Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’
Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations by Anthony B. Robinson, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, 199 pp.
Anthony Robinson is among my favorite authors when it comes to explaining the changes facing the world, articulating their impact on the church, and raising the questions that we all need to contemplate in response. In this book, he takes it farther, drawing some conclusions about what mainline congregations need to do to engage with this new era. In Transforming Congregational Culture (one of my favorite guides for leading change in the church), Robinson makes the case for why change is necessary and hints at the kinds of changes that will be required. Changing the Conversation is a tool to help congregations launch the conversations that will engage the work of transformation.
The premise implied in the title is that congregations have been having conversations for the last few decades about whether they are liberal or conservative in their politics, traditional or contemporary in their worship style, emergent or established in their way of life. Robinson labels these conversations ubiquitous, unhelpful and even destructive. (4) The third way moves beyond “either/or” into “both/and.” How can we be about faith formation AND social justice? How can we be about personal transformation AND public transformation? How can we be serious about scripture AND about reason? The path he charts guides congregations around those unhelpful conversations and into new ones, conversations that will move the church forward into a new way of life.
Much of the material was familiar to me, both from Robinson’s other books and from a myriad of authors addressing similar topics, like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, and Gil Rendle. However, this book is unique because it condenses all that material into short, topical chapters that are perfect for discussion with leadership groups in congregations. I ordered copies of this book for every member of my church Council, and we are going to be working through these conversations throughout the coming year, one chapter at a time.
Robinson covers all the major topics that churches should be considering. The first two chapters are titled, “It’s Not About You” and “And Yet…It Is About You.” These two chapters recap his earlier work (which I think is some of the best out there for mainline churches) on the death of Christendom and its implications for the church. The third chapter puts forth the key challenge for mainline churches: moving beyond civic faith to have “a new heart,” passionate about God and following the way of Christ. This chapter reminded me of a line in Martha Grace Reese’s work in Unbinding the Gospel, “You can’t give what you don’t got. Changing the church demands that all of us grow in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. He imagines four chambers of this new heart:
an encounter with the living God and the message of and about God; the power and purpose of Scripture; evangelism for the “churched”; and reclaiming theology as “wisdom proper to the life of believers.” These are four aspects of one whole transformation, that is, being “formed anew” or “formed over” by the living God. (79)
Subsequent chapters address more specific questions: leadership and governance, vision, purpose, mission and public role, stewardship and faith formation.
One of the most important things for me in this book was the chapter on a church’s purpose. Robinson traces a variety of authors (including each of the Gospel writers) on the purpose of the church, such as making disciples, changing lives, embodying Christ’s way of life in the world, glorifying God. All of these are variations on a theme. In a workshop with Robinson I attended on Sunday, he put it this way, “we’re in the people-making business,” making Christians not just by conversion but by a steady, shaping way of life. I think clarity of purpose is critical for all congregations, because it should shape everything else. Our purpose guides what we do (and what we don’t do), and how we go about it. We need to be clear on it, and reiterate it over and over again in everything we do as a church. For my congregation, this will be our starting place. We developed a purpose a few years ago, but we have not revisited it recently.
While I may have read or heard many of these ideas before at multiple clergy workshops, and while our church has already been doing this conversational work together over the last five years, it will still be new to many of the Council members reading this book throughout the year. For me, it is a reminder that the conversation needs to be ongoing, not just a one-time thing. Most importantly, this book (far more than many others) does not just lament the past or imagine the future in vague and dreamy ways. Robinson’s questions and model of congregational conversations offers a path for practical, local, immediate and meaningful ways for real churches to engage with change. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I finished Changing the Conversation thinking, “we can do this!” I can imagine my church having all these conversations, and, with the help of this book, we will.
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, Alban Institute, 2010, 139 pp.
This is the follow-up volume to Merritt’s Tribal Church. Tribal Church mapped out the contours of the next generation, describing with insightful detail the cultural promise and pressures facing Generations X and Y. I finished Tribal Church frustrated that it did not offer as much wisdom as I had hoped about how to be engaged in ministry within this new cultural reality. Reframing Hope picked up where Tribal Church left off, and started to paint a picture of ministry in a new era.
