Friday, 20 June 2014

Disputed Territory

In recent days the Presbyterian Church USA - PC(USA) has been holding its General Assembly. There have been some interesting debates that have been shared via Facebook and other media. Today will be a debate about whether the PC(USA) should have investments in companies that profit from violence in Israel. 
Alongside that was a well written and thought provoking article on Christian Century about why we should 'read' the Fifth Gospel - Israel.
And, then a magazine article on the BBC website which highlighted the plight of the Tent of Nations Farm in Palestine - a Christian Palestinian family who hold passionately to non violent protest and who are refusing to be evicted from their land, which is claimed by Israel, but for which they have all the correct paperwork as proof of ownership.

I have visited this Holy Land three times, and plan to return in May 2015. Each time I have been moved deeply: 
The landscape itself, barren desolate; rich and fertile; hills and plains. Each day you see something different. Each time it shows you new truths, new insights into the place where God blessed his People, where Jesus walked, where the church was born, each time I have wept, over the echoes to other times, over the suddenly bringing alive of words I knew only on the page, and over the people we met in many different places. 

Each time I have been previously, we stayed in Jerusalem and Tiberius. 
In Jerusalem, we stayed overlooking the city walls, at the St Andrews Guest House, owned by the Church of Scotland and run locally by the most delightful people. In Tiberius we stayed at the Scots Hotel - in itself not without protest when it was built, by the Church of Scotland, some ten years ago on the site of the old hospital. It is a luxury destination for wealthy Jews and others who are there for a holiday in the country's main holiday resort. It welcomes pilgrims, but... to be in such luxurious surroundings when you know that over on the West Bank there are thousands of people being displaced, having their land confiscated, and restricted in their movements, begins to feel incongruous. 

So, when I began planning my fourth pilgrimage I decided I wanted to be able to share more of the real land, and the real people, away from the tourist resorts. We will still stay in Jerusalem at St Andrews, but we will also stay in Bethlehem - behind the wall. And we will meet people who live there, and scratch out their living as best they can. Then when we travel north to the Galilee region, we will stay in Nazareth instead of Tiberius. Our focus for the whole ten days will be on the Living Stones as much as the Holy Sites, so that we can experience the Land where Jesus Walked, and meet the people who live and work there - the Living Stones. 

For me this visit will come a few days after attending a conference about Pilgrimage. It will ask us to consider how we make these journeys, and as well as practical considerations, it will also challenge us to look beyond the surface and allow the act of journeying touch and move us to greater understanding. The conference leader is an author who has travelled to the Holy Land and written about her experiences... a book that fascinated me for many reasons, not least because her American approach is so different to my Scottish one!

I do believe that as Christians if we are privileged enough to be able to join a group, to walk in this land, to encounter this place - then we should! The land is steeped in history, the landscape is timeless, it looks today just as it looked four thousand years ago... the cities of course have undergone huge changes over the centuries. The technologies exist to make communication simpler, easier, the sights and sounds of the cities touch and challenge deeply, so it is a modern land, but it is also ageless, timeless, out of time. It communicates something much deeper, something of God. 
When we walk that land, there is some deep connection with our past, a deep connection to the history of Humanity, which is part of our heritage as God's People. And. This land is Holy not only for Christians of course. Wherever you go there are also Jews and Muslims making their pilgrim journeys, making their visits to the Land. Our three faiths are deeply intertwined, they are connected through history. Through all history. 

The challenge of visiting and walking in the Holy Land cannot be underestimated. This is the land where Jesus walked, where Moses lived, where King David ruled. This is the land where Abraham raised his son, where a nation was born. It is also the land where Abraham's other son: Ishmael lived and thrived, as God had promised he would. 
The echoes of all these previous generations are still there.
They speak to us down the ages.
They create a bridge which can allow our faith, our understanding, our encounter with God to become deeper, more real. 
This land, this Holy Land still speaks.

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