Sunday, April 29, 2012

"We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low," and other Desmond Tutu Quotes

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is now 81 years old. He has spent his entire life trying to bring about justice for the poor of South Africa.  He and Nelson Mandela were the two primary catalysts in abolishing apartheid in that nation—and it took decades of blood, sweat, tears, and prayers.

His dedication led to him being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984…and yet it was several more years after that before government sanctioned inequality was ended.  He continues to work diligently as an agent for peace and reconciliation.  Here are some of my favorite quotes by him:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Be nice to the whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.

I want the government to know now and always that I do not fear them... There is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from what I believe is what God wants me to do. I cannot help it when I see injustice. I cannot keep quiet.

You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.

I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.

This award is for you, who down the ages have said we seek to change this evil system peacefully. The world recognizes that we are agents of peace, of reconciliation, of love, of justice, of caring, of compassion. I have the great honor of receiving this award on your behalf. It is our prize. It is not Desmond Tutu's prize. The world recognizes that and thanks God that our God is God. Thank God that our God is in charge. (from his Nobel Peace Prize speech)

Stability and peace in our land will not come from the barrel of a gun, because peace without justice is an impossibility. Armies have far too frequently been used not to protect the people but to repress them as they defended totalitarian and unrepresentative regimes. South Africa should dismantle its armaments industry. The arms race is particularly obscene amongst struggling poverty-stricken people.

When a pile of cups is tottering on the edge of the table and you warn that they will crash to the ground, in South Africa you are blamed when that happens.

In our African language we say 'a person is a person through other persons.' I would not know how to be a human being at all except I learned this from other human beings. We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. We are meant to complement each other. All kinds of things go horribly wrong when we break that fundamental law of our being. Not even the most powerful nation can be completely self-sufficient.

I am opposed to both the violence of those who maintain an unjust system and the violence of those who seek to overthrow it.

We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Van Halen Verities

With Van Halen returning to Nashville for the first time in over a decade this Friday, I got to thinking about some true tales of interaction with them in my past.  The first time I encountered them was March 3, 1978 deep in the bowels of the infamous Aragon Ballroom when this unknown quartet was the opener of a three act bill that also featured Ronnie Montrose’s fusion rock quintet, and the newly revamped Journey with pretty boy lead singer Steve Perry.

Van Halen’s eponymous first album had just been released a few weeks before, and their cover of The Kink’s “You Really Got Me” was garnering strong airplay due to Eddie Van Halen’s scorching six string pyrotechnics and David Lee Roth’s reimagining of Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum. The boys from Pasadena only had a twenty-five minute slot, but they cranked it. My visit with them was quite short after the show as they were leaving the hall just about the time that Journey was exiting from their final encore.

However, five months later Van Halen was on a long trek opening for Black Sabbath, and on one of their off days from Ozzy and company, they were booked into a small dive near Paddock Lake in southern Wisconsin that became the source of mythic legend: did they actually play a concert at a converted dairy barn while they were the number one band in America?  The answer is yes.  It was, quite literally, a three-story cattle stable that had been converted into a biker bar.  The stage was a former second level hayloft with a huge weight-bearing timber column running vertically right down the center and bordered with rough-hewn pine slat railing to keep performers from falling fifteen feet to the main floor below. I had been at other gigs there in it’s first year of operation including shows by Eddie Money, Starcastle, and The Dictators (featuring Handsome Dick Manitoba), and I swear you could still smell remnants of manure and bovine piss when the place got heated up with wall-to-wall humanity.

By this time, Van Halen’s star had risen to the point where they were responsible for selling nearly half the tickets at the Sabbath gigs, and their debut record had already gone multi-platinum.  It seemed odd that they were playing this gig in such an obscure rural outpost, but the word had gotten out, and there were already cars from four states represented in the parking field by 5:00 PM for this rare headlining set.

Due to my relationship with Warner Brothers as a Program Director at a local rock station, and my writing gig for area magazines, I was able to hang with the guys during their sound check and meal.  Even as an opener for bigger bands, they were used to more space to work with than this cramped excuse for a stage.  Despite the close quarters, Eddie still insisted on having his replica of the Little Boy Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima next to his Marshall stacks.  There was barely room for anyone to move more than five feet, and this was going to be especially challenging for front man Roth’s histrionics. You could see them looking at each other in bemused wonder as their crushing sound caused sawdust to filter down through the early evening sunbeams cutting through the planked walls.

