progressive: (adjective) moving forward; happening or developing gradually over a period of time; using or interested in new modern ideas; origin: first known use of progressive: circa 1612

For the last three days I have been attending the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference held at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, IL. As the inaugural event there were highs and lows. First off, let me be clear, no conference is perfect. What is important about a conference is that it helps bring about change for the better. If people come away enlightened, educated, energized, and informed, then I consider it a success, even if there are some not-so-great things happening. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan talking about sex. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

The event was put on by Fourth Presbyterian Church and the JoPa Group. If you were to ask me what the JoPa group does, I would say they are a couple of mid-western white guys who used to be more conservative evangelical Christians and now have turned away from that and call themselves “progressive” Christians and they put on conferences, give talks, and overstimulate audiences. They are not unlike so many others out there. I’m not saying that as a criticism but based on what I witnessed and what many others I spoke with saw as well. They have good things to say, and they talk really, really fast.

Tony Jones and Tripp Fuller talking about the Homebrewed Christianity. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Tony Jones and Tripp Fuller talking about the Homebrewed Christianity. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

I’ve never heard of the JoPa group but apparently they are all over the place when it comes to the emergent Christian scene of ex-evangelicals. It made a girl feel pretty out of the loop when it came to the cool kids club. But then I got a hold of myself. Overall, the conference was organized and was really, really interesting. I give lots of kudos for them and to Fourth for talking about such topics as gender theory, queer theology, issues of LGBTQIAS at a conference like this for youth leaders. That in itself was enough for me.

Based on my observations and those who I spoke with at the conference from all over North America, here are some pro and con things that people witnessed:

Pro: Good session presenters for individual sessions./Con: Pretty much male-dominated (are we surprised?).

Pro: Lots of talk about queer theology, sexuality, and gender. These are topics that so many youth workers want and need to know about. Just because you might support the gay kid in your youth group doesn’t mean you necessarily know what to do next. With so many church conferences going on, this is the first time I have ever witnessed this conversation and this alone, for me, made the conference completely worth while./Con: Many of the presenters (primarily associated with the JoPa group) focused in on the “hipster” vibe of many youth leaders and tended to drop some swearing that was awkward and made even a sailor like myself uncomfortable at times. Not all youth leaders are white men who are trying to rage against the man.

Pro: Lots of multiple learning styles used. Rev. Shawna Bowman was on hand with her iPad and Page 53 app that allows one to make some incredible works of art. These were displayed on a screen at the front for all to see as she created them./Con: Lots of inside jokes used by co-host Tony Jones that only those in his circle would understand which left the rest of us in the dark and feeling like we were missing out on his beer-drinking and cigar smoking with his other buddies.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Pro: Relevant topics. Gender, sex, sexuality, talking about the harsh realities of the Bible, how to teach youth and kids so they don’t have to un-learn things later, addressing the horrible youth ministry games that most should be fired for, and more here. Many of these topics get glazed over in other spaces, but not here. /Con: Where was the prayer? Where were the sacred spaces? I overheard one of the presenters ask, “where’s the prayer in this place?” With a plethora of conversation and idea birthing, where was the sacred space? The opening worship began with Rev. Otis Moss Jones III preaching and he brought it. I mean, Jesus went up the hill to calvary my friends. It was awesome. But between opening and closing worship, where were the moments of breath where we could soak it all in. Some of the presenters spoke so fast without pause that their attempt to cram into 30 minutes as many ideas as they could get out, simply left most of us bewildered and unable to grasp the ideas they were trying to share.

Pro: Homebrewed Christianity. A regular podcast, these guys like beer and apparently Neihbur. Give it a listen sometimes./Con: Homebrewed Christianity. It wasn’t as exciting as you wanted it to be. While fun, it was still pretty pretentious. But nice choice on the beers guys and sweet glasses.

Pro: Ironically, one of the movers and shakers in the NEXT Church movement in the PCUSA, Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, is about to become the new Head of Staff at Fourth Presbyterian Church. What’s ironic about this is that this youth conference covered topics that many crave from the NEXT conferences. NEXT can’t do it all, and it shouldn’t have to, but this conference helped to fill in that gap from those who are part of NEXT or are longing for just a little more holistic ministry besides the young adult movement./Con: There seemed to be a good bit of evangelical bashing happening from some folks speaking. Look, I get it. If you came from that then it can and probably has been traumatising in some way. You found the light and you came over to the dark “progressive” side. But not everyone has that experience. I didn’t. I grew up with reformed theology in a conservative church in the middle of the suburban Bible-belt and I was never shunned, told I wouldn’t be loved or that there was something wrong with me.  Heck, they even helped pay for my Northern, uber-liberal theological education. For some its important to look at those other churches and say, “I don’t want to be like that.” But I think the point is that we should be looking at the churches and communities that are doing it right and instead say, “How do we be more like that?” I like to have an occasional evangelical bash once and a while in the privacy of my own personal circle, but there’s a point where the joke isn’t funny any longer and we need to move on.

