The Real Life

_54415635_smartphone_paThe digital world is fast becoming our new reality and, like many, I am a proponent of the value it has in connecting us to a broader audience.

I appreciate that Facebook has helped me reach across oceans and the span of decades to be in touch with childhood friends from South Africa who are now spread across the globe. And I celebrate the advantages that social media, optimized websites and online advertising offer our churches.

But… doubt has been gnawing its way in over time. It’s the rabbit hole of information, news and opinion available every second of every day. It’s the visibility of all our “friends” without the necessity of one-on-one relationship building. It’s how, in a quiet moment, I’m inclined to reach for an app instead of using the opportunity for prayerful contemplation as I would have before. I found I yearned even more for times around the dinner table with friends and family, for my gardening and walks with the dog.

Somewhere in this realization came an epiphany. As communities where people gather face-to-face and build relationships both with God and one another, churches are even more valuable in world that is increasingly virtual.

While the social trends of online communication will no doubt increase so too will our sense of valuing the moments when we are really living, face-to-face. NPR recently featured coverage about “technoference” a term newly coined that describes the way that technology can disrupt personal interaction. And even more poignant, groundbreaking blogger, Andrew Sullivan has announced he plans to stop blogging. In a recent post, he said: “I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again.”

It is into this space that I believe our churches have the unique opportunity to offer meaningful and relevant communal experiences that help us make real connections.

Children and a Pet’s Passing

My first job was in a pet store. It was a small bustling shop near my home in Walmer, a suburb of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I loved working there and would ride my bicycle to work after school or on Saturdays to stock shelves and sell customers a new pet along with all the supplies needed for a happy life.

Child with tabby catIn this setting I learned how difficult it is for many people to deal with the death of a pet, particularly when they have young children. Often on weekend morning, a parent would come bustling into the store as soon as the doors opened and insist that I catch – out of a tank of at least 200 goldfish or a cage of 25 parakeets – the “one with the spot behind the right eye because it looks just like Freddy.” What invariably followed was a conversation about how Freddy had unexpectedly died the night before and the other parent had whisked the children out of the house while this one made a frantic dash to the pet store to find a replacement pet.

The desire to want to shield ourselves or a child from the reality of death is understandable and perhaps even necessary considering other losses we may recently have faced. But for anyone who simply wishes to avoid a difficult, emotional or confusing topic for which they feel they have no answers, I raise the same question I did to those parents years ago. Who will be there when you die? Isn’t this an ideal opportunity to begin the conversation about the finitude of life when you can be there to offer the assurance of the love we have experience and known?

We are so clearly and plainly loved by our pets that when they die, we are gifted with the opportunity, in their passing, to see the fullness of life. Kahlil Gibran wrote…

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and in truth you shall see that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

This truth that we feel great sadness as a result of great love means that death offers us the opportunity not only to practice healthy habits of mourning but to celebrate life in all its joy and fullness, despite our pain in that moment.

Child running on beach with dogI was born into a home with 21 cats, 3 dogs and 2 horses. None had been purchased, all were rescued. My mother’s ministry with animals is remarkable but more remarkable, I now realize, is that she never hid their deaths from me when I was a young child. I remember her explaining, as an end of life decision for an elderly or very sick pet approached, that we welcomed the responsibility of making the difficult decision because of the gift of love and trust we received from our pet and because we had the ability to help them at times when they couldn’t help themselves. We would travel to the clinic together and stand with the vet caressing our pet as they faded after the injection. Invariably, we’d leave sobbing but as much with tears of gratitude as sadness, sharing memories and relief that our loved ones was at rest. I remember petting elderly cats and dogs in special made up beds as we faced the reality that this would likely be their last night with us. And I remember digging holes in carefully selected spots in the garden and dressing shoe boxes with petals to keep a dear pet company in our garden.

I don’t suggest that all families need to see it through to the end this literally but I believe wholeheartedly that these moments are opportunities for conversation and prayer that can remind us of God’s presence with us and the joys of life even in the seemingly saddest moments.

Justice & Spirituality

Human-RightsJustice came up at a church visioning meeting recently. A small group gathered in my study with the purpose of discerning how our community might reach out more to our neighbors both to serve and know us as a community and what we offer. My mentioning “social justice” led to some interesting conversation about sensibilities and sensitivities around the church’s voice in the life of church members and in the world at large.

A few weeks later I was talking with a group of 9th graders who will be confirming their baptismal vows later this spring. Our workshop topic included Lent and what the season invites us to focus on. The classic Christian practices of Lent are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The young Confirmands asked: “what’s almsgiving?!”

Talking to them about charitable acts of giving and spiritual practices led me back to the earlier conversation about working for justice. It led me to wonder more about our responsibilities as Christians of conscience and reminded me again of the schism some see between spirituality and justice.

