Sunday, July 27, 2014

Reality - Grief - Hope

We’ve been using the booklet through the summer … and I still am.  And I don’t think I had made the connection before.

Let the Flame burn – that year the flames of the  Spirit circulated around the churches and we kept a record of the comments and prayers that were made – the inspiration for our reflections since Pentecost …

The Power of the Holy Spirit to lift us up when we are down.  How important that the Spirit brings unity, the Spirit brings Hope, the Spirit brings light as we are challenged to be the light of the world

And today we stay with that theme – the Spirit brings light and remember that Jesus is the Light of the World

I hadn’t made the connection until this week.

Of course … it was the year leading up to the Olympic Games.  We were thinking of the Olympic Torch, And the message we put together from the Churches of Cheltenham is still on the back window of our car – Jesus Said, I am the Light of the World.  More than gold.  Simple but quite effective statement from the churches of Cheltenham, prompted by the churches initiative More than Gold.

Of course.   That’s the connection.

We watched the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games … and were not disappointed.  It was tongue in cheek, it was dramatic, it was full of fun … and there was a very real twist in the tale.

Or rather the twist wasn’t quite right.  The Duke Of Edinburgh and the Queen had fun trying to undo the baton as they put the message into it a long time ago – having travelled round so many countries the Commonwealth Games President couldn’t get it off … and Chris Hoy couldn’t either.  I was longing for the Queen to suggest letting the woman there have a go!

I was pleased that we had managed to see the Baton relay as we had seen the Olympic torch relay – something special bringing those countries together.

Moment before we came face to face with the darkness of the world at this instant.  The Commonwealth Games President is Prince Iman of Malaysia. The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, had led a moment of remembrance for the victims of the Malaysian airliner that had been shot down.  One of those moving moments.

That of course is not the only thing that has happened these last few days.

oly Spirit
It did happen last Sunday.  The Christians left Mosul.  Historic, Biblical Nineveh, Iraq’s second city.  It was one of the most poignant interviews on the radio yesterday as Andrew White, Anglican priest who has worked among the Christian community of Baghdad for many, many years had tears in his voice as he was asked, is this the end of Christianity in Iraq?  He was as passionate as ever – this is not against Muslims.  Muslims are our friends and have been for centuries.  Muslims are being threatened, they too are the victims.  It is against the terrorists, he said.  What a commitment to the people of Baghdad he has had – it was when Mark  Evans was Minister at our Belvedere and Erith church that we first came across Andrew White who had long-standing links with that church.  Thanks to Mark we have followed the passionate involvement he has had with Iraqi Christians.  It was distressing to hear his interview.  The bleak prospect that lies ahead.

And then the continuing news that’s coming out of Gaza.  I had been wrong last week.  And wrong before.,   Gaza is 30 miles by five to seven miles wide.   From Cheltenham to just the other side of Witney on the A40.

900 and more killed.   Most of them women and children.  Distressing to see the messages coming from those we have got to know in Bethlehem.

The impact on the Scout group – all with families over in Gaza too.

On Bethlehem.

A message from Bethlehem Bible College

A statement by Bethlehem Bible College regarding the current crisis in Gaza
Friday, Jul 25 2014

Today God weeps over the situation in Palestine and Israel. Today God weeps over Gaza.  With God, our hearts are broken when we see the carnage in Gaza and in Israel.

I want to pause there a moment – because that comment touches something that is right at the heart of the Bible, the importance of which is all ltoo easy for us to overlook and underestimate.

We are called to weep with those who weep.

There is a time to every purpose under heaven … a time to weep.

As Jesus found when he joined the grieving Mary whose brother had died an untimely death: The shortest, starkest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept.

The worship songs of the Book of Psalms are not by any means all praise songs.  There are the songs of lament when there is no other choice but to weep

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down
And there we wept.

At the heart of the Old Testament story is a cataclysmic event that results simply in weeping … the devastation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the desolation of the people in their loss.

They grieved … and what’s so important to recognise they began to think through their response.  Key parts of the Old Testament emerge from this period.   How these Scriptures respond to such catastrophe can help us as we weep with those who weep.

It’s something I was prompted to think about in the reading I did before going to the States, in the conversations I had with our friends in the States and in the reading I have been doing since.  One key Amercian thinker and scholar of the Old Testament was personally known to a number of folk at our conference and interesting to catch a glimpse of the person behind the name.   Walter Brueggemann’s latest book had just been published earlier this year – he invites an American audience to make connections between the catastrophe that had hit them in 9/11 and the catastrophe of the fall of Jersualem in that OT story.

How vital to face the reality of what is happening.

How important to grieve – to lament.

And then there is a hope to discover but a hope filled with challenge, that calls for a prophetic response to the world around us.

He points to this part of Isaiah as it arises from the ashes of destruction … Isaiah 40:27-31

Why do you say, O Jacob,
   and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
   and my right is disregarded by my God’?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
   his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord 
            shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint.

The reality must be faced – the grief articulated

My way is hidden from the Lord,
And my right is disregarded by my God.


In the midst of this darkness – only when it is faced.  Only when it is put into words.  Only when the grieving happens and is out in the open. 
Only then can there be grounds for hope in the God of creation …

28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
   his understanding is unsearchable.

Have you not known?
Have you not heard?

Then comes the powerful point – the purpose of the grieving.  This God creation gives power and strength to the faint and to the powerless.

29 He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord 

That’s the first key word.

How vital that little word is.

Wait …

Wait for the Lord.

Hang on in there.  It may not come immediately.  It will come.  It will  not let you down.  Wait, Wait for the Lord.

Then comes a remarkable insight in this prophetic word – wait for the Lord and the Lord will lift you up to do something, to become active again. 

Those who wait for the Lord
            shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint.

These are words of action …

Mount up

It is in this sense, it seems to me, that the statement that comes out of Bethlehem Bible College is a truly prophetic statement –

We at Bethlehem Bible College consistently called for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We always sought a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. “All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally”, stated the Christ at the Checkpoint manifesto. We also believe that as long as the occupation of Palestinian territory and the siege of Gaza remain, the conflict will continue to escalate. To quote the manifesto again, “for Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict”.

As Christians committed to nonviolence, we do not and cannot endorse Hamas’ ideology. However, we believe that the people of Gaza have the right to live in freedom and dignity. This means that the siege over Gaza should be lifted and the borders should be open. The people of Gaza need a chance to live.

We oppose Hamas launching rockets at Israeli town and cities. At the same time, we are shocked by the unproportional and inhuman response by the Israeli military and the disregard of civilian life and specially innocent women and children.

We are grieved by the mounting hate, bigotry and racism in our communities today, and the consequent violence. We are specially grieved when Christians are contributing to the culture of hatred and division, rather than allowing Christ to use them as instruments of peace and reconciliation.

In the face of this, we affirm – using the words of our own Dr. Yohanna Katanacho:

We are against killing children and innocent people. We support love not hatred, justice not oppression, equality not bigotry, peaceful solutions not military solutions. Violence will only beget wars, it will bring more pain and destruction for all the nations of the region. Peacemaking rooted in justice is the best path forward. Therefore, we commit ourselves to spread a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

We call on all the friends of Bethlehem Bible College to pray for an immediate ceasefire, followed by serious efforts to address the root of the problem not the symptoms. We pray comfort for the bereaved families. We specially pray for the Christians of Gaza, who although are currently under bombardment, yet they are offering shelter and support for the displaced and wounded. We finally call for you to pray for all those - Palestinians, Israelis and internationals – who are committed to spreading a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

[Note: Pray for the Shepherd Society – a ministry of Bethlehem Bible College – as we contemplate practical ways to minister and walk along the destitute and displaced in Gaza. We will soon share with you how you can help us respond to the huge needs.

A statement by Bethlehem Bible College’s board of directors, president, deans, faculty, staff and students – and the local committee of Christ at the Checkpoint.]

This is nothing less than the call of Christ

I hadn’t noticed it before …  but it struck me reading those words again. 

Maybe they are not simply passive words of reassurance, but active words of challenge …

Jesus said, I am the light of the world, those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus is not to walk the walk of destruction, violence, and death – that is to walk in darkness. 

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus the light of the world means walking in the light and so having the light of life within.

My mind went back to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games.  That evening Daniel Barenboim, the conductor had completed a cycle of the Beethoven Symphoniees with his East West Divan orchestra, bringing together Arab and Israeli players from across the divide in Palestine and Israel.  No sooner had Beethoven’s Ninth with its moving Ode to Joy come to its climax than Daniel Barenboim was crossing London to the Olympic Park.  As the ceremony came to its climax he was there carrying the Olympic Flag.  A most moving moment.

Writing as both an Israeli and a Palestinian DanielBarenboim spoke this week in the Guardian of the impossibility of a military solution to what is essentially a human problem as two peoples lay claim to the same small piece of land.   He had something very powerful to say about compassion.

Compassion is not merely a sentiment that results from a psychological understanding of a person’s need, but it is a moral obligation. … In this conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights. Only from this understanding can we attempt to build a future together..

To think of Jesus as Light of the world gives us an active challenge.  To rise to that challenge we need nothing less than the unseen, strenghhening power of the  Spirit that brings light.

Faten is not only a student in the MA program at Bethlehem Bible College – Gaza extension, she is also the coordinator for the Gaza students. She is a citizen of Gaza and a committed Baptist. This week Faten encountered few extra difficulties.

First, she encountered the death of two young children: Wissam and Jihad. Both of them are young students at Lighthouse School where Faten’s sister, faiza, works. Lighthouse School is a Christian organization that has been offering help to needy families in Gaza. They have 200 kids in Kindergarten through 6th grade. I called Faten and she informed me that the two kids were tired of being at home. They went to the roof (a flat roof) in order to play after a long curfew and no electricity at home. Sadly, this was the end of their lives. They were killed by Israeli air strikes. Faten and her sister, as well as others, were grieving the loss of these precious and innocent lives. As followers of Jesus they valued every life and invested in spreading life, not death.
Second, Faten’s building shook from a nearby explosion and many windows were broken. She told me that the inhabitants of the building were not in it. However, she and her sister stayed in the building because they know that their neighbor is physically challenged and might need help. In the morning while Faten was taking her devotions, reading the same Bible that we read, her building shook from a big explosion. God protected both sisters as well as their neighbor. I asked Faten if she has an area where she can find a safe refuge. She chuckled and said that the only refuge she has is God and He is enough for her. I asked her: does she go to church and pray with other believers? She responded that all the meetings have stopped. There is a curfew outside and it is dangerous to leave home. However, once in a while they risk their lives to get to an adjacent grocery store.

I am amazed by Faten’s sense of divine sovereignty. She wholeheartedly believes that her life is in God’s hands. God is her refuge in Gaza. God called her to serve Him in this difficult place and she will honor her Lord.

Interestingly, some Israeli Jews refer to Psalm 91 during this war. In their interpretation, the psalm mentions flying missiles (v. 5). They add that the Hebrew name of the Israeli incursion consists of two words (צוק איתן). The first letter of every word becomes a number in Hebrew (צא), that is 91.

Simply put, the Palestinian Faten is seeking the protection of the God of Psalm 91. She is doing it in the name of Jesus.

Please pray for Faten, her family, and for Lighthouse School. Please remember the kids of Gaza.

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