Saturday, December 29, 2012

Treasure these things in your heart

Advent is over.  Jesus has arrived and on January 6 Epiphany will remind us that he is more than just a baby, but the very Son of God.  And I wonder what things "Mary treasured up" in her heart.  The Christian calendar works like a Spirograph.  The more you go through it the more intricate and the deeper the pattern becomes.  I too like to spend time "treasuring up these things in my heart." I like concentrating on an aspect of the reality of Christ slowly, a few elements at a time.  Right now the calendar allows us to simply bask in the reality Christ is here.  In January we will reflect on all the ways Jesus is God before looking at his teachings and his journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.  But that must all wait, for today it is just enough to be happy he is here.

I suppose that is one of the joys of the holiday season.  For we intentionally gather with family and friends we don't see as often during the year.  We also reflect on the past year and anticipate the new one.  My best friend from college and seminary is visiting this weekend.  And we have simply just been hanging out.  No deep conversations just time to spend catching up and simply being in each others presence.  I have also been off of work and have spent more time with my wife and children.  And again it is just good time to simply rest in each others presence.

I think we need that with Christ at times. We just need to celebrate and rest in his presence.  Time to just be happy  And that he loves us so much he sent Christ. 

May your holiday season be blessed and full of rest and time to "treasure up all these things in your heart."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This is a city of Concrete Bunkers

We began our day in peaceful worship and ended it in bomb shelters.

Okay that is a little dramatic but it is true to a point.  We began our day in Sunday worship at St. George's Anglican Church near our hotel.  It was a very nice and pleasent Advent service.  I especially enjoyed our reading of the Nicene Creed and our unison responses to prayers.

After that we traveled to the town of Sderot where we met with Isaac, Siva, and Joel from the orgnaization of Sderot Media.  Sderot is only 1km from the Gaza boarder and spends more time than any other city in Israel suffering from the Qashka rockets.  As a result the government of Israel has spent 500million dollars building bomb shelters for its citizens.  Every home, public building, school, and bus stop is a bomb shelter.  They are a target because most of the home made rockets that are fired from Gaza are not advanced enough to travel much further than 15km.  They have an early warning system that turns every public light red and a female voice comes over the PA system.  At this point they have 15seconds until a rocket lands somewhere in their vacinity.  People run from wherever they are to the closest shelter.  Each home has an additional room that cost about 26thousand dollars (paid for by Israel) that serves as a shelter.  For many this serves as a bedroom or a small famly room.  We visited a few of the shelters.  Many are painted very nicely and help express an artistic side of the people.  They also make art and sculptures from the rocket fragments in town.

Not only is this city of concrete and shelters it is a city full of citizens under mental duress because of the constant fear of attack.  They suffer from what they call "Current Stress" problems while people who move away suffer from PTSD.  30% of the population is under phychiatiric care, most of whome are children.

The guests who hosted us believe that the group Hamas is responsible for the attacks, not the common citizen of Gaza.  They emphasized several times that there are 1.4million people there and that Hamas is a very small number who are the problem.  They believe that there is a solution but it is hard to accomplish because the extreme minority on both sides.

Second we visited the Kibbutzim, Nir Am.  These are some of the older models for villiage life incorporated by Russian and other communist Jews who immigrated to Israel.  Basically, they were meant to be communial in the sense that all money, land, and responsibilities were shared.  This has gone out of vogue due to capitalism and now most Kibbutizm are more like Co-ops.  The family we met there was Michael and Tina and they work with the organization "Other Voices."  Their aim is to maintain relationships with individuals from Gaza so that they can continue to learn from one another and reach toward peace.  They do this by taking trips to foreign countries to meet because it is impossible for them to meet in Israel or Gaza.  While in foreign countries they share about their lives and have joint education training.  They also sponsor joint awareness events like bike rides where people on both sides of the wall ride together.  This Kibbutizm is less than a kilometer away from Gaza and has suffored rocket attacks but has not had any casualties.

