Word of the Week

I love independent theaters. I love films that may or may not get press or bring filmmakers lots of money, but present a message through their art medium that make you think. I love films that stir up conversation long after the credits roll.

For me one such film I recently watched in the documentary called Gatekeepers. While nominated for an Oscar, winning a Cinema for Peace honor and getting rave reviews from the critics, I'd never heard of it until I was browsing the options for a movie night.

I read the description: "A documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets" and was immediately intrigued.

Maybe this just sounds to you like a nerdy way to spend a night out (and I fully admit here my nerdy status), but in actuality my interested piqued from the fact I spent 10 days in Israel alongside a Inman, a Rabbi, and evangelical pastor in 2011.

It was a trip that brought my mind and spirit to the center of the crisis of the Middle East in ways that just don't leave your heart when you return home.

We called our trip a "delegation of peace." And though it is usually every pastor's dream to take a tour to the Holy Land at some juncture in their ministry (and I was one of them)-- this was not your normal journey to the Holy Land.

We traveled to intentionally together to explore the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the eyes of one another. We wanted to explore the sights important to each of our religious traditions, as children of Abraham, with an openness to learn without our natural biases. We sought to meet with peacemakers on the ground on both sides. And, we wanted our congregations/ places of worship to grow in friendship with one another when we returned home.

Throughout the journey, I came to believe there is no better way to see Israel and the Palestinian territories than with an Rabbi and Iman by your side.

For the Holy Land is more than about the life and work of Jesus, as many Christians bulldoze their way into the country in big tour buses-- it's the center of history our friends in the Jewish and Islamic tradition as well, meant to be respected and honored.

Now, I can't imagine going back to Israel any other way or a conversation about the region without consideration for the perspective of both Israel and their Palestinian neighbors.

I loved that Gatekeepers took me back to this place of learning and reflection on the complexity of history, politics and ideology that shapes the current state of affairs in Israel today.

I appreciated that Gatekeepers showed the humanity-- both the good and not so good-- of the Shin Bet, Israel's security agency. Sometimes the best decisions that could have been made at the time occurred-- and sadly innocent people died anyway. Sometimes poor choices in security cost hundreds their lives (and livelihood). Sometimes top Shin Bet official wept for lives lost and also wished for a better way of relationships between neighbors (as much as they were/ are labeled the "bad guys").

I appreciated the commentary on religious leadership within the region-- highlighting the crucial role such leaders play in persuading the hearts and minds of people, for good or evil.

I appreciated the fact that the film ended without a political message of either pro or against Palestinian statehood and/ or a new Middle East peace agreement BUT with the statement that peace will come through friendship. It's not the message I expected-- to be pro greater military occupation or even different new political leaders. But, simply friendship. Peace through friendship.

Go out and see Gatekeepers with a friend! You'll be glad you did.

By the way, our group blogged our way through the journey, if you are interested in more specific reflections check out our trip website hosted by George Mason University).

In my journey toward becoming an author, I've found it important to build community with other writers. Not only because these are the type of folks whom I really want to read my own work (because they provide such helpful feedback), but for the sake of having encouragers for the journey. Other writers, for me, really do know what makes me tick in ways others don't. I am spurred on by their love of our shared craft.

Several months ago now, I was invited to join a group of fellow Writing Revs who live in the DC region. This group meets a couple of times a month to read each other's stuff and talk about writing. Of course, I was intimidated at first, but after spending a week at Collegeville Institute last summer, I knew it would be good for me. And, I'd have to just get over any insecurities I might have. I'd experienced the gift (and the terror too) of a writing workshop for the first time. And, while it is incredibly vulnerable to put yourself out there like that-- "Here, be the first eyes to my  work. Tell me what you think"-- I learned my readers would thank me later.  And, it has been fun to regular meet with other pastors who feel the same way.

