Being a follower of Christ

Living in the Saturdays of Life

Yesterday was the second Sunday after Pentecost and the lectionary readings for this week are Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15), 16-18, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Jeremiah 20:7-13, Matthew 10:24-39, Romans 6:1b-11.

It is strange that those who choose the Scripture passages for the lectionary would choose these verses so soon after the church celebrates the life transforming event of Pentecost. Throughout the readings for this week there are certain thoughts that occur repeatedly.

“…she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.” Gen. 20:16

“Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink…Answer me Lord, out of the goodness of your love…” Ps. 69: 14, 16

“Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy…” Ps. 86:1

“Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” Jer. 20:18

There are days or seasons when anyone of us could be praying these prayers of desperations, when the darkness is overwhelming and we wonder if the confusion, the pain or the sense of loss will ever end. These are also the thoughts and unspoken prayers of so many of the Syrian refugees whom we encounter.

We live in the “in-between times”, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness, when the reality of evil is still only too real. So many days feel like the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of the resurrection and that he would experience life again as never before.

On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday. Their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, had died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. They were desolate and mourning that first Saturday after Good Friday. It is only in this context that the completely unexpected, stunning, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.

This week’s readings remind us again that so much of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and parts of our being may have died. However, unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. The people we minister to – the poor, the refugees, the migrant workers, the abandoned women and children – understand the Good News as the fact that God cares about their lives. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them, when in fact they feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society. I am often ashamed that I have forgotten how life giving the reality of the presence of Christ is when I see the desperate refugees who have experienced unspeakable horrors, hear about a God of who cares for them and hears their prayers through Christ. The transformation and awe is so visible in their faces and when they speak about the God they have encountered.

It is only as they experience this reality of God’s presence and caring, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. The promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

The readings this week don’t end with the sense of desolation that the Saturday of the salvation narrative speaks so eloquently about through its silence. In every instance there is a resurrection, with God reappearing. By that simple act He affirms the worth of each individual to Him.

“God heard the boy crying…” Gen 21:17

“The Lord hears the needy and does not despise his captive people.” Ps. 69:33

“But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86: 15

“He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.” Jer. 20: 13b

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matt. 10:29-31

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Rom. 6:4

Is there a limit to hospitality?

The Lebanese Interior Minister stated last week that at the current rate of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Lebanon, by the end of the year Lebanon would be host to 2 million Syrian refugees. The latest UN statistics indicate that close to 700,000 refugees have officially registered with the UN. There are at least another 100,000 who refuse to register out of fear. The estimate is that at least another half a million are from among the middle class and wealthy Syrians who have set up temporary residence in Lebanon.

Lebanon which has a population of 4.1 million Lebanese, also hosts atleast 270,000 Palestinians and unknown numbers of Iraqi and other refugees. Today in Lebanon, one in every five persons is a Syrian and this number is about to increase to one in every three people. There isn’t another country in the world that hosts such a high proportion of refugees in comparison to its population

The Syrian crisis today is believed to be the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide 19 years ago.

This is straining the already weak infrastructure of the country where electricity has been sporadic and available housing is now non-existent. The government schools that have absorbed a portion of the refugee children are now overcrowded with poor facilities and few resources. There are growing social problems with crime on the rise, a dramatic increase in the number of beggars on the streets, and a competition between the Lebanese poor and the refugees for any work at decreasing low wages just to survive.

The Lebanese who have been known for their hospitality and the quest for the good life, now resent “the usurping of their country”. Many still remember the horrors of the 20-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Why is it presumed that when developed countries constantly protect their borders from illegal immigrants and only allow a limited number of refugees in, that Lebanon, which is a small country with few natural resources, would continue to play the gracious host?

Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian, describes the struggle between identity and relevance that the Church in every generation and in every country faces. The struggle is to constantly define and protect its identity while also being relevant to the needs, issues and trends in society. For a small country like Lebanon, faced with being overwhelmed with refugees, the crisis is the same as what the church faces.

Many churches in Lebanon have followed the Biblical mandates of being hospitable to the foreigner in their midst and caring for those who are vulnerable, as have numerous local NGOs and other religious institutions. But many Lebanese in the churches are wondering at the cost it is to their country and national identity.

