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Delivered from death

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 18, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ps. 107:1-3, 17-22; Num. 21:4-9; Eph. 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

This week we have been accompanying a team that is reviewing several MCC country programs in the region. Cindy took the group to northern Iraq, Mar. 11-13, and Daryl took them to Palestine/Israel, Mar. 13-17.

In Amman, MCC sponsored gathering of Christian leaders from eight countries in the region, who met to talk about why Christians are leaving the Middle East and what can be done to reverse this emigration. Christianity in the Middle East: Where to? was hosted by the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies.  Jordan’s Prince Hassan spoke and listened to the group and promised to do what he could to address their concerns.

Dr. Abu Jaber, director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, organized the conference in Amman

Bishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of Aleppo of the Syriac Orthodox Church, said that the issue of Christian emigration from the Middle East is even more important in the midst of instability in the region. Conference participants emphasized the importance of maintaining religious pluralism, freedom of belief, equality of citizenship and acceptance of others.

In the region this week, a U.S. soldier killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan, further fueling anti-American sentiment in that country.

Kofi Annan, U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, called for a united U.N. Security Council response to the situation in Syria. Twin blasts rocked Damascus on Saturday morning, resulting in several dozen deaths.

Smoke billows over Damascus after twin blasts on Saturday morning killed more than 2 dozen persons (Reuters photo)

Egypt brokered a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, after a week of cross-border fighting that resulted in the deaths of 25 Palestinians.

Egypt’s Pope Shenouda IIIdied Saturday, at age 88.

Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III (AFP photo)

The Common Lectionary readings remind us that God offers a way of deliverance from destruction and death.

The psalmist describes difficulties that afflict people, even to the point of death. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” (Ps. 107:19-20)

In the Old Testament reading the people are bitten by poisonous serpents after they complain against God and against Moses. “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (v.9)

In the Epistle reading Paul writes that, although we were once dead through our trespasses and sins, God has “made us alive together with Christ” (v.5) and has created us to do good works (v.10). This deliverance is a gift of God, not of our own doing (v.8).

In the Gospel reading, John writes that Jesus came to deliver the world, not to condemn it. God’s love for the world is demonstrated by the suffering that Jesus absorbed. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Serious issues face the region. From the emigration of Christians, to violence in Syria and Gaza, to the threat of war against Iran, unsettling news dominates the headlines. The Common Lectionary readings offer hope that, in spite of the human condition – indeed because of the human condition — God offers a path of deliverance.


Shepherd King

Christ the King Sunday (November 20, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Eph. 1:15-23; Ezek. 34:11-24; Ps. 95:1-7a; Matt. 25:31-46

Fall weather has arrived in Jordan – a mixture of cool sunny and cool rainy days. Rain is always welcomed in a country that is in the top five globally for water scarcity. We spent much of the week in the office, catching up on items that fell by the wayside in our recent travel to Bosnia and Palestine.

We met with a Travel Venture Tours group led by Ed and Edie Bontrager of Harrisonburg, Va., and shared stories of MCC’s work in the region. The group has been touring Palestine/Israel and Jordan.

Sydney in a reflective moment!

Our granddaughter Sydney is still at the University of Virginia Medical Center. She is gaining weight but still not consistently eating without the assistance of a feeding tube. Holden and Heidi are hoping to take her home on Monday – a few days before Thanksgiving.

In the region this week:
-Six Palestinian “freedom riders” were detained after boarding an Israeli bus that provides service to Israeli settlers in the Palestinian West Bank.

Huwaida Arraf and Fadi Quran ride Bus 148 (Activestills photo)

-An Israeli airstrike in Gaza injured the French consul, his wife and daughter.
-Ruth Dayan, surviving spouse of former Israeli leader Moshe Dayan, criticized the Israeli occupation and said the Zionist dream has run its course.
-Some 1,000 protesters in Amman called for political reforms and an end to Jordanian government corruption; they also called on the Syrian government to end attacks on the Syrian people.

Protesters in Amman call for end to government corruption and political reforms (AFP photo)

Iran’s nuclear program continues to be in the news. Iran claims that the program is for peaceful civilian purposes while Israel, the U.S. and a number of Western countries say Iran is attempting to build nuclear weapons.
-A press report claims that Iran played an influential role in Iraq’s decision not to extend the Dec. 31 deadline for full withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The Common Lectionary readings for this “Christ the King” Sunday describe a king whose authority is supreme but who has the heart of a shepherd.

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that God raised Christ from the dead “and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Eph. 1:20-21) From this position, Christ guides the church, which represents his body on earth (vv.22-23).

In the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel records Gods promise to faithfully shepherd the people. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34:15-16) God will do this because human leaders have ravaged rather then shepherded the flock (vv.17-22).

The psalmist declares God’s praise: “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” (Ps. 95:3) And yet this King cares for the people. “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (v.7a)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus describes his eventual return as king to gather and judge the nations, separating people from one another “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt. 25:32) The blessed sheep are those who have shared food with the hungry and drink with the thirsty; those who have welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner; those who have given clothing to the naked and cared for the sick (vv. 34-36). The cursed are those who failed to do these things. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus concludes, “just as you did it (did not do it) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it (did not do it) to me.” (v.40, 45)

The Lectionary readings offer comfort that we have a shepherd who guides and protects us. But they also present the clear challenge that political and religious leaders — indeed, all of us — are accountable for treating others with compassion and justice.


22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 13, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ps. 90; Zeph. 1:7, 12-18; I Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30

Our granddaughter Sydney is now two weeks old. She is still at University of Virginia Medical Center until she is able to consistently eat on her own. Her parents report that she is making good progress. Sydney is using a feeding tube intermittently because she sometimes falls asleep while eating – typical for premature babies.

Heidi and Sydney

This week an auditor from Winnipeg was here to review MCC programs and finances in the region. This process happens every three years and includes lots of questions and recommendations for changes that could strengthen program operations. We are hopeful for a good report!

In the region this week a controversial report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) hinted that Iran may be carrying out research aimed at developing nuclear weapons capacity. The report fueled further speculation of possible Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, while others acknowledge that such strikes would come at a high cost. Palestinian leaders announced that they will persist in their bid for membership at the United Nations, in spite of running into obstacles at the 15-member Security Council.

Sydney in a waking moment

Fittingly, with an audit underway in our office this week, the Common Lectionary readings are also about accounting.

The psalmist notes the brevity of human life and pleads to God: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps.90:12)

In the Old Testament reading the prophet Zephaniah speaks of the day of the Lord as a time of judgment on those who complacently say in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, no will he do harm.” (Zeph. 1:12) “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath,” says Zephaniah. (v.18)

In the Epistle reading Paul says “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (I Thess. 5:2) and that there will be “no escape!” (v.3) However, we need not be afraid. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” encourages Paul. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (vv. 8-9)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about a master who gives large sums of money to three servants before leaving on a journey (Matt. 24:14-30). Two of the servants trade with the sums entrusted to them, but the third, fearful of his master, buries the amount given to him. Eventually the master returns and demands an accounting. Two of the servants report that they have doubled the amount entrusted to them. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave,” replies the master. But the third servant is chastised for not at least investing the sum entrusted to him.

In a world where mistrust, injustice and violence are the daily realities for far too many people, we pray that we will faithfully use and multiply the gifts entrusted to us in ways that are consistent with God’s restorative work. With the psalmist we pray, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

A grandchild is born!

We are currently traveling in Palestine with a learning tour group from the United States and Canada. While in Nazareth, we received word that we have become grandparents! Sydney Hope Byler was born Oct. 29 at the University of Virginia Hospital, to our son Holden and daughter-in-law Heidi. Sydney weighs 3lbs, 15oz. and arrived six weeks before her due date. Sydney and Heidi are doing well. Needless to say, we are thrilled!

Sydney Hope Byler, 3lb, 15.4oz

Sydney with Heidi

Fruit of the vine

16th Sunday after Pentecost (October 2, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ps. 80:7-15; Is. 5:1-7; Phil. 3:4b-14; Matt. 21:33-46

This week we enjoyed debriefing with three short-term volunteers who taught an Intensive English class at St. Peter’s Seminary in northern Iraq, Aug. 20-Sept.24. Lois Bukar, Greg Rabus and Deborah Schaffer spent long days teaching young priests and other Iraqi students. They also had opportunities to visit a number of communities in northern Iraq and learned a lot about local culture and customs.

Lois, Greg and Deb, at our home in Amman

MCC has placed an English teacher at St. Peter’s for the past four years. This is the second time that MCC provided teachers for an Intensive English class that is held before the regular academic year begins.

In the region this week:

Israel announced plans for 1,100 new settlement units in East Jerusalem. The U.S. and European Union condemned the announcement. But U.S. officials threatened no consequences as they did last week when the Palestinian Liberation Organization submitted a bid at the U.N. to be recognized as a full member state.

-Iraq made its first payment on a $3.0 billion order for 18 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets. The U.S. also will provide training for the Iraqi pilots who will fly the jets.

The U.S. plans to sell eighteen F-16 fighter jets to Iraq (USAF photo/Gallo-Getty)

-On Friday, thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in Amman, calling for Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit’s government to step down.

The Common Lectionary readings are about vineyards.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard to describe God’s care for God’s people. God plants a vineyard with “choice vines” on a “very fertile hill.” (Is. 5:1-2) But instead of yielding good grapes, it yielded wild grapes (vv. 2, 4). God expected justice but, instead, God’s people acted violently (v.7). Therefore, God promises to remove the hedge of protection around the vineyard and allow it to be trampled down and laid to waste (vv. 5-6).

Lucious grapes are plentiful in the Middle East (Grapevines of Zebadini Farm from Prairie Heart of Damascus blogsite)

The psalmist also describes a vineyard, but from the viewpoint of God’s people. “You brought a vine out of Egypt,” they acknowledge, “you drove out the nations and planted it.” (Ps. 80:8). For a time, the vine flourished, they remember. “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” they lament (v.12). “Restore us . . . let your face shine, that we may be saved,” they plead (v.7).

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees a story about a landowner who plants a vineyard and builds a fence around it (Matt. 21:33-46). The landowner then leases the vineyard to tenants and goes to another country. Later he sends servants (followed by his son) to receive his portion of the produce. But the tenants kill the servants and even the landowner’s son. Jesus’ listeners conclude that the landowner will get rid of the tenants and turn the vineyard over to other tenants who “will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (v.41) Jesus responds, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (v. 43)

Daryl's sister Cheryl and her husband Mark enjoy the shade of thick grapevines at Amman's Citadel

The image of vineyards and grapevines is common in the Middle East. Many families plant grapevines to provide fruit but also to shade outdoor patios that provide pleasant gathering spaces on hot summer days. The grape harvest is just ending here. We’ve enjoyed delicious white and red grapes, which have been especially sweet this year.

The Lectionary readings use powerful images of vineyards to remind us of God’s care for the human community, but also of the expectation that we bear fruit and act justly in the world. Are we producing the fruits of God’s kingdom?

Walk humbly with God

15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 25, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps. 25:1-9; Phil. 2:1-13; Matt. 21:23-32

We enjoyed a retreat this week with staff in the region. Each country team shared pictures and stories of their work and, together, we set goals for the coming year. We also had time to play games and watch movies together. The annual variety show uncovered new talent and included impromptu Dead Sea mud facials for three staff members.

Mohammad tells Brent what day of the month it is

Another highlight was a trip to Holy Land Institute, where service worker Brent Stutzman described his work with deaf-blind students.

In the region this week Iran released two U.S. hikers that have been held for more than two years on charges of spying. The hikers say they accidentally strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in northeastern Iraq, where the border with Iran is porous.

In spite of stiff opposition from the United States and Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a formal bid for full U.N. membership of a Palestinian State. Reaction in the region is mixed and there have already been confrontations between Palestinian protestors and Israeli settlers and police.

A Palestinian woman in Ramallah reacts to Palestinian bid for statehood (AP photo by Bernat Armangue, New York Times)

All Palestinians believe the Israeli occupation must end and that something needs to happen to change the status quo dynamics of the so called “peace process.” But some fear that the Palestinian bid at the U.N. won’t make any actual differences on the ground and that the right of return for refugees may be lost in this process. MCC partners such as Bethlehem Bible College, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center (2 statements) and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions all issued statements.

On a visit to the Holy Land Institute, Deb learns what it is like to read Braille

The Common Lectionary readings this week remind us to walk humbly with God.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God commands: “Cast away from you all the transgressions you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezek. 18:31)

“God leads the humble in what is right,” writes the psalmist, “and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps. 25:9). In this humble spirit, the psalmist prays, “Make me to know your ways . . . teach me your paths . . . lead me in your truth.” (vv.4-5a)

Cindy and Sarah share a light moment over breakfast at retreat

In the Epistle reading, Paul calls us to pattern our lives after Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) It is through such humble servants that God is at work, enabling us to “will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” (v.13)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about a father who asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. (Matt. 21:28-32) The first says that he will not, but later changes his mind and does. The second promises to do the work but then does not. It is those who humble themselves to do God’s will that are part of God’s kingdom, Jesus concludes.

Ingrid, Deb and Sarah get Dead Sea mud facials as part of variety show

It is a volatile time for the region. There is both anticipation and fear. Across the world political leaders pursue their own narrow national interests – which are often not the interests of the most vulnerable people. In this mix, the Common Lectionary readings call us to walk humbly with God — seeking to have a new heart and spirit, faithfully living out the signs of God’s kingdom, and working for God’s good pleasure.

The trouble with God’s grace

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 18, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Matt. 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps. 145:1-8; Phil. 1:21-30

This weekend we plan to participate in a retreat for MCC workers in the region. These annual events are a great time for connecting with colleagues.

MCC staff at fall 2010 retreat in Amman (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

On Wednesday about 70 Jordanian activists burned U.S. and Israeli flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman. According to Al Jazeera, the group was angry over recent WikiLeaks cables “suggesting covert U.S. plans to turn Jordan into a home for Palestinians.” Palestinians already comprise more than half of Jordan’s population.

Jordanian protesters at U.S. embassy in Amman (Reuters photo)

On Thursday about 300 Jordanians gathered near the Israeli Embassy in Amman, calling on the Jordanian government to shut down the embassy and cut diplomatic ties with Jordan. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, but many Jordanians do not feel that the treaty has led to practical benefits for Jordanians. They also fear that Israel plans to deport even more Palestinians to Jordan.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed on Friday that he will apply next week to the U.N. Security Council for full membership of a Palestinian state. The U.S. has threatened to veto such an action.

The Common Lectionary readings this week describe God’s grace and the challenges it creates – especially for those who would seek to contain or control it.

The psalmist, echoing many biblical writers, declares: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps. 145:8) Grace is part of God’s very nature or DNA.

The prophet Jonah understands full well that God is gracious; Jonah’s problem is that he doesn’t want God’s grace to extend to his enemies – the Assyrian empire. So when God calls Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to the Assyrian people, Jonah flees the opposite direction. Eventually, Jonah goes to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and preaches. The king and people repent and God chooses not to punish them. But rather than celebrate the success of his preaching campaign, Jonah sulks outside the city. “Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3). Jonah wants God to destroy his enemies. God has a bigger plan: to transform them so that they will be a blessing to others and no longer a threat to Jonah and his people.

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hires laborers at various points during the day. At the end of the day, he pays the first hired a fair day’s wage – just as he promised in the morning. But he pays the same wage to the workers who were hired late in the day. Rather than celebrate their good fortunate of having had work for the day so they can feed their families, the first hired grumble, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matt. 20:12). The landowner reminds the first hired that he paid them as promised. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” he challenges, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v.15)

The Epistle reading cites one more “problem” with God’s grace. Paul tells the church at Philippi that “(God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (Phil. 1:29) While we don’t often equate hardship with grace, it is precisely during times of identifying most fully with Christ’s suffering that we most fully experience God’s grace.

It can be difficult to be thankful for what we have when someone else gets a “better deal”. It is even more difficult to see God’s grace extend to those who make us feel small or insecure. Still, we diminish the quality of our life when we seek to restrict God’s grace.

Grace is God’s nature. And it is God’s gift to give as God chooses.

9/11@10 years

13th Sunday after Pentecost
Common Lectionary Readings:
Rom. 14:1-12; Gen. 50:15-21; Ps. 103:1-13; Matt. 18:21-35

This week marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. How much the world has changed in the past 10 years! More than 100,000 civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq – along with thousands of soldiers — have been killed in U.S.-led wars aimed at retaliating for the horrific 9/11 attacks. In an attempt to extract information — or perhaps simply to humiliate — U.S. military personnel have tortured hundreds of prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

World Trade Center twin towers on fire after being hit by commercial airliners (photo by Spencer Platt for Getty Images)

Some 4 million Iraqis have been uprooted from their homes. The wars have already cost well over $5 trillion dollars and are a key factor in the massive U.S. debt burden that weighs heavily on a faltering U.S. economy. Few could argue with a straight face that the world is more secure as a result of this display of military might.

An Iraqi Christian from Baghdad visited our office in Amman this week. He described the chaos and corruption that still define life for many in Iraq. Electricity is erratic (a huge problem when temperatures soar well over 120 F degrees – 50 C). Public funds disappear and government services are few. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts are frequent. A common tactic is to place a note with a bullet on an enemy’s doorstep, with a cryptic message, “You have seven days to leave!”

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about forgiveness.

In the Old Testament reading, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will retaliate against them for the grievous harm they did to him when he was a youth (Gen. 50:15-17). But Joseph sees the big picture. “Do not be afraid!” he reassures his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people. . .” (vv. 19-20)

The psalmist describes God’s many benefits to us, beginning with forgiving our iniquities (Ps. 103:3). “(God) does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” writes the psalmist, rather, “as far as the east is from the west, so far (God) removes our transgressions from us.” (v.12)

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges that we not pass judgment on one other due to our differing dietary and religious practices. (Rom. 14:10), Rather, we are to extend space for our sisters and brothers to honor God according to their own convictions.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of master who forgives his servant a huge sum of money. But immediately after receiving this tremendous gift of forgiveness, the servant refuses to forgive a man who owes him a much smaller sum of money, instead throwing him in prison. (Matt. 18:23-30) The master responds in anger, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (v.33)

Our forgiveness of others is rooted in God’s forgiveness of us. Forgiveness is hard enough to practice in individual relationships. Is it even possible for nations to forgive? At a minimum, the high cost of retaliation should lead nations to look for alternative ways to respond.

Below is a reflection that Daryl wrote the day after 9/11, when we were living in Washington, D.C.

An eye for an eye?
by J. Daryl Byler

September 11, 2001. It is the day that sheared a gaping hole in a prominent city’s skyline and seared a profound sense of peril on a powerful nation’s psyche.

It will be remembered as a day of horror and shock. U.S. commercial airliners — hijacked and used as guided missiles — smashed into America’s most prestigious financial and military symbols in New York and Washington, D.C.

The North Tower collapses (AP photo by Richard Drew)

Towering steel skyscrapers tumbled before our eyes like a child’s building blocks. The Pentagon’s portly walls were penetrated as if made of cardboard. Suddenly the world’s military and economic superpower seemed helpless and vulnerable.

No one will soon forget where they heard the startling news.

I received word of unfolding events just as former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross finished his remarks about what went wrong with the Middle East Peace process. A crowded roomful of people – already pondering the Middle East crisis — filed out onto Washington’s streets in hushed whispers.

As I walked past the White House and back to the MCC Washington Office on Capitol Hill, smoke billowed from the Pentagon to the south. Stunned workers spilled out of downtown office buildings onto packed sidewalks. Emergency vehicles, sirens wailing, slowly snaked through rush hour gridlock.

Stunned survivors walk away from the debris of the fallen towers (photo by James Nachtwey for Time)

Rumors spread quickly. More attacks were underway. “Another plane has just hit the White House!” a woman shouted mistakenly. “This is the end times!” one man declared to another. Everywhere people talked on cell phones to assure loved ones that they were okay. Yesterday’s hot political debate about budget deficits suddenly seemed irrelevant.

The nation will never be the same. The country’s worst nightmare has happened. Thousands of innocent lives snuffed out in a single morning. Even if it never happens again, Americans now live with a clearer picture of what is possible.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will all grieve the incredible loss of life. We will all feel more vulnerable and cautious. We will also rightly feel anger. Indeed, such violent acts of terror are inexcusably wrong.

But as calls for retaliation roll off the tongues of military and political leaders, it is important to ask whether retaliation will make us more secure or less.

In his remarks spoken while horror reigned from the skies, Ambassador Dennis Ross lamented the futile cycle of violence, retaliation and counter-retaliation in the Middle East during the last 11 months. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians feel more secure as a result. He suggested a more hopeful path forward — based on the practice of justice and a commitment to nonviolence.

Indeed, thousands of years ago already, Jesus cautioned against the “eye for an eye” philosophy (Matthew 5:38-48). He pointed to a new way of security rooted in our trust in God and our concern for all, including those that make us feel afraid.

Many have warned for years that American arrogance and global domination could lead to a day like September 11. I pray that we will not use this tragedy as an opportunity for retaliation but, rather, as an occasion to reflect on what truly makes for global security.