Merritt’s gift is not a program or a plan of action for ministry. Instead, she is able to draw a portrait, an evocative image of what ministry can look like with a new generation. Instead of spelling out “do this, don’t do that,” she carefully draws out the places that hope is found and Christianity is alive anew. In broad strokes, she points out areas that need attention and reformation: authority, community, means of communication, the way the Gospel is told, activism, connection to creation and spirituality. The picture as a whole is still blurry, because we are still figuring out what this new Christianity looks like, but Merritt provides concrete anecdotes that are hi-res clear.
Merritt does an excellent job of distilling and naming subtle changes in understanding for our generation. She gives voice to things that seem vague and unnamed. One compelling example is her description of power and authority:
In a new generation, reliable information does not radiate from a central power; rather it moves underground, through networks, streets, relationships and friends.
Someone recently asked me where I look for information, insight and new ideas about ministry. I realized that there are very few authors or leaders that I turn to as authorities. Instead, I most admire my young colleagues in ministry, whom I connect with through the 2030 Clergy Network. They are my most reliable source, and they are available to me via social media.
Merritt also offers wise words about the impulse toward community.
We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions, yet we are weary from radical individualism. … A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action.
Amen and amen. We realize that we cannot make it on our own, that we need one another, and that life together is richer and more full. Yet we do not turn to institutions to provide ready-made community. We are looking through institutions to build community that is authentic, intense, small and demanding.
Merritt’s book maps out the ways the historic church can be meaningful, relevant and life-giving for a new generation. Her reflections are deep and beautifully written, demanding contemplation rather than programming. It asks the church to orient itself in ways that are spiritual but not radical, so it can be a place of welcome and filled with hope.
At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.
Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”
He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children. Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel. Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.
Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.
God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.
While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair. We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.
The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.
The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.
*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.
Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself best known as their daughter.
I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.
What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home. I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long. I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful. Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left. The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.
And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.
The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.
Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.
I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008, 384 pp.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2009, 391 pp.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pp.
I needed escape reading during the last month’s intensity of Holy Week, tornado recovery and moving into our newly renovated church building. I wanted a distraction from the daily stresses, a world I could escape into at the end of a long day or long week. These books were perfect for that. As young adult literature, they were easy and fast to read. The twists and turns of the intense, unfolding story hooked me in fairly quickly.
The books are all narrated in the voice of their protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. I must confess that I never learned to love Katniss. I loved many things about the character that Suzanne Collins created—a young woman who is not defined by her love interests, who acts with courage and bravery and grit, who must contend with gender stereotypes and manipulate them in order to preserve her life, who has a strong voice of her own. I love that young women have such a great character to relate to. I just didn’t like her, and couldn’t imagine joining her company. That made for an interesting experience of reading the books, because I wanted to know the outcome of the story, even as I didn’t care much what Katniss (the narrator) thought or felt about it.
The world that Collins created was so compelling because it was so believable as a post-apocalyptic version of North America. Panem is like American society through a fun house mirror. Certain aspects (usually the good ones, like equality, opportunity and freedom) shrunken into nothing, and other aspects (usually the bad ones like inequality, greed, consumerism and spectacle) enlarged and engorged beyond their normal proportions. When you see Panem, you see American society. Even though it looks so different, you still know it’s the same thing.
That makes the books an interesting critique of political and economic systems. I read the first book, The Hunger Games, about a week before Palm Sunday, and I was captivated by the parallels between it and the story of Jesus contesting the Roman empire. It became the start of my Palm Sunday sermon, which you can listen to here. Catching Fire and Mockingjay turn more explicitly revolutionary, and provide interesting insights about how we might subvert the seemlingly indomitable powers-that-be in our own society. Love triumphs over death, collaboration over competition. There are ways that the game can be played that destroy the game itself.
The trilogy is a great read. It has lots of theological themes, even if there is no mention of God or religious life in Panem. I recommend it for some fun summer reading, or an interesting conversation starter with so many others who are reading it—especially young people.
Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.
The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.
The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.
Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.
Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.
As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperOne, 2006, 343 pp.
