May 5

May 5th, 2009

I have been chosen to tell you about our most recent day. I was chosen because I wanted to tell a particular story. My congregation has been blessed to know and support a Palestinian family that runs an Olive wood co-op. The husband and wife have visited and met my congregation. They have shared their personal, difficult story. He was born in Bethlehem and she Jerusalem. They are not able to live in the same house most of the time. One of the ladies in my congregation was shocked when I said I would be sharing coffee this week with the Zoughbi’s in Bethlehem. Well I have done that. Several of our group went with me last evening. The Zoughbi’s share a DVD which contained a part of their personal story (WOW). Josh King identified a feeling of nails in a cross as Palestinian homes were destroyed by the Israeli’s.

Folks we do not know our simple blessings! We do not have to go through check points to get to the next city. We don’t know how to identify with not being able to visit family or friends in an adjoining city. Occupation is cruel on so many levels.

Today we visited with folks from Bethlehem Bible College, Bethlehem University, the local Mosque and Dheisheh refugee camp. At this moment, I can do little more than say my heart cries out. Laments are real among so many of us as we process what we have seen, smelled and felt deep within our souls.
Blessings- Curtis Wheeler

Shepherd’s Field

May 4th, 2009

“‘Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’”

I am used to hearing these words during a church Christmas pagent. The scene includes a small child or two wrapped in an itchy, two-sizes-too-big-bathrobe holding a long shepherds staff during the church season of Advent. We are accustomed to this passage whose words are familiar. They have a certain flow, a certain ring, with a certain cadence when read at Christmastime. Today as the People, places, & prayers group gathered on a  hillside at “Shepherds’ Field” outside of Bethlehem in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, I heard these words in a way that I will never forget. Shepherds’ Field is one of the places believed to be the spot where an angel of the Lord stood before Shepherds who were, as the story goes, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Our group gathered in a low, natural cave on the hillside and enjoyed a “mini-reenactment” of the Angel’s appearance to the shepherds. We sang the customary carols we know and love that point us toward this scene in the story of the birth of Jesus. “Hark! the herald angels sing” and ”While shepherds watched their flocks by night” rang out sweetly in four-part harmony as we each moved from our own “itchy Christmas pagent” memories to experiencing the coming of Jesus into the world in a whole new way. As our voices resonated in the cave, the songs of praise rivaled the sound any grand cathederal could produce. We experienced what Celtic Christianity would refer to as a “thin place”, a place where the Kingdom of God was nearby, almost palpable.

We enjoyed a time of silent reflection in this thin place to consider the shepherds, sheep and angels. Following our reflection time the group gathered to share our reflections. Our group noted many things about this passage from Luke and the place where we were. We talked about the shepherds being terrified at the appearance of the angel; the experience of the shepherds living in a land occupied by invaders from Rome, their decision to go and see what the Lord had made known to them, and their response of returning, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

The parallels between the time of Jesus’ birth and today are somewhat uncanny. As we sat on the hillside we found ourselves in the West Bank; Palestinian territory occupied by Israeli settlers. We talked about the terrifying fear which many, both Christian and Moslem, in modern day Palestinian Bethlehem live in daily, surrounded by checkpoints, dividing walls and hostility. We talked about how vitally important it is for we who have heard the “Christmas Angel” to share this message with those who live without it’s “great glad tidings”.

It was a day of shepherds, sheep, and the need the world has for Christ. Later in the day we visited Solomon’s Pools, three immense open cisterns. Only minutes after we left our bus to view the pools, a Palestinian shepherd boy meandered by, guiding his flock of sheep, gently moving them along to greener pastures. During evening prayers we were reminded of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, from the Gospel of John, listened as the Psalmist spoke through the familiar #23, and sang “sheep songs” — “My Shepherd will supply my need” and “Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us”.
As night falls on the Holy Land, my prayer for Bethlehem and it’s people are the familiar words of the Christmas carol:

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”

Salam and Shalom, –Joel Ballew

May 1 and 2

May 4th, 2009

Friday May 1:
When Kevin Clark read the words of Psalm 122 during our evening prayer time after arriving in Jerusalem,  they seemed especially meaningful: “Let us go to the house of the LORD. Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.’” Jerusalem is contested ground in a conflict that often seems without solution.

