Tag Archives: MCC

Images from Iran

I traveled to Iran, February 19-25, 2014, along with a professor from Canadian Mennonite University and the board chair and senior staff of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

This was my 11th trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past 20 years. Our host was Dr. Mohammad Shomali, director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom.

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Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has had program connections in Iran since 1990. During the past 15 years, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) has developed a growing network of connections as well. Ten Iranians have attended EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI). Two have gone on to receive an M.A. in Conflict Transformation from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where I now serve as executive director.

While in Iran, we were able to meet with three SPI alumni and with several Iranian women scholars who plan to attend SPI in May 2014.

For further details of the trip, see articles posted by MCC and EMU.

From all nations

Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 2, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

This week we traveled to northern Iraq to introduce Carolyne and Gordon to MCC Iraq partners; then on to Istanbul to meet with Iran partners and Amela Puljek-Shank, MCC’s area director for Europe and the Middle East.

Cindy with Hero Brzw, who graduated from Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice  Peacebuilding and now works in northern Iraq

Cindy with Hero Brzw, who graduated from Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice Peacebuilding and now works in northern Iraq

Jim and Deb Fine, MCC Iraq program coordinator and English teacher, respectively, did a wonderful job of hosting us in Iraq. We traveled to all corners of the Kurdish region of Iraq, meeting with partners who have become close friends across the years. It was a great opportunity to reminisce about changes during the six years we have lived in the region.

Jim Fine, with sisters from the Daughters of Mary in al Qosh

Jim Fine, with sisters from the Daughters of Mary in al Qosh

Cindy fulfilled a long-term wish by attending the kindergarten graduation at Kids House in Ankawa, May 29. In previous years we have always been speaking in Canada or the U.S. during the first-rate kindergarten performance. Kids House – a MCC Global Family partner – is operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Kids House dancers at graduation program, May 29 (photo by Jim Fine)

Kids House dancers at graduation program, May 29 (photo by Jim Fine)

The Common Lectionary readings remind us the God cannot be contained, constrained or controlled by one people group. Rather, all nations are to worship God and examples of active faith are found in every community.

Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen buying a carpet in Erbil

Deb Fine (left) helps Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen buy a carpet at the bazaar in Erbil

At the dedication of his magnificent temple, Solomon offered an insightful and inclusive prayer: “When a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you. . .” (I Kings 8:42-43).

With Dana Hassan, former director of MCC partner REACH, in Suliemaniyah

With Dana Hassan, former director of MCC partner REACH, in Suliemaniyah

Similarly, the psalmist has a broad understanding of the reach of God’s glory and grace. “Declare (God’s) glory among the nations,” the psalmist urges, “his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (Ps. 96:3)

Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s slave after the centurion says that he trusts Jesus to perform this miracle without even coming to his home. “I tell you,” Jesus marvels, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9).

Carolyne looks at a photo with one of the children at St. Anne's Orphanage in al Qosh

Carolyne looks at a photo with one of the youth at St. Anne’s Orphanage in al Qosh

During our six years in the Middle East we have experienced God’s goodness and blessing in the relationships with people from many nations and faith traditions. Thanks be to God!

Cindy’s memory box

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hossein with Ted Koontz, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

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

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

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

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

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

Water polo at Beit el Salaam

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

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

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

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

MCC Reps in Barcelona (April 2013)

MCC Reps in Barcelona (April 2013)

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

Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lena and Kristy on rain-soaked road just outside Amman

Lena and Kristy on rain-soaked road just outside Amman

In the region this week:

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

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

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

The Common Lectionary Readings are about being witnesses.

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

The views along the hilly Dead Sea Marathon course were stunning

The views along the hilly Dead Sea Marathon course were stunning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As God intended

19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8; Heb. 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This week we hosted meetings for MCC representatives serving in Europe and the Middle East.  While the meeting schedule was full, we also enjoyed lots of time for visiting and encouraging each other.

