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If there is any single story commonly remembered of King Solomon it is the account of the two prostitutes who claimed a single surviving child.(1)
"He's mine," said the one.
"No, he's mine," said the other.
"Bring me a sword," said Solomon. "I'll cut the baby in two and each one can have half."
"Fine," said the one.
"NO," screamed the other. "If that's the only way, give the child to her."
And, of course, we know that Solomon, in his wisdom, saw that this one who would spare the life of the child had to be the mother, made the appropriate decision, and as scripture says, "When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice."
A more modern story. Two women came before wise King Solomon, dragging between them a young man in a three-piece suit. "This young lawyer agreed to marry my daughter," said one.
"No! He agreed to marry MY daughter," said the other. And so they haggled before the King until he called for silence.
"Bring me my biggest sword," said Solomon, "and I shall hew the young attorney in half. Each of you shall receive a half."
"Sounds good to me," said the first lady.
But the other woman said, "Oh Sire, do not spill innocent blood. Let the other woman's daughter marry him."
The wise king did not hesitate a moment. He proclaimed, "The attorney must marry the first lady's daughter."
"But she was willing to cut him in two!" exclaimed the king's court.
"Indeed," said wise King Solomon. "That shows she is the TRUE mother-in-law."(2) Uh huh.
We could certainly use statesmen with the wisdom of Solomon these days. There are so many seemingly insoluble problems out there. That would be challenge enough, but some of our recent experience beggars the imagination. We went to war to preserve the world's ability to prevent war. We ignored the United Nations in order to make clear to Saddam Hussein that the United Nations cannot be ignored. We are in the process of destroying the weapons of mass destruction that we found but they are located in Anniston, Alabama. And our leaders actually seriously proposed the establishment of a futures market in terrorist activities? Am I getting this right? Solomon, Solomon, where are you when we need you?
The Middle East is certainly one of the areas that needs Solomon's wisdom. Last month, the Executive Director of our General Assembly Council, John Detterick, spent a week and a half traveling in that area. He wrote an account of his trip and sent it in his weekly letter to council members upon his return. Listen to what he had to say:
"Uplifting, discouraging, provocative, overwhelming and stimulating. Describing my whirlwind ten days in the Middle East is still difficult as I continue to work through the incredible and sometimes contradictory experiences. I can say for sure that one thing I did learn is that everything I 'knew' about the Middle East was either wrong or not exactly right.
"Victor Makari, Coordinator for the Middle East and Europe, was a most gracious and patient guide and traveling companion. He must have grown tired of the constant questions, the repeated 'tell me again about what this group does,' or the 'once again tell me this person's name.' But Victor was always the gentle teacher and efficient facilitator.
"The only problem in traveling with Victor was seeing the hassle and intimidation he experiences at every Israeli checkpoint when they looked at his USA passport and saw that his birthplace was Egypt. That guaranteed he would be treated with suspicion and little courtesy. Seeing Victor treated that way was very frustrating for me. But through it all Victor was patient and gracious. Under those circumstances I doubt I could have done likewise.
"Here's an outline of our itinerary:
"DAMASCUS. The Evangelical Church of Damascus is located in the heart of the Old City not far from Ananias' house where Paul regained his sight and was baptized.
"Old Damascus is a maze of very narrow, twisting and crowded streets. Nuhad Tomeh, one of our mission personnel who is assigned to the Middle East Council of Churches, drove us into the Old City through streets that I would have sworn were not wide enough for the car, let alone the car and all the foot traffic.
"After snaking through the streets in what felt to me like going in circles, we stopped in front of a gate. Some young boys who must have been watching for us pushed open the gates and we drove into a stone-paved courtyard with a modest but impressive church in the center. After the congestion and clamor of the Old City, the courtyard seemed like a peaceful oasis.
