Christians’ Role in Middle East Unrest

Less than a month from right now, I will be in the land that is at the very center of Middle East unrest. I am not being deployed against my will, but voluntarily stepping into the role of peacemaker as Jesus lived and called his followers to emulate. Going to the Middle East wielding the sword of the Spirit isn’t as culturally glamorous as going with an automated weapon, but I believe it is the path Christians must walk.

This is a time of unrest and budding hope in the Middle East. Further, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is at the front of international conversation. My professor, Dr. Glen Stassen, offers some commentary of Obama’s recent speech through the lens of Just Peacemaking. Please join me in advocating for God’s Shalom through prayer and social discernment. Also, partner with me in my travels to Israel/Palestine as I offer frequent updates both leading up to my departure and during my time on the ground.

Here is a video (which will soon be a full length movie) highlighting the often untold story of Christians in Palestine.

Travel as Pilgrimage #5: I Saw Osama Bin Laden On A Train

After arriving on the coastal city of Casablanca (north Morocco), Jan and I were anxious to make it to the heart of the North African country.  With signs and voices only offering Arabic, we navigated our way to the train station and three hours later we made it to the bustling city of Marrakech…the heart of Morocco.

Walking through the massive bazaar (the Las Vegas of farmer’s markets), I was expecting Indiana Jones and his sweet hat to walk up at any moment.  Jan covered her head to fit in with the cultural norms and I just tried to temper my inner gringo.  It was a totally different world than we were used to and we loved it.

After having a snake wrapped around my neck for a picture and eating some authentic lamb and couscous, we strolled the market.   Immediately catching my eye was a little toy train that was running in a small circle.  There were two cars to the train.  On the first was Osama Bin Laden and on the one close behind was George W. Bush.  Bush was toting a massive weapon on his shoulder, which pointed towards Osama. We immediately felt uncomfortable, intrigued and somewhat entertained.  But this little toy was telling a powerful story of America’s perception and reputation.

So often America (both from a domestic and international perspective) becomes synonymous with Christian.  To think America is to think Christian.  Some would say this is a good thing…some would say the opposite.

This little train was a microcosm of a bigger narrative. Yes, it was a caricature, but the premise was hauntingly accurate.

Central to being a Christian is the acceptance of a vocation to follow Jesus.  But certainly Jesus would not have been wielding a massive weapon on his shoulder chasing the bad guys.  No, Jesus would have been wielding the Spirit as he sought the will of his father.

I think he asks us to do the same.

So that’s the good news.  It’s not simply about Christians finding the right leader to represent us to the world…it’s about each one of us representing Jesus to the world. It is about fully stepping into the vocation we have been called into as followers of the King of the newly inaugurated Kingdom.  Like Jesus, we are to mediate between God and humanity, while living out the values of the Kingdom.

A life marked by Jesus can redeem the negative perceptions (and realities!) that the world may have about Christianity.


Travel as Pilgrimage #4: Pavlov, Minus His Dog…

Greek Man sitting at table

The sun was starting to set as we wandered around the streets of Aegina, an island off of Greece.  We weren’t planning on spending the night on the island, but the little town was beautiful and a late night adventure back to the mainland didn’t sound appealing.  Hoping to find a comfortable, inexpensive and safe place to crash for the night, we ran into an old gentleman smoking his pipe on a narrow street a few blocks from the center of town.  As we walked up, his face immediately lit up and he greeted us with a toothless smile.

We were thousands of miles away from home, yet this little old man (he couldn’t have been over 5 feet tall) welcomed us as if we his is long lost children.

After offering us some café (coffee) in his thick Greek accent, we realized he had been sitting outside of his home/business.  He and his wife owned a little hotel that might have even been older than he was.  We asked him his name and he invited us to check out the hotel while again offering café.

Pavlov wasn’t much of a businessman.  We really needed a place to stay and his place looked like a good fit for the evening.  By the time we walked up the stairs and back to the front desk, he had cut the price of the room in half and offered us another cup of café.  I don’t think he was desperate for customers and his insistence wasn’t creepy.  I think Pavlov genuinely wanted us to feel at home in his home. And, I think he really wanted some conversation partners for his next cup of café.

We dropped our stuff off in our tiny room and as we headed out for dinner on the town, Pavlov smiled from ear to ear and said, “Go have fun and let me know when you get back so we can sit have a cup of café and conversation.”

As we walked away from Pavlov, it felt as though we were walking away from home.

Hospitality is a spiritual discipline. It is central to the story of the Hebrew Scriptures (not only for their own, but for aliens and strangers) and the context that allowed Jesus and his early followers to share the Good News all over the region.

Hospitality isn’t valued as highly in Western culture as it is in many other parts of the world. After sharing a meal in the home of Palestinian friends in the West Bank, they said the act of sitting at their table made me their brother.  For them, you never deny someone a place your table…even if they are your enemy.  It would be a greater sin to turn someone away than it would to dine with an enemy.

Understanding hospitality as a spiritual discipline creates all sorts of challenges for Christians in the West. It is a new paradigm in our understanding of national borders being extended to aliens or strangers and adds significance to the simple act of opening our door to someone in need (physical or emotional).

We slept terrible that night in Pavlov’s hotel.  I might as well have been sleeping on a slab of concrete with a placemat as a pillow.  But we were home.


Travel as Pilgrimage #3: “Are You Another Mean American?”

