Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Graduations and the Like

I have been to a couple of graduation ceremonies this past week--and have another one on the schedule for this Friday.  Three grandchildren.  One finishing elementary school, one graduating from Middle School and one who is now a high school graduate.

I must admit having a grandchild now out of high school has made me very self-conscious about my age.  It seems like only yesterday, to use a cliché, when he was a newborn in New Jersey!  Now he towers over me by a good four inches (at least!)

Life is full of such markers.  Special occasions when we stop and notice the passage of time.  Birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, funerals.  Such occasions remind us just how precious a gift life is.  Especially when we get to share it with people we care about--young and old!

I don't know what your days ahead hold for you, but no doubt you've got one or two such occasions on your calendar as well.  Enjoy them!  And remember to offer God a word of thanks for those you celebrate.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Using Up the Stockpile: An Environmental Warning from 1952

I didn't know my mother's father very well.  He died when I was just six years old.  He had served in World War I, was Harvard educated, and made a living before the great depression as a chemical engineer.  And he loved to read.  One of my most precious possessions is his complete set of the works of Charles Dickens.

Recently my mother shared a letter he had written to her about one month after she and my father were married.  She was just nineteen at the time.  I hadn't seen the letter and was astounded by his prescience.

It is written on a three sheets of stationary that were already twenty-eight years old when the letter was written in 1952.  They were personalized not with my grandfather's name, but rather his father's name.  Winfield T. Sherwood, along with the town where he lived, Sidney, NY.

He starts the letter greeting my mother with his pet name for her, "Dear Squirt"--I never knew that was what he called her!  I knew she adored him, and clearly, he adored her.  He begins by talking about the stationary itself, recounting the history that had transpired since its creation.  The Great Depression.  World War II.  And what he calls "a nice social revolution taking place in the US."  "Which," he wrote, "mostly goes to show you that you can keep a useful article over quite a period of history if you spend a dozen minutes of care on it."

And then he makes an observation that sounds like something right out of today's environmental movement.  "This country is going to have to revive the ability to take care of things before many years.  They have cut down, dug up and blown in a very respectable part of what was given them in this country when we inherited it from the Indians.  Over the last fifty or a hundred years scientific methods of use and manufacture have made some progress in utilizing renewable things, but no faster than the population increase.  Mostly the new knowledge has just helped us use the stockpile faster by creating new gadgets and keeping us alive longer to blow them in."

Wise words of warning, Grandpa.  Might we all pay heed!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Israel, Part XI: Back Home

We are back!  After a wonderful trip to Israel, many of us are back.  Some stayed longer to visit other places or to spend time with family or friends.  But many of us flew back together and then took a bus home from Miami, stopping first at Shell Point, and then coming here to Sanibel, where parked cars awaited their owners.

It felt good to be back home.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, the group was great, the sights and people we met fascinating, the food fabulous--but still, there's no place quite like home.

On the trip we were reminded by many things just how fortunate we are.  We were reminded that we live in a relatively safe place, with more than enough to eat, with roofs over our heads, with a sense of personal freedom.  But we were also reminded how fragile all that can be, and that only by committing ourselves to working for a better world will we be able to assure that there will be a place for ourselves within it.

Come November or so, Rabbi Fuchs and I will present a program here on Sanibel reflecting on the trip--but for now just this.  When I studied French in school I learned more about English grammar than I had ever known before.  When we travel to far off places we don't just learn about others who live in distant lands, we don't just learn about those foreign countries, we also learn about ourselves and the place that we call home.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel, Part X: Saving Lives, One Kindergartener at a Time

Ora Balha
Her living room floor was carpeted with colorful carpets.  Two or three cats wandered in and out of the space.  And we sat on cushions, in chairs and on the floor as she spun her story, as intriguing as one told by Scheherazade.  And like those of Scheherazade her story was lifesaving.  But there was one key difference, hers was true.

