Theology in Israel and Palestinian Territories

22 students from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology — led by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program — are participating in a Palestine-Israel immersion course from Dec. 29 through Jan. 13, 2014. Their itinerary includes lectures and interaction with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and scholars, and travel throughout the region, including to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, the Sea of Galilee, and more.

Follow Dr. Hunt on the Perkins Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/25844609000/ and the blog of Perkins student Scott Gilliland at http://scottandraegan.blogspot.co.il/

The Perkins Global Theological Education Program helps prepare students, pastors, and other Christian leaders to guide congregations into more culturally sensitive, competent, and effective mission both within and outside the United States. The program offers significant hands-on immersion experiences, grass-roots inter-religious dialogue, and exposure to cross-cultural ministries. Learn more at smu.edu/perkins.

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Jesus wept.

An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at http://scottandraegan.blogspot.co.il/

I don’t understand about 90% of the official “Holy Land Tour,” which sounds terrible, I know.  Here I am, 25 years old, with my wife, seeing sites and walking paths and touching places that are incredibly sacred not just to the members of my faith, but for religious and even just-plain-curious people all over the world.  Many people wait and save up their entire lives for the experience I’ve been provided at such an early age.  And I am grateful.

But I don’t get the rocks.

Maybe it’s because I am a western, American, white, Methodist male, but I just don’t connect with a bunch of rocks.  And I wish I did, I really do!  In a weird way, I feel it would justify my luckiness in visiting this place.  I’m so jealous of the Catholic and Orthodox and Jewish and Muslim believers I’ve witnessed on this trip who are so engaged with each and every site I’ve visited.  The churches are beautiful, the mosques breathtaking, the settings one-of-a-kind.

But I just

don’t

get it.

IMG_5338

At least I didn’t get it until I came to the garden.  It was so simple.  A small gate leading into a garden of olive trees, eight in all, planted neatly into rows, similar in size, evenly spaced, except for one larger olive tree on the far side, centered and apart from the others.  Very quaint.  And for the first time there weren’t a thousand people pushing or shoving or rushing to and from one area to the next, like a Holy Land Edition of Super Market Sweep, touching as many stones as possible before their time runs out.  No, this was peaceful.

Our tour guide Johnny began to tell us about the garden, how all of the trees had been growing for several hundred years.

See, that’s the funny thing about olive trees, they’re survivors.

They don’t require much water, they can withstand brutal natural circumstances, so they are a great fit for the incredibly hot, long summers of the Israeli hill country.  Olive tree farms dot the landscape all over the Jerusalem countryside.  But this garden is different.  Like Johnny said, these trees have been growing, some of them for more than 500, 600, or 700 years.  Except one.

2200.

That’s how many years one tree has been standing in the far side of the Garden of Gethsemane, centered, apart from the rest, according to local belief.  Johnny himself believes this, too, and in my more candid discussions with Johnny, I’ve learned he is rather skeptical of most of the sites that he guides people around.  But he believes this one tree has stood for over two millennia.*

And for once, I completely connected with a Holy Site.  Not one part of me was critical, or cynical, or skeptical, but instead I was completely consumed with a moment I had been waiting for for over 10 days.

I thought about Jesus sitting in this garden, similar to the one I was in that day, standing by the tree I could touch, weeping over what was about to happen inside the walls of Jerusalem.  I myself felt moved to weep.  As I held back my tears, I thought about this tree.  A tree that no one was crowded around, that couldn’t quite blend in with its brothers and sisters though it may try.

I thought about what stories this tree could tell.  The thousands of years of human history it has witnessed.  The rise and fall of empires.  The times of war and the times of peace.  The cries of joy from pilgrims deepening their faith.  The cries of mourning from families burying their dead.  The tears that fell from the face of a man named Jesus, whom people called God, traitor, King, and fool.

This tree, living and breathing, has somehow survived, shielded from the destruction that has rained on this region for thousands of years.

That is holy.

After all this time, though, with all the stories locked away under the layers and layers of bark, what would this tree say to me, given the chance?

I wonder if it isn’t weeping, too.

Weeping over the division and tension felt every minute of every day for people living in the borders of Israel and Palestinian territories.

Weeping over the violence carried out in the names of Gods and prophets whose ultimate messages were those of peace.

Weeping over the importance given to temples, and politics, and roads, and churches, and rocks, and things, instead of the simple value of human life.

Weeping over a humanity that still would rather crucify the peacemakers, the truth-tellers, and the agents of love rather than addressing the problems that plague our people from Israel to Dallas City Hall.

Jesus wept.  Gethsemane weeps.  And so do I.

The good news is there is hope.  There is always hope.  And if there is one word that leaves my lips as this trip nears its end, it is “hope.”  In all our travels, and studies, and conversations with Israelis, Palestinians, and the in-betweens, I have heard over and over and over again the unrelenting power of hope in the Holy Land.

Hope is a tree standing for centuries when all it takes is a stray spark to burn it down to ashes.  Hope is 120 Palestinian students studying dance – where a government considers the arts unnecessary – just for the chance to share their culture with the world.  Hope is a group of academic Jews, Muslims, and Christians coming together in the heart of Jerusalem to forge new conversations, ask bold questions, and search for new understandings of faith.

Hope is the spirit that Christ walked with as he left the Garden, and it will be the spirit that I leave with from this place.

I’ve had my spiritual experience.  I know why I was brought to this place.

I may weep.  But I have hope.

*Note: To be fair, I went back later and researched what I could with spotty wifi and learned that only 3 of the trees have been scientifically analyzed, because the other 5 trees are lacking their oldest core.  The 3 tested trees each dated to 1092 CE, 1166 CE, and 1198 CE.  These three trees all share the same parent lineage, meaning measures were taken to preserve an ancient lineage.  The tree in the center of the garden was not tested and is impossible to date using current methods.  Read more about the trees here.

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