As I prepared to travel in the Holy Land, I thought I would want a historical resource book (or two, but I never even opened Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) to accompany the places and Gospel readings in the experience. I didn’t dig into it until the final few hours of the airplane ride home, so it became more of a way to assimilate all the information. Much to my surprise and delight, Borg also offered a way to process the faith experiences and God-moments that I experienced on the journey. As he has consistently done in recent years, Borg writes about both the historical Jesus and the living Christ with faith and insight.
Much of the content of the book was familiar to me, having read many of Borg’s other books such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Last Week. Borg covers his familiar territory about the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, the earlier paradigm versus the emerging paradigm of Christianity, basic Gospel source theory and the difference between John and the synoptics. After this familiar territory, he draws on his lifetime of study of the Gospels, their history and social context to draw a portrait of Jesus in his world.
Borg begins with the factors that influenced Jesus, including the domination system of imperial Rome and the Jewish practices of his day. He then draws out how Jesus experienced God, and portrays him as a Jewish mystic. Only then does he enter the synoptic vision of who Jesus was and what his ministry was about, giving a summary of the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic, healer and exorcist, wisdom teacher, prophet and movement initiator. Examining the parables and aphorisms of Jesus, Borg then details what Jesus taught and believed about God. I appreciated the way Borg separated Jesus from God in this way. Christian doctrine claims (and I affirm) that Jesus was God incarnate, and so we often look at Jesus without looking as closely at the one to whom he pointed. Borg pulls out and clarifies what Jesus taught us about what God loves—God loves justice, and yearns for shalom in this world.
Borg summarizes Jesus’ message and mission as an invitation into a way of life, a way that centers on God, dies to self, repents and sees with new eyes, and loves what God loves, which is the world. Christ’s crucifixion was a culmination of following that way, confronting the domination system and overturning conventional wisdom. The stories of the resurrection have a two-fold purpose: they vindicate Jesus’ death, and they continue the movement. His followers realized that the way of Jesus did not die with him, that they still felt his presence among them, and continued the work he had begun.
What I appreciate about Borg, as always, is his ability to hold both the scholarly conclusions about the historical Jesus and the faithful conclusions about the living Christ. As he says about the Easter stories specifically:
The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe what you want to about whether the story happened this way—now let’s talk about what the story means. (280)
That was exactly the perspective I needed upon my return from the Holy Land. As I was reading Borg’s book, I was able to understand and interpret the scenes in the Gospel in new and deeper ways, having seen the land and the ruins with my own eyes. He helped me sort out, from all I had seen and heard, what were likely claims of the pre-Easter Jesus and what were the church’s claims about the post-Easter Jesus. Yet he does not dismiss the post-Easter Jesus as less-than or unimportant. The post-Easter Jesus, the living Christ of the church, is the ongoing experience of the mystical presence of God, like Jesus himself experienced.
As I said many times on my pilgrimage, I came looking for the Jesus of history, but I discovered instead the living Christ of faith. Borg describes it this way, specifically describing the story of Emmaus:
The risen Jesus opens up the meaning of scripture. The risen Jesus is known in the breaking of bread. The risen Jesus journeys with his followers, even when they don’t know it. (286)
This book was a great way for me to relive my pilgrimage experiences and the Gospel readings. Instead of just reminding me of the limits of historical knowledge, Borg gave me language to describe my experiences of the post-Easter Jesus while in the Holy Land.
His writing is a great gift to those of us who accept and appreciate the work of historical-critical biblical scholarship, who incorporate its wisdom and insights into our theology and understandings of scripture, yet still nurture a living faith that believes encounters with the living Christ are still possible, and strive to follow the way of Jesus even now.
By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.
Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.
After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.
Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.
The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.
That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.
Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.
I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?
Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.
It’s Sunday again, and we got an early start to worship at the holiest pilgrimage site in Christianity—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were led by Hana Bendcowsky, who is Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, which handles relationships between Jews and Christians right here in Jerusalem. Although she is Jewish, she is the foremost expert on the Church, and the chief appreciator of the Christian worship that takes place in it. The history of the church is one of inter-Christian conflict, as churches vie for every inch of space they can claim in this holy place.
In the course of two hours, we made a progressive worship journey through six different services, all taking place within the various chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, right on top of one another. There was a seventh service also happening, but it was a Roman Catholic Mass, which all of us have attended before (although maybe not in Latin). As a group of Protestant pastors, all the various orthodox forms of worship were completely foreign to us, as were the languages in which they were performed. Yet we found ways to connect with each of them in different ways. (There are no photographs from these worship services, because I attended to worship, not to tour, and it felt inappropriate to take pictures. The photos are from the visit we made on Saturday, or on Sunday after worship was completed.)
We began with the tiny Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof outside the church itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox used to have a place in the church, but they did not have enough money to pay their taxes, so they were kicked out. They forcibly occupied their current chapel less than 50 years ago, and the local authorities have ruled that they can stay. We entered toward the conclusion of the service, as the bishop was offering the blessing. Even though the service was in a foreign language, with foreign customs, we all recognized immediately what was going on, as each member of the small congregation (less than 25 people) removed his or her shoes to enter the altar area, and then approached the bishop. They kissed his cross, and he blessed them. While the custom and power of the bishop is foreign to Protestants, the act of blessing at the end of worship is just like home.
From there we moved on to the Coptic Christians, who have permission to use the very back side of the structure above the tomb, but only until 8:45 a.m., when they have to be out of the way so the next service can begin. This service was right out in the center of things, where tourists were beginning to roam, but the faithful gathered around carefully. They were very welcoming to us, once they realized we were with Hana and we were attending with the spirit of worship. As we arrived, the bishop was sprinkling everyone heavily with water, to remember their baptism. People received the abundant water with prayerful glee, rubbing it over their faces and into their scalps. A large basket emerged from a back storage room, overflowing with fresh, round bread, similar in size and shape to a pita. The basket moved hand to hand overhead to the bishop, who blessed it. Then the worshippers crowded in, hands extended, reaching out for bread, pushing their way forward (gently) to get a piece. It was a huge basket for just 25 or so worshippers, so everyone got a big piece. We held back, unsure if we were allowed to partake. Hana whispered that this was not communion (which would be closed to us), this was blessed bread, and if they gave it to us we could have it. And give they did—generously! Each of us received a big hunk of bread to taste and enjoy. I don’t know what the symbolism or meaning of the blessed bread is for the Coptic Christians, but for me it was a symbol of welcome and inclusion. It reminded me of Jesus feeding the 5,000—there is bread enough for anyone who is hungry, and it has been blessed just for you. It tasted great, too! Later in the morning, we crossed paths with the Coptic bishop again, and he invited us up to his home for tea. Although we had to decline, I knew his welcome was warm and sincere.
Behind the Coptic space, buried in a tiny chapel, was the Syrian Orthodox worship service. We visited their empty chapel on Saturday, and saw its shameful state of disrepair. The altar was falling apart, the glass covered in dust, the walls covered in soot. All this stems from a dispute between the Syrians and the Armenians over the chapel. The Armenians claim ownership of the chapel, but the Syrians have a right to worship there. To clean the chapel is to claim rights to it—so the only way they have kept the peace is to have no one clean or repair it. When we returned on Sunday, however, the whole chapel had been transformed. Bright tapestries covered the crumbling walls, altar clothes rendered the broken wood invisible, and the red and green and gold vestments of the clergy made it the most colorful service we had seen. We could only peek inside, because the door landed us at the front of the chapel and there was no non-intrusive way to enter.
My glimpse at the Syrian transformation reminded me of all the storefront churches I’ve known. A Haitian church that I worked closely with in Boston worshipped in a former synagogue. An African-American church met in an abandoned grocery store. My college church met in a transformed bank building. They all renovated and transformed the church with decorations and furniture to make it feel like a sanctuary. Sacred space need not be built-in, it can be created in any kind of space where people gather.