Two of the group members of this Writing Rev group are soon to publish their first book. Excitement has been all the buzz with us lately and I couldn't help but take this opportunity for a shameless promotion for these friends. The church needs thoughtful thinkers and MaryAnn and Ruth are two bright lights with some really great stuff to say on Sabbath and pilgrimage. I've read their books and I'm thrilled about you reading them too.

Sabbath in the Subburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben Dana is available for pre-release on Amazon right now. It officially comes out on September 30th.

Books on Sabbath are easier to find these days. For, slowing down, stopping and finding ways to get out of the rat race seems to be a topic that we all want to talk about. But how many of us actually do it? This book is a journey alongside a family with two working parents, three kids in a very overcommited region of the country to find such rest on a weekly basis.  You'll find thoughtful theological reflections over the course of this family's year-long journey with practical ideas about how they put their faith into practice.

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land by Ruth Everhart is also available for pre-order right now. It comes out on November 30th.

Many pastors or other serious faith seekers come to the Holy Land in search of something. But what happens when such an adventure begins to shake the foundations of your faith? What happens when you begin to see the life experiences of others in a way that you didn't expect? What happens when you wrestle with such deep life questions that you come home from the Holy Land with new vision for the world? Ruth explores these questions and more as she takes you a long for the journey that she a several colleagues made to Israel several years ago. Join her for the spiritual journey.

Both books will ready and available for spring study groups of all kinds. Order yours today and support these wonderful writing Rev friends of mine! You can thank me later.

God Calls You to "Those" People: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

When I was in seminary, a peer of mine, who later became a dear friend, realized one important truth the first day of Old Testament class. Brad did not know the basic stories of the Bible. He knew little to nothing about Abraham, Moses, the 12 tribes of Israel, King Saul, David and the like.  Brad was so lost in Bible class that on first pop quiz our professor gave us on the Torah-- otherwise known as the first five books the Hebrew scriptures, he got an F.

You may wonder what a guy like this was doing in seminary. We all wondered too. But then later learned that Brad's upbringing came in a open and accepting denomination like our flavor of Baptists. And, growing up in his home church, Brad said, youth group taught him how to plan service projects and how the gospel of Jesus was all about loving people, but never really learned much about the Bible.

As you can imagine, Brad desperately wanted to bring his grade average out of the failing zone. Brad informed our study group that he'd recently purchased, "Bible for Dummies." And, our group protested his use of such a book for a seminary student. We'd be glad to help, especially the lifelong Bible drill Baptists, my friend and I who probably knew more random facts than we really needed to.  

So, operation Bible 101 for Brad began. As a group we gave Brad extra reading assignments every week and sometimes even make up our own quizzes to give him to track his progress. We also found another great teaching tool for our Bible novice-- and this was the series of children's DVDs called the Veggie Tales.

I don't know if you've ever viewed a Veggie Tale movie before but the premise is simple: to make the great stories of the Bible accessible to children through slight modification of the setting. Instead of the characters being played by human characters, the animated actors are all vegetables led by Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber.

So, Brad began to watch Veggie Tale episodes faithfully as they corresponded with the lessons. One problem arose though when he watched the Jonah movie, which features our lectionary reading for today. However, Brad walked away with the understanding that Jonah, played by a disobedient asparagus,  hated the Ninevehites because they constantly hit one another in the face with fish.  Additionally, Brad also asked us why the members of the ship sailing to Tarshish instead of Nineveh (when Jonah was running away) played the card game of "go fish" to figure out whose live was not right with God and had to get off the ship.

We had to remind our eager and sometimes gullible friend to always actually READ the text.(Because such details in the movies were added simply to keep the young viewers entertained).  

And though such details in the Veggie Tale version of Jonah's tale seem laughable, if we stick closely to the entire book of Jonah, they might as well be included. The entire narrative reads like one of Aesop's fables. We find very few details of Jonah's life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, as the story progresses, we are given no details about how in the world it would be possible for him to survive for three days in the mouth of a fish and miraculously be dumped on dry ground when his "punishment" is over to have a second chance at delivering the message.

