Saturday, November 17, 2012

Living Stones
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Years ago, while living in Bethlehem on a Sabbatical, I was standing one day
at the edge of manger square with a group of students, waxing eloquently about
the ancient stones of the Church of the Nativity off in the distance. “Do you see
the old man in the kheffiyeh?” I asked, “Now just to his right, you can see the
main door to the Church of the Nativity, the small four-foot opening from Ottoman
days designed to keep out camels and horses, and calling all to enter in humility.
Straight up about six meters is the lintel of the main entrance from the Byzantine
church.  And if you let your eyes go back to the man with the kheffiyeh and straight
up you can see another lintel partly hidden by the buttress, but evidence of the
once magnificent three-door entrance back from 1500 years ago.”  


I then sent the students inside to explore on their own, while I continued outside my
eyes fixed on that fascinating façade of beautiful stones from the past. I love stones.
I’ve published articles in archaelogical journals about stones, and back then I was
writing a book on Bethlehem.

But at that moment I heard the voice of a woman speaking to another small group.   
“Look at those stones:  the lintel above and the small door where people are entering.
Now let your eyes wander a little to the left to see an old man in a white kheffiyeh. 
Ten years ago his wife died of cancer, his oldest son was killed in the Intifada, his
other children emigrated, his land was confiscated to build Har Homa settlement. 
Every day he comes to the church to pray, to sit with the other men, to tell stories of
better times, to laugh together and to encourage one another in their shared faith and

I had looked at the old man as a prop, a pointer to the cold hard stones behind him.  
In reality he was an example of what Pastor Mitri Raheb had been trying to teach me
about the living stones of the Holy Land.

 “Look what large stones and wonderful buildings!” 
Leave it to the twelve disciples to miss the point, as in today’s Gospel Mark 13:1. 
How amazing their preoccupation with stones, especially when you consider the
context:  where Jesus has been teaching at the temple for several days, where he has
encountered local folks, both those who challenge him, and those hungry for a word
of grace, and where the last person encountered was that poor widow who entrusted
her last two coins to the work of the God who always provided. 

But the disciples don’t get it.  The living stones are there to embrace, and instead they
take out their digital cameras to capture the white limestone buildings from every
angle so they can return home to share with their friends and neighbors.  And Jesus’
response:  “Not one stone will be left upon another.”  No it’s not
about the end times, but the birthpangs of something greater.  We’re talking about
wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and all kinds of human tragedies, where God
calls us to accompany the human family with ears to listen, with hands to bind up the
wounds, and with hearts of love to remind them that they have not been forgotten. 
This is our calling as community, whether on the hurricane stricken east coast of the
U.S., or in Aleppo, Syria, or Gaza or Jerusalem.


What about the living stones? What about the people who live here today, continuing
a heritage and tradition, so deeply rooted in the land, in the past, and yet persevering
with amazing stories that need to be heard. 

Last Sunday we had the wonderful experience when we joined with our Redeemer
Palestinian Christian congregation for a combined language worship service in the
main sanctuary, with probably five or six tourists groups of different nationalities,
several hundred people joining with the local Christians, the living stones,
accompanying them, providing encouragement and support, as only the community
of the people of God can do.

 Yet I was distracted by thoughts about another group, a significant “no-show.”  A
tour group of 185 Lutherans who had emailed me last August that they planned to
join us for worship, and who reconfirmed the previous Monday.  Then on Thursday
a series of phone calls from the tour office, the last from the Christian agency in
Chicago, “You have to understand,” he said, “we never get requests for tour groups
to attend a church service.  They’re coming to Israel to see the sites, and we don’t
want to short-change them.”

It wasn’t the first time. Visitors, sometimes ELCA pastors, email me their plans to
attend church or to visit local Christians, then do not show up, and later email that
Sunday was the only time they could fit in the Dead Sea, or that they heard it was
too dangerous to travel to Bethlehem. 

Yet for me it is all worthwhile when I encounter those who make the effort. 

Last Tuesday we met for breakfast with a pastor friend and his wife who had brought
a group of fifty from California.  They hadn't been sure if they could fit us in, but
with a little coaxing, they turned up on Sunday morning.  So now the group had left,
but they wanted to report when the group debriefed that previous evening, it was
unanimous: the highlight of the trip was the opportunity to worship with us,
surrounded by our ancient stones in our sanctuary, but more importantly surrounded
by Palestinian Christians.  To have someone shake their hand, Salaam a Messia 
(the peace of Christ).  Or to sing in Arabic Yarabba ssalaami amter alayna salaam
(God of peace, rain peace upon us).  Or to receive communion from a Palestinian
pastor—Dam a Messia.  That is what a Holy Land visit is all about. Spening time
with the Living Stones.

The writer of Hebrews, soon after the Jerusalem temple’s destruction calls us in
Sunday’s epistle, “Not to neglect to meet together,” –interestingly
not using the common term synagogue that might make us think of a building of
stone, but episynagogue reminding us of the lively gathering together wherever the
place may be, not to abandon the opportunity for community, “considering
how to provoke one another to love and good deeds”
reminding each other of God’s faithfulness, holding fast to the confession of hope.
(Hebrews 10:23-24).  This is the gift of living stones.   

In the destruction of Jerusalem and the beautiful stone temple in 70 A.D.—what
Mark is telling us about in today’s Gospel, we’re told that many of the Christian
community lost hope and fled to Pella across the Jordan River.  Others undoubtedly
died and some lost faith, but a core remained steadfast in the hope to which God
had called them.


How critical for us as war breaks out in November 2012, to heed the word of Hebrews
“Not to neglect meeting together.”  To provide the comfort and
encouragement that takes place in community, to accompany one another and the
people of this land.  The wars and rumors of wars in these last days has provoked a
lot of people to anger, some to doubt, some to feelings of despair and hopeless.  Note,
however, what the Hebrews writer does, taking that term “provoke” which we always
use in a negative sense, and turns it around to something positive and uplifting. 
"Provoking one another to love and good deeds." 

Last Thursday afternoon, I was invited to lead Bible study for the ELCJHL’s Saihroon
Youth Leadership Program.  They had a two-day break from school, ironically to
commemorate Palestinian Independence Day declared in 1988, before any of them
were born, yet on day two of the current conflict with reports coming in by the hour of
escalating bombing in Southern Israel and Gaza. 


“What about the Book of Revelation,” they asked.  People are talking about the signs,
the wars and rumors of wars, and the end of the world.  Is this the end?

So I read to them first these words from Mark 13 that this is not the end, but the
birthpangs—another time of crisis, a time of suffering, that we will have to endure,
but with the hope of a new future for all of them, twenty some seniors in high school
and first year university students from all the ELCJHL congregations.  It was in our
coming together at this critical time—not neglecting our gathering together—that we
made common confession of our faith, provoking one another to love and good deeds.

We talked about living every day as if it could be the last day of our lives, and not
getting hung up about silly speculation of signs of the end-times, no matter what all
those false prophets were preaching on the radio—after all, even Jesus did not know
the time nor the season.

And then we got to their request to read Revelation.  So I picked out chapters two and
three, the letters to the seven churches, so much like the handful of small churches
here in the ELCJHL.  We compared the opening words in each letter—three very
important words, “I know you”—so important at times like these when people are
tempted to cry, “Why are you abandoning us?”  We read the encouragement to
remember the faith that we’ve had since the beginning and to hold fast, and we also
read the amazing promise that faith can be strengthened in difficult times such as
these—through the birthpangs—leading to a promising future.  All these words, not to
threaten and scare us, but filled with comfort and hope and promise. 


And as further reports of escalating violence in the south came over the radio—we
admonished each other in the words from Hebrews “not to neglect to meet together,”
or in the words from modern missiologists “not to neglect to accompany one another”
—even when, and especially when, the conflict draws closer to home as on Friday
afternoon when the Jerusalem sirens wailed, when our hearts skipped a beat, and
when the trail of missiles filled the Beit Jala sky. 

To be honest, the idea of meeting together is written in the DNA of young adults. 
So after our Bible Study they offered an invitation for me to join them for their
planned late afternoon social time, hiking together from Beit Jala’s Lutheran Church
up to the top of the hill to the newly opened bowling alley, where they became
acquainted with a Mid-West American ritual, filled with laughter and bonding, and,
for a short while, forgetting what was going on in the world around them.

And forgetting all this talk about the end of the world.

Living fully in the present.

Encouraging one another.

Provoking each other to love and good deeds.

As we left the bowling alley under the dark of night, we glanced back at the large
neon sign, wondering what it all meant.  Reading the name of this new Bowling 
establishment, displayed for all the Beit Jala community to read:
Déjà vu.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert