Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

Resurrection 2016

I must confess I’m a little behind in where I wanted to be in this series. Last week, I really wanted to say something about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, because these services have become very meaningful for me in the last few years. I couldn’t get them done in time, so instead I reblogged some posts I found relevant and uplifting. Then there was the Easter bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, that killed over 70 and wounded some 300. Of course I wanted to comment on that, but sometimes life and other responsibilities take me away from writing. It may be late, but I would like to say something. After doing a little quick reading on it, and it’s clear the Christian minority in Pakistan need our prayers. They are particularly vulnerable to extremists there because of two extremist groups – one that uses suicide bombers and one that stirs up mobs against them – and a government that is not doing enough to protect them. Although there are signs the latter may be changing.

Obviously, the terrorists chose Easter because it is for Christians the most holy day of the year. Easter is the day we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and in a twist these terrorists may not understand, it is the very thing that guards us against the kind of despair they were trying to instill in us. In Jesus’ resurrection, we see that no matter what they do to our bodies, our spirits and souls live on. These 70+ martyrs who committed no violence, who were there just to celebrate the triumph of life over death, good over evil, live on with the saints who have gone before them. Therefore, as Paul said, we may sorrow over their loss here on earth, but our sorrow is not without hope (1Thes 4:13).

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1Co 15:58 NRS).

P.S. Click the link for coverage of the Pope’s Easter message as he addresses terror attacks, war, poverty, and refugees.

Bonus Post: Sorry for Brussels

I woke up this morning trying to begin developing habits of mindfulness. I took a moment to breathe and be grateful. As my current self-help book (Emergence, by Derek Rydall) suggested, instead of saying, “Good God, it’s morning,” say, “Good morning, God.” It actually helped. I got out of bed with feelings of gratitude for the gift of life and breath God has given me.

Then I turned on CNN, like I do most mornings, and… well you probably know by now. Europe, once again, is the victim of terrorist attacks by ISIS. Two explosions at the airport in Brussels. Another at the Metro station. Reports at the time said Twenty-six dead. Twenty-six people who will never again have the opportunity to thank God for life and breath as I had done just a few minutes before. I wanted to write about other things, particularly continuing my series on Pontius Pilate.

A few months ago, I posted a comment on Deuteronomy 26 related to the Syrian refugee crisis. We have some of our presidential candidates calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and saying we can’t take any of these refugees in. I argued instead we need to make every effort to let them in. From a practical perspective, we need friends in the Muslim world. People like this:

A few years from now, he might make a good spy for us. And he’s not alone.

We are not fighting a nation with armies lining up together that we can bomb or send tanks against. We are fighting an enemy that is hiding in plain sight – until they decide to carry out their planned attacks.

Here is an example:

June 22, 2015, Hickory, North Carolina: A nineteen-year-old man was planning to carry out an ISIS inspired attack. His plan was thwarted when his father reported him in to authorities. This particular boy wasn’t even Muslim or Arab, so don’t think if we keep Muslims out we’re safe.

The main point is he was stopped because someone close to him found out what he was up to and reported him. The more friends we have, the more eyes we have to root out these moles. If the ISIS recruiters are reaching out mainly to Muslims, Muslim friends are our best defense against them.

Then there is the Christian perspective. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger and the alien. Love your enemies. What does that mean in the face of terrorism? I don’t have the answer, but I’m pretty sure it does not include banning, hating and denigrating entire groups of people because of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Not a good way to make the friends we need either.

But let’s remember what they really want: Not so much to kill us but to terrorize us. We are going to need to heighten our security, but we need to be smart about it too. Be watchful, but don’t give in to panic and terror. And on this point, I offer one of the best examples of this I have come across.

A friend was planning the baptism of her newborn. She requested specifically September 11 as the date. The pastor was like, “9-11? Why would you want that date?”

She said, “Because that’s the date my husband and I met.”

That’s how you don’t let the terrorists win. Don’t let them take the joy out of your life.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. If you’re having trouble believing there are still good Muslims in America and around the world who want to help us, take a look at this: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Muslims-Against-ISIS/1444672609121662.

P.P.S. A lot of good things happening in Estonia. Hear what the Prime Minister says about the Refugee crisis.

“>Starts at 5:00 if you’re in a hurry

.

Between Two Flags

What does it mean to be a Christian nation?