While Jonah is often referred to as "Jonah and the whale" as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God's plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. A story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God's love for those we consider to be "those" people.

It is good to first consider the who and what of Nineveh and why God's message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.

 Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.

Furthermore,  Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end  all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years! Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights.  Previous prophets were clear about God's judgment on this land which repeatedly mistreated God's beloved people.

But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians. Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.

In Jonah chapter 1, the Lord gets right to the point saying to Jonah in verse two: "Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!"

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy! And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn't even get to say something nice . . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: "God wants you to repent for you've done really bad things." (Not exactly the words that usher in hospitality from Assyria, wouldn't you agree?).

One commentator defines the situation presented to Jonah as the original mission impossible.  And goes on to write about why this was such a hard thing for Jonah to do saying, "Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed through as a way station to somewhere else, kind like 1-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get less respect than Ambassador of Palau would get in [here in] Washington D.C. (You get extra credit [for listening to this sermon] if you actually know where Palau is!)." [i]

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid. Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him. Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world. Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God-- a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don't we? We could see ourselves in Jonah's shoes will all of the evidence of filing a complaint against God with just cause to do so.  We'd run away too, wouldn't we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

But what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it-- what happens if it doesn't go away? What happens if we are called to be with "those" people and God just won't let us forget? What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Around this time last January, Kevin and I sat on a bus heading from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem in the area of the country known as the "West Bank." We traveled alongside an American Imam, an American evangelical pastor, a Palestinian guide, an Israelite guide and an Jewish Rabbi-- from the United States too, but who had spent extensive time living and studying in and about Israel. 

Though every day of this 10 day Interfaith adventure held new challenges, it was the sixth day of our journey which stretched each of our understandings of Jewish/ Muslim relations within this compact geographic region the most.

Rob, the Rabbi, with us, while having spent time on numerous trips all throughout the region, even some journeys into the West Bank, had never been to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. This sight sat in the Palestinian "capital" city of Ramallah. As we walked around the plaza area and viewed the memorial, our group was asked to take a picture beside the mosque on the property with couple of the guards. I was watching my friend Rob become increasingly more and more uncomfortable.

Years and years of politics, persecution and distasteful words shared between the people of Israel and those of the Palestinian territories  and in particular by Arafat brought great caution to his presence here. It wasn't about this one man: it was about thousands of years of history.

Rob didn't want to be in the group picture with the rest of us. And, in retrospect, I understood why and respected my new friend's authenticity.

He later wrote on the group blog: "Yet somehow I must confess: as a Jew I am scared, not just of the possibility of what can happen to a Jew in Ramallah, but for what can happen inside this Jew in Ramallah. I feel a chill down my back. And I’m ready to board the bus as quickly as time will allow." Rob knew, you see, cost of either the hatred or the love-- whichever path he chose-- in this place. If this change of love sipped into him for this place, his faith he lived out in a community of other Jews like himself might have to shift. If he hated in this place, his heart might grow hard in the great cost of bitterness.

As we continued our journey in the West Bank, our schedule allowed a trip to the University of Berzit. I was still learning about all of the history, but to Rob, this stop was a place that continued to challenge him. I could see it all over his face.  "Jews just don't come to Berzit, we learned," from one of our guides. "We are told that it is a breeding ground for terrorism education." 

But Rob and our Israelite guide bravely, along with the rest of us, began our tour at the university regardless. And to all our surprise we found Muslim and Christian students eager to meet us and share experiences. Who knows what a terrorist looks like at school, but these kids looked as normal as they could be. Two of the girls we chatted with briefly on the steps of a lecture hall told us that "they'd never met a Jew before." To which Rob chimed in quickly and said, "Now you have." Rob was moved to reconsider again what he'd always thought about Berzit and the people of the West Bank.

