Thursday, February 5, 2015

Trip to the Holy Land - Shabbat

One of the coolest things we did happened while we were in Jerusalem.  The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday evening at sundown, so we joined a local congregation for their Friday Shabbat service.  Following the service, our group was divided among the families of the synagogue to go to their homes for their Shabbat meal.

As a non-Jew, this 24-hour period is very interesting to observe.  We were with Modern Orthodox Jews, and their specific traditions included no use of anything that displays man's creation (i.e. electricity, cell phones, tv, computers).  Starting at sundown they avoid flipping light switches, using their cell phones, turning on/off the oven, and driving (therefore they live within walking distance of their synagogues).  To get around this they often use timers to pre-program the lights, and they prepare food ahead of time and place it on warmers to keep it hot.

We started our evening at a local synagogue.  The time of the service depends on when the sun will set that particular day, because an important part of the service is welcoming in Shabbat at sundown.  The entire service was in Hebrew, so we had no idea what was being said.  There was a lot of singing, but no instrumental music.  Men sat on the main floor and women sat in the balcony.

After the service while we were waiting in the hallway, the lights went out because of the timer.  We moved to a better lit location since it would be a violation of the Sabbath to turn them back on.

Matt and I were part of a group of six who went to the home of a middle-aged couple.  Their youngest son still lived at home.  This family had moved to Israel from Australia.  Also in attendance were at least three other families (most of them also from Australia) and five Jewish girls from Maryland who were on their birthright trip.  We had twenty-nine people in total at the meal!

The traditional Shabbat meal was fascinating.  We first sat down, a song was sung (in Hebrew, of course), and each person drank a shot glass of grape juice.  The parents then said a blessing over each of their children.  Afterward we went to the sink for ceremonial washing of our hands, which involved splashing water from a cup three times over each hand while reciting a prayer.  We returned to the table for soup and wine.  After the soup, the patriarch of the home stood and said a few words.  The Torah reading for that week was from Exodus and covered the first seven plagues of Moses.  He posed a question, "Why was Pharaoh's heart continually hardened during the plagues?"  And each person then introduced themselves and offered their answer.  With twenty-nine people this took a fair amount of time, but I loved hearing what everyone had to say in response to the question.  It was a very non-threatening way of expressing our thoughts, and hearing the different answers was a great way to learn from each other regardless of age, religion, or education.

By this point it had been long enough that I thought maybe soup was all we were having for dinner.  I was feeling content with this when we were told to take our plates to the kitchen and serve ourselves buffet-style.  Oh my, the food!  Our hostess had prepared sliced roast beef, chicken, green beans, delicious mushrooms, more veggies, rice, salad...I can't remember it all there was so much!  We ate our food and enjoyed conversation with the people sitting around us.

One of the women in our group was then asked to share more about the Mennonites (our group was Mennonite-affiliated).  She did a good job explaining the history of the denomination and some of our Christian practices.  There were a few questions, such as do Mennonites marry only other Mennonites and if there are any specific things we are not allowed to do because of our Christian faith.  The families present were very interested in our answers and listened intently.  We were able to ask our own questions as well throughout the evening.  The whole night was loud, boisterous, warm, inviting, and generally wonderful.  I felt very welcomed by our host family and comfortable in their presence.

Since we had a set time to return to our bus, our host asked us if we wanted to head out or stay for the closing prayer/song.  We wanted the whole experience, so we opted to stay.  More singing was done, and then we were served cake and gelato (meat and dairy are not to be mixed at a meal) for dessert.  We said our goodbyes and thank yous and left feeling full, warm, and happy.

I had at least two thoughts at the end of the night.  The first was how saddened I was to have no pictures documenting the night.  Since electronics were off limits to them, we respected that and didn't use ours.  The second was that we would all do well to adopt some of these Jewish traditions.  Because they don't use cell phones or computers or other electronics, and because these Shabbat meals are such a big deal, there is an immense sense of family and community created by everyone coming together.  No one is distracted by texting or Facebook, so everyone can focus on fellowship.  Certain activities are off-limits, so no one is burdened by getting extra chores and work done.  The 24-hour period of the Sabbath is very intentional and deliberate, bringing families together and focusing on God and worship.

