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.

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