Tag Archives: Faith

THRESHOLD OF LIVING By Tami Groth, final year MA Diaconal Ministry

Standing in front of the strips of paper I read the directions again: write the names of the saints in your life. The names of the saints that have died and gone before us on the white paper. Use the strips of colored paper to write the names of the saints in your life that are still with us. I began writing.

I wanted it to be something I did quickly before the next thing on my growing “to-do” list that day. I could not. Here in the space between Chapel and the refectory, and on my hurried way to the library, this request moved me outside of the carefully accounted for and scheduled moments of my day. I lost track of the slips. Name after name. Moment after moment.

I put down the marker, and held time still with my breath as I remembered standing in deafening silence surrounded by life and yet alone with death — unable to move out of the between and back into time.

I am standing in front of her fresh grave. We buried her exactly a week after I birthed her still body. In all respects it was a glorious sunny mild November day. I was told later that an eagle flew overhead right as the silence fell. The silence that deepened my numbness.

The moments I had not been able to imagine had come to pass  — the awful processional out into the world Emily wouldn’t know. First she was carried by her father in that tiny casket step-by-step down the church aisle, then the drive to the cemetery. We survived watching that tiny pink casket go into the ground next to her great-grandparents. We listened numbly to prayers.

In the first second of quiet we put single roses on top of that casket before it was1117_close buried in earth. Emily’s older sister, Megan, gave me the gift of being her 4-year-old self when nobody could convince her to give up the rose she was holding. In that moment I wanted to take her and gather her in my arms and twirl her around and around until we were both dizzy. I wanted to be in her moment of joy in the beauty of the rose.

Instead I continued to stare at her sister’s fresh grave–the still green grass, the black dirt, and pink. An eternity of quiet; holding my breath on the threshold of living into a reality of “forever changed.”

Just mere hours ago I had been encouraging the stream of people entering the church to look at her: “she’s so beautiful.” My heart ached to hold onto that beauty like a 4-year-old with her hands on a rose stem.

“I can’t do this anymore” I said not realizing my thoughts had broken the silence.

“Then don’t,” my mom said as she took my arm and gently guided me across that threshold.

I wiped my wet eyes and gulped in deep breaths of fresh air as I made my way from one Wartburg building to the next attempting to return to place and time — 13 years of living later — on my way to the library and the life of to-do lists. A glance at my watch claimed the moments connected in minutes.

The next week in chapel names were read, candles were lit, Gospel was spoken, and those slips of paper — white and colored — hung together in sunlit windows and air stirred them as if with the dance of eternal life.

ALL SAINTS DAY REMEMBERED by Josh Johnson, final year M.Div.

Homily given at Wartburg Seminary Chapel November 3, 2014

Today is All Saints Day, a day in which we remember and honor the saints of our lives. Saints are far and near, and both living and dead. As part of preparing for today’s message, I reflected upon experiences of this day since coming to Wartburg.

My first All Saints day here at the castle was the type of day that I had grown accustomed to. We celebrated those who had gone before us with familiar hymns, the reading of the names of the recently deceased, and the lighting of candles. It was a celebration of all those who had touched us throughout the years.

The following year was quite the opposite. As some of you know, my second year here on campus was marked by the death of our son Josiah. Shannon and I found out 2 weeks prior to school starting that his heart had stopped beating. Josiah was stillborn at 37 weeks.

All Saints took on a much different meaning for me. I remember yearning to hear his name read with the other saints.

This wasn’t the planned path; baby’s names are to be read at baptisms and other celebrations, but this was it for me.

Death gave us this one the last milestone.

This past All Saints service was also marked with a death in my life. Last summer my grandfather died at 80 years of age. He lived a long, fruitful life and was very special to me.

All Saints Day was a day of fond memories as I remembered my special relationship with him.

This is how I imagined All Saints Day to go, a sad, yet joyous commemoration.

Today’s gospel lesson comes from Jesus’ familiar teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about these blessings that doesn’t settle with me.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, and so on. How are the people who experience these blessed?

There’s no way Jesus is telling us that some of the most challenging and miserable situations in life are blessings. It has to be a problem in translation.

So let’s try out some alternative meanings for this Greek word:

How about, favored are the poor in spirit… no that’s not it.

