On why Romans 13 doesn’t mean what you apparently think it means…

Friday morning, I was on my way to a work meeting when I heard on the radio AG Jeff Sessions quote Romans 13 to justify taking children out of their parents’ arms when they enter the US and seek asylum before they get the formalities out of the way. Up until then, I hadn’t been thinking about politics. I’d slept as late as possible, then guzzled coffee while rushing around to prepare for the meeting. My thoughts were full of curriculum for our ESL classes, with remembering to bring the snacks, and with trying to text many of my friends to say “Eid Mubarak” just as they invariably text me with glittery memes proclaiming “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter.” So I listened with sinking hearts to Jeff Sessions’ particular accent, declaiming to his “church friends” that they were just following what the Apostle Paul said to do in choosing to take children as young as a few months old from their parents. He claimed that the verses in Romans 13 which call on Christians to obey their governments justify the Trump administration’s decision to treat people who are fleeing horror and pleading for help as criminals, and to deter them from seeking help in the US by taking their children from them at the border.

“It’s just for a short time, just a week or two,” Sessions said, like that made it okay. Once when my oldest was 3 he ran onto an elevator as the doors were closing, and we searched frantically for 10 or so minutes before we found him, chatting away with several new friends he’d made on that exciting elevator ride without Mum and Dad. Those 10 minutes, which happened in my home country where I understood everything that was happening, were longer than most plane rides.

Later that day, I got on Twitter. Happily I have not seen even one person defending either the policy or the use of Scripture. But I still want to address it.

First of all, yes Romans 13 does say we should follow laws. But read in the context of even just that one book, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t mean following unjust laws that fly in the face of God’s law, which is summed up in this: Love your neighbor as yourself. When we go out to look at the entire Bible, we read of Peter and John arrested for proclaiming Jesus, and their response: We should obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29) Or look at the Hebrew midwives in Moses’ day. When told to kill all newborn baby boys, they didn’t and then lied about it. And God blessed them, because they chose not to obey an unjust law. (Exodus 1)

As of Thursday, 11,432 migrant children are in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, up from 9,000 at the beginning of May. These numbers include minors who arrived at the border without a relative and children separated from their parents. (from WaPo article) If you click on that link, you’ll read of a toddler, heart-broken, crying inconsolably, because her mother has been taken from her.

This morning’s sermon was on the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Familiar words to many. But the speaker made the point: if we are truly focused on God’s kingdom, and his will, we will not be afraid of our own temporal kingdom (i.e. the USA, for example) being overrun, wasting away through generosity. Instead, when we look first to God, when we seek his kingdom not just on Sunday mornings but in every aspect of our lives, we will be ready to welcome the poor, the hungry, the desperate. Freely we’ve received, freely we are to give. (Matthew 10:8)

It’s easy to toss Bible verses around, pull out of context some words to give weight to our argument du jour. I don’t want to do that. If we are to take it seriously, that’s the last thing we can do with it. I give special weight to the life and teachings of Jesus though, and so I want to end with a sobering word from the risen Christ to the church of Ladodicea in Rev. 3: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.”

 

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Decision Avoiding and the Will of God*

Last week, I was drinking coffee with a young woman when I realized that she views me as a person who has got it all together.  This was shocking to me, especially since my contemporaries tend to have the opposite view, and sometimes express it to me in the form of frustration at my laissez-faire style of ministry.

The young woman and I were chatting about what she should do with her life. She is on her third “gap year” and understandably starting to resent others questions about her plans. She assumed that I had clearly known my path at her age, that I had set out to become a missionary and an evangelist and all sorts of other things that, truth be known, I desperately wanted to avoid when I was 20.

The thing is, I have muddled my way through life. I don’t set goals, aspire to them, and attain them. I sort of figure out each day what I’m doing next. This is not the stuff of which inspirational articles are made, but I suspect it’s a lot more common than most of us realize. Unlike the people writing inspirational articles, I don’t think this is bad. The God I worship isn’t American and only some of our values are from him. I’m not saying he’s disorganized, only that I don’t think he values efficiency as much as a lot of us do. (I said “us” to be nice. I have yet to be efficient, unless you count how my laziness allows me to accomplish a lot in a really short period of time)

Efficiency is an odd concept. On the one hand, it’s a good thing. Waste isn’t pleasing to God. But on the other, I think we sometimes value time more than people, and that’s not the heart of God. After all, only 2 things will endure forever, and time isn’t one of them! (People and God’s Word, in case you were wondering)

We lived for several years in a developing country, and at night it got really dark. I mean REALLY dark. If you look up this country on one of those maps showing the world at night, it is mostly black. There is very little light pollution, and the stars are vivid. If we were in a village, and needed to go somewhere at night, we used a flashlight or a small lantern. And the words of Ps. 119 became very real to me. “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” You cannot see even 5 steps in front of you. You can only see the next step. All else around you is the consuming darkness.

And that’s how it is when we walk with God. He doesn’t show us 10 years out, or even 5, or even 2. As Americans, we want him to. We make 7-year goals, What We Will Do Before 30, or 40, or 50. We plan our retirement. But God’s not like that. Ever since I got serious with him, my life has been kind of a roller coaster. I move to a new country, expecting to be there for 20 years or more, and instead I leave after 2 years, or I stay for 7 when I thought it would be 4. I’m finally getting smart about this. When people ask me where we’ll be in X amount of time, I say, “No idea! We think (whatever current answer is) will happen, and we are looking into (whatever we’re looking into), but we really don’t know.” This is actually Biblical–James 4:13-15 reminds us that we don’t really know our future, and ought to properly acknowledge that before God.

God’s word to us is usually like a flashlight in a world that is truly dark, showing us the next step, but not much beyond that. This fosters reliance on him, reminds us that we’re not ultimately the ones in control.

*Title taken from book that was a popular present for Christian high-school grads, back when I was one; Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still Feeling Very Opinionated

I pretty much let this blog die, because I’m too busy in my everyday life. But recent events–children ripped from parents’ arms at the US Border, for Pete’s sake;  or Franklin Graham preaching that if we just ask Donald Trump into our hearts, we’ll find peace, happiness, and the ability to be morally flexible on everything but abortion–well, I’m feeling a bit upset these days, too upset to write short, readable sentences! So this is just to let my 2 readers know I’m back (hi Mom!), and planning to finish posts I’ve started on racism in the church, attitudes towards immigration amongst people who say they follow Jesus who “so loved the world”, gun control attitudes amongst people who also lay claim to the Sermon on the Mount, and so much more. Why can’t I write about nice things? Well, maybe I will. Field trips, and end-of-the-year parties, and being able to sleep in this summer. I also plan to write more legibly, in sentences that express one complete thought and are carefully edited for clarity. Please come back.

 

Still Harping on Refugees

On the first day of class this term, I had my Advanced English as a Second Language class watch Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they couldn’t understand a large part of it, especially his many poetic and scriptural references, they still responded to the cadences and emotion of his speech. Later, they read a transcript.

The next day, I went for coffee with 3 Syrian women. Recent arrivals, they came 6 months ago through another Middle Eastern country, where they left their husbands to earn money while they came on alone to seek asylum.* They are struggling with a new culture, a new language (although all 3 speak decent English), with getting kids adjusted to new schools, all while adjusting to being single mothers. It’s a lot to deal with, and they are very grateful for overtures of friendship.

turkish-coffee

picture from prefectdailygrind.com  Credit: LWYang, Flikr.

One wanted to talk about the speech. “Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me. “And instead we all died. Why?” She was talking of the protests of the Arab Spring, and how their president’s reaction in gunning down those who spoke out against him was what sparked this bloody, brutal war that has been going 5 years with no end in sight. I could not answer her question. Why indeed? The Syrian situation is a quagmire, and while speedy involvement may have made sense, that moment is long past, swept into a maelstrom of ISIS and Assad and Aleppo and the Turks and the Kurds and the Iranians and the Russians.

