When a wall is not a wall

It’s been a busy few weeks since getting back from Israel/Palestine and getting things ready for Easter have been front and center. Mostly.

I have reoccurring memories of people I met while in that part of the world and I am finding that prayer is a good response as I think of the new friends there and the ongoing story unfolding in that region. I read the news now with a much keener sense of the dynamics for the local people. It saddens me to see the peace process struggle.
IMG 5104
Selfie at the Western Wall


There were, during the trip, a few surprises for me. Certainly one of the biggest came on the last Sunday before we left the country. We had been moving through the market tunnels of the old city of Jerusalem, clearing the gates and metal detectors as we went. The dark tunnels suddenly gave way to the bright daylight sun as we entered into a great square. The ground was stone and the walls reaching up around us were all made of stone, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the bright sun, I saw ahead of us in the near distance, a great stone wall. The Wailing Wall, the Western Wall.

This wall is apparently a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple's courtyard, and is arguably the most sacred site recognized by the Jewish faith outside of the Temple Mount itself. It has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. Some of the earliest sources mention Jewish attachment to the site as early as the 4th century.
IMG 20140315 130431
The Wailing or Western Wall. Men on the left, ladies on the right.

I stopped and stood there sort of gazing at it like I do when I come face to face with a piece of geographical wonder that I’ve only seen in photos. You know, sort of like when I first came up out of the tube station and saw Trafalgar Square or when I stood at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto or saw the skyline of Chicago or when I first saw the Empire State building in person. There is for me a “Ahh” moment when I take the time to be present to where I am and what I am seeing. So it was for me at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Of course I took pictures, but then I wanted to, you guessed it, I wanted to touch it. I wanted to pray where millions have prayed. To call out to God, not out of a sense of superstition, but more from the place of my inner relationship with God, in this very outer, very prayed at place.

I entered through the mens side and selected an appropriate head covering, and started to walk to toward the wall. Thankfully it wasn’t a crowded day so there was room to pray.

Now, I have been in places that some people including myself, have experienced as “Thin places.” Places where heaven and earth seem to meet and the access to prayer and to God is almost seamless. Places or times when it seems like one’s heart is instantly drawn to prayer, and to God Himself. I have been in those sorts of places. This, was more open to heaven than many places I’ve been.

As I drew near to my selected place for prayer my spirit was already engaging and as I lifted my hands to lean into the wall, it was as if I was received into it in a most hospitable, gracious way. I leaned into it more as my spirit began to pray and my forehead found a place to rest in the rock. It was amazing.

Quietly and quickly the words poured out of me, words of conversation and connection with The Holy. Words and senses I did and didn’t understand. But my spirit was conversing with The Spirit.

photo (3)
Me praying. (Taken by my friend John.)


I knew that time was limited but I also knew I was in no real rush to reconnect with my travel companions. I stood there for what seemed like a mini forever and I didn’t want to leave. I pressed in and prayed further and there was such largeness to pray. Such room to call out praise and thanksgiving and to petition and to pray. Such a large space for my spirit to explore the praying and where I was, time stood still.


Finally, finally, after a season I began to pull away, as though I started to recall my spirit back into it’s container. Called it back from the wide open space and time. Called it back to the present with the same sense of “I’ll be back” as the children felt when they returned to the Now from Narnia.

I stepped back from the wall partly in awe, partly sad to turn away. Glad for the moments, wishing for more. What a gift it was to me. A promise, a future, a now.


And so I’ve been reflecting since then, was it just me? Was it the wonder of being in the physical place? Did I make that all happen in my head?

No.

There are places and times when God is near and ready and open to conversation and connection. That’s the beauty of a two way relationship over and above a one way worshipping a God on a shelf sort of thing. It’s dynamic, it’s living. Others experiences there may vary. But it fits quite nicely with the God I’ve come to know, through Jesus, who as it happens, has prayed in the area too.

It was a grace to me and a reminder of so many things yet to come. Amazing things to see and hear and know.  Amazing and wonder-filled.


a pastors role

“In the modern church the role of the pastor is no longer clear-cut… For much of the history of the church, the work of the pastor was quite unambiguous: the ‘cure of souls.’ The shepherd is to help the sheep assimilate and live out the spiritual life. In short, the pastor is essential a spiritual theologian and a guide to godliness. It is this work and nothing else that gives the pastoral vocation its distinguishing mark.” — Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology
via.


This is what I'm saying "Yes" to when I am answering the call He has invited me to.
It is the heart of the heart of the matter. As out of step as that may make us.

Upon reflection, maybe that's why I'm ministering in a field.


Exactly how many Christians are there in your town? In the West Bank they know.

One of the funnier sort of moments I enjoyed in Palestine was when I met Arab Christians who would tell me about when many Western tourists would come and ask them when they converted to Christianity to which they would smartly reply "Oh about 2000 years ago when Jesus did mission work in the area."

