Wednesday night we feted the outgoing bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land in fine style. Dignitaries from around the world, political and ecumenical leaders, and Lutheran leaders gave thanks for Munib’s faithful ministry. He has been a global leader promoting the Lutheran confessional witness, faithful supporter of his people, and an advocate for justice and awareness of the challenges of finding lasting peace in the Holy Land.
I have been blessed to meet Bishop Younan on a few occasions. Was a gift to be there on Wednesday as the church took appropriate time to thank him for his service and then make way for the celebration of the consecration of their new pastor/leader, Bishop-elect Ibrahim Azar. Friday will be a festival day of new things.
Yet Thursday we needed to yet find some things to do. And as expected there were many things to do. We began the day early on a bus heading towards Jerusalem from Bayt Jala. After delays for traffic and being stopped at a checkpoint on the settler highway (they needed to check our passports to be sure we were able to travel into Jerusalem from the Palestinian Authority area that includes Bethlehem) we arrived in Jerusalem and spent the better part of 4 hours walking the city. For many this was there first trip. For me this was my second time in Jerusalem and so I was able to focus on observing and learning new things. We walked the pilgrim road of the Via Dolorosa, did the stations of the cross, and saw many other holy sites. We were overwhelmed to be able to enter the area of the Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount which also includes the Dome of the Rock. While I had seen the Dome before this time we were permitted to go inside and see the amazing artistry and devotion that has gone into constructing this place of prayer. It is an artistic masterpiece. As I noted on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/bishopgronberg. “Honored today to visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This ancient building is a world artistic treasure and stands on a place of deep significance for all Abrahamic faiths. I have been blessed by encountering many faithful followers of Islam in my life. While we disagree about the nature of Christ, the incarnation of God, and redemption (as we also do with our Jewish sisters and brothers and frankly often with fellow Christians) I believe we can all be people who honor one another, reject extremism in all its forms, and work for peace.”
After visiting the Dome and Al-Aqsa Mosque we headed back into the old city. Through bazaars filled with all sorts of treats (some of those candies have been purchased to come home to kiddos in Fort Worth) and up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This holy place is the holy and revered site of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. The church buzzes with activity as pilgrims from around the world come to pay homage and respect. I am always touched, not so much by the relics and golden altars, but by the people. The people who make the holy place holy by their faithful presence and witness. The people who comes from across the globe, who have committed life savings to be at this place, and whose skin is of a variety of colors and speak in many and various tongues. It is here that I see once again that Christianity is indeed a global faith and that we, as Lutherans, must embrace this diversity because it is clearly of God. Christ did not die, he was not the stone the builders rejected, so we could reject others based on nationality, skin color, language, or status.
We made our way back through the checkpoints and the barrier walls to Bayt Jala. The challenges and justice issues that the Palestinian people face, the barrier walls erected for security but that also prevent freedom of movement for people and animal, cannot be ignored. As Bishop Younan has written “We care about the security of Israel, but believe that the security of Israel is dependent on freedom and justice for the Palestinians. And freedom and justice for the Palestinians is dependent on security for Israel.” (Witnessing for Peace, 2003).
Upon our return Bishop Erickson (Greater Milwaukee Synod) and I took a quick cab ride to Manger Square in Bethlehem. I was hoping to see some friends from seminary days and others who have connections to the Southwestern Texas Synod which raised me up as a leader. Thankfully we did connect outside the church of the nativity. It was fun to catch up and also be surprised by others in their group we didn’t expect to see. Then we descended into the grotto of the Nativity with a cohort of aged women and men from Africa. I was so very touched to see and participate as pilgrim offered hand to pilgrim on the steep steps. Helping one another to experience this holy moment in the place that tradition tells us Christ was born.
What a joy to see old friends from seminary as well as visit the place so very significant to Christians across the world. A place of hope for sure in the midst of challenges. Christ who was born in the midst of Roman occupation and who died at imperial hands. It was truly a powerful and holy moment for me today.
I ended the night watching a EuroLeague basketball game on TV. Macabbi Fox Tel Aviv vs. Brose Bamberg (Germany) that Maccabi won 90-88 in exciting final minute fashion. While neither team is in the top half of their league they played hard and exciting basketball. Players from around the world, coming together to work towards a common goal. Perhaps a lesson for us as we are #InMissionTogether