I thought about our own history as Americans. Ironic, isn’t it? We love freedom fighters when they’re us, our own illustrious ancestors, but not when they’re anybody else. History as past and decided, with lines drawn sharp and definite, is one thing, but history as its being written is another, messy and blurry with sides that are sometimes indistinguishable. I believe, though, that we can make the right choice, figure out where we want to be whether or not history sides with us. And that is on the side of the civil rights marchers and the refugees, the ones marginalized and powerless.

“Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me.

“And instead we all died. Why?”

The news is not all bleak. In the span of 3 days, I heard of 2 different incidents involving different women in different stores, both of whom wear the hijab. Both were approached by strangers, who assured them of their welcome and hugged them. One, a sensitive soul, cried great gulping tears of gratitude. She is still crying days later when she tells me about the 2 women who told her, “Just because one person says they don’t want you doesn’t mean we all feel this way” and then hugged her. “They had to find kleenex for me because I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. She joyfully recounts the tale to her family back in Iraq, along with stories of protest marches and stinging editorials and even my Facebook posts, proof that not all Americans are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, proof that compassion can be found in unexpected places.

Tomorrow in class we’re having a Valentine’s Day party, 3 days after the fact. This is partly because Fridays are just good party days. I have told them not to bring heavy foods, as experience has taught me that these parties at 10 a.m. tend to include enormous platters of rice and chicken dishes, fried meat pastries, and much more. “Just finger food,” I urge. “Small things. Cookies. Or nothing. You don’t have to bring anything.” On Wednesday I already came home with a dozen red roses wrapped in tulle and 3 plates of food, all gifts from students.

We will put our chairs in a circle and talk, awkwardly balance pink paper plates and heart-covered napkins, bought 50% off after the day itself. We will discuss, with small corrections of grammar, the various things that have brought us to this place–a mix of professors and housewives and teachers and electrical engineers and scuba divers and people who list “cleaning” as a hobby.  Not all of us are refugees according to our passports, but we are all looking for friendship and a sense of community. So we will struggle forward, learning acceptance, offering friendship.

*Asylum seekers can’t work until their cases get to a certain point in the process. It typically takes about 6 months to get a work permit. Imagine having to survive 6 months without an income!

It Actually is Black & White

So I’ve gone from being mostly silent on social media to speaking out against the president’s recent executive order on immigration, and this morning I got called on the carpet, so to speak, at my church. One of the pastors, very gently, wanted to have a conversation with us about how strongly we were expressing ourselves. His problem wasn’t exactly with our opinions, but with how he perceived us being critical of the church.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ahmed, 6 Horgos, Serbia It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
–––
Ahmed, 6
Horgos, Serbia
It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.

He’s right. We are critical of the church, by which I mean American evangelicalism in general. The church, as he rightly pointed out, is made up of broken people who have been redeemed and are all in process of being sanctified. I know that, and I also know that I fall far short myself. I tend to love my Muslim refugee neighbor to such an extent that I sometimes have a harder time loving my white suburban neighbor too, but of course both need it.

In case you can’t tell, I go to a conservative church. It’s actually a great church in many ways, filled with generous people who love Scripture. Our church loves the Bible. But it has some blind spots, and they coincidentally seem to coincide with many of the shortcomings of the Republican party. The people at my church who are most vocal are very politically conservative. So they are reacting in a loving but conservative way to the refugee ban. They say things like, “government’s main job is to keep us safe” and “a sensible cap on numbers so we can properly care for them” and “it’s good to take a break from letting in refugees so we can really work on the vetting program and then we’ll let some of them in.” They say “those commands are for individuals and we should do that but governments have different commands.” And it’s snowing in Greece, in Jordan, in Lebanon’s Bekkah Valley, and families are sleeping on frozen ground in unheated tents, and dying of exposure, all so we can feel safer. Refugee families who have lost everything already are losing whatever shreds of hope they had, and people who love their Bibles think God is okay with that because government’s main job is to keep us safe. Caring is optional. It’s great that I care, I’ve been told, but they don’t have to. They can care about something else. I don’t have the right to tell them what God’s heart is.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Walaa, 5 Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
–––
Walaa, 5
Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon
Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

If I was fiery about abortion, these good people would applaud me–not because they see it as a Republican issue, but because they see it as morally black and white. Murder, plain and simple. They start with it being wrong and work their way on to it being partisan. But refugee care is like that. It doesn’t matter that Trump is a Republican. I couldn’t care less who created this chaos. Caring for desperate, needy people is the very heart of God, and it should be the least controversial topic at church.

My pastor talked to me about “calling.” It’s my calling to care, and that’s good, but everyone else can choose. Hear me out: I’m not saying that you as a Christian have to be involved in refugee care. You may or may not be called to go minister in refugee camps or spend your daylight hours driving recent arrivals to doctor’s appointments or grocery stores. You don’t need to march in protests if you don’t want to. BUT. You do need to care. You do need to let it inform your vote. You do need to not support practices that break families even further. It’s not controversial. It’s not partisan. It’s right and wrong.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13 Beirut, Lebanon Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
–––
Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13
Beirut, Lebanon
Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.

“What if God wants America to take a 120-day break from letting refugees in?” our pastor asked. I’m still grappling with how to respond to that, but my husband was ready. “I am not taking a break from caring for them or advocating for them,” he said. “And I don’t believe God is taking a break from them either.”

I left the meeting at the church running late for a coffee downtown with a Syrian asylum seeker. We’re friends on Facebook, so she’s seen my posts. She thanked me for, as she put it, “fighting for the Arab people.” She’s broken-hearted at the response in her church to the crisis, and she loves that I’m fiery about it. I have gotten this over and over from my refugee friends. They love that I am showing my love for them by fighting for them. They take comfort in the fact that I care so deeply about them that I’m being emotional, and that I’m taking on other people on their behalf.

And tomorrow, I will visit a woman whose mother is dying and who desperately longs to go visit, but she’s afraid to leave her house, husband and children, in case she can’t come back. My husband will continue to help a man who is trying to bring his wife and toddler here. The wife was approved a year ago but they are still waiting for the 2 year old to get through the vetting process. They all have stories for us to listen to, and they all ask us to pray for them.

But I need prayer too; that my righteous anger would be like Jesus’ and heal, not scorch.

*I’m assuming you already know that we have a very strict vetting process in place. For more information, this is a helpful article. 

 

 

On Teaching MLK the day of Trump’s Inauguration

We have had an unusual amount of snow this winter, with attendant ice storms, and the result has been over a month of Christmas vacation for ESL classes. And so it has come to pass that I am preparing the first lesson of the year for my advanced class. We do a lesson on MLK every year, the Friday before his holiday which is of course on a Monday, and it’s very well received. My students adore MLK. “The Middle East needs someone like that,” different students have told me several times.

Because of the weather, this year I’m doing the lesson a week late, and it falls on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. My students are permanent residents or new citizens of the United States, and this is history. I would be remiss if I didn’t do a lesson on the peaceful transition of power. It’s ironic: my Arab students, even those who are Christian, are more fearful these days, yet they understand why people voted for him. He makes sense to them. After all, they are used to Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and other dictator-types.

mlk-v-trump

How to weave the two together? MLK and Trump; history past and history passing. The two seem diametrically opposed in many ways; one preaching non-violence in the face of offense, insult, and the very real threat of death, the other encouraging a mindless sort of violence towards rally-goers who heckled him. One steeped in a tradition of eloquence, using the power of words as a finely-wrought and skillfully-weilded sword, the other using words as a blunt instrument, putting the “bully” back in bully pulpit, his most common words “I” “me” “myself” “my”. One a member of an oppressed minority, with ancestral memories of slavery and beatings, growing up under injustice; the other a member of a elite group of rich white men, posting pictures of his family in an opulent glitzy room that makes up in money what it lacks in taste.

