Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thoughts after visiting Yad Vashem

This afternoon, Anne, David (a new friend, on this pilgrimage with us), and I traveled to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum.

I was moved to tears by the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another. At the opening of the museum, is a quote (I didn't have a pen, so I couldn't write down who said it, and I may not have the wording exact): Do not judge a nation by what it does, judge it by what it's people will tolerate.

Yad Vashem hits you again, and again with the cruelty that was inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe by their compatriots. Early on, I was struck (as I have been every time I've studied about The Holocaust) by how so many ordinary Europeans could watch what was happening and look away.

I was pretty stoic until I got to the stories of children and families. Children ripped from mothers' arms. Lovers separated, never to see one another again. I read about a mother who gave her children to neighbors before heading off to the camps. One woman left a note for her partner before committing suicide, rather than be deported to a camp. Tears were flowing as I walked from one panel to another.

As I walked, I remembered what it felt like to be marginalized and [figuratively] spat upon by members of the lesbian community, when I first came out as bisexual, in 1987. In that community, bisexuality was not well thought of. My question then: How can people who have experienced persecution themselves then turn around and persecute others?

I asked myself the same question today at Yad Vashem: How can a people who have experienced the kind of hatred that the Jewish people have experienced now perpetuate that hatred on the Palestinians?

Yesterday's crossing at a checkpoint from Bethlehem back into Israel, felt a bit like leaving a ghetto (in the old sense). Coming back tonight from Yad Vashem, our yellow cab driver (Israeli) was afraid to come into Arab East Jerusalem; the white cabs (Arab) are simply not allowed to cross the green line from Arab East Jerusalem into Jerusalem.

I know that there are many complicated issues here of land and history. And I certainly am not trying to denigrate the experiences of millions of Jews. But, having been in Bethlehem yesterday, the contrast was startling.

What do y'all think?

The Jerusalem Mile Project

The Jerusalem Mile is another name for a labyrinth. Pilgrims who cannot physically travel to Jerusalem, can walk "The Jerusalem Mile" on a labyrinth. The pilgrims from the Diocese of Virginia are all part of something called the Jerusalem Mile Project. You can read all about that project and what they are up to here. There is another blog about our trip there, and many more photos than I am posting on my blog.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

To the Herodyan and Bethlehem

We began our trip today with a visit to the Herodyan, which was a fort and palace built by Herod the great. Herod is best remembered as the "King of the Jews" who was in power when Jesus was born. In fact, it was he who ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. You can sense the deep fear with which he lived in the size and location of this fortress (and he built or restored 14 all around the ancient Middle East).

While there, we were asked to reflect on two kingdoms: Herod's kingdom of political power and Jesus' calling us to bring about God's kingdom here on earth. Our course leader asked us to reflect on which kingdom or kingdoms have survived? And, particularly in the Holy Land, where there is still such struggle, how does the tension between those two kingdoms play out today?

Next, we went to the Shepherds' Fields, which marks the place where the shepherds kept their flocks and where they would have heard the message of Christ's birth from the heavenly host. Despite the crowds, it still felt peaceful there. It was also bucketing down rain for much of the time.

In a small cave, like the ones the shepherds resided in, Bishop Shannon Johnston, of the Diocese of Virginia, celebrated eucharist with us. It was totally surreal, as we used the propers for the Feast of the Nativity, and sang Christmas Carols, despite being in the midst of Lent. In his sermon, Bishop Shannon asked us to reflect some on what that dichotomy might mean. The point of our Lenten disciplines is to bring us closer to God, and that closeness (in the incarnation) is what we celebrate at Christmas.

We also got a chance to shop at a cooperative store that supports 30+ Christian families in Bethlehem. We were encouraged to "support the local economy" here, since this store helps the Christians who have chosen to remain in Bethlehem and whose numbers are declining because of the political issues there (that's a whole other blog post!). I bought a number of things - to keep and to share.

