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November 30, 2010


Permalink 20:08:03, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 11 words  
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November 13, 2010

God’s justice

Permalink 01:31:41, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 347 words  
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Proper 28 (November 14, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Malachi 4:1-21; Ps. 98; II Thess. 3:6-13; Lk. 21:5-19

We are making final preparations for a two-month home leave, Nov. 15 – Jan. 15. We will be swapping houses with a couple from Harrisonburg, Va., who will be based in Amman and traveling throughout the Middle East. We’re excited about spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with family and friends in the U.S.

This past week, Cindy visited Jordanian partners and Daryl visited with MCC partners in Gaza. It was the first time we have received permits to enter Gaza since January. While more food and humanitarian supplies are finally entering the Gaza Strip, construction materials are still prohibited.

MCC worker Ingrid and MCC partner Rifqa meet with children at a recreation center near Gaza City

In the region this week, additional Iraqi Christian families were targeted for violence in Baghdad. Shi’a Muslim groups have also been targeted in recent weeks. Christian-Muslim relations have historically been quite strong – and for the most part continue to be so. But in light of recent attacks by fringe groups and the threat of additional attacks, Christians throughout the region are expressing a growing sense of vulnerability.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on God’s ultimate justice in human affairs.

In the Old Testament reading, Malachi prophesies about a coming day when “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble,” while all who revere God’s name will experience justice and healing (Mal. 4:1-2).

The psalmist declares that God “will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” (Ps. 98:9)

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges his readers to “not be weary in doing what is right” (II Thess. 3:13) – even of those around them fail to do so.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus describes the hardship and persecution that faithful followers will experience. “By your endurance,” Jesus promises, “you will gain your souls.” (Lk. 21:5-19)

For those who currently suffer at the hands of arrogant and violent people, these texts offer assurance and comfort that God will ultimately hold all persons accountable for their deeds.

October 30, 2010

Seeking justice

Permalink 00:57:38, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 463 words  
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Proper 26 (October 31, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 1:10-18; Ps. 32:1-7; II Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12; Lk. 19:1-10

This week Cindy visited the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, one of MCC’s Global Family partners in Jordan. The Institute provides a quality education for students who are deaf (and, in some cases, also blind).

A Kurdish woman displays her cucumber crop in northern Iraq (drip irrigation and greenhouses conserve water by reducing evaporation)

Daryl accompanied a small delegation to northern Iraq to visit food security projects that are sponsored by Canadian and U.S. farmers. In addition to political insecurity in many parts of Iraq, small farmers have struggled in recent years due to drought. Many Iraqis (especially in the suburbs of Baghdad) also do not have clean drinking water. The MCC-supported projects focus on water conservation and reducing water-borne diseases.

In drought-stricken areas, beekeeping helps provide food security

The Common Lectionary readings this week remind us that repentance is the first step toward doing good and seeking justice.

In the Old Testament reading, God expresses frustration with hollow worship rituals, while injustice abounds. “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen,” says God, “(because) your hands are full of blood.” (Is. 1:15) God challenges the people instead: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (v.17)

Dan Wiens, MCC staff who oversees projects funded by Canadian and U.S. farmers, shows pictures of his family to Kurdish women

The psalmist admits that, while he kept silence about his sins, his body wasted away and his strength was dried up (Ps. 31:3-4). But when he acknowledged his sin, God forgave him, lightened his load and led him in a better direction (vv.5-11).

In the Epistle reading, Paul says that those who persecute the righteous will be held accountable (II Thess. 1:3-10). Still, even amid persecution, God is able to strengthen people of faith to remain steadfast, to increase in love and to do God’s work (vv. 4, 11).

Jim Fine (right), MCC Iraq worker, interacts with an agricultural specialist who works for MCC partner organization

In the Gospel reading, Jesus visits the home of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector with a history of cheating people. (Lk. 19:1-10) After their encounter, Zacchaeus announces, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (v.8)

The readings this week offer hope that, when we turn away from self-centered behaviors that are hurtful toward others, God is able to use us in ways that advance God’s justice and peace in the world. May we find our calling in doing good, seeking justice and acting for the well-being of vulnerable people.

October 23, 2010

Keeping the faith

Permalink 02:04:29, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 446 words  
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Proper 25 (October 24, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 14:7-10, 19-22; Ps. 84:1-7; II Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk. 18:9-14

This week we made final preparations to host a delegation from the Food Resources Bank (FRB) and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). Members of both groups plan to visit projects they are funding in Jordan, Iraq and Palestine. Canadian and U.S. farmers donate grain to these banks, which is then sold and the proceeds used to support food security and water projects around the world.

A young girl harvests vegetables from a CFGB-funded community garden in northern Iraq

We also enjoyed a short visit from John and Chris Lehman, Cindy’s uncle and aunt from Florida.

In the region this week, a humanitarian aide convoy, with activists from some 30 countries, entered Gaza with some $5 million of supplies. The parents of Rachel Corrie, a peace activist who was killed in Gaza in March 2003, began a civil trial against the Israeli government. Corrie was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting a home demolition in the southern Gaza Strip.

Israeli settlement construction has resumed in full force after a partial freeze ended September 26. An U.N. human rights specialist issued a report stating that the continuing growth of the settlements will likely make Israeli occupation of Palestinian land “irreversible.”

Iran announced that it will try three U.S. hikers accused of spying. The trial is set to begin, Nov. 6.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about human attitudes and the actions that spring from them.

In the Old Testament reading, God says of the people: “Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet.” (Jer. 14:10)

The psalmist, on the other hand, writes, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (Ps. 84:2)

In a similar vein, at the end of his life, Paul writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (II Tim. 4:7)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus compares the attitudes revealed by the prayers of two men (Lk. 18:9-14). A religious leader prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” then goes on to detail the sins of others and to extol his own virtues. A tax collector, by comparison, prays simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

We choose our attitudes and actions – whether to be arrogant or humble; whether to wander or to keep the faith. These choices affect our relationship with God. They also have dramatic impact on whether our lives are invested in serving or exploiting others. Will we keep the faith?

October 15, 2010

When the earth totters

Permalink 01:40:03, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 1532 words  
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We are back in Amman after attending MCC Representative meetings in Strasbourg, France and speaking in several Mennonite churches in Switzerland.

A particular highlight was speaking at Sonnenberg Mennonite Church, for which a congregation is now named in Cindy's home community in Ohio. Mennonites in Europe have recently participated in collecting school kits and relief kits for MCC partners in Iraq.

Outside the Sonnenberg Mennonite Church on a foggy Sunday morning

Below is a devotional reflection that Daryl shared during MCC Rep meetings.

Before the Iraq war in early 2003, I did an extended fast. Each day during the fast I wrote letters to U.S. President George Bush, urging him to consider alternatives to a military attack on Iraq.

Nine months earlier, I had traveled to Iraq with several MCC workers. We talked with MCC partners in Baghdad about the implications of a possible U.S. attack – and heard from them that the consequences could be catastrophic. (Indeed, as a result of the war, nearly half of the Christians have left Iraq.) I’ll never forget the words of one Christian leader in Baghdad, who told us, “The U.S. will do what the U.S. wants to do, and we will trust God.”

I am not a foreign policy expert, but it seemed clear enough to me in early 2003 that, if the U.S. attacked Iraq, all hell could break loose. Furthermore, by going to war pre-emptively and without U.N. authorization – which is what President Bush was planning to do -- the United States was setting an extremely dangerous precedent for other nations.

It was an unsettling time -- a time when fear was recklessly driving U.S. policies; a time when chaos seemed to have the upper hand.

The fast had a powerful way of slowing me down, of reducing my anxiety and of focusing my mind. One of the biblical texts that I found most reassuring during that time of fasting was from Psalm 75 – verse 3 -- which reads: “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is God who keeps its pillars steady.”

When the earth totters: when chaos seems to prevail; when injustice abounds; when violence is rampant – God holds the earth’s pillars. In other words, God contains the chaos; God places limits on injustice; and God sets boundaries on violence.

The Bible offers these seemingly paradoxical images:

On one hand, God is sovereign; God is all-powerful; God oversees the affairs of the nations.

On the other hand, humans are free agents – with wide latitude for making choices --even choices that are counter to God’s ways; even to the point of killing God’s son.

Indeed, God gives humans a great deal of freedom. We have the capacity to love each other, to serve each other, to do kind things for each other and to work for justice.

But we also have the capacity to hate, to hurt, to do harm, to treat each other unjustly, to act violently and to declare war. Like it or not, our sovereign God allows choice and permits chaos.

We purchased a 90-year-old cowbell from this gentleman in Switzerland. The bells make beautiful music as cows graze in the fields.

Still, there are limits to human freedom:

• Adam and Eve stepped across the boundaries of human freedom by eating fruit from the forbidden tree. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
• In the days of Noah, human violence exceeded the threshold that God was willing to tolerate.
• The injustice among the Israelites was so great that God exiled the people to foreign lands.

God’s interventions were not so much vindictive as they were attempts to bring people to their senses and draw them back into right relationship.

One cannot work in settings where there is so much injustice and violence without asking very hard theological questions:

• Why is God so slow to bring an end to injustice?
• Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly?
• Why doesn’t God simply stop violence in its tracks?

In one of the Common Lectionary readings for this past Sunday, the prophet Habakkuk cries out: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3; NRSV and NIV)

These are not new questions. They have been around a long time -- in many forms:

• Why did God allow the children of Abraham and Sarah to suffer as slaves for 400 years before delivering them from Pharaoh’s grip?
• Why did God allow African-Americans to suffer as slaves for hundreds of years in the United States before they were freed?
• Why did God allow Aboriginal people in Canada and Native Americans in the United States to suffer under the hands of European immigrant groups?
• Why did God allow the Jews to suffer persecution at the hands of Christians for many years and then endure the horrors of the Holocaust?
• Why has God allowed the Palestinian people to suffer dispossession and occupation for more than 60 years?

These are questions that no one can fully answer. Still, we ask, “Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly and decisively?”

1) Perhaps it has something to do with God exercising utmost patience with the perpetrators of injustice and violence – giving them every opportunity to repent from their harmful ways.

Thomas Jefferson instinctively knew that slavery was wrong. And yet he owned slaves. But it troubled him -- deeply. One of his quotes, inscribed inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., reflects his turmoil about slavery. It reads: "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, (and) that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

So perhaps God doesn’t intervene more quickly because God is waiting for the perpetrators of injustice to repent:

• Perhaps God is waiting for occupying powers to relinquish their control.
• Perhaps God is waiting for those who make war to lay down their weapons.
• Perhaps God is waiting for sex traffickers to release their slaves.
• Perhaps God is waiting for the rich to share their resources.

We should perhaps be glad that God is patient with the perpetrators of injustice because sometimes they are us.

Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly and decisively?

2) Perhaps it has something to do with God’s desire for people of faith to step up to the plate and take bold actions for justice and peace. Just as Jesus modeled a nonviolent way to confront injustice in his day, perhaps God is asking, “Why don’t humans get it? When will they ever learn that, in the face of injustice, indifference and violence are not the only two options?”