After getting their levels, it was difficult getting a read on Diamond Dave as we chatted in an area that was once a horse stall. I could never tell if he was stoned, or just incredibly laid back in that Valley Boy kinda way.  His eyes were bloodshot and bleary, and he did guffaw with that stoner stammer, but then he could also sound quite erudite and clever at times in a tone that belied an altered state.  He was one of those guys that never, ever gave a straight answer to any question.  Eddie, on the other hand, was shy but genuine in his interactions.  Alex Van Halen was distracted and seemed a bit peeved about the cramped condition of his drums (I think they had to reduce his kit in order to accommodate everything that was necessary on the “stage”).  Michael Anthony was quite outgoing, and the most forthcoming and relaxed of the lot.

Despite the less than ideal circumstances, the band gave a rousing performance to the thousand or so that were packed into quarters designed for perhaps half that. They played nearly every song from the debut album, plus at least four that would be featured on their soon-to-be-released Vol. II album. And then there were Eddie’s extended “Eruption” solo and spotlight moments for drums and bass, too.   There was no doubting that this band had the goods, even under these less than ideal circumstances. And since I believe I was the only sober, non-buzzed observer or participant in attendance within that bizarre silo, I can attest that the concert did, indeed, take place.

Fast-forward several years for the second story that has remained a mystery until this moment.  Van Halen had now earned two multi-platinum albums, and every radio programmer and promoter in the planet considered them amongst the rock elite.  Anticipation for their third album, Women and Children First, was building with each passing month.  By this time, I had left the radio industry, and was now Marketing Director for Dog Ear Records, a chain of eight stores in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I was still writing for several rock rags on the side.   Part of my duties included making the rounds to the local distributorships of the major labels to pick up the latest merchandising materials for new releases, promo albums for in-store play, and commiserate with sales people on how to best position product in our stores.  At the WEA (Warner/Electra/Atlantic) warehouse in Elk Grove Village, I had good relationships with various crew throughout the building, and sometimes they would give me stuff before other folks in town.  As one of the guys was handing me some promotional copies of new discs by Blondie, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles, I off-handedly asked if he might have a copy of the new “Big Boys’” disc (as they referred to Van Halen). 

I was stunned when he said, “Well, if you keep it under your hat, sure…I’ll give you one so you can write up a good review for some of your publications for next month so the news will be fresh when the album hits the streets in these next few weeks.“ There was near top-secret security around this sort of thing, especially in a market as competitive as Chicago. 

I matter-of-factly said, “Of course,” as he opened a thin box with just a few of the twelve-inch discs in it, and handed me one. With my heart pumping, I exited the building as quickly as I could before anyone realized what had just happened. 

Earlier that morning I had heard DJ Sky Daniels on “The Loop” (WLUP, the number one rock station in the market) talking-up how they were going to have the exclusive premier of Women and Children First in four days.  They were in fierce ratings wars with WMET and WKQX for the baby boomer rock demographic that dominated that era.   I realized that I not only had a rarity on my hands from a journalistic perspective, but I also had potential gold in my hands from the broadcast realm to boot.

So, I took a detour back to my house and made a cassette and reel-to-reel copy of the album, and then went to my office at the back of our Northbrook store and called my boss.  Even though we were one of the leading chains in the northern suburbs of Chicago, we were probably fourth in the entire market in sales, and had to scratch for much of what we could earn, and didn’t have nearly the marketing dollars that the larger chains had.  We were the first to mass market used record sales, rent videos, and incorporate video gaming into our offerings.  And our customer loyalty was good due to our intense desire to fulfill even the most obscure special orders.  But still, media partners did not usually pick us first for many special promotions.  I suggested to Rick, the president of our little enterprise, that we could probably parlay this Van Halen disc into some substantial on-air trade-out with one of the other two stations in order for them to get the jump on “The Loop” by airing it first.  He agreed, but warned that we needed to be very careful so that the WEA folks could trace none of this back to me.

