Tag Archives: Gaza

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.


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)

Faith of our fathers

25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 18, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Dan. 12:1-3; Ps. 16; Heb. 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

We spent the week in Harrisonburg, Virginia, enjoying quality family time — including with our granddaughter Sydney, who becomes more talkative by the day.  Elwood and Lorene Schrock have graciously made an apartment available to us for the duration of our home leave.  We thank God for their generosity.

Grandma Cindy reads books to Sydney

At this time of November, we especially remember our fathers. If still living, Daryl’s father, Jesse Byler, would have turned 84 on November 18. Cindy’s father, Vernon Lehman, died four years ago on November 19.  We miss them greatly.

We are grateful for the legacy of Christian faith that our fathers have left to us.  Cindy’s father had a servant’s heart, always looking for ways to lend a helping hand.  Daryl’s dad had a shepherd’s heart, encouraging many through gifts of teaching, listening and counseling.  We still draw strength from their examples.

This gravestone in Kidron, Ohio, marks the site where Cindy’s father is buried

In the Middle East, things have heated up this week:

Protesters in Mafraq burn tires (Petra photo in the Jordan Times)

  • There are now 230,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan; 100,000 have registered with UNHCR.  With winter coming mobile houses are replacing tents at the Za’atari Refugee Camp. Small businesses – including falafel stands – are beginning to spring up in the camp.

A falafal stand at Zaatari camp provides a small “piece of home” for Syrian children (photo by Muath Freij)

  • Israeli military strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip increased dramatically this week, as have rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about the end times.

Daniel contrasts distress and deliverance.  “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence,” writes Daniel.  “But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.” (Dan. 12:1)

The writer of Hebrews portrays Jesus — who has for all time offered a single sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:12) — as waiting at the right hand of God until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet (Heb. 10:13).  As we “see the Day approaching” we are to hold fast the confession of our hope (v.23); provoke one another to love and good deeds (v.24); and meet together and encourage one another (v. 25).

Mark describes a time of conflict and disaster – wars and rumors of wars. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” Jesus prophesies.  “There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:6-8)  Therefore, we are to be alert and keep watch (vv. 32-37).

The Psalmist reminds us that God is our refuge (Ps. 16:1), offers counsel (v.7) and will show us the path of life (v.11).

We live now in extraordinary times – not unlike what Jesus predicted thousands of years ago.  Our task is not to despair.  Or to make bold claims about “end times.”  Rather, we are to be alert and keep watch, living out our faith day by day through love and good deeds, and by encouraging one another.

Holden and Heidi get Sydney ready for bed

Filled and satisfied

9th Sunday after Pentecost (July 29, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Eph. 3:14-21; II Kings 4:42-44; Ps. 145:10-18; John 6:1-21

The holy month of Ramadan began on July 20. During this 30-day period, devout Muslims choose not to eat, drink or smoke from dawn to dusk – an amazing commitment during the long hot days of summer.  Ramadan, based on a lunar cycle, begins 10-12 days earlier each year.  In many parts of the world, it now falls during the longest daylight hours. Temperatures in Amman have been climbing to 40 C (104 F).

The Crescent moon is seen above the King Hussein Grand Mosque, in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, July 22, 2012. Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is celebrated as the period when the Quran, Islam’s holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad about 1,400 years ago, according to the Islamic history. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon – Denver Post)

Ramadan is a season of reflection, repentance, restoring right relationships and charitable giving.  It is also a time to celebrate family and food, as extended families gather to break the fast each day with an “Iftar” meal.  During Ramadan, Muslims experience the discomfort of hunger and thirst.  But they also know the satisfaction of being filled.

Palestinian Muslim women perform the “Tarawih” evening prayer in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the old city of Jerusalem, July 24, 2012, during the fasting month of Ramadan. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GettyImages -Denver Post)

Syrian rebels break their fast with the “iftar” meal during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in the northern city of Aleppo on July 24, 2012. A commercial hub and home to 2.5 million people, Syria’s second city Aleppo has become a new front in the country’s 16-month uprising, after being largely excluded from the violence. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/ GettyImages – Denver Post)

Fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government rebels continues to intensify, with major battles now taking place in the large cities of Damascus and Aleppo, prompting thousands of Syrians to flee across the borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, where officials are torn between welcoming the refugees and worrying about the impact on already volatile conditions and strained infrastructure.

Preparing food at a camp in Ramtha, Jordan a border town where Syrian refugees have fled (Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times)

MCC material resources are being distributed to Syrian refugees in Jordan and an additional shipment of relief kits and blankets will soon be on the way to Jordan.