For lunch, we ate at a traditional Middle Eastern Restaurant, where we were given a huge variety of dishes to try. I'm not sure WHAT I ate, but I will say that it was all delicious. I think I've eaten my weight in hummous.

We ended our tour of Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, a church built over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. This view from Nativity Square, gives you a sense of the diversity of Bethlehem and the West Bank. Turning away from that church, you can see both a mosque and another Christian church close by (look closely at the two towers in the photo).

To enter the church of the Nativity you go through a very small door, called the Door of Humility. Even I had to bend to enter. You can see in this photo how many times the size of the door has been reduced (and the men by the door give you a sense of perspective).

You might imagine that the Church of the Nativity would be a quiet place. Rather, it was mayhem. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pilgrims were queued up for the chance to kneel briefly at the place where Jesus was born, and then to peer into the manger. At the same time, as we waited, a funeral service was happening in the nave of the church. Listening to the mother's lament for her dead child was chilling, in light of the story of the one whose birthplace we had come to see.

So we queued and waited, finally coming to the place where Jesus was born. Here is one of my fellow pilgrims, kneeling at the spot.

As I waited, and walked, and waited and walked, I found myself feeling very skeptical. Most of the holy sites in the Holy Land were not identified for hundreds of years. So, was this really (really???) the spot where Jesus born? How likely was it?

And then, at the moment when I knelt down, and put my head into the cave (that's another blog post, too!), I was moved to tears by the experience of touching this place. In the end, I realized that it didn't matter to me if Jesus was born right there, or 100 feet away, or around the block. The sacredness of that site comes from the combination of the possibility and the centuries of faithful people coming there as an act of devotion. Places become "thin" because God breaks through there. And this little spot, for all its hustle and crowd, was thin for me. I experienced the incarnation there.

Friday, February 26, 2010

All Work and no play....

would be a bad idea, even for pilgrims!

So tonight, in the face of torrential rain and thunderstorms, we did the only sensible thing we could do... play cards!
Some of us played bridge.

Some of us played Phase 10.

Some of us played Skip-Bo.

What we had in common is that all of us had fun! And, friendships were made across tables, which was the best part of all.

Scale Model of Jerusalem and The Shrine of the Book

Today, we explored two sites at the Israel Museum. The museum itself is (sadly) closed for renovations. However, there were two other things to explore on their property.

One is a scale model of the City of Jerusalem that sits on about 1 acre of land. It was pouring down rain, so I must admit that I gave it a pretty cursory look. Here are some pics that I snapped under cover of Anne's umbrella:
The view on the left shows the Temple as it would have been. The view on the right is a view from another angle. I wish I could tell you more, but all of the signs for the site were in Hebrew.

Next, I toured the Shrine of the Book. The Shrine of the Book is another museum on the complex, which opened in the mid 1960s, to house the Dead Sea Scrolls and to illuminate the lives of the Essene Community at Qumran.

In 1947, a Bedoin boy found a number of clay jars in a cave. The jars contained scrolls that turned out to be ancient scrolls of books of the bible (and other sacred writings). To make an incredibly long story short, the caves in that area were filled with many scrolls and other artifacts of the lives of the people (known as the Essenes) who lived at Qumran. If you want to read more, you can check out this article here.

The exterior of the museum is shaped like the lid of one of the clay jars. Behind it is a black granite wall. The Community at Qumran was concerned with purity of religious practice and some of their writings talk about the Children of the Light and the Children of the Darkness. That conflict is symbolized in this architecture.

I wasn't allowed to take photos on the inside of the museum, so all I can do is describe what I saw.

Some of the display at the Shrine of the Book was about the lives of the people who lived at Qumran. There were oil lamps, bowls, preserved charred dates, along with artifacts from the scriptorium where the scrolls were studied and copied. Many of us were amused by a small trowel used as for burying excrement. Those of us who have spent time camping recognized it right away!