• So perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to challenge occupying powers by refusing to purchase goods produced in settlements.
• Perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to not cooperate with those who make war by refusing to pay the military portion of their taxes.
• Perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to be creative and sacrificial in their nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice.

Ironically, while we are waiting for God to act, God is waiting for us to act.

We cannot be sure at what point God will intervene because humans have exceeded the limits of human freedom. Would an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran cross the boundaries of human freedom? I shudder to think about the regional and global repercussions if such an attack were allowed to take place. Would an attempted nuclear attack much larger than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cross the boundaries of human freedom? Are their limits to how far God will allow humans to trash the environment?

Of this much we can be sure:

It is always appropriate for us to pray and act for justice and peace. Jesus called upon his followers to act justly. Jesus called the peacemakers blessed. So let us act daily and boldly for justice and peace. Even when we do not see quick results, let us not grow weary of doing what is good and just. Violence and injustice will not have the last word in God’s enterprise – they are not the last chapter of the story. They are doomed to fail.

God’s character and commitment are without question. Again and again, the Bible offers reminders of God’s promise to bring justice for the oppressed; of God’s concern for vulnerable; of God’s commitment to lift up those who are downtrodden; and of God’s promise to care for the widow and orphan.

God holds the big picture firmly in place. God may not intervene as dramatically or decisively or quickly as we would like. But God has not forgotten the world’s suffering. God sets limits on chaos and injustice and violence. Indeed, “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is God who keeps its pillars steady.” (v.3)

September 25, 2010

Appropriate trust

Permalink 01:32:23, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 491 words  
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Proper 21 (September 26, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Ps. 146; I Tim. 6:6-19; Lk. 16:19-31

This week we welcomed Deb and Jim Fine as new service workers for northern Iraq. Deb will teach English and Jim will serve as program coordinator, bringing to four the number of MCC staff in Iraq.

Cindy with MCC Iraq staff, Ann, Joanna, Jim and Deb

Staff from Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel will gather near Amman for a 3-day retreat, Sept. 26-29. These annual gatherings are fun times to relax, share stories and encourage one another.

This week in the region, one Palestinian was killed and a number of Palestinians and Israelis were injured in clashes in Silwan – an area just outside the Old City of Jerusalem and near the ancient City of David. The Jerusalem city council recently gave approval to demolish 22 Palestinian homes to make a new Israeli park in the area.

The partial moratorium on building Israeli settlements in the West Bank is set to expire on Sept. 26. In spite of strong international pressure to extend the moratorium, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed reluctance for doing so. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to pull out of the present peace talks if the moratorium is not extended.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – along with Germany, have issued a call for negations with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran has also indicated a willingness to talk.

The Common Lectionary readings this week call us to trust in God rather than to set our hopes on things that are fleeting.

In the Old Testament reading Amos warns against living a life of ease, while failing to grieve injustice and violence in the human community (Amos 6:4-7).

The psalmist admonishes: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in who there is no help.” (Ps. 146:3) Rather, we are to place our hope in God, who created the heaven and earth, keeps faith forever, executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry (vv. 5-7).

In the Epistle reading, Paul instructs Timothy to command the wealthy not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (I Tim. 6:17) Those who have the world’s resources are to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share.” (v.18)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). The rich man lived a life of luxury, while ignoring the needs of the impoverished Lazarus. But in the afterlife, Lazarus is comforted and the rich man suffers agony.

When the troubles and injustices around us seem so great, it is easy to try to escape to our own small worlds – accumulating resources and thinking only of ourselves. The readings this week call us to consider the well-being of others.

September 11, 2010

Eid al-Fitr

Permalink 03:36:00, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 606 words  
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Proper 19 (September 12, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ex. 32:7-14; Ps. 51:1-10; I Tim. 1:12-17; Lk. 15:1-10

Ramadan has ended and Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr (festival at the conclusion of the fast). The common holiday greeting is Eid Mubarak (a blessed festival).

The Eid officially begins with pre-sunrise prayers offered collectively in large mosques and open fields. We could hear the melodic chanting of the prayers from our home in Amman. Muslims are also encouraged at the beginning of the Eid to forgive animosities that have occurred against others during the past year.

A shopper in Amman purchases new clothes on the eve of the Eid. (Jordan Times photo by Nader Daoud)

Many Muslims also begin the Eid by giving charity to the poor, buying new clothes, visiting relatives and friends, and giving gifts to children and family members. There are interesting parallels to the Christian celebration of Christmas at the end of the season of Advent, and the celebration of Easter after the period of Lenten repentance and reflection.

There was special drama this year as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. A pastor in Florida called for burning the Qu’ran on 9/11. This is seen as an extremely provocative act in this region and sparked a number of demonstrations. Around the world, political and religious leaders and organizations, including MCC U.S., were quick to condemn the call for burning the Qu’ran. Thankfully, the pastor has at least temporarily suspended his call.

It is important for Christians to condemn such provocative acts and to stand in solidarity with Muslims. But there is little room for self-righteousness. All U.S. taxpayers have helped finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are widely viewed in this region as an anti-Muslim campaign by a “Christian” nation. There is much room for humility; and bridgebuilding efforts with the Muslim community are more important than ever.

The Common Lectionary readings this week offer an extraordinary picture of how God responds to human sin.

God is angry at sin. In the Old Testament, God is angry when the people mold the image of a calf out of gold and worship it as the gods who delivered them from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 32:7-10). Initially, God plans to destroy the people, but Moses appeals for God to show mercy.

God desires truth in our inner being. In his prayer of confession to God after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, David declares, “You desire truth in the inward being.” (Ps. 51:6) David pleads for God’s mercy (v.1), cleansing (v.2), forgiveness (v.9) and restoration (v.10).

God shows mercy to, saves and uses even the worst of sinners.
In the Epistle reading, Paul admits that he was formerly “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (I Tim. 1:13) – the foremost of sinners (v.15). Still, God shows him mercy, saves him and powerfully uses him as an example of God’s utmost patience (v.16).

God rejoices when sinners repent. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells two stories – one about a lost sheep, the other about a lost coin – to illustrate God’s relentless search for those who have gone astray, and God’s delight when sinners repent. (Lk. 15:1-10). While God cares for all people, God shows special concern for those who have lost their way.

We stray so easily from God’s ways -- placing our trust in material things, seeking pleasure at the expense of others, becoming self-righteous in our religious zeal. Seasons like Lent and Ramadan are opportunities to reflect, repent and receive God’s grace to begin anew.

August 28, 2010

Good guests, good hosts

Permalink 03:42:20, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 579 words  
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Proper 17 (August 29, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Prov. 25:6-7; Ps. 112; Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16; Lk. 14:1, 7-14

The Muslim observance of Ramadan is more than half over. In this season, life slows down and attention is given to repentance, acts of compassion and family gatherings. Thankfully, the temperatures have begun to cool down, making fasting a bit less onerous. Year round, the call to prayer sounds from minarets around the city five times a day. During Ramadan, fasting begins with the first call to prayer at dawn and ends with the call to prayer at dusk. (To see BBC photographer Hugh Sykes' Ramadan pictures of holy sites in Karbala, Iraq, click here)

The dome of the King Abdullah Mosque – 100 meters from our home in Amman – is blue inside and out to symbolize that the interior and exterior lives of people of faith should be the same.

We are enjoying the four new SALT workers in our region. Sara Brubacher, Janae Detwiler, Trisha Fallon and Joanna Hoover are studying Arabic in Amman, before heading to their work sites. They take time each day to have lunch with us in the office. They are delightful young adults with a vision for service and learning to know Middle Eastern people and culture.

Joanna, Sara, Trisha and Janae, going shopping with Suzi Khoury from MCC office

We have also enjoyed learning to know Holly and Ryan Snyder Thompson, who are diligently studying Farsi in Amman, while waiting for visas to go to Iran.

Holly and Ryan Snyder Thompson, from Davis, Calif., are waiting for visas to study in Iran

This week in the region, Israel announced that it will begin teaching Arabic language in Israeli public schools – a decision that could have long-term positive impact on Israeli-Palestinian relationships.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about good guests and good hosts.

Good guests. Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings warn against self-promotion. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great;” warns the Solomon, “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov. 25:6-7) Jesus tells a parable about a guest who takes the seat of honor, only to be disgraced when his host asks him to move to a lower seat (Lk. 14:7-10). “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus concludes, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”(v.11)

Good hosts. Good hosts focus on those who are most vulnerable. The writer of Hebrews warns against two areas of neglect:
-“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2)
-“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (v.16)

Rather than inviting one’s friends and close relatives for dinner, Jesus tells his followers to welcome the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – those who may not be able to repay us (Lk. 14:13).

The psalmist notes that the hospitable are a “light for the upright” (Ps. 112:4a) and “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (v.4b). They deal generously and lend (v.5); they distribute freely and give to the poor (v. 9).

Whether as hosts or guests, the biblical call is to be humble. We are to find blessing in welcoming the stranger and sharing with those who are vulnerable; and in unpretentiously receiving the hospitality of others.

August 21, 2010

Acceptable worship

Permalink 01:51:15, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 475 words  
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Proper 16 (August 22, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 58:9b-14; Ps. 103:1-8; Heb. 12:18-29; Lk. 13:10-17

This week we welcomed four new SALT (Serving and Learning Together) workers in our region. They will study Arabic for six weeks in Amman before beginning their assignments – two in Palestine/Israel, one in Jordan and one in Iraq.

New SALT workers --(left to right) Trisha Fallon, Janae Detwiler, Joanna Hoover, and Sara Brubacher -- with Cindy

There were many significant news stories in the region this week:

-The last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq after more than 7 years of war, even as explosions in Baghdad resulted in at least 68 deaths. Some 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq in advisory roles until the end of 2011. It has been nearly six months since elections took place in Iraq, but a government has yet to be formed and the number of civilian casualties has risen in recent months.

-Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to begin direct peace talks, Sept. 2, in Washington, D.C. Few have expectations that the talks will lead to a comprehensive settlement.

-Talk of an Israeli military strike on Iran was heightened after Russia announced that it would install nuclear fuel rods into Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, Aug. 21.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about acceptable worship.

In the Old Testament reading, acceptable worship includes acting justly (Is. 58:9b), showing compassion (v.10) and honoring the Sabbath (vv. 13-14) -- which means to refrain from going our own ways, or serving our own interests or pursuing our own affairs (v. 13). God promises to continually guide and satisfy the needs of those who do these things (vv. 11, 14b).

The psalmist describes true worship as blessing God with “all that is within me” (Ps. 103:1) an not forgetting all of God’s benefits (v.2) – forgiveness, healing, redemption, satisfaction with good, and justice for the oppressed (vv. 3-6).

The writer of Hebrews describes an acceptable worship as giving thanks to God with awe and reverence – for God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).

While the Old Testament reading reminds us to honor the Sabbath, the Gospel reading makes it clear that, limiting Sabbath activities does not preclude doing good to others. On the Sabbath, Jesus heals a woman who has been bound and crippled for 18 years (Lk. 13:10-13). A synagogue leader criticizes Jesus for doing so (v.14). Jesus reminds him that, if it is appropriate to untie animals and lead them to water on the Sabbath, it is certainly appropriate to free humans from bondage on the Sabbath (vv. 15-16).

