Wednesday, July 16, 2014

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Our trip throughout the Holy Land had may high points and special memories.  But the day that sticks out the most for me was our day fourth day of the trip.  Having driven down from the Galilee after our 3rd full day, we spent the night in Beit Jala on the western edge of Bethlehem.  Typically we drive into Bethlehem for a few hours, see the highlights, and head back to Jerusalem.  But this year we spent two nights in Beit Jala and a full day in the Bethlehem area.  For many in our group, this was the day they were still talking about at the end of the trip.

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day.  After our first non-kosher breakfast in awhile, we scanned our surroundings from the roof top terrace of the hotel.

Bethlehem and the surrounding region sits in the West Bank, territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  Bethlehem is an "A-area" which means it is totally under Palestinian authority rather than the Israeli military.  At the turn of the last century, Bethlehem was vastly a Christian town, with some figures as high as 90% Christian.  Today the Christian population makes up only 15% of the total.  Christians in the Holy Land often say that people come to this ancient land to see dead stones and forget about the living stones.  Today we were spending time with the living.

We began our day riding just outside of Beit Jala to a family farm known as Tent of Nations.  The first thing that you strikes you as strange is the road into the farm.  The road was blocked by large boulders that forced us to walk a 1/4 mile to get the property.  This would be just one of the many hurdles that the Nassar family has had to overcome.
Tent of Nations is the Nassar family farm that was purchased by their grandfather in 1916.  The family lived in a cave on the property.  Despite having official papers of ownership throughout the Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and Israeli periods, in 1991 the Israeli government declared the farm state lands and which began a legal battle between the Nassar family and the government.  Five unresolved cases remain at the level of the Israeli Supreme Court.  Since that time, five Israeli settlements were built around the farm and the attempt to drive the Nassar's off their land began.  The Israeli government and the settlers have been determined: blocking their road, cutting their electricity, shooting holes in their water tanks, attempting to bulldoze a road through their land, sending demolition orders to destroy every building on the property, refusing to give building permits, and just this past May, bulldozing terraces and destroying one thousand eight hundred fruit trees ready to be harvested.  When I think through the experience of the Nassar family, I become angry and frustrated.  But then I see my friend Daoud Nassar.  And his kind, friendly, peaceful disposition puts me at ease.  As we walk on the property, we see a boulder that tells his motto:
As a Christ follower, Daoud takes literally Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount.  And as he often says, Jesus never said, "Blessed are the peace talkers," but "Blessed are the peace makers."  So Daoud and his brother Daher tell us of their peaceful resistance, refusing to be enemies.  They will not use violence.  They will not be victims.  They will not give up and leave for America or Europe.  Instead they talk about another way, a fourth alternative.  So in the face of all hatred and conflict, they have found new solutions.  They have found new paths into the farm, used solar power, dug cisterns like the ancients to collect their water, set up tents instead of buildings and moved back into the cave of their forefather.  And when asked what they would do after the 1,800 trees were destroyed, Daoud calmly responded, "We will plant more trees."  The Nassars have turned the working farm into a place of learning: teaching local people and especially children about the land, sustainability, and building bridges for peace.  The Nassars are reaching out by befriending their neighbors in the nearby settlements and teaching women in the local Arab villages computer skills. 
This past October Daoud Nassar spoke to us in our high school chapel and in a few classes, so it was extremely special for some of our students and parents to hear him again in a cave on the farm.  He inspired us as he spoke about suffering and overcoming hardship. And while the path is difficult, we have hope in Christ to do hard things.  Daoud asked that we tell his story and invited us to pray for their work and to join him in Bethlehem, to harvest crops and work at the farm or to serve youngsters in their summer camps.  CHCA will be back at the Tent of Nations!

We ended our time at the Tent of Nations in a big circle with the Nassar family, praying for their encouragement, strength, and success, as they lived out a persistent faith in difficult circumstances.  We left with new friends and took a quiet, somber walk back to our bus on the other side of the road block.
After a bit of shopping, we went to Bethlehem Bible College who generously hosted us for lunch.  We then listened to Mr. Bishara Awad, the founder and former president of the College.  He shared the vision of the evangelical church leaders that started the school and how their graduates serve the ever shrinking church throughout the West Bank and Gaza.  An extreme step of faith made the school a reality and Awad told the powerful story of how the Lord has continued to provide, evidenced by the newest building on the campus where we met. 

Bishara Awad then shared the story of the Palestinian people in general and the Palestinian church and its current struggle.  His narrative caused cognitive dissonance for many.  We rarely hear the story of the Palestinian church, and for most Americans, Palestinians are incorrectly considered to be all Muslims.  And for many in the West, Muslims are all thought to be terrorists.  But here was a Christian brother telling us about training young men and women to preach the Gospel of Christ.  And he argued why he deserved a place in this land.  He told how his ancestors had been here for centuries as followers of Jesus in the town where Jesus was born.  He asked us to consider what it meant to be "chosen," and if Jesus brought a new covenant that expanded the first, bringing in Gentiles, why should the land be exclusive to the old covenant?  These questions led to great discussion and debrief later that night.
Having spent the first part of the day wrestling with the modern issues of life in Bethlehem, we stepped back to the beginning of it all, where the story of our faith began.  First we visited what has come to be known as the Shepherds' Field to the east of central Bethlehem.  In the area were natural caves where shepherds would have spent evenings and sheltered their sheep. Early Christians began to worship at this site and today pilgrims can enter these ancient natural caves.

Shepherds can still be seen watching their flocks in the surrounding fields.  Then we traveled like the shepherds to the place where the Church of the Nativity now stands.  This is the oldest continuously active church building in the world, going back to the 5th century.  Beneath its altar sits a grotto where tradition says Jesus was born (the picture of the star below) and laid in a manger (the five candles). 

So we ended this emotionally charged and draining day at the church where Christians have celebrated the birth of our Lord for the past 1600 years. 
Fear not!  For I bring to you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!
Like the shepherds who heard that first Christmas message, we too rejoice at the Savior's coming and we leave with a story to tell.  Yet two thousand years later in the little town of Bethlehem, "peace and goodwill toward men" are quite often in short supply.  But meeting with Daoud Nassar and Bishara Awad gives me hope that God's Kingdom moves forward quietly but powerfully, until His will is done on earth, even in Bethlehem, as it is in heaven.