Honour the Struggle

I’m sitting with a younger friend in my home. It’s warm and we are talking over hot drinks. She and I share so much in terms of our background. Both raised in Pakistan. Both went to Murree, our beloved  boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain Range. Both have parents who live out their faith in extraordinary joy and grace. And both of us struggled on leaving the country, the school, the people behind, embarking on a journey in our passport countries.

We talk about faith and doubt and life. And I relay to her what my priest said to me while I was working through the process of becoming Orthodox. “We Orthodox honour the struggle.” he said. “We believe that the struggle is worth going through, the battle is worth fighting.”

Honour the struggle.

The video of 21 Coptic Christians being martyred on the beach in Tripoli, Libya showed men in orange proclaiming the name of Jesus even as they knew this breath would be their last.

Honour the struggle.

A brother of two of the men killed that day thanks ISIS for allowing that part of the film to be shown. Thanks ISIS for not cutting that part, but allowing him to see his brothers proclaim the name of Jesus.

Honour the struggle.

A news report verifying that 150 Christians from an Assyrian village in northeast Syria have been abducted, taken away in early morning raids by ISIS. Men, women, and children — all kidnapped by people who hate what they stand for.

Honour the struggle. 

It all seems too much. How can we honour this? Is it really worth it? Is faith worth dying for? Or maybe the bigger question for many of us — is faith worth living for? A colleague I saw yesterday who is Jewish by ethnicity, but self describes as one without a formal faith, challenges my skepticism when she says “I wish I could believe! Then maybe it would make it better.”

In my desperation at working this through, I turn to the Psalms. The Psalmist sees people with no scruples getting rich and powerful off the backs of the faithful, he sees oppression and injustice with no consequences and he cries out in frustration and anger:

For I was envious of the arrogant
         As I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For there are no pains in their death,
         And their body is fat.

They are not in trouble as other men,
         Nor are they plagued like mankind.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
         The garment of violence covers them.

Their eye bulges from fatness;
         The imaginations of their heart run riot.

They mock and wickedly speak of oppression;
         They speak from on high.

They have set their mouth against the heavens,
         And their tongue parades through the earth.

Therefore his people return to this place,
         And waters of abundance are drunk by them.

They say, “How does God know?
         And is there knowledge with the Most High?”

Behold, these are the wicked;
         And always at ease, they have increased in wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
         And washed my hands in innocence;

For I have been stricken all day long
         And chastened every morning.

If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
         Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.

When I pondered to understand this,
         It was troublesome in my sight

He is thinking exactly what I’m thinking – is it worth it? Is this life of faith worth pursuing? As I watch ISIS continue to take over territory, to kill and kidnap? As I watch unscrupulous people thrive in money and fame. But the writer doesn’t end with the pondering. He ends in the sanctuary of God.

Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
         Then I perceived their end.

Until he comes back to God, until he comes into the sanctuary of God – only then can he rest, only then is he comforted, only then does he see the big picture. Only then can he really honour the struggle. 

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A month later my friend comes to visit again. As we drink tea she shows me the words she had tattooed on her forearm since our last conversation: “Honour the struggle.” Engraved as a constant reminder that it is indeed worth it.

honour the struggle

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A Mother’s Grief; A Father’s Pain

Three hours south of Cairo, in a small town rarely heard of until this past Sunday, families grieve. Thirteen of the men murdered by ISIS are from this town.

Yousef Shoukry, aged 24 is one of those men. Like most of these men, Yousef needed a job and could not find one in Egypt, so he left for Libya to find work. His mother now sits, dressed in black, receiving visitors who all express their grief. A picture shows a large cross around her neck, a reminder that God is present in her grief. And though she grieves her loss, she has these words to say “He’s a martyr. I know he’s in a better place.”

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In another part of Egypt a father sits in deep, emotional pain. He raised his family in the Heliopolis section of Egypt, in a middle-class neighborhood with restaurants and coffee shops. This father made sacrifices to make sure his children were educated. He sent his son to a private school where the son learned French and, in his free time, worked out at a gym. Now the father watches television and sees his son smiling as he stands over a corpse in Syria. Another video shows him teaching militants how to work out.

“He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.‘You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.'” From a Private School in Cairo to ISIS Killing Fields in Syria in NY Times.

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Two Egyptian sons, both are gone. One mother grieves a death, a father grieves a life and the choices of that life. These two young men are not alone – there are others like them. There are those who leave for economic reasons, so their families won’t starve; others that leave in disillusionment, looking for something bigger than themselves after a failed revolution betrayed them.

There are some things that seem far harder to bear than death. Watching a child leave all that you love, all that you hold as sacred and good, and find their identity in a cause you hate has to hold more pain than we can imagine.

I think about these two parents and I pray for both. For the one, comfort in her grief; for the other comfort and healing in his pain. And I think about Jesus, who steps into grief and participates in our suffering. Jesus who sits with us in our pain and offers his whispers of comfort and redemption, sometimes so softly that they are drowned out by the noise of our grieving hearts. Jesus who said so long ago “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”*

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Blogger’s note: Several of you have asked about donations to the families who lost their loved ones in the recent tragedy. I have spoken to a friend in Egypt who says people can make online donations to Biblica. Just be sure to add: for Biblica MENA: project New Hope Egypt

*John 16:33b New International Version of the Bible

Remember Their Names

They have a name

I look at the picture and read through the names. 21 in all. They feel familiar, though rusty, on my tongue. Reading these names, praying as I read them feels like the best thing I can do to honor these men.

There is something important about remembering their names. There is something defiant in the act of saying the names, of saying them aloud, of making sure people know they are not nobodies.

The men were laborers in Libya for economic reasons. ISIS captured them because they were “people of the cross.” They are brothers and sons, employees and friends, husbands and confidantes. Each of the 21 men who died is known by name. And when we remember their names, we honor them.

The president of Egypt announced seven days of mourning for the nation and Christians and Muslims are coming together to grieve with the families of the victims.

Friends from Egypt sent out a message yesterday. They will be slowly visiting the families of the men who were murdered. They will sit and grieve with them; mourn the loss of these young men. And they will remember their names. 

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Last week in the city of Chapel Hill, three people were murdered. They were murdered in their home, their safe haven. Pictures show Chapel Hill to be a charming city, indeed those I know who have lived there love it. It is a university city, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But three Muslims, one man and two women, were murdered by an atheist motivated by hate.

I read through their names slowly. Deah Barakat, his wife – Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her sister – Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. They are 23, 21, and 19 respectively. Deah was a University of North Carolina dental student. Reports say they were newly married, scheduled to receive their wedding photographs on the week they were killed.

They loved the diversity of America and were active members of their community. Yusor was quoted as saying this last summer: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here, we’re all one.” 

The enemy would have us forget, the enemy would have us remember the name ISIS, the name of the one who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Instead, we remember the names of those who died.

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 Will you remember these names with me today? 

The ISIS Definition of Who Lives and Who Dies

ISIS

The People of the Cross

I woke to the news that 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Tripoli. That ISIS would pick a beautiful place by the ocean to carry out this heinous act feels particularly galling.

God’s creation in all its beauty juxtaposed with man, made in the image of God, in all his free-willed horror.

The news did not even make it to the front page of the New York Times.

We are in a world where a terrorist organization decides who lives and who dies and it’s no longer front page news. 

The video that was released called the men “People of the Cross.” I have had the privilege of living in Egypt, of going to the homes, churches, and monasteries of Coptic Christians. These are my brothers and sisters in faith. It hurts my soul and I have few words for this horror.

But if I am honest, in my heart every day I make the kind of decisions that lead up to what ISIS did to these men. I daily decide who to despise and who to accept; who is worthy of my kindness and who deserves my rejection. And that’s what hurts — that as evil as ISIS is, the same spirit is in me.

We live in a world where the definition of who should be allowed to live narrows with each passing day. How can my prayers, my life, my actions reflect something completely different?

And can I pray for those who inflict such evil?

