Wednesday, August 26, 2009

En Vivo #2 – Holy Ground – Tuesday, August 25, 2009

[The main event of our week here at El Pozo is what we call El Pozo “En Vivo” (which means El Pozo “Live!”), our Tuesday night all-community Bible study. It typically comes complete with preaching, music, videos, skits, free food, the whole deal. After each En Vivo, I hope to blog briefly about the night – what we taught, how it went, etc. Enjoy.]

A year or so ago I found myself in Madison, GA, where my dad lives. I was flying solo – I can’t remember where Erin was or why she wasn’t with me. My dad was/is kind of searching – or, if we’re being honest, more like hoping one falls into his lap – for a church home, so I said Hey let’s go visit the local Christian church. So we did. Well, it was a tiny little church with some sweet people, but it was definitely not the type of environment we were looking for. It was a largely forgettable experience, but there was one thing that stuck with me. These folks had just finished building a new sanctuary, and one of the announcements in the bulletin mentioned that, before the new carpet was to be laid down, they were going to have a service in which anyone and everyone who wanted to could write prayers, Scriptures, and blessings on the floor – a kind of dedication service. Later, these words would be covered up, but the members would always know they were there, not unlike the Shema and other Scriptures in the mezuzah on the doorpost of my house. I thought this was a beautiful, creative idea and vowed then and there to do something similar if we were ever to replace the carpet in the upstairs room of the Casa Verde.

So this week, at En Vivo #2 of this semester, I finally got my chance. We went totally out of the box with the night and talked about “Holy Ground”. Here’s how the night went. (And thanks to my friend Ben for giving me the main outline for the lesson.)

We began by doing first-timers and video announcements at the beginning, rather than the end of the night. Once again – tons of new people! Two guys alone – Federico, who has been around for five years now and is loving El Pozo more than ever, and Fernando, a friend we met playing flag football who’s a moderator in the dorm next door – brought about ten new people between them. Nice job, guys! The video announcements were fun and creative, with several different interns and student leaders participating. Then we watched a cheesy clip of Moses and the burning bush in which Moses had a British accent and God sounded exactly like Obi-wan Kenobi, and from there we went right into part one of a three-part talk.

In part one of the talk, I began with a shortened version of this personal story. I started with the line “A year and a half ago, I was a very different person, a much angrier person”, and proceeded to tell about how in June of 2009, during an otherwise awesome road trip from Phoenex to Atlanta (after flying to Phoenix to buy our Jetta TDI), I got into a loud, ugly, public fight with my brother at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere beside the interstate. I think we were in Texas somewhere – odds are we were in Texas somewhere. As we pulled out from the gas station and crossed the road to the McDonald’s, my brother said something that set me off, and in no time I was yelling and we were in each other’s faces. It was an incredibly childish and embarrassing moment. I ended up leaving Dad and Britt at the McDonald’s and going across the street to the Sonic, where I purchased my food and ate it in the car while crying my eyes out and yelling and generally having it out with God. I was incredibly angry, once again at the point of just being DONE with my relationship with my brother, feeling that if he would never stop living in the past, then how could there be a future? I was seriously thinking about leaving him in Texas and letting him find his own way home. (Thank God Dad was there, too.) I was also sad. How could we be such good friends one minute and then be so hateful toward each other the next? Why couldn’t we just be friends and get over the fighting? But more than anything I was ashamed and embarrassed – I mean we hadn’t fought like that in a very long time, and suddenly here we were screaming at each other in a public place like we were 11 and 9 years old, not 28 and 26. What the heck? And though Britt was not blameless, I was the one who had escalated things. So I sat there in my car and asked God, “WHERE DID THIS COME FROM???” And I mad a very important discovery. I realized that I was a very angry person. I realized that there was still some large part of me, though buried and well-hidden, that was extremely, extremely ANGRY. And I decided then and there that that part of me had to die. I made an important shift from working to manage and minimize and grow out of my anger to deciding to KILL IT. And the timing of this decision was significant because the day after we got back to Atlanta, where I hugged and dropped off my dad and brother, Erin and I left on our two-week pilgrimage to “the Holy Land”…

