Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, Luke - O Little Town of Bethlehem

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem…. (Lk 2.4)

O Little Town of Bethlehem, 2011

Church of the Nativity, shrine marking the place whereJesus was born….

Bethlehem, main street, with the wall and guard tower

English students at Dar Al-Kalima School, speaking to us

Bethlehem - Dar Al-Kalima College, cafe

Bethlehem, Detour around the Wall

Graffiti on the Wall

O God, as we remember your advent on this holy night, we celebrate your gift of light and life. As we sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem, help us remember your people who are still suffering in the place of your birth, and in all the conflicted places around the world. Help us be agents of your peace, bringing your light and life to the world. Amen.

Jan Miller, MDiv
Read my blogs about peacemaking in Israel and Palestine:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Eve - Titus, Waiting for the Blessed Hope

Christmas Eve - Titus

Titus 2.11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God…. (Titus 2.11)

God of grace, grant us lives lived in hope while we wait for the manifestation of your glory. Amen.

Read this commentary and news from Sam Bahour, a Palestinian/American businessman who lives in Ramallah:

Some Palestinians refuse to just sit still and accept their fate as a permanently, militarily occupied people. One would think by now that Palestinians would have received the message loud and clear - the world couldn't care less about their fate. But no, these Palestinians just refuse to sit still. They continue to defy their reality and can be seen across the Holy Land - jumping, climbing, swinging, falling, tripping, singing, twirling, juggling, cycling, tight roping, and the like. Their nerve! To think they can attempt to live a normal life when the powers that be are spending billions, literally, to cause a collapse of Palestinian society.

And who is it exactly I speak of? Palestinian clowns. No, I'm not taking a swing at the political leadership, at least not here. I'm talking about the real thing: circus clowns, like in clowns that make you laugh and make you forget that the boot of occupation is pressing on your neck.

I can understand your confusion. Clowns and circus do not usually appear in the same sentence with Palestine. You are probably much more attuned to how Palestinians have been labeled over the years by some Israelis and their marionettes - everything from terrorists, crocodiles, 'beasts walking on two legs,' grasshoppers, cockroaches, slaves, 'a community of woodcutters and waiters,' the 'penniless population,' 'not worth a Jewish fingernail,' all the way to the most recent classification of being an 'invented people.'

As many are bent on dehumanizing Palestinians, systematically and with contempt, others are mending the wounds of a

people who have been purposely stripped of their well-being in one of the world's most unjust chapters of history. One group tending to that process of mending the deep wounds that 44 years of military occupation continue to inflict is the Palestinian Circus School (PCS), based in Birzeit, Palestine…..

The Palestinian Circus School is a non-profit, non-governmental organization established in 2006 and registered with the Palestinian Authority since February 2007. You can read more and view some videos of their work at:…..

Contemporary circus (or nouveau cirque as it was originally known in French-speaking countries) is a genre of performing art developed in the late 20th century, in which a story or theme is conveyed through traditional circus skills. It may all look like a game to the untrained eye, but this is serious business. At its heart, this style of circus is a societal change agent. The Circus School teaches young Palestinians the circus pedagogy to stimulate and develop their physical, mental, artistic, emotional, social and cognitive abilities. The circus then employs these skills in bringing smiles to the faces of children throughout Palestine, especially in marginalized areas.

If you spend any time in any part of Palestine, or even in Palestinian refugee communities outside of Palestine, you will quickly notice that the ultimate weight of this conflict is falling on the shoulders of our youngsters-shoulders that should never have to carry the weight of a military occupation! These young minds continue to be systematically damaged, but society is not standing still.

The Palestinian Circus School puts smiles on children's faces as well as using the platform of circus to link to a global circus arts community. Circus schools and troupes worldwide are acting in solidarity with Palestinians by exchanging trainers, performances and experiences. It's serious business with serious results. Maybe that's why, last year, Israeli authorities denied entry to Mr. Ivan Prado, the most famous clown in Spain, who was coming to perform to Palestinian audiences.

Robert Sugarman, author of The Many Worlds of Circus, described the impact of circus best when he wrote, "By turning you upside down, we teach you to stand on your own two feet. By dropping objects we teach you to catch them. By having you walk all over someone, we teach you to take care of them. By having you clown around, we teach you to take yourself seriously." The children of Palestine have had their lives turned upside down. Help us bring a smile to their faces and build confidence in their futures to make their lives worth living.

