In addition to the blog, today I want to share a poem I have been working on this week:

Songs From the Places In Between
(after Rory Stewart)

by Valerie E. Hess

Part I

Our coracle was aluminum,
Tubular, no oars.
Filled with the world
heading to the Land
for all kinds of reasons,
holy and unholy.

We had sawn off the limb behind us.
Arriving at night, wandering through the streets,
familiar now strange,
looking for home.
Finally finding it, it was cold,
stone, marble,
What kind of death had we signed up for?

Creating infra-structure
in a foreign land
with a Visa.
No refugee here
and yet,
Our fleeing was chosen,
a radical choice,
leaving behind a life that could become death,

Like ancient Irish monks,
we had no oars,
no clear guidance.
Landing at last,
trusting God’s Spirit
had flown us to this shore
at this time
to do these things
unknown but yet,
calling to us from across the miles,
across the ages.

Minarets and bells
clamor for us to pay attention
to God,
to ourselves.

While the air is still cool, the sun came out for the weekend. We had three days of chilly weather with periods of rain. Rain is a blessing in this desert land. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus’s words about sending rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous means that both benefit from God’s blessings. One of the main reasons to come here is that Scripture really does come alive here! Hearing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 4:1-11, on Jesus’s temptation, while standing not all that far from where the pinnacle of the Temple was sobering.

We appreciate Pr. Carrie’s preaching and we are blessed to be part of the Redeemer Lutheran Church–English congregation. The Wednesday night study in Lent will be on the Stations of the Cross from a Protestant perspective. Since we live at the third station and see/hear pilgrims walking it all the time, it should be interesting.

We are back to the land of church bells. Those churches that have them ring them at the beginning of services. At 9 AM, sitting in the Crusader chapel of St. John within the Lutheran church compound, the bells are nearly overhead. When they finishing their ringing of about three minutes, worship begins. I took another picture of the Chapel today after I had finished warming myself up to play:


I also love the carvings outside the door and the main church door handle.

This week, we saw an exhibit at the Israel museum on Jesus in Jewish art. Some powerful pieces and interesting interpretations. Marc Chagall is probably the best known for this but there were other contemporary interpretations of Jesus’s crucifixion equally as arresting:





Litter is a huge problem here, especially in the Muslim sections. I see people all the time throwing candy wrappers and other trash on the ground. Little garbage tractors drive through the Old City at night and clean up but many places outside the walls are trash dumps. It is an interesting esthetic to get used to. And quite frankly, the Jewish neighborhoods, while not completely trash free, are much cleaner.

We, on the other hand, have a turtle living in the Armenian Guest House compound with us. According to some little girls who were visiting their grandmother and playing with “her” turtle, it is quite old. Jerusalem is full of surprises!

Shalom and good night.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when the Western Christian Church begins Lent. The Eastern Christian Church (Orthodox) began winding down a couple of weeks ago in preparation for Great Lent, which for them began Sunday afternoon. Two Sundays ago, they gave up meat. This past Sunday, they gave up dairy.

One of the things we discovered is that the Orthodox monasteries close to visitors completely during the first week of Great Lent, as they call it. It is their way of getting “off oImage result for st. mary magdalene jerusalemn the right foot” with the disciplines and focus of Lent. We tried yesterday to visit the Russian Orthodox convent of St. Mary Magdalene, one of our favorite places as it is on the Mount of Olives, halfway down the hill looking straight at the Golden Gate, the gate that Jesus will supposedly enter at his triumphant second coming. It was closed up tight.

This year, being in Jerusalem, we have obviously experienced a different way of beginning Lent. This morning, a group of Asian Christians began their walk down the ViaImage result for pilgrims walking the via dolorosa Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) that we live along at 6 AM with ashes on their foreheads.

John and I went to the noon service at the Lutheran Church, where I played the piano for the English service in the Chapel. The German Lutherans here are so afraid of doing anything “Catholic,” they have no service on Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday.

Surprisingly, it was a quieter day in the Old City. It was rainy at times and cooler but there were fewer tourists groups around. Many of the shop keepers closed up early because business was slow.

Obviously, we are beginning Lent in a very different way than normal. Being aware of the occupation and hearing the lesson from Isaiah 58: 1-12 in church was sobering [excerpted here]:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

Having been at the Tantur Ecumenical Center last night and seen the wall that surrounds Bethlehem, hearing the stories of an American, married to a Palestinian Christian who lives just over the wall in Beit Jala but works at Tantur, and what he does to get through the check-point twice a day to get to and from work, listening to the presentation by the UN peacekeepers in this region and the odds against which they are working to maintain peace in an area where there is so much hatred, having the guest house gates closed and locked early the other night because about 200 Jewish youth and their adult leaders (and accompanying IDF soldiers) marched through the Muslim quarter chanting the Hebrew equivalent of “this land is my land”–it puts a new perspective on the radical teachings of Jesus and the readings for Ash Wednesday.