Oh, fortunate are those who mourn… that’s not any better, fortunate is the last word that comes to mind when I think about the death of a loved one.

Ok, how about this one: privileged are the meek, or happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… no, those don’t work either

So, if blessed is the right word here, what is Jesus trying to tell his disciples?

The next question that begs to be asked from the text, is about the “wills” in the second half of the statement. They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will be filled; and so on. So, when will this take place? When will those who mourn be comforted?

Death is an unavoidable reality of our world. Death sneaks in and takes away a loved one out of nowhere; death also comes for those for whom we expect it to come.

Nevertheless, death separates us from those we love. It stings. It hurts. It’s unfair. You know this. I know this.

When Josiah died and every hope and dream was dashed away in an instant, I was beyond crushed. I had nothing.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Sisters and brothers, I am here today to tell you that Jesus’ words are true. No, it’s not because Shannon and I were the “lucky” recipients ofa new angel baby watching over us in heaven.” Moreover, it’s definitely not because we were young enough to try to have more children. I love Noah beyond measure, but he is not God’s comforting answer.

God’s comfort came to us by other means.

God’s comfort came to us through two friends that showed up at a moment’s notice when we found out this dreadful news.

God’s comfort came to us through a supportive community that was present in our time of need.

God’s comfort came through the ones who finally treated us as a human beings rather than as a pity case.

God’s comfort continues to come through supportive friends who continues to be there.

In our time of desperation, we were blessed by the loving presence of those that God sent to comfort us. In our deep grief, in our most vulnerable state, we were blessed because all we had was God, and God was there.

The hurt and pain did not go away, and its memory still resides. Nevertheless, it is not to be borne alone.

We bear it in one another and we bear it in the one who experienced great agony on the cross.

This is the promise of our text today. No matter how crappy life feels, and no matter how far life beats you down.

God promises stand the test of time.

Christ is there when you are stripped of everything else.

The Spirit surrounds you with a witness of saints.

God is with you. Amen

HOLD HIM CLOSE; HOLD HIM LIGHTLY & EUCHARIST MEANS THANKSGIVING by Ralph F. Smith, former WTS Professor

Rev. Ralph SmithThe following are excerpts from Ralph Smith’s two final homilies. Dr. Smith was Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel for ten years (1984-1994), a pastor, teacher and hymn writer. This November, twenty years after his death, the Wartburg Seminary community is actively remembering Ralph Smith and the important and lasting impact he has had on this community.


Homily Wartburg Chapel, Oct 26, 1994 [Text: Luke l0:38-42]

Hold Him Close, Hold Him Lightly

“My good friend in graduate school and liturgical study, Paul Nelson, may be dying. My daughter had a baby three weeks ago and made me a grandfather a bit earlier in my life than I expected. These two seemingly unrelated incidents prompted my remembering words spoken to me years ago during a health issue of my own, ‘Ralph, you need to understand that we do not have all the time in the world’. . .

We do not have, you or I, all the time in the world. Neither did Mary nor Martha, nor even Jesus. . . Yet no matter how much our head and our heart tell us that we do not have all the time in the world . . .

to write that letter of thanks,

to take that meal to an ill friend,

to clean up the environment,

to finish those few important projects

to tell spouse, children, parents, friends that we love them, and show it,

No matter how much our head and our heart tell us that we do not have all the time in the world . . .

to spend a quiet moment with someone dear to us,

to sing a song,

to pray a prayer,

to gaze at the glowing embers of a fire,

to see the sun rise and set,

to listen to the cry of someone in need,

to ask for strength and courage to face an uncertain future.

No matter how much our head and our heart tell us that we do not have all the time in the world . . . we so often live as though we do. Now that could be the most oppressive and debilitating word I could possibly speak to you today . . .

Ah, but you see, in Luke’s and our post-resurrection perspective it is already too late . . . and it is never too late.

We do not have all the time in the world, but we do have time.

When I lamented not knowing how to react to my grandson, Norma Everist wisely advised me to hold him close and to hold him lightly. It was a liberating word, without sentimentality, and it frees me to do both. To not be distracted . . . one thing is needful . . .

Hold Jesus close, and hold him lightly.

We are invited to love Jesus, but we cannot possess him. Luke understood that… so did Mary… so did Martha… so do you.”


Homily Wartburg Seminary Chapel November 21, Monday morning of Thanksgiving Week. [Text: Luke 15:1-10]
Eucharist Means Thanksgiving
The homily was on the missing sheep and coin, on being lost or found, on cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving. After his death four days later, the Bible on his office desk remained open to the Luke text along with his notes for the service. Here is the conclusion to his homily:

“There are only a few days of classes left until the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a week for Thanksgiving, for celebrations; and even in the midst of sorrow of those alone, separated from family and friends there is still thanksgiving for what the missing relationships have meant.

Thanksgiving is the heart of the Christian gathering; eucharist means thanksgiving . . . Paul said in Colossians, ‘Keep you roots deep in Jesus, build your lives on him, become stronger in your faith, and be filled with Thanksgiving.’”

 


Read more about Rev. Dr. Ralph F. Smith, as shared by the Wartburg Seminary community

 

 

WARTBURG SEMINARY INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY CONVOCATION 2014

Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben, WTS Assistant Professor of New Testament:

Welcome to our first convocation of the academic year. “Convocations” happen here at Wartburg at various times on topics that require—not simply disseminating information—but face-to-face conversation. These topics are typically not cut-and-dry issues, but matters of evolving, ongoing, dynamic conversation.

For many years Wartburg has hosted a convocation on “inclusive language.” This convocation is similar, but broader in focus. It entails not only concerns pertinent to inclusive language but also concerns pertinent to behavior and actions that foster genuine inclusion of “the other.”

Our language and our behavior do things, especially in community: by our words and actions, we consciously and unconsciously assume certain norms, characterize ourselves and our community ethos, and establish what is “normal,” acceptable, and appreciated. Sometimes we are deliberate about our words and actions, sometimes not so much.

This morning we have 6 individuals who will each speak for about 2 minutes on a particular issue that pertains to becoming an inclusive community.

- Hannah Benedict (concerning gender)
– Norma Cook Everist (concerning disabilities)
– Mack Patrick (concerning transgender)
– Stan Olson (concerning inclusive language for God)
– Gus Barnes (concerning race and sexual orientation)
– Susan Ebertz (concerning denominational backgrounds)

Afterward, we will dialogue with each other at our tables.

Hannah Benedict, Final Year M.Div. Student: 

I don’t think much about my gender. I don’t have a constant internal track going, “I-am-a-woman-I-am-a-woman-I-am-a-woman.” I say this fully aware that as I say that, I wear a particular piece of attire typically attributed to one gender–yep, high heels, those tortuous devices woman can wear. But I don’t wear high heels because of my gender. I wear them because of my 5’3″ height. It’s logistics folks! I truly don’t pay attention to my gender much, until a moment about which I’m going to tell you:

At the end of internship, a congregation member came up to me with what she thought would be a compliment. She said, “At first we didn’t know how a lady intern would do, but you did great, honey!” Her pleasant surprise was my harsh realization. Not only might I need to consider my gender, but that others could see my gender as a detriment.

She wasn’t the first to share such reactions. Others, mostly women and women my age, shared similar reactions, “You wanna be a what? Sweetie, don’t you know you’re a lady?”

It’s not that I don’t know my gender. I am fully aware of it and others of my kind. I’m one of three sisters, (an aunt two nieces; women outnumber men in my family). I attended a women’s college—go Suzies—and chaired the feminist group. I got that I was a woman, through and through. But what I didn’t get was how this somehow made me any less effective or valuable.

Being a woman never stopped me from doing all that God called me to do. Being a woman never stopped me from being compassionate, courageous, strong, determined, and dedicated. Instead, being a woman, surrounded and supported by them, taught me how to be all these and more. My gender provides a particular perspective, one no less important than any other. From this vantage point, I can see who God makes me through the Holy Spirit in Christ.

In Christ, we are no longer male/female, gentile/Jewish, enslaved/free. We are God’s.  Gender may be part of my identity but it is not all of it. Yes, I’m a lady—and a wife, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, and, occasionally I wear heels.  But I am first and foremost a child of God.

Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, Professor of Church Administration and Educational Ministry: 

I’m Norma Cook Everist, addressing living together with our abilities and disabilities. We are all differently abled. Wartburg is a caring community where people try to live thoughtfully, respectfully and in solidarity with people with disabilities.

How can we do this even better?

By really seeing each person, rather than pretending not to notice. By asking, rather than presuming a person’s need: “What is helpful to you?”

By using person-first language: Not “a blind person” but a “person who is blind.” I have a disability; I am not my disability.

And by using inclusive language in worship. Our ELW does not say, “Please stand,” words hard to hear for those who cannot. Thomas Schattauer and Melissa Waterman encourage us to motion with our hands when the congregation is to stand. People with disabilities who were on the hymnal planning committee encouraged, “The Assembly stands,” an inclusive phrase which means the congregation stands for those who cannot. We’ve been doing pretty well this fall. It is important we remember as we are formed as leaders for an inclusive church.

Inclusive language matters: So we motion, or we say, “The assembly stands,” or we say, “Please stand as you are able.”

Nicholas Rohde and I conferred, discovering we’ve both been tempted to respond when we hear, “Please stand”: “No thank you, I can’t.” Let’s try that. I’ll say, “Please stand,” and you respond, “No thank you. I can’t.” [The people at tables did.] Now say after me: “The Assembly stands.” [“The Assembly stands.”] “Please stand as you are able”   [“Please stand as you are able.”]

Thank you very much.

Mack Patrick, 1st Year M.Div. Student:

To start this conversation off, one must understand a few basic things about transgender. The first is that transgender is commonly spelled as trans*; this is an important piece in the trans* experience. The asterisk represents that trans* is a spectrum covering a wide variety of experiences. Some are a bit more clear-cut than others. There is the complete change over: Female to Male or Male to Female, but there is also the non-conforming, non-identifying side of gender.

Along with recognizing that trans* is a spectrum—and you may not always know how someone fully identifies—it is important to realize trans* are still people. Asking if they have surgery, or inquiring more about their chosen gender, is not cool and rather offensive. No one cares about your private parts. You should not ask those questions of those who are trans*. That is a private matter.

Pronouns identify who we are on a paper form, but correct use of pronouns is also a good way to show someone that you care about them and want them to be included in a community. While society has focused on the popular pronouns of male and female, there are yet two other known sets of pronouns that someone may identify with. One of those other sets is the gender neutral set. It is commonly used with individuals who do not identify with a specific gender. [This set includes:] Ze (zee) commonly referred to as the subject, Hir (here) known as the object and possessive adjective, and Hirs (heres) for the possessive pronoun. While these are not commonly known and used, as the popularity and acknowledgment of the gender-neutral pronoun grows, they will be used more often. It is completely acceptable to ask people what pronouns they prefer.

For someone who identifies as trans*, asking about pronouns is a great first step. Admitting that you have no clue what to do or say is good, but first and foremost ignore their gender and focus on the person. I know that hearing the correct pronouns being used when talking about me, is huge, as acceptance is growing. Even though I identify as trans*, I feel full included and accepted in the Wartburg Community. Inclusion starts with the ability to recognize you may encounter individuals in your community that are different from you. Take the first step and get to know them as a person.

Rev. Dr. Stan Olson, WTS President:

My privilege today is to talk with you a little about language for God. The topic of this convocation is inclusive language. I could talk about inclusive language for God, pointing to the importance of speaking of God in ways that allow all to be included.

I’ve given that talk. However, over the years I’ve concluded that it’s far better to speak of expansive language for God or, simply, appropriate language for God. Speaking appropriately of God is an expression of faithfulness.

Sixty years ago, J. B. Philipps wrote a book titled, Your God Is Too Small. He challenges the reader to think more expansively about God as made known in Jesus Christ, to embrace the depth of meaning. The book was very important in shaping my early thinking. I recently reread it and can’t now say that I commend the book to you. I do, however, commend the title. Let that title push you firmly as you do theology, preach, teach, counsel, write, and pray—your God is too small.

To embed this push in your thoughts, I invite you to shift from the second person pronoun and use this as a response: Our God is too small. Say it with me now, Our God is too small, and then in response.

