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Monday, November 26, 2012

What is Holy?

This past Sunday I concluded an impromptu three week sermon series in which I used my time in Israel and the West Bank as my jumping off point.  I abused the congregation with a longer than normal worship service (totally unintentional) and I showed slides...100+ of the 2500 some pictures that the 4 of us took in 2 weeks.  My goal was to reflect upon the meaning of "holy" and to ponder what it is that makes a place "holy.  I am rather embarrassed to admit that after a week of reflection, 20 some hours of pouring through photos and asking myself this question, I'm not sure I am any closer to the answer.  

I showed a variety of places and shots and continued to ask the question, "is this a holy place?"  I showed some places that at least on first view would seem to be the antithesis of holy.  Here are just a few of the pictures that I shared:

And then, I started to look up....

 and out...

But still, this somehow was not capturing it for me.  Then I started to look in.... and I realized that what made a place holy on this trip was welcome, hospitality and worship.  And the first two came in unexpected places from often unexpected people.  The Israeli at the restaurant in Rosh Pina, the coffee shop owner in the Old City, the guide in Nablus, the family at our friend Debbie's apartment, the pastor at the little church in Beit Sahour and on and on it goes.  The supposed holy sites were often not that welcoming at all, but instead were crowded and restrictive.  There was an aspect of history and awe at the fact that Jesus might have been there or somewhere near there, but clamoring, sweaty, pushy, overcrowded spaces can suck the holiness out pretty quickly.  Also, because we were Protestant, women, and pastors, there were a lot of places we could not worship or lead worship. The extent of this exclusion was punctuated as soon as I got on the plane in NY to Tel Aviv, when I had to be moved because I was seated next to Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who would be rendered unclean if they sat next to me.  This was a wake-up call that I was truly embarking on a culture shock sort of pilgrimage.  When we went to the various "holy sites,"  I found myself jealous of the people who could pick up mass at least once a day if not multiple times per day.   All of these churches lost something for me when I realized I was unable to worship in community, with music and some of the basic structures of what is familiar to me in the act of worship. 

So, I ask you, what is holy?  What makes a place holy?  I need an answer, please!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Early Advent

While most of you are pondering Thursday's menu, are in a turkey induced tryptophan coma and are contemplating whether or not to brave the Black Friday shopping crowds, pastors all over the land are deeply into their plans for Advent, Christmas and beyond.  Last week, I was writing services for Advent and Christmas, writing my cover article for the December edition of our church newsletter, and completing a submission for the San Francisco Theological Seminary online devotional.

So that you don't feel left out, or think that we pastors are all that special, I thought I'd go ahead and give you a preview to what I wrote for my seminary alma mater:

Micah 5:2-6 (from the Message)

2-4 But you, Bethlehem, David’s country,
    the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader
    who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.
    His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes
    until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back
    home to the family of Israel.
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
    centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
    for the whole world will hold him in respect—
    Peacemaker of the world!

I beg all of you to not assume Jesus Christ as you read this passage of scripture.  Please please please, wait and read this as if you had never heard of the one who was to be born in Bethlehem.  Wait just a few days longer for the unexpected coming of the Prince of Peace.  For now, sit in the wonder and expectancy of what has not yet been born.   

As you let these words fall over and around you, imagine what the people in Bethlehem are hoping for today.  What is the desire of their hearts?   What pregnant possibility is waiting to be born in us this day?  What labor pains might be lifted by our prayers and our works?  I returned from two weeks in Bethlehem in mid-November, and I am flooded with memories and images as I read this passage.  The separation wall, a Palestine baby boy dedicated in a worship service in Beit Sahour, the unemployed men wandering the streets at all hours, the 100s of workers lined up outside the wall at 6:30 a.m. waiting for rides to work ( a process that can take 1 to 2 hours), the faithful Orthodox, Muslims and Christians each taking seriously the acts and devotions of their traditions, the numerous checkpoints and incredibly young soldiers, the lack of infrastructure in Palestinian territories, the 2000 year old olive trees on the Mount of Olives, and many, many more.

