Rev. Chandler Stokes
This morning at dawn I saw the last finger-nail of the waning moon. Immediately, I was transported back to a time about 12 years ago, when I was visiting my mother on her 90th birthday. My mission in going to see her that weekend was to be who I was at 50, not who I was at 5 or 15--to give her that self and not juvenile one. You know how it is: when we go home we fall back into the roles we had growing up, and we abandon any growth we may have made in the interim. I found that role of my childhood and adolescence deeply fearful and confining, but that one weekend, at the age of 50, I finally found a deeper keel, a way to be who I had become in relation to my family—and not simply who I had always been. On my trip to Israel I learned this insight about humility from the Jewish tradition of Mussar: No more than my space, no less than my place.
We can become so trapped in the habits of our hearts. I was once told that people will gladly repeat the past again and again, even if it is the most miserable past, even agony, rather than step into a new future. And they repeat the past, because they know it. They are comfortable with it. It’s the only thing they have known. And the future… the future is unknown and frightening because they have never seen before…, even if that future holds out the promise of something beautiful and wonderful. Freedom, the potential freedom that the future offers is often terrifying.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
Last Tuesday, I was in Caesarea-Philippi in Israel at a waterfall that currently bears the name Banias Falls. It is near the spot where Jesus asked the question of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Our guide, Uri, said, “If any steps could be kissed on our pilgrimage, here is where they would be. Anyone who walked through here would have come here to these falls. If someone were walking through this area, they would have come here. It’s the most beautiful spot along this stretch of the river. It really makes sense that Jesus, if he were in this area at all, would have come here, and maybe have gone swimming like I did when I came here when I lived near here." I admit, I felt a twinge of the sacred and thought: "As real as the place where Jesus walked is this question, asked to each of us: Who do you say that I am?" This is our question about our real lives.
I began thinking that this trip would be simply about our witness: Jews, Christians, and Muslims traveling together in peace. It was that. It will continue to be that, but traveling together is an opportunity truly to deepen relationships. So, it is really a whole lot more. In the short run, it seems to be about relationships. Maybe in the long run too.
Thanks be to God.
When we visited the site of the Dome of the Rock, our companion, Imam Sahibzada, was as animated and ebullient as ever. His joy throughout this journey was greater than anyone’s, it seems. And there was just a moment when he asked Rabbi Ellen to take his photograph in front of the Dome. She did it gladly. Their mutual smiles were genuine, heartfelt, and full of gratitude in the giving and receiving. It was just a moment among many, but emblematic of our journey.
The site of the Dome of the Rock is greatly contested among some: some Muslims claim that the Jewish Temple never stood there, and some Jews in Jerusalem have made sure that as many Jews as possible can live as close to the Temple Mount as possible, challenging the Muslim claim and putting facts on the ground to contradict it. Even how one names the place is a source of tension. And yet, among us, a devout Muslim and a devout Jew, supported one another in their pilgrimage. Our religious convictions were not a source of conflict, but a source of mutual support.
Thanks be to God.
A day or two later, Bob, my Lutheran colleague, and I were sitting at a rooftop restaurant for lunch—nothing fancy; it just happened to be in the Old City of Jerusalem with a great view of the city. We were slack-jawed at the view and at the truth that he and I… were in Jerusalem. We were reflecting on the significant moments of the trip. It was a long list; we didn’t finish, but one thing was clear. It was this. We had gone to worship at a Lutheran Church in the Old City that morning. The lectionary gospel text was the story of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum. And that particular story had been the center point of our time in Capernaum just a few days before. So, when the preacher, a wonderfully gifted woman from the States, read the text, we laughed at the synchronicity of the reading with our experience. The one clear thing: we will never hear the text quite the same way again; we will share this deep connection to it and to one another, and we will never be strangers to one another again.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
Westminster Youth Group
"Since Fall, our liturgy has included the line, 'And so you may live connected to God, your neighbor, and your own truest life, may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.'" In Sunday morning worship and Sunday evening youth group, we've been exploring our deep need for connection. It only made sense then that our Youth Sunday theme would be inspired by our year-long focus. Join us this Sunday for worship planned and led by our middle school and high school youth as we wonder together how we are being drawn deeper into relationship with God, our neighbor, and our truest self."