It seems comical, ridiculous to try to put the two into one 90-minute lesson. Yet I will try. This is the world we live in. It’s so broken that Martin Luther King can be assassinated, and Donald Trump can win the presidency. We have made some halting progress as a nation since King’s death; racism still exists, but frankly it exists in every nation on earth and at least we recognize it to a point and deal with it to a point. The mistake is to think it’s a thing of the past, and not look to our own hearts and see our own sin.

And while the two men are both flawed and imperfect, they represent all of us in our multi-faceted and fractured selves. In King, we see one who followed after Perfection; in Trump we see one who follows after Self. (Am I too harsh? No. Have you heard the things he says?)  And yet if we are honest with ourselves, if we examine our hearts, we can see times we have done both, I suspect. I know I can give you examples of both just from this week.

But this may be too subtle for English class. We will look at inaugural traditions, we will read the “I Have a Dream” speech and explain and expound it. I will assign them to watch what they can of the inauguration and to write a response to the speech, and I hope this starts a discussion that carries on in the weeks and months to come. This class likes to do that, stretching their tongues to express their thoughts and hearts in a language that remains elusive and slippery at times. And I will assure them of their welcome to this country, help them write letters when their health-care bills are too high, keep looking for more volunteers to help with ESL classes–just what I’m already doing. In fact, as MLK said, I will “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

Random Thoughts on the day of the Feast of the Innocents

At the end of a year in which our world seems even crazier than normal, our hearts are heavy. We stagger under it the weight of it–deaths of innocents in Aleppo, in Mosul, in the Mediterranean Sea fleeing death on land, in all countries on earth as Herod’s spirit lives on in despots clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Deaths caused because the victim is the wrong color, in the wrong place, the wrong kind of religion, the wrong side of the fence.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted
because they are no more.

Ever since I had children, these words have struck a chill in my soul. What could be worse? How could those mothers in Bethlehem have carried on? I know an Iraqi woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom by a militia practicing a different kind of Islam than hers; she was tortured and her youngest son was killed in front of her. She is a difficult woman to love; she’s secretive, she steals small things from the church where she comes for free English classes and day-old bread from a small food bank. She doesn’t tell her story. I knew her 3 years before her daughter, recently  arrived, told me. “We had to get mamma out,” she tells me. “That’s why she came by herself.” In that moment, I forgave her everything. She may have carried on, but she’s damaged, deep within her psyche. And I am in awe of her, and of all these mothers and fathers and grandmothers and wives and husbands, who have suffered unimaginable loss.

We have a friend here, a man on his own who fled when his life was targeted and whose wife and children said, “Go now; we will finish up here and join you.” And then ISIS swept into Mosul, and there they still are. The other day, my husband was visiting him and he showed him a news video from Mosul. A house blew up; there was gunfire; then a group of civilians emerged cautiously and ran to safety. He paused the video: “That’s my daughter,” he said, pointing; “And that’s my grandson. There’s her father-in-law…” This man is an artist and is selling prints of his paintings to raise money to send to his daughter and her family, now living in a tent, hungry and shivering in the cold desert nights of Northern Iraq. His wife and youngest two children are still in ISIS-controlled territory. He has no news, and doesn’t like to talk about it.

fleeing-mosul

Image from The Times 

The other day I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking on damaged relationships and distant children (is it really true that they can rebel and it’s not your fault, at least partly? What could you have done differently? There are things you could have and should have done differently, that you know). And I caught sight of that painting, and all my sorrow fell into perspective, and I fell to my knees (metaphorically) and dried my tears and prayed instead for this family and others caught up in war and separation and starvation and desperation.

We are only 3 days after celebrating the Incarnation, the “good news of great joy to all people,” and we are already remembering sorrows that pierce the very soul. How can this be? How can the promises we cling to, that God will wipe every tear, that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, even be possible? What joy can erase seeing your beloved son killed by those who hate him and who disregard all lives but their very own?

I don’t know. I know Jesus, God With Us, who sees all things past and future and knows all things seen and unseen, saw such joy ahead of him that he went to the cross and despised its shame. I know that eternal perspective gives us a weight of glory that makes current troubles light and insignificant, and I believe this even though I don’t understand it. I think C.S. Lewis described it so helpfully at the end of The Great Divorce;

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

As Lewis so often does, he makes reality sound both magical and logical, possible.

