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Refelctions from Mythic Palestine – Part 2 September 30, 2010

Posted by dan snyder in art, Christianity, Devotional Journal.
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I asked a jailor on the western shore: are you the son of my old jailor?
Yes indeed
Where’s your father?
He replied: Father died years ago laid low with the boredom or guarding
He left me his profession and told me to guard the town against your songs
I said: how long have you been surveying me and imprisoning yourself?
He replied: since you wrote your first one
I said: but you weren’t born yet!
He said: I have time and eternity I want to live to
the rhythm of America within the walls of Jerusalem
I said: whoever you are – I’m leaving
and the me you see now isn’t me I’m just a ghost
He said: you’re an echo in a stone nothing more
that’s why you never left or stayed
that’s why you’re still in your yellowed cell
so let me get on with my work!

-excerpt from Mural by Mahmoud Darwish

A Myth at Work
Many Palestinian Christians are being held captive as custodians of Christianity’s most sacred theme park (I am indebted to Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem for this metaphor). If the people left or the churches went into disuse, enemies of the church would quickly claim the property and establish rituals commemorating their own histories. Since the land is holy to three faith traditions, the same piece of real estate can stand for more than one story. Christians from around the world want to commemorate “our” story at our sites. I took for granted the people who clean the toilets and keep the sites active so the site remains “ours.”


Hope for Return

Graffiti art in UN Camp - Aida

Streets of Aida Camp

UN Refugee Camp - Aida

Refugee children are being held captive in UN Camps around Bethlehem. They are prisoners to the hopes of their grandparents. The myth is that one day they will return to their family estates from which their parents and grandparents were evicted over 60 years ago. Many of them keep keys to door-locks of homes they have never seen as signs of a promise. Some homes have even been torn down or are now covered by shopping malls. Yet the myth exerts a holding power over them.

There is a myth that circulates in Bethlehem that Christians are leaving and soon there will be only Jews and Muslims in Palestine-Israel. The myth makes people think what it might be like to be the last Christian in Palestine. Mr. Kattan owns a jewelry shop and is a silversmith in Bethlehem. He weeps when asked what hope he has for the future of his teenage son, Samer. He wants his children to have a good life and to grow up in peace without becoming bitter and angry. Samer wants to attend Bethlehem University, but cannot think much beyond attending college because graduating will mean having to find employment in a village with a 60% unemployment rate. He sadly mentions the possibility of leaving his homeland for Brazil like his Aunt and Uncle.

Mr. Katan and son Samer

Jewlerly Store in Bethlehem, Palestine

Reflections from Mythic Palestine April 29, 2010

Posted by dan snyder in art, Devotional Journal.
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There is no nation smaller than its poem
But weapons make words too big for the living
and the dead who inhabit the living
And letters make the sword on the dawn’s belt glitter
Til the desert becomes parched for songs or drowns in them
[poem exerpts from Mural by Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)]

book cover

I thought reading a poem by Mahmoud Darwish would be a wonderful way to prepare for living in Palestine-Israel for three weeks. His words portrayed hopelessness to me. So I arrived assuming I would bring hope to the people I would meet. This assumption was fueled by a myth. Perhaps I did bring hope. But I found a deeper hope that will linger with me for the rest of my life.

A Myth Described
Palestine-Israel is a mythic land. And so it is impossible to discuss the life of the land, the theology of the land or the people of the land without tripping over mystique and legend.
I was recently browsing through the 1905 edition of the reports of the International Sunday-school Convention for some research I’m doing on that movement. Scattered throughout the pages were photos of Palestine. The people in the photos looked like characters from a Cecil B. DeMille film complete with turbans and shepherds.

Old Palestine

Old Palestine

More interesting to me was the impetus behind the photos. The Sunday-school Convention had been held in Jerusalem in 1904 and these were pictures commemorating the occasion. When the Convention was held in Toronto or London, no one thought to put pictures of Canadians or early 20th century Britain in the report the following year. When it was held in London or Chicago, large and new church buildings showcased as venues for the nearly 2,000 participants. But in 1904 there was not a venue large enough in Jerusalem and a three-section tent needed to be shipped from France to house the Convention. Typically speakers from around the world would report at the conventions, but usually the host city would have special delegations. The only Middle Eastern delegation I could find was a Rev. Archibald Forder, thirteen year Missionary among the “Ishmaelites.”

