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Monday, February 11, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Ash Wednesday sermon, February 6, 2008

Here is the text of my Ash Wednesday sermon, recorded on video in Jerusalem and broadcast to three Ash Wednesday worship services at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania USA:

-------------------------------

Jesus Christ Brings Peace, Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 6, 2008, video cast to Trinity, Lansdale from Jerusalem

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I bring you greetings this Ash Wednesday from Jerusalem:
* Greetings from the Rev. Claire S. Burkat, Bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who is traveling with my wife, Kris, and I these days in the Holy Land,
* Greetings from the Rev. Munib Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and
* Greetings from our newest Trinity sponsored ELCA missionaries, the Rev. and Mrs. Mark and Marcia Holman.

Kris and I are staying with the Holmans while we are here this week. Bishop Younan remembers his visit to Trinity last January so fondly and asked me to give you his special greetings.

I am preaching to you today fro the Mount of Olives and over my shoulder you can see the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, one of the possible sites for Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The Lutheran Church of the Ascension is part of the complex of the Augusta Victoria Hospital which has been serving Palestinians for nearly seventy years here in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and all of Gaza. It is the only hospital for the more than seven million Palestinians in the areas of oncology, cancer care, and kidney care, renal problems.

This is the Garden of Gethsemane. What a rare privilege it is for me to be able to preach to you from here on this holiest of days, Ash Wednesday, a day on which we begin our pilgrimage to Easter, following Jesus as he heads here to Jerusalem willingly for what will be his trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. This week in our travel group we are walking where Jesus walked and following Jesus from his triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, here to the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, through his crucifixion on Good Friday and finally to his resurrection on Easter.

Lent is an Anglo-Saxon word that comes from the same route as “length,” since it occurs when winter days are lengthening into spring. In other languages, Lent is called “pascha” or Passiontide, from Christ’s passion, that is, Christ’s suffering.

Between Ash Wednesday and Easter there are 46 days. Usually, we speak of the 40 days of Lent. Since Jesus rose from the tomb on a Sunday, Sundays are festival days and not considered part of Lent, although they are part of the Lenten season. Thus, we end up with the 40 days of Lent. That is also why some people fast during Lent on every day but Sunday.

Why are there 40 days in Lent? No one knows for certain, but 40 has always been a special and holy number. In the early Christian church people fasted for the 40 hours from the time of Jesus’ death on Good Friday until the hour when they believed Jesus had risen early on Easter Sunday morning. We also remember the number 40 from other times in the Bible: The 40 days of rain from Noah’s time, the children of Israel wondering for 40 years in the wilderness, Moses spending 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, Jonah waiting 40 days before prophesying at Nineveh. Jesus’ temptation comes after 40 days of fasting and there are 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

Lent has not always been 40 days. Early Christians marked it in many time periods: 3, 6 or 7 weeks were common. In the 4th century the Christian Church here in Jerusalem fasted for 40 days before Easter and that become the norm for Christians by the 6th century.

Ash Wednesday falls on a different date each year because the timing of Easter Sunday moves each year. Unlike a state holiday with a set date, Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. This practice dates from centuries ago so that pilgrims coming here to the Holy Land could have moonlight to guide them on their nighttime journeys. This year Ash Wednesday and Easter are nearly as early as they can fall.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the use of the mark of the ash on a person’s forehead, an Ash Wednesday custom from the ancient Christian church, now common in Roman Catholic and most Lutheran and Episcopal congregations, among many others. This custom traces its roots to devout Jews in Old Testament times who used ashes on their foreheads as a sign of grief and mourning. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are traditionally the ashes of last year’s palms from Palm Sunday. Pastor Eisenhart recently burned those palms to make the ashes you used in today’s service. This links one Lenten and Easter season to another. The words used with the placement of the ashes on one’s forehead are traditional, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We are now in the Old City on the Via Dolorosa. This is Kris’ and my third visit to the Holy Land. Each time we have been struck by both the beauty and barrenness of this place – We love the sights and the smells and, especially the people of Israel and Palestine. Each time we have been received with great hospitality and grace by our Palestinian Lutheran brothers and sisters.

And, each of our visits has also been marked for us with a “taste,” so to speak, of the difficult nature of life for Palestinian Christians here. Palestinian Christians, now just 2 or 3% of the population, often are put in a double bind – hated by some Israelis because they are Palestinian and mistrusted by some Palestinian Muslims because they are Christians. Their Christian faith gets them no breaks for life here. They are subject to all the other indignities that come with life for Palestinians in an occupied land – regular military interventions, internal checkpoints, difficulty in finding and keeping employment.

And now we are here in Bethlehem and here we cannot ignore the “separation barrier” built by the Israelis between Palestinian and Israeli territory. This barrier has reduced the incidents of suicide bombings in Israel, but it has often been built within Palestinian territory on land on which the Israelis did not have the legal right to build it. The separation barrier has divided Palestinian lands and cut off Palestinians from lands some of which have been in their families since the time of Christ. It has further isolated and even divided Palestinian villages. And, it has made day to day life for Palestinians, never easy since the occupation by Israel following the 1967 war, even more difficult.

