Author Archives: ncookeverist

A PSALM: LAMENT FOR CONSOLATION By Wade Brinkopf, Final Year MDiv

A Psalm: Lament for Consolation

In you O Lord, I have put my trust.

My words wash away but yours will stand forever.

There is no one but you O Lord who could feel my despair.

Take this sorrow from my heart, release me from my shame.

Reason stands but for an instance;

yet, your word stands the test of every moment.

Turn me from my pathless way,

in your righteousness I can face the unknown.

Mine is too quickly faded away in morning glare,

but, brightly shines your gleaming stream turning darkness into light.

Ever present, your right hand stands before me.

Your glorious throne to adorn.

Crush this oppressor my Lord, this darkness in which I stand.

Push back this dark deception that creeps uneasily near your truth.

Only a breath of your Word and it fades completely away.

Your Word breaks the dark; the bright gleaming stream brings me life where there was none!

FLOSSENBÜRG REFLECTION By Joe Daiker, 2nd Year MDiv

As we woke and left Munich the gray misty morning greeted us once again. It certainly set the mood considering where we were headed. Yet this gloom pales in comparison to anything we were about to see or hear. Many of us read Bonhoeffer’s letters surrounding the July 20th assassination attempt. I had no idea what to expect from myself. Have I been desensitized to these horrors at the hands of Hollywood and America’s glorification of violence? The movies, the video games, the music, and all the other threads used to weave this horrid mask. Would I be numb? Would it cut me down to my core as it should?

Jessica Tannebaum would be our guide. Her heart was sincere, this we could all tell. At times her voice seemed to give and the way she clenched her jaw appeared to be her fighting back emotions that she felt so strongly. Her introduction taught us that Flossenbürg was a work camp only in the sense that there was forced labor. The fact that the forced labor was quarry work without any kind of protective gear or even a simple first aid kit meant one was lucky to last 6 weeks before dying from an array of causes. Becoming deaf from the explosions was a death sentence as you could not hear when your number was called resulting in brutal beatings. Blindness from flying debris was a death sentence. A broken bone, not set or cast. (nor was it accompanied by pain killers) was a death sentence because the guards would not put up with “laziness.” Open wounds quickly becoming infected and diseased were death sentences when even a simple bar of soap was no where to be found. If someone could not extract the precious granite out of the quarry, what good were they to the SS and what mercy did the SS have for these poor souls when hatred and violence coursed through their veins? The lucky ones seemed to be those that were crushed to death by the falling rock. Those who lasted the longest died having worked harder than any of us would be able to fathom, receiving little to nothing as sustenance while living and working in conditions incomprehensible to our minds. Surely a twisted recipe for death at a “work camp”.

The whole “camp” was laced with psychological torture. A sign on the front gate that read “Work renders free.” A hospital that saved no one. Food that brought forth life, yet in portions so little and rotten that it could barely even sustain life. A laundry barracks for hygiene yet there was no soap, towel, or toilet paper. Fear of the SS guards and the regime that deemed them so unworthy of life was eclipsed by fellow inmates given the power and meager rewards to beat and torment their fellow inmates. Many feared these, the Kapos, more than the SS guards for their cruelty surpassed that of the SS guards. To hear what these people went through in a single day was awful, but knowing that that was a base routine and that additional tortures were often dealt that we know nothing about was unthinkable. These poor souls had to rise each morning with full knowledge of the horrors that awaited them.

Even the dreadful thought of suicide, this morbid escape from life’s horrors would be shoved out of their grasp. Dehumanised from the beginning and treated like animals. Worse than animals though. It didn’t take long before they began to believe what the Nazis were saying about them. They are unclean, they smelled, undeserving of the fulfillment of even the most basic needs. They were like unwanted diseased animals. Life gave way to survival and thus many began to act as animals. A survival instinct replaced all the needs and wants that drive human beings. The sad thought of throwing oneself into the electric fence towards a quick death became less important and doing whatever they could to survive and live whatever life this was drove them day to day. Maybe that was hope in it’s most primitive form. It’s amazing that anyone made it out of there with any sliver of emotional and psychological stability.

Entering the camp through the tunnel of the Commander’s station was surreal. The sound of our feet on that pavement, 16 of us, made a considerable sound that echoed through that tunnel. The sounds of hundreds , thousands of people at a time forced through there must have been horrifying. A crowd that far outnumbered the guards yet completely helpless and terrified to do anything. Once through we stood where the original gate that separated the grounds around the commander’s station and the camp itself. On one of the stone columns making up the gate it read, “Work renders free.” We were told a story of one prisoner who asked an SS guard what it meant and he told him “Yes, you work in the quarry over there for 6 weeks and you will be dead. Then we will take your body down to the crematorium and as the smoke from your burning body exits the chimney in to the sky, then you will be free.”

