Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gaza Crisis

Last night (by my poor counting) about 200 people gathered on the west steps of the Colorado
State Capitol building in Denver to protest Israel's attack on Gaza.

Today NPR had wonderful coverage of what is going on in Gaza - from Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints. Listen to the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Sallai Meridor:

And to Mustafa Barghouti, an independent lawmaker in the West Bank city of Ramallah:

These two views illustrate much of the difficulty preventing peace in the region.

Read the story about the Israeli Navy's attack Monday on the Dignity, the Free Gaza ship trying to bring medical supplies to Gaza. It's on my other blog, PeaceNewsLinks:

Another excellent article by Chris Hedges on the U.S. role and on people who are working to bring balance to our understanding of the conflict:
Published on Tuesday, December 30, 2008 by

Party to Murder
by Chris Hedges editor's note: In light of the recent fighting in Gaza, Truthdig asked Chris Hedges, who covered the Mideast for The New York Times for seven years, to update a previous column [1] on Gaza.

Can anyone who is following the Israeli air attacks on Gaza-the buildings blown to rubble, the children killed on their way to school, the long rows of mutilated corpses, the wailing mothers and wives, the crowds of terrified Palestinians not knowing where to flee, the hospitals so overburdened and out of supplies they cannot treat the wounded, and our studied, callous indifference to this widespread human suffering-wonder why we are hated?

Our self-righteous celebration of ourselves and our supposed virtue is as false as that of Israel. We have become monsters, militarized bullies, heartless and savage. We are a party to human slaughter, a flagrant war crime, and do nothing. We forget that the innocents who suffer and die in Gaza are a reflection of ourselves, of how we might have been should fate and time and geography have made the circumstances of our birth different. We forget that we are all absurd and vulnerable creatures. We all have the capacity to fear and hate and love. "Expose thyself to what wretches feel," King Lear said, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, "and show the heavens more just."

Privilege and power, especially military power, is a dangerous narcotic. Violence destroys those who bear the brunt of its force, but also those who try to use it to become gods. Over 350 Palestinians have been killed [2], many of them civilians, and over 1,000 have been wounded since the air attacks began on Saturday. Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, said Israel is engaged in a "war to the bitter end" against Hamas in Gaza. A war? Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely crowded refugee camps and slums, to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command and control, no army, and calls it a war. It is not a war. It is murder.

The U.N. special rapporteur [3] for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, former Princeton University law professor Richard Falk, has labeled what Israel is doing to the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza "a crime against humanity." Falk, who is Jewish, has condemned the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza as "a flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention." He has asked for "the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law."

Falk's unflinching honesty has enraged Israel. He was banned from entering the country on Dec. 14 during his attempt to visit Gaza and the West Bank.

"After being denied entry I was put in a holding room with about 20 others experiencing entry problems," he said. "At this point I was treated not as a U.N. representative, but as some sort of security threat, subjected to an inch-by-inch body search, and the most meticulous luggage inspection I have ever witnessed. I was separated from my two U.N. companions, who were allowed to enter Israel. At this point I was taken to the airport detention facility a mile or so away, required to put all my bags and cell phone in a room, taken to a locked, tiny room that had five other detainees, smelled of urine and filth, and was an unwelcome invitation to claustrophobia. I spent the next 15 hours so confined, which amounted to a cram course on the miseries of prison life, including dirty sheets, inedible food, and either lights that were too bright or darkness controlled from the guard office."

The foreign press has been, like Falk, barred by Israel from entering Gaza to report on the destruction.

Israel's stated aim of halting homemade rockets fired from Gaza into Israel remains unfulfilled. Gaza militants have fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into Israel, killing four [4] people and wounding nearly two dozen more, since Israel unleashed its air assault. Israel has threatened to launch a ground assault and has called up 6,500 army reservists. It has massed tanks on the Gaza border and declared the area a closed military zone.

The rocket attacks by Hamas are, as Falk points out, also criminal violations of international law. But as Falk notes, "... such Palestinian behavior does not legalize Israel's imposition of a collective punishment of a life- and health-threatening character on the people of Gaza, and should not distract the U.N. or international society from discharging their fundamental moral and legal duty to render protection to the Palestinian people."

"It is an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that each day poses the entire 1.5 million Gazans to an unspeakable ordeal, to a struggle to survive in terms of their health," Falk has said of the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza. "This is an increasingly precarious condition. A recent study reports that 46 percent of all Gazan children suffer from acute anemia. There are reports that the sonic booms associated with Israeli overflights have caused widespread deafness, especially among children. Gazan children need thousands of hearing aids. Malnutrition is extremely high in a number of different dimensions and affects 75 percent of Gazans. There are widespread mental disorders, especially among young people without the will to live. Over 50 percent of Gazan children under the age of 12 have been found to have no will to live."

Before the air assaults, Gaza spent 12 hours a day without power, which can be a death sentence to the severely ill in hospitals. Most of Gaza is now without power. There are few drugs and little medicine, including no cancer or cystic fibrosis medication. Hospitals have generators but often lack fuel. Medical equipment, including one of Gaza's three CT scanners, has been destroyed by power surges and fluctuations. Medical staff cannot control the temperature of incubators for newborns. And Israel has revoked most exit visas, meaning some of those who need specialized care, including cancer patients and those in need of kidney dialysis, have died. Of the 230 Gazans estimated to have died last year because they were denied proper medical care, several spent their final hours at Israeli crossing points where they were refused entry into Israel. The statistics gathered on children-half of Gaza's population is under the age of 17-are increasingly grim. About 45 percent of children in Gaza have iron deficiency from a lack of fruit and vegetables, and 18 percent have stunted growth.

"It is macabre," Falk said of the blockade. "I don't know of anything that exactly fits this situation. People have been referring to the Warsaw ghetto as the nearest analog in modern times."

"There is no structure of an occupation that endured for decades and involved this kind of oppressive circumstances," the rapporteur added. "The magnitude, the deliberateness, the violations of international humanitarian law, the impact on the health, lives and survival and the overall conditions warrant the characterization of a crime against humanity. This occupation is the direct intention by the Israeli military and civilian authorities. They are responsible and should be held accountable."

The point of the Israeli attack, ostensibly, is to break Hamas, the radical Islamic group that was elected to power in 2007. But Hamas has repeatedly proposed long-term truces with Israel and offered to negotiate a permanent truce. During the last cease-fire, established through Egyptian intermediaries in July, Hamas upheld the truce although Israel refused to ease the blockade. It was Israel that, on Nov. 4, initiated an armed attack [5] that violated the truce and killed six Palestinians. It was only then that Hamas resumed firing rockets at Israel.

"This is a crime of survival," Falk said of the rocket attacks by Palestinians. "Israel has put the Gazans in a set of circumstances where they either have to accept whatever is imposed on them or resist in any way available to them. That is a horrible dilemma to impose upon a people. This does not alleviate the Palestinians, and Gazans in particular, for accountability for doing these acts involving rocket fire, but it also imposes some responsibility on Israel for creating these circumstances."

Israel seeks to break the will of the Palestinians to resist. The Israeli government has demonstrated little interest in diplomacy or a peaceful solution. The rapid expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is an effort to thwart the possibility of a two-state solution by gobbling up vast tracts of Palestinian real estate. Israel also appears to want to thrust the impoverished Gaza Strip onto Egypt. Dozens of tunnels had been the principal means for food and goods, connecting Gaza to Egypt. Israel had permitted the tunnels to operate, most likely as part of an effort to further cut Gaza off from Israel. This ended, however, on Sunday when Israeli fighter jets bombed over 40 tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt. The Israeli military said that the tunnels, on the Gaza side of the border, were used for smuggling weapons, explosives and fugitives. Egypt has sealed its border and refused to let distraught Palestinians enter its territory.

"Israel, all along, has not been prepared to enter into diplomatic process that gives the Palestinians a viable state," Falk said. "They [the Israelis] feel time is on their side. They feel they can create enough facts on the ground so people will come to the conclusion a viable state cannot emerge."

The use of terror and hunger to break a hostile population is one of the oldest forms of warfare. I watched the Bosnian Serbs employ the same tactic in Sarajevo. Those who orchestrate such sieges do not grasp the terrible rage born of long humiliation, indiscriminate violence and abuse. A father or a mother whose child dies because of a lack of vaccines or proper medical care does not forget. A boy whose ill grandmother dies while detained at an Israel checkpoint does not forget. A family that loses a child in an airstrike does not forget. All who endure humiliation, abuse and the murder of family members do not forget. This rage becomes a virus within those who, eventually, stumble out into the daylight. Is it any wonder that 71 percent of children interviewed at a school in Gaza recently said they wanted to be a "martyr"?

The Israelis in Gaza, like the American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, are foolishly breeding the next generation of militants and Islamic radicals. Jihadists, enraged by the injustices done by Israel and the United States, seek to carry out reciprocal acts of savagery, even at the cost of their own lives. The violence unleashed on Palestinian children will, one day, be the violence unleashed on Israeli children. This is the tragedy of Gaza. This is the tragedy of Israel.
© 2008

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for [6]. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. [7]"

Article printed from
URL to article: The link has all the hyperlinks.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs

This morning I search the photos from Gaza and read the news stories, wondering how the people I met this summer and fall are doing now, as the violence escalates. One photo was taken at the Qalandia checkpoint, where we got off our tour bus and walked through on foot in June. It's the checkpoint everyone goes through to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the capitol of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The checkpoint is staffed by Israeli soldiers, who monitor everyone going and coming. The PA also has soldiers at the checkpoint, but it is clear that the Israeli soldiers are the ones in control. Apparently this checkpoint has become a hotspot for protests against Israel's attacks on Gaza. The photo appears on the New York Times web site, along with many others. It was taken by Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press, and is captioned: Palestinian women flee during clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, at the Kalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. The Israeli military warned that "This operation will be continued, expanded and intensified as much as will be required."

These women are running, covering their ears as the gunfire surrounds them, through the area where we walked in June. Even then it was a somber, scary place. One of our group accidently left his passport on the bus and we had a few moments of panic as we retraced our steps to get the passport. The blue American book, however, worked its magic - no one wants to cause an international incident and endanger their relationship with the U.S - and his passport was retrieved and he passed throught the checkpoint without much hassle at all.

While we played out the drama of the lost American passport, our Palestinian tour guide waited in the long line to go through the checkpoint - when, in spite of all our bumbling, we finally got through, he was still the line reserved for the Palestinians (who pass through this checkpoint regularly).

I checked the web site of Mohammad Omer - a young man who, since he was a hight school student in 2001, has documented daily life in Gaza ( There are no new photos on the site, but looking once again at his work, I'm reminded that while we are shocked by what is happening in Gaza this weekend, this violence is not new for the residents of Gaza. They have been enduring bulldozing of their houses, shootings of their fathers and children and the less remarkable but daily violence - a lack of medical supplies, shortages of chlorine to make the water safe to drink, few schoolbooks for the children and imprisonment in their community - only rarely and in extreme circumstances are Gaza residents permitted to leave the area. So, they are trapped in their city without life's necessities, like oil for heating and cooking and electricity to light their homes. There is a shortage of food, and even the U.N. relief agency in Gaza is currently unable to provide emergency food for the community. While we take note of the violence this weekend, they have been experiencing this violence for sixty years, going about their daily lives, teaching their children, cooking whatever food they can find when fuel is available, waiting for a resolution to the conflict. This photo, too, is from the NYTimes web site, taken by Majed Hamdan/Associated Press, captioned: Palestinian rescue workers carried a wounded prisoner amidst the rubble of the main security compound and prison in Gaza City known as the Saraya. Israeli aircraft pounded Gaza for a second day on Sunday, increasing the death toll to nearly 300.
See more photos:

Yesterday, December 28, was the commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs, the babies slaughtered by Herod as he tried to save himself from his fears of a usurper-king. Today, please hold in your prayers the people of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, their pastor Mitri Raheb and his family, wife Najwa, and daughters Dana and Tala; Bishop Mounib Younan and the other congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land - in Ramallah, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan; along with all the Palestinians who are suffering under the occupation of Israeli soldiers, especially those enduring the attacks in Gaza.

On Christmas Eve we heard, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus..." Today, decrees from the world's powerful are still causing suffering and death. Let us ponder our role in this suffering and pray for the courage to raise our voices in protest. Let OUR voices be "heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (Matt. 2.18).

There will be a vigil on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver tomorrow night, December 30, 5:00 pm, to express our solidarity with the people of Gaza; join in the vigil or make your own prayers for the Holy Innocents who are still being killed even today.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza Crisis - words and pictures from inside Gaza

First - A short video showing life in Gaza today (actually, before the Israeli attacks), the reality of a Gaza cut off from the world, from food, fuel and even the humanitarian supplies necessitated by the failure of diplomatic efforts:

"Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust", an article by American Jewish writer and diplomat, Richard Falk - an insightful (although long and involved) reflection, written in 2007, which sheds light on events in Gaza these past two days:

Another article by Sara Roy, to be published January 1 in the London Review of Books - summarizes the recent history of the blockade of Gaza and the roles of the U.S., Israel, the U.N. and others in the failure of the peace process:

All three of these resources provided by Sam Bahour in Ramallah, who publishes eNews about what is going on inside the Palestinian areas. To subscribe to his list, go to:

To subscribe to his listserve, send mail to:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 4 - Week of Dec 21, Luke 1.26-38

The angel said to her….“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”

Mary’s simple declaration of trust in God so vividly captures the spirit I have seen in those who have chosen to remain in Palestine and nonviolently resist the Israeli military occupation of their land. Trusting that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” is how they get through each day with dignity and hope. They say, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

The angel says to them, “Do not be afraid…for you have found favor with God.” And they believe the promise. When I hear these words, I think of the day we met the mayor of Ein Hod, Muhammed Abu al-Haija, who told us about his family’s story of terror and rebirth. He and his family and all of the other residents fled this village in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war.

When the war ended, the Israel authorities did not permit them to return to the village, so, rather than go to the Jenin refugee camp, Muhammed al-Haija’s grandfather and 35 other families trekked up the hill to their farmland and lived in their olive groves and the fields where they grazed their sheep. They built houses to live in, but, because the new village at the top of the hill was “unrecognized” by the Israeli authorities, they could not get access to electricity or water. The Israelis bulldozed some of their homes because they were built without permits. Even though the Arab villagers were Israeli citizens and paid taxes, the Israeli government would not build a road to their village because it was not on the map. When they petitioned the government for recognition, they were told that it was too small, their land was classified “agricultural” and that they could not build there; they were called “squatters.” Finally, after many years spent in Israeli government offices, contacting officials, organizing with other unrecognized villages and holding protests in Jerusalem, upper Ein Hod was finally recognized in 1992, and their village address could be listed on their Israeli identity cards.

It took fifteen more years, but in 2007, they were finally connected to the electric grid. They built a kindergarten and an elementary school. And they built a road with money they withheld from their taxes, so that their children could ride the bus to the high school in Haifa. And finally they were permitted to install a water system. They still cannot use their cemetery, but they have built a new one at the top of the hill.
The ultimate insult was when Iaraelis “discovered” the “abandoned” village of Ein Hod at the bottom of the hill. Artists moved into the empty buildings, “squatting” on their land, even turning their mosque into a restaurant for tourists. Today the artists paint and tourists drink coffee under the beautiful olive trees which were planted by the Arab villagers hundreds of years ago.
With the electricity, Mayor al-Haija has built his own restaurant in the village at the top of the hill. It has a patio with beautiful gardens and ancient olive trees and people like our tour group come there for delicious hummus and roast lamb. Mayor al-Haija told us that he worked hard for many years to get recognition for his village and then fighting for electricity, water and roads. Now he is tired and he says it is up to the next generation. Only two houses currently have electricity—the others await permits. Their houses can be bulldozed at any time because they still do not have permits to build. The photo shows the new restaurant in New Ein Hod.

--One hundred other Arab villages till wait for recognition.

O Lord our God, you have chosen us and made us your own. Help us to say, with Mary, “I am the servant of my God. I live to do your will.” Then lead us, together in this community, to wisely discern where God is calling us to minister, so that we may be healers of the wounds of the world. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 4 - Week of Dec 21, Romans 16.25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you…be the glory forever! Amen.
It is a challenge for Palestinian Christians, grounded in Holy Scripture, to hear people cite the Bible as the authority for taking their land. Many of these families can trace their ancestry back generations, finding themselves in the stories in Acts about the early church. It might seem easier to reject the Bible and turn to political arguments.
But God speaks loudly to the Palestinians through the occupation, and the Palestinians turn to the stories of their faith for sustenance and strength. These same words have a far different message in their Palestinian context. Living under occupation, Bishop Mounib Younan, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and Pastor Mitri Raheb, of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, have become excellent and practiced theologians, interpreting these texts from the perspective of people who are oppressed.
Lutherans in the Holy Land today bear this good news, giving God the glory for the strength God provides for them. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land is made up of six congregations, four in the occupied West Bank—in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour; one in Jerusalem; and one in Amman, Jordan, intent on bringing hope to their communities, even when their people often feel hopeless.
Each of these congregations has a school, because, as Pastor Mitri says, education is the key to achieving freedom and equal rights and creating a just and flourishing society. These schools, attended by both Muslim and Christian children, teach understanding and respect for other cultures. They nurture a curiosity about the world, a thirst for learning and creative problem-solving. The teachers encourage their students to resist the occupation by learning their own Palestinian culture, creating art and music that celebrates who they are and caring for their bodies with exercise.
As I walked into the Wellness Center in Bethlehem, Hamid grinned and practiced his English, saying “Hello, how are you?” When he saw my camera he made faces and jumped about, posing for a picture. His two friends walked in with their mothers for their swim lesson and he got them to mug for the camera too. I took several pictures, showed them to the boys and they giggled with excitement and posed some more. Although his English is limited, Hamid is curious about the bigger world. He wants to make friends with strangers. He has been raised to welcome the other, to approach the other without fear. He is the legacy of the Lutheran churches’ educational philosophy. The photo shows Hamid and his friends hamming it up for the camera.

Some in Israel claim election—that Israel is God’s chosen people by virtue of their ethnicity. Pastor Mitri has written, however, that God’s election is “a promise to the weak, encouragement to the discouraged and consolation to the desperate….Election is not a special privilege, It is much more a call to service, above all a service ‘to the other.’” (I Am a Palestinian Christian, Fortress Press, 1995, p 66) He cites Torah where Abraham is blessed, not for his own benefit or for the amassing of wealth, but so that “all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.3). God’s election is not for personal or national gain, but for the benefit of others. The formative story of Israel is the Exodus, the tale of a people oppressed and enslaved by a powerful nation, rescued by God. Palestinians today see themselves as the Israelites, deprived of their freedom by a strong military power, bent on imprisoning them. God is for them their savior, strengthening them for God’s work in the world.
—For what work is God is strengthening us?

O Lord our God, you have chosen us and made us your own. In our baptism you have claimed us. As you strengthen us daily for your work in the world, help us to discern your will and give us the courage to go out and do that work in our own community. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 4 - Week of Dec 21, 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more…

Jewish Zionists cite passages like this one to support their claim to the land of Israel. The most extreme want to see all Palestinians removed, so that the Jews, God’s chosen people, have exclusive possession of the land.

Everyone needs a homeland—a place where they feel safe, where they can protect their homes and raise their children in safety. This has been the stated aim of Israel as they set about building the security wall; they have said they want to protect their settlements from terrorists and to keep the suicide bombers out. In a post-holocaust world, this has seemed understandable to Europeans and Americans, supported by us because of our guilt over they way we stood by while 6 million Jews were herded into ghettos, loaded onto trains, transported to camps and slaughtered. So what is wrong with wanting to protect your family?

Hannah, a hite-haired Jewish grandmother and a volunteer with Machsom Watch, told us that the occupation of Palestinian lands, the security wall and the inhumane treatment of Palestinians at the checkpoints is eating away at the core values of the Jewish people. It is creating a generation of young people numbed to human suffering by their service in the Israeli Army, and it is destroying the fabric of Jewish society. The occupation corrupts and if she does not speak up, her grandchildren will pay the price. Hannah and the other Israeli 500 women who volunteer for Machsom Watch believe that the wall and the checkpoints are not making Israelis safer. Instead it is transforming them into a people who regard the Palestinians as less than human. They are being trained to hate the Palestinians and they are becoming hardened, accepting injustice as the price to be paid for their safety.
The photo shows resistance to the occupation: Graffiti on the Israeli security wall at Abu Dis.

So Hannah spends her days monitoring the checkpoints and writing reports of what she has seen; the women monitor forty checkpoints in Jerusalem and the West Bank. There is nothing in writing—no rules—about how the checkpoints are run. It is up to the individual soldier under the orders of the commander. The soldier may ask for any sort of documentation. Because of international pressure, soldiers no longer beat people at the checkpoints, but they make travel so difficult that many Palestinians simply give up, quit their jobs and leave the country.

Hannah worked with a young Palestinian family whose son needed treatment for cancer in his eye. His parents and his grandmother had not been able to get permits to travel with him for the medical treatment. When they got permission, it was for only for one day, not enough time for the treatment. When they finally got a four-day permit the letter was in Hebrew, which they do not speak. The faxed permit was not good enough for the soldier, who required an original, so Hannah called the commanders of each of the checkpoints they needed to pass and the commanders called ahead to facilitate their passage. She told us this happens every day.

Another time she helped a milkman who had permits for himself and his truck, but he was stopped because, “The milk does not have a permit.” Another man was traveling back from the hospital where he had had his leg amputated. He wanted to bring the leg with him so that it could be buried with him according to Muslim tradition. He spent ten hours at the checkpoint before he was permitted to leave with the leg.

When I asked how she happened to become involved in her work, Hannah told us that she could not do this work until she became a widow. Her husband would not have approved and her children do not support her in this work. But for her, living in peace requires justice for Palestinians.
O Lord our God, you desire peace and safety for all of us—your people. Like Israel, may we, too, be a blessing to all the nations of the world. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 3 - Week of Dec 14, John 1.6-8, 19-28

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

Here we are with that Wild Man John again, as he travels through the dry, barren wilderness, dressed in animal skins, shouting to anyone who would listen, pointing to the Messiah, testifying to the light. The elders of the synagogue asked him, “Who are you?” And he replied, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” ……John, the announcer, pointing to the Messiah of God, proclaiming God’s good news to the people.

The land where John lived and preached, east of Jerusalem, between the city and the Jordan River, doesn’t look like much—no water to be seen, only rock and dirt and a few tiny, scruffy, dried-out plants. Except for the oasis of Jericho, it’s pretty much only Bedouin who live here, eking out a hard living with their goats and perhaps selling their weaving in the markets. Hard to imagine anyone would fight for this bleak, unfruitful land.

This desolate land, however, is much prized. On the color-coded map drawn up for the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Arab villages and farmlands are tan; the Jewish settlements are blue. Since 1948 when the State of Israel was established, this land has become more blue each year. As the blue areas become larger and larger, the brown areas shrink. In spite of United Nations resolutions, the Fourth Geneva Convention’s laws governing military occupation of lands, and pressure on Israel to cease building settlements in Palestinian areas, new settlements are being built today. Even as Palestinian homes are being demolished.

When we met Angela at our hotel, she looked like she could be channeling John the Baptist. Dressed in a long black tunic and pants, short hair with a long “rat tale” braid (as my junior high son prized it in the 80s), broad-brimmed straw hat and gestures much larger than her 5’3” frame, she attracted attention and mesmerized us as she told us about the struggle for the land and showed us demolished Arab houses and new construction expanding Israeli settlements. Angela is a tour guide with ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. She stood in the front of our bus as she took us on a tour of East Jerusalem—she showed us what the tan and blue areas of the Oslo map look like from the ground. In the past year, since the November, 2007, Annapolis peace conference, 10,000 new housing units have been built on Palestinian lands. Over the past 40 years, 10,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished. The demolished house in the picture is in Abu Dis, near East Jerusalem.

