A Baha’i Pilgrimage

On our last afternoon together as a group, we had planned to visit the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens here in Haifa.  After Mike’s death, the group only wanted to get to the airport and get on their planes home.  I stayed in Haifa.  The original plan was for this to be a transition time–processing time–as I try to bring the experiences of the past weeks into some kind of focus.  Instead, it has been valuable, although painful time for grieving.

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Today I visited the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens.  It is a beautiful centerpiece in the city of Haifa, and a major tourist attraction.  The gardens are meticulously maintained by an army of Baha’i volunteers from all over the world, assisted by numerous local workers.  The expenses of the shrine/gardens are covered through donations from the Baha’i faithful worldwide–they don’t take donations from visitors, and nothing is sold here–a contrast to some other sites we’ve visited.

It’s a daunting climb–especially when I realized that you can’t just start at the bottom and climb all 1,700 steps to the top.  Parts of the garden are closed off, so you have to go around.  No photos can be taken in the shrine itself, which surprised me in its relative simplicity–a center focus point for prayer, and four chambers with floor space for sitting in prayer/meditation.

The higher you go, the more spectacular the view.

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I am now home in Salt Lake City, and just beginning to process all my experiences, thoughts and photos from the Israel-Palestine experience.  Before it slips from my grasp, I will continue to post on this blog.  Just looking back at previous posts helps it all come alive for me once more.

If you’re in SLC, and want to hear more about the trip, I’m hosting a very informal gathering tomorrow evening, Monday, June 6th at 6:30pm at Christ UMC in Room 101.  I’ll bring Middle Eastern-type snacks, and share some of the experiences that made this trip over-the-top amazing.  Mostly, I’ll be glad to see you and to listen to your thoughts and questions.  (just don’t expect anything too organized…I’m not quite there yet!)

See you on Monday…

Salaam.  Shalom.  Peace.

 

 

 

 

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It Wasn’t Supposed to End Like This…

This morning at 11am one of my precious trip-mates, Mike Bauer, died of a heart attack in Haifa, Israel.  There was no warning–it just happened.  As far as medical personnel can tell, it was massive, and he died quickly.

Mike did not die alone, however.  There was his roommate who grew concerned and opened the door to find him.  There was Moustafa, our beloved driver, who ran to begin CPR, and Elad our guide who tried desperately to breath into him the breath of life.  There were the hostel staff, who were ever-present, helpful and gracious.  There were the EMTs who worked so hard to revive Mike, the doctor who came to check him, the police who asked their questions patiently, and the ambulance personnel who preserved Mike’s dignity.  There was Bob Pyne, our trip leader, who worked through all of the bureaucratic details and is likely still working through them.  And we were there, too–Mike’s trip-mates–praying for healing energy, praying for Mike and his family, praying for peace of heart and mind and soul for everyone involved.

Most of my trip-mates are at the airport waiting for their flights to leave.  Mike remains here in Haifa, waiting for the arrangements to be made to send him home.  I am in a Haifa hotel.  I had extended my trip so that I could have a day to process all that this experience has meant.  I guess I gave myself time to grieve without knowing I would need it.

Just two days ago Mike and I walked together through the Church of the Twelve Apostles near the Sea of Galilee.  We looked at various items at the gift stand, and I purchased a small bottle of anointing oil.  I rarely use this in my ministry, but for some reason felt moved to buy it (it seemed classier than the bottle of water from the Sea of Galilee…).

This was the worst possible situation, and I hate the fact that it was needed, but it was my absolute honor and privilege to offer Mike Bauer the blessing of Last Rites using the anointing oil he helped me choose.  Please pray for Mike’s family and friends as they try to process this shocking loss.  And be glad with me that Mike had the kind of faith that believes in hope and in life eternal.

Salaam.  Shalom.  Peace.

Americans Don’t Go There (Part 2)

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Welcome to the Golan Heights–one of the most fought-over pieces of land in the world.  The photo above depicts not one but two monitoring bases.  The larger one on the left belongs to Syria.  The smaller one with the tower on the right belongs to the United Nations.  Both are carefully watching the “cease-fire zone” or “demilitarized zone” or “buffer zone” or “border” between Israel and Syria.  The name you give this 300 meter wide strip of land depends on which side of a multi-sided conflict you happen to be on.  This photo, of course, is taken from Israel…or is that a portion of Syria occupied by Israel?  Again, it depends which angle you’re coming from.

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The man on the right is a member of the Druze community.  They are an isolated and secretive religious off-shoot of Shia Islam.  The people we met were friendly but cautious (it helps that we have 3 Arabic speakers with our group).  These villages high up in the mountains consider themselves to be Syrians living under occupation.  Israel, of course, considers them Israeli citizens, albeit reluctant ones.  Their land was taken in the 1967 war.  Syria tried to take it back in 1973 and failed.  The man on the right spent 25 years imprisoned by Israel for his pro-Syrian activities–activities he did not describe in detail.  He assured us that the Golan belongs to Syria, and he will be Syrian as long as he lives.   The man on the left is Mustafa, our beloved driver.