Soon we found ourselves standing on the Roll Call grounds. It was cold and wet; I hunkered over trying to cover any bare skin from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I was still cold. It was no where near the coldest time of year and I was shivering. I had a hat on and I was shivering. I had a coat and I was shivering. I had gloves and I was shivering. Yet this was a cold that no layer of fabric was going to remedy. There in that place I saw flashes of people. They lacked anything of color. They all looked the same. Every one of them a child of God, stripped of all their dignity and security. Out there in a cold and wet winter night fully exposed to these harsh elements without any power to do anything about it. I don’t know if these were images from one of the many movies I have seen or genuine experience of some sort. But at times during the tour they were there.

Walking through the barber and shower room was enough to make me tremble when the stories created all too vivid of an image for me. Those who survived the long, over-crowded, inhumane, filthy, painful trip to this work camp were then stripped of their clothes and any possessions they had on them. They were forced to stand at attention to be counted for hours. “Not only did we lose our clothing here, but our souls.” (will properly site once I have a name A book or what? ) Those who did not die here were lead into the barber room. Razors hung from the ceiling. They were neither sharp nor dull. One or the other may have been better, but instead these were one of the first tools of torture used on people at the camp. A full body shave with semi-sharp razors guided by hurried and careless hands. Often it would gnaw away flesh as they were shaved. If it had been the SS that did this, that would be one thing, but this was performed by the Kapos, fellow prisoners. Then they were forced into the showers. Five minutes or five hours crammed in that overcrowded room naked, bleeding, terrified, and waiting for either the ice cold or boiling hot water and if not that, then the fire hose. Without a hair on their body nor a thread of clothing they were marched into the Roll Call area once again to be counted. There they would wait for clothes according to the SS’s watch. That wait would commonly last a whole night. Not all of them would live past this. The process of turning that person into a number and nothing more was quick and effective. Suddenly all of my shivering seemed extremely trivial and the evil that had manifested itself in that place seemed very real.

The building had been torn down, but the account of the children’s barrack was more than enough for me to tear up. Toddlers, children the age of both my daughters, up to young adults. The thought of my own children being ripped away from me shakes me to my core, but to shove them into those conditions is unfathomable. Young children, like both of my daughters. Like the child who gave me communion on Epiphany Sunday the day before in Munich. A young child like the one who clung to Shannon Johnson and laid his head down in her lap at church when she offered him a hand to give her “five.” Young children whom Christ declared as a model of faith and warned us against leading  astray.

We walked up the cobblestone road to the prison barracks where Bonhoeffer spent his last night on this earth. Looking back amidst the gloom of the weather and the work camp, there was a full rainbow arching over it. I don’t know what to do with that. Part of me wants to say that as a symbol of God’s promise, it was a way of telling us this evil is conquered. Part of me wants to leave it an obscure paradox for me to dwell on.

The prison barracks were mostly torn down but a portion of it was preserved. The outline of the walls of the small cells were visible with two cells being in tact. These cells had the ability to block out sunlight creating one more level of psychological torture to its victims. That was the type of cell Bonhoeffer spent his last night in. He would then go to a trial where the verdict and sentence had already been decided. He was quickly sentenced to death by hanging and in that courtyard outside the prison barracks Dietrich Bonhoeffer gasped for his last breath. On the cross in the courtyard was an inscription that read 2 Timothy 1:7. “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline”.

As we began to move to another spot, our guide pointed out where a missing barracks once stood. This was the brothel barracks. Women were promised freedom after 6 months if they volunteered but were returned to the camps they came from after a year. There was no torture, humiliation, degradation, or unjust act that was deemed too vile towards these people. To say that they were not treated as humans is an understatement of mammoth proportions. The imagination can paint a vivid experience when a free person walks these grounds, but that surely does not even break the surface of this abyss.
Walking on the cobblestone paths, made from the granite in the quarry, caused the plantar fasciitis that I have been battling in my left foot to flare up. I thank God for that. In some small, insignificant, self-centered way I was grateful to feel some sort of physical pain in that place. Again, I am struck by the realization that I had a nice pair of shoes on my feet. A luxury one of these people would not dare to dream of.

Entering the valley of death we took the stairs. For many, their entrance into this valley was to be dropped down a hole onto rail cars which carried their corpse down to the crematorium in the name of efficiency. Along these stairs were the support poles of the 20,000 volt electric fence that surrounded the camp. Some of the ceramic spindles had burn or more so melted marks on them, signs of them having been activated causing instant death. The doors to the crematorium were locked, so we did not go inside, but Jessica showed us pictures of the “dissection” table and the crematory that burned to ash some 13,000 or more people. Even in doing this the Nazis found a way to torture the deceased once more. For the Jews and Muslims, the burning of their bodies means that there is no hope for them entering the afterlife. Even in their death these people were not free.

In the valley we encountered the outline of an execution yard used to shoot prisoners of war from Poland and Russia. The guards were rewarded for their deadly aim with 3 days vacation, a bottle of expensive liquor, and a package of smokes for each shot.

Immediately after that was a pyramid shaped mound, which was the gathering place of all the ashes that they were able to find in the area. The size of the mound divided by what a single urn of ashes holds is an equation too horrible to think about rationally. This was the result of the crematorium unable to keep up with the atrocities. So they piled the bodies and doused it with gasoline then lit it. Once more a psychological torment swept through as the smell smothered the camp.

