Category Archives: Syria

Two-way waiting

Lent 2 (February 24, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Genesis 15:1-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

On Wednesday we shared lunch with Brent Stutzman, who is visiting Jordan with his parents.  Brent served with MCC for three years (2009-2012) at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, an MCC Global Family partner in Salt, Jordan.  He is currently doing graduate work in special education at Boston College, while working part-time at the Perkins School for the Blind.

Brent-HLID

Brent explains Holy Land’s deaf-blind unit to members of a Global Family learning tour (April 2012).

This week, Daryl accepted an offer to serve as executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, beginning July 1.  With mixed emotions — excitement about the adventure ahead and sadness about the relationships we leave behind — we plan to conclude our work in Jordan in the middle of June, moving to Harrisonburg, Virginia.

On Thursday, we were privileged to host a guest who is lives in Damascus and works with Syrian families affected by the civil war.  Just before arriving at the MCC office, our guest received word of a major bomb blast near his office in Damascus.

A Syrian child in Jordan (photo by Chevy Morris for CARE)

A Syrian child in Jordan (photo by Chevy Morris for CARE)

With the fighting in Syria growing worse, the United Nations says that an average of 70,000 Syrians are arriving in Jordan each month, and warns that more emergency camps must be developed in order to accommodate the rapid influx.

Trailers in the Mreijeb Al Fhoud camp, 14 miles (22km) east of Zarqa. The camp, which is yet to receive Syrian refugees, can accommodate 30,000 people (Photo by Muath Freij for the Jordan Times)

Trailers in the Mreijeb Al Fhoud camp, 14 miles (22km) east of Zarqa. The camp, which is yet to receive Syrian refugees, can accommodate 30,000 people (Photo by Mu’ath Freij for the Jordan Times)

A total of 360,900 Syrians are now living in Jordan.  That number is expected to double by June.  Some 42 percent of the arrivals are children who often carry with them the trauma they experienced in their country.

The large influx of Syrians into a resource-challenged country is creating tensions between the refugees and Jordanian host communities, as both groups compete for scarce resources and opportunities.

The Lectionary readings for this second week of Lent focus on waiting.

In the Old Testament reading, God promises the aging and childless Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that, after a 400-year-long period of oppression, God will provide a place for them.  Amazingly, Abram believes God, trusting God to fulfill these distant promises.

Syrian children wait in Jordan (photo by Mu'ath Freij for the Jordan Times)

Syrian children wait in Jordan (photo by Mu’ath Freij for the Jordan Times)

While experiencing trouble and the assault of adversaries, the psalmist also chooses to trust God rather than taking matters into his own hands.  “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” the psalmist affirms.  “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14)

In the Epistle reading, Paul reminds the church at Philippi that their citizenship is in God’s kingdom rather than in an earthly nation (Phil. 3:20). Furthermore, they are to wait as Jesus – the one who reigns supreme in God’s kingdom — transforms their humble bodies into bodies that glorify God (v.21).

The Gospel reading reminds us that not only do humans wait for God to act; God waits for humans to act as well.  Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and its resistance to God’s ways. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus laments, “and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

Waiting aptly describes the life of refugees.  They wait for basic accommodations in a host country. They wait for word from their loved ones back in Syria.  They wait to see if and when they can return home.  There are few things that refugees control.

Waiting is also the testing grounds for our faith.  What we do while we wait for God’s promises to be fully realized is the truest measure of what we believe.  We are to live into God’s promises, demonstrating by our actions that we believe them to be true.

Meanwhile, God waits for us — to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly as our trust in God grows day by day.

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Speaking our faith

Lent 1 (February 17, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

We spent much of this week finishing reports for the past year and plans for the coming year.  February 15 is one of two annual reporting deadlines for MCC partners and projects.  Everyone is happy when these deadlines are in the past!

A young Syrian boy with his grandfather at the Za'atari Refugee Camp (Reuters photo by Muhammad Hamed)

A  Syrian boy with his grandfather at Za’atari Refugee Camp (Reuters photo by Muhammad Hamed)

Cindy continues to teach Friday morning English classes at the Chaldean Catholic Church in Jabal Webdah.  Her students are Iraqi refugee children, living in Amman while waiting with their families for resettlement to third countries.  Daryl contributed an article about Syrian refugees in Jordan to the Thirdway Café this week.

Ten years ago this week, Daryl was in the second week of a 40-day fast during which he wrote daily letters to President Bush, urging him to consider alternatives to war with Iraq.

In the region this week:

Wafa Goussous with children at Za'atari Camp, where 2,750 pairs of children's boots were distributed, Feb. 5, using MCC funds

Wafa Goussous, director of the Orthodox Initiative,  with children at Za’atari Camp.  MCC purchased 2,750 pairs of children’s boots, which were distributed on Feb. 5.  (photo by Azmi al-Edwan)

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about speaking our faith – in good times and bad.

In the Old Testament reading – even while they are still wandering in the wilderness – Moses instructs the people that, when they enter the “Promised Land” and benefit from its bounty, they are to take some of the first fruits of the harvest to the priest and recount their story:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)

Books like these were purchased for children at the Zaatari Camp

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem purchased boots like these for children at the Zaatari Camp, using MCC funds (photo by Azmi al-Edwan)

In times of terror, trouble and destruction, the psalmist reminds us to call out to the Lord, saying, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” (Ps. 91:2)  The psalmist promises that God will send angels to guard, protect, deliver and rescue us (vv. 11-16).

In the Epistle reading Paul urges Christians living in the heart of the Roman Empire to “confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord.” (Rom. 10:9) By implication, the Roman emperor is not Lord.  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” writes Paul (v.13).

The Gospel reading describes the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Three times Jesus resists the devil’s temptations to grandeur and greatness by reciting the Scriptures he knows to be true (Luke 3:4, 8, 12).

Our faith becomes powerful when we speak it aloud. It helps us remember our story and our identity.  And it helps us remember that it is God who saves and delivers us.

Clarity in the clouds

Transfiguration Sunday (February 10, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

This week we hosted a delegation from the Food Resources Bank (FRB) and traveled the Jordan Valley from south to north.  FRB raises resources to strengthen global food security, by facilitating growing projects in the United States.  In Jordan, FRB supports an agricultural training project in Greigra – a small village in Wadi Araba.

Bev Abma, FRB director, inspects tomatoes at a farm in the northern Jordan Valley

Bev Abma, FRB director, inspects tomatoes at a farm in the northern Jordan Valley

FRB delegation members Wilma Wiens and LeRoy Brocka visit before a day trip to Wadi Araba

FRB delegation members Wilma Wiens and LeRoy Brocka visit before a day trip to Wadi Araba

The two-year-old Syrian crisis — started when several teenage boys painted anti-Assad graffiti in the southern Syrian city of Daraa — is having major impact on Jordan and other countries in the region.

This week the Economic and Social Council (ESC) issued a report stating that the economic cost of hosting the refugees for the past 18 months exceeded 590 million Jordanian Dinars ($833 million USD). This represents about 3 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product.

According to the Jordanian government, the number of Syrians in Jordan now exceeds 320,000, placing strain on Jordan’s infrastructure and, in some cases, increasing social tensions between the refugees and Jordanian host communities.

Cindy with Rasha in Gregria

Cindy with Rasha in Greigra

More than 29,000 Syrian children are enrolled in Jordanian public schools at a cost of $19.8 million.  The influx of Syrians has also contributed to growing unemployment rates in Jordan, as 38,000 jobs have been offered to Syrians.

Some Syrians are moving their businesses to Jordan, creating stiff competition for Jordanian companies, according to The Media Line.  “Syrians are managing to cut production costs by operating from apartments, hiring refugees and avoiding taxation,” said garment factory owner Ebrahim Hadad.  “Syrians are welcomed; this country is comprised of refugees,” Hadad continued. “However, they are hurting our businesses. I am unable to compete with them.”

Za'atari Refugee Camp near Mafraq, where an MCC partner distributed children's shoes this week (photo by Mu'ath Freij)

Za’atari Refugee Camp near Mafraq, where an MCC partner distributed children’s shoes this week           (photo by Mu’ath Freij)

Dozens were killed Friday in a spate of car bomb attacks in mainly Shia Muslim areas near Baghdad.  Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims demonstrated against Iraq’s Shia-led government, alleging that Sunni’s are marginalized in Iraq.

Also in the region this week Iran and the United States considered the possibility of bilateral talks, but have not reached an agreement to do so.

Women from Gregria plant watermelons, using plastic "tents" to extend the growing season

Women from Greigra plant watermelons, using plastic “tents” to extend the growing season

Eric Mattson and Bev Abma, FRB staff, eye a delicious Jordanian Bedouin meal in Gregria

Eric Mattson and Bev Abma, FRB staff, eye a delicious Jordanian Bedouin meal in Greigra

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about finding clarity in the clouds!

In the Old Testament reading, Moses spends 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai in a cloud, speaking with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.  When Moses comes down the mountain his face shines because he has been talking to God. (Ex. 34:29-35)

The psalmist writes that Moses, Aaron and Samuel were among those who called on God’s name and that God answered them (Ps. 99:6).  God “spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.” (v.7)

The FRB delegation made a quick stop at the Dead Sea on the way to Wadi Araba

The FRB delegation made a quick stop at the Dead Sea on the way to Wadi Araba

In the Epistle reading, Paul recounts that Moses’ face shone after encountering God on Mt. Sinai.  Subsequently, after speaking with the people, Moses put a veil over his face so that the people would not see that the shine was fading.  Paul says that this same veil is there today for those who hear the old covenant.  However, in Christ, the veil is set aside.  “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray.  While praying, the appearance of Jesus’ face is changed and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear briefly.  A cloud envelops Jesus and his terrified disciples.  A voice says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

Ironically, God often speaks most clearly when things feel most cloudy to us.  Clouds can cause us to feel confused and disoriented.  But they can also filter out distractions, freeing us to concentrate fully on God’s presence and to hear God’s voice with greater clarity.  In the clouds, God seeks to transform us from one degree of glory to another.

Ripe tomatoes in Jordan -- in February!

Ripe tomatoes in Jordan — in February!

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.

God guides us

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 27, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Nehemiah 8:1-10; Ps. 19; I Cor. 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21

This week we hosted a group of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) students who are spending the spring semester in the Middle East, led by Linford and Janet Stutzman.  The group of 30 students graciously squeezed into MCC’s small office in Amman to learn about MCC’s work in the region and to hear from several MCC partner organizations who work with refugees in Jordan.

EMU's Middle East students at Jordan's Arnon Valley (photo by Erin Rheinheimer)

EMU’s Middle East students at Jordan’s Arnon Valley (photo by Erin Rheinheimer)

Leila Diab, director of Jordan YWCA, reflected on how her childhood experiences as a Palestinian refugee have influenced her decision to work with refugee issues today.  Frances Voon, staff person with the Jesuit Refugee Services, spoke about JRS’s new higher education program for refugees and the challenges faced by Syrian, Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese refugees living in Jordan.

Amela Puljek-Shank (2nd from right) with Sisters Narges, Maryam and Azhar

Amela Puljek-Shank (2nd from right) with Sisters Narges, Maryam and Azhar

We also hosted Rick Janzen and Amela Puljek-Shank, outgoing and incoming MCC Europe-Middle East directors, respectively.  Daryl traveled with Rick and Amela to northern Iraq, where they met with MCC Iraqi partners — including Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who operate Kids House Kindergarten for some 240 children ages 3-5.

MCC Iraq program coordinator Jim Fine with Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

MCC Iraq program coordinator Jim Fine with Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

On Saturday evening, we hosted the MCC Jordan staff for a belated Christmas dinner.  It was a wonderful time of sharing food, stories and laughter.

MCC Jordan staff with Amela Puljek-Shank (l to r): Nada Zabaneh, Amela, Cindy, Kristy Guertin, Suzi Khoury, Willy Stell, Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen

MCC Jordan staff with Amela Puljek-Shank (l to r): Nada Zabaneh, Amela, Cindy, Kristy Guertin, Suzi Khoury, Willy Stell, Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen

In the region this week:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted Jordan’s parliamentary elections, Wednesday, due to concerns that the electoral system is weighted toward Jordan’s Bedouin tribes, who dominate the government and security forces.  Not surprisingly, initial results suggest that pro-government candidates will form a majority in the new parliament.  Jordan’s King Abdullah will appoint a prime minister from among the largest blocs in parliament, or someone approved by them.
  • Thousands of additional Syrian refugees spilled into Jordan, even as the Jordanian government prepares to open a second refugee camp. MCC is assisting the refugees through several local Jordanian partners.
  • At least five people were killed Friday in Fallujah when Iraqi security fired on Sunni protesters and worshipers.  For the past month, Sunni Muslims have been protesting what they perceive to be second-class treatment under the Shia-led Iraqi government.
Hanaa Edwar, general secretary of Iraqi al-Amal

Hanaa Edwar, general secretary of Iraqi al-Amal

The Common Lectionary readings offer glimpses of God’s guidance.

In the Old Testament reading, exiles who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon ask Ezra the scribe to read the law of Moses to the assembled crowds. Ezra agrees, reading from early morning until midday.  His assistants then explain the law to the people so that they will fully understand God’s expectations (Neh. 8:1-10).

The Psalmist writes that God’s law revives the soul (v.7a), makes wise the simple (7b), brings rejoicing to the heart (8a), enlightens the eyes (8b) and warns against harmful ways (v.11).  There is great reward in keeping God’s commandments, the psalmist declares.

In the Epistle reading, Paul describes God’s plan for the church – the body of Christ.  Members are given differing gifts for the benefit of the whole. By functioning in unity, the parts of the body can effectively care for one another, both rejoicing and suffering together (I Cor. 12:12-31)

In the Gospel reading, the Spirit empowers the ministry of Jesus, guiding him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor (Luke 4:14-19).

In the midst of the chaos and suffering which seem so prevalent in our world, God’s guidance comes in many ways – through God’s written word; through the community of God’s people working together; and through God’s empowering Spirit.

Amela with MCC Iraq English teacher Deb Fine, outside Mar Qardakh School -- expected to become the first IB school in Iraq

Amela with MCC Iraq English teacher Deb Fine, outside Mar Qardakh School — expected to become the first International Baccalaureate (IB) school in Iraq

 

Extreme makeovers

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 20, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 62:1-5; Ps. 36:5-10; I Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

The directors of MCC’s three advocacy offices visited us in Amman this week to learn about the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach visits with Caritas Jordan emergency response coordinator, Jameel Dababneh outside a distribution center in Amman

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach visits with Caritas Jordan emergency response coordinator, Jameel Dababneh outside a distribution center in Amman

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach (MCC Washington), Paul Heidebrecht (MCC Ottawa) and Doug Hostetter (MCC United Nations) met with several refugee families and with MCC Jordan partners who are assisting some of the nearly 300,000 Syrians now living in Jordan.  The most recent issue of MCC’s a Common Place magazine features the stories of MCC partners working with refugees in Jordan.

Rachelle, Paul and Doug with Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies

Rachelle, Paul and Doug with Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies

The large influx of refugees is putting strong upward pressure on food and housing prices in Jordan and, in some cases, creating tensions between the refugees and Jordanian host communities.

7-year-old Ghadeer (right) served us tea at her family's one-room flat in Amman

7-year-old Ghadeer (right) served us tea at her family’s one-room flat in Amman (photo by Doug Hostetter)

In the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Amman, we visited a Syrian family with four small children, living in a one-room flat.  The father earns $125 per month selling clothing.  The rent on their flat costs $100 per month, forcing the family to take out loans to make ends meet.  In spite of the hardships the family has encountered, they welcomed us in their home and the 7-year-old daughter served us tea.

On Friday, we welcomed Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They will be studying Arabic until summer when they succeed us as MCC Reps in Amman.

Gordon and Carolyne Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg will become new MCC Reps in summer of 2013

Gordon and Carolyne Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg will become new MCC Reps in summer of 2013

In the region this week:

  • The Jordanian government announced a contract with MCC partner the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIS) to promote the Amman Message in the Middle East and Europe.  The Amman Message – which, according to the Jordan Times “seeks to affirm what Islam is and what it is not, and what actions represent it and what actions do not” — was released by His Majesty King Abdullah in November 2004.  “The promotion of the Amman Message reminds Muslims themselves of the true nature of their religion,” said Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the RIIS. “It is not the terrorist ugly faith that is presented sometimes by the Islamophobia in the West.”

The Common Lectionary readings for this second Sunday after Epiphany highlight extreme makeovers and second chances.

In the Old Testament reading, after a period of exile and shame, God’s wayward people receive a new name and a second chance.  “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,” God promises, “but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” (Is. 62:4)

The psalmist contrasts the wicked who do not fear God or do good, who are full of deceit and who plot mischief and evil, with those who drink from the river of God’s delights.  “For with you is the fountain of life,” the psalmist proclaims. “In your light we see light.” (Ps. 36:9)

Our granddaughter Sydney examines a snowflake (photo by Holden Byler)

Our granddaughter Sydney examines a snowflake outside her home in Virginia (photo by Holden Byler)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11).  In a dramatic sign of the theological shift from law to grace, Jesus transforms the water in six large stone jars used for Jewish rites of purification into the finest wine for joyful wedding guests.

In the Epistle reading, God’s Spirit activates gifts in each member of the community, transforming self-interested individuals into ministers for the common good. (I Cor. 12:1-11).

With all the brokenness around us, it is encouraging to know that God is in the business of extreme makeovers – transforming exile and shame into intimacy and delight; legalism into grace and celebration; and self-seeking individuals into a caring community.

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

Drawn to God’s light

Epiphany (January 6, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72:1-14; Eph. 3:1-12; Matt. 2:1-12

We are back in Amman after a 72-hour trip from Denver, Colorado, where we visited our daughter Jessica.  We took a Greyhound bus from Denver to Washington, D.C., traveling through snow and rain for much of the journey.

