I discovered that the Temple Mount is open at present (although only for selected periods of the day) whereas whenever I have visited Jerusalem before, it has always been closed. I joined the queue and made my way up on to an amazing vista. Such space as that can’t be encountered anywhere else in the city. If you look at a map of the city from above, you can see how much ground the Temple Mount covers, but to be up there – in person, as it were, was quite something.
My encounters with some of the Muslims on the Mount varied, from the man who shouted at me, “Not you!” as I vaguely approached the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (having been able to freely visit Mosques in Istanbul, I knew here would be sensitive, but I wasn’t anticipating being yelled at!) to the women who were more than happy for me to photograph them in their wonderfully colourful clothing as they chatted and passed the time of day and onto the Managers of the Temple Mount who were happy for me to enquire about the provenance of the headscarf the older man was wearing.
At the time I visited, the Mount was open for just an hour, and so there was a sense that time was limited. With my trusty Guidebook, I walked around the Mount – away from the crowds to see what was going on elsewhere. There were boys playing football, people sitting chatting, children crying, young boy is chanting, “Allahu Akbar” – only to be outdone by a group of men who started to call out louder. In addition to one woman I saw praying near the Dome of the Prophet, there were men near the Golden Gate area who seemed to be studying and talking about the Qu’ran. This area is closed off to anyone –including Jesus! According to Jewish tradition, this is the gate through which the Messiah will make his entry into Jerusalem when he comes and so it was blocked up completely by the Muslims in the 16th Century. (We won’t mention that Christians believe he’s already come once and won’t actually need a gateway when he comes again, shall we…)
Smoking is prohibited on the Temple Mount, as is kissing in addition to showing signs of affection. Visitors are to dress modestly and behave appropriately. I wonder then what would have been made by the encounter I had with a Liberal Jew and the conversation that ensued…
This chap, whose name I never did ask (very rude of me), had drifted into my sightline a few times: I’d noticed him because he was wearing a T-shirt with a small-ish Star of David motif on it. As I was taking a photograph of the Dome of the Ascension, he came over to me and asked if I knew what any of the things were that we were looking at. I explained what the particular feature in front of us was – and that I didn’t know who had ascended from there, but went on to say that Christians believed that Jesus had ascended from the top of the Mount of Olives – and that there is a footprint on the ground (I kid you not!) At this point, the chap asked if I was Christian, to which I said yes, I asked if he was Jewish – which he was. We walked away from the Dome of the Ascension as there was a woman was obviously getting quite cross at our (non-believer) eyes inspecting this place and who began gesticulated quite clearly that we should get lost!
The conversation that followed ranged through various topics to do with faith, belief, practices, Inter-faith dialogue, clothing, expectation and disappointment of faith communities, how many places in which St Mary is meant to have died (or not, if you believe she was assumed into heaven). The chap was from Toronto, where his father is a Rabbi – also quite Liberal. Apparently the local Cardinal (I think it was a Cardinal!) is a friend and so was recently invited over for a Friday night Shabbat meal. How cool is that?!
At one point I remarked how amazing it was that a Jew and Christian should be standing on the Muslim site of the Temple Mount and having such a conversation. This chap (to whom I really ought to give a name – let’s call his David), so… David said that at his Synagogue, in May, there is to be an evening at which three Doctors of Theology – one Muslim, one Christian and one Jewish (and all women) – are to speak on ‘The things that bring us together and the things that divide’. I commented that I wished I could be there… Toronto in May – that could be possible, maybe?!
What a wonderful encounter… it really made my day! Oh, and the Dome of the Rock is a wonderful place too…
All this has led me further in thinking about whether there needs to be a physical place where God resides, and why it is that I love to visit this land. If Jesus promised to be with us always, and also gave us the Holy Spirit as our Comforter, then is there any need for a ‘place’ at all?
When I attended my Selection Conference for Ordained Ministry, I was asked how I knew there was a God. The chap who asked me seemed to an ‘okay’ person who was genuinely interested in me and my ‘story’ (rather than there being any sense of him being someone who was seeking to trick me) so it felt alright to look him in the eye and say, “I can’t tell you how I know there is a God, but what I can tell you is that I feel it, here in my heart.” It seemed to be enough… but, it is so hard to put into words, isn’t it?! There is a place within me where I know that God resides because I feel it. There is a place within each one of us where God resides. It’s not a place that is in any sense limited or limiting – to us or to God – but it is a place where God lives and God ‘is’.
So, no, I don’t think God does need a ‘place’ in which to reside, although we may need a place to be to become aware of God more fully and deeply and God may choose to reveal God’s self to us in particular ways, times and places. You may have a place already, you may wish to discover one. Look for it, seek it out – what you find may surprise you. Know this too though, the grace of God is within you – a grace that allows for continued exploration and expression, continued questioning and doubt, continued hope and faith, continued growth and transformation.
May your coming day, like mine was today, be filled with surprising encounters – encounters that make you think, that make you wonder, that make you hope, and also that make you glad to be alive.