Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Report to the Presbytery May 24, 2016

 "The Big Church"

I have a children’s sermon which I have used in many of our churches when I lead worship. I call it the “Big Church”. After some introductions, I ask the children to name a country, any country in the world. They will usually say Canada, Mexico or maybe China or Germany. Then I ask, “Do you think there are any churches in that country?” I ask for the name of another country. Do you think there are any churches in that country? The answer is, of course, yes. There are churches in every country of the world. That is what I call the Big Church.

Why is it that our view is so short? Often when we say Church, we only mean our congregation. Of if we are thinking about anything larger, we may be only thinking of the Church in the United States. I heard a sermon recently which was built on the premise that the Church, that is how it was named, the Church is in decline. My friends, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church is on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit. What I call the Global Church or the Universal Church, or what our Book of Confessions calls the Visible Church is growing very quickly in many, probably most, parts of the world, in many different cultures and in many different styles. When we have this idea that the church is in decline, we are only referring to a very small part of the Church, that part in the United States and in Western Europe generally. Did you know that the Presbyterian Churches in both Brazil and Mexico are larger than our PC(USA)? Did you know that the largest missionary movement in the world today does not involve Americans? The largest missionary movement in the world today is South Korean Christians reaching out into China.

We have a special opportunity to open our ears and open our hearts and listen to a word from the Presbyterian Church in Egypt. My friend, Hunter Farrell, the Director of our World Mission program, considers the Reformed Church in Egypt to be our greatest mission success. In the era of the great missionary movement, Presbyterians from our Church in the United States planted the Presbyterian Church in Egypt. Please be attentive to and open your hearts to Rev. Ashraf Beshay.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Six:

Kairos Palestine

When I try to reflect theologically on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict given my, many new insights from our study tour, I find myself returning again to the Kairos document. This bold Christian statement of faith has, it seems, fallen out of our attention over the years since its release in 2009. We were blessed during our study tour to meet with several of the Palestinian leaders who wrote and are now advocating for Kairos Palestine. They maintain a website at http://www.kairospalestine.ps/ and easily found via Google.

Section Four of the Kairos document is titled "Love", and has provoked some of the strongest backlash and criticism in American Church circles. The Kairos document connects "love" and "resistance." This is a difficult word, which we in the U.S. need to consider deeply. Copied here are several paragraphs of Section Four. But it is crucial to read the whole document and understand its internal flow and connections. Nonetheless these two sentences from Section Four have provoked widespread criticism:  

The aggression against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted.

 The roots of "terrorism" are in the human injustice committed and in the evil of the occupation.

* * * *
4.2 This word is clear. Love is the commandment of Christ our Lord to us and it includes both friends and enemies. This must be clear when we find ourselves in circumstances where we must resist evil of whatever kind.
4.2.1 Love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister. However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression.
The aggression against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted. It is an evil and a sin that must be resisted and removed. Primary responsibility for this rests with the Palestinians themselves suffering occupation. Christian love invites us to resist it. However, love puts an end to evil by walking in the ways of justice. Responsibility lies also with the international community, because international law regulates relations between peoples today. Finally responsibility lies with the perpetrators of the injustice; they must liberate themselves from the evil that is in them and the injustice they have imposed on others. . . .
4.3 Through our love, we will overcome injustices and establish foundations for a new society both for us and for our opponents. Our future and their future are one. Either the cycle of violence that destroys both of us or peace that will benefit both. We call on Israel to give up its injustice towards us, not to twist the truth of reality of the occupation by pretending that it is a battle against terrorism. The roots of "terrorism" are in the human injustice committed and in the evil of the occupation. These must be removed if there be a sincere intention to remove "terrorism". We call on the people of Israel to be our partners in peace and not in the cycle of interminable violence. Let us resist evil together, the evil of occupation and the infernal cycle of violence.

"Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Five:

            Book Review: Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers: The Dramatic Story of a Palestinian Christian Working for Peace in Israel.

For me, and many other seminary students in my generation, the reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night, first published in English in 1960, was a sort of moral and ethical rite of passage. We need to know about evil. We need to know about the real, full expression of evil in our world: the Holocaust. Because of his life, witness and writings Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Now I wonder if a whole generation of students, like me, would have a deeper, a more sophisticated and larger understanding of morality, ethics and history if we had read Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers along side of Night. These two books, Night and Blood Brothers, belong together and should be well read side by side.

Since my study tour of Israel and Palestine, I have been intellectually distraught by a stunning and simple question: Why did I not learn what happened to the Palestinian people after World War II? I am disturbed by the answer which I am beginning to discern. In our culture, what I learn, what I read, my worldview and the contours of my deepest convictions and moral commitments may be, in important ways, controlled and imposed on me. How is what I learn and believe decided?

            I have a stunning photograph from Israel. The photograph itself shows a beautiful, grassy, green hillside behind a secure fence; it is the story that is stunning. In Israel it is a piece of land set aside as a “forest preserve”, it is now an idyllic place with beautiful trees. It is the location of a Palestinian village which was taken by the Israeli’s in 1948 and all of the Palestinian residents were forced to leave. Now there is no sign of the Palestinian village; the village has been eliminated, destroyed and plowed into the ground. A village has been transformed into a forest preserve.

