Call to Prayer
My first night in the West Bank came to a rather abrupt, if expected end with the Islamic call to prayer (adhan) outside my window at 4:00 am. The song from the muezzin was haunting and beautiful. And rather longer than I expected. Given that I had collapsed into bed around 9 pm the previous evening after a long (and sleepless) few days of travel, and given that going back to sleep in the circumstances would prove spectacularly unlikely for me (I have a hard time sleeping well at the best of times, never mind when traveling), I decided I might as well do what I was told and get up to pray.
This place is, it almost goes without saying, an interesting place to pray. It’s hard to recite the usual laundry list of personal petitions when surrounded by this weight of history and hope and longing that characterize this place. It’s hard to pray when surrounded by the toxic clouds of violence and fear injustice that seem to hover in the atmosphere. It’s hard to pray when you feel like you’re little more than a religious tourist dropping down into the drama and pathos of someone else’s story. It’s hard to pray when you feel conflicted.
Yesterday, as our cab driver took us on the winding road from Tel Aviv to Bethlehem, he pointed out the Arab settlements on the sides of the road. “These are Arab villages on both sides,” he said, “but they can’t use this road. They have to stay on the other side.” I looked to both sides of the road with their ugly fences and razor wire, with their checkpoints policed by Israeli soldiers. “What happens if they cross?” we ask. “They get shot,” he said, with impossibly little emotion. A few minutes later, the cab screeches to a halt on the side of the road. There are other cabs there, too, and my first thought is that someone is having mechanical trouble and our driver is offering help. “Can you just give me a minute, please?” he asks us politely, before racing over to join a few other men at the side of the road. Soon, it becomes obvious what they are doing. Standing, kneeling, bowing, repeating. They have been called to prayer.
Last night, after the best falafel I’ve ever head, I spoke with a shopkeeper in Bethlehem. There’s a bit of a script that plays out here, I’ve noticed. The people try to feel you out a bit, to see which conversations are possible and which are off-limits. So, are you just here to see the holy sites… Or are you here to see some of the Palestinian reality? Are you just here for the religious carnival, or do you want to hear what life is actually like? I tell him that we’re here for both—we want to see these incredible places that have formed our religious imaginations for many years, but we also want to hear the truth about this place. He recites a condensed version of the history of his people and their suffering. He speaks about the intifadas, about spending time in a prison, about the corruption of people with power on both sides of the conflict, about how all he wants now is a life of peace to raise his children. He calls us his brothers. He tells us he has little hope for peace in this place until Jesus returns. Back here, to Bethlehem, the place of his birth.
On the last leg of our journey yesterday, on an Air France flight from Paris to Tel Aviv, I was asked if I would change seats to allow an older couple to sit together. I was sitting alone so I agreed. I was relocated near the front of the plane. I was exhausted and hoping to just sleep or read my book. For the most part, this was what happened—until the last half hour, when the man beside me got wind of the fact that I was a pastor. The floodgates were opened. He was from a non-denominational church in North Carolina and he and his wife were going to the “Holy Land” on a tour organized by the Moody Bible Institute. He proceeded to (loudly) recite to me his views about end-times theology and how terrible the food had been on his travels so far and about how important it was that there were good people like me who understood the Bible and could tell people what it meant and about how he couldn’t wait for Armageddon. I didn’t have the heart (or the energy) to tell him that I didn’t think we would share the same views on what the Bible meant for the people and the future of this Holy Land. I weakly talked about how we were here less as tourists than learners and that we were here to talk about peace. He was undeterred by my lack of enthusiasm for the conversation, though, and by the time we landed in Tel Aviv I had an unwittingly made myself a friend. There were handshakes and shoulder clasps and broad smiles as we made our way out from the airport, each to our own experiences of this strange and beautiful place.
I thought of these three people, these three conversations as the muezzin’s voice continued to plaintively echo outside my window, as I continued to labour toward actually praying. How do you pray when everyone’s prayers seem to be at cross-purposes with one another, when everyone’s asking God to deal with their enemies, to validate their cause, to give them victory, to protect their interests? How do you pray when God is forever being recruited for the small and tired battles (physical, theological, ideological…) of small and tired people?
In the end, I prayed the way I always pray when I don’t know how to pray. I prayed as Jesus taught us. I prayed the words of Jesus looking out at the window in the city of his birth, longing, with my shopkeeper brother down the street, that he would come back to this beautiful place and finally overwhelm our small and tired visions with his kingdom of peace.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one. Amen.
I snapped the image above last night as our cab driver joined his brothers for prayer on the side of the road, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.