As we passed these we came  to the Square of the Nations. Memorials for the nationalities of those that had been killed there. Each nationality had a number representing those who were killed from that country. The numbers, startling as they were, were less than the actual numbers as they learned in the years after it’s construction.

If you raise your eyes from the Valley of Death you will find on a hill a small chapel built from those watchtowers that were torn down. The chapel is named Jesus in the Dungeon. How appropriate that name is. So where do we find Christ in something such as this? I don’t even know how to answer that and maybe I never truly will. But I think that Christ is right there in the midst of it all, weeping. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, “We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world”

A JOURNEY TO HONESTY By Carina Schiltz, 2nd Year MDiv

A Journey to Honesty

The psalmists are so honest
With the state of their hearts.
Why am I so ashamed of mine?
Why do I run away
And not allow myself to say:
Yes,
I
Hurt.
Instead I slog along,
the road covered with cracks
and I realize: so is my heart.
But I cover it up with ‘fine’ and ‘ok’
until the wound gapes open,
an ugly gash of pride and shame
that I continue to cover with denial.

I stumble up the road, a winding path,
My dreams slowly leaking out of me,
Losing sight of what used to give me energy and life.

I’m searching for who I’m supposed to be,
Or avoiding who I really am—
I can’t tell which.
They say I am loved
But I struggle to believe it.

I end up at the foot
of this mountain of
obstacles,
But I’m at the foot
of something else, too.
A structure of some sort—
a cross.
Maybe if I sit here awhile.
Maybe if I rest…

Maybe this wound will be
stitched up.

I can’t do it on my own.

There’s a healing that happens
When I name the brokenness: I am
in pieces.

I
reject
myself.

But I am drawn to this
Structure
That reconnects me and says
“no, you’re not a mistake”
And the weight lightens a little.
Enough so I stand up again,
but not by my own power.
My bent back straightens
I flex my fingers, and finally
feel a breeze on
my face again.
I see.
Reflecting on the structure—
the cross—
are the broken pieces,
a kaleidoscope of colors;
and I behold the beauty of forgiveness.
There’s nothing I did—
I just sat here to rest.
Now I feel accompanied. My head held high.
And I journey onward.

I look back over the next hill
and still see it—
a cross at the foot
Of the mountain of obstacles—
and somehow
it overcomes them.

The next traveler is there
at its foot.
I am drawn onward.

Purpose.
Peace.

BOOK REVIEW By Donna Runge, Final Year MDiv

Book Review of When God Was a Little Girl by David R.Weiss, WTS 1986 and illustrated by Joan Lindeman:

This is a children’s book published by Beaver’s Pond Press     7108 Ohms Lane     Edina, MN  55439-2129     www.BeaversPondPress.com

What a delightful book!  As I started reading, I was immediately drawn into the conversation between the father and the daughter.  So much so, that I found myself reading it aloud.  The story of how God, who is a little girl, creates the world progresses as the father begins the story and builds on the questions and comments of his daughter.

It is an old story with a new twist!  The book engages the reader’s own imagination in anticipation as the questions are answered.  And as I read it I could also imagine myself reading the book to my own grandchildren and answering their questions.  It is a book that engages young and old.  Its message is simple yet profound in its creativity.

AN EXPERIENCE – FOUR OAKS – MAUNDY THURSDAY COMMUNION AND FOOT WASHING By Anna L. Dykeman, Final Year MA Diaconal Ministry

UCC Pastor Jean, Janet, and I all wanted to connect with the girls at Four Oaks at least one time out of the usual during Holy Week. We all felt a strong call to accompany the girls through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as remembered during this time because we knew that they have had similar experiences. The call of the Holy Spirit guides us to walk with others through their times of trial, because we have been freed from sin on account of Christ.  We wanted to live out that freedom by serving these young who have experienced such pain and change in their lives through some of the practices of Holy Week.

So, Jean and I created a worship service for Maundy Thursday. I was completely giddy at the way a Diaconal Minister and a Pastor would be working side by side in leadership and in worship. She would lead the communion portion and I would lead the foot washing. Perfect. And, by the end of the evening, it indeed was a perfect moving of the Holy Spirit, a clear example of how the Trinity dances and invites all who are gathered to join in.

When Maundy Thursday rolled around, the three of us met prior to the girls’ arrival to go over last minute details, to set up the space, and to pray. I was incredibly nervous. When we were ready to begin, it came about that we needed to totally rearrange our order of service because we were going to eat dinner with the girls – the dinner they eat (liken it to a school hot lunch), in their space – and we had to eat right then. So, we gathered, said a prayer, then went down to the cafeteria and received our tray of food with the girls who were joining us for worship; we went back into our room and ate together. It was here that I learned one can eat the whole entire kiwi, skin and all. Because the girls are not allowed to have knives to peel off the skin they have to eat the whole thing and honestly it is delicious! After we had eaten, Jean moved us into Holy Communion.

