Waving Olive Branches

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Olives are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Served with almost every meal, they vary in color and size, offering a pungent, salty taste. Eat them with bread and white cheese and you have a meal fit for royalty. The trees are everywhere – in gardens, along the sides of roads, and in churchyards. You cannot escape the olive branch.

For years, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace.  In early August, on my first evening in Iraq, I saw the symbol of the olive branch in a new way.

We had been invited to participate in a women’s meeting in late afternoon, but immediately following the meeting we were whisked away to a performance put on by actors from the city of Qaraqosh. Exactly one year ago that day, Qaraqosh had fallen to the Islamic State. Until that time, I had only read stories about Qaraqosh in the news. Now, I was meeting real people with real and poignant stories.

One woman, a lab technician, was walking home from work, only to have a neighbor rush up to her and say “You must leave! ISIS is coming!” She was the primary caregiver for both a father and sister who were disabled. In her words, she became “very afraid.” The next morning, her neighborhood was deserted and she saw the ominous, black ISIS flags in the distance. By a miracle, she was able to secure bus space for her family, but had to leave everything else behind.  When you are fleeing for your life, your priorities of what matters and what you should take change in an instant.

The play we were privileged to see was about the fall of Qaraqosh. The heartache and loss that people experienced as they had to leave their homes and community was palpable. Vivid color and music drew us in. The stage set alternated between dark and ominous, where ISIS soldiers took center stage, to a bright and vibrant background of churches and ancient city streets.

The play was in three acts with monologues by three main actors. It was all in Arabic, but like all good acting, it didn’t just rely on the spoken word.

There were many poignant parts of the play, but a couple parts stood out. During one scene, a  beautiful little girl came skipping and dancing on stage. She symbolized the story of Christina, a little girl who was pulled by ISIS from the hands of her mother while she was fleeing the city. Of all the stories of Qaraqosh, this one was the most difficult and symbolized all the loss and pain of a community.  As the main character reached for Christina, she was gone.

During another scene, one of the actors reminisced about Palm Sunday, a day when the whole city of Qaraqosh would wave olive branches as they remembered the coming of Christ to Jerusalem.

But it was the end of the play that left a defining imprint on my heart and soul. The three actors came out on stage, holding hands and raising them high. They practically shouted words of forgiveness and grace:

“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches.”

This play was not ending on a note of despair, but of hope. This play was a tribute to resilience, to perseverance, to faith, and to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. We give up our rights to hold on to wrong-doing, we give up our rights to be victims, we extend grace to the perpetrator. Sometimes forgiveness costs us everything we have, everything we can give. But there is no ambiguity in the Biblical call to forgive, there is no grey area, there is no “but what about…?”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”*

The command is clear, and I was witnessing a group that didn’t just act this out, but lived this out.

The actors on stage and the people in the audience were witnesses to a greater love, to a greater command then our human desire for vengeance and revenge. When they left Qaraqosh, they lost everything but their lives. Yet here they were, publically proclaiming grace and forgiveness.

Their grace and forgiveness was as present and pungent as olives and olive trees in the Middle East.

I have seen a lot of examples in my life of forgiveness, but this one was the most powerful.

I fell asleep that night with my heart full, the images of olive branches waving above me, images of forgiveness and peace.

*Matthew 5:44

A Final Note for Those in Crisis

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I thought it fitting to write a last word on the crisis piece. The comments in the piece Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis hurt my heart. And so this piece is for you. All of you who wrote in the comments – thank you for your heart. Thank you for your vulnerability. This one’s for you.

Know your safe people and cry and laugh with them. Be kind to those who aren’t safe, but don’t let them into your sanctuary.

There is being vulnerable and then there is being safe. Can safety and vulnerability coexist?

I think they must coexist. Particularly at different points in our lives. Only when we feel safe can we be vulnerable. When we are in the midst of a crisis, not matter what the crisis is, it’s difficult to be vulnerable. Because all of our safeguards are gone.

When we let people who are not safe into the sanctuaries of our souls they tend to break things. They take those fragile pieces and treat them poorly, throwing them around, tossing out words and behaviours that shatter our safety. And when those fragile pieces break, it can take a lot of work to put them back together. Trust is broken easily, but repaired slowly.

Several years ago I heard a story about a public school in New York City that wanted to take down the fence around the school yard. I’m not sure why, perhaps they wanted children to feel more freedom. But the opposite happened: instead of more freedom, children huddled together in the middle of the play ground. They were afraid and they could not move freely. When they had the fence, they could run and play, there was safety around the perimeter and it made all the difference. The fence, instead of constricting, gave freedom.

