Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's Too Soon to Say Goodbye

My parish church (Christ Episcopal Church in Somerville, Massachusetts), closed this past Sunday. In many ways, it still doesn’t feel real. This is the second parsh that I’ve been a part of that has closed in the last three years, which makes it difficult on more levels. Foolishly, I thought the second time would be easier. I knew what to expect, I’d done this before. But like the death of a loved one, it doesn’t become any easier just because you’ve experienced it before. I came back from a trip to Poland four weeks ago and it was then I found out that our last service would be October 14. I panicked. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I wanted one last Halloween party for the residents of the Walnut Street Center – one last opportunity to wear a costume to church on Halloween morning. I wanted to preach in this community one last time. I wanted more time. But we don’t always get what we want.

I’d only been a part of this community a few years ago after my last church closed. I wasn’t a lifetime member like others in the congregation. I haven’t even been there every Sunday for the past few years because life’s adventures took me to many different places and family obligations meant I was often out of town for Sunday mornings. And yet even when I was spending a summer studying in Western Massachusetts, I found myself coming back to Somerville to this small faith community. This was home. I might have jokingly referred to it as an ‘Island of Misfit Toys’, but it is a place that always welcomed me with open arms. There were plenty of times I felt like the prodigal child, going off to search for a community that was more sustainable, larger, less quirky – but church shopping isn’t easy even at the best of times. No matter what, no matter how long I was gone, there would always be someone to welcome me back with open arms. I remember one Sunday, walking into the church and having one of the young adults run down the aisle to give me a big hug and tell me how much they’d missed me and how happy they were to see me. That’s home. The place you can always come back to, where you can leave your troubles at the door and just rest in the presence of those who love you. That’s what Christ Church was to me. Home.

Sometimes you find home in the most unusual places. I was fortunate enough to live walking distance to Christ Church but I don’t think I ever expected what I found there. I underestimated the community and the unconditional acceptance and radical welcome I found in that small community. It might not have been the great big stone church with beautiful rose windows that I saw in my head, but it in life I think you have to be willing to see God in unexpected places. I had hoped that Christ Church would be able to put me forth for ordination, but God apparently has other plans.

Christ Church Somerville has long been referred to as the Dandelion of Somerville. Children in their innocence pick dandelions to present them to people as beautiful flowers. What may be a weed to some can be a beautiful flower to others. Like a dandelion, Christ Church is sending us out into the world, wherever the wind will carry us. There are things I wish I could change. I wish I could have spent more time at Christ Church, gotten to know people better, etc., but it was what it was. I know that I am blessed to have been a part of Christ Church and to have found a spiritual home for these last few years. It’s always hard to say goodbye and it feels like this goodbye came much too soon, but perhaps it is “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I loved Christ Church, I loved the welcome I found there, the opportunities to preach, to laugh, to learn. But all good things must come to an end. It is enough to cherish the time we had, to be grateful for the opportunities, and to be fortified as we go forth like dandelion seeds blown about helplessly on the wind. But even a small dandelion seed can sprout in the cracks between the concrete sidewalk. Thank you for the memories Christ Church, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

“There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Changing of the Guard - In Memoriam

It’s been over a month since my grandfather died and I started writing this blog post which falls somewhere between an attempt at a eulogy and a theological reflection, not only on my grandfather but on death itself. But with father’s day, it seems a good time to get this finished and posted. First, a bit of backstory:

On Thursday, May 3, I got the news that my grandfather was in the hospital and that it was fairly serious so I made plans to drive down to Connecticut that weekend. The following day, the news was worse – the doctor said my grandfather probably only had a few days left in this life. Friday night my mother called me from Connecticut and simply said, “I need you.” My plan had been to come down Saturday evening after some events I had scheduled, but now things had changed. I’d be leaving first thing Saturday morning and picking up my brother from the airport along the way. From the moment I spoke to my mother until I got to the hospital, the words of the Song of Simeon kept replaying themselves in my mind: “Lord, let thy servant now depart in peace.” My grandmother had passed away two years ago and I knew my grandfather had been incredibly lonely since then. At that moment, all I could do was pray for a peaceful end to his suffering. It wasn’t an entirely selfless prayer – while I did long for an end to my grandfather’s suffering and peace for him, I also wanted to stop watching him suffer. His health had deteriorated quite a bit since Christmas and I couldn’t bear to watch it.

When I arrived at the hospital and greeted my grandfather, the words in my head changed. I looked at my grandfather, lying there in the hospital bed, kept comfortable with morphine, surrounded by children and grandchildren and only the following two sentences popped into my head:

“I relieve you.”
“I am relieved.”

The words popped into my head from the Star Trek (2009) film, but what connection was there between a sci-fi film and my grandfather dying? Not much. But the exchange didn’t originate with Star Trek – it comes from the military. These words signify the changing of duty – when one officer takes over for another. Simple sentences that signify that a person is no longer on active duty, they are free to do something else. I began to contemplate the significance of these words in the current situation. What does it mean to be “relieved” and can we apply this to the end of life?

Maybe that was it – maybe my grandfather was finally going to be relieved of all his pain and suffering. We use the word “relieved” often in our lives, but does it mean what we think it means? It’s a word that has become commonplace. As a student who might not have always been prepared for class, I was relieved when a teacher didn’t call on me on days when I was unprepared. As a young professional in these economic times, I am relieved when there is enough money in my bank account to cover this month’s bills or when I land a job, even if it’s not the one I want. But I wonder more about a different type of relief. The eternal relief that comes with death is something beyond our imagination. It is that moment when all our cares and troubles go away. There is no more worry, pain, stress, or anticipation. This is the relief I believe my grandfather felt in his last few days – surrounded by family, with morphine to dull the pain, he passed in the night with my mother holding his hand.

It’s the ultimate changing of the guard – all four of my grandfather’s children are already grandparents themselves and now they have become the elders of the family. It’s the beginning of a new order, in a way, but one that values the tradition it came from and seeks to integrate it into the culture we live in. Maybe that’s why the words occurred to me, but I wonder if there was something more – some deeper connection to my grandfather’s military past.