            Elias Chacour tells the story of his family who were living in one of the small, Palestinian villages when the land was given to the Israelis by the great powers after World War II. Why did I never learn this history from the viewpoint of the people who had lived in these villages for generations? Chacour writes:

            Palestine was first partitioned in what the United Nations called a “compromise”. Our elders and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians throughout the land were shocked beyond words, for the terms of the “compromise” were brutal.
            The Zionists were given possession of the majority of Palestine – 54 percent – even though the owned only 7 percent of the land! In five major areas that were being handed over, well over half the people – up to 70 and 80, even 99 percent – were Palestinians. The “compromise” gave the Zionists almost all the fertile land, including the huge, main citrus groves that accounted for most of our people’s export income.
               How had such a sweeping and one-sided decision been reached? Among the nations of the world, the United Nations vote was accepted without question or protest.”

            The United Nations decisions allowing the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land was more than fifty years ago. I did not know the reality on this history until I snapped that nice photograph of an Israeli forest preserve. I have not listened to or understood the pleading voices of Palestinian Christians. Elias Chacour is an important voice; can I hear? My deeper, soul-searching questions involve the ways and reasons why I have been taught that these people and their stories should not be heard. 

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”   Psalm 122: 6

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Reflections from Israel and Palestine, Part Four.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

(This is another in a series of reflections from my trip with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

(Note: There is an excellent and comprehensive Wikipedia article on the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”.)

With our free time when we first arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem, we walked all though the ancient streets and walkways. We were not looking for any particular sites since we knew our tour would cover them all later. But I did have in the back of my mind and I was watching for the location of the greatest Christian holy site: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which, for Protestants, is also referred to as the Church of the Resurrection. We never found it. Is there a spiritual lesson here? For the casual tourist visiting the Old City of Jerusalem finding the most holy Christian site is not easy. While a relaxed stroll through the Old City will typically end near the Jew’s Wailing Wall and, of course, Islam’s majestic, soaring, gold Dome of the Rock is visible from many spots all around Jerusalem, the empty tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ is not easily located. There are two tourist entry ways to the Church of the Resurrection. One of them is so obscure - an almost, hidden turn off of a small, unmarked alleyway - that I would never have found it on my own. The more, common entry way to the Church blends in almost seamlessly with the surrounding shops and homes.

This is a parable for us: in order to find the Church of the Resurrection you need to truly be seeking it. Even so its location is difficult to find. The best solution, which is what we did, is to follow someone who already knows the way. 

I had a powerful and memorable spiritual experience within the Church of the Resurrection. Our team was scheduled to visit there immediately after breakfast one day; we were walking from our hotel and thus our guide book put us at the Church at 9:30 a.m. But Lawrence, one of the leaders of our study tour, suggested that if anyone wanted to avoid the crowds he was also going to visit the Church much earlier; he expected to be at the entry door when it was unlocked at 5:00 a.m. About ten of us joined Lawrence for this early morning walk. Walking through the Old City in the shifting light and dark of the moments before dawn, in the deep quiet before any of the shops were open, was itself a time of walking prayer. Our group arrived at the entry door minutes before it opened; we found a small group of nuns already waiting for the rattle of the keys that unlocked the door. Silence was natural and comforting as we waited.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre includes both Golgotha and the Empty Tomb. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a jumbled, confusing, multi-level conglomeration of many different interlocking and overlapping churches build around and over one another through the ages. There are stories about monks from different traditions fighting each other in protection of their sacred inches within the Church. There are chapels, small alcoves, shrines and altars established everywhere. Although we were the first tourists to arrive that day, the atmosphere was already filled with the ancient, gorgeous sounds of chanting; the Armenian monks in their small chapel down a steep flight of stairs were celebrating their mass, at 5:00 a.m! I pondered if this was the first or the second mass of their day.

I quickly wondered through the hallways and passageways in this convoluted, holy space and found my way to the Empty Tomb. There were a few people wandering around here and there; I paused to study this space and look around. This is a Greek Orthodox space now and shows their passion for icons, candles, incense and religious decoration. Under a huge, soaring, cathedral-size dome, the Empty Tomb is itself a small structure. There is a small entry way which opens into a preparatory room in which about five or six people can stand in a circle. Then a low, small passageway is the entry to the Tomb. The Tomb is sacred space where only two or a crowded, three people could fit. To enter requires one to kneel and crawl in; the floor polished smooth through the generations. There at eye level as one enters, crawling only a few feet on hands and knees, is the stone upon which the body of Jesus was laid, an empty slab of stone. I knelt next to it and quietly rested my head on it.

 I knelt in quiet, silent prayer inside the Empty Tomb for as long while; I opened my eyes and was surprised to still find myself alone. No one was in the Tomb with me, no one was in the small outer chamber waiting to enter the Tomb, and I saw and heard no one outside preparing to enter. I was alone in the Empty Tomb of my Lord. I prayed with my eyes closed for awhile, and then with my eyes open I studied this small room with all its Greek Orthodox devotion. Candles were burning; my organizational mind wondered who was responsible to keep them burning. I was inspired. I was not necessarily inspired by the biblical idea that this was the actual, physical spot of the Resurrection. I was more inspired by the simple thought that millions – countless numbers - of Christian brothers and sisters had come to this very spot through all the generations to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. How many people, from how many places, in how many languages, representing how many churches knelt exactly in this spot where I was kneeling in the name of Jesus? How many people have had the opportunity to be alone in the Empty Tomb? The thought shook me. I realized what a gift I had been given and I entered a deep time of prayer running through my long list which I always and everywhere have in my heart; and still I was alone. I had the thought that respectfulness required me to crawl out of the Tomb backward, feet first. At the last moment, just as my head was about to exit the Tomb, I paused, looked all around this space once again and knew once more how abundantly I have been blessed, and our world has been blessed, with the gift of Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank you Lord!

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”   Psalm 122: 6