mission of God

7 Lessons About Peace From My Time in the Middle East

998309_10152222403097492_17879176_nHaving just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict. 

Here are 7 learning’s that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:

1. It’s About a Holy People, Not a Holy Land

There is no place on earth that has exploited human story and experience for the sake of a tourist “experience” more than in the Holy Land. Millions and MILLIONS of people go to the Holy Land each year seeking a holy experience, but fail to actually interact with the Holy People of the land. Now, I’m not saying a Holy Land pilgrimage is evil or bad. No, they are incredible and allow us to tangibly interact with central places and experiences central to our faith story. I’m a history/geography nut, so I totally get the value of this! But, and this is a big BUT, many of these tours inherently place the inhabitants of the land as tour guides in our “holy land experience” rather than seeing them as the very source of our holy land experience. It’s like going to Disneyland and as we run to each ride, our only encounter with the human staff is as they strap our seat belt around us before yet another emotional high.  

Not only is this model of tourism unsustainable, it is unjust and insulates us from the realities of those living within Israel/Palestine. Bottom line, as followers of Jesus, is is our responsibility to turn our primary attention to the people of the land rather than to the land itself. Not only does this honor our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, it creates the space for us to encounter not only the work God has done, but the work he is doing

Note: There are more and more organizations that have identified the brokenness of the tourist industry in the Holy Land and are leading “ethical” tours in this region. In addition to TGIP, see Telos, MEJDI & even Rick Steve’s!

2. Forming Peacemakers is Hard

My primary role in leading these experiences is that of teacher and coach. Being a peacemaker does not equal picking a side and trying to get people to align with you. Firstly, no conflict is that dualistic and secondly, that would be far too easy. Being formed as a peacemaker is learning how to place yourself in the center of the pain and tension of conflict and highlight the humanity that exists within. It is about walking with people toward conflict transformatively rather than picking a side or running from the conflict all together. 

As our participants see and experience the pain and injustice that exists in this region, there is a natural pull to pick sides and get really pissed off. The opposite extreme is to see the conflict, be so overwhelmed with its complexities and want to simply walk away. Neither option is the work of peacemaking and my (and my partner, Jer Swigart) work is to walk with people towards a more constructive place in their formation, which usually means confronting the evil within ourselves before confronting the evil around us. It is ridiculously difficult!!

3. Enemies Cease to be Enemies When You Look Them in the Eye

The Western world has become quite content with allowing sound bites and images to tell us who our “enemies” are. Without leaving the comfort of our own lazy boy chair, we talk and act as though we have a nuanced understanding of who is our friend or enemy. Not only is this unhelpful, it is does not allow us to see and celebrate the humanity we share with all of God’s children. 

We spent an afternoon in conversation with one of the most “extreme” ideological and polarizing characters in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Although I disagreed not only with much of WHAT he had to say, but HOW he chose to say it, I was struck by his humanity. He’s just another guy like me who deeply believes in his cause and those impacted by it. At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his time, congratulated him on his newest grandchildren (We’re friends on Facebook, so I was in the know!) and gave him a hug. All the rhetoric and posturing went out the door and we saw each other as fellow humans. It’s really hard to have “enemies” when you look them in the eye.

4. Choosing Non-violence Doesn’t Equal the Avoidance of Bloodshed. 

It absolutely bends my brain when I hear arguments that choosing non-violence in the face of violent conflict is somehow soft or weak. As we learned from peacemaker after peacemaker who is faithfully choosing to face violence with creative acts that subvert and disarm systemic violence and war-making, I was both inspired and convicted. It was inspiring in that it was in these stories that the story of Jesus was BY FAR the most tangible and real. It was convicting in that I was confronted with my own tendency toward violence. I want to live the Jesus way that calls me to set down my weapons and pick up my cross, but it is hard. It is scary. And to be honest, it doesn’t always “work.” In other words, non-violence doesn’t equal the avoidance of bloodshed. Like Jesus, rather than it being my “enemies” blood, it would be mine. I suppose that is why I’m convinced the work of peacemaking is not only a way of life, it is discipleship. 

5. Violent Conflict is Very Real, but We Choose How We Engage It

We intentionally go to the center of this often volatile conflict because it is the best classroom, filled with the best instructors for the things that make for peace. Sometimes the conflict feels a bit far off from everyday life both in Israel and in the West Bank, but on this trip, it became more real that ever. There were three different instances where protests, clashes and violence unfolded within steps of us. It culminated with our hotel being hit by tear gas canisters and tanks rolling through the road at the bottom of our steps. 