Pro: Everyday Sunday. Christian music that’s not Michael W. Smith (He’s great and all but one can only handle so many of the same line repeated over, and over, and over, and over…). It’s good music and they were a group many of us had never heard about.

Everyday Christianity speaking at PYM2014. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Everyday Christianity speaking at PYM2014. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Pro: There was some good practical advice in the seminars. Not so much in the larger group sessions.

Rev. Dr. Lib Caldwell talking about how to teach the Bible to Children so they don't have to un-learn it later in life.

Rev. Dr. Lib Caldwell talking about how to teach the Bible to Children so they don’t have to un-learn it later in life.

Pro: The resource room. You had folks like Ministry Architects, the Thoughtful Christian, and sparkhouse among others. The book resources provided by TC were great and a good selection. It was small but I look forward to see who else gets on board in the future.

Pro: Social Media. Look, anyone who isn’t your great-grandfather is using social media. And even he’s dabbled in it at some point. It was used well. The event was promoted on social media and it helped everyone stay connected.

So, there’s my list. There were some Cons, but more Pros. At the end of the day, this was a success. No conference is perfect. No conference like this has been done before. People came away with good, solid, positive things. Will I go next year? Yes. I look forward to it, wherever they hold it (although, I must admit, it was nice to have it just a mile or so from my apartment). This was not all of it by far. Visit the website, read the stuff there. It won’t be a waste of your time.

Nice job Fourth and JoPa. And an especially “good job” to Rev. John Vest. Not many can pull off a conference like this AND serve their incredible Holy Smoker barbecue at such a high quality and maintain their sanity.

Posted in #PYM14, blogs, Chicago, church, commitment, god, PCUSA, theology, Uncategorized, Youth Ministry | 2 Comments

word: (noun) something that is said; a brief remark or conversation, something that a person says; origin: (before 12th century) middle english, from old english

Today is a word dump day. “What’s a word dump?” you ask. A word dump is where you just let it all out, whatever it is. It’s a practice that my 12th grade english teach taught us to get us to write or a way to break through our writer’s block. I debated just doing it in Word or some other writing program, but then I thought it would be so much more fun to do it here. This specific word dump is about my thesis. Yes, I’m writing a thesis. I’m working on a Master’s of Theology (ThM), and my first draft is due in 2 1/2 weeks. It’s a theology paper on interfaith dialogue. It’s hard to focus since my mind has been on our Israel trip and also dealing with other stuff going on.

First, what drives me for this is the problem that so many interfaithers have with the issue of “evangelisation.” The issue that I have with it is that, for me, it means to convert someone. I think its supposed to mean that you are sharing the love of Christ and the message, but not intending to convert. Sharing the love of Jesus is not the same as converting someone. When you try to convert someone, you don’t honour who they are as a person. As a sentient being, they can make up their own minds, by convincing someone to become a Christian (however well intending we humans are), we don’t see the person as they are but as we want them to be. Oh, and did I mention that humans don’t convert other humans, God does. So, if there’s conversion going on, then that’s God’s work and when people take credit for it, then they are claiming to do God’s job. Now, does that mean people can’t be a part of that process? Not at all. People are totally part of the process.

Let me elaborate.

If someone decides to become a Christian, then they have a reason for doing so. Maybe it’s because others have shown the love of Jesus through their actions and they want to live like those people do. But when it’s like the scene from the movie, The Apostle, then it is not genuinely about the person but about another tack on the board. Now, you might be thinking, “look, in the Bible, Jesus says to go spread the message, bring people into the fold.” And you’re right. Jesus does say that. We often call it the Great Commission. It’s found in Matthew 28:16-20.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

But that was back then. We have to think about the atmosphere back then. When we think of Christians in the Bible, we often think of the general population. Think again. Christians were far and few between. They were considered a cult (not a punch drinking cult), but a cult. A small branch of Judaism that had broken off and was going rogue. They were trying to get numbers, they were trying to tell people, “Hey, Jesus is here! He’s fulfilling the promise that God made to Abraham!”

Think about Paul. Most people see Paul as the ultimate convert. Well, technically, Christians weren’t Christians back then, they were still Jews. Atleast that’s what they thought of themselves. This idea of Christian wasn’t really in existence, so Paul didn’t really convert, he simply saw the fulfilment of the promise that we now read in the Old Testament. So, that theory is out. Paul, not a convert. But, I will give him props for turning his life around.

Back to this conversion thing. What’s the point of conversion now-a-days? Why do we try to evangelise people and bring them to God? If we’re really Christians, don’t we believe that God loves everyone? Sure. Atleast, I do. Now, many Christians will tell you God only accepts those who live a certain lifestyle and fit into a certain mould. But that’s not true. God still loves Newt Gringrich, right? And he and many other politicians on both sides of the aisle have committed a lot of sins. So, God can’t only love a select few. Plus, take the creation story, God called all that God made good, right? God doesn’t pick and choose and if you think God does because it says so in Scripture, then, news flash: you’re reading stuff that a bunch of old dead men wrote a long time ago and then was rearranged and hand-picked by a bunch of other old dead men in fancy clothes. If you want to take the entire Bible at face-value, go right ahead. Just make sure and don’t eat the peas that were planted next to the tomatoes, or make sure you’ve brushed your hair, don’t go to church within 33 days of giving birth to a boy or 66 if you’ve given birth to a girl, and don’t mix your fabrics friends. Also, there’s some fun stuff about gang rape in Genesis and Judges, you could look into that too…

See how insane some of this sounds?

So, if God is loving to all humans, they why do we need to make them like us? God made them different. Why is that so bad? Why are we trying to undo what God already did? The point of conversion back then was to spread the message of the fulfilment and that the love of God was no longer for a chosen people but for all who whose to follow. It was no longer about who was circumcised and kept specific laws, because they weren’t needed after Jesus came. There was no need to have all these outward signs because God fulfilled God’s part.

When we try to convert another, we try to change them to what we think they should be. I’d like to try and convert my partner to see that its better when you put the dishes in the sink and not all over the counter so you can keep cooking vs. setting them all over the counter thus taking up counter space. But its’ not that simple. She has her reasons for doing it how she does it, and those are valid. Just like mine are valid for putting them in the sink. We are different people and see things differently sometimes, but we are still good people.

So, what does all this have to do with interfaith dialogue? It has to do with the problem of conversion when a person tries to be in relationship with someone of another faith tradition. Heck, it is hard when it’s even in an ecumenical relationship. Either way, when we come to the table believing that we much convert others to be like us, religiously, then we do not take serious their individuality and their own set of beliefs. We disregard them for who they are and we do not come to the table to have true interfaith relations but with an agenda. This is where we have to re-think what evangelism truly is for Christians.

When I hear evangelism, I also hear the word witness in my head. What does it mean to witness to someone? It means to share the love of Christ. Many people believe that when you witness, you give a verbal testimony to people. I like to think of it differently. When I witness to someone, the point is that I should never, ever, have to say “Jesus” or “God.” My actions and words should be enough that I exemplify Christ and what I have learned from the account of his life. If I’m going to mention Jesus or God, then it’s in response to, “So, why do you do what you do?” Then I can say, “Because I believe in Jesus and that’s what I’m called to do.” That is sharing the gospel. People should know that God loves them through the actions and lives of Christians. I do not feel like God loves me when someone tells me that God hates me because I am a lesbian. I do not believe that Jesus died for my sins when someone tells me I am an abomination. Way to be Christ-like folks. That’s not it. You missed the point.

Here’s the point: it’s not our decision who gets in at the end or not. That’s God’s job. So, please, stop trying to do God’s job for God. You are not God. Stop making yourself a false idol. Please. We will all sleep a little bit better at night.

Well, friends, that’s my word dump for the moment. You don’t have to agree with it. That’s not the point. The point is for me to get some thoughts out there so I can finish writing this thesis and process things. You don’t have to like it, I don’t really care. Maybe the arguments aren’t well written out and maybe they are SUPER flawed, but they are my thoughts and opinions.

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limbo: (noun) a place or state of restraint or confinement; a place or state of neglect or oblivion; an intermediate or transitional place or state; a state of uncertainty; origin: 14th century; middle english, derived from medieval latin

Yesterday an article came out by Carol Howard Merritt on the Christian Century website and made its way around the Facebook inter webs.

Last week, I discovered I failed another Bible Trivia Content Exam.

What happened you ask? Oh, I blanked. I blanked big time.

I mean, I was incapable of telling the story of Moses. I barely knew the names of the books of the Bible. Had you asked me 24 hours before hand, I would have given you perfect answers, because I knew them. But sitting across the table from two people (one via FaceTime over a phone) knowing that your ordination rides on the next hour’s conversation, you lose your shit. Or, at least I did.

When I left the meeting, I knew. I knew that my lack of confidence in myself had allowed me to simply shut down mentally and I couldn’t answer basic questions about the Bible that I had spent most of my life learning. As I headed back to the airport, I knew the phone call I would get in a week. I knew what they would say. And, I knew they would be nice and orderly about it, as all Presbyterians strive to be.

When the phone call came, I was prepared and I took the news in stride. But then a conversation began to take shape, and again, I lost it. I didn’t yell, instead I felt hot tears well up in my eyes and a lump grow in my throat. When told, “We think you should take more Bible classes to help prepare you,” I stopped the conversation. “Who’s going to pay for those? I already got the Master’s of Divinity and I’m getting a Master’s of Theology right now. Who’s going to pay for these extra classes?”

Silence.

The problems I have here are the following: 1) I paid my own way through this. I paid for all the other ordination exams I passed with success from my own pocket. I paid for my seminary education (well, the part that wasn’t already covered), I paid for my books, I paid for travel to and from meetings between Atlanta and Chicago, I paid for CPE. I paid out all of the money for everything that was required of me. So, where’s my reimbursement check from the people who convinced me and led me to believe that I was called to this ministry? Is there some sort of compensation for paying for my psychological assessment? That was a good chunk of money, oh, and you can reimburse my church as well.  Is there some sort of compensation for those who are required to do more work and spend more money than those who simply glide through (and let’s be honest, many of them should not be gliding though)?

2) While I appreciate the chance to do an in-person test, maybe this should send up a flag? Maybe I am not called to ministry. My testers told me, “We really liked you a lot!” Great, thanks. I have lots of people who like me. I’m not in the business of getting more Facebook friends. I’m in the business of trying to get a job that I’ve been trained for. That YOU helped me train for. I’m in the business of “jumping through the hoops” that are the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordination system. More people liking me doesn’t help me get a job to pay off student loans. Someone liking me and wanting me to spend more money for classes I can’t afford because I can’t afford is only frustrating and gives me one more reason to look away from the church.

Sure, I sound like a snot-nosed brat, right? But, really, wouldn’t you in this place? How on earth are you supposed to take being placed in limbo by the people who claim to believe in your talents for something? A limbo that leaves you without the chance for jobs in a highly competitive market, and asks you to wait and pay out more money? Let’s also add on that there’s the added pressure of knowing that more than half of your denomination doesn’t want you in their churches because they “just aren’t ready for that” yet. Read: we like gays and lesbians in our pews, but not our pulpits.

It’s all very maddening.

So, back to the article. Merritt points to the place where so many of us in the process of ordination with the PCUSA find ourselves, in limbo. We are left to feel neglected, hushed of our voices, struggling, confined to jobs that are often times below our level of experience and training or not even in our field at all. Let me note, I have never felt neglected by the Atlanta Presbytery. But still, here I am, in the land of limbo.

Maybe this is my time to bow out. Maybe that’s what this is really about. Luckily, I have friends and family that support me, but at some point, you have to ask yourself, “Am I wasting my time? Should I be doing something else?” Who wants to be in their mid-thirties and still unable to get a job simply because of the PCUSA limbo?

I’ve always had issues with the PCUSA ordination process, and I don’t think those will ever go away. Now, I just have to decide, can I remain in limbo with the hopes of soon getting out, or do I leave, gracefully, and move on and learn how to live a life that no longer revolves around the church?

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Going Where Locals Can’t Go

January 13, 2014 – Jerusalem

Sunday morning began as any other Sunday morning would begin for many Christians. A wake up call from the alarm, breakfast and coffee or tea, and a dash to put on your finest clothing before going to church. The difference here was that we were making a few stops before visiting St. George’s Anglican Church. We had a mosque visit. And not just any mosque, but THE mosque in Jerusalem: the Al-Haram.

DSC_0397

Entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Now, let’s put all of this into context. The Haram is the complex that includes the Dome of the Chain, the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This complex (the entire complex is considered a mosque, technically), sits on the same platform site as the 2 temples once stood. Therefore, making this a hot-button place for Jews and Muslims, especially.  For Jews, this is a place that should rightfully belong to them (sound familiar?), and for Muslims, this is the place where the rock of Muhammad’s ascension into heaven took place. This is the space within the Muslim Quarter of the Old City that has been carved out for Muslims. Controlled by the Jordanians, this place is under lock and key to outsiders for several reasons. And sadly, because Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine is under lock and key to its own natural inhabitants, the Palestinians, even those Muslim Palestinians who have been denied legal status in their own homeland are unable to witness this place.

Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain.

Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain.

It is one thing to get onto the complex within the Muslim quarter of the Old city, but it is another to get into the Al-Aqsa. Somehow, our group was given special permission to enter the buildings and experience them, first hand. I can only describe them as breathtaking and moving. God is truly present in this space. To deny that is to essentially deny God.

Inside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Inside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

After our time in the Muslim Quarter, we made our way to church at St. George’s Anglican Church. Besides the biting cold, it was a service representative of the kingdom of God. People of all colors and from all over the world were present for one hour and 15 minutes.

After our church services and our lunch, we made our way through to Bethany, an old place that is, like everything else, Biblically referenced, and is in what many Americans would consider ruins. This is an Area “C,” an area that is controlled by Israel with no ability for the Palestinian people to govern themselves. Sadly, it is also a place where, while controlled by Israeli government, less than 8% of services are provided to the people despite their taxes being paid. No police, no social services like other areas, nothing. An intentional limbo outside of the wall build around Jerusalem.

Signage for occupied "Area A."

Signage for Area “A” put up by the Israel government to keep people out of Palestinian controlled areas under occupation.

Now, Bethany is not your typical tourist destination. It’s not even a place where tourists go at all. But, we had a date with Professor Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway. A professor at Al-Quds University, a Palestinian University. Now, Bethany is not in Area “A” as you see in the sign above, but it is, as I mentioned in Area “C.”

Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway

Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway.

Dr. Abu-Sway told his personal story of being a Palestinian Muslim in occupied territory; a story that is heartbreaking. While some found it devoid of hope, others of us found it simply realistic in a situation where hope is hard to see.

As a young boy, Abu-Sway was born and raised as a child on the Mount of Olives. According to Islamic law and his mother’s love for her neighbor, he has a Christian sister, and despite the actions of the 6 days war in 1967, his mother kept an open house for all to come and go as needed. As a child he and his family fled to Jericho and were eventually smuggled back into Jerusalem just in time for the census. Left and right, he watched as Palestinians lost their citizenship to their homeland.

Now, let’s pause here and have a thought experiment.

Imagine that I return to the US after this trip. As I am walking through customs, with my partner waiting in the airport lobby, and I am informed that I no longer have citizenship and I cannot enter the country of my birthright. What happens to my bank accounts, my apartment, my family, my belongings, where do I go? If I have no identification then I cannot enter into another country or get onto another plane. My cell phone is no longer good. I have nothing except for the material things I carry with me and my God. That is it.

As Americans, we have no clue what that looks like, whatsoever. Nothing. And imagine you are a member of the people who are revoking my ID. How do you fight the injustice? Can you? How are you left in limbo when your group is the group who is responsible for something like this? (What I’m trying to get at is that not everyone wishes this and that there are two sides to every story. Right now, I am only focusing on one side.)

As Abu-Sway talked of his story and of the hope that is so hard to find, the hope that is nothing like what American Christians would think hope to be. We find hope in others who come to our aid. We know that at some point, someone will help us. When we realize no one is coming, that is when hope disappears. According to Abu-Sway as well as Cedar, the Christian Palestinian from Sabeel, hope in the young people is not present. There is no trust. And who can blame them? As Abu-Sway said, “what light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t see any light because there is no tunnel for us.” In other words, ‘where are those who will help us because so far, no one has.’

“The wall rapes our psyche on a daily basis,” claimed Dr. Sway. A wall constructed to keep out those who are deemed unworthy; a wall that is meant to demoralize and make a bold statement.

How do you find hope when no one comes to stop the rape?

Wall from inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

Wall from inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

At the end of the day, as an American Christian tourist, the wall reminds me of the inequality within this place. Now, you’re saying, “inequality is everywhere! Why are you only talking about this place? Why not Syria or other areas of the world?” Because, this is what I experienced first-hand. There are other blogs that talk about those subjects. And for now, so long as I recount my story, this is what I’ll be talking about.

As a tourist I was allowed inside walls that not even locals are allowed into. Not because it’s just that exclusive to get into, but because I am not a Palestinian but an American. My dollars go to give this country military support and support an agenda that I don’t agree with. The US gives around 1.5 billion dollars to Israel each year. Imagine what money like that could do in our own country.

I got to the other side of the wall because I am an American, an outsider.

Does it seem right that I should be allowed to go where even the locals can’t go?

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Dying Dead Sea

This post was originally begun on January 12, while we were still in Jerusalem, just outside of the Old City. After working on a draft I decided against publishing any longer until I had returned to the States. You’ll find out why later. I have left part of it in its original format and added to is since then.

Sorry, friends. The internet in our lodging wasn’t all I would dream for it to be.  So, it makes it a bit difficult to get to the interwebs long enough to manage these things. What did we do before the video killed the radio star?

Saturday, we headed to a day quite the opposite from the day before it. Still as challenging, but in different ways. And there was a lot more laughter this time instead of managing crowds and pickpockets. We began our morning at En Gedi, the place where it is said that David went and hid from Saul in the wilderness. Instead of having hundreds of people there, there were a few locals there for a hike and some photo shoots. The first hike was simple enough; maybe 15 minutes. Along the way were hyrax: tail-less beaver looking animals whose closest relative is actually the elephant.

At the lower of the 2 springs, David would have encountered this on his retreat into the wilderness.

The lower of the two waterfalls.

The lower of the two waterfalls.

After this we continued along the path up towards the main waterfall. Mind you, all of this is fed by a spring in the ground. Meaning freshwater. We aren’t at the Dead sea yet.

Clearly, our hike was successful. It was relaxing and physically demanding in ways that it wasn’t within the Old city walls. It helped us to clear our minds and relax a bit. The first day was a day of overwhelming, dashing to and fro in large crowds. Today was about listening and not worrying about the markets or being trampled on.

Katie and I after our hike to the larger of the two waterfalls.

Katie and I after our hike to the larger of the two waterfalls.

After this, we made our way over to the original home of the Dead Sea scrolls, Qumran. Like En Gedi, it was dry and arid but not too overwhelming as far as people go. The theory is the Essenes (possibly a group John the Baptist was associated with for a while), were the writers of the scrolls, hid them in the remote caves they lived in, and abandoned them there in jars to hide them from invading Romans. Well, their plan clearly worked; maybe a little too well. Probably meaning to come back for them, they were left for generations until a small Bedouin boy came across them while herding his sheep. The rest is history.

Cave no. 4 where the most complete scroll was found, the book of Isaiah.

Cave no. 4 where the most complete scroll was found, the book of Isaiah.

Here, in Cave no. 4, was found the most complete of all the scrolls, the book  of Isaiah. Interestingly enough, there was no book of Ester ever found in any of these caves. Theories speculated several things: first maybe because she was a woman she was not written down. But that makes little sense as we have the book of Ruth. So, that one’s out. Another theory is that because it is a book that never once mentions God, it was never recorded. I don’t know enough about the book of Ester to make some deep claim about it, but if I had to make my own claim I’d say because it probably isn’t a true story, and that’s why you won’t find it here among the clay jars and dirt.

After Qumron it was time for the part that many of us had been waiting for: the Dead Sea. Now, some background on the Dead Sea. It’s called the Dead Sea because nothing can live in it. Where the ocean is 3% salt to water, this body of water is 30% salt to water. So, you can’t swim in it. You can only float. And if you drink it, it could possibly kill you. This is also the lowest place on the earth, just below 1,400 ft. sea level.

Also, the Dead Sea is dying.

This is the part that hurts when you think about it. Initially, the Sea was fed by the River Jordan. We all know what that is, and if you don’t that’s why Wikipedia exists. While fed by the Jordan, it was always replenished. There is mud there, rich with minerals for one’s skin, and a beautiful foreground for the country of Jordan just on the other side. As you look around, it is easy to see how much in the last 20 or 30 years, the Sea has lowered. Now, they didn’t cut off the Jordan just to spite the Dead Sea. The Jordan provides drinking water. Sadly, this is drinking water going to people settling in a land that is simply not equipped to handle them. So by living in these areas that are living off the Jordan River unnaturally, they are literally killing the current landscape and sadly, this means that soon, the Dead Sea will be no more.

A view of the Dead Sea from the road.

A view of the Dead Sea from the road and the erosion that has taken place.

For me, this death of the Dead Sea cries out to abuse of land, a land that is being changed to support people living where the land did not intend for them to live. As Christians, we call this being poor stewards of the earth. For some, it is called creating a nation-state. Either way you spin it, it yields the same results, the death of something that features in Biblical history and something that will never again be regained: no matter what. Leaving the land bare, and also taking away of future profits for those who run the mineral plants. It’s tit for tat, but not in a positive way.

I was sad to leave the Dead Sea, knowing that if I ever return, it will be smaller and maybe inaccessible by that point. But Jericho called our names. A lush city, it is also home to the oldest settlement known to human kind. A bronze age community that is still being unearthed and that will take your breath away.

Bronze Age City in Jericho.

Bronze Age City in Jericho.

It’s a bit weird to see such old remains and know where they came from but still pretty cool.

