Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marking Time and Space

Shabbat Shalom! We received--and accepted!--two gracious invitations to Shabbat meals this weekend. We visited with two of Karla's friends and their family/loved ones. Preparing to go to their house we learned a few things, for example: (1) we were planning to rent a car, scheduled to pick up at 1 p.m., but most rental places close by noon, even though the website didn’t indicate that right; (2) there are Shabbat elevators that run on their own throughout the day; (3) folks who observe Shabbat will not answer phones, so you need to be sure to have all your communications worked out ahead of time, especially if you're inviting someone over!
(4) observing Shabbat with small children can be quite fun--one of the families who invited us has four children under 5--kids can turn lights out on you that you need on for the rest of Shabbat!

It was interesting to see the way that people make arrangements to be able to keep the traditions of not working on the Sabbath. Participating in both of these family meals and celebrations made me realize that much of the “protections” about not working on the Sabbath are really more a response to an increasingly encroaching mechanical/electronic life style, than any antiquated, legalistic system. How do we protect our time off from computers, electronics that let things run 24/7, demanding communication, availability expectations, etc. Preparation for a day of rest mean some hectic planning, I am sure, the day before, but then once you begin the Sabbath, there is really only the focus of family and being together. I am sure it is not just ideal and there are all kinds of challenges to overcome, but I these two wonderful experiences have given me a renewed appreciation for a tradition that is so deeply rooted—and that can offer so much to our hectic, driven world.

Marking time has been a significant part of this week, but also how we mark "space." On Thursday I was able to travel with the group here from Tantur, a group of folks on a six week continuing ed program, to go to Jericho. We stopped in the Judean desert on the way out and had a few minutes to walk around. It was really beautiful in a strange/austere way. The intent of the brief stop was just to listen to the silence of the desert—the area where John the Baptist, Jesus, and many early Christians as well as others sought escape, renewal, etc. The abundance of stones in the desert made the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread make total sense!!

The place we stopped overlooked Nabi Musa, a shrine that marks the place Muslims believe to be the place of Moses’ death and burial. Moses is viewed in Islam as one of the prophets, and this site was identified in tradition as Moses’ burial place based on a dream/vision Salah Eddin had. More significant than the actual location of Moses’ burial site (which in the biblical text is said to be unknown Deut 34), is the fact that the place marks his life and death for many faithful people. In general, Sister Bridget—the vice-director here at Tantur and the person who was leading our group that day—shared what she called her own “theology of place.” That while it is impossible to verify the claims of most of the places one may visit in the Holy Land, what is significant is to be present in the places that have been associated with important events in the stories that are core to the faith of millions around the world and throughout centuries. Being able to take a picture of the very sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed, however, on a category all its own!!

We then traveled to Jericho. It is an incredibly green area—given its context surrounded by desert landscape. Jericho owes its lush greenery and abundant agricultural production to springs throughout the area. It is believed to be the oldest city in the world, with excavations dating back to 8,000 BCE (so 10,000 years ago).

Above the city is Monastery of Temptation or St. George's Monastery built on the mount of temptation—the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil. The monastery also has a small chapel in a cave that commemorates the place where prophet Elijah’s stopped and was fed by ravens as he ran from King Ahab and Jezebel. There’s a cable car that takes you up most of the way to the monastery (alternatively, you can walk up the zig-zag path which would take just under an hour). The place is literally built into the rock on the face of the mount. It is incredible. The views from above are breath taking. In each of the monasteries we visited, there is usually only one, two, or a few monks or nuns. From what I could tell, there was only one there at the monastery, which is a Greek Orthodox monastery.

We spent about an hour in Jericho proper, walking around the markets and shops and grabbing lunch. We then went out to two more stops. One was an incredible palace from the early years of Islam. Hisham’s Palace was a retreat for one of the early Caliphs. A huge bath area in the complex has incredible, extensive mosaics, one of them—referred to in the guide book as “one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated mosaic floor in the world”--depicts the “Tree of Life.”

Finally, we stopped at this beautiful monastery just outside Jericho. St. Gerassimos Monastery has a history that dates back to the fourth century and the colorful story of its founder (which includes a tamed lion that is very prominent in the iconography of the saint). The site of the monastery, among other things, is believed to mark one of the stops the Holy Family made during their flight to Egypt. There are birds and other animals everywhere in the monastery and surrounding areas, and it too like Jericho is an oasis because of a natural spring beneath it. They have many preserved mosaics and are currently renovating and making new ones. The monastery grounds include what amount to beautiful pic-nic areas open to the public. One of my favorite images—of the many beautiful painting on walls and frames throughout—was a set of angels in the ceiling of one of the small chapels.

This week has been marked by the idea of marking both time (Shabbat) and space (sacred sites that mark important events in the life of the faithful). In a world marked by demands of both time and space, these practices becomes both more peculiar and more significant. As the psalmist says, “teach us to count our days,” and I would say also claim/mark our sacred space, “that we may grow a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).

Monday, February 22, 2010

The logic of the Empire

"I haven't been across that wall in 12 years," said the owner of a small Palestinian restaurant in Bethlehem where we had lunch.
"I will come over to visit you in Jerusalem. I have a permit for this week," said a retired Palestinian teacher I spoke with on the phone to make arrangements for us to meet.

"My family (husband, originally from Austria, and two kids born in Austria) are visiting the Dead Sea, but I couldn't go with them as I have not been given a permit. We are scheduled to leave for Austria in a couple of weeks, and if I don't get my permit I will need to go through Jordan, which will cost 800 Euros more... I have an Austrian passport, but that doesn't matter. To the occupying forces, I am a Palestinian and nothing else matters" said a woman during coffee hour after church at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

I can see "the wall" from the back porch of the apartment where we are staying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute. The institute is just a block form the Bethlehem "gate" or "check point." References to the wall and the way it shapes peoples' lives are inescapable in just about every conversation with people from Palestine.

The graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall connects it to atrocities of the past--the Berlin wall, walls that hemmed Jews into ghettos. On the Israeli side, a large picture of the fortress wall around the Old City of Jerusalem (posted right by the Bethlehem gate)wordlessly connects the wall to a history of protection, even to the biblical references picked up by Luther's "A Mighty Fortress."

Connecting or drawing parallels between the situation here and situations elsewhere and at other times in history is fraught with complexities and pitfalls. Yet, in the morning when I go running and see men who have crossed the wall and are standing in the corner right outside Tantur waiting to be picked up by someone who will hire them for the day, I can't help but think of Hispanic laborers standing in the corners of cities throughout the U.S. I can't help but wonder about the similarities and connections of those around the world and throughout history who have designed, funded, and built dividing walls.

Dealing for months with the consequences on individuals of an immigration policy visually represented by the U.S./Mexico wall, I can't help but wonder about "the logic of empire." What is the logic that destroys a small town in Northeast Iowa or threatens the future of a community in rural Washington State; the logic that assigns a permit for a week to a retiree to cross a border, but denies it the following...

Today I went on a guided study tour of the Old City. Layer after layer of rock and debris attest to one empire after another, making a claim on this land--a claim that in time would prove to be tenuous. Each empire has seen its own logic and advocated its own well being. Each has claimed its own right and divine revelation... how might we speak today to the walls that surround us? Are they our "mighty fortresses"? Are they the walls against which Jesus, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, throws his own body (Eph 2:14)?

40 days and 40 nights

The devastation of the May 12, 2008 immigration raid in the small rural town of Postville in Northeast Iowa was followed by unprecedented large scale criminal prosecution of many of those detained. Aptly termed a lottery of justice by federal interpreter Erik Camayd Frexias, the prosecution "processed" people through an assembly line of "justice" that reflected the rush, pressure, and dehumanization that the workers lived through within Agriprocessors (their former employer). A little known part of the ensuing mess, was the fate of about 40 individuals in that prosecution. After serving about 5 months sentences--to which they agreed under pressure that this would be their "quickest way home"--about 40 individuals were held back as material witnesses in the criminal prosecution against their former employer. For close to a year and a half, these individuals have lived in uncertainty--passed on from one federal and state case to another, told at various times to pack up and get ready to go, just to be told again that they had to stay longer. Repeatedly they have had to call their families and tell them to prepare for their arrival, only to have to call them again and tell their children that it will be a while yet. I myself have been to their house a half a dozen times to inform them of their impending departure, only to return two days later to let them know that the latest word from one agency or another is that they are to stay...

The latest permutation of this--which does seem to come with some finality, but so have other statements--is that they have 40 days to prepare to be sent back to their countries of origin. One of the people from our area faith coalition commented on the irony of the journey these folks will go through as we journey for 40 days and 40 nights of lent. Their wilderness, of uncertainty, of joy at the prospect of seeing family again, of fear of the future, of economic uncertainty, is a journey that clearly points to the integration of both our spiritual and our physical lives. There is wisdom in the church's liturgy and memory, to recognize that what our bodies do--when we move, when we journey, when we hunger--has a direct bearing on our spiritual journey.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Way God Sees the World

I remember the night the Iraq war began. As tensions had been building up, we had engaged in prayer, conversation, and discussion on campus. We had planned an interfaith service to take place during our regular Wednesday night Eucharist service. Half an hour before we were scheduled to begin the service. then President George W. Bush came on national television to inform the country that we were going to war... as we finalized preparation for the service, we stood in front of televisions or by radios listening to the news in disbelief, never imagining how long the conflict would last. Two "generations" of students (four years is a generation in a college campus) have now spent their entire college career with the country at war.

We went ahead with the service as scheduled, and it turned out to be particularly powerful. We had structured the service in two parts. The first part was focused around "word," and included readings from various religious traditions. The community was together for this part as we heard each others' sacred Scriptures. The second part included rituals from the various traditions, and we marked the space in the hall so that each person could participate in a ritual of their own tradition. Christian students received communion while Muslim students offered prayers right next to them and Hindu students engaged in meditation.

Doing the service in that way was not without controversy for some on campus. Yet, I realized that this is the way God sees the world all the time. In that space, as the sounds of our various rituals mingled together, this experience that was new--and perhaps even uncomfortable for some--was really a reflection of how God sees the world each and every "weekend" when various faith communities offer their worship. We do so in our own enclosed spaces, but God sees and hears them all at once.

I think of this now because the experience of that night is in some ways the daily experience in this place--here in Jerusalem. A city that makes its claim on so many around the world, and that so many seek to claim. Here Christians of many traditions worship in the context of one another. On Sunday morning I went to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. I went to the English service, which is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lebanon and the Holy Land, and a ministry of the ELCA. There is also an Arabic, a German, and a Danish congregation that gathers in that space. The Arabic service was taking place at the same time in the main chapel, while the English service took place in a smaller chapel on the second floor. As we worshiped, we could hear the organ and singing from the Arabic congregation next door. I must say it was somewhat funny to hear them singing lots of 19th century pietistic songs, like “How Great Thou Art,” while we were singing Marty Haugen! Our singing was also punctuated by the sounds of a Muslim call to prayer, and on my way to church that morning, I walked by the Western Wall where Jews were at prayer.

On a regular Sunday, my worship experience takes place in rather "hermetically" sealed space. Down the street--literally--a variety of Christians gather at the same time for worship. I hear their bells ring and see them walking to their respective congregations. But once inside the church, it is easier to imagine that this is all there is. Yet God sees the world differently, hearing the songs and prayers of people throughout the world, in various languages and traditions, all at once. Are the "boundaries" as clear from God's point of view as they can be from ours?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


We arrived safely in Jerusalem last night at about 8 p.m. local time. We will be here for the next two months--all of Lent through Passover and Easter. We are staying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a center dedicated to interfaith understanding that is run by the University of Notre Dame. My wife, Karla, who teaches in the Religion Department at Luther College is a scholar in residence here for these two months. Tantur is located in Jerusalem, right next to Bethlehem--in fact, the dividing wall is right across the street from the institute...

Today the weather has been just beautiful--sunny and 70. I went out for an early morning run, and as the reality of where I am started to sink in, I kept "hearing" the words of many psalms in my head...

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:6)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come? (Psalm 121:1)

It is hard to write much on this first day, as everything I come up with seems like a stereotype, and I know any comments I would make would be naive. We spent the morning in the Old City and walking around the markets by the Damascus Gate. As we walked around we came across the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, went in to say a prayer--it's a beautiful, simple space; we then went up the bell tower (all 178 steps!) for an incredible view of the city. Today is the sabbath day. It seems odd, but we walked around and shopped for shoes (we needed some sandals for us and for the kids) and groceries. I have thought about coming to Israel as long as I can remember. Now that I am here, how should my days be spent?!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Descended into Hell

Travel and postponed travel (we're waiting to go to Israel and are already two days delayed because of weather) have meant no postings lately, but we'll keep trying!

The last couple of weeks have been full, as I completed my time in Florida, where I visited several communities: Indiantown, Jupiter, Homestead, and Immokalee. In the next couple of weeks I hope to "process" through the many incredible experiences and great conversations I was able to have. I have been overwhelmed by people's openness and willingness to share their story, and amazed by the incredible stories that each individual carries. The challenge to find ways to translate these experiences and insights into ways that others can share in at least a part of my own experience is growing tougher!

I started reading Border of Death, Valley of Life, by Daniel G. Groody. He is a Catholic priest who is now the director of the Latin American Spirituality Center at Notre Dame University. He produced one of the videos we discussed at Holden in December, and also wrote an excellent article that Sister Mary had sent to me. In the article, he manages in just a few pages to capture the reality of global migration and its huge significance to the work of the church. I have just read the preface (by Virgilio Elizondo), introduction, and first chapter. In the Introduction, Groody has this great quote about a ministry—in Coachella, California of all places, a community where I've had connections to through our work at Luther—that truly lived out the mission of the church:

These immigrants were not simply playing around in their own self-actualization sandbox (in contrast to some spirituality currents in U.S. American society), but they were living out a central value that profoundly transformed their lives and led them to commit themselves to the needs of their neighbors. P. 3

The first chapter of the book provides an introduction to the very difficult reality that forces people to migrate, and particularly to the dangerous and life changing experience of the border crossing for undocumented immigrants. The focus of his work is on Mexican immigrants, but as he states, the insights and connections are universal in many ways. What I found particularly important in this introduction is the way that Father Groody outlines and acknowledges the psychological and spiritual devastation that the migration experience has on many immigrants. By te end of the chapter he parallels this experience to the crucifixion, seeing in peoples’ journey through a “hellish” desert as Jesus’ own descend into hell. The hope is one of redemption, sacrificial love, the hope of resurrection. This parallel not only illuminates our own understanding of Scripture and of Jesus’ suffering—not as unique, but rather as in partnership with those who suffer—but also frames the immigrants’ own experience in a new way.