Humans of Syria: Beatitudes on the Jordan/Syria Border

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3-10

“Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now,  for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21

God teaches us in surprising ways.

Over the last few days, God has been teaching me about gratitude and joy through refugee children.

An Al-Jazeera article, published on August 14, 2017, details the plight of the 50,000 Syrians currently stranded at the border. (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/50000-stranded-jordan-syria-border-170815004814548.html)

Roughly 4000 refugees living in a region called Hadalat are subsisting on little more than water and flour.  In other border areas they have been exposed to air attacks.  The majority are women and children, and they represent a small portion of the nearly 5,000,000 Syrian refugees worldwide (with an additional 6,000,000 internally displaced).

Over the last week or so, I’ve been following the journey of Imam Omar Suleiman (resident scholar of Valley Ranch Islamic Center, President of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University).  Suleiman, along with other members of the Islamic relief group Helping Hand for Relief and Development, has been working to build schools and homes for the refugees living near the northern border of Jordan.  He has posted regular updates during his stay, sharing pictures and stories of the children he has encountered in the camp under the hashtag #HumansofSyria.

Among the stories he has shared:

Ghuroob, a 10 year old girl, whose name means sunset.  While making their escape from Syria, her brother passed out two hours from the border.  The two had nothing to eat until they caught and killed a snake.

Abdulkareem, a young man unable to walk.  His father carried him on his back as they fled their home.  He had been trapped inside a tent for over a year after arriving in the refugee camp.  HHRD provided him with his first wheelchair.

Mahmoud Ammara, a 12 year old boy whose father had just died of cancer.

Aminah, a six month old girl suffering from kidney stones.  Her family hung her bassinet above the ground to keep snakes and scorpions from crawling into her bed.

Despite the hardships they have faced, the children are smiling in almost every picture.  In videos, they laugh and play, giving Suleiman high fives and showing off for the camera.  In one photograph, a group of the children are racing members of the HHRD team.

“They don’t have toys, but they sure love to race,” Suleiman wrote. “Somehow, they seem to be the happiest kids in the world.”

I don’t want to romanticize their plight.  Beyond the physical of injuries and illnesses they struggle with, many of them face issues like post traumatic stress disorder.  Still, the pictures and stories of their joy and resilience cannot be dismissed.  These children can teach all of us what it means to live a life of gratitude, about how to embrace joy in any circumstance.  Despite all that they have lost, all that they have suffered, they are still able to find happiness.  In the words of the Psalmist, God has turned their mourning into dancing, has taken off their sackcloth and clothed them in joy.

When I look at them, I also hear the words that Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.  When He talks about the Kingdom of God, He says that it will be made up of people like Ghuroob and Abdulkareem.  He tells us that the poor and humble will be blessed, that those who suffer today will be granted joy and peace in the Kingdom tomorrow.  He repeatedly says that those who are trodden underfoot will inherit the earth.  In other parables, Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom will be like a great feast and that children like Mahmoud and Aminah will be the honored guests.  They will be given the best seats at the King’s table.  If this is how God views them, can we do any less?  Is the servant greater than his Master?

I do not believe that God caused the tragedy and misery that has destroyed so much of Syria.  I do not believe that God causes death and destruction in order to serve some greater purpose, but I do believe that God is at work in  in the refugee camps.  I believe that God can craft miracles out of rubble.  In the #HumansofSyria, I see God at work, teaching us how to love, how to live in gratitude and what it means to live in the Kingdom.

To view Imam Omar Suleiman’s #HumansofSyria series, you can visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/imamomarsuleiman/ or follow him on Twitter @omarsuleiman504.  You can learn more about the work being done by Helping Hand for Relief at http://www.hhrd.org

 

 

Charlottesville: A Reckoning for the Church

Charlottesville shouldn’t surprise us.  For many of our friends and neighbors, for people of color, for the LGBTQIA+ community, this racism and bigotry has always been evident.  Viewing the white supremacy and hatred on display in Charlottesville as shocking is a privilege, a privilege that has allowed many of us to be naive about the deep violence and bigotry that still exists in the United States and around the world.  We are simply seeing it in the daylight, because as the Bible repeatedly tells us: the sin that we try to hide will eventually be laid plain.  

“Though his hatred covers itself with guile, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.” – Proverbs 26: 26

For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” – Luke 8:17

Charlottesville is a harvest, a reaping of the intolerance that we have planted and nourished through sins of commission and omission.

The Church cannot be silent.  We cannot be neutral.  As followers of the Crucified Lamb, we are called to meet violence and hatred with love, an active love that compels us to speak up and stand against oppression and bigotry.  The Church is not an inherent good in and of itself.  The Church can sin.  When the Church has defended slavery, segregation, or sexism, it has sinned.  If the Church is silent in the face of Charlottesville, it will be sin.  We cannot rest on the good we’ve done before.

We must resist the urge to view this as an isolated incident, to dismiss it as a problem for Charlottesville.  I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In the same letter, King warns against those who are:

“more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

His words about the Church remain as relevant today as they were over half a century ago:

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen… I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular….In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

How we respond to this moment, to Charlottesville and beyond, will define who we are as the Church, as followers of Christ.  Today we hear the call uttered by Moses to the children of Israel:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  Deuteronomy 30: 19-20

 

Best of all, God is With Us

I haven’t written much on the blog recently.  

To be candid, the steady stream of bad news and negativity that pervades our daily life became a bit overwhelming.  It forced me to take a step back and focus on simple, daily things that bring me joy: spending time with my family, making art, being silly and the like.

I didn’t completely stop writing about faith.  I wrote a piece about Syrian refugees for www.offthepage.com that will run on August 9.  The piece helps tell the stories of residents of the Za’atari Refugee Camp and includes an interview with “Living on One” co-founder Chris Temple.     

In the midst of the daily deluge, I have found myself thinking about the Psalms.  The beauty of the Psalms, beyond the elegance of the language, comes from their honesty.  David writes about the beauty and wonder of God and God’s creation, singing their praises with the wonder of a child gazing up at the stars.  Later he rages at God, expressing his doubt, anger and disappointment in God’s seeming absence.  He drifts into tirades against his enemies before lamenting his own sin and unworthiness.  In Psalms, we see the entire scope of human emotion on display and we are given the reassurance that God is big enough for all of our emotions, big enough to hold our joy, our doubt, our anger, fear, and so much more.  

The spiritual journey rarely follows a straight path.  Each us will have moments where we are lead through lush gardens of peace and joy, as well as moments where we are lead through the withering heat of the desert.  We will have moments of ecstasy and moments of despair.  We will have moments wandering in the mundane, where we don’t quite know what we feel.  

The Psalms remind us that no matter where we are in the journey, God journeys with us.  God simultaneously beckons us forward, walks beside us, and even walks behind to protect us.  God accepts and embraces us in our joy, anger, doubt, fear, and faithfulness.  The Psalms remind us, as John Wesley said on his deathbed, “The best of all is, God is with us.”