Category: Lent

Lent 2022: Easter Sunday

Turning Toward: An Easter Reflection
Aune Carlson 

Lent is a season of transition. A time of reflection, examination, repentance, and confession. As we transition from the season of Lent to Easter we recognize this is not a time for simply turning from but also an act of turning toward. Turning from decay, injustice, and death to fruitfulness, justice, and abundant life. Reading Luke 24:1-12 we see in the story of Easter – everything changed. 

That morning, the women went to the tomb, with spices as was the custom. Jesus had been crucified. Upon his death, the next task at hand was to turn toward his burial and all that needed to be done according to custom. During the course of the women’s actions to carry out their burial duties, they came upon the unexpected! 

The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty except for the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus. Terrified, grief-stricken, and perplexed they encounter “two men in dazzling clothes” who ask why they are looking for the living among the dead. The men told them Jesus was not there but had risen.

Upon the reminder of Jesus’ teaching, the women then turned toward home. They carried a secret that must be told! Instead of permitting their grief, doubt, and incomprehension to win, they turned in faith and ran toward the disciples to tell them about what they had learned.

Praise God for the faith of these women. In spite of all that they had endured, they trusted Jesus at his word and ran to share the good news. Turning toward belief and hope they hurried to share the good news. 

Though not all the apostles believed the women’s word, some did. Peter – upon hearing the news – ran toward the tomb. 

He ran to seek the truth, the man who denied knowing Jesus just days before RAN toward life and redemption. Amazed at what had happened, he returned home and I presume he shared the thrilling news with the others. 

It is true, at times the path ahead may seem too daunting, peace, justice, and reconciliation inconceivable, or downright impossible, however, it’s never too late to move from a state of lament and grief to turn toward God, going out into all the world sharing the good news that Christ is risen from the grave and we are redeemed!

Hosanna!

What does this good news mean for our work in the Middle East? Daily we hear discouraging news of people suffering, violent conflicts, and ongoing hostilities. It is easy to be discouraged as we learn about ongoing challenges and realities in the Middle East. May the glorious news of this Easter morning remind us that desolation and despair are not the end of the story. Rather, Christ has triumphed over death. While we celebrate this spiritual victory, we also know brokenness in this world will not triumph. 

This Easter we hold onto the hope that peace in the Middle East is possible, we turn toward God. Praying for equality where all people in the Middle East might have hope for a prosperous future. 

May we turn toward the morning, the light of a new day. Praying for justice in which goodness and righteousness will prevail.

May we turn toward our neighbors, friends, and enemies and participate in sharing the good news. Praying for reconciliation and building relationships, holding tight to the gifts of redemption and reconciliation through the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. 

As we turn toward God, may we be compelled to seek justice, righteousness, wholeness, and shalom in our lives, communities, the Middle East, and our world. May we turn toward peace where armed conflict will cease and violence will not be pursued as a means of rectification. 

God, we rejoice in the wonder of your resurrection, O Christ, but then tend to sink back into our old ways of thinking, heaving, and responding to people’s needs. We can rejoice with the angels and all humankind on Easter Sunday, but the tumult and strife of the days following the Day of Resurrection cause us to slip back into apathy and despair. Forgive us when we so easily become distracted by our own cares and worries that we ignore the needs of others around us. Forgive us when we forget your power and love for us. May you remind us of your call and call us back toward you and your service. Give us a spirit for rejoicing, willing hears and hands for helping, and voices for praising you forever. Amen. 

___

Written by Rev. Aune M. Carlson, Director of Operations for CMEP. Aune earned her Masters of Divinity and Masters of Nonprofit Administration and graduate certificates from North Park Theological Seminary and School of Business and Nonprofit Administration. Ordained by The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).

Lent 2022: Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday, Holy Remaining
Jennifer Maidrand

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Luke 23: 50-56)

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Holy Saturday 2013

Eight years ago today, I crammed my body into a crowded building filled with lit candles and singing and billowing incense. The faces of pilgrims and priests intermixed with those of saints in the form of icons watching over all who gathered to wait. And wait is what we did–hundreds of us curious souls–on the eve of Easter, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Over the course of that night, I felt a strange calm sweep over me and a deep contentment inhabit my body. I had never experienced a collective ritual so magical, nor had I ever been more sure that I both knew exactly what I was waiting for and simultaneously hadn’t the slightest idea. This mystery is an element of a number of diverse Holy Saturday, or Saturday of Light, traditions which range from baptism renewal, to fasting and repentance, to a passing of Holy Fire.