Can Lebanon refuse to be abused by the international community that expects it to absorb the staggering numbers of refugee resulting from their own inability to resolve the Syrian crisis?

Is there a limit to hospitality?

A country is not a community of faith. National agendas in the international arena have a different dynamic. Regardless of statements by political leaders, countries rarely respond to a humanitarian crisis purely based on the humanitarian imperative. Self-interest and geopolitical considerations are a major part of how a country responds. This then becomes the lens through which society makes sense of the crisis, which unfortunately ends up influencing its values.

The Biblical image of a community that follows Christ is that of salt and light. Salt is a preservative. Christ wants His followers to be salt in this world and prevent its moral decay. He also wants them to be a light in the midst of the darkness – a light that reveals what God and His Kingdom are like. Hospitality, compassion and mercy are fundamental values of this Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is counter-intuitive and counter cultural. When hospitality and compassion are restricted for social and political reasons, the church needs to be a sign – a living manifestation of a community with a different set of values, where no one is excluded, the stranger is welcomed, and the individual is valued.

Betrayal and Redemption

Over the past many months, a number of Syrian Christians and their leaders have made comments, which have taken me by surprise. They say, “The West has betrayed the Christians of Syria and abandoned them. They support and arm the rebels who not only want to overthrow the regime, but also want to rid Syria of Christians.”

These comments strip away the façade of the simple narrative told by the western media and their governments of the battle between good and evil in Syria – that the regime is bad and that the opposition is good. Michael Weiss recently wrote about “the civil war within the civil war”. He described in detail the emerging brutal conflict within the Syrian opposition between the more secular oriented factions who have a vague notion of a semi-democratic Syria and the more extremists groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which are fighting for a radical Islamic vision of Syria. The latter are better armed, better trained and bearing the brunt of the fighting, and as a result making significant inroads and able to hold territory they have taken. At the same time the extremists are practicing the same brutality that the regime has been known for.

Syria’s Christians are about 10% of the population and have historically been protected by the regime, whose leadership is predominantly Alawite, a religious minority within Syria. As dictatorial regimes in the region come under increasing pressure and begin to collapse, the Christians are among those who become targets of violence and many are forced to leave their homes. Those who remain don’t seem to have a place in the new emerging Islamic dominated societies, as the radical extremist elements would prefer not to allow non-Muslims to have the same rights as Muslim citizens.

The West under the guise of being champions of democracy, while glossing over their agendas for geopolitical dominance and energy security, see the Arab Christians as an inconvenience and having no strategic value. So they are abandoned to their fate; hence their sense of betrayal.

However, Arab Christians in the countries experiencing political upheaval are often viewed as not belonging to the mainstreams of society, culture and faith, all of which are becoming increasingly Islamic. Though their ancient historical and religious roots predate Islam and go back to the earliest days of Christianity and they have kept the faith since then, they are mistakenly perceived as vestiges of a western imperialistic Christianity. The irony is that they are seen as betrayers of what many feel it means to be Arab; their wrongly held perception being that Christianity is a western religion and that to be Arab is synonymous with being Muslim.

While in a different context and at a different time, Philip Yancey describes the struggles of Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who as a child grew up in Manchuria and was perceived as an alien, a child of the despised Japanese occupiers. Upon his return to Japan his anguish deepened as he experienced further rejection, being part of the 1% of society who were Christians. During World War II his feelings of isolation turned into a sense of betrayal as the West, whom he had always seen as the spiritual home for his Christianity, destroyed Japanese cities, indiscriminately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. His novels consequently struggled with the silence of God and a sense of rejection not only by his own people but also those who were supposedly his brothers in the faith.

This story of double betrayal and abandonment is the story of the Cross. The living God in Jesus is betrayed by his own people and the Roman occupiers, and then by one of his disciples. He is then abandoned by those closest to Him. Though many of us may know about the silence of the Father, Syrian and Iraqi Christians, as did Shusaku Endo, have come to understand the agony God endured because of betrayal and abandonment.

But the story of the Cross also includes redemption.

