Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflections from the Holy Land

Melissa Hinnen stands in the Garden of Gethsemane
Photo by Kristen Brown

By Melissa Hinnen

I woke up this morning in Bethlehem and walked over to the Church of the Nativity a block away from my hotel. There was a Greek Orthodox worship service going on, and I lit a candle, said a prayer and walked outside to the courtyard. As I heard a baby crying, I imagined what it may have been like that Christmas morning 2,000 years ago. It was amazing to think of the light that came into our midst in that very spot — a light that has transformed my life. That light has been passed from generation to generation and in Jesus’ name continues to work for justice and peace throughout the entire world — on earth as it is in heaven.

In so many ways, that truth is not obvious here. This sacred land is filled with so much contradiction and complexity. Everywhere there are signs of conflict and power struggles in the name of God. Religious tensions have displaced families, caused war after war, destroyed buildings and overbuilt cities.

In the midst of these contradictions, it was a blessing to worship at the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr – an Anglican church in Jerusalem. The service was in Arabic and English, and it was especially meaningful to partake in the sacrament of Communion in this holy city on a day that Christians around the world were also celebrating World Communion.

The sermon was centered on Harvest Sunday, and the message was about thanksgiving in times of joy and in times of sorrow. As people of faith, we are motivated by our thankfulness to make a better world. Throughout the day, as I visited the holy sites, I meditated on the idea that if we think of Jesus’ sacrifice and ministry only as something to worship — visiting those places where he walked and taught but not continuing his ministry in our own contexts — then what was the point? What do we do with that glorious sacrifice and promise that Jesus offers? How do we show our thanksgiving?

Taking Communion, I was reminded once again that despite denominational differences, we are all part of the body and nothing can separate us from the love of God. Humans can put up walls and create different churches with differently designed crosses. But we all worship the same patient God and are wrapped in that eternal love. What affects one child of God, affects all of us. Isn’t the church’s role to keep Jesus’ mission as our focus, help us put aside and celebrate our differences, truly love our neighbor and recognize God in one another?

Visiting the Garden of Gethsemane , I was struck by the olive trees. Some of them have roots that are more than 2,300 years old, and their branches are full of olives. They are grounded in the land and stand as a silent witness to all that has happened and continues to happen in Jerusalem. As buildings have come up and been torn down and groups of people have claimed the land as their own, these trees are solidly rooted and continue to offer simple grace and peace. On the night that he was arrested, Jesus chose to spend time under these trees. It was in the garden that he expressed his anguish and prayed that it would be God’s will that would be done.

We drove from the garden to the Old City. It was an amazing experience to walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, and bring to life so many of the stories and miracles that are part of my Christian tradition. As we knelt in the empty tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the guard urged us to hurry, Kristen, a United Methodist missionary, gave thanks that Jesus was not there. And I remembered the words of the gardener: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” While it is an awesome experience to be in the place where holy mysteries and miracles took place, we are Easter people. The tomb is empty — thanks be to God. We must take up the cross, continue God’s mission with acts of mercy and piety and give thanks for all God has done for us not only in this holy land but also in all the world. The kingdom of God starts here.

I look forward to the rest of the week and visiting with “living stones.” We will meet with Palestinian Christians, who have deep roots here and who interpret the Bible through the lens of their ancestors. There is peace and justice work happening with groups like the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program and the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center. Janet, Kristen and J.D. are focusing on advocacy and activism in the region. On Thursday, we will celebrate the opening of a Global Methodist office, a partnership with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the British Methodist Church and the World Methodist Council. I am thankful to be here and to have the privilege to share the stories of how we are connecting the church in mission in Israel and Palestine.

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