Then I called my friends at WMET first, figuring that they might be willing to play ball more readily since a major media conglomerate didn’t own them as WKQX was by NBC. I was quickly put through to the GM who was anxious to do anything to put a chink in “The Loop’s” armor.   I was somewhat audacious in my proposal for substantial and specific trade-out in advertising and promotional tie-ins for the next year, but they were so desperate for this opportunity that they agreed.  They wanted to hear a bit of it first, so I put it on our store turntable and played some through the phone so they felt assured that it was indeed Eddie, D-Roth, and the guys.  Within 40 minutes a bonded deliveryman arrived to take the non-descript sealed brown bag with the stereo reel-to-reel dub and the photocopy of the album art to WMET downtown.  They excitedly called me back when they received it, and they were nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement. Within an hour they announced to their listeners that they would be airing the new Van Halen in its entirety the next day. 

“The Loop” was furious, because they didn’t actually have their copy yet, and they angrily confronted their representative at WEA.  Within minutes major chaos reigned at their warehouse as they tried to figure out how a copy had gotten into WMET’s hands.  It wasn’t that it was just going to be previewed ahead of their competitor across town…it was going to be ahead of every other station in the world…and they were pissed. 

The lower level promotion guy who had given me the advance disc called and asked if I still had the album, and I told him I did.  He never asked if I had made a dub and forwarded that along, and, of course, I never volunteered that info.  No one ever figured it out as far as I am aware.  WMET’s lips were sealed, and they were incredibly grateful for the scoop they got on their biggest competitor. As a result,  Dog Ear Records shared in some great promotional partnerships with them over the next twelve months and beyond.

That was 32 years ago, and I am finally coming clean.  Those wondering if the mighty Van Halen ever really played in an animal shed in the rolling Kettle Moraine hills of Wisconsin, or were curious about how the scandal surrounding the Chitown radio debut for Women and Children First came to pass, well those rock ‘n’ roll mysteries can now be moved into the verities column.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Monty Python meets C.S Lewis" and more Five Star Amazon reviews of "Embracing the Gray"

The thoughtful and passionate reviews of Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and A Doubter’s Resolve, are still pouring in.  I continue to be humbled by these responses, and am encouraged to keep the book available as a free PDF download at my website ( as well a 99 cent Kindle download at Amazon (

Here are some more of the reviews that have come in the past few weeks:

Great writer, great person, hysterically funny, intellectual, & has such a heart for missions. I would recommend this book to anyone, especially cynics. Mark has a wonderful way with words - kind of like CS Lewis meets Monty Python. A must-read.

Personal. Passionate.  Provocative. It's rare to find a book that evokes such a variety of emotions and experiences - pain, relief, despair, hope, grit, courage, compassion, humor, discovery, mystery. Because of the diversity of the stories written in this book, there is diversity in what you experience and gain from reading it.

If you're looking for a book that delivers nicely wrapped answers to all of the complex questions of life, faith, God's love and character OR you're trying to find the right way to walk through a life of faith in a world that often produces more questions than answers, you won't find it in this book. What you will find is a read that leads you down roads of questions and eventually to a place where you become comfortable with mystery and God's great love for us.

Brilliantly and courageously written, creative (C'mon! How many writers come up with nine different ways to say screaming baby?!?), humorous and profound, you won't be able to put this book down!

Mark Hollingsworth's writing is personal allowing the reader to walk with him through his questions and feeling a part of the journey. There was a sense of a kindred spirit as I read Embracing the Gray that allowed me to learn and gain from Mark's life and experiences. Reading the book was a gift.

Love this book! Mark has written a touching and at times hysterical memoir. In particular though, the account of his brother's troubled relationship with his family was quite moving. These are stories of love, faith, loss, and joy that only a writer as adept and honest as Mark could make so three dimensional as to jump off the page. Well worth your time!

Finding God in all things. Mark Hollingsworth writes eloquently about his international experiences--with the "little survivors (ti chape)" in Haiti, for instance, and a small probable rape victim named Mercy in Nairobi's teeming Methere Valley slum. But his writing is even more effective when he describes personal encounters closer to home--with Andy, a despondent house mate who alternates between swigs of Jim Beam and a large caliber handgun he places in his mouth, for instance, and Gwen, a homeless schizophrenic suffering from AIDS whom Mark suddenly encounters at his house in Nashville. His extended meditation on the passing of his father is remarkably compelling.

Early on Mark's small town, family-bred faith weathered crises brought on by the deaths of three boyhood friends and then his brother Jim along with the frequent spiritual dilemmas that afflict college-age young people. Mark's approach to the questions he faced was mindful of St. Augustine: "Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth."

