Light in the dark places

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper′na-um, do here also in your own country.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli′jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli′jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar′ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city… Luke 4:16-29a NRSV

P1080389This passage came back to me this week as I have been reading Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. It took me back to a staff retreat day in March, 2010, where I first met my friend and mentor Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, a day that changed my life. She used this passage of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry to launch into her topic which was the church in dark places.

This week as I read Dr Bailey’s chapter on this passage, I was struck anew as to just how radical Jesus was with his message of loving God and loving our neighbors. Dr. Bailey writes that Jesus took a very familiar passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1-7, and edited it as he read to bring a new message to these people. These folks knew this passage as a prophecy which would put them in charge and their oppressors underneath them, to be dealt with as they had done. And Jesus turned it on its head. He uses sermon examples of Gentiles being open to faith in Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, not of conquering Hebrew heroes like David or Solomon. And where they had thought his sermon started out well, in the end they just wanted to kill him.

The points that Bailey makes that strike me are these:

  • Salvation comes from beyond the community; it is not community generated.
  • Ministry involves proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion. Compassion is meant to inform both witness and advocacy.
  • And lastly, “Jesus refuses to endorse the narrow nationalism of his own community. Instead he stands in prophetic judgment over it.”

It’s not really a text for Advent, and yet that is when I am taking this all in, and recent news stories cause me to stop and think about it.

I wonder what Jesus would think coming to the U.S. as many of us light the candles of Advent leading up to Christmas?

Watching the news yesterday morning I heard a story about one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year: a new gun. The store owner interviewed even stated that “best way you can show love to your loved ones this year is “to give them a gun.” For the ladies they even had thigh holsters covered in bling.

We have had the president of a Christian university declare to the student body that if more of them had concealed-carry permits, “we could end those Muslims.”

We have presidential candidates talk about shutting doors to Muslims, carpet bombing Syria until the desert sands glow, hating the media (“But I wouldn’t kill them,” added as an afterthought), and insulting every ethnic/gender/faith group except the one that looks like them.

We have people saying, “Merry Christmas!” like it is a threat instead of an invitation or salutation.

We get up in arms because a huge chain of coffee shops has a red “holiday” cup instead of a “Christmas” cup, but pay $7 for the coffee anyway.

But where are we when the only cup that really matters is lifted humbly with a plate of bread? The cup poured out for all that we might have life. The cup of the one for whom we light those candles each week.

I am grateful for that day back in March, 2010, when Marilyn introduced me to the church in dark places, for I have been gifted to walk with them in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. They remind me that Jesus is not an American, not a pandering politician, not a guy peddling $7 coffee in a red cup, not a guy carrying a gun with a concealed-carry permit, not a it’s-Merry-Christmas-not-happy-holidays! season’s greeter yelling back at the customer service rep.

He is the Christian woman declaring on a bus stopped by Syrian rebels that the young Alawite man next to her is her son, and they may not take him.

Basrah crossHe is in the Shi’ite neighbors guarding the church in Basrah, saying that rebels will not bomb this church.

He is in the evangelical school in Tripoli, in Sidon, in Kirkuk, in Baghdad, in Aleppo, in Homs, educating Christian and Muslim together in the ethics of reconciliation.

He is in the woman of the Bekaa Valley who ministers to the refugees of the war next door, knowing that her own family is in danger.

He has come from outside of every community, in judgment over our selfishness, our hatred, our greed, our twisting of the meaning of his birth.

He offers us the compassion of his lifeblood poured out for us and invites us to the table of grace.

He is the mighty God, prince of peace, wonderful counselor. He is Immanuel, God with us.

He is the light of the world.

Let us light the candles for this one.

(References from Dr. Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, are found in chapter 12, The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry.)

Praying for the enemy

Peace hands worldThere are many words fighting in my head right now to get out and I’m not sure my fingers can translate, but it seems they want to try, so here goes.

I used a line to describe this blog when I started it last January that goes like this: trying to love the world one person at a time. And I have tried to use the words that I put down to tell stories of people I have loved and who have loved me. People who have made love real in my life. In my own dictionary, their faces would be illustrations for what love looks like and feels like. They are people I have met in travels, in school, at church and in my family. Receiving that kind of love makes me want to return it as the gift it is.

I spent this last weekend with some of those very special people, two sisters and a brother: Susan, Sally and Mike. We made a journey to speak with the district attorney who is handling the murder case that will one day be tried in Riverside County, California, for the rape and murder of our baby sister Cathy. We have walked this journey as a family for the last twenty-two months and we will walk it every day for the rest of our lives, because it won’t end when the trial is over. Cathy has been taken from our family in the most heinous way and her loss is unbearable.

But we have walked this journey together as a family with love for Cathy and love for each other. It is the kind of love that is forged like hardened steel in a fiery forge. It’s unbreakable. Unbendable. And I know that not every family experiences that kind of love. The six of us siblings who survive Cathy have this deep, deep love. And I am grateful for that.

But the scripture that I base my faith on, the one that gives witness to Jesus, says that I am to love my enemies. As someone who avoids conflict and seeks peace, I don’t consider anyone my enemy. I know there is hatred and violence in the world, there is oppression and suppression and just downright evil manifested in this place we call home. I have prayed for the enemies of my friends in Iraq and Syria; prayed that they will see the light of what they have done, recognize the wrong in the slaughter they have committed, and repent. I have prayed that same thing when our government commits those same kinds of acts in what they say is a defense of our country.