Matt and I have discussed this, and while we will probably not go to the same extremes, we do hope to facilitate our own Sunday environment of worship, fellowship, and rest.  Ironically enough, this takes a fair amount of work to accomplish.  In our culture it's difficult to simply shut out all of those nagging tasks that always loom overhead.  It's hard to find friends who desire these same intentions and who are available to fellowship with us outside of the church service.  Time is precious, and it's hard for me to not strive to use every minute efficiently.  But the Sabbath is necessary.  It's a lost practice, and we desire to redeem what we can.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Trip to the Holy Land - Beliefs Shattered

I am making a disclaimer up front that I do not know the entirety of this topic, nor am I sure it is even possible to know it that thoroughly.  I am not claiming to have any right answers, especially as right answers are not very straightforward.  This post covers an issue that is very controversial, and until I visited Israel-Palestine, I didn't even realize it was an issue because I didn't realize there was another side to the story.  This was one thing on the trip that shook my beliefs to their core, and while the dust still hasn't settled, I do know that my beliefs will be forever changed to some degree.  We in America do not know as much as we think we do, and one of the best things we can do to help is to simply weigh both sides of the issue fairly.
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There are two conversations that have come up (more than once) this week that center around one of the more challenging aspects of our trip.  It's an aspect that is difficult to discuss because it challenges the average perception held by most people in our little corner of the world.

The first conversation starts with, "Did you ever feel unsafe?"  This is the easy conversation.  "Nope, never did."

The other conversation is the tricky one.  It's not a question, but a statement:  "I'm definitely on Israel's side and our country needs to support them," or something to that effect.  This is where I falter, because that's what I used to say and I understand where that statement is coming from.

Now...everything has changed and I don't know how to say that because I know how I would have received then what I have to say now, and it would not have meant a thing to me then.

This belief that we need to support Israel is rooted in Scripture.  It is very clear that the Jews are God's original chosen people and are very special to Him.  God is also very clear that anyone who opposes His people will suffer consequences.  In other words, to go against Israel is to go against God.  Tied into that (at least fairly often) are interpretations of end-times prophecy.  A rough description of these beliefs says that a series of events must take place before Christ returns, including the return of Israel to her land.

I was a very firm believer in this line of thought.  There's a term for it - Zionism.  I learned a lot about the definition of this word on the trip.  There's a Jewish form and a Christian form.  Both are radical and basically believe that the Jews must regain the land of Israel at any cost.  Tie that into the belief that we must not oppose Israel and you have quite a formidable weapon, intentional or not.

Take this firm religious belief and combine it with our stereotypes we form based on the information we are fed and we become downright dangerous.  Here is the stereotype we have created:  Palestinian = Muslim = terrorist = kill them all.  That may sound a little silly, but what's the first image that comes to mind when someone says "Muslim"?  Shut down the airports, increase security, don't let them in our country, and certainly don't put any mosque on American soil.  We have no place for them in our society, no tolerance for their presence within our borders.

The first man who spoke to our group is a Palestinian Christian.  His grandparents used to be neighbors and friends with Jews.  And then wars happened and now his family has been shunned and persecuted by Jews.  He has lost much at the hands of people who used to be friends.  Yet his desire and the thing he actively works toward is peace between Palestinians and Israelis.  He reaches out to the Jews who are the hardest for him to love and finds ways for his people to be reconciled with theirs.

Another Palestinian man heads up a ministry organization to find non-violent ways of resisting the wrongs being done to his people.  His own wife can only stay in the country with him on a temporary visa, and then she has to reapply.  If her application is not accepted, she has to return to the States until it is.  Why wouldn't it be accepted?  Because it's processed by the Israeli government and she's a Palestinian.  This man can't be with his own family because of his nationality, yet he hopes and prays for peace between the two nations.

The stories could go on for pages of the Muslims and Christians and Athiests and Jews we met from both sides of the issue.  The overriding theme coming from each Palestinian was the desire for peace.  Not to blow everyone up, not to send the Jews packing, not to have an all-Muslim nation.  No, they want to live side-by-side, together, each man with his own religion and living as neighbors.

These are not the faces of terrorists or murderers or extreme religionists.  These are the faces of people.

This desire for peace was astounding after I saw the living conditions Palestinians endure.  Their homes are easy to spot with black 10,000 gallon water tanks on the rooftops.  Israel controls the water supply of the whole country.  If Palestinian towns are lucky, clean water will be delivered monthly and they can refill their water tanks.  If not, they have to stretch those gallons to supply their entire families until more comes.  Water that used to run into their cities is now siphoned off, rerouted, or polluted.  Wells are not built without permits, which are issued by Israelis, and are immediately destroyed if built anyway.  No water for Palestinian crops or irrigation, no clean water within city limits.