As these incidents unfolded, I was stuck by the reality of violence AND the very tangible choice we have in how to engage it. Again, not an easy choice, but a certainly a choice in our discipleship journey. 

48053_10152222376937492_1409313618_n6. Brotherhood Has Nothing to do with Borders

While with our dear friends at the House of Hope in Bethany (in the West Bank), Jer and I were given what could be the most moving “award” I have ever received. We were honored as “Brothers for Peace” and given a plaque that read: 

“For being ambassadors for Christ, passionate peace builders, and partners in building bridges…reviving hope…and making the future…”

I could have never imagined a reality in my life where I would consider one of my dearest friends to be a person who lives half way across the globe in a reality and culture that is 180 degree different than my own. But, I am glad to say that reality has come true with my friend Milad, a Christian Palestinian who has given his life for peace in the midst of a reality that knows very little of peace. This is not a one way relationship where I simply go to “serve” him. No, he often “serves” and teaches me far more of what it means to follow Jesus than I teach him. It is a genuine, mutually edifying friendship. It’s crazy the types of experience and relationships you build when you follow Jesus into the places you’ve been called. What a gift.

7. When the Church Embraces Her Vocation as an Instrument of Peace in the World, Wrong Things Will Begin to be Made Right.

It is both terrifying and convicting hearing from person after person living in the Holy Land (Israeli and Palestinian) how much of an impact the American Church has on the continuation or the resolution of the current conflict between Israel & Palestine. They, very tangibly, feel the impact of our theology and politics being played out on their streets, in their homes and shaping the future of their children. Whether we like it or not, this is the reality and we have to take it seriously. For too long (about 100 years specific to our engagement in this region), the Church has given more allegiance to war making and nationalism that it has to the Kingdom of God and the Way of the Cross. Thankfully, the tide is turning and our friends in the Holy Land are celebrating our realignment with peacemaking and reconciliation as is central to the Mission of God and embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus 

I’m a more convicted than ever that the Way of Jesus, and the Church as an embodied manifestation of this Way, is the most constructive way to bring about peace in the world. In other words, when the Church embraces her vocation as an instrument of peace, wrong things will begin to be made right in the world. What an honor to be part of and worthy cause to give our lives to!

Our Obsession with Violence & the Stories You’re Not Supposed to Hear

Banksy ArtUpon my recent return from the Middle East (with The Global Immersion Project), I was struck more than ever before at our Western infatuation around military aggression, violence and division. Not only are these the primary narratives we are fed through our major media outlets, they are the narratives we subconsciously embrace through the latest bestseller, box office hit or video game.  Violence, death and division have become normative. We are becoming numb to the very things that we – as ambassadors of hope and reconciliation – are to turn from as Resurrection People.  It is as though there is a strangle hold on our on our ability to see and participate in the stories of healing and new life.  

As surprising as this may be, embedded in the midst of these conflicts are endless stories of hope that never make the latest headline or sound bite.  And in the times I’ve followed Jesus INTO these places of conflict, I continue to encounter stories of peace and hope that embody the gospel message, stories by real people, happening right now, in places usually known only for conflict, violence and death. 

Meet Shaul, a Jewish Israeli who lives in a settlement in the West Bank.  When a group of young men from his town threw a Molotov cocktail in a taxi filled with a Palestinian family from a neighboring Arab Village, he chose to go to the hospital where they were being cared for.  He sat with the family, apologized for the incident and took responsibility for the terrible act because as a member of the community at fault, he considered himself complicit in the violence. 

Meet Milad & Manar, a Christian Palestinian couple who live in a small Muslim town in the West Bank. Seeing a narrative of violence and division taking hold of many of the youth in their town, they started an organization that teaches peace and reconciliation through art and vocational training.  They are now a bright beacon of hope among their neighbors who not only support and encourage their work, but do anything they can to get their kids into this program. These former hotel room cleaners are now not only running an organization that is radically changing the tide of their town, they are finishing their master’s degrees in reconciliation and non-violence.  

Meet Roni & Moira, a Jewish Israeli and Muslim Palestinian who have both lost loved ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Rather than demonizing a whole people group as a result of the loss they endured, they choose to sit and mourn with those who are supposed to be their “enemy” because it is in that space that they experience the most healing.  It is in the midst of shared grieving that reconciliation is taking place and a movement towards a shared future is bursting forth.  