So, as you prepare to bring in a new year, I appeal for your generous support to the Palestinian Circus School in any way you can. You will not be disappointed. There are three places donations can be made:

- IndieGoGo Campaign to raise $25,000 to kick off fundraising for erecting a movable training hanger, which will be located adjacent to the newly donated headquarters. This new addition will house the high circus equipment, which are now placed outside in the cold under the open sky. This campaign just started and will run through February 20, 2012 at: Read more about this project...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Eve - Isaiah, Here we stand; Stand with us

Christmas Eve - Isaiah, Here we stand; Stand with us

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. (Is 9.2)

On Christmas Eve we will celebrate the incarnation—the god who comes to us as a baby in the manger is flesh and blood and tears and dirty diapers. A god who suffers at the hands of an occupying army—beginning with his family’s flight from a ruler who wants to kill their baby. A god who shows us that our bodies and our actions matter.

Palestinians know this God intimately; they know in their bodies what Jesus suffered.,,,,,arrested and beaten. Palestinian parents know homelessness—with no place to rest for the night, forced to find shelter in a barn.

A couple of weeks ago, more than 60 participants from 15 countries met with Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem for a Kairos Palestine Global Justice Encounter/Conference. They met to “share a Kairos consciousness, strengthen and build ties among Kairos groups to form a global network for justice, and learn from the Palestinian experience the urgency of Kairos solidarity and to end injustice.”

The participants in this conference issued a statement, “The Bethlehem Call: Here we stand - Stand with us”. It begins, “How long, O God, will they steal our livelihood? Oppress, imprison and humiliate our people? Deprive our children of their childhood? Indeed how long, God, will the multitudes of Christians of the world ignore the anguish of our Palestinian sisters and brothers and all of the oppressed?”……”We now say: ‘Injustice no more. Here we stand. Stand with us.’”

It continues: (or read the whole statement)

"Today, the illegal regime and illegal forms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine assumes dimensions of systemic injustice whereby the unthinkable and unimaginable becomes globally accepted, supported and normalized. This is an example of Empire (global domination) at work. It happens in Palestine as it happens in many other contexts around the world. At the same time, Palestine is clearly a global issue. The government of Israel claims to have and indeed enjoys an exceptional status within the international community. Israel regards itself to be above the law and is treated as exempt from international law. This status provides the Israeli government the freedom to occupy Palestine with impunity. (photo is Bethlehem)

As witnessed with our own eyes, the treacherous conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation on Palestinians and their land have reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality. This includes

the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the geo­cide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy. The brutality in the “violence of silence” internationally provides an almost impenetrable shield for the Israeli government to implement its evil designs in blatant disregard for human rights and international law. Silence is an opinion. Inaction is an action….”

These are people who have been walking in darkness. Palestinians have been in the shadows, invisible to most of the world. Christians around the world have been walking in the darkness of their ignorance of the Palestinians’ suffering. But the participants in this conference “have seen a great light” and this statement declares their vision.

God made flesh, dwelling among us… we approach the manger on this holy day, make us mindful of all your people who still suffer as you did. Use us as prophets to proclaim your “great light” to the world, wherever we work and play. In your holy name. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Advent 4 - Luke, Pondering

Advent 4 - Luke

Luke 1.26-38

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Lk 1.29)

I find myself drawn to Mary’s perplexed reaction to what she cannot understand. I too, ponder…..what are God’s intentions? How can this be? My ponderings, however, are not prompted by an angel, but by what I hear from Palestine.

Yesterday I read a report from Adameer, (Arabic for “conscience”) Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, “a Palestinian non-governmental, civil institution that works to support Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons, offering free legal aid to political prisoners, advocating their rights at the national and international level, and working to end torture and other violations of prisoners' rights through monitoring, legal procedures and solidarity campaigns."

Adameer reports that since October 18, when 477 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, nearly 470 other Palestinians have been arrested. Some of the released prisoners have been harassed, and one has been rearrested. 70 of those arrested are children; 11 are women.

Most disturbing to me is that many of those arrested are human rights workers, political activists, journalists and people participating in the popular resistance movement, arrested for peacefully protesting Israel’s theft of Palestinian land. The list of those arrested includes 17 people from a village I visited last year—Beit Ummar, just south of Bethlehem...and I wonder if these are people I met on our visit. Eleven were also arrested at the Deheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, where I have visited several times. Two elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (the “Palestinian Parliament”) were also arrested. Read Adameer’s report.

Fuad Al-Khuffash is one of these prisoners (see his picture). He is a human rights defender, director of Ahrar Center for Prisoners’ studies and Human Rights, the Palestinian representative for Al Karama Association, which works to ensure the protection of human rights, and a field

researcher for Friends of Humanity International, a human rights organization based in Vienna. He has also worked as a journalist, writing extensively on human rights issues, and specifically on political prisoners and administrative detention. At 3:00 in the morning on June 28, soldiers used explosives to break down the door to his apartment. He awoke with 20 soldiers in his bedroom (read an account of his arrest and trial). He received a ten year sentence. Fuad’s wife Rana is forbidden to visit him.

On Sunday, as you are sitting in the pew listening to Mary’s story, an additional 500
Palestinian prisoners will be released—to complete the deal struck for Gilad Shalit’s release. Adameer calls on us to protest the arrests of human rights activists like Fuad. Send an email to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:, (There are more contacts for the campaign to release Fuad al-Kuffash at the bottom of the story about his case.)

God of those who ponder….people like Fuad al-Kuffash and people like us. Keep us mindful of those who risk their lives to speak out when the powerful trample on the rights of ordinary people. Strengthen us in faithfulness to your promises, so that we, too, speak out when we witness injustice. Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent 4 - Romans

Advent 4 - Romans

Romans 16.25-27

Every Friday, in several villages in the West Bank, residents protest Israel’s theft of their lands—some protest the wall being built on village farmland; others protest theft of land for settlements. In Nabi Saleh in the Ramallah district, villagers are protesting the takeover of a spring owned by the head of the village council. These are peaceful protests; demonstrators march, sing, chant. Palestinians from nearby villages and international supporters join the demonstrations. Until this week, no one had been killed in these demonstrations.

For decades, Nabi Saleh residents have endured the gradual takeover of their lands for the nearby Israeli settlement of Halamish. Then, in late 2009, settlers gradually began taking over Ein al-Qaws, the Bow Spring, which is on lands owned by Bashir Tamimi. With the help of the army, the settlers built a shed over the spring. They threw rocks and pointed guns at Palestinians who approached.

The Israeli army has responded to the demonstrations by declaring the entire village a “closed military zone,” which means that the army occupies the village and prevents everyone from leaving or entering. They conduct nighttime raids, forcing families out of their homes, arresting and intimidating the villagers, even minor children.

Last Friday, during the protest, Israeli soldiers fired a tear-gas canister and hit 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi in the face. He was only meters from the soldier who shot him from the back of an armored vehicle. Tamimi died of his injuries. He was killed INSIDE his village, in the West Bank, where he was protesting the theft of his family’s lands. He had no weapons—only stones he picked up from the ground to throw at the tanks invading his village. [The photo shows Tamimi and his friend chasing the tank; the back door is open and a soldier is aiming the tear gas canister directly at Tamimi. The second photo is Tamimi.]

Read his companion’s eyewitness account . Protesters now carry cameras and video recorders and the Isra

eli human rights organization B’Tselem has posted a report with photos of the shooting. B’Tselem has long been protesting the army’s unlawful use of tear gas canisters as weapons, and is pursuing this case in court.

The joy of Advent is not a result of making the world a better place. If we depend on our work as our source of hope, we have only despair. In spite of UN resolutions and talk of peace, the world is not safer—not in Palestine, not in Yemen…..not in Denver.

In Advent, we anticipate God’s gracious self-giving, the source of our hope. We dare to hope, even as we read of Mustafa’s needless death, because we know God’s plans for us. We know Mustafa’s death is not the end of the story.

Gracious God, you chose to enter into our suffering and pain, in a manger in Bethlehem. Today the people of the Holy Land still suffer under an unjust occupation. Grant us grace to trust in your promises. In the name of your son, whose birth we await. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 4 - 2 Samuel, Living in Tents

Advent 4 - 2 Samuel

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

For thousands of years, tents have been an important part of the lives of the people of the Holy Land, who have a long tradition of nomadic life—herding sheep, hauling goods for trade, or seeking out more fertile land. Our ancient ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, lived in tents. The Hebrews fleeing Pharoah lived in tents for forty years while they waited to enter the promised land.

Jews today have their meals in tents during the week of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival. Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when Jews travel to Jerusalem. When we were in the Old City in October, there were temporary shelters everywhere in the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter, the sukkahs—“tents” made of plant material (and some plastic for shade). The city was crowded with people who had come to celebrate the harvest with delicious food and remember the time when they lived in those temporary homes in the Sinai, waiting for God’s gift of a homeland.

Today in the Holy Land, there are also people who are trying to maintain this ancient nomadic life—the Bedouin, whose lives revolve around herding sheep and make a living from the desert lands east of Jerusalem and south in the Negev.

Many times, riding between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, I have looked out the window at the Bedouin camps and thought, “Surely, if these people had a choice, they would want to live in houses in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Jericho.” The life in the desert looks very hard—no trees, no water, no shade, and a relentless sun. I was wrong.

For years, the Israeli government has been trying to get the Bedouin in the Negev to move into towns. They have built them houses and tried to make them move. The bulldozers come and destroy the Bedouin camps, but the Bedouin like their way of life and resent the Israelis for taking their grazing land to build new Israeli towns. When the soldiers with their bulldozers leave, the Bedouin put up new tents and rebuild their camps. For a short history of Israeli efforts to destroy one Bedouin town, see a Palestine News Network article.