From the Copts and Syrians we made our way to the large Greek Orthodox chapel, where their mass was in its final stages. There were only a few worshippers scattered around the edges of their space, the largest of all the chapels. Our group was far larger than the gathered congregation, but they had occupied the edges of the sanctuary. We were trying not to block their view, to be quiet and respectful and inconspicuous, but it was difficult. As I tried to pass by toward an unoccupied piece of wall, one of the nuns stepped forward and said sharply, “Down! Down!” Another colleague and I dropped to one knee instantly. When it became clear that we were going to be there awhile, we switched to two knees. That was not any more comfortable on the stone floor. At one point, I started to get lightheaded, and slumped down to reposition for a moment so I didn’t pass out. The same nun rapped me on the shoulder immediately. “No good! No good! Up! Up!” Back to my knees I went, and there I stayed until it was time to depart.
It was a strange experience. Unlike the Copts, this nun went out of her way to make us feel uncomfortable in their worship service. We were uncomfortable already, trying to be respectful and not knowing what to do or where to go or what was being said. It was even stranger because, next to us and the disciplinarian nun, there were three nuns chatting and talking and sharing needlework designs—so close that their skirts kept touching my arm as I kneeled. I’m not sure why they could stand in her way and talk, but we had to kneel. My knees hurt and my legs fell asleep while I kneeled there, so I meditated on the sacrifices and hardships of all the pilgrims who have come before. This was a small measure of discomfort by comparison. Even more, I thought of the people I have known over the years that are just like that nun—and how much I appreciate them, even as they are a pain in my knees. There are always those people in the church who strive to protect the decorum and honor of the worship service because they passionately believe God deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. For this I admire them, even if I wish they would learn how to be more welcoming and hospitable to those who are seeking to worship, but don’t yet know quite how.
I was grateful to finally get up off my knees and move on to the Armenian service on the second floor. All these services happen simultaneously, and the Armenians were by far the best singers—we could hear them singing everywhere we went, which sometimes made it hard to hear the rest. They had plenty of room to worship—or so we thought. The all-male choir was about 30 strong, and they were arranged in two lines in a U-shape, facing the altar. The room stretched back behind them quite a way, so we filled in the back, only to discover that the choir was about to make a procession right where we were standing. A verger of some sort gently instructed us on how to move out of the way. Shortly after, they began something we all recognized immediately—the passing of the peace. The peace began with the bishop, who put his hand over his heart and gave the kiss of peace to the two priests on the chancel with him. They then passed the peace in the same way to the choirmaster, who started it around the circle in the choir. The peace was not simply a greeting each person initiated with his or her neighbors, it was a sacred blessing that was received from the bishop and passed through you and on to the next person, until everyone had received it. I loved the idea of passing the peace in this way, hands on hearts, one by one. It reminded me of the light of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, the way one light is passed from one hand to another until the whole room is illuminated.
Our final stop was with the local Palestinian Christians, who conduct a mass in Arabic in a small chapel just outside the door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These are the Christians who have been worshipping in this part of the world since the time of Jesus. Unlike the other worship services, which are mainly attended by a few monks and nuns and the priests or bishops who officiate them, this was a parish church. There were families and people of all ages. The chapel did not just host the formal weekly masses of a shrine, but baptisms and weddings and confirmations. We were greeted immediately, even though the service had already begun, and the women in the back section moved over to make room to squeeze all 22 of us into a few benches. Rather than simply ignoring us, these women in the back pews pointed out what was happening in the service, and tried to explain it in a few short English words. The moment I most felt God all morning was when one of the women squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, “Paternoster,”—the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. We all opened our palms to the heavens, imitating the gesture they made, and listened to them pray the same prayer of Jesus we all pray, in another language, yet still the same Christ.
My overwhelming impression upon worshipping (however briefly) with all these communities at the Holy Sepulchre is that my own branch of Christianity is just so small. Our United Church of Christ is one branch of Protestantism (which is not even represented at the Holy Sepulchre), and only in one country, the United States. My understanding of how to worship and of the language of God is but one tiny sliver in the grand scheme of Christianity.
There was much that was foreign about worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but it is the moments of familiarity that I will remember most. In spite of our many languages and diverse music and different theologies and divergent aesthetics, we know Christ in the passing of the peace, the sharing of bread, the creation of beauty, the reverence of worship, the Prayer of Our Savior. Thanks be to God.
(This marathon post represents only the first half of our day, and doesn’t scrape the surface of the lecture and information Hana shared with us. I’ll write another post about the rest of Sunday’s activities—look for it tomorrow.)