I Wonder

I am sitting in a store in Jericho, waiting for our group of a hundred pilgrims while they shop. After deciding to post some pictures of our Holy Land pilgrimage on Facebook, a message appears on my phone that I am in Palestinian territory rather than in Israel and therefore do not have service. It suddenly dawns on me that even though our bus moves freely around Israel, the country is still divided. Jericho, located in the disputed West Bank, has been under the administrative control of the Palestinian authority since 1994. I wonder. Will it ever be possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in peace in this land that is holy for all three world religions?

We are walking through the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrow” in the Old City of Jerusalem, and stop at each of the fourteen stations of the cross. In the Catholic tradition, these stations are a mini-pilgrimage commemorating Jesus’ last day on earth. It is a way for all Christians to experience the agony and suffering of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. I can’t keep back the tears, as I remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for me. I wonder. How is God calling me to share in the suffering of others and change the world?

I am at Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem. In the Children’s Memorial, which is carved out of an underground cavern, the names of the 1.5 million children who were murdered by the Nazis are read continuously as they shine like stars in the firmament. And in the Hall of Names, each one of the six million victims will be remembered for generations to come. I can’t stop the tears.

“Tomorrow we will be heading towards the Great Unknown in full awareness and at peace. If we are meant to live, all the better, and if not …” (Abrahamik’s letter from Plonsk Ghetto, Dec. 12, 1942)

“With particular joy I have learned from your notice that for 14 days now a train has been traveling every day to Treblinka (concentration camp) with 5,000 members of the Chosen People.” Karl Wolff, Chief of Staff to Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS (Aug. 13, 1941)

I am mesmerized by The Little Smuggler, a famous poem by the Polish poet Henryka Łazowertówna (1909–1942).[i] It tells the story of a little child in the Warsaw Ghetto who smuggles food over from the “Aryan Side” to feed his family and whose primary fear is that if he dies, his mother would lose her source of life. I wonder. How many children in our world are still at risk today because of war, oppression, and injustice? What is my responsibility?

I am walking through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the crucifixion. Since an 1852 mandate, the care of the church is shared by six different Christian denominations. Despite incidents of territorialism among the groups, the steep stairway climbing to the lavishly decorated shrine of Calvary unites pilgrims and takes my breath away. I wonder. Jesus, how can it be that you gave up your life for me and all humans who ever lived? I offer to you all that I am and all that I hope to become. May I reflect your grace and hope in everything I say and do.

We are at Caesarea Philippi in northern Galilee, at the headwaters of the Jordan River. It is the turning point in the gospels, where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” From then on, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. I wonder. Who is this Jesus for me? He is my Lord. He is my Savior. He is Love incarnate. He is the One who gives my life and meaning and purpose and calls me to make a difference in the world in his name.”

Our tour is divided into groups of four as we eat dinner in the homes of Palestinian families in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank. It is agonizing to hear how difficult life is for our Christian host family, living under occupation. In the fifty years since the Israeli seizure of the West Bank during the six-day war in 1967, not much has changed. A wall separates Palestinians from Israelis, and daily life is marked by a Separation Wall, checkpoints, guards, segregation, control, and Jewish settlements springing up on Palestinian land.

Palestinians are not allowed in most areas of Israel, and those who do work in Jerusalem spend hours a day waiting to go through checkpoints. The unemployment rate in the West Bank is astronomical, poverty is widespread, and the public schools are poor.

According to a January 16 New York Times article, the US government has decided to withhold more than half of the normal funding given to Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The U.S. will provide $60 million to the relief agency in 2018, which supports Palestinian schools and health clinics, but will withhold the other $65 million for “future consideration.”

Our dinner with Palestinian families is a highlight of our pilgrimage, as we sit at table with Christians and Muslim families, who are minorities and struggle with everyday living. It can take years to get a visa to travel outside the country, yet their faith is deep.

I wonder, how can we pray for and express solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters whose freedom is so restricted. In the same way, how is God calling us to stand with all those who are labeled and objectified, whether it be African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, LGBTQ persons, Arabs, refugees, immigrants, Mexicans, or …   

The day before we ate dinner with our new Palestinian friends, Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, which voted to become a sanctuary church in 2017, announced that they are offering sanctuary to Ded Rranxburgaj, 48, a Coney Island restaurant cook who is scheduled to be deported to Albania on January 25. Rranxburgaj and his wife Flora came to the U.S. seventeen years ago, and he is the sole caregiver for his wife, who has MS. Ded said that he has no criminal record and has been working for years with immigration officials to get legal status.

In a January 16 press conference, Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel, senior pastor of Central UMC, said, “Central United has been at the forefront of fighting for justice for three centuries now… What better place to announce that we will be a sanctuary for this family… We have hope and a belief that justice will prevail… We serve a God that calls us to a higher law.”

The next day we finish our pilgrimage at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which some believe is an alternate site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I read from Luke 24, where the women who go to the tomb of Jesus are greeted by two men standing beside them in gleaming clothing and saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”

I wonder. How is God calling you and me to a resurrection faith that advocates for fullness of life for all people? How is God calling us to practice our faith by caring for the very least of God’s children? How is God calling us to share as well as embody the love of Jesus for all people in our world?

I wonder.  

 

[i]

The Little Smuggler

Through walls, through holes, through sentry points,
Through wires, through rubble, through fences:
Hungry, daring, stubborn
I flee, dart like a cat.

At noon, at night, in dawning hours,
In blizzards, in the heat,
A hundred times I risk my life,
I risk my childish neck.

Under my arm a burlap sack,
On my back a tattered rag;
Running on my swift young legs
With fear ever in my heart.

Yet everything must be suffered;
And all must be endured,
So that tomorrow you can all
Eat your fill of bread.

Through walls, though holes, through brickwork,
At night, at dawn, at day,
Hungry, daring, cunning,
Quiet as a shadow I move.

And if the hand of sudden fate
Seizes me at some point in this game,
It’s only the common snare of life.
Mama, don’t wait for me.
I won’t return to you,
Your far-off voice won’t reach.
The dust of the street will bury
The lost youngster’s fate.

And only one grim thought,
A grimace on your lips:
Who, my dear Mama, who
Will bring you bread tomorrow?

—Translated by Patricia Heberer,
from Children during the Holocaust

 

God Doesn’t Show Partiality

I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!” (Acts 10:34-36)

These words spoken by the apostle Peter two thousand years ago in the city of Caesarea provided a fitting place to begin our pilgrimage to Israel. Caesarea was an insignificant coastal Mediterranean town until 22 B.C.E., when Herod the Great developed it into a magnificent harbor that held 300 ships. Herod built a stunning palace along the Mediterranean with an almost Olympic size fresh water swimming pool jutting out into the harbor. He also constructed a theater with stone seats that could hold 3,500 people.

As we sat on the same two-thousand-year-old stone steps, we remembered that it was in Caesarea where Peter had an experience that forever changed the early Christian church and still transforms us today. The primary issue that faced the first Christians, who were Jews, was what role Gentile (non-Jewish) converts could play in the church. In particular, did Gentiles who accepted the word of God have to become Jews first and keep the whole Jewish law before being welcomed into the church?

Acts 10 clearly applies to our world today, especially as many of us struggle with President Trump’s crude and unfortunate remarks last week about immigrants from Haiti and African countries. Dismissing entire countries and continents that are predominantly black or brown is painful to hear, yet arbitrarily deciding who’s in and who’s out and who should be included or excluded is not new.

One day, a Gentile but God-fearing man named Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea and gave generously to those in need and prayed constantly, had a vision. In the vision, an angel told Cornelius to have some of his men travel to Joppa and send for Peter, and he obeyed. The next day, Peter went up on his roof to pray, and he, too, had vision. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven that was filled with different kinds of animals and birds. The voice told Peter to “Get up, kill and eat,” but Peter protested, saying, “I can’t do that. It’s against the law!” And the voice replied three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Right then, the three men from Joppa arrived on behalf of Cornelius and invited Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea. When Peter arrived, he said to Cornelius, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.”

When Cornelius asked Peter to speak what God had directed him to say, Peter admitted that he was trying to learn not to show partiality to some and not others and that in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable. It was an incredible insight for a stubborn and hard-headed man. Yet it was this very experience that laid the groundwork for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), where the early Christians chose to find a way to be united around how to treat Gentile converts to Christianity.

If it were not for Peter’s courage in standing up to his peers, if he had not stated that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews did, and if he had not insisted that there is no distinction between “them” and “us”, there would likely not be a Christian church today. In the end, the early Christian leaders decided that the Gentiles only had to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from “whatever has been strangled and from blood” in order to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ.Three days after remembering the leadership of Peter in Caesarea, where he became convicted that God shows no partiality, our group of one hundred pilgrims from Iowa was sitting on stone steps again, this time at a baptismal site along the Jordan River. We had come to reaffirm our baptismal vows in the same Jordan River where, when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

One woman in our group had been active in the church for years but had never been baptized. It was a moving experience for all of us to be witnesses as she proclaimed her baptismal vows. Then, as the rest of us reaffirmed our baptism, with clergy administering the sign of the cross and saying the words, “Remember your baptism and be thankful,” some stayed on the sidewalk, others stepped into the chilly waters of the Jordan, and still others were fully immersed.

I admit that I was shivering but not just from the cold water. I was shivering because the Holy Spirit was moving in a mighty way. I was trembling because when the Lord gets ahold of you, watch out! Before the baptism, I read from Matthew 3, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” At that very moment, a dozen doves flew right over the water directly in front of us. No kidding.

After we had finished the baptismal reaffirmation, four women from Nigeria who had been watching came forward and requested to be baptized. I asked if they had been baptized before, and three said no. The fourth asked for a renewal of baptism. Then I, too, had a vision of Acts 8, where Peter proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, who, upon seeing some water and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!”

What was to prevent these women from being baptized? Nothing. I had never seen or met these women before, yet I could not deny them baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. I cannot put into words the power of that moment and the joy on the faces of those women. I will never see them again, yet when I signed their baptismal/renewal certificates, I knew that their names would be etched in my heart forever.

Like Peter, I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Each day I learn. Rather, in every nation, including Haiti, the countries of Africa, and Israel, God’s love extends to every person, no matter what. By the way, as Peter was witnessing to Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Peter said, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they were. Thanks be to God.

Twenty Impossible Things

We shared our hopes and dreams for 2018 around the family dinner table on Christmas Day. Some were crazy big, seemingly impossible dreams, like “peace on earth” or “a safe and warm home for everyone around the world.” Some were related to our jobs, like “I wish we could treat each other with more kindness in my workplace.” And others were more personal, such as, “I need to exercise more in the coming year.”

As we lamented the gravity of major issues facing our world and laughed at the absurdity of some of own fears and foibles, I recalled a quote from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. Carroll was a pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a nineteenth century author, mathematician, photographer, and Anglican priest.

In 1865, Carroll wrote a fantasy adventure for the young daughters of a friend. It was called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book is about a girl named Alice (the name of one of the daughters), who travels down a rabbit hole into a fantastical underworld. At the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, we find these words, “… so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

After the amazing success of his first book, Carroll published a sequel six years later called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Nothing is quite what it seems as Alice continues her adventures. A third of the way through the book, after Alice has already had some incredible experiences, she has a conversation with the White Queen, who says,

“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I can’t help but believe that the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s books stems from Alice’s conviction that very few things are really impossible. As we enter a new year, what things do you believe are possible that the rest of the world would write off as impossible and foolish? As you ponder the most difficult challenges facing our country and world, how do you believe God is calling you to act? As you pray about the future of The United Methodist Church and the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, how is God asking you to have a heart of peace in the midst of anxiety and fear?

Here is my list of twenty impossible things that I believe and am committed to working on in 2018.

  1. It is possible to live a life of holiness by loving God and our neighbor (which means all neighbors, not just some).
  2. It is possible to see Jesus in everyone we meet, including those who are not like us or those whom we do not like.
  3. It is possible to take a leap of faith and empty ourselves of the need to judge, condemn, or keep score.
  4. When we ask in exasperation or despair, “Are we there yet?” it is still possible to make a commitment to be part of the solution, not the problem.
  5. It is possible to engage in deep listening and dialogue and learn from those with whom we disagree.
  6. It is possible to recognize that the need to win drains us of Holy Spirit power.
  7. It is possible to follow John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules in all that we say or do: do no harm; do good; and stay in love with God.

  1. It is possible to resist the impulse to be oppositional or reactive and instead be a calm, loving presence, even when we have profound differences.
  2. When we are on unplanned journeys that are not of our choosing, or when the journey is taking longer than we think, it is possible to relish the adventure and the opportunity to grow, persevere, learn from failure, and deepen our faith.
  3. It is possible to treat others with the grace and tenderness with which we want to be treated.
  4. It is possible that our disagreements around human sexuality do not have to threaten our unity in Christ in The United Methodist Church as, together, we make disciples of Jesus and transform of the world.
  5. It is possible to let go of old hurts and forgive from our heart.
  6. It is possible to devote our life to reconciliation, just as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s fault against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
  7. It is possible to make a difference by being an encouraging, loving, and healing presence to everyone we meet.
  8. It is possible to open wide our hearts to the needs of all of God’s children in our world.
  9. It is possible to humbly lay aside all of our misconceptions, prejudices, and biases to see people as God sees them.
  10. It is possible to empty ourselves, stand with those at the back of the line, sit with those who have no hope, and walk beside those who see no future.
  11. It is possible to live creatively, compassionately, and hopefully in the midst of change and loss.
  12. It is possible to treat ourselves gently and take the time to nurture our mind, body, and spirit.
  13. It is possible to give, expecting nothing in return.

“One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

“Jesus looked at them carefully and said, ‘It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.’” (Matthew 19:26)

What if we all paused before breakfast every day to practice believing something impossible and then use the rest of the day to make it happen? After all, so many out-of-the-way, out-of-the-box, beautiful, life-giving things happen every day that maybe, just maybe, very few things really are impossible.