With the many worries of life – from daily relationship struggles to geopolitical conflicts -- it is easy to focus on ourselves and our needs. Acceptable worship shifts our attention away from obsessing on our own interests and re-focuses it on the God who gives us life, and on serving others.

August 14, 2010

The race set before us

Permalink 04:40:57, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 511 words  
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Proper 15 (August 15, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 23:23-29; Ps. 82; Heb. 11:29-12:2; Lk. 12:49-56

This week marked the beginning of Ramadan, during which many Muslims fast from dawn till dusk for a month. Ramadan begins 11 days earlier each year. It is now occurring in the part of the calendar year when daylight is longer and temperatures are hotter. Daryl and several colleagues in the MCC office fasted for the first day of Ramadan. Going without food was not that difficult. But, with temperatures in the high 90s, not drinking water from early morning till 7:30 p.m. was quite a challenge! The experience provided a deeper appreciation for the discipline required during Ramadan.

(left to right) Char Siemens, Bev Binder, Laura Kanagy and Liza Anderson -- MCC EFL teachers in Iraq

On Friday, we welcomed four EFL teachers who returned from northern Iraq, after teaching a five-week intensive English course at St. Peter’s Seminary in Erbil. The students showed remarkable improvement in their English language skills. The MCC teachers were creative, energetic and focused on their task, while building strong relationships with the seminary community. They maintained a positive attitude in spite of long days of teaching and temperatures soaring well above 120 degrees. We are grateful!

The Common Lectionary readings for this week condemn leaders who do not look after the well-being of the people, and remind us that the journey of faith is filled with struggles.

In the Old Testament reading, God chides the false prophets who try to make the people forget God’s name by prophesying dreams and lies, while claiming to speak on God’s behalf (Jer. 23:23-29). Such false prophets “do not profit this people at all,” God declares (v.32).

The psalmist criticizes leaders who fail to give justice to the weak, or to maintain the right of the lowly, or to rescue the weak and needy (Ps. 82:3-4).

The writer of Hebrews recounts many people of faith who experience dramatic victories during times of opposition. But the writer also notes that many people of faith have been tortured, tormented, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, destitute, persecuted and even killed. (Heb. 11:36-38). Likewise, Jesus “endured the cross” (12:2b). In light of this “cloud of witnesses” the writer admonishes us cast off all that distracts us and “to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (12:1-2a)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus declares, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Lk. 12:50).

We would like the journey of faith to be easy and stress-free. But strong faith is no guarantee of comfortable living. The MCC community was deeply saddened this past week by the untimely death of MCC worker, Glen Lapp, in Afghanistan.

Glen D. Lapp (MCC photo)

It still catches us off guard when we suffer for our faith. The Lectionary readings remind us that this should come as no surprise. How easily we forget. Let us run with perseverance the race set before us.

August 07, 2010

Things not seen

Permalink 03:52:09, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 465 words  
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Proper 14 (August 8, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 15:1-6; Ps. 33:12-22; Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16; Lk. 12:32-40

This week we welcomed two returning International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participants and said goodbye to two young Jordanian women who will be IVEPers in Canada for the next 11 months.

Cindy with returning IVEP volunteers Fareedah and Shoroq (back row) and departing IVEPers Ghadeer and Dina (front row)

The temperatures in Amman were above 104 degrees (40 C) much of the week and we took a short respite at the Dead Sea with our son Jeremy and his friend Lyndsay. We also traveled to Karak to visit friends and tour the ancient Karak Castle – a “Crusader castle” and the historical setting for the movie Kingdom of Heaven.

Karak Castle

Jeremy with friend Lyndsay at Karak Castle

In the region this week, a cross-border clash between Israeli and Lebanese soldiers resulted in the deaths of five persons and highlighted increasing tensions in the region. On a more pleasant note, results of the post-high school Tawjihi exams were announced, Aug. 7, in Jordan. Families whose children did well celebrate with fireworks and horn honking.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about placing our hope and trust in God and in God’s promises -- rather than in our current circumstances or in material things.

In the Old Testament reading, God promises the elderly and childless Abram that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:4). In spite of the fact that he and his wife were well past childbearing age, Abram believes God.

The psalmist warms that “a king is not saved by his great army” and “a warrior is not delivered by his great strength” (Ps. 33:16). Rather, God’s protection rests on those who fear God and hope in God’s steadfast love (v.18).

The Epistle reading states that faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). The writer of Hebrews goes on to describe many biblical characters who demonstrated faith by acting on God’s promises. Amazingly, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” (v.13)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus assures his followers that God is pleased to give them the kingdom (Lk. 12:32-40). Therefore, they can live lightly, trusting God and storing up treasure in heaven rather than on earth.

It is much easier to place our trust in the things that we can see, feel and control – money, material possessions, weapons of war and our own schemes and plans. The journey of faith is about learning to depend on God’s steadfast love even when we don’t feel it, and to trust that God’s promises are true even when we do not yet see them fully realized.

July 31, 2010

Rich toward God

Permalink 01:25:35, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 482 words  
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Proper 13 (August 1, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Eccles. 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Ps. 49:1-12; Col. 3:1-11; Lk. 12:13-21

We spent the week in Palestine/Israel, introducing new MCC staff to partner organizations who are working on a variety of development and peacebuilding projects. The hospitality was humbling. On several occasions, simple “meet and greet” encounters turned into dinner invitations that spanned several hours.

Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College, gives MCC worker Ingrid Rodrick Beiler a tour of BBC's new building

While in Jerusalem, we celebrated Cindy’s 60th birthday with a party on the Mt. of Olives. What better place to observe this significant milestone!

Celebrating Cindy's birthday with chocolate cake and ice cream

Our son Jeremy has finished his summer internship in the West Bank, working on a wastewater project. He will spend the next week with us in Amman before returning to the United States for his fourth year of university.

Jeremy (center) with two other interns who worked at the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem this summer

In the region this week the Arab League agreed in principle to restarting direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians – subject to timing deemed appropriate by Palestinian leaders. The talks are to address the core issues of the conflict.

The Common Lectionary readings remind us that, no matter how wise or wealthy we may be, we are mortal. Therefore, we should store up treasures toward God rather than being greedy or placing our trust in things that are fleeting.

In the Old Testament text, the Teacher laments that all of life “is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” (Eccles. 1:14) One can toil an entire lifetime to accumulate possessions, only to leave them to another who did not toil for them and who may be foolish rather than wise (2:18-23).

The psalmist also writes about the brevity and futility of human life. “Fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.” (Ps. 49:10) Even the powerful who name lands after themselves will die like the animals (vv. 11-12).

In the Epistle reading, Paul warns that greed is idolatry and challenges, “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:2)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus also warns: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Lk. 12:15) He tells the parable of a rich man who planned to store up goods for many years in advance so that he could “relax, eat, drink, (and) be merry” (v.19). On that very night he died. Jesus challenges us to be rich toward God rather than storing up treasures for ourselves (v.21).

We are rich toward God when we set our minds on the matters of God’s kingdom – trusting God rather than being greedy; tending to relationships rather than accumulating possessions; practicing hospitality rather than focusing on ourselves.

July 17, 2010

Hospitality and blessing

Permalink 02:10:52, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 614 words  
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Proper 11 (July 18, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 18:1-10a; Ps. 15; Col. 1:15-28; Lk. 10:38-42

This week we hosted guests from Waterloo, Ontario, and made final preparations for the arrival of five new MCC service workers.

Ingrid and Ryan Rodrick Beiler, from Washington, D.C., will be program administrators in Jerusalem. Rachelle Friesen, from Winnipeg, will be peace development worker for the MCC Palestine/Israel program. Holly and Ryan Snyder Thompson, from Davis, Calif., will be students in residence at a university in Tehran. We are happy about the gifts that each of these new service workers bring to their assignments, and their desire to learn about Middle Eastern culture and faith.

In the region this week, Shir Regev, an Israeli conscientious objector, was sentence to a third prison term for refusing to serve. “I believe it is my personal duty to refuse and defect from an army whose main purpose is to serve as an occupation police for maintaining ‘Israeli order’ and imposing it on defenseless Palestinians who are denied citizenship,” Regev wrote in his statement or refusal.

Eating mansef, the Jordanian national dish, at Taiseer's home near the Syrian border

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on hospitality and blessing.

In the Old Testament reading, three guests show up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah during the heat of the day (Gen. 18:1-10). Abraham runs out to greet them and begs them to stay. He quickly brings water to wash their feet, and finds a cool place for them to rest while a meal is prepared for them. Before they leave, they promise that, in due season, the elderly Abraham and Sarah will have a son. Abraham and Sarah have generously hosted their guests. Their guests, in turn, have brought a blessing.

The psalmist describes those who will experience hospitality in God’s tent (Ps. 15). It is persons who walk blamelessly and do what is right (v.2a), who speak the truth (v.2b), who do not slander or do evil to their friends (v.3), who hate evil (v.4a), who keep their word (v.4b), and who do not loan money at interest or take bribes (v.5).

The Epistle reading describes a grand vision of hospitality. The fullness of God dwells in Christ (Col. 1:19); and Christ dwells in the church (v.27).

In the Gospel reading, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home (Lk. 10:38-42). But she becomes so distracted with the details of hosting that she doesn’t even have time to sit and listen to Jesus – as does her sister Mary. True hospitality is both giving and receiving. It is sharing our gifts with guests, but remembering to receive the blessing that our guests bring to us as well.

In the Middle East, welcoming guests is seen as both an honor and a duty. Guests – even unexpected guests – are not viewed as an interruption -- but as a privilege. When John and Lynn Rempel arrived in Amman this week, they wanted to visit Rasha, an International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participant who had stayed in the Rempel’s home in Waterloo several years ago. Immediately, Rasha’s family began to prepare to host the Rempels. Rasha warned her family that Westerners usually already have an agenda planned when they travel. To their credit, the Rempels were willing to be flexible and allow Rasha to plan the details of their three-day visit – including an overnight stay in Rasha’s family home and another night in a tent at Wadi Rum!

We have learned much about hospitality in this place. It is being generous in opening our homes and ourselves to guests, but also remembering that each guest brings a blessing to us.

July 10, 2010

Bearing fruit in every good work

Permalink 03:35:45, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 546 words  
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Proper 10 (July 11, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 30:9-14; Ps. 25:1-10; Col. 1:1-14; Lk. 10:25-37

This week Cindy accompanied four EFL teachers from Canada and the United States to northern Iraq, where they will teach a six-week intensive English class at St. Peter’s Seminary -- before the regular semester begins in September. Temperatures in Iraq during the summer can soar well above 122 F (50 C). Air conditioning is a welcomed gift for those who have regular electricity. Seven years after the war, parts of Iraq still suffer from power outages on a routine basis.

St. Peter's Seminary in Ankawa, northern Iraq

We are making preparations for the arrival of five new MCC service workers next weekend. Three will live in and around Jerusalem and two will study in Tehran. Four new SALT (Serving and Learning Together) workers will arrive in August – two for Palestine, one for Jordan and one for Iraq.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus convent, where MCC SALTer will assist with kindergarten program

In the region this week police clashed with Israeli activists who joined Palestinians in protesting settlement expansion in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah – the area where MCC had its offices for many years.