I don’t know what to do with all the suffering in the world, but I know what I need to do with those in front of me. Weep with them, dry their tears, carry their burdens as much as I can. What this looks like means visiting them, spending time listening to them, taking them out of their lonely apartments for a bit, helping them for a minute even see something beyond sorrow, even if it’s just pretty lights and decorated trees. Telling them that one day, even death will be no more, and there waits for us an eternal weight of glory.

 

Sacrifices that Cost Me Something

Recently, a good friend of mine had her daughter move overseas to work with Muslims in a country that’s stable and prosperous at the moment, but is ringed by those that aren’t. My friend has never been overseas herself. I give her until the first grandchild before she learns the ways of international airports, long layovers, lost luggage and bittersweet reunions–bittersweet because you know the reunion will be short-lived. She’s excited for her daughter on the one hand, but on the other she is simply sad.

Often as Christians, we feel guilty for sadness. We think it’s only appropriate if it’s “righteous”–i.e. a sadness about our own sin or someone else’s. How could she feel sad that her daughter was going to share the gospel with people who might otherwise never hear it? I could practically see the argument going on in her head.

 

KidatAirport

Image courtesy of: Family Vacation Critic

Before we went overseas, I was sad too, not to mention nervous and scared and excited. I had ALL the feelings. I was sad that my children would grow up not knowing their grandmother. I was sad at all the things they’d miss–trips to the Nutcracker Ballet at Christmas, crisp falls and cold winters and rainy, colourful springs, picking fresh berries in the summer, a feeling of rootedness and connectedness with life-long friends and memories of place.

It was February 2001. We were staying in church housing, a tiny apartment furnished with other people’s cast-offs from the 70s and 80s. We had just sold our house, the first house I ever owned and where we had lived for the longest I had ever lived in one house in my life–6 years. (That record still stands). I had no idea I could be so attached. I loved the way the morning light came into the dining room. I loved the porch, and the deep blue hydrangea bush next to it. My children (3) were all babies in this house, and I had so many memories of sleepy babies and crying toddlers; of one boy running straight off 5 steps up to the porch just to crash-land on the concrete sidewalk below (he’s always believed he could fly); of the time we painted the entire living room and dining room over a weekend just because we’d invited the pastor and his wife for dinner and then, 3 days beforehand, knocked over a bottle of wine that stained the wall; of first Christmases and first birthdays and first steps and first words and the time I found my toddler eating cat food with a sterling silver serving spoon. So. Many. Memories. I was crushed under the weight of them, sitting on an ugly plaid couch staring, unseeing, at a solid oak coffee table, drinking coffee from an ugly mug with pink cats on it, my own mugs either sold at garage sales or packed carefully into suitcases.

I was reading through the Bible that year, I remember. And I was at the end of I Chronicles, after David takes the census and God punishes him by sending a plague on the land for 3 days. It’s towards the end, and David looks up and sees the angel with a flaming sword drawn and then sheathed, and he falls down in worship and decides to build an altar right there. He offers to buy the land from its owner, Ornan.

Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” 24But King David replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.”

I stopped right there, overwhelmed. Sacrifices are supposed to cost something. They aren’t supposed to be fun and easy–that negates the term. It’s not that I didn’t know that, but it hit me anew. I will not offer to the Lord sacrifices that cost me nothing. It cost me something to kiss my widowed, elderly mother goodbye and get on that plane, knowing that I would probably never live near her again. (I didn’t) It cost me something to raise my kids in a place where you literally could find nothing to give them for birthdays and Christmases, where my eyes craved green in a land of dust and shades of tan.

We are often uncomfortable with this concept. Our pastor is fond of pointing out that we actually can offer nothing to the Lord, and he thinks it’s unhealthy and prideful to point to our own sacrifices. I do see his point, but I think the whole matter is deeper and more subtle. When our children make us sloppy valentines or mother’s day cards covered in crooked writing and kisses, we don’t say, “You know, I bought that paper and the markers you used. This is really from me. You contributed nothing.” Instead, we hug them and our hearts overflow, and we make sure that card stays in our possession. I still have a loving note my daughter once wrote me on toilet paper! It’s carefully preserved in a box and has lasted through several moves both international and domestic.

