The Russia mission group has been back in Charlotte for almost two weeks, and I’ve been grateful for all of the people who’ve stopped me and asked, “How was Russia?”
It’s a straightforward question, but I find myself having difficulty knowing how to answer. To say that the trip was good is true, but it’s also not an adequate description nor is it entirely accurate. Our time in Russia was good, and it was also challenging, hard, and inspiring.
For me, the trip to Russia was a practice of not being in control. Complications and hiccups in our travel became the norm: Our luggage was lost, the daily schedules and meals were set and made by other people, and the Russian-English language barrier required a translator for most conversations. (The entirety of my Russian vocabulary now includes ten words, one of which is the very helpful and useful Russian word for “napkin.”)
As foreign as all of that felt, it reminded me that I’m not meant to be in control. God is the Creator, and I’m the creature; Jesus is the teacher, and I’m the disciple; the Spirit moves as she will, and I am to pay attention.
Our Russian sisters and brothers at Hope Baptist understand this ordering of the world differently – maybe even better – than we do. They live in a community that doesn’t welcome or understand them and doesn’t really want to either. The Russian government threatens to restrict how and where they worship, and if they want to have their own church building, the members are the ones who have to build it. They share stories of their lives – stories of sick children and uncertain finances, stories of alcoholic relatives and lost jobs, stories of new homes and new church members. Their stories are punctuated by the refrain of “Slava Bogu” – “Praise God!”
What our Russian friends seem to trust more readily than I often do is the truth that life is uncertain but God is not.
We spent the last few days of our time in Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have a very different feel to them than the cities, towns, and villages we visited in Ryazan. It was eye-opening (and frustrating) to see the incredible wealth of palaces where the royals had lived, knowing how poor the majority of the country had been. It was the giant gold crucifix in the cathedral at the Hermitage that really got me. That crucifix seemed to be such an obvious indicator that Russian royalty, while calling themselves Christian and even attending worship services, didn’t get the heart of the Gospel, which is so much about the poor and the oppressed.
I think Jesus would’ve been disappointed by that gold crucifix, knowing that there were and are people who go hungry every day in that country.
Life in Russia is complex. Faith in Russia is complex. The same is true in the United States where it’s very easy to call yourself a Christian. What a gift it is, then, that we’ve been called into this relationship with Russian sisters and brothers in Christ who challenge and encourage us as people who call Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Dancing to Israeli folk music while on a boat in the Sea of Galilee.
Reading Matthew 6 (“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow not reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.”) while sitting on the hill where Jesus shared the Beattitudes.
Spending 15 minutes in silence in the garden of Gethsemane.
Singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on a hilly field outside of Bethlehem.
Remembering the pain of a people who withstood an attempt to exterminate them.
Experiencing the dissonance of Palestinians who live as separate (but not equal) in the land.
Feeling the tension in our shoulders while walking through the chaos of the Temple Mount.
Bombarded by the sounds of minarets calling Muslims to prayer, of Jews reading the Torah at the Western Wall, and the bells of the Church of Holy Sepulchre ringing in the hour.
Realizing that spirituality is impossible to separate from the reality of politics, that faith is impossible to disentangle from conflict, and that hope almost always grows from the ground of despair.
This has been our experience in a land we hold to be holy.
And not just us.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart…Bind them as a sign on your hand. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
It has been almost a week since we embarked on this experience and so the novelty of saying “today we go to Bethlehem” has slightly lessened but still I was looking forward to this day as much as any. We crossed the border into the area governed by the Palestinians and met our Palestinian Christian guide, Eilas, who would take us through the sites of Bethlehem.
Highlights of Bethlehem: Jill Olmstead reads Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus while shafts of light stream through the dome of the chapel at Shepherds’ Field, much like the shepherds may have seen the light of the star; our group offers “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We slowly journey through the Church of the Nativity, ducking through the four-foot Door of Humility, waiting for our turn before descending into the grotto where we place our hands on the fourteen-point star marking the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.
