10 Things I Learned While in the Middle East

Hearing the story of Daoud at the Tent of Nations in West Bank

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East.  I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own.  In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood.  Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope.  No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview.  When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it.  

Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:  

1. Stories Over Facts -- No matter how many stats we present or information disseminate, there is nothing more powerful than being invited into and experiencing ones story.  Especially a story that shatters our stereotypes, prejudices and understanding of justice. 

2. Learning Happens Best Through Exposure -- Those of us in the West have unprecedented access to information for learning.  One step of exposure into lived (experienced) history brings about far more learning than read/heard history.   
3. Stereotypes Aren’t Broken Unless We Are Willing to Listen -- The posture of a learner makes ALL the difference in what they learn.  If we choose not to be transformed by the reality around us, we won’t.  Two people can actually listen to the same story and come out with two different responses based on their willingness to set aside their own presuppositions for the sake of humbly listening and learning from those of different persuasion. 
4. Being a Presence of Reconciliation is Only as Real as Your Weakest Link -- When walking the streets and into the homes of those living in conflict zones, you are not viewed as individuals, but as one community.  It only takes the words/actions/disposition of one within a community to compromise the presence of reconciliation we are committed to representing.  
5. Being Present And Returning Matters -- People who experience daily injustice often have people come see and experience their story.  These people often “feel sorry” for them and say their going to go home, bring attention to their situation and some even say they’ll come back to help their cause.  This rarely happens and does more harm that good.  Having advocated, stayed in constant contact and returned multiple times to my friends experiencing injustice in Israel/Palestine I can see in their eyes a building sense of partnership, care and belief in us and our work.  
6. Living, Loving and Leading Differently is Contagious -- Rather than pull into parking lots, our Learning Communities pull into driveways.  Rather than isolate ourselves from the areas of conflict and tension, we fully expose and immerse ourselves in it.  We wander far off the beaten path of Holy Land tourism.  People both in the States and inhabitants of the Middle East notice the difference and want to know more of why we’re doing what we’re doing.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land, we seek to encounter the people with whom Jesus footsteps led him towards.  That’s Good News and that’s contagious.  

Rabbi Eliyahu catching up with Muslim friend

7. Art of Peacemaking Requires Living in Radical Tension -- To be a peacemaker requires holding conflicting narratives in tension so we can be a presence of reconciliation in the middle of it all.  We compromise our ability to be peacemakers in the way of Jesus when we lose our ability to stand with people despite our differences.  

8. Sharing Tables is the Beginning of Sharing Humanity -- There is something sacred about sharing a meal with people who we have been taught to hate or disagree with because of the portrait we have been offered by the media, leaders or information in the West. It is in the conversation and shared life that exists around a table that we are exposed to the humanity of “the Other.”
9. How I Act in My Neighborhood Informs How I Act Abroad (and Visa Versa) --
I don’t know how many times we heard from locals in Israel and Palestine that our life, theology and politics in America have direct implications for their everyday life.  Some went as far as saying, “Until your theology and corresponding policies change, there will be no change here.” As a Learning Community, we have also been radically formed by our exposure and experience in the Middle East.  We see people, conflict and social realities differently so as to allow us to better live, love and lead like Jesus back in our neighborhoods.  
10. This Generation is Hungry to Live Differently -- Both the difference makers who participated in our Learning Community and the vast majority of the Israeli’s and Palestinians with whom we interacted with are committed to live out a new reality.  A reality that transcends blind prejudice, false assumptions and conflict that is based more on the fear of the past than in the reality of the present and future.  Amid the pain, violence and injustice there are individuals and communities that are offering a grassroots movement that is stirring up great hope and a new future.  

When All of Abraham’s Children Share a Table: A Moment I’ll Never Forget

Prayer in Hebron

Hebron is known as one of the most volatile cities in the whole region of Israel/Palestine.  Located in the heart of the West Bank, both Jews and Arabs have had roots here for thousands of years.  Having endured years of conflict, racism, violence and separation, Hebron’s inhabitants have been covered in a narrative lacking an acknowledgment of a shared humanity

It’s in the middle of such realities that our Learning Community (part of our organization, The Global Immersion Project) feels called to listen, learn and be radically present.  Through the art of friendship making, shared tables and storytelling, we desire to promote the just heart of God by being a people of reconciliation in the way of Jesus. 

It was this posture that landed us in the underground home of a local Muslim Palestinian family who is close friends with the Jewish Rabbi who was hosting us in the old city of Hebron (he is both a host and dear friend!).  Having prepared a beautiful and expansive Palestinian meal, they warmly invited each one of us into their home and said, “Today, this is your home.” 

Hebron is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, namely, Abraham.  It is important to note that all three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) acknowledge Abraham as their father/patriarch.  In other words, this is the physical place where religions not only collide, but the physical place where they share a very unique familial identity. 