Then preparing for prayer circle one week, I happened to read this:

Spirituality is not meant to be self-absorption, a cocoon-like relationship of “God and me.” In the long run, if it is to have meaning, if it is to grow and not wither, it must be a wellspring of compassionate living. It must reach out to others as God has reached out to us. True spirituality breaks down the walls of our souls and lets in not just heaven, but the whole world.*

This passage articulated so well a sense of both-and. That as disciples, we need to deepen our spirituality continually so that we might increasingly see the world as God does and reach out with Christly-compassion.

When I look at the example of Christ’s ministry, I see someone who had a deep and abiding connection to God through prayer and mindful-living. And I also see someone who acted bravely in the face of injustice and who advocated for the marginalized and oppressed.

I pray my – our – journey through Lent would lead us into the heart of God and then out into the world. Amen.
* Kirvan, John, ed. Let Nothing Disturb You: Teresa of Avila. Ave Maria Press: Indiana, 2008.

Winter Prayer

God of miracles big and small, God of wonders old and new, we come before you with thanksgiving this morning. Thank you for the sun that shines so brightly, thank you for the promise of spring that we hear in the drip of melting snow and the crunch of loosening ice.

Everlasting One, you know our blessings and our gratitude – you also know our pain and our burdens. And on this day, we raise up to you these, our joys and concerns…

A time for personal prayer.

God – lover of our souls – may we be reminded this day of the love of those special people in our lives but even more, may we know today and more every day the sweet, sweet love that you have for us and all your children. We are mindful of those who struggle for freedom from oppressive rule, your children in the Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and Afghanistan. We remember those who struggle to feel whole, who do not feel recognized and respected.

We celebrate, God, that the nations of the world remember to play together. That we have had the opportunity to celebrate athletes from so many nations – keep them safe as they travel home, we pray, and may these Olympic Games stand as an example for our world community of the beauty and diversity of human excellence and the worth of each human being.

As we enjoy have enjoyed the magnificence of Russia during these games, God, and enjoy the lengthening days and the hint of spring here in West Hartford, we are reminded of the beauty of the world, and the value of your Earth. Keep us mindful of the natural world around us especially as the seasons change and animals begin their spring rituals and migrations. Help us share this earth with all of your creation and honor each beautiful part – the chirping bird, the vole, the fisher, deer, fox, coyote, and possum.

Holy Spirit, dwell in us that we may be encouraged to raise our voice to God in prayer and attentive to God’s still speaking voice. Remind us always to place our trust in you, Gracious God, and to seek you above all else. To this end, we pray as Jesus taught us, saying…

Our Creator, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, they kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. For ever and ever. Amen.

Trip to Israel / Palestine

I began this blog as a way to record my experiences and allow others to travel with me when I visited Israel and Palestine in January 2012 with Andover Newton Theological School and Boston University. As part of a Border Crossing class, the trip focused on the dual narratives of Israel and Palestine by introducing us to the people and their stories.

I hope you’ll read these earlier posts about that trip and enjoy. I found it a life-changing experience so would welcome your comments and conversation.

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Banksy street art

Day 10: Haifa & Tel Aviv

On Friday, we drove to Haifa and visited the Bahá’í Gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The gardens surround the Shrine of the Báb, which is the resting place of the Prophet-Herald of the Bahá’í faith. Our guide described the intent of the gardens – a place to give peace and connection, as well as a celebration of the eighteen founding members (a tier for each) – and gave us an outline of the faith and its tradition. It was a fascinating visit. I’ll do a specific blog post to cover it in more depth.

Then we visited House of Grace which is an absolutely amazing place. We were welcomed by Agnes Shehade who, together with her late husband, Kamil, worked tirelessly to convince the bishop to allow them to attempt to renovate a disused church where they had a vision of creating a half-way house for released prisoners in Israel. House of Grace also works with the most disenfranchised and marginalized members of Haifa: Christians, Jews and Muslims who are in need of counseling, guidance, and material aid. We heard from a social worker who has been with the organization since it’s inception in 1982 and heard the testimony of a gentleman who used to be a resident and comes back to volunteer. It was another powerful sign of hope.

Our day ended in Tel Aviv at the Comme il Faut Café in the port area. It was very bohemian and another in the line of contradictions we experienced each day in setting, climate, altitude, rights, wealth, etc. Before a delicious dinner at the café, we heard from three journalists from 972mag.com, Noam, Mairav, and Ami. They were all Israeli and very socially and politically conscious – of the Occupy generation. They offered some salient insights into what might turn the tide of the conflict.

Again, I’m going to blog more about particular experiences and will keep adding photos – I have 3,000+ so it’s taking me a little time to sort through them! So I hope you’ll visit again and leave comments and/or questions. Thanks for reading along so far.