There is a sweetness in saying to God, “This is not what I want to happen, but I offer it to you because I love you, because you are my God and you have given all to me.” Whether that be a decision to submit to our husbands (who are wrong!) in obedience to God, a decision to give up a relaxing evening home (which we really deserve–we are far too busy, right?) to visit a neighbor who down deep is lonely and afraid, or even a decision to send our kids far from home and family with a smile like my friend did, when we deliberately give our choices to God, he responds. How? I think in the very best way–by letting us know that he loves us and is pleased with us. There’s a closeness that comes out of consciously telling God, through our thoughts and actions, that we love him and want to please him and be close to him. Paul tells us to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices.” (Rom. 12) Like a mother whose child who is offering her bouquet of dandelions from the lawn, God responds with joy to our offerings for him, no matter how big or how small.

I think using the language of sacrifice can be helpful and can deepen our walk with God. He is the only one who is worthy of our praise, and we can show him that by consciously giving him what we are and have throughout our days. And we can come with a child-like confidence that our offerings won’t be scorned for their meagerness but will be accepted with joy and love.

Christmas Parties

Every year, we have a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends. Every year, it’s pretty much a success. Every year, in the weeks leading up to it, my husband announces that this is it, this is the last year we are doing this, how did he get talked into doing this again, this is too much work and stress and do people really even enjoy it? Giving is down, it’s hard every year to find people who want to help, what’s the point, etc etc etc.

This year was no exception. The stress, the last-minute planning (or lack thereof), the undeniable fact that no one came to help us set up, which made me very grateful indeed for my two teenage sons, who did far too much work. As usual, we had no idea who would actually come and who would snub the party. As usual, we had a good turn-out, so much so that we actually ran out of chairs and some people had to stand. The kids ran around, fueled as much by excitement as by sugar.

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No chairs meant no high heels after a few hours!

My husband gave a short message, focusing on the promises of God fulfilled by Jesus. He talked about what it’s like to wait for a gift. When he solicited examples from the audience, adults gave examples of waiting years for husbands to join them, or for their papers granting them refugee status and admittance to America, but one girl talked about the bike she was getting for her birthday next week.

At these gatherings, the people closest to the speaker will mostly listen, but those even one or two tables away have no qualms about just carrying on their conversations full voice. It’s very frustrating for Americans. We are raised to sit still and listen when someone is speaking to us. We are raised to wait our turn, stand patiently in line. When Iraqi kids first arrive, this is hard for them. At schools, other kids yell at them and teachers are firm. You have to wait in line. The other day in my English class, we were doing the past perfect tense and I wrote on the board, “Before I came to America I had never…” and one student answered “stood in a line.”

But I had a small revelation as I watched the women in their hijabs chatting animatedly while my husband and a friend to translate stood at the other end of the room and tried to convey timeless truths. I’m sure that it was like this in Jesus’ time. I pictured the Sermon on the Mount, or the time just before the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus speaking out over the Galilean hills crowded with men and women and children, whiny and hungry and hot all of them. The children no doubt ran around chasing each other, the women stood comfortably gossiping with babies on hips, and up front a few heard and fewer still let the word of God enter their hearts. And yet many lives were changed forever.

Why are we here? Why are we left on this broken and hurting earth that so desperately needs the hope of Immanuel, God with us? I believe with all my heart that it’s to bear witness, to shine light, to share hope with those around us. This often means crossing various barriers–of culture, language, personality. It’s easy to see cultural differences between Iraqi refugees who arrived last week and Americans, but sometimes the cultural differences are more subtle–maybe it’s just someone whose upbringing was radically different than ours, or someone who’s a staunch member of the “wrong” political party, or someone whose outward appearance or lifestyle choices shock or offend.  As we reflect on and celebrate the coming of our Saviour to earth 2000+ years ago, let’s also reflect on how we are doing at intentionally reaching out, letting our light shine, sharing the reason for the hope that we have.