Basil Kaboushi, left, and Wajdi Haddad, volunteers with Caritas Jordan, an MCC partner, help to distribute MCC relief kits and comforters to Syrian refugees at the Latin Patriarchate School in Mafraq, Jordan, in June. (MCC Photo/Nada Zabaneh)

More than 100 persons were killed in a spate of attacks across Iraq, July 23, in the most deadly incident this year.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on being filled and satisfied.

In the Old Testament reading, a man brings 20 small barley loaves and fresh ears of grain to the prophet Elisha, who tells the man, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” (II Kings 4:42)  The man protests that it will not be enough food for 100 people. But Elisha insists that it will be more than enough.  Indeed, the people eat their fill and “had some left” – just as Elisha had promised (v.44).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus stretches a small amount of food even further. A crowd of thousands gathers because of the signs of healing Jesus has performed (John 6:1).  A young boy in the crowd offers his five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses the lad’s lunch and asks his disciples to distribute the food to the crowd.  Everyone ate “as much as they wanted” (v.11) and “when they were satisfied” Jesus asked his disciples to gather up the leftovers, which filled twelve baskets.

Libyan men shop for olives and pickles from a vendor in downtown Tripoli before breaking their fast during Islam’s holy fasting month of Ramadan on July 22, 2012. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages -Denver Post)

Similarly, the psalmist proclaims: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.  You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” (Ps. 145:15-16).

In the Epistle reading, Paul prays that Christ will dwell in the hearts of the people so that they will have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love; and so that they will be “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)

Palestinians light fireworks to celebrate the first day of the Muslim Holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City,  July 20, 2012.  (EPA/MOHAMMED SABER)

With thousands fleeing the violence in Syria, we are thankful for MCC partners like Caritas Jordan, who are daily engaged in distributing food and other material resources to meet basic needs of vulnerable families.  We pray for the day when the violence will end and families can return to their homes.  In the mean time, God is using human hands like those of Caritas Jordan volunteers to satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Shepherd leaders

8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 22, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23; Eph. 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

It has been a week of transitions. We traveled to Palestine-Israel to say goodbye to staff and partners there. New MCC Jerusalem Reps will pick up responsibility for the Palestine-Israel program, August 1. In early 2013 we plan to pick up responsibility for MCC Syria program – along with ongoing leadership for MCC programs in Iran, Iraq and Jordan.

A Palestinian family traverses the caged “buffer zone” that separates Israel’s Erez terminal and the Gaza Strip

On Sunday we traveled from one end of the Gaza Strip to the other, enjoying visits with Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) and Al Najd.  MCC Global Family partner CFTA focuses on activities and leadership training for youth. Al Najd also works with youth. Additionally, with assistance from the Food Resource Bank, Al Najd offers food security to Gazan families by helping them raise rabbits for consumption and sale.

Cindy visits with Majeda, who works with CFTA’s youth programs

Getting into Gaza is no small feat! It involves navigating Israel’s Erez terminal, walking through a half-mile-long caged corridor that traverses the Israeli-imposed buffer zone inside the Gaza Strip, and finally encountering the Hamas checkpoint at the northern end of Gaza.

A Palestinian woman drives a donkey cart through an Hamas-run checkpoint in the northern  Gaza Strip

On Monday and Tuesday, we said goodbye to MCC Palestinian and Israeli partners in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah, then returned to Jordan.

Brent Stutzman admires his Jordanian kafeyah

Wednesday was a time of debriefing for three MCC SALT workers — Meredith Alexander, Sarah Thompson and Trish Elgersma — who completed their assignments in Palestine and Jordan this week and returned to the U.S. and Canada early Thursday morning. Brent Stutzman, an MCC service worker at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, also finished a three-year assignment this week in Jordan.

Trish Elgersma, an MCC SALTer at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, opens a farewell gift — a silk scarf from Syria

All the goodbyes give us a sense of sadness; but also of thankfulness for the honor of walking together with such great partners and staff.

Sarah Thompson, a MCC SALT worker who spent a year at Sabeel in East Jerusalem, stretches at Queen Alia Airport in Amman before boarding her plane

On Saturday morning we spoke to a TourMagination group from the United States. They plan to visit sites in Jordan and Palestine-Israel during the next eight days.
In the region this week:

  • Fighting intensified in Syria, creating a new wave of refugees to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. UNHCR has already registered 34,500 Syrians in Jordan. The Jordanian government places the total number of Syrians in Jordan at around 140,000.