Rabbi Rob, along with the rest of our group that day, received God's challenge to us there. Even if we think we know "those" people and centuries upon centuries of ill has been done-- God remains steadfast in love for all the nations. All people.  All people we like. All the people we don't. And because this is true, God calls us to lay down the walls of "us" and "them" which inhibit us from relationship.

Rabbi Rob went on to write about his transformative experience that day saying, "I am humbled as I admit: I am praying for peace for Israel and all nations of the world. . . . Still I pray: may the maker of peace in the heavens cause peace to descend on us, on all Israel and all who dwell on the earth, Amen."[ii]

And, like the Rabbi if we are going to take our call seriously to see all people of all nations of the world, then we too are going to find ourselves in positions as unique as being a Jewish Rabbi at the tomb of Arafat.

Consider this: our public policy and our leadership in policy as a nation, has a long way to go in support of all of our neighbors of the world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use OUR voice?

We, as socially conscious people of faith, have a great calling to see those hated neighbors among us, just as God sees them, in the eyes of love and to just the power of our voice to bring our nation's leaders accountable to peace making  . . .

To ask our President to think carefully about the new global policy inanities he makes and to consider all people in the nation of Israel.

To ask our Virginia governor and legislators to consider who our social service and social laws are leaving out-- and ask them to include all of God's children in key decisions when it comes to issues of marriage, healthcare, and opportunities for employment.

To ask the leadership in Fairfax County about our tax structure and why there is not more being done in one of the wealthiest counties in America, to deal with the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty.  And this is only the tip of what could be asked of us.

But, even more personal than this-- I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who "those" people are in your life. You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you'd explode. Whoever is on your list of "those people" I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God's family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .  

It's a hard edge to sit with this morning. It's a hard, hard edge that may make you and I question everything we thought we knew about what is true about justice, war, and foreign policy, but the way of relationship, the way of community building IS the way of our God.

Today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed.


[i] Todd Weir. "Jonah and Mark 1:14-20 (Epiphany 3B) Give Jonah a Break" http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/01/jonah_3_mark_11.html#more

 [ii] Robert Nosanchuk http://crdcgmu.wordpress.com/projects/peace-and-understanding-between-jews-christians-and-muslims-where-does-humanity-lie/ipji-blog/rabbi-robert-nosanchuk/

I have to admit that I never really knew much about the Palestine/  Israelite conflict before conversation began about this trip  - other than the fact that it existed. I knew from history about the Zionist movement and how it had led to the creation of an Israeli state. I knew about the conflicts over land with some other group that didn't like the Jews very much. I knew that the United States supported Israel's statehood at all costs-- no candidate could win the presidency in modern times, for example, unless they said repeatedly that they were pro-Israel. 

So, while I am ashamed of my ignorance on these important matters, I believe my being in Israel this week with such an open mind to see things as they really are is a gift.  

Our time in Israel is about the abormal. Our travel roster has brought together folks from America to Israel that the people of this land would never see together, much less as traveling companions and friends. We are traveling with  Palestinian and Israeli guides (which is a cultural no no). We are meeting Rabbis in settlement camps and those who are a part of Rabbis for Human Rights (a moderate to liberal group). We are traveling with and meeting Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. We are hearing about Palestine from Imams working in East Jerusalem (the Arab section of town). We'll be meeting Christians in the Palestinian territory tomorrow (where many Christians are afraid to go on their Jesus pilrmages).

The Israel/ Palestine landscape as I see it on Day 3 is that the situation is way more complex than we imagine it might be from all of the pro-Israel rhetoric we get in the States. There truly are no easy answers.  Legitimate hurt has occurred on both sides. Peace and reconciliation will not come easy as the conflict that began in 1948 is still not over. There is not peace in this land and it is obvious!  Segregation and calling the opposing side the "other" and as "less than" will continue to hold back true solutions to peace talks with religious propaganda at the center.

