As I prepared myself for a recent family trip to the Holy Land, I made sure to do all the things that, as a missions minister, I preach to others preparing for any short-term experience: Study the culture and the history, both ancient and modern; learn a few short phrases or words; but most importantly, make way for the Spirit of God to move.
“The Spirit of God will be moving, and you will be surrounded with opportunities to be transformed. But will you stop and recognize these moments as they are happening?” These words leave my lips every time I embark with a mission team, because I know without proper and adequate reflection, Spirit-filled moments can be lost as fast as they come.
I’d love to say that my Spirit-filled moment happened on Day 1, when I sat on Mount Carmel and reflected on the boldness of Elijah. Or on Day 2, while journeying the same route Jesus and his disciples once walked. Or while sitting on the mountain where Jesus challenged the status quo by saying something like, “Blessed are those ….” Or out on the sea, where men were called to a life much bigger, deeper and richer than even they could have imagined. Or on the streets of Capernaum, where Jesus breathed new life into those once dead.
Life from darkness and death
But more times than not, my Spirit-filled moments pop up like flowers entangled in barbed wire. New life almost always comes from darkness and death. Is that not the story of the resurrection anyway?
It’s Day 3, our last night in Tiberias, and here I sit on a balcony of the Leonardo Hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Listening to families prepare and enjoy the shabbat, watching other pilgrims journey out onto the same waters Jesus walked on and calmed, the same waters from which Peter, James and John were called to become fishers of men. Yet my eyes are swollen from the tears that fell as I sat on top of a hill today.
Messy, broken, troubling history
This hill happened to be our last stop of the day, the Golan Heights. Our tour guide wanted to share a bit more deeply with us the modern history of Israel, so it was here where we were oriented toward Israel’s shared history with its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon. Their history with one another is complex, messy, broken, shocking and deeply troubling. Nations at war, religions killing in the name of their God.
And then, in front of our eyes, we watched missiles hit a Syrian “rebel” city, and rockets blowing up God knows what—but more importantly to me, God knows who. I could not believe what I saw. My heart crushed beneath a conversation that followed about who was right and who was wrong. Instead, my spirit yearned to cry for God’s mercy, compassion and peace to prevail on earth.
“Infidels,” “terrorists,” “rebels” they are called, demonstrating to me our human tendency to assign categories to people that only really help us disconnect from the biblical idea of the imago dei—a Latin phrase originating from creation, claiming all people are made in the image of God. As Christians, we believe no one is beyond God’s grasp of redemption, not even the one lost sheep, coin or son.
Blessed are the peacemakers
Two and a half million Syrian refugees, 2.5 million men, women and children without a home, without a land, without basic necessities, without what most of us take for granted, our daily personal safety. Today as I looked toward Syria and watched a missile hit a “rebel” town, my heart understood more deeply Jesus’ words on the mount claiming, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will inherit the earth.”
My writing today flows not out of blaming our tour guide or those who see things differently, but to challenge us all toward remembering to pray even for those who persecute us. It’s easy to forget the daily suffering of millions of people around the globe, because we no longer believe we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. But the truth is we are—whether our “brother” is a murderer or a prophet. Right or wrong, a life is a life, and taking one for another is something I will always have a hard time understanding.
Heather Mustain is minister of missions at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. She is a recent graduate of Baylor University’s School of Social Work and Truett Theological Seminary. ABPnews/Herald distributed her column.