"It was a hot Friday evening but still about 40 members of the church gathered to welcome us. After a time of coffee, soft drinks and delicious sweet snacks, we gathered in the sanctuary for dialogue. I had expected a pleasant time of exchanged greetings. We did exchange greetings, but they had much more to say. One of the elders graciously led off with words of thanks and appreciation. He and I had conversed earlier in English, but for his public comments to me he spoke in Arabic.
"After more words of welcome, he paused and with passion spoke eloquently about the America he knew in the past, the America of FDR, of Harry Truman and General Patton. He lauded the America that gave the democratic example to the world, the America of Christian values, the America that he had admired. Almost plaintively he looked me in the eye and asked, 'Why can't you bring back that America?'
"He went on to lament what I came to understand is a common perception held by Middle Easterners: the USA is seen as an aggressive power unilaterally invading and occupying nations without cause and a nation that does not reflect Christian values. At the core of this perception is the absolute conviction that Israel is pulling the strings and manipulating the USA for its own benefit.
"'Whoa! Wait a minute!' I said in shock to myself. 'There's no way Israel controls us.' But as others talked, I came to realize that argument was fruitless. Their perceptions of the USA are to them just as genuine as mine are to me. These sisters and brothers in Christ were speaking the truth in love to me. Their world view is the Arab world view. Their world view is shaped by being at a very different point of the geographic, economic and social spectrum than we in the USA are. Even so, they spoke in love.
"Afterwards, we gathered in the courtyard for conversation and good-byes. They couldn't have been more loving and hospitable. I marveled at how the feelings of frustration and anger, very real and deep feelings, did not stand in the way of being sisters and brothers in Christ. Each of them would welcome me, or you, into their homes and show us hospitality beyond what we are accustomed to in our homes. The Middle East is so full of contradictions.
"TEL AVIV. My final interaction in the Middle East was at the Tel Aviv airport as we waited for the evening flight to Cyprus. A pleasant, middle-aged woman asked if I would respond to a survey for the Israeli Tourist Bureau. I agreed and she sat in the vacant seat between Victor and me to open her laptop. I looked over her shoulder to read the questions as she asked them and watch her deftly enter the answers.
"About two-thirds through the survey she asked about the purpose of my trip. With my mind full of images of the plight of the Palestinians, I answered, 'To better understand the Palestinian situation.' She keyed in the phrase, 'political situation.' I said, 'No, please enter my answer, to better understand the Palestinian situation.' With rueful glance at me, she re-keyed the answer and went on pleasantly asking questions.
"Having finished with me, she began asking Victor the questions. I continued reading the paper only to realize shortly that they had stopped on the same purpose of the trip question. Apparently Victor had given her an answer even more expansive than mine and she was reluctant to enter it. Just then our plane was called and I gathered my bag to head for the line.
"Rudely, I'm afraid, I inserted myself in the woman's conversation with Victor by asking, 'Have you been in the occupied territories?'
"'Yes,' was the abrupt answer.
"'Have you seen what happens to Palestinians at the security check points?' I asked.
"Another abrupt 'Yes.'
"'Then how do you feel about the treatment of the Palestinians?' I wondered.
"With fire in her eyes she almost spat the answer in my face, 'How do you expect us to treat people who are determined to kill us?'
"Taken aback by her intensity, I headed for the line deflated by the huge emotional gap that exists in the Middle East. Throughout the ten days, our encounters with Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis were warm and enriching. On all subjects but one we found openness and warmth. But on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations the raw emotions consistently overwhelmed me.
"So often the situation seems hopeless. But I know, and am here to tell you, that there are people of faith on both sides working tirelessly for peace in small but meaningful ways. I pray every day for the peacemakers in the Middle East. Will you please join me in that prayer?"
Indeed, we will, John. Indeed, we will. And we will add in our prayers the hope for the gift of Solomon to be given to those seeking to make this world as God would have it. We will pray for wise leadership.
1. I Kings 3:16-28
2. Ed Peacher's "Laughter for a Saturday" <email@example.com>