This mystery is something we might resonate with as we reflect on a season of seeds planted, and dwell in the space of unknowing–that which is in between death and new life. Holy Saturday is an in-between time—a space that invokes pause, reflection, mourning, and dare I say, cultivating hope.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Holy Saturday 2013

In her book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo writes of Holy Saturday as a “time of remaining,” a space where trauma dwells in the aftermath of death. Rambo insists that with the resurrection narrative, it is easy to “gloss over difficulty, casting it within a larger framework in which the new replaces the old, and in which good inevitably wins out over evil” (Rambo 2010, 6). Holy Saturday, for Rambo, is a space where the experience of death and trauma persists, where clear demarcations between death and life erode. Rambo’s concern regarding theological tendencies to approach suffering and trauma from a binary framework (i.e. death vs. life; good vs. evil; suffering vs. healed) adds important nuance to our Lenten reflections on working towards peace and justice in the Middle East.

In our work at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), we are always navigating a Holy Saturday kind of tension. The realities of our partners and friends on the ground in the Middle East are all too often in “time of remaining”–in the wake of death and trauma. And we at CMEP join with our Muslim, Jewish, and Christian siblings in the Middle East in mourning, in prayer, in waiting. And we advocate for them—knowing that the space between tragedy and new life cannot be held alone.

Personally, I find reflecting in spaces of unknowing as a practice that is both challenging and nourishing to my faith. However, I know that dwelling in thoughtful tension is surely not a spiritual practice for everyone!

Nonetheless, I invite you to join me this Holy Saturday in waiting in the in-between space and perhaps imagining those whose daily realities might resemble that of Holy Saturday. Let us spend time in reflection or prayer about how we might better embrace the mangled relationship of death and hope in our peacebuilding and advocacy efforts, and better advocate for all lives in the Middle East.

Scripture does not reveal much about what might have occurred on the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection. While many who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion likely went home confused, scared, disappointed, or ashamed, it appears there were a few who were faithfully waiting, remaining. Joseph of Arimathea lovingly claimed and provided refuge for Christ’s brutalized body. The women who traveled with Jesus made preparations to properly bury his body. And then, it was the Sabbath. Before the women encountered Jesus alive in his own tomb and before the disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, there was a time in-between. And in that space of unknowing, trauma, and grief, they remained. 

In our reflections, we might ask:

In our work towards peace and justice, what might it look like for us to embrace this road of uncertainty, one that very tangibly links death and the journey towards resurrection? 

Could resurrection be something that is both waited for and cultivated? 

Might we embrace such a mindset as we continue to walk alongside our siblings in the Middle East and advocate for justice and peace among them?

Holy Saturday is indeed a space of holy mystery. So too is the life and hope that are cultivated in its midst.

God of mystery, we lift up our hurting hearts to you. Fill us with your divine comfort. Waiting God, we are comforted in knowing that you are in the in-between space. Nourish us with your presence, and let us draw from you a radical hope to remain in the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East.

____

Jennifer Maidrand is the Outreach Manager for CMEP. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Bible and Cultures at Drew University, where she also earned her M.A. Her research focuses on how biblical interpretation and archeology have shaped the contemporary land of Palestine-Israel and its geo-politics. She is a member of the UCC Church and is committed to fostering interfaith and intercultural community education and dialogue around sacred texts, the earth, and politics. Jennifer is grateful to have the opportunity to utilize and grow these passions, previously as a fellow and now as a staff member with CMEP. 

Cited
Rambo, Shelly. Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010.

Lent 2022: Good Friday

Good Friday: The Dark Night of the Soul
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E′lo-i, E′lo-i, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34)

Today – Good Friday – marks the crucifixion of Christ. His brutal death included crying out to God and asking “why have you forsaken me?” After suffering the pain of crucifixion, the Gospel of John confirms Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” (19:30).

In Christian tradition, the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning are known as the Triduum. Three days committed to prayer – a reminder to all that for a time darkness triumphed. The three days of Paschal Triduum are committed to prayer, a willingness to spiritually enter into the darkness, and reflection about the saving acts of grace extended to humanity through Christ’s death on the cross. 

For many spiritual saints – this darkness – the finality of death and separation from God – can seem a regular part of religious life. St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul about his own spiritual crisis and his experience of separation from God. The Christian world was rocked in 2003 when word began to circulate a few years after Mother Teresa’s death that she too had a dark night that lasted almost 50 years over the course of her ministry in Calcutta and around the world. 