Back in Jerusalem: we make our way to the Upper Room, curiously decorated by Arabic markings from the time the building was a mosque – so emblematic of the mixed up history of Jerusalem. The room is crowded with groups, one singing Amazing Grace, one reading scripture in Italian, while we read about the Last Supper and sing “Let Us Break Bread Together.” We view Jewish, Armenian, and Christian Jerusalem all within steps of each other as we make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sandie Barnhouse, our Catholic representative in the group, helps us to understand the Stations of the Cross and we view the “traditional” spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, along with pilgrims of many countries and beliefs. As we place our hands in the spot where the cross may have stood or rub the stone upon which Jesus’ body may have been placed after death, His presence in this place feels very real.
While we long to lose ourselves in the life and ministry of Jesus in beautiful Galilee, Jerusalem awaits to finish the story of terrible death but glorious resurrection. The city still holds this painful/beautiful contrast in balance and I am so thankful to experience it all.
The First Presbyterian Pilgrims are comfortably settled in Jerusalem ,which will be our headquarters for the next several days. On Wednesday morning, we took a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. It seems in Israel that the past is not really past. The thousands of years of Jewish history and traditions are reflected in a current consciousness. Certainly the not very distant Holocaust has had a major role in shaping the Israeli view of the world. The magnitude of the Holocaust horror is beyond words. An especially moving experience for us was the Children’s Memorial part of the museum dedicated to the 1.5 million children that perished at the hands of the Nazis.
After some time for reflection, we journeyed back further in time again. This time we had the opportunity to view archeological evidence of homes dating from the founding of Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago, or approximately the time of King David.
Jerusalem was built on high ground over hills – there is no major waterway that runs through it. There was only one source of water, a spring, in ancient times. We climbed down deeply underground to see an ingenious tunnel system built by the Israelites during the time of King Hezekiah to safeguard the water supply in times of conflict.
As we approached the Temple Mount at the southwest corner of the old city, images of modern Jerusalem caught our eye. Muslim ladies, heads covered but with faces shown, waiting for a bus – young Israeli soldiers with guns slung patrolling some areas, young Orthodox Jews garbed in traditional black clothing running to appointments, a Roman Catholic monk, a group of American tourists looking, well, American, a lone horse looking oddly out of place, narrow streets looking impossible for our bus to get through. Jerusalem is a rich mix of many different sights and sounds.
Our last stop of the day was at the stairs of the Temple Mount where Jesus entered the temple to cleanse it of money changers and merchants. To have the experience of walking once more where Jesus once walked is to make His life on earth come alive within us. The same experience can be appreciated in the ruins of the nearby marketplace area where you can easily imagine the shops ringing the walkway and the crowds cheering Jesus as He rode by.
My reflection is similar to yesterday. We all basically the same whether 3,000 years ago, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. You can see it in the faces of the people we have met and in the faces of the people we see on the streets. Yes, the forces at work for evil and for good exist now as in the past all the way back to the creation. But good news is that God loves us all. We can rejoice in the basic truth that in the end, love will prevail. I believe that more now than ever.
Greetings from the Holy Land. Tuesday was a big day.
We made our way from the Sea of Galilee area down to Jerusalem following the road to Jericho along the Jordan River Valley. The same path that Jesus took those millennia past. Just before leaving the Sea of Galilee we visited the recently discovered Magdala archeological site. The area features a first century A.D. synagogue and marketplace that would have been visited by Jesus. To walk among the remnants of the marketplace and streets where Jesus would also have walked was an amazing historical and spiritual connection for all of us.
As one travels south past Mt Tabor, traditionally identified as the location for Christ’s Transfiguration and where we visited, the landscape changes dramatically from pleasant green rolling fields and wooded hilltops to a suddenly drier, much harsher environment. We entered the West Bank territory at a checkpoint and went to the location on the Jordan River where it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We immersed ourselves, or at least our lower extremities, in the cool (though surprisingly muddy) water and marveled.
The present and the past mingle freely in Israel. As we passed by Jericho and got closer to Jerusalem we could see some Bedouin shepherds with their flocks and a few camels as well. It was quite a thrill to enter Jerusalem and then see the City of David for the first time. We celebrated communion on the Mount of Olives as the sun set and closed in fellowship with “Amazing Grace.” It was a moment of serene comfort. After dinner we were very fortunate to have as our guest speaker the Rev. Kate Taber, a missionary with Presbyterian Church U.S.A. who spoke of the ongoing challenges of missionary work within a very complex cultural and political milieu. Kate expressed a message of hope despite the continual conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Her thoughts reminded me that on this pilgrimage we have been seen in towns and country the remnants of ancient empires. We have heard the stories of wars, exile, captivity, slavery, cruelty. Those empires of conquest by the sword – Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Crusader, Ottoman – are dust, the treasures all gone. They matter not. It is the message of Jesus of love and hope and mercy that endures yet here in this Holy Land and in this world and will do so forever. We can see it in the faces of the people here; we can feel it in ourselves.