To his vast credit, Mark refused to settle for pat answers to questions of Time, the World and God. Instead, he undertook a lifelong quest for the path--the "gray" that lies somewhere, somehow between the extremes of blinding light and pure darkness. As one trained in a Jesuit environment, I recognized in Mark's story the classic steps of "finding God in all things," which begins with paying attention to our own inner lives and of the people and the world around us. Like St. Ignatius Mark found a mixture of light and dark, ideas and feelings, things that gave him joy and things that saddened him. Mark has detailed a rich tapestry that has grown more complex the more he has allowed it to register on his awareness.

Finally--in his work with Compassion, and particularly with this book--Mark has followed the ultimate precept, to communicate what he has learned and to participate wholeheartedly in the transformation of the world.

The best book I’ve read in the past ten years! Mark Hollingsworth’s stories and experiences with life and bands hits very close to home, in fact I know for some of the stories, I was in the same room. His insights though, are much deeper than my own, and really impacted me. He writes so effortlessly, and I read Embracing the Gray in just two days. I have re-read it twice now. Simply a great writer, a great book, and the message is timeless.
-G. M. J.

Once you have read the book, be sure to post a review at Amazon, and let me know your thoughts.  I appreciate interactions with my readers.  : )


Monday, April 16, 2012

A Day in the Country

Here's a piece I wrote seven years ago. I need to revisit this spot...

I took a couple of days off this week at a friend’s lovely retreat center, Lyric Springs, about forty miles outside of Nashville. Above the huge fireplace in the den, there is a placard that states “A day in the country is worth a month in the city.”

Many of the daylight hours were spent outside by the Little Harpeth River that runs along the property. There is a bend in the stream there, with a flood plain that is perhaps 250 yards long, and about fifty wide.

Some observations:

-A black and gold butterfly doing figure eight orbits around a cluster of magnolias.

-Squadrons of dark gray dragonflies with sky blue tails hovering then dispersing.

-The intoxicating scent of moss, damp foliage, and rushing water.

-Choruses of cicadas calling back and forth between groves of trees.

-Four legged water bugs of various classes skittering effortlessly across the glassy surface, creating concentric dimples.

-Twenty-foot vines dangling off the limestone overhangs swaying languidly.

-A caterpillar, no longer than ¼” aimlessly traversing the surface of a picnic table.

-Freshly burrowed snake holes—as many as nine in a couple of square yards.

-Who needs hallucinogenics when you can stare at the surge pool at the base of a rapid? The patterns are myriad, yet there is a living rhythm that is mesmerizing. Millions of surface bubbles created each instant, only to evaporate within seconds.

-Clusters of igneous and granite encased for millions of years in compressed shale shards.

-Delicate mushrooms with their almost flesh-like gills on the underside.

-A tiny black beetle slaking its thirst on a perfect globe of dew atop a blade of grass.

-Schools of minnows—in the hundreds—pulsing, darting, circling, and even transfixed as a separate, larger organic entity. Apparently not much room for individualism in their realm.

-At least a dozen different types of trees—some stout, others spiking ten stories or more.

-The sound of rushing liquid enveloping upon itself. It is so rich and textured—wholly unique and no metaphor can aptly describe. Suffice to say, it is the sound of life itself.

-A perfectly tendrilled ten inch hawk feather lying randomly in the grass.

-The wet crunch of damp soil, twigs, discarded bark, and gravel underfoot.

-Musk of blackened leaves in the finals stages of decomposition.

-Delicate strands of mossy water weed gently flapping in the underwater breeze of current.

-Sunlight streaming through the canopy of gently tussled leaves—the breeze and shimmering rays being the touches, the denouement as it were, to this symphony of creation.

-Even though I was the largest living thing, besides the trees, in this river bend ecosystem, I began to feel very, very small.

...and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Shea Weber True Facts

Predators’ all-star defenseman, Shea Weber, has become the stuff of legends in the hockey world. Whether for his 105 mph slap shot, winning the Gold Medal with Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics, intense physical play, shooting a puck so hard that it literally ripped through a hockey net (an extremely rare feat), broken bones suffered by players struck by his shot, or growing the fiercest of playoff beards known to man, Shea has taken on near super-human status amongst players and fans alike.