She took us to Silwan, the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood, so close to the Old City that it is now prized real estate for Jews who want to live nearby. A new development, Nof Zion, is being promoted, mainly to American Jews, who may not have seen the site and are less likely to realize that it is right in the middle of an Arab neighborhood, perched on the hillside above the town. The “Swiss cheese” pattern of the settlements, makes for a Bantustan-type of political map, the West Bank divided into so many small areas—Israeli and Palestinian—that there is little left to create a state of Palestine. The two-state solution is seems more and more impossible.

Angela is a testimony of hope—evidence that there are Israelis who are appalled by their government’s treatment of the Palestinians. These volunteers take visitors on tours; they rebuild bulldozed homes; and they document and publicize Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands. Israeli peace groups like ICAHD testify to the light—giving hope to Palestinians helplessly watching their country being carved up.
O Lord our God, your people are being made homeless, while the world watches or averts their eyes. Protect those who stand up in protest and who work to rebuild destroyed communities. Help us to find ways to join in this healing work. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 3 - Week of Dec 14, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24

…Hold fast to what is good…

Augusta Victoria Hospital sits like its namesake queen, crowning the Mount of Olives, the highest hill in Jerusalem. The magnificent building was built as a hospice and rest home by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1910, and named it for his wife. In the 1920s-40s it served as R&R for British soldiers. In 1948, after the British left, as 750,000 Palestinians were turned out of their homes, these refugees fled to East Jerusalem and Jordan (East Jerusalem was part of Jordan at that time). They had no medical care, so the facility was taken over by the Red Cross to serve as a hospital for them. In 1950 the hospital came under the administration of the Lutheran World Federation and today still serves primarily refugees and other Palestinians who otherwise do not have access to adequate medical care. Augusta Victoria is the only option for Palestinians needing certain kinds of care, like kidney dialysis and cancer treatment. The hospital exists to assure the right to health care for Palestinians. Because of the security wall, many Palestinians have difficulty getting to the hospital, even though it is in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The staff works to get travel permits for patients and their families, as well as for employees. Their buses pick up patients from Ramallah, Hebron and Bethany.

Standing in the trees at the top of the hill behind the hospital, we looked out over the valley to the east of Jerusalem. This Arab area is dotted with Israeli settlements, construction cranes visible on the horizon. 85% of the land these settlements are built on was obtained illegally from Palestinians, including the settlement of Maale Addumim, home to 40,000 Israelis and growing.

Housing is a huge problem for Palestinians. They cannot build, even on their own land, until they have a permit. But permits are routinely denied Palestinians, so they build illegally and hope the bulldozers will not come to destroy their homes. Just over the edge of the hill behind the hospital we saw one such demolished home. Two weeks earlier, soldiers had arrived at breakfast time, about 8 am, and told the family their home would be destroyed. They had two hours to gather up what they could, and at 10 am the bulldozers came and leveled the home. On November 5, four more Palestinian homes and a banquet hall were demolished in East Jerusalem. Thousands of homes are slated for demolition, the families living in uncertainty, not knowing when the soldiers will knock on their door.

Some of these families live in very crowded conditions, causing many Palestinian Christian families to emigrate. Seven members of the Hadawar family, members of the Lutheran church in Jerusalem, live in a tiny apartment in the Old City. Three generations share a bedroom, while around the corner from their cramped home, plans have been approved for an Israeli settlement that will be built in the Muslim Quarter.

In the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Jews, Christians and Muslims, it is important to strengthen the Christian presence in the Holy Land and to maintain Jerusalem as a city of shared faiths and a model of peace, understanding, tolerance and reconciliation. Christians, providing schools and social service agencies and encouraging dialogue among religious groups, are a bridge between fundamentalist movements within Islam and Judaism, fostering mutual understanding and contributing to peacemaking efforts.

In cooperation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, the Lutheran World Federation is building housing on their land for Palestinian Christian families—the Mount of Olives Housing Project—which will add 84 units of housing for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. This work is being done with the help of your offerings, which support the Lutheran World Federation.

O Lord our God, your church struggles to bring the good news of freedom and liberty to those imprisoned. Through our generous gifts strengthen your church for your work of liberation. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 3 - Week of Dec 14, Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

….the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners….

Everywhere we went in the Holy Land, as we met with Israeli and Palestinian peace groups and with Lutherans working to create a better life for Palestinians, we were welcomed and greeted with smiles as our hosts told us how much our visit meant to them. They wanted to tell us their stories and they urged us to tell these stories when we at home. The presence of U.S. citizens who care about their suffering is the gospel. It is good news to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Our visit gave them hope.

One thing we don’t understand in the United States is how much America influences events on the other side of the world. When Palestinian homes are bulldozed, American-made Caterpillars do the work. When Israeli settlements are built illegally on occupied Palestinian land, donations from American and European philanthropists finance the building, making these settlements affordable and attractive for young families. When Israeli soldiers fire tear gas or rubber bullets at schoolchildren protesting the occupation, they often use American-made weapons. Our attention to injustice can make the world a safer place.

As our bus wended its way to Jayyous, through valleys and up hills and down, it seemed like the road would never end. What could have been a 15-minute drive took us 45 minutes as we drove around the security wall, slithering like a snake across the rocky hills, protecting the Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land along the western edge of the West Bank.

When we finally got to Jayyous, our host, Abdul Latif, who works as a hydrologist, welcomed us and took us up to the roof of the community center, where he showed us the wall. Here in Jayyous, the wall is actually a road, flanked by rolls of barbed wire and a dirt strip on each side. When this wall/road was built, it separated the villagers from their farmlands. So, every day the farmers leave the village at the top of the hill and go through an Israeli checkpoint to get to their olive groves.

Our bus took us to the checkpoint and we got out. As we watched, a group of farmers returning to the village approached the checkpoint and waited for the soldiers to examine their papers. The soldiers ignored them for a few minutes and then looked at their papers and waved them through. When the farmers on their tractor got to where we were standing, they cheered and smiled and shouted to our guide. He said they were telling us to come back every day—this was the fastest they had ever gotten through the checkpoint! Our American passports……making it easier for them to tend their own olive trees, halfway around the world? How can that be?

