Monday, January 24, 2011

Dead or Alive

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you…” Luke 24:5-6

        Today I adventured into the Old City of Jerusalem. It was absolutely incredible. It was so ancient, and foreign languages, from Greek, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish, constantly surrounded me. The alleys were crooked and had tiny doors that veiled women peered out from, while young Palestinian boys guarded hidden communities of apartments (timeless but for the satellite dishes).
         First, I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the “popular” place where Jesus was supposed to have been crucified and buried, though historians completely disagree. It was crowded, filled with tourists and pilgrims. Many rubbed cloths and rosaries on the stone where Jesus’ body was thought to have been anointed with perfume before burial, hoping to “bless” the objects. Others went to the “Foot of the Cross”, where Jesus was thought to have been crucified. As I waited in the pushing and shoving crowd for my turn to be ushered in to kneel at the gold altar, I couldn’t help but feel I was distant from God. Well, not necessarily distant—but not close. I had felt much closer to him during the normal church worship that same morning than I did now, despite being in these ancient and beautiful surroundings.
The "foot of the cross" where Jesus was supposedly crucified in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
        Later, as I stepped out of the dimly lit church back into the streets of Old Jerusalem, I felt a mismatch. Where could the devout pilgrims find God now that they had stepped back out into the crooked streets filled with shops selling overpriced falafels and gold crosses? Was a trip to the holy sites just a spiritual “high” meant to satiate the faithful so that they could go back to their normal, aspiritual lives? Did it have no lasting significance for the average person?
          These thoughts grew as we visited the Western (or Wailing) Wall. I stood there with a complimentary yarmulke on my head and looked at the large white stones that stood in front of me—all that remained of the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. I reached out and touched one, thinking of the significance of the Temple to both the Jewish faith and my own Christian walk. But I felt nothing. These were just stones. Cold and uncaring. Pieces of paper with scrawled prayers were jammed into crevices, but who knew if they were ever answered?
The Western ("Wailing") Wall
          It was perhaps at this moment that a verse came to mind: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!” (Luke 24:5). If God truly had risen from the dead, then these ancient structures, churches, and Sepulchers were merely whitewashed tombs: beautiful to look at, but containing nothing of value. Certainly nothing to command my eternal and unequivocal allegiance.
          But anyway, I wrote a prayer on a piece of paper from my journal, something short but to the effect of asking God to pour out His Holy Spirit overflowing into my life and telling Him that I was wholly His. Once I placed it into the wall, I saw a little brown speck fall in front of me. Confused, I looked up. Little plants were growing from the 2000-year old spaces between the stones, proving that life could indeed survive in the most hostile of conditions. Another brown bit fell, and I saw that the cause was a tiny bird was pecking at the plant and causing pieces of it to fall gently to the ground.
          The image is inscribed into my memory. Directly above me was the Wall, then the scraggly bush, then the bird, and then nothing but a blue sky speckled with clouds. It was an incredible vantage point. The massive stones in front of me seemed no longer to matter; I was watching life happen—spontaneous and beautiful, from out of the cracks of civilization.
          The bird pecked once more. I reached out my hand and caught the bit of plant, but instead of the normal dead pieces, I found that I had received a piece of a green leaf. Surprised, I looked up, and saw that there was no bird to be found.
          I completely believe this was a message from God. I had asked for a pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and immediately after, from above from this bird, had come life. However, for me to receive this life, it required the pecking away of dry pieces. I know that even as I have grown immensely, there are still parts that God needs to prune for me to be fruitful (John ch. 15). It was an incredible encouragement that God is indeed pouring out his Spirit and new Life into me, as well as eliminating the dead parts of me.
         God is alive and near to each one of us. We don’t have to go to a certain place in order to find him. Doing so would just show that we think He is still dead, His power still somehow stuck in some crypt or church. But He isn’t dead. He is risen! And He moves in mysterious ways, ways that will speak to us in a language we can understand. We just have to reach out, take His hand, and walk with Him.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Tear Down These Walls..."

Lamentations 2:8
“The LORD determined to tear down the wall around Daughter Zion…”

            I took a run around my campus yesterday. A bit harder than expected (I’m choosing blame it on the hills instead of my current lack of exercise haha). But it was an incredible yet conflicted view from Mount Scopus, or “Mountain of Scouts”. On the one side of campus lay parks overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock mosque clearly visible. As I rounded the corner of my campus, the Mount of Olives came into view, and then the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea, and mountains of the nation of Jordan. Again, the physical intimacy of Israel came to mind.
But as I continued on, I came to a less pleasant overlook. On the other side of metal fences lay a Palestinian town. My campus lies on a hill, and a short distance down lay a garbage dump, then below that some shacks of some Bedouins, who I could see leading their ragged bands of goats to feed on whatever plants managed to eke out an existence on the barren hill. Then lay the houses, some directly below the garbage dump. While I’ve never been in a truly impoverished nation personally (parts of Newburgh come close), what I could see reminded me of ones I’ve seen in movies like City of God: dirty houses, children playing by throwing rocks at each other.
Palestinian village, seen from Mount Scopus my university. You can clearly see the Separation Wall.
Now, poverty’s an awful thing, no matter where it is found. And I’m not sure what’s worse: poverty due to negligence, or to an active persecution. Both are evil, it’s just one is more visible than the other. In Israel, it’s more on the visible end. Palestinians get yellow license plates on their cars; Israelis get white ones. If a Palestinian can manage to get a blue sticker, West Jerusalem (and the rest of Israel) then becomes accessible—otherwise they are forbidden to enter. But Nick tells me that Israel is tightening the noose on East Jerusalem’s remaining Arabs, and making unreasonable laws that take away the blue stickers (such as not living in Jerusalem enough days out of the year, etc.). So the divide between the empowered and disempowered is especially stark, because the barebed wire fences and Uzis are right there to see. (I gotta admit it’s really, really cool to see soldiers with Uzis and M-16s and AK-47s just walking the streets.)
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just hours after seeing all that, I went to a community Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner, in which were crammed nearly 80 people in a room that could only fit about 40 comfortably. I literally could not back my chair up to stand up for the prayers (really nobody could). The rabbi’s little sermon took note of this fact, and compared it to when all two million ancient Jews would cram into Jerusalem for feasts at the Temple. He said, “How could they all fit in such a tiny space? But there’s always enough room where there’s enough love.”
            There’s not enough love in Israel or Palestine. Until there is, there will never be room for everyone. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it has been hidden from your eyes.’” –Luke 19:41-42

My first couple days in Israel have been absolutely incredible. God has provided for me in a million ways, some of which I will describe here but there are perhaps too many to write down (John 21:25). So I think I will use this blog to be a bit more reflective of my time here.

The first thing one becomes immediately aware of is the geographical intimacy of Israel. When my adult friend Nick (who works for the UN in the Palestinian territories) picked me up in Tel Aviv, I was about 10 miles from the Mediterranean. Within 20 minutes of driving, I was in Occupied territories in the West Bank. Later, he took me to Jericho—one of the few autonomous Palestinian cities and firmly within the Occupied Territories—and from there I could see Amman, the capital of Jordan. So the first thing one I’ve understood is the extreme proximity of everything in Israel. In less than 2 hours of driving I had completely passed through Israel proper and nearly arrived at the next nation’s border.

Along the way, Nick pointed out settlement after settlement, nestled on ridges and hills, walled off and inaccessible to Arabs or even outsiders in general. He explained the process: Israelis would build a hut or two within Palestinian territory, and then slowly expand it to a few families. Soon they would receive military protection and so gain a status as being legitimate. In would pour more families, until soon the community had hundreds or even thousands of persons within it.
Settlements steadily coming in towards the Arab city of Bethlehem
In theory I already knew this. Seeing it in person was a different story. Each settlement was a walled off compound, usually bordered by Palestinian communities on either side of it. In Israel, building a building (in Palestinian territory) is often an act of aggression. It takes land used to pasture livestock, cuts off roads used to travel to work, and can disrupt ecosystems. But it’s more personal than that: on the drive to Jericho, Nick pointed out a hill completely covered with tree stumps, but no trees. I figured it was due to deforestation, but he told me that local Israeli settlers, angry at having an expansion project halted, cut down all the Palestinian’s olive trees in spite. Moreover, since the land was permitted to be used for military (though not residential) use, they put a police station on the top of a deserted hill—in the middle of the wilderness, far from any cities or neighborhoods. Just to stick it to the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Palestinians can be violent toward even innocent encroachers on their “turf”. Nick spoke of rocks being hurled at him when he made the mistake of going on a run that passed through a Palestinian neighborhood.

I could tell more stories, but I think you get the picture. Land is tight, and tensions run high. The building of a single house or a single misstep is an act of aggression. Despite—or perhaps because of—the walls, security, and M-16s, Jerusalem still has not found true peace.