I have prayed for reconciliation on many fronts. That is what I am called to do, compelled even, because of who commands me to.

This is the hard part for me now. I have an enemy: a man has killed my sister and I have been introduced to him in California. I met him in the photos the DA showed us. I met him in the video they made of him on the night he was arrested. I met him in his words transcribed in the report of a psychologist.

I have seen his face. I have heard his voice. His words describing what he did are things no one should ever have to hear. And this is the only way I know him and it causes conflict in my heart and my head to think of him as my enemy, but he must be. He killed my sister.

But I have also learned something about him. He is the son of a mother who went through the same nine months of carrying him in his womb that my mother and Cathy’s mother went through. She felt the same pains of labor as she delivered this beloved child. He has a mother who has surely lost a son in a way that no mother plans for.

He has two sisters and a brother who are caught in the same life sentence that me and my sisters and brothers are, for we cannot escape the consequences or the loss that we experience on this side of heaven. (There will surely be consequences for his actions. This I do believe!)

I haven’t gotten to the level of loving this man who is my enemy and only with God’s grace will I, but I have been praying for him since his path crossed paths with my family. And now I am praying for his mother and his brother and his two sisters, as surely as I pray for my own.

I have just finished reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be. And the thing that sticks with me is his exposition on Jesus’ command to love my enemies. Not loving them – not seeing their humanity – will eventually dehumanize me, and I will become what I hate. Becoming what I hate will only feed the powers and continue a cycle of violence. And yes, I believe hate is violence.

I am tired of hate. I am tired of violence. I am tired.

And so I pray. I pray that God will redeem this story, as surely as he will redeem everything in his time.

And I love. And I am loved. And I feel it from every side and it gets me through each day: yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.

And finally in this week (I am so thankful for the timing!) our church staff got to the part of the book of Revelation that I have been waiting for:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:3-5)

No more death.

No more mourning.

No more crying.

No more pain.

Everything made new.

For God so loved the world.



Abraham: Father of Many

It is the end of  day and time for sleep. My nightly ritual as I lay in bed is to say my prayers. As I expressed before in an earlier blog, most of my prayers are of gratitude. And those follow my prayers for peace. In between, I pray intercessory prayers for specific individuals. For the past fifteen months, since April 22, 2013, I have prayed for a father named Abraham.

With Bishop of Syrian Orthodox ChurchIn this case, the father is actually a priest, and more properly, an archbishop. He is in the center of this photo from my trip to Aleppo, Syria, in August, 2010. His name is Yohanna Ibrahim (Ibrahim being the Arabic form of Abraham) and he is the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo, Syria. As I look back on this photo, he is surrounded by a group of women who made this journey together – faithful women, we were called for this trip – to travel to Lebanon and Syria and learn of our brothers and sisters in Christ in a land so far from home. (How is it possible that a woman who grew up in the middle of the U.S., in Omaha, Nebraska, could travel so far from home and meet such an eminent representative of a faith that can trace its origins back to the original apostles? On this side of heaven, I will never know!)

He is an important figure in that ancient church, a church that has schools and hospitals, and has a liturgy in a language that is similar to what Jesus spoke while he was here on earth. And after the war broke out in 2011, he was a voice for peace and reconciliation. His voice was silenced along with his Greek Orthodox colleague, Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, when they were kidnapped on that day in 2013, April 22. The story is they were negotiating the release of other hostages when they were taken themselves. There has been no evidence to this day that they are alive or dead. No remains found. No ransom demanded. Just silence. And so I pray nightly between my prayers for peace and my prayers of gratitude for their safe release. They are fathers of many and they are loved and missed. Their voices for peace and reconciliation are missed. Their example and their witness are missed.

Assis Ibrahim and Abuna IbrahimWe were introduced to Msgr. Ibrahim that day by one of his clerical colleagues in Aleppo, another Ibrahim: Assis (Rev.) Ibrahim Nsier, the Presbyterian pastor of the church in Aleppo. Before meeting the archbishop, Assis Ibrahim introduced us to yet another colleague this one named Efrem, a Syriac Orthodox priest (Abuna Efrem) who served with the archbishop in Aleppo. One of my most endearing and enduring memories of that day is this photo of  Assis Ibrahim and Abuna Efrem. They were having a conversation in Arabic together, smiling and laughing as they talked. I asked them what was so funny and they told me they were talking about the differences between different branches of our faiths. “It’s a language issue,” they said. “We split over things we don’t have the words to explain. How do you find the words to explain the mystery of the divine and human natures of Christ in one being?” To this day, it strikes me that I went halfway around the world to see a pastor of our reformed faith having this amazing conversation with a priest of the ancient faith that began in the Middle East. This faith had traveled from one side of the world to the other, reforming and refining as it went, and it still exists in all these expresssions so many decades and centuries later…and we can talk together about it even if we understand it differently. There was peace; there was reconciliation; there was collegiality and conversation. It was the most marvelous picture of the church I have ever experienced.

Abram was called out of his homeland by God and told his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. God changed his name to Abraham, father of many. And tonight I am thinking of his decendants that I met in Aleppo and praying that those who call them Archbishop, Pastor, Father, will be able to do so again in peace, continuing the reconciling mission of Jesus.