But, even in the face of all of this, Jesus Christ who we now follow to Jerusalem as Lent begins; this Jesus Christ has the courage, the audacity, to promise us that he will bring peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

And, that is still the hope of Lent for us and for Palestinians and Israelis in 2008. Despite recent and what may seem to be continual setbacks, there is always hope for peace.

Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has made it clear that we stand with everyone who stands for peace here in the Holy Land. We stand for safety and security for all Israelis and Palestinians and a negotiated peace agreement that includes a shared Jerusalem as capital of two independent states, Israel and Palestine.

And that, I believe, is where Jesus Christ would also stand.

In the Gospels, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

Jesus Christ can and will bring peace. Let me say that again, - Jesus Christ can and will bring peace. Such a peace is not easy as the continual conflict here in the Holy Land has well shown. But, it is, it must be, the hope and prayer for all of us, not only for us visiting here in this holiest of seasons and for all Christian people.

Jesus Christ brings peace for you and me in our daily lives and even for all the people of Israel and Palestine in 2008.

Shalom, salaam, peace.

Amen.

----------------

Eric

Sunday, February 10, 2008

 

From Jerusalem, January 31 - February 8, 2008 - Media summary

One of the many reasons for this trip to Jerusalem was to preach my sermon at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale on Ash Wednesday from Jerusalem. If you want to view this sermon, you can find it on our web site, http://www.trinitylansdale.com/ - follow the link from the center of the home page. The text of this sermon is online also - look for the "Sermons" button on the left hand column. The sermon video is also online on Tim Frakes' website at http://frakesproductions.blogspot.com/2008/02/rev-eric-shafer-ash-wednesday-sermon.html .

Another reason for this trip was to attract positive publicity around my Ash Wednesday sermon for Trinity and, by implication, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL - http://www.elcjhl.org/). Here is a summary of the media coverage that I know of:

1) The February issue of "The Lutheran" magazine included a mention of my sermon it its "Churchscan" column on page #43. You may be able to read it online at www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=6971 .

2) The Lansdale "Reporter" newspaper had two stories:
A) The first was a front page story on January 30, "One faith, an ocean apart," which included a color photo of Kris and me from our first Holy Land visit in 1998. It is still online at www.thereporteronline.com/WebApp/appmanager/JRC/Daily?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=pg_article&r21.content=/TRO/_RSSFeed/TopStories/TopStoryList_Story_1508901&r21.pgpath=/TRO/News .
B) The second was a B1 ("Lifestyle") story on February 5, "Sacred Sermon: Ash Wednesday in the Holy Land." This story included a color photo of ELCA missionaries the Rev. Mark & Mrs. Marcia Holman with Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land Bishop, the Rev. Munig Younan. I cannot find this one online.

3) The Allentown "Morning Call" newspaper ran an "Op Ed" (Opinion) piece that I wrote, "In the Middle East, God is on the side of peace" on Ash Wednesday, February 6. It is no longer on the "Morning Call's" webiste for free, so here is the text of that piece:

In the Middle East, God is on the side of peace
By Eric C. Shafer
February 6, 2008

On a February Sunday in 2004, my wife, Kris, and I were traveling with a group of U.S. Lutheran communicators in the West Bank, the area of biblical Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967. We were scheduled to worship at Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala, a town next to Bethlehem. But that Sunday the entire area was under an Israeli army curfew. Since we were accompanied by the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, we were able to get through the military checkpoint from Jerusalem.

This was a surreal experience -- our two Lutheran World Federation vans following the bishop's car into the Beit Jala area. Our three vehicles, with hazard lights blinking, were the only ones on the road that morning. All businesses, schools and homes were closed, even boarded up. Normally on a Sunday morning, a work day for the majority Muslim population, the streets would have been teeming with people. Not this day. The streets and sidewalks were completely vacant and quiet except for an occasional stray dog. The Israeli curfew kept everyone at home and off the streets. Those who ventured out risked arrest and prison.

The church bells were ringing as we approached Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala. We wondered if anyone would be there. As we entered the church grounds, there were hundreds of people waiting for the bishop and for worship. Surprised by their bravery, bravery I thought might be foolhardy, I asked one of our hosts why he had violated the curfew and risked imprisonment to come to worship that day. ''If God calls us, we're coming,'' was all he needed to say.

Like most Americans my age, I had watched the invasion of Jordanian territory by the Israelis during the 1967 war and had assumed that the Israelis were the good guys. I would say that I had even assumed that God was on the side of the Israelis. That's certainly what most U.S. Christians and most Americans probably still believe.

However, I have now heard different views, views expressed to me when I have traveled several times to Jerusalem, Jordan and the West Bank and met Palestinian Christians, Lutherans who are part of the Lutheran World Federation. They are Palestinians who had their homes and pastures and olive tree groves forcefully taken from them during the 1967 war. They are Palestinians -- Muslim and Christian -- who now have to live elsewhere, no longer able to make a living on lands which had been part of their families since the time of Christ.

I have long been a real admirer of modern Israel, what the Israeli people have done with their country created out of desert lands in 1948. But, much to my surprise, these lands may have been desert, but they were not deserted! Real people, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, lived on these lands and were forcibly removed in 1948 and again in 1967.

We have seen what legacy these wars have brought to the people of the Middle East and the world. Sixty years of almost constant war and conflict with extremists reveling in death and destruction, wars and conflicts which seem to simmer under the surface and regularly erupt as they have in Lebanon and Gaza.