Shared Meal in Hebron

Having taken seats around tables filled with diverse color, rich aromas and new faces, the Jewish Rabbi asked if I would share a blessing over the meal alongside himself and the Muslim home owner.  He said to the gathering, “We will now share a blessing over this meal lead by a Muslim, Christian and Jew.” 

Standing between my friends -- a Muslim Palestinian and Jewish Rabbi -- I prayed that this meal would be a picture of reconciliation found among the children of Abraham, because as a follower of the pro-people Jesus who came to bring restoration to all the cosmos, I have to belief this to be true. 

For me, it was a thin place; a place where heaven and earth were only thinly separated.  It was a microcosm of how humanity can interact when the best of all three monotheistic faiths are represented.  Further, as one who has given my life to the work of peacemaking and reconciliation, it was a moment and honor I will never forget.  In fact, it will fuel me to live more faithfully into the identity I have been given as one submitted to the life and teachings of the Prince of Peace in obedience to the great Reconciler.  

Sitting (on the floor!) around a table with people from all over the world and experiencing radical peace in a context whose reality is often the opposite, I got a glimpse into the heart of Jesus for humanity.  A humanity he so adamantly sought to highlight by being a presence of peace and reconciliation among people and in places that weren’t “supposed” to experience either.  

Friends, the construction of “The Other” is quickly dissolved when we enter each others’ homes & share a table.  We confront and acknowledge our common humanity.  This is not only true in the Middle East, but in the neighborhoods, cities and suburbs in which we inhabit everyday. 

May we be a people who instigate a revolution of shared tables that offer a foretaste of the Kingdom banquet being prepared by the Resurrected refugee from Palestine, Jesus. 

Jesus’ Invitation to the Discipline of “Wasting Time?”

A few of us from our missional community asked one of the hero’s of our neighborhood to sit down for a meal so we could hear more of her story and learn from her experiences.  Among locals, she is known as “Judy the Beauty” and owns a local restaurant that has been around through all the years of violence and pain our neighborhood has endured over the past 30 years.  Rather than calling the police when gang members would threaten her, she would simply hire them and give them a warm meal.  She is now the “mom” to dozens of guys society had written off as a lost cause.  When we asked her what she would suggest we do as a community who deeply desires to be good news in our neighborhood, she said, “You have to listen.  Drop your agenda’s and allow the stories of the inhabitants of the neighborhood inform how you engage and participate.  Simply be present.”

I never fully understood the significance of the first thirty years of Jesus’s life until I had the opportunity to walk from village to village near the Sea of Galilee in modern-day Israel. Between dusty roads that rise and fall over rolling hills that circle the beautiful body of water, small villages and ancient cities fill out the first-century context of Jesus.

Following the model of his earthly father, Jesus was a carpenter. In that day, carpentry was much more closely associated with rock than with woodworking. The ancient city of Sepphoris—near Jesus’s childhood village of Nazareth—is still largely intact because of the rock structures that served as building foundations Also, because the leaders of the city chose not to participate in the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD against Emperor Vespasian, the Romans didn’t destroy the city. In fact, as Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) rebuilt the city during the start of the first century, it is likely that Jesus would have spent much time working there as a carpenter. 

Sepphoris was a significant city for many reasons. Besides being the Galilean capital, it was the central hub of commerce and a highly influential Jewish place of leadership. There were many layers to life in cities like this and for life in general during the time of Jesus.

As I walked the modern-day ruins of this site, I couldn’t help picturing a twenty-year-old Jesus working next to his dad while listening and living a radically submerged life within this context. While shaping rock that would act as foundations for buildings whose use he may or may not have agreed with, Jesus was present.

Jesus was not just present for a year or two; he was present for thirty years before entering his formal ministry. There is an element of lingering inherent with submerging. It is a willingness to be present to the point of feeling like we are wasting time, when in reality we are leaving ourselves open to be used by the Spirit in ways we be might otherwise have never been aware of. Lingering is not simply walking aimlessly in circles: it is knowing what we are looking for and being intentional with our time and presence.

Jesus, with his building vocation as Messiah and inaugurator of the kingdom of God, spent time to linger, to be fully present and submerge into his context. And he did so for thirty years. Being the one chosen to redeem all of humanity, I have to wonder if he ever felt as thought he was wasting time at any point during the first thirty years of his life. After all, he had a lot of work to do and a renewed story to tell and invite God’s people into.

In the end, we know that Jesus wasn’t wasting time: he was listening to the voice of his Father and doing the very things he saw his Father doing (see John 5:19). He was submerging deep into his context and preparing to invite others into the story of God. The same is true for us: what may feel like wasted time is quickly redeemed by the Spirit when we linger and submerge with intentionality.

