Monday, August 6, 2007

Journeying Through Jordan…

(As I- Alethia- write this we are sitting outside on the roof of the church guesthouse which is really like our own private balcony since it only has access from our room. It’s night time in Amman, the mosques are glowing green, the color of life. Fireworks are exploding quietly on the horizon over the city and Ryan is sitting next to me smoking our arguileh, grape flavored. All is peaceful…).
We arrived in Jordan last Wednesday surprised at how tired we felt. It seemed as though our bodies were releasing some of the tension we have been carrying along with the rest of Lebanon these days. However, we were thankful to learn that today’s elections (presidential elections will follow next month, but this one will help determine the balance of power among the potential presidential candidates) were peaceful despite the speculation of violence. In the days before we left Lebanon there had already been clashes between supporters of opposing candidates so our minds have been very much on this election and the coming months in terms of what they may mean for the country.
We needed some time to rest, relax, and talk about our experiences this summer and Jordan has turned out to be a perfect setting for this. For the past three days we rented a car (a surprisingly easy experience here!) and drove all around the country even venturing 3 hours south to spend a day hiking around Petra. Driving through the desert is a humbling experience, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

The "Treasury" at Petra. They never really stored money in here, but that is what it is called. Anyone seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark?

Petra is called the "Rose City" because of the red tint to the rock. Some of the rock displays amazing color contrasts and swirls as seen here.

Alethia in front of the "Monastery." It also was not used as such, but as a Byzantine church in the 4th cent.

One of the massive and impressive tombs.

All of these structures were carved into the rock by the Nabataeans around the 2nd cent BC, it is absolutely impressive to think of such a feat of engineering.

Bedouin transportation. Actually, now the camels are mostly used for tourists, most Bedouins have traded in the camels for a Toyota pick-up.

A Bedouin home in the Jordanian desert.

Bedouin life in the desert. Notice in the background the vehicles parked on either side of their home. Most Bedouins are shepherds or work agricultural fields.

Besides Petra we visited Jarash (once part of the ancient Decopolis), Madaba (a busy market city with plenty of mosaics to ponder), and Mt. Nebo (or Nibu, Nebu, and Mt. N. depending on the road sign) where Moses supposedly looked out over the “promised land.” As we looked out into the hot desert haze, we noted that what was once the “promised land” is now more conflicted than ever. The Jordanian army has quite a few more checkpoints in the area around the Dead Sea as we discovered on our drive and we wondered if it was because of the proximity to Israel. Our last stop of the day yesterday was the Dead Sea to float around as the heat of the day subsided.

Alethia at the front gate of the city of Jarash. This is the largest city ruins we saw on our trip. The city has two theaters, still used during an annual festival, and many temple ruins throughout.

Ryan on the Colonnade Street.

A mosaic on the floor of a church in Madaba. This famous mosaic depicts the "Holy Land" with major sites. It covers from Southern Lebanon and Egypt, down south of the Dead Sea. The picture shown displays Jerusalem with the city walls.

Ryan and Alethia atop Mt. Nebo. Notice the rod with the snake wrapped around it, which is used to signify when Moses commanded a gold snake to be crafted and set atop a staff to cure the Israelites of snake bites. From this vantage point one can look across the Jordan valley and on a clear day see the Dead Sea and all the way to Jerusalem.

Relaxing in the Dead Sea, its not possible to sink :)

Ryan enjoying a full-body mud-mask of Dead Sea mud. It is suppose to do wonders for the skin.

This proved to be the best sun protection possible.

This is the only time Ryan will be darker than Alethia :)

The challenging part of rinsing off, but at least you don't have to struggle to stay afloat.

The sun setting over the Dead Sea with the mountains of Palestine in the background.

