Monday, 28 February 2011

Bethlehem and Babel

On the hill opposite Bethlehem stands this rather ominous looking Israeli settlement. It lies of course in the West Bank, and is remarkable not just for its location but also its size. It bristles like a well-armed fortress, square and aggressive, a metaphor for Israel's Goliath opposite the David of the Palestinian Bethlehem (appropriate,

I suppose as David is said to have been born there, even if the nationalities are reversed). It is perched on a hill, a monument to Israel's desire for security and determination to keep the Palestinians firmly in their place behind the security wall that has turned Bethlehem and its surrounding villages into what is effectively an open prison.

It reminded me of something, and when I got home I remembered what it was - Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting of the Tower of Babel. It is both a pictorial and symbolic likeness. Babel was a human attempt to establish security, presence and a future without God. The settlements are attempts to establish security, presence and a future without justice. Israel needs security and has a right to it. Yet however solid the settlements look and feel, they will only ever be as substantial as Babel if they are built on land that not rightfully owned or foundations of fear.

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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The most important water in the world?

As I write this I am in Israel, leading a group of friends around the Holy Land with my (now) good friend, Dahoud, our Egyptian Coptic Christian guide.

The other day, on a visit to the City of David, the site of the small Jebusite fortress that David captured around 1000 BC, we stopped by the Gihon Spring, the water source that fed the fortress and subsequently the city that David built. Presumably one day, some prehistoric farmer drank from the well, and thought it would be a good idea to build a settlement on the hill above it, as it both had accessible water and was easily defendable with three steep valleys around it.

It got me thinking about the significance of this small stream of water emerging from deep underground. It seems so small, so insignificant. Yet without this spring, there would have been no fortress, without the fortress, David would not have tried to capture it. Without David's raid, there would have been no Jerusalem. Without Jerusalem, no Solomon's temple. Without Solomon's temple, no Herod's temple. Without the Temple, Jesus would not have set his face for Jerusalem, hence no cross, no resurrection. Also, no Western Wall, no Dome of the Rock, no Crusades, no State of Israel, no Palestinian question, no Middle Eastern crisis... the list goes on and on.

And it all stems back to that tiny stream of water gushing out from the rock in an obscure valley in the Judean hills. Can there be a more significant and influential spring anywhere in the world? So watch carefully when you drink from a spring and think it might be a good place to build a city.

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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Lenten Generosity

It may be a little in the distance, but Lent is not too far away. I am beginning to think about what I might do this year. I heard recently of a campaign run by an organisation called Stewardship, which is called “40 Acts, Give Out – Not Up”. The idea is that rather than giving up something for Lent, you do something positive instead, and in particular do something generous on a regular basis. The idea is that on each of the 40 days of Lent you do something out of the ordinary, something generous - giving something away to others, whether it is time, money, gifts etc. It struck me that this was a good idea for a number of reasons.

First, the great tradition of building character through virtue rooted in Aristotle and given strong Christian colouring by Aquinas and in recent times Stanley Hauerwas and others, suggests with reason that good character is built up by regularly practising certain acts. So for example, becoming a generous person requires repeated acts of generosity, so that it becomes a habit. This way it becomes something which is easier to do than not to do. The goal of Christian behaviour is not to perform the occasional heroic generous act, which is difficult and out of the ordinary, but to become the kind of person who naturally, almost without thinking about it, does generous things. This is the impression you get of Jesus. He doesn’t look like he is making some mental calculation all the time to give his time, energy and life for those who need it. These are natural acts that come out the person that he is. For us, generosity is nurtured by a blend of meditation on the generosity of God and creation and in Christ, and the experience of the overflowing love of God poured out through the Holy Spirit, and then repeated acts of generosity in response to this, which embed the practice as a habit or virtue in our lives.

This also struck me as a good idea because generosity is perhaps one of the major qualities which speaks of the nature of God in contemporary life. We live in a deeply acquisitive culture. In other words, we are told again and again that life is about acquiring things, buying objects, getting as many gadgets and toys as we can to fill our homes, lives and time and earning enough money to satisfy every whim or desire. Generosity as a virtue runs counter to all of that because it tells us that true life is about giving things away, rather than about acquiring them. To that extent, it mirrors the very nature of God the great Giver, who gives us the gift of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our daily bread day by day. So perhaps this is one of the most counter-cultural Christian virtues of them of all and something which we need to learn more of. For that reason I think it is a pretty good plan. I still might give up something, but I will at least have a go at generosity this year.

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