We need fences in the sanctuaries of our souls. We are not made to be emotionally naked with everyone, everyone is not safe. But with proper fences, we have freedom to be vulnerable. 

So know your safe people, and be vulnerable with them. But keep proper fences, not walls that cannot be penetrated, but fences that allow freedom around the sanctuary of your soul.

Lastly, can we learn to give grace to those who mess it up? Give grace to those people who muddle through their own discomfort with crisis and loss, and say things that are stupid? I think this is something that I will work to learn the rest of my life, but they too are deserving of grace. The time comes into everyone’s life when they will suffer crisis and loss. No one is immune to this. Some have far more than their share of loss, others seem impervious to even raging storms. But the human experience includes loss. Every relationship ultimately ends in loss. When that person, the one who used the wrong words, goes through loss, may we be the first to give grace. 

If you are just coming by, you may want to take a look at these two posts:

Note: The content in this piece is largely taken from here.

When Prejudice Looks Back from the Mirror

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I took a test recently that showed I was biased towards patients from the Middle East and prejudiced against those from North America — specifically the Northeast.

“That’s ridiculous!” I thought.  I am one – how can I be prejudiced against myself, against my family, against all my white American friends? But the way I answered the questions was overwhelmingly in favor of the final result.

When I look in the mirror, prejudice looks back at me.

I will forgive someone from the Middle East almost anything and people who were born and raised in America have to work to earn my trust and respect. And I realize that this is what I rail against in other people. It’s prejudice. It is treating one as valuable and the other as not. It is believing that one can do no wrong, while the other has all sorts of flaws that are irreconcilable.

When prejudice looks back at you from the mirror it’s ugly, and the face that looked back at me had prejudice written all over it.

But there was more that I caught sight of in that mirror, mirror on the wall.

Because she was there again with that slightly scoffing look on her face. I vacillate between wanting to kill her, being completely ashamed of her, and worst of all – being just a tad proud of her.

‘She’ was the pharisee I see in the mirror. The one who judges silently even as she extends a hand to the one in need. The one who thinks she’s better than others.

What do you do when what looks back at you from the mirror is so in need of an attitude change, a cleansing of the heart?

I fall on my knees and pray the ‘Jesus Prayer’ “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner”.  And I go forward in Grace with a prayer on my lips that the power of the cross to transform can redeem and radically change that person looking back at me from the mirror.

Because that’s the Gospel message that I believe and proclaim with all my heart.

“How Much Did You Write?”

“How much did you write?” by Robynn

Our eleven year old Bronwynn was recently baptized. At our church the Pastor has each person prepare a statement to read or recite before he baptizes them. Often it’s the story of Jesus meeting them in the midst of their selfishness, in the middle of their agonies, in the center of their sin. The stories tell of hope and change, of God’s mercy, of His unending capacity to redeem.

It’s my favourite part of the service.

The night before the Big Baptism Day Bronwynn called her dad and I into our room. We sat on the bed and listened to her read through her testimony. She gave us permission to make one comment, one change. Her writing was so heartfelt it didn’t need much changing. I suggested substituting “Jesus” for “God” in talking about who died on the cross. Her dad suggested rearranging one sentence for the sake of clarity. But that was it. I went on to share that perhaps she might read it a tad slower but she cut me off mid sentence with exasperation, “You’ve already had your one thing mom!”

The Big Baptism Day was remarkable. There were five people who shared their encounters with Jesus. Five people got wet, well…six, if you count Pastor Steve who stood in the water with each person, and said, “I baptize you, my sister, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” before dunking them under the water.

I was surprised by the responses we got as parents to Bronwynn’s written testament. People wanted to know how much we had written.  Granted, Bronwynn and I are very similar. She looks an awful lot like I used to look at that age. She has a quick sense of humour. She’s tenderhearted and kind. She’s extremely talkative. We both like to write. But it was Bronwynn who wrote her story in her own words.

And yet, I like to think that Lowell and I had more than just “one thing” in her editing. I like to think that we’ve written some of our own values and virtues into her story. We’ve tried to live out our own God-stories in front of her. Surely some of that has been captured in Bronwynn’s soul and story too.

Others have written some of Bronwynn’s narrative too. Her siblings have provided personal plot twists. They’ve given her context for conflict. They’ve been an audience to some of her anecdotes. Bronwynn made reference to Sunday School in her story. Our children’s Pastor, Chris,  has loved her, laughed at her jokes, taken her seriously. Her Sunday school teacher, Miss Sue, week in and week out suggests re-writes, highlights character traits that the girls might add, circles attitudes that might need changing. Her grandparents see her in motion. They believe in her account. They take her to heart. Her teacher, Mr G, an astounding educator, has seen and affirmed potential in Bronwynn’s chronicles. She listens to him. Bronwynn has aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbours who’ve contributed to her story.

Who’s to say how much Lowell and I, as her parents wrote? Now that I think of it I suspect we did write a fair amount of it, but Bronwynn wrote it down, every bit of it, in her own words.

Oh…except we were allowed one change each!

Here’s what Bronwynn shared:

I’ll start out by telling you the most important part of my testimony. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me.  A few months ago I was thinking about dying on the cross and I went over the list of people I cared about and made another list of people I would die for. Unfortunately none of you made the cut. The list is still sitting there, in some random notebook, empty. Though you might want to know that I did make another list of people I would possibly get unconscious for. A few of you did make that list –but only family so too bad for the others. But that doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that on that day I realized the love God must have. I believed before that day but that’s the day that really changed thing. That night I asked God to come in my heart  because I realized I had never done that either.

I like that I don’t have to impress God. Even though sometimes I feel I have to impress others I know I don’t have to impress God. But there are other things I like too, like how I can talk to him and tell him everything.

I think of God like my imaginary friend but more than 500 times stronger and more than 500 times wiser and more than 500 times more powerful and more than 500 times more perfect. And not imaginary. But like my imaginary friend God is always there for me. He’s someone I can talk to and someone I can trust.

I talk to God a lot. Sometimes about random things, like, “please don’t put me in a group with that person” and a 1/3 of the time I ‘m in a group with that person. I talk to God thanking him or I ask him for help with problems. I know God is there by the little things he does like when I’m fighting with a friend and my mind is concentrating on winning the argument a random verse that I haven’t looked at for a while or the bottom line from weeks’ past Sunday’s school lessons pops in to my head.

I do wish I could see God face to face or talk to him and know he will respond –but I guess that’s a factor I’m going to have to work around.

I’m not perfect. Sometimes I doubt God or I think the Bible is (just) an amazingly written novel. I join in on the gossip and I treat others unfairly. I cheat in monopoly and I always want my way. I’m not perfect and I never will be. I have a long way to go to even be close to perfect. But I am forgiven.  I’m here to say that I want God to teach me and to guide me through the rough times that lay ahead. I want God to lead me no matter what happens. I want him to use me in whatever way he wants to. I want to be baptized because of this.*

*Truth be told—I did add some punctuation and some capital letters when I borrowed her writing for the blog. But I guess that’s what Moms….I mean Editors do!

Mercy Triumphs Over Justice

call the midwife 2In Season One, Episode 2 of Call the Midwife, we have an overwhelming picture of love and mercy.

The beginning of the show has us at a clinic watching women come in for their regular maternity check ups. A couple walks in, he – older, she – clearly uncomfortable. The midwives check her and give her a perfect bill of health, but they are uneasy and intuitively know something is not right.

Throughout the show we are taken to the home of the couple, privy to the conversations between midwife and patient. But still we don’t find out much – just that she is surprised she is pregnant and worried about something.

Toward the end of the show the woman is in labor. And it is while in labor that we find out why she is worried. She is worried that the baby will be black –  the husband we have met is white. And we are suddenly part of her story, part of the drama unfolding onscreen. What is going to happen? The birth is imminent – what will the outcome be?

The midwife with complete authority reminds the woman that there is a baby coming whether she likes it or not: “I don’t care if it’s green, red, or orange. Your child’s heart rate is dropping, and I need you to start pushing. Now.”

In all the pain and work that is childbirth, the baby is birthed….and the baby is black. It’s obvious that the husband, so excited by this pregnancy, so zealous for the welfare of his wife, so ready to welcome his son into the world, is not the father.

And we don’t know what is going to happen. Will he rage and accuse? Will he leave or throw her out? Will he demean and demand?

At this point there are two midwives, a doctor, the mom, and the perfectly formed, healthy newborn in the bedroom together. The husband is outside, taking a much-needed cigarette. The doctor heads outside and stands silently with him, revealing nothing, just waiting alongside. And finally the midwife comes to tell the husband he can come see her, come see the baby.

And so the dad rushes in.

All is silent as he looks at his son. None of us can breathe as he takes in the obvious. All of life hangs on this moment.

The man takes the baby in his arms. “I don’t reckon to know much about babies” pause “But I can see how this is the most beautiful baby in the world.”   

And so we breathe. For a moment we were the pregnant woman – would he accept or reject? Would we see mercy, or would we see justice? In that instant mercy and love triumphed. Sacrificial love, love that bears a cost, takes a stand; love that would forgive and move forward.

And we respond the only way we know how, with tears, relief, and a small sigh of gratitude escaping our lips.

The Grace of Forgiveness

forgiveness, Little church around the corner

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5: 23,24

My housekeeping the soul began with something called ‘Forgiveness Sunday’. For this Protestant making the journey to Eastern Orthodoxy this was a new practice. So I began the dusting and polishing of my soul by going to each member of the body where I worship – man, woman, and child, and saying these words while they responded with the same:

Forgive me, A Sinner.

I bowed to the ground before them, prostrating myself, taking on a posture of humility.

God Forgives, I Forgive. Blessed Lent.

For those who were deaf, we learned how to sign. And sign we did.

I did this maybe eighty to a hundred times ……

My sore legs bear the memory of this remarkable time.

I had heard of this practice for a while. But actually participating in it was indescribable. In a society that finds it hard to admit wrong, harder still to ask forgiveness for wrongs committed, we were a group prostrating before each other asking for forgiveness.

This then is a step of soul care – asking – and then receiving – forgiveness. The blessed gift and grace of forgiveness.

Can we, can I, even imagine what could be accomplished if we walked daily with a spirit of “Forgive me, A sinner”, never failing to recognize the grace of forgiveness?

Housekeeping my soul, fully aware of the Grace of forgiveness. It was, and is, a good place to start.

Repost – God Through the Lens of Les Mis

Queens Theatre, 51 Shaftesbury Avenue, London,...

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trustpasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Of all the musicals on ever earth, Les Miserables is my favorite. From the opening chord of the orchestra to the ending ensemble lines of “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums? It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!” I am in another realm, a place where right trumps wrong and grace and mercy triumph over vengeance.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Mis takes place in the 19th century in pre-revolutionary France. A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, but better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child (his sister’s child) but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne,  and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man‘. He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast of the two men is clear as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

This year Tom Hooper, director of The King’s Speech, winner of four Oscars, takes Les Mis to the big screen. I had the pleasure of seeing it last night – and though I will always prefer the live performance, I loved the show. Anne Hathaway as Fantine brings on tears as she struggles to survive on the streets of Paris; Eponine’s poignant “A Little Fall of Rain” catches in your throat; and you want to get up and wave a flag during “Red – the blood of angry men, Black – the dark of ages past”.  All and all, it’s a great show — the next best thing to seeing it live.

With great theology and irresistible truths it feels like a holy experience. 

More and more I am grateful for the compelling lessons I learn of God and Grace, Mercy and Justice from the world around me, whether it be award-winning musicals or encounters on a crowded, dirty street.These glimpses of the character of God move me from wanting to know ‘of’ God, to wanting a relationship with God himself, walking in faith that the words “Come with me, Where chains will never bind you. All your grief at last at last behind you” will at some point be sung to me.

“She Shouldn’t Have Worn White”

“My mom says she shouldn’t have worn white”. I looked at my friend perplexed. I was 16 and had never heard the phrase. She was referring to the western Christian custom (brought about by Queen Victoria in 1840) where a bride wears white, symbolic of virginity, of purity. She was specifically talking about a wedding I had been to — a wedding where the petite bride’s belly showed through the satin and lace of a wedding dress; a wedding where the bride was pregnant.

She said it again: “She shouldn’t have worn white” and shook her head. I, daughter of Baptist missionaries, was completely confused. The irony that She, with little church background, was educating me on symbols of purity and virginity was not lost, even at my young age.

They were words of condemnation. Words said in disgust. Words said in judgment.

Suddenly the bride’s gown didn’t seem as beautiful. Suddenly it was stained, all that satin and lace now the color of condemnation.

This conversation has stayed with me since that time. For there are many times where I have heard the words in my head that spoke judgment and condemnation about something I’ve done or said. The words “You shouldn’t have worn white”. 

You shouldn’t have worn white. You’re not qualified. Your past should exclude you. You’re not worthy. You’re an impostor. You’ll never be good enough. You shouldn’t have worn white.

Far worse is that in my mind I have used these words with others, deeming them unworthy. Casting judgment, the first stone, condemning the white until there was no beauty left.

The words made their way into a pocket of my soul unreached by Grace. Grace had to find the way to burrow in and replace words of condemnation with words of conviction. “You shouldn’t have worn white” had to be replaced with words of saving Grace. Words of truth to replace lies of condemnation.

For I have found that true conviction leads me to action while condemnation paralyzes, the paralysis expressed in the phrase “She shouldn’t have worn white”. Satin and lace tarnished, beauty gone, my heart closed to the beauty of Grace.

But conviction? Conviction opens wide the door and makes me long for loveliness, strive for transformation, open to the work of Grace.

“She shouldn’t have worn white” still casts its stain, for sticks and stones may break my bones but words can haunt forever. But words of Grace ultimately win this battle.