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Signposts and whimsical art made from discarded military equipment seek to disguise the significance of this windy mountaintop in the Golan Heights.  Underground bunkers once protected soldiers and stored weapons.  This is the strategic high point for the area.  From this particular mountaintop, you can look into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and of course Israel/Palestine.  An expansive view for tourists, and a point of surveillance and control for Israel.  All around the Golan Heights, there are fenced-off areas with too-small yellow signs warning about land mines.  There are IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers practicing with tanks, and with heavy machinery designed to build trenches and berms to keep out enemy tanks.  Abandoned bunkers and observation posts seem to be everywhere.

In the midst of it all, a hearty and resilient people live out their lives in Israel, yearning for friends and family members who live on the opposite side of the barbed wire fence.  As they literally use bullhorns and binoculars to yell messages to loved ones on the other side of the buffer zone, they give testimony to the generations-long heartache of war and political conflict.

Program Note:  If you can find the movie, “The Syrian Bride,” on Netflix or from other sources–it’s worth seeing.  The many, many complications of life in the Golan Heights are expressed as a young Druze woman prepares to marry a Syrian man.

Salaam.  Shalom.  Peace

Hills and Valleys

When in doubt, have your photo taken with a baby–they always turn out well because everybody’s looking at the baby instead of you!  This beautiful boy is the youngest son of our incredibly talented tour guide, Elad.  We were invited to visit Elad’s family in their mountain home, and we met his dancer/choreographer wife, Iris.  They will be spending January-June 2017 in Portland, OR, while Iris teaches dance at Reed College.  I think we need to invite Elad to speak at our church while they are in the States–he is deeply involved in peacemaking and conflict resolution–CUMC would love him!

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Below is a photo of the valley of Megiddo==the place where the ultimate battle between Good and Evil is fought in the book of Revelation.   In popular evangelical/end times culture, “Megiddo” becomes “Megeddon” and ultimately “Armegedon”–and voila!  End Times it is.  In reality, while this is a beautiful and fertile valley, we had a hard time envisioning all the armies of the world converging on this spot and having room to do anything battle-oriented.  The world was a smaller place when  the End of the World as We Know It was first imagined.

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The “Synagogue Church” is designed to be a reminder of Jesus’ first sermon, which he preached in Nazareth to a hometown crowd after spending 40 days in the wilderness.  You’d think this would be a high point in Jesus’ ministry, but instead the people of Nazareth who heard him speak apparently decided this local boy was breaking the rules.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”  Enraged that the kid from down the street would dare name himself as the Messiah, they grabbed Jesus and took him to the top of a high precipice on a nearby hill.

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And here’s the hill…and a view from the hill.  We had a 360 degree view of the town of Nazareth, the surrounding farmland and villages–and a good look at what Jesus was facing at the hands of his crazy neighbors.  Being tossed off this particular precipice would surely have resulted in Jesus’ death, yet he didn’t seem to be afraid.  Scripture says he simply turned and walked through the crowd and left.  I’m betting that once Jesus became famous, the Nazareth residents wished many times that they hadn’t chased him away.

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Our first stop today was at Rabin Square outside city hall in Tel Aviv.  It was in this place, in 1995, that Itzak Rabin was shot and killed following a speech he made to a crowd of thousands.  It was a rally for peace, in support of the painstaking work that brought Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) together with mutual respect and dignity.  The far right-wing folks in Israel had problems with any agreement with the Palestinians, and decided to take matters into their own hands.  Rabin died after being shot in the chest.  Benjamin Netanyahu came to power and has been in charge ever since.  They call Netanyahu “BiBi” over here, and the whole world is painfully aware that peace with the Palestinians will not happen while he’s in charge.  So we pray, and we remember what was so very nearly accomplished in the 1990’s, and hope the opportunity for peace will come again.  Soon.

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Shalom.  Salaam.  Peace.

Maybe This Is the Promised Land After All

 

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Sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, Israel, feels like a Promised Land blessing.

Yesterday we visited Masada (thank God there’s a cable car to the top–although 3 members of our group made the climb).  I’ll post photos when I can get my camera and computer to communicate a bit better.

The Dead Sea is like the Great Salt Lake on steroids.  31% salt.  Evaporating at an alarming rate.  It doesn’t smell nearly as bad, though, since nothing can survive in the water.  We met with an eco-justice advocate who told us about the increasing tension over water and water use and pollution in the area.  There are so many correlations to Utah:  more and more people putting a strain on water supply;  aquifer being rapidly depleted;  careless use and abuse leading to pollution;  etc, etc.  Even the sagebrush looks familiar!