Six female Israeli soldiers created quite a buzz when they were shown on a YouTube video doing a choreographed dance routine while on patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron. Initial reports said the six would be disciplined, but according to BBC, the army later announced that the soldiers “were just fooling around and no harm was done.”

After an international outcry, authorities in Iran announced that a 43-year-old woman who was convicted of adultery will not be stoned to death as originally planned.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about loving God fully, and living a fruitful life.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses says that God will prosper and make fruitful those who “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 30:10)

The Psalmist pleads: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth … for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” (Ps. 25:4-5)

In the Epistle reading Paul prays that the faithful brothers and sisters will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will . . . so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work. . .” (Col. 1:9b-10a)

In the Gospel reading a lawyer correctly answers Jesus that the core of the law is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk. 10:27). But he wants to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him a story that answers a different question. We are a good neighbor when we show mercy to those in need.

These texts remind us that loving God and loving neighbor must go hand in hand. We love neighbors when we lift our voices in solidarity with those who suffer injustice and when we use our gifts to serve and show compassion to others. May our lives daily bear such fruit.

July 03, 2010

Let us not grow weary

Permalink 02:30:47, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 612 words  
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Proper 9 (July 4, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 66:10-14; Ps. 66:1-9; Gal. 6:7-16; Lk. 10:1-11,16-20

We are back in Amman after spending the month of June in Jerusalem. During the last months we enjoyed the opportunity to connect with many of MCC’s courageous partners in Palestine/Israel. They faithfully serve their communities under the most difficult of circumstances.

Life under military occupations is a daily struggle for Palestinians. Access to water is limited. The ability to export crops is restricted. Travel is uncertain. Permits and paperwork require persistence and hours of time. The rules at checkpoints change day by day. Every border crossing is an adventure.

Old irrigation pipes in the Jordan Valley

We visited a partner in the Jordan Valley who recently used MCC funds to replace 40-year-old irrigation pipes. This will increase the flow of water to their crops and the amount of food available for consumption and sale. Still, villagers described the difficulty of exporting their crops because the occupation.

New irrigation pipes that will increase flow of water to crops

We attended a young adult conference in Nablus, sponsored by the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy. The youth discussed the challenges of life in Palestine and developed a list of recommendations to pass along to leaders in the Palestinian Authority.

We visited the small village of Jifna in the West Bank to take pictures and bring greetings to Suzi Khoury – a local MCC worker who lives in Amman. As a Palestinian living in Jordan, Suzi has never been allowed to travel to her village.

MCC local worker Suzi Khoury's family home in Jifna -- a village of 1,800 in the West Bank

For the entire month of June, we tried to get permits to visit MCC partners in Gaza. We told Israeli authorities that we needed to visit before June 30, when we would return to Amman. Several hours after arriving back in Amman, we received a message that our permits were approved.

Humor is a survival skill in Palestine. People find ways to laugh about the absurdity of the occupation. One restaurant in Bethlehem used the 30-foot high (9 meters) separation wall as a giant screen to show World Cup soccer games!

The Common Lectionary readings this week challenge us to steadfastly do what is right and good – especially when we meet resistance and circumstances seem bleak.

Isaiah prophesies about the upcoming exile for the people of Jerusalem. But he also promises that those who are humble and contrite will once again return to and find comfort in Jerusalem (Is. 66:2,10-14).

The psalmist admits that humans go through times of severe testing (Ps. 66:10-12), but reminds us that God turns the seas into dry land to make a path for us (v.6), that God keeps watch on the nations (v.7), and that God has kept us among the living and has not let our feet slip (v.8).

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. . . . So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:7, 9)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends out 70 followers in pairs of two to cure the sick and announce that God’s kingdom has come near. Jesus warns that some will not welcome and even reject them. Still, they should not be discouraged but move onto other villages that are ready to receive them. (Lk. 10:1-11)

We are grateful for the many MCC partners in this region who nonviolently resist injustice and continue to do what is right and good. We pray that we will do the same.

June 19, 2010

Set free

Permalink 04:13:59, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 563 words  
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Proper 7 (June 20, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 65:1-9; Ps. 22:19-28; Gal. 3:23-29; Lk. 8:26-39

We are spending the month of June in Jerusalem, meeting with MCC partners and preparing for new MCC service workers who will arrive next month. An added bonus has been some family time. Our son Jeremy is doing an engineering internship with the Applied Research Institute, located nearby in Bethlehem. Cindy’s brother, Phil, plans to visit this coming week. Her mother was also planning to come but, unexpectedly, had to have surgery on her leg.

Cindy and MCC worker, Bassem Thabet (far right), with staff from the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates daily life in this place. For many, simply getting to their jobs or to the doctor can take hours because of an elaborate system of checkpoints and a 400-mile-long fence/wall that separates communities from one another. Nothing is certain here. Flexibility is a survival skill.

By the Garden Tomb, where some believe Jesus was buried and raised to life, we participated in an ecumenical prayer service, June 7, asking God for another miracle of life – an end to the economic blockade on Gaza and the military occupation of the West Bank, and the fears that underlie these policies. (This week Israel announced that it will ease, but not lift, the blockade.)

We have enjoyed the Thursday noon Eucharist services at Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and Sunday worship at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City.

This week we visited East Jerusalem YMCA’s rehabilitation program. Historically in this region, persons with disabilities are thought to be a shame on the family. But that is changing slowly, as organizations like the YMCA offer education and resources to families.

We met one woman who had been kept home for more than 12 years because of a physical disability. Through the intervention and support of the YMCA, and the courage of her family, she is now operating a small grocery store. Her eyes twinkled as she told us how she enjoys interacting with customers.

Suha (sitting), pictured with her nephew and YMCA staff, operates a small grocery store in the West Bank

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on being set free from things that bind us.

In the Old Testament reading, God graciously sets free an obstinate people from their rebellious ways – even though they didn’t ask for help (Is. 65:1-9).

The psalmist declares that God rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28) and delivers people from their enemies (vv.20-21), from suffering (v.24) and from hunger (v.26).
In the Epistle reading, Paul says that, before faith came, we were “held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). But now, through faith in Christ, we are set free to be children and heirs of God (v.26, 29) and to live in just and mutual relationships with each other (v.28).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sets free a man who has been possessed by demons for a long time (Lk. 8:26-39). Clothed and in his right mind, the man returns to his home community to tell what Jesus has done for him (v.39).

May God set us free from the fears that bind us and cause us to hoard, to treat one another unjustly and to dwell only on ourselves. May God set us free to follow Jesus fully.

June 06, 2010

From death to life

Permalink 03:56:00, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 641 words  
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Proper 5 (June 6, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 17:17-24; Ps. 30; Gal. 1:11-24; Lk. 7:11-17

We spent the past weeks with two extraordinary groups of young adults. During the last week of May, we accompanied a group of 10 Iraqis to Sarajevo for a trauma workshop that included MCC partners from Bosnia and Serbia. It was fascinating to hear participants compare and contrast their respective situations and to reflect on what it means to be effective peace builders in post-war contexts.

Participants in the Bosnia-Iraq workshop

This past week, we interacted with some 30 young adults from Canada, the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and Syria, who were in Amman for the third East-West conference sponsored by MCC and the Middle East Council of Churches. The group visited local mosques, churches and historical sites, and made significant progress toward better understanding each others’ cultural and faith perspectives.

Participants in the 3rd MECC/MCC East-West dialogue (photo by Maryanne Mutch)

With both groups of young adults, we came away with confidence that the future is in good hands!

In the region, the big story has been Israel’s interception of a six-ship flotilla, May 31, that was carrying humanitarian supplies and 700 activists to the Gaza Strip. Nine persons were killed when Israeli commandos boarded the lead ship and forced the flotilla to dock in an Israeli port. The international response has been swift and critical. MCC sent letters to the U.S. president and Canadian foreign minister, calling for a full investigation of the events and an end to the economic blockade.

Mavi Marmara, the lead ship on the humanitarian flotilla

While tragic in so many ways, the flotilla events of this week may well mark the beginning of the end of the economic siege on Gaza. The international outcry regarding the conditions in Gaza has become too great to contain. Already more ships are on the way to Gaza. In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary for Hezbollah, has called for a steady stream of flotillas to head to Gaza, carrying humanitarian supplies. Indeed, by week's end another boat was headed toward Gaza. The idea is reminiscent of the lunch counter sit-ins during the U.S. civil rights movement – wave after wave of persons willing to be arrested for calling attention to an unjust policy.

The Common Lectionary readings this week mark the transition from death to life.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah prays to God to restore the life of a widow’s only son (I Kings 17). God honors Elijah’s prayer and the widow responds, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (v.24)

Similarly, in the Gospel reading, Jesus restores the life of a widow’s only son (Lk. 7:11-17). The crowd responds with fear and amazement at Jesus’ action, “A great prophet has risen among us!” (v.16)

In a time of great stress, David cries out to God for help and healing (Ps. 30:2). God responds favorably and David proclaims: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” (Ps. 30:3)

In the Epistle reading, Paul recounts his journey from being one who persecuted and tried to destroy the church to one who proclaims the faith (Gal. 1:24). The people respond by glorifying God.

Today we see much evidence of death and many situations in need of healing. We also celebrate the way God is working in the life of young adults and others to be agents of healing and hope in our world. Indeed, the movement of God in history is from death to life. Economic sieges, humanitarian disasters and calls for war will some day give way to the reign of God’s kingdom where justice and peace prevails and life will flourish for all.

May 22, 2010

Power to change

Permalink 01:54:35, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 619 words  
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Pentecost (May 23, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 11:1-9; Ps. 104:24-35; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17

The week we attended a graduation ceremony for Iraqi refugees studying in Jordan, visited a home for elderly women in Amman and had a fascinating conversation with two Jordanian professionals about U.S. policy in this region.

Iraqi girls dance at graduation ceremony in Amman

Jesuit Refugee Services hosted a graduation event for Iraqi children and adults in Amman who have been studying English, French, and computer skills (and developing art, drama and sports skills) in preparation for re-settlement to third countries. In addition to receiving certificates for their work, students sang, shared stories, danced, displayed crafts and demonstrated soccer skills.

Iraqi youth demonstrate soccer skills

Typically Jordanian families take care of their aging parents. But occasionally there is a need for special care. The home we visited is operated by the Anglican Church and provides a beautiful home environment for 10 women. The director has given 45 years of her life to quietly working with elderly residents.

Iraqi girls perform at graduation ceremony

Our conversation with two Jordanian attorneys quickly moved from MCC business to their sense of frustration with U.S. policy in the region. While there is much about the United States that they admire – and both had lived or visited there – they are mystified why the world’s “leading democracy” attacked Iraq while supporting an Israeli government that occupies another people.

In the region this week, Israel denied entry to Noam Chomsky, a well-known Jewish professor at M.I.T., who was planning to speak at Ber Zeit University in the West Bank. Chomsky gave his lecture by video link from Amman. Meanwhile, a flotilla of 8 ships carrying humanitarian supplies is leaving several European ports, May 23, and heading to Gaza. Israeli officials say the ships will not be allowed to dock in Gaza.