Yet, while all of this sounds so complex and depressing. There are some-- actually more than you would ever imagine-- who are doing powerful peace work on the ground. Groups like Jerusalem Peacemakers, who we met with tonight for dinner are creating opportunities for shared prayer, shared meals, shared forums among Jews, Christians and Muslims all throughout Israel.  With fewer financial resources than most NGOs, Jerusalem Peacemakers and their leader Rabbi Eilyahu McLean-Dalah are holding powerful forums like "Hug Jerusalem Day" where thousands of people gather of all faith traditions each year to literally hug around the wall of the Old City as a symbol of the goodness of human dignity and love. The Rabbi said, "We want future generations to know that we love this city and there is a better way of living together than just shooting each other and suicide bombs." Though this Rabbi may never make the American news, his work points to knowing that there's more than one side of the true story on the ground in Jerusalem.   

I am so glad that I came on my first trip to Israel not on the typical Christian tour only seeing Jesus specific things. I am so proud to be here among my new friends who are all a part of the Abrahamic tradition with me-- showing me more each day that there might be a better way to see the conflict in the Middle East other than the soundbites of worldwide media on the issue.


As many of you know, I am going to be gone for 10 days this January on a trip to the Holy Land with another Christian pastor from Reston, an Imam from the Adams Center in Sterling, an Imam from a mosque in DC, and the former Rabbi of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation who now serves a synagogue in Ohio.

The idea for this adventure was first mentioned at a Reston Ministerium meeting I was attending in the spring of 2009 (a good reason to remember to go to meetings-- good things can come out of them). The Rabbi  told the group about his desire to travel to Israel with a local Imam and asked the group if any Christian pastors would be interested in attending. The goal would be to travel over the course of the Martin Luther King holiday in the spirit of King’s vision of peace, reconciliation and non-violence together as clergy of three of the world’s largest faiths showing through our going together that indeed people with differing opinions, even religious ones don’t have to hate each other, in fact they can respectfully learn from one another and encourage others to do the same.  And soon as I heard this, I was sold on my being part of this courageous group if I could.  I found my heart moved in support of my colleagues that I didn’t know very well yet and began imagining what an impact our friendship and travel experiences would have not only on our own spiritual journeys but on the larger religious community of Reston and beyond. It was a moment of imagining as the Apostle Paul prescribed to long ago, “With God’s power working in us, we can do more than we could ever ask for or imagine.”

As details of the trip emerged through the careful planning of George Mason’s center for Conflict Resolution, I knew it would be an experience like none other—not only for scholarship purposes to be and see and learn in the sacred spaces of faith for many—but to be a part of the fresh wind of the Spirit’s movement in such a time as this. That indeed, yes, God is present when we break down barriers of race, creed and tradition that keep us from one another for no other reason that lack of information and fear.

So, now that all the details are finalized, and soon I’ll be boarding a plane for Israel, what are my hopes? How can you pray for not only me, but Kevin who will be participating in the group as well?

In spite of our busy meeting schedule, I pray for a sense of peace and rest to come over us—that will be able to embody the gifts that this journey has for us and not have any worries about what awaits us at home.

I hope for safety in travel. Though I have complete confidence in the leaders of our delegation and their expertise in traveling in this region, I know that our group will be an usual one which might face special challenges. I pray for our unity as a team and for our peacemaking spirit to shine in all that we do.

I pray for an open mind and heart to receive all of the information that I know we’ll be taking in through site visits to places of religious significance to each of us, visits to settlement camps and prayer sites where conflict has ruled. I pray for an open mind to receive the unique perspectives of each of my colleagues as we travel and spend time with one another.

Because ultimately this trip is not about me. It’s not about Kevin or any of the other group members—it is about how we can be a part of how God longs to lead both our congregation and our community in the future. Know I’m so glad to have your support and partnership in this effort. I could not go with knowing you, Washington Plaza, were behind me and all that this trip represents.