As I moved from this area into the next, I walked past two enclosed displays. Each one contained one of the actual pottery jars in which scrolls had been found. They stopped me in my tracks. On the one hand, they were simply ancient pottery jars. They looked no more impressive than any other jar. And yet, they had been the vessels for something amazing. They protected their hidden treasure for nearly 2000 years! I wished I could have touched one of them. I stood staring for quite a few minutes before moving on.

We then moved into the second part of The Shrine, where either facsimiles of the ancient texts, or some of the ancient texts themselves, resided. I don't read biblical Hebrew, but I was still awestruck. There, in front of me, were ancient copies of some of the words I love.

I was particularly moved to find a copy of one of the oldest extant hymns in Hebrew Scripture. We recite it as a canticle in Morning Prayer in the Episcopal Church. Tonight, I leave you with Canticle 8: The Song of Moses. This morning, I saw this text in its original form.

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; *

the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and my refuge; *

the Lord has become my Savior.

This is my God and I will praise him, *

the God of my people and I will exalt him.

The Lord is a mighty warrior; *

Yahweh is his Name.

The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea; *

the finest of those who bear armor have been

drowned in the Red Sea.

The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; *

they sank into the depths like a stone.

Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; *

your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.

Who can be compared with you, O Lord, among the gods? *

who is like you, glorious in holiness,

awesome in renown, and worker of wonders?

You stretched forth your right hand; *

the earth swallowed them up.

With your constant love you led the people you redeemed; *

with your might you brought them in safety to

your holy dwelling.

You will bring them in and plant them *

on the mount of your possession,

The resting-place you have made for yourself, O Lord, *

the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hand has established.

The Lord shall reign *

for ever and for ever.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Exploring the Old City of Jerusalem

Today, we were broken up into groups of four and asked to maintain the identity of family with our group for the duration of the trip. My family (Family #1) consists of Anne (my friend with whom I planned to come on this trip), Megan (pronounced Meeghan, who is from New Zealand!), and Bev (also part of the group from Virginia, but who is a Southern Baptist, brought along by an Episcopal friend - not THAT kind of Southern Baptist, she's quick to say).

Here we are before setting out on our adventure today:
Bev, Anne, Fran, Megan

Our "adventure" was to spend the day exploring the Old City of Jerusalem. Different families were asked to explore different quarters of the city (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Aremenian). We were assigned to the Muslim quarter. Things we were encouraged to ask or do:
  • Find the high place of the quarter and look out over the area.
  • Talk to a local resident of the quarter and see what his/her life is like.
  • Discover major places of worship in the quarter - and sort out whether there are places of worship for other religions there, as well.
  • Eat lunch.
  • Discover any ruins in the quarter.
  • And, above all, expect surprises.
Here's a map:
We entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate and immediately encountered sooks - covered stalls in the bazaars. We wandered about for a bit, and then we were invited in to a shop in an Armenian Church. The shopkeeper lives in the monastery, runs the shop, and assists the bishop. We all bought some things from him, and learned a bit about the church.

A woman working there told us her story. She is Jordanian, and moved to Jerusalem to marry. She's been here twelve years, and cannot go back to Jordan or anywhere else outside of Israel. She's still having difficulty getting the right sort of paperwork from the government, and has not citizenship documentation. She was reading an American novel, spoke six languages (including totally flawless English) and was quite amazed to learn that Anne and I were priests. Apparently women clergy were beyond her experience!

We wandered into the Christian Quarter to climb the tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer so that we could get a look out over the Quarter. It was closed, so we wandered some more. We got totally turned around in a residential neighborhood, and were rescued by a boy named Omar (age 11). Omar led us out and to a restaurant for lunch - he was quite sweet and chatty (What's your name? How old are you? Your friends are slow!). It turns out to have been a business transaction, with Omar wanting to be paid (10 sheckels!) for his trouble. Lunch was quite good, though not the meal we'd had in mind.

After lunch we did climb up the tower at the Lutheran Church (177 steps) and got some great views of the city:
To the left is a view of the Muslim Quarter - that's the Dome of the Rock in the distance. And, to the right, The Church of the Resurrection (often better known by its crusader name: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in the Christian Quarter.