Early morning view from Mt. of Olives — overlooking the Jordan Valley to the West

The Common Lectionary readings this week describe the qualities of good leaders or shepherds.

In the Old Testament reading God denounces leaders who destroy, scatter and neglect the people (Jer. 23:1-2). God promises to “gather the remnant of my flock . . . (bringing) them back to their fold” (v.3), and to raise up new shepherds (v.4). Because of this, the people “shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.” (v.5)

The familiar Psalm 23 describes the good shepherd who leads the sheep to green pastures, still waters and on right paths. (vv. 2-3). Because of the shepherd’s presence, the sheep will not fear – even in the darkest valleys and in the presence of their enemies (vv. 4-5).

In the Epistle reading the good shepherd breaks down the dividing walls between hostile groups – Jews and Gentiles — and “creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” (Eph. 2:15) Both groups have the same access to God and are full members of the household of God (vv. 18-19).

In the Gospel reading, out of compassion Jesus teaches and cares for the crowds because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34)

The crisis in this region and in many places worldwide highlight the need for the kind of shepherd-leaders described in this week’s Lectionary reading – leaders who gather rather than scatter; leaders who promote human security rather than fan fears; leaders with compassion who ensure that the most vulnerable people have the basic necessities of life; and leaders who unify rather than create divisions. May God raise up such leaders for this time.

Al Najd leaders, Khalid and Rifqa, give Cindy a cross-stitched map of historic Palestine


Third Sunday in Lent (March 11, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
John 2:13-22; Ex. 20:1-17; Ps. 19; I Cor. 1:18-25

This week Cindy completed her TESF/TEFL certification course, graduating with merit! We celebrated with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Amman. She now hopes to do some part time teaching with MCC partners who offer courses in English as a foreign language. We also welcomed a two-person review team that will evaluate MCC’s programs in Iraq and Palestine/Israel.

MCC partner Bethlehem Bible College hosted more than 600 evangelical leaders from around the world, Mar. 5-9, for a conference, “Christ at the Checkpoint,” which challenged the assumptions of Christian Zionism.

In Jordan another MCC partner, the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, will host a conference this coming week to explore the reasons that Christians have been emigrating from the Middle East. The conference will bring together religious and academic Christian leaders from nine countries in the region.

Suleiman Saikali, Omar Abawi and George Akel (left to right) check the content of food boxes that were later distributed to Syrian refugees by Caritas Jordan in Mafraq

MCC will provide cash for local purchase of infant formula and diapers, and is shipping two containers of blankets, relief kits, hygiene kits and school kits to partner Caritas Jordan, to assist Syrian refugees in Jordan. Syrian Bedouin are among 80,000 refugees who have fled to Jordan as a result of the situation in Syria. According to one report this week, Syrian officials are acting to stem the flow of refugees to Jordan and other countries.

Syrian refugees coming to Jordan

Former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan is scheduled to meet in Syria this weekend with government and opposition leaders. The worst violence is in the city of Homs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a timetable for a military attack on Iran if a diplomatic solution is not found with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. “This is not a matter of days or weeks. It is also not a matter of years,” Netanyahu told an Israeli TV station. Analysts say that likely Iranian responses to an Israeli attack could have devastating consequences.

This week, Israel killed the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. Militants in Gaza responded by firing at least 80 rockets into southern Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post. Israel responded with more airstrikes, killing 12 Gazans.

The Common Lectionary readings for this third week of Lent are about words.

Syrian Bedouin are among refugees who have come to Jordan

The Old Testament reading begins, “Then God spoke all these words…” The 10 Commandments begin with a reminder of God’s act of deliverance then summarize God’s call for humans to honor God, parents and neighbors (Ex. 20:1-17).

The psalmist marvels that creation speaks without words. “The heavens are telling the glory of God;” writes the psalmist; “and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1). “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (vv. 3-4) The psalmist concludes, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (v.14)

In the Epistle reading, Paul challenges those who take pride in their written or spoken words: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20) By contrast, Paul proclaims that the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (vv.23-24)

UNICEF Representative in Jordan sits with displaced Syrian children at a UNICEF-supported facility in Ma'an (Photo by Raji Dominique Hyde for UNICEF)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks both angry words and prophetic words. He confronts the merchants and money changers, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Jn. 2:16) and then predicts that he will rise three days after he is killed (v.20). John writes, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (v.22)

Too often, words are misused to threaten or harm others. Bluster, bluff and bravado are all too common tools of political discourse. The Lectionary readings for this third week of Lent call for a different approach. Words are to guide us in constructive behaviors toward God and one another (the 10 Commandments). Like creation that speaks without words, our words should tell the glory of God. Like Jesus, our words should challenge injustice and proclaim God’s prophetic truth.

