Rev. Dr. Marion Park is the Assoc. Pastor at Grace First Pres. Church (Long Beach). She received an award ($1200) from the PLR Strategic Coordinating Team to attend the Mosaic of Peace Conference (Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference) in Israel/Palestine, April 28 – May 10, 2014.
For my study leave this year, I got to go to Israel/Palestine. I had been trying to go to the Holy Land for the past 23 years. I was thrilled to finally be able to go. Mosaic of Peace was the name of the peacemaking conference, sponsored by our denomination’s mission agency – Presbyterian Mission Agency. It was held in Israel/Palestine in the early part of May of this year. I was one of 107 Presbyterians who spent 10 days in the land called ‘holy’ to respond to a call for peace and wholeness.
Entering into Jerusalem, the Old City, where we were staying, I couldn’t help but notice the stone upon stone of walls that enclosed the city. It was so cool that the hotel in the Old City where we were staying was right up against the city walls.
Everywhere you looked there were stones. The streets were stones upon stones. Stones everywhere, stones of every shapes, size and color. Some very old stones – from B.C. 7th century and 13th century stones. There were stones that were beautiful to behold, even in the midst presence of people who guns, often with their fingers on the trigger of their big guns.
The Western Wall or Wailing Wall where people come to pray and put prayer requests in between the cracks were layers of stones from different eras and generations, piled on top of one another. I did not realize that the Western wall was separated. The men section to the left was about two-thirds of the wall and the women’s section was to the right, much smaller and crowded. Women had to wait to even get to the wall as we waited for others to finish praying. In the men’s section there was plenty of room, and even a room to the side of the wall so that you pray inside to avoid the sun. No such luxury for women. I waited my turned and said a prayer for you, my congregation of God’s people right here in Long Beach, California.
Even the museums were made of stones. This is Yad Vashem, Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. One of the most moving exhibits there is a children’s memorial, where you enter underneath a stone bridge and enter a cavern-like space. Inside it’s dark, with little lights twinkling suspended in the air, like the stars in the sky, and you hear a litany of names of the children who died in the concentration camps, one by one, their full name called out, name after name. It is profoundly moving and touching.
Yad Vashem spans acres of land, and there are many stones monuments of remembrance. In the Old Testament scriptures, we see how stones were used as memorials. When Joshua was leading people into the promise land and as they were crossing the Jordan River, he told the 12 tribes of Israel to pick up stones from the middle of the river and when they crossed the river, they set up a memorial, to remember how God has lead them through their journey from the land of bondage to freedom.
We also visited Jordan River, a place where Jesus was ‘supposedly’ baptized by John. When we got off the bus, it was hard not to notice the watchtowers as we walked along this stony path to the holy site where Jesus was baptized. There were with signs that said, “Danger” and “Mines” that were posted everywhere.
The Jordan River was not what I had imagined. It was not very wide, and the water was murky and gross. The other side of the river was the country of Jordan and there were two soldiers on that side with big guns, not pointing at us, but still they seemed so out of place at a place people were either re-enacting their baptisms (for most of us in our group) and remembering that we are the beloved children of God, chosen and claimed by the Holy one.
Anyway, back to stones. Many houses were made with stones. We visited a Palestine village of Battir in the West Bank, famous for their natural spring water, and recognition for best sustainable village by an United Nations agency. Many of their houses in this village were bombed and destroyed, but the people of this village were committed to rebuilding their community. All from stones, they built a swimming pool and a diving board. There were certainly lots of stones around for one to pick up to build or to throw.
Of course we saw many churches made with stones. We worshipped on Sunday at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, literally just down the alley from Church of Nativity, over a place where they think Jesus was born. Even though the worship was in Arabic, we participated in the communion service, as we tasted the bread of the land and drank from the cup from the vines of the land and tasted and experienced the unity of the God’s Spirit that was present. It was so moving that it brought tears many of us who were worshipping there.
The little town of Bethlehem was busy, crowded, noisy, and densely populated. In order to get to Bethlehem, we had to pass through a checkpoint, where armed soldiers with big guns entered our bus, checked our Palestinian bus driver and tour guide for their papers, walked down the aisle of the bus with their finger on the trigger of their big guns and exited the bus on the rear, not saying a word. We were told to have our passports ready to present if they should ask. It was eerie how everyone on the bus became completely silent as we passed through the check points.
We entered the walled city of Bethlehem just 7 miles from Jerusalem. Unlike the stone walls that surrounded the Old City of Jerusalem, the walls that surrounded Bethlehem were not made of stones, but of concrete slabs. One shop owner we talked to said that it took only one day to put the wall up. Her daughter left for school in the morning being able to see the field of olive trees in front of their house, but by the time she came home from school, her view was of this concrete slabs. These walls are monstrous, overbearing and oppressive in stature.
These silent walls seem to be speaking loudly their message of separation, isolation and occupation. On the Bethlehem side, walls were not so silent. You can see these messages on the wall: “This wall may take care of the present but it has no future.” “We all bleed the same color” “When the sun rises it rises on everyone” Our son, Ethan, who spent two weeks in Israel/Palestine two weeks before we got there, tells me that the Westmont students wrote a message on the wall as well and it simply said, “Love wins” in English and Arabic.