The Brenthrax website in Canada has built this file of “Shea Weber True Facts” that is quite hilarious. Here are some of my favorites from the compilation:

He is the reason Chuck Norris won't even ice skate.

He hides the bodies under the ice.

He froze Hell over. It's now called Bridgestone Arena.

When Superman was asked if he could have one super power he said "Shea Weber's Shot.”

He has crossed the point of no return – on several occasions.

In his games there are no winners or losers... only survivors.

He charges other teams admission to the games. They pay it.

He's the Preds’ Captain only because Supreme Allied Commander was not allowed by the league.

He's caused other teams to make a goalie switch... in games where he wasn't playing.

He's knocked teams out of the playoffs. Literally knocked them out.

Opposing team’s goalies now wear Kevlar.

He shaves his beard with bear mace and a ninja sword.

Catfish aren't actually thrown to the ice... they're spawning in his beard.

Referees call him sir.

He scored three goals with two slapshots and the first shot hit the cross bar.

He plays forward, skating backwards.

His stick is made of titanium. He snapped it in half.

Chuck Norris lists him as next of kin.

Nashville fans have to be loud in order to be heard over him thinking.

History is not made. It is determined by Shea Weber at the time and place of his choosing.

His beard plays football under the name "Troy Polamalu.”

He wasn't drafted by Nashville. He drafted them.

His beard was selected at the All-Star Game before Phil Kessell.

As a baby, his playpen was referred to as "Thunderdome.”

Opponents have been cross-checked by his shadow.

Fought Rocky Balboa once. Rocky is now known as Sandy.

He avoids checking players through the glass only to prevent hurting the fans.

He has caused the goal to dislodge itself.

He was forced to play a year in the minors so NHL players had time to prepare for him.

For Earth day he crushed the Stanley Cup on his forehead and recycled it.

His tattoos keep sweating off.

The opposing team's scouting report is always "Shea Weber let us live.”

He sets the salary cap to whatever he wants it to be.

His beard once drew a too many men on the ice penalty.

Toronto calls his beard to decide if the goal counts.

The St. Louis Blues list their entire team as a healthy scratch when they play him.

He thought the Norris Trophy was named after Chuck Norris. So now it is.

The Phoenix Coyotes are relocating to his beard.

Has the Detroit Red Wings considering a relocation to Hamilton, Ontario.

His beard knocked the Dallas Stars out of the playoff race.

His beard finished higher in the standings than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

His beard has more season ticket holders than the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Shea Weber's beard keeps Jordin Tootoo warm when he goes home to the Artic.

His deflected shots have downed Russian spacecraft.

He uses the Stanley Cup... for a shot glass.

There's not really line changes in hockey, only all the players want off when he steps on to the ice.

In the summer he likes to water ski... behind the boat on Deadliest Catch.

As a side item for his steak... he gets another steak.

He never dekes, players just move out of the way.

He throws Detroit Red Wings on to the ice as good luck after the National Anthem.

Guns don’t kill people… Shea Weber slapshots kill people.

Pucks from his slapshot are the only thing to escape Black Holes.

Someone trolled Shea's post once. They're now missing hands.

Terminators refuse to travel back in time and confront Shea Weber.

Pucks from his slapshot can travel back thru time. When asked what he would change about his past, Shea responded "Nothing.”

He splits pucks in two just to get at their creamy center.

His beard is home to several Amazon tribes.

There is no chin behind Shea Weber’s beard… only a game tying goal with 35.3 seconds left in regulation.

His beard doesn't sweat. It glistens.

His beard speaks fluent Wookie.

Since 1985, the year Shea Weber was born, slapshot related deaths have increased 6,000%.

The San Jose Sharks have a week dedicated to him.

Wayne Gretzky retired his number.

He uses Ryan Kesler's face for a speed bag.

Prior to playing Shea Weber, the Sedins were once triplets.

When Shea Weber swims in the ocean, killer whales beach themselves.

His pre-game meal is the other team. And pasta.

He's blocked shots with just a steely stare.

He shoots pucks through the net just to be certain.

He won the hardest slap shot contest... with a backhand.

He's silenced the opposition's rink... with an icing.

He once scored on a tip-in... from center ice.

He's won both best offensive defenseman and best defensive forward awards.

His beard grew a playoff beard.

His Round 1 handshake last season sent 4 Ducks to the injured reserve list.

