Today would be a good day to be in Nazareth

It’s hard to believe 5 months have flown by since we were in Israel. Today I’m wishing I could head back for the day to one of my favourite towns. Nazareth is most famous as the place where Jesus and His family lived and it is great to ground some of the stories of His life in this place. It’s also just a really lovely place to hang out, observe and share life in today.

What have I loved about Nazareth?

Like many places, it is the combination of geography, history, and culture, that weaves the story and invitation of this place.
Nazareth is located in Galilee, in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills. This great view of the city is found from Mt Precipice, believed by some to be the place where the people of the town wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff after his sermon in their synagogue.

The mountain looks out over the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile part of Galilee, and standing there makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a map.

In the city itself is a maze of donkey-track streets going up and down, round and about, what I have found to be a great place to wander and a tricky place to drive!

I love seeing the beauty of houses from different eras built side by side, standing as testimony to the many lives and stories in this place over generations.

Nazareth today is a large town with a largely Arab population, about 1/3 Christian and 2/3 Muslim. Near the central old market is the beautiful old White Mosque.

Even older again is the so-called Synagogue Church, a simple room built atop crusader ruins to remember  and evoke the church where Jesus preached.

And even simpler (and older) again are the caves located underground where it is believed Christians hid during Roman persecution.

The layers of history are also seen at the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. The large church was built in the 1960s.

Inside is a church within a church, with an 18th century altar.

This is located inside the grotto, an ancient church where 5th century mosaics have been located.

Outside, excavations underneath the church have discovered the remains of the village from Roman times.

In the bustling town today people live and shop and socialise in the footsteps of this history. Take this carpenter’s workshop for example, its owner following in the traditional profession of the town’s most famous resident and His father.

Or the renowned Elbabour spice shop, milling and grinding local produce for over 100 years.

When travelling without the larger group, I’ve had the privilege of staying in the beautiful Fauzi Azar Inn.

The staff and volunteers of this guesthouse have a heart for the local community and were engaged in numerous projects including this youth drop in centre with its juxtaposition of modern facilities in an ancient location.

What have I learned from Nazareth?

There are two experiences in Nazareth that I have found educational in complicated and unexpected ways. The first is Nazareth Village, an open-air museum built to reconstruct and reenact life in Jesus’ time.

I have mixed feelings about this place.

It is certainly helpful for bringing the biblical story to life …

… and evoking imagination about a different time and place.

But it is run by non-locals and has a distinctly Western flavour.

And, I think it is fair to say, it can feel a little bit kitsch.

The other place I continue to ponder is the Church of the Annunciation itself. It contains some of the most beautiful modern stained glass windows I have ever seen, which shaped some of my reflections in a previous post.

But it is also decorated by mosaics from around the world depicting the annunciation story.

Each one depicts the story from their own national perspective.

On one hand I do like the idea of drawing our own connections to the significant stories of our faith.

On the other hand, it feels like perhaps we are re-creating Mary and Jesus in our own image.

I have used these photos in some of my biblical studies classes to raise this question.

And of course inevitably someone asks about the Australian artwork, which I have to admit I personally find one of the more difficult to engage with.

I think in the end my favourite is the one from Nazareth itself, both because of its simplicity and because of its authenticity to the story’s location within history, geography, and culture.

It reminds me again that there is still much to learn from the people who make Nazareth their home today. Apparently the bulk of visitors to this city do a day trip to see a combination of these main sites but don’t actually stay in the town. If that’s true, they are missing out. The generosity and hospitality of the local people here, despite significant political and social challenges, is inspiring and challenging. I hope to spend more time among them if I can.

 

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Crying over spilled leadership?

Last Friday afternoon I found myself, like numbers of my fellow Australians, glued to my phone, waiting and watching for the results of the latest Liberal party leadership spill. Waiting to find out who our Prime Minister was.

The flurry of social media polls and memes. The speculation and rumours. Then the results, the announcements, the reactions, the counter reactions, and the counter-counter reactions.

Now it’s a week later and  … it feels like nothing much has changed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to live in a country where we can have a sudden and unexpected change of political leaders without shots fired or bombs detonated, without mass protests or prison sentences. I recognise that throughout history and across the world, that is a pretty privileged position to be in.

I’m also frustrated that many of the policy decisions that disturb and outrage me remain unexamined regardless of who is in charge.

But I can’t help feeling like the change of leadership itself should matter more. That the very fact of who leads us should somehow be more significant in its influence and impact upon us.

Sure, for the political die-hards the conversation has continued. And amongst that group there have been plenty of ongoing discussions about the roles of gender and faith in political leadership, not to mention the leaking of several disparaging stories about various contenders. But most other people I have talked to have already moved on. Nothing to see here. More of the same. Whatever.

Perhaps it just shows how disconnected our political leaders are from most people’s everyday lives. Or perhaps it demonstrates our own apathy and lack of engagement in the electoral process. Maybe it demonstrates the lack of diversity amongst those who rise to the top in our system such that they become barely distinguishable from one another to many.

But as someone interested in leadership and influence more broadly, I wonder whether it also has something to say about our understanding of leadership itself.

Is there something to learn here?

If we’re honest, most of us in leadership roles like to think that who we are and what we do really matters. That people would notice if we were gone. Perhaps even that things would fall apart without us. It is disheartening to feel that we might be but cogs in a machine that will continue to turn unabated regardless of whether it is us or someone else in the position of influence and power.

And perhaps if we too were offered the opportunity for greater significance and prestige in leadership we might be tempted to do whatever it takes to grasp hold of it.

But is that what leadership is really all about? Is leadership really about us at all?

Some of the commentary on the events of the past week has pointed to a deeper concern. The bipartisan chord struck by Senator Richard di Natale’s fiery speech suggests that maybe many are actually looking for a different kind of leadership. That in the midst of crises and trials, we are looking for leaders who put their service to the people they represent above their own interests and ambitions. For a kind of leadership that empties itself and seeks the good of the community first and foremost.

This kind of leadership appears to be much harder to come by. Not just because we don’t often see it in our political leaders, but because I know myself how much I struggle to embody it. And how often we can be tempted to disregard it.

But it is the kind of leadership that has been demonstrated to have a different kind of power: the power to truly transform lives and through those lives to change the world for good.

Jesus of Nazareth said to his followers, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord power over them and their high officials wield authority over them. It is not to be like this among you. Rather, the one who wants to become great among you is to be your servant and the one who wants to be first among you is to be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

And when His followers have taken those words to heart and followed His example to lead by serving, when the church has been at its best, lives, communities, and nations have been transformed. This is the model of leadership many are crying for.

So whether the political conversation simmers down for a while or boils over again soon, as I reflect and think out loud about my responses, my question today is this: How can I let the dissatisfaction I am feeling with our national leaders challenge me as to what kind of leader I am and want to be?

Can we be thinking about how leadership might be ‘spilled’ in a different kind of way, in the pouring out of ourselves for the benefit of others? Or in other words,

What does it look like for me to lead by serving?

Beauty, darkness and hope: or today would be a good day to be in Kraków

I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.

Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.

What did I love about Kraków?

Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.

At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.

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Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,

and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.

Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.

Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …

… and gardens  …

… and courtyards.

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Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,

with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.

The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.

Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.

From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river

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with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.

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What did I learn from Kraków?

It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.

Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.

It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.

A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.

Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.

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One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.

But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.

Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.