Why Would you Want to Go There? Sheep Stuff Part Two, Glory Amidst the Doo

December 24, 2011

Christmas / Advent

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Sheep Stuff Part Two, Glory Amidst the Doo

(Note to self: As  much as you get frustrated that your parents and especially your Mom struggles so much with technology and are computer illiterate, considering some of your choices for titles and subtitles, maybe it’s actually a good thing that they don’t spend much time in cyberspace.)

I moved to the Middle East about nine months before September 11, 2001.   While living there for much of the past decade, many of my friends and family often would ask me a simple question.  “Why would you want to go there?”   And it’s not just friends from the United States.  More than once some of my Arab friends asked me the same question.   “We want to go your country, why would you want to come here?”

I wonder if Jesus was ever asked that question? Why would you want to go there?

In case you missed it my last post, I’ll repeat the verse found in John 1:14,  as worded in The Message,  “the word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”   And what a neighborhood it was!

During December 2004 when I was living in Jordan, I visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth during the Christmas holidays.     I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting.   At the time, I didn’t know if I’d ever be back during Christmas so I had my heart set on celebrating Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.   Unfortunately, it was very cold and drizzling rain that Christmas Eve.  No one from the group that I was with wanted to go out on that dreary night no matter how much I tried to persuaded them to join me.  This night I was stubbornly on my own.   Now, I don’t like to admit this and it’s not something that I’m necessarily proud of; but I’ve been known on a rare occasion or two to get an idea stuck in my head and to doggedly see it through whether anyone is with me or not.  I once walked for blocks in Istanbul on my own because I was determined to have real “Turkish” food, while all my traveling buddies from college ate comfortably at McDonald’s.   This was another one of those occasions when my inner Clark Griswold got the best of me.   I was unwaveringly committed to going to Bethlehem that Christmas Eve despite the weather and despite that I was on my own.

As I passed the Israeli checkpoint going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, I could see barbwire to my right and the outline of the huge so-called security or separation wall that was being constructed.   It made me sad.  The barbwire made it look like a war zone and when the wall was finished, the edges of Bethlehem would eventually look more like a prison with a huge guard tower and a 25 feet (8 M) tall wall that is over twice the height of what was the Berlin wall.  The very thought of both the physical wall that was being built and the just as real internal walls of prejudices that separate groups in the Middle East dampened my mood.  When both sides consider themselves victims, how can there ever be peace?   And who was even working and praying for peace?   In the Gospel of Luke, the angels announced “Peace on Earth” and “Good News” to “All people”.   Surely of all people at least Christians should desire and pray for peace and the message this night represented!  Yet, how many people who called themselves Christians back in my home country really loved and prayed for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis?  How many even wanted peace?  How many times had I heard almost glibly,  “there will never be peace in that part of the world”   “How could you live there?” “Why would you want to go there?” It seemed most people were more influenced by politicians, Radio personalities, TV preachers and popular books than they were following the One who gave us the “ministry of reconciliation” and the words of Jesus who said “blessed are the peace-makers.”

I eventually made my way to Manager Square already in a bit of a somber mood from mentally processing the ugly new fence going up and all the ramifications that came with it.    Manger Square was crowded.  I shortly found out that you were required to have a ticket to get into the church that night.  The tickets were free and mainly for crowd control.  I hadn’t planned to stay very long and unfortunately didn’t have a ticket.    What was I to do? Being the upstanding and law-abiding citizen that I am and having learned a thing or two from my mother and older brother over the years, I immediately knew what I had to do!  Having grown up in Oakcliff, my south side instincts kicked in and I somehow managed to sneak in.   I was pretty sure that my mother and older brother would have been proud of me.   (However, I’m also pretty sure that if I believed in purgatory that they’d be joining me there some day for while.  I don’t about you but I always imagined that purgatory would be like the waiting room of the doctor’s office when I was a kid – with rickety chairs and only three year old magazines to read and nothing to do but sit until Saint Peter comes in and says, “He can see you now!”  I hated that old doctor’s office growing up.  As  I think about it, I’m really glad that I don’t believe in purgatory).   Surely Jesus wouldn’t require a ticket for us to see him.   “No Ticket required!”  That’ll preach.   Feel free to steal that if you need a message for Sunday.