“What is ‘holy land’?” That was the question of the night. And so at this point I shared with the students some photos of the most memorable places we visited during our pilgrimage. I showed them the 2,000-year-old toilet in the Roman mansion at Zippori, which is the city closest to Nazareth where Jesus and Joseph would have hawked their wares as carpenters. I showed them photos from Bethlehem, where I touched the stone at the traditional birth site of Jesus and stood next to the three-foot-high door to the church which was lowered during the Crusades to keep horses and camels outside. I showed them a photo of some of us inside a cistern at Caiaphas’s house, which is where Jesus passed the night as a prisoner after being arrested at Gethsemane. I showed them the very moving sculpture of Peter’s denial of Christ there in Caiaphas’s courtyard with Gethsemane in the background. And I showed them photos from Peter’s house at Capernaum, site of one of my favorite Bible stories (lowering of sick friend through the roof) and site of probably my single favorite moment of our two weeks in Israel. And then I ended this first part of our talk with some photos from the place that, when we first went there, felt like the LEAST-holy ground of all – the tourist trap at the so-called Jordan River. Let me explain…

First of all, the actual part of the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is in an Israeli military zone, so you can only get there from the Jordan side. So what they’ve done in Israel is just at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, close to all of the hotels in Tiberius, they’ve diverted the river and create a tourist trap. It’s not even a part of the river – I guess the water came from the river at some point, but it’s just a stagnant offshoot now – and there’s a massive gift shop and a burger joint. Also, when we were there we heard about people getting typhus from the water recently. Anyway, it didn’t feel “holy”, that’s for sure. But of course we were aware of the whole purpose of the pilgrimage – not just to go to those sites but ultimately to connect with the story – so that’s what we focused on doing. Most of us stuck our feet in the water, read the Scripture (which, and this was the coolest thing by far about this place, was written on the wall in what seemed like every language known to man), took a couple of photos, and headed back to the bus. Again, of all of the places we’d been, this one felt by far the least like “holy ground”.

Back to En Vivo #2… At this point in the evening, I asked everyone to grab some of the carpet (which had been previously cut up into pieces) and head downstairs and out back to our covered area. There we gathered in a circle and listened as Bego, one of our awesome student leaders, gave part two of the talk. She basically told the story of how she came to El Pozo, which goes something like this: Before coming to college, Bego had been praying and praying for God to provide a campus ministry or a church – some place where she could make real friends and grow in her faith. Upon arriving at UDLA, Bego was assigned a room in the José Gáos dormitory, and her room just happened to be on the east side of the building, overlooking – you guessed it – the Casa Verde. She began to notice the music and fun and people gathering down there, and one Tuesday she decided to come and see what was going on. She showed up at En Vivo and met several of us. (I vividly remember the first time Bego arrived, mainly because she has a really cool and unique voice.) After Bible study, even though she was still having fun, she decided to leave. But as soon as she left, she questioned why she had done so, and decided that she wanted to return. But she was embarrassed, so she invented a story about losing one of her earrings, took one off and put it in her purse, and came back under the pretext of looking for her missing earring. Several of us looked and looked, to no avail, but Bego was so sweet about it. No worries, it’s not that important. A few months later she confessed to the whole earring thing, but we took it as a compliment. Anyway, so Bego told everyone that story, and then went on to talk more about how she has grown as a person and as a believer through her involvement with El Pozo. She encouraged her fellow students to get involved because they are truly loved here, and to trust that God will be faithful to respond to our prayers. It was a really great moment for us to have our students hear a testimony of faith from one of their own.

After Bego finished, Mario (one of our three interns) read the Scripture from Exodus 3 in which God tells Moses from the burning bush to take off his sandals because he’s standing on holy ground. Mario then invited everyone to head back upstairs and, as a way of further participating in the story and remembering the lesson about holy ground, to take off their shoes before entering the upstairs room. We then all headed back upstairs where lots of Sharpie markers and papers with prayers, Scriptures, and quotes were spread throughout the room. At this point I launched into part three of the talk.

I talked about two friends we made during our week in Galilee, two employees of the hotel where we stayed. One was a young lady named Sivan, Jew by culture but not really practicing, a beautiful girl who had finished her requisite two years of army service and was now ready to travel and continue her studies. She worked at the snack bar and in the restaurant, and we chatted with her each day. The other was Ehab, the lifeguard at the pool, an Arab Muslim in his early thirties with a wife and two kids. We talked a lot, too, during the afternoons spent around the pool after mornings spent touring the holy sites.

As our last night in Galilee approached, we decided to go out. Ehab made the plan, Sivan was in, and our fellow pilgrims Ben and Karla signed on, too. The time came and we hopped into Ehab’s car, and he headed out toward what he promised was the coolest bar / night club around. After about 15 minutes, we pulled up to the place, and guess where we were? The Jordan River tourist trap! Turns out that the burger joint by day was a restaurant and bar by night, and the place was jumping. There was a birthday celebration for an older gentleman going on just inside, complete with lots of singing and laughter and loud storytelling. Sivan met us there, and we grabbed a table for six, where our friends ordered for us “limonanas”, which are like lemonade slushies with mint and the option of coconut, one of the tastiest drinks I’ve ever imbibed. Our table was outside on the patio next to that same stagnant water, and the grin on Ben’s face helped me to recognize the humor and irony and power of the moment. For what was happening there that night – a Jew, and Arab, and four Christians – four people from the other side of the world and two people from warring ethnic and religious backgrounds who, without those four pilgrims, would never have been sitting at a table together in public, even though they were friends by day in the safe confines of the Scots Hotel – was nothing short of a HOLY moment. We laughed, talked, told stories, got to know each other better, and generally celebrated the friendship that had grown during those few short days, knowing that our paths may never cross again. Eventually we headed back to the hotel, where we said emotional goodbyes to Ehab, a scene which would be repeated with Sivan at breakfast the next morning.

Wouldn’t you know it – the place that seemed the least holy turned out to be, in a significant way, the most holy ground of all. And this was the lesson for our students. What is holy ground? It is anywhere where God and people come together. Matthew 18:20 reminds us of God's promise to be there with us whenever two or more are gathered in His name. Mount Sinai is in the middle of nowhere. Moses took off his sandals because he was meeting God in that place. I am, and it’s hard to explain, most definitely and mysteriously a different person than I was before that pilgrimage. The angry part of me died – or, better yet, was crucified. How? Why? Because I walked where Jesus walked or went to Jerusalem or floated in the Dead Sea? No, because I communed with God. Holy ground can be anywhere. It's all about the presence of God.

I ended with two thoughts. One, I showed my favorite photo from the entire two-and-a-half week Holy Land pilgrimage – a group photo of all 30 of us, taken in Atlanta before we even left. It’s my favorite photo because more important to me than any of the places to which I went are the people I went with. Erin and I developed a special bond with our fellow pilgrims that is impossible to explain, and they are now counted among our dearest friends, family, really. They are more special to me than I know how to express. The ground we trod together was holy because we met God, and because we did it together. And two, I mentioned the Celtic Christians’ idea of “thin places”, places where the veil is lifted and it seems like heaven and earth are just a little bit closer than usual. And I expressed my great desire for the Casa Verde to be that kind of place.

After that, in an award-worthy example of deciding it better to ask for forgiveness than for permission from our landlords, we turned on some praise music and spent about a half an hour drawing and writing on the floor, all 70 or 80 of us (I haven’t heard the official head count). Some of the first-timers chose not to participate, but they weren’t uncomfortable or upset – they just hung out in the back and watched and chatted with different friends and staff members. The words that our students and friends wrote were beautiful, and we’re leaving the floor exposed so that more “holy graffiti” can happen between now and the installation of the new carpet early next week. Perhaps later I will post some photos and quotes (and I imagine they can already be found on El Pozo’s facebook page). Then we wrapped it up with one praise song and a prayer of dedication. Then it was on to eating together and laughing and the usual after-En Vivo madness – the beautiful chaos of a house full of energetic young people.

A great night, to be sure. It was different and fun and organic and Spirit-led. And the Casa Verde was, and with God’s help and our best efforts will continue to be … holy ground.

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