Just two weeks ago, Israel announced that they will remove 2300 Bedouin from the area east of Jerusalem, the Bedouin communities I see when I have traveled on the tour bus from Jerusalem down to Jericho and the Dead Sea. The Guardian newspaper reports that the Palestinians say this is part of a larger plan to obtain more land for the Israeli settlements that stretch from East Jerusalem, now almost to Jericho, dividing the West Bank in two—north and south (picture is of these Bedouin, sorting through their belongings after their homes have been destroyed).

This portion of 2 Samuel questions, “Who is in charge here?” Both David and Nathan have gotten it wrong. God’s message is clear—God dwells where God choses, not where David wants God to be. And God does not choose the sturdy protection of the house of cedar; God chooses the precarious and temporary tent.

Wanderer God, as we ponder your words to Nathan, we, too, are reminded of our own endless quest for security and safety. Help us learn the lesson you tried to teach David, to trust in your plans for us and to remember that you, not we, are God. In the name of your son, whose advent we await. Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent 3 - John, Testifying to the Light

John 1.6-8, 19-28
For Sunday, December 11

He came as a witness to testify to the light…. (Jn 1.7)

The first time I went to Israel and Palestine, I thought I would find a land preparing to be divided. After all, I had seen it on the map—Israel hugging the Mediterranean coast, the West Bank sitting atop the hills to the east, and Gaza, wedged between the sea, the desert and Egypt. Eventually these areas would be confirmed by treaty and the violence would end. There was nothing I could do to change the slow pace of peace, but it would come.

I knew there were obstacles—suicide bombers who blew up buses, and settlements that Israel had built in the West Bank and Gaza. But I thought that Israel was doing everything it could to come to a peace agreement. It’s military actions were regrettable but necessary for their safety; I thought the Jews were, as they have always been, the victims. Our $3B military assistance guaranteed they would be victims “never again.”

SO…… when I visited the West Bank, I was shocked by what I saw—a 24-foot-high concrete barrier being constructed around Bethlehem, to protect the nearby Israeli settlements from the people of Bethlehem. Because, after all, the settlements had been built on Palestinian land and the Israelis who lived on these islands surrounded by Palestinians, lived in fear of retaliation and attack.

I was shocked by 18-year-old Israeli soldiers pointing their AK-47s at shoppers in the market in Hebron, or using their guns to prod Palestinians off the bus to stand in the heat while documents were checked. I was shocked by the rubble everywhere—the remains of buildings left in the middle of town or bulldozed into the road to close it off.

Although we were on the Palestinian side of the map in my head, we were subject to whatever the Israeli soldiers wanted. There were no rules but their commander’s voice on the cell phone. Nothing to protect us except our American passports.

Like many people I have traveled with since, I sat in the back of the tour bus and exclaimed, “How can they do this?? “Who allows this to happen?” “Why doesn’t someone do something about what is going on here?” “Why didn’t I know this before?”

It makes you crazy—seeing the injustice, the lies,,,,the Israeli campaign to take as much land as they can while they stall the peace talks. The land that has been given to the Jews for a homeland was not ours to give in 1948. It belonged to Palestinian farmers who had nothing to do with the murder of six million Jews.

It’s not the coming of the messiah, but we are all called to testify to the light that is revealed to us. John is not the only one who is called to cry out in the wilderness.

God of light, in this Advent season, help us to find ways to testify to your light in the dark places where we live and work and play. Amen.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advent 3 - 1 Thessalonians, Giving Thanks

1 Thessalonians 5.16-24

for Sunday, December 11

Give thanks in all circumstances…. (1 Thess 5.18)

I have never met a Palestinian who has not lost home or lands. As you sit reading these words, many more are in the process of losing homes and land. If they have not already lost everything, they live in daily fear that bulldozers will come to tear down their homes, or that the bulldozers will tear out their olive groves to make way for a new part of Israel’s security wall.

All the Palestinians I have met have lost fathers or uncles or cousins or sons, either shot by Israeli soldiers, or serving long sentences in Israeli prisons. Human rights workers are regularly imprisoned for speaking out against Israel’s occupation. Professors are arrested for voicing their opposition to Israel’s policies.

Palestinians cannot travel without an Israeli permit. Their borders are still controlled by Israeli soldiers, even where the border is with another country, as in Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. They cannot even move freely within the West Bank because Israel has built settlements between the Palestinian towns and has set up checkpoints where Palestinians must wait in long lines to have their Israeli IDs and travel permits inspected by Israeli soldiers.

So...Paul admonishes Christians, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Certainly this doesn’t apply to the Palestinians! How could they possibly give thanks for these difficult lives they have been given?

The Palestinians at Christmas Lutheran Church give thanks by preparing their children for a different future, a future they cannot see, or perhaps even imagine. Giving thanks for their long history of commitment to education, they build schools—first a K-12 school, and now a new college…..behind Israel’s 24-foot-high security wall.

Giving thanks for their resilience, they repaired their church compound after Israeli soldiers stormed the building in 2002 and destroyed all their computers and their offices, scattering their files and breaking furniture. They rebuilt the parts of the building that were destroyed by the tanks that pushed through Bethlehem’s too-narrow-for-tanks streets.

Giving thanks for their patience and perseverance, they got the necessary permits and funding to build a new conference center and guesthouse….and a new building for their school.

Giving thanks for the creativity and the dreams of their young people, they are now building a new college so that these future leaders of their community will have the skills to lead when a new country is finally realized. (Photo: Music Students in a practice room at Dar Al-Kalima College)

Gracious God, you have sent your prophets and apostles to remind us of your intentions for us, your beloved creation. Today we give thanks for the abundance in our lives—for the freedom to travel and be with our loved ones, for our democratic government which gives us the opportunity to shape our own future, for the peace and security we enjoy daily, and for_________________. In the name of your son, born in Bethlehem. Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent 3 - Isaiah, Release to the Prisoners

Advent 3 - Isaiah

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

For Sunday, December 11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me; …..

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And release to the prisoners…. (Is 61.1)

Isaiah is pretty specific here. God has sent him, not to save souls, but to end ordinary, everyday suffering. He has been sent to free the captives and the prisoners.

Isaiah does his work because God anointed him. Lest we think that Isaiah was chosen for tasks much too difficult for us, or that he was singled out because he was especially talented, let me remind you that you, too, have been anointed by the same spirit of God that anointed Isaiah—when the oil was placed on your forehead in the sign of the cross and water splashed over you.

Last year when I visited Beit Ummar, a Palestinian town just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank, I met Jamal Muqbel, who hosted our group in his home. He spends a lot of his time building bridges of understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. He is part of a group called Wounded Crossing Borders—Israelis and Palestinians who have been wounded in the conflict, who are committed to getting to know one another so that there will be no more death and suffering. We met Jamal and his family, his wife Sadiya, the Israelis who are part of the group and Jamal’s brother and sister-in-law, Mohammad and Sulha.

Mohammad told us the story of their son’s arrest earlier in the week (see picture with Sadiyaa, Sulha, and Mohammad telling us the story). Ibrahim was fourteen when the whole family was awakened at 2:00 am and forced out of their home at gunpoint, even the baby. The soldiers took Ibrahim, dressed only in his shirt and shorts, and beat him in front of the whole family. They blindfolded him and tied his hands behind his back. Then they took Ibrahim to a nearby settlement. Ibrahim was arrested for “throwing stones,” which he denies.

Mohammad had great difficulty in finding out where his son was taken and he did not get to see Ibrahim until the next day. In the meantime, Ibrahim’s hands were subjected to electric shock and the shackles he was forced to wear bruised his legs. Ibrahim was eventually released, but his family suffered and had to pay to have him released.

Ibrahim is only one of dozens of Palestinian children detained by Israel every year for stone-throwing. In its report, titled, “No Minor Matter, Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors Arrested by Israel on Suspicion of Stone Throwing,” the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, details what happens when these young people are arrested—how their human rights are violated, and the effects of detention on such young people. Israel has established a separate criminal justice system for minors, but the military justice system treats these Palestinian minors as adults.

Although Ibrahim is back with his family, at the end of October, there were still 150 minors in Israeli prisons, 30 of them under the age of 16. [] . There were no children among the 477 prisoners released in the prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit in October. Read more:

Take two minutes to watch a short video and hear the story of another young person, Mohammad, arrested:

God of the imprisoned, we remember before you all the children of the world who are imprisoned, separated from their families, tortured and beaten. Help us find ways to protest this inhumane treatment and stop the cycles of violence that permeate our world. Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent 2 - Mark, Preparers of the Way

Mark 1.1-8

For Sunday, December 4

John seems an unlikely leader, badly in need of a wardrobe manager, some cooking classes, and a marketing strategist. But here he is, miles from the city in the wasteland of the Judean desert, shouting that he is not the savior people have been waiting for. John is only preparing the way for the real deal.

If we try to listen with the ears of the first-century readers of Mark’s gospel, we would be desperate for some hope. The Judeans have been skirmishing with Rome for decades. One rebel leader after another has tried to throw off the yoke of occupation, only to be defeated by the superior firepower of the Roman legions. Finally, by 70 CE, Rome has grown impatient with the uprisings and has squelched the insurrection once and for all, not only defeating the rebels, but completely destroying the temple and

forcing the Judeans to leave the city.