Fortunately, we need not be skilled writers or orators in order to communicate God’s message with power and wisdom. With the psalmist, we pray that our words be acceptable to God.

Drawn to God’s light

First Sunday after Christmas (January 1, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14; Eph. 3:1-12; Matt. 2:1-12

Cindy was in Virginia this week, being a grandma and spending time with our children. In her unbiased opinion, our granddaughter Sydney is even cuter in person than in the pictures. Daryl spent a quiet week in Amman and has recovered from pneumonia.

Sydney dressed for Christmas -- now up to 8 pounds!

As 2011 draws to a close, we are grateful for a year that has been filled with supportive relationships and stimulating opportunities:

  • In January, we completed a two-month home leave packed with quality family time.
  • In March, we accompanied a MCC Ontario learning tour group to Palestine-Israel.
  • In April, Daryl’s sister Judy and her family visited from Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • In May, we attended the Europe-Middle East retreat in Cyprus, followed by a four-week speaking engagement in MCC East Coast, Winnipeg and MCC British Columbia.
  • In July, Cindy’s mother and cousin visited from Kidron, Ohio. We also participated in a peacebuilding workshop in Amman, led by Dr. Alma Abul-Hadi Jadallah, an adjunct professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and hosted the MCC Reps from Egypt.
  • In August, Daryl’s sister Cheryl and brother-in-law Mark visited from Grottoes, Virginia. We also welcomed three new SALT workers to the region.
  • In September, we participated in a retreat for MCC staff from Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
  • In October, we accompanied an MCC East Coast learning tour group to Palestine-Israel. During this tour, we learned that we had become grandparents!
  • In November, we visited Gaza.
  • In December, Cindy accompanied Dr. Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah to northern Iraq, for another peacebuilding workshop.

In the region this week:

Military personnel flag an Iranian sub during naval exercises in the Persian Gulf (Reuters photo)

Protesters in downtown Amman, Dec. 30 (Amman News photo)

The Common Lectionary readings for this first Sunday after Christmas highlight that all nations — all peoples – will eventually be drawn to God’s light, finally recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah writes that “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” The prophet continues, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:2-3) As the nations come to the light that shines upon God’s people, they will “bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (v.6)

In the psalm, Solomon prays that God will help him lead with justice and peace, and defend the cause of the poor (Ps. 72:1-7). But, in prophetic words that also describe the coming Christ, Solomon also prays that all the kings of the earth will render him tribute, bring him gifts and fall down before him (vv.10-11).

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that the mystery that has been hidden from former generations is that God’s blessing is not exclusive to one people group. Rather, “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) It is through the church that this mystery of inclusion is demonstrated to the rulers and authorities (v.11).

The Gospel reading describes the visit of the Magi from the East. Guided by a star they come to Palestine to find the child who has been born king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). They kneel down and pay homage to baby Jesus, bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (v.11).

With all of the violence and injustice in the world, it often feels like thick darkness covers the earth. The potential for war in this region appears to be high in the coming year. But darkness will not have the final word in history. Christmas reminds us that God’s light has come in Christ and is now to be reflected by God’s people. Like the Magi, may we be drawn to God’s light and may our lives brightly reflect this light to those around us.

Joy to the world

Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Thess. 5:16-24; Is. 61:1-4, 8-11; Ps. 126; John 1:6-8, 19-28

This week we visited with MCC Jordan partners and hosted a Christmas dinner for MCC Jordan staff.

Cindy finalized Global Family project plans with the Orthodox Educational Society (which operates a kindergarten in Amman) and the Arab Episcopal School (which operates a school that integrates blind, low-vision and sighted students in Irbid). She also attended a Christmas program hosted by the YWCA Jordan.

Shoroq, Nada and Dina at MCC Jordan Christmas dinner

On Saturday evening, we celebrated Christmas with MCC staff and Jordanian alumni of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). We shared an abundance of food and fun. We also shared favorite Christmas traditions and movies, and told which character from the first Christmas story we would have chosen to be.

Now that she's reached her due date, we expect to see more pix with Sydney's eyes opened

December 11 is the due date for Sydney. Instead, she has been with us for six weeks already and is growing cuter by the day! Cindy will fly to Virginia over Christmas to meet and hold Sydney.

