A week before I was to leave for Kenya on an intercultural immersion experience, violence broke out surrounding the elections and the trip was cancelled. Two days later we found out we would be going to Israel/Palestine. Before I could wake up from what could only be a dream, I found myself walking down the road from the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley. As we walked down the road, just across the valley staring back at us was the Beautiful gate. This was the place where Jesus triumphantly entered the city of Jerusalem during Passover. As we walked down the road, the Garden of Gethsemane was off to our left, straight ahead of us across the valley was the temple mount, and Caiaphas’s palace was off to our left across the valley.We were in the place where the Logos of God became flesh.
For me, this reality was taken to another level as we stood on the steps of the High Priest Caiaphas’s palace. From there we could see the approximate location of the upper room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the road to Jerusalem down the Mount of Olives, and the palace of Pontius Pilates. From this one point we could trace the steps of Jesus in the final days leading up to the crucifixion. All my years of reading the Bible, listening to sermons; all the flannel board depictions from Sunday school became real for me in the moment. It was, for me, the difference between seeing the sonogram image of your baby and seeing your baby for the first time.
Everything becomes more real.
Everything is more beautiful.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Psalm 50).
The word ‘Zion’ is used for the first time in the Bible when David took control of Jerusalem. Soon after this, the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God, is brought into the city thereby making Jerusalem the center of worship in Jewish life. Most of the time, when we read the word ‘Zion’ in the Old Testament it is a reference to Jerusalem. But Zion became much more than a reference the city of Jerusalem; it became a reference to the presence of God.
God present. With us.
Our hope is found in the incarnation of God. Divinity putting on flesh and getting dirt under his nails and salt on his lips and crows feet in the corners of his eyes from squinting in the sun. In Zion, God was present in a new way. No longer was God ineffable, but he was now effable. Perceivable. Tangible. Palpable.
And then, as if that were not enough, in a perfect demonstration of love and beauty, Jesus Christ walked through the streets of the city carrying a cross so that he might bear the sins of the world on the very cross that was digging into his shoulders. This is a story we know well. This is the story we cannot grow tired of hearing – and telling.
There is no other love like this. There is no other story that compares to this story. There is nothing that is as beautiful as this.
Out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God shines forth.
We got into a van and went to East Jerusalem. We went where the road was filled with potholes and crumbled on the edges. We went where the trash was simply thrown over the side of the hill. We went where the houses had water tanks on the roof in case the water was turned off. We went where people lived in fear of their houses being demolished without warning. We went where, literally, the sidewalk ends.
On the third day of the trip we saw the wall.
The wall exists to separate Jews from Palestinians. It is for the protection of the Israelis. But in the end it separates family from family, friend from friends, rich from poor, have’s from have not’s, and people from hope.
As we drove across the check point in the wall into the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the hope of the world, our guide said to us, “Welcome to prison.This was a place where people cannot travel freely within their own country. If a Palestinian from Bethlehem wants to go to Jerusalem, even East Jerusalem – which is supposed to be Palestine’s according to the 1949 Armistice Agreements – they needed a permit. And even if they got a permit they are not guaranteed passage. This was a place where front doors are welded shut so people are funneled into alleys allowing others to use the road without worry. This is a place where kids have to hold a non-violent protest for their right to play soccer in an alley. A place where a woman and her son can’t walk down the street without being harassed by men putting their stake on land they claim belonged to their ancestors. This is a place where a young mother, holding one of the most beautiful babies I have ever laid eyes on asks, “What do you think Palestinians deserve?”
I responded with, “To live in peace.” Quietly she looked at the floor and whispers, “Why doesn’t the rest of the world does not think that?”
This is where people are forgotten, rejected and stripped of hope.
This is in the shadow of Zion.
Out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God shines forth?
I was in a block sized park in New York City handing out soup to homeless people. That’s where I met Jeff. Jeff was a young, struggling artist who wasn’t even close to making it. He was homeless, and he didn’t have any family that he stayed in contact with, or who knew how to find him. Jeff’s story was that when he told his family he was gay, he was left on his own. And now that he had AIDS, there wasn’t a lot of hope of renewing those relationships. Jeff was rejected, cut off, and unwanted. As Jeff and I ended our conversation I stuck out my hand to shake his, and the look in his eyes told me that this didn’t happen a lot.
There are a lot of Jeff’s in the world. People who feel rejected, untouchable, and unwanted. We know there are people who are stuck behind physical walls who feel this. But we also know there a many, many people who are stuck behind emotional, societal, spiritual walls who are hurting. Suffering in the shadow of Zion is not something just for the Palestinians. Anyone who is suffering in the midst of someone who knows the beauty of the gospel and does not let light shine in the darkness suffers in the shadow of Zion.
Zion, the place where God’s presence is.
Romi, an Israeli man who lost his 14 year old daughter to a Palestinian suicide bomber, sat across from us telling his story. Next to him sat a Palestinian man whose brother had died while in an Israeli jail. He been beaten in jail for being Palestinian and didn’t receive the treatment he needed. Together they told us of the deep healing that needed to happen on both sides of the wall. Israelis were hurting. Palestinians were hurting. And together they were coming together to bring peace to this land. As they told us about the things they were doing, and the progress that was being made on a grassroots level. As they talked, Romi said something that has stuck with me. While he didn’t state it as such, it is what I believe we as Jesus’ disciples should be doing so the beauty of Zion may be seen to those around us.
Romi said, “We bang our heads against the wall, and there are cracks…cracks of hope.”
From behind the walls, through the cracks, out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God shines forth.