Abraham Lincoln, when asked if God was on the side of the Union forces (and, by implication, not on the side of the Confederate forces), is said to have responded, ''The question is not, is God on our side, the question is, are we on God's side?''

In the Middle East, as in most earthly conflicts, there are Godly people on all sides of the current conflicts. The extremists on both sides may get the headlines. Often forgotten are the majority of people who live behind the headlines; Israelis who fear suicide bombers, Palestinians cut off from oil and heat, food, employment and medical care. The question then is Lincoln's question: Are we on God's side?

And what would God's side be? In the Gospels, Jesus Christ gives us some ideas. God's side is standing for and with the poor and powerless. God's side is standing for peace in the face of violence and war, ''turning the other cheek,'' as Jesus says. God's side is realizing that God is calling us to be peace makers even in the face of opposing forces all claiming God's direction. God's side is for peace in the Middle East and throughout this world.

We are called to be on God's side, to stand with God and God's values of peace and love for humankind and to stand with others who share these values, in Israel and Palestine and everywhere.

The Rev. Eric C. Shafer, senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, is traveling in Jerusalem and the West Bank and plans to preach today from Jerusalem via satellite. His daily blog and sermon are available online at http://www.trinitylansdale.com .

4) Sarah Larson's Doylestown "Intelligencer" front page article on Ash Wednesday, February 6 "Pastor to speak to faithful from the Holy Land," is also online at www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/113-02062008-1483216.html . This article included a color photo of me pulled from my Trinity video Ash Wednesday sermon from the Garden of Gethsemane. Larson's article was also used in the Bucks County "Courier Times" newspaper with this headline - "Lutheran leaders deliver Holy Land sermons," online at www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/111-02062008-1483351.html . This same article , with the first headline, was then picked up by MSNBC and distributed nationally - see www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23027030/ . That MSNBC posting was picked up by a number of global news websites. I found it on World News (http://www.wn.com/) and Channel Afrika (http://www.channelafrika.com/).

5) The Reading "Eagle/Times" newspaper ran a brief item, with my photo, in their newspaper on Saturday, February 2. It is under their summary, "Lenten season to get underway." One of this article's subtitles is 'Wyomissing native to preach near Jerusalem." You'll find it online at www.readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=78745 .

All in all, very fine newspaper and web coverage.

Eric

 

From Jerusalem - Friday, February 8, 2008

The alarm rang on Friday just after midnight at 12:30 a.m., after just two hours of sleep, so that we could leave our hotel at 1:30 a.m. for the bus ride to Tel Aviv airport. The very strict security at this airport requires at least a three hour arrival in advance of one's flight. Since our flight left at 5:30 a.m., we wanted to be there around 2:00 a.m.

We arrived in good time and began the security screening process. Once the screeners found that we had spent our time with Palestinians and were carrying home gifts from Palestinians (Kris and I had a ceramic tray from Bishop Younan) we were singled out for intense inspection. Our luggage was completely emptied and searched. The screeners were always polite and professional. This process took around an hour which meant we were still ready for our flight early.

Our flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt and then the flight from Frankfurt home to Philadelphia were both uneventful. US Customs at Philadelphia was slow (not enough staff) but that meant that our luggage was waiting for us by the time we cleared customs. After dropping Bishop Burkat at her home, we were home in Lansdale before 7:00 p.m.

Eric

 

From Jerusalem - Thursday, February 7, 2008

For our final day in the Holy Land we boarded our bus early to take a tour of Jesus sites in Galilee, about two hours or more north of Jerusalem. We travelled to Galilee with a quick stop in Jericho and then headed north through Samaria. Many sites from Jesus' ministry years are located just north of the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

Our first stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes, a possible site for the Sermon on the Mount. Our guide pointed out that good Biblical scholarship doubts that what is written in Matthew 5 ("Blessed ar the poor in spirit..." etc.) was preached in this or any one place. The beatitudes are more likely a compiling of a number of sermons preached at the number of places. No matter, this a beautiful spot on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee as likely as any place for Jesus to have gone when he "saw the crowds...went up the mountain...and taught them..." (Matthew 5: 1&2)

We stopped for a late lunch (most folks had "St. Peter's fish" which is talapia) and then headed to Tabgha, the probable site of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14: 13 - 21). This is one of Kris' and my favorite spots - the church here is quite beautiful and grounds lovely. The floor of the restored church includes a mosaic of a loaf of bread and two fishes, an image you see on many souvenir items here. Under the church altar is a rock that is said to be the actual traditional site of this miracle.

Right next to this site is the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, a stone church built along the Sea of Galilee shoreline. In it is said to be the rock on which Jesus said, of Peter, "on this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). More interesting to me is the tradition that on the very rocky beach of the Sea of Galilee next to this church is the site of Jesus' post-resurrection breakfast "fish fry" (appearance to his discples) in John 21, the spot where Jesus also told Peter and some other disciples, who had all returned to fishing after Jesus' death, to go back out again to fish "and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish" (John 21: 6). We shared Holy Communion in an outdoor chapel on the church grounds.

