christmas church picture
Cal Jernigan – Senior Pastor

As I write this post, I am sitting on a plane returning from Israel with the Elders of Central. Israel these days, like so many days of old, is a deeply divided country. It’s no longer the Northern Kingdom of Israel in conflict with the Southern Kingdom of Judah (a conflict in which both sides believed in the same God). These days, it is a country divided between the three major world religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We went there on a quest to understand the history that has led to the current reality and what role Central might play in providing some kind of help and hope.

However, to say that this land is divided between these religions is actually a bit simplistic and inaccurate. While all three religions have a presence there, they are not equally divided. Christians now only make up about 2% of the population. The other 98% is roughly divided between the Jewish and the Muslim population (and a few other minorities). Because of the intense religious and political clash between the Jewish population and the Arab Palestinian population, most Christians have emigrated out of the country, deciding instead to live in other lands with less conflict. There is a sadness to this that defies words; a sadness that is felt on just about every front.

Since the United Nations granted statehood to Israel in 1947 there has been a major conflict over this land and who has a rightful claim to it. The conflict and disagreement that existed back then has only grown with the passing of time. Today this struggle is at a fever pitch and nobody knows for sure how this will be resolved. Just about every day you can read something about it in the news, usually with life and death implications.

But against this backdrop, there is a story I want to make you aware of. It’s a story of a church in Bethlehem called “The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.” Most just know it as “the Christmas Church.” It’s a tremendous testimony of faith, hope, vision and courage. The Pastor of this church is a man named Mitri Raheb. I first met Dr. Raheb on my first visit to Bethlehem back in 1999. At that time he had already pastored this church for a number of years and I remember him clearly telling us he was determined he wouldn’t be one of the Christians who fled from the conflict. Having been born in Bethlehem, his passion for this land and her people simply run too deep.

In the early days of his ministry, he and the Christian leaders of the church sought the heart of God regarding what they could offer this land and people so deeply divided, damaged and discouraged. The conflict was becoming increasingly deadly and the battleground often centered around religion. What has now been dubbed “The First Intifada” (uprising) had just occurred and the tension was growing. They didn’t understand then that an even longer and more deadly “Second Intifada” would soon break out. But God knew and he was preparing this church to make a difference.

Of course, it was in the city of Bethlehem where Jesus himself was born. Before his birth, in the fields just below the town, the angels regaled some shepherds with the message of the birth of Christ. Remember the words of the song the angels sang? Let’s pick the story up in Luke 2:

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”  Luke 2:13-14

Peace and good will. Only God!

Dr. Raheb knew that the land didn’t need more religion. Instead, it needed more faith. So he and his church determined to become a source of faith, light and hope. As he thought about the nature of God, he couldn’t help but appreciate that God is a creator God–one who brings light out of darkness. So this church determined to emphasize the arts and dedicated themselves to being a creative force instead of a destructive one.

In the First Intifada the front of their church building was severely damaged in the armed confrontation between the Jews and the Muslims. While they were in church singing, bombs were being exploded in the street in front of them. They weren’t the target but they were definitely affected. But, what to do?

In response, they created and hung a huge banner on the front of their building. Against a black background they wrote these words in huge white letters:

Destruction May Be; Creativity Will Be

It was a work of art.

Stained Glass ArtworkAfter the smoke cleared, they discovered there was an enormous amount of broken glass in the streets caused by the destruction. So the people of the church took to the streets to collect it. What could they possibly do with it? Make art! The pictures you see here are an example of what they did. Wow! Out of destruction–creativity. Sounds a lot like God!

As the years have passed, the story of faith has only grown. There is now a full blown Arts and Media College dedicated to teaching people to pursue creativity over destruction. This is radically counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. These days it’s also about music, and dance, and painting, and sculpting. You get the idea. Create don’t destroy!

While I could go on and on about this incredible church, I simply want to close with a couple of important questions for us to wrestle with:

*How has God uniquely prepared us as a church to bring hope to the hurting world?

*What has God uniquely prepared you to do?

The Christmas Church

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