It’s so very difficult to keep up with my own daily life here in Israel, let alone find a way to put into a few words what any of the many experiences here have meant. Every day seems to have four to six components—and those are just the planned ones! Even though I know that we are nearing the end of our time here—and it has flown by—it feels like it has been at least a month since we left.
The following is just one day's experience:
Yesterday was a particularly long day. We left at 6:15 a.m. for Harem esh-Sharif (the site of Mohammed's ascension to heaven) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque; thus, the Dome of the Rock and the site of the ancient Jewish First and Second Temples, and we were first in line to go through the checkpoints leading up to this holy and contested site.
The day before, while we were in the huge complex of buildings, holy places, and archeological digs, we heard some of the history of the Jewish and Muslim claims on the places at the top of this rise in Jerusalem.
When we entered the entered the great plaza, our friend, Sahibzada, entered the mosque to pray while we walked around outside and took in more of the history and reflected for ourselves on the meaning of this place. There is so much more to say about my own experience there, but that was only the start to the day.
From there we went around outside to the Western Wall, where we were invited to pray. I was accompanied by one of the rabbis in our group to stand, touch, and pray at the 2,000-year-old supporting wall which was underneath the Second Temple. Then, we walked from there to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which included our visit to the Davidson Center and the Southern Wall Excavations. We were again under the insightful tutelage of our guide, Uri.
Then we met Rabbi Noa Sattath, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, near the campus of Hebrew Union College, where she talked about the complexities of the religious pluralism in Israel, a country where there is no barrier between church and state. She was brilliant, incisive and committed to being a part of building a just Israel. Her work has a long trajectory and her commitment was palpable.
After a couple of stops in Jerusalem to look at and hear about some of the political background to the areas “behind the fence,” we went into Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. It was moving and complex, as it is a site “hosted” by three different churches: The Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic Church. As well as being the traditional site of the birth of Jesus, it is also the site where St. Jerome is said to have written his translation of the Bible.
While we were in Bethlehem, we also got to hear from Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A'wad, who are central members of the Shorashim Project (also known as Roots) in that city. They are committed to peacemaking, reconciliation, respect, and communication between Jewish settlers and Palestinian Israelis—a very, very difficult (even seemingly impossible) prospect, toward which they are making inch-by-inch progress.
After a late dinner, we got back to our hotel at about 10:30 p.m.
That is just the surface of what we experienced in one day in Israel. The Temple Mount and the Church of the Nativity were sufficiently moving all on their own—for our own experiences, and the experiences of our co-travelers, but in between were profound conversations about contemporary issues of peace, justice and community transformation. There is deep conversation with other religious leaders over the theology of Incarnation, pilgrimage, holy places, and formation.
This is just the surface. It will be good to talk to you about it all when I get home. I thank you again for the privilege it is to be on this journey. Great blessings to you all!
To call our leader "our tour guide" is far too small a metaphor for his role. Uri, the son of a rabbi, has encyclopedic knowledge of his country, Israel. And he is a very good student of the Bible. He is a Reform Jew, passionate, open-hearted, honest, and generous. He is offering a coherent and often unapologetic story of Israel, as well as a gracious and welcoming introduction to our representatives of three faiths. He is a gem.
What of the myriad things I have seen can I tell you about?
The small boat discovered in the mud along the shore of the lake, which turned out to be a fishing vessel from the first century. It was carefully conserved, reconstructed, and now holds a primary place in a museum right near our kibbutz. Very clear evidence of the very years of Jesus’ life in Galilee. The boat could hold ten, with clearly place enough to fall sleep in the back! Big, stable: amazing work of conserving it. And, as Uri says, “Sometimes here you don’t need to close your eyes to imagine the past, but you can open your eyes to see it.”
One enduring image from Capernaum was the short distance between the synagogue and what was claimed as Peter’s house, already a pilgrimage site in the second century. It was literally a stone’s throw from the synagogue. Mark 1, which references both sites, is newly alive for me. I went down to the water there and touched the Sea of Galilee. There was the sounds of birds. People talking and making the noise of work. It’s a real life now. It was a real life then.
Don’t miss your real life. It is all around you and it is infused with holiness. It is, my friends. It is.
Grace and peace,
This week, Rev. Chandler Stokes is traveling to Israel with other local faith leaders. He will be sharing his thoughts here and on our social media pages in the coming days.
The first time the four of us clergy got together, we took enthusiastically to Rabbi Michael Schadick’s suggestion to perhaps dispense with our titles when talking to each other. And now already it feels awkward to call Sharif (from the Islamic Cultural Center) “Dr. Sahibzada.” In public, he prefers simply to be called "Sahibzada." And, when you meet him, please use that name for my new friend. We were only perhaps an hour into our first day of the tour and our guide, Uri, inviting us to introduce ourselves, said, "With their complexity and seriousness, these conversations require our being on a first-name basis."
I’m writing from the JFK international airport in New York City on a long layover. Rev. Bob Linstrom (of Trinity Lutheran Church) is meeting his NY-based son for a time, which left Sharif and me to head to our gate together. Evidently, B41 is whence all the Tel Aviv flights depart. It makes me wonder how holy that gate is for those heading to the holy land. Imagining the thousands and thousands whose lifelong dream has been to finally walk there, it’s not a stretch to think that those steps, even here in New York, have taken on a sacred quality. Imagining the world as already infused with holiness seems already a good place to begin this journey.
On the way to our gate, Sharif and I talked about our mutual experience of the conservative nature of the British educational system, which we have both tasted: he far more than I. We even found overlapping parts of our journeys: Sharif studied in Glasgow for a year; I studied in Edinburgh for a year. We agreed that the English spoken in Edinburgh is in fact decipherable, whereas Glaswegian is a genuine challenge.
But the most eye-brightening part of the easy conversation was about God and religion. Already, before we've even crossed the ocean, I feel like—“why did I get to be on this trip with these gracious souls?”
More soon. Thank you for the privilege of allowing me on this journey.
Grace and peace,
Rev. David Baak
Mark 1.21-28 has Jesus teaching so persuasively that people recognize the intrinsic authority of his words. But, the miracle of casting out the demon from the man who completely disrupts their service makes an equally authoritative statement about the transformative power of hope. It is the kind of hope that, as Bryan Stevenson suggests in Just Mercy, “...that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future….” It is the kind of hope “that makes one strong.” It also makes for compelling leadership.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
In the second reading this week, two disciples state their bold willingness to follow Jesus. And Jesus asks them, “Can you really walk this path with me?” And they say, “Sure.” little knowing where that path will take them. And yet, their willingness, their partially informed, imperfect, shaky, “Sure,” is enough for God to work with…
We invite you to take the time to review our comprehensive 2017 Annual Report! Please plan to join us this Sunday for our annual congregation meeting following the second service. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend. We'll celebrate our ministries, vote on the election of officers, remember the saints who died in 2017, and discuss finances. Limited print copies of the annual report are available. If you would like further detailed information, please contact David Baak at firstname.lastname@example.org or (616)717-5544.
Samuel comes on the scene at a time when "The word of the Lord was rare” and "visions were not widespread.” The emphasis is on the dimming light, the loss of vision, when God shows and speaks a new word. That word has to do with an ending: the judgment of the house of Eli. But sometimes endings are the hardest thing to imagine, and the most necessary thing for a new world to be born.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
In the particular way that Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, the information, the message that Jesus receives from the heavenly voice is, at first and for a long time, something only he is given, that only he knows. The voice speaks directly to him; he’s the one that sees the heavens split and the dove. That can be the way we experience that baptismal message too. We are often required to trust something that is not verified by many other source—maybe not everybody thinks that we’re a child of God; we sure don’t get treated like that all the time. It makes it difficult to believe the message, given all the other messages that we are constantly given from elsewhere.
Rev. Jeremy Bork
In the face of holiday busyness, to-do lists, and New Year's resolutions, our texts this Sunday invite us to resist the temptation of doing so we might simply be. Rather than adding more to our lives this year, what might God be inviting us to release? How might our slowing down lead us into deeper communion with God, neighbor, and self?