Our next stop was Capharnaum (Capernaum), the town where Jesus lived as an adult and also the home of St. Peter. A lovely modern church is built on the ruins of St. Peter's birth home. There are also ruins of an early synagogue where Jesus may have taught. The town itself is basically an archiological site and is most interesting.

From Capernaum we headed southwest to Nazareth, home of Mary and Joseph and the place where Jesus grew up. This is the site of the Annunication, when an angel tells Mary that she will bear a son, Jesus (Luke 1: 26 - 38). It was nearly dark when we arrived in Nazareth and hurried to the Basilica of the Annunciation, a beautiful modern church built over a possible site of the home of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. This is an amazing church building, a wonderful combination of modern and traditional.

It was now quite late and we had a long drive to Tel Aviv where we were to stay overnight in a hotel so that we would be close to the airport for our early Friday morning flight. We arrived at the Merkur Hotel in Tel Aviv after 8:30 p.m. and had a late dinner together there after 9:00 p.m.

Eric

Saturday, February 09, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Ash Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday was a day of incredible contrasts for our group. In the morning we walked where Jesus walked along the Via Dolorosa. In the afternoon we travelled to Hebron, site of recent tensions between Muslims and Jews.

We began with a walking tour of parts of the Old City of Jerusalem associated with Jesus Christ. First we walked to the Church of St. Anne, certainly of the most beautiful churches in the Old City. According to tradition, this church is built on the site of the birthplace of Jesus' mother, Mary. Tradition says that her parents' names were Joachim and Anne, hence the name of the church. It is a very beautful church, simple by Jerusalem standards. One is able to walk down underneath the church to a crypt, the traditional site of Mary's birth.

Outside of St. Anne's Church is the Pool of Bethesda, site of Jesus' healing of the man "who had been ill for thirty-eight years." (John 5: 1 - 18). Many people come to this place to pray for healing. The ruins of the pool are extensive and one can see where the two baths and five porches (porticos) once stood. I said prayers for those from Trinity who are hospitalized this week and others in need of healing.

We next made a quick stop at the Church (Chapel) of the Flagellation, the traditional place where Jesus was tortured. This small church is very dramatic with amazing stained glass windows and a stained glass crown of thorns in the ceiling above the altar (must be quite a place to preside at communion and preach!) This is also the probable site of Jesus' trail before Pilate, although there is another very possible site in front of Pilate's residence outside of the city.

On our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Church of the Resurrection) we went inside of an unnamed church to see ruins of a very old city gate. The gate was large enough for a loaded camel to enter. Next to that larger gate was a very small gate, one that could be opened at night when the larger gate was closed for the night, but only for the entry by a person, not a camel or other animal. The smaller gate is called the "Eye of the Needle!"

We then hurried to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Church of the Resurrection). This large church covers BOTH the likely site of Jesus' crucifxion (Golgatha) and ressurection, his tomb. That is surprising to most first time visitors, that these two sites may have been so very close together, but good historical/Biblical study has supported these as the actual locations for both. Kris and I had been here twice before. This time the church seemed brighter and cleaner than our previous visits.

We grabbed lunch to eat on the bus and headed to Hebron, both a holy site (the traditional site of the tomb of Abraham and Sarah) and a modern conflict site (location of many Jewish/Muslim confrontations). This large Palestinian city (nearly 200,000 residents) includes around 500 Jewish settlers protected by more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers. The city is divided into two sections, H2 (Israeli contolled) and H1 (Palestinian controlled) and there are internal checkpoints between them. We were accompanied by four volunteers from the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment program. These (mostly) young adults from Europe and the USA escort Palestinian school children to the Cordobal school which is located near one of the Jewish settlements. We visited the Cordobal school and spoke with its principal, Reem Shareef, who was working despite a Palestinian strike this week. We then walkedd down Al-Shuhada Street where many Palestinian shops have been closed because of the local tensions - there was netting over the street, full of garage thrown down by hostile settlers. We tried to visit Ibrahimi Mosque but it was not open to non-Muslims during the prayer time when we arrived. We did visit the Cave of the Machpela Synagogue (both are part of a large combined but separated building built on the traditional site of Abraham's and Sarah's graves and, thus, a very important holy site for these two religions) The mosque was also the site of a massacre in the 1990's so both the mosque and the synagogue are heavily guarded by Isralie defense soldiers. Our guide in the synagogue also claimed that this is the site of Adam's and Eve's graves (news to me!)

Here is one example of the tensions here - We were told of a recent incident when a pregnant Palestinian woman was denied passage at one of the internal checkpoints between the H1 and H2 . Not able to get to the hospital (through the checkpoint) in time, she delivered her baby at the checkpoint!

We then travelled by bus to the Al-Arroub refugee camp outside of Hebron. There around 10,000 Palestinian refugees have lived since they were removed from their homes in 1948 in more than 35 now-Israeli villages. We met with leaders of the camp's women's cooperative, started as a needlework guild and now extended to many health and education activities. The women we were meeting with today all shared a similar story - their young sons (mostly around age 15) had been arrested by Israeli solders and held without trial. The charge was always similar (and denied by these mothers) - throwing rocks at soldiers. Each was taken at night in a raid in their homes. Most of the time, they were released after five months in jail (no trial). But, these five months were often precided by a long wait so that their "official" sentence would begin after they turned age 17. When asked, they added that some young girls have also been arrested. One young boy showed us the scar on his back from an Israeli soldier's shooting - he hadn't thrown any rocks, just had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tensions in this camp are very high. We were welcomed by the women we met with, but certainly looked at suspiciously by others in this community. Another place filled with much tension and pain. (And, I'm certain there are similar tensions and pains in the Jewish settler areas).