We do grave harm to these regions and the people within them when we fail to highlight these gritty, subversive and everyday movements of hope in the midst of conflict.  As followers of the great Reconciler, we are to be ambassadors of hope.  

We have a responsibility to tell THESE stories.  

In fact, when we don’t -- and instead spend the majority of our time fueling the escalation of fear and division -- we not only fail our heroic brothers and sisters working for peace in these regions, we fail to reflect the Christian hope we have been entrusted to advance. 

Now back at home, I am again blanketed by news that only tells one fraction of reality, but thankfully I know there is much, much more to be told. I think of my friends, my role models, my teachers who are living out the most redeeming faith in the very places we often deem as irredeemable.

May we begin a new movement.  A movement marked by hope.  A movement that humanizes people rather than demonizes. A movement marked by God’s continued presence in and among the cosmos, rather than his removal from them.  A movement that is rooted in reality, which sparks our divine imagination for what God desires for the world. 

Today (Like Everyday), We Pray For Our Enemies

It is in times and tragedies like those that happened in Boston that our call to pray for our enemies is most difficult.  May we be faithful to pray for them despite our circumstances.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, on all of us, sinners.

Father, we don’t know who was behind the tragedies in Boston, but we do know that they were human.  And we know we are to pray for our enemies.

In Jesus we see humanities true identity as ones who are to be agents of life, not death. Jesus, as first of New Creation, invites all humanity to reflect and participate in New Creation. 

Despite humanities sacred identity, evil often reveals itself through humanity. We must return to what we were created to be. May those behind this event return to who they were created to be. 

We pray specifically that those involved in this violence return to their shared humanity as they confront the violence brought on fellow humans as a result of their actions.  We pray that we don’t lose ours in the midst of it all.

May we embrace our vocation as peacemakers who are to be agents of restoration and reconciliation rather than divisiveness, enmity and violence. 

We pray for a collective grieving that fuels our ability to live with compassion, generosity and wholeness.

We plead for your justice to reign as we announce and promote your Kingdom reign through our words and deeds.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen. 

 

What Ruth Tells Us About Living the Jesus’ Story Today

I was recently reading the book of Ruth and was struck by the insight it offers into our vocation as followers of Jesus today.  There is something sacred about an ancient narrative informing our modern narrative in ways that impact the way we live, love and lead.  I will highlight three themes in Ruth that paralleled the life of Jesus and the story he has called his people to live out and into.

The first theme is that of identity as is found in bloodline versus voluntary submission.  In versus 16 & 17 of chapter 1, Ruth gives up her identity as was found in her familial bloodline and exchanges it for a new familial identity in Naomi and the people of Israel.  Ruth embraces her new identity as her true identity and it is her faithfulness in that that has direct implications for the advance of God’s Story in Israel (see genealogy of David in 4:18-22).  In the same way that Ruth submitted herself to a new family and identity in Israel, followers of Jesus are to submit their identity found in family of origin to their identity as part of the Kingdom family.  Mark 3:31-35 tells of Jesus radical redefinition of family in light of Kingdom he inaugurated.  For followers of Jesus, identity can no longer be primarily found in bloodline, but in a voluntary submission to the Kingdom Family shaped around Jesus.

The second theme can be found in Ruth freely choosing the way of self-sacrifice and obedience for the sake of her family and neighbors.  Throughout the narrative, Ruth is consistently making decisions that are intended to support, encourage and advance the good of Naomi and her family line over her personal good.  From voluntarily remaining with Naomi when it wasn’t required of her (1:16/17), to heeding Naomi’s request for her to pursue a relationship with Boaz (3:2-4) to giving birth to a son that would carry on the family line (4:13), Ruth consistently put the good of others ahead of herself.   Similarly, Jesus calls his followers to embrace the cruciform life and freely choose to live in Christ for the sake of others.  Jesus argues that our primary vocation is to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:37-39).  In Mark 1, Jesus comes announcing the arrival of a new Kingdom that we later find out is marked by service of and selfless sacrifice to the point of death on a cross.