Her name is Ora Balha and she is a young Jewish mother of three living in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv in Israel.  Her story told of how she and her now husband, Ihab Balha, first met in the Sinai desert.  Filled with sand and stars in the dark desert night, the story drew us in.  As a Jew and a Muslim, their marriage is extremely unusual in Israel, and their respective families, especially their fathers, found it almost impossible to accept.  But in time, they did.  And as the two of them worked to bring about peace and reconciliation between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Holyland, it was Ihab's father who eventually offered them space in his home for a proposed interfaith, multicultural kindergarten.

Ihab Balha
Each class was to be led by both Hebrew speaking and Arabic speaking teachers.  The children were to be instructed using the Waldorf method, and taught the rudiments of all three of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Not in order to convert, but rather to develop in their young charges an understanding and appreciation for "the other."  The program has grown to five schools in Jaffa, as well as two in Galilee. They've been at it now for well over a decade, and some of their first students are now leaders in the peace and reconciliation movement.

They call their organization The Orchard of Abraham's Children.  And the fruits of their efforts are boys and girls better equipped to move through the world not in fear, but rather with an appreciation for people of different backgrounds.  And that, as I said, in a land like Israel, is lifesaving.  Indeed, learning to live peacefully with those who are different is lifesaving in any place and time.

Ihab Balha

(Photo Credit:  Elaine Pace)

Israel, Part IX: Along the Border with Gaza

"This is my home," she said as she stood near the border with the Gaza Strip.  And then she repeated it for emphasis.  "This is my home."  And as we met with Tsamaret Zamir in the collective community called Moshav Netir HaAsara, we realized how threatened her home and the homes of so many others, on both sides of the border, were in danger.  Just days before our visit the community had spent hours in their bomb shelters as over 600 rockets were fired from Gaza into areas near the Gaza Strip.  And air strikes had driven Palestinians into their sheltering places if they had them.  In fact, we almost didn't go, but a cease fire earlier this week allowed for us to take the trip.

The hope for peace, real lasting peace, is shared by so many Israelis and so many Palestinians as well.  Mothers like Tsameret, she has four children, simply want a safe place, a serene place to raise their children.  Tsameret is not naive, she understands that sorting the whole situation out is a political nightmare.  But she holds up hope that it can really happen.  That one day her home will be a place of safety.

And to that end, Tsamaret is doing something to dramatically illustrate her hopes and dreams.  She is, you see, an artist, a ceramic artist.   And she has made it her mission to invite thousands of folks to come to the border, and use the tiles she has created to make a mosaic mural on the very walls that provides a measure of temporary safety to her community.  The wall faces Gaza, and the message she has enabled there is bright, colorful tiles, can be seen from "the other side."  Salaam, it reads.  Shalom.  Peace.

Visitors from around the world have come to add their mark to the wall.  "I've discovered people are all so much alike," she told our group of Christians and Jews.  Then each of us were given choice of many lovely tiles, some with doves, others with peace symbols, flowers, words of hope, or just splotches of color.  On the back of it we were asked to write our message of peace.  Our prayer.  Our hope.

Each one from our group carefully chose their tile, wrote their message, and then were given a good dab of adhesive so that they could place it on the wall--anywhere they wished.  Our folks walked to the wall in many spots, and adhered their tiles.  Some uttering a silent prayer. Others, no doubt with a smile.  And still others with a sigh.

As I wrote on my tile I kept thinking of the song "Let There Be Peace on Earth," and so I wrote my prayer, a line from that lovely tune.  "And let it begin with me."  And then I glued it onto a four foot tall letter 'E' in the word peace.
As we prepare to go to our own homes, I am sure we will all remember Tsamaret, and her fervent wish for peace.  And I pray that we will all let it begin, each one of us, "with me."  For that is always where peace must begin--with each and everyone of us doing our part to create a world where all people can feel safe in their own homes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Israel, Part VIII: Simply Mary

One of the most controversial doctrines held by much of the Christian church is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Today we focused some of our attention on it as we toured the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  While the current structure only dates back to 1959 it was built on a site that has been used by Christians to commemorate the life of Jesus since the first century.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have place a great deal more emphasis on Mary than we Protestants.  That has been, for the most part, our loss.  For while we might not be comfortable elevating Mary to such a high position (Queen of Heaven) as our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, what we know of Mary is worth emulating.  For whether or not we believe in a literal virgin birth, the simple fact that she was willing to take on the risks that came with her role simply because who was called to do so by God makes her praiseworthy.