Sitting at Cafe in Barcelona

It was New Year’s day and the streets of Barcelona, Spain were full of white lights and endless energy. Jan and I slowly strolled down Las Rambles (Barcelona’s most popular street) and took in scene. There is something about being in a different culture that puts you on your heals a little bit. Not knowing the language or cultural norms forces us into a posture of humility and listening. This is the posture that allows us to grow and learn of the vast diversity of God’s Creation. My inherited cultural telescope is so narrow…it is only in looking through another’s that my worldview expands. See my first Travel as Pilgrimage post for more explanation.

As we sat in a street side cafe drinking some tasty Sangria, a gentleman came by our table and asked if we wanted to buy any roses. I quickly declined, as I often do when people try to sell stuff to me unsolicited. But he didn’t leave. Instead, he stood next to our table with a very friendly demeanor about him as if the conversation wasn’t over. I could tell he wasn’t trying to sell us roses anymore; he was looking for some conversation.

He smiled and asked, “Are you another mean American? Why is the world so mad at you?¨

This obviously caught our attention and I stumbled through some kind of response like, “Well, I’d like to think we aren’t mean.” All the while I knew I had just tried to shoe him away by quickly declining his roses and had barely looked him in the eye. Maybe I was a mean American.

We invited him to sit down with us and offered him a glass of Sangria. With a smile, he declined the Sangria, but accepted the seat. After asking him his story, he told us that he was from Pakistan and had just arrived in Barcelona three weeks earlier. He loved his family and his homeland, but had been forced to escape some violent turmoil and was now trying to make a living selling flowers on the streets of a foreign land.

After asking him why he asked if we were “mean Americans,” he explained the demeaning way he had been treated by other American tourists. I’m sure some of it was cultural misunderstanding and some due to the prejudice we can often adopt against the Middle East. In any case, I hope our new friend experienced something different of Americans that night. After all, our primary role wasn’t to represent America, but God’s Kingdom.

He was a very humble and understanding man with a very different story than our own. Hard to imagine all he has been through. Maybe a bit of irony, but his name was Justice.

Have you had any interactions that called into question your inherited worldview?  Experiences that forced you to realize you may engage others in a way counter to our primary calling as representative of God’s Kingdom?

Travel as Pilgrimage #2: Hearty Beards & Interfaith Dialog

My pilgrimage of expanded worldview and renewed eyes for God’s diverse and growing Kingdom takes us to London, England.  If your are just jumping into this series, read my introduction to the Travel as Pilgrimage series.

Speaker’s Corner

There is a park in the middle of London that has one area designated as “Speaker’s Corner.” When we first drove by it (in our huge and cheesy open air tourist bus…) I thought it was an area for politicians to come and give their shpeel on their proposed policy.   After driving by I found that it was a place where ANYONE was welcome to come, stand on a ladder or box of some kind and just let loose. They could talk about any topic to anyone who was willing to listen. This intrigued me…

We continued to tour the city, but intentionally came back to Speaker’s Corner. There we hundreds of people crowded around various speakers who were getting fired up on issues of war, religion and philosophy. It was interesting to note the overwhelming majority of discussions revolving around Islam and Christianity. There would be a Muslim on one ladder and a Christian on another a few yards away. In general, there was plenty of space in the middle of the speeches for public dialog. Someone in the crowd would shout out a point of contention and begin to dialog with the speaker in front of the masses. Others would join in and the discussion continued…

Occasionally a more heated dialog would take place that was a bit out of control and led to offensive words, but this was very rare. On one hand it was very saddening to see all the points of disagreement we allow to lead to relational disconnect. On the other it was really encouraging to see a group of people not only culturally “allowed” to speak in such raw ways, but willing to discuss and process in such a way. I have to imagine a similar spirit of honest dialog when Jesus was a kid speaking in the “temple courts.” We have drifted so far from this form healthy dialog in most of our cultures.

Beard to Beard Conversation

I stood intrigued by one of the speakers who was doing his best to disprove the existence of the Divine Trinity when a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what I believed. I began to share with him of my love for Jesus and my resolve to do my best to live out His ways on a day to day basis. I also mentioned that I didn’t necessarily relate with many of the “Christians” who have chosen to preach a message far from what I see as central to Jesus’ inaugurated Kingdom.  I asked him of his beliefs and he mentioned that he was a Muslim. He had a sweet beard, much more impressive than mine…

We began about a half hour conversation on the teachings of Jesus, the letters of Paul in the New Testement and the Mosaic Law.  He was a very humble man, with many great things to say and during our discussion quite a few people gathered around to listen in. Much of what he had to say had to deal with Pauline writing being inaccurate to the teachings of Jesus. He mentioned that if it weren’t for the books that Paul wrote, Christianity and Islam would be very similar.  Sharing back and forth I came to realize that we could learn alot from each other, but trying to convince each other was not going to get us anywhere. I explained to him that our conversation was great, but a debate was not what we needed. We shared what we believed and what we were most passionate about and respectfully listened. After acknowledging our mutual respect for each other we shook hands, thanked each other for the conversation and went on our ways. It was beautiful. A small piece of heaven on earth. Maybe if we create more contexts like this, there would be more communication and understanding and less hatred and violence…

Pilgrimage is less about a destination and more about interacting with the dynamic individuals and perspectives encountered along the way.

What conversations and individuals have deepened the insights of your pilgrimage whether at home or abroad?

Picture: This is a picture Jan apparently took during our conversation

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