so skillfully by calling them to a higher standard rather than simply lambasting them. He also knows that his is not the last word on the subject, and ends the book with several pages of recommended resources. I recommend this book for people, especially white Christians, who want to live out the gospel but are intimidated by discussions of race in America and don’t know where to start.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

FURTHER READING:

My friend James wrote a great review of The Myth of Equality a few months ago.

Ken Wytsma was interviewed on the podcast Seminary Dropout a few weeks ago.

Seeing Singles as People (Review)

When I first heard about One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church by Gina Dalfonzo, I thought it would be a book with a “how-to” bent. I know that in many churches, the response to the sexual revolution over the last several decades has been to focus on the nuclear family to the neglect of people in other stages of life (forgetting that the church itself is spoken about using “family” language in the New Testament). I thought it might be nice to get a few tips on avoiding the temptation for churches to neglect people who are not married.

9780801072932But it is not a how-to book, and for that reason I had the hardest time getting into it. It comes in three sections: The first, called “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Shame,” states the problem: single people are too often seen in American churches as problems, pariahs, or projects. In the second, called “How We Got Here,” Dalfonzo gives a history lesson that begins in the ’90s with the courtship craze started (or at least fueled) by Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the third, called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dalfonzo paints a picture of what churches could look like if they did really welcome single people for who they are, rather than as potential married people.

As I mentioned, I had trouble getting into it, probably because in the first section does a bit of preaching to the choir. People who pick up a book like this are likely to be sympathetic readers, so stating the problem of how singles are often treated in the church over three chapters and 70 pages seemed excessive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I kept going. I enjoyed her take on the courtship craze in part 2, and I note that even Joshua Harris has been reevaluating the ideas in his famous book (he has been working on a documentary film called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he talks about here).

Also, one nugget in particular from the third section of the book has stuck with me. Dalfonzo wrote, “I really believe that a large part of the reason married churchgoers are often thrown for a loop by the singles is that, deep down, we are completely wedded to the idea that we should be able to control our own lives” (170). How can it be, the thinking goes, that you could really want something and not be able to get it? You must not be trying that hard. In this scenario, dependence on God as the source of life and giver of gifts goes out the window.

I think Dalfonzo is onto something there regarding how the American ideal of individual autonomy has played out in the area of how married Christians can treat single ones. This idea that we are atomistic individuals who ought to be able to control our own lives is a pernicious lie (not a uniquely American one, but one that is particularly influential here), and to counter it we need to believe the truth: that we are dependent on God for all things; and that the church he has started (including the singles in it!) is our true family.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Nearing the End

This is the nineteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

On our group’s first morning in Jerusalem—the first day of the trip that did not dawn already blazing hot—our first stop was going to be the Temple Mount. We trooped outside the old city wall to the bus, rode around to the other side of the old city, got out and through the Dung Gate, and settled into the security line before it was scheduled to open.

We waited.

And we waited some more.

Then we received word that there had been some unrest on the Temple Mount the day before, and the opening for that day was delayed indefinitely. It would eventually open later that day, but by that time we had already decided to get back on the bus and move to the Mount of Olives. We would not get to visit the Temple Mount this trip.

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On the Mount of Olives in my standard uniform for the trip: broad-brimmed hat, hydration pack, breathable shirt (shorts and hiking boots not pictured)

On the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley east of ancient Jerusalem, we sat in a small amphitheater while our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he said, the Sunday before Passover, on the day the lambs were being selected for the feast. Around ten years before this, Josephus tells us that Thaddeus claimed to be messiah and around 4,000 people were killed. Tensions, in other words, were high.

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The pilgrims

When Jesus appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives, the crowd accompanying him shouted “Hosanna” (“Save us”). They waved palm branches, the Zealot symbol of freedom, which was earlier used on coins from the Maccabean period (Luke 19:31–37). But instead of inciting a revolt, Jesus wept (Luke 19:42–45). He was indeed claiming to be king, and he was indeed making a political statement—but not in the sense that he was setting himself up as the kind of kind the world was used to. He was forcing the hands of those who were opposed to him. He knew that this would get him killed.