We walked some more and made our way down the Via Delorosa. There, several of our group got lured into a jewelry shop by an enterprising salesman. Two of us stayed outside for quite a while, watching pilgrims make their way along the Via Delorosa. In the time we stood there, a large english speaking group, and several others made their way. Bustling all around the pilgrims saying the Stations of the Cross were women in headscarves, Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, and other tourists. The mix was quite extraordinary.

Then, the most amazing part of the day (for me) happened. We reunited with our friends in the jewelry shop, and the proprietor spoke to us for a long time. First, he gave me grief for not coming in. Apparently, many tourists avoid the shops because tour guides tell them to be wary of shopkeepers (for good reason in some cases, I'll say). He really encouraged me to use my eyes and see for myself. It was a good lesson.

He also spoke at length about his own situation. He is an Israeli, Muslim, Bedoin, ex-Palestinian, and something else which I am forgetting now. He has extraordinary wealth and privilege - he's traveled the world - does business in Santa Monica, CA. He wanted us to know that his wife is a pediatrician, drives a car, is well treated. He was quite concerned about how westerners perceive Muslims. He also had some negative things to say about those who live in the Quarter.

In the end, I thought his perspective was interesting. And, I was not willing to let it entirely color my opinions. Just as I would question the views of a wealthy American about poorer residents of the neighborhood (nobody on welfare really wants to work....) I questioned some of his views about his Muslim neighbors.

I was also quite struck by the difference between his life and the Jordanian woman we encountered earlier. She was not able to travel home, he'd visited 40 countries. This is a nation of contrasts.

We were asked to return with a symbol of our day (and given 20 sheckels with which to buy it). We chose spices. Everywhere in the Muslim Quarter, my nose was assaulted by smell. The smell of cooking food, of spice, of cigarette smoke, of trash. So, we bought a curry spice which was one of the smells I smelled all day. And then we bought a spice blend, that we were told would go into rice dishes or soups. What we liked about that blend was that it was made up of many different things. It represented for us the blend of Armenian, Jordanian, Muslim, and Christian cultures that we had encountered in the Quarter.

The photo on the left shows a spice shop. Yes. That's a pyramid of spice. The photo on the right are all of the symbols brought back the families.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

At the Maison D'Abraham

There is a group of French Roman Catholic nuns here in Jerusalem who run a convent called the Maison D'Abraham [French for House of Abraham]. Their mission is to be a hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land from all three of the Abrahamic faiths. First, they served us a lovely lunch. Then, we went up on their roof, for an overview [literally, and historically] of the city of Jerusalem.

This photo looks out over the to the old city. You can see the wall of the Old City running right through the center of the picture. The gold dome in the center is the Dome of the Rock, which is a Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holy place. For Muslims, it marks the spot where Muhammed is said to have ascended to heaven. For Jews, it is located where the temple stood. Crusaders turned it into a church in the 12th century. It returned to Muslim control when the Crusaders were expelled.

The black dome to its left is the Al Aqsa Mosque, which dates from the early 8th century. At the time it was built, it was the furthest mosque from Mecca; Al Aqsa translates as "The Farthest."

This picture shows the garden of Gethsemane, off in the distance. Gethsemane means something like olive press, and it was (is) primarily an olive grove.

Looking west (and slightly south) you can see the site where Caiphas' palace is said to have stood.

One of my main reasons for coming on this pilgrimage was to gain some sense of this place. I've read these stories for my whole life. To literally see them (even as modern as they now are) and to have a sense of this geography is utterly amazing.

Israeli Breakfast

I'd heard from my friend Ann (of World Eye fame) that Middle Eastern breakfast was not to be missed. This morning, I experienced it first hand, and I'm a convert.

Aside from the usual cornflakes and milk, the buffet contained sliced cold meat, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, dried black olives and spicy green ones in oil, two types of cheese, eggs, olive oil, a spice mixture, and bread (regular and pita).

