The Holy Land: Kearneys travel to Israel for study course

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Susan Shinn
In planning her sabbatical, the Rev. Beth Kearney wanted to do “one big thing.”
That one big thing turned out to be a 19-day study course in the Holy Land.
Beth, a member of the bishop’s staff at the N.C. Lutheran Synod Headquarters, was joined by her husband, the Rev. Doug Kearney, who’s interim pastor at St. James Lutheran Church, Concord.
The trip was the couple’s first foray to the Holy Land. Not only did they see many historic sites, they also learned about the current political climate in this volatile region of the world.
“We got to talk with a lot of people we wouldn’t talk with otherwise,” Beth says. “It was pretty in-depth.”
The trip was led by Dr. Monte Luker, a professor of Hebrew scriptures at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. It included a pretty extensive reading list, which pleased Doug, although both of them are voracious readers.
One of the many people they met on the trip was the archbishop of the Melkite church in Israel, the country’s largest Christian denomination.
Doug wrote in his blog about the conversation the group had with Elias Chacour.
“Toward the end of our time, he said something really helpful to we who are in the midst of our Holy Land site-hopping,” Doug wrote.
“You have visited the Holy Sepulchre? Good. I’m glad. You know, when you go inside ó don’t bump your head ó there is an embalming slab,” Chacour said.
“On that marble is something you should remember. It says, in Latin, ‘He is not here; he is risen.’ You will not find Jesus here. You will find Jesus in your work for justice and reconciliation at home. So, yes, go to the sites, do your pilgrimage. Then go away. Go home. What God desires of you will happen there.”
For his part, Doug has never felt a strong desire to visit the Holy Land.
But, he says, “I’d be jealous if she went without me.”
Beth and Doug, both 56, wondered what differences it would make for them to visit places they’d read about and preached about for years.
“As it turned out,” Doug says, “it was a marvelous trip and being there did make a difference.”
The couple quickly learned that there was a difference between “traditional” sites and “authentic” sites. The authentic sites are places that Jesus most definitely visited. These include Peter’s house in Capernaum and a synagogue where Jesus preached.
“We came home and that was the gospel lesson for the next week,” Doug says. “It was neat to be able to picture that in a different way.”
A traditional site, on the other hand, might be a rock upon which Jesus was said to bless the loaves and fishes.
Doug says, “It was neat to see sites that weren’t authentic, but where Christian pilgrimages had been made for 1,700 years. Being in places where Christians had made a point to come was inspiring to me.”
Doug notes, “The scripture is first and foremost the early writers’ faith in Christ. It contains history and details about geography. In the end, you can’t lose sight of the fact of their faith in Jesus Christ, rather than being just a historical book.”
The couple visited Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Interestingly, the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus are now contained in a massive church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Many different denominations have chapels on the site ó all built up in a haphazard way, Beth notes.
Over the years, it’s been quite contentious and territorial ó so much so that one family, a Muslim family, no less, keeps the keys to the church. This family has passed down this tradition for hundreds of years.
Outside the church, Doug says, they heard the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets.
“Inside, the Ethiopian monks were having evening prayer and the Franciscans were having evening prayer. All of that was going on at the same time.”
“That was my favorite place,” Beth says, “because it was clearly an authentic site. It had centuries and centuries and centuries of worship on top of it. There was an air of mystery over the whole thing.
“It was an amazing feeling.”
Near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Doug and Beth attended services at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.
Coincidentally, Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA was preaching that Sunday. He was a part of the conference of bishops visiting the Holy Land. Bishop Leonard Bolick of the North Carolina Synod and his wife, Rita, were along on that trip.
The close proximity of many sites along the trip was unexpected, Beth says.
The “Gospel triangle,” for example, where Jesus did most of his ministry, was encompassed in just a few miles.
During a boat trip onto the Sea of Galilee, Doug says, “in one field of vision, you could see where 75 percent of Jesus’ ministry happened.”
The group traveled to a kibbutz on the Dead Sea, and stayed at a guest house which had a spa.
“It was more like a Y with mud,” Doug says.
The couple covered themselves with the Dead Sea mud, although Beth waited until Doug was covered and his hands were sticky, so there’s no photographic evidence she actually did it.
And yes, you can float quite easily in the Dead Sea because of its high salt content.
“You can float sitting up and reading a book if you wanted to,” Doug says.
The couple had been told to prepare for a lot of walking and hiking and steps ó and there was much of that.
Doug appreciated it.
“It takes a while to get the flavor of a place and soak it in,” he says, and walking enhanced that.
Their group hiked in several national parks, climbing in En Avedat National Park. Beth surprised herself by completing a canyon trail which included about 700 stone steps and two ladders.
Beth says she was also surprised at the diversity of the land in such a small area.
Some areas of Galilee were green, like parts of the North Carolina mountains. There were desert areas, too, and extreme changes in altitude. The Golan Heights, for example, are at 9,000 feet, while the Dead Sea is actually below sea level.
The group had to travel farther east than originally planned, because of the fighting which broke out in Gaza.
“I have a greater appreciation for the complexity of the area,” Beth says.
“There are no easy answers,” Doug says.
“It’s just really complicated,” Beth says.
The group visited Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, which is run by the Lutheran World Federation. It’s the only place where Palestinians can receive radiation treatment.
Doug and Beth came away with a sense of the history of the region.
“Everything there just had these incredible layers of politics and religion,” Beth says.
The couple agrees that they feel a stronger responsibility to be advocates for peacemaking.
“At the same time, there aren’t simple answers,” Doug says.
The complications, he says, just add to the richness of the region. “It really is where East meets West.”
To read more about the Kearneys’ trip, visit Doug’s blog at