Friday, December 28, 2007

Wadi Al Qelt Hike

Today I went for a hike on the old historical road between Jerusalem and Jericho, currently known as “Wadi Al Qelt” (Al Qelt Canyon). I led a group of 14 – mainly university students – to this place so as to encourage them so seek such experiences. I think we are so blessed somehow to be living in the Land of the Bible. Many stories simply come home when seeing them in this new context. As we walked in the heat of the sun through this difficult and exhausting road, I could picture Elijah running away from Ahab, and David running away from his son Absalom. This is also the road that probably Jesus took in his travels between Jericho and Jerusalem.

We saw many caves on the way, and there is also a marvelous Greek Orthodox monastery that dates to the 5th century A.D. Simply stunning and incredible. Yet even more incredible is the fact that so many monks lived throughout the centuries in this very isolated place out of their devotion to God. One of the students wondered about the value or ministry of such monastic acts arguing instead that it is better to be out serving in the community. I wondered on the other hand how many Evangelicals are ready to leave everything behind and come live in such a place – just for week – so as to have a quality and quiet time with God.

While we are so used to hearing the voices of our pastors in our churches, or our teachers in seminaries or Bible Colleges, I argued that it is in such places, out in the nature or on the top of mountains, that we hear God’s voice in the clearest way. I am a teacher. I love to talk. I mean I LOVE to talk and teach. It is in such places that God clearly challenges me to simply shut up, enjoy the scene, and Listen. Such a humbling experience!

This particular hike was a blessing to me since I was not asked to do the teaching. The students led the spiritual time and we had a wonderful devotion and worship experience and God did speak to me not only through the beauty of the place, but also through the talk of the students. Only if we talk less and listen more!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas in Bethlehem

There is nothing like Christmas in the little town Bethlehem. I particularly enjoy singing in the manger square right in front of the nativity church. Thousands gather in Christmas Eve in the square to listen to the singing. My Choir has the privilege of singing in the square every year. I personally have been taking part in this event since 1995. Every year it is a refreshing spiritual experience. It never grows old.

I always share with the Choir how “praise and worship” has a very long tradition in Bethlehem. It began with David the Psalter, and continued almost 2000 years ago when the angles appeared to the shepherds singing “Glory to God in the Highest”. We are proud – yet feel unworthy - to continue this great heritage. We serve a worthy King!

Bethlehem continues to be a small town. This time it is also a besieged small town. There is nothing more depressing than the wall surrounding the town. And yet although this year witnessed a significantly increased number of tourists visiting the town, the reality is that there is lots of pain and despair in the hearts of the people. Christmas season offers a small breath of air for celebrating and rejoicing. Bethlehem suddenly becomes very crowded and alive. The Catholic Patriarch comes to the town in huge march and thousands welcome him. The Palestinian President also comes to the town, and many ambassadors and “important” people. Security is ridiculously high and the traffic becomes crazy annoying. As I was stuck yesterday in traffic, I wondered, “What have we done to Christianity?” I wonder if Jesus comes back to Bethlehem today, with the likes of Mary and Joseph; will there be room in the inn for him? Bethlehem celebrates Christmas today the worldly way. When the celebration is over, everything goes back to where it was, including the depression and despair in the lives of the people.

All of this reminded me of the incredibly humble life Jesus had while on earth. In this Christmas, I was reminded that Jesus was born that he may die for us. He lived a life not for his own sake. He lived for His Father and for those around him: His neighbors, the ones He loved. May we all learn how to give and live for others and not for our own pleasures and desires. I pray this for myself, and for the very small Christian community in the little town of Bethlehem. The amazing thing is that in giving we receive more than we give. There is nothing more rewarding than giving and living for others (Didn’t Jesus somehow say something like this?). This is true worship.

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas in ... Nablus!

Saturday December 15 2007, Bethlehem Bible College Choir did its first concert ever in Nablus. And what an event it was! Nablus is the biggest Palestinian city with over a 130 thousand people living in it, among them a few thousands are Christians. We brought Christmas from Bethlehem to this small community that is not used to celebrating Christmas.

The trip to Nablus was not an easy one at all. It took us almost 3 hours, two buses, and three major check points, to get there. But in the end it was well worth it. Nothing like bringing the joy of Christmas to community that is desperately thirsty for hope. The look on the faces of the 400 people who filled the "Good Shepherd" Anglican Church as we sang and preached the good news of the Gospel will remain with us for a long time. And the smile on the children' faces as Santa gave away Christmas gifts was so satisfying as well.

Pastor Ibraheem Nairoz could barely express his joy in words! "You broke two barriers", he said. "First you made it through the siege and the check points to come here, but most importantly, you have broken a big psychological barrier"

Being a minority is never easy and is always full of challenges. These are not good days for Palestinian Christians. Many are leaving. For those of us who decided to stay, we have to encourage and bless each others. This is our call. Nothing is more satisfying. We serve a great and worthy king.

