Saturday, June 25, 2016

Walking Where Jesus Walked

One of the great privileges of our time in the holy land was walking where Jesus walked.  I don't mean the precise locations which after 2000 years are often disputed or uncertain, but the towns and villages, roads, hills and lake sides where Jesus walked. It has made me aware of both Jesus' humanity and his divinity.

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
 His humanity first of all.  Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and even Jerusalem, are ordinary places. Life goes on in these towns and cities.  We experienced bustling markets in Jerusalem and saw people fishing in Galilee.  We visited the church of the annunciation in Nazareth and imagined the angel telling Mary she was to give birth to the Saviour of the world. Quite apart from the fact that she was a virgin, it must have been difficult to think that anything so miraculous could happen there.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Fishing Boat on the lake of Galilee
When Jesus got up each morning there is a sense in which it would have been like any other morning. The empty slopes up from the lake of Galilee where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes were ordinary hills, yet they became filled with the extraordinary.  We were sailed on the lake and the team members spoke about what God was saying to them through the time in the Holy Land and Galilee in particular.
The challenge for all of us is to expect, recognise and participate in the extraordinary things that God will do in our ordinary day. I'm not saying that there aren't special kairos moments in the history of salvation. I will say more about that in a moment. However, we can't wait for the "superspiritual moments" or the "superspiritual people."  God has always worked through ordinary people.  I believe God delights to do mighty things through humble people.  Isn't that what the announcement to Mary was all about? Even if one doubts that God exists, one cannot doubt that some extraordinary things happened in this place.

On the other hand the very miraculous nature of the events pointed me to Jesus divinity.  Just like the disciples in the boat after Jesus had calmed the storm on Galilee, I found myself thinking, "Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?"  We drove by Cana where Jesus carried out his first miracle turning ordinary water into the best wine of the wedding.  This picked up a theme of our sabbatical for me, "What miracle do I need Jesus to perform?"

Door at the Church of the Annunciation
The divinity of Jesus was also apparent in the unfolding of salvation history.  Although the birth of Jesus occurred in an ordinary town to a humble peasant girl, it occurred at a special time in history. When Jesus began his ministry he said, "The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news."
Christians over the centuries have revered the holy sites we visited, often building churches there to remember the events.  Some tourists are put off by the gaudy monuments and icons remembering what happened there.  Certainly there is a danger of worshiping the place instead of the one who was at work there. However, overall I found it helpful to remember that these everyday places have in a sense been "set apart" (made holy) by the special events that occurred there.  The door at the church of the annunciation depicts the life of Jesus, surrounded by the earlier events that prepared the way for this new relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

This pictorial telling of the Bible stories has been a common theme throughout the churches of the Holy land and Europe. In days gone by, many people couldn't read.  Perhaps that will become more important for Bible stories again in cultures where people read books less and less.

1st Century ruins at Capernaum & church over Peter's house
One final reflection on the divinity of Jesus.  One notable difference between Jesus and other rabbis of his time was that usually students/apprentices/disciples sought out a rabbi they wanted to follow. Jesus on the other hand chose his disciples and called them to follow him.  This was very real to me as we walked on the shores of Galilee, past what archelogists are almost certain was Simon Peter's house.  Jesus invites us to follow him.

The site of the Sermon on the Mount near lake Galilee
I remember a key moment in my call to ministry reading Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and an exposition of these chapters by Don Carson.  There was a sense of that call being reaffirmed as I sat praying and re-reading those words of Jesus on the site where he delivered them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Stories of Hope from Bethlehem

My previous post about the conflict in the holy land may be difficult to grasp at first reading, so let me tell some stories to give more context.

Shepherd's Fields Greek Orthodox Christian School, in Biet Sahour, Bethlehem, is one ray of hope. We visited this very impressive school, met with students and were briefed by the principal George Sa'adeh.  George is a Palestinian Christian, who went to school in Bethlehem, and later graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from University of Southern California. Shepherd's Field School as a picture in the foyer which portrays the hope of the kingdom of God - peace and reconciliation - the lion lying down with the lamb.
The Lion lies down with the Lamb - Foyer Painting
This school provides excellent education for Palestinian children (both Christian and Muslim - without prejudice). The Palestinian Authority has little money.  Israelis restrict buildings and agriculture in Area C (over 70% of the West Bank) so the Palestinian economy is crippled, but the five year olds were so bright and happy, with a sparkle in their eyes. Even the senior students we met with (16-17 year olds) expressed hope for their future training and careers, although the sparkle had gone out of their eyes.  Only around 5% of Palestinian graduates get jobs.
Safe play area for children of the Shepherd's Fields School
We finished our visit with turkish coffee in the new library, built with money donated in memory of the principal's daughter Christine Sa'adeh.  George told us their story:
Christine Sa'adeh
George, his wife Najawa, and daughters Christine (12) and Marian (15) were driving in their car through suburban Bethlehem on the evening of 23rd March 2003. They were going grocery shopping.  Without warning, Israeli soldiers opened fire on their car which was hit with 30 bullets. It seems their car was a similar model to one being driven by Palestinian militants which soldiers had just shot.
Christine died. George was shot in the abdomen and back. Marian was shot in the leg.  Najawa suffered minor injuries.
George told what happened: "I saw two army jeeps on Nasser Street and thought about reversing away, but Palestinians know that can be fatal, so I drove towards them very slowly.
"I put on my indicator to show I was pulling out to avoid their vehicles. Just as we passed in front of them, the windscreen was blown in and bullets started flying around the car. I pulled up and screamed at the soldiers to stop the firing, but it continued. I looked behind and saw Christine slumped down, covered in blood."
Despite all this, George continues to work for peace and reconciliation, welcomes Muslim students and families to the school, and has numerous Jewish friends.  He says:
"I've always taught my students that we should live together in love and harmony in the Holy Land, but what's happening now is terrible, people are just getting crazy," he said. He was doing his best as a true Christian "not to allow hate into my heart at those who killed my beautiful little girl".

Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Christian and Director of Musalaha, Reconciliation Ministries, told us, "Hating someone is like drinking poison hoping they will die.  Unforgiveness can't remain."
Several of our team were privileged to hear Salim preach on the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43-48
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Signs of Hope!  St Jerome (347-420AD), who also died in Bethlehem, is reputed to have said: "Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books, and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you."  
This has been true for us in seeing the places were Jesus was born, lived, taught, died, rose and ascended.  It has also been true in seeing the example of these Palestinians living their lives "in Christ" in the holy land today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Let Justice Flow Like a River

Christians being baptised in the Jordan river
At one level the solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is simple.  As the Hebrew prophet Amos said, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." (Am 5:24).  If we could see justice and righteousness like this it would bring peace to this land.  Why then hasn't this happened? Fear, defensiveness, selfish, stubborn human hearts... People on all sides of this conflict so easily get blinkers on and can't see beyond their own situation.  That's true for all of us I'm sure.
One wall which separates Israeli and Palestinian (Bethlehem, West Bank)
One of the barriers to hearing God through Scripture (which I have been looking at over my Cambridge time) is not being able to see beyond the story we have constructed for ourselves. I suspect many Jews could hear Amos 5 from their scriptures and think only of justice for them having more of the land, and not of justice for the Palestinians whose land they are occupying and confiscating in what the UN and the International Court of Justice describe as illegal settlements.

Israeli Checkpoint
On the other hand, Palestinians can easily adopt a victim mentality and blame the Israeli occupation of their land for everything.

After 6 days in the Holy Land I can't pretend to understand this whole conflict.  However, the advantage of being here with World Vision is that many doors were open to us to see things in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) and meet people which tourists would miss, especially if they were on a tour organised by Israeli Jews.  We met with the Australian ambassador to Israel, David Sharma, who gave us helpful insights, but also acknowledged that the longer he is here the more complexities he discovers.  We have met and spoken with Israeli Jews, Israeli Messianic Jews, Israeli Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, and western Christian World Vision staff.  (Phew! That list in itself takes some understanding and has several subtle but important nuances.)

So, as I try to process everything, let me tell you about some of the things I have seen and heard.
This will give insight into the different narratives or viewpoints that one hears in the Holy Land. Many Western Christians will only really be aware of the narrative presented by the State of Israel, and various Zionist supporters including Christian Zionists.  I am trying to take the advice some Palestinian Christians gave us and not be "for" or "against" either side, but to be "for justice", or as I would say, "for the God of justice and for actions that bring glory to God."

The dominant narrative from the state of Israel has been the need for security.  We visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and saw the horror of the systematic murder of 6 million Jews (as well as 5 million non-Jews such as Poles, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and mentally and physically disabled people).  It is clear that the Jewish people are determined that this should never happen to them again.  Israelis live under threat from surrounding countries that have been at war with Israel at various times, and they can also face violence at any time within Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Some Christians, motivated by a particular understanding of biblical prophecy and end times, regard the modern nation state of Israel as the chosen people of God who are entitled to their promised land and can do no wrong.  Unfortunately this results in Western Christian support for Jewish and Secular Israelis forcing Palestinian Christians off land they have owned for centuries.  It can even come across as "these Palestinian Christians are holding up the return of Christ by not letting Israelis occupy the promised land in fulfillment of prophecy."
A Palestinian Shepherd near Bethlehem, with an Israeli settlement in the background.
The wall stops Israelis and Palestinians meeting and talking.  It contributes to the fear each has of the other.  When a new Israeli settlement (like the one in the photo above) is established in the West Bank it exacerbates the problem because access roads cut off neighbouring Palestinian villages from each other.  They aren't allowed to use or cross the new Israeli roads.  Israeli settlements have continuous water and electricity, while  Palestinian villages have restricted water and electricity supplies.

Palestinians can mix together during the day in Jerusalem..  However, when you look at the city, East Jerusalem where Palestinians must live is clearly poorer.  We were told that Palestinian incomes are approximately one tenth of Israeli incomes.  West Jerusalem has the money, shopping malls, and modern construction.  I find it hard to see how peace negotiations can succeed when the power and wealth difference is so stark.  Palestinians have little to bring to the negotiating table.

While most Palestinians are Muslim, there is a small percentage of Palestinian Christians (about 1.5%). These Christian brothers and sisters feel largely abandoned and ignored by the world (including Western Christianity).  They told us "We are the forgotten church.  Christians in the West don't care about us." Life for Palestinian Christians is harsh. If they have the opportunity many choose to leave.  The number of Christians has fallen from 20% in 1947 to 1.5% today. Many Palestinians are determined to stay

We met with some Messianic Jewish leaders.  (These are Jews who have come to believe in Jesus as the messiah). At least one of these leaders saw the need to find reconciliation and peace with Palestinians.  He works with a Palestinian Christian leader we met in an organisation called Musalaha seeking to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.  He faces some criticism from some Messianic Jews for this.  We also met with a group called Rabbis for Human Rights.  They similarly face criticism from some Jews - but at least they cannot be accused of being antisemitic.  Their activities include:

  • donating 3,500 olive trees each year to Palestinian farmers whose lands are either at risk of land taker-over, or have been victims of violence by Jewish extremists.
  • organizing volunteers to harvest olives in solidarity with Palestinian farmers who face harassment.
  • assisting with the many legal cases where land owners are facing displacement.
  • assisting close to 1000 underprivileged Israelis each year with their socio-economic rights.

Again and again we were impressed with the eloquent, humble, yet determined people working for peace and justice.  It gives hope for this region!