Sunday, March 20, 2011


I shared the news with my congregation this morning, so I'll share it with the blogosphere now. I'll be leaving Bethlehem United Methodist Church in June.

A few people have expressed surprise because the rebuilding isn't yet complete. It's true that the physical construction won't be complete for about another year, but the church is about to start a new chapter in it's life. The past two years have been about mourning, regrouping, visioning, and planning. The groundbreaking (which will be in a few weeks, pending an affirmative vote at next week's charge conference) will mark the end of that chapter and the beginning of the nesting chapter of their story.

After a whole lot of prayer, contemplation, and conversations with people I trust, I became convinced that the best way for the church to leave this chapter behind and start a new one was with a new pastor, and that the energy and excitement that a pastoral change brings will provide the right momentum to carry them into the new building.

I have mixed emotions about leaving, of course. There are many people I will miss, and my ego makes me want very badly to be the person at the front and center when they dedicate the new building. But rarely does any change in life come painlessly, and I have peace that this is the right thing.

One of the unique things about our United Methodist system is that we are appointed by the Bishop to our areas of ministry, and there is a period of time where appointments are "projected" where we can't really tell anyone because the appointment picture for the whole conference isn't yet complete. So I know where I've been appointed for the coming year, but I can't share that just yet! I'll announce it as soon as I'm able.

But for now there is still work to do. Next week Bethlehem will have a Charge Conference for the final vote on the building, and if the consensus that seems to be developing translates into the necessary votes, we will break ground on the new building very soon. As hard as much of this experience has been, I will look back fondly on my time as pastor of Bethlehem.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Things They Don't Teach You about The Things They Don't Teach You in Seminary

One of the running jokes among clergy is about the literally endless list of things they don't teach you about in seminary. Whether it's dealing with facilities issues, difficult people in your congregation, or unclogging toilets, I and many other pastors tend to laugh about these unexpected things and put them on that proverbial list.

As a seminary student, and now as a young clergy person, I've been extremely blessed to have older clergy to talk to about situations I face, get their advice, and hear their stories. And now that I've got a bit of experience under my belt, I've really enjoyed talking to seminary students and sharing some of the things I had to learn (often the hard way) after seminary.

I'm starting to wonder, however, how much of those "things they didn't teach me" are really applicable to other people and how much is just me and others universalizing our own experience.

I wonder this because I've had conversations with older clergy where they've said that certain things would definitely happen to me during my career. Some things, people blaming you for their own personal problems, for example, have happened and I'm glad someone told me it would. But there are other things that I haven't yet encountered and may never encounter. Some of the "this will happen to you" stories I've heard are so bizarre I can't imagine them happening to every single pastor!

I've certainly been guilty of this, too. I think I unnecessarily scared a younger colleague once when I told them how badly the Board of Ordained Ministry would treat them, based on my own previous experience. This person didn't encounter those same difficulties, so I wonder if I caused them undue anxiety. On the other hand, perhaps it caused them to prepare differently. I'm not really sure.

The real question is how much of our own personal experience is normative to what others experience, and is therefore instructive, and how much of it is so unique to our own situations that universalizing it is more about making ourselves feel important than it is about imparting wisdom to another.

Regardless of what the answer to this question is, one of the most powerful things we can do together in any type of community is to share our stories with one another. Whether or not our experience exactly matches that of another, we can find common ground in all of our stories. We've all experienced joy, excitement, frustration, anger, discouragement, and confusion. Particularly when it comes to negative emotions, it can be easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel this way, and hearing another's story reminds us that we are not alone.

So how much of my own story is helpful and instructive for others and how much is just my own junk? Well, that's something they didn't teach me in seminary.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Project Israel- Mishmar ha Emek

One our second full day of the Holy Land pilgrimage, we visited a Kibbutz called Mishmar ha Eemek. A Kibbutz is a collective community, most of which were begun in the early twentieth century by Jews immigrating from Europe before the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. As of 2000, there were approximately 268 kibbutzim in Israel (according to the Jewish Virtual Library), but they hardly look alike, as operate on a variety of different models due to generational shifts in philosophy.

Mishmar ha Emek means "guard of the valley" in Hebrew. It is located in Northern Israel, just west of Megiddo. It was also the site of a battle between Israeli and Arab Liberation Army (supplied by the Syrians) forces in 1948.

What really struck me about kibbutzim in general is that they were begun as utopian communities for Jews fleeing persecution, but they were all non-religious, and most of them staunchly atheist. Their Jewish identity was more rooted in ethnic heritage, which was made stronger by the anti-Semitism they experienced in their countries of origin.

