Saturday, January 17, 2009

Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu--Peace Will Come


Last night I visited the Western Wall to welcome in the Sabbath. Often called the Wailing Wall or the Kotel, this stretch of wall is the last remaining remnant of the massive retaining wall that once supported the plaza on which Herod's Temple stood. Jews of all nations regard this site as the holiest place on earth, the nearest they can get to the presence of God. Here they hold bar mitzvahs and usher their young men into the bonds of the covenant. Here they rejoice and dance and sing. Here they pray and supplicate and mourn the destruction of their Holy Temple. Here all of Jewish society and religion come together. It is a beautiful place--not because of the wall, which is fairly ordinary, albeit massive. Its beauty is in the spirit of the place--a spirit of love, a spirit of peace, a spirit of reverence coupled perfectly with exuberance, of mourning and hope and rejoicing singing together in perfect harmony.

After I had spent some time alone in prayer and quiet contemplation, I joined a group that was singing and dancing. Most of the words were in Hebrew, and the tunes were unfamiliar, but their feeling was unmistakable. The words quickly became comforting, and the dancing drew me in.

There is something very compelling about a traditional group song and dance. Standing in a circle, the participants unite in an uncommon way--for a few moments, they all sing and move as one. Those standing on the outskirts of the circle are quickly drawn into the group, which embraces complete strangers as easily as it does close friends. Those in the know teach the newcomers, and no one feels left out or confused for long.

After a few songs, the group started singing "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu," a beautiful song whose words mean simply, "peace will come upon us, and upon everyone." As we danced and sang this beautiful song, I began to cry. I wept because of the simplicity of this song, this prayer. The youth were crying out for peace, and they were doing it in a place of so much conflict, not only in this land in general, but specifically at the wall by which they stood. That wall is the only remnant of an ancient war, a piece of the "mountain of the Lord's house," built in Jerusalem, "the city of peace," the city of so much conflict. And they were showing the world the way to peace by the way they were dancing. Their dance took in everyone--whatever our nationality or religion, we all wanted peace. Their dance epitomized acceptance and friendship--it demonstrated the sort of care and love that has no preconditions. Their dance brought us to rejoice and pray together. It brought the sort of peace that is more than the absence of conflict--it is the presence of love.

This city--and this world--needs a little more of the peace they were singing about. It needs more than a cease-fire. It needs the sort of peace that engenders friendship and destroys contention. It needs more inclusivity, more care, less cynicism, less fear. It needs more joy and rejoicing in our Lord, who is the Prince of Peace. It needs more circles that bring strangers in and embrace them rather than shutting them out. It needs more camraderie, more of a realization that we are all spirit children of the same Heavenly Father.

My experience at the Wall last night was one of peace--of people at peace with themselves, with others, and with their God, welcoming in the Sabbath, the day of peace and rest, at the Lord's house, which is the dwelling-place of God's peace. It was the peace that goes beyond not fighting with your neighbors and extends to seeing them as partners, and as friends. It was the peace that comes from a nearness with God, for the closer we get to Him, the more we love His children. It was a peace that comes not from solitary and quiet contemplation but from united and exuberant rejoicing and prayer. Though my ears were filled with sounds, my heart at last was still.

I pray for peace to rest upon Jerusalem. But more importantly, I pray that you all might rejoice in our Father's goodness and thus be embraced by the peace that comes only in and through Him. I know that the answers to all life's conflicts--both great and small--are to be found in the Lord, the Prince of Peace, who will "arise with healing in his wings" (Malachi 4:2), and teach us to "beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall [we] learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4). Through Him, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu--I know that peace will come upon us, and the whole world.

Picture from http://www.benjohnsonartist.com

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

All We Like Sheep

I found these sheep wandering on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, beside a church that commemorates the life of the prophet Elijah. Their caretaker is a Bethlehemite shepherd woman.

The scriptures continually refer to us in metaphor as sheep. Perhaps the most powerful example is from Isaiah's Suffering Servant song, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). Given that sheep are notoriously stupid animals, I don't think these constant references are a compliment. But despite my vainglorious pride and desire to be compared to a creature who is a bit more intelligent or regal, I have found great meaning in the metaphor. I, like these sheep, have a tendency to wander into places I shouldn't be. I have a tendency to get myself stuck in gullies and ditches, to step in holes and break my leg. I, as the sheep, cry piteously in complaint, bleating in protest at the unfairness of it all, until someone comes and rescues me--picks me up or shows me that the way out is right in front of me, if I would just quit whining.

I have the ability to be incredibly short-sighted, to not look much beyond the next clump of grass or the backside of the sheep in front of me. Sometimes I wander off the path, whether because I've been scattered by an enemy, or out of idleness or forgetfulness or rebelliousness--the result is the same. And I'm always amazed that the Lord finds it worth His while to come and find me and bring me back to Him. I'm humbled by His tenderness and love, by the way He continues to teach me and give me the strength and understanding to become more like Him. I have learned, though I suspect it is a lesson I will have to re-learn, that in Christ there is safety, peace, and direction. I know that He loves His sheep and that it distresses Him when we wander. He wants us to stay by His side, and has promised, "Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day" (Ezekiel 34:11-12).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

No One Told Jerusalem

This morning I awoke early and, wrapped in my coat and a few sweaters, went out to my balcony to read with a flashlight. The muezzin had not yet begun his first call, but the roosters beat him to it--I could hear their cries calling and answering each other all over the city. No one told the roosters that they live in a land of turmoil, that loud noises can be dangerous things. They cried out in anticipation of a new dawn, with whatever that dawn might bring.

A few dogs barked, a few cars drove along the main thoroughfare, and a street sweeper passed below me, but otherwise, all was still. The green lights from the minarets shone steadily over the city, constants in a world of change. No one told the minarets that prayer is passe, that God is dead. They stand as beacons to a life of submission to God, in whatever language you worship Him, by whatever name you know Him best.

Then the muezzin's voice rang out over the city, sonorous and beautiful, haunting and alive, calling the believers to a ritual as old as the world itself, calling out the words of an ancient tongue in an ancient land. No one told the muezzin that the world worships only the modern, that ancient things belong in a museum, not broadcast from a loudspeaker. And as his voice joined the voices of the roosters and the dogs, the muffled sounds of autos and street sweepers, the city began to stir.

I knew then that I never wanted to leave this wonderful city, with its white limestone buildings, its ancient beauty, and its many contradictions. As the morning sky grew brighter I could see the holy places of many different faiths, the old walls and the new fences, the neon lights beside the ancient relics. No one told Jerusalem that it could never survive political wars and religious strife, that ancient and modern customs could not abide one another. No one told Jerusalem. And I hope that no one ever does.

Picture from http://damascusdreams.files.wordpress.com

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Holy City

Today I flew into the Tel Aviv airport. From there we drove to Jerusalem. As of this point, I've crossed 8 time zones, flown on 4 airplanes, on 2 continents, with 1 hour of sleep, in the past 48 hours. I am now thoroughly exhausted.

As our bus climbed Mt Scopus (the northern part of the Mount of Olives), I caught a glimpse among the trees and rocks of the gold top of the Dome of the Rock. It took my breath away completely. I don't think it hit me that I was really going to Jerusalem until I saw that dome glinting in the sun. When we got to the top of the hill we had an unobstructed view of the valley and the Temple Mount. I'll admit I got emotional then, and have several times since, as I have looked from my bedroom window over the Old City of Jerusalem.

This semester, I will have the chance to see the places where prophets prophesied, performed miracles, and talked with God. I will be able to retrace the footsteps of my Savior, to walk where Jesus walked. But as I sat writing on today's trans-Atlantic flight, I realized that I have an opportunity this semester that will be even greater--the opportunity to learn to walk as Jesus walked, not just where He walked. I have a number of goals that will help me succeed in this quest, for I am here to worship, not to buy souvenirs. This is a pilgrimage, and I come, not as a tourist, but as a disciple, to gain greater knowledge and the strength to use it wisely.

Photo from http://www.atlastours.net/holyland/