Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Favorite Place

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer made the New York Times this weekend, with the description “my favorite church in Jerusalem.”

The author. Matt Gross, for four years wrote a regular column for the Times, called The Frugal Traveler having visited nearly two hundred countries around the globe. So he’s certainly a person with a lot of travel experience, and he’s likely set foot into more churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples world-wide than most globe trotters—after all he’s the Frugal traveler. And here in Jerusalem (a city know by the proliferation of religious places), he refers to Redeemer as his favorite.

It’s a nice little travelogue and you can click on it here: Lost in Jerusalem (aka My favorite place).

An interesting aspect of this story that Gross shares with the reader in the first paragraphs is that he considers himself a “deeply’” secular Jew from Brooklyn who never wanted to visit Israel. Yet last December, at the encouragement of a friend, he made his first trip, all the while thinking of himself as the “lone unbeliever” in a sea of religious people.

Something about this church affected him so that he returned several times including a Sunday morning worship service. And so his final verdict: my favorite place in Jerusalem.

For those of us who consider Redeemer “home,” this it quite the compliment.

It lead us to reflect a bit about the many visitors who come our way, those who show up on a single Sunday to attend worship and those who drop by during the week to say a prayer, to gaze at architectural beauty, or to pause for a moment of silence making connections between these myriads of physical stones and that which continues to remain unseen.

The first thing that strikes us is, as realtors often say, location, location, location.

Celebration of Holy Fire at Orthodox Easter at Tomb of Jesus.

In the photo we use as the header for this website, the two domes just to the west of Redeemer are over ancient Golgotha and the tomb.  Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves as a reminder that here in the heart of old city Jerusalem, just a stone’s throw away of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the empty tomb, and the Via Dolorosa, stands a magnificent Lutheran Church. Even among Lutheran visitors, probably only a third are cognizant of this fact before they come, another third are pleasantly surprised, and another third pass by our doors without even realizing who we are.

Yet it is because of the location that so many folks stumble upon us unexpectedly—people from all walks of life, from all corners of the earth, and from every faith expression whether counting themselves among the faithful or the skeptical. And in contrast to the gathering of crowds in the nearby well-known ancient churches and the busy streets and markets, Redeemer is not on the itinerary of most tour guides. As a result, it is a comparatively quiet place, attractive for those who want a moment alone.

A second observation from our time here is that Redeemer is appealing to many because of its simplicity. Gross describes the main sanctuary as both “elegant and spare” with tall pillars and graceful curves. The main sanctuary was constructed in 1898 under the direction of Kaiser Wilhelm and German architects in a Neo-Romanesque style and the ubiquitous Jerusalem limestone. Those cold grey stones are windows to a vastness of thoughts and ideas. Most visitors don’t realize it, but the walls were once covered in paint, but in restorations following the shelling in the 1967 war, the color was all stripped away except for a small circular Christus Rex in the upper apse.

Redeemer offers regular organ recitals and concerts for string ensembles on Saturday nights.  By far the largest number of attendees are Israelis who venture into the old city for this blend of music and architecture.

It is very common for the groups that I meet to express an appreciation for this lack of decoration. The ornate styles of the Middle East are something that westerners grow to appreciate only over time. The simple cold stone has a calming affect and is inducive to reflection.

The same goes for the worship space of the English Congregation, our smaller St. John’s Chapel restored from the 12th century hospital refectory. The less-than-perfect rugged stone work remains bare, yet hinting of an ancient archway here or the beginning of a stairway there, and a blocked passage-way in the wall behind the altar. Such architecture often transports one’s thoughts to earlier times and that great cloud of witnesses that spans the centuries.

It is not unusual to find a solitary figure sitting in quiet meditation in either of our places of worship.  The doors are open throughout the week. Most people come and go, no questions asked.  Our purpose is not to intrude, to destroy a special moment.

But sometimes someone lingers, like the Hebrew University student last February who missed her worshipping community back home, and who subsequently returned again and again. Sometimes one of our doormen offers an invitation or provides a bulletin with prayers and readings or further information. I had to smile last week when our Muslim custodian, Abu Muhammad, brought one such visitor to my office, “This is my pastor.” But often the visitors come quietly in wonder and anticipation and leave quietly with heads bowed.