In between driving around the country and cheering ourselves on when we finally made it back into Amman the last day without taking a wrong turn in the city (although after Beirut, it seems amazingly easy to drive, walk, and navigate around Amman—which is still a crazy place, don’t think it’s not), we’ve been enjoying the church guesthouse where we are staying and exploring Jabal Amman, the surrounding neighborhood. We were hoping for a peaceful atmosphere for reflection and this place has been perfect. The call to prayer from the 10 mosques we are surrounded by lends to the atmosphere as well. It’s been good to be in a majority Muslim country that is relatively peaceful and stable after feeling so sensitive to the divisions and tensions among the Christian population and among the Muslim population in Lebanon, not to mention the tensions between each other too. We’ve stopped wondering if the fireworks we also hear every night here are really fireworks, so this is a good sign that we are relaxing!
Although we felt the tension in Beirut, we really enjoyed our time and experiences there and most of all the community we connected with. Being here in Amman has given us space to reflect a bit on that part of our journey although we will still be returning home with many unanswered questions in the back of our minds for further pondering. Amman has given us the space to say goodbye to Lebanon for the time being…we are now looking forward to returning State-side in a few days. We plan to spend Monday exploring more of Amman and packing before we fly out early Tuesday morning. Thank you for your prayers as we travel this week and as we attempt to incorporate our experiences this summer into our lives in the States.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Leaving Lebanon

We are now facing the end of our time here in Lebanon—for now. We are constantly asked if we will return someday to Lebanon. And this is not a question we are prepared to answer yet, although we do feel very connected to the community we have been exposed to here (Christian and Muslim alike). It has been difficult to slowly say goodbye to this community and we have realized, particularly since returning from the camp last week, that Lebanon and the culture has really found its way into both of our souls. Because of the difficulties of the political situation here and the general instabilities in the region at this time, we find ourselves very sad to leave not being assured of lasting peace for people here.
Overall, we want to sum up our experience here this summer as: challenging, tiring, insightful, confusing, beautiful, heartbreaking, enriching, maddening, and spiritually enlightening—even if just because of the questions we are now forced to ask of ourselves and others.
This summer has proved to be a very full and weighted experience. We have been well exposed to a wide variety of approaches to “ministry” (for lack of a better word), to a varied range of visionaries, and now feel well connected in many different areas within this small country. We have struggled and experienced moments of comfort and inspiration. As we try to put words to everything we have encountered here, we ask for prayers as we engage in the journey of processing it all and as we practice articulating ourselves without bitterness, but with passion regarding the political decisions made here and in the West that bear great weight in this part of the world.
We leave for Jordan on Wednesday to spend some time relaxing, exploring the country, and attempting to debrief ourselves a bit about our experience this summer. Your prayers would be appreciated for our safe and smooth travels from here to Jordan and from Jordan to the States, for our experience of re-entry into Western culture, and for our attempts to communicate our experiences through our assigned academic papers and most importantly in our conversations with you, our friends and family.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bedouin Style & The Forest of God

Well, we are back from our week at the kids camp for the Bedouin children. It was a wonderful, but very tiring week. Many nights we only slept for 6 hours after running around with the kids for 14 hours. We were also in an environment where Arabic was spoken almost entirely. We could speak English with some of the staff and leaders, but all of the teaching and communication with the kids was in Arabic, so we tried to put our previous study to work. It was actually very helpful for us in cementing our language learning before we leave this area.

We both served as co-leaders for groups of boys and girls (respectively) aged 5-12. Though we were not able to communicate with the children completely we could play and love them sharing the love of Jesus through our presence and care for them. All of them come from a small Bedouin village in the Bekka valley and many of them work in fields or with animals in order to help make money for their family. Sadly, many of them are neglected by their parents and/or physically abused, meaning this week was one of the few times they might experience love and care from adults. They also come from Muslim families making this one of the few times they will hear the good news of Jesus.

Alethia with her group of girls.

Some of the older guys at the camp.

Despite the hardships these kids face, they can still have fun and enjoy life.

A few more of the older boys, even Bedouins want to look cool.

Ryan with his group of boys.

Some of the girls from the camp.

Two of the most adorable boys from the camp.

And one cute girl who always wanted to dance with Ryan.

One highlight for Ryan was when a boy came up and asked to pray with him following one of the small group gatherings. When the boys pray, they cover their faces with their hands, as they would when saying their Muslim prayers. I had been sitting down with my hands folded and resting on my forehead during the prayer time and I think when the boy saw he felt something he identified with from his own cultural experience. The boy approached me in the middle of the basketball court and asked me to pray with him. He did not know what I was praying, because it was in English, but we shared a moment in prayer where I believe the Spirit of God was present.