In our church, as in many, there is the church flag on one side and an American flag on the other. I would prefer there not be an American flag in church. I think it’s easy to turn the flag into an idol, especially when it is in a space of worship. Conflating American heritage with Christianity I think is dangerous. I feel it in many ways but perhaps most acutely when I hear the phrase “Christian nation” thrown around with little or no resemblance to the teachings of Christ. Is that the meaning of the two flags in church? We are a Christian nation, and if you don’t believe it “get the hell out”?

My pastor once asked whether it was possible to speak of a Christian nation when Jesus said so little about politics. Let’s say it is possible. If we want to be a Christian nation, he thought that would mean we do not go to war, we forgive the wrongs done to us, and we marshal the vast resources that God has blessed us with toward helping the poor. This includes helping provide for their everyday needs – food, clothing, water, shelter, health care, education – and empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty, both in this country and around the world.

Now if I may add, while Jesus said very little about politics, he had a lot to say about how we treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, and anyone who is a victim of injustice. If you’ve forgotten, read Matthew 25:34-46. He had a lot to say about violence, and he led a nonviolent movement long before Gandhi and MLK. Before the Anabaptists and Amish. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Forgive your brother and sister seventy times seven? He even forgave the people who crucified him.

What does all that mean in regard to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, torture of prisoners, indefinite detention, deporting children, spying without warrants, women’s health, mass incarceration of African-Americans, and shutting the doors on refugees? What does it mean when candidates talk about bringing back waterboarding and worse? They tell us we have to do this to protect the American way of life. Maybe so, but is it consistent with the Christian way of life?

The American flag on one side, the church flag on the other. They may represent unity of purpose. Or they may represent divided loyalties. Are we serving Jesus Christ or what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex? If we follow Jesus Christ, we should feel at least some tension between the two flags. If we ever stop feeling that tension, we have most likely turned our nation and its flag into a golden calf.

Addendum – Matthew 25:34-46

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,1 you did it to me.’

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Compassion and caution

David Anderson

If you read my last post, you might be thinking some of these refugees might really be terrorists, the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. And I would say we all should know the vast majority of these people are legitimately in dire straits. We’ve seen the images of the children washed up dead on the shores. How desperate do you have to be to undertake a journey you and your children might not survive? They are running from ISIS. They are victims of terrorism themselves. Still, I am as concerned as any American about keeping terrorists out. So I understand we need more than just, “Love each other, and it will all work out.”

Current policy inadequate

We talk to them. If any part of their story can’t be verified, we don’t let them in. That’s the current policy. A Republican state house representative I happened to meet at a cocktail party said we “dodged a bullet” on the refugee issue when the governor said we won’t accept Syrian refugees. “We don’t know who these people are,” he said. “They live in the stone age. How are we going to verify they are who they say they are?”

I’m not sure “stone age” is accurate. But he actually showed why this policy is inadequate for meeting this need. When people are running for their lives or coming from refugee camps, do they think about collecting their documents? How are we going to be able to confirm every detail they tell about the circumstances that led them here?

Wolves among the sheep?

That’s the worry that’s making people push back against doing more to help. I wish I could dismiss it as right-wing paranoia, but a report on CNN said that one of the attackers in Paris did in fact enter the country by posing as a refugee. So it appears ISIS has figured how to infiltrate groups of refugees. What can we do then with so many people in need, the vast majority of whom are refugees but may have a few terrorists sprinkled in? For what it’s worth, I have an idea….

Vet them, and monitor them

Vet them as much as we can, with the understanding because of circumstances, verifying each and every detail may not be possible.  If I were as desperate as the Syrian refugees, I would not mind it at all if that’s what it takes for you to let me into your country. Go ahead, put an ankle bracelet monitor on me, put a tap on all my phones and computers, put a GPS chip under my skin, assign me a probation officer  – whatever it takes for you to feel safe enough to let me in. If I go back to my country, I’m dead. Just give me a place where I can live like a human being. That’s all I want.

Recruiting Opportunity

In my last post, I appealed to Deuteronomy 10:19 – You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That may make me sound altruistic and naïve. Full disclosure, I have selfish motives as well for letting in more refugees.

I’ve said for years if we are going to defeat terrorists who call themselves Muslim, we need friends in the Muslim world. If we rescue them when they have nowhere else to turn, how likely are they to be recruited by people who call us the Great Satan? “The Great Satan” saved my life and my family’s lives, Dumbass!

Those who we let in and are found to be trustworthy through vetting and monitoring, why not recruit some of them to help gather intelligence on ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or any other Muslim extremist group that threatens us? They already look like they belong there. They speak the language – and without an American accent. Perfect spy material.

But what do I know? I’m just a Bible scholar.