How might we have unhealthy expectations for the speed and frequency in which we see and experience transformation in our neighborhoods?  

May we be driven to better love on our neighborhoods by the Spirit rather than our ambitions or agendas, even if they are developed with the best intentions.  

Note: Much of this post in content from my book Thin Places

Fatalities of Prejudice

(Pic: Our daughter Ruby with a Muslim family that recently fled Afghanistan as persecuted refugees)

Confession: I often fall victim to stereotype and blind prejudice against those outside of my cultural, religious or ethnic circle.

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

I believe many of us have allowed the polarizing and hateful rhetoric of media/politics to inform us on who we believe to be friend or enemy. There are endless numbers of religious and political pundits who have destroyed any remnant of generative discourse in order to make a name or an extra buck.  This is a tragedy that has severe consequences for masses of people outside of our relatively small population.

I’m not saying there isn’t evil in the world.  I believe there is.  There are daily acts of violence across the globe, but we must not assume that such violence is promoted by whole demographics.

What I am saying is that who we label as “evil” often aren’t evil at all.  In fact, they are often those that embody the fruits of the Spirit in more tangible ways than anyone else.

A few examples of people groups who have been labeled by false stereotypes, which have led to oppressive prejudice:

“The Muslim Terrorist” – Just a few weeks ago I (as a professing Christian and stranger) sat in “their” West Bank homes and experienced hospitality that will stay with me forever.

“The Jewish-Israeli Extremist” – I shook “their” hands while standing in sacred Jewish sites as “they” articulated the necessity to build bridges of equality between Israel and Palestine.

“The Agenda Pushing Homosexual” – Some of my closest friends have been put in this category and the daily prejudice (especially from the Christian community) they absorb breaks my heart…and theirs.

“The Illegal Mexican Immigrant” – I play soccer with “them” every week.  I had lunch in “their” home just yesterday. (Good article on this topic: The Gospel of Immigration.)

Obviously, my experiences are not comprehensive as there are isolated individuals that affirm the assigned labels, but not only were these labels untrue, the assumptions inherent in these labels were untrue. When the language of “they” turns to “my friend,” everything changes. And I would argue it changes in the direction Jesus would have it.

In each case, I had to unlearn previously believed stereotypes and labels.  People’s identities are not to be defined by an assigned label, but by the identity given to each by God.

As followers of Jesus, there is no room for such distinctions.  Our vocation is to love and serve ALL humanity.  If our assumptions about someone don’t allow us to objectively hear someone’s story, then we are serving an agenda other than that of Jesus.

I don’t say this to be a jerk, I say this because we are missing out.  Such prejudice is not only fatal to the humanity of those we judge, it is fatal to the humanity of each of us.  Prejudice is insidious and it turns us into people we were not designed to be. We become less human.  When we adopt a posture of defense and demonization in exchange for a posture of invitation and Christ-likeness, we fail to live out our vocation as disciples of Jesus.

As Christians, we live in the present reality and future hope of Resurrection, which gives us the eyes to see the restorative plan of God in all of humanity. We can’t lose our kingdom imagination at the hands of blind prejudice.

What are ways we can shake off this toxic addiction to prejudice that steals life from “them” and “us?”

Go: Intentionally find ways to interact with those whom we demonize.  When “enemies” move from somewhere “over there” to fellow human citizens, we can begin to see more clearly.

Listen: Hear their stories.  People aren’t near as irrational as we are told they are.  When we hear their stories, we experience the human side of issues that have been reduced to political or religious talking points.

New Eyes: We have to unlearn many of the stereotypes we have accepted as truth and turn (repent) to truths of equality and hope found in Jesus.  We have to train our eyes to see Jesus in everyone

I’m about to walk out door and cross the border into Tijuana, Mexico.  Due to a variety reasons, it has become one of the most violent cities in the world….but that DOES NOT mean that all or even the majority of Mexicans are violent.

I’m not promoting a social ignorance.  Instead, I’m proposing a return to the normative values and reality that were inaugurated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

“Jesus, forgive me.  May I take on new kingdom eyes that are able to identify your Image in each of your children”

Reach out those you fear.

Touch the heart of complexity.

Imagine beyond what is seen.

Risk vulnerability one step at a time.

-Poem found in John Paul Lederach’s Moral Imagination-

What would our relationships look like if we saw people first as image bearers of God rather than bearers of a socially conferred label?

What our ways we need to repent of blind prejudice?  From whom do we need to seek forgiveness?  What are ways we can develop a kingdom imagination that sees Jesus in those we have chosen to write off as “evil?”


Just Peacemaking #3: A Call For Interfaith Dialog

With my friend/owner of a local pizza place in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.

Christian Quarter of Jerusalem

In East Jerusalem where the majority of people are devout Muslims.

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