Well, friends. This was the post I worked on, nothing scandalous in my opinion, but still I felt it safer to refrain for a while. Check back in for the rest of the trip.

Posted in blogs, Dead Sea, god, Jericho, Jerusalem, Old City, PCUSA, Plaestine, theology, travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Holy Pie

One of my classmates put it best last night when she asked the group what do we do with such a place as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where so many are vying for a piece of the “holy pie”? She’s right. What do we do with a place such as Jerusalem?

The Tomb of Jesus inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where different churches and denominations vie for their right to the claim.

The Tomb of Jesus inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where different churches and denominations vie for their right to the claim.

Yesterday was our first full day in the city. It was actually a day that felt like a week. If you read the other blog, you’d know that being in the Old City of Jerusalem is a complete sensory immersion overload. Everything and everyone is vying for your sensory attention at all times as you attempt to focus on the path at hand and follow in the supposed footsteps of Jesus Christ on his death journey throughout the city. All at the same time trying to avoid getting lost in the sea of people that live out their lives in the market. It is overwhelming to say the very least.

Walking through the market streets on the Via de la Rosa.

Walking through the market streets on the Via dolorosa.

As I walked through the old city, I was in awe at such an incredible place. FedEx doesn’t deliver here friends. This is the place that takes you back in time, where history meets the present, and you are faced with realities that you never dreamed of in your most beautifully sublime nightmares. People are everywhere (if you have social anxiety, this is not the place for you): in the streets selling vegetables and wares, in the doorways smoking cigarettes, in churches praying and making supplication, and in markets waiting to take your last shekel from your hand; all of them vying for your attention.

Man praying at the Armenian altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Man praying at the Armenian altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

As I walked through the city, it was impossible to take it all in, so I did so through the lens of my camera. It was the best way I knew how to approach this space. I took pictures as though I were back as an Art History major taking slides for a presentation on architecture, public art, and religious relics for a presentation. It was the safest way I knew how to take it all in and protect myself from being overwhelmed and swept away. I found things that fascinated me, like the doors.

Doors at Via de la Rosa chapel.

Doors at one of the hap els along the Via dolorosa.

In the outer quad of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the outer quad of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Another door in the same vicinity.

Another door in the same vicinity.

A door within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

A door within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

So many of them, and each one leading somewhere different. Each one telling a different story behind it and in front of it. Some open, some closed and locked, some terrifying to see, and others too small for a hobbit to crawl through. But each one led somewhere else. Each one held the story of someone or some group, trying to claim their piece of the pie in this place.

Door within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Door within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Another door in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Doors suspended like lanterns as you leave the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

What shocked me the most was my own connection to this place. I always conceived of Jerusalem as a place that was theoretical and magical and unknown to me. I have barely scratched the surface, but I have had the first experience of it. Being here and seeing the Western “Wailing” Wall, hearing the prayers cried out to God, seeing the candles of different religious denominations and Christians who claim ownership of their square inch of space on the floor outside the tomb, seeing the unmoved ladder because no one can agree where to store it or how to move it, seeing the guns in the streets and standing outside of the wall as I prayed to my God; watching as people from all over and varying beliefs pulled and tugged as hard as possible with one another over who held claim to what, was the most overwhelming and saddening experience I have ever had.

Western Wall prayers.

Western Wall prayers.

It hurt because I realized that this place affected me, and what happens here affects me because I am a Christian and I believe in events and people that took place and lived in this place long before I ever existed. I felt a connection I did not expect to feel. It was incredible, and selfishly, I am angered that because of religious pie snatching, the focus of this holy place for people is not about being in the moment with God, Allah, Yahweh; but instead is about who gets what.

Even the feral cats just want a place to nap in the gardens of St. Anne's.

Even the feral cats just want a place to nap in the gardens of St. Anne’s.

How do we respond as people who are not from here? How do we support our brothers and sisters, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as they stake their claim out in this place? How do leave this place?

It’s not about how we leave it. We will leave it just as we found it. It is what we take away from it that has changed us or altered us. It is how we use what we have experienced and how we have allowed it to change us.

Yes, friends, this was only day 1.

Posted in blogs, Chicago, Dome of the Rock, god, Jerusalem, Old City, Plaestine, seminary, theology, travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Outside the Old City Walls

In case you were wondering, here I am, in Jerusalem. Just steps outside of the Old City walls at the Damascus gate. I’m here with a group of McCormick students for a January-term travel seminar led by a couple of my Old Testament and Hebrew instructors, Ted and Paula. We are meant to keep a journal to turn in at the end of the month, and since I’m technically a traveling theologian (as much as I can say I’m a theologian), I figured let’s just do this the good ol’ fashioned millennial way and blog about it. So here it is.

We began on January 7. We started the trip off with a brief orientation together. We asked questions about electrical plugs, sheckles and American dollars, airplane food, and other general things. Then we met with Sarah, our professor of New Testament and a practicing Jew herself. She helped walk us through her experience as a person of Jewish faith and descent and helped us to see the complexities that come with it and her past experiences. She talked of the Exodus for Jews and the diaspora that is constantly present at different levels. (My apologies for whatever ways I am getting this wrong, but these are my thoughts and opinions, so you don’t have to agree with them or like them. You are however reading this, so that has to mean something.)

She also spoke of the feeling that many Jews had at one time when living in the United States. For many in earlier generations, it was almost more important to be an American first and a Jew second. My immediate thoughts went to the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. I was given a wonderful book by my partner’s Mormon parents called The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, by Matthew Bowman. (It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.) Throughout the book, Bowman beautifully fleshes out the complications of being an early Mormon settler in Salt Lake and the surrounding areas and their struggle for statehood. At times, it was more important to show oneself as an American for many Mormons to create unity and to be included. While Jews might not appreciate the comparison to Mormons, I see a strong one, and one that most Mormons would most likely strongly feel. Being an outcast in your own country is something that too many people have felt, and these are two groups that have experienced that, simply because of their faith. I could talk about other people who have been in this situation but the internet isn’t big enough for that.

Then we heard from Mike Shelley from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. He helped to tell another story, that one from a Muslim perspective.

Before I go on, let me say, both of these wonderful professors brought a moderate but realistic view to the table for Israeli Jews, Israeli and Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Muslims. There was no religion shaming happening here.

What Shelley did was to help explain the history of the area and the politically charged issues for many Muslims and Christians here. It helped to give us an awareness of the issues as much as possible in 2 hours and an awareness that what and who you say something is just as important as how you do it. For Muslims there is claim to the land, just as with Jews. For instance, my research topic is on the Dome of the Rock located within the Old City and within the Haram al-Sharif (or the Noble Sanctuary), a platform that also includes the al-Aqsa Mosque. Not a mosque, but a holy place, the dome covers the rock that is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. While Christians seem to have little to do with this, it is more about Jews and Muslims. For Jews, this is where it is believed that Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and for Muslims, it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It’s a place where you must gain permission to enter into it, based on tensions between Jews and Muslims here. But I will talk more of this once we actually go there.

After 2 long plane flights, free booze on the flights, more plane food than I could handle, and walking almost 2 miles at the Frankfurt airport to get to our flight to Tel Aviv, we made it. Our bodily clocks wound tightly we arrived and rode from Tel Aviv to just outside of Jerusalem. For myself there was a mix of exhaustion from lack of sleep, nausea from all of the times Lufthansa fed us, bodily aches from sitting too long in small spaces, and excitement and wonder at the fact that we were in, what I would consider it to be, the holiest place on earth. To the point where as I stepped out of our hostel after getting settled in and upon seeing the Old City walls and the buildings that lie inside of it, I began to feel a lump in my throat and felt warm tears welling in my eyes at the realization that the first time I traveled outside of the country at 30 years of age, I made it to the Holy Land, a place where even I felt I belonged. I don’t understand the feeling of connection that the people here might feel or Jews or Muslims, but I felt as though this was a place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and any others who believed in God.

This is a holy place. And it was the first time it truly hit me that I was in it and I was part of it, thousands of miles away. The things that happen here affect me, and always will.

There is much I am looking forward to in being here. There is the incredible food. If I lived off of a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean and Asian diet for the rest of my life, I would never be left wanting. Falafel and kabob stands line the streets next to Arabic coffee vendors next to baklava stands with fresh, local fruit. Needless to say, all bets are off for Weight Watchers on this trip. Even the simplest of dinners last night, a broth of vegetables, simple salad, cooked beef with rice, and carrots and onions, was incredible because it was simple and had the tastes, smells, and essence of this place.

So, here we are, my roommate Katie and I, at 4:45 in the morning (8:45pm in Chicago), working on our journal/blog posts, after a good night’s sleep, getting ready for our 5:30am wake up calls for breakfast and then a walking visit to the Old City, the gates, the Western Wall, Hezekiah’s wall and tunnel, and so much more. I’ll have photos tomorrow, now that I am back to the land of the living and non-sleep-deprived, and I can properly work my camera. Until then, blessings to you.

Posted in Chicago, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Old City, Plaestine, seminary, theology, travel, Wailing Wall, Western Wall | Leave a comment