This is life for Mark’s readers—forced from their homes and suffering under conquest and occupation. A striking parallel with the situation of Palestinians today, and they, too, are desperate for good news—some glimmer of hope for an end to Israel’s occupation and an end to the theft of their land.

On November 16, in the West Bank, a group of Palestinians boarded the Israeli buses.

They took their cue from Rosa Parks, because, you see, Israel has segregated bus systems. The Israeli Egged and Veolia buses are only for Jews,even when the buses operate in the West Bank (for the settlers). There is a separate bus line for the Palestinians—the blue Arab buses. The Palestinians waited at the Israeli bus stops and boarded the Israeli buses, but they were physically removed from the buses by Israeli soldiers when they reached the Hizmeh checkpoint, which is a Jewish-only checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Read more in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Or watch a two-minute ABC report. Or a six-minute video describing the action, paired with footage of Mississippi freedom rides of the 60s.

It was a small gesture, but one of hope—a glimpse of liberation for the Palestinians, pushed about by rules and permits and exclusions. These Palestinians claimed what they believe is rightfully theirs—the freedom to travel and equality with the Jewish Israelis. Now, I’ve ridden the Arab buses and they are fine buses, safe, prompt—the only hassle is the soldiers who stop the buses, board with their automatic weapons, and make everyone get off the bus and produce their identification documents—IF you are Palestinian, that is; Americans with our blue passports did not have to get off. And I am also allowed to ride the Egged buses, something denied Palestinians, even when these buses are traveling in the West Bank.

These six freedom riders are preparing the way—they are planning more such actions to call attention to the apartheid policies of the state of Israel.

God of the powerless, you sent your messenger John to prepare people’s hearts for your son. Show us how we, like John, can be your messengers, preparing the way for your coming reign. In the name of your son, Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent 2 - 2 Peter, Waiting

Advent 2 - 2 Peter

2 Peter 3.8-15a

Therefore, beloved, while you ware waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace… (2 Peter 3.14)

Waiting… one has more experience waiting than Palestinians.

In America, waiting signifies failure. Finding ways to avoid waiting is a national pastime. A few years ago I signed up for Amazon’s two-day shipping, and when the free trial period expired I paid the annual fee to keep getting my books instantly. We add lanes when our superhighways start backing up. The apps on my iPhone give me instant access to restaurant information, weather, and even my own adult children. When people camp out overnight to wait for post-Thanksgiving bargains, it makes the national news.

While I gripe about the injustice of having to sit through two red lights, the Palestinians wait. They have been waiting for justice for more than sixty years. At the end of the war that erupted when

the UN recognized the State of Israel in 1948—on land that already belonged to olive growers and sheepherders and teachers and doctors—the Palestinians assumed that a peace agreement would soon allow them to return to their homes. When they fled, they carried their house keys with them. In exile, they hung these keys where they could look at them every day. With the passage of years, as Jews took over their villages, moved into their fully furnished homes and cut down their olive groves, the Palestinians began to realize that return was unlikely so they began to wait for compensation—either for land in other parts of Palestine or financial compensation for the land and homes that they lost.

The Palestinians of the Christmas Lutheran Church practice a theology of waiting. Like the writer of 2 Peter admonishes, they have found peace in the waiting. This does not mean that they no longer need the justice, or that they have given up the struggle. But they have found a way to live in peace and provide a future for their children even as they wait. They do not put their hope in the world’s obligation to provide justice for them.

Their latest project is the college—the first Lutheran college in the Holy Land. Pastor Mitri Raheb says that they are preparing leaders for the future of Palestine, so they will be ready when peace comes. They are starting small. The first classes to be offered focus on media and the arts, which have long been strong Palestinian traditions. The media classes help them share their stories and aid them in their struggle for human rights. Music and art programs help keep Palestinian culture alive. Their hope does not rest in a brighter future tomorrow, but in God’s promises of faithfulness.

God of waiting, you reveal to us your way of patience, and your mercy in giving us time for repentance. You have promised new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will reign. Help us to wisely use the time you have given us. Amen.

***Come support the building of the college in Bethlehem—Lessons and Carols for Advent, Sunday, December 4, 7:30 pm at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda, Denver, or contact me about making a contribution:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 2 - Isaiah's vision for Jerusalem

Advent 2 - Isaiah

Isaiah 40.1-11

for Sunday, December 4

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand forever. (Is 40.8)

The writer of these words probably lived among the exiles in Babylon—Israelites who had been conquered in 587 BCE, forced from their homes in Jerusalem and marched to Babylon. There they spent 50 years mourning their beloved Jerusalem and doing what exiles always do—finding ways to feed their families and carry on their traditions in a strange land. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonian empire in 538, he issued an edict which allowed these exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

The Palestinians know exile and longing for home. 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and villages in 1947-50 as the Israeli paramilitaries, the Haganah and the Irgun, roamed the land. They rousted villagers out of their homes at gunpoint, forcing them onto the roads and either blowing up the buildings or guarding them to prevent the return of the people.** An additional 300,000 Palestinians were displaced during the 1967 war. These statistics are disputed, but the ones I’ve used are averages. [See a detailed description of Palestinian refugees on Wikipedia:]

Today their descendants, 4.7 million Palestinians, are registered as refugees with the UN. They live primarily in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They are still waiting for the edict allowing them to return home.

Like the ancient Israelites in Babylon, the Palestinian refugees live their lives while

they wait. They marry, raise children, bury their elders and create businesses, schools and civic organizations. They March in protest against the building of the separation wall, which, in the Bethlehem district, has taken all but 13% of the land for the wall and for the building of new Israeli settlements

The people of Bethlehem and people from all over the world who visit the wall have created works of art on the 24-foot-high concrete barrier. Some of the artwork protests the wall; some of the outsized figures minimize the wall; slogans express the people’s longing for freedom. Near our hotel in October I walked along the wall as it meandered in and out, cutting off streets and shops.

The artwork on the wall in the photo reminds me of Isaiah’s words. It shows the New Jerusalem—herald of GOOD tidings, a city shining on the hill. A Jerusalem where the reign of God’s love and compassion has broken into the world and the walls have fallen. It is a vision Palestinians cling to—their hope for the future.

God of the impossible, in this Advent season, we await your new creation, a world where your gentle reign breaks through the darkness, a world where your lambs are sheltered and cared for. Help us trust your promises and proclaim your good news to the world. Amen.

** (for a detailed history, village by village, read Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine; Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers tells his own family’s story; a Colorado family’s story is told in The Olive Grove, by Deborah Rohan; or see

Friday, November 25, 2011

Advent 1 - Mark's apocalypse

Advent 1 - Mark
Sunday, November 27

Mark 13.24-37

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened... (Mark 13.24)

This odd selection from the gospel of Mark is sometimes described as “the little apocalypse.” Responding to desperate times in the first century, the writer of Mark’s gospel recycled the apocalyptic imagery of the sun, the heavens and the “Son of Man” from Isaiah (13.19, 34.4), Joel (2.10, 3.4, 4.15) Ezekiel (32.7, 8) and Daniel (7.13).

Apocalyptic literature arises out of hopeless situations, times of oppression when people are suffering under wicked leaders who have no regard for God’s reign. The desperation of first-century followers of Jesus is expressed as the cosmos breaking apart (13.24). The hope is, that when the world seems to be coming to an end, God breaks in to set things right (the coming of the Son of Man).

The author of Daniel was probably writing during the Seleucid empire’s oppression of the Jews, when it was illegal even to own a copy of the Torah. For the readers of Mark’s gospel in 70 CE, the oppressors were the Romans, who had ruthlessly put down the Jewish revolt and totally destroyed Jerusalem—Rome’s final response to persistent attempts by Jewish re
volutionaries to overthrow the Roman occupation.

Apocalyptic writing expresses a dualistic worldview—the ultimate battle between good and evil. Direct intervention by God is the only hope.

These predictions in Mark remind me of the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” movement here in the US. People tolerate a certain level of suffering—it can go on for years. But eventually the pressure builds and their frustrations explode into the streets.

There is much promise in the ideals of the protesters in Tahrir Square, but the reality of the new government has not matched the expectations of the crowds [Our Egyptian guide Bishoy sent a text to Pastor Paul Rowold today that he is there with the crowds-see my photo of him in Abu Simbel in October]. And so it has always been with governments. Power so easily corrupts.

When I see Israel’s security wall meandering through a Palestinian farmer’s olive grove in Bethlehem, it’s easy to blame the Israelis for the misery of the Palestinians. It’s convenient to put everything into two categories, the good guys and the bad guys. But casting the Israelis as the bad guys does not explain the reality of life on the ground.

There are good guys on both sides—Jewish peacemakers who protest Palestinian evictions and lawyers who press for Palestinian equal rights. And there are non-violent protesters in Palestinian villages, standing in the path of the bulldozers clearing the way for the wall. And there are bad guys on both sides—the Israeli soldiers who beat Palestinian children and falsely accuse them of throwing stones, and Palestinian leaders who use public funds or bribes to buy a Mercedes or build themselves mansions in Ramallah.

In our soundbite culture, it is tempting to simplify the conflict and cast the characters as good or evil. Judging is easy and quick—we can admire our cleverness and be smug about our wisdom. But peacemaking—reconciliation—takes more work.