I was simply in heaven. I want to pour olive oil on everything; it tastes so much better than it does here in the US. And even though here I often avoid cucumbers, these were tasty (and another vehicle for the olive oil). I have no idea what the meat was (best not to ask, I suppose), but it was flavourful and savory, eaten with the feta on the toasted pita.

I thought that I might lose weight while I'm here, but I suspect that might not be the case (and, I don't really care).

Jerusalem Trip Day 1: Dulles Airport - Jerusalem

Day 1 really encompassed two days, though lasted less than a 24 hour period! We departed Dullles at 6:15 PM (EST), passed through London’s Heathrow, and landed in Jerusalem at 3:30 PM (Local Time). However, since Israel is 7 hours ahead, it was really about 14 hours after we started. I, for one, have had very little sleep. I’d gotten quite good at sleeping on planes, but not this time.

I’m too tired for much insight, but I first saw and then heard something striking.

As we drove to Jerusalem from the airport, there was a great deal of new construction. I thought they might be new Israelis settlements. At one point, our bus driver told us that’s exactly what they were: new Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Then, we came to other areas, and he would say, “This is an Arab town.” There were huge fences there, and not enough water.

During our opening Eucharist tonight, during the Eucharistic Prayer, I’m pretty sure I heard someone from another faith praying outside. It might have been a mosque’s call to worship or the evening prayers. It was amazing to hear the words of a language I don’t understand mingling in with the words I do. I think that’s what Jerusalem will be all about.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Congregational Growth

A church growth guru met with the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and worked with them on statistics for growth. You can read the full report here.

This pair of paragraphs leapt out at me:
During his statistic-laden hour-long report, Kirk Hadaway, the church's program officer for congregational research, told the council that congregations grow when they are in growing communities; have a clear mission and purpose; follow up with visitors; have strong leadership; and are involved in outreach and evangelism.

Congregations decline, he said, when their membership is older and predominantly female; are in conflict, particularly over leadership and where worship is "rote, predictable and uninspiring."

Most of what is found in both paragraphs totally makes sense to me. Of course congregations grow when there is strong leadership. It sure helps to have communities that are growing. We struggled with this in Northern Michigan, and we struggle in Coos County, NH, too. In both places the population is shrinking. I'm also not surprised that congregations decline in the face of conflict and worship that is "rote, predictable and uninspiring."

What I found distressing is the first part of the second paragraph. "Congregations decline when their membership is older and predominantly female...." So many churches I know fit that description.

While many of the other things on both lists can be addressed, there's not much that can be done about this one. At least not at the start. And frankly, I'm not persuaded that being an older and predominantly female is enough to send a church into decline. I know some incredibly vibrant congregations that would fit that description.

I wish whoever had written the article had simply phrased it differently. My fear is that some churches will see this and essentially throw up their hands, rather than looking at the list of things that help with growth and adopting some of those habits.

I've known small and predominantly older-female churches that were vibrant and large congregations with a variety of ages and both genders in the pews that were not. Let's help congregations identify what makes a church vital - and then help them to asses whether they have what it takes to become more vital (if they aren't there already). That would really help church growth.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What is essential?

I spent much of today packing for my trip to Jerusalem. The task: to live for three weeks on the contents of one suitcase. And, to have enough room in the suitcase for the books I am bringing with and the souvenirs I plan to bring back.

I'm no novice to international travel. I've been back and forth to New Zealand six times. However, then I was staying with friends - where I could do laundry easily, and borrow clothes if required.

All day I kept asking (with the help of a consultant, my Friend From Down State): Do I need that? Do I really need that? It was part daring and part trust to pull out of the suitcase the things she thought I could live without.

Part of the challenge is that the weather in Jerusalem is quite variable at this time of year. At night, the lows will be under 40 (F). During the day, temps will range from 40-55 (F), but we've been told it's extra warm there right now, and the day we land it'll be about 65 or 70 (F).