Communion, for me, is a fundamental understanding of who the Triune God is. It is God, in Christ Jesus, pouring God’s self out for the healing, redemption, and salvation of all people. This is a gift simply because it is a tangible way of understanding the goodness of God. Communion goes beyond mere words and engages our many senses and humanity is invited to dance in and with the Trinity. It is mystical and common all at once and this particular communion experience changed my understanding and belief of God profoundly.

After dinner the dishes were cleared and Jean led us in Confession and Assurance of Pardon and we prepared to give one another communion in the round. However, the most blessed thing happened prior to this moment that shaped the whole experience into something much deeper – Jean’s husband had purchased a bread mix but what was not realized until later was that the mix was a savory Italian bread. So, as Jean explained (with a chuckle and grin on her face) what had happened, the smell of the bread hit me. I can still smell it when I remember this experience, the freshness of the bread with basil and oregano mingling together causing my mouth to water. It was so intoxicating – I wanted that bread! Jean had also brought juice, Welches purple grape juice whose smell combined with the bread sent me into a whole other way of being present. The elements were inviting and I was begging to come. But, I focus on me and really it was the reaction that the girls had that will forever impact my understanding of God and God’s gift of communion.

“Oh [mouth full of bread] this is soooooooo good,” one said. And yet another, “I have never tasted anything so delicious.” And still another girl urgently asks, “Can we have more?” My eyes fill with tears as I think back on this experience because this means of grace which I encounter so much in my churched life actually breaks all human barriers and in this instance the Kingdom of God is there in our midst nearly as tangible as the bread and juice we are consuming. All I hear in my heart and mind in this moment is gift from the Holy Spirit “taste and see that the Lord is Good!” And I do, and we all do, and it is good. We all sit in those moments experiencing the goodness of bread and juice made Christ through the Holy Spirit and scripture. We are freed from our burdens, past, present, and future, and we are together in worship encountering the Trinity and meeting Christ in each other.

Now, you must understand that this is my communion experience; this is what I saw and lived in those moments of time. It has occurred to me since then what a travesty it is that the church does not often serve fresh, tasty bread to remember the broken body of Christ. It is also a problematic that more often than not the cheapest wine is purchased and shared to represent the blood of Christ poured out for all of creation. We, like the disciples, have forgotten that the poor will always be with us and that to anoint the feet of God with costly perfume is blessing God and honoring the Divine. Perhaps we should bring out the best bread and wine we have so people will crave more Christ! That those gathered may taste and see that the Lord is good not cheap, the delicious recognition of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection as God’s love for all of creation.

Now, let us go back to Maundy Thursday. After communion we moved away from the desks that were fashioned into a long table, and sat in a circle on the floor. Prior to our gathering we set up three chairs (covering them with a beautiful cloth) and three basins. We based our foot washing on John 13:1-17 and Jean, Janet, and I did a readers theater of the text so the girls could connect why we were foot washing at all. As an offering to the girls, Jean, Janet and I would provide the foot washing because we wanted to show them what servant leadership was all about, to use this tangible means to illustrate Christ’s love for them. We are clear leaders for these girls but as far as we can tell, the other leaders in their lives have never been as servants to them.

Pouring warm water and tangerine smelling oil into the basins, Jean, Janet, and I invited the girls to come and sit when they felt ready. Again, I was unprepared for the experience that was about to happen. A young lady sits at my chair and hovers her feet over the basin and I pour the warm, fragrant water over her tired feet and she lets out a sigh. Then, I wash her feet with my bare hands, gently rubbing them and she groans with a sigh of relief and exclaims, “Girls, you have got to do this, this is amazing.” It was then that it hit me that these girls lack the vital necessity of positive touch, of being allowed to relax and be taken care of by another, of not being hurt or hit or abused by another. It was then that I vowed to wash each of the girls’ feet with attention, intention and love, to safely touch them where their stress and tiredness hides.

That evening, all of the girls who were with us had their feet washed. Then, they demanded to return the love by washing our feet! Three or four girls at a basin washing our feet, talking about how good the water smelled and how warm it felt on their hands. They knelt above our feet, studying them and caring for us. When that humbling moment of submitting to Christ’s love for me via the hands and hearts of the girls was finished the Holy Spirit blew the girls into a wind of excitement and love and they left the room to invite the staff to come in so the girls could wash their feet! The staff! The ones who are charged with caring for the girls and all that means, the staff who are exhausted, who yell, who hug, who are bitten by the girls, who restrain them when things get out of hand, who have to remove the privileges of the girls all the time. Those staff. The people who, in my life, I would never run to and invite them over so I could wash their feet. This was indeed an out pouring of Divine Love for the other! A few staff took up the invitation, and Jean, Janet, and I watched the girls lovingly wash the feet of the staff at Four Oaks. It will forever baffle me but will always, always exemplify Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The breaking in of the Kingdom of God through community, communion, and foot washing. Perceiving the flight of the Holy Spirit and the hands of Christ at work and the feet of Christ having the dust removed from them. Understanding that this experience, the whole entire thing, is God’s intention for how life is to be lived, in humble service to each other. This was my Maundy Thursday experience, given by the Triune God through girls who have been hurt and abused and removed from society because they are the “bad” ones. They were the proclaimers of God’s grace and love, servants to the people in their midst, testifying to the abundance of God.

