Can We Grow Our Lemon Trees?

The tragedy that is Israel/Palestine strikes deep into our hearts. How can people with such rich and beautiful spiritual traditions be so harsh with each other? The idea that many of us still call this the Holy Land seems almost a mockery of God.

Or perhaps the violence, the animosity and hatred, the intransigence and unwillingness to recognize the humanity in each other, the unwillingness even to talk with each other is actually a reflection of much of the world’s relationship with God?

A book that seeks to humanize–and for me that means also to reflect the divinity of those involved–the conflicting and conflicted personna is The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.

This book is nonfiction, but reads like a novel. At its center are two people, Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi Landau. Bashir is a Palestinian and Dalia is an Israeli, aThe Lemon Treend their lives are intertwined not by romance but by the fact that when Dalia’s parents emigrated from their native Bulgaria (she was a small child) they occupied the home of Bashir’s family in Ramla which had been confiscated by the Israeli government after the war of 1948 (and the Palestinian residents had fled the town).

The entire book puts their friendship–maintained across severe boundaries–at the center while all around whirls the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Tolan, a journalist, does not fail us in recounting all the ugly details of wars and jails and bombs and suffering while reminding us again and again that the entire story is a human one.

Anyone who wishes to understand this tragedy at a deeper level than political and military strategy, or beyond the geopolitical power games of the various nations, or even the competing claims of two peoples deeply scarred by the loss of identity and by global disrespect and subjugation, should read this book.

It does not have a pretty ending, things are not tied up in a neat bow. Tolan is a journalist after all, not a romance novelist. But still there is hope in this story, and even glimmerings of love and salvation.

When you read it–and I think every thinking person in the United States, Europe and the Middle East should read it–then you may do as I am doing, namely pray. Pray for all you are worth, pray that somehow human beings–even those whose lemon tree dies and who have trouble growing a new one–can find a way to transcend the limitations of their leaders and make peace on the ground, among themselves, heart to heart, person to person, villlage to village, family to family, faith to faith.

Such peace is hard work, because it means staying connected not only to your own desires and truths, but also to the desires and truths of those whose very existence seems to threaten you most profoundly. This is work that belongs to all of us, because only by recognizing that our humanity is dependent on the humanity of others will we ever have peace, even, or  perhaps especially, in the Holy Land.

We can only be truly, fully human when we see our humanity reflected in others, and theirs in ours. It is a lesson taught by a lemon tree.

Nothing Sweeter

Christian spiritual life requires discipline.

At least, that is what I keep reading from various authorities, and what I am experiencing in my own life. It is not possible, for most of us at least–certainly for me–to grow spiritually without regular, preferably daily, focus and effort.

This effort takes time. Prayer needs to be more than slap-dash, grabbing a few seconds or a minute to say “Thanks, God!” It is not that quick prayer is not good. It is good to be in conversation with God throughout the day. Often, that conversation can be a quick word or two, or even just a nod of the head toward God.

But that cannot be all there is. Spiritual health requires investment.

If you want to lose weight, for example, you need to adjust your eating habits. That takes time and concentration. And you want to exercise. That takes time and concentration, too. Most of us who have set out to lose weight know it is a journey of ups and downs, and we know that success comes when we stay focused on regularly achieving the ups.

Spiritual health is like that as well. Habits need to be adjusted, and new muscles need to be used.

Daily prayer is essential–it may start out at a couple of minutes, but if it is regular–try for the same time each day, for example, in the same place–it grows into 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 60 minutes over time. The more you do the more you will be able to focus. In fact, there will come a time when you don’t pray that you will feel the loss. Your day will not be as good and you know it is because you did not use time to pray.

What is the point of this discipline? It is not to say that we do it–that is spiritual self-righteousness–nor is it just to help others. At base, it is to build a relationship with God, the relationship God wants to have with you.

There is nothing sweeter.