Essentially, I've packed one of every sweater weight. One fleece, one mid-weight sweater, one light-weight sweater, one technical sweater, one pashmina. I've packed a few different pairs of trousers, one pair of blue jeans, one pair of dressier pants, a dressy blouse, a clergy shirt, a few turtlenecks and a few T-shirts. It feels a bit risky, I'm used to taking more when I travel abroad.

This journey (to Jerusalem and beyond) feels like it's about learning to live with less, because I can. I'll let you know how I fared.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Giving things Up

For many years, I became a vegetarian during Lent. Giving up all meat, for all of Lent was a real reminder to me that it was Lent. But, since the advent of my food allergies, I've stopped giving up food-related things for Lent. Frankly, every day is a fast day, now.

This year, I decided to give up cursing for Lent. Maybe a priest ought not to admit on her blog that she curses like a trucker. But, the reality is that it's true. And, I've done so for years. I also felt, for many years, that I had my cursing habit under control. I was able to avoid swearing behind the counter at the bookstore, or in front of kids in my youth group.

I'm not quite sure when I lost control of my language. But, I've come to realize that I am no longer in control over what comes out of my mouth. And, I don't like that.

Giving swearing up for Lent seemed like a great idea. In slightly more than 24 hours, it's also been really humbling. This is hard. Much harder than not eating bacon. Because when I chose not to eat bacon, I didn't eat bacon. When I decided not to swear, I made it about 3 hours after I got out of bed, before letting the first one fly. I've spent a fair amount of time clapping my hands over my mouth and saying, "Doh."

What I'm learning is that this may be one of the hardest Lenten disciplines I ever take on. And, like my baptismal promises, I can only do it with God's help. I hope that by Easter Sunday, I'll have learned to think before I speak, and to be a bit less reactive and a bit more contemplative, particularly when I'm frustrated. I will, with God's help.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

As part of my Lenten discipline, I'm hoping to write here more regularly. (I'd love to say I'll write every day, but I'm not sure that's possible. I'll try for five days a week, just so that my goal is measurable.) I love the act of writing, and far too often it falls through the cracks in my life. I hope that by writing as part of my Lenten discipline, I can get back into the habit.

I love Lent. That may sound odd to those for whom Lent seems long and horrible. And, I'm certainly glad to lose the music in minor keys come Easter Sunday! But, what I love about Lent is that for 40 days plus Sunday, God feels closer. Whatever I choose to do for Lent serves to remind me of God. And, if I've chosen well, I am reminded over and over again of God's presence. My discipline (which I can't keep just because of my own strong will) brings me to my knees before God.

I hope for a Holy Lent. And I hope the same for you, wherever you are. May this season of prayer, fasting, and repentance bring you closer to the Holy One, who loves us and longs for us as a mother longs for her children.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Are Teeth Cosmetic?

In the midst of a pastoral conversation this week, I learned about yet another way that poor people in this country have fallen through the cracks. If you are poor, and have serious trouble with your teeth, Medicare will pay to have them pulled at no cost to you. That's great news. However, they won't pay for new false teeth, because false teeth are considered "cosmetic."

The last I checked, teeth aren't primarily cosmetic. Teeth are required. The healthiest things we can eat all require chewing: fresh/frozen vegetables, whole grains, lean meats. Without teeth, vegetables must be cooked to softness (losing nutritional value) or skipped altogether. Without teeth, whole grains are nearly impossible. The person I heard about consumes a great deal of pasta and sugared sodas. Even though she is often hungry, she turns down food that's offered to her because she can't eat it.

However, teeth do become cosmetic when someone is job hunting. The person I heard about is able to work - but has been turned down for countless jobs because she has no teeth. She can find work doing low-paying manual labor, but jobs that involve interacting with the public are off limits to her. Several potential employers have actually said flat out that they cannot hire her because she has no teeth and would not present a good face to the public.

If she were given false teeth, she could lose weight, find work, get her life back. Instead, she continues to need all kinds of assistance. This medicare decision leaves people at risk both in terms of health and employment.

Who makes these decisions? Probably someone with all their own teeth.