Mosaic Wall in Holy Seplucher Church - Jerusalem

Mosaic Wall in Holy Seplucher Church - Jerusalem

These were some of the photos that inspired philanthropists from the U.S.A. and Great Britain the likes of John Rockefeller to begin claiming Palestine for the “Jews.” These Palestinians looked so “backward,” their land was so “barren,” and their religion so “non-biblical” that the notion of God’s people “returning” to make the land holy again spilled off the pages. It would take real imagination to believe that this land “was smaller than its poem.” The myth of the Holy Land is overpowering.

Mosaic Detail

Mosaic Detail

I experienced the power of the myth at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Walking through the entrance one eventually sees a mosaic depicting the death and burial of Jesus. It is well photographed as Christians travel from around the world to get a glimpse. The mosaic is on a wall the once divided the Church in two sections – one side for Catholics, one for Orthodox Christians. When I heard about the divide I assumed we would only visit one of the sides. But soon I realized that people are permitted to freely wander in the spaces on both sides of the wall. The original purpose of the wall is irrelevant now. But the wall will remain as a reminder of the rift in the unity of Christ’s church. It must remain because pilgrims from around the world come expecting to photograph the mosaic on the wall. There are hundreds of such pilgrim sites with this “holy permanence.” The mythic power of Palestine holds the land and its people hostage.

Wonder Beyond Fear April 18, 2009

Posted by dan snyder in Christianity, Devotional Journal, God.

‘Wonder’ is critical to the life of the church. In our postmodern crisis ‘wonder’ reigns among issues like ‘truth’ and ‘love’; but modern concepts like technocratic thinking, industrialism and capitalism have rendered ‘wonder’ irrelevant. ‘Wonder’ and ‘play’ (the soil in which wonder grows) do not contribute well to the gross national product. Even in church, this matters more than some would be willing to admit.

Scientific Discovery Through Visualization

Scientific Discovery Through Visualization

When wonder is missing from a church – and by ‘church’ I include those people within who participate in the life of faith – there are at least three consequences I have observed.

First, the loss of wonder reduces life to what can be measured and understood scientifically. There is no longer the sense that the universe – which does not only include undiscovered planets, but family members and grass – is full of mystery. People stop looking for golden apples on trees, because they have been told this is scientifically impossible. Liturgy and people made in God’s image become familiar and boring. Bible study becomes about filling in blanks with right answers ad infinitum. When the notion that the mysterious cannot be found in one church, people shop around seeking the extraordinary elsewhere because their hearts long to be amazed. Extreme missions trips or sensationalized worship experiences are popular ways to fill the void.

The second consequence of the loss of wonder in the church is ungratefulness. People who are no longer astonished that they breathe, that the sun rises, that they make it home safely from work, stop being thankful for such wonders. The practice of ‘un-thanksgiving’ nurtures self-aggrandizement giving way to a sense of entitlement leading to voracious greed. With so much ‘stuff’ to protect, these people feel out of control and that the world is no longer a safe place in which to live. Fear breeds obsessive control in the form of laws that cannot possibly be kept. People who cannot keep the law (especially those established to burgeon the church) eventually despise the frailty of humanity in themselves and others. Rather than developing loving character, an ungrateful church produces mean and hateful people with an urgency that leaves them no time to play.

A third consequence of the loss of wonder is emptiness. People not only jump from church to church, they become spiritual experience junkies. And like drug addicts, they are never satisfied and forever empty. This is why ‘play’ in and of itself cannot save such people. Boredom eventually characterizes their church experience anywhere they go. For some boredom leads to a ‘neurotic apocalyptic’ – doomsday is just around the corner. For others boredom develops into ‘overconfident wisdom’ – they know the mind of God better than God does.

I agree that the older you get, the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder. And I also believe only God is big enough to fill that void.apple0922

Only when the church exercises disciplined attention toward God as revealed in nature and scripture will character be its pursuit and restful trust its posture. Without this ‘lingering’, the church will be like the person who quickly dips his teabag into hot water and is disappointed because the drink still taste like hot water. He then becomes frustrated because the directions implied that submersing the teabag would result in a rich cup of tea.

Once the God of Wonders becomes the pursuit of the church, deep growth follows. People will understand that, believe it or not, it’s okay to be human – that is our place in God’s universe. And we will once again see that the world is a safe place to be because we know the God who oversees it.

What have you ‘wondered’ over this week?