Shea Weber gets a free Frosty anytime he pleases.

Sabertooth tigers wear Shea Weber logos on their chests.

He gave Sidney Crosby a concussion... with his pinky.

Shea was force to quit the rodeo... the bulls kept getting hurt.

Shea Weber doesn't text... he carves.

He is sorry about the tornadoes but he had to practice.

There's never been a movie about Shea Weber. James Cameron says the effects just aren't there yet.

Shea's favorite color is pain.

Shea's parents put him in time-out once. He let them go with a warning.

Shea Weber poked someone on Facebook, it left them with cracked ribs.

We can neither confirm or deny that it was a Shea Weber slapshot that took out Bin Laden.

Tennessee is changing its name to Tennesshea.

Quebec City is relocating to Shea Weber's beard. Yes, the whole city.

The crossbar Shea hit is in the shop for repairs.

Shea Weber doesn't get mad, he enacts vengeance.

Whoop Ass opens a can of Shea Weber.

Let me know which are your faves, or if you have any to add.

The entire list available here:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Real Holy Sights of Palestine and Israel

It’s been a week since my return from the Middle East where I took part in a remarkable peace conference as well as spending four days living with a Palestinian Christian family to better understand their challenges.

People are always curious about what sightseeing I did on my various trips, and certainly the Holy Land is full of remarkable history at nearly every turn. Thousands upon thousands of years of history wash over you as you traverse this rather tiny plot of land where major religions have been spawned, wars have been waged, and kingdoms were built and torn down.

I walked along the walls surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City that were constructed by the Ottomans, gazed up at David’s Tower, entered Jaffa Gate, and wandered thru the maze of shops that make up much of the Christian Quarter. I climbed the Mount of Olives, saw the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, knelt in the Church of Gethsemane, took in the view of the Temple Mount, drove thru the Valley of Kidron, and even stared into the bowels of Gehenna (yes, THE Gehenna, the former Jerusalem city dump that was used as a metaphor for Hell). I was on the route that Jesus supposedly took on his triumphal entrance into the city on Palm Sunday. I peered into the Damascus Gate, spied Mt. Carmel where Elijah called down Jehovah’s fire upon the Prophets of Baal, saw Herod’s summer retreat built into the cone of a volcano, and visited the Mosque in Hebron that houses the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Rebecca.

While In Jericho, a photographed the sycamore tree that Zacheus climbed, and hiked over the many layers of excavation of the self-proclaimed “World’s Oldest City,” including the walls that came a-tumblin’ down. Above there was the Mount of Temptation where Satan offered Christ the whole world. Along the desolate Pat River gorge I looked down onto St. George’s Monastery that was ingeniously built into the sandstone cliffs, looking like a piece of Rivendell. On the shores of the Dead Sea I visited the Qumran Park where the infamous scrolls of ancient texts were discovered in the caves that pockmark those mountainsides.

Bethlehem, where I was stationed most of my visit, is certainly chock-full of every imaginable site that has to do Christ’s birth, not the least of which is Manger Square, and the fields where the shepherds were greeted by the heavenly host.

With nearly every one of these locales there is the seemingly requisite cathedral, synagogue, or mosque (sometimes all three), overrun with tour guides to help you better understand the historical narrative, and a never-ending cadre of souvenir shops filled with the specific bric-a-brac to help memorialize your sojourn there. Upon close inspection, the vast majority of said trinkets were manufactured in China, which tends to diminish the authenticity a tad. Hucksters besieged me in the Christian Quarter as I wound my way through the gauntlet of mercenary consumption (one store was appropriately named “Lord Kitsch”), and wondered if this was not much different than what Jesus fumed about when he threw the moneychangers out of the Temple.

Besides the rather questionable claims of exact locations of Christ stumbling with the cross on his shoulder or what-have-you, there are the ones that are just blatantly made up. For instance, when traversing past Bedouin encampments along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, we saw signs proclaiming “Site of the Good Samaritan.” Hmmmm…that was a parable. And yet it was a common destination for many of the Christian tours.