My trip home was uneventful – passing security on the Israeli side was a little stressful but was without incident. When our plane was 20km from Tel Aviv we were hit by lightening. The pilot later told one of our party that he’d never experienced it being so “big” – there was a loud bang, the steward making an announcement at the time shrieked (as did many passengers), and everything lit up for a second outside. But the pilot soon reported that all the instruments were fine and we proceeded without further hassles. All to say – I’m pleased to be home safely now!

Day 9: More Water & Mountains

On Thursday we drove from Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee (210m/689ft below sea level) to a few surrounding towns. On our drive, the day before, from the Dead Sea north along the Jordan River to Tiberias, we learned about the region and the, specifically, the ecological impact of Israel diverting most of the Jordan River for drinking water. Our guide, Liel, had studied ecology and so was able to point things out to us. He also tied the conversation into Zionism and its ideology about the land and land use. Unfortunately there are many crops grown in this fertile valley that require a lot of water.

It is also interesting to learn about water rights in light of the Palestinian problem and to examine who controls water and how territory was divided and has been occupied. Along our drive we also learned about the Bedouin. Their villages are very rudimentary and they have no access to the roads Israel builds – literally a highway will pass a village without exit or entrance points.

On Thursday morning, we drove to Nazareth and visited the sites where Mary is thought to have seen the angel at the well, the Church of the Annunciation where the angel appeared to her later and to St Joseph Church where Joseph is said to have had his workshop and where it is likely Jesus grew up.

Then we drove to Beit Jan, high up in the mountains – it was quite something to see our intrepid bus driver, Majied, manage the twists and turns of the mountain pass. We were going to visit a Druze village. Druze are a Shi’ite offshoot and consider themselves Muslim but are not accepted by the Suni tradition. As another minority group within the region’s history, the Druze began to live as high up as they could to avoid persecution. To cope they align themselves to whoever is in power in the region in which they live. Like Bedouin, they can volunteer for the Israeli army and gain citizenship. This means that in some conflicts Druze will fight Druze aligned with the “enemy.” Also like the Bedouin, Druze are somewhat secretive and only marry within their community. There are approximately 20,000 Druze living in Galilee, Haifa, and the Golan Heights. We met at a restaurant in the village and a couple, Kamal and Salma, spoke with us. There story was heartbreaking and hope-giving. They lost two sons to the conflict. And since then the couple have worked with an organization that encourages dialogue between bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. It was very moving testimony and a beautiful look at another effort for peace and reconciliation.

 

Day 8: A Matter of Water

This morning, Wednesday, after leaving our host families after breakfast, we drove to Masada in the Negev region which I knew nothing about so it was fascinating. We drove along the base of the valley, along the shoreline of the Dead Sea to get there – was amazing to enter the Jordan Dessert and drop out of the mountains AND to pass below sea level! The Dead Sea shore is 423m/1388ft below sea level.

We had to go back up into the mountains though to reach Masada. I took a cable car up the mountain (some in the group hiked up, a couple up & down, and some down), we toured around the ruins, and then I hiked down. It’s a very clear path although very rocky and the drop is quite extreme so the handrail means a great deal!

After that we drove to Qumran for lunch. Sounds crazy! Of course, this is where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and we just popped by for lunch! All along the drive you can look up into the  mountains and see many of the caves like those the Scrolls were found in. After lunch, we went down to the beach and floated in the Dead Sea. Our guide, Husem, was great and told us what our ritual might be – 15 minutes floating (not getting any water in your eyes or mouth) and then you get out and in the shallow water you find mud and rub it all over your skin. Then you wait about 15 minutes for it to dry in the breeze, and rinse by floating again. Our whole group looked like crazy nuts running around with mud and covering ourselves and each others backs. It was hijinks and great fun! After we’d showered and changed, we got back on the road.

We visited Jericho, the oldest city in the world and saw the Sycamore tree of the bible story (the tax collector who climbs up to see Jesus). We also stopped at a lovely fruit seller overlooking the Mount of Temptation where Jesus was tempted and where there was a view of an old monastery up in the mountain – literally rock clinging to cliff. There are many monasteries in this region. Then we drove up to Capernaum where we saw the ruins of the ancient town with its synagogue and Peter’s home, the site of the first Christian house church. Jennifer Knust, New Testament professor at BU, offered some fascinating insights at the site about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity at this time.

Finally we headed back towards Tiberias but were briefed that we should not tell the checkpoint guards that we had gone via Jericho because it is a Palestinian town located in the West Bank and would likely result in our disembarking and everyone on the bus being questioned and scanned while the bus was thoroughly examined.