It seems the prophet Micah speaks just as clearly today, and that the plight of Bethlehem and the ways of the world have changed drastically and not at all.  So, don’t jump to Jesus, but jump to prayer.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Not home yet, but then again, maybe I am.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

So, I am writing you from a 42nd floor room in the Doubletree Suites Hotel in Times Square, New York City.  For those of you who have followed the two week journey/pilgrimage/torture?/adventure, from SF to Tel Aviv to Sea of Galilee, to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem and back again, you know that I am not yet where I am supposed to be.  We were supposed to have been on a flight from JFK to SFO and arrive home last evening at 9:10 p.m.  Ah, but we make plans and God laughs, as the quote goes.  At this point I would say that on this trip God's Facebook post re: our plans would be more along the lines of LMFAO!

When our day began in Bethlehem at 4:30 a.m., I believe we had more anxiety about the hassles we might receive in passport security and customs.  We sailed through and had plenty of time to eat breakfast and prepare to board our 9:40 a.m. flight from Tel Aviv to JFK.  While it was not a pleasant flight (terrible service, many screaming and crying newborns, infants, toddlers and children, loud and obnoxious adult travelers), everything was on time and seemed to be going according to plan.  We also had checked weather in NY and the forecast was for temps in 40s and some rain/wind, but it did not look insurmountable.

We arrived on time to JFK, about 3 p.m.  As we were approaching, the pilot came on and said that it was just starting to snow!  By the time we got our bags, went through quick customs checkout (not quick at all!) the snow was coming down HARD.  Our friend Jeannie has flight status checker and our flight was still scheduled to be on time.  However, once we had gotten through secuirty, she checked her iphone again and the status had a huge, flashing, red bar across the top that said CANCELLED.  Once we got to the flight status board, we discovered that nearly every flight out of JFK was CANCELLED.  So, we treked up to the ticket counter and re-booked for a flight today.  We also discovered that every hotel near the airport was already sold out and we had to go to either Brooklyn (a one star seedy hotel) or Times Square.  We opted for Times Square, being 3 jet-lagged, women traveling alone in a weary and less than patient state.

In many ways, it felt as if we were so close to home, and yet so far away.  However, as we took a cab ride that was supposed to be about 25 mintues in normal traffic that took us over 90 minutes, and we approached the lights, the skyscrapers and the onslaught of media and marketing, I felt my energy shift to excitement and a strange sense of peace, calm and sense of being at home.  Call me crazy, but nothing lights up my heart like urban-ness.  Its as if the blood in my veins begins to course more rapidly and with more life.  I loved every minute of my time in Israel, Palestine and all the holy places we saw and the people we met, but being back in the US and being in NYC, the city that never sleeps, I finally felt that I was back home.  Now, if we can just make the rest of that part of the journey complete, I can squeeze my dear sweet husband, crawl into my warm bed, and arrive back at the place I began, I will know that I have truly arrived at home.

So, for a few more hours, I am not where I am supposed to be, but then on the other hand, perhaps I am exactly where I need to be.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Going Home

On the eve day of our flight home, I am having some luxurious time to myself while my 3 traveling companions go to Jerusalem to buy last minute gifts and have lunch.  I stayed back to pack, think about Sunday's sermon and prepare myself (plus prevent myself from spending more money on gifts!) for the journey back to the Bay Area from Tel Aviv to JFK to SFO to Concord.

I have both a heavy heart to be leaving the places that have made an imprint on my soul, while at the same time a light-hearted longing to be reunited with my family, friends and church.  I recognize that I have been changed by all the things that we have seen, but much more than that, by the varieties of people we have met and observed.  Our pilgrimage has been marked by laughter, food, frustration and getting lost a few times.  There have been stones, valley, mountains, rivers, seas and churches, lots and lots of churches.  We have experienced numerous check points, walls that divide, walls for prayer, ancient walls and invisible walls.  We have wondered at the hospitality extended to 4 bumbling US Presbyterian women pastors - sometimes an odd sight and often a minority.

I am certain I will never read a passage from any scripture in the same way as I did before coming into this land.  I am still musing on what is holy, what is just and what is right.  My head is filled with as many pictures as the 1500 or so that I actually took.  My heart is overflowing with compassion, gratitude, and faith sprinkled with some anger and bemusement.

As my bags are nearly packed and I know that I will be making the long journey back to SFO tomorrow, I am also quite aware that I am not leaving nor is what I have done, where I have been or who I have seen, leaving me.  It's the great thing about faithful pilgrimage, it stays with you forever and with any good fortune, I can stay in it for a very long time.