On Sunday mornings we have English-language services at 9:00 in the 12th-century chapel, while Arabic service are going on next door in the large sanctuary. Our goals are to be welcoming congregations. One of the exciting things about Sundays mornings is that we never know what to expect or whom to expect. We have our core group of regular members, some here on work, some for study, and many in volunteer capacities. Coming to Jerusalem on temporary assignment they keep their church membership back home, just as we continue to belong to our home congregation in Waverly, Iowa. We use Evangelical Lutheran Worship in our services and we have Lutheran in our name. Yet we speak of ourselves also as International and Ecumenical with arms open to welcome all.

A year ago with only one child in our Sunday School program, we decided to make children’s ministry a priority, and quickly discovered that this is a critical need for expatriate personnel with families. Through word of mouth we now count seventeen children among our children bringing new life and excitement to all. When we stepped back to evaluate what was taking place, the surprise that only one of these families has a Lutheran background. All are welcome. This is the nature of ministry in Jerusalem. We have fourteen ELCA Lutherans, and Lutherans from Norway, Sweden, and Finland actively involved in the life of the congregation, yet our church council at the end of the year included a member of the Free Church tradition in the States, a Mennonite, an English Baptist, a French Protestant, and just one Lutheran. We’re all here because we need our faith community.

The majority of our worshippers on any given Sunday are one-time visitors, pilgrims, tourists, delegations, sometimes coming alone, and sometimes in larger groups. Occasionally we know in advance about a group. But most often it is a serendipitous surprise. At the end of the service we take time for introductions, no matter how long it takes. They too come from all over the world, and likely from every denomination. The last two Sundays we’ve had kipa-wearing rabbis in the congregation, coming with Christian colleagues on interfaith tours—going together to synagogue on Saturday and then coming together to our service on Sunday. All are welcome.

The Frugal Traveler mentioned in his travelogue that his several visits to the solitary quiet of Redeemer  lured him back for a Sunday service, when the Arab congregation was gathered. He was impressed with the greeting at the door, “All the languages are in God’s light.” It didn’t matter that the woman behind him sang in a reedy voice, or that the kids were restless, or that the organist hit a few errant notes. This was his favorite place.

A welcoming church in Jerusalem is no different than welcoming churches in the States. The surprising line in this article was not so much that he mentioned Redeemer in glowing terms, but that he compared worship at Redeemer to an earlier experience visiting a church in Decorah, Iowa.  That's Decorah, as in the small town just up the road a bit from our home.  Naturally we wondered if perchance he had been a student at Luther College. But after researching his earlier blogs, we learned that The Frugal Traveler had just been driving across the midwest on a road trip for another column. There, stopping at a random eating establishment, he struck up a conversation with the owners who ended up inviting him into their home for three days, and also to attend church on Sunday morning. 

It’s the same with churches everywhere, Decorah, Iowa or Jerusalem.  All are welcome.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Friday, January 6, 2012

Seeing the Baby Jesus

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see,
our Jesus is with us, and ever sets us free.
      "All Earth is Hopeful" verse 4, ELW 266

Christmas is best understood through the eyes of children.  So for our Christmas Day worship at Redeemer the children themselves read the Christmas Gospel from the Spark Story Bible.

With our own four grand- daughters -- ages two and a half to ten -- here sharing Christmas week (and in this photo posing at the eighth-century Islamic Hisham Palace in Jericho) we had the benefit of their observations, their insights, their interpetations, and their honesty and candor to help us see things a bit differently than we normally see them.

Along with our granddaughters, we of course enjoyed the company of our son, two daughters, and two sons-in-law, experiencing Christmas in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 
It was time for fun and celebration, for sharing and catching up on things, for a little site-seeing, and for just being together-- a real blessing for us all.  During our drives, we found time to reflect upon the words spoken by the young.

"I want to see the baby Jesus," two-and-a-half year-old Lilly reminded us upon her arrival late Sunday afternoon.  Their travel schedule had placed them on an airplane through Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day.  So they had missed our Saturday visit to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve worship, for browsing among the crowds in Manger Square, and for watching the afternoon parade of the Latin Patriarch, dignitaries, and local Scouts drum and bugel corps including the Syrian Orthodox bagpipe group.  So what were Lilly's priorities?  "I want to see the Baby Jesus?"  "We'll have to wait til later in the week when we'll take you to Bethlehem," Fred responded.  "And what if that doesn't satisfy her?"  Gloria asked.  "We'll just have to see."