I've been pondering why that was so surprising to me, and I'm pretty sure it's because I'm very steeped in the modern, Western understanding of what religion is- sets of beliefs and practices that are almost entirely divorced from ethnicity, region, culture and language. I'm used to people being able to change religions any time they feel like it, so it still surprises me when someone identifies themselves as an atheist, and at the same time as Jewish.

Lydia Eisenburg, our guide around the kibbutz, told us about growing up in England being asked by other kids where her horns where and being called up in front of her class at school to explain why her people killed Christ. So even though it seems unusual to me, I can understand why such treatment would cause you to identify with a particular ethnic and cultural heritage even if you didn't subscribe to its theological beliefs.

One question our group got to ask a bit about, which I wish we'd had more time to explore with her, was why she felt so particularly attached to the land of Israel. I understand wanting to leave a society that treated you as a second class citizen because of your Jewish heritage, but why this particular land rather than, for example, the United States (where 5 million of the world's 12 million Jews reside) or any other place?

This question particularly sticks with me in light of the conversation I had several days later with a self-identified "Fundamentalist Zionist" who grounded all of his arguments for possession of the land in his understanding of God's promises in the Torah (the full story on that conversation is forthcoming). Clearly, as Avihai Stollat of Breaking the Silence told us, there are many different understandings of what "Zionism" is among the people of Israel.

Lydia's answer: "What Zionism means to me? This!" as she picked up a rock from the path we were walking on. So for a member of a kibbutznik (member of a kibbutz) who is not particularly religious, what causes them to cling to their Jewish identity is a mixture of early life experience, tradition they have received from their families, and some transcendent sense of connection to this land that can't really be put into words.

As I said before, I wish I'd gotten to ask her further questions about this connection to the land, and I think some in our group may have done so during the rest of our brief visit. If any of them can expand on this, please comment below!

Next I'll be posting on our visit to the Tent of Nations and and the al Arub refugee camp: two of the first Palestinian voices we heard on our pilgrimage.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Project Israel- Coming Soon

Hey everyone. I've been busy in the days since we returned from the Holy Land catching up with members of my congregation and working to finish several unfinished projects, to say nothing of beginning the season of Lent!

All this is to say that there are about a half dozen further reflections from the pilgrimage that I promised in the daily posts, and those will be forthcoming starting next week. Thanks to all who have commented on Facebook and other places. I look forward to sharing even more of the experience with you very soon.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Project Israel- Breaking the Silence

During our pilgrimage to the Holy Land we had the great fortune to meet with Avihai Stollat, who works with an organization called Breaking the Silence. BTS collects and shares the stories of former Israeli soldiers (every citizen, male and female, is required to serve) telling what they did in the Palestinian territories at the orders of their government.

Our group spent about an hour in conversation with Avihai, and with his permission I recorded our interaction and share parts of it with you here.

(I will be sharing my own reactions to this encounter in context of what I learned during my time in the Holy Land, but my commentary is best reserved for another time. For now I want to let Avihai speak for himself, which you will see is very powerful.)

Avihai began by telling us about his own experience serving in the IDF in the Palestinian Territories.

Avihai then answered questions from the group. First he was asked about the kinds of stories he has heard from other soldiers.

He then answered my question about what he was taught growing up and in his military training about the relationship between Israel and Palestine.

He also shared about the Israeli government's reaction to BTS' activities.

Avihai shared about his very limited exposure to Palestinians prior to joining the military.

He told us about the diversity of opinions amongst Iraelis regarding the Palestinian conflict.

Because the state of Israel is often associated with the word "Zionism", Avihai reflected on the many different ways Israelis understand that term.

On a related note, he also reflected on how he understands his Jewish identity and Israel's role as a Jewish state.

Each person in our group was profoundly moved by our conversation with Avihai Stollat and the witness of Breaking the Silence. I hope these videos have given you a sense of what we experienced.

My thanks to the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church and The Society for Biblical Studies for the opportunity for our group to have this transformational experience.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Project Israel- Jerusalem

On our last day, we visited the Old City in Jerusalem. First we headed to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), where people have placed prayers for centuries. I was honored to carry the prayers of my family, friends, and my congregation to this holy place.

The Western Wall is part of the Temple Mount built by Solomon, and expanded several times by various rulers. Currently the Temple Mount occupies 35 acres, making in the largest man-made platform in the world, and is the site of the Dome of the Rock- the 3rd holiest site in Islam (it contains the rock from which Mohammed is said to ascended to Heaven). This is the site of the First and Second Temples (built by Solomon and Herod, respectively), as well as Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac (according to Christians and Jewish tradition) or Ishmael (according to Muslim tradition)- Genesis 28 and   Surrah 37, respectively.

We then walked through the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is a mish-mash of various chapels venerating the site of Jesus' crucifixion, his tomb, and the "Center of the World", where it is said that God collected the clay used to make Adam.