Another time was when the group went on a ride in some cable cars to the top of a mountain outside Beirut. There happened to be a Maronite church at the top of the mountain with a large statue of the Virgin Mary that is visited frequently by both Muslims and Christians as a revered holy site. (The Maronite church is a tradition that by practice resembles the Eastern Orthodox churches, but theologically aligns itself with the Church of Rome.) When we arrived at the top and were outside the gates of the site, Ryan had one of the leaders explain to a group of 25 boys that we were entering a holy and respected religious site and that the statue was Mary, the mother of Jesus. The boys, who usually were loud and often difficult to keep in a group were extremely well behaved, quiet and respectful, while we entered the site and took them up the circular stairs ascending to the base of the statue. This stood out during the week because it shows there is common ground between Muslims and Christians were we can engage one another and from which to use as a platform for dialogue and witness.

The statue of the Virgin Mary.

Out on a boat ride off the coast of Byblos.

One of the challenging things for us during the week was the way the message of Jesus was presented to these Muslim children. We felt many times that we were sitting in a camp designed for Sunday School children. Instead of taking into account the context of these children and trying to be culturally sensitive, the message was presented through Christian language, which seemed to disregard the background of these children or any commonalities between the religious beliefs. This caused us both to question and ask how to present a contextualized and sensitive message of Jesus for children.

Overall it was a very difficult, but rewarding week. We very much enjoyed the group of staff we were working with and we learned to love a lot of the kids throughout the week. It was very hard work, but we felt surprisingly encouraged that our previous studies really connected with this particular setting and purpose. We felt more prepared and encouraged to build bridges between Christianity and Islam – a need that we feel demands more attention than it receives given the dynamics between these religions today. Rather than condemning one or the other, we need to be working hard to find ways of communication and love for one another as created human beings.

Alethia learning the traditional Lebanese dance.

Alethia and a couple girls from camp.

After we returned to ABTS this past weekend, we spent Saturday at the Kefraya Chateau in the Bekaa Valley with some friends. We really needed to unwind and enjoy the country a bit after this past week and because we are facing the fact that we are soon leaving. On Sunday we went up to the mountainous area of the Cedars, a beautiful area of Lebanon and very different from the unbearable humidity, the crazy bustle, and continued rumors of unrest in Beirut. The mountains are quiet and their villages seem comparatively unconcerned about the questions those in the city are asking. At least that is how it seemed as we drove through…and as we have learned in the past 2 months here, nothing is as it seems and everything is political.

The Kefraya vineyard where we relaxed on Saturday.

Two of our friends, Suzann and Sue, who we went to the vineyard with.

The great Cedars of Lebanon, or the Forest of God. They are often talked about in the Bible.

There is a beautiful forest of Cedars up in the mountains.

This Cedar is believe to be 6,000 years old! Up close it looks like four trees from one trunk.

An image of Jesus crucified that has been carved into the wood of one of the Cedars.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Light of Hope in the Midst of a Dark Situation

Hello friends…this will be a quick update as we are about to leave ABTS for the week to spend time helping with a camp for about 100 Bedouin children. We will be up in the hills, supposedly based at a monastery, so we are hoping for some peaceful space even in the midst of 100 kids! We will have a bit of an introduction to the camp structure tonight (Sunday) and then head up to the monastery with the rest of the “staff” for a bit of a retreat before the children arrive tomorrow…
Unfortunately, we won’t be around internet in order to keep you posted as we go, but we will try to write another update when we return to Beirut on Friday. In the meantime, please enjoy some pictures from our time with the kids from Home of Hope this past week…we would appreciate your prayers for this place because as it stands now, they can only stay open until the end of August. If something doesn’t change for them financially, then about 60 kids will lose their only home. We got a chance to meet with World Vision this past week as well and talked with them about our experiences there earlier in the week. This morning at church, we introduced the young Mennonite couple who is currently volunteering at Home of Hope to the same person we met with from World Vision (we’ve noticed that the community here is small enough that many representatives of different places we have worked with during our time here all attend the same church at least part of the time, so we get to continue our ties with them and introduce them to one another! ☺ ). Who knows if anything will come of this connection, but we continue to hope that these kids will somehow be provided for…
So we begin our last full week here in Lebanon…the time has gone by quickly even though each day has often felt very full and like a week in itself! We will return to Beirut at the end of this week to have a few more meetings and some fun before we leave for a week in Jordan. We appreciate your continued prayers for our travel here and there and for energy and strength for the different cultural dynamics this week will bring.

Ryan and Oleg (one of the Mennonites) with some of the boys from Home of Hope after a tough game of football.

Can you guess which hand is Ryan's? :)

Here's Hibba, having just discovered a spider!

Hibba, giving Alethia orders to find the spiders instead!

Alethia doing as she was told :)

Ryan and Mohammad after football

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

The Hariri Mosque in downtown Beirut. The anti-government protesters in tents are nearby to the left. Rafik Hariri was the Prime Minister of Lebanon and the master-mind behind the downtown reconstruction.

Construction continues in downtown Beirut, remodleing it into a European-esque city even though the downtown area is quite empty of shoppers.

The religious atmosphere in Beirut. There are two mosques in this picture with a church as the third tower in the back right. This reflects the actual demographic as well of 30% Sunni Muslim, 35-40% Shiite Muslim, and 30% Christian.

"The Martyr's" Statue in Martyr's Square, downtown Beirut. Currently it is located near the Hariri Mosque, which some may deem appropriate given Hariri's assassination two years ago.

Our week “off” is officially over, having ended with Alethia’s birthday on Saturday. Both of us had spent the latter part of last week feeling quite sick, part exhaustion, part extreme heat and tension, but decided to go to the ancient port city of Byblos (north from Beirut on the coast) for Alethia’s birthday. So after taking some medicine and asking which buses went to Byblos, we finally found ourselves in the small and beautiful seaside city. We spent the day wandering around the ancient citadel ruins, shopping in the newly remodeled “old market,” and enjoying a meal of fabulously fresh seafood for Alethia’s birthday lunch, complete with chocolate cake for dessert ☺ It was a good day all around, perhaps one of the most peaceful and relaxing days we have spent here.

Ryan near a column at Byblos with the Crusader's citadel (castle) behind. We figured out the direct sun on Ryan's head and sudden movement to cold air-conditioned places was the cause of his sickness, hence the nifty little hat.

Alethia taking advantage of the shade of a palm tree with the Crusader's citadel in the background. Byblos is said to be one of the oldest, continuously lived-in cities in the world. The site contains ruins from 3000 BC, Roman and Persian ruins, and obviously a citadel from the Crusaders during the 12th century.

The view from our table during Alethia's birthday lunch, overlooking the port of Byblos.

What birthday wouldn't be complete without some birthday cake. That is Foundant au chocolat, a chocolate cake oozing with chocolate sauce served with ice cream and accompanied by a glass of Lebanon's finest white wines.

Last week we were able to do some processing, but recognize that much more is needed. However, this week we are spending time with a struggling ministry called “Home of Hope” –a home for children who would otherwise be on the street somewhere. And although it is located in a Christian neighborhood, it has received quite a bit of criticism from other Christian organizations and it seems that if its neighbors had their way, it would be shut down---many of these kids are of a Muslim background. So this leads to all kinds of questions about what it is that other Christians desire to criticize and what the future of these kids will hold? After all, funding is quickly running out with none promised for the very near future. Unfortunately, the kids are also feeling the uncertainty of what will happen to them. We find ourselves there this week in the midst of our own questions about forms of ministry (what works, what doesn’t in this context?), about our own passions and what we have to offer, about identity and theology, about faith and humanity…all of it. Needless to say it’s a bit difficult at times.

This past Sunday we were in church while Martin was speaking about prayer. This was perhaps the first time that I (Alethia) realized that our time here is indeed drawing to a close and that more often than not, the only way I have been able to come through it is by being in a state of constant prayer even if it’s angry and saddened prayer about the situation here, or fearful prayer, not knowing what is true and what is not or what the future holds. Often it has been thankful prayer for the things that we are experiencing together and learning and being exposed to, even when it is difficult. So sitting in church was a peaceful and genuine experience on that particular Sunday, not something I can always say about church structure. With the current situation, the history of this place, and the questions about its future, it often feels as though all we can do as a church is to pray.

We have found Kahlil Gibran’s poem particularly meaningful these days in this place and so we would like to share it with you…(and yes, Robert Fisk took his book title about Lebanon during the civil war from Gibran’s words):

Pity the Nation
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks as wine that flows not from its own winepress.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

We begin our last two weeks here in Lebanon and look forward to a few days of rest and sightseeing in Jordan as a way of starting a process of self debriefing before arriving back in the States in early August. We pray in the meantime that the situation in Lebanon continues to hold stable. There is a saying about “wars and rumors of wars” and this is appropriate here in the Middle East this summer…we appreciate your prayers not just for the peace of Lebanon while we are here, but for the peaceful future of the region as a whole.