My grandfather was a Polish veteran, who served in the Polish Underground Army during World War II, so the phrase seemed fitting. Moreover, in the hospital, the directive was simply to keep my grandfather as comfortable as possible because his kidneys had shut down and there was fluid in his lungs. When I saw him, lying in that hospital bed, there was sorrow, but there was also relief. After two years of sadness, loneliness and deteriorating health, he’d be joining my grandmother in the afterlife, and I believe he was relieved that his journey would be coming to an end. He’d lived a long full life in his 92 years and seen the birth of seven great-grandchildren. He’d fought for the freedom of his country and achieved the American dream. He’d been married to my grandmother for over sixty years.

My grandfather didn’t speak of ‘the War’ (WWII) often because there were too many painful memories. Reflecting on his life, it’s highly likely he suffered from PTSD, undiagnosed and untreated. He coped in our family’s traditional way – you just keep going. He rarely spoke of his time in the military and he was probably grateful his sons weren’t called up for the draft during the Vietnam War, but he took great pride in being a Veteran. He was active in two Veteran groups in New Britain, Connecticut and took the children and grandchildren with him to events whenever possible. His life with the Veteran’s group was something we knew little about, other than he rarely missed a meeting. Perhaps they provided him with the support he needed as a survivor of the horrors of World War II, perhaps they understood what he went through in a way we never could (and maybe he never wanted us to). I didn’t realize just how esteemed he was by the Veteran’s groups until his funeral. Both Veteran’s groups were there in uniform – over fifty Polish veterans and auxiliaries. Two stationed themselves as an honor guard to my grandfather’s casket and one my one they came and saluted the casket. My grandfather had been a leader among them and well-loved and honored. As I stood there in my Polish Scout uniform receiving their condolences (somehow at the front of the line), I felt simultaneously honored and unworthy. Who was I to receive condolences from these people who were braver than I could imagine, who had seen horrors I’d only read about, who had survived concentration camps? They had fought for freedom and had moved to the US for a better life, just like my grandfather. I was the product of that. Perhaps the changing of the guard wasn’t just the passing of the torch from my grandfather to his children, but passing it also to the grandchildren. We are his legacy, and while I don’t feel ready to inhabit that, I know that in time, I will. “If we are willing, God will make us ready.”

When I stood in the corner of that hospital room and prayed silently the Song of Simeon as well as the Litany for the Dying, I could imagine Jesus coming to stand at the foot of my grandfather’s bed and saying “I relieve you.” My grandfather’s duty on earth was finished and now it was time for someone else to take over. After all, the bible has Jesus saying “Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.” What greater rest, what greater relief, is there than life eternal with the one we love and who loves us unconditionally?

Albin Sypko 1920-2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Betrayal: Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter

Good Friday (Year B) sermon preached at Christ Church Somerville on 6 April 2012, the Rev. Christopher Fike presiding.

“Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus. Amen.”

During Holy Week, it’s often easy to focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Here is a man who seems to be predestined to betray Jesus and set the crucifixion in motion. He was one of the twelve and I can’t help but wonder if Jesus knew from the beginning, from the moment he met Judas, that Judas would betray him? I can’t imagine trying to live that knowledge. Judas’ betrayal has been a topic of theological discussion for centuries – did Judas have a choice? Could Judas have said no? Was there a way out for him or was he always predestined to betray Christ? Was he simply an actor in a play – given a crucial instrumental yet undesirable role essential to the plot? There are no clear cut answers to these questions but it doesn’t hurt to take and moment to consider what might have happened had Judas not betrayed Jesus. Would another one of the twelve fulfill that role? Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection and without betrayal, there can be no redemption.

In John’s gospel, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus with a kiss. Instead he arrives at the garden with armed soldiers in tow, seemingly aware of what he is doing. John doesn’t tell us what happens after that — Judas’ role is complete. He was the catalyst, his role is done, there’s no need to have him in the story any more.

I’d like to take us back to an earlier point in John’s gospel that wasn’t in tonight’s selection where he discusses the betrayal of Judas in Chapter 13(21-30):
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

John presents us with a Judas taken over by Satan: “After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” Is it God who is the architect here, assigning roles to the various players? John’s gospel makes no mention of Judas being paid for betraying Jesus and no mention of suicide; only Matthew’s gospel account deals with what happens to Judas after he betrays Jesus. We’re left to speculate what happens to Judas but we often just run with what we read in Matthew. We understand Judas as a man who is consumed by guilt and regret after he betrays Jesus, who attempts to return the money he was paid for his deed, and who goes and hangs himself in a field.

We know so little about Judas yet we all know who he is. At times we vilify him, calling any traitor a Judas. If we think Judas was nothing more than a pawn in the passion narrative, we pity him, but we can easily forget that Judas’ betrayal is not the only one in the passion narrative. After Judas leads the soldiers to the garden where Jesus is, Simon Peter fulfills Jesus’ other prophecy about betrayal, denying Jesus three times. Moments after cutting off a slave’s ear in an attempt to protect and defend Jesus, Peter is overcome with fear and denies having anything to do with Him. Two of the hand-picked twelve have now denied Jesus.

And so I find myself asking are Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter really so different from each other? Judas who becomes branded a traitor for all time and Simon Peter who gets chosen to feed Jesus’ sheep and becomes the rock of the church. It seems these two could not be further from each other but I believe they’re not as different as we think. Both of them are overcome by fear, both of their betrayals are foretold — what changes? What makes one an infamous traitor and the other a saint and founder of the church is what happens after the betrayal.

Each of us, at some point in our lives, has betrayed or denied something or someone. It may been something small and minor or it may have been something larger, something we greatly regret. What do we do after that betrayal? Do we, like Judas, sink into despair and let ourselves be overcome by it or do we instead allow ourselves to be overcome by love and forgiveness, allowing grace to work in our lives and becoming better people, learning from our mistakes. The choice is ours — the opportunity for forgiveness and grace is always there.