 Me venerating the site of Jesus' crucifixion, inhaling the incense. Very cool.

The aedicule over the site of Jesus' tomb. Pictures were not allowed inside.

Next we walked out of the Old City, stopping by the Lithostratos (Greek for "pavement"), where first century paving stones that Jesus may have walked on the Via Dolorosa (Latin for "Way of Sorrows"). One of the stones has a game etched into it that Roman soldiers played when charged with a condemned prisoner. We also visited the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, whose Basilica contains the Ecce Homo (Latin for "Behold the Man") arch, over the site of the old Fortress Antonia, where Pilate condemned Jesus. This is the traditional beginning of the Stations of the Cross.

Then we drove up to the Mount of Olives, which provides a spectacular view of Jerusalem. While we were there we saw the President of Chile giving a statement to the media, marking Chile's official recognition of the State of Palestine.

About halfway down the Mount of Olives is the Sanctuary of the Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept), where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), mourning that they misunderstood his message of peace on earth. Behind the altar is a window overlooking the city, where the Dome of the Rock is clearly visible. Wonderful symbolism.

At the bottom of the Mount of Olives, heading right into the Kidron Valley, is the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Basilica of the Agony of the Lord. The olive trees outside the church are estimated to be as old as 2,500 years, which means they very well could have been witnesses to Jesus' suffering in the garden just before being arrested. Right in front of the altar in the church is the stone on which Jesus is said to have laid and wept, asking God for a way out. This is my absolute favorite gospel story, because it shows how human Jesus is.

Tomorrow is the long journey home. More pictures, video, and longer reflections about this pilgrimage will be posted in the coming days and weeks.

Project Israel- Fact Finding

We started out from Bethlehem on Thursday and headed south, stopping first at the town of Hebron. It is the site of the "Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs", where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah (Rachel, Jacob's other wife, is in Bethlehem) are said to be buried. It is an interesting place, because there are separate areas for Jews and Muslims, and the tension is palpable. The place is crawling with IDF soldiers, some of them barely old enough to shave. This was the first time I've had a machine gun pointed right at my head as I went through security.

As Christians (and Americans), we were allowed to visit both sections and see all the tombs. Since the Muslim portion is a mosque, our female traveling companions had to have head coverings, and the ones offered at the site were interesting, as you will see below.

 Alison was somehow able to convince me that these are not the droids I'm looking for.

 The shrine over Isaac's tomb. Rebekah's identical one is off to the right.
The shrine over the tomb of Abraham and Sarah.

Next we drove even further south into the Negev region, where we visited a Bedouin village called Alsira (the sign was made by a person who didn't speak English, hence the missing "I") that is not recognized by the Israeli government. It turns out that Israel has restricted the nomadic Bedouins to a rather small parcel of land, very much like a Native American Reservation in the States. A resident named Khalil al Amour gave us a tour and served us a fabulous lunch- the type that is reserved for guests. I always knew that hospitality was a huge part of middle-eastern culture, but we were blown away by how graciously they welcomed us. 

We walked around the village, seeing the solar panels that provide all their power, the water system they built by themselves, and even wireless internet that was faster than at our hotel in Bethlehem! We also saw an old widow's home that had been demolished by the government because of a lack of "proper permits" (the rest of the houses proudly display their official demolition orders). I had heard of the Bedouin before, but I didn't know they still existed and that they, like the Palestinians, have to live with second class or worse status in Israel. The resilience of these people was so inspiring. A longer blog post about our time in Alsira is forthcoming.

Then it was back to Hebron to see the Hebron Glass and Ceramics factory. It's one of the few flourishing industries in Palestine, and the artistry is incredible! The ceramics also had some amusing things painted on them, as you can see below.

We ended the day in West Jerusalem at a Catholic Ecumenical Center named Tantur, where we met with a Avihai Stollat, who works with an organization called Breaking the Silence. This organization collects the stories of former Israeli soliders, like Avihai, who want to make the world aware of what is happening in Palestine. I shot some video of our conversation with him, and I will be posting it very soon. Expect a longer reflection on this conversation to come soon.

I'll try to post an update from today before we leave. We had some powerful experiences in Jerusalem. I'll be back home in about 36 hours. Until next time, Shalom/Salaam!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Project Israel- Bloody Hell!!!

Sorry, folks, but I won't be able to do the standard update today. Our hotel's already poor wireless network is not really working tonight. I'm on the lobby desktop, which is somehow working.

We had some powerful experiences today, including our most intense encounter with the IDF yet (which was, however, nothing compared to what Palestinians experience on a daily basis), a visit to a Bedouin village that is not recognized by the government, and an encounter with a former Israeli soldier who is now part of an organization called "Breaking the Silence". I shot some good video of this last encounter, and it will be up as soon as I can cut the footage together.