As Christians, we have the tools to proclaim a different word to the world’s violence and killing. We have been given scripture that describes the Source of all life and our calling to honor that same gift of life in everyone.
We have the tools of confession and reconciliation that equip us to extend life to others.
We have the cross that proclaims that life is greater than death but does that absolve us of honoring life on earth?
We have the church to tell each other (and the world) what it means to be made “in the image of God,” but do we proclaim this (in word or deed) beyond the sanctuary into a violent and broken world?
It doesn’t seem to be enough to say that we’ve never murdered anyone. It seems that our unique calling as “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” is to honor, bless and enlarge life. Maybe more than what it prohibits, this commandment’s power is in what it proclaims: “life is worth struggling for.”
What do you think? What causes people to murder? How can you respond to where death exists?
The Hebrew word that we translate as “murder” is ratsah. It refers only to criminal acts of killing often committed as revenge or a form of retributive justice. Using the term ratsah, the sixth commandment prohibits taking the law into one’s own hands and prevents that which threatens the sanctity and security of a community. Read more deeply, the sixth commandment speaks to more than just the one pulling the trigger.
As scholars continue to debate the essence of the commandment, one such Rabbi had his own interpretation, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:21-22).
Jesus is opening this commandment beyond its face value to uncover the role that you and I play in facing the violence that condemns us all. He is standing in the Jewish tradition that says that because life is a gift from God, each individual’s life is not only sacred but also connected to all other life. Jesus is turning all of the reasons we might have for one “deserving” death back on our own role and responsibility to that individual, to the community and to God for nurturing, preserving and encouraging life in all its forms.
But today is a different world. Sixty percent of all war deaths have occurred in the twentieth century. We have been startled in the twenty-first century by killing fields of the Twin Towers, high schools, elementary schools, movie theaters, marathons (and that is just in the United States). Social scientists and psychologists will tell us that we have become more desensitized to the killing out of gross familiarity and self-preservation. It is simply too familiar to startle us anymore and too much to handle if it did.
While this is understandable, does it numb us to the “image of God” in each perpetrator and victim? Does it absolve us of any responsibility in these killings? How does the sixth commandment speak to us?
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
Aside from the kind of sentimentality we see plastered on the front of Hallmark cards at the commercially manufactured holidays of Mother’s and Father’s Days, the commandment to love our parents is rooted in something deep within our faith tradition: the relationship that God has to creation and the relationship that Jesus has to God the Father.
It is common to think of God as our Father. We follow Jesus’ lead in that regard (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…). We also find maternal language for God. Our own “Brief Statement of Faith” borrows maternal language for God found in Isaiah when it reads: Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child…God is faithful still. Put simply, to honor our parents is a way to honor our God.
So what does honor mean? Before entering the stage of life to which Mark Twain refers in his quote, most of us tend to look up to our parents. We may even put them on a pedestal. To be certain, honoring our parents is different than worshipping our parents.
Best understood, honoring our parents leads us to an unyielding respect and appreciation.
Yet beyond the “what?” of this Commandment, there is the “why?” This is the only Commandment where God gives us a reason for following his law. We are to honor our parents “so that [our] days may be long in the land that the Lord [our] God is giving [us].”
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
At a church I served previously, the Children’s Sermon was a part of every Sunday morning worship service. One year, on Memorial Day weekend, I opened the Children’s Sermon time with a question. “Who can tell me what is special about this weekend?” I asked. (I was hoping, of course, for a comment about Memorial Day.)
Without hesitation, a little boy in front of me said in a confident voice, “GOD!”
No matter where we find ourselves, or what we are doing, what is special about every moment is God. This is an important thing to consider when we come to the Third Commandment. Though most of us see it simply as a prohibition against cursing in God’s name, the truth is that this commandment means much more than that, because our lives mean much more than just what we say or don’t say.