Last Thursday afternoon, I was sitting on a little balcony outside our hotel room in Amman, Jordan, marveling at the privilege of being in this beautiful city. As the unusual and holy Muslim call to prayer sounded throughout the city, and I wondered, “Will there ever be peace on earth?”
This was the 6th pilgrimage that Gary and I have made to Israel over the past 25 years but the first time we’ve traveled to Jordan. My faith is deepened and strengthened whenever I walk where Jesus walked. However, I am convinced that we cannot experience the land of the Bible in all its fullness without paying close attention to what is happening today between Jews and Muslim and Christian Arabs.
After reading two recently published books, Leap of Faith by Queen Noor of Jordan, and The Lemon Tree; An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan, I realized anew how very complicated relationships in the Middle East are. In The Lemon Tree, Bashir Khairi, a 25 year old Palestinian Muslim, begins a life-long friendship in the year 1967 with Dalia Eshkenazi, a 19 year old Israeli Jew born in Bulgaria. They discover that they lived in the same house, Bashir before 1948 and Dalia after 1948, when the Palestinians were forced out of their homes at the time the country of Israel was formed.
37 years later, in 2004, as they continue an impassioned dialogue about their beloved country, Dalia says to Bashir, “If you say everything is all Palestine and I say everything is the whole land of Israel, I don’t think we’ll get anywhere. We share a common destiny here. I truly believe that we are so deeply and closely related – culturally, historically, religiously, psychologically. And it’s so clear to me that you and your people are holding the key to our true freedom. And I think, Bashir, that we hold the key to your freedom. It’s a deep interdependence. How can we free the heart, for our own healing? Is this possible?” As they bid farewell to each other once more, Dalia says softly, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.”
Our Israeli guide, Pilar, was passionate about her Jewish faith but showed great respect for Islam and Christianity as well. Numerous times she claimed that peace will only come to Israel when we learn how to love as Jesus loved. She said that we cannot expect peace to be brokered by governments, religious institutions or secular organizations. We bring peace to our world one by one, when individuals decide to set aside differences, work for the good of their oppressors and love one another. “How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!” Psalm 133 (The Message)
As we traveled through the desert to Masada, Pilar emphasized how important the wilderness is in all three Abrahamic religions. It is in the desert that pride is stripped away and character is forged because there is nothing in the desert but God and us. Pilar freely shared her own faith and life, which was transformative for many people in our group who did not know much about contemporary Judaism.
Our Christian Arab guide in Jordan, Michael, was equally knowledgeable about the history of his country and passionate about Jordan’s pivotal role as a moderate Arab country seeking peace. In talking about the importance of the peace process in the Middle East, Michael made this profound statement, “We human beings were made for love, not for terrorism.” Insisting that we are in need of outstanding leaders in our world, Michael said that each one of us must teach our children to seek to understand and live in harmony with all people, not just those who are like us. If we can do that, a new generation could make a great and positive difference in our world.
During our time in Israel and Jordan, two significant events took place. Last week a truce was brokered between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas. Egyptian mediators worked for months to help end the violence in Gaza, believing that “only Egypt can speak to all parties.” The world is praying once more that this fragile truce might mark the beginning of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as they share they land that God gave to the people of Israel but that is also home to the native Palestinians.
You may have heard about the truce here in the U.S. However, you probably were not aware of a second major event which took place last week in Jordan at the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, which is one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. This was the 4th Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates, which focuses on science’s contribution to peaceful solutions to issues and challenges facing our world.
50 young people from the region were invited to dialogue with these Nobel prize winners about how we must cooperate across borders and not stay isolated from one another. King Abdullah of Jordan, in his opening remarks, said, “We need to support them (our young people) to lead, to provide opportunities to excel, to open the way to share in global progress.” Another sign of hope.
On the second day of our trip, I sat on a rock by the Sea of Galilee after dinner and watched the sun set. The previous day our group spent time sitting quietly on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, contemplating the beauty of holiness and the mystery of God’s presence in our midst. After having challenged our group at that time to be open to how God was speaking to them through what they were seeing and experiencing, I now pondered that same challenge myself.
Over and over I quietly sang the Taize song, “Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone, O Lord, are holy. Come and fill our hearts with your peace. Alleluia.” Eventually, I realized that I was no longer alone. A group of Jewish girls had arrived at the beach and was playfully throwing stones into the sea. I remembered Pilar reminding us earlier in the day that each stone in Israel tells a story and is part of a web of interdependence that connects us with the past, present and future.
As these girls laughed and threw stones, and I thought to myself, “Right here is hope for our world. We are all God’s precious children, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian, called to teach and influence the next generation to be peacemakers.”
One by one, the stars began to appear in the sky, the Jewish girls gathered to eat a meal, and the sea was calm. “Lord, you have come to this lakeshore, looking neither for wealthy or wise ones. You only ask me to follow humbly.”
Will there ever be peace on earth? All I know is that the hearts of 71 pilgrims from West Michigan were filled with peace during the past 2 weeks. Now our boats are left on the shoreline behind us, as we embody and share God’s shalom around the world. Will you join us?