Retreat and reflection

We spent much of the last week in Egypt, participating in meetings and a retreat for some 70 MCC staff throughout Europe and the Middle East. It was a great opportunity to build new friendships, to worship together and to step back and reflect on the meaning of our work.

Bassem Thabet and Nada Zabaneh, our colleagues from Palestine and Jordan

A carriage ride in Alexandria, Egypt

The reflection below is adapted from Daryl’s mediation at the final worship/communion service at the end of the retreat. It is based on Romans 8:18-27.

*******

The night of January 16, 1991, was perhaps the darkest night of my life. My father had died several weeks earlier — two days before Christmas — and the grief from that loss was still raw.

January 16 was a Wednesday. We had scheduled a congregational meeting for that evening to discuss goals for the coming year. Just before leaving for church, CNN broadcasted pictures of the first U.S. missiles slamming into Baghdad. The Gulf War had begun. At church that evening, we were in no mood to make decisions. In stunned silence, we watched the violent images from Iraq. We prayed together and headed home.

Shortly after drifting off to sleep that night, the phone rang. It was the local police department. A woman from our congregation, who had a history of mental health issues, had locked herself into her bathroom. She was threatening to kill herself. I spent the rest of that night with the police — first helping to talk Mary out of killing herself; then trying to find a hospital that would admit her for observation and treatment. We went to several hospitals, but none would admit Mary because she didn’t have proper health insurance. In the wee hours of the morning, the police decided to arrest Mary and take her to jail for her safekeeping.

When I fell into bed at 5 o’clock the next morning, the whole world felt broken and chaotic and confused to me.

All of us have experienced despair at one time or another. Perhaps we have lost a family member or close friend. Perhaps we had a dream that died. Perhaps we faced a situation that felt overwhelming. Many who have shared reflections these days spoke about how difficult the first months of their MCC assignments were. Or perhaps we have felt despair from being surrounded by daily reminders of poverty, injustice, oppression or broken relationships. Indeed, many of us work every day in contexts like these. And the temptation is to feel that these situations and systems are hopeless and will never change.

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul acknowledges the “sufferings of this present time” (8:18). Indeed, he speaks of “all creation groaning in labor pains” (v.22). Now that’s a lot of groaning! A new creation is coming, but it is not yet fully here. In the mean time, things get pretty messy.

What does it mean to live with hope when all creation is groaning?

What is hope? Hope is not simply a wish. I hope it is cooler tomorrow. I hope I will be accepted into the graduate school of my choice. I hope I will learn Arabic before 2020!

Hope is our conviction and expectation rooted in who God is and what God has promised. Hope is what we believe about ultimate realities. It is what we believe about the end game of history.

Earlier in this service we read an affirmation of our hope:

We believe that God is at work in our world,
turning hopeless and evil situations into good.
We believe that goodness and justice and love
will triumph in the end
and that tyranny and oppression cannot last forever.
One day all tears will be wiped away;
the lamb will lie down with the lion,
and justice will roll down like a mighty stream . . .
This is our faith.
This is our hope.
From Hymnal: A Worship Book #711

Indeed, this is our hope of what will someday be. But the world we see now often looks very different.

Paul writes: “Now hope that is seen is not hope” (v.24). And that is precisely the rub. If all these wonderful things – goodness and justice and an end to oppression — were realities already, there would be no need for hope.

If we hope for a world filled with goodness and justice and love, then it must affect the way we live and the choices we make. This communion table reminds us precisely of that fact.

Jesus, too, hoped for a future in which good triumphs over evil. Jesus, too, hoped for a future where relationships are restored and goodness and justice and love abound.

On the darkest night of his life, Jesus was forced to make a choice that reflected what he believed about how these ends would ultimately be achieved. How, after all, does good triumph over evil? How are relationships restored?

Would it be by using shock and awe? Would it be by calling down legions of angels to destroy the Roman soldiers who would come to arrest him and the religious rulers who wanted to kill him? Would it be by building his own empire? Would it be by establishing a new set of rules? Would it be by creating the perfect strategic plan?

The choice that Jesus made is reflected in these symbols – the bread and wine — that Jesus shared with his disciples during that last supper.

Jesus chose for his body to be broken because he believed that, through his brokenness, God would bring wholeness.

Jesus chose to lay down his life because he believed that, through his death, the power of God would triumph over the forces of evil.

It is true that Jesus spoke truth to power. It is true that Jesus confronted the forces of evil. Jesus was no pushover. But in the final analysis, Jesus chose to trust God with ultimate outcomes.

Jesus chose to turn the other cheek. Jesus chose to go the second mile. Jesus chose to serve rather than to dominate. Jesus chose to forgive rather than seek revenge. Jesus chose to love his enemies as well as his friends. Jesus chose to suffer rather than to inflict suffering on others. Jesus chose to die rather than to kill.

And, of course, this is what Jesus invites us to do as well. God continues to make things right in the world as we align ourselves with choices like those that Jesus made.

Each time we choose to serve, we trust God for our honor and well-being. Each time we choose to forgive, we trust God with ultimate issues of justice. Each time we choose to love our enemies, we trust God for our protection. Each time we choose to lay down our lives for others, we trust in God’s resurrection power.

This is our hope.

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