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Yavo Shalom Aleinu

May 21, 2009


Thursday, 10:40 am local time


Once upon a time. All the best stories start with once upon a time, and this one does too. Once upon a time. In the beginning. B’rashit bara eloheinu. Every story starts in time, actually: once upon some time that is not this time. There’s a story in the Godly Play curriculum about the way the Church counts time, and it starts with Christmas, the “end that is a beginning, or maybe the beginning that’s an ending.” Time is circular. We come back to that once upon a time, sometimes.

But time is also linear. It marches on, like a Christian soldier, or a line of Roman columns. We cannot recover what is lost, no matter how hard we try: words, memories, peace, time; they won’t come back the way they looked before. Sometimes they look better. We rode the same bus with the same people two weeks ago, and we are the same as we ever were, but there is more conversation now. More laughter. More. There are many ways to tell the story, each equally valid, each equally wanting. Nobody’s perfect, but the story might be, in the telling of it.


Once upon a time, fourteen students and two professors left and went to a different place, to figure out what was wrong. They came back changed, but not in the way you think. Once upon a time, a group from a seminary went to the Holy Land to walk the footsteps of their Savior, and ended up noticing the footsteps of others, The Other. Once upon a time, we died and rose again in Christ and nothing was ever the same. Once.

It’s hard not to be over-emotional about leaving Israel today, so I ask that you excuse the maudlin a little bit. A true story is not a list of facts, it’s the emotions and feelings and everything else that goes into it. And this story is true, as true as anything else I’ve experienced in the last three years at Princeton. Truer, maybe. It has characters, sure, and a plot and a setting and a lot of facts about rocks and words, but that’s not what makes it true.

Gordon and Chip say that the purpose of the trip was to explore contested geography, which, what? That’s a nonsensical phrase, like drive-thru window or justification through faith. How do you contest geography? A hill is a hill; a river is a river; a building is a building no matter which way you look at it. If you’re contesting these things, you’re not paying attention, because hills and rivers and buildings don’t change. It’s like looking at a common word and saying, “No, wait, I’m going to redefine that for everyone now.” You don’t contest language any more than you contest geography.

For instance, in Hebrew, the preposition leh’ – a lamed, for those in the know – means ‘to’ or ‘for’ in English. I learned it that way in college for modern Hebrew; I learned it that way in seminary for Biblical Hebrew. Christianity is continuity, says Samir. Leh’ is one of those things that makes sense in context: “Ani holech leh’yahm” means “I walk to the sea,” not “I walk for the sea.” See? Simple. If you know the context.

Once of the seminary’s buzz-phrases is “context is king,” at least according to Dr. Charlesworth. I think he’s right, in both senses. Taking a story out of its context is the best way to misunderstand it, to ruin it. Our story cannot be read or told in isolation. We are a group of upper-middle class, fairly privileged graduate students in a higher education setting. (I don’t care what humble beginnings you had – once you get to Princeton, you’re upper-middle class and fairly privileged. Try and deny it.) Everything we’ve written, then, every picture we’ve posted must be read through that lens. I am a white male; read what I’ve written through that lens. I’m also a children’s minister, a videogamer, unmarried, and from the South, so go ahead and throw those lenses in there too. There is no such thing as an unbiased story. There are very few stories that transcend their lenses.

Except, you know, The Story, but that’s a post for a completely different writer.

There’s a blog I read about television shows (stopping judging me – they’re stories, too), and this guy named Jacob writes about the British show Doctor Who, and he talks about the grace that cuts. Grace is the story that saves us, that connects us to The Story, but it’s not cheap. It’s a grace that cuts off the unworthy branches, the branches that sap the life out of us. It’s a grace that burns us in purifying fire that is agonizingly beautiful. The Beautiful Letdown is that Christ came for the sinful, for the broken, for the rejects. Christ came for us. Connect the dots.

The grace that cuts allows us to hear, though, because it includes all of us and cuts all of us. It lets me listen to the Israeli city council member and the Palestinian cartographer both talk about a city that is divided in its unity from completely opposite angles, and it lets me hold those two voices in tension. The grace that cuts does not cut off conversation but rather cuts out all that would distract from the hearing of that conversation. The contested geography is important because it gives us a place to have these conversations, to see these sites; it is important because it gives birth to people from whom we can learn other stories that helps us to better articulate our own story. Contested language is equally as important because it is the words that those people speak, and each person defines their words differently. Jerusalem means something different in Haifa and in Jericho.

I learned a song years ago in Hebrew class, the lyrics to which are:
Yavo shalom aleinu
Od yavo shalom aleinu
Yavo shalom aleinu, ve’al-kulam.
Salaam, aleinu ve’al-kol ha’olam
Salaam, salaam

Peace will come to us
Peace will come again to us
Peace will come to us, and everyone
Peace, to us and to the whole world
Peace, peace

The beauty of the song is that it combines two stories, the symbols of which are ‘shalom’ and ‘salaam’. Peace, in two languages. Grace connects them. It’s not an easy peace, though, because they are symbols. This whole contest is about symbolic victories and symbolic defeats. The adjective for the Wall is either Security or Segregation, depending on which story you’re a part of. Mount Moriah-the Temple Mount-Harim al-Sharif symbolizes different things through different lenses. And as we heard at the Tent of the Nations, if you confuse the symbol with the truth, the result is fratricide.

I cannot wrap this trip up. I can’t package it prettily for you with some nice group shots in the airport and tie it all together with a big blog-ribbon and a tag that says “Kum-by-yah.” That’s not the way this story works. Once upon a time doesn’t stop when you close the book; it’s still there, even if you’ve placed a cover over it. This blog might continue, for a while at least. We’ve all learned a lot, we’ve gained some insight, but it’s not over. The conflict still rages. Grace still cuts. Change hurts because it must, and we’re all hurting as we prepare to board the plane.

But the hope is the story that we carry, the small bits of it that are ours and the small bits that are not. We are not the voice that will speak into this country and save it, but our voices still matter. Our stories still matter. And yours do too. The point of the trip is that you can fight over geography, but people remain. The point of the trip is that place doesn’t matter so much as the stories we tell in it and about it.

Mai. Madees. Elias. Samir.

Gordon. Chip. Kathy. Daniel.

Kris. Leslie. Jeremy. Iain.

It’s been 14 days, if you count jet leg. A fortnight, and now we’re coming home. To what, we don’t know; for what, we don’t know. Leh’. But we’ll see. Tomorrow is as important as yesterday, because we don’t know what’ll happen when we turn the page. So let’s find out.

Once upon a time.

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