A second round of indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended with no visible progress. May is a month of remembrance for both peoples. Israelis celebrate the birth of a Jewish state, while Palestinians mourn the Nakba or "catastrophe" that led to the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

Also this week, Iran struck a deal with Brazil and Turkey for enrichment of uranium to be used for medical purposes. But the United States will continue to press for additional sanctions, since Iran is not completely stopping their own enrichment programs. Meanwhile, the mothers of three U.S. hikers who are being held in Iran were allowed to visit their children in Tehran, but returned home without securing their release.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on changes connected to coming of God’s Spirit.

The psalmist writes that God’s Spirit creates and renews life (Ps. 104:30). In John’s gospel, Jesus says that God’s Spirit is our ever-present Advocate and the bearer of truth (John 14:16-17).

In the Old Testament reading, the people seek to “make a name for ourselves” and build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens. But God confuses their common language and scatters them across the whole earth (Gen. 11:1-9). By contrast, on the day of Pentecost, people from every nation are gathered in Jerusalem and, when the Spirit comes with power, they each hear the disciples speaking in their own language about God’s deeds of power (Acts. 2:1-11). In addition to bringing clarity and common understanding, God’s Spirit brings the power to speak God’s truth, see God’s visions and dream God’s dreams (vv. 17-18).

On this Pentecost Sunday, we remember with longing that God’s Spirit comes with power to our broken world – bringing renewal of life, truth to light, common understanding and the ability to dream new dreams.

May 12, 2010

The water of life

Permalink 11:40:31, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 1014 words  
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Sixth Sunday in Easter (May 9, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 16:9-15; Ps. 67; Rev. 21:10,22-22:5; John 5:1-9

We attended the annual MCC Europe-Middle East retreat in Egypt, May 7-11. It was a refreshing time to relax and interact with colleagues who are working in peacebuilding, education and community development roles across the region. The retreat speaker was Wilma Derksen from Winnipeg, who told her compelling journey of forgiveness after the abduction and murder of her young daughter many years ago.

Colleagues from our region share dinner together during the retreat

Below is the reflection Daryl shared at the communion service on the final day of the retreat.

The Common Lectionary texts for this week contain images of water as a source of rest, of healing and of life itself. This seems especially appropriate as we are gathered here by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and by a pool that has offered its waters for swimming and so many fun-filled water polo games.

Mediterranean Sea

In the reading from Acts 16, Paul travels to Philippi. On the Sabbath Day he goes outside the city gate by the river, where he finds a quiet place to pray and to engage women leaders in conversation.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus finds a man who has been ill for 38 years. He is lying by a pool of water, which is believed to have healing powers. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man responds, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus heals the man on the spot.

Pool of Bethesda in Old City of Jerusalem

The reading from Revelation 22 contains the beautiful image of “the river of the water of life,” which flows “from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” According to John, “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit. . . . And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Water is in short supply in many communities around the world – so projects that increase access to clean water are a high priority for MCC.

• In small villages in northern Iraq, women no longer spend hours each day carrying water, because MCC partner REACH has brought running water to their homes.
• In Baghdad, children are less susceptible to water-borne diseases and malnourishment because MCC partner Premiere Urgence has provided water filtration and education.
• In Wadi Araba, Jordanian families have more money to send their children to school because an irrigation project has expanded the amount of usable farmland.
• In the West Bank, Palestinian farmers are able to resist the occupation, because a well water project by the Palestinian Hydrology Group allows them to keep farming their land. (Under Israeli law, if the farmers stop growing crops, the land goes to the State of Israel.)

Palestinian farmer displays peppers -- grown with help from Palestinian Hydrology Group

Running water allows women to rest. Clean water allows children to stay healthy. Drip irrigation allows crops to prosper. Access to well water allows farmers to keep their land.

Water is the symbol that we often exclude from our communion table – but it was very much a part of the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples. Before he shared the bread and wine, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

As we now begin to think about returning to our places of work, let us take with us these images of water and bread and wine. These symbols remind us of rest, of healing and of life.

Water polo game during retreat

• Rest because our relationship with God is based on God’s grace -- not on our striving or deserving. We can also rest because we know that the ultimate outcome of our work depends on God, not on us. God is faithful to bring resurrection from the tragedies we encounter in our work.
• Healing because Jesus has broken down the walls that divide us from one another and has restored us to right relationship with God.
• Life itself because we are joined to the Body of Christ and God’s Spirit flows through us. Just as this great Mediterranean Sea – whose waves lap up on the shores of Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Bosnia, Croatia and France – literally connect us as Europe and Middle East, so too we are connected with the global body of Christ as we share this bread and wine with one another.

Reading from John 13: Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basis and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. ... When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (vv. 4-5, 12-15)

On the night that Jesus was betrayed he took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.” (I Cor. 11:23-25)

Perhaps you feel weary and exhausted. Come receive God’s rest. Perhaps your life feels broken, fragmented or riddled with conflict. Come receive God’s healing. Perhaps your life feels dry or dead. Come receive the water of life that God offers in abundance.

May 01, 2010

All things new

Permalink 20:46:26, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 458 words  
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Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 11:1-18; Ps. 148; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

We spent the past two weeks making final preparations for six persons from our region to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University. This year one person from Iran, two from Iraq, two from Jordan, and one from Palestine will attend the month-long classes that bring together peace practitioners from some 40-50 countries. SPI alumni (nearly 50 in our region) help to shape MCC’s programs in the Middle East.

Nada Zabanah (SPI 2010) and Salwa Al-Sukhon (SPI 2009)

Indirect peace talks between Israel and Palestine are set to begin again next week and have received the endorsement of the Arab League. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset said he would rather have Palestinians as citizens of one country than to have two separate states.

In Iraq, a recount in the recent parliamentary elections may take three more weeks. Bomb attacks continue while Iraqis await the outcome of the disputed elections.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about new things.

The reading from Acts 11 is about God’s new community that includes both Jews and Gentiles. The Spirit tells Peter to visit the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, since God makes no distinction between peoples (v.12). Peter initially resists, as his religious upbringing made it clear that Jews and Gentiles should not mix. But eventually he obeys and God’s Spirit is poured out on this Gentile household. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter tells an initially skeptical Jewish-Christian audience. But after hearing Peter’s account the crowd declares, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (v.18)

The psalmist describes a new political order in which “Kings of the earth and all peoples” will praise God. (Ps. 148:11)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus gives a new commandment: “Love one another,” he instructs his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:12). Love for each other will be the distinguishing characteristic of those who follow Jesus (v. 35).

In the reading from Revelation 21, John sees a new heaven, a new earth and the new Jerusalem (v. 1-2). “See, I am making all things new,” God declares (v.5). In this new order, God will dwell among humans and there will be no more mourning, crying or pain (vv. 3-4).

Cedars of Lebanon

In the present moment -- too often filled with suffering, violence confusion and disorder -- it is sometimes hard to see the new things that God is creating. Still, as we are faithful to tend the trees by loving one another and accepting those who are different from us, God is faithful to look after the forest.

April 17, 2010

Odd characters, peculiar strategy

Permalink 01:52:56, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 462 words  
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Third Sunday of Easter
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 9:1-20; Ps. 30; Rev. 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

We enjoyed spending the past two weeks in Amman working with colleagues and welcoming many visitors in the MCC Jordan office. Last weekend, Cindy attended a large wedding in Amman and Daryl ran the Dead Sea Half Marathon. Click for CNN video link

Runners in 2009 Dead Sea Marathon (website photo)

Road races in Jordan are a fascinating contrast of cultures. Women in head scarves run alongside runners clad in scanty western-style sports gear. At one point, a shepherd in Bedouin dress led his herd of sheep and goats across the four-lane highway in front of the runners. Camels and donkeys also dotted the race course.

In the region this week Israeli troops killed several Palestinian militants on the Gaza-Israel border.

Israeli troops on border with Gaza (AFP photo)

On Thursday Hamas joined the list of governments who use the death penalty as a tool of control, executing two Palestinian men charged with collaborating with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skipped a nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. after learning that Egypt and Turkey planned to use the occasion for raising questions about Israel’s nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the Washington gathering and announced that Iran would hold its own nuclear summit, beginning April 17.

The Common Lectionary Reading for this third Sunday of Easter remind us that God chooses a seemingly odd list of characters (persecutors, betrayers and One who is slaughtered like a lamb) and a peculiar strategy (suffering and death) for accomplishing God’s purposes in the world.

In the reading from Acts, Saul, a religious leader, is breathing threats and murder against the early church (Acts 9:1). Still, the Lord chooses Saul to “bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (v.15). But there is a cost for Saul. “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” the Lord warns (v.16).

In the Gospel reading (John 21), Jesus calls and trusts Peter – who just days before had betrayed Jesus three times – to “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16) and “Feed my sheep”(v.17). Jesus also warns Peter that following will be costly (v.19).

In the reading from Revelation, it is the Lamb that was slaughtered who alone is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).

While the nations use well-trained militaries, weapons and the threat of death as tools for ordering society, God works with a completely different strategy and cast of characters. It is encouraging to know that God is able to use seeming weakness and flawed human beings like us in the work of God’s kingdom.

April 04, 2010

Death defeated, death destroyed

Permalink 07:12:23, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 733 words  
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Easter Day (April 4, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 65:17-25; Ps. 118:1-2, 14-24; I Cor. 15:19-26; Lk. 24:1-12

This morning we participated in the Easter sunrise service on Mt. Nebo, the site from which Moses viewed the “Promised Land” before he died (Deut. 34:1-4). More than 150 persons jammed into a small chapel on the mountain top to sing hymns and proclaim that Christ has risen.

The hazy view from Mt. Nebo, looking toward Jericho

The Common Lectionary readings for this Easter Sunday highlight God’s victory over the powers of death.

In the Gospel reading, the Galilean women come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body. But the stone has been rolled away and his body is gone. “He is not here, but has risen!” two men in dazzling clothes tell the women (Lk. 24:5). The forces of evil allied to crucify Jesus. But their most powerful weapon, death itself, proved impotent to hold him down.

Diwa Hopkins visits with Cindy after the Easter sunrise service on Mt. Nebo

In the Epistle reading, Paul also declares that Jesus has been raised from the dead (I Cor. 15:20). Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection; those who belong to Christ will rise at his return (v. 23). In the meantime, Christ is securing the surrender of all powers that resist his reign (v. 25). In the end, Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, “after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (vv. 24, 26)

Marker on Mt. Nebo

We live in the span of history between God’s convincing defeat of the powers of death, and their full and final destruction. The resurrection offers compelling proof that the powers of death are no match for God’s authority. Their weakness has been exposed, their ultimate threat disarmed.

But if death has been defeated, why were there so many violent killings in Iraq this week? Or why does the military occupation of Palestine continue? Or why is there so much poverty and suffering in the world?

While the powers of death have been defeated they have not yet been destroyed. For a time they retain residual power and influence in this world. Indeed, many still cling to greed, domination, force and the threat of death as the best tools for protecting self interests.