In the region this week:

Protesters across Jordan continued their weekly calls for ending corruption and economic injustices in the Kingdom. Meanwhile inter-tribal violence on university campuses in Jordan has been a growing issue.

Two Palestinians died in an Israeli airstrike on a crowded Gaza street. A second attack resulted in one death and 20 injuries.

An Israeli air strike in Gaza City killed two young Palestians whom Israel says were planning an attack (Reuters photo)

-Iran displayed pictures of a captured a U.S. spy plane and the United States launched a “virtual embassy” in Iran, as a propaganda war between the countries intensifies.

-The situation in Syria continued to deteriorate.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, made headlines with his speech saying that Christians in the Middle East are “more vulnerable” than they have been for centuries.

The Common Lectionary readings for this third Sunday of Advent are about rejoicing.

“Rejoice always,” Paul admonishes, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thess. 5:6-18) One reason for rejoicing: God is faithful to keep our spirit, soul and body sound until the coming of Jesus Christ (vv. 23-24).

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” Isaiah proclaims, “my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” (Is. 61:10) God’s servant will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners (v.1).

“The Lord has done great things for us,” the psalmist observes, “and we rejoiced.” (Ps. 126:3). Acknowledging that there have been times of painful exile, the psalmist nevertheless concludes: “Those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” (v.5)

In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist rejoices in his calling: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (John 1:23).

The Lectionary readings offer hopeful reminders that, even in painful and difficult times – perhaps especially in painful and difficult times – we can still rejoice. Not for the difficulties and pain, but because God is faithful to heal wounds, to bring justice and to restore peace.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room.

Let justice roll down like waters

21st Sunday after Pentecost (November 6, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Amos 5:18-24; Ps. 70; I Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13

We continue to receive daily reports about our granddaughter, Sydney Hope Byler, who was born six weeks premature, Oct. 29. She is breathing on her own, gaining weight and – from our unbiased perspective – growing cuter by the day! Holden and Heidi are supplying us with wonderful pictures. It is not as good as being there, but it helps.

Holden and Sydney at University of Virginia Hospital

During the past two weeks, we accompanied a learning tour group from the United States and Canada as they visited with MCC partners in Palestine and Israel. We were tugged between despair and hope as we listened to Israelis and Palestinians reflect on their respective narratives of insecurity and displacement, and heard their views about the barriers to and prospects for a just and sustainable peace.

Jamal Juma (right), director of Stop the Wall, talks with a Palestinian farmer whose land is being confiscated for the Israeli wall

The group met with Palestinian Christian and Muslim partners who are seeking to nonviolently resist the occupation of their land; with the architect of Israel’s 430-mile separation barrier; with a settler living deep in the Palestinian West Bank; and with Israeli peace activists who are challenging Israeli society to acknowledge the Palestinian history of displacement. More than 530 Palestinian villages were forcefully emptied for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Palestinians continue to be displaced as land is confiscated for the Israeli separation barrier and for settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions staffer gives a tour of the wall around East Jerusalem, in some cases dividing Palestinian communities from one another

After the learning tour, we traveled to Gaza for two days to visit with two MCC partners who are offering food security, medical care and job training to the most vulnerable Gazans. Their inspiring work is even more important as Canadian aid to the Gaza Strip has ended and USAID is carefully structured so as not to make any infrastructure improvements for which the ruling Hamas government could claim credit. We did notice a marked increase in construction from a year ago, as building supplies are flowing more freely to UNRWA-sponsored projects.

The Near East Council of Churches operates free, efficient and impressive medical clinics across Gaza

Cindy interacts with a group of children in Gaza

In the region this week the Israeli navy intercepted Canadian and Irish boats loaded with medical supplies bound for Gaza. UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a full member, triggering harsh economic responses from the U.S., Canada and Israel. The Palestinian Authority foreign minister announced that the PA will persist in seeking full member status at the United Nations.

Press reports are again increasing about possible Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, largely peaceful protests continue in Jordan.

Eitan Bronstein, staff member with MCC partner Zochrot, gives a tour of Canada Park, where three Palestinian villages were destroyed

The Common Lectionary readings address misconceptions about the “day of the Lord.”