There is one picture of river and fruitful tree was so vivid, bright and hopeful that it reminded me of two passages in the Scriptures. First one was of the Psalm 1 – “Those who delight in the law of the Lord and his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:2-3). In the New Testament in the book of Revelation, at the very end of the book, there is a wonderful image of a “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On the either side of the river is the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:1-3) Each day when we gather to worship, we would pray for the healing of the nations, blood brothers and sisters living side by side.
Every day when we were in this walled city of Bethlehem, we would walk from our hotel, Manger Square Hotel to the Christmas Lutheran Church, where we had our plenary sessions and panel discussions, and passed this fountain of peace, a ball made out of stone inside of a star fountain. By the middle of the conference, many of us who were in the holy land for the very first time asked and wondered “is peace possible, how can peace be feasible in this land of occupation and separation, with so much history and bad blood between the nations? Israeli advocate for peace with security, Palestinians want peace with justice.
After several days of listening to stories from both Palestinians and Israelis, visiting the refugee camps and seeing the contrast between the settlements and the Palestinian villages, and the violation of the human rights, we were feeling thoroughly hopeless. The lament in Psalm 31 could be the prayer of the Palestinians who cried out to God, their rock and their fortress, asking God to save, lead, guide and redeem as they were being squeezed from all directions, oppressed and violated in the land they had lived for centuries. Their afflictions and adversities were many and they too were crying out for deliverance.
And yet we met and heard from so many hope-filled Palestinians and Israelis who were working for justice and for basic human rights of people. We heard from Israelis who said the occupation, oppression and violation of human rights were diametrically opposed to Judaism, what it written in the Torah and in the Scriptures.
We met Christians like Abuna Elias Chacour, who is the Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Israel. He would normally be addressed ‘Your Excellency’, but he told us to call him just Abuna, which means (Father). Father Chacour introduced himself as a Palestinian Arab Christian living in Israel – an incredibly complex identity. He was of Arab ethnic descent and his family was displaced by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 from the land his family had lived for generations. Now he lives as a Palestinian in Israel. This means that while he has Israeli citizenship, he is subject to many of the 50+ laws that distinguish between citizens who are Jewish and citizens who are not.
We were in Nazareth when he came to speak to us before he left for Jordan for a meeting. He was absolutely delightful and challenging. He joked how many people when they find out he is a Christian Arab, ask when he was converted, assuming that he was formerly a Muslim. He told us, “Sure my family was converted, but it happened about 2000 years ago, and the missionary was a man named Jesus of Nazareth”.
He was a pastor of this church in Ibillin, and built schools in the impoverished villages and enrolled not only Christians, but Muslims and Jews. He had some wonderful stories of how he overcame hardships of trying to get permits to build his schools, and how he saw God using all kinds of people of all religions, ethnicity and age to do amazing things.
What was striking about the church in Ibillin were the words from Matthew 5 of the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, were inscribed in three different languages, Arabic, Hebrew and English on the front steps of leading into sanctuary. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for we will be called the children of God.”we will be called the children of God.”
The Primacy Church of St. Peter by the seashore of the Sea of Tiberias (aka as Galilee) looked very different from the church in Ibillin. Inside there was a huge rock with a sign that says, ‘Mensa Christi.’ Mensa Christi means table of Christ where Jesus served breakfast of fish and bread for his disciples when he appeared to them after he rose from the dead, and invited Peter and his friends to “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12)
Whether it was the disciple Peter who wrote the epistle of I Peter is unclear but this Peter also issues an invitation to his congregation and to us, “Come to him, a living stone.” (I Peter 2:4) Peter identifies Jesus Christ as the living stone, the cornerstone of our faith, the one in whom we build our spiritual house upon – our very lives and church.
Peter further gives a new identity to the people who are under burden of persecution of the Roman Empire, living in a hostile environment, people who are feeling discouraged and disheartened. It is in this context that Peter reminds them that they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, and invokes them to be like living stones, rooted, solid, firm in the knowledge and saving grace of Jesus the Christ, our cornerstone.
Living stone? What is that? It sounds oxymoron, like walking dead or wise fool. Or like some of our prayers of “God, give me patience, right now!” Living stone is a building metaphor. We are to be living stones, built upon the cornerstone of Jesus, solid, rooted, and firm in the foundation. But yet at the same time, we are to be this living, responding, growing and breathing people of God. Living stone -stable and yet dynamic, rooted and yet flexible, it’s not either/or but both/and.
Our triune God is like a rock and fortress, and yet he is close and personal, who inclines God’s ear to us to rescue, redeem, restore and save us. I don’t do souvenirs but I did bring a gift back for the church – more specifically to the children of our church, and that is a stone praying cross. I know that our children use praying cross in Godly Play as they end each Sunday with passing the praying cross, lifting up their thanks and/or requests and our teachers witness every Sunday how they growing as God’s own as they learn, grow, and love as Jesus did.
And so when I saw this stone cross, I thought of each of them praying and growing, how that their lives are being built through their and our prayers for them. Through learning about God’s stories and God’s love and about God, they are growing and coming to know the living stone and how then they are to live as living stones. Each of us as well, for we are all living stone called and chosen to build our lives, churches and community, in the way, life and truth of Jesus the Christ, who our living stone.