How Many Times?

This morning, Eli (my friend and fellow YAGM volunteer) and I climbed the stairs of the bell tower at 10:30 AM to ring the two bells like usual. This has become one of our weekly responsibilities, and as such we have stopped checking in with other church members before pulling the slightly frayed cables connected to the bells. However, perhaps just twenty seconds after starting, a church member came up the stairs and ordered us to stop. We were shocked – this had never happened before. He then told us that the pastor was not here yet.

We knew that our regular pastor and host father, Imad, was out of town and another local minister was to fill his shoes today. This responsibility fell on Pastor Fursan, the head of the Arabic-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. We walked down the stairs and began to ask more questions.

Jerusalem is only 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Ramallah. As such, a Sunday morning drive – even including traffic – should take no more than 20 minutes. However, this does not account for the reality that is the Qalandia checkpoint. This checkpoint has become a regular feature in our lives, and has been so for the Palestinian population for the past seventeen years. Here, Palestinians with permissions pass through daily to go to work, worship, or visit family. Every time they come through on a bus, the able-bodied dismount and pass through cage-like structures and security screening reminiscent of stalls used to herd cattle. Cars are frequently stopped and searched. Here, capriciousness rules the day. Sometimes folks move relatively quickly though Qalandia. Sometimes, minutes stretch into hours or a return trip from whence one came.


The traffic created by this checkpoint was the culprit this morning. Undeterred, about fifteen minutes after our service was supposed to start, a woman in the congregation started calling out hymn numbers and we began to sing together. We got through about four hymns and then she directed the readers to read today’s scripture passages. A rhythm began to develop and a worshipful atmosphere was cultivated. Then, a full hour after the service was supposed to start, Pastor Fursan strode in at the perfect time to proclaim today’s Gospel, Matthew 18:21-35.

21Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven…’”


After the reading, he delivered one of the most powerful sermons I have heard on this text. The stories of instances of radical forgiveness offered by Christians in obedience to this text were wonderful, but what truly struck me was his admission that living faithfully to this command is extremely difficult here – only made possible by the Spirit. It brought to mind the words Pastor Imad shared a few weeks ago in a sermon after taking over two hours to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to Palestine just that morning, “It is so hard to love your enemies at the bridge.” It is a place that is starkly dehumanizing and humiliating, just like the checkpoints, the wall, and the illegal Israeli settlements that pepper the Palestinian countryside.

The people that I have grown to love here are showing me just what it looks like to be Christian. It means looking in the face of the soldier demanding your papers and choosing to love instead of hate. It means opening your home constantly to share your food and very lives with local people and those from abroad. It means continuing to sing, continuing to worship, continuing to pray, and continuing to forgive, even when the checkpoint aims to choke hope.

I do not claim that this community is a perfect one. But, it is a profoundly faithful one – one that is helping me remain in relationship with Christ despite my many doubts. For that, I am grateful.




Flying Plates and New Friends

Arabic is a beautiful, oft-confounding, and witty language. For example, if you want to let someone know that they are funny, one way to do so is to tell them “damak khafeif (دمك خفيف).” Although this means “you are funny,” it literally translates as “your blood is light.”

Oftentimes translating words from English to Arabic is difficult. As a result, various gymnastics are done to try to form these new linguistic constructs. A favorite of mine is one of the translations of “frisbee.” The most common one I have heard is qurus ta’ir (قرص طائر), which translates literally as “flying disc.” Of course, this is a pretty standard rendering in English. My favorite, though, is the less-used sahin ta’ir (صحن طائر): “flying plate.”

I chose to focus on the translations of frisbee because (1) I find them delightful and (2) Ultimate Frisbee has been a surprising source of deep connections for me over the past month.

In August, I was reminded just how much I love playing Ultimate while at YAGM orientation in Chicago. My friend Gracia brought a frisbee and initiated regular games that commenced nearly every day after lunch. She and another YAGM named Owen had played in college, and were obviously the most seasoned “frisbee-ers.” Yet, people ranging from beginners to these grizzled vets joined in the (surprisingly exhausting) fun. I left Chicago having initiated great relationships with many other YAGM, but there was a special connection made between those of use who regularly played frisbee.


In my previous blog, I cited a profound experience our group had while hiking with a local Palestinian through the Wadi Makhrour valley in Beit Jala just a few days after arriving. Something else significant happened that day, as well.

Before the hike we parked in front of a school in Beit Jala. I noticed that there was a large group of local youth throwing frisbees together on their athletic field. My extroverted side decided it would be a good idea to walk up and ask them if they play regularly. I got some weird looks at first – most Palestinian youth are not used to an ajnabi (foreigner in Arabic) like me busting into their practice. As turned out, however, this was just a two day-long introduction to Ultimate put on by a local teacher and community leader named Daniel.

I was shocked, as I had met Daniel once three years ago when I lived in Bethlehem for a month conducting research. We chatted for a minute, and then in subsequent conversations I learned that he and a young man named Ibrahim were aiming to start an Ultimate Palestine team in Ramallah. They invited me to help get it off the ground and I enthusiastically agreed.

We have now had three practices and I must say that they are consistently the highlight of my week. The Palestinians here are incredibly competitive and talented, which makes for a two-hour session of full of laughs, lay-out catches, and, sometimes, a frustrated Phifer (especially when Na’el scores the final point after burning you).

After our first practice in Ramallah

For me, the most meaningful aspect of this surprising community is the people. Ultimate Palestine has facilitated the formation of friendships that I am sure will only deepen as the year goes on. In particular, Ibrahim (the guy Daniel connected me to) has become one of my best friends. I really believe this friendship (and, inshallah [God willing], others as well) will last far beyond this year.

Further, these individuals embody the tenacious, life-giving spirit of Palestinian people who refuse to allow the weight of military occupation to choke their ability to find joy in play. Even though it takes a number of the players from Beit Sahour (a town near Bethlehem) about two hours to traverse a distance that would only take 30 minutes if there were no checkpoints, they come. They compete. They advocate for justice. And, they live. 

So, as of now, I am surprisingly thankful for that trusty old Flying Plate, and for the people like Ibrahim, Daniel, Jiana, Na’el, Eli, Dan, and more who have become my friends through Ultimate Palestine.

EDIT: For more information on Ultimate Palestine: click here for the main Facebook page, here for Ultimate Ramallah, and here for Ultimate Bethlehem. Further, here’s a link to a fantastic video about our community.



Why This Title?

I imagine that some of you may be wondering why I titled this blog as I did. It is not Phifer’s Journey to Jerusalem or A Meandering Minnesotan in the Middle East. Instead, it is a somewhat obscure quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, I 59: “Go to the limits of your longing.”

This poem is of deep significance to me. I first learned of it about a year and a half ago in a season of deep stress while studying for the MCAT, taking classes, working as an ER scribe, and prepping for the bear that is the medical school application process. At that time, I felt like I was losing myself in a process that so often turns people into competitive, numbers-driven individuals. Rilke’s poem came to me at that time and reminded me that the process in which I was immersing myself was not motivated by selfish ambition or pride. Instead, it was a natural step in the direction of a deeply-rooted call I had sensed years before.

Before reflecting more, here is the poem in its entirety:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

-Book of Hours, I 59

Israel-Palestine is a place that made a powerful impression on me the very first time I visited on an archaeological dig in the summer of 2015. At that time, the combination of ancient memories, sacred veneration, current political conflict, broken relationships between communities, stark injustices, and more, captivated my heart and imagination. This fascination only deepened after spending three months in Haifa and a month in Bethlehem that following fall/winter, as well as a two week stint in January 2017.

But, really, why the Holy Land? The world is endlessly complex and compelling all over. Injustice permeates the U.S. Beautiful places exist much closer to home. The sick and ill are suffering, and I am putting off medical education for a year to accompany the Lutheran Christian community in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Frankly, I do not know. Perhaps it is the childhood hopes of a “land flowing with milk and honey” that were suffocated as I witnessed with my eyes the shocking visage of military checkpoints and graffiti-covered walls. Maybe I am still grappling with the role that my home country has played in the development and sustaining of this conflict. Potentially, I am struggling to discern how the one called the Prince of Peace taught and embodied a way to live differently in a world characterized by eye-for-eye violence.

“These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.”

I do know this: I am certain that the people I will encounter here in Jerusalem and the West Bank will tangibly embody the God who “speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.” I hope that, through their witness, I might better discern how to live faithfully in this fractured world. Further, here I am living far “beyond my recall” in a place where I will need to depend on the care and love of the people that comprise the community here.

In short, the limits of my longing have brought me back. I pray this journey might, in some small way, lead me closer to “that country they call life…[that is known] by its seriousness.” Further, I hope my reflections throughout this time would help each of you as you seek to live a life following the call to the limits of your longing. Finally, my aim is to, as faithfully as I can, tell the stories of the Palestinian Lutheran community in which I am serving and being served. 

Please reach out to me at any time with questions or thoughts, as I hope that this will be a journey that we can all walk on together.