But Mary is confusing for most Protestants, and certainly for most of our Jewish brothers and sisters.  The various theological doctrines that have developed around her--immaculate conception, virgin birth, assumption, and so on--have only muddied the waters for those who are unwilling or unable to affirm something simply because it is declared to be true.  Maybe we would do well to strip away such doctrines and look at things like the wisdom of Mary as she raises this unusual child, the patience of Mary as she tries to keep pace with his wandering lifestyle, the courage of Mary as she watches him be crucified.  These are traits we can all seek to emulate. 

The "we" in these Israel blogs!  A really wonderful group of Jews and Christians!  This photo taken at Caesarea today after our time in Nazareth.

The photo at the beginning of today's blog is of an icon displayed at the spot where the Annunciation is said to have happened.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Israel, Part VII: Vigilance at the Border--and Far Beyond

Our journey today took us to the highest city in Israel, Safed (Tzfat).  Considered one of the four holy cities of Israel (along with Hebron, Tiberius and Jerusalem) it is the center for Jewish mysticism and the study of kabbalah.

Kabbalah is built on the idea that divine love is always present, and that love is the source of all creation.  Our task is to be willing to explore the scriptural texts to discover their deepest meanings, which are often hidden beneath the surface.  As we grow spiritually, we become ever more adept at seeing that ever present love, and in turn, participating in it.

One of our stops in Safed was the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art.  There we not only had the chance to view the beautiful art, we also were privileged to hear artist Avraham Lowenthal (pictured above)discuss how his art grows out of his practice of kabbalah.

The work he is explaining in the photograph above is called "Ein Ode Milvado"--"there is nothing but God."  In explaining it Avraham notes:  "This verse of the Torah is a powerful meditation to remind ourselves of God's presence in every situation . . . . Realizing that eternal goodness is the source of everything we go through is, of course, so difficult.  Kabbalah discusses the way of developing this higher awareness."

This afternoon we went to the Golan Heights and after a bumpy jeep ride, experienced a presentation from a former member of the Israeli military about the struggles and battles along the northern border.  It was very dramatic, and contextualized by the abandoned military facility where it was told near the border with Syria.  It is because of this history, he said, that we must be ever vigilant.

I have little doubt that that need for vigilance is real.  I am sure that being aware of potential dangers is necessary.  But I am equally as certain that if we are to ever reach a time when such vigilance is no longer needed, it will require us all to grow in awareness of the ever present reality kabbalists like Avraham Lowenthal call divine love.

Israel, Part VI: A Place at the Table

Sunday morning took us to church.  And whereas Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ and Bat Yam--Temple of the Islands worship in a building less than forty years old, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem worships in a building which has sections dating back hundreds of years.

It is a fascinating church--not the building, though that is fascinating too--but rather the people.  It has four congregations within its family rooted in four different languages.  Arabic, Danish, English and German.  We worshipped with the English speaking congregation.  The pastor of that congregation is the Rev. Carrie Ballenger, an American.  She has served there for five years.  She offered a powerful sermon based on John 21.

Many of our folks--Christians and Jews--mentioned being especially moved by the closing hymn.  It can be found, apparently, in the Presbyterian hymnal, and included a verse or two added by Pastor Ballenger.  The closing stanza offers a vision of the world that can motivate all people of faith:

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.