We’re staying for the next two nights at the Eden Hotel in Tiberias. It’s a kosher hotel so there was no milk for coffee or tea and no butter for the bread served with dinner! Tiberias used to be majority Palestinian town but now, as a result of the Occupation, it is 90% Israeli. I think tomorrow will be an interesting day!

Part of the fortifications at Masada with Dead Sea in background.

Spa treatment at the Dead Sea - try and spot me!

Day 7: Oasis of Peace

In the morning, we met with Mossi Raz, an Israeli Jew, who runs Radio All for Peace. He is also a former Knesset (Parliament) member. It was fascinating to hear all about the media here and what this radio station is working for and up against. He pointed out that we speak of 1 conflict but in actuality – based on the fact that people in East and West Jerusalem have entirely different media – there are two conflicts with disproportionate power. As a prior Knesset member, Mossi shared information about the state of the Israeli democracy. He point out how just that morning the Knesset had passed two new laws. The first allows all illegal immigrants to be sent to prison for up to 3 years without trial. The second forbids media to publish the name of arrestees for 48 hours after their arrest. These and many other laws, some blatant and some subtle, are threatening democracy here. At the close he was asked about solutions to the situation. He said that he no longer believes in negotiation – that this has only led further from a solution in the past 20 years. He believes that the American President should approach both parties and propose being their arbitrator. I thought this was a very interesting proposal.

We had a big chunk of free time after that since it was our last day in Jerusalem and most of us walked into the Old City stopping for lunch at a fantastic falafel shop just inside the Damascus Gate. After a bit of shopping in the souk, those who wanted to met at the bus. Our new guide, Liel (replacing Shira who had to go to her college classes), took us to the garden of Gethsemane. The Olive trees there probably do date back to Jesus’ time – they are huge! In their shade we stopped to read the account of the night before Jesus is betrayed. There is now an absolutely beautiful church on the rock Jesus prayed on. It’s Byzantine in design. Across the street there is a much older church (Liel thought it one of the oldest in the area) where tradition believes Mary was buried. The church is build over caves and so you enter down a very long flight of stairs.

In the afternoon, our other guide, Aziz, spoke with us about public narrative because he knows that many of us will give talks on our trip when we return to Boston. Then we drove 20 minutes west of Jerusalem to a village that is totally different – the residents are all Israeli citizens but they are intentionally 50% Jewish & 50% Palestinian. It’s call Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salaam (Oasis of Peace). There we had a talk from Elad Vazana, a Jewish man who shared his story with us (I’ll do a separate post about his story in the coming weeks). They had this little shop in the village with a large patio. In the corner there was a whole section arranged for cats – it was really sweet. Lots of semi-feral cats running about and waiting for dinner.

Then we drove to Bethlehem and to our host families for a home stay. I stayed in Dheheisheh with 5 others. We stayed with Mazin, who works with MEJDI and who is a refugee from Bethlehem. It was wonderful to spend time with him and his wife, May, and their daughters his wife May, and their two daughters, Zuhar (5 yrs) and Salma (3 yrs). They have created a very beautiful home despite their surroundings and their hospitality was as heartwarming as their stories were moving.

Olive trees at Garden of Gethsemane. These trees are old enough to have been here when Jesus was.

Jerusalem's Old City souk on Al-Wad St.

Day 6: A Matter of Land

On Monday we experienced dual narratives in a very real way. In the morning we visited a Palestinian farm. The landowner, David, who is a Palestinian Christian, shared the story of his family’s history with us and how they came to the land. He explained the struggle he is facing to keep the land and his vision for turning it into the Tent of Nations. The slogan that he uses is: “We refuse to be enemies.” We spent a couple of hours helping him work the land.

After this we visited Kfar Etzion, a settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron. There we met with Myron & Jonki, two Jewish settlers. It was fascinating to hear their narratives, the reasons they both joined the community and their vision of the future. They had very different political and theological orientations and I appreciated seeing a bit more of the complexity within a discourse that from the outside can be assumed to be far more homogenous. It was also really poignant to see the struggle they are both having with the situation.

In the evening we met with the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, back in Jerusalem. This added another layer to the Israeli and Jewish narrative. I gained a real-time perspective, during this day, on the varied ways in which Israelis are working for justice. It gave me great hope.

This day drew my attention to the different perspectives on land – different ideas of ownership, use, rights, etc. And control of land as a tool for political control or power.

The day finished (for me) with a lovely dinner at a re staurant near our hotel. The majority of the group joined a group of students from George Mason University to hear two speakers – the leaders of the youth movements within the two dominant parties in Israeli politics – Peace Now and Likud. I skipped this in favor of sleep but learned later that it gave insights into the rhetoric and spin of politics and revealed how “right” (for want of a better term – I don’t like that this term has a connotation for Americans) both the leading parties are.

Group after working at Tent of the Nations.

Talking with Myron and Janki at Kfar Etzion.