Weaving the fabric of faith
The great challenge—and the immense privilege—of leading courses at St George’s College Jerusalem is the necessity to tie together threads that we might easily leave as loose ends, or even ignore, because it can be hard to bring them all together.
What are these threads that we seek to weave together? Four words come to mind, and each of them is the tip of an iceberg:
As I reflect on those four strands, I am reminded of the summary of the Law that Jesus offers in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Here is the earliest version, found in Mark 12:30:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (NRSV)
Jesus edits the original form found in Deuteronomy my adding “with all your mind”, and I appreciate that as an essential element of every program we offer at St George’s College. In every course we seek to love God with all our mind, as well as with heart and soul and strength. Indeed, I would hope that we engage all four dimensions (heart, soul, mind, strength) with each of the threads (history, scripture, place, and people).
Not every pilgrimage program will seek to do that. Not every study tour will seek to do that. Not every advocacy visit will seek to do that. But here at St George’s College we seek to do all this every time.
Not every SGC course gets every element just right, but a lot of the time we get most of the parts right, and occasionally everything comes together beautifully. I think we have had several of those courses in the past three months, and that is a deep joy. These are the times that encourage us to keep going, and to try harder for the sake of our pilgrims, for the sake of our students, for the sake of the living stones in this land, and for the sake of God’s kingdom.
As a center for Christian study and faith formation, we need to engage with the historical dimensions of this land and of our religion.
History matters, and especially for a religion that understands God to have come among us in the person of Jesus: a unique person, at a particular time, and in specific places.
We have come to realise that Christianity includes a mix of historical and other traditions. And we know all too well that some Christians consider everything to be historical, while other Christians do not see their faith that way. The College exists for them all, but has a responsibility to be a place where we seek to love God by our critical thinking: “with all our mind”.
We are not primarily an academic institution, but we are a place of rigorous discipleship and careful thinking. As one of my theology lecturers said in a class many years ago, “Form your ideas carefully, and sit on them lightly.”
We address the questions that arise from the texts and the places. Sometimes we find answers. Always we seek wisdom to live by. Holy wisdom. Faith seeking understanding. Love of God that is not afraid to ask questions, to live with doubt, and to be faithful to God’s call on our lives.
We are quintessentially the ‘people of the Book’. From its first moments, the Christian community has been blessed with the gift of Scripture.
At first those Scriptures were the sacred texts of Second Temple Judaism, which are not exactly the same as the Jewish Tanak or the Protestant Old Testament. The Christian Old Testament includes all the books of the Tanak (albeit arranged in different categories and sequences) along with another dozen or so writings that are found in the Greek Bible but were excluded from the Jewish Tanak after 100 CE.
Later these Jewish texts were supplemented by the Gospel and the Apostle: the message and mission of Jesus, and the pastoral wisdom of Paul, Peter, James, and John.
We engage with these sacred texts as people of faith. We are neither fundamentalists or literalists, but people who know of God’s work in our lives and in our world. We receive these sacred texts in the contexts of our contemporary reality. We read the texts to hear the whisper of God’s Spirit, and not to find proof texts to validate or deny our sense of God’s call in today’s world.
We are the people of the Book, but we are first of all the people of God, and the people of Christ. By the end of every College course our knowledge of the Bible should have been increased, along with our love for God, and our capacity for mission.
In our programs at St George’s College we seek to engage with the land, with the ‘fifth gospel’.
We want you to touch this land, to see the landscape, to feel the wind, to splash in the water, to smell the flowers, and to walk among the rocks.
This land is the place where our faith first took shape.
This land is a sacrament that connects us with the sacred—with that kingdom of God that is amongst us and within us, yet which we so easily overlook in the busy schedules that pass for lives in today’s world.
We want you to learn how to read the stones and interpret the hills. We want you out of the lecture room, off the bus, and into the field. We want you to stay long enough to get a feel for the place. More than that, we want you to appreciate the God whose call still echoes in the contours of this land.
There is more to our programs than history, Bible and land.
We want you to meet the ‘living stones’, the people of this land. Some of them are Christians, others are Jews and Muslims. A few may be Baha’i or Druze.
Where there are people, we also find politics, injustice, and compassion. It is impossible to travel this land as pilgrim or student and avoid the politics. The injustices of this land may open our eyes to injustices at home to which we were previously blind. For sure a deep engagement with the people of this land will stir our compassion. Maybe it will also offer a glimpse of some new work to which God is calling us.
Not every visitor to the land of the Holy One will be seeking such a comprehensive and challenging engagement. But this is the mission of the College. To be more than a devotional pilgrimage. To be more than a study tour. To be something other than an advocacy visit.
As a mission agency of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, we welcome you to our programs and we offer to be your companions on the journey as we dig deep into the history of the land, as we engage with the Christian Scriptures, as we learn the contours of this land, and as we encounter the people of this ‘once and future’ promised land.