We were glad to get back on our bus and head back to Jersualem where Bishop Younan hosted us for a goodbye dinner at the Christmas Hotel in east Jerusalem. It was a very fine, late dinner.

We returned to the Holmans home. Earlier that evening they had hosted nearly 40 members of Redeemer Church for an Ash Wednesday mean and service in their home. Our Ash Wednesday did not include the literal imposition of ashes but it certainly included many marks of the suffering of God's people.

Eric

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Ash Wednesday, February 6, 2008

We spent Ash Wednesday experiencing two sides of suffering, one Jesus' Biblical suffering and one current the current suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian people. In the morning, we toured more in the Old City and in the afternoon we visited the Biblical city of Hebron. I cannot do justice to these two powerful halves of our day without some more time for reflection which will need to wait for our return to the USA. I will write and reflect on this more soon.

Our Ash Wednesday ended with a dinner at the Christmas Hotel in east Jerusalem hosted by ELCJHL Bishop Munib Younan.

On Thursday we have a day of visiting New Testament sites in Galilee and will head from there directly to a hotel near the Tel Aviv airport where we will have a couple of hours of sleep before rising around midnight Thursday/Friday to get to the airport for our 5:30 a.m. first flight home on Friday. The extensive Tel Aviv airport pre-flight security screening process (probably made more extensive since we spent much of our time here with Palestinians) requires us to be at the airport by 2:00 a.m. or so on Friday!

My "Morning Call" newspaper opinion piece was published today. You can read it online at www.mcall.com/news/opinion/anotherview/all-right_col.6259471feb06,0,7678242.story . If this link doesn't work, just go to www.mcall.com and click on "opinion" on the left hand menu and then look for "In the Middle East...." I have already heard from several people who disagree with what I wrote. More on that in a later posting.

I am not sure if I will have computer access or time for further reflections before we arrive home in Lansdale on Friday evening. There is much more to write and pray about from this journey.

God's blessings on your Lenten journey,

Eric

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Kris and I took a day off from the group's agenda today. All of the group's visits today duplicated ones we've had on both of our previous Holy Land trips. This gave me the opportunity to update my blog for Saturday (rewrite) and Sunday and Monday as you can now see. It was a very good day of writing, praying and reflection.

Some news coverage of this trip thus far:
1) The Doylestown "Intelligencer" newspaper has a good article on our trip, with a link to my Ash Wednesday sermon online, in their paper on Ash Wednesday, February 6. You can read it online at www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/113-02052008-1483043.html.
2) My opinion piece is also scheduled to run in the Allentown "Morning Call" on Ash Wednesday. I don't see it posted on their web site yet (it is already Ash Wednesday here as I write this, but not yet Ash Wednesday in Allentown!) You should be able to find it by going to www.mcall.com and then to "Opinion" and then to my piece about peace in the Middle East.
3) The Reading "Eagle/Times" newspaper had a short piece in their article, "Lenten season to get under way" with the subtitle "Wyomissing native to preach near Jerusalem," last Saturday, February 2. They also included a photo. You can read it online at www.readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=78745 .
4) The first article was a front page story with color photo in the Lansdale "Reporter" last Thursday, January 31. That URL is too long to repeat here.

Eric

 

From Jerusalem - Monday, February 4, 2008

Our Monday began at the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Jerusalem where we saw a power point presentation by UN staff. The Palestinian Authority gets the highest per capita percentage of UN humanitarian aid in the world. Poverty in Palestine is very high - 57% (79% in Gaza) with 34% of the population without adequate food, 1.3 million people are not sure where their next meal is coming from! There are 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank area plus 250,000 in east Jerusalem. 450,000 Israeli settlers now live in 150 settlements on West Bank territory. All of these settlements are illegal by international law (Geneva, 1947). There are also an additional 150 outposts on West Bank land and these are even illegal under Israeli law. This UN office monitors the internal blocks that Israel has put on Palestinian (West Bank) territory. There are now 561 of these - checkpoints, partial checkpoints, road gates, road blocks, earth mounds, trenches, road barriers and earth walls. These are the main reason for Palestinian economic problems and humanitarian issues and have increased since 2005 with no indication of any removals coming. The route of the new separation barrier is 80% on Palestinian land and is contrary to international law (International Court of Justice, 2004).

We then travelled by bus to Ramallah and the Lutheran School of Hope (a school which has received financial support from our congregation). The senior high students first danced for us - wonderful dancing by both boys and girls and then we broke up into small groups to talk (in English - every student here studies English) with students.