In the midst of all this there is another story of forgiveness and reconciliation that is being played out. It is a story of redemption that only God could have written. As Syrian refugees are flooding into Lebanon, some Lebanese pastors and churches are opening their doors and hearts to assist those who are terrified and have lost everything. They do this in the face of intense criticism from many Lebanese who have never forgotten the brutality of the 20-year Syrian occupation. There isn’t a family who hasn’t endured the repeated shelling by the Syrian army. Many recall family members who were killed or tortured. Yet the impact of these few pastors as they lead their churches in demonstrating forgiveness and reconciliation that is only possible through Christ is so profound, that I believe it will breathe new life into the Church in Lebanon. They are living out the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”

The timeless story of betrayal, forgiveness and redemption is still being played out in the Middle East today and it is the only message of hope for the region.

Glimpses into the World of Insider Movements

Christianity Today has a series of articles on one of the strategies used by missions in the Islamic world (insider movements) and the issues and challenges faced.

The Hidden History of Insider Movements

How Much Muslim Context Is Too Much for the Gospel

Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders 

Discipleship is Messy

Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque

Status of Christians in the Middle East

Many have been asking about the seismic events that are unfolding in the region as part of the Arab Spring/Winter. The untold story in the midst of all of that is the plight of the Christians and of the Arab Church in the region. There are changes that are taking place that will change the face of the Middle East – politically, socially and religiously. Here is an article that spotlights the events and issues and a video on the topic.
Yet it seems that God is working in the midst of what seems to be a very dark time for the Church in the region to draw many to Himself in ways that continue to surprise and amaze us.

On Killing Civilians

On Nov. 18th, just as another round of bloodletting between the Israeli’s and Palestinians got underway, twelve members of the Dalu family (seven of them children) in the Al Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City were killed by an Israeli artillery strike. While the Israeli military initially insisted that it was a targeted strike against a Hamas leader, investigations by the military themselves showed that it was not, and Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces admitted that it was an accident. Other officials speaking anonymously told the press that there was a “targeting error” and technical problems related to the strike. The next day Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz admonished division commanders to “pay attention not to just take random houses and fire at them unnecessarily”.

The horror of this incident was not that Mohammed Dalu, his wife and their four children, four other members of his family and two neighbors were caught in a crossfire, but were casually killed because of unnecessary firing on random houses.

I find it very disturbing that we have a hypocritical double standard when it comes to the rightness or wrongness of actions during war. Other than a brief mention in some press, the story disappeared. This is the reality of war and such deaths are referred to as collateral damage when inflicted by western militaries and their allies. I cannot imagine if the reverse had happened, if an Arab, African or Asian army or militia had equally casually killed twelve western civilians. It would have been deemed a war crime as per the articles of the Geneva Convention. There would have been global outrage at such a barbaric act. Yet thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistani, Libyan and Syrian civilians have died as collateral damage and our silence is deafening.

This reality is described by Chris Hedges, a writer on conflict and security issues, who uses the term total war when describing both the ancient and modern ways of battle. There is absolutely nothing sacred or noble about war, especially what we Christians refer to as just wars. The reasons for war are far more complex than merely seeking justice. Hedges writes, “The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and death of innocents.” So we are forced to create noble causes and narratives to hide the absolute brutality of war.

So is there a difference between a targeting error and a war crime. According to military doctrine and international law, the difference is one of intentionality. Was there an intention to kill the civilians? While there are legal methods to determine intentionality, the cold reality is that civilians are indiscriminately killed. In a murder trial where intentions are weighed, a distinction is made between homicide (intentional killing) and manslaughter (unintentional death). Regardless of which it is, there are penalties. Would not a targeting error then be considered manslaughter?

There will be no penalties for collateral damage and targeting errors. The reason the killing of innocent civilians by powerful armies is not considered evil is because we demonize all civilians and combatants on the other side as evil. This then justifies total war and it becomes easy to kill them without remorse or guilt because we are ridding the world of evil. Theologian N.T Wright reflecting on Sept 11th and the subsequent events writes, “The thousands of innocent victims whose death we mourned met, of course, a tragic, horrible and totally undeserved death. The terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda were and are unmitigatedly evil. But the astonishing naivety which decreed that the USA as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former…”

Therein lies the problem. We consider ourselves as being innocent, pure and having the moral high ground. This then allows us to be god and seek vengeance and through it, justice. We would be wise to pay heed to the prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”