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.

 

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.