The students had a lot to say! Here are some quotes:
"We will never give up hope - we are the school of hope"
"Please tell people in the US that we are not terrorists"
"Life here is hard, we study hard"
"Some people have hope, some do not"
"The Israelis have many weapons but appear to be afraid of our rocks and stones, our thoughts and dreams"
"We live here in one big prison"
"We just want peace - we are tired"

In 2003 Kris and I had also toured the School of Hope and spoke with students. I was surprised to hear how "present" the 2002 incursion by Israeli soldiers into Ramallah (and this school), which we had heard of in our 2003 visit, still was for these students still in 2008. One student told how the soldiers took over their home for several days after which they left. They found nothing suspicious but still took away his father and brother to prison where they were not charged and were soon released - their arrest appeared to be just to have some excuse for invading his family's home.

The Lutheran School of Hope has 455 students, 35% Christian and 65% Muslim. 22 of the students are Lutheran. There are 32 faculty plus staff. Tuition is $1,000 per school year but no student is turned away because of inability to pay. The building is overcrowded and the ELCJHL hopes to build a new school soon - land and plans are already made, funding is the main issue delaying construction.

We next stopped at the Lutheran World Federation's (LWF's) Vocational Training Program in Ramallah. The LWF began vocational training in east Jerusalem in 1949. The Ramallah center was opened in 2004 so that Palestinian who have great difficulty coming to Jerusalem could have classes close to home. The need for this training is great - high unemployment and poverty here. Most students work 3 days and attend class for 2 days each week. There are three programs: 2 year, 1 year (apprentice) and test preparation. Classes are available in auto mechanics, telecommunication, carpentry, and metal work. Both men and women attend, but women are only in the telecommunication classes, not the others. They work with 155 area small businesses for apprenticeship and placement and 15 local non-government agencies (NGO's). We then visited one area business, a BMW repair shop, which has employed graduates and is a place for auto mechanics apprenticeships.

We also visited the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah near his former Ramallah residence and office. When Kris and I were last here in 2003, Arafat was under virtual house arrest by Israeli troops which had surrounded his compound and destroyed most of the buildings. In 2003 when we visited in the rain this area was a mud hole. Now it is a beautiful memorial to this important Palestinian leader.

After a very late lunch at a Ramallah restaurant, we headed back to the Lutheran School of Hope to wait for Bishop Younan to join us. Bishop Younan then joined us to plan for our 6:00 p.m. meeting with Palestinian Authority officials.

We then returned to the Palestinian Authority headquarters (next to Arafat's tomb) for our meeting with Dr. Rafiq El-Huseini, Chief of Staff for the Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Joining us for this meeting also was Issa Kassisieh from the President's Office for Christian Relations.

Kassisieh shared his story with us - He is a Christian and an east Jerusalem resident. He married a Bethlehem Christian woman in 2002. They are not allowed to live together in east Jerusalem and cannot register their children in schools there. Kassisieh noted that his example, far too common for Christians here, also shows how this may be "the first time in history when Jerusalem and Bethlehem are kept separate." A major concern is the emigration of Christians from Palestine. For example, the Armenian section of the Old City of Jerusalem had 5,000 Armenian Christian residents 7 years ago. Now there are only 400. "Occupation is the reason Christians leave Palestine."

Dr. El-Huseini began by noting that he was born at the Augusta Victoria Hospital and wanted to share his support for the Augusta Victoria Hospital and urge us Lutherans to do everything we can to keep it open. El-Huseini said that AVH is an important link between the West Bank and east Jerusalem and performs a very important community service.

Israel's strategy, El-Huseini stated, for 60 years has been "to get Palestinian territory and resources without Palestinians!" The current West Bank and Gaza represents only 22% of historic Palestine (1948 Israel is the rest). The current Palestinian Authority controls only 18% of the West Bank and Gaza. "Israel wants Palestinian land without the Palestinian people."

El-Huseini noted that 2008 is a very important year since President Bush has indicated that he would like to see a Palestinian/Israel peace treaty by the end of this year, just 11 months away! He noted that Palestinian society has always been very tolerant of all religions but is in danger of becoming less tolerant because of "Islamic and Jewish radicalization." "We are not creating an Islamic state - Palestine is open to all people. Our equality is not based on religion."

El-Huseini stated that while the short term situation is bleak that, in the long term, Israel (and Palestine) have no choice but peace, no choice but the two state solution. Israel can shape Palestinian public opinion negatively and can radicalize Palestinians by their occupation policies. But that will only bring war. So, the only solution is a negotiated peace. El-Huseini said that Hamas won the Palestinian elections because of the lack of progress in the peace process and that they "will not win another election." With a good peace agreement, "Hamas will pass away." He noted that Hamas violence towards Israel only works against peace and only plays into the hands of radical Israelis. "We (the Palestinians) will never win by military means. This is chess, not boxing."

When asked about the US Presidential election, El-Huseini said that he has "no hopes, only fears" because American Presidents have recently not addressed the Israel/Palestine issue until their second terms (Bush, Clinton) and, thus, he fears that it will take 6 years for the next US President to involve him/herself in this situation.

After this session we headed by bus back into Jerusalem for dinner at the Notre Dame center. It was a very fine, late dinner. We returned very late to the Holmans' home.

Eric

 

From Jerusalem - Sunday, February 3, 2008

Early Sunday morning Kris and I hurried into the Old City to help the Holmans prepare for 9:00 a.m. worship at Redeemer Lutheran Church there. Before worship we helped carry hymnals (LBW's) from the chapel to the main church where worship was held today. I also did some sermon videotaping with Tim Frakes outside of Redeemer on the Via Dolorosa.