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The many burial plots on the Mount of Olives

From the top of the Mount of Olives, we walked down toward the Temple Mount to Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night that he was arrested. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” and there are many olive trees still present there. Of course, as is the case with so many places mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t clear where the exact spot Jesus prayed is. A few places compete for the honor, and we went to two such places on this morning. But as I wrote in my post on Nazareth, I think standing in the exact spot is overrated. We spent some time contemplating in one spot, then took a quick walk around the walled garden next to the Church of All Nations.

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A very old olive tree in the garden next to the Church of All Nations

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus in Gethsemane said he was not leading a revolt, and the disciples fled (Matt 26:55–56). Perhaps they fled because they realized only then that Jesus would not lead an open rebellion against Rome. Perhaps also Judas betrayed Jesus because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and spark a revolution. I first heard of this theory from Dorothy Sayers’s book The Man Born to Be King, and I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately, though, no one knows exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus. The important thing is that Jesus knew he would die, and he went to his death willingly. And he calls those who follow him to take up their crosses as well (Mark 8:31–38).

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The facade of the Church of All Nations, with the retaining wall around the Temple Mount to the right

Night in Jerusalem

This is the eighteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

In the afternoon of June 26 our tour bus left Caesarea, and Galilee, and took us to where we would spend our final three days. By that point in the trip we had been in Israel (with a couple of trips into the West Bank) for a week, and we had not yet set foot in Jerusalem.

When we got there, the bus driver parked just outside the old city walls, between the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, and we walked in to our hotel: the Knights’ Palace. It was a charming little place, a former seminary, with a medieval feel: stone exterior and interior, with suits of armor in the hallway and portraits whose eyes seem to follow you like you’re in an episode of Scooby-Doo.

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The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Knights’ Palace is in the Christian Quarter, wedged up against the northwest wall of the old city and not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After checking in, most of our group spent the evening going on a walk around the city.

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Walking just inside the Jaffa Gate

I love walking in cities at night. While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around the major cities I’ve lived in (Prague, Budapest, Vancouver) both during the day and at night, it’s the night walks that have stuck with me, even years afterward.

Maybe this is because my senses are heightened when I’m walking around at night, knowing there is a higher likelihood that I’ll be the victim of some crime. Or, more likely, walking at night just seems more intimate. With the sky dark and the lampposts lit up, cityscapes (especially squares) feel to me almost like a living room. There are fewer people around, and some of the inhibitions that people have in the daylight crowds go away; you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know (you’re also more likely to be propositioned by a prostitute or see stag parties singing/yelling to everyone around as they stagger down the street—two lingering memories from my time in Prague).

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Standing near the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Tim led us through the warren of narrow streets that first night, looking for a way up to a rooftop from which we could look east and see the Dome of the Rock. Along the way, we saw the Israeli police questioning a young boy who had apparently thrown a rock at someone. In Jerusalem, little things like that can apparently get out of control quickly.

Then we came back down from the roof, meandered through the Jewish Quarter to Hurva Square, and headed east to a place where we could overlook the Western Wall.

fullsizeoutput_2755It was stunning, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Of the three nights we spent in Jerusalem, no matter how tired I was after that day’s excursions, I went walking around at night to take in as much as I could: enjoying the views, watching the people, eating the gelato (who knew you could get gelato in the old city?). I was a little nervous about getting lost by myself, so I had to look for people to go with, but thankfully there were plenty of other people who were also excited to do night exploring (thanks, Kurt & Suzie, Jenna & Abigail!).

 

Caesarea and Kingdom Building

It’s hard to believe it’s now been almost a year since the pilgrimage to Israel I made with a group from my church last summer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try to write reflections on every stop we made, but I’m actually pretty close to finishing now. This is the seventeenth post (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

Our last stop in northern Israel before heading to Jerusalem was Caesarea. There were two Caesareas—Caesarea Philippi, which we had visited a couple of days earlier, and the one on the coast, which is usually just called Caesarea (or Caesarea Maritima if you want to differentiate it from the other one).