In this “March Madness” basketball season, perhaps a sports analogy is appropriate. The powers of death are like a previously undefeated team that arrogantly tramples its opponents all season long. The team seems invincible. In the final game of the tournament, it dominates a seemingly much weaker team -- What kind of game strategy is suffering and a cross? -- and prepares to declare itself the champion. But in the last minutes of the game, the “weaker” team rallies and wins an extraordinary victory. While the arrogant team has been defeated, it will live to play more games next season -- perhaps still dominating for a time. But its power has been diminished by the memory of its indisputable defeat in the championship game. Its invincibility has been exposed.

Today, in the face of war, famine, dispossession, occupation, injustice and all that feels unfair, we cry out to God to act quickly and decisively to destroy what remains of death's powers. But God waits patiently, offering every opportunity for the enemies of the cross – which sadly too often include the Christian church – to come to their senses and embrace the ways of God’s kingdom.

And we must wait too; but not passively. By our words and actions we boldly announce God’s Easter victory over death – light has triumphed over darkness, truth over falsehood, love over hate, nonviolence over violence and the way of service over the way of domination.

Even now we are to live into the vision that God promised through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” (Is. 65:17) In God’s new order, distress, sickness, death, displacement, domination and violence will no longer hold sway. They will be replaced by joy, good health, long life, secure dwellings and right relationships (vv.19-25).

Like Moses, we may not live to see God's promise fulfilled in our life time. But Easter gives us a bird's eye view of the new heaven and earth that God is creating. Death has been defeated! Death will be destroyed!

March 28, 2010

In God's hands

Permalink 12:55:03, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 504 words  
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Palm Sunday-Passion Week (March 28, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 50:4-9a; Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29; Ps. 31:9-16; Phil. 2:5-11; Lk. 19:28-40, 22:14-23:56

This week we traveled to Jerusalem to say farewell to the Lehman family, who is completing their MCC assignment as Jerusalem Representatives and returning to Pennsylvania. They have built strong relationships with MCC’s Palestinian and Israeli partners. We will miss their friendship.

Cindy with Elijah and Heather Lehman

Today we had opportunity to participate in the Palm Sunday procession, tracing the route where Jesus rode a borrowed colt while the crowds scattered palm branches.

Palm Sunday crowds begin the walk down from the Mt. of Olives

Thousands of Christians from around the world joined Palestinian Christians in a festive walk from Bethphage to the Mount of Olives, then down through the Garden of Gethsemane and up into the Old City of Jerusalem. The crowd sang hymns and choruses in many languages as we walked.

Palm Sunday pilgrims enter Jerusalem though St. Stephen's Gate

The Common Lectionary readings this week move dramatically from crowds who shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (as Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday), to crowds who shout “Crucify, crucify him!” on Good Friday. The texts also offer poignant examples of placing one’s complete trust in God, rather than taking matters in our own hands.

In the Old Testament reading, God’s servant is willing to suffer injury and insult (Is. 50:6) because he remembers that the God who helps and vindicates him is near (vv.7-9).

The psalmist also suffers distress, grief, sorrow and misery. Many taunt him, scheme against him and plot to take his life (Ps. 31:9-13). Rather than seeking revenge, the psalmist affirms: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.” (vv. 14-15).

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges his readers to have the same mind as Christ Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7); and who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (v.8)

Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane

In the Gospel reading, Jesus humbly rides a donkey into Jerusalem; shares a meal with his disciples; is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and is tried, convicted and crucified (Luke 19-23). In all this, Jesus demonstrates complete trust in God. Before he is arrested he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (22:42). As soldiers mock and prepare to crucify him, Jesus declares, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Just before he dies, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46).

Jesus modeled what it looks like to trust God completely. As we enter this Passion Week, we pray that our trust in God will grow as well.

March 20, 2010

Former things, new things

Permalink 07:44:00, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 870 words  
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Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 21, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126, Phil. 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

While Iraq has largely fallen out of the news in the West, this week marks seven years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Daryl fasted in the 40 days leading up to the war, sending daily letters to then President George W. Bush and urging him to seek alternatives to war. On the eve of the war, Daryl also sent an open letter to our three children, noting that war was imminent:

Under the "best case" scenario, the war will be quick, there will be minimal loss of life, Iraqi people will welcome positive changes in their lives, the Middle East will grow more stable, and the nations of the world will forgive the United States for rushing to war without their blessing. But rarely, if ever, does war produce "best case" scenarios. The more sobering possibilities are that this war will kill or injure tens of thousands of children, civilians and troops; millions of Iraqis will be left homeless; the Middle East will become even more unstable; anti-U.S. feelings around the world will grow stronger; and terror attacks on U.S. soil will increase. - Letter dated 3/18/2003

Indeed, the human toll of the war has been staggering. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from a low of 95,642 to hundreds of thousands. Some 9,515 Iraqi security forces have also been killed.

An Iraqi woman from Baghdad speaks with Cindy and Evanna Hess, at an IDP camp in northern Iraq

The U.S.-led coalition death toll stands at 4,703, including 4,385 U.S. soldiers.

These numbers do not include other human costs – the more than 4.0 million Iraqis who have been uprooted from their homes and the millions of soldiers and civilians who will forever carry the physical and psychological scars of war.

The U.S. financial cost of the war in Iraq already exceeds $712 billion. It could easily reach $1.0 trillion before a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces -- about the same amount as the proposed health care reform bill that will provide medical care to 32 million Americans during the next 10 years.

A small Kurdish village where MCC is helping to address food security issues

We have traveled to Iraq many times in the past 2½ years – but only to the Kurdish areas in the north. It is still considered too dangerous for westerners to travel to Baghdad, although we hope to do so later this spring. Many Iraqis (at least those in the north) tell us that they are glad that Saddam Hussein no longer controls Iraq. But they also express lament about the way the U.S. has mistreated ordinary Iraqis, the fact that violence continues (including violence against Christians), the lack of electricity and clean water, and the high number of refugees and internally displaced persons.

First grade students at a school in northern Iraq, which received MCC school kits

The Common Lectionary readings for the fifth Sunday in Lent reflect on former things and new things.

In the Old Testament reading, God speaks words of promise through the prophet Isaiah -- at a time when God’s people are facing exile: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:18-19). God has previously delivered the people from slavery in Egypt and from wandering in the wilderness. Again, God will do a new thing.

The psalmist echoes the same theme. Those who have gone into exile with weeping and tears will return with shouts of joy (Ps. 126:5-6). God will restore their fortunes.

In the Epistle reading, Paul acknowledges his past as one who persecuted the church and sought to gain favor with God on his own merits (Phil. 3:6-9). All that is now rubbish, say Paul. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (v.13b-14)

In the Gospel reading, Mary also puts away former things and focuses her attention wholly on Jesus. She anoints his feet with expensive perfume in preparation for his upcoming crucifixion, burial and resurrection (John 12:1-8).

For many years, Iraqis have known precious little beside colonial powers that interfere, wars that uproot and economic sanctions that squeeze daily life. It is time for something new.

Teacher and principal at a two-room school in northern Iraq

And there are hopeful signs. National elections were held in early March. Refugees and internally displaced persons are slowly beginning to return home (albeit to difficult circumstances).

A Muslim partner based in Baghdad recently shared a shipment of MCC material resources with Christian families who had been displaced in pre-election violence in Mosul. Their organization’s director issued a strong statement: "We should raise our voice high as civil society representatives against such crimes against humanity,” she wrote, “ we hold the Iraqi government and local government responsible to save and keep safe the lives of all Christians, and other ethnic (and) minorities.”

Amidst the tragedy of human conflict and sin, God is doing a new thing. Do we have eyes to perceive it?

March 13, 2010

A new creation

Permalink 03:35:15, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 819 words  
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Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 14, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Josh. 5:9-12; Ps. 32; II Cor. 5:16-21; Lk. 15:1-3, 11b-32

During the past two weeks, we accompanied a Canadian learning tour traveling in Palestine and Israel. The group -- from Manitoba and Alberta -- visited biblical sites, and met with Israelis and Palestinians to learn about the current conflict.

Palestinian boys in Hebron, the West Bank city where Abraham and Sarah are buried

We walked by the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus called four of his disciples), along the Via Delarosa (where Jesus carried his cross), and through a checkpoint in Bethlehem (where today Palestinian workers spend hours each morning waiting to gain access to jobs in Jerusalem).

Marianne Penner crosses the Bethlehem checkpoint in the separation wall

From Palestinians, we heard stories of life under military occupation and the daily difficulties of being trapped behind a separation barrier -- including lack of access to jobs, farmland, religious sites and medical care.

From Israelis, we heard about security concerns that are rooted in a long history of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. We met with the architect of the 436 mile (703 km)-long wall and fence barrier that Israel has constructed to block Palestinian access to Jewish population centers, including Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.

The separation wall snakes through Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem

Danny Tirza, architect of the separation barrier, explains the 30 foot (9 meters)-high wall to Walter Hamm

Both Israelis and Palestinians expressed the fear that a major violent confrontation is looming on the horizon. And, yet, the group also heard stories from courageous Palestinians and Israelis who are taking risks for a just and durable peace for all peoples in the region.

Peter Rempel, MCC Manitoba executive director, presents a pair of gloves to Alex Awad, dean of Bethlehem Bible College

Alex Awad, dean at Bethlehem Bible College, told the group: “The Bible is not about occupation and fighting, but about justice and peace.” He went on to say that, “Peace between Israel and Palestine is necessary for the survival of the Christian church in the region,” which has dwindled from 15% of the population in 1946 to less than 2% in 2010.

Archbishop Elias Chacour and Elsie Rempel

Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour also expressed concerns about the mass emigration of Christians from the Holy Land. Addressing the issue of Christian Zionism -- a theology that rejects criticism of the harsh policies of the Israeli government because it is said to represent God’s chosen people, Chacour said: “There is no privilege; all are called to be adopted children.”

Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot director, describes to tour participants Neil and Herta Janzen how Canada Park was built over the site of a former Palestinian village

The group also heard leaders from courageous Israeli groups, including Zochrot, The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights -- who are working for ways that Palestinians and Israelis can share the land in peace.

The Common Lectionary readings for this fourth Sunday in Lent focus on God’s new creation that springs from the soil of human repentance.

In the Old Testament reading, as God’s people enter the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert, God tells Joshua, “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” (Josh. 5:9)

The psalmist writes that when he kept silent about his sin, his body wasted away, his strength was dried up and God’s hand was heavy upon him (Ps. 32:3-4). However, when he acknowledged his sin, God forgave him and instructed him in the way he should walk (vv. 5-8).

In the Epistle reading, Paul declares: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Cor. 5:17)

In the Gospel reading, the prodigal son comes to his senses after nearly starving in a foreign land. “I will get up and go to my father,” the son declares, “and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” (Lk. 15:18-19). There is not a hint of hesitation from the father, who welcomes his wayward son with hugs, kisses and a big party (vv. 20-24).

Spring flowers in Nazareth Village

In the Galilee, beautiful spring flowers reminded us that God is indeed faithful to bring forth a new creation. Our prayer is that Israelis and Palestinians together will soon experience a new creation of peace and justice in the Holy Land.