Today the English and Arab language congregations at Redeemer (there are also German and Danish language congregations) worshiped together in the main sanctuary at 9:00 a.m. Bishop Munib Younan of the ELCJHL preached and Pastor Mark Holman presided. Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Claire S. Burkat greeted the congregation and also assisted with communion.

Bishop Younan preached on Isaiah 58, first in Arabic and then in English. In his sermon, Bishop Younan spoke of Isaiah's link between fasting and social justice - "there is no benefit to fasting if it doesn't benefit the world." He noted that "Isaiah calls us to help loose the bonds of injustice," "let the oppressed free," and "break every yoke." "It is not about my own spirituality," said Younan, "but the world." Bishop Younan then quickly made the connection to the current situation here in Jerusalem - "our spirituality must not allow injustice to triumph .... we must stand for security (for Israel and Palestine) and for an end of the occupation (of Palestine by Israel). "Our fasting must be to help the world."

Bishop Burkat greeted the congregation on behalf of those "pilgrims from southeastern Pennsylvania" who were worshipping at Redeemer this day. She presented gifts from our group to Bishop Younan and Pastor Holman. In addition to Kris and me and Bishop Burkat, Phil & Rene Krey also worshiped at Redeemer. Others from our group worshiped in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, and Beit Sahour at the Lutheran congregations there.

After worship we joined Redeemer members for tea and then headed with the Holmans and Tim Frakes to Bethlehem for lunch. Following lunch, Tim and I taped the final section of my Trinity Ash Wednesday sermon in front the the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. We then returned to Jerusalem. Kris went back to the Holmans home to help them get ready to host dinner for our group at their home that evening. Tim and I met up with Bishop Burkat to help her tape two videotapes, a Lenten greeting for the SE PA synod web site and an introduction for her report to the coming synod assembly. We taped in front of Redeemer Church and also at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We then returned to the Lutheran Guest House where I reviewed Tim's work on my Ash Wednesday sermon videotape and we made final edits. I then waited until the others returned to the Guest House to travel with them by cab to the Holmans' home for dinner and our evening program.

My Ash Wednesday sermon can now be viewed online at one of two links:
www.video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-9167213918243112006&hl=en or
www.frakesproductions.blogspot.com/2008/02/rev-eric-shafer-ash-wednesday-sermon.html .
It is nine minutes long.

Sunday evening our group had a wonderful dinner at the Holmans' home (where Kris and I are staying) in east Jerusalem. Following dinner we heard a very moving presentation by members of The Parents' Circle - Families Forum. This group is made up of Israeli and Palestinian people whose family members have been killed by the violence of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, instead of more violence and revenge, have banded together to tell their stories and call for an end to this conflict and violence. About 500 families are now part of their group. Their web site is www.theparentscircle.org .

Our presenters were Rami Elchanan and Aziz Sarah.

Rami began by noting that he is a 7th generation Israeli Jew but, most importantly, "I am a human being." His is a "story of price and pain." Rami served as an Israeli soldier in the 1972 Yom Kippor war and "lost many friends." He came out of that experience "angry and detached." Ten years ago, 9/4/1997, his beloved 14 year old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber. Following such an experience, Rami noted, one has a choice - to get even or try to determine "why?" He chose to ask "what can I do to help prevent this from happening to others" and to direct his life to the simple truth that "we are not doomed," that "we can break the cycle of revenge," that "dialogue is the way and that we must "listen to each other's pain." Rami says that his calling (my word) now is to make "cracks of hope in the wall of fear." Whether victims of Isreali or Palestinian violence, Rami said, "our blood is the same" and "our tears are just as bitter."

Aziz, a Palestinian, told of how when he was nine years old Israeli soldiers came into his home and took his 18 year old brother away. His brother was imprisoned and released one year later. He died in the hospital shortly after his release from prison. At first, "peace and reconciliation seemed like a stupid idea" and he was filled with angry against the Israelis. But, finally, "I realized we all have a common humanity" and that there "must be a way out of this other than more violence." "You can choose." "Peace and reconciliation are possible."

The Parents Circle operates a telephone line, "Hello Peace" for victims and violence and their families and friends. This line has received more than 1,000,000 calls since 2002! They also do anti-violence school programs, first through blogs and then face to face meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. There is a radio program, "All for Peace" and much more. More than 5,000 have died in the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict. "It is less painful to donate blood than to spill it." We must find a way to help "these two crazy nations - Palestine and Israel, from killing each other." "People are dying every day." What must we in the USA do? "Not sit aside - defend the poor, help the oppressed, not support one side only" (in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict).

There is much more on their web site, www.theparentscircle.org including (under "Personal Stories") both Rami's ("Replacing Pain with Hope") and Aziz's ("A Conflict Close to Home") stories. Their own words online tell their stories much better than I have. This moving evening ended a long and full Sunday in Jerusalem.

Eric

Saturday, February 02, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Saturday, February 2, 2008

Today was our first full day in Jerusalem. Our group began with morning devotions and reflections at Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. We were hoping to meet with Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) Bishop Munib Younan but he was not feeling well and was not able to be with us. We did hear from the Rev. Julie Rowe, ELCA missionary and Bishop Younan's communication assistant, who reviewed with us many ELCJHL ministries.