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Standing at one end of the hippodrome

Like so many extant ruins around Israel, Herod the Great picked this spot to build a palace. He wanted a harbor here so he could get a cut of the trade that passed through, so he conducted a building project from about 22–10 BC so an artificial harbor could be created. The palace covered twenty-six acres, and there was a theater and hippodrome here as well. Josephus wrote that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great entered this theater dressed in robes of silver that shone in the sun. When the crowd acclaimed him as a god, he accepted their praise, and he died shortly thereafter (this is also recorded in the New Testament in Acts 12:20–23). There was also a lighthouse, and ruins of the breakwater are still visible underwater. The site includes red columns from Egypt and black columns from Greece.

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Looking toward the hippodrome, with the palace in the foreground

From AD 6, when the Romans took over Palestine, Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman governors. In 1961 there was a stone found here with an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul passed through here on his missionary journeys, and he was imprisoned here for two years before he was sent to be tried in Rome (Acts 23:23–26:32).

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A replica of the Pilate inscription; the original is in the Israel Museum

When our group arrived, we went up to the top of the theater and felt the ocean breeze while our group leader, Tim, explained the history of the place and showed us some points of interest. Then we went north to the ruins of the ancient palace. Just below the palace, on the beach, we found ancient pieces of pottery and marble that had been eroded by the waves. Then we continued north through the hippodrome.

Is8059 After we left Caesarea, we stopped at an aqueduct not far away, then continued on to Jerusalem for the night.

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When Tim gave us an overview of Caesarea, he ended by saying that Herod the Great built this to show he was great. That is what he wanted to do with his many building projects, and at least in some sense he succeeded, since we can still see parts of what he built and we still know his name. But of course the palace is in ruins and nobody uses the hippodrome anymore. And even though we know his name, we don’t love Herod. He doesn’t have a place in our hearts. So Tim asked, “What kind of kingdom are you building?”

Character Is King (Review)

Education in general, and education in leadership in particular, has increasingly become focused on the acquisition of skills. Since we as a society cannot agree on what is good or true or beautiful, when we want to teach something the only definition of success we can agree on is that we should become, as the title of a recent book by Charles Duhigg tells us, Smarter Faster Better (or in the words of Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger“). Education is little more than an indoctrination into what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called “technique.”

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailThis sort of thinking is also present in churches, although biblical qualifications for leadership have a bit to do with skills (“able to teach,” 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24) but much more to do with character (“above reproach,” “self-controlled,” “not quarrelsome,” “not a lover of money,” 1 Tim 3:2–3). My friend Jeremy Rios, who until recently pastored at Burnaby Alliance Church and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of St. Andrews, wrote People of a Certain Character: Mentored Leadership for Servants in the Kingdom as a leadership training manual with the goal of helping to restore the church to a more character-focused vision of leadership.

At just 106 pages, it is a brief book that almost might be called a booklet. Rios has consciously kept the book short so that it can be profitably read in groups of Christian leaders. The real purpose is not to read it alone for the purpose of review (as I have just done) but to work through it slowly, reflectively, alongside others with whom you are ministering. In each of twelve chapters, Rios asks a question that aims to get at the heart of a Christian leader’s character:

  • Do you know that you are loved by God?
  • Do you have a conviction of holiness?
  • Are you filled, and being filled, with the Holy Spirit?
  • Are you aware that God is in charge of your ministry?
  • Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?
  • Are you willing to submit?
  • Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?
  • Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?
  • Do you know how to share the gospel?
  • Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?
  • Do you know how to care for others?
  • Do you know how to restore yourself?

Each chapter begins with a passage of Scripture, continues with a meditation on that Scripture, then concludes with discussion questions and a suggested spiritual practice to help readers grow in that area. For example, the spiritual practice connected with “Are you willing to submit?” is fasting. The book ends with a concluding word on the importance of mentoring for growth in Christian character, using the apostle Paul and his mentoring of Timothy as a primary example.

As I read the book, I thought there were many other questions that could have been asked to help people gauge where they are in terms of their character, but these are a good baseline. The intent, as I see it, is not to be exhaustive, but to prompt honest reflection and growth. It is similar to books on spiritual disciplines: when you read Richard Foster, or Dallas Willard, or someone else, you find that their lists of spiritual disciplines overlap but are not entirely the same. The point is not to establish a complete list of disciplines for people to practice, but to suggest ways in which we might use our bodies and habits to invest in our relationship with God.

I think this book will be a valuable resource for leadership development in the church. As I mentioned above, resources on leadership often focus on the “how” to the detriment of the “who”—what kind of character should you have as a leader? While I do think resources that teach leadership skills have their place, there is a greater need in our current environment for books like People of a Certain Character.

Note: While the author is a friend, a copy of this book was provided to me with no expectation as to the nature of the review. Check out Jeremy’s explanation of why he wrote the book here.

Justice, Mercy, and Brokenness (Review)

Toward the beginning of his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes, “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (18). In the course of the book, he relates how he came to believe this, and how he came to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that, according to its website, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Just-MercyThe main story Stevenson tells in the book is that of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the 1980s. McMillian, who is black, was on death row after being convicted of killing a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama—the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real-life model for its fictional town of Maycomb—but he didn’t do it. As Stevenson digs into the case, he finds evidence that, since it was a high-profile crime and the public was anxious for a conviction, the local authorities were more than willing to pin it on McMillian, despite the fact that witnesses saw McMillian elsewhere while the crime was being committed. During jury selection, the prosecution excluded African Americans. During the trial, the prosecution relied on two key witnesses who lied. And when the jury recommended life in prison, the presiding judge stepped in and escalated it to the death penalty. (State court judges in Alabama are elected by popular vote, and nobody who is looking to win an election wants to be seen as “soft on crime.”)

Stevenson intersperses McMillian’s story with the stories of other people he has represented, including the mentally ill and those who were serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. As he tells story after story, the evidence piles up that it is too easy in our justice system to wrongfully convict or excessively punish people who lack the resources to defend themselves. Racism is often a factor in unjust convictions and harsh sentences, as it was in the case of McMillian, but Stevenson is careful not to lay all of the problems of our justice system at the feet of systemic racism. All of the people whose stories he tells are poor, but they are of different races. It seems the bigger culprit, of which even racism is a symptom, is our tendency to treat people who are different from us—culturally, racially, socioeconomically—as an Other to be feared and controlled. In this situation, it is the poor, minorities, and mentally ill especially who don’t have the means to resist the ways in which we try to control them or keep them at a distance, both physically and psychologically.

Stevenson doesn’t write about where his vision of justice comes from—why he sees certain things as just and others as unjust. And aside from occasional mentions of church attendance and prayer, he doesn’t talk about his religious commitments. He doesn’t explicitly root his vision of justice and mercy in a particular view of the world, and that’s probably for the best if he wants to convince people from any religion and no religion that justice reform is needed. But I believe his vision is deeply Christian, and the church can learn much from it. I especially saw this in his chapter, “Broken,” in which he sees all people as united in their brokenness:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill [one of his clients who was about to be executed] and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us. … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)

We are all prone to sort the world into Us vs. Them, and then think the solution to our problems is for Us to get rid of Them. Even many readers of Just Mercy may fall into thinking the solution to the problems in our justice system is for Us (the enlightened readers of this book) to seize power and punish them (the racists, those who profit from mass incarceration, etc.).

But according to Stevenson, the solution to fear and hatred of the Other is seeing what unites us. And what unites us is not our race, or status, or our intellectual ability, or our nationality. According to Stevenson (and even though he doesn’t explicitly root it there, this is firmly within the mainstream of the historic Christian understanding of humanity), what unites us is that we are all broken in some way. We are all in need of justice and mercy.

Disclaimer: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.