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Finding God in the Holy Land

By Rev. Susan Brecht

     I spent this past summer on sabbatical. On a pilgrimage of sorts. Starting in Israel and Palestine. Working my way north through Italy, and ending on the island of Iona in Scotland. It was a sacred journey that brought me home with new eyes and a new heart. Thousands of pictures and stories to share.

     This was my second visit to Israel / Palestine. The first was two years ago with a delegation of clergy and laity led by Peter Makari, the UCC director of Global Ministries for the Middle East. This time; at his suggestion, I did a month long study at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. There were seventeen of us in the program This was a nice balance of clergy and laity from the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

     It was an incredibly rich and rewarding month of study and travel and fun. We  learned from Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars, archeologists, human rights workers and the many diverse people we met living and working there.

     One evening in June I was sitting on the veranda at Tantur with Father Tim, the rector there and his wife Lisa. I was pondering a question I’m still asking myself:  “What is it about this intoxicating, diverse, conflicted and sacred land that draws me to it?”

     It’s a thin place where generations have felt God’s presence in a special way. I’m no exception.  But unlike other thin places I’ve been, I feel not only God’s peace, but God’s pain in this Holy Land.

     I grew to love the sound of the Muslim call to prayer each day and the ringing of the church bells in the Old City on Sunday mornings, awakening us to God’s presence.

     I felt that presence in a special way listening to the heavenly voices of the nuns and monks praising God in song during mass at the ancient abbey in Abu Ghosh. I could feel God’s pain tinged with hope at an ecumenical service organized by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center as Christians and Muslims prayed together and sang their plaintive hymns of support for those who continue to suffer under the occupation.

     I felt the breath of God in the winds that blew through Tantur late in the afternoon which reminded me that God breathes life into each of us on both sides of that wall we could see beyond the olive groves dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

     And God was there in the absolute silence of the desert. Sitting in the Negev or walking along the Wadi Kelt past caves where thousands of monks once communed with God, consecrating it as sacred ground.

     One of our group sitting at Mamshit; in that immense silent wilderness, found blades of grass creeping up through the rocky terrain.  It was a reminder to him and us, that life still exists even in the most difficult of circumstances. Even against so many odds; through all the occupations, invading armies, destructions and rebuilding over the millenniums.  Individual lives and whole cultures are reborn, sometimes out of the ashes, and God is there through it all, alive within it.

     You saw that life in the smiling faces of the children who would come up to greet you. They were oblivious to the fact they were living in a refugee camp, or under the watchful eyes of Israeli military in Hebron.

     And you felt God’s pain through the stories of people we met. People separated from their livelihood, and sometimes even from those they love, by a wall and check points. Young military guards carrying machine guns.

     One afternoon while visiting the Disciples Greek Orthodox Church near Capernaum, a men’s seminary choir arrived from St. Petersburg to sing evening vespers.  We stood there, transfixed, some of us moved to tears, enveloped by the sound of their glorious voices.  It was the most spiritual experience I had the entire month.

     Afterwards I thought about when I was a child during the cold war, the Soviet Union was called the evil empire. These men were not alive then, but if they had been their choir could not have existed.  Here they were transporting us to a little bit of heaven halfway across the world.  It gives me hope that change for the good can happen.

     It also made me aware that even in this divided and divisive country; filled with injustices against humanity, God is still present.  One can rise above it all and experience the divine.  Maybe that’s what keeps drawing me back.

     To find out more about Tantur, go to www.tantur.org. There are also a couple of YouTube videos, including one recently made at Tantur with interviews with Fr. Tim.  If you have other questions contact me at sincerelysusan@sbcglobal.net.

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