For me personally, the opportunity to share at the communion table, there in the middle of Jerusalem, was especially moving.  As a Christian I find it to be a powerful symbol of freedom.   The whole experience served as a lovely counterpoint to our time at Har-El, the Reform Jewish synagogue where we worshipped on Friday night.  We do not need to be the same! For the Holy One we worship loves us all, and treasures each act of worship that is motivated by desire to honor the Source of Life Itself, each act of worship that brings us closer to that table where there is no fear and all are truly free.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Israel, Part V: Wrestling with Questions atop Masada

Out in the middle of the Judean desert there are the remains of an old fortress resting high atop a mountain with sheer cliffs on all sides.  It is called Masada.  It was built by Herod the Great, who ruled the land of the Jews in the last decades before the birth of Jesus.  He was a cruel, megalomaniac of a ruler, but he was also a master builder, who greatly expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, and built a palace on the shores of the Mediterranean.  But Masada may be his most impressive work.

Today getting there usually involves either taking a long arduous hike up the Snake Path or riding in a cable car.  We took the later route.  At the summit we heard the story of a time after Herod, when the Jews made there last stand against the Romans follwoing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  One thousand men, women, and even children, holed up and for a time withstood the assaults of the thousands of Roman soldiers who surrounded the mountain.  But finally they could hold out no longer.  They faced a choice:  be captured and enslaved, or take their own lives.  Having vowed to serve no one but God, the chose to take their own lives.  Lots were drawn and ten men were given the horrific task of killing their comrades before until just one was left to bring to an end his own life.  They had burned everything--weapons, possessions, leaving only a store of food so that the Romans would realize they had not starved them out.  Instead, they had chosen their own fate.

As we talked about the story, as we considered what we might do if faced with such a choice ourselves, we found ourselves wrestling with ethical questions including such things as engaging in assisted suicide in the face of painful and terminal cancer.  Which is better--to boldly resist enslavement, regardless of the cost, or to cling to the understanding that as long as there is life there is hope? Rabbi Fuchs and I left the question open for our fellow travelers.  For each one of us must decide such things for ourselves.  Yes, consulting our sacred texts for guidance, looking to history and tradition for examples to emulate, praying for the wisdom to discern God's will.  But in the end, such decisions are ours and ours alone.

Photo:  Steve Fuchs and John Danner on Masada, followed by other fellow travelers.
(Photo Credit:  Roy Gibson)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Israel, Part IV: Bearing Witness

Yad Vashem is Israel's Holocaust Museum.  It is a beautifully done tribute to the six million Jews who were killed in places like Auschwitz.  From the architectural design to the carefully researched exhibits, it tells a cohesive story.

Our Israeli guide, Michal, did a very fine job of walking us through the exhibits and pulling together the various pieces of the narrative.  Among other things she highlighted the two constrasting solutions to the problems created by the fact that ever since the destruction of Jerusalem the Jews have been a wandering people, unable to find acceptance in a permanent place to call home.  One solution, proposed by Theodore Herzl and other nineteenth century Zoionists, was to create a homeland in Palestine for the Jews.  A return to their ancient land.  The other solution, the so-called final solution, was proposed by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis--genocide.

Michal pointed out the three step process which the Nazis engaged in as they sought to eliminate the Jews.  First, identify. Second, isolate.  Third, exterminate.  How diligently we must guard against such a thing happening again.  We must speak out when any group is being singled out.  We must speak out against anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice anytime they appear. But more than that, we muse be willing to take steps to prevent it happening in the first place.

This trip bears witness to the joint effort ourt two congregations are making towards that end.  And Friday night we had the opportunity to share that witness with the members of Congregation Har-El, a Reform Jewish Congregation here in Jerusalem.  We so appreciated their hospitality. My friend and co-leader Rabbi Steve Fuchs gave a powerful sermon on God's love of diversity.  I was also offered an opportunity to share a few words.  It was a very moving experience for all of us.