Both Judas and Peter betrayed the man the loved, the man they gave up everything to follow the man they believed to be the Messiah, the son of God, yet their stories go in opposite directions. After Peter’s betrayal in John’s gospel, we see nothing more of him until Mary Magdalene runs to him on Easter morning to tell him that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. No mention is made of Peter being present at the crucifixion. What can we make of this? Did Peter spend the weekend in despair wondering if his denial affected the outcome, wondering if he’d just ruined his chances? Peter might have been consumed by despair but nonetheless he waits and is able to see the empty tomb on Easter morning.

Judas, according to Matthew’s gospel, regrets his actions so much that he tries to return the money he was paid. He fears he has damned himself and believes that he is beyond any redemption. He has just betrayed his teacher, his Lord and will be forever blamed as one of the figures responsible for Jesus’ death. Even though he was among the twelve whom Jesus told he would and rise again, Judas gives into the despair and hopelessness. He sees no way out and he takes matters into his own hands. He can’t see beyond his actions, he can’t see the presence of God and he gives up – he kills himself, ending any chance of seeing Jesus’ resurrection. But what would have happened if he didn’t? What if Judas had waited? What if he had managed to see the resurrected Christ? I believe that Jesus would have embraced him and forgiven him. If I believe in God’s grace and unconditional love, I have to believe that Jesus would forgive him and be reconciled with him, just like he was with Peter. Perhaps Judas would have become the rock upon which the church was built. Anything is possible.

As we meditate on the death of Christ, let us take a moment to consider our own denials and betrayals. Where is it in our lives that we turn away from God, refuse to be associated with him? More importantly though, how do we respond? Are we Judas Iscariot or Simon Peter? Do we let ourselves become consumed by guilt and despair, giving up on hope and thinking ourselves beyond grace and redemption? Or do we manage to be like Peter, holding on through the unknown, believing in God’s faithfulness and grace? I think we all have our Judas moments, but the important thing is not to let ourselves be consumed by them.

Almighty God, we ask you to look down graciously upon us, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and to suffer death upon the cross and whose death we commemorate today. Be with us today as we stand at the foot of the cross and behold our Saviour upon it. Amen.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Life Divided

The journey of Holy Week continues as we rapidly approach the Triduum, my favourite time of the liturgical year. My previous post reflected on being willing to follow God’s will and how God will make us ready. Today’s picks up on a similar theme and started when a friend from high school emailed me the following quote:

”One who is content in what he has, and who accepts that [one] inevitably misses very much in life, is far better off than one who has much more but who worries about all s/he may be missing. For we cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.”
-Thomas Merton

This quote brought me to tears instantly, hitting me like a ton of bricks, particularly the second sentence: “We cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.” The quote seemed to mirror where I am in life — afraid to commit, to try for things because of the “what ifs?”. I’ve been burned recently and I’m just not sure if I can take that risk. If I commit to one thing, does that close the door on other possibilities and opportunities? I’m here in a self-imposed whirlpool of angst and indecision while each successive day only makes it worse.

Acceptance is the key to the first part of that quote. I’d take it one step further; it’s not enough to simply accept God’s will for our lives, to accept the path God is calling us to, we need to also embrace it. We need to say yes, to take the step forward and embrace the possibility. The second part of the quote, “We cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided,” seems to tie in well with another Thomas Merton quote that reads, “A life is either all spiritual or not at all. No [hu]man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you life for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”

A life divided is a life not lived out to the fullest. God wants us to flourish. God loves us unconditionally and has plans for us, plans to use our talents to our fullest potential. Our hesitation can prevent that, it can keep us from fully experiencing the love and joy of God — to be surrounded and even overwhelmed by that unconditional love. It scares us because it is beyond the realm of human experience. Can we even conceive of God incarnate embracing us, kneeling down to tenderly wash our feet, taking away all our fears, insecurities and sins, leaving us with a feeling of pure, unadultered love? I can’t. Not easily. The simple thought of it threatens to bring me to tears.

God does not ask us to do the impossible. God only asks us to give ourselves wholly to the possibility of what S/He might have in store for us. It is like a dance. To stand at the edge, listening to the music, feeling that tug, moving slightly to the music, but not quite participating. When God stops in front of us and holds out a hand in invitation, it is up to us to take it, to join in and get swept up in the whirlwind of the dance. We cannot worry about what others will think, of whether we’ll know the steps or not — there is no need to worry. God will lead us in the dance and we only need to follow, to let ourselves be spun around and grasped firmly in a loving, secure embrace before we spin out of control. Dancing is about trust, about letting go, trusting that your partner won’t drop you when they dip you, lift you, or flip you. Trusting that you won’t slip and fall —but if you do, God will be there to pick you up because the dance goes on.

When I was home for joint birthday celebrations two weeks ago (my grandfather’s 90th and my 30th), there were various pre- and post- parties at my parents’ house. During one of them, my cousin decided to change the music to something more danceable. I seized the opportunity and asked him to dance since he’d been the one to switch the music. After a bit of hesitation, he took the opportunity to lead me in a fast whirling, spinning dance to the music of Motown. There were a few near misses since we don’t get a chance to dance together often, but we quickly fell into sync, twirling around the living room like we’d always been doing this — as usual, I was barefoot. We hadn’t rolled up the rug beforehand as is custom in my parents’ house before the dancing begins and I joked I’d have rugburn on the bottoms of my feet from dancing barefoot, but I didn’t care. In the moments of the dance, I didn’t care about anything else —I couldn’t worry about the fact that I didn’t have a job or any of the other concerns weighing on my mind. Everything else disappeared because I needed to be fully present in the dance – to be led and twirled and dipped. At the end of the dance, there was no worry, no fear, no discontent. All that was left was the exhilaration and overwhelming joy of the experience. That is what I want for my life, for my relationship with God — an exhilarating, overwhelming, joyful experience dancing in the whirlwind.

I don’t want a life divided, I don’t want a life half-lived. I take this moment, on the eve of the Triduum, to say yes. Yes to the unknown. Yes to the possibilities. Yes to the mad, crazy, wonderful dance. I suspect that God will lead me to something beyond my imagination. I say yes.

As we approach the holiest days of the years, perhaps a bit of reflection is in order —what is got calling us to? Are we willing to end the division in our hearts and follow God wholeheartedly?

If we are willing, God will make us ready

It’s been a bit of a dry spell on this blog lately, but then there isn’t always much water in the wilderness. On Palm Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend services at ”St. Paul’s Newton Highlands for a Passion service with music from JC Superstar (which is one of my personal Lenten traditions). For the vocals, St. Paul’s did a gender and age blind casting which I appreciated and interwove narratives from scripture with the songs from JC Superstar to craft a cohesive passion story. Hearing one of my favourite musicals in the context of a mass brought together two of my loves and made the service that much more meaningful. It was exactly what I needed. The liturgy was punctuated by a refrain from another of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musicals – a modified version of “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that went as follows:

Close every door to me, taunt me and torture me
Bar all the windows and shut out the light.
Do what you must with me, from dust to dust with me,
I’ll stay the course through the day and the night.
If my life were important, I would ask will I live or die,
But that’s not the question, the answer is love.
Close every door to me, throw stones and more at me,
Children of mercy/justice/freedom are never alone.
For we know we shall find, what God has in mind,
For we have been promised that we are God’s own.
-modified by Gretchen Grimshaw

The presentation of the Passion narrative was moving, but it didn’t prepare me for being blown away by Rev’d Gretchen Grimshaw’s sermon. The line that stuck with me most was “If we are willing, God will make us ready.” How many times do we plead unreadiness or unworthiness when responding to Gods call? As a child, I was taught that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: Yes, No, or Not yet. Do we give God the same responses?

I know there have been times when I’ve given God a very loud and resounding “No! Absolutely, positively not!” Have I moved away from that to a response of “Yes, but…”? I feel as though I’m trying to negotiate with God. Is that even possible? I want to be willing, I want to say yes, but I’m scared. I’m scared of what God will ask of me, I’m scare of what I might have to give up. I’m afraid of the unknown and yet at the back of my mind, I believe that saying yes wholeheartedly and accepting God’s invitation is the only way out of the wilderness. Mark’s gospel tells us that the angels were waiting for Jesus at the edge of the wilderness — are there angels waiting for me? Sometimes I think that it is my reluctance —my hesitation— that keeps me in the wilderness. Why should I hesitate to leave the wilderness when I don’t like it here — it’s difficult and I feel I’m approaching my wit’s end. Still, I can’t seem to give God an unconditional yes. I keep trying to arrange things my way. I know that no one except God can guide me out of this wilderness and all I have to do is say yes. But I can’t or I won’t. Though my friends, family, and mentors want to help and might be able to point me in the right direction, it’s up to me to take that step, to take God’s outstretched hand and say, “Yes, I love you, God. I choose you. Yes, I am willing.”

It’s often easier to say yes in the goodtimes. In the wilderness when we feel like Job — drained, spent, exhausted and with nothing left to give — we can find ourselves reluctant to say yes to the unknown because we feel we can’t endure much more. I find myself hesitant to relinquish the few things in my life that still give me security. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I feel I’ve lost so much this Lent that I’m reluctant to risk anything else. Instead of taking that step, taking God’s outstretched hand, I want to just curl up and attempt to comfort myself. It’s a hollow comfort but at times I nonetheless insist on it.

When God holds out that hand, I stammer and sputter, reluctant to take up the offer. All my knowledge and belief in a loving, supportive, and benevolent God flees in the face of fear. I insist on my lack of readiness and my unworthiness, claiming I won’t be able to do what God is asking me despite the fact that I hear God telling me, “I have made you worthy and I will make you ready. All you have to do is say yes.”

I want to say yes, but I’m not ready. My heart yearns for God’s embrace, but I’m dragging my feet. Today I still say “Not yet” and “Yes, but…” My impulsive streak wants to say “Forget it all. Why the hell not?” That isn’t equivalent to an unconditional yes though. There’s a difference in agency, in will. One seems to be an end to resistance, an acceptance of inevitability, almost akin to being an accomplice by association. But God asks us for more. A “yes”, freely and unconditionally given, seems predicated on an act of will and agency —it is a choice and an action. It is not simply a resignation and acceptance of something inevitable, it is choosing and moving towards that direction, towards God. It is the difference between active and passive. I’m not sure if there’s value to the “Why not?” response or if it’s closer or further from a firm “YES” however, I think (and hope) that I’m moving towards that unconditional yes and God’s unfaltering patience with my stubbornness comforts me. I can’t say yes just yet, but I’m inching in that direction, towards the unknown and out of the wilderness. If I am willing, God will make me ready.
-written 2.IV.2012

Friday, March 9, 2012

love your enemies

Perhaps one of the hardest commandments given to us by Jesus, it is something that doesn’t have quite the same context in the states as it does here. In the US, even when we try to make it tangible and specific, it usually relates to those who have slighted us or to enemies of the state, in an attempt to speak and practice peace in a world that seems more and more divided by war. Even the word “enemy” does not have the same concept in the states. It’s a bit abstract, unless you’re a soldier serving in the military.

It’s different here in the Holy Land. It’s real. It is the daily reality of people who live here. How do you live out such a commandment when your village can be isolated by roadblocks, when you’re required to go through a checkpoint with metal grates, when you can be stopped and detained at any moment with no rationale, when you can be shot on sight if an Israeli feels they are endangered? It is unimaginable. I can’t even pretend to understand. Perhaps the most striking thing about spending time in Palestine is the persistent and perseverant hope in the midst of injustice and oppression. The humbling part is that I’m not sure I could do the same.

I’m an emotional person and on my first trip to Palestine I was shocked, horrified and angry. Perhaps it was “righteous indignation” but it was still anger. On this trip, I am filled with sorrow, but I am also inspired. I see all these people working for peace, working non-violently for peace. It’s easy to respond to violence with violence. I wonder if it’s actually inherent in our nature; I know it is inherent in my nature. To overcome that urge, to not throw a punch when you’re arrested by soldiers with machine guns, when you’re beaten, when children throw rocks at you, requires an immense amount of courage and strength.