We then quickly moved to the Mount of Olives where we met with the Rev. Mark B. Brown, an ELCA pastor, who serves as the Lutheran World Federation's regional representative in Jerusalem. Here is an important quote from Mark's 2006 annual report of the Lutheran World Federation's work in Palestine: "The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem reported that 683 people were killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2006: 660 Palestinians (including 141 minors) and 23 Israelis (including 1 minor). Sadly, these numbers only hint at the overall deterioration of the human rights situation in Occupied Palestinian Territories this past year. In addition, poverty rose sharply and, according to a United Nations draft report, nearly half of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are 'food insecure' or in danger of becoming so."

Mark then led us into the Augusta Victoria Hospital where Dr. Tawfiq Nasser, hospital CEO, led us on a tour. The Augusta Victoria Hospital is one of six hospitals in east Jerusalem serving the Palestinian population. Its specialties include cancer and kidney dialysis - it is the only hospital with these specialties serving Palestinians. That means that it is the only local option for this specialized health care for 3.7 million Palestinians in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza! Kris and I were especially impressed with the hospitals progress since we first toured it ten years ago - the specialized work in cancer and kidney care, then only a dream/plan, has become a wonderful reality. We thank God for this care and for the many years of support the global Lutheran community, through the Lutheran World Federation, has provided for Augusta Victoria Hospital. Much more online at www.avh.org.

Throughout the day, we heard again and again about the difficulties of everyday life for the Palestinian people, especially the extra hours spent traveling to work because of internal checkpoints. The hospital now runs a bus program to get patients and their families to the hospital. Again, from Mark Brown's 2006 annual LWF Jerusalem report: "As more and more patients spent hours waiting in line at checkpoints or were unable to reach Jerusalem altogether, AVH began busing its patients and staff in from the West Bank, allowing them to bypass the longest checkpoint waits."

For me personally, a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital (this was my third) is always a highlight since I grew up hearing of this important ministry in Sunday Church School at Atonement Lutheran Church in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, my home congregation. I often thank God that the people of Atonement witnessed to the global mission of the church to its children during my childhood years there.

After we toured the hospital we also stopped by Ascension Lutheran Church on the hospital grounds (the Mount of Olives is a possible/probable site of Jesus' ascension) where we sang and prayed together. Nearby is the site of the new Mount of Olives housing project where affordable rental housing for Palestinian Christians will soon be under construction.

Following lunch at the hospital, videographer Tim Frakes and I rehearsed my Ash Wednesday sermon on the Mount of Olives and in the Garden of Gethsemane. We later toured the Garden of Gethsemane and its Church of All Nations as well as the Church of the Assumption and the Gethsemane Grotto next the the Garden.

Our group then walked back to the Lutheran Guest House through the Kindron Valley into the Old City. We passed the Western Wall, full of praying Jewish men and women (at separate Wall sections) on this sabbath afternoon.

The group had a free evening. We had a chance for dinner with Marcia and Mark Holman and a chance to return to their home early.

Eric

Friday, February 01, 2008

 

From Jersualem - Friday, February 1, 2008

Our group arrived safely in Israel on Friday, February 1, after many hours of travel by plane. We flew first from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, Germany (a little less than an 8 hour flight) and then, after a 3 hour layover, to Tel Aviv, Israel (another 4 hour or so flight). The weather greeting us at the airport was warm and sunny - there had been 6 inches of snow in Jerusalem on Wednesday and Thursday but there was no evidence of that on our arrival in Tel Aviv. We later saw some remnants of the snow as we journeyed up to Jerusalem.

Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) group consists of 11 people:
* Bishop Claire S. Burkat of our Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod,
* Dr. Phil Krey, the President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) and his wife, Dr. Ruth Diemer, the registrar at LTSP,
* Tim Frakes, of Tim Frakes Productions, our videographer,
* Bishop John Schreiber of the Southeast Michigan Synod (Detroit area),
* Pastor Jack Eggleston, Bishop Schreiber's assistant,
* Bishop Dean Nelson of the Southwest California Synod (Los Angeles area),
* Mary Beth Nowak and Marcia Johnson of the ELCA churchwide office staff in Chicago,
* My wife, Kris, and me.

We traveled by bus from the Tel Aviv airport for the 45 minute trip up to Jerusalem. We dropped nine members of our group, everyone but Kris and me, at the Lutheran Guest House in the Old City of Jerusalem, where they are staying, and headed to the east Jerusalem home of ELCA missionaries Pastor Mark & Marcia Holman (newly sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale), where Kris and I are staying. We had no time to rest before heading back to the Old City so that the group could exchange money (into Israeli shekels, about 3 per US $1) and have dinner together at the Lutheran Guest House. After dinner and a briefing of our Saturday schedule, we headed to the Lutheran World Federation's Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mt. of Olives where Mark and Susanne Brown hosted us for a brief reception at their home on the hospital grounds. Mark is the Lutheran World Federation director in Jerusalem. The Browns were wonderfully hospitable to our very tired group.

We then headed back into the Old City and east Jerusalem for a night of rest.

The big news we heard on Friday evening from Bishop Younan (by telephone) was that we ARE now scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Abbas on Monday evening! This is a great privilege for us and very exciting.

Eric