Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas in Bethlehem

I have been thinking a lot lately about what is holy. Our family is on a wonderful vacation in a place often referred to as the Holy Land, visiting Bethlehem and Jericho and Nazareth and Galilee, wading in the Jordan River and the Red Sea, wandering through Jerusalem. I worshipped in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, listened to Orthodox chanting as I entered Jesus' baptismal waters, visited the Western Wall of the Temple and added my pleas and tears to the prayers of thousands of years. We swam in the waters that Moses parted; we floated on the salt of the Dead Sea; we wandered through the desert on camels, just a few days before Epiphany. It is holy. So very holy.

And yet, much of the holiness comes from those around me. We are with our very good friends, who live here, who struggle with the very real injustice and oppression in this land that has known extreme beauty and extreme tragedy. They have lived here for over three years, seeking to bring peace through education and understanding, seeking to live love among those who struggle and suffer. All around me, there are people who are trying to build bridges, to create hope, to bring reconciliation to people who are all too familiar with conflict and loss. The holiness of this land lies not only in what has happened, but in what will happen, in the hope that will not die.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries." I think it is true that this land is holy, but I think it is also true that all land is holy. And I think it is true that the people here are holy, but I think it is also true that all people are holy. God has touched each inch of land in this world, every drop of water, every grain of sand. And God is within every stained and imperfect person, every soul longing for hope, every spirit aching for redemption, every heart yearning for love. We take off our shoes on holy land, we come to a place that is filled with God, and we realize that earth is, indeed, crammed with heaven.

It was an amazing blessing to experience Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. But it wasn't just the old stones and the stars in the sky. It wasn't just the crowds of people, or the beating, jubilant drums. It wasn't just the phenomenal worship service, people singing familiar hymns in four different languages. It was Jesus. It was this child, sent to this land, sent to poor people, sent to live in the midst of oppression and pain and vulnerability. It was this God, who chose to become flesh, to infuse the world with holiness, to show us all how sacred and worthy and blessed human life can be. It was my faith, this reminder, that no matter where I am in the world - in Zambia, or Bethlehem, or in the United States - this Jesus, this God made flesh, will infuse my life with holiness, no matter what, no matter where. I just need to see it. I just need to take off my shoes.

It is the stranger at customs who spoke God's words without knowing it. It is baking cookies with a loving friend. It is the man at church who always cleans the dishes. It is groups of people who protest injustice. It is sitting quietly with a sick, tired grandmother. It is loud and crazy meals full of screaming children. It is a breeze in a silent cemetery. It is horns honking and snow falling and laughing so hard you cry. It is tears that fall so hard your nose runs and your heart aches and your stomach churns and you weep until you have fallen down, and somehow you realize that you have the energy to stand up again. It is the people who help you up.

Holy Land. Holy People. Holy God. Holy, holy, holy. I am so grateful to this God-made-flesh for infusing the world with all that is sacred, for infusing my life with hope and love and joy, for infusing us all with the spark of divinity. What an awesome God.

And now, photos....

In Manger Square in Bethlehem

In Shepherd's Field outside Bethlehem

In a cave at Shepherd's Field

Making cookies

Overlooking Jericho

In a prayer cave at a monastery

Temptation Mountain

In the Jordan River

On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho

Outside Old Jerusalem

The old city walls of Jerusalem

Overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Damascus Gate

Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

Christmas morning in Jerusalem

Saturday, December 13, 2014


The water was pouring down, and I was floating in the deep currents of the Zambezi River. During rainy season, no one could do this. But the waterfall was low, and we were able to raft out, underneath one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Victoria Falls is breath taking, but I didn’t realize what it would feel like to have my breath literally taken away. After hiking down to the boiling point, where the waters of the Zambezi gather into rapids, we climbed over sharp, slippery rocks, across narrow, high ledges, and lowered ourselves into the raft. Paddling with all our strength against the current, we arrived at another mountain of slippery, enormous boulders. It was time to climb again. I fell, and emerged, bloody and bruised, on the other side of the mountain. Then, it was time to descend into the water.

We swam against the current, and arrived underneath the enormous waterfall. Our guide directed us onwards, until we swam to the point where the water poured down on us from three hundred and fifty feet. Everyone else made their way underneath the waterfall, but I was terrified. Alone in the water, I knew I had to follow, and so I continued to struggle, and joined the others underneath the flood. “I promise, there is space to breathe,” the guide assured me. 

Holding my breath, I entered the cascading falls, and bumped up against my companions. Water was everywhere and the mist surrounding us allowed little space for oxygen. “I can’t breathe...I can’t do this...I need out...” I was stuck in a tiny space, floating underneath the waterfall, unable to fill my lungs with air. But there was no way out, except to go underneath the falls again. “Just breathe,” the guide said.

And so I did. I inhaled air and felt my lungs fill with oxygen. Again and again, I sucked in air, and I realized that I would be okay. I could breathe. I could survive. And as I looked around, I saw a million cubic meters of water plummeting over me, and realized that I was in a beautiful place, an amazing place, and I was filled not only with air to breathe, but also with wonder.

After we swam out of the falls, and back towards the enormous boulders, our guide informed us that we would do a rock dive. Upwards we climbed, slipping on sharp stones, until we emerged, twenty-five feet above the Zambezi. The guide demonstrated: three huge steps forward, and then he flew into the air, and plummeted into the waters. Another person followed suit, and then another, and then another. The other guide told me, “You can climb back down to the boat if you are too afraid.” I decided that I would not let fear control me. One, two, three huge steps, and I flew off the rock cliff and into the swirling waters below. I sank down into the river, and emerged, full of laughter. As I paddled back to the raft, I looked around again. The cliffs emerged three hundred and fifty feet above me, and the waters fell with power and beauty. I had done it, and I had survived. I could breathe. I could jump. I could trust.

The days lately have been hard, and there have been times when I thought I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t survive. But I can. And I did. And I will. Sometimes, all you can do is open you mouth, and suck in the air, and know that the will to survive, the power to live, is deep within you. You breathe again and again, until you can look up, and look around, and see the enormous beauty that surrounds you.

I have said good-bye to people that I love lately. I have struggled with decisions that feel impossible. I have wondered if anything I do matters, if my work has meaning, if my life here has had purpose. I have felt my breath catch and wondered if I am out of air. And then I breathe. And then I look around. And then I see the enormous love, the enormous hope, the enormous resilience of those around me. And I know that beauty will win. I know that we can breathe, through the pain and through the fear and through the impossible good-byes.

We aren’t enough. We hear the stories of the racism and death and cruelty and oppression. We live these stories sometimes. Just feeling like I can’t breathe brings to mind Eric Garner and his last moments of life. It may make us all feel like we can’t breathe, like we can’t move forward, like life is just full of cruelty and despair. But we do breathe, and we do look around, and we do see that there are people full of love and courage, ready to breathe hope and justice and transformation into the world. And we realize that we can be those people, too, that we can be enough.

We keep on breathing. We keep on hoping. We keep on surviving. And in so doing, we can breathe love into the world. We can breathe hope into the world. We can breathe life into the world. We can be the beauty. We can be the breath. We can. I can. You can. No matter what waters try to pull us under, we will emerge. Again and again, we will emerge. And no one, and nothing, can keep us down. 

God willing, we will keep on breathing, until we see the beauty beyond the bruises, beyond the floods. Until we are the beauty.