It got me to thinking that there was some serious shekels to be made if I could come up with my own apocryphal miracle marker. Then it struck me as we were walking the tight streets a block away from Christ’s birthplace that no one had determined exactly where Mary’s water must’ve broken on that special night. Why, with some pseudo archeology and liberal portions of hearsay, I could start declaring that this very spot (conveniently located on a low-rent storefront), is where that glorious gush took place. I could hew out a granite cistern of sorts and fill it with crimson liquid to clearly mark the consecrated puddle. In no time I could construct the Sepulcher of Most Holy Amniotic Plashet and be a quick add-on to the tours of tens of thousands of trusting souls who are bussed in each day to wander about the hallowed nativity grounds. You may think I wax too cynical, but I assure you it is not far from what has been purported as truth in many of these domains.

But before I could become too skeptical of the big tourism business, I would always be reminded of what was truly holy. It was hard to miss, since there were so many instances of it on display: lovely children populating the cityscapes and countryside. Whether watching Israeli kids all dressed up in whimsical costumes to celebrate Purim, or Palestinian girls wearing their pastel hijab headscarves at a bus stop, or Jewish kindergartners walking hand-in-hand across a busy street on their way to temple, Muslim and Christian Palestinian school children frolicking on a playground...I was struck by the fact that Abraham’s descendents were, indeed fruitful and did multiply. Those seeds now populate three of the largest religions on the planet. And it all started there.

The simple joys of these little ones kept me going when I was overwhelmed with the crass commercialism, or the sad tales of terrorism and injustice going on. While walking through the market in Hebron, I spotted some precocious five-year old Palestinian girls who became fascinated with my digital camera. As we visited a Muslim home on the West Bank, I was interacting with a ten-year old boy about silly phrases and moves by WWE Wrestling superstars. In Bethlehem I visited with a three- generation trio of a toddler, his dad, and the grandfather. Near Efrata I was surrounded by half a dozen elementary aged Muslims who were joyfully peppering me with questions in broken English and curious about everything American. Our taxi driver for several of the days, Abed, had the most adorable toddler daughter, named Rancon, who would sometimes ride in the cab with us. We were so excited for him as he had just become a father for a second time when his wife gave birth to a healthy young girl while we were there.

Abeer and Fadi, the mother and father of the Palestinian Lutheran family that we stayed with the final four days, had three amazing kids: the pretty Leena and Gina, and the handsome Hanna. They were doing there best to get along in the land of their forefathers (they come from a church tradition that goes back numerous generations). During our breakfasts and dinners together each day, we learned much about their daily lives, the education of their children and the pride of their extra-curricular school activities. They showed us photos of family milestones, and gave funny accounts of chapters of their familial histories. And we also asked about the hassles of working around a state of occupation.

For instance, Abeer’s sister was purposely given improper forms to fill out when she crossed the border into Lebanon to attend a business conference, and has not been allowed back in through any of the Israeli checkpoints since , forcing her to take up residence in Beirut. So, for seventeen years, Abeer has not been able to see her sister face-to-face. And Fadi’s brother, tired of taxation by the Israeli government without proper representation, was imprisoned for sixty days back in the early 90s. They seized his home, his furnishings, his store, and the goods of his medical supply business. Pretty steep penalties for just half a year of non-payment. He was finally allowed to go free, but none of his belongings or property was ever returned. We heard story after story like this from many of the Palestinians we met. Even Israeli citizens would shake their heads in shame recounting tales of their government’s overly harsh policies.

There is an overarching sense of weariness from the adults in that region. 95% of the Palestinians want a peaceful reconciliation, and even 70% of the Israelis agree. But when you look at the kids, whether teens or toddlers, they have hope in their eyes. Maybe it is the naïveté of youth. I’d rather look at it as a spark of the divine in their eyes. No one ever thought there would be peaceful resolutions between the British Empire and India during the 30s and 40s in their search for independence; nobody thought the Apartheid of South Africa would ever be solved without a massive conflict; the hatred in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants was considered too deep-seeded for coexistence; none of the experts saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe without bloodshed; nor did anyone think that Civil Rights would ever take hold in America led by a ragtag group of southern ministers…and yet in all these cases things changed due to non-violent reconciliation, often with the younger generations leading the way.

So, instead of giving much credence to the oft-dubious sites of supposed religious significance from eons gone by, it’s these young faces in Palestine and Israel that become the holy sights that get me excited about the future of this fascinating land. When I look back on this trip, and close my eyes to pray, they are the ones I see. May I keep that vision before me. May we all.

You can see some of these “Holy Sights” in my photo collection of the same name on my Facebook page.