Monday, September 12, 2005

The Place of 'Place' in Faith and Life (Part 1)

The last Israeli soldiers have left Gaza, marking the end of Israel's thirty-eight year occupation of the region, allowing Palestinians to take control there. At least one of Gaza's 20 synagogues was set on fire after the last Israeli troops departed.

The disposition of the synagogues had been a subject of some debate within Israel in the run-up to withdrawal. Initially, the government planned to destroy the buildings along with abandoned Israeli housing. But, rabbis in Israel objected, saying that Jews should not destroy synagogues. Ultimately, the Israeli government reversed itself and let the buildings stand amid the rubble. (For more, see here.)

This decision put the Palestinian Authority in a no-win situation. If they destroyed the facilities themselves, they would appear ungracious and contribute to a sour atmosphere in future diplomacy with the seemingly more conciliatory Israeli government. If they failed to destroy the facilities, they wouldn't please their more radical constituents. If they stood by and watched celebrating Palestinians destroy what were symbols of foreign occupation, they would take it in the neck from both Palestinians and Israelis. In the end, the chose the third path. We must wait to see what the results will be.

But already in this incident and the debate leading up to it, we can see the potency of place in faith and life. There is a stubborn notion among adherents of all religions of the sanctity of place, of particular places where God presumably resides in a special way, spaces of what theologians call numinous awe.

This is one reason why people become incensed when places of worship are desecrated, torched, bombed, or torn down.

But apart from the disrespect that such actions show to the devotees that use such spaces, is this reaction rational?

This past weekend, I preached on Psalm 103:8-14. The Psalms is a worship song book used by ancient Jews, by their modern-day counterparts, and by we Christians. The psalm from which my preaching text was taken is part of a segment of the Psalms referred to as Book IV, composed of Psalms 90 through 106.

Many scholars think that Book IV may have been written or edited in response to an ancient captivity of historic Israel. This captivity saw the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people enslaved, and many of God's people sent away from the Promised Land into exile.

For a people that traced its roots back to God's promise of a place to Abraham and who believed that worship was centered in Jerusalem where the very presence of God was enthroned in the Holy of Holies within the Temple, this captivity raised many questions.

Among them:
Why had God allowed this to happen?

How could they be connected to God if they were separated from their land and from the temple?

Was God impotent?

Could God's reign extend to them in their captivity?
Book IV of the Psalms may represent part of the answer prayerfully derived by these stricken people, as are many portions of Isaiah and the works of other Old Testament prophets.

God's power, they said, is undiminished. He is the Lord of everything. He cannot be confined to places. He can be met and worshiped anywhere.

Jesus, the One I believe is the ultimate self-revelation of God, took this idea even further. In His encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar one day, Jesus said, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth..." (John 4:21-24).

One of the things from which I think God wants to liberate us is the sense of "holy spaces." Any place can be holy, a place where we can encounter God and where we can fulfill His call to love Him and others.

I learned this lesson well in the twelve-plus years that our congregation worshiped in a school gymnasium. It was old and dusty. The ancient folding chairs and bleachers people used for seating were painful. The gravity furnace, which had its favorite spots to vent, turned the space where we normally gathered into a steam bath in the winter. In the summer, we were shifted around from one part of the building to another in order to accommodate the necessary annual maintenance schedule. (The building was so hot year-round that I sympathize with the students, teachers, staffers, and administrators who still work there and I've often joked that it would be the perfect site for me to do sermons on hell.)

But God was worshiped in that old, uncomfortable school. People were baptized and received Holy Communion. People were empowered and encouraged to live for God's glory.

Sometimes, when I'd get discouraged over the fact that our church wasn't in a building yet, I'd recall the memoir of a woman in China who had been taken prisoner by the occupying Japanese during World War Two. She was forbidden to be seen praying. But, desperate for God in her misery, she would daily sneak away to the spot where all the garbage and sewage of the prison camp were dumped. There, amid the rats, insects, and stench, she would pray to and praise God. It was, she said, the sweetest place in her world at that time.

It's horrible that some Palestinians are so filled with hatred that they feel compelled to burn down the symbols of others' faith. But it also strikes me as strange that the Israeli government felt unable to tear down the synagogues before the haters could set their torches. The government's decision seems more like superstition than faith. That decision, seemingly rooted in religious sensibilities, might have been a different one had they taken time to seek the counsel of the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets.

In the Christian tradition, born as it was in a context of persecution and pluralism, we have a hymn, referring to Jesus as the strong rock on Whom to build our lives, that says:

Built on a rock the Church shall stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in ev'ry land,
Bells still are chiming and calling--
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

Sadly, we Christians often fail to live up to those bold words. Instead of believing in the God Who graciously accepts us as we are and is willing to meet and help the repentant anywhere, we can become mired in the superstitious love of "holy places." Sometimes, we have unholy arguments over changing the places we use for worship, or moving them, abandoning them, or tearing them down. We do this even when both God's Spirit and the march of time are calling us to move on and to learn from the lesson of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back.

No matter what one's view of the politics and the religion of the thing, the one-time Israeli occupants have done a hard thing. So has the Israeli government. No matter what their views of Judaism or of Israel, I hope that the Palestinian Authority will prevent any of the other synagogues from being destroyed.

The best thing the P.A. could do, I think, is announce that they are keeping them undefiled until the day when the Israeli government will be allowed to come and give the facilities decent burials, acknowledging the time-bound purpose they served...and then, moving on.

No comments: