Category Archives: Palestine

Gaza again. Seriously?

To be clear, I believe it is wrong for militant groups in Gaza to fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. While most of the rockets are primitive, they causes psychological trauma for many Israelis and physical harm and death for a few.

For Palestinian militants, it is a losing strategy for gaining justice. It also violates international law.

But it is also wrong for the Israeli government to ignore the historical and continuing grievances of the Palestinian people, to maintain a ruthless economic siege on Gaza, and to respond to rocket fire with disproportionate and overwhelming force — resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians.

For Israelis, it is a losing strategy for building security. It also violates international law.

Already more than 430 Palestinians and nearly 20 Israelis have been killed in 13 days of fighting.

A Palestinian boy peers out from a damaged building in Beach Camp, Gaza

A Palestinian boy peers out from a damaged building in Beach Camp, Gaza

Deja vu
What is happening in Gaza today seems very much like a repeat of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in late 2008 and early 2009. In that three-week-long war:

  • Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 750 rockets into Israel, killing three civilians and wounding 182 more.
  • Israel dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the Gaza Strip, killing nearly 1,400 Palestinians including 454 women and children, according to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

At the time, Cindy and I were working for an international development agency in the Middle East. We visited Gaza a month after the fighting stopped.

A youth stands atop the rubble of his home in al-Fulkhari community

A youth stands atop the rubble of his home in al-Fulkhari community

We witnessed devastation from the north to the south of the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip — especially in areas closest to the border with Israel. Hundreds of houses were flattened. Olive trees and grape vines were uprooted.

We saw schools and even a hospital that had been bombed. Ironically, the elite American International School in Gaza — built with $4.0 million of U.S. taxpayer money – was destroyed by a bomb dropped from a U.S.-donated F-16 jet.

The American International School of Gaza, destroyed by U.S.-donated fighter jets

The American International School in Gaza, destroyed by U.S.-donated fighter jets

“Thirty years of hard work were gone in 30 minutes,” lamented a religious leader in describing the Israeli destruction of Beit Hanoun.

As a final act of the war the Israeli military destroyed all the cement factories in Gaza, making it difficult to rebuild.

Destroyed cement factory in northern Gaza Strip

Destroyed cement factory in northern Gaza Strip

We heard stories of resilience and horror.

“We were like falafel in hot oil,” said the leader of a Christian organization in Gaza, describing what it felt like to bounce up and down during Israeli attacks. “Really you get afraid.”

Small children were everywhere. Many were bare-footed in spite of cold weather during our visit. Parents told us that they tried to hide their own fears in order to keep their children calm. Some told their children that the bombing noises were thunder and rainstorms.

But the children were not fooled.

Art work by Palestinian youth

Art work by Palestinian youth

Near Khan Younis, we viewed their artwork. Their drawings were filled with fighter jets, helicopters, bombs, blood and dead bodies. In one school we visited, the children re-enacted the scene of Israeli soldiers killing a student’s parent.

Palestinian school girls sing about life in Gaza

Palestinian school girls sing about life in Gaza

When we entered a home in the northern community of Beit Hanoun, a young boy immediately wet his pants, fearing that we were there to do further harm. His grandmother tried to reassure him otherwise.

Young boy with grandmother in Beit Hanoun

Young boy with grandmother in Beit Hanoun

Unlike wars where civilians can flee to neighboring countries, Gaza’s current 1.8 million residents are trapped in a tiny strip of land just twice the size of Washington, D.C. They have nowhere to go. In our February 2009 visit, some described receiving calls from the Israeli Defense Force, warning them to leave their neighborhoods. “But where were we to go?” they asked.

“We are civilians. We are humans. No one deserves this,” an elderly woman from Jabalia told us angrily.  She had become a refugee in 1948 and lost her husband in the 2009 war. “What did we do? What do we have? The U.S. government allows Israelis to do this.”

Elderly woman from Jabalia, who lost her husband in 2009 war

Elderly woman from Jabalia, who lost her husband in 2009 war

In spite of the devastation, Gazans we visited didn’t want handouts. They wanted Westerners to know their story. “Tell them the truth about what you see – that is all,” said Rifqa, the leader of a Palestinian development organization.

Getting to the roots
Five years after the 2009 war, have we learned nothing about how to change the dynamics of this conflict?

For centuries, church leaders espoused a harsh anti-Jewish theology that led to terrible persecution of Jews. Eventually it created the climate that permitted the Holocaust, with its implicit message that the world has a high level of tolerance for Jewish suffering.

Today, Palestinians are paying the price of this tragedy, which largely unfolded in Europe.

To create the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish military leaders depopulated and, in many cases destroyed, more than 500 Palestinian villages, producing more than 700,000 refugees. Hundreds of thousands of those refugees and their descendants now live in Gaza.

International peace negotiators for the last 20 years have largely ignored these narratives, unwisely believing that a just and secure peace can be fashioned without repairing past harms. Many have disingenuously tried to convince the rest of the world that this is simply a Palestinian-Israeli problem.

Sadly, until the international community acknowledges and more appropriately addresses these historical harms, we are likely to see wars in Gaza again and again.

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Signing off from Amman

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 16, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
II Samuel 11:26-12:15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

This week we said our last goodbyes in Jordan. On Monday, Wafa Goussous of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate hosted a lovely farewell gathering on behalf of MCC Jordan partners.

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On Tuesday we traveled to Karak to say goodbye to our friend Mamun Tarawneh, who has introduced us to many Jordanian families during our time in the Middle East. We enjoyed the Jordanian national dish, mansef — a meat and rice dish served with nuts and yogurt.

Cindy enjoys mansef at the Tarawneh home in Karak

Cindy enjoys mansef at the Tarawneh home in Karak

On Thursday evening the MCC office staff took us out for a farewell dinner. To use a Middle Eastern expression, we feel generously “fare-welled.”

Cindy at farewell dinner with colleagues Suzi Khoury, Nada Zabaneh and Kristy Guertin

Cindy at farewell dinner with colleagues Suzi Khoury, Nada Zabaneh and Kristy Guertin

This will be our last posting from the Middle East. We plan to fly to Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 15.

Thanks to those who have journeyed with us during these six years. According to WordPress, we have had readers from 127 countries during the past several years. Many have taken time to send notes of encouragement. Our friend Mike Charles from Arizona, our small group from Washington, D.C. and Don and Lurline Campbell from Brisbane, Australia, deserve distinction as “encouragers-in-chief”!  We are still trying to decide whether we will continue a blog — obviously under a new name — when we return to Virginia. If so, it will be at this same site.

There have been significant changes during our six years in the Middle East:

  • The aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war uprooted some 5 million Iraqis. By some estimates, up to 70 percent of the Iraqi Christian community left the country since the 1991 and 2003 wars.
  • When we arrived in 2007, as many as 700,000 Iraqi refuges lived in Jordan, seeking resettlement to third countries. While the number of Iraqis in Jordan has decreased to tens of thousands, more than 560,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in their place. UNHCR estimates the number could swell to 1.2 million by year end, severely straining Jordan’s infrastructure.
  • As a result of the Arab Spring, four governments in the region have been toppled in the past two years – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A major civil war rages in Syria.
  • Long-simmering tensions between the minority Bedouin tribes of Jordan and the majority Palestinian population, which arrived as refugees in Jordan after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, are now threatening to split the country apart.

Amidst the political upheaval in the region, a new "downtown" is rising in the Abdali section of Amman

About a third of the high-rises are now visible in a new “Abdali downtown” that is rising in Amman

  • When we arrived in Amman, a large construction site near our flat was a patchwork of large holes in the ground. Today tall buildings are rising from the ground, comprising the new Abdali downtown.

MCC has also seen major changes.  A strategic planning and re-structuring process known as Wineskins has resulted in MCC Canada and MCC U.S. now jointly administering MCC international programs.  MCC has also adopted a more rigorous planning, evaluation and monitoring system for partner-implemented projects around the world.

Mamun with his bug-eating pet porcupine.  Cindy says it's a hedgehog and she's probably right!

Mamun with his bug-eating pet porcupine. Cindy says it’s a hedgehog and she’s probably right!

The Common Lectionary readings this week offer still timely reminders about the connections between confession, forgiveness and restoration.

The prophet Nathan confronts King David after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband killed.  To David’s credit, he acknowledges his sin. While God forgives David, the long-term consequences of his actions haunt him for the remainder of his days (II Sam. 11:26-12:15).

Reflecting on this experience David writes: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  . . . Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Ps. 32:3-5)

In the Epistle reading, Paul acknowledges that we cannot be made right with God by “doing the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16), but by placing our faith in Christ who loves us and gave his life for us (vv. 16, 20).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus commends a sinful woman who has demonstrated her repentance by washing Jesus’ feet, while he criticize a religious leader who neither shows hospitality nor recognizes the depth of his need for God’s forgiveness.  “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love,” Jesus observes, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Luke :47)

Farewell picture in MCC Jordan office (photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen)

Farewell picture in MCC Jordan office (photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen)

It will be special to arrive in Virginia in time for Father’s Day. We plan to spend time this Sunday with Holden, Heidi and granddaughter Sydney.

Thanks again to all who have journeyed with us!

Everybody plays the fool

Orthodox Easter (May 5, 2013)
I Corinthians 1:18-25; Revelation 22:1-5

May 6 is Easter in the Orthodox Christian tradition. This morning, we participated in an Easter sunrise service at Mt. Nebo, where one has a beautiful view of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank of Palestine.

From Mt. Nebo looking east, the sun rises while the moon sets

From Mt. Nebo looking east, the sun rises while the moon sets

Daryl shared the reflection during the communion service at the MCC Europe-Middle East retreat in Barcelona earlier this week:

Aaron Neville is one of many musicians who have popularized the song, “Everybody plays the fool.” The song is about falling in love and getting hurt.

Fallin’ in love is such an easy thing to do;
But there’s no guarantee that the one you love, is gonna love you.
Oh, loving eyes they cannot see a certain person could never be.
Love runs deeper than any ocean, it clouds you’re mind with emotion;
There’s no exception to the rule, listen baby;
Everybody plays the fool, sometime;
It may be factual, it may be cruel, I ain’t lying;
Everybody plays the fool.

Falling in love aside, no one wants to be called a fool. Indeed, our culture is partial to intelligence and power.

The same was true in the first century. Paul writes: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” (I Cor. 1:22) Signs and wisdom. Power and intelligence. “But we proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul continues, “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (v.23)

At first blush, getting crucified seems to be neither intelligent nor a show of strength.

Krystan  Pawlikowski and Ruth Plett (MCC East Europe Reps), with daughter Misha

Krystan Pawlikowski and Ruth Plett (MCC East Europe Reps), with daughter Misha

In Europe and the Middle East we live in the daily shadow of violence, volatility occupation, unrest and uncertainty. It’s enough to make anyone feel anxious and afraid.

Weapons – sometimes very large weapons — are the tool of choice for rulers and authorities who are afraid or who seek to impose their will or to maintain the status quo.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler recently wrote a piece for Mennonite World Review, comparing the prominent use of guns in Israel-Palestine with the use of guns in the United States. “Do such weapons provide real security?” Ryan asked. “Studies show guns in U.S. homes are far more likely to kill family or friends than an intruder. For all its advanced weaponry, Israel remains gripped by existential fears…”

The rain during most of the EME retreat didn't dampen our spirits.  Here Annie and Jean-Victor Brosseau (West Europe Reps) are pictured with Sarah Adams (Lebanon-Syria Rep)

The rain during most of the EME retreat didn’t dampen our spirits. Here Sarah Adams (Lebanon-Syria Rep) is pictured with Annie and Jean-Victor Brosseau (West Europe Reps)

At a gut human level, wielding power and using force make sense when we are afraid. What better way to protect our own interests and to be sure that we aren’t bullied around?

Using destructive force is the adult version of the playground threats that children sometimes make: “My dad will beat up your dad!” If our weapons are bigger than our enemy’s, we’ll come out ahead, right?

So why did Jesus choose the way the cross? Why such a foolish approach? If God is so powerful, why didn’t God just crush those who opposed God’s ways? Why didn’t God act like a superhero and smash them into submission?

Willie Reimer (MCC Canada program director) waits for the Metro train with Dan Bergen (Co-Palestine Rep) and his daughter Chloe

Willie Reimer (MCC Canada program director) waits for the Metro train with Dan Bergen (Co-Palestine Rep) and his daughter Chloe

Indeed, there are some examples in the Old Testament of God crushing enemies. But the trajectory and weight of Scripture offer a very different approach. God’s power is ultimately displayed as a force for creation and life and light – not as a force of destruction and death. God overcomes evil with good.

God does not overcome enemies through shock and awe. God overcomes enemies by exposing their weakness. God plays into their supposed strength; and then shows a better and more powerful way.

Do you remember the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal? According to Canaanite mythology, Baal was the most powerful of all gods. Among his many attributes, Baal was worshiped as the sun god – or the god of fire. Baal was usually depicted as holding a lightning bolt.

So Elijah proposed a contest that played to Baal’s supposed strength (I Kings 18). Who could send fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice? Would it be Baal – the god of fire? Or would it be Elijah’s God?

Looking north from Mt. Nebo

Looking north from Mt. Nebo

On Mount Carmel the prophets of Baal prepared their sacrifice and called upon their god to send fire. But nothing happened. Elijah taunted them: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (v.27) The prophets of Baal cried even louder and “cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.”(v.28) Still, there was no answer.

Then, in dramatic fashion, Elijah doused his sacrifice with 12 large jars of water before calling for God to send fire from heaven.

Immediately, “The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” (vv. 38-39)

The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus – which Christians in the Orthodox tradition commemorate this week – is a similar to the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

The Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment both used the threat of death as their ultimate weapon to intimidate the masses into obeying orders.

By allowing the alliance of the Empire and the religious establishment to crucify Jesus, God unmasked the bluster and bravado of their threat of death. God called their bluff.

If God had instead used overwhelming force, God would have only validated that destructive power is a legitimate tool for accomplishing one’s ends.

Instead, by appearing foolish, by accepting the way of the cross, Jesus demonstrated God’s power of life and resurrection is both different and superior to the forces of death. Indeed, the power of life is always stronger than death. The power of light always overcomes the darkness.

This is the amazing thing that MCC’s partner organizations continue to grasp: In the face of violence and oppression, in the face of poverty and injustice, in the face of war itself, our partners continue to choose the seemingly foolish way.

MCC workers from across Europe and the Middle East gathered in Barcelona for a retreat, April 27-30

MCC workers from across Europe and the Middle East gathered in Barcelona for a retreat, April 27-30

MCC’s partners have chosen not to take up arms to promote the cause of justice and freedom. They have chosen not to use the tools favored by rulers and authorities.

Instead, they have chosen the tools of life and light. They have chosen to become part of that healing river described in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22 —

  • The river that sends down its waters to wash the blood from off the sand.
  • The river that transforms the Dead Sea into a body of fresh water teaming with life.
  • The river that helps seeds to grow in a parched and barren land.
  • The river that makes seeds of freedom to flourish and tall stalks to rise.
Our retreat center n Barcelona was with beautiful flowers

Our retreat center n Barcelona was adorned with beautiful flowers

The bread and wine – representing the body and blood of Christ — are forever reminders of God’s seemingly foolish way of working.

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (I Cor.1:18, 25)

For those who would follow Jesus, everybody plays the fool. There’s no exception to the rule. Everybody plays the fool.

Cindy’s memory box

We attended the MCC Europe-Middle East retreat in Barcelona, April 27-May 1.  Cindy shared the following farewell reflection with the group on April 28.

I’m taking a special box home with me – an imaginary box filled with memories. After six years, the box has gotten pretty big!

As part of this reflection I would like to pull several memories out to share with you. I call them “a sample of Cindy’s memorable moments”:

  • Lunches at the Jordan office with colleagues Nada and Suzi.
St. Peters Seminary student Hans Shamoaay reads a bible passage in English during a morning church service at the seminary. The young seminarians are eager to learn the English language so that they can read and study a wider selection of books, establish relationships with people from other countries and share the history and experiences of Iraqi Christians with people in other countries. (MCC photo by Silas Crews)

St. Peters Seminary student Hans Shamoaay reads a bible passage in English during a morning church service at the seminary.  (MCC photo by Silas Crews)

  • Attending early morning services at St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa, Iraq. The singing of the young seminarians was heavenly. Having a beautiful singing voice must be a requirement for becoming a Chaldean priest.
  • Conversations with articulate, passionate young adults in Tehran, Iran – persons like Hossein and his diverse group of friends. We enjoyed having lively discussions over tea or a meal.
Hossein with Ted Koontz, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

Hossein with Ted Koontz, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

  • Meeting with Ayatollah Mesbah in Qom, Iran. He has such a fearsome and fiery reputation in the West, but in person he is an elderly and frail man who speaks into a microphone in order to be heard – even in a small group conversation.
  • Attending Reham’s funeral in Smakiyeh, Jordan. Reham was an International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participant who was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia early in her term, returned to Jordan for treatment, and died about six months later. She was buried on the day she had planned to have a party to celebrate her engagement.
Bassem and Nora on their wedding day (18 October 2008)

Bassem and Nora on their wedding day (18 October 2008)

  • Bassem’s wedding. He and Nora had a beautiful church ceremony on the Mt. of Olives, then a reception in Bethlehem. A Palestinian celebration is an amazing thing to experience.
MCC Iraq and MCC Bosnia partners at training in Sarajevo (May 2010)

MCC Iraq and MCC Bosnia partners at training in Sarajevo (May 2010)

  • Accompanying a group of 10 Iraqis to Sarajevo for a workshop led by Amela and Snezana. The Iraqis were genuinely concerned: Was it really safe enough to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Water polo at Beit el Salaam

Water polo at Beit el Salaam

  • Water polo at Beit El Salaam – the former EME retreat location in Egypt. I never had enough courage to join in the fray, but it was an awesome thing to watch from a safe distance!
Cindy's 60th birthday party on the Mt. of Olives

Cindy’s 60th birthday party on the Mt. of Olives

  • A surprise party to celebrate my 60th birthday hosted by the Palestine team at Augusta Victoria on the Mt. of Olives.
  • Singing and worshiping together each EME retreat.
  • Lighting the candle at the beginning of each MCC Jordan staff meeting.

While sitting at my desk in the MCC Jordan office — working on the computer; writing and answering email; and writing and editing plans and reports – was a significant part of the MCC Rep position, you won’t find any of that in my memory box!

MCC Reps in Barcelona (April 2013)

MCC Reps in Barcelona (April 2013)

It is the memory of the people, places and relationships I will carry back with me – for this transformative opportunity I am deeply grateful to MCC. And just to be clear, you all are in my memory box. For the opportunity to know you and serve with you, I am also deeply grateful.

Witnesses

Second Sunday of Easter (April 7, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

This week we hosted two visitors from the Bruderhof — a Christian community that seeks to recapture the model of the first century church. Edith and Kim Ann are volunteers at House of Hope in Bethlehem and are taking a short break in Jordan. While here, they have been assisting Cindy in teaching ESL classes with Iraqis who are awaiting resettlement to the United States.

Kristy Guertin at start of the Dead Sea Marathon, Apr. 5

Kristy Guertin at start of the Dead Sea Marathon, Apr. 5

A prominent member of the Bruderhof community, Josef Ben-Eliezer, who during his life acted and spoke boldly for justice and peace in the Middle East, died March 23.

We also enjoyed visits this week with Michael Greer and Eric Oltman, two friends that we first learned to know during our years at Washington Community Fellowship.

The race began in the rain and fog, but the weather quickly changed as runners wound their way down the mountain and into the Jordan Valley

The race began in the rain and fog, but the weather quickly changed as runners wound their way down the mountain and into the Jordan Valley

On Friday, Kristy Guertin, SALT volunteer at MCC Global Family partner Arab Episcopal School (AES), ran the Dead Sea Marathon, along with her friend and work colleague Lena Gomer. Both completed the 42 km (26.2 mi.) course with great times, finishing in the top 20 in the women’s division. Franziska Kadur, a third volunteer at AES, led the marathon cheering squad, which included Carolyn and Gordon Epp-Fransen, along with Daryl.

Lena and Kristy on rain-soaked road just outside Amman

Lena and Kristy on rain-soaked road just outside Amman

In the region this week:

  • The U.N. announced that it is running out of funds to support Syrian refugees, who now number well over one million across the region.
  • There are now more than 470,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and humanitarian organizations are predicting that the number in Jordan alone could swell to more than 1.0 million by year end. UNHCR has registered most of the refugees. The high cost of energy – exacerbated by the influx of refugees — is pressing Jordan to look at renewable energy sources.
Za'atari Refugee Camp, home to 150,000 Syrians (Getty Photos)

Za’atari Refugee Camp, home to 150,000 Syrians (Getty Photos)

  • Talks between Iran and Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany resumed, Apr. 5, in Kazakhstan. So far there has been little progress toward agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The Common Lectionary Readings are about being witnesses.

In the reading from Acts, in spite of being warned by the religious authorities not to teach about Jesus, his disciples speak openly about witnessing his death, resurrection and exultation. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they reply when dragged before the angry religious leaders (Acts 5:29).

The views along the hilly Dead Sea Marathon course were stunning

The views along the hilly Dead Sea Marathon course were stunning

The psalmist gives witness to God’s mighty deeds and surpassing greatness (Ps. 150:2).

John, the writer of Revelation, describes Jesus as “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) – the one who showed the world how God desires humanity to live in right relationship with God and one another.

#1 marathon fan and support crew, Franziska Kadur, Kristy and Lena's colleague at Arab Episcopal School

#1 marathon fan and support crew leader, Franziska Kadur, Kristy and Lena’s colleague at AES

The same John says that he has written a Gospel account to give witness to the signs that Jesus did in the presence of the disciples, as well as his resurrection from the dead, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.” (John 20:31)

In a world torn by suffering and violence, may our lives, too, bear faithful witness to God’s mighty acts and to God’s plan for a just and peaceful world.

#1 bakerette --granddaughter Sydney has already learned that waiting for the cookies to bake is overrated

#1 bakerette –granddaughter Sydney has already learned that waiting for the cookies to bake is highly overrated

The last enemy

Easter Sunday (March 31, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

This is Passion Week and Easter in the Western Christian tradition. Palestinian and Iraqi Christians who follow the Western church calendar will celebrate this weekend. In the Eastern tradition – which is followed here in Jordan and by Orthodox Christians throughout the region — Easter will not be celebrated until May 5.

Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus' death (stain glass window in the Church of the Flagellation, Jerusalem)

Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death (stain glass window in the Church of the Flagellation, Jerusalem)

In the region this week:

Syrians crossing the Yarmouk River (Jordan Times file photo)

Syrians cross the Yarmouk River into Jordan (Jordan Times file photo)

  • U.S. President Barak Obama visited Jordan, pledging an additional $200 million to help Jordan offset burgeoning costs of hosting Syrian refugees. In a joint press conference with Obama on Mar. 22, Jordan’s King Abdullah said:

Jordan today is hosting, by far, the largest number of Syrian refugees. The numbers have just exceeded 460,000 Syrians. That is 10 percent of our population. And the alarming figures, if the rates continue as we’re seeing today, will probably double by the end of the year. So for the Americans in the audience, that’s the equivalent of 30 million refugees crossing into the United States — the possibility of that going up to 60 million by the end of the year — relative, obviously, to our populations.

Syrian refugees watch the convoy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres as he visits Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria March 13, 2013. (REUTERS photo by Muhammad Hamed)

Syrian refugees at Al Za’atari camp watch convoy for UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, during his  March 13, 2013 visit (REUTERS photo by Muhammad Hamed)

The Common Lectionary readings for this Easter Sunday focus on death and new life.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah describes a day when there will be no more weeping or cries of distress. “No more shall there be in (Jerusalem) an infant that lives but a few days,” Isaiah writes, “or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Is. 65:20) Isaiah’s hope is rooted in God’s promise: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (v.17)

In the Gospel reading, Mary of Magdalene visits the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty. Weeping in her grief, she encounters Jesus outside the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener. When she finally realizes it is Jesus, her grief turns to joy and she dashes off to announce to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:1-18)

In the Epistle reading, Paul declares that Jesus has been raised from the dead, “the first fruits of those who have died.” (I Cor. 15:20) Paul writes that, during the period between Christ’s resurrection and his return, Jesus will destroy “every ruler and every authority and power.” (v.24) “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” Paul asserts (v.26).

Candles burn brightly inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also known as the Church of the Resurrection

Candles burn brightly inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also known as the Church of the Resurrection

Indeed, death is the most powerful of all enemies. The fear of death and its cousins – the fear of being incarcerated, the fear of suffering, and the fear of being insecure or insignificant – determine many of our human choices.

The fear of death causes some to flee their homes and countries. It causes others to live in gated communities. It compels others to exercise extraordinary caution in where they will travel or what jobs they will do. It causes nations to build massive weapons systems for their protection.

Rulers and authorities use the fear of death as their ultimate weapon to intimidate the masses to obey orders. We have witnessed the use of this tool many times during the Arab Spring. We have also witnessed courageous crowds who refused to be intimidated by threats.

By allowing the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment to crucify Jesus, God unmasked the bluster and bravado of their threat of death. The resurrection of Jesus showed convincingly that death could not contain him.

With the heaviness of the issues in the Middle East, we continue to be buoyed by photos of our granddaughter Sydney, here visiting Heidi's third-grade class

With the heaviness of the issues in the Middle East, we continue to be buoyed by photos of our granddaughter Sydney, here visiting Heidi’s third-grade class

God does not destroy enemies with shock and awe, blowing them to bits. Rather, God exposes their impotence in the face of God’s mighty power.

Death has been a source of suffering and pain for many families. It is a terrible and terrifying thing. But death’s days are numbered. It has already been exposed as insufficient to control those who place their trust in God. Thank God, it will someday be destroyed!

Humility and trust

Palm Sunday (March 24, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29; Ps. 31:9-16; Is. 50:4-9; Phil 2:5-11; Lk. 19:28-40; Lk. 23:1-49

We enjoyed a week of vacation, traveling in Palestine-Israel with friends from the United States. Duane and Elaine Maust are pastors at Jubilee Mennonite Church in Meridian, Mississippi and Karl and Marlene Bernhard lead Amor Viviente Church in New Orleans.

We learned about the current realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and read Scripture at the sites of many biblical stories.

Christians from around the world sang hymns in their own language during the walk

Christians from around the world sang hymns in their own language during the walk, which was led by Palestinian Christians

Our trip culminated by participating in the Palm Sunday walk with thousands of Christians who traced the first Palm Sunday path of Jesus from Bethphage and Bethany to Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane.

(l to r): Elaine, Cindy, Marlene, Karl and Duane at the synagogue in Capernaum

(l to r): Elaine, Cindy, Marlene, Karl and Duane at the synagogue in Capernaum

The Lectionary readings for this Palm Sunday week focus on humility and trust.

Faced with the threats of his enemies the psalmist declares, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand.” (Ps. 31:14-15)

Similarly, the prophet Isaiah writes, “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting . . . The Lord helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced.” (Is. 50:6-7)

Our taxi driver from Takoa gave us a tour of Bethlehem and Hebron, then took us to his home for lunch, where we met his two nieces

Our taxi driver from Takoa gave us a tour of Bethlehem and Hebron, then took us to his home for lunch, where we met his two nieces

In the Epistle reading, Paul describes the example of Jesus. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8)

In the Gospel readings, Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday (Lk. 19:28-40) and at the time of his crucifixion utters, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk. 23:16)

The "Wailing" or Western wall in Jerusalem

The “Wailing” or Western wall in Jerusalem

Humility is the willingness to set aside our power and privilege and to be obedient to God no matter the cost. Trust means surrendering the outcome to God.

The Palm Sunday crowd streams down the Mt. of Olives

The Palm Sunday crowd streams down the Mt. of Olives

From the womb God calls and delivers us

4th Sunday after Epiphany (February 3, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 1:4-10; Ps. 71:1-6; I Cor. 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Cindy, along with our MCC Amman office colleague Suzi Khoury, successfully navigated the annual process of renewing our Jordanian residency – no small feat when working with multiple government ministries!

A Palestinian woman walks with her grandchildren in Jerusalem's Old City

A Palestinian woman walks with her grandchildren in Jerusalem’s Old City

Daryl accompanied incoming MCC Europe-Middle East area director Amela Puljek-Shank to Jerusalem for three days, where she learned about MCC’s Palestine-Israel program.

On Monday, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem distributed MCC blankets, relief kits and school kits in Husun, a community in northern Jordan.  Two other MCC partners in Jordan submitted large proposals to the Canadian government, seeking funds for their work with Syrian refugees in Jordan.

A young girl carries MCC blankets at a distribution for Syrian refugees in Husun (photo provided by Greek Orthodox Patriarchate)

A young girl carries MCC school kits at a distribution for Syrian refugees in Husun (photo provided by Greek Orthodox Patriarchate)

In the region this week:

 

Bassem Thabet, MCC Palestine staff, serves coffee at his home in Jerusalem

Bassem Thabet, MCC Palestine staff, serves coffee at his home in Jerusalem

The Common Lectionary readings this week describe how God calls and delivers us — from the womb to adulthood.

In the Old Testament reading, God reassures Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)  Jeremiah protests that he is too young and not a good public speaker, but God persists: “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” (v.7)  God reassures, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (v.8)

In a time of trouble, the psalmist appeals to God for deliverance from the unjust and cruel, taking comfort in God’s faithfulness in the past. “Upon you I have leaned from my birth,” the psalmist reflects, “it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 71:6)

In the Epistle reading, Paul acknowledges: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Cor. 13:11).  In a familiar and powerful text, Paul describes what mature love looks like:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (vv.4-8a)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus encounters resistance in his hometown of Nazareth after announcing the ministry to which God has called him. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask (Luke 4:22), not convinced that the young man they knew as a child was capable of carrying out such a mission. “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” Jesus responds (v.24). The angry crowd drives him out of town and seeks to hurl him off a cliff, but Jesus escapes.

Daryl visited the cross-shaped pathways of the Garden of Gethsemane while in Jerusalem

Daryl visited the cross-shaped pathways of the Garden of Gethsemane while in Jerusalem

From the womb God calls and delivers us. Sometimes we feel ill-equipped to carry out that calling. Or we experience resistance from others along the journey. The readings this week assure us that the God who calls us also delivers us from our enemies. Our job is to put away childish resistance, to trust God and to walk faithfully in our calling.

Beloved and belonging

1st Sunday after Epiphany (January 13, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 43:1-7; Ps. 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22

Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas, Jan. 7.  The Christmas season in this region runs for a full month – beginning with Western Christmas on Dec. 25 and ending with Armenian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 19.

A Palestinian Orthodox Christian in Gaza lights a Christmas candle (AFP photo by Mohammed Abed)

A Palestinian Orthodox Christian in Gaza lights a Christmas candle (AFP photo by Mohammed Abed)

On Monday we did a briefing for a 40-member tour group led by Patty Shelly, head of the Bible and Religion department at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.

Snow-covered Coptic Orthodox Church in our neighborhood of Amman

Snow-covered Coptic Orthodox Church in our neighborhood of Amman

A huge storm system dumped rain and snow on much of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine-Israel this week, causing flooding, stalled traffic and power outages.  Some Jordanians used the crazy weather to poke fun at local customs and politics.

Hi winds and heavy rain damaged tents at Al-Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan (Reuters photo by Ali Jarekji)

Hi winds and heavy rain damaged tents at Al-Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan (Reuters photo by Ali Jarekji)

But for others, particularly Syrian refugees living in Za’atari Camp, the storm caused serious hardships. Riots broke out at Zaatari Refugee Camp after bad weather damaged some 500 tents.  Citing UNHCR reports, the Jordan Times wrote: “The clashes came as high-speed winds and heavy rainfall pounded the desert camp for the second straight day, damaging 500 tents and leaving dozens of families without shelter.”

Flooding preceded the snow storm in Amman (Jordan Times photo by Hassan Tamimi)

Flooding preceded the snow storm in Amman (Jordan Times photo by Hassan Tamimi)

Students at Jordan University navigate high waters

Students at Jordan University navigate high waters

Also in the region this week:

  • In a radio address, Latin Catholic Bishop of Amman, Maroun Elias Lahham said that Christians and Muslims share the value of peace. He called on Jordan to keep its borders open to refugees who seek safe haven here. They “are our brothers that we have to welcome,” the Bishop said, noting that it remains a big burden for a small country like Jordan which is the fourth poorest in the world in terms of water supplies. “But when you love you share,” the Bishop concluded.
  • An Iranian Member of Parliament said that Iran’s oil revenues are down 45% in the last 9 months as a result of international sanctions against Iran.
Snow-ladened trees provide cover for cars in the Jabal Webdah neighborhood of Amman

Snow-ladened trees provide cover for cars in the Jabal Webdah neighborhood of Amman

The King Abdullah Mosque in Amman is beautiful with or without snow

The King Abdullah Mosque in Amman is beautiful with or without snow

The Common Lectionary readings for this first Sunday after Epiphany focus on belonging and being loved.

The Old Testament reading contains assurances of God’s love. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” records the prophet Isaiah (Is. 43:1). God promises to be present when the people “pass through the waters” and “through fire” (v.2), and to act in the best interest of the people, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (v.4)

The Gospel reading chronicles the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. A voice from heaven reassures Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22)

Dozens of folks were being baptized in the Jordan River -- near the site of Jesus' baptism -- when we visited in October 2012

Dozens of folks were being baptized in the Jordan River — near the site of Jesus’ baptism — when we visited in October 2012

The Epistle reading also records a story of belonging. The apostles at Jerusalem receive word that Gentiles in Samaria have accepted God’s word. Immediately they send Peter and John to welcome the new believers and share with them the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17).

Especially in difficult times – when we pass through deep waters and through fire — it is easy to forget that we belong and that we are God’s beloved. The Lectionary readings this week offer comfort and reassurance for just such times.

Jessica and Elias Khoury, niece and nephew to our MCC Jordan colleague, Suzi

Jessica and Elias Khoury, niece and nephew to our MCC Jordan colleague, Suzi

Our MCC Jordan colleague's niece, Jessica, with a cap crocheted by our daughter Jessica

Our daughter Jessica crocheted this cap for her namesake

Because God is with us

Third Sunday in Advent (December 16, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

We visited friends in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8-9, and enjoyed a Christmas concert at Eastern Market.  The remainder of the week we spent time with friends and family in Harrisonburg and attended excellent Christmas programs at Mt. Clinton Mennonite (where Holden and Heidi attend) and Zion Mennonite (where Daryl’s mother attends).

Below is the sermon that Daryl preached at Park View Mennonite Church, Dec. 16.

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

________________________________________
Let me begin by thanking Park View Mennonite for its exemplary leadership in the collection of school kits for MCC. We are aware that this congregation has collected thousands of kits across the years.

Did you know that the country of Jordan is the largest recipient of school kits – sometimes receiving as many as 25,000 in a shipment? MCC partner Caritas Jordan has an extensive distribution network. So these kits end up in schools and community centers in nearly every corner of Jordan. The kits are so highly valued that sometimes a single kit is divided among two or more students. Whenever the kits are distributed, Caritas tells the story of how the kits were collected.

This past year there have been several interesting developments in Jordan with regard to school kits:

Caritas has distributed several thousand school kits to Syrian refugee children.  Many of the Syrian families streaming into Jordan arrive with only the clothing on their backs – so school supplies are a luxury item.  There are now more than 200,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan and by some estimates the number could swell to 500,000 by spring.  The influx of refugees is placing enormous strain on Jordan’s infrastructure. Some elementary schools in Amman, for example, now have 60 students per classroom.

Caritas has also been working to develop a culture of volunteerism in Jordan.  Their vision is for Jordanian families to donate school kit materials and for volunteers to assemble the kits locally.  Several months ago, Evanna Hess from Lancaster and Jean Peifer from Hagerstown came to Jordan to help Caritas strengthen its capacity for collecting kits and other material resources like comforters.  For the coming year, Caritas has a goal of collecting 1,000 school kits locally.

The "Jinglers" gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The “Jinglers” gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The Lectionary readings for this third Sunday of Advent remind us that God is present with us.  This is an enormous encouragement given the volatile and uncertain world in which we live.

As a child growing up in Park View, I went through a period when I was terrified of sleeping alone.  There were a number of high profile kidnappings in the early 1960s. With my active imagination, I was convinced that I was the next victim.  My six-year-old analysis wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that, with my dad drawing an EMC salary, our family could not possibly be a serious kidnapping target.

My bedroom on the second floor of our bungalow house overlooked a large maple tree along South College Avenue.  At night, laying in my bed and looking out my dormer window, I was pretty sure that the kidnapper was hiding behind that maple tree.  I was quick to shout out to my parents who slept on the first floor, alerting them that someone was certainly lurking in our front yard. Sometimes – just to prove that no one was out there — my mother would grab a broom, march out to our front yard and around the tree, waving the broom. (Whoever said that parenting is an easy job?)

Sleeping alone was no fun. Often I ended up in my parent’s bed or slept in my older sister’s room. It made a big difference to know that someone was right beside me.

As adults, we do a better job of masking our fears — but we still have them. All of us do. We are afraid of not having enough or of not being good enough. We are afraid of not belonging or of not being liked. We are afraid of being alone or of suffering alone.

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

The Good News for this third Sunday of Advent is that God is with us.

  •  “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah repeats (Zeph. 3:14, 17).
  •   “Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” Isaiah asserts (Is. 12:6).
  • “The Lord is near,” Paul assures the church at Philippi (Phil. 4:5).
  • In the Gospel reading, the crowds are filled with expectation – or as the New English Bible translates it, “The people were on tiptoe of expectation.” (v.15) — wondering if John the Baptist is the Messiah. But John responds, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” (v.16)

God is in our midst. God is present with us. This is our affirmation of faith. It sounds good. But what does this mean for us practically?

In Amman, we live near the King Abdullah Mosque – one of the most prominent mosques in Jordan. The mosque has a massive dome covered with blue tiles.  The inside of the dome is also blue because the architect believed that faith should be the same on the inside as on the outside. In the same way, as Anabaptist Christians we believe there is a close connection between what we believe and how we live. Our affirmations of faith are not abstract ideas. They have a direct effect on how we act. To paraphrase the Apostle James, “Faith without action is void of life and power.”

If we truly believe something, it shapes our actions. There are many examples from daily life:

  • If we believe that the temperatures will drop well below freezing, we drain our outdoor faucets and check the antifreeze level in our car engines.
  • If we believe that a major snow storm is coming, we stock up on food.
  • If we believe that economic hard times are ahead, we tighten our spending.

A core affirmation of our faith – and something we especially emphasize during this Advent season – is that God is with us; God is in our midst.

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Taken together, today’s texts suggest three attitudes and actions that should grow out of this belief:

Because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried

As a nation, we have invested immense treasure in military might – almost as much as the rest of the world combined.  Yet the stronger our military, the more fearful we seem to become.  U.S. embassies around the world have become like fortresses with staff often sequestered inside. On more than one occasion, U.S. embassy staff in Amman have lamented to us that they are not free to visit places where MCC workers routinely travel.

Fear was something the people of Judah dealt with as well. With the Assyrians and the Babylonians close by – theirs was not an easy neighborhood.

Into this context, Zephaniah announced that there was no need to be afraid, because God will give victory (3:17).  Appropriately, Zephaniah’s name means, “Yahweh protects.” Zephaniah – who some scholars believe was a disciple of Isaiah – writes that God has turned away our enemies (v.15).  God will deal with our oppressors (v.19). God will remove the disasters that beset us (v.18).

In a second reading, Isaiah — who prophesied during the expansion of the Assyrian empire — adds that the people need not be afraid because God is our strength, our might and our salvation (Isaiah 12: 2).  Isaiah assumed the demise of Judah. But he also predicted its restoration from captivity.  Isaiah’s name means, “The Lord saves.”

Paul writes to the church at Philippi: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement is hosting a visiting Islamic scholar from Iran — Dr. Amir Akrami. Dr. Akrami has been teaching a Monday night course on basic concepts of Islam.  Two weeks ago he reflected that, in the Islamic tradition, remembrance of God is the purpose of prayer.  “Remembrance of God takes away our disturbances,” he said.

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom -- and is taking her first steps

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom — and is taking her first steps

Because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!” Zephaniah urges. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” (3:14)

“Give thanks to the Lord,” Isaiah exclaims in a hymn expressing gratitude for God’s salvation. “Sing praises . . . shout aloud and sing for joy.” (12:3-6)

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Paul tells the church at Philippi. Indeed, in his short letter, Paul uses the word “joy” or “rejoice” no less than 16 times.

Zephaniah lived in the 7th century BC. The short book that bears his name speaks of God’s impending judgment on Judah and the surrounding nations.  In the first two chapters, these judgments are introduced with the phrase “On that day.”

But in today’s reading, this phrase is given a hopeful twist. “On that day,” promises Zephaniah, there will be cause for celebration for a remnant (v.16).  “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,” Zephaniah assures. “God has turned away your enemies.” (v15)

Furthermore, according to Zephaniah, we can rejoice and give thanks because God promises to remove disaster (v18), to deal with oppressors (19a), to save the lame (19b), to gather the outcasts (19c), to replace shame with honor (19d), to gather us and bring us home (v.20a), to make us renowned and praised among the nations (20b), and to restore our fortunes (20c).

Why rejoice and give thanks? “Because God “is great (v.6) and has done gloriously” (v.5), Isaiah proclaims. Using the image of a well, which was a favorite place for recounting God’s deeds, Isaiah promises, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (v.3)

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007


Because God is with us, we are to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice

God’s presence inspires and calls us to live in new ways. At least that is the way it is supposed to work.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul urges the church at Philippi. (Phil 4:5)

In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist demands that the people “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) Specifically, John calls for the people to act generously and justly. Luke writes:

And the crowds asked (John the Baptist), “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (vv.10-14)

Fruit worthy of repentance is to act generously.  It is sharing clothing and food with those in need.

Fruit worthy of repentance is also to act justly.  Tax collectors at the time of Jesus purchased from the Romans the right to collect the assessed taxes – in much the same way that many debt collection agencies work today.  These hated tax collectors often added significantly to the assessed amounts and pocketed the difference.  Scholars say that the soldiers John addressed here were not those associated with Herod or Pilate but were soldiers who provided armed support for the tax collectors — hired thugs so to speak.

What does it look like to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice in today’s world?  Allow me to speak briefly about how we might engage the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

In the past two year, long-standing regimes have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. More than 40,000 Syrians have been killed in a civil war that rages on.  An average of 200-300 Iraqis are still killed in violence each month.  There is constant threat of a military attack against Iran. The truce between Hamas and Israel masks major issues that have yet to be transformed.  Even in Jordan – a country thought to be one of the most stable in the region – protestors are increasingly emboldened in their weekly demands for major reforms and al Qaeda operatives are beginning to pop up.

We have heard a number of common themes in our five years living in the Middle East:

  • Middle Eastern Christians are looking for evidence that Western Christians have not abandoned them.  This voice is particularly prominent among Palestinian Christians who are confounded by the Western church’s embrace of a theology of Christian Zionism and its uncritical support for the State of Israel.
  •  More broadly Middle Easterners are looking for evidence that the United States is not anti-Islamic.  The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and constant threats against Iran – have led many to conclude that the United States is engaging in a new Crusade against Muslims.
  • Middle Easterners are also looking for evidence that the U.S. is interested in being a good global neighbor rather than a country which imposes its will on others or supports human rights only when it’s convenient.

So what can we do?

  • Get to know the growing number of Middle Eastern students living in this area.  Invite them into your homes. Hospitality is central in Middle Eastern culture. Listen to their stories and perspectives.  You will be amazed at the nuances their voices add to the perspectives one hears on network news or even on NPR.  The realities on the ground are far more complex than can be captured in a two-minute news report.
  • Participate in a learning tour to the Middle East or bring Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi or Iranian speakers to your church for a Sunday School conversation.
  • Continue to generously support MCC’s and Mennonite Mission Network’s presence in the region.  Send regular notes of support to workers who you know personally.
  • Engage in advocacy aimed at calling this nation to be a good global neighbor.  Keep collecting school kits. But also keep open an active channel with your elected representatives.  Remind them that being a good neighbor is as much in the U.S. national interest as it is in the interest of others.

We may no longer be afraid of sleeping alone like a child.  But our adult lives tend to be fraught with all kinds of other fears.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us we must bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice.

It matters what we believe.  And true faith always makes a difference in how we live.