A student at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf hugs Misha, 2-year-old daughter of MCC East Europe Reps, Ruth Plett and Krystan Pawlikowski

We met at the Rosary Sisters’ retreat center just outside Amman.   On Thursday, we visited several MCC Jordan partners – Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, YWCA Jordan and Caritas Jordan.

Tom Snowdon, MCC Egypt Rep, watches the weaver at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

In the region this week:

October 5 demonstration in Amman, led by Muslim Brotherhood (AFP photo)

  • A planned pro-government rally was suspended at the last minute in order to reduce the likelihood of a major confrontation.
  • Heavy fighting continued in Syria, including Syrian cross-border fire into Turkey and retaliatory strikes by Turkey into Syria. In spite of the poor conditions in Syria, some refugees in Jordan are choosing to return home, saying they prefer to die as martyrs than to live as refugees.

Children at Za’atari Refuge Camp in northern Jordan during one of many dust storms. More than 30,000 Syrian refugees now live in the camp.  (photo by Bert de Vries)

The Common Lectionary readings this week reflect on God’s intent for humans in the created order.

In the Old Testament reading, God gives Adam the responsibility for naming every living creature and creates male and female as partners (Gen. 2:18-24).

The psalmist writes that God created humans “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor,” giving them “dominion over the works of God’s hands.” (Ps. 8:5-6).

Pictures of our granddaughter Sydney keep us smiling (photo by Holden Byler)

The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, noting the prominent role of humans in God’s creation. In theory, God left nothing outside the control of human beings (Heb. 2:8b). Still, in practice, we do not yet see everything subjected to human control, “but we do see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honor” because of the suffering he endured (v. 8c-9a).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question about divorce. He reaffirms that, in creating male and female, God’s intention is for them to become one flesh, and not to be separated by the human act of divorce (Mk. 10:2-9).

We live in a violent and broken world. Clearly humans are not living as God intended. Still, by God’s grace, we are being restored into the image of what God created us to be.

Seeds of change

18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Num. 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Ps. 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

This week we enjoyed a three-day retreat with MCC staff from Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, sharing program updates, conversation and lots of food; and taking a day trip to Mt. Nebo and Madaba.

Cindy with Suzi Khoury at Mt. Nebo (photo by Willy Stell)

Cindy has begun teaching a weekly English course for Iraqi children living in Amman. She has two groups – a class of 8 to 10-year-olds and a second class of 11 to 14-year-olds.

The UNHCR said this week that the number of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey could reach 700,000 by the end of 2012, creating stress on host countries like Jordan. An additional 1.5 to 2.0 million Syrians are internally displaced.

The situation at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan continues to be tense due to poor living conditions. The UNHCR is beginning to hire Syrian refugees to help build camp infrastructure and assist with camp operations like cooking.

One of many demonstrations in Amman during the past 18 months (Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)

All the while, regular protests continue in Jordan, calling for constitutional reforms.

Rather than engaging in face-to-face conversations that could help resolve thorny political differences, U.S. President Barak Obama, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all gave televised speeches this week at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, issuing threats, counter-threats and drawing red lines.

The Common Lectionary readings focus on earnest appeals to God.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses is fed up with the complaints of the Israelites. “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” Moses himself complains to God. (Num. 11:11) “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (v.14) God responds by providing 70 persons to assist Moses.

MCC Middle East staff at Mt. Nebo, looking over the Jordan Valley (photo by Willy Stell)

The psalmist appeals, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14)

Using Elijah as an example, the Apostle James writes, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b). James urges prayer for those who are suffering (v.13), sick (v.14) and in need of confession (v.15).

Below is the devotional reflection that Daryl shared at the MCC retreat, Sept. 25.

It is a time of high anxiety in the region. So much seems uncertain. Everything feels fragile. It is not difficult to imagine a worst-case scenario for the region:

  • Fighting in Syria will get worse. The violence will spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Jordan along with tens of thousands of additional refugees.
  • Israel will annex Area C in the West Bank and will continue to expand settlements. A third Palestinian Intifada will be violent.
  • Israel, with U.S. backing, will attack Iran’s nuclear sites. Iran will retaliate in a way that has broad repercussions for the region.

Even though we pray and work for it, we are probably much more skeptical about the possibilities of a best case scenario – at least not anytime soon:

  • The fighting stops in Syria. The refugees return home. There is no retaliation against Alawites or Christians for their support of the Assad regime. The international community provides a mass infusion of resources so that houses can be rebuilt and cities restored.
  • New governments in the region begin to function well and represent the diverse religious and ethnic groups in each country.
  • Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza; and recognizes the right of return for refugees.

Jordan Summer Peacebuilding Institute alumni were together for lunch recently. Someone commented that the hard work of peacebuilding can be undone in a moment’s notice. What takes years to build can be destroyed overnight. As we have seen in Syria during the past 18 months, how quickly things can unravel once the violence begins and the trust is broken.

Women in Wadi Araba plant high-quality seeds in a MCC-supported project

What difference does our work make against such great odds? I find comfort in the biblical principle that we reap what we sow. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,” Paul writes, “for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

We often focus on the judgment aspects of this principle: If you sow bad things you will reap bad things. If you sow violence you will reap violence. Indeed, the Bible says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And we can see many examples – individual or corporate – where this holds true:

  • In the region, dictators are reaping the consequences of years of oppressive policies and practices.
  • The United States is clearly beginning to reap consequences of years of military, economic and cultural domination.

While it is true that God is gracious, it is also true that there are consequences for bad behaviors. Sometimes it takes years before those consequences manifest themselves, but they will eventually do so.

Seedlings grow inside a greenhouse in Wadi Araba

But I’d like to focus on the positive aspects of this biblical principle. That is, to emphasize that, if we sow good things and if we cultivate good soil, we will reap good things. James writes: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18).

It is true that we don’t know how long it will take for these good seeds to grow – perhaps a year, perhaps a decade, perhaps a century, perhaps a millennium – but the promise is that they will grow and bear fruit.

Apparently Paul knew that it would be easy to grow impatient. For in the verse after his reminder that we reap what we sow, he writes: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9).

MCC Jordan program coordinator Nada Zabaneh inspects cucumbers grown in Wadi Araba

Jesus told a number of parables that remind us of the challenges of planting good seeds and waiting for them to bear fruit.

Bad seeds grow side-by-side with the good.  Indeed it seems like weeds grow much faster than the good seeds. Our temptation is to get distracted, to focus on uprooting the bad seeds rather than on nurturing the good seeds.

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”9But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ (Matthew 13:24-30)

The good seeds are often the smallest and we doubt whether they will actually grow and produce substantial crops.

He put before them another parable:  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ (Matthew 13:31-32)

The growth of seeds is a mystery. We can’t explain or control their growth and so we become discouraged and disheartened.

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Mark 4:26-29)

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Let us continue planting and watering seeds of justice and mercy and peace.

In his popular hymn, “You are salt for the earth” Marty Haugen writes: You are a seed of the word, O people, bring forth the kingdom of God! Seeds of mercy and seeds of justice, grow in the kingdom of God! Brink forth the kingdom of mercy, bring forth the kingdom of peace. Bring forth the kingdom of justice, bring forth the city of God!

The late Archbishop Oscar Romero summed it up this way before he was assassinated in El Salvador:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

The tongue of a teacher

16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 50:4-9; Ps. 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The new MCC SALT volunteers finished their Arabic language study in Amman this week.  Cindy helped them settle into their new settings.  William Stell will be living in Salt and working at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf. Kristy Guertin will be a teacher assistant at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid.

Kristy and Willy at the Holy Land Institute, along with another volunteer, Raphael

Muslims across the region have reacted angrily to an anti-Islam movie allegedly produced by a Coptic Christian in the United States.  The low-budget movie portrays the prophet Mohammad in a compromising way.  The offensive movie tapped into growing anti-American sentiment and demonstrators protested at U.S. embassies across the region, including Amman and Cairo.

