You no doubt knew that you would not be spared my vacation “slide show.” It is the inevitable punishment when a congregation allows their pastor to travel to the Holy Land. Several people have asked about the trip, and one excursion of particular interest was our visit to Bethlehem.
What I will remember forever about our visit there was how, before we entered the city, our Jewish guide had to get off the bus because we were entering Palestinian territory. Instead, the guide who took us through Bethlehem was an Aramaic Christian, a member of a group that seeks to preserve the language Jesus spoke, a group that is on the verge of extinction.
Over the years, I have visited many churches that claim links to the physical Jesus or historic acts of God, and we, of course, visited the Church of the Nativity, which was built to commemorate Jesus’ birth. No one really knows the exact place; it was, after all, only the poor stable of a small inn in a small town. (I must confess that our visit to the Church of the Nativity is already fading from my memory, though the trip was less than a month ago!)
As we were leaving this historic site, our small bus was forced to pull over because we encountered what is apparently a daily occurrence in that Holy Land where Mary birthed Jesus. Palestinian youth had been throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers who had entered their city because, well, because they could. The soldiers used teargas to disperse the youth because Palestine is a deeply impoverished occupied land.
It was an amazing experience to be there as Christians, listening to both Jews and Palestinians. Lest we be tempted to feel the slightest bit of hubris, we also visited the ruins of the castles of the Crusaders where Christians tried to slaughter the infidel Arabs in their own lands, and we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, to remember how Christians have treated Jews for centuries. We were reminded how we covered our ears and eyes while the Nazis rounded up and murdered Jews while we pretended it wasn’t our problem and turned ships of Jewish refugees away from our shores when they sought safety here.
No, our trip to the Holy Land didn’t leave me with the kinds of illustrations that the preachers of my childhood came home with. Perhaps it is because time is passing more quickly for me these days. I simply don’t have time for sentimentality or to indulge in the magical thinking that says that somehow everything is going to turn out all right by Christmas.
I’m not a cynic, though. Actually, I am a person of great hope. My real hope is in you because, you see, I believe in little towns like Bethlehem, and in un-famous people like Mary. I believe those are the very places where love takes flesh and dwells among us, where God is born in our world. I believe that is the only hope our world has.
Between the manger and the teargas there is YOU, the art of God’s love.