Washington, D.C.'s Union Station doubles at the Greyhound terminal

Washington, D.C.’s Union Station doubles at the Greyhound terminal

We were impressed with the excellent drivers and quality of service.  A lot has changed since our last Greyhound trip – women drivers, Internet access and electrical outlets on board, fewer stops and (mostly) clean terminals.

Daryl took this photo at the Greyhound terminal in Baltimore, before being informed that Homeland Security says such pix are off limits!

Our bus at the Greyhound terminal in Baltimore

From D.C. we flew through London, arriving in Amman at 3 a.m. on Thursday.  We are grateful to be home and look forward to catching up with staff and partners here.

In the region this week:

A Syrian woman, Rasmeen, with her daughter Hanadi, born at the Akilah Hospital in Amman (Jordan Times photo)

A Syrian woman, Rasmeen, with her daughter Hanadi, born at the Akilah Hospital in Amman (Jordan Times photo)

The Common Lectionary reading for this Epiphany Sunday focus on being drawn to God’s light.

In the Gospel reading, the Magi from the East are guided by a star to Bethlehem where they kneel down and pay homage to the Christ child, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:1-12).

Similarly, in the Old Testament reading, God’s servant has drawing power. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” writes Isaiah (Is. 60:3). As gifts the travelers bring the abundance of the seas, the wealth of the nations, camels, gold and frankincense (vv. 5-6).

Psalm 72 is the prayer of Solomon, who describes kings and nations who are drawn to the light of God’s servant.  They bring tribute, worshiping and serving the one who is concerned for the oppressed, defends the cause of the poor, delivers the needy, crushes the oppressor, and shows pity on the weak and needy (Ps. 72:1-14).

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that the church is to make God’s great mystery known to the rulers and authorities.  What is this mystery?  Simply that “The Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:6)

Epiphany recognizes the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom.  Magi from the East, people from all nations, Gentiles and Jews — all can find welcome. These “outsiders” are not attracted by glitz and power and shows of force.

Indeed quite the opposite.  Magi are drawn to a baby in a manger.  The nations, including kings, are drawn to a servant leader who shows concern for the oppressed, defends the cause of the poor and delivers the needy.  The rulers and authorities are attracted to a community that joins together those who once were enemies.

May our faith communities reflect such light in the coming year.

A lot has changed in a year's time for our granddaughter Sydney: at left in the intensive care unit at UVa; at right, modeling her sunglasses at age one (photos by Holden Byler)

A lot has changed in a year’s time for our granddaughter Sydney: At left, in the intensive care unit at UVa; at right, modeling her sunglasses at age one (photos by Holden Byler)

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

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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.

Prepare the way

Second Sunday in Advent (December 9, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Malachi 3:1-4; Phil. 1:3-11; Luke 1:68-79; 3:1-6

Highlights of this week included:

  • Attending a lecture by Dr. Amir Akrami, a visiting Iranian professor at Eastern Mennonite University. Dr Akrami’s lecture focused on the Islamic understanding of justice and ethics.
  • Sharing dinner with David and Faith Evans (and six-year-old son Solomon) – friends from our days in Washington, D.C. David now teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Faith runs a small business that focuses on exercise and health.
Meat and (sweet) potatoes girl

Meat and (sweet) potatoes girl

  • Spending a delightful evening with Holden, Heidi and Sydney at their home in Penn Laird.
  • Being hosted for dinner by Lynn and Kathleen Roth – long-term MCC friends who now work at EMU.

We came across this “alternative gift” idea for supporting work for justice in Gaza.

Cindy and Sydney with Teddy

Cindy and Sydney with Teddy

In the region this week:

  • The Syrian government denied allegations that it plans to use chemical weapons against rebel groups, saying that Western countries are trying to create a pretext for intervention.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on preparing the way for the Lord.

In the Old Testament reading, God promises to send a messenger to “prepare the way before me.” (Malachi 3:1). The Lord will come as a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap (v.2) to purify the community, turning them from practices of injustice to the fear of the Lord and the practice of justice.

The Gospel readings highlight the ministry of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus.  John’s father prophesied at the time of John’s birth: “And you my child . . . will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77) Luke quotes Isaiah, describing John’s ministry as: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (3:4)

Paul prays that the church at Philippi “may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:10-11)

In this season of Advent may we especially prepare the way for the Lord’s coming – accepting God’s refining in our lives, embracing God’s forgiveness and salvation, and producing the fruit of justice in our lives.

Sydney at play (photo by Holden Byler)

Sydney at play (photo by Holden Byler)