Tuesday, March 26, 2013

PEACE ON EARTH - My first visit to Bethlehem

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us."
[Luke 2:8-15 NKJV]

My first trip to Israel - with a Global Celebration mission team of about 35 people, most of them from the U.S. - was originally planned to depart on Friday 2/8/13, but our flights were cancelled due to a snowstorm in the Northeast, and our group rescheduled to depart on February 11.  A good snowstorm sometimes interrupts our human plans, and forces us into that quiet place where God’s voice can be heard and His plans displayed (Job 37:5-7)… With three additional days to re-pack my suitcases and pray, this delay helped me to connect more personally with God’s heart for this mission trip in a way I hadn’t really been able to before.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous about visiting Palestinian territory – after all, U.S. media rarely reports anything but suicide bombers, rockets and hatred for Israel. While in theory I admired Global Celebration’s commitment to show love toward all people, like many American Christians, I love and pray for Israel, and hadn’t heard much of anything positive about Palestinians. So when our trip was delayed for 3 days by the snowstorm, I was a little bit glad we’d have less time in Bethlehem, and needed a few extra days to pray through the hidden fears in my heart.

God is so faithful to answer when we seek Him!  As I prayed for our team, at first I “saw” angels going with us into Palestinian territory, then felt led to read Psalm 34:7 – “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”  So far so good…

On Saturday 2/9, I was praying at home and had a spiritual “vision” – eyes closed, a mental image with profound spiritual meaning that reassured me about our destination.  Here’s what I scribbled in my journal to remember it: “ancient walls crumbling, big boulders, blue skies, both sides (esp. Palestinian) could see common humanity – peace.  rubble, large beings tossing boulders around (angels? playfulness? or secular ‘powers that be’).”  [I decided later that these probably represented political powers, who toss issues back & forth, only occasionally removing any “boulders” of enmity, fear, anger, etc.]  I also had a very strong sense that this was something God was already doing in the region, and that our team was going to be a part of something larger, which was already in motion.  For the first time, I began to feel a personal connection to God’s heart for the mission aspect of our trip.

When we got to Dheisheh, the larger of two camps we visited in the Bethlehem area, we entered into God’s heart immediately by blessing a group of local widows and their fatherless children with groceries, hugs, kisses, and music. (We worship in English, so nobody minded our lyrics, and it created a beautiful atmosphere.)  Global Celebration leader Georgian Banov introduced us with a short explanation that “we’re not politicians, we don’t have all the answers to the situation here, we just want you to know that we love you and we’re with you and we care about you.”  A Dutch couple who work with the deaf at Dheisheh cultural center led a drum performance by their music students, and then we laid out our donated supplies for arts & crafts – crayons, paints, beads, stickers, pipe-cleaners, etc – and enjoyed a gleeful “art camp” with the children of the community.  Afterward, we were invited up to the 3rd floor to eat lunch with the children, and when they dispersed, one of the leaders thanked us (through an Arabic translator) for “changing things” for his young son, who played with us.  He said, “I try to teach my son to look at people – not as Muslims, Jews, or Christians, but as people… Today you have helped me to show him this.”  Then, since we had been playing our worship music on the sound system in the background, he invited us to dance with him and his friends to Arabic music – what an amazing, joyful and lively time that was!

The “sweetness & light” we experienced was still set against the backdrop of harsher realities – murals depicting the Palestinian narrative of Israeli occupation, violence and the sorrows of war were displayed above the windows, and a young man who came to speak with us after our 3rd floor “dance party” implored us to “tell the world that we are refugees!” Palestinian “camps” don’t look like refugee camps in Africa – they reminded me more of the narrow concrete neighborhoods one sees in the cities and towns of Central America. But the psychological impact of having been displaced and restricted by the existence of Israel was evident in this young man’s emotions. Georgian was graceful to come alongside and encourage him to share his heart with us so we could pray with him for solutions to the problems and needs that concerned him – jobs, opportunities, justice and freedom. Through the translator, Georgian asked another young man, “What are your dreams?” He replied, “I want world peace. I want to change the world.” The other fellow teased him, “Oh, he wants to be an angel!”  The one who spoke of peace was a nursing student, and I felt strongly impressed to share what I’d heard missionary Heidi Baker say many times, so I asked the translator to tell him: “Love the person in front of you. This is how we change the world: one person at time.”  Our team prayed with both of them for jobs and places to live and opportunities for their generation to change their world.

On our second day in the Bethlehem area, Abdelfattah Abusrour, PhD – general manager of Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Center for Children in Aida Camp, where we gave more groceries & hugs to widows and enjoyed art, pizza and soda with the children – walked with us through the neighborhood to visit a widow whose name means “Beautiful.” The streets were relatively calm and peaceful, but he asked us if we could smell the tear gas, as there had been a conflict with Israeli soldiers earlier that day.  It was February 14, so we wished him a Happy Valentine’s Day, and he replied with a smile, “Every day is a good day to love.” (Amen!)  The widow named “Beautiful” had a son in prison and four deaf-mute grandsons, one of whom visited with us while his grandmother served us tea and bananas, and we worshipped and talked with Dr. Abusrour on her patio. He told us about bringing his children’s theater group on tour in the U.S. and France, showing them poor neighborhoods in wealthy nations where the children remarked, “these people are poorer than us!” As I listened to him speak about his philosophy of non-violent, “beautiful resistance,” I told him about my vision of the walls crumbling and people recognizing their common humanity, and shared something else I felt God showed me as we were talking, that his cultural center is “a fountain of love” in this community… Later, when we stopped by his office to donate some quality art supplies for his older students, we noticed pictures of this Palestinian’s “heroes” on the wall: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Dr. Abusrour’s gentle eloquence clearly debunks popular myth (conscious or unconscious) that automatically associates the word “Palestinian” with the word “terrorist!”… Strife, hurt, fear, and enmity can distort perceptions on both sides - yet Dr. Abusrour’s words (quoted here) echoed very obviously the message I felt I’d received from God about walls coming down, and people perceiving their common humanity:

"We do not have the Luxury of Despair, but the Steadfast Hope that we can create a change that we can be proud of, and leave a better heritage for our children and the generations to come, based upon the values that we share as human beings and equal partners".

Continuing this theme of how awareness of our “common humanity” promotes peace, we later visited a rehab center in Tel Aviv which assists patients recovering from traumatic injuries (including a number of Israeli soldiers) and a Jerusalem residence for juvenile heart patients and their families (mostly from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq), with prayers and gifts.  Medical care in Israel (as in many other parts of the world) is offered without regard to politics or nationality.

Then, to top it all off, on the plane home from Tel Aviv to Newark, I sat next to an Israeli-Palestinian youth band called Heartbeat, who were embarking on a U.S. tour, (for more on how this group uses music to promote honest dialogue and peace, see http://www.heartbeat.fm/about/ ) and had an amazing hour-long conversation with one of their leaders, Tamer, who seemed as appreciative of what our group was doing on our trip as I was of his. He confidently asserted that, throughout history, walls (like the physical wall separating Israel and Palestine) have come down, because walls are not ultimately the solution… I said I felt my vision referred first to the walls of enmity, fear and anger in our own hearts and minds.  Later, when I searched the Heartbeat website to attend one of their events, I got tears in my eyes as I read these lyrics to their official music video “Bukra Fi Mishmish” (Arabic for “when pigs fly” or “when the impossible happens” – hello, we're the “Holy Land Miracle Tour” - we love the impossible !!):  “when we understand that we’re all human beings, then forever and ever we’ll be able to live.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Xw6NiUb44o&feature=player_embedded#!

I’m not pretending to have all the answers for the complex issues of Israeli-Palestinian relations - I mainly wrote this to describe some of my experiences as honestly as I could, as an American Christian who got to be part of some “walls” coming down – especially in my own heart and mind - as I participated in Global Celebration’s 2013 “Prophetic Journey and Compassion Outreach” to the Holy Land.

For example, when we visited the “Shepherd’s Field” in Bethlehem, I noticed Palestinian colors flying over a flock of sheep grazing below us, and was tempted, for a moment, to regret seeing this Biblical site in the hands of “Israel’s enemies”…but, quickly and clearly, it dawned on me that the shepherds on that famous night in Bethlehem were not necessarily looking for God when He broke in on their lives with the greatest gift of peace and good will humanity has ever known, and His gift of love was not just for the Jews then, either.

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' ”
[Isaiah 65:1 NIV]

I was reminded of the apostle Paul’s words to Gentile Christians at Ephesus, reminding them how God Himself reached out for them with His salvation. Most of us who claim relationship with God were at one time undeserving wanderers, loved and found by His grace, in spite of ourselves!

In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
[Ephesians 2:12-13 NLT]

May God’s Spirit of Love and Peace again break through for the Palestinians of Bethlehem and everyone in the region. This “good news of great joy” – the message of God’s good will toward humanity - is for all people on the earth.

Postscript:  While I was waiting to depart for Israel, a few members of our team who’d arrived from countries other than U.S. (and were not delayed by snow) posted photos on Facebook of their visit to the Dead Sea. It was fun to see that some of our team were already there, knowing we’d all meet up soon, and I was SO THANKFUL that God spared me from having my photo on internet in a mud-covered bathing suit !!!  ha ha  :)  Still, it’s a great message – PEACE & LOVE – and I’m glad we all got to carry it through the rest of our trip…

For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.
[Ephesians 2:14-18 NLT]

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
[Matthew 5:43-48 NLT]

For more information about Global Celebration, see www.globalcelebration.com

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