Palestinians live in the prison of their own cities.  Bethlehem is a prime example.  It is surrounded by a 30-40 foot tall cement wall and guarded at the entrances by Israeli soldiers.  To work outside the city one needs a special permit to leave the city.  Sometimes they can get through the checkpoints with their permits without problems.  Other times they will be detained for hours on end.  Anyone leaving the city without a permit will be shot and killed.  No one can leave the city, no one is coming in, supplies aren't arriving in the quantities needed, and the economy is poor for the average man to be able to provide for his family.

In parts of Hebron (another Palestinian city), Palestinian children have to be escorted to school for protection from Israelis throwing rocks at them.  Their backpacks are searched daily at checkpoints before they even get to school.  If the checkpoints are closed for any reason, they have to walk miles out of their way to get around them.  Above one street in Hebron was chicken wire spanning the space between buildings.  It is there because Israeli settlers moved into the homes above the Palestinians' homes and will throw trash out their windows onto the people walking below.  The wire catches the trash.  Certain streets are completely deserted and empty because checkpoints have been set up, and if a Palestinian walks down this street past the checkpoint they will be shot.  Certain homes are marked by black paint.  This mark means the family is to leave their front door open at all times or it will be broken down.  Usually there is a camera on the roof above and the soldiers need access to it at all times should they need to check it.  No privacy.

Wire suspended above the street to catch trash thrown from windows above.

A once-busy street in Hebron, now completely deserted.

Palestinian home marked with a black arrow, requiring the front door to be kept open at all times for Israeli soldier access.

Certain parts of the land were agreed upon to be set aside for Palestinians.  On many of these areas of land are brand new settlements.  These are state-of-the-art apartments, condos, and businesses that Israelis have moved into.  The Palestinians who used to live there were forced away and their homes destroyed.  Entire villages have been bulldozed, these families now having nowhere to go or live except in refugee camps.

These are the things I saw, and I can no longer feel ok saying Israel is justified in taking back her land just because Western Christians believe it's theirs to take.  I realize both sides of this conflict carry fault.  I realize there is no easy solution, and even if Israel wanted to lay down her arms she couldn't because repercussions would come from other countries.  I realize both sides still actively attack each other and pick fights.  There are so many more layers to this conflict that we never even touched.  It is a very, very complicated situation.  It feels extremely dark and hopeless.  To hear those living in the midst of it say they still have hope, because that is all they have...we would do well to learn from them.

I am definitely rethinking my beliefs of Israel and her rights.  I still acknowledge the Jews as special to God.  But I cannot be in favor of their current ways of doing things.  They are extending the same hand of oppression that was held over them for so many years.  They are not caring for the foreigners and aliens living amongst them as God commanded.  After seeing it firsthand, I have a hard time believing God is cheering them on at the expense of other innocent people who fear Him as much as (or sometimes more than) the Jews.  I am not at all afraid to say that at this point I am much more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.  I want to do what I can to help them, even if only one family at a time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Trip to the Holy Land - Expectations

I mentioned in my last post that our trip to the Holy Land met, didn't meet, and far exceeded my expectations all at the same time.  It was everything I thought it would be, yet nothing at all like I imagined, but was way more than I was anticipating.

This trip met my expectations because we hit all the major stops relevant to the Old Testament forefathers and to Jesus and His disciples.

That's about the only way my expectations were met.

I learned very quickly that a lot can change over the course of thousands of years.  Most of these locations we visited are nothing more than ruins.  No original structures remain - only piles of stone where they once sat.  Not only that, but when an army captured and destroyed a city, the victors would rebuild a new city - right on top of the former destroyed city.  This creates layers and layers of ruins.  The most extreme example of this is at Megiddo.  This city was destroyed and rebuilt something like twenty-five times!  King David of the Old Testament is responsible for layer sixteen (I think).

Multiple layers of ruins at Megiddo

At the top of Megiddo overlooking the Valley of Armageddon

Another thing I learned very quickly is that any location that has any inkling of holy significance has a church built smack dab on top of it.  Most of these churches were built in the early centuries A.D., and as mentioned above, destroyed and rebuilt. I guess I understand why people wanted to build churches and worship in these special places...but it sure got annoying to get all psyched up to see a place, and then be disappointed when I couldn't really see it at all.

Probably the biggest example of this was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  This is an extraordinarily beautiful and elaborate building, impressive all on its own.  I must have missed part of the explanation for the place when we arrived, because I didn't even realize what it was when we walked through.  (I went back later so I could appreciate it more.)  All in this one giant building is the location of Jesus' crucifixion, the stone where his body was prepared for burial, and what's left of the tomb where he was laid.  It's a sight well worth seeing...but a far cry from the lone, bare hill and peaceful, secluded tomb I've always pictured.