We don't do it perfectly.  But I am proud to be part of this ongoing effort (over twenty-five years now) to live together as two congregations.  It can be done.  It really can be done.  And I think when we do it we are making our small contribution to creating a world where a holocaust cannot happen again.  The work is far from over, but what we do does indeed count.

(Photo Credit:  Janice Chaddock)

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Israel, Part III: Food for Thought

This was an amazing day--many steps, many stairs, many tired folks!  We focused on sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem related to the story of Jesus.  Our day began in Bethlehem, where we visited the Church of the Nativity, located on the spot where Jesus is said to have been born, and finished up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he is said to have been buried.

We also spent time on the Mount of Olives.  There we viewed the ancient Jewish Cemetery that covers the hillside, reviewed the story of Palm Sunday, and visited the Garden of Gethsemane.

The Garden is a lovely space, surrounded by an iron fence.  The word Gethsemane means "oil press"--reflecting the fact that it is filled with olives trees, the source of olives for olive oil.  Some of the trees in the garden are very, very old--one is purported to go back to the time of Jesus.

The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Jesus prayed on the night he was arrested.  It was a very human prayer as he faced the prospect of his own death.  "If it is your will, Father, remove this cup from me--but not my will, but yours."  The story raises many difficult questions about discerning the will of God--and just what God wills!  Much food for thought.

Next to the garden is the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations, sometimes called the Basilica of the Agony.  The current building was built in the twentieth century and consecrated in 1924.  But it rests on the foundations of two earlier church buildings, dating back to the thirteenth and fourth centuries.

I couldn't help but chuckle at the unintended meaning of a sign posted on the outside walls of the Basilica.

Yes, I realize they are talking about tour guide patter, but heaven help us if we ever take such directions more literally! We must be forever seeing to understand and explain the faith!  Yes, at times it may come down to mystery, but that shouldn't mean we should check our brains at the church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) door!  No hats or caps?  That's another matter!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Israel, Part II: An Old Prayer, A New Kippah, and a Hope for Peace

I prayed today at the Western Wall--the last remaining part of the Second Temple after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans.  It is considered the most sacred site in all of Judaism.

I wore my new kippah (yarmulke) as I stood at the wall in prayer.  It is the traditional head covering men wear for prayer in Judaism.  I own a kippah.  I don't wear it often, but when we share worship with Temple Bat Yam, and in other similar setting I do.  And since we were going to be at the Western Wall, and then later in the week at Shabbat services at a Reform Temple here in Jerusalem, I decided to get a new one in the Jewish Quarter.  I mentioned this to my friend and co-leader on this trip Rabbi Steve Fuchs as we walked into the Jewish Quarter. A few minutes later he appeared at my side holding out a beautifully woven one, and said, "Here, try it on."  It is a most lovely gift!

When I prayed at the Wall I used several of the prayers I recite every day.  Prayers that have deep meaning for me personally.  I included the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer, the Third Step Prayer, as well as several personal intercessions for my wife Linda, my mother and sister, the rest of my family, a parishioner who is grieving deeply a recent death, my former daughter-in-law's father who is very ill, and others.  I also prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.

Throughout the day we had been reminded of the underlying struggles in the Middle East, most especially in and around Jerusalem. And as I prayed I remembered the "we" version of the Serenity Prayer.  Instead of the usual "God grant me the serenity."  the "we" version begins "God grant us the serenity," and continues on using the first person plural.

It is an appropriate prayer for our world as we struggle to find solutions to seemingly impossible situations like that found in Jerusalem.  Because it really take all of us working together to solve the deep seated problems presented when different cultures and religions attempt to co-exist.  If we ant peace, we need to be accepting of others with their different beliefs, courageous in addressing the changes we need to make in our own attitudes, and wise enough to sort it all out.

So I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem in these words:  "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference."

Thanks Steve, for the new kippah, and for your friendship.  May our congregations continue to witness to the reality that the dream of peaceful co-existence is more than just a dream!