See, sometimes our worldview shapes how we see events happening in other parts of the world.

Youth in Jenin sharing their stories
I had the opportunity to meet with different religious leaders while I was in Israel/West Bank, and one of the paradigm shifting concepts I heard repeatedly was that there were no non-religious people in the Middle East. Everyone had some religious approach to life, often that was handed down to them by previous generations. You were either Jew, Christian, or Muslim.

From a secular society perspective where I come from in Canada, that was a stunning sort of thing.  That everyone had a mark on their papers telling what religious flavour they were. This was why religious leaders were able to tell me exactly how many muslims there were in their town, or how many christians there were in this or that location.

There were no atheists or agnostics, at least officially anyway. Though within their own characterizations there must be those who are more or less faithful. So this religiosity was tied into their culture and history and family name.
Muslim shop owner who helped us out.
When I asked what would happen to a convert to Christianity from a Muslim family the answer was quick and clear. "They would be killed." Usually by the family. When we asked about converts from christianity the answer was much less violent. Admittedly that question was asked of an Anglican priest.


There were those who had made conversion choices who would continue to live as cultural Muslims as long as it wouldn't mean they would have to renounce their following Jesus Christ. They were known as secret believers and they exist, quietly. But for many today, being a Muslim or Jew or Christian for that matter is not a matter of the heart or faith but a matter of the culture and family they were born into. You don't just turn away from that and head in another direction after your family has been known differently for thousands of years.


This difference was interesting to note.


It comes into play when the Jews want to be recognized as a State and the Arab nations surrounding don't want to give in to that requirement to peace.  Partly in that mix is the question asking does Israel wish to be recognized as a full, secular nation state, or are they asking to be recognized as a religious, Jewish state? The subtleties of these arguments can easily be lost on us Westerners as the Arab neighbours react strongly to the idea.
Palestinian Kids

In the mean time local neighbours, Muslims and Christians, and in parts of Israel, Jews, live with each other as they have for thousands of years. They get along for the most part and care for one another. Their kids play together in the streets and they both hide when the tensions turn violent. Then they check up on each other and watch out for one another. In that way they create amazingly warm communities where good neighbours make good neighbourhoods.

Now if only the politicians and the extremists on all sides, could figure that out.



Living off balance - Occupied West Bank

It was Saturday morning when we boarded a bus in Bethlehem to head into Jerusalem and of course that meant passing through the checkpoint to move from the West Bank into Israel proper. We had connected with a Canadian girl who now lives in Bethlehem and is married to a Palestinian guy and she could understand and speak a bit of Arabic so she was to be a great help to us.

It's helpful to note that she could cross the line fairly easily with her Canadian passport, but her husband who is Palestinian, was not allowed to cross over out of the West Bank. Because they live and stay in the West Bank we asked them what they do for fun. There are not many parks or large park like areas there and there are no cinemas so what would they do on a day off. They replied that they used to go hiking in the countryside and that even some of those paths were changing because of the wall that was being built.

As our bus eased into the checkpoint, we expected that at most we would have to show our Canadian passports, but that was not to be. A nineteen year old soldier with a long ponytail and an M16 in her grasp, came on and spoke to the bus driver who then stood up and pointed to me and a few others and spoke in apologetic arabic tones. Thankfully the young lady I was sitting beside interpreted to me that we were to exit the bus immediately.  So I and six or seven others got up asking nobody in particular if we should bring our bags with us or what was happening, and we exited the bus to stand outside it.

It was an uncomfortable feeling standing there while the rest of our team was on the bus, really uncomfortable.  I never felt in immediate danger, but my naivety and my sense that a Canadian passport would cover a multitude of problems dispelled my initial fears.  It's the way things could go wrong quickly, that's where more of the fear lay.

Just a few days earlier a Palestinian judge had been shot dead at a checkpoint and the official spin on it was that he had attacked a border guard. The real truth was probably closer to the story that he had been pushed by the butt of the guards gun and had stumbled to the ground and got up giving the soldier a push, who in turn because he had a gun handy, instinctively turned and shot the judge dead. It seems this happens often here.

It's the way things could go so wrong so quickly with so many guns nearby that caused me to be nervous and fairly cautious. That and the tone of our english translator who had been pulled off the bus beside me. Her words were initially fairly tense and short. What to do, where to stand, how to stand there.

The ponytailed soldier entered the bus and began to go through passports while we stood outside with the other guard and his M16 beside us. Canadian girls tone began to relax as she began to understand what was happening to us, there by the bus on that lovely sunny day in March.

She said to me that this is what happens here to throw people off routine, to keep people on their heels. They will change the rules at any time, just to change the rules. For a while last year, and without notice they would not allow any internationals to travel on these busses. Just one day you would get to the checkpoint and not be allowed to go further. That lasted until months later an international tried to travel on the bus and was allowed. That meant the policy had changed and so all the internationals began to use it again. But there was no notice of these changes either way.

Today it had looked like they just wanted to pull off six or eight people to change things up, just to keep people off balance. Which in my estimation, had worked nicely. Keep up the tension levels, keeps people from getting too familiar or too relaxed into rhythms and routine.

With a level of relief settling on us and the rest of our team teasing us, we and the locals showed our papers and reentered the bus, we were good to go.

Just probably not quite the same.
That's the normal of living in an army occupied zone.


A Checkpoint in Bethlehem
One of the checkpoints in Bethlehem.



Some initial thoughts on my trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority


Fellow travellers by the Sea of Galilee
I and my fellow travellers by the Sea of Galilee ...and yes we do look like a album cover.

I'm still a bit groggy and adapting to life in a quieter place, but here are some of my preliminary thoughts on my trip to Israel and the Palestine Authority. It's a part of my report as a pastoral excellence learning experience.


1) Please describe the event that you participated in.

I participated in a trip to Israel and the West Bank together with three other Covenant pastors from Canada. Most of us had never been to the area before, certainly not to the occupied territory. I did not want to participate in a “Canned” tour that would only show us the good parts of Israel. We wanted to see and meet the people in the Palestine Authority as well, and hear of their lives and what it means to live under occupation.

We met with World Vision teams, different church pastors and church leaders in the West Bank. We also met with local pastors in Nazareth, Jenin, and met with the leaders of the Bethlehem Bible College to hear their vision.
We attended the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference held in Bethlehem. And finally we spent two days in Jerusalem seeing some of the Holy places there.


2) Were your expectations met? Why or why not?

My expectations were greatly exceeded. As I said I did not want to go there as a tourist to see the nice places of Israel, but I wanted to go and meet real people who live there and to connect with people who live under the difficulties there.

These expectations were exceeded. Let alone the historic piece of seeing the place I’ve been teaching about for 30 years, which alone was humbling and spiritually moving. But meeting the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the land and how they live together. Meeting with them and eating together with them opened my eyes to such a different story than I see in the news. From the Muslim family that took us in when we got caught in a tear gas, rock throwing incident, to lunch with the Messianic Jew who shared with us the difficulty of her position. Meeting and eating with a young couple who can’t leave the west bank together because he is Palestinian and she is Canadian.

I went wanting to meet people there and that was well exceeded.


3) How do you see this experience contributing to your growth towards pastoral excellence?

The historic piece alone is already shifting the nuances of my preaching. I’ve now been to Hebron and looked over the hills there and seen the burial places of the Patriarchs. I’ve walked through the hills of Bethlehem and looked over Jerusalem. These will inform my preaching.

I’ve also been tear gassed and have had to move quickly for my safety, like many in that part of the world. That informs me and shapes my approach to ministry as well.


4) What did you learn that challenged your thinking and mindset?

My thinking used to be that peace was possible in the Middle East, if they would just sort it out. I am much more pessimistic now about such possibilities after hearing these things from the people. Their lives, histories, families, countries are so intertwined that to separate them into a peaceful place would be all but impossible.
I feel much more empathy about that place than I ever have before.



5) What did you learn that you believe will contribute to your long term spiritual formation development?

This is difficult to explain but I learned the value of bearing witness. For the oppressed people living under occupation who said to us again and again “Thank you for coming. It is so good that you have not forgotten us.”
I used to think that was a bit of a cop out, but I saw there that again and again it was in the people’s hearts. They told us that they were so grateful to have us come and see where and how they live. There is a spiritual grace or discipline involved in bearing witness to those who are forgotten.
It came from the World Vision people working in the West Bank, from the Messianic Jew living in Israel proper, and even from the Muslim shopkeeper in Bethlehem who took us in during a disturbance in the street. “Now you see how we live here and what we live with each day.”

It was the grace we shared with them, even as they shared life with us.

Being a witness has value then in other areas of ministry and life and ought not to be undervalued. When it becomes one of the only things we can do, it can be a hugely significant grace.


6) What surprised you about this experience? How did you find refreshment? Where did you meet Christ in the event?

I went looking for Christ in the land. In the paths and vistas he walked and he saw.
But I found Christ in the people there. In the ways they lived and loved and cared.
More so in the poorer people. In those held captive by political systems.
I really never saw that coming.


7) Would you recommend this event or experience to others? Why or why not?

Oh my yes.
The touristy tours are nice for people who want to see a cleaned up version of things. But trips like this are the life shaping sorts of events in a life. They part the veil and show you the life behind the curtain.

This would especially be good for pastors.