One of the speakers yesterday commented on the distinction between pacifism and passiveness – a distinction that I think is incredibly important. One can be a social revolutionary in a pacifistic, non violent way in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi. It’s not always about fighting back physically. I can’t help but draw compromises between some of the non-violent protesters here and the occupy protesters in the US. My brain automatically connects the image of Palestinian and International protesters getting fired upon with concussion grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets to the recent scenes in the US of occupy protesters getting pepper sprayed and tear gassed at point blank range and I stand in awe.

Standing in solidarity with the oppressed, standing up and voicing opposition to injustice is certainly a good step, a responsibility that comes from scripture (and more than that, from the fact that all of us are human beings who deserve justice and equality, regardless of who we are and where we come from). In the midst of this, I struggle with the commandment to love your enemies. What does it mean for me, an educated American with great privilege, the child of immigrants, and someone whose cultural history includes a history of persecution? Alternately, what does it mean for those whose daily lives include oppression, injustice, and persecution, be they in the West Bank or Uganda or in the US? The only conclusion I can come to is that I cannot fully understand this verse, this commandment without experiencing “enemies” in a real and tangible sense. But this doesn’t mean that I can ignore this verse as something that doesn’t apply to me.

As an American, it means that I need to fight for justice. That I should fight against the racial discrimination and profiling that still takes place in the US. That I need to fight for justice, even for those with whom I disagree. It means that when politicians and religious leaders speak things that I cannot believe to be true, things that I believe violate the intrinsic human rights of individuals, I should not give into the hate that tempts me. It means not doubting the intelligence of those I disagree with, but trying to educate them, to listen to them, and engage them in dialogue.

But how do Palestinians live out that commandment? How can they persevere in this love when their lives are constantly disrupted? One of the speakers yesterday expounded on this:

“What is this love? Do I go to a checkpoint, get out of my car, approach the Israeli soldiers, open my arms and go, ‘Habibi! Give me some love? That’ll get me in one of three places – in prison, in a loony hospital, or six feet under. What does it mean to love your enemy? It means to get to know someone.”

It is easy enough to proclaim the “enemy” as the “other”, to generalize them as one giant group, a collective other, forgetting to view them as individuals, as human beings. How often do we refer to Al-Qaeda, to terrorists, as a collective group as though there are no individuals among them? That’s one of the important points being reiterated here at the conference. Some refer to the occupation as the systematic dehumanization and degradation of Palestinians, but insist that one should not generalize. There is a danger in generalization – be it Jews, Israelis, the Israeli government, the Israeli army. Each of these categories is made up of individuals. To generalize them as homogenous categories, as unified forces with no internal opposition is to vilify them and make it nearly impossible to view them as individuals. They are human beings. Every person on this earth is a human being, worthy of love and forgiveness, no matter who they are or what they have done.

Last night, the student group was fortunate enough to meet with an ex-Israeli soldier, one of the cofounders of Breaking the Silence and who now works with Grassroots Jerusalem. He had many good points (which I may expound on later) but the part of his talk that corresponds with the theme of loving your enemy was the simple exhortation “Compassion works”. In trying to witness to what is happening here, in trying to foster discussion about the occupation and what it means, it is important to remember this. Compassion works. We need to treat everyone with compassion. According to Sami Awad, this translates to the need to grieve in their pain and celebrate their joys with them. So much blood has been shed on both sides of this conflict, so many lives have been lost, and an anxious “peace” has been achieved. Bombings on both sides have decreased, Israelis are segregated from Palestinians and neither side is encouraged to travel freely among the other and both sides are being allowed to vilify the other.

Loving your enemy does not mean ignoring the injustice, forgetting the horrors that have happened. Loving your enemy requires the ability to go beyond this, the ability to view individuals as something more than their actions, to view them as fellow human beings. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The cracks let the light come in - responding to injustice

How do we reconcile the will of God with the evil and injustice in the world? With all that is wrong in this world, with all the wars and destruction, the hatred, the human rights violations, it can become incredibly disheartening to believe that God has a plan, and a good plan. A plan to help and not to harm (Jeremiah 3:8?). I think that’s one of the hardest things about visiting the Palestinian Territories – the difficulty in trying to maintain hope in the midst of all of this injustice. When a thirty foot wall topped with razor wire and an electric fence separates the Palestinian territories from Israel and there are checkpoints with armed guards where pedestrians file through metal gates reminiscent of cattle grates. I can’t help being reminded of my first trip to Auschwitz in 1993 and the despair that I felt. “Never again.” There are similarities here – the separation of people, the division, and what can only be described as the dehumanization of people. If we put aside the question of who has a right to this land, I still cannot think of anything that legitimizes this. The hardest thing for me in visiting here is that it is hard to imagine how one can maintain hope in such a climate, how one can persevere in nonviolence and peacemaking despite all this.

However, there are glimmers of hope. There are numerous individuals who I’ve had the opportunity to meet who are able to maintain hope for peace, even though there are children who have few options for a future. I can’t help but ask, “Are those glimmers enough?” Last night, Shane Claiborne quoted John of the Cross, “The cracks let the light come through.” It’s a quote I’ve been rolling around in my head since then. What do we do if we can’t see the cracks? Is it our job to create cracks? To chip away and allow glimmers, slivers of light to come through. There are few cracks in the wall that divides this land, but there are some. There are ways for people to illegally cross the wall and in a way,that gives me hope while simultaneously worrying me. If anyone is caught illegally scaling the wall, they can be shot on sight. There are people who work in nonviolent means for peace. Perhaps the amazing and inspiring art on the wall (some by the famous British artist, Banksy) represents another series of cracks in the wall. Beauty in the midst of this sterile, intimidating wall. Seeing all this begs the question – what is my (our) responsibility to injustice? What should be my response?