Not what we expect. In the Old Testament reading, the people expect the day of the Lord to be a time when God will judge their enemies. The prophet Amos says that, in fact, it will be a time when God’s people are judged for their false worship. Instead of solemn assemblies, showy sacrifices and noisy music, God is interested in worship that leads to right living. “But let justice roll down like waters,” thunders Amos, “and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

MCC learning tour members outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (also known as the Church of the Resurrection) in the Old City of Jerusalem

Not how we expect. In the Epistle reading, Paul adds that when Jesus returns, those who have died in Christ will precede those who are still living and will “meet the Lord in the air” to “be with the Lord forever.” (I Thess. 4:17). For this reason, we need not live without hope when our loved ones die (v.13).

Not when we expect. In the Gospel reading Jesus describes God’s coming kingdom with a parable about 10 bridesmaids – five of whom were prepared while waiting for the bridegroom’s unpredictable arrival and five who were not. “Keep awake therefore,” Jesus challenges his followers, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt. 25:13)

The winter rains have begun, restoring life to this dry land. With the prophet Amos we long for justice to roll down like waters – to restore right relationships, quality of life for all, and peace in the land. In our Old City tour, we were reminded that the place of Jesus’ resurrection was only steps away from the site of his crucifixion. Despair and hope abide side by side in this Holy Land.

We are all the chosen people of God

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 24, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Neh. 8:1-10; Ps. 19; I Cor. 12:12-31a; Lk. 4:14-21

During the past two weeks we traveled to northern Iraq and then to Gaza and the West Bank, along with the directors of MCC’s three advocacy offices.

In northern Iraq, we heard stories from families who have been uprooted by war.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach (MCC Washington Office) with Hakari Amin (Al Mesalla) and Cindy Byler

“Before, we were a family; now we are no longer a family,” wept one Iraqi Christian who lost his mother and aunt in violence last year.

“We suffered under Saddam and now the U.S. has added to what we suffer here,” lamented an Iraqi Christian woman.

“We are a tired nation,” said one Muslim man who was kidnapped several years ago and now lives in a different part of Iraq.

ll-functioning government, civil society organizations are blossoming everywhere. A caged corridor more than a kilometer long connects the Gaza Strip with Israel

And yet in the midst of this suffering, we experienced gracious hospitality. And while Iraq struggles to form a we

Next we traveled to the Gaza Strip — a small rectangle of land along the Mediterranean Sea, some 25 miles long and 5-7 miles wide.

Our trip to Gaza came one year after the war in which 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Again, we were welcomed with warm hospitality.

While some of the rubble from the 20,000 buildings that were destroyed or damage in the war has been cleaned up, there has been little rebuilding. Israel will not allow cement and other construction materials into the Strip. In some cases, families have fashioned homes out of bricks made with mud and straw.

Many homes have not been repaired due to lack of construction materials

Gaza is being squeezed ever more tightly. Israel controls the borders to the north, east and west of Gaza. Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border. Since 2006 when Hamas came to power, Israel has tightly controlled the flow of goods in and out of Gaza.

To survive, Gazans have dug more than 3,000 tunnels on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. Now, Egypt – with U.S. support – is building a steel wall 30 meters (100 feet) underground to block these tunnels.

More than 3,000 tunnels from Egypt serve as life lines for supplies to Gaza (each tent covers the opening on one tunnel)

“The more the closure is tightened, the more the people suffer and the more the leaders prosper,” claimed one civil society leader. Many worried that those with extremist views are growing in strength due to the ever worsening conditions.

“We have experienced more than 60 years of war and occupation,” reflected a Palestinian man whose home was destroyed by an Israeli missile in early 2009. “We want to have life now.”

“What is happening here is against all rules of God and international law,” said one Christian leader. “We are living in a big prison here.” An estimated 2,500 – 3,000 Christians live in Gaza.

Gazans told us that they don’t want the aid from international organizations if it is not coupled with advocacy aimed at ending the economic siege.

“We are all the chosen people of God,” reflected the Palestinian leader of a Christian agency in Gaza City. “We are not animals. We do not have a different God.”

Two girls from Khan Younis, in the southern portion of the Gaza Strip

Commenting on the fact that many Western Christians refuse to criticize the Israeli government’s policies due to a theological understanding that God views the modern state of Israel with special favor, one Christian in Gaza stated bluntly, “The theologians should do something about this.”

During our travel, we read again and again the Common Lectionary readings for the week.

In the Epistle reading Paul writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…” (I Cor. 12:13). Paul continues, “If one member (of the body) suffers, all suffer together with it” (v.26).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus announces the mission that God has sent him to fulfill:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19).

Never have these words seemed so poignant. Or so necessary.