03 January 2010

Sabbatical Beginnings

As I participated in various services and gatherings building up to Christmas day, I was deeply saddened that no one prayed for peace between Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis, and the Jewish People and the Church in the land where our Savior was born.

I've struggled to understand why American evangelicals avoid praying about Israel and her neighbors, especially at Christmas. With all of the nativity scenes, cards depicting the maji, the celebration of the advent, when we are all thinking about the miracle in Bethlehem, why no prayers for the people who are living daily with the consequences of God's appearance in human history?

Salim Munayer, the founder and director of Musalaha Ministry, wrote a letter this Christmas reflecting on this very question. He thinks that God’s message of peace and reconciliation in Christ is central to the meaning of Christmas.

I'm copying it here verbatim because he passionately writes that this message "should be the center of our focus, a message that we live and share with others." Salim's thoughts are poignant to me, and I want to share them with you. Following his letter, I write a little bit more about my upcoming sabbatical plans:

"Recently, while I was touring a visitor around Bethlehem, I took the time to stop and look out over the fields traditionally known as Shepherd’s Field, where the shepherds are said to have been keeping watch over their flocks when an angel of the Lord appeared to them in Luke 2. I was reminded of this story as Christmas time is near, and thought to myself that the fields must not have been much different than they are now. As I stood there, something else caught my eye. Just a few kilometers away, stands the imposing mountain-tower of Herodian. Herodian was Herod’s hill-top, summer time palace, overlooking the town of Bethlehem. The proximity of the two historic locations struck me, especially given the extent to which they were interwoven in the narrative of Christ’s birth. They represent two polar opposites, the political, arrogant power of Herod’s palace, and the simple, rustic fields where the shepherds slept.

Seeing these two spots also brought into sharp focus the politically subversive nature of the angel’s announcement on that starry night. The angel spoke to the shepherds, saying “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Luke 2:10) Most people interpret this to mean that the shepherds were afraid of the angels. But I can imagine them casting a nervous glance over the angel’s shoulder towards Herod’s palace, knowing that he would not be happy about a “Savior” being born in the “city of David.” Essentially what the angel was suggesting could be perceived as an act of rebellion against the cruel reign of Herod. The palace of Herodian did not instill in them feelings of loyalty or pride. They knew it was there as a reminder of Herod’s military power and the Roman power behind him. It was not there to watch over them, but to watch them. In spite of this, they still chose to obey the angels and go see Jesus.

We are always faced with choices concerning loyalty. We chose to whom our loyalty goes. Are we loyal to the worldly, political power, or to the message of good news? We’re not always forced to make this choice, but sometimes we are and there are consequences that stem from our choices. For example, Herod’s power was real, and in his paranoia, he ordered all the male children in the Bethlehem area to be killed, a massacre of the innocents. Jesus and his parents Joseph and Mary had to flee into exile in Egypt, and only returned after Herod’s death. From the beginning accepting the message of Jesus has come with a price. But the power of God’s message is stronger than all earthly expressions of might. Mary was also faced with a frightening situation when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, telling her that she would bear the Messiah. She immediately questioned because she was a virgin. She knew that a pregnancy for her, as an unmarried woman could mean death. But Gabriel calmed her fears, and told her, “with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)

This is the kind of attitude we need, especially when we try to work towards reconciliation. Stepping out and calling for an end to hatred and violence will always leave you vulnerable to accusations. You will quickly be labeled a “traitor,” and someone who betrays their own people. It is easy to be discouraged, to look at the conflict and think it is impossible to stop. But “with God nothing will be impossible.” This is a promise from God. Where is Herod now? What has happened to the mighty Roman Empire? God will do great things with us and through us if we are willing to take up his message, and join the angels in singing, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.'"

Thus ends Salim's message.

As I begin my sabbatical, my focus will be turned fully to my lifetime study of Middle Eastern and Islamic history and how I can deploy what I know to foster reconciliation with the tools of the historian. I am praying that I will be able to go to Jerusalem again in March, this time as a Fulbright Specialist, to help al-Quds University develop curriculum for its new honors college.

In January I'll be travelling to Dallas to meet with the other 399 North American delegates to Cape Town this October, where we will join the other 1100 delegates from around the world to discuss the issues facing the Church and its calling on Earth.

My writing projects all revolve around the issue of God's mission for the nations, the Arab-Israel Conflict, and Islam today. I pray that God will use me and that I will be able to do all that He asks. I thank God for the support Biola University has given me and I just pray that I will use my time well, that I will be strong and healthy enough to undertake these trips, trusting that the Lord will provide for all of my financial needs, and that these opportunities and adventures will enrich my classes to benefit my students.

Near East Update: Follow this link to view the video on Saddam Hussein in which I appear.

Near East Update: Follow this link to view the video on Saddam Hussein in which I appear.