A PRESENT PARTICIPLE (“ing”) POEM By Rev. Dr. Ralph Quere, WTS faculty em.

A Present Participle (“ing”) Poem
Telos
How goes this conversing with death?
Is death at the end to be befriended or upended
By a dreaded enemy’s defeating by the spirit’s working
Often when in helplessness, hopelessness or pain’s distress
Death comes as respited releasing, awaited with eagerness
Tempting us to euthanasia or suicide: both rob God’s hands!
Scripture is clear: human life is enslaved by fear of death1
But there is an antidote, not a medicine, but a person
Called Resurrection and Life2 who killed killer-death

By dying—like many soldiers—dying to win a battle
And saving others, like Christ dying & sharing His kingdom
With others. Like the dying thief and offering it to all!
For many baptizings that begin it in God giving pardon,
New birth into new living that is lasting into the ages of ages
Linking us with Christ’s dying and living, kept by the spirit
Working faith & love toward the living word named Jesus.
St. Paul admits desiring departing and being with Christ!
A suicidal death wish? No, a longing for consummating Faith,
Hope and Love through the victory won by Jesus, swallowing
Death & defanging evil! This gift just keeps on coming
From the Father’s on-going so loving the world—

Rooting in the Son’s once-for-all-self-sacrificing and,
The undercover working of the creating spirit
Bringing the redeeming power of love3 & liberating truth
Of the triune deity’s trialogue displacing death’s dialogue
With the triune deity’s trialogue of
Christ, Grace & Faith!

The Dialogue with Death recommends that the dying “befriend” death. I agree that it is important to accept death when it is clearly approaching. The “Death and Dying” movement followed the literature about the “American Way of Death” the way the funeral industry helped in physical and psychological tools to mask and in effect deny death. Many psychologists recommend that funeral services should be “grief management.” The current fad in the “celebration of life” – a half step in the right direction. However that is understood and usually performed as celebration of the life of the deceased and paints plaster saint out of one whom the family and friends knew was quite the opposite. Even the best of the saints need to be remembered as “a sinner of (Christ’s) own reddeming (ELW p. 283).

So the one whose life should be celebrated at funerals is Jesus whose death and resurrection are our new life and sure hope for eternal life. Handel’s Messiah draws from Revelations 5:9-14 for the final chorale: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.”

Scripture makes it clear that death is a defeated enemy – it’s not a warm fuzzy friend (see the notes in the poem).

1Heb. 2:15
2John 11:24
32 Cor. 5:19-21

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Paula Carlson Elected President of Luther College

Dr. Paula Carlson has just been elected President of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Her husband, Dr. Thomas Schattauer, is Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel at Wartburg Seminary. Thomas and Paula have long been a part of Wartburg.  Paula will assume the office of president July 1. She is currently in her 6th year serving as Vice President of Mission at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Previously she was Associate Dean and then Director of the Wendt Center at the University of Dubuque.

Paula is a graduate of St. Olaf College. She earned her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in New York City. She has taught in many positions at various institutions through the years.

Karen Bloomquist Begins Her Leadership of PLTS

The Rev. Dr. Karen Bloomquist is the new dean and Chief Administrative Officer of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, having begun January 1.  She replaces Rev. Dr. Phyllis Anderson who was president of PLTS and is a Wartburg Seminary graduate. Karen taught Ethics at Wartburg Seminary before spending 11 years as the director of the department for theology and studies at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland.  She served in a similar position for the ELCA before and while teaching at Wartburg.

Karen is a graduate of St. Olaf College, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and earned her doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

JOURNAL ENTRIES FROM PALESTINE By Jon Brudvig, 2nd Year MDiv

As I read Christians and a Land Called Holy by Charles Lutz and Robert Smith, both ELCA pastors, I am shocked to discover that much of what I know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been filtered through the lens of western media outlets that fail to present a balanced or objective view of Middle Eastern affairs.  Sadly, I, like many other Americans, have unwittingly developed preconceived images of Palestinians as terrorists who intentionally targeted innocent Israelis citizens for attack during the second Intifada; a perception further reinforced by media coverage of Hamas and other radical Islamic groups (Muslim Brotherhood) resorting to violence in the Gaza Strip.  Why, I wonder, don’t we hear about the apartheid-like efforts to separate Israelis and Palestinians from one another?  Why don’t we hear about the actions of people who are advocating for peace and justice?  Why do major news outlets fail to report on the Israeli government’s provocative building of settlements on Palestinian land or its ongoing illegal activities throughout the West Bank?  Why the silence? 

Sadly, the silence is killing people, crushing dreams, engendering hatred, and slowly strangling hopes for a lasting and just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.  How, I wonder, can well-intentioned Christians advocate for justice in light of these challenges and political realities?  In my opinion, we must shed our initial apathy and begin to take action, however insignificant our first steps may be, and advocate for justice for all of people in the Holy Land.  I also realize that I have a choice.  I can live in blissful ignorance of the suffering of fellow human beings, or I can listen and learn from the “living stones,” the people of the Holy Land that I will encounter during the trip.  Only then will I be able to speak prophetically and to stand in critical solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis via a hermeneutic of justice (p. 55, 60).

Why does this place matter? Why does it matter that we have come to this place?

“Cities that can’t grow, die” noted Reverend Mitri Raheb during our brief conversation with him shortly after arriving in Bethlehem.  At the time, I really did not understand the complicated nature of Palestinian-Israeli relations.  Nor did I fully understand the powerful truth of Pastor Rehab’s barbed comment.  Everything changed for me; however, when our group had the opportunity to visit the Wi’ am Center, a Palestinian advocacy organization committed to promoting conflict resolution, citizen diplomacy, youth advocacy, women’s empowerment, and peaceful transformation in a land battered by hatred and violence.  Here, in the shadow of a monstrous wall that encircles the town of Bethlehem I am suddenly struck by the realization that Bethlehem and other Palestinian settlements choked by this ghastly structure have become veritable human prisons.

Even the defiant graffiti brings to mind images of Eastern German dictators who ultimately failed to hold back the tide of liberty and democracy in Europe.  Perhaps justice will someday reach this place too, even in the midst of the Israeli government’s military might.  While Bethlehem and other Palestinian settlements in the West Bank find themselves encircled by the “Separation Barrier” and frequent military checkpoints, the Israeli government continues to build settlements throughout the West Bank, including a modern outcropping of well-kept homes and apartments that are snaking their way perilously close to Bethlehem.  It’s almost as if the Israeli government is building these structures in the West Bank both to taunt the Palestinians and to daily remind the Palestinians of their status as an occupied people.

This place matters because it is here that we have the opportunity to see firsthand that Israeli politicians and military leaders seem intent on “making a land without a people for the land.”  It also matters that we have come to this place in order to bear witness to the humiliation of physical separation barriers and checkpoints based solely on a people’s ethnicity.  Instead of making the state of Israel more secure, such near-sighted policies only create fertile soil for engendering hatred and spawning the rise of radical extremists who seek vengeance with rockets and random acts of violence directed against unidentified oppressors.  Yet, it is also here in a Bethlehem neighborhood situated in the shadow of Goliath’s wall where a dedicated staff of people affiliated with the Wi’am Center cling to a belief in the transformative power of hope by advocating for restorative justice and peace.  This place matters. In the midst of oppression it defiantly stands as a visible symbol of sustainable development, empowerment of the oppressed, and hope for a better future.  It also matters that we, Christian pilgrims hailing from a land that cherishes democracy, personal liberty, and equality have the opportunity to bear witness to what we have seen and to take seriously the Christian vocation to actively seek peace and justice for our oppressed brothers and sisters.

2) Describe a specific and significant encounter with a person or people from our pilgrimage.

During our time in Bethlehem I had the opportunity to visit with Rony Tabash, Epiphany Tabash, and their father.  The Tabash family operates the Nativity Store, a third-generation family-owned business located adjacent to Manger Square.  Rony and Epiphany were very eager to engage our group once they learned that we were seminarians from the United States.  Although it was late in the evening, Rony called for his father to come to the shop to spend time with fellow Christians.  While we waited for him to arrive Rony explained to me that his father was Catholic and his mother was Eastern Orthodox.  After his father arrived, Rony and Epiphany busied themselves assisting the influx of newly-arrived tourists eager to spend their money on olivewood nativity sets and chalices while I spent the time engaged in conversation with the family patriarch to ascertain his opinion regarding the current situation in Palestine.  According to Mr. Tabash “no one can know what it is like to live here (Palestine) until they have spent several generations in Bethlehem.”  Only later did I recognize the wisdom of Mr. Tabash’s statement.

Given my residency in the United States of America, I have never lived under the yoke of foreign occupation.  My security and personal liberties have never been threatened.  Far from it, we have laws in place designed to rigorously defend our personal liberty and religious and political rights. Yet, here in the land that heralded the birth of the Prince of Peace, countless Palestinian families have known only oppression, war, and the constant threat to personal freedoms that so many of us take for granted.  Mr. Tabash informed me that his father experienced life under Turkish, British, Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian rule.  Although he has permission to travel anywhere in Israel, he remarked that he is treated as someone who is less than human when he does, due to the searches and endless queues that he must endure any time that he leaves Bethlehem.  Like other Palestinian Christians, most of his family has left Palestine because they cannot put up with the treatment.  In fact, Mr. Tabash informed me that his two sisters now live in the United States (San Antonio and San Francisco).  Sadly, both women are afraid to return home to Bethlehem.  Although Mr. Tabash may travel freely throughout Israel, he told me that he “feels like a free man” only when he visits his two sisters in America. When I asked Mr. Tabash if he still had hope for a peaceful resolution to the current situation he replied, “Hope? What hope is there? We pray and we hope.”

Although his response contained elements of both remorse and skepticism, I also sensed a belief on Mr. Tabash’s part that he had not lost faith in the power of the Almighty to bring about change in this part of the world.  As long as people like Mr. Tabash have faith that a peaceful solution is possible, perhaps peace is possible.  As we left the store Mr. Tabash presented us with small gifts in token of his appreciation of our visit while encouraging us to remember what we see in Palestine and to tell others about it.

My encounter with Mr. Tabash, although relatively innocuous at the time, has left a deep impression on me.  While I thoroughly enjoyed our opportunity to interact with highly-regarded Palestinian activists (Mitri Raheb, Zoughbi Zoughbi, and Archbishop Elias Chacour), the person-to-person encounter with Mr. Tabash helped me to connect with an ordinary person who shares the same hopes and dreams for his family, aspirations that many of us in the United States take for granted.  As I think back on this encounter, especially in light of my own context, I cannot help but recall Elias Chacour’s admonition that it is high time that Christians who hunger and thirst for justice must “get their hands dirty” for “peace does not need people to meditate on it but to take action for it” (Faith Beyond Despair, 49).

Although I had ventured to the Holy Lands to visit sites connected with the origins of my faith, I came away realizing that Christianity is a living faith.  Our most precious monuments are not the excavated remains of places associated with our Lord and Savior, rather it is the “living stones,” the people for whom our God took human form and willing suffered and died for on our behalf that we must remember. It is for these people, our brothers and sisters around the world, that we must be willing to live lives of authentic Christian discipleship.

A POEM by Carina Schiltz, 2nd Year MDiv

This was written in response to taking the Wartburg J-term course ‘Responding to Issues in Domestic Violence’, particularly contemplating the stories of survivors of domestic violence.

self-less

my bruised and broken body
is nothing compared to my
chewed-up and spit-out spirit
self? i have no self.
Savior?
He hangs on a cross and you
tell me to be like him–
to suffer.
To hold the family together.
But most of you tell me nothing.
Your eyes tell me to be
ashamed. To feel guilty–
and again I am a victim.
The worst is the silence,
a silence I have learned to
keep because no one will
believe me,
a silence that i keep
because i know my voice isn’t
worth anything to anyone.
It’s in the silence the voices scream
“YOU ARE NOTHING”–and
point to the man hanging on
a cross. Is that my fate, too?
A call to the cops
a cold corpse–
i’m already dead, can’t you
see that?
This is no way to live–
in fear, in isolation, in
punishment for my self-less-ness.
i am no self.
i am silent.

ME & MY COLLAR

Submitted to The Persistent Voice by Rebecca Crystal, Unitarian Universalist MDiv Intern, written by one of the women clergy with whom she works in Houston, TX.

You may run into me on a Friday, in my neighborhood, so it’s time I let you know what you might see.

When I was doing my required unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), my supervisor suggested that any of us who came from traditions where a clerical collar was an option, take one “collar week,” to see how we were treated, as opposed to wearing regular professional clothes.

After a couple of days, I joked to the Catholic priest, “How do you manage the power?”

In regular clothes, I would walk into a patient’s room, and it would take about 5 or so minutes of introductions and pleasantries before we could really get down to talking about their feelings, their fears, the deep stuff.

With most people, as soon as that clerical collar walked in the room, with me attached, they began pouring out all the heavy stuff they were carrying.

I was riding the bus back and forth every day, and though not quite so dramatic, the collar effect was alive there, too. More people would chat with me, and they’d get “real” faster. Rarely was “How’s it going?” answered with a polite, “Fine,” as normally happened. People spoke about having a stressful time at work, or how they couldn’t find their cat, or their joy because someone special was coming in town.

It was great … and it was exhausting. At the end of the week, I confided to my CPE team that I was glad to take off the collar. As long as it was on, I was “on.”

I never expected to wear one as a Unitarian Universalist minister, unless I was doing social witness.

That’s the norm. We wear it in those situations because it’s important to give a message that religious professionals are there, especially when so many times, (LGBTQ issues, reproductive health), the impression is that religion is only on the conservative side.

A few of my colleagues wear it, though, especially my good friend Rev. Ron Robinson, who wears it around Turley, where he runs a missional community. And the Humiliati wore it as part of their practice.

It Started As an Experiment.

There’s a lot of “conventional wisdom” about the collar, among UU ministers. One that I heard many times is that it will turn people off, it will be a barrier. So after I was ordained, I decided to experiment. I would wear it out in my neighborhood, and keep a log of my interactions. I was just curious.

The first two or three times, I noticed some small things — it seemed that people, especially among the more economically or otherwise marginalized communities — were a little friendlier, a little more open to talking. But the collar has its effect on me, too, and perhaps I was just being friendlier myself?

The more definable result were the conversations I had with other women — especially younger women — about the collar. Was I a priest? No, a minister? A woman … how did that work? What did people call me?

Well, I do live in the Bible Belt.

And Became An Act of Social Witness.