If we speak of God using only a few of the words and images available, Our God is too small.

If we use only the language of the New Testament, Our God is too small.

If we use only the language of the Hebrew Bible, Our God is too small.

If our talk of God uses only masculine images and pronouns, or only feminine images and pronouns, or only combinations, Our God is too small.

If we limit our language for God only to words actually used in the Bible and neglect the church’s rich history of devotion and thought, Our God is too small.

If we casually and carelessly use familiar hymnic and devotional language that conveys limited or false images of God, Our God is too small.

If the God we convey seems distant and unknowable for any to whom we speak, Our God is too small.

If we think that God is ours alone, Our God is too small.

If we ever allow ourselves to think that we have arrived at language that is finally and completely appropriate, Our God is too small.

God is not too small!

Gus Barnes, 3rd Year M.Div. Student: 

I am Gus Barnes Jr. I am one of a kind, created by God and my parents. I am a fifty-three year old man in seminary. I am a tax-payer. I am a product of the sixties. Here is the shocker surprise: I am an openly Gay African American man. In my time in this temporal place we call earth, I have had many doors shut in my face because of the things that describes who Gus is. Here at Wartburg Seminary I assume when people speak of Gus being Gay, it’s because often I am happy as Gus; I am welcomed here as Gus.

I am thrilled to have lived a lifetime to see a Black President in office, and this week I met the ELCA’s first openly Gay Bishop. The ELCA has struggled with sexuality issues. And after its decision in 2009 to be more open to gays and lesbians serving in ministerial leadership, it has lost many congregations. Sadly I am reminded daily when I look in the mirror as I prepare my day that I need to ask,”What doors will be opened, and which doors will be shut because of who Gus is?” Spend some time to get to know me and others. I promise if you stay out of my closet, I’ll stay out of yours!

Susan Ebertz, Director of the Reu Memorial Library and Assistant Professor of Bibliography and Academic Research:

I’m speaking on inclusion of a variety of denominational backgrounds. I think that there is only one student here who is not Lutheran and she is a TEEM student. I think I am the only faculty member who is not Lutheran. There are a number of the staff who are not Lutheran. I mention this because sometimes it is easy for some of us to forget that not all of us are Lutheran.

At one time we had more non-Lutherans here. The other faculty member and the students would talk with me about some of their experiences. I’m not at liberty to share those stories. It wasn’t a secret club but it did create a bond between us.

I don’t think that the difference in denominational backgrounds is as hurtful as other sorts of discriminations. If we all realize that not everyone speaks Lutheranese and not all of us believe Lutheran theology, we go a long way into including those of other denominations.

I know that some of you grew up in a different denomination and the transition to Lutheran theology may be difficult. I think it is important for you to know and understand Lutheran theology and to live into that. That is okay. That is not what I’m talking about.

Many of you will be ministering in communities where you will need to work with ecumenical partners. Understanding what they believe or how they “do worship” can be an important learning experience while you are in seminary. Figure out ways to experience that.

If you want to talk more, I welcome conversation with you.

Table Question for Communal Conversation:

  1. When have you experienced “exclusion” in a community or church setting?
  2. What practices have you observed to be some of the most helpful for facilitating authentic inclusion and openness in faith communities? How have they worked?
  3. As leaders, how can we go about being allies or advocates in the communities we serve for inclusion concerning some of the issues named this morning?
  4. As leaders, what do you think will be some of the most pressing issues of inclusion for which we will need to be advocates in our unfolding ministries?

You may also appreciate the following previously published posts:


INTERCESSORY PRAYERS FOR IMMIGRANT LABORERS by Rev. Minna Quint, WTS 2014, Capital Hill Lutheran, Des Moines, IA

For hands that work all day and night on property they will never own
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For backs that are twisted and bent working in fields that just go on and on
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For fingers that are red and swollen from picking a harvest they will never consume
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For shoulders that carry burdens which reside in their muscles leaving knots that cannot be untied
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For brows burning in the heat of an unforgiving sun begging for a single cloud
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For knees that ache so heavily night after night they prevent any chance of sleep
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

For ears that refuse to listen and turn away another’s plea
For eyes that choose dominion over every creature they see
For minds that cannot understand what it means to have equality
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

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

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.