I made my way past security only to be amid a huge crowd who was shoving and pushing to get into the Church of the Nativity.  It wasn’t a real spiritual experience.  I eventually made my way down to the grotto and cave underneath the church where tradition tells us Jesus was born. Everyone was silent and trying to be reverent that particular night.  No cheery carols, like on other visits there.   I wanted to celebrate Christ birth but to me, it seemed to me more like a funeral.   I know people were trying to worship in their own way and I tried to respect that.  In fact, I’d come to like those quieter times occasionally.  But that night I wanted to celebrate.  Secretly, a part of me was tempted to break out into a chorus of “Joy to the world” or “Go tell it on the mountain”!  Fortunately better sense came over me.  Mainly because I realized someone might be tempted to throw a burning candle at me.   I’m just guessing that wouldn’t have been the best witness on Christmas Eve.

I had to get back to Jerusalem and wasn’t able to stay for the midnight service in the large chapel next door but did manage to hear a bit of the pre-service worship music which lifted my mood.

As I left Bethlehem  and crossed the checkpoint, I tried to get a taxi back to Jerusalem. Walking up to two parked taxis, I noticed that the drivers were together in one car and watching a video.  As I got a bit closer I peaked in.   My heart sank.  Christmas eve, while waiting to take visitors back from Bethlehem, these two cab drivers were watching porn in one of their cabs.  I walked away with my shoulders slumped and headed towards Jerusalem on foot by myself meditating in the rain.    It was Christmas Eve and I had just left Bethlehem but my heart was heavy.

Not feeling overly spiritual or uplifted at all by what I had seen that night,  I asked myself,  “Now why did I want to go there this evening?”  Yet, as I kept walking, I had a bit of an epiphany.  I begin to wonder how Jesus felt that night and during his life on earth.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was just the type of atmosphere that Jesus was born into.   In first century Palestine, Israel was politically occupied by the Romans and had their own walls and security guards to contend with.  They even had their own version of “Hamas”, the Zealots, a group of radical Jews who legalistically defended their faith and desired to overthrow the government by violence and force if necessarily.  It was a difficult place mixed with religious fanatics, soldiers, sinners and a few scattered saints.   And that was just the political and spiritual landscape.  I already mentioned in my earlier blog about the conditions that surrounded his birth, sheep stuff and all.    If there was no room for them, that means the homes were full of families and the town was rather crowded perhaps there was  pushing and shoving similar to what I saw at manager square that night.

Maybe  our Sunday School teachers and beautiful Christmas cards give us the wrong mental picture.   We envision a nice serene and perfect place.   O Holy night!  Everything in it’s place and at peace.  (Just as we envision for our family Christmas celebrations).  But I’m afraid as long as we are on earth, even holy nights don’t necessarily happen in vacuum.  They happen in the real world.  But even in the chaos of the real world that first Christmas night was special.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Scholars tells us that when John is writing those words in Greek, he is most likely thinking in his birth tongues of Aramaic and Hebrew (See http://www.crivoice.org/biblestudy/bbjohn2.html  for nice discussion from  Dr. Roger Hahn).   When he speaks of glory and of dwelling, it’s likely a play on words of his native language and a reference to the Old Testament idea of the שכינה Shekinah glory of God.

Now I don’t know about you but as a kid growing up, I wasn’t sure if the Shekinah glory of God was a good thing or not.  When the TV preachers talked about it or when a guest preacher came to our small church, they always seemed to yell the word with a deep guttural sound.  Their voice quaked as they expounded on the “SHEKINAH Glory of GAWD!  It was usually the longer scary version of God with long “AW” sound in between.  If the thunderous way the they said it didn’t scare you, the accompanying spittle usually did.  When your Mom makes you sit on the front pew as a child , your not usually spiritual enough to think that you just received  a shower of blessing coming from the preachers mouth.  I wasn’t sure if the Shekinah glory of God was a good thing or not.  Frankly, they way it was talked about, it often kind of scared me.

However, I love the idea of the Shekinah now.  Especially as John implies here in the gospel of John chapter one and having been privileged to study a little bit of Arabic.  Arabic is a Semitic language and verbal cousin to Hebrew and Aramaic.  There are lots of similarities.  One of the first words that I learned in Arabic is originally from the same root as the Hebrew word for Shekinah and has a very similar meaning.  The equivalent word in Arabic is Sakin, which means “live or to dwell”.   One of the first phrases I ever learned in the Middle East was  وين ساكن “Wayn sakiin?”   Where do you live?   ساكن في عمان  Sakin fi Amman!  I live in Amman!

Shekinah  is related to the Hebrew root word “to tent” and literally means the dwelling or place of living and was used to denote the presence of God.  John tells us that the glory of God, the living presence of our Holy God has moved in and pitched his tent and made His dwelling place among us.   His glory became presence in the baby born into this chaotic world surrounded by sheep stuff.

I hosted a Youth in Missions team one summer who spent a week in the village of Hammoud near Kerak, Jordan   It’s a beautiful village in it’s own way.  In fact, it’s old buildings probably aren’t too different from those in the time of Christ.  But Bedouins had been living there is recent years and so had their animals.  You had to be careful where you walk.   The team spent several days, shoveling real“sheep stuff” to clean up a couple of the simple buildings.  Again, that’s the kind of place Jesus was born.   Surrounded by sheep stuff.   I don’t know that there was a prophecy that says the Messiah had to be born in “stall”  Perhaps he could have been born in a inn or home.   However, I agree with Philip Yancey in the book Jesus I Never Knew (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-I-Never-Knew/dp/0310385709),  that God wanted to make a point.  I believe that from the very beginning that Jesus wanted us to know that he wasn’t afraid of “Sheep stuff” and that he was willing to go wherever people would allow him in.

We see that quality throughout his ministry.  Yes, Jesus spoke in synagogues and places of worship and he visited and debated with Pharisees and teachers of the law.   They frustrated him but He loved them too.   He did spend some time with religious people. But more often than not, they didn’t receive him. So we find him among the tax collectors, sinners, crippled, lame, blind, outcasts, and even prostitutes. He keeps showing up with the most unlikely people and in the most unlikely places. He lived his life going wherever people would receive him and let him in.  And where he was allowed to dwell, no one who let him into their lives remained the same.  They were transformed by the living presence and glory of God.

When people ask me, “Why did you want to go there?  Why did you live in the Middle East for ten years?  It isn’t hard to answer.  Beside God and his call, I loved the people there!  I loved the people.  Have you ever experienced Middle Eastern hospitality?  And, I could tell you some stories of the most incredible believers that put most of us to shame.

And if we asked Jesus that question,  “Why would you want to come here?  I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist or member of the CSI team to figure it out.  Just turn over two chapters to John 3.  The first verse that I ever learned as a child, “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16.  It’s true!  God loves us!  Jesus loves you! That’s what Christmas is all about.

Most of my friends from other religions don’t get it!  Heck, a lot of us who call ourselves Christians still don’t get it.  We tend to think God is up high and too good to touch us unless we get cleaned up first.  It doesn’t make sense that he would come to us.

But we don’t have to travel to the Holy Land and have someone stuff our prayers on little pieces of paper in the  cracks of the Kotel or Western Wall for us.  God’s glory no longer dwells in a temple.  He came to live among us and live in us.

At times it’s hard to see.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s from our own sin or simply from the struggles and sorrows of life in our fallen world – sometimes in the middle of our circumstances we can’t see through the sheep stuff.  Yet Jesus still longs to come and dwell wherever, you are right now.   His glory can show up in the most unlikely places.

I heard singer and songwriter, Dennis Jernigan say at a concert once that when one of his children falls down and hurts themselves, he doesn’t say go clean yourselves off and then make come see daddy.  “No”, he said “I say come to daddy, sit in my lap and let me wash your wounds and make you clean.  Let me hold you.  And so that is the way, it is with God”.  That’s His heart.

Where ever you are right now and whatever you are going through, the Shekinah glory of God longs to make His presence known to you. Christ longs to dwell with you even if your circumstances seem dire.  Why?  Because He loves you!  That’s what this season is all about.

God longs to see His glory known throughout Israel and Palestine!  He loves the all the people there!  And He longs to see His glory and presence know in my life and yours. He longs to dwell in the broken places where we live.  In the midst of your sin, your sickness, your sorrow, your broken heart, your suffering, you disappointment, your fears….there is NO place His glory can’t dwell….if you will allow Him in.  And when His glory comes, everything changes!

Maybe the Sunday School teachers and Christmas Cards didn’t get it so wrong after all.   For when God’s glory comes, stables become sanctuaries and sheep stuff becomes the fertilizer for growth and new beginnings.

Do you really believe that God loves you?  If not, just look to the manager? What’s keeping your from allowing God’s glory to dwell right where you are?  Only one thing can keep him away…you.   In what unlikely places have you been blessed to see God’s glory recently?  Please feel free to share and comment.


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6 Comments on “Why Would you Want to Go There? Sheep Stuff Part Two, Glory Amidst the Doo”

  1. Eyde Adams Says:

    Hi Philip,
    I have really enjoyed reading and reflecting upon your blog. It’s interesting, Pastor Kerry recently talked about encouraging you to write, and now I see why! Another gift from God to reach others. This last post in particular has touched me deeply. After 3 trips to the Middle East, I constantly get asked why I keep going back. It is the people! God has given me a deep love for His beautiful people there and they keep drawing me back. I tell others that I am homesick when I am not there. Had the opportunity to spend some time with Bedouins in Jordan this year and I have never experienced such generosity and hsopitality! I yearn to return! Thanks for sharing your life, love and humor. I really missed seeing you in Israel when we where there in October. I pray all is well with you!
    Love to you,
    Eyde Adams


  2. Jennifer Wood Says:

    Where is the next post??? These are really good…!!!


  3. writerstogether Says:

    I’ve been amazed recently too at the ways God comes near in the midst of hectic hustle and bustle of the holidays. I’m spending my first Christmas in 7 years with family here in the states and have found it difficult to find that “quiet” place except for late at night or early morning. Yet as soon as I turn aside from all the “sheep stuff” as you call it, I find myself surrounded by the warmth of Christ’s peace and an effervescent joy that just won’t be stilled. And interestingly enough the harried pace of shoppers and family gatherings don’t frustrate my awareness of God’s presence. It just gives opportunity to share His peace, His shalom and goodness with others who may not be noticing Him. Thanks for this “reality look” at Bethlehem. I’ve often wondered what it would be like there at Christmas.


    • hummushumorhope Says:

      Glad you are finding creative ways to find God’s presence. Actually, Bethlehem is great place to visit and isn’t normally as gloomy as I described here. That particular Christmas I just happened to be there when it was literally “raining on the parade”. Hope you enjoy this time with your family and back in the states. Merry Christmas!


  4. Jennifer Wood Says:

    Well, it’s funny..but recently I saw God’s glory in a homeless shelter…San Bernardino, CA! Again..the hopelessness on a person’s face makes the heart heavy and to see that hopelessness fade into the light of Hope made my heart glorlfy God as He was being glorified in the service others were offering to Him. Little girls in a little choir began to sing Christmas Carols while the homeless ate…( Many times the children are not welcomed because of supposed danger)! We put their sweet faces in a choir under the tent..and we watched the faces of the people just light up as the kids began to herald the good news!! Another unlikely place God’s glory is so pronounced is any time darkness comes near…Many things have come in this year to threaten my inner joy…but darkness just accentuates the light…and His glory shines even brighter..He’s always there in every dark moment…burning like the all consuming fire that He is…


    • hummushumorhope Says:

      It’s amazing the places that God can show up! Sounds like God was alive and “tenting” in the “tent” where you were sharing Christmas dinner. Awesome. ….And there are definitely difficult times in our lives when we can only recognize God’s presence after the fact and looking back. He’s still there though even when we can’t see. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas!


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