I wasn’t doing it on any regular basis, I must admit. In regular clothes, I have the privilege of being invisible. But these questions, about being a women and a minister, prompted me to occasionally go out in my collar, in the community.

One day, I had to run several errands, including a trip to the post office. I kicked my rear (not literally, I’m not that flexible), put on the collar, and went about them.

At the post office, I futzed around awkwardly, looking for the right size box. The clerk at the counter waved me over, asked if he could assist me. He advised me on a cheaper way to ship, and helped me assemble the package. His co-worker joked, asking if I could give him holy water. The clerk said, “I don’t need that, but would you pray for me?” I smiled and said, Yes, and asked his name. His co-worker said to pray for her, too. I asked her name. When I left, I said, “Thank you, Ray.” And came home and prayed for Ray and Naomi.

So, It Developed Into A Spiritual Practice.

The spirit was willing, but the self-consciousness made me weak. It’s just so much easier to be invisible. I’d go out sporadically,  have an experience that made me mentally promise to be more regular about it … but life just keeps happening, busy schedules, things to make happen, ministry to do …

And then I heard about a teen in my area, who was gradually coming out as gay, exploring trans*. Hadn’t told their parents, don’t know how they’ll react. Someone told this teen about Unitarian Universalism – they went online, read about it, and were blown away that not all faiths are anti-gay.

In some places, this is still a shockingly new idea that people have never heard of.

There is a Starbucks across the street from my kids’ high school, where they often congregate after school. I decided I’d collar up with a rainbow flag pin on my shirt. I didn’t expect any teen would talk to me — I’m still an adult, after all. But I figured I could sit by the door, just taking care of some work on my computer, and maybe, just maybe, the juxtaposition of the collar and the pin might introduce the idea into some teen’s head that “Hey, maybe religion and gay aren’t enemies.” Maybe even, “Hey. Maybe Goddoesn’t hate me.”

So, I didn’t expect any confirmation. But sometimes we do things, even aware we’ll never know if it made a difference. That’s faith, I guess.

I was waiting for my lime refresher when the girl standing next to me said, “I like your flag pin.”

She said it, but her face looked doubtful. It was one of those rare times when I’m pretty sure I could read her thoughts. Does she know what that pin she’s wearing actually means?

I smiled at her. “I think it’s important, especially in this area, to send a message.”

I watched her eyes bounce back and forth between the pin and my collar.

“Are you a priest?”

“I’m a minister, a Unitarian minister. We’re an LGBT-friendly church.” I rethought the words. “Mmm, LGBT-welcoming?”

“LGBT-friendly is a good term,” she said. She squinted at me. “You mean, your church is okay with gay people?”

“Mmm-hmm. Some of our ministers are gay, too.”

She blinked and it seemed apparent this was a brand new idea. We had a conversation of a couple of minutes as she clarified that yes, I really meant it, it was fine to be gay at a Unitarian Universalist church.

“What’s the name of your church? My mom has been wanting to go to a church.”

I told her, and mentioned another in the area.

She repeated that her mom wanted to find a church. “We’ve been to a couple of churches … but the kids were mean to me. Because I’m gay.”

Deep breath.

I told her that I was so sorry. That that should never happen at a church. That it would not be tolerated at one of our churches. Not at my church, I emphasized, conscious of the collar I wore, conscious that it represented, to her, an authority far beyond me.

She asked if I could write down the name of my church. I handed her a business card. She read it slowly, standing there.

“I’m Joanna,” I said, shaking her hand.

“I’m —-,” she said, shaking my hand, looking me straight in the eyes.

That’s When it Became a Discipline. 

Every Friday afternoon, that’s where I am. I take my ipad, catch up on emails and whatnot.

What makes that a spiritual discipline? my mentor asked.

Presence.

Awareness.

As I mentioned, when I started my St. Arbucks ministry, my only thought was about presence. And I still think that’s important. It’s not about me being there. I am merely representing something — church, God, religion, spirit. With a message of inclusion.

But my experiences have taught me that it’s not just enough for my body to be present, I have to be fully aware. Which frankly, is not always one of my strengths, especially if I’m working on something else. I can have deep conversations with someone and after they leave, if you ask me whether they were wearing glasses, or wearing a red shirt, I’ll look at you blankly. Not very observant.

It’s like an exercise in spiritual peripheral vision. Being casual, certainly not staring at people as they walk in … yet being aware, so that if someone wants to begin a conversation, I’m open and willing. It’s not easy. My own teen was sitting near me one Friday and hissed, “MOM! That guy just said he liked your pin!”

I missed it.

And that’s usually how the conversation begins. “I like your pin,” they say. Sometimes, that’s the end of the conversation. Sometimes not. “I like your pin,” said a boy the other day. “Thank you,” I said. He turned to a girl sitting by him. “She’s a minister, but she likes gays.” The girl smiled at me, and with a British accent told me that in her country, gay marriage was legal now. We talked a bit, the three of us.

I often wear the pin on regular clothes. I get smiles, but it’s not the same.

It’s the collar and the pin. Religion and inclusiveness. God and gay.