The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

The Call to Prayer echoes across the Muslim world five times a day. It calls the faithful to stop what they are doing and pray. As a Christian growing up in the Muslim world, five times a day I have been reminded to lift my heart in prayer. The faith and truth claims are different, but the Call to Prayer still serves as a reminder. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he “willingly endured the cross”.From In the Midst of Tragedy, a Call to Pray

Those are my thoughts this day.

Picture Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2954746/Islamic-State-releases-video-purporting-beheading-21-Egyptians-Libya.html

The Challenge to “Not Go Numb”

“Just numb it!” I say emphatically every time I go to the dentist. “I don’t want to feel a thing.”

And it’s true. I had five babies naturally with barely a thought of intervention of any kind — but my teeth? Just numb me up. Laughing gas, ether, even a couple shots of whiskey, I’ll take anything! I just want to go numb.

And sometimes I feel like this with world events. Just numb me. I don’t want to feel them. I can’t do a thing about these events so just numb me.

But the challenge from those on the ground, indeed the plea from those on the ground is that we not go numb. Nancy Lindborg from USAID says “Our challenge is to not go numb, to remember the numbers, to remember the faces.” 

She said this a couple of months ago during a live panel discussion on Syria. The panel was sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a center devoted to the bipartisan solutions and insights into international issues affecting our world today.

The panel was clear and informative and served as an excellent resource on what is going on today in a conflict that daily struggles to reach the headlines, largely because it has gone on too long and lost our attention, more importantly – lost the world’s attention. The Syrian conflict is white noise in a world drowning from information overload. 

But I want to remember and I don’t want to go numb. So as I listened to the panel I frantically scribbled notes, discernible only to me, on a piece of scrap paper so that I would remember some of the key points.

Here are some of those points: 

  • Humanitarian agencies were not targeted in the past – they have been systematically attacked in Syria.
  • “Fewer clinics being bombed because there are fewer clinics to bomb” – this statement, again from Nancy Lindborg, shouted at me.
  • Polio, measles out breaks feared – so many people at such close quarters
  • Syria was a middle-income country. yet people are leaving with nothing so the need for basic supplies is huge.
  • Huge problems”water sanitation, health needs especially due to egregious targeting of civilian facilities (hospitals, doctors)”
  • Humanitarian Aid groups are continually looking for ways that not only stabilize but build resilience inside and outside the country of Syria.
  • Need to strengthen the countries who are taking in refugees, only then will they have the ability to meet the needs of the massive refugee population.
  • The number of refugees who have come into Lebanon is the equivalent of the United States absorbing another state of California. It’s a massive influx of people and resources are already slim to help with those who are citizens.

And now it’s not just Syria. It’s the aftermath of Gaza, an age-old conflict that is wearing new rags and hurting another generation. It’s the evil of ISIS. It’s Ferguson and the continued rumblings of racism and grief. It’s floods in Pakistan. It’s poverty and homelessness in Central Square, my back yard. And oh how I want to go numb.

Where is the hope? 

Hope is in “9th grade girls back in school after losing 3 years – seeing them was extraordinarily inspiring.” Hope is in 400,000 refugee children being able to start school again in Lebanon. Hope is in young Somali refugees sending letters to Syrian refugees, a show of solidarity and understanding. Hope is in surgeons who are healing in the midst of war. Hope is in those that believe, against all odds, that there is a future, a future and a hope. Hope is in my Parish – Holy Resurrection, with people who have come forward in extraordinary ways to donate vitamins, infant tylenol, and wound supplies for refugees in Turkey.

Hope is in people who don’t go numb, but continue to watch, to pray, and to act. 

Misplaced Identity and Belonging

In all the talk about ISIS one thing emerges – Western leaders are terrified and embarrassed that so many from their countries are joining forces with ISIS. It’s easy to point a finger when it is young men who are outside our borders raised in those countries we deem dangerous and breeding grounds for terrorism. It’s a hard call when the fingers point back at the west and hard questions need to be asked about why this life is appealing. Many of these recruits are born and raised in the United Kingdom or the United States, educated in schools in these countries. They are second or third generation immigrants, whose parents moved from their countries of origin for various reasons.