We had several stops in our itinerary at the beginning of the week before we would travel to Bethlehem, including a day in the desert east of Jerusalem, with a long hike and visit to St. George's Monastery in Wadi Qelt.

"I hiked all this way, and all I saw was four dead guys and a treasure chest."

This was five-year old Izzy's out-of-breath appraisal when arriving once again up the hill where we had parked the cars across the gorge from the monastery.

One has to grow in to an appreciation of the orthodox style of art with dark painted icons and ornate decorations.  It is not too difficult for a child to turn one's focus to the skeletons of former monks and perhaps to remind us of Luke's Easter angel, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

Perhaps Lilly's quest for the baby Jesus would better take place elsewhere.
We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see.

"I rode a camel!"
exclaimed Lilly.

Then a little later she reminded us, "I want to see the baby Jesus!"

So, yes, we'll be visiting Bethlehem tomorrow!
But would Bethlehem fill Lilly's expectations?

We learned at the monastery that one of their four monks was lying in a hospital bed with a gash over his eye from the fight the previous day at Nativity Church.  We probably don't have to explain.

 Thanks to Youtube, video of priests fighting with mops and brooms had circled the globe--an embarrassment to the local church.  "That's what you can expect from Palestinians," I overheard an Israeli guide telling his group back in Jerusalem.  Of course, what is not usually said is that the priests involved are not Palestinians but expatriates, both the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox church and Armenian students who have come from abroad to study in the local seminaries-- and so a great divide separating them from the local Palestinian Christian membership, not a theology of accompaniment.  (See Munther Isaac's article on Sojourner's website.)  So every year when the Greek Orthodox and Armenians have their annual cleaning day before Orthodox Christmas, it seems that arguments and fights break out, not the kind of thing the baby Jesus would approve of in the place of his birth.

So what were we to expect in Bethlehem?
Would Lilly find the baby Jesus?

"I think they're playing tag," announced seven-year old Emma in the backseat as we were driving through the streets of East Jerusalem the next day on our way to Bethehem.  We had come across a group of Palestinian youths running down the side walk as fast as their legs would carry them, being chased by green-uniformed Israeli soldiers with their rifles drawn.  Still in the age of innocense Emma had sized things up from her realm of experience, "I think they're playing tag."   It is such a daily occurrance for us to see soldiers with guns, often stopping youths asking for IDs, and sometimes chasing them and arresting them.  We have become so used to these sights that the abnormal seems normal. 

We thought about these kids, not knowing their fate, this week after Emma and her cousins left, when we saw the photo of six-year old Muhammad ali Dhirbas.  Little Muhammad was apprehended by Israeli forces while going on an errand to the local grocery store and taken to the police station for four hours of interrogation on Tuesday afternoon.  Muhammad is from the refugee camp Issawiya, just a short ways north of our home.  Hardly a day goes by that Israeli soldiers don't raid the camp, keeping the residents unsettled and on edge, and letting them know who's boss.  Last Tuesday morning on one of their raids, the fully armed soldiers experienced rock throwing from young kids.  Unable to catch any of them, the soldiers did the next best thing apprehending a child, any child, walking innocently to the store, and teaching him a lesson. 

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see.
both in children playing tag, & in children terrorized by intimidating soldiers.

The Christmas season comes at the same time as end of the year reports by human rights organizations who have just reminded us that
  • The number of Palestinian minors held in custody of Israeli security forces throughout the year 2011 ranged from 120 to 186 a month while the most common prison term for minors was six months.  (http://www.btselem.org/)
  • 21 Palestinian children died during 2011 as the result of Israeli army and air forces attacks, many in bombing raids on crowded Gaza. (http://www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/
  • 36 % of Palestinians in the West Bank are 14 years and under while 44 % of Palestinians in Gaza are 14 years and under.
The most Orwellian story of the week, however, comes from the Israeli Border Patrol who have announced that they are training armed Israeli youth as young as 16 years to catch illegal Palestinian day laborers in building projects in Modiin and neighboring settlements.  It shouldn't be too different from playing tag, just using guns.