There are many ways whereby repentance might well hasten this day – if the Christian church would apologize for its historical persecution of Jews and its uncritical embrace of Christian Zionism; if Israel would abandon its policies of occupation and land confiscation, and if the minority of Palestinians who have resorted to violence would embrace a nonviolent struggle for justice.

February 27, 2010

Fear or faith?

Permalink 01:24:26, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 600 words  
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Second Sunday in Lent
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 15:1-18; Ps. 27; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

It has been raining here for the last three days -- a wonderful blessing in this part of the world! Normally, the rainy season is from November through February, with no rain the rest of the year. But the last several winters, rainfall has been below normal and Jordan is among the top five countries in the world for water scarcity.

Geraniums outside our home soak up the winter rains

This week we wrapped up details for MCC’s fiscal year that ends February 28, paying out grants and getting reports in order. We also prepared for an MCC learning tour that will arrive from Manitoba on Sunday. We will spend the next two weeks with this group in Palestine/Israel.

Rain-washed streets in Jebal Webdah, our neighborhood in Amman

In the region this week, Israel announced that it has a fleet of unmanned aircraft that are capable of reaching Gulf countries, including Iran. Israel has been critical of Iran’s nuclear program, asserting that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and occasionally threatening a military response. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes – energy and medical needs. The Israeli drones are able to fly for up to 20 hours and can be used for surveillance or for firing missiles.

Israeli Heron TP drones with a wingspan as big as a Boeing 737 (AFP photo)

The Common Lectionary readings for this second week of Lent are about fear and faith. Ultimately, the choice between fear and faith comes down to whether or not we trust God’s promises to protect us and provide for us.

In the Old Testament reading, God appears to Abram in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) At the time, Abram is old, childless and concerned about his legacy. God promises to make his descendants as numerous as the stars. In spite of his seemingly hopeless circumstances, Abram believes God. (v.6)

Even when evildoers assail him (Ps. 27:2), an army encamps against him (v.3) and false witnesses breathe out violence against him (v.12), the psalmist chooses not to be afraid because God is his light and salvation and the stronghold of his life (v.1). “God will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble,” declares the psalmist (v.5), “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”(v.13)

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that there are many enemies of the cross of Christ whose minds are set on earthly things (Phil. 3:18). And yet, people of faith are to stand firm in the Lord (4:1) because our citizenship is in heaven from where we are expecting a Savior (3:20).

In the Gospel reading, some Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is trying to kill him. (Lk. 13:31). But rather than being afraid, Jesus is focused on his mission of teaching, healing and seeking to restore people to God (vv.32-34).

People of faith are not exempted from hardship. God told Abram that his descendants would be oppressed for four hundred years in a foreign country. The psalmist was threatened many times by his enemies. Jesus was eventually killed.

There are many situations -- in daily life and on the global scene -- that can fill us with fright. It is precisely in times that we must choose whether to believe God’s promises of protection and provision. It is this choice that determines whether we live in fear or act in faith.

February 20, 2010

Lenten repentance

Permalink 07:34:01, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 492 words  
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First Sunday in Lent (February 21, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 26:1-11; Ps. 91:1-2, 9-16; Rom. 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Over lunch one day this week in Amman we met with a delegation from Washington, D.C., which included members of J-Street, Churches for Middle East Peace, and several members of Congress. The group was in the region to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that they can more effectively advocate for peace.

After leaving Jordan, the group traveled to Israel, where Foreign Ministry officials refused to meet with them because they considered J-Street (a progressive Jewish lobby) to be “anti-Israeli.” Later, the Foreign Ministry apologized for the snub.

After a two-month process that included seven trips to the Ministry of Interior, we finally renewed our Jordanian residency cards for another year on Wednesday. In the end, a well-connected Jordanian friend – our wasta or “influence” -- accompanied us to help smooth the process that requires a multitude of signatures and stamps!

Site along Jordan River where Jesus was baptized

On Saturday, we visited the Baptism Site of Jesus. There the Archbishop of Canterbury dedicated the foundation stone for a new Anglican church and then led a special Liturgy, “Bethany our way to repentance” at the site along the Jordan River where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.

The Archbishop of Canterbury leads a special Liturgy at baptism site

The Common Lectionary readings for this first week of Lent are about God’s deliverance from oppression, trouble, sin and temptation.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses reminds the people that, when they were aliens in Egypt, God heard their voice and saw their oppression and brought them out with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (Deut. 26:8). As a worshipful response for this deliverance, the people are now to share the first fruits of their land with the priests and aliens.

The psalmist records God’s reassuring promise: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” (Ps. 91:14-15)

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that God’s deliverance extends to all people. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” (Rom. 10:12)

The Gospel reading describes the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13. After his baptism in the Jordan River, God’s Spirit leads him to the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days. Three times the devil tempts Jesus. Each time, Jesus recites Scripture that unmasks the devil’s deceptive suggestion or promise.

As we begin this Lenten season -- a time of repentance and humbling ourselves before God -- it is reassuring to remember that God’s deliverance extends to all people and to situations great and small.

February 13, 2010


Permalink 02:08:13, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 592 words  
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Last Sunday after Epiphany (February 14, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Ex. 34:29-35; Ps. 99; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2; Lk. 9:28-36

We spent much of this week preparing reports on last year’s projects and making plans for the coming year. It is an exhausting process, but a helpful opportunity to assess what has gone well and what can be improved. Sometimes it feels like there is a great gulf between the reporting/paperwork needs of Western agencies and the more organic and spontaneous practices of Middle Eastern organizations.

Julie Lytle with a kindergarten student at the Arab Episcopal School

On Thursday and Friday, we also hosted the Serving and Learning Together (SALT) volunteers who are spending a year in Jordan. Julie Lytle is a classroom assistant at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, which integrates blind, low-vision and sighted children in the same classroom. She is developing skills in using music therapy to work with children. Brent Stutzman teaches deaf and blind students at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf. Julie and Brent are helping transform the worlds of students with seeing and hearing challenges.

In the region this week, Iran marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. President Ahmadinejad used to occasion to announce that Iran has enriched uranium to the 20 percent grade necessary for medical technology. He reiterated that Iran has no intention of building a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Iraq marked the opening of the parliamentary election campaign. Elections are scheduled to take place in March. This could be a big step toward helping to build a positive future in Iraq.

Also this week, Israel began re-routing a portion of its separation wall near the West Bank village of Bilin, two and one half years after the Israeli High Court ordered it to do so. A small, but important change.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on transformation that happens when we are in God’s presence and reflect on God’s glory. All four readings mention Moses.

In the Old Testament reading, after speaking with God on Mt. Sinai, Moses’ face shines so brightly that the people are afraid to come near him. Moses places a veil over his face to keep the shine from fading away (Ex. 34:29-34).

The psalmist says that we should praise, extol and worship God who is holy (Ps. 99:1-5). Moses and his brother Aaron were among the priests who called on God’s name, and God answered them (Ps. 99:6).

In the Epistle reading, Paul says that, unlike Moses who placed a veil over his face to preserve the shine, that “with unveiled faces we see God’s glory and are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus and several of his disciples go up a mountain to pray (Lk. 9:28). There the appearance of Jesus’ face changes and Moses and Elijah appear. A voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”(v.35) The experience dramatically marks the transition from the age of the law and prophets to the age of grace and truth that are seamlessly melded together in the life and teachings of Jesus.

These stories of transformation offer hope as we live among situations that sometimes feel intractable. Indeed, Paul writes that because of God’s transforming mercy, “we do not lose heart” (II Cor. 4:1).

As we now prepare to enter the season of Lent, we pray that God’s transforming work will take root in new and deeper ways as we remain in God's presence.

February 06, 2010

Hospitality and hostility

Permalink 02:10:38, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 660 words  
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Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 7, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 6:1-8; Ps. 138; I Cor. 15:1-11; Lk. 5:1-11

This week we welcomed visitors from the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) and a group of 30 students from Eastern Mennonite University.

JRS is working with Iraqi refugees in Amman, helping them prepare to return to Iraq or resettle in third countries. They operate an after school center in Amman that helps Iraqis connect with one another, while learning French, English and computer skills.

The EMU students are spending a semester in the Middle East – traveling through Egypt, Jordan and Palestine-Israel. They asked excellent questions about MCC’s work in the region and enjoyed exploring Petra, Wadi Rum and other sites in Jordan.

Doug Hostetter, MCC UN Office director, shares photos with young adult volunteers at Al Najd Developmental Forum in Gaza City

A highlight of the week was being invited to a Jordanian home for mansef – the national dish, made with rice, meat, yogurt sauce and pine nuts. The hospitality was nothing short of amazing. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands from a common platter piled high with food. It was a wonderful and intimate cultural experience. Later, over many cups of tea and Arabic coffee, we listened as family members shared stories about politics, religion and daily life in Jordan.

Daryl and Cindy with baby Chris, son of MCC local staff Bassem Thabet and wife Nora

In the region this week, Israeli jets bombed the tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border. The story caught our attention, as we had just driven this strip of land the previous week. In Iraq, Shia Muslims were targeted as they made a religious pilgrimage to their holy city of Karbala. At least 40 persons were killed.

The juxtaposition of hospitality and hostility is a sobering reminder that the human community holds the potential for both.

The Common Lectionary readings this week highlight our human sense of inadequacy, but also remind us that, in spite of our failings, God graciously calls us and uses us in significant ways.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah – surrounded by God’s holy presence – exclaims: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips . . . yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5). A heavenly being touches Isaiah’s mouth with a hot coal and declares that Isaiah’s guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out (v.7). The Lord asks, “Whom shall I send” to do my work? Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!” (v.8).

The psalmist is also aware of his trouble and need for God’s deliverance (Ps. 138:7). And yet, with confidence, the psalmist exclaims: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (v.8).

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that he is the “least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (I Cor. 15:9). Still, by God’s grace, Paul now proclaims God’s good news, working harder than any of the other apostles (v.10).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells Simon Peter to let down his fishing nets into deep water (Lk. 5:4). Even though Peter has fished all night and caught nothing, he obeys Jesus. Immediately, Peter and his partners catch so many fish that their nets begin to break and their boats begin to sink (v.6-7). Recognizing Jesus’ divine power, Peter falls at the knees of Jesus and declares, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v.8). Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (v.10). Peter, James and John leave everything and follow Jesus (v.11).

With Isaiah, Paul and Peter, we easily identify with feelings of being inadequate, sinful, not up to the task. And yet God continues to extend grace. May we, like they, respond in obedience to all that God calls us to be and do.

January 27, 2010

We are all the chosen people of God

Permalink 14:31:44, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 744 words  
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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.

And yet in the midst of this suffering, we experienced gracious hospitality. And while Iraq struggles to form a well-functioning government, civil society organizations are blossoming everywhere.

A caged corridor more than a kilometer long connects the Gaza Strip with Israel

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.

January 16, 2010

Grace upon grace

Permalink 01:08:07, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 496 words  
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Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 17, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 62:1-5; Ps. 36:5-10; I Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

This week we visited with a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation headed to Iraq and made preparation for our own travel to Iraq next week with the directors of MCC’s three advocacy offices.