Even water is a justice issue here.  As the number and size of Israeli settlements increase, the demand for water increases as well.  Add to that the fact that the average Israeli uses more than 3 times the amount of water in a day than the average West Bank Palestinian does, and you’ve got yet another unbalanced issue.

But for now, in this moment, we will simply enjoy a breathtaking sunset.

Salaam.  Shalom.  Peace.

 

Once in a Lifetime?

When we were in Ramallah, we met with terrorists.  The Palestinian Authority is the governmental structure for the Palestinian Territories.  The PA grew out of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  Yeah, that’s right.  The PLO–once categorized by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.  We sat for over an hour and a half talking with two of the people who are working on negotiations with the Israelis…except there haven’t been any negotiations for a really long time.

Here’s what I learned:  These supposed terrorists (who disavowed violent acts against Israelis a long time ago) would very much like to get back to the negotiating table.  They have ideas about a cooperative, working future for Israel-Palestine.  They want the United States to stay out of it.  The French have proposed to act as a neutral party in a future negotiation.  When the U.S. participates, we announce clearly that we are on Israel’s side before anything even begins….yes, we really do.  It’s our stance, it’s been our stance, and it’s likely to stay our stance.  And it’s not helpful to the peace process.  It’s hard to negotiate with people whose minds are already made up.  And it’s impossible to be impartial in a negotiation when you’re investing 3.1 billion dollars per year in the Israeli Defense Department.  (We’re also giving approximately $400 million in USAID support to the West Bank territories–soon to be decreased by Congress, but don’t worry–our military support will increase a bit.)

I don’t know how to solve the problems here, but I’m pretty sure the U.S. is not all that helpful in getting it done.

Shalom.  Salaam.  Peace.

Americans Don’t Go There

Well…apparently we never got the “don’t go there” memo, because here we are in Ramallah–the capital of the Palestinian Territories (it’s temporary–they want East Jerusalem to be their capital one day).  Much of the city is in the same state as Bethlehem (unpredictable utilities, no trash collection, little money for repairing buildings or roads).  But the neighborhood we’re staying in is quite new and fancy.  People in this section obviously have some money to build new apartment buildings and a fine new hotel where we are staying tonight.  It is the neighborhood of foreign diplomats and other officials.

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We started off today by visiting one of the Israeli settlements.  These “settlements” are small cities in their own right, with gas stations, grocery stores and other amenities which are open only to the Jewish residents (even though Palestinians live just 100 yards away and have none of these services).  We visited a settlement which has started a boutique winery.  A member of the settlement council met with us.  She was very well-spoken and handled our questions well, but there is still a disconnect between what the Israelis claim is “legal” and what international law says is “legal.”  (You are supposed to permanently settle your citizens into land that you are belligerantly  occupying.)  The settlers believe they have an absolute right to whatever land they choose to settle on–and to the services provided by the Israeli government which make it possible.

Here are photos from the visitors center at the winery, and the barrier at the entrance to the settlement.  Note: our bus driver, Mustafa, who has become very dear to us, and our guide Nabil would never have been allowed into this settlement area if they were not with us white, presumably Judeo-Christian tourists.  They are Palestinians.  They are not welcomed or trusted by the Jewish neighbors who have forced their way into the neighborhood.

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Contrast this settlement of relative luxury and plenty with the Qalandia Checkpoint.  This is the checkpoint most Palestinians hoping to travel to Jerusalem are forced to go through.  Here’s how it works:  First you have to have a permit to enter Israel.  Permits are usually work-related, although some may be granted for humanitarian reasons such as hospital treatment or visiting family members.  No Palestinian can enter Israel through any checkpoint without a permit, and the Israeli government seems somewhat capricious about issuing permits.

Next you drive to the Qalandia Checkpoint and park your car somewhere in a sea of beaten up vehicles (if you’re lucky enough to have a car).  If you have a white Palestinian license plate, you cannot drive into Israel.  Then you walk into a cement holding area and wait until you are instructed to walk through the checkpoint.  There are no human beings giving instructions or speaking to you face to face–they are all behind bullet-proof glass.  Entering the crossing is like voluntarily walking into jail, or maybe it’s like cattle walking into the pens at the slaughterhouse.  Once on the other side you must take a specially marked bus to Jerusalem.  Palestinians must–on a daily basis–go through this dehumanizing and humiliating treatment simply to get to their job (including our tour guides and driver).  Many Palestinians have not been to Jerusalem in more than 12 years if ever.  They simply don’t qualify for a permit.

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It is sometimes very difficult to discover beauty in the midst of shock and suffering–and yet the Palestinian people have been completely welcoming to us.  The couple that hosted me and 2 others in their home for 2 nights were lovely, warm and hospitable.  They asked only one thing:  Please tell your American friends that we are just people longing to be free, longing to be treated with dignity–and we ask for their prayers.

May the day when trust and freedom are restored come soon.  insha’Allah (if God wills).

Salaam.  Shalom.  Peace.