Peace, Shalom, La Paz, Der Frieden, Pace, Pax and Salaam!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Unexpected meeting

On Wednesday, after we had traversed the Via Dolorosa, and wandered the streets, we were preparing to attend a Reformation Day worship service at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lutheran in the late afternoon.  We had gone to the church to meet one of the pastors, and found is life and pacing not to be unlike that of a pastor in the United States.  We gave him the space and time to go prepare for worship and went in search of coffee.  As we were walking down one of the many walk ways in the Old City, I looked up and said to my friends, "I think that's Nadia Bolz-Weber."  Now, if you know Nadia at all, you know what a ridiculous statement that is!  Of course it was Nadia.  While I am generally a pretty bold person, I tend to shy away from more public figures by thinking they are too busy, too popular or too famous to want to be troubled with an intrusion, but my friends urged and Wendy said "Let's go after her."  So, we called after her and she turned around.  We stood in front of the doors to the church and briefly introduced ourselves.  Before long, she was telling us of the sad story of being without bags for several days, being separated from her traveling group and the general road weariness that occurs in international travel.  It felt a bit like a provision.  We took her to one of our favorite coffee shops, exchanged stories about ministry and women and the church and went back to the church to partake in one of the most glorious times of worship I have had in a long time.

First off, the Lutherans just really know how to do worship!  This is always evident from the very beginning.  They process!!!  Bible, processional cross and lots of pastors in liturgical finery.  This particular service was in Arabic, English and German (the church has worship in all three languages every single Sunday).  There was a lovely balance between the three and they had printed the entire liturgy in all three languages so there was a sense of unification even in the parts that were spoken in languages unfamiliar to me.   There was a limited amount of translation required.  It was also one of the first places we went where as women and Protestants we could actually participate in the worship service and even partake of the Eucharist.  The sermon was about freedom.  The children's choir from Ramallah was unable to come to sing in the service because they could not get the permission to travel across the boundaries, borders and checkpoints.  Their absence was heartbreaking.  I am actually not entirely sure why this service held such meaning and depth for me, but perhaps it was the fact that I felt I was welcome, I was a participant and I was at home.

To finish my opening story, Nadia accompanied us to a couple of sites on Thursday and crashed in our room, and used our hotel as home base for the delivery of her bags.  We discovered today that her bags did come and the hotel helped her sort out the final hand off and transportation to join up with her tour group.  I am grateful for the unexpected meeting and grateful that the detour on her path has ended for this time.  I also pray that my own life would be filled with more of these encounters and the ability to meet the unexpected with acceptance and grace.

Friday, November 2, 2012


My covenant group, gal pals, women of the green stoles, pastor pals, collegial friends, whatever else one might want to call them, have developed a tradition of one of our members which is to answer the question "For what are you grateful?" as our table grace whenever we break bread together.  Today, as I wandered the streets of the Old City (and outside the Old City when I got hopelessly lost and somehow swept into a crowd in the Muslim Quarter which was completely too much for me!) I had the opportunity to reflect more deeply upon the moments of gratitude so far on this journey, pilgrimage, trip of a lifetime.  These are just a few of them:

* Safe arrival
* The hospitality and kindness of our friend and colleague, Debbie Whaley
* The simultaneous breathtaking expanse and yet relatively small Sea of Galilee
* The ability to be lost, seemingly hopelessly lost, and then to find our way once more
* To walk in, around and near the places that Jesus might have been
* The laaandddddscape
* Falafels
* Shashouka
* Worship on Reformation Day at Lutheran Redeemer Church in Jerusalem
* Freedom
* The welcome and graciousness of every Jew, Muslim, Christian, Palestinian, and Israeli that I have met
* Running into Nadia Bolz-Weber in the most unlikely of places
* The Giants won the World Series!!!! (I know that has nothing to do with Jesus, Jerusalem, Palestine or anything holy, but I still care!)
* Study leave/vacation from Clayton Valley Presbyterian, the grant from PC(USA) that allows us to be here, and a very supportive husband who understands the value of this excursion
* Stories that take your breath away
* St. Anne's Church - acoustics to die for
* The chance to become more familiar with who I am in the midst of foreign and unfamiliar people and places

I had a difficult time expressing my gratitude at last evening's dinner, and perhaps that is because there are just too many things to name.  I do give thanks, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, from whom all blessings flow!