A plane loaded with humanitarian aid headed for Haiti (Jordan Times photo by Nader Daoud)

Jordan responded quickly to Tuesday’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, sending medics and six tons of food, clothing and medical supplies. A second planeload of aid is being prepared.

For the most part, though, violence grabbed the regional headlines this week.

An Iranian scientist was killed by a bomb blast while riding his motorcycle to work. The Iranian government accused Israel and the United States of being responsible for the killing.

In Jordan, a bomb exploded near a convoy carrying Israeli diplomats between Amman and Jerusalem. No one was injured, but the blast highlights the tense feelings between Jordan and Israel.

An Iraqi court sentenced 11 men to death by hanging for their involvement in a series of car bombings in August 2009 that left more than 100 people dead.

By contrast, the Common Lectionary readings this week are about grace – God’s unexpected gifts to us.

In the Old Testament reading, God’s people have been in exile and their land is desolate. They feel forsaken. In spite of their waywardness, God expresses delight in them and promises to vindicate them. (Is. 62:1-5)

The psalmist extols God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and judgments (Ps. 36:5-6) and the fact that all people may take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. (v.7) “For with you is the fountain of life;” declares the psalmist, “In your light we see light.” (v.9)

In the Epistle reading, Paul describes the variety of gifts that God activates in the human family – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues (I Cor. 12:8-10). God’s Spirit gives each person a gift to be used for the common good. (v.7)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus attends a wedding with his mother and disciples (John 2:1-2). When the wine runs out, Jesus tells the servants to fill six large jars with water. When they do so, the water miraculously turns to fine wine. The steward tells the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (v.10)

We humans live our lives trying to do what is right. Disasters like the earthquake in Haiti often bring out the best instincts in the human family – compassion and generosity.

But too often, we fail miserably and our relationships are marred by selfishness, conflict and violence. It is good news that God does not give up on us. Instead, God patiently continues to restore us, offer us refuge and new life, and to give us the necessary gifts for the human community to flourish.

January 09, 2010

The whole family

Permalink 01:09:22, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 477 words  
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First Sunday after Epiphany (January 10, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 43:1-7; Ps. 29; Acts 8:14-17; Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22

This week we returned to the MCC office in Amman. We welcomed visitors from California, New York, Jordan and Iraq. Next week we plan to host the directors of MCC’s three advocacy offices (Ottawa, U.N. and Washington).

A snow blizzard, Dec. 19, added adventure to our son Holden's marriage to Heidi Bowman (photo by Steven Johnson)

In the region this week, a humanitarian aid convey Viva Palestina, led by George Galloway, British member of parliament, reached the Gaza Strip nearly a month after it left the United Kingdom. Egyptian authorities finally granted permission for more than 100 vehicles carrying food and medical supplies to enter at the Rafah Crossing. A year after the January 2009 war, Gaza remains under economic siege, with its borders tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt.

A deep crater in Gaza following Israeli air strikes (AP photo for BBC)

In response to mortars fired from Gaza into Israel, the Israeli military launched air strikes against Gaza, Friday, killing three persons and wounding several others.

The Common Lectionary readings for this first Sunday after Epiphany focus on God’s love for the whole human family.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah writes that the God who created us, formed us, redeemed us and called us by name, promises to be with us when we pass through deep waters and fiery trials because we are precious in God’s sight (Is. 43:1-2, 4).

The psalmist stands in awe of God’s voice that thunders over the waters (Ps. 29:3); is powerful and majestic (v.4); breaks the cedars (v.5a); flashes forth flames of fire (v.7); shakes the wilderness (v.8); and causes oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare (v.9). And yet this powerful God is not distant, gives strength to his people and blesses them with peace (v.11).

The reading from Acts reminds us that God’s love is not limited to one group, but extends to both Jews and Gentiles (8:14-17).

The Gospel reading describes the baptism of Jesus, where a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22).

In our own lives and in the world around us, we see compelling evidence that humans have failed to love others as God has loved us. In his book, Home Tonight, Henri Nouwen writes that “the opposite of love is not hate but fear.” These fears cause us to build walls to protect ourselves and to lash out at those who threaten our sense of well-being.

In our personal relationships, as well as in the affairs of nations, God calls us to love the whole human family. We pray that God will grant courage to overcome our fears so we are free to treat even our enemies with compassion, dignity and justice.

January 02, 2010

Coming Home

Permalink 12:44:55, by Daryl and Cynthia Email , 1711 words  
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A Homily for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (Jan. 3, 2010)
Anglican Church of the Redeemer - Amman, Jordan
Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 31:7-14; Eph.1:3-19; Matt. 2:13-23; Ps. 84

On New Year’s Eve we returned from the United States, where we recently attended our son’s wedding in Virginia. It was a wonderful time of celebration. Holden and Heidi were married during a major snow storm that blanketed the northeastern United States. Many of the wedding guests came in 4-wheel drive vehicles. Some walked. Others arrived on skis!

Holden and Heidi on their wedding day

Virginia is where I grew up, so this trip felt like coming home. Over the Christmas holidays I had many opportunities to visit with friends from my high school and college days. It was amazing to see how much and how little have changed in 30 years!

Up to 20 inches of snow blanketed the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

The Lectionary readings for this second week after Christmas are about coming home. They highlight several important things about physical and spiritual homecomings. Let me briefly reflect on three.

1. All of us long for home.
Most of us carry an image in our heart and mind of a place we call home. For many, it is the place where we feel safe; the place where we feel loved; the place where we feel a sense of belonging; the place where we are free to be ourselves; the place where we find familiar foods and smells and sounds and traditions. While some of us also associate painful memories with the place we call home, all of us still long for an ideal home.

Home is both a physical place and a spiritual space. In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah describes the upcoming exile of God’s people to Babylon. There they will long for the familiar sights and sounds of Jerusalem, where they can worship in the temple and live in safety. But their exile is about much more than being physically absent from Jerusalem. It also represents that they have grown distant from God.

The psalmist also longs to be at home with God. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord,” says the psalmist (Ps. 80:2). “Blessed are those who dwell in your house” (v.4), the psalmist continues, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. . . . I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness”(v.10).

All of us long for home – for physical places that are friendly and familiar, and for that spiritual space where we feel close to and loved by God.

2. While we long for home, we spend much of our life away from home. Sometimes we are away from home because of our bad choices. This is the story of the Old Testament reading. Many years before the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah foretold that God’s people would be taken into captivity for 70 years because of their sin. Because they have worshiped false gods and treated one another unjustly, Jeremiah warns that God will remove their hedge of protection and give them a long time out. But God will not forget his people. The upcoming exile is intended to prepare their hearts for returning home.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul reminds his readers of their transgressions that separate them from God; and of their need to be forgiven and redeemed so that they can again be at home with God (Eph. 1:7).

Of course this is our story as well. We stray in many ways. In his book, Home Tonight, Henri Nouwen reflects on the story of the prodigal son who took his inheritance and left home where he squandered his wealth in wild living. Ironically, like the prodigal son, we often don’t appreciate home until we leave it.

Much of our wandering is because we want to be in charge. We want to be independent and not to have others tell us what to do. We want to do things our way. We want to prove to others that we are important.

Nouwen writes that it is easy for us to see how the younger son strayed from home. But he goes on to note that, while the older son physically stayed at home, his heart was distant and resentful. His relationship with his father was based on trying to earn acceptance rather than simply accepting his father’s love.

While being far from home is often a result of our bad choices, the readings this week also remind us that sometimes we are away from home for our own safety or in order to accomplish God’s purposes. In the Gospel reading, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt where Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus also live in exile. But this is not because they have done something wrong. It is for their safety and protection. The wise men from the East had come to pay homage to the new king born in Bethlehem. In a fit of fury and jealousy, King Herod issued an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. The exile in Egypt was not because Joseph and Mary needed to repent, but so that they could faithfully fulfill their responsibility to raise Jesus.

In a similar way, many refugees today are far from home because of war, persecution, oppression or economic hardship – not due to some fault of their own. In these safer spaces, God is preparing them to return home or to resettle elsewhere.

While we long for home, for one reason or another, we spend much of our life away from home. Sometimes we wander on our own. Sometimes God removes his hedge of protection and allows us to go into exile. Sometimes God leads us to a new place for our safety or to fulfill a particular ministry.

Time away from home is not necessarily wasted. God uses it as fertile ground to teach us lessons and to prepare us to return home.

3. God is in the business of bringing us home.
No matter how far away we have wandered, God is in the business of bringing us home.

In his book about the prodigal son, Nouwen writes: “While the young man in the story seemingly left his home and lost everything, one possession remained. He was still a member of his family.” This is true for us as well. We never cease to be God’s children.

The prophet Jeremiah repeats God’s promises again and again:
-I will bring them from the north country (v.8a);
-I will gather them from the farthest parts of the earth (v.8b);
-I will lead them back (v.9b);
-I will make them walk by brooks of water (v.9c).

Jeremiah specifically mentions that the most vulnerable – the blind, the lame and pregnant women -- will be among those who God leads home (v 8).

And what a homecoming it will be! God will shepherd the people (v.10d), their life will be like a watered garden and they will languish no more (v.12). God will turn their mourning into joy (v.13c) and give them gladness for sorrow (v.13d).

In the Epistle reading, Paul promises that, in Christ, “We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (v.7a). Though we have strayed and become like homeless orphans, God adopts us as his children and offers us a rich inheritance. Like the father who prepared a feast for his prodigal son, God lavishes us with the riches of his grace (v.7b). More than that, God is uniting all things in Christ. Wherever there are divisions between peoples and nations God is working to unite all things (v.10).

In the Gospel reading, Herod eventually dies. Again an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that it is time to go home, “for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (v.20).

God promises to bring us home. The psalmist reminds us that, “even the sparrow finds a home” (v.3). No detail is too small for God.

Closing reflection

Nouwen writes: “The whole course of the spiritual life is falling off, and returning, slipping away from the truth and turning back to it, leaving and returning. So in our leaving, as much as in our returning, we must try to remember that we are blessed, loved, cherished, and waited for by the One whose love doesn’t change.”

One of my most memorable visits over the holidays was with a friend from college days who I had not seen in 30 years. Mike (not his real name) grew up in a troubled home. His life has been hard. He has a gruff exterior. He went through a divorce and has struggled in his second marriage. He has had major health problems and has attempted suicide. But what I found most remarkable is that, while he continues to struggle, Mike is now actively involved in a church community and is growing as a Christian.

Indeed, God is constantly in the process of bringing us home -- gathering, redeeming, restoring, uniting all things in Christ.

It is not always as quickly as we would like. God’s people were exiled in Babylon for 70 years. But God gathered them back and satisfied them with goodness.

It is not always the way we would like. Joseph and Mary had to journey by way of Egypt before they could return to Nazareth.

Often there is pain in the process and tears along the journey. The Bible tells us that all of us have fallen short of God’s glory. But, in Christ, God offers us redemption. God offers us adoption as beloved children.

How in your life do you feel far from home? Perhaps you feel physically far away from what seems safe and familiar to you. Perhaps spiritually you feel distant from God. Being far from home may be due to no fault of your own.

Whatever the reason for our displacement, hear this promise of Scripture: God is always at work to bring us home – or to a new home. Thanks be to God.

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