God of the new creation, we pray for those who work for justice and peace—in Israel and Palestine, in Egypt, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in the US and in all the troubled parts of your world. As they stand in solidarity with those who are suffering, give them hope and courage. Give us all wisdom and discerning hearts so that we recognize injustice, and give us all the courage to speak out. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advent 1 - 1 Corinthians, Giving Thanks

First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
1 Corinthians 1.3-9

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus… (1 Cor 1.4)

Israel’s security wall is not finished. The first time I visited Bethlehem we could walk around the 24-foot-high concrete barrier. The next time I came, there was a checkpoint with heavy metal gates and guards who boarded our bus with their AK-47s.

Each time I have visited over the past six years, I see some portion of the wall which was incomplete on my previous visit, but now is finished. And where the wall is still unfinished, there are always bulldozers, earthmovers and Palestinian laborers setting rebar and pouring concrete—the constant hum of heavy machinery echoes across the hills of Bethlehem. In 2010 when I stayed at the Everest Hotel high on a hilltop above Beit Jala, we woke each morning to the sound of the bulldozers across the street, adding one more section to the wall.

It is depressing and it makes me very angry….and crazy to know that my tax dollars support what is happening.

So I am all the more amazed when I witness the work of the Lutherans who stay in Bethlehem and create a future for their children and a comfortable life for their elderly—even though they are held captive behind these walls. This is why I return—to sit with them in worship and soak

up a bit of the hope they have been given. They embody a deep faith in God’s promises that I do not see very often—a hope I too easily forget.

It is a hope based, not on knowing that their situation will improve, but, as Paul reminds us, on “the grace of God that has been given to [them] in Christ Jesus.”

On this last visit, I was particularly sad to hear Pastor Mitri tell us that politically he has no hope. “We cannot change the world,” he said, but he went on to say they can change the reality of life for the people of Bethlehem. He told us that the ministries of the Christmas Lutheran Church—the K-12 school, wellness center, senior program, and the new college—constitute the third largest employer in the Bethlehem area.

This is truly a grace of God—and we were there to witness this miracle as we toured the school and watched the children, Christian and Muslim, learning and playing together. And as we visited the Wellness Center and Dar Al-Kalima college, where we saw students eating in the beautiful new cafeteria, practicing in the music practice rooms and studying with their professors.

I am always reminded of the miracles that Jesus performed as he walked these same hills and encountered people who were suffering. God is working miracles in Bethlehem today through these faithful servants who have been given God’s grace for this work.

God of grace, you sent your son so that we might know you and receive your blessings. In this Advent season, help us to know the hope of your steadfast love and promises. Help us find ways to join in the work of your servants, bringing hope to hopeless people in the US and around the world. Amen.

*****If you live in Denver, plan to support these Lutherans by coming to a special service of Lessons and Carols for Advent, “On Our Way to Bethlehem,” on Sunday, December 4, 7:30 pm, at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda. It is a fundraiser for a music classroom for the College. We are raising $50,000 so that construction can be completed and loans repaid. If you cannot come, but would like to make a donation, please email me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advent 1 - Isaiah

First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
Isaiah 64.1-9

For you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are as a father to us;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are the work of your hand.
(Is 64.7-8)

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of a savior, we also mark the beginning of a new church year—our New Year. A time to reflect—what does it mean to be God’s people? Are we living the life we intend? The life God envisions for us?

The prophet Isaiah addresses these questions—left to our own will and whims, we screw it up every time, but God does not abandon us. God, like the ideal parent, continues to shape and mold us in God’s own image.

As you look at this picture of Israel’s security wall in Bethlehem, it is easy to see how nations screw up. In the name of greater security, Israel and the US have joined forces to create a barrier that makes everyday life impossible for the people of Bethlehem.

The wall here, with its guard tower dwarfing homes and businesses, was built right down the middle of Bethlehem’s busiest street, the street where tour buses used to enter Bethlehem, stopping at the shops, where pilgrims bought their olive wood and jewelry to remember their visit.

In October, this is what the street looked like—shops shuttered, the abandoned buildings falling down. The buses do not pass these shops anymore. (Although I’ve ridden with many persistent and skilled Palestinian drivers who probably could maneuver their buses through here if they needed to!)

Isaiah’s message is one of incredible hope for the people of Bethlehem—the Israeli security wall may be enclosing their city, shutting them off from the world and even from one another, but this is not God’s plan for us. God has not abandoned us.

And our country’s military response to every threat is not God’s plan for us either. We are the clay, and God can shape us for a different response—one that does not purchase our safety with the misery and despair of people halfway around the world.

God of new beginnings, we praise you for your unfailing love and steadfastness, even when we use our power to harm others. Mold us in your image—shape us into caretakers of your good creation and caregivers for your people. Amen.