Friday, December 23, 2011

Bethlehem: In Occupied Territory

When our tour bus entered Bethlehem it was the first time we saw "the Wall" (a.k.a. "security perimeter") from the Palestinian side. The Israeli side of the Wall is clean, unmarked. The Palestinian side is a seemingly endless mural of "prison art." I was too slow getting out the camera and missed taking photos of some of the more striking images: a weeping Statue of Liberty, holding a dead child (after Michelangelo's Pieta); the desolate stumps of a clear cut forest; Alice about to step through an intriguing little door.

Bethlehem was in occupied territory at the time of Jesus' birth, as well. Mary and Joseph were compelled to leave their home by order of the ruling powers, and after arriving in Bethlehem, forced to flee again in terror of violent government oppression. Today the Palestinian people, who were also compelled to flee their homes by an occupying military regime, still find their movements through the country controlled and curtailed by the Israeli government.

Our Palestinian guide was frequently tearful, describing what it's like to live under foreign military rule. She told us of the humiliation and frustration she felt every time she had to pass through a security check point: an ordinary, unarmed woman routinely treated as a suspected terrorist.

I can't imagine what that must be like, as someone who's never lived in "occupied territory" ... or have I? The Gospels of Matthew and Luke may emphasize the Roman occupation, but John highlights the spiritual occupation: that Jesus came into this world to overthrow its invisible, intangible ruler, the Prince of Darkness.

The question of whether Satan is a person, a principle, a force, etc. could be the subject of a separate post. That's not important here. It is clear that we are living under the occupation of the powers of greed and reckless opportunism, exclusion and vanity, selfishness and deliberate ignorance--the powers of darkness and evil. And the birth of Jesus was the beginning of a resistance movement, called the Kingdom of God.

There's this old comedy starring Danny Kaye, The Court Jester--it's always been a favorite of my family. I think it must be spoofing the Scarlet Pimpernel or something, but part of the plot is that there is a false king on the throne, and the rebels who live in the woods are fighting to protect the true heir to the crown, still just a small infant. The movie pokes fun at the idea that a tiny baby could be considered "the king." But that's just what we say about Jesus at Christmastime.

The work of salvation began not on the cross but in Mary's womb. Why? Because the Resistance is not about fighting with swords or machine guns or missiles--because the Almighty who strips completely, surrendering all power and authority to become a helpless, naked, and hungry infant is the true king and savior of this world. Because peace will not be purchased through war but will come to us only by the power of the vulnerable God, the weak God, the God of love.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where they say Jesus was born, the welcoming signs asks visitors to "Pray for the Freedom of Palestine." Please do. Please pray for the freedom of Palestine, and for the freedom of the world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appropriate Anachronism

I remember reading somewhere that Jesus was probably born around October when shepherds in Palestine would be most likely to sleep outside with their sheep. Jesus may not have been born in December, and it certainly was not a "bleak mid-winter" with blankets of snow. Images of a frosty night are historically inaccurate ... but I don't mind them, because they're theologically correct.

The celebration of Jesus' birth was combined with winter festivals for sound spiritual reasons. The prologue of John's Gospel (which says nothing about Jesus' birth, yet is considered a classic Christmas text) speaks of Jesus entering the world as a light shining in the darkness. And that is what Christmas is about.

It is at the darkest, coldest time of year--in the time most bleak, when we feel closest to death--that we remember how God entered the world. Because he didn't just come for a pleasant holiday. He came because we needed him. Desperately. Christmas reminds us that God is with us in our darkest hour.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tree Devastation

There was a huge windstorm in Pasadena last Wednesday night. They're still cleaning up the debris. Here are some pictures.

This is supposed to be a sidewalk in front of our apartment. Can't see it at all, can you?

A huge Callery Pear (a.k.a. Bradford Pear) limb (maybe 20-ft.) is blocking the sidewalk in the other direction.

The same Callery Pear limb seen from the other side.

I took some branches and put them in a pitcher. So beautiful!

Then I went to check on the Sweet Gum trees--most of their amazing, beautiful foliage was gone.

This one still looked great.

I added some Sweet Gum branches to the "bouquet."

Another casualty: one of the two Firewheel trees featured in Episode #2 of Virgie's Guide to Pasadena Trees.

I was able to get a better picture of the spidery flowers (these trees bloom twice a year).

This giant fallen cedar was still blocking the road three days after the storm.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Learning to Walk

It seems like when I was a kid I always had my eyes trained to the ground when I was walking. Maybe a throwback from my toddler years, when it was necessary to be constantly scanning the terrain, lest some unexpected obstacle trip me up. Or maybe because I liked finding small objects and picking them up off the ground--a feather, a discarded air freshener, a comb.

But I remember sometime when I was a teenager I realized that looking down, just watching the pavement slip by beneath my feet meant keeping my spirit narrow and confined. There was a kind of fear attached to it--it took an effort--it took courage--it was a bold move, deciding to look up, to lift my eyes to the trees, the sky, the horizon.

At that time I walked--really, I slinked--around with stooped shoulders--like a criminal, terrified I could be apprehended at any moment. And what crimes had I committed? Well, when I was about seven years old, I drew on the wall beside my bed. Another time I was trying to make a tent by hanging a blanket over a yardstick, and it broke. But my real crime was that I existed at all.

I’m not sure I can explain that last sentence. I imagine some people will know immediately what I mean. Perhaps to those who don’t, it can’t really be explained. In any case, I was so used to slouching all the time, one day I tried to correct my posture, and found that standing up straight was actually painful. I don’t know how old I was. Maybe sixteen. That was scary.

Trying to remember to straighten my spine did not change my habit. Improving my posture has been a major project of my adult life--because the only thing that really helps is changing how I feel about myself. Only as I know myself and my worth do I walk with head held high, facing the world without shame and fear.

I have been learning to walk these many years. But recently I realized something else. I walk fast. So does Brandon. And we do a lot of walking, being “car-free.” We are efficient, impatient people, zipping from A to B, trying to get things done as quickly as possible.

I asked Brandon the other day why we should tire ourselves out like that. What if we stopped hating the “wasted” transportation time, what if we stopped the pressure and anxiety--it’s only we who’ve been oppressing ourselves, after all--what if we walked slowly? Walking could be restful, enjoyable, a time of quiet meditation, or enlivening conversation. It’s a cliché that every moment in life is precious, if only we would notice it. But it’s true. And time spent walking from A to B needn’t be wasted.

And if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must become like a little child, like a little child, still learning to walk ...