Let us go over to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:15-20)

Let us go over to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:15-20)

“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened”.

Great things indeed had happened. The King of kings was born and Salvation is coming from Bethlehem!

It was not enough for the shepherds to simply hear about the good news. They had to go to Bethlehem and witness themselves and see in their own eyes the glory of the Lord to appreciate more what was taking place. There they saw Mary and Joseph and the new baby in the barn, and began to realize and understand that God’s ways are radically different from man’s ways. He is bringing redemption and salvation in the least expected and predicted plan. A plan that includes shepherds and a baby-king in a barn.

God continues to surprise us today. In his wisdom He made sure that He still possesses a people in the place where He was born, a people that carries His name and testimony. Yet Christians in Bethlehem today are a small minority with no real power or authority. They have survived centuries of wars and foreign occupations and to the day they still long for their freedom. Yet they continue to exist and testify that God has kept all His promises and accomplished His plan. His ways are truly different from ours.

When the shepherds returned from Bethlehem, they were “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). God is worthy of our praise. He dwells among the powerless and brings to the lowly ones dignity and honor. He chooses the least expected ones to be chosen for the task, whether it is a virgin from Galilee, or a small minority today in Bethlehem. He came to our earth in the least expected way, with little or no reception from us – other than the welcoming of shepherds. For this reason He deserves our praise.

Come to Bethlehem today and be a part of this story. Come to Bethlehem and celebrate the new born King of Peace. Come and share in glorifying and praising God for all the things that he has done, and continues to do in this little town of Bethlehem.

(Munther Isaac)

Peace on Earth. (Luke 2:1-14)

Peace on Earth. (Luke 2:1-14)

“And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

“Peace on earth” proclaimed the angles the night Jesus was born. Peace is what the world yearned for in the days of Jesus, and peace is what continues to be missing today in the town and land where Jesus was born, and indeed in the entire world.

What peace then were the angles singing about? Definitely not that of the world. Seventy years after this massage was proclaimed Jerusalem was destroyed and the Holy Land continued since then to witness war after war. It must be peace of a different kind. “My peace I give to you” Jesus said. “Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). While Jerusalem was witnessing its destruction, another Jerusalem was being built. A new Kingdom was breaking through into our world, and we are all invited to participate in the building of this new Kingdom of peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). The Church of Christ today must share in bringing about this “peace on earth”. We are to be “peacemakers” if we want to see the Kingdom continuing to advance. We must create an alternative community of peace that attracts and invites people from every tribe, tongue and nation. This alternative community (the church) must demonstrate what the world is not and that is through being a community of love to one another, justice, security, acceptance, and grace. A community of peace!

The prophecy of Micah echoes to us through the centuries: “But thou, Bethlehem… out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting… And this man shall be our peace” (Micah 5:2-5). Amen. Jesus himself is the peace the world yearns for. When Christians embody Jesus who is peace through their sacrificial works of compassion and love, the world will begin to experience this “peace on earth”. May the Church of Christ be a community of true peacemakers!

(Munther Isaac)

We have seen His Glory! (Luke 2:1-14)

We have seen His Glory! (Luke 2:1-14)

“Glory to God in the highest”

Some 2000 years ago, a baby was born in a barn, from a little known Jewish virgin, in the little town of Bethlehem. This virgin had made it all the way from Galilee with her fiancé on horseback. Some unknown Shepherds came in the middle of the night to greet the baby after angles appeared in the heavens to tell them about him. And one more thing: this baby turned out to be the Savior of the world!

Let us face it. This story seems very odd and incredible for those not familiar with it. It simply does not make any sense. Yet this is precisely what Christians believe took place and what they celebrate every year. And this is precisely what makes Christianity and Jesus unique.

God became flesh and lived with us! “We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We have seen his glory not from castles and the marching of armies, or through worldly accomplishments, the building of cathedrals, or the establishment of Empires. But we have seen it from a barn in Bethlehem, and through shepherds visiting in the middle of the night. We have seen it in the establishment of a Kingdom that is based on humility and love. By the standards of the world this is not glory, and therefore we read that “there was no room for them in the inn”. God’s glory however is seen in His humility. Only those who are humble enough and powerless can see it.

God is great! His greatness is manifested in His incomprehensiveness and transcendence. Yet it is also manifested in His humility and incarnation. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15).

I pray this Christmas that we are all from the kind of people with “contrite and lowly spirit”. Only then can we “see His glory” and be revived. For the believers in Bethlehem today, the birth of Jesus therefore is and can only mean good news.

(Munther Isaac)