Tomorrow is our last full day here, and we will be spending almost all of it in Jerusalem, visiting the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, the Temple Mount/ Harem esh Sharif, and more. We have a very early flight the following morning, so I'll do a post if I get a chance. If not, the rest of the daily updates and followup reflections will all be done stateside.

Until we meet again, dear readers, Shalom/Salaam!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Project Israel- Samaria

We started off from Bethlehem (where we're lodging for the rest of the trip) and headed north into the region of Samaria. First, we went to the town of Taybeh (pronounced tie-BEH), which is the only Christian village in Palestine. We visited the Taybeh brewery, which makes really great German-style beers and is one of the few thriving businesses in the Palestinian Territories.

Next we visited a factory where clay olive-oil lamps are made in the shape of doves and sold as reminders to pray for peace in the Holy Land. It's an initiative of the local Catholic parish, and has received the blessing and endorsement of many Catholic bishops.

We also visited a first century-style (it may or may not have been built during that time) house called The House of the Parables- named as such because of the artifacts found inside that are used as images in Jesus' parables: lamps, wineskins, a winnowing fork, etc. It's also the kind of house that Jesus may have been born in, with the animals being stabled on the lower level of the house. Note the partial manger in the last picture.

After lunch at a place where you could customize your own falafel, we drove up to Mt. Gerizim, the focal point of cultic worship for Samaritans- a group that Judeans did not look upon favorably. More on that in a moment.

Next we drove to the city of Nablus, where the probable site of Jacob's Well, site of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4) is located. Over the well sits a Greek Orthodox Church where a priest produces beautiful hand-made icons.

Finally we visited the Israeli settlement of Beit El, where they claim to have the site where Jacob had his dream of the angels ascending and descending the stairway (sometimes translated ladder) to heaven, and the promise that his descendants would inherit the land he saw (Genesis 28). It also claims to be the site of the temple built by King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12) as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Our guide at this site was a settler named Hagi Ben Artzi (who happens to be the brother-in-law of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu), who describes himself as a "Fundamentalist Zionist". Many of the opinions he expressed disturbed me and our entire group, but I don't know that I'm in a place where I can fully reflect on them just yet. This will be another post that will come in the next week or so.

Tomorrow we travel south to Hebron, Negev, the Bedouin village of Khalil al Amour, B'tselem (Israeli Human Rights Agency), and visiting with an organization called "Breaking the Silence". Until then, be well!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Project Israel- Promised Land

We started our day in Amman, Jordan, and spent the majority of the day seeing sites related to the Old Testament.

(Side note- we weren't able to visit the site of Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan River because the Jordanian army is keeping that area under tight control right now, and we didn't have time to go through all the security. We were all disappointed, as you might imagine. I was looking forward to collecting some water from the Jordan for baptisms. While they sell it on every street corner here, it wouldn't be as meaningful if I purchased it. Oh well, just one more reason to come back!)

First we went to Madaba, also called Moab in the Bible. There we visited St. George's Orthodox Church, which contains a mosaic map of the Holy Land (though not remotely to scale, nor does it contain any of the major roads from the time) on the floor in front of the main altar.

Next we visited Mt. Nebo, where Moses is said to have blessed Joshua as the new leader of the Israelites and glimpsed the promised land right before he died, where God then buried him (Deuteronomy 34). Although the view was hazy today, we could see the Jordan River and the plain leading into Israel.

Next we crossed back into Israel, which only took us about an hour to go through all the checkpoints. Given how strict Israeli security is, we had it very easy. Since it's a military zone, pictures aren't allowed, and I wasn't about to risk getting detained and questioned by the IDF or the Mossad.

We visited Jericho, site of the famous battle in Joshua 6. Herod's Winter Palace is here, but it's only partially excavated. The Jordanians started the excavations when this area was under their control, but it has remained untouched since 1967. Apparently the Israelis aren't interested in archeological sites in the Palestinian territories. "Zacchaeus' sycamore tree" (no sycamore tree lives for 2000) years is also there (Luke 19).

Then we swam in the Dead Sea. The salt content is so high that you can float on it very easily. Many of the minerals from the Dead Sea are sold in cosmetic products, and people cover themselves in the mud because it does something good for your skin. One of my traveling companions has a picture of me covered in the mud, and I'll post it when they send it to me.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Mark Twain has returned, and he's bathing in the Dead Sea.

Lastly, we visited Qumran, where a community of Essenes (they self identified as "The Covenanteers") lived and produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. We could see some of the caves where the scrolls lay undiscovered for two thousand years. Cave #4 is just past my right shoulder in the last picture.

Tomorrow we're staying in the West Bank, visiting Jacob's Well, Mt. Gerazim, Nabalus, and a few other sites. Until then, take care!