Protesters near the U.S. embassy in Amman (Reuters photo by Muhammad Hamed)

In Libya, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed when the embassy was stormed.  It is not yet clear whether the action was part of the demonstrations sweeping the region or if the perpetrators simply took advantage of the chaotic conditions.

Stevens was the former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department and then served as a staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) before his international assignment in Libya.  He was a strong supporter of MCC’s people-to-people exchanges between the U.S. and Iran.

There are now more than 200,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, with more than 30,000 at the Za’atari refugee camp outside Mafraq.  The first wedding was held in the camp this week, with a couple from the southern Syrian town of Daraa marrying in a non-traditional ceremony.

Huthaifa Hariri from Daara is the first to wed in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan (Photo by Muath Freij for Jordan Times)

While political tensions with Iran continue to grow, MCC — through the Iranian Red Crescent Society — is providing assistance to families affected by the recent earthquakes in northwestern Iran’s Azerbaijan province.  In addition to cash for local purchase of tents and sleeping bags, a shipment of blankets will be sent this coming week.

The Common Lectionary readings focus on the power of teachers to influence others for good or for bad.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” writes Isaiah, “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Is. 50:4a) Isaiah says the secret to being a good teacher is “to listen as those who are taught.” (v.4b) Isaiah’s ears are daily opened to God’s call; he is not rebellious (v.5). He endures ridicule because he trusts God to vindicate him (vv. 6-9).

Likewise the psalmist walks “before the Lord” (Ps. 116:9), trusting God to protect and deliver him even when he suffers “distress and anguish” (vv. 1-8).

“Not many of you should become teachers,” warns the Apostle James, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1). James describes how difficult it is to control the tongue.  While the tongue can be used to bless God (v.10), James says it also “boasts of great exploits” (v.5), is “a world of iniquity” (v.6), a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (v.8) and is used to curse others (v.10).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples a difficult truth that they are not ready to hear.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders . . . and be killed” (Mark 8:31). Furthermore, Jesus tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (v.34)

It’s back-to-school time.  Here students gather before classes in the school courtyard in Bethlehem

This week we have witnessed the power of words.  A movie with a message denigrating an esteemed religious leader has incited crowds across the Middle East.

Not many should become teachers.  Teachers are judged with greater strictness as their words and examples shape the behaviors of their students, for good or ill.  When teachers spout hate-filled words, denigrate other faiths, belittle other cultures or articulate bad theology they help shape that attitudes that can lead to violence.

But teaching can also be an honorable calling.  It offers great opportunities – to encourage the weary, to speak difficult words about divine truths, to bless others and to model a trusting relationship with God.

Food for the journey

11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 19:4-8; Ps. 34:1-8; Eph. 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

We hosted a number of delightful visitors this week.  Nader Abu Amsha and his spouse Sana, visited from the Palestinian village of Beit Jala. Nader is the director of East Jerusalem YMCA, and was in Amman to explore psychosocial support training for volunteers who are working with Syrian refugees in Jordan.  East Jerusalem YMCA has significant experience in trauma healing work.  Sana teaches English at the Talitha Kumi Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Jala and also works with the school’s innovative peer mediation program.

With Agnes Chen at our home in Amman

Agnes Chen, a senior at Wheaton College, is doing an internship with Caritas Jordan through Wheaton’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program.  She is assisting Caritas’ response with Syrian refugees, including the distribution of MCC material resources.

Don and Lurline Campbell share a laugh

Don and Lurline Campbell, from Brisbane, Australia, are serving as interim pastors at the International Anglican Church of Amman, where we attend.  This is the third summer they have served in Amman while the regular priest is away.  We have greatly appreciated Don and Lurline’s friendship, pastoral care and interest in MCC’s work.

Recently we were also privileged to hear Dr. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican priest from the United Kingdom, give a thoughtful lecture on Christian Zionism.