Through the judicial process — not through military retaliation or declarations of war — let us seek to bring justice to those who perpetrated the horrendous slaughter of September 11. But let us also recommit ourselves to do justice in our global relationships. It is the only chance for building a more secure future.

Turning and returning

12th Sunday after Pentecost (September 4, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Rom. 13:8-14; Ezek. 33:7-11; Ps. 119:33-40; Matt. 18:15-20

The festival “Eid al-Fitr” began this week, marking the end of Ramadan. A common greeting for this festival is “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid). On the first morning of the Eid, many Muslims gather for prayers and sermons at large mosques or in open fields. Muslims are encouraged to use different routes to and from the prayer grounds. After the Eid service, families exchange gifts.

An Indonesian girl stands next to her mother during the Eid prayers (AP photo by Dita Alangkara)

Daryl took a few days during the Eid for a delightful silent retreat just outside Amman, and Cindy hosted guests in our home.

In the region this week, Israel announced plans to arm West Bank Israeli settlers, allegedly in preparation for large Palestinian demonstrations that are expected later this month in connection with the Palestinian bid at the U.N. to declare statehood. Meanwhile, Hamas denied Palestinian students permission to leave Gaza and study for a year in the United States.

A Palestinian man in Jerusalem's Old City sells cakes for the 2010 Eid al-Fitr celebration (Photo by Ammar Awad for Reuters)

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about the importance of turning and returning.

In the Old Testament reading, God tasks Ezekiel with the responsibility to “warn the wicked to turn from their ways.” (Ex. 33:8). In turning away from evil and back to God, they will find life (v.11).

“Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain,” the psalmist pleads, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.” (Ps. 119:36-37)

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day…” (Rom. 13:12-13a) As part of turning and changing, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14) and to love neighbor as self (v.9).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus offers progressively inclusive steps for restoring one who has sinned (Matt. 18:15-17).

Many situations in the world call for a fresh turn and a new direction. Just as Muslims return home from the Eid service using a different route, so, too, our lives are to reflect a different path when we encounter God and commit ourselves anew to walking in God’s path of justice, peace and concern for our neighbors.

Letting go, trusting God

11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 28, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 15:15-21; Ps. 26:1-8; Rom. 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28

This week we enjoyed interacting with the new MCC SALT workers who are studying Arabic in Amman, while living with Jordanian host families. We especially enjoyed hearing stories from Sarah, Meredith and Trish when they visited our home for dinner one evening. We feel fortunate to have such gifted young adults to work in Jordan and Palestine this year.

Ramadan is drawing to a close and Muslims are preparing for the Eid al-Fitr (or festival), which celebrates the end of this holy month. On the first day of the Eid, Muslims are encouraged to forgive any differences and animosities that have occurred with others during the previous year. It is time to let go and move forward.

Libyans celebrate in Benghazi (EPA photo)

In the region this week opposition forces in Lybia took over Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s compound, signaling the near-end to his 42-year rule. However, Gaddafi himself has not yet been found, even as a transitional council begins to assume the mantle of leadership for Libya. Another wave of violence in Iraq resulted in a dozen deaths across the country.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about letting go and trusting God.

In the Old Testament reading the prophet Jeremiah bemoans the hardship he has experienced at the hands of an unfaithful people. He begs God to “bring down retribution . . . on my persecutors.” (Jer. 15:15) God instructs Jeremiah to turn back and faithfully serve God. “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,” God promises, “and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (v.20)

The psalmist also asks God to intervene and vindicate him. “For I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” David argues. (Ps. 26:1)

In the Epistle reading, Paul appeals: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Rom. 12:17) Rather than taking matters into our own hands, we are to leave matters of vengeance in God’s hands (v.19). We are to feed our enemies (v.20) and overcome evil with good (v.21)

In the Gospel reading Jesus challenges his would-be followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus offers a compelling reason for such a counter-cultural approach: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (v.25). Jesus is not simply preaching lofty words. He, too, plans to lay down his life and to trust God for the outcome (v.21).

Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus struggled with the meaning of letting go and trusting God (photo by Cheryl Keeler)

In an uncertain world, we spend much of our time grasping to control whatever we can, and seeking to put in their place those who make life difficult for us. The Lectionary readings this week remind us that both of these behaviors are of little value. Letting go and trusting God does not come naturally. For people of faith seasonal spaces like Ramadan and Lent help us to do just that.