Jerusalem is a place of importance to all three of the great monotheistic faith traditions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Over the next three weeks we will converse with people from all three of these faith traditions; people who thirst for justice and peace for this particular place.

Saturday May 2:
This day we spent on a walking tour of the Christian and Armenian quarters of Old City Jerusalem. I am challenged by the intense expressions of faith of pilgrims from all over the world as they visit places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Practices like lighting candles before icons and touching a stone slab that has been anointed with fragrant oil seem strange to me. I have much to learn from Christians who know how to worship using all their senses.

A highlight of our afternoon was a visit to a first century tomb. Our guide Tony has never seen it open before. We had just scrambled down into this dark, damp hole in the ground when two Jewish girls shouted after us with great concern. Apparently they were worried that we had gone somewhere dangerous. Their parents figured out that we are in Jerusalem learning about Jesus, and so they assured their daughters that it was alright for us to go down into the tomb. Tony told us about how bodies were prepared for burial in the first century, and read one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as some of us sat on the slabs used for anointing bodies before burial. A very profound experience!

During our visit to Tantur Ecumenical Center, Father Michael McGarry discussed the situation in Israel-Palestine. He took us up on the roof to show us the separation barrier or wall separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem, and he reminded us to be sensitive and careful in our use of language and in how we listen to and tell stories. Earlier in the day, our guide Tony had told us that the church most Western Christians call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is called the Church of the Resurrection by Middle-Eastern Christians. The different names we use for things can change the meaning of what we are saying. –John Harding

We’re Here

May 2nd, 2009

Greetings, folks!

This is just a brief note to let you know that we have arrived safely in Jerusalem after a long and tiring, but (mostly!) uneventful trip.  All of our connections worked beautifully at all stages.

On the Frankfurt to Tel Aviv leg of our trip we shared the plane with a large group of young Jewish 8th-graders (some 75 or so) from the Davis Academy, a Jewish school in Atlanta, GA.  I had a very interesting conversation with one sweet young girl from the group who was seated next to me on the plane.  She wondered (interesting question!) what coming to Israel meant to me as a Christian!  What a fascinating opportunity to reflect on such questions!

Our most exciting moment, for absolute certain, came just as we were about to touch down on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport this afternoon.  Instead of touching down we instead zoomed back upward at the very last minute!  The pilot informed us that we had encountered “cross winds,” a situation which made our landing unsafe at that moment.  So we circled around and came back in a few minutes later with a safe but bumpy landing.

Our second most exciting moment came, as Nancy Floyd has reminded me, when we landed in Frankfurt in thick fog.  Looking out the window of the plane, I assumed (due to prior experience with coming out of clouds) that we were still going to emerge from the clouds and see the land below.  But instead we thudded to the ground in the very midst of the thick fog.  That was one skillful pilot, for which we all are very grateful.

We have by now moved into our lodgings at the Lutheran Guest House in Jerusalem, a guest house so beautiful that folks are remarking about it. And we have now had our first dinner here and our first Evening Prayers. We will begin our formal touring tomorrow with Tony, our longstanding tour guide.  I was reminded again this afternoon of just why Kevin and I keep working with Tony.  He is a veritable “walking encyclopedia” of information about the land and the people.  And he is a very charismatic tour guide.

Blessings to you all!  And wish you were here with us!  More in coming days . . . .

Dorothy Jean, for the “Places, People, & Prayers 2009″ tour group

Places, People and Prayers 2009

April 3rd, 2009

Hello all! Thanks for checking out the site where we’ll post updates from the Places, People and Prayers 2009 trip to Israel/Palestine. The group leaves April 30, and will be posting to the site whenever possible.  They will also include photos. Keep coming back to check this out.