In the region this week:

  • The former head of Israeli Military Intelligence predicted that Israel will attack Iran in the next few weeks.  There have been many predictions like this before, and some say that such an attack is unlikely before Israel is assured that the potential for retaliatory strikes from Syria and Hezbollah is neutralized.

The view of our neighborhood in Jabal al-Webdah — Greek Orthodox Church, Parliament building, King Abdullah Mosque, and the towers of the new Abdali development

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about food for the journey.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah flees from an angry Queen Jezebel, who has threatened to kill him.  In fear and despair he asks God to take his life. (I Kings 19:4)  Instead, God sends an angel who prepares a cake and offers a jar of water. “Get up and eat,” the angel commands Elijah, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  Elijah obeys. “Then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” (vv.6-8)

Sydney enjoys tasting plums and puffs (photo by Holden Byler)

The psalmist challenges, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps. 34:8)  In times of trouble, God answers us (v.4b), delivers us from our fears (4c), hears our cries (6a), saves us from every trouble (6b) and encamps around us (7a).

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus proclaims in the Gospel reading.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35).  While the crowds come looking for manna – miracle bread — like their ancestors ate in the wilderness, Jesus has something far better to offer.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he declares.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (v.51).

Satisfied Sydney — our beautiful eyes granddaughter (photo by Holden Byler)

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges the church at Ephesus to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Eph. 5:2)  Living in love means to speak the truth and put away falsehood (4:25); to be angry without sinning (4:26); to share rather than to steal (4:28); to speak in ways that build up rather than to tear down (4:29); and to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving, rather than bitter, slanderous and full of wrath (4:31-32).

These are difficult times.  Still, God sustains us in many ways.  The encouragement of guests, and new pictures of our granddaughter Sydney, have been several ways that God has provided food for our journey this week.

Sydney plays at an outdoor wedding at CrossKeys Vineyard  (photo by Holden Byler)

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.

Win-Win

Easter 6 (May 13, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I John 5:1-6; Acts 10:44-48; Ps. 98; John 15:9-17

We returned from MCC Europe-Middle East meetings in Cyprus, May 9, and are preparing for travel to the U.S. and Canada, May 14-June 30. It will be Daryl’s first chance to hold granddaughter Sydney, who is now six months old! We are also excited to attend our son Jeremy’s graduation from Bucknell University and his wedding to Lyndsay Adams, June 9. We look forward to some great family times together.

Sydney Byler at six months


This trip also has a full itinerary of speaking engagements. We begin by meeting with MCC-sponsored Middle East participants at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. Then we travel to MCC advocacy offices in Ottawa, New York and Washington, D.C. to talk with policymakers about Middle East issues. We are also scheduled to speak in churches and at other settings in Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C.; and in several cities in Alberta. We will appreciate prayers for stamina and the ability to communicate clearly.

This week in the region:

U.N. convoy in southern Syria (AFP photo)

  • In Palestine, some 2,000 prisoners have entered the fourth week of a hunger strike, protesting Israeli prison conditions and the Israeli practice of detention without charge or trial. Several prisoners have fasted for more than 70 days now.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about win-win victories.

In the Epistle reading, John describes the scope of this victory: It conquers the world (I John 5:5). But this is not a victory that results in global domination or makes us superior to others. Rather, it is a victory rooted in faith that calls us to follow the pattern of Jesus – loving God and loving others (vv. 1-3).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus calls his followers to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) He defines love like this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (v.13)

Luke recounts the story of Peter baptizing former enemies – Gentiles – after they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48).

The psalmist proclaims that God is the one who gains the victory on our behalf. (Ps. 98:1-4)

The world imagines victory as a way of establishing our rights over others and ourselves as superior to others. There are winners and losers.

In God’s politics, victory is rooted in faith that calls us to follow Jesus. It means being part of a community that is willing to lay down life for the other. It even results in transforming enemies into friends. That is truly a win-win reality.

With colleagues in Ayia Napa, Cyprus (left to right: Suzi, Daryl, Trish, Cindy, Deb and Jim)