But since there's not much I could do to change the current scenery, I put my imagination to work and tried to picture things as they once were.  It was still a very cool thing to be able to visit all of these places, and doing so helped my perspective immensely.

The part of this trip that far exceeded my expectations was the part I wasn't expecting at all.  And it's also the reason that I will recommend in a heartbeat this trip with this group.  A fair amount of our time was spent listening to speakers and visiting organizations that are actively working to make a positive difference amidst the current circumstances.  The first several people we met with were Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.  Their stories are heartbreaking and their messages are challenging.  Each person we heard from has experienced directly the heavy Israeli hand of control and persecution.  What they face on a daily basis is unfathomable to us in comfortable North America.  These people may or may not have enough clean water to get through the month, they cannot leave the confines of their cities without special permission or getting shot, and they fear for the future of their children.  They have every reason to be angry, bitter, and hateful.  I would not blame them for it.

And yet...their desire for reconciliation is stronger than their desire for revenge.  So every morning they wake up with hope that things will one day change, and that is what keeps them moving forward one day at a time.  Many of them actively work for peace and seek to serve both Palestinians and Israelis.  In the culture I live in that demands selfishness in all things, this message is incredibly challenging.  To seek peace and harmony with those around me sounds nice on paper and in Bible study.  To see men like Sami and Zoughbi work tirelessly and selflessly to reach out to the very people who will throw stones or shoot bullets at them without a moment's notice, and to do this because they want friendship with these enemies...that is an example so powerful I don't know that I could ever attain it.

Learning from these folks of all backgrounds, nationalities, and faiths put breath into our trip and made it come alive.  I see the trip as two categories - sightseeing and meeting the people.  If I had to do it all over again with only one or the other, I would hands-down choose meeting the people.

Trip to the Holy Land

My husband and I returned home last night from a three-week trip to the Holy Land.  The trip met, didn't meet, and far exceeded our expectations, all at once.  It challenged our thoughts, beliefs, and faith, and it opened our eyes to reality in this little area of the world.  Today we are decompressing at home, and now that life is still and silent for a few hours, I am feeling the weight of excitement, sadness, fear, doubt, and reality pressing in on my mind and heart from all directions.  There are moments I feel nearly smothered by it.  I've been anxious for a couple of weeks now to be able to process some of these things here, openly and publicly, both because I need to and because I want others to have a glimpse into what we experienced.  It was a great sight-seeing tour and vacation, to be sure.  But this particular trip went deeper than that and brought us face to face with individuals, with people.  And that is what shaped us the most.

We arrived Jan 3 in Amman, Jordan, and spent three nights there.  We then crossed over the Jordan River into Israel-Palestine and spent the next eighteen nights at various towns, villages, and cities in the area.  We saw just about every sight there is to see, and yet we barely scratched the surface of this ancient land.  We visited so many ruins that at first it felt like "if you see one you've seen them all," but the more we saw, the more we learned about time periods, types of stone, building styles, and what each pile of rock used to be.  And before long I could identify these things without the help of our guide.

We walked where Jesus walked (except not really because with all the ruins we actually walked above where Jesus walked).  We saw mosques and churches and synagogues.  We interacted with Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  We saw brokenness and dysfunction of cities and families and government, and we heard laughter and saw the smiles of children as they intermingled with our group.  We saw the conflict in the Holy Land with fresh perspective and realized how complex and messy it is, how impossible it feels for compromise to be achieved.  And yet, above all else...

We saw hope.

Hope for peace.  Hope for a future of Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side as neighbors and friends.  Hope for Palestinian children to one day live in freedom and without fear.

I've been anticipating for a while now how to answer what everyone back home is going to ask:  "How was your trip?"  And I know I will stare at each person for just a few brief moments before answering, because the answer to this question is not one most people expect or care to hear about.  I will answer according to how people expect me to answer, and if they are interested they will ask more.  Better questions would be, "What did you see on your trip?"  "What did you learn?"  "What did you experience?"  "What challenged you the most?"  "What is going to change now that you're home?"  These...these are questions I can answer.  These allow me to explain my experience while helping me to process this mass of chaos that is filling my heart and mind.

One sign of a successful trip is coming home with more questions and confusions than we left with.  Let me say that this was one of the most successful trips I have been on.

I hope to make several posts here about both the sights we saw and about the conflict in Israel-Palestine.  Please feel free to leave comments below and start some conversation.


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