What might we have to learn from this darkness? Mother Teresa prayed that God would allow her to “drink from the chalice” of his pain in order to better understand his suffering. And yet her writings and letters found in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light tell of how she cried out to God, “Father, I want to tell you how – how my soul longs for God – for him alone, how painful it is to be without Him.” 

Some students and scholars of Mother Teresa assert that her great love and the power of her ministry were compelled by the struggles of her inner darkness. She entered into the most painful of earthly places and sought to bring refuge, comfort, and love. Many may not be familiar with Mother Teresa’s work in the Middle East in that regard. 

In the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1982, the Mother of the Calcutta slums went to Lebanon and rescued 100 orphans who were disabled and ill. Through prayer and determination, even in the midst of her own internal spiritual darkness, she was able to obtain a ceasefire and evacuate the children. In a conversation with a local priest in midst of the violence of the Lebanese Civil War, he exhorted her about how a rescue was not possible and this was her response: 

“But Father, it is not an idea. I believe it is our duty. We must go and take the children one by one. Risking our lives is in the order of things. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. You see, I’ve always seen things in this light. A long time ago, when I picked up the first person (from a street in Calcutta), if I had not done it that first time, I would not have picked up 42,000 after that. One at a time, I think … “

Through prayer, faith, and negotiations led by Philip Habib, US Special Envoy to the Middle East sent by President Ronald Reagan, a ceasefire was brokered and 100 of Lebanon’s most vulnerable children were saved.

What might we learn from the darkness of Mother Teresa? Even in the midst of spiritual dryness, she continued to be faithful to the mission and God’s calling on her life. Her steadfast faithfulness and obedience in responding to the needs of the least of these never wavered in the darkness. This is my prayer for all of us at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Many times it feels like war rages all around us – from Ukraine to Syria. Humanitarian needs and economic devastation prevail from the streets of Lebanon to the shores of Gaza, to the famine in Yemen. We read about military campaigns and violence daily in the news coming out of the Middle East. In many ways, the world around us – including in the Middle East – is in the midst of a Dark Friday moment. Seemingly death has prevailed. 

May we follow the lead of saints who have gone before us like Mother Teresa and maintain our steadfast commitment to doing good. Seeking out the presence of God even in the darkness where He cannot be found. May God go before us.

A prayer of Mother Teresa in the midst of the darkness: 

I did not know that love could make one suffer so much…
of pain human but caused by the divine.
The more I want him, the less I am wanted. 
I want to love him as he has not been loved,
and yet there is that separation, that terrible
emptiness, that feeling of absence of God. 

They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because
of the loss of God…
In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss,
of God not wanting me, of God not being God,
of God not really existing.
That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if
something will break in me one day.
Heaven from every side is closed.

I feel like refusing God.

Pray for me
that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus
in this painful darkness.

____

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). You can read more of her writings about Mother Teresa in her book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action

Lent 2022: Maundy Thursday

The Washing of Feet and the Gospel of Peace
Kevin Vollrath

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted
Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 
John 13:1-17 (NIV)

Why feet?

Why not hands? A perfectly kind way and appropriate place to touch a friend. Pragmatic, too.

Why not faces? A gentle and intimate way to observe another’s visage. 

The thought of few body parts other than feet evokes such vivid sensory memories for me. When I think of feet, I think of smells. Smells I’ve never smelt outside of locker rooms, shoe drives, and shoe stores. Nowadays many cover their feet with two layers of clothing– it may be that makes them smell worse than in Jesus’ time. Keeps the dirt off, and the smell in. 

I know there’s something practical about washing feet that walk dirt roads. As Jesus put it, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” I would hate to be the one who skipped a bath that day. 

Why does Jesus choose something so banal to teach his disciples as one of his final teachings before being taken away? Weren’t they all gathering regularly before this, and wouldn’t he have had many opportunities to wash his disciples’ feet? Was he in the habit already and the other gospel writers just forgot to mention it? 

I wonder if when Jesus washed those feet, he wasn’t thinking about the dirt or the potential smell. I wonder if he was thinking about more than the cultural role he performed. I wonder what feet meant to Jesus. 

Today’s feet often symbolize dirtiness. Muslims often remove shoes before entering a home or mosque as a sign of respect and to preserve the space’s cleanliness. Footwashing is part of the pre-prayer ablutions/ ritual cleaning. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) reportