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.

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