Thursday, May 30, 2013

Holy Land Excursion

I just returned from a trip to the Holy Land where I spent about 8 days with a group of clergy persons like myself, all from our same denomination, the United Church of Christ.  We were treated to this experience by a group called "Fair Witness for the Middle East" so we could become more acquainted with the places and people who make the Holy Land their home.  We went to places where tourist groups rarely visit--Ramallah, Nablus, for example---and to some that they visit with caution--Bethlehem, firmly entrenched in the West Bank--and to some where hordes of pilgrims and tourists clog the streets---Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias.  In each place we had a learn and find out why it is that peace is so elusive for the residents of that land.

I told many people that I was going to Israel, and I did go there, but I also went to Palestine, the West Bank, a place that is next door to Israel but also separated from Israel by many rules and restrictions.  To be honest, I really did not know what a Palestinian was, before going on this journey.  I thought the word referred to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, at least that is what the news media had tried to teach me through the years.  A Palestinian, I learned, is simply someone who lives in the country of Palestine, which at the present time is made up of residents of the West Bank, since those who live in the Gaza Strip are basically isolated from both Israelis and residents of the West Bank due to a heightened alert in the Gaza Strip.

Our group met many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, who share the land and have concerns about it.  Some are very influential Palestinians.  Some are everyday people who try to make a living and make a difference in Palestine.  All had in common that they desire to get along with their Israeli neighbors and did not want to have fighting in their land.  Some are working in banking and investments trying to build up a strong economic future for their land.  Some are working for justice as they work for peace, trying to right the wrongs of the past and to be creative in their approach.  Some have visions for a new future for their land and are making it a reality by creating cities out of nowhere for future generations to live in.  All welcomed our band of American pastors with open arms and extended hospitality with food and drink and warm smiles.

Our group also met many Israelis, some also who are very influential in the military and defense department, protecting the citizens and visitors with strategic planning and implementation of goals that will allow all in the region to live in peace.  We met people who had witnessed atrocities and lived to tell the story, even though they had lived through things that we could only vaguely imagine.  We toured a hospital and saw the work of a team of health care workers who help little children of all ages and from all countries in the region, including Palestine, to receive heart surgeries at little cost to their families so that they may live normal lives.  We toured the holy sites that Jews, Muslims, and Christians share, stopping to pray at the Western Wall and seeing pilgrims from around the world giving adoration and homage to the One God we all worship.

After 8 days of exploration and travel, we were exhausted and weary, but also hopeful for this land and its people.  Even in the midst of the division that has gripped this land for so many years, there are signs of God speaking words of peace and reconciliation to and through God's people.  Pilgrims from around the world greet one another with cheerful hearts and blessed shalom.  People from Israel and Palestine respond to strangers who say hello with greetings and smiles in return.  Influential persons in society seem eager to make this work once and for all, trying to put aside the wounds of the past and find solutions to the barriers that have divided them for so long.

We are thankful for people such as Sister Ruth Lautt, who care enough for God's children, regardless of the name they wear or the ideology they espouse that she will traverse the land many times, bringing strangers to meet people they most likely would never meet in their lives if it were not for her so that they can seek understanding of what may be even in the face of what has not worked in the past.  When I think about her vision for the land we call Holy, I think of the words of the writer of First John--"Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  We we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will see him as he is." (I John 3:2)

God has children of all kinds in the world and sometime they live right beside each other.  They may not speak the same language or worship at the same houses of worship but they all are children of God.  They may not always see eye to eye on everything but they share a common heritage that unites them, a common ancestor that is part of their DNA.  They are on a journey through life and what they will be has not yet been revealed to them or us.  We do know this, that their God, whether they call God by the same name or a different one, will work with them and through them to make the vision of peace a reality.  It may not happen in my lifetime or many of theirs, but someday peace in the Holy Land will happen.  Until that time, we are not giving up but we are working for peace every day, both in their land and in ours.

Stay tuned for more stories from the Holy Land in days to come.  Shalom to all.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Covet--what an odd word?

"You shall not covet...." (Exodus 20:17)  The tenth and final posting in a series on the Ten Commandments.

The last of the ten commandments is very exacting and clear as to what you cannot covet.  You shall not covet your neighbor's house or wife or male or female slave or ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  To covet means to desire greatly and wish it were yours.  Covet is a much stronger word than just wish as in "I wish I had a Jaguar."  To covet is to say something more like, "I wish I had YOUR Jaguar."  Coveting is about obsessing over something that you do not have but you would like to own that someone else owns.

I use the example of a Jaguar because it is my favorite automobile and most likely one that I will never own.  I love the sleek lines of the frame of a Jaguar.  I love the hood ornament with that little jaguar running into the wind.  I love the interior with its rich luxurious leather.  I have never driven a Jaguar or even allowed myself to go to a dealership that sells Jaguars lest I be very tempted to go into deep debt to own one.  So, it is okay for me to wish I had one.  I would cross the line, though, if I saw a person I knew who had a Jaguar just like the kind I wanted and began to obsess over how I would get IT--not just any old Jaguar but that specific one that belonged to that person.

There is a story in the Old Testament that illustrates how coveting something that someone else owns can lead one into a lot of trouble.  In the book of the Kings, it tells the story about King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  They lived in the palace and had just about everything that anyone could want.  Everyday, however, Ahab would go out into the palace balcony and look down upon his neighbor's garden.   The neighbor was named Naboth.  Naboth must have had a green thumb because he had a vineyard that was his pride and joy and it had grapes that were so delicious looking that Ahab began to covet Naboth's vineyard.  Ahab got into a funk about his lack of his neighbor's vineyard and was sitting around all sullen and moody when Jezebel asked him what was going on with him.  Ahab told her sadly that he wanted Naboth's vineyard but he would not sell it to him or give it to him.  Jezebel devised a plan to kill Naboth and take his vineyard away from him and when the plan was fulfilled Naboth was dead and the vineyard belonged to Ahab.

I remember hearing this story when I was just a boy.  Preachers love to preach on this text because it so perfectly illustrates what happens when people allow their passions to overrun their brain.  Ahab wanted what belonged to his neighbor so badly that he and his wife agreed to murder the owner of it so that he could own it.  Coveting led to greed and that led to desire that led to crime.  Ahab did not get off scot free though. The prophet Elijah soon appeared on the scene to pronounce judgement on the two culprits in crime.

We often watch the programs on television that tell true crime stories such as 20/20 or 48 Hours.  Inveribly, when the true killer is revealed, the reason for murder has something to do with money or possessions.  There was one recently where a woman murdered her husband and mother-in-law so she could inherit their fortune.  The woman had allowed her greed to drive her to the place where she could commit a horrible crime in order to get their possessions.

Sometimes elderly persons are swindled out of their money or possessions by persons who are able to convince them to trust them and put their possessions in their care and suddenly those thing belong to another person, often by techniques that are very legal.  Coveting what others have begins a cycle wherein people will break other commandments in order to get what they covet leading to a far worse situation than originally existed.

I guess that is why coveting made the top ten list of commandments.  The word itself may be a bit weird, perhaps sounds archaic, but what lies behind the word is deadly.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

9. False Witness

9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."  (Exodus 20:16)  The ninth in a series on the Ten Commandments.

This commandment in its literal form has to do with a legal sense of what it means to be a "false witness" or to lie while on the witness stand.  Today we would say someone is guilty of perjury when they lie while under oath in a court proceeding.  The commandment has the same sense, prohibiting people from lying when someone had been accused of a crime.  In the ancient world, the penalty for many crimes was death, usually by stoning.  So, to lie about someone's guilt or innocence was a serious matter.  Bearing false witness could be used as a way of getting even with someone or bringing about revenge for a misdeed that was done.  This commandment prohibits lying on the witness stand or by someone who has been a witness to the doing of a deed.

There is not a commandment against telling a lie itself in the list of commandments.  This commandment is the only one that addresses telling the truth but the truth that is told is done to be responsible so that another will not suffer because of one's telling a lie.  Telling a lie in other situations may not have been prohibited.  Abraham told a lie in the book of Genesis when he lied and said that Sarah was his sister and not his wife in order to escape from the Egyptians (Genesis 12).  He was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife if they knew that he was her husband so they told them that she was his sister.  The Pharaoh took Sarah as part of his harem and soon plagues began to fall upon him and he sensed something was wrong and confronted Abraham with the truth.  Abraham still profited through his lie, though, because he amassed a large amount of wealth from the Egyptians because they thought his wife as actually his sister.

When I took a Christian ethics class years ago, we discussed when it is acceptable to tell a lie.  The classic example is---if someone came to your door and asked to be hidden from someone who wanted to kill them, and you hid them, and then the pursuer came to your door and asked if the person was there, telling a lie would preserve their life.  So, in this instance, telling a lie saves a life, and telling the truth causes their murder.

We all find reasons to not tell the truth now and then.  Sometimes people put us in positions where if we tell the truth, trouble will come of it or we will hurt someone's feelings.  A friend or spouse may ask, "Does this dress make me look fat?"  Now, who among us would say, "Well, yes, it does make you look fat.  It looks like you could stand to lose a few pounds."  No, most of us reply, "No, that dress looks fine on you" regardless of what we may really think.  Or the co-worker who asks us how old we think she is (this really happened to me) and we think she is in her 60s but say we think she is in her 50s only to find out that she is in her 40s.  We wanted to spare the person's feelings but still caught flack because of our answer.

This does not mean that we have carte blanche to lie all the time about everything.  No, God wants us to live lives of honesty and truthfulness but there are situations where our answers may cause pain or embarrassment or to tell the literal truth would cause a serious problem for another person.  In such cases, God understands our intentions and knows why we do what we do.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (except when we are on the witness stand, of course).  When someone confronts us and wants us to answer a question whose literal answer would cause them pain, then creative problem solving saves the day.  Loving the person is far more important in many situations than being literal about everything.

I knew a pastor who thought he could sing well and, in fact, his voice was most irritating to listen to when he sang.  He would sing solos now and then and congregations would look down at the floor in embarrassment and hope that he would finish quickly.  To make things worse, he would fish for compliments afterwards.  To tell him out right that his voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard would hurt his feelings and made him angry, but to say, "You have an interesting style of singing" preserved his feelings and made him feel good.  Now, if we could just have figured out a creative way of preventing a repeat performance of his impromptu concerts.....