 

 

But Fear Itself

fearfulI was a very fearful child. Bookish, imaginative, and prone to strange fancies, I was about as neurotic as they come. I used to sit in the backseat of the car and worry about the overpasses crashing down on us, killing my parents and leaving me alone and traumatized in the world. I grew up in the 70s, at the height of the Cold War, and I had nightmares of the Communists coming to kill my parents that left me shaking,  afraid of going to bed for weeks afterwards. I can still remember in excruciating detail an extraordinarily vivid dream of watching my parents get shot for being Christians.  I even had plans of where to hide Bibles so they wouldn’t get found (in a loaf of baking bread, although I was always worried that we wouldn’t happen to be baking bread when the soldiers knocked on the door. It was a valid fear. My mother never made homemade bread.)

But I didn’t want to be like this. I didn’t like being timid. I read stories of adventuresome children who, true, were mostly orphans but were still out having a great time, taming wild stallions and sword-fighting and sledding in the mountains. I fought hard against my fearfulness, and I learned that the first battlefield is the mind (cf Rom. 12:2)  I worked to not picture bookcases crashing down on my baby’s head, or sharks eating my swimming husband, and I learned to relax and let my kids swim in oceans with fierce currants, or jump off high walls onto packed sand, or eat street food in developing countries.

I know fear. I know how it paralyzes, how it lies to you, how it curls up in the pit of your stomach and reaches cold hands to grip your shoulders. I am well aware of the seductiveness of worse-case-scenarios, and how one thing can lead to another as you lie awake in the cold watches of the night, dismayed and restless. Fear is something we all struggle with. This is why the commandment stated most often, number one, in the Bible is, “Fear not!”  (And I always think if a heavenly being suddenly materialized beside me, I would no doubt shriek and wet my pants. I get it)

That was a super long introduction but my point is this: We live in fearful times. I watch in dismay as many of my believing brothers and sisters fall under its powerful sway. When 2 Muslims shoot up a holiday party in San Bernadino, we fear all Muslims because they look homogeneous to us, but when a white man shoots up a Planned Parenthood office we’re not afraid because we know a lot of white men who would never in a million years do that. Since fear is irrational, this makes sense.

My Muslim friends are fearful too, because they can’t ignore all the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric being spilled out onto the pages of Facebook and Yahoo! News. Refugees, in general, are not coming from places with religious freedom, and that is an idea they like about their new home. They are vocally very grateful, and it gets mentioned most year in the Thanksgiving ESL classes where we talk about what we are thankful for in our lives. Freedom from fear of being pulled over and shot because your name shows you’re the wrong kind of Muslim. Freedom to wear or not wear the hijab (head scarf) according to your own convictions, and not be hassled on the street for showing a bit of hair. This taste of freedom makes it all the much harder to go back to being afraid. “But even people from your church are saying things on Facebook,” said one of my Muslim friends to me the other day, and my heart just broke. She doesn’t want her husband to go for coffee with other Arab friends. She has stopped her son from going to Arabic lessons, fearing they might be a target.

The other day I was out for coffee with an unbelieving friend, and she said to me, “What is up with Christians? Why are they being so hateful to Muslims and refugees? That’s not in the Bible, right?” I told her, “No, it’s not, but they’re afraid.” In one way, this is okay. We are all so far from perfect, and that’s why we need grace. Maybe the people struggling with fear are doing great in other areas–hospitality and service and faithfulness. Fear itself is not a sin, I don’t think–like any other emotion, it’s what you do with it. If fear is keeping you from obeying the God who came to earth and lived as poor, displaced, rejected, the God who told us that when we welcome the stranger it’s as if we’re doing it to him, then I think that fear has become sin.

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The good news is that Christ sets us free–from sin, from fear. Fear paralyzes, makes us disgusted with ourselves and others. It keeps us from joy.

But perfect love casts out fear.