Changing Culture

While we were in Israel, we met with the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who has been the Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem since 1988. He is a person of faith with incredible vision and energy. He has built a school, a health and wellness center, a community center, a ministry for senior citizens and now the Dar Al-Kalima College.

We met with Pastor Raheb at the beautiful new campus of the college. The college has a most interesting curriculum focusing primarily in the Fine Arts, Multimedia, Film Making and Tourism. Given the town of Bethlehem the Tourism program is understandable, but why Fine Arts, Multimedia and Film Making?

Pastor Raheb says he has given up on the political leadership of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Neither side wants peace. The leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians perpetuate the stand-off because continued hostility keeps them both in power. If the Israelis had a peace settlement, then they would have to deal with a myriad of explosive internal conflicts they postpone resolving, because they have an external conflict to focus upon. And if the Palestinians could stop fantasizing that Israel is just going to go away, and if they had a peace settlement, then they would have to get down to the hard work of building a nation. As it is they can blame all of their failures on the Israelis.

So since Pastor Raheb cannot foresee peace anytime in the near future, like fifty years, he has given up on politics and he is focusing on changing culture. He claims that the most powerful tools for changing culture are in the arts. In the modern world multi-media and film more than anything else shape the cultural images people use to define their reality. If you want to change reality, change the images people use to envision their reality. And today with Youtube, Vimeo, and social media the creation and distribution of images has been democratized. In the past people waited for Hollywood, Network Television and news media outlets to create images for them. Today ordinary people are creating and sharing metaphors on the internet, and sometimes those images go viral, meaning that millions upon millions of people see and share those metaphors, and their power in defining reality.

The most interesting project Dr. Mitri has initiated for changing culture is promoting women’s sports – soccer and volley ball. Now remember operating in Bethlehem is a primarily Muslim context for ministry. The Women’s Soccer Team of Dar Al-Kalima College is the Palestinian National Women’s Soccer Champions. Sixty percent of the team is Christian and 40% of the players are Muslim. Talk about culture changing images. Dr. Mitri’s soccer team is positively subversive. He is encouraging women to achieve and to be competitive. The Dar Al-Kalima Soccer Team has also proved that Christians and Muslims can work together and play together – culturally subversive.

Pastor Raheb may have given up on politics, but he is still working to change culture. Let me share with you the most memorable quotation from Dr. Mitri. “We have to move beyond victimhood both Israelis and Palestinians. We need to focus on a culture of life and hope. And so in the face of the senselessness of our situation today, the only option is to go out into the garden and plant a tree.”

I think there may be many of us who are feeling some sense of despair over the state of politics in America. Our electorate is polarized, our politicians are playing games of gotcha, while people are unemployed and the economy is in the toilet. I don’t know that there is anything we can do to change what is going on politically, but like Dr. Raheb, I think we can work to change our culture – go into the garden and plant a tree. So what am I proposing to do?

I don’t know if what I am going to talk about is coincidence or synergy, but I think the course in Spiritual Formation Jim Norris is sharing with us is potentially the most subversive culture changing opportunity we have. Jim describes Spiritual Formation as the process of becoming conformed to the image of Christ for others. Our journey in spiritual formation is to grow into the love of Christ, so that we reflect that love in practical ways to the people around us in the world. Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The goal of spiritual formation is to follow in the way of Jesus and become like Christ. What does Christ like behavior look like? Feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan, heal the sick, welcome everyone with open hospitality. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome – open inclusive hospitality. We are to forgive even our enemies and those who hurt us, embrace self-sacrificing love. In the words of Paul: Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others to be as important as ourselves. Let each of us look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Now let’s be honest forgiving enemies, even people who hurt us, and giving self-sacrificially, even to strangers, we’re not wired for that. We’re talking about transcending human nature. And while Christ like transformation is difficult, it can be accomplished. How do we do that? Jim makes the point that we don’t do that, we don’t conform ourselves to the image of Christ for others, rather it is God’s grace working in us and through us that can transform us into followers of the way of Jesus.

I believe that within each one of us is a spark of the divine. Remember God breathed into Adam the breath of life. God has breathed into each one of us the very spirit of God, a divine spark, that can grow and glow and illuminate our lives. In the second letter of Timothy the author says, “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is within you. . .” Take that divine spark nurture it, and let it grow, and let it glow and allow that spark to become the flame of the Spirit. That is our goal in spiritual formation to let the light of Christ shine in our lives, so in the words of Jesus, we might become the light of the world.

Now while it is the grace of God working in us and through us that accomplishes our transformation, we become open to the working of God, through prayer. Get two feet on the floor, get grounded, and focus on our breathing. God breathed in to Adam, God breaths into us the breath of life, the very spirit of God. The divine spark that becomes the light of Christ within us is nurtured and nourished through prayer, and the prayerful meditation of the scriptures. One of the techniques Jim is teaching us is centering prayer that helps us to be still and know that God is God. (Sing: “Be still. Be still. And know I am God.) Be still and focus, so our minds find their center in Christ, rather than off chasing butterflies, or responding to all of those internal voices of the ego. Our minds and our hearts are lost until they find their center in God.

So we use the breath as part of centering prayer to help to focus our minds and our hearts in God, and bring us into God’s holy presence. Another technique Jim wants to help us to learn as part of our Spiritual Formation is Lectio Divina. By reading scripture and absorbing scripture devotionally, rather than analytically, we begin to allow the scripture to become part of our feelings and our unconscious thoughts. We begin to welcome the scripture into our imaginations, where God can help us to appreciate the personal messages and insights the scriptures might have for guidance in our lives. And all of the time we have to remember our journey is to conform to the image of Christ for others. How is my growth in Christ causing me to engage with others and be of service to others? Serving others is how we become the light of the world. Focus on the light. Be the light. Let your light shine.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change you want to see in the world.” We cannot change anyone else, so let’s start changing the world by changing ourselves, becoming conformed to the image of Christ for others.



Next week we will explore spiritual formation in community. What if beyond conforming to the image of Christ for others individually, our community of faith began to live out the image of Christ for others in community? Now that would be revolutionary and subversive of our culture. We may not be able to do anything about the politicians, but maybe we can go into the garden and plant a tree. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

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