There are various responses to this. We are all called to different ministries – some are called to be prophets, others teachers, others martyrs, etc. This is a bit how I understand vocation – something personal. My spiritual director once told me that “vocation is what you do when you can’t do anything else.” Perhaps it’s an extreme statement, but it makes quite a bit of sense. However, such a statement doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to discern what one’s vocation is, especially for someone like me who has quite a few interests.

How does our vocation relate to the injustice that we witness? It should be obvious that none of us can do everything. We have limited time and resources and to attempt to stretch ourselves out over all the causes that speak to us might leave us with the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ feeling. I’m not sure that’s the answer. I think each of us have causes that speak to us more than others, something that touches us personally, something that becomes part of our ministry, whether we are lay or ordained. And our individual response to this injustice is an opportunity for grace.

So what is that response? Perhaps the most common response that I have heard here in Palestine and which was echoed by Bishop Hayes of the United Methodist Church in Oklahoma today, “It is not enough to come and see, it’s also go and tell.” The two requests I have always gotten from people I’ve met here is ‘go out and tell our story’ and ‘pray for us’. Those are simple enough requests that any of us can fulfill. Witnessing injustice does not automatically require us to become an activist, to put ourselves in the way of bullets, to endanger ourselves and our security. Prayer and witness is sometimes enough.

Within those who witness injustice, there are certainly those who are called to action. Some of us are not content to sit idly by, to simply pray for peace. Last night’s talk by Shane Claiborne touched on this by connecting it to the miracle of loaves and fish. In the story, it is the disciples who notice that the people are hungry. They come to Jesus and say, “The people are hungry. Do something” And Jesus’ reply is roughly “Why don’t you do something?” and the disciples go out to find food and then it miraculously becomes enough to feed the entire crowd. But there is a sense of agency among the disciples. We can’t rely on God to do everything for us, to intervene and interfere in our lives. Sometimes we have to do something.

There’s a similar sentiment among the conference attendees here that Shane mentioned. Often after seeing the situation here, people turn to God and demand “God, do something!” Shane postulated that perhaps the response from God would be “I did. I made you.” This statement carries with it both responsibility and agency. I don’t think this means that everyone who witnesses injustice is required to respond with direct action and involvement, but I think that for some of us witnessing injustice leads us deep into the wilderness to discern what God is calling us to do. How are we supposed to respond to this? Are we called to share what we have seen, to bear witness to those in trouble? Are we called to be activists? Are we called to donate money and resources to worthy causes? I think the answer is ‘any of the above’. Only through prayer, stillness, and listening to God can we discern what our response should be. Through the cracks, we can see the light and perhaps our job is just to do whatever we can to amplify that light.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Christ at the Checkpoint - Opening and Day One

Last night was the beginning of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference and it was definitely eye opening. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that our welcoming speaker was the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority – Dr. Salam Fayyad who stated that “The occupation has made us strangers in our own land.” That’s a sentiment that has been often echoed throughout my encounters in the Palestinian territories. The establishment of the state of Israel has been based on the framework of “A land without people for a people without a land.” But there were people who were here. There are always people on the habitable land. (Except on the moon, but I’ll leave colonizing that to Newt Gingrich.) The interesting bit of Dr. Fayyad’s talk was the concept of sharing in rituals as the definition of what it means to be Palestinian. According to him, “This is what it means to be custodians of the Holy Land.” Custodians. Not owners. Custodians. Humans did not make this land holy, God did. It was here that the Abrahamic faiths got their starts, here where the historical Jesus lived, ministered, and died. There is a sacredness inherent in this place to many people of faith, but what does that mean for the conflict and the disputes. Does anyone have a right to claim this land as their own or should everyone who lives here simply identify as a custodian of the land? I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dr. Fayyad – politicians can be very well spoken, but they can also be inflammatory – two sides of the charisma necessary to be elected. However, I was pleased by the main point of Dr. Fayyad’s talk – that the goal of the Palestinians is “To be able to live with dignity in our home.” Is not that a basic human right? I’m sure the Israelis have the same desire, but how do you solve such a heated debate with two (or more) sides laying claim to the same piece of earth. There were, of course, other speakers the first night, but they paled in comparison to Dr. Fayyad and I began to struggle with being a fish out of water in the midst of this evangelical conference.

Today I find myself in an interesting state of mind. The conference begins with worship every morning, but it is in a tradition that is foreign to me. Parts of it leave me a bit uncomfortable. While I support ecumenical movement, this feels odd and I realize that my tradition / beliefs / upbringing make me feel more comfortable in a group where ecumenical refers to Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. Perhaps because of the claims to apostolic succession in many of those churches, perhaps because of the shared histories and the strength(?) of the theology. This conference is quite the opposite of that. One of the speakers I’m most looking forward to hearing is a priest of the Latin patriarche of Jerusalem and I really hope I get a chance to speak to him.

It’s odd to be at this conference because the World Council of Churches (WCC) held a conference on the Middle East from February 22-27 and I wonder if I would have found myself more at ease there. The WCC conference had Jews, Muslims, and Christians attending and presenting and I don’t see the same type of diversity at this conference. The lack of diversity is hard for me to reconcile. I need diversity, especially in discussion about peace and conflict resolution. While homogeneity can be comforting, without diversity, without recognizing the stranger as our neighbor, I don’t think there can be peace.

The first presentation of the day was on Arab Christians with an emphasis on the words “Arab” and “Palestinian”. What is the significance of these words, this language? It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that so much of the dialogue (or monologue) on this issue relates to the language used – the words chosen and their connotations. Identity. People. What do we mean by these words? The presentation emphasized how much of the early church was Arab and to me that was a no-brainer. Of course the church was largely Arab – this land, this area, is the birthplace of the church. There is certainly an issue of nationalism, national identity, race, religion – it comes back to the language we use. What makes a people? What makes a nation? How do we construct our identity?

Continuing on the issue of language, why is this conference “Evangelical” and not “Ecumenical”? What separates evangelicals from the rest? What is the opposite of evangelical? It makes me wonder if I belong here. I was telling a colleague last night that I wish I had a cassock or a habit. Something to identify me as catholic/Anglican. I think this speaks to a reluctance of being assumed to be evangelical. I would never describe myself in such a way. I don’t believe in evangelization, I don’t believe in proselytizing, I don’t believe in missionary work in the sense of trying to convert people. For me, “spreading the good news” takes a much more subtle method. Mine is influenced by the words attributed to Saint Francis, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” Actions should speak for themselves and I don’t believe that words will make the difference. By this definition, I’m not sure I qualify. I’m not sure my actions have been representative of Christ, of the gospel. Does that make me less of a Christian? I’m not sure. I come back to the lyrics of the Tom Conry song “Ashes” in the second verse:
“We offer you our failures
We offer you attempts
The gifts not fully given
The dreams not fully dreamt
Give our stumblings direction,
Give our visions wider view,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to you.”

I think it is enough to try, to attempt to live a Christian life. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but I believe the intent of our actions, the intent of our lives, is important. Attempts are still a step in the right direction. As human beings, inherently imperfect, we can never truly be like Christ and the best we can do is to attempt.

The theme of the conference is “Hope in the midst of conflict” and I wonder if this is hope for the existence (and proliferation) of the [evangelical?] church in Israel and the Palestinian Territories or if this is about peace. For me, my reason for being here is the latter. I strongly believe in peace, in working towards that in a nonviolent manner and I don’t think there should be a push to expand the Christian churches here and certainly not to attempt to convert people. If people wish to convert on their own, that is between them and God, but it’s not in me to support something that believes that Christianity is the only way to peace. I don’t believe that Christ is the only way to God. The divine is experienced in a myriad of ways and perhaps some would consider this blasphemy, but I believe that God speaks to all of us in the way we can best understand and connect with. Where does that leave me? It leaves me feeling uncomfortable as an Anglican / Episcopalian at an evangelical conference and struggling to view this as an ecumenical opportunity. I approach this with an open, yet critical, mind. It may be a difficult five days, but hopefully I’ll learn some things and have some great experiences (even if I find myself longing for the critical theological thought of Harvard).

Hebron & the Ephrata settlement

(from 5 March 2012) After visiting Hebron last year, it was one of the most meaningful and emotional day trips that we took. It is a place that provides a microcosm of the conflict and I think it should a required trip for anyone visiting the country. Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims living not side by side, but one on top of each other. Fences over your head as you walk through the old city littered with garbage. Surveillance tower, armed guards and razor wire everywhere. How can there be any hope for peace in such a state. Today’s visit to Hebron was just as moving. Once again I found myself overwhelmed with sadness at the barricades and welded shops and it wasn’t until I was in the Al-Ibrahim Mosque that I was able to relax a bit. Holiness transcends religion. In the mosque, resting my head against Leah’s (?) tomb, I was able to gain a moment of peace – to understand that God still holds this land dear, despite the violence and terror that reigns.

After visiting the mosque, we were able to go into the synagogue as well, but without our tour guide. I wish we had been able to have a guide for the synagogue, because I wanted to hear the narrative of that sacred space. After all – providing both religions with access to the tombs of Abraham and Sarah seems a good idea in theory. All that is left of the Christian church is a cornerstone in the mosque with a Greek inscription. On the way out of the synagogue, our group was confronted by a Jewish man who proclaimed that all the Arabs should leave Palestine because this land belongs to the Jews because that’s what it says in the bible. It was said with the same ferocity and conviction of Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Perhaps it was the tone, but something about the man’s words caused me to break and I went off a bit and sat down on the stone steps and cried. I cried for the land, for all the lives lost, the livelihoods destroyed. Some of the beauties inside the mosque were created by Saladin following the destruction of the Christian Church that stood on that site. In the thousand years since the crusades, have we made any progress?

The Jewish settler we met with claimed “The Wall is a necessary evil.” The fact of it being ‘necessary’, however, does not make it any less evil.

How can we call it the Holy Land when we, that is humanity, and more specifically members of all three Abrahamic faiths, continuously tear is asunder, spill blood over it, and squabble constantly? Is not the sacred nature of this land worth coming to the table for?

How do we define a people? How do we definie truth? Both are relative. Race is a social construct and to claim that the Jewish “people” are a people and the Palestinians are not is problematic. We must first come to consensus on the term “people” before we can throw it around as a prerequisite for land ownership. History is written by the victors, but who are the victors in this case? Can there be any victors or has there been too much pain and suffering on all sides? Every person here presents their own narrative of their experience and some even claim their narratives to be truth and any others to be lies. Can two conflicting truths exist? Coming from an Episcopal/Anglican context, is it scripture or experience that defines truth, that defines belief? The Jewish settler we met argued his truth on the basis of scripture, that this is the promised land, that the Jewish “people” are entitled to this land, regardless of anything else. The Palestinians argue their narratives and truth on the basis of their experiences – being forced from their own, being restricted in their travel, being subject to search and seizure and all sorts of human rights violation. When two such diametrically opposed sides lay claim to truth, where is the middle way? Do we disregard both? Do we refuse to engage either side? I do not think one can walk through this land, this so-called Holy Land, and turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering on both sides – to the hatred and division that has become “the way it is.”

My American passport grants me a carte blanche – I am allowed to go wherever I wish with almost unrestricted access. “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” How do I use this privilege for the greatest good? Can I ignore the parallels between the occupation / disputed Palestinian territories and the history of the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands in the US or the partitioning of Poland under Prussia, Austria, and Russia? My own cultural history gives me a narrative of a people without a country, of a nation in exile, of persecution. This lens allows me to connect to both sides of the conflicts. It is easy to turn to anger and hate when one has been hurt and much harder to forgive, to turn the other cheek.

The Israeli settler we met with today said “The Jewish faith is based on law, not love. God may love the Palestinians, but I do not.” Perhaps that’s the problem. If we cannot love our fellow human being, how can we hope to attain peace?