According to Harry Kitano (who did research on immigrant populations, primarily Asian American groups) many immigrants go through a process or a struggle between two powerful desires:  the desire to retain their native ethnic identity vs. the desire to “become” American.  Many times the individual is not consciously aware of these conflicting desires.   Through research, Kitano developed four “types” to describe where immigrants may be on an acculturation continuum.

  • Type A – High in assimilation and low in ethnic identity.  For all intents and purposes, the immigrant has internalized the lifestyle, values, language and culture of mainstream America.
  • Type B – High in assimilation and high in ethnic identity.  This group includes the truly bilingual and bicultural immigrant, able to move between his original and new American cultural groups comfortably and successfully.
  • Type C – High in ethnic identity and low in assimilation.  The newly arrived immigrant best typifies this category.  Also, immigrants who have lived here a long time, but spent most of their lives in an ethnic enclave perhaps never learning to speak fluent English (e.g., the Italian North End neighborhood of Boston or a city’s Chinatown) would also be considered part of this group.
  • Type D – Low in ethnic identity and low in assimilation.  This group is described as being alienated from both the ethnic and the American communities. (Kitano, 1989)*

Kitano’s work is of great value to help explain cultural conflicts that may occur in the different generations of an extended family of immigrants, all at different levels of acculturation. Perhaps Kitano’s work could also help explain the attraction of ISIS to the disenfranchised, the cynical, the outsider – the one who is Type D.

In a recent article looking at why ISIS has been so successful recruiting westerners I read these words:

“So what is it about ISIS and its uncanny ability to recruit Westerners? Here are five methods the group employs:

It preys on a recruit’s sense of identity

The recruits are often young — sometimes disillusioned teenagers trying to find purpose and make their mark.

For many, it boils down to a lack of a sense of identity or belonging, Barrett said.

“The general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem,”

The article goes on to talk about other reasons why westerners leave their supposed lives of comfort in the U.S or other wealthier, western countries including sophisticated propaganda and high-tech media usage, appealing to a sense of religious duty, and several more but it is this first one that I continue to come back to based on the research I cited above.

It strikes me that these recruits would fit the category of Type D in assimilation. They have been raised in an alternate universe where the culture of their immigrant parents and the dominant culture are worlds apart. They don’t fit with either and so they are desperate to belong, desperate to have purpose. And as wrong as this is, as terrifying as this is, these men are finding a way to fill that longing. It’s a misplaced identity and belonging.

If we are created for connection than we will go to extremes to find that connection. If we are created for purpose, we will look to find that purpose wherever we can. And these recruits are finding purpose in spades. It’s wrong. The actions of the group are evil, but they have provided primarily young men, raised in the west, with something to believe in.

I think we’ve failed. I am not negating personal responsibility, personal choices were made and must be acknowledged, but I think we often fail our immigrant kids. And the more the culture of the immigrant differs from western culture, the more difficult it is for immigrant families to feel a part of life in their communities in the west.

We can do better. I can do better. In my own community the alleged Boston Marathon bomber went to school, played, participated in sports activities. And something changed. He ended up believing in a cause that brought on death, pain, and suffering of hundreds, perhaps thousands. He sits in a jail cell awaiting a trial while juries even now are receiving their summons to fulfill their civic duty through the notorious Boston Marathon bombing case. Just blocks from our apartment, another young man whose mom is an immigrant from Ethiopia has also been indicted in the Marathon bombing for hiding evidence.

We can do better. Especially people who hold to Biblical values of justice and loving our neighbors. Who are the disenfranchised in your towns and cities? Who are the immigrant kids who are lost between worlds? Who are the parents who are struggling to get by even as they watch the values they hold dear trampled on by the dominant culture? Can we reach out? Can we forget ourselves for a moment and extend a hand to the ‘other‘?

Will this make a difference? I don’t know – but if the likes of ISIS are willing to reach out and meet the need for belonging, the need for a sense of purpose then we must do better. We must try. 

We can do better. I know we can. 

Source: Communicating Across Boundaries Curriculum adapted by Marilyn R. Gardner and Cathy Romeo, 2009 from Unit III – Beliefs and Barriers.