At lunch Dr. Latif’s wife told us the story of her brother, a professor teaching law at En-Najah University in Nablus, who is in prison. Of the 300 residents of Jayyous, 40 are in prison. The first time he was arrested they hired a lawyer and he was released after 64 days. He was home for 9 days and arrested again. This time it was "administrative detention." This means that they do not have to produce any case against him. They can hold him without cause as long as they like. He has been held for eleven months now. They have organized a letter-writing campaign, and Israeli peace activists are writing on his behalf. His name is Ghassan Khalid. We also learned that the day before, Israeli soldiers had killed two students in Nablus, shot them in their beds at En-Najah University. Soldiers, like the ones we saw at the checkpoint.

—Could you write a letter on behalf of a prisoner like Ghassan? Read his story online:

O Lord our God, your son Jesus read these words the first time he preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town. Help us to tell this same good news in our home towns, freeing captives and prisoners, binding up the brokenhearted— victims of the fear, hatred and greed of the world. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 2 - Week of December 7, Mark 1.1-8

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

The wilderness east of Jerusalem looks much like the Western Slope of Colorado—dry, rocky hills with no visible vegetation until you get up close and see the gray-green sagebrush, land where only a goat could find sustenance. At higher elevations and in the ravines, a few scrappy-looking junipers cling to the rocky soil. There are few towns here, mostly small camps of Bedouin, with their goat-hair tents, corrugated metal sheds for the animals, a camel or two, a propane tank, a bright yellow generator, a water tank, blue plastic tarps, and a white plastic lawn chair or two, like the ones on my patio.

This is John’s wilderness, the land between Jerusalem and the Jordan River, where all he could find to eat were locusts and wild honey—bees and locusts, all that could live in this arid landscape.

As our bus wound its way down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, I thought about Jesus spending forty days out here after his baptism, before he began his ministry, driven out here by the Spirit, and tempted by Satan. I thought, too, about the parable he told of the Samaritan, traveling this road and finding the man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead. And I thought about John preaching in this desolate place, about his message—calling the people to “a baptism of repentance.” And somehow his message was heard as really good news, because we are told, “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” Not a very inviting place to be teaching, not an easy place to get to, not a comfortable place—but something compelling about his message brought crowds of people to him. Something about his message of repentance? Freeing them? Liberating them? A place of testing?

Whatever their reasons, John’s message about repentance must have been what they needed. And I have found that it’s what I need, too, when I visit Israel and Palestine. The political situation there—the terrorist bombings of Israeli schoolchildren, the bulldozers plowing through crowds of shoppers in Jerusalem, the imprisonment of Palestinian children for throwing rocks, the young woman in labor who died at the checkpoint because she was not allowed to go to the hospital, the utter hopelessness of lives lived under occupation, at the whim of 18-19-year-old soldiers carrying Uzis—these are not isolated events on the far side of the globe. As a citizen of the United States, I have had a role in creating this world of chaos and fear.

It’s hard for me to visit with these people who are being oppressed because of my government’s unquestioning support of Israel. I would expect that people injured by rubber bullets fired from American-made weapons, supplied by my tax dollars, would resent my presence, or at least question me about how I can support such violence against them. But they never speak of this—their code of hospitality, which shapes the way they live and relate to the world, does not permit them to treat me poorly simply because of my complicity in their oppression. They welcome me, feed me, lavish me with attention and work to make my visits pleasant and comfortable.

But, like the crowds following John, I, too, need repentance. I need to confess my apathy in the face of their suffering, my ignorance of their history, the scant attention I pay to the news from Palestine, my lack of courage to confront my leaders with what I have seen and heard and insist on justice, and my willingness to let this situation drag on for sixty years, while I have lived in security and peace. So John’s message becomes a message of hope for me as well, and a call to turn from my apathy and fear to become a bearer of good news to those who suffer.

O Lord our God, merciful healer of the world, you call us to repentance. You call us to turn from our apathy and fear, to follow in your way of justice and peace. Forgive our indifference, our boredom with a troubled world, our ignorance. Straighten our paths so that we go out with courage to be your good news in the world. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 2 - Week of December 7, 2 Peter 3.8-15a

…in accordance with God’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by God at peace….

When she talks about her pastor, Mitri Raheb, Angie’s face lights up and her voice speeds up with excitement. As we tour the projects of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Angie tells us how he inspires her and their 200-member congregation to build a life of hope for their people. The school they built is called Dar al-Kalima, “house of the word.” Not a word on a page, she emphasizes, but the word become flesh, dwelling among us—not a passive word, but a living word, enfleshed in the people who follow Jesus’ call of discipleship. The school builds peace and understanding in the community as Muslim and Christian children study and play together.

The new two-year college offers two majors—art and documentary filmmaking. Their artwork and films document the lives of the Palestinian people, making them visible to the world. Through their art, they create a reality that transforms words of hope and promise into flesh and blood. They graduated their first class this spring.

The school, the wellness center, the guesthouse and restaurant and the International Center—all started by Pastor Mitri and the Lutheran Christmas Church—employ 100 people, the third largest employer in the city. When we visited in June, the art gallery exhibited paintings by an artist from Gaza. Somehow, through the blockade, his painting had managed to arrive in Bethlehem, going where the artist could not. Talk shows are broadcast from the auditorium, exploring topics like religious mixed marriages between Christians and Muslims. These conversations educate, heal and unite the community.

When the land is occupied, Angie tells us, the people’s culture is also occupied. In the ceramics and glass, mosaics and silver olive leaf jewelry created by the artists at the International Center, Palestinian culture is preserved and celebrated. During the Intifada in 2002, the Israeli Army occupied the building for four days as they confronted armed militants in the Church of the Nativity, just down the street. The soldiers smashed computers and broke windows. After the troops withdrew, Pastor Mitri suggested that they collect all the broken glass and use it to make angels in stained glass—Christmas ornaments created from the rubble of the occupation.

While you are waiting for these things….While they wait for peace in their land and for justice to be done, the congregation of the Lutheran Christmas Church works for peace in their community, cut off from the world by the wall, but creating hope for the future in the hearts of Bethlehem’s people, especially the children, young people and women. Pastor Mitri articulates a vision that gives the young people of Bethlehem, like Angie, a sense of hope for their future through Bright Stars of Bethlehem, an after-school program offering music lessons, swimming lessons and other athletic activities, arts and crafts and celebrations of Arab culture. The children develop an awareness of their talents, confidence in their abilities and pride in their heritage—health for their bodies and hope for their future. While the occupation denies Palestinians the opportunity to travel, the schoolchildren of the Lutheran school can sometimes get permission to travel for a competition related to their studies. Their world, made small and terrifying by the occupation and the wall, is transformed by the experiences offered them through the ministries of the Lutheran Christmas Church.

Where in our community are lives of desperation transformed into lives of hope through the work of our congregation?

O Lord our God, gentle shepherd, of your people, guide us, the sheep of your fold. Take us to the places in our community in need of hope. Strengthen us for the work of healing the wounds of those who suffer. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 2 - Week of Dec 7, Isaiah 40.1-11

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…its penalty is paid…make straight in the desert a highway…

Isaiah proclaims a promise: that Jerusalem has paid the penalty for her sins and God will come in glory, and the people will see it together—together….Israeli and Palestinian? God’s arms will gather the lambs…the Lord will gently lead the mother sheep. A consolation for the people of Bethlehem, a vision holding their hope for peace in a land long under siege. It’s been sixty years since the “Nakba,” the “catastrophe.” Sixty years of living under military rule, soldiers free to break into their homes at any time of the day or night, arresting their sons and daughters and hauling them off to prison, converting their homes to rubble with their bulldozers.

Today Bethlehem feels like a suburb of Jerusalem. Standing in the cafeteria of a kibbutz in Jerusalem we could see the hills of Bethlehem in the distance. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive from Jerusalem, but a world apart.

You can tell Israelis from Palestinians by their license plates—green for Palestinians and yellow for Israelis. Palestinian cars are not allowed in Israel and they are not allowed to drive on Israeli-only highways, even the ones in Palestine. In recent years, as Israelis have built more settlements in the West Bank, sandwiched between Arab towns, they have built a system of Israeli-only roads to get them safely to Jerusalem—modern, straight highways like
the one that tunnels under the Arab town of Beit Jala which sits on a hilltop. This highway is protected by a long wall, which prevents anyone from throwing rocks down on the cars below.

Highways for the Palestinians, however, are anything but straight. No matter where they travel, they must go in a circuitous route because they are never allowed to drive on any road near the Israeli settlements. On our last night in Israel we ate at a restaurant in Bethlehem. When it was time to leave, our tour bus drove up to the checkpoint. The soldiers would not let us through, even with our American passports. Bedil, our Palestinian driver, who lives in Israel in Cana and was an Israeli citizen, had picked up a box of tile for his bathroom and because of the tile, the soldiers would not let the bus leave Bethlehem.

As he turned the bus around, I sat there wondering where we were going to spend the night, and how we were going to get to our early morning flight, since our hotel was in Jerusalem. Bedil was unperturbed however, because he was a driver; he knew the roads and he knew all the routes to Jerusalem. The fifteen-minute ride to our hotel took us 45 minutes and many miles out of our way, but we finally arrived at another checkpoint. I’d been wondering how we were going to get through, but there was no need for worry—there were no soldiers here, only cement barricades to maneuver the bus around. Our driver and tour guide just shrugged—this is the way life is for Palestinians.

The Israelis say the wall is for security, to keep the terrorist bombers off their buses and away from their children. But this night, although we and our box of ceramic tile were turned away from one of the checkpoints, other checkpoints were left unguarded. What is the purpose of the checkpoints?

O Lord our God, gentle shepherd, of your people, speak tenderly to your servants who live daily in uncertainty and fear. As we go about our daily lives in comfort and security, make us ambassadors of your peace. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 1 - Week of Nov 30, Mark 13.24-37

In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened…..Then the Son-of-Man will send out the angels…

Your kingdom come…..we often recite these words without thinking—it’s a good thing, because if we thought about what we are saying, we would choke on the words. What would it look like for God’s kingdom to come? Isaiah sees quaking mountains; Mark tells of darkening—no sun, no moon, no stars. Not tranquil, happy moments. God’s coming is cataclysmic, disrupting our comfort.

This chapter of Mark is apocalyptic literature, probably written during or shortly after the Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem—a message of hope for a people who have lost everything. The Judeans were dispersed and a whole way of life grounded in temple ritual was lost.

This must have been much like the days Shadee described in 1948, when the Arabs in the villages around Bethlehem were routed out of their homes and forced from their lands by the soldiers, who were removing the Arabs for the establishment of the state of Israel. Standing on the rooftop of the community building of the Deheisheh Refugee Camp, he pointed to the nearby hills where his village had been. Shadee was not born then, but his family tells the stories of the soldiers coming into their village with tanks, rounding up all the people at gunpoint—first the men and then the women and children—and forcing them out of their houses and onto the road. They left behind their furniture and their dishes, grabbing only a bit of food and a coat—and making sure all the children were along. They locked their houses and took the keys, hoping that they would be able to return in a few days when the fighting was over.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but there was no room for them—so they camped on some farmland under the olive trees. Finally, because so many thousands of Arabs were homeless, tents were brought in to house the refugees. Residents of this camp came from 52 villages in the West Bank. In 1957 the U.N. built 10 x 10-foot cement dwellings for each family (for 10 people). About 120 people shared a restroom—Shadee told us this was especially hard for the women and he remembers waiting in line, holding a place for his mother.

Shadee is a volunteer with the Ibdaa Cultural Center, formed by Deheisheh residents to “provide a safe environment for the camp's children, youth, and women to develop a range of skills, creatively express themselves, and build leadership … while educating the international community about Palestinian refugees.” Shadee leads tour groups like ours and tells his story. Shadee has not always lived in the camp. He grew up in the Gulf states and in France, where he went to University. As a young man he returned to Deheisheh to claim his status as a refugee so that he can maintain his family’s claim to the lands they lost in 1948. The land has since been designated as parkland and they have never been permitted to return; he has never seen his village. We saw Ibdaa’s daycare and kindergarten, the women’s health center, and the library. We met with Inaz, a social worker who visits women in their homes and talks with them about their sons who are in jail, their husbands who have been killed by Israeli soldiers, of a daughter turned suicide bomber.

In this place, where the electricity is shut down at any time by Israeli soldiers shooting the transformer, where soldiers show up any time of day or night and tear apart your home, the people of Deheisheh resist the Israeli occupation of their land by making a safe place for their children and caring for their old women. God has promised that God’s reign—the world God envisioned in the creation—will come, even though we do not know the day or the hour.

O Lord our God, creator of the universe, you have promised us, your servants created in your image, that you will return in glory to bring peace to the earth. Let that peace begin with us. Your will be done. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 1 - Week of Nov 30, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…

Advent is the season of preparation, but what should we do to get ready? How do we prepare for this gift God gives us at Christmas? This gift of God’s own self, come to us, just like one of us—not a powerful human king, not a superhero, but a tiny, squalling, diaper-dirtying baby. How do we prepare for this gift?

Hospitality is a highest Arab virtue. Above all else, even if the person in front of you is your enemy, you have a duty to welcome him or her. In Jerusalem’s Old Suq, the market, a shopkeeper you don’t even know will offer you tea, or a cold drink. Hospitality is a sign, not of the importance of your guest, but of the kind of person you are. And food is the gift.

When we arrived in Beit Jala, we were welcomed by Sami and Sousan and their daughters and son. They opened their home to us, a busload of hot, thirsty, weary travelers. They included us in the celebration of their daughter’s birthday with cake and candles. After lunch they took us on a tour and told us the story of their orchard.

Sami’s family’s farmland is on the outskirts of Beit Jala. When Sami had his elastic manufacturing business, the land lay untended—but the olive trees survived. Sami is not a farmer, but when his company went out of business because of Chinese competition a few years ago, he decided to start farming the land. You see, the Israeli government confiscates Palestinian land that is not being used; uncultivated farmland is deemed “abandoned” and turned into parkland or open space or used to build new Jewish settlements for Israelis. So Sami developed his land; he installed an irrigation system and planted fruit trees—apricots and apples—and vegetables as well. Shortly after all these improvements were made, the Israeli government decided to build their security wall on Sami’s farmland. The wall would protect the new Israeli settlement that is just over the top of the hill from the orchard. So, the bulldozers came and plowed up his olive trees. The wall sits today, still unfinished, no explanations offered, not protecting anything, but taking up one third of Sami’s orchard.

We spent that evening with Ipptysam and her family, who insisted we eat snacks and treats and then, after we were full, offered us supper. It didn’t matter that we were not hungry, however. It was too much, but refusing hospitality is an offense to your host. In fact, our Arab hosts trained us in the art of receiving hospitality by not letting us refuse them.

So, how do we prepare to receive a gift? Like my reaction to the salty snacks and Cokes, we may not even really want the gift God offers—God’s presence among us. So we prepare to receive it by practicing hospitality—welcoming all, with an abundance of food—not just our friends, but people we would not dream of associating with. Who can you feed today? Is there a food bank or a free meal in your community that you could help with this week? Buying canned goods and donating them to your local food bank will not work, because that does not include the human interaction of hospitality. Canned goods may be OK for Americans, but an Arab will spend the evening with you, ply you with food, take you on a tour of their farm and celebrate their birthdays with you.

In preparation for God’s coming, how can we practice hospitality?

O Lord our God, creator of the universe, you have planted your merciful grace in us, cultivated and watered it. In a world of fear, make us courageous bearers of your hospitality. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 1 - Week of Nov 30, Isaiah 64.1-9

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—" Isaiah 64.1

He stood at the checkpoint in Bethlehem, wedged upright in the crush of 2500 bodies, clutching the papers he had to show to the soldier, knowing that if he dropped them, he would not be able to bend down to pick them up. He wondered, Did the soldier have his requisite two cups of coffee this morning? Had a fight with his wife last night set the tone for his day? Did he love or hate or fear this job guarding the entrance to Jerusalem, protecting her schoolchildren from bombs strapped to torsos or hidden in briefcases? As he stood in line this morning, Said’s job, his income, his children’s food and education, the roof over their heads, depended on this soldier’s mood this morning.

Said was fortunate. He had been a good student and he worked hard at the University of Bethlehem and received certification as a tour guide. He had applied for and received the documents he needed—permission to travel anywhere in Israel, 24/7, to guide tourists to the holy sites. He had made sure he renewed the papers every three months when they expired. I asked him what would happen if he forgot to renew them. He told me you don’t forget what your life depends on.

His college education had paid off and he had a good-paying job as a guide, knowledgeable and patient with Westerners who had spent too much time in high school flirting with the cute guy in the back row to pay much attention as the World History teacher lectured about the wars for land and oil in the Middle East. Each morning we were in Israel and Palestine, while we slept in a few more minutes, ate a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room, or strolled the early morning streets of Old City watching the shopkeepers opening up their stores, Said waited an hour and a half, pressed in the crowd making its way through this checkpoint.

For sixty years Said and other Palestinians have been waiting in line—waiting to go back to the homes they were forced to leave as their villages were shelled in 1948, waiting for a building permit to add a room to the house for the new baby, waiting for permission for their village to tap into the state’s electric grid, waiting for permission to use the water beneath their lands. At the Bethlehem checkpoint, as many as 2500 people wait in line each morning, wondering if this is the day they will be denied entry into Israel.

We were told that U.S. funds were appropriated to “humanize” the checkpoint in Bethlehem. With these funds, the Israelis put up a welcome banner, planted gardens, and built twelve stations for guards to process the people. This morning, and every morning, however, only two stations are open, two guards checking the identity papers for the 2500 people who come every morning.

If I were a Palestinian, herded like cattle through the checkpoint every morning on my way to work, I would, with Isaiah, cry out to God to intervene in such cataclysmic fashion, to “tear open the heavens and come down” to end the terror and injustice they live with daily. In these cries of lament from exiles returning from Babylon to the ruins of the holy city of Jerusalem, I hear Palestinian voices crying out to God to change the hearts of the world’s leaders, so that they can once again have freedom to travel and control over their lives, that they can determine their future and provide for their children’s health and well-being.

O Lord our God, creator of the universe, your people cry out to you for help. Make us instruments of your peace, remembering daily those who suffer injustice. Help us use our political influence to bring peace to their lives. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem,Amen.