The final theme is that of Ruth’s faithfulness, which leads to the redemption of a whole family line.  It is important to note that Ruth’s individual actions don’t just impact her immediate surroundings, but influence the good of her adopted family and the people of Israel (4:13-17).  In other words, there is redemption and restoration of many that comes as a direct result of her faithfulness.  Similarly, it is our faithfulness to an identity and vocation rooted in Jesus that will be the means through which a watching world is invited into the redemption Story of God.  Jesus not only acted decisively as the redeemer of Israel and all the cosmos, but he extents this vocation to his followers in John 20:21 when he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”  Like Ruth, the way we live, love and lead has direct implications for the redemption and restoration of those around us.  God has chosen to tell his Story and advance his restoration project through his people.

 

Community as Sacrament: Part 1

A couple months ago I was sitting in the living room of one of the families apart of NieuCommunities here in Golden Hill listening to Rob Yackley describe the three values that shape much of the life and mission we seek to live into each day: Communion, Community and Commissioned.  Using the three circles to illustrate the way these values tangibly play out, Rob shared that communion with God informs the life of our community and community fuels our mission of being commissioned as Kingdom players in the everyday realities of our neighbors, city and world.  
 
Seeking also to resource missional leaders outside of our neighborhood, every few months we open up these “key conversations” to leaders across the country.  This was one such conversation and as Rob described the community circle, a dynamic leader within the Anglican tradition turned to me and whispered, “He is defining community as a sacrament.”  I have been wrestling with the implications of that statement ever since. 
 
Why does it matter?
 
Sacrament literally means “sign.”  In the context of Church history, sacraments are external signs of something sacred.  They are signs that point to God through the mediating presence of Jesus.  They are those traditions/experiences that continually remind us of the living reality of a God that has not abandoned us, but is radically present.  
 
We often hear, “Let’s take the sacraments together,” in reference to the bread and wine of Eucharist (or Communion for us modern Evangelicals).  The breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine serve as a sign for what God has done in Jesus and what he will continue to do into the future.  
 
There’s the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign of ones’ alignment (some may say Resurrection) into new life in Jesus.  
 
There’s the sacrament of marriage, which is a sign of God’s covenant relationship with the People of God.  
 
But community; how does the sacrament of community play itself out?
 
Let’s go back to the circle diagram.  At every point on the outer edge of the community circle, the life of the community is exposed to their neighbors.  If the Body of Christ (given the name “Church” over the course of Christian tradition) is embodied in our faith communities, then they are to be a sign of what God has in mind for the world.  They are to be living reflections of restored and reconciled relationships and the embodiment of Good News in the world.  At its best, Christian community is a sacrament (sign) of God’s dream and at its worst, it is a hurdle to a world in need of the hope, restoration and reconciliation found in Jesus.
 
What Does That Look Like in Our Neighborhoods?
 
I recently got a phone call late on a Friday night from a neighbor of ours who is a recovering addict and was forced to move out of the neighborhood for a time.  He said, “I need to move back into the neighborhood.  It is my family.”  He went on to say, “I don’t fully understand it, but the life you guys live as a community had inspired me to follow Jesus again.  I can now see that I’ve been isolated and alone and if I’m going to turn back to Jesus then I need people like you in my life.”  
 
I was blown away.  It wasn’t one experience or event that our community put together that led him to this place, it was the ongoing presence of love and hospitality in the mundane of everyday life that brought this about.  Further, we would argue it was nothing we did that brought about this hope in our neighborhood.  Instead, it was our community being a sacrament (sign) to our neighbors of what the living Jesus is up to in the world.  
 
The flip side is that our communities have an equally powerful platform to show characteristics and signs that are anti-Jesus.  When we divide, become self-serving, fail to be present in the forgotten places or speak more than we listen, we can become a hinderance to how our neighbors see Jesus through the sacrament of community.  As a collective of broken, imperfect human beings, we will never get it right. But we can trust that as we submit to God, to one another and to our neighbors, the sign of the living Jesus will be revealed through Christ’s Body. 
 
Some questions
 
If my faith community were to cease to exists today, would my neighbors even notice?  If so, would they care? 
 

Are Christ’s characteristics and heart for the world reflected in the way we live as a community?  Do we love selflessly?  Do we care for the underserved?  Do we steward the land out of reverence for God’s Creation?   

Whether we like it or not, our faith communities offer some kind of sign to those who inhabit the contexts around us.  What does that sign look like?  It is a sign of God’s redemption and reconciliation or a sign of something quite the opposite?

May it be the former.  

There are few that have described what the Sacrament of Christian Community can look like better than German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.  In the hopes of catalyzing a movement of Sacramental faith communities, I will turn to his insights in Part 2.  

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