Hope in a Hopeless Land – the village of Aboud

(From 4 March 2012) Today was an early start to head up through the fog and pouring rain up to the village of Aboud – a small little village that is becoming more and more isolated and cut off from the outside world. We were lucky enough to go to church in Aboud. The choice was between a Latin Catholic church and an Evangelical Church. I was able to go to the Latin Catholic Church where mass was in Arabic. The priest in charge – Abunah Joseph, was a hospitable, friendly man. The service was an interesting mix of old and new traditions. It was celebrated in Arabic according to Vatican II right, but mst of the congregation self-segregated – women on the right, men on the left. Abunah Josephl said it was a carryover from the Muslims in Aboud – a village that is fairly equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Abunah Joseph is against the self-segregation, but he says it’s incredibly difficult to change the people’s old habits. One of the interesting things about Aboud is that while it had it’s own well, the Israeli Army has cut off Aboud from its own well and the villagers of Aboud have had to steal their own water – something that is fairly inconceivable to Western minds.

Our second stop was the Orthodox church – the Dormition of Theotokos Church – with numerous icons of Saint George, who is incredibly prevalent throughout Israel & Palestine. More on that and the priest, Abunah Emmanuel, later.

I am experiencing a bit of a strange culture shock here – not between US culture and Israel/Palestine, but amongst the evangelical Christians. It is a context, a culture that is mostly foreign to me. I don’t know whether I could categorize them as liberal or conservative. Many are democrats, against Glenn Beck and Fox News, but then many are anti-choice (though, at least they are also anti-death penalty). Only one or two are favorable towards the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy. But the Christian rock music, the sharing of testimonies – that isn’t part of my tradition, my narrative. I don’t have the biblical knowledge (and quote retrieval) that these folks do and yet I hold a Master of Divinity. It's a very odd place to be.

The Dirt Whispered "I'm coming Home"

(from 3 March 2012 - Jerusalem) Those words were spray painted on the Wall in East Jerusalem. (what the Israelis call the security wall and the Palestinians call the separation wall - whatever you call it is a 30ft tall concrete wall topped with razor wire) By this point in time, I'm used to messages of resistance graffitied on the wall, but this statement evoked a different sort of feeling. It was a statement I could identify with - the dirt, the land which we call holy, it doesn't care about race or religion, it simply exists as it has for thousands of years - contested, disputed, conquered, and covered in bloodshed.

Today our group (Middle East Fellowship student delegation to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference) visited Jerusalem, starting at the Mount of Olives and the garden of Gethsemane and working our way down to the old city where we walked the Via Dolorosa. It was rather off to walk such a devotional path with a group of evangelical Christians. Each site had only a brief mentioned which station it was but no prayers, no devotions. I missed it and it made me want to latch on to a Roman Catholic pilgrimage at some point to see what I would be like with that amount of devotion and ritual. At the church at the garden of Gethsemane, I happened upon a mass being spoken in Polish and stopped to listen to the homily for a bit. It was actually fairly good. The priest talked about being renewed by the Holy Land, by the garden of Gethsemane - to capitalize on the ability to become good people by accepting God's will. Yet there was nothing that I heard about discerning God's will. Acceptance of God's will cannot simply be a rationalization of what has happened - if it happened, then it must be God's will. I believe that God is good and as such, nothing evil can be part of God's will. (This of course became the topic of a very interesting dinner conversation on theodicy, creation, and the omnipotence versus the benevolence of God.)

We ended our trip to Jerusalem with a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was crowded as it is most days. It seemed difficult for the evangelicals to appreciate the church. One student said, "I would like this church a lot better without the church." It was hard for me as well, but that was due mostly to the crowds. I'm a church junkie though, I love to see them, to sit in them, to pray in them - to visit an share in other people's places of worship. Though I enjoy the simple churches, especially the ones that integrate nature into the architecture of the church, I can still enjoy the ornate structures by remembering that the intent was not to show corruption but to glorify God and demonstrate devotion. In an odd way, though, in the middle east I find myself in sacred space when I walk amongst ruins of churches, remnants of what was and inspiration for what might be as well as the remembrance that "dust you are, to dust you shall return." It's like the graffiti on the Wall - these conflicts shall eventually pass away, we shall return to dust and the dirt shall come home.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Returning to the Holy Land

(from March 1-2, 2012) There is a sense of liberation that accompanies the nervousness of landing in a foreign country where one doesn't speak the language and can't even read the alphabet. I had a game plan of course- hire a shared taxi and get to my Professor's flat in Jerusalem - never mind that his flat was in a neighborhood I didn't know. There was a bit of faith involved in hoping that the driver would actually know where he was going and I wouldn't spend the day being driven around Jerusalem. It worked out quite well and by 5'o clock or thereabouts, I arrived at their flat.

Sometimes it's the little things that change your perspective. Last week I lost my job unexpectedly, only four weeks after I started an eighteen month position as Scholar in Residence at the Religious Institute and it really isn't something I've processed yet (other than moving back to Boston). Perhaps Jerusalem was exactly what I needed - to be halfway around the world, far from all my responsibilities, in another country with problems that make mine look trivial. With only a dash of familiarity in the form of my Prof and his family, I had a moment if quiet to just be. (And yes, this is possible to achieve this with two small vivacious children running about. )
I didn't even know how much I needed a sanctuary, but I suppose it's not unexpected given the recent events in my life. I'd been in Israel and Palestine before, I'd learned about the conflict first had and had some idea of where I stood on the matter, but these first twenty-four hours were just about solace. I was wined and dined by my professor and his family, had an opportunity to play with his children and answer their questions, and attempt to adjust to the seven hour time difference. There were, of course, theological discussions interspersed among catching up on each others' lives and a restful and blissful day of feeling like I was amongst family.

On Friday we woke up to snow in Jerusalem - perhaps the most unexpected surprise. There is something about snow that always tugs at my heart strings an fills me with a sense of peace. It felt like Christmas morning - waking up to a white covered street in Jerusalem. It melted before there was time to adequately play in it (and quickly turned to freezing rain / sleet thus canceling our touristy plans) but it filled me with a sense of happiness and peace.