Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Proclaiming Forgiveness in the Streets: Ashes to Go in Downtown Phoenix

A few weeks ago, Dean Knisely came up to me and said that he had been talking with a parishioner whose daughter (Rev. Emily Mellot) has been offering Ashes to go on Ash Wednesday during morning rush hour at the commuter rail station near her church, Calvary Episcopal in Suburban Chicago.  “We should try this here” he said and by  “we” he meant me.  This was the job for the young curate.

So I made a lovely sign and some fliers, shamelessly borrowing a prayer and explanation from the Ashes to Go website and adding in information on our Lenten Programs and Service Schedule.  I recruited a parishioner, Cliff, to go with me as a thurifer and frankly just company. This was not something I wanted to do by myself.

 So today at 11:00 we put on our cassocks, grabbed some Ashes and hit the streets for some Evangelism, Episcopal-style.   We walked a few blocks to the Downtown Campus of Arizona State University and set up our station.  Cliff swung the thurible, the incense floating into the air and I called out “Ashes for Ash Wednesday.” It took a few minutes for anyone to accept our offer, but soon they did, coming forward in ones and twos for a prayer and imposition of the Ashes on their forehead. 

What a beautiful thing it was to look into the eyes of a stranger and say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” How even more amazing to share this holy moment, not in church but on the busy street of downtown Phoenix.  I am still thinking of the people I met about the looks of vulnerability and even pain on their faces.  We all desperately need to hear that God meets us in our humanity, in our brokenness.

From my memories of being a college student, the only Christians standing on the campus mall with sandwich board signs were telling us that we (or some groups of us) were going to hell.  It felt great instead to proclaim God’s love, forgiveness and mercy.

We have been struggling at the Cathedral with how to best reach out to students and staff at the Downtown campus.   In my two years here I have given away pizza to hundreds with the Council of Religious Advisors but had very few signifigant conversations and offered great forums, but with few students participating.  Today was the first day at ASU where I actually made a connection with people, offering them something they wanted and needed.

We gave ashes to around a hundred people in just an hour and a half and could have kept going all day.  I won’t be in Phoenix year, but am certain that the Cathedral will set up another "Ashes to Go" station at ASU Downtown and I will definitely try this again wherever I end up.

Here is the prayer I used, basically the Collect for Ash Wednesday as adopted by the the Ashes to Go website:

Almighty and merciful God, you hate nothing you have made, and 
forgive the sins of all who are penitent; create in us new and contrite hearts, so that when we turn to you and confess our sins and acknowledge our need, we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen. 

Ashes are marked on the forehead with the following words: 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

The minister then says:

Go in peace.  Amen. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Some things I've learned

Though it was a big part of my interest in coming here, I have been reluctant to write about the political situation.  Being here and hearing different perspectives have made me see that it much more complicated than I understood before and I am still trying to put all the pieces together.   As my time here is drawing to a close, I will try to start sharing some of what I have learned and my reflections on all this, though the gaps are still many.
The picture I had in my mind of Israeli settlements is of religious extremists going out and seizing Palestinian farm land and setting up their own rural villages.  Though this style of settlements exists, the reality is very different and much more institutionalized.   Settlements are more often urban and suburban than rural and most settlements are within commuting distance to major cities in Israel. Settlers are also motivated by economics as well as ideology; the opportunity for a house with a yard for less than an apartment in Jerusalem.   An Israeli professor we spoke with said that most settlers would move if they were given an economic incentive to do so.
Here is a picture of an Israeli settlement- an apartment complex in East Jerusalem.

The reason why freezing settlement is an important condition of peace talks for Palestinians, is that every settlement makes attaining a viable Palestinian state more difficult.  Though not all settlers are ideological motivated, from a macro-perspective there is certainly a political strategy to settlements.  One of the Palestinian positions in peace negotiations is that East Jerusalem be the capital of their state, but with settlements of tens of thousands of people in and around East Jerusalem this becomes more difficult.
The need to provide settlements with security also adds to the Israeli military presence in the West Bank.   Although the Palestinian Authority governs cities in the West Bank, Israel controls the roads and borders.  Fences are built along settlement roads, even if their separate people’s houses from their farmland.    Until just a few weeks ago, Palestinians could not drive their own cars from Nablus to Ramallah- two West Bank cities, they would have to take a bus to one side of a checkpoint, walk though and then take another bus.    Driving through the West Bank- we saw settlers on the road side with large rifles strapped over their shoulders.

I have been trying to get straight which Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and which do not (about 20% of Israel’s population are “Israeli Arabs.”  I asked a few member of St. George’s congregation about this after the Arabic service.  They told me that those Palestinians living within the territory of Israel after the 1948 are citizens (at that point the West Bank was a part of Jordan).  One women was from the West Bank but had married an “Israeli Arab” and so had been able to get citizenship in that way, though she made sure to tell me that this was no longer possible.   Residents of East Jerusalem- which has been annexed by Israel as opposed to occupied- have special Jerusalem ID cards but not Israeli passports.  They can travel and work freely in Israel, but as far as I can tell are not voting citizens.  Palestinians living in the West Bank are not Israeli citizens, and cannot live or travel in Israel without permission.  Those residents of the West Bank born prior to 1967 often have Jordanian passport, but I don’t know if these are still available to those people born after that time.   It seems like Jerusalemites have many different forms of documentation, but still struggle to get through the checkpoints to go and visit family and friends in the West Bank.  Even the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, who is from the West Bank, is struggling with the Israeli government over his residency permit.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I can't believe I am really at. . .

. . .The Jordan River.  Ok, the Jordan valley from the highway a quarter mile away.  This is the border with Jordan now, so no going down for baptizing.  There isn't much very much water either as it is being siphened off for irigation.

. . .Jericho.  The spring at Jericho- next to the remains of the old walled city.  And still in Jericho, a young boy going to get water.

. . .The Dead Sea.  The Judean desert is a barren wind-swept place, but beautiful!

. . .Qumran. On a very windy day!  The cave to the left of my elbow is one in which some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.    There were hoards of people there- surely not what the Essene's had in mind when they moved out to the desert to live holy lives apart from the corruptions of urban life.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

By the Shores of Galilee

We were blessed with a beautiful day on the shores of Galilee.  Galilee is at a much lower altitude than Jerusalem and so has a balmy climate.   This is truly the fertile crescent, filled with orchards and fields of vegetables and wheat.   The smell of almond blossoms fills the air.
We visited sites of Jesus’ early ministry: Capernaum, home of Peter, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law and taught in the synagogue, the mountain (hill) of the Sermon on the Mount, the lakeside valley where the loaves and fishes were multiplied and the beach where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection and told Peter to “feed my sheep.”  
This beach was my favorite spot of the day.  It is known for St. Peter’s Priory, the little monastery and church built over the rock where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection and made them breakfast and understandably names for Peter “the rock.”  This Gospel story from John has been especially meaningful to me since I preached my senior sermon on it my final semester as an undergraduate and first felt a clear calling to ordained ministry.   This Gospel reminds me of how, like the disciples, we are formed and fed in community and then sent out to do God’s work in the world.  
We celebrated the Eucharist at St. Peter’s Priory, with the sounds of other groups around us doing the same in many different languages.  This is the living testimony to that place.  The disciples did go out to make disciples of all nations.  Though there is much that divides us as Christians (i.e. women can’t celebrate the Eucharist at these Holy sites as they are owned by the Roman Catholic Church) we are united by our common baptism.  We, and many other pilgrims, went down to the water to renew our baptismal vows after the Eucharist.  I had a lovely conversation with some pilgrims from Spain who asked me to fill their water bottles with sand and water.  We sent each other off with blessings.

Our lunch of "St. Peter's Fish"

Women at the Wells

On Sunday we went to St. Anne’s Church in the Old City, which is next to the pools of Bethsaida and also believed to be the birth place of Mary.  In the crypt, there is this icon depicting Mary’s birth.   Her mother, Anna lies on the bed recovering and Mary lies in the crook of the midwife’s arm.  With her other hand, the midwife reaches into to a swirling font of water.  It is as if Mary’s birth has stirred the waters of life.   The past and the future are swirling together in that water, which in just moments in the perspective of history will become the baptismal water where we will find new life.

My three favorite places that we have visited so far have been connected to women and water: St. Anne’s with that icon of the swirling font and the ruins of the pool of Bethsaida just outside, Jacob’s Well in Samaria (modern day Nablus) and the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
                The pool of Bethsaida was the site where Jesus healed the crippled man who had sat waiting for a turn to get into the pool for over 30 years, yet someone always went ahead of him.   To get down to the level of the pool, I climbed down steep steps through layers of excavated ruins.  Jerusalem is several stories higher than it was in Jesus’ time, built over layers and layers of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman buildings.   The pool was much closer to the surface at Jesus’ time but probably still many steps down.  I can understand why the crippled man struggled to be the first into the water.
                The Orthodox church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, also known as St. Gabriel’s, lies over a running spring.  In the Orthodox tradition, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, not at her house but at the town well.   This church was built above the spring that feeds that well.  You can climb down into the crypt and see the spring, and the whole church is filled with the sound of that living, running water as well as lingering scent of incense.
                Jacob’s well is of course the place where Jacob supposedly met and fell in love with Rachel, and where Jesus met the Samaritan women in John’s Gospel.   This is a story about crossing borders as Jews did not usually travel through Samaria and Jewish men would not speak to Samaritan women.  Jesus asks the woman to draw him some water from the well and they enter into conversation in which he offers her the water of life.
                In the desert, springs of water signify the divine presence.  There is something so elemental about these places, climbing down into the earth to meet that source of water, water which sustains all our lives and which for Christian’s has become the source of our rebirth in baptism.  Women are bearers of life, so it makes sense that they should be connected with these places.  These churches are monuments to the faithfulness of women: Anna who raised a daughter to follow God’s calling, Mary the Theatokos, who bore God within herself and the Samaritan Woman who saw that Jesus was the Messiah and went out to proclaim it in the towns and villages.  These women were disciples.  I give thanks for them and all those who have taught us what it means to be faithful.    

Friday, February 18, 2011

Shabat Tov

A few of us walked down to the Wailing Wall as the sun fell this Sabbath evening, following the men rushing down in their black Sabbath suits through the windy streets of the old city.  There were the Orthodox Jews with side curls and fur hats, others with fedoras, and some with just kippa, head coverings.  As we drew closer, we saw women as well, also dressed their best.
This was my first glimpse of the Wailing Wall, a remnant of the Western Wall of the temple platform built in the time of Herod.  It is called the Wailing Wall from the cries of visiting Jews mourning the destruction of the temple.   Many of those there tonight were Jerusalemites, but many others were pilgrims, coming to pray at this holiest of places.
 On this Sabbath evening the area for prayer in front of the wall was packed with people.  There are separate women’s and men’s section, for which I was grateful as the men’s section was quite rowdy.  In the men’s section you could see layers of people, the black hated orthodox praying against the wall, soldiers in khaki singing and dancing in circles behind them, and white kippad younger men farther back.   The women’s side was more open, but soldiers also led groups of young women in singing and dancing.
 The spirit of thousands of years of prayer and longing was a palatable force as we drew closer to the wall.  People backed away from the wall with tears on their faces, and others sang songs for Israel.   This is the Israeli project at its best, exiles and refugees returning from all over the world.  I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem, that it may be a place where all people can worship God without fear.

First Impressions

I spent the first part of the day looking down at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and the second half wandering through the crowded streets of the Old City.  From up high you can see the four quarters of the old City; Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.   What first catches your eye is the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine to the place of the binding of Isaac and Mohamed’s ascent to heaven.  This was built on the site of the Jewish Temple, destroyed centuries before.    The second landmark is the dome of the church of the Resurrection, the site of the empty tomb.  The synagogues of the Jewish Quarter and churches of the Armenian Quarter are a little harder to pick out, but they are there along with minarets and church towers.

We went up Mount Scopus to see the view in the other direction, the Judean desert, the hills of Gilead off to the left and behind them the Jordan valley and the haze of the Dead Sea.  These are the places of the Qumran Community and John the Baptist, where Christ was tempted in the wilderness and the desert fathers and mothers sought out their own path to holiness.  With olive groves and white limestone everywhere, it feels very different than the Sonoran desert, though I spotted a few prickly pear on the hill sides.  From Mount Scopus you can also see the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, and also Jewish Settlement built on the other side of the wall.  I will write more on this later as I am still figuring out how it all works.

The Old City is sensory overload of smells and colors:  falafel frying, fruit, candies and spices elaborately arranged, Shopkeepers trying to tempt you with their wares.  At times the streets are just tunnels through centuries of buildings and narrow alleys that climb up and down Mount Zion.   When I have heard this in the psalms I have always pictured a pastoral mountain, but this earthy Zion is a place bustling with life.  We came home for evening prayer as the call to prayer echoed from the minaret.