In the midst of all this, John and I continue to live and learn and marvel.  I learned to make popcorn on the hot plate! We have a great kabob place not very way from our guest house. We have met wonderful people: those who live here always and those who, like us, are here for a period of time. We even discovered the library at the Rockefeller Museum, just outside the Herod Gate. Image result for rockefeller museum jerusalemThe Jewish librarian was very helpful and welcoming and the large stone space with its British Mandate furnishings is actually warm, a real gift on a cool, wet day in a city that doesn’t have central heating anywhere.

Image result for two colored grape hyacinths and red poppies
Life is always a mixed portfolio, isn’t it? Shalom and good night.



It has been an interesting weekend. It began on Saturday with an organ and alphorn concert at the Abbey of the Dormition:

In addition to the concert, repeated two more times during the festival, the Franciscans were cooking brats (the best we have eaten in a long time) and selling “waffles,” a crepe-like circle of hearts, and beer. (These are German monks, after all.) At the used book fair, I found a copy in English of John Wilkinson’s “Egeria’s Travels” for 5 NIS (approx. $1.36). (Most of the other books were “auf Deutsch.”)

We then wandered over to the King David Hotel and YMCA, both famous landmarks, and read English newspapers. Lord, in your mercy…

Image result for free photo YMCA three arches jerusalem

This morning, we attended church at the Lutheran church of the Redeemer. While the Arabic-speaking Lutherans meet at 9 AM in the main Sanctuary, the English-speaking Lutherans meet at 9 AM in the St. John’s chapel. The chapel only has a piano whereas the main Sanctuary has an organ, the one I am practicing on several days a week. The service had about 100 people in it, some visitors from all over the world, some part of a more regular congregation of expats often associated with embassies or Tantur. The joke is “you come twice, you are a member; you come three times and you are put on church council.”

During the Lord’s Prayer, everyone was invited to pray in their mother tongue and it was a “Pentecost” moment, indeed! Also, during the children’s sermon, the pastor was trying to help the kids understand Transfiguration Sunday and the burying of the Alleluias with Lent starting on Wednesday. She asked them why we stopped saying Alleluia until Easter, leading them with the question, “and what comes before Easter?” One kid answered “Passover!” I wondered if the kids in Boulder would have thought of that answer on their way to the correct answer of “Lent.” The Baptismal font and Communion ware were Palestinian pottery pieces and the bread was pita.

After church, they had a fellowship time serving black tea with fresh sage leaves in it (if you wanted to add them, which I did–delicious). Many may not realize that the Lutheran Bishop for the Holy Land and Jordan is a Palestinian. He has been in Italy so I have not met him but may have a chance sometime in the days ahead.

We have spent the afternoon moseying the Mamila area outside the walls, that includes a ritzy shopping area and artist colony, as well as more exploring of streets within the Old City. It really is a maze in here!

Some of you have asked me what a typical day is like. I can tell you what we have been doing so far: we get up and spend a couple of hours showering, cooking breakfast in our room, reading e-mails, and doing devotional reading. Then, we head off for me to practice for an hour or so. After that, we either do our market shopping for food and other necessities or we go exploring. We buy a bigger lunch while out, usually wonderful falafel sandwiches or kebobs, getting enough for both of us to be quite full on for a total of 16-20 NIS (one shekel = .27). In the evenings, we do laundry in the sink, if needed, so as to get it out on the drying rack to drip over night and be ready for the sun to hit it in the morning. We eat hummus and bread with Dead Sea salt and za’atar dipped in Zvat olive oil, fruit, including the freshest dates we have ever tasted, wine or Israeli beer, labaneh on crackers, and/or chocolate: staples we have in our “pantry” in the room. We read aloud from a book by David Roberts, “The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest” and we each have reading, research, and writing projects we work on.

So far, it is a good rhythm for us. Shalom and good night.

We have spent the last couple of days setting up housekeeping including expanding our kitchen beyond the small frig that came with the room and getting a drying rack for clothes, as dryers are unheard of here. Laundry hangs everywhere all the time.

We also connected with the German organist and ELCA pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, a German-based parish that supports Lutheran congregations from around the world: English Arabic, Swedish, Finnish and others. I will sub for the German organist on Maundy Thursday on the organ (flat pedal board!) in the main church and for Ash Wednesday on the piano for the English congregation.

We were invited for dinner and a lecture at Tantur Ecumenical Center near Bethlehem on Tuesday night. We found out later that the ELCA pastor’s husband is in charge of that program! I have been interested in the program’s at Tantur for a while now and so look forward to finally seeing the compound.

We continue to walk long distances every day exploring new parts of the Old City. John managed to connect with an Ethiopian priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and find out about their Easter services; they begin at 7 pm Saturday and go through into Easter day.

Tomorrow, I hope to walk the Stations of the Cross with the Franciscans who walk it every Friday at 3 pm. Since we are living on the Via Dolorosa, way of the cross, we hear pilgrim groups from early in the morning on singing their way between stations.

With Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, much of the country will shut down beginning at 2 pm on Friday and continuing through sundown on Saturday. We have to plan our grocery shopping in advance!

Slowly, we are settling into this place, focusing less on the work of living here and more on the life God has invited us to for this brief window. Shalom and good night.


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