These very southern parts of Israel are a very different experience than in Central and Northern Israel.  They experience life, think about politics, and approach the concept of peace differently.  Most still believe peace is possible but it will require the end to terror groups, of which Hamas being the first.  There is less Palestinian Jewish interaction here because all the towns are Jewish and there is zero crossing between Gaza and Israel.  But there is not as much animosity as one would expect given that over the past few years as many as 3,000 rockets have been fired at or over their heads.  They really believe in the goodness of the human being and in the evil of terror organizations.  It is an inspiration to see their fortitude and to hear them talk in such absolute terms their reality and their hope.  Both groups hope their country will find a way to end hostilities without being hostile in return.

They both expressed our need as Americans to question Israeli governmental decisions from time to time and not just blindly support all of its decisions.  We have heard this over and over from many leaders (both Israeli and Palestinian) we have met with. Twice our hosts referred to Israeli government as a drunk driver that needs to be encouraged to stop driving.  There are many elements that shape these comments and they will have to wait for anther day.

We ended the day by following the pattern of our Brethern partners love feast.  We ate dinner, reflected upon out lives, washed each others feet in humility, and shared in communion.  It was a very meaningful moment in the treip.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Beer, people, and peace

"What is the difference between a terrorist and a theologian?" Yusef Daher from the World Council of Churches asked us this morning while discussing Christians in Jerusalem.  "You can negotiate with a terrorist." It was a very funny moment in a very serious conversation.  Yusuf shared with us the conditions in Jerusalem for Christians.  Many find it difficult to remain in Jerusalem because they feel lost in the conversation.  There are only about 8,000 Christians in Jerusalem most of them are Palestinian.  To give them a voice the WCC decided to unite with local Christians and have them define the issues on the ground.  Two things came to the fore. Housing rights and the occupation of east Jerusalem.  After a couple years of conversation their conclusion was to love their enemy but fight evil.  This philosophy led them to love Israel but fight non violently the occupation. Their full philosophy can be found in a document called, Kiaros Document.

Next we met with Danny Seidemann. He is American by birth but he transferred his citizenship to be an Israeli after college. He has worked very closely with US and Israeli governments on trying to work through their political relationship.  He is very passionate about the health of Jerusalem and Israel.  He believes in a strong two state solution but it must include the rights to exist politically and religiously all three major religions.   His major concern at the moment is an area known as E1 that if developed will sever the West Bank in two and thus put an end to the two state possibility.  Just last week development on E1 was approved for the first time. He believes that if Israel developers this area it will isolate Israel globally from its supporters and give cause for a conflict.

In the afternoon we traveled to a town in the West Bank known as Taybeh, it's Biblical name was Ephraim.  It is the only mostly Christian town in the West Bank with three churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and Melkite.  We toured a home that would be a very good model of a home Jesus would have been born and lived in.  We also visited the only brewery in the Middle East, owned and operated by Palestinian Christians. The town is very beautiful and is surrounded be amazing views full of olive trees and shepherds.

Finally we traveled to Ramalah the defacto capital of Palestine. We met Sam Badour an American businessman who resides in Ramallah because he is married to a Palestinian and is of Palestinian descent.  Sam shared with us the difficulties involved in living under occupation in Palestine. You have to have a variety of IDs.  First you have an ID that classifies you as a Palestinian. This one makes it illegal to cross over into Israel without a permit, even though he is American.  You can only get a day permit for business or to go to the doctor and you have to cross back before 7pm.  He has a second ID that has a magnetic strip so he can apply for permits more often. It involved having a background check that took 8months to prove he was not a violent threat.  He also shared how the economic system in Palestine is micromanaged by Israel. He went into great detail here because of his business pursuits.  Suffice to share here all economic development in Palestine goes through Israel and they make it difficult.  Finally he shared how politics affect nearly every action here and how actions affect politics.  His talk was powerful and informative.

Today was a very full day that once again emphasized the beauty and wonder of this ancient world, with the reminder that this beutifiul and ancient world has had many broken moments in its history and its present is no different.  Jerusalem has been sacked 38 times in history!  There are many things that can be done.  Most common Israeli and Palestinians desire peace accomplished non-violently.  May the leaders of this world come together to try and accomplish this goal.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Farms and Old Jerusalem

Our journey today took us further into Palestine.  Today I met another Palestinian Christian.  His name is Daude (david) and he is a farmer.  His farm is on a hill in "Zone C" of Palestine.  This means Palestinians live there but it is completely controlled by Israel for the sake of all resources like water, electricity, trash etc and defense.  His land is surrounded by Israeli settlements and they would like to have access to his land as well.  He has been in a court case for 18 years defending his ownership.  So far he is still on his land.

Farming is hard when you don't have access to electricity and water.  Because Israel has the power of who gets what in Palestine most communities do not receive full water or electricity like the rest of Israel and the settlements.  They compensate by using water barrells on roofs that collect water when it is running and from rain.  Beyond that since it is under Israel control he is regularly denied building permits to build new structures to help the farm.  He is often given orders to tear down structures.  His road is also blocked by large rocks to make it more difficult for him to get to his home town of Bethlehem.

He is also the creator and leader of "Tent of Nations" a NGO that seeks to bring internationals into his farm and share with them his story and the rest of Palestine.  He also teaches nonviolence to these visitors.  Some come and stay a whole year others come just for a couple weeks in the summer.  All help on the farm in some way.  His goal is to be self sustaining at some point.

In the afternoon we traveled down to "Old Jerusalem"  what a cool place full of the oldest portions of Jerusalem.  We visited the Church of the Holy Schelpuchure and the western temple wall.  The church caused mixed feelings.  At one point I was awed by the size and scope of its mosaics.  At another point I am uneasy with the Orthodox style of worship that involves lots of gold and other ornate elements.  The wailing wall is very large and impressive.  But like the church it is neat to know this is the foundation of the old temples but I was not overly moved by the expereince.

I suppose that is risk you take with such sites.  You come hoping to be moved and sometimes you're not.  It happens.  I am also battling (as usual) some sort of nausea that has been effecting me for about 24hours.  I hope tomorrow to be in full health once I sleep it off and take my medicine.

Finally tonight we met with a self proclaimed Zionist Orthodox Jew and he very energetically shared with us all the power of Shabbat (Sabbath). He is as excited as he is informative.  I enjoyed meeting hime and hearing all about the different ways Judaism is practiced in Israel.  He also taught us many things about Sabbath that I think I would like to incorporate at some level in my own life.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Palestinian Christians under Occupation

"That was neat, now get on the bus there is more to see." And so ends our every visit by our Telos leadership.  Their purpose is to encourage us to see, hear, and understand a variety of perspectives.  It makes me feel so off balance.  For six months I have known I would be in Israel and Palestine.  I read books and articles.  I watched documentaries and the news.  I have a handle on the history.  What I have not had until now is context and "facts on the ground."  I will share what we did today, but it will take me days if not weeks to be able to fully reflect on the experiences of this week so far.

I have just completed my first 24hours inside a walled off occupied territory.  Never before had I been to such a place. And after only one day my perception has once again been changed.  Today we met with three very different Palestinian Christians.

Each had their own perspective and for the sake of their discretion I think for today I will simply share the most basic information.  We toured the Bethel Bible College that seeks to create a higher education in for Palestinians.  There are remarkably few Palestinian Christians because Christian schools are some of the best in Israel.  Christians usually go to college abroad and once there stay.  The college is trying to create in country education options.  Second we visited the "Christmas Church" led by Dr. Mitri Raheb author of "I am a Palestinian Christian."  He is not overly optimistic on politics but did encourage us to read scripture remembering it was written by and to middle eastern people.  Finally, we met with Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust a nonviolent proactive leadership development center.  His leadership techniques are powerful and give me hope.

These Palestinian Christians do not all agree on how to move forward but all agree that it must be done non-violently, through education and cultural change with all parties involved.

We also visited the Church of the Nativity the oldest Christian structure in the world.  It was a neat place full of history.  It is amazing to think about the millions of believers who have gone into this church over the years.

Today was an amazing experience I will not soon forget.  A full description and reflection will have to wait for another post.  For now let me just say, today has affected me in new ways.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Eating my way through the places Jesus walked

I am so full.  Every meal we have is enormous.  Several green salad type "appetizers" always fresh vegetables, and a main course of fish, chicken, or lamb.  Most meals have dessert.  I am so full.

Today we met with Oren Magnezy, who worked as an aid to the advisor to Ariel Sharron.  He began this work at only the age of 23!  He is only a few years older than I am and he has already been an advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel.  He shared with us his views on his government and the Palestinian/Israeli relationship.  He is a strong supporter of the two state solution for the sake of peace in Israel, security for Israel, and for the sake of the Palestinian people.  He was incredibly articulate and wise and had great insights into the political and cultural elements of Israel.  He is currently working on his private organization that works to help bring about this two state solution in Israel.   One of the things he explained so well for us was how he believes that the future of Israel will depend strongly on Israel's ability to work with Palestine to create boarders and do a fair land swap of both quality and quantity and to have equal access to "holy sites" in what ever becomes Israel and the Palestinian states.  He also shared history and future hope of Israel and how American leaders can help bring about a positive solution to present situtations.

We also were reminded the history from the past 100 years that has led to the present State of Israel.  We heard it from three unique persepectives, American CHristian, American Jew who now resides in Israel, and a Palestinian Muslim.  Their stories are identical so we know they agree on what has happene thus far in history.  They also shared some uniqe perspectives on the meaning of those historical events and how they shape the present political situation.  The big emphasis on this whole trip is two fold.  First this is not an ancient problem it is a modern "geo political" problem.  Second, it is not a religious issue between Muslims and Jews for they get along and share space for 'holy sites' throughout Israel.  The big emphasis is that this is a political problem with a political solution.  I am beginning to acquire the hope that there is a solution.  I am also learning just how much "grey" there is in this conversation that is so easily put into black and white/right and wrong polarizing parties.

We also visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemne and the Holacaust Museum Yad Vashom.  All of it was very moving.  Blessings.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sea of Galilee

Day 2 Israel 2012

Today was a great day spent with Israeli/Palestinian Baptists.  Baptists first came to Israel in the 1920's after a businessman from Israel went to Texas in search of work.  While there he dedicated his life to Christ and was baptized at FBC Dallas by George W. Truett!  He then encourage SBC to come to Israel and they planted a few churches.  During the 1990's the American missionaries left, leaving the 8 Baptist churches to start fresh on their own.  Today there are 16 Baptist churches in Israel and a very popular school for students k-highschool.  Their ministry in Israel is to be the evenagelical witness in Israel and to help foreign workers gain visa's and housing.  There are only about 3,000 Baptist in Israel, a very small minority among Christians.  Baptists are not recognized as an official Christian group.  They have petioned to be recognized by the Knesset in conjuction with other evangelical denominations so that their weddings and other rights become recognized.

We also spent the day on and around the Sea of Galilee or as they call it here, Tiberas Sea.  It was an amazing experience.  IT started with us traveling down to Tiberias.  The city was originally built upon a grave site and was considered a horrible place to live by the Jews.  When the Temple fell in the 70's the Sanhedrian moved there and it was the location of where much of the Talmud was constructed.   Today it is a very busy and very tightly packed town that is mostly of Arabic Muslims and conservative Jews who don't interact with each other very much.  While there we took a boat ride on the Sea and got to experience first hand the ficklness of the weather.  It was cold and rainy when we arrived and was warm and sunny by the time we left.

From there we traveled to the Mount of the Beatitudes.  Today there is a beautiful Catholic Church there where you can view the area Jesus probably sat to deliver the sermon on the mount.  It was a very moving experience where we read from the Sermon in Matthew and sang a few songs.  The church is very small but symbolic.  The grounds however are a beautiful garden scene.

Next we traveled down to the area along the sea where it is believed that Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples in John 21.  Again we read the passage and prayed.  It was very cool to hear the passage while looking out to the sea and almost see the boat, Peter jumping in the water fully clothed, the little fire with fish, and Jesus asking, "Do you love me?"  It was my favorite moment of the day.

We ended the day by traveling to the city of Capernaum.  This is the location where Jesus lived during his ministry.  He used it as a home base of sorts.  It is also the home town of Peter.  At this site they believe they found his home.  IF nothing else there is an amazing synogue that has two layers.  The lowest foundation is the one where Jesus would have preached and spoken when he visited the town.

Today has been an amazing day of "walking the places where Jesus walked."  TOmorrow we will travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  We will meet with a member of the Knesset and travel through the Jezreel Valley and visit Yad Vasham (holocaust museum).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Running through the Places Jesus Walked

Israel Trip Day One:
"A lot of people come to Israel to run through the places Jesus walked."  Thus began our introduction to Israel from our host/leader Todd Deatherage from the Telos Group.  His point was that people manage to come to Israel and spend alot of money and time visiting the sites where Biblical events occured but manage to ignore the people who live here on a daily basis.  He reminded us that our purpose for this trip is to not only "walk" through the places of Christ but to engage with people because, "Jesus is still walking through this part of the world and within the lives of the people who still live here."

Our team spent a little time getting to know each other. I am glad that we are on this journey together.  I am grateful for this expereience.  We ate our first meal together and we had quit the expereince.  Lots of greens and salad type dishes followed by varieties of chicken, lamb, and salmon.  Everything was very good and it was very neat to eat in a "community' style where we all just sort of grabbed from a central dish.

We are now in Naareth and on our second day we will go to Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, and meet with Baptist churches/schools here.  Nazareth is a city of 100,000 people nestled quit nicely into a series of hills that make you grateful for good shoes.  This is a mostly Arabic Christian community and there are Christmas trees and lights in every storefront and restaurant.  They seem out of place in this ancient city but so do the coke signs, pictures of Brad Pitt selling cologne, and the McDonalds.  The west is very much an influence in this place.

Until tomorrow.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Peace Mission

Tomorrow I leave for Israel to experience first hand and better understand the dynamics of modern Israel and Palestinian relations.  This is no sight seeing tour of common tourist destinations.  A delegation of denominational leaders from American Baptists and Church of the Brethern will journey together under the leadership of the Telos Group whose stated mission is:
Telos strengthens the capacity of American faith communities - and especially American evangelicals - to help positively trans­form the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Our vision is security, freedom, and dignity for every human being in the Holy Land, and our belief is that a viable two-state solution supported by the United States is the best and most practical way to realize that vision.   
In other words, we at Telos are genuinely pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, and pro-peace, all at the same time.

Friends and family alike continue to ask me, "So, are you ready (excited) for your trip?"  For a long time my answer was, "Well it is still a ways off and I have a ton of things to read before I go."  But this week leading up to the trip my answer has been, "I will get to see places I have only read about or seen on TV.  It will be cool to look upon the geography that has shaped so many of my thoughts."  I realize there is very little about modern Israel that is remotely the same as 2,000-5,000 years ago that make up the Biblical narrative.  But it will still be neat to look upon the same mountains and hills the kings, judges, prophets, and disciples traveled.

My unspoken, more honest response is, "I have no idea what to expect or hope to get out of this trip."  This is not a vacation.  I am not just a tourist to this "Holy Land"  as though I can simply look out my hotel window and romantically see visions of Christ teaching on the Galilean hillside.  For to do that I would have to look past the violence, segregation, a wall, guard posts, damaged farms, contested boarders, and the constant tension.  For this trip I am going to learn about those who live in and fight over this "Holy Land" presently. To hear all sides and meet real people who deal with these issues everyday.  We are going to meet members of the Knesset, World Council of Churches, College professors, local church leaders, community developers, have a Shabbat meal with a family, and visit some of the most polarizing communities in the land like Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Hebron.  We will also do some touristy things like visit churches, go to a museum, visit old Jerusalem, and be in Bethlehem during Advent.

We were encouraged to read several books and articles.  It has been an eye opening experience.  I have learned more about the Israeli/Palestinian divide in the past six months than in my whole life up to this point. I am looking forward to hearing how we can mirror the hope and optimism of Telos' mission statement.  Because from behind a book and behind a flatscreen TV news program, it looks difficult.  Yet I can't help being hopeful for the experience, to strengthen relationships with my ABC colleagues, make new friends from across the world, and yes walk the "places" of the Bible.  I will post when I can about this trip.  It may be everyday it may be once but keep checking back.