"Is this a prison? I thought we were going to Bethlehem."  So ten-year-old Maria reacted while going through the Bethlehem check point.   As Pastor Mitri Raheb said in his welcoming remarks on Christmas Eve, "Welcome to the once little town of Bethlehem, now a significant city, yet reduced to an area of four square miles surrounded by a 25-ft high wall with military watch towers." 
So Maria, your namesake Mary of Nazareth would have certainly said the same thing-- as countless of others through history wanting to seeing the baby Jesus.


In manger square next to the traditional Christmas tree, Palestinian artist Rana Bishara erected a tree that resembled the wall, grey in color, and covered with barbed-wire tinsel and tear-gas-canister decorations.  The latter had all been used by Israeli forces against non-violent protesters against the wall, sometimes causing harm and even death.  My colleague Ryan noticed the initials CTS on the canisters, designating its manufacturer as Combined Tactical Systems of Jamestown, Pennsylvania.  So much for wise men from afar and their Christmas gifts!

"A prison," observed Maria.  Children have a way of seeing what adults fail to see.  "So why do Jews have to live behind that wall?"  That's how an eight-year-old Palestinian girl reacted while driving along with her mother from Ramallah to Jerusalem where her mother works just up the hill from us at Mercy Corps, a Portland-based aid organization. For her, the wall represents a deeply troubled society that lives in fear.

A world dominated by fear-- not the kind of world for a baby to be born, especially when that baby is the Savior of the world.  We can easily imagine that a child would think about this for a few minutes and respond, "What was God thinking?" 

"Perfect love casts out all fear." ( 1 John 4:18).  That's what God was thinking.  That's a concept that even children can understand.
And so the irony that those who are supposed to be enclosed by this wall of separation live as if they are free, while it is the warden who is imprisoned.  Thus the Bethlehem municipality designated for Christmas 2011 the theme Palestine Celebrating Hope.

The thousands of Palestinian visitors to Nativity Church and Manger Square all week from all over the West Bank--Christians and Muslims alike--were a clear sign of that spirit of hope. 

That is Jesus present in our neighbors we see--especially the young.

"I want to see the Baby Jesus," Lilly had repeated throughout the week and now stood patiently in line amidst the crowds waiting to enter the Grotto below the Church of the Nativity.

In the Grotto, Lilly paused to view a doll-like representation of the baby Jesus in a marble and glass enclosure representing the manger.  This is the baby Jesus image carried to a resting place beneath the altar of the Latin Catholic St. Catherine's Church for the December 25 midnight service.

Outside St. Catherine's Church Lilly then paused to view a lifesize Creche given to the people of Bethlehem by the Italian city of Trent.

"I saw the baby Jesus," Lilly later announced to us as we were walking through Manger Square.  Was it the representation in the Grotto?  or the Creche?  or the people she encountered?  What was it that brought the bibical story alive for her?  Perhaps she'll have to figure that out for herself as she grows older, just as we have all done.  Children have a way of understanding that teaches us all.

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.

This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see,
our Jesus is with us, and ever sets us free.

Our four granddaughters have now returned home with their parents.  It would be interesting to hear their descriptions of their visit as they share with their friends.

Lilly's report was pretty much what we expected, with a small addition.

"I saw the baby Jesus and the gas station where Mary rested."

That's how she responded when her other grandparents in North Carolina asked her what she saw.

So what's this about a gas station?

On the evening that Maria and Emma arrived, we hosted in our home an Advent 4 midweek soup supper.  In Fred's presentation about descriptions of Mary in literature and tradition outside the Bible, we looked at this photo of the fifth-century octagonal Kathisma Church discovered in the 1990s on the Hebron/ Bethlehem road near Mar Elias monastery.
Kathisma = Greek for "sitting down" or where Mary rested.

Because few are aware of these ruins, even those who drive by every day, the landmark mentioned was "the green gas station just before the stop light"  (toward the upper left corner in photo.)

So when we were driving to Bethlehem, Maria and Emma both blurted out, "Look! The gas station and the church where Mary rested."  Not bad memories for these two young girls.

Two-and-a-half year old Lilly sat quietly "pondering all this in her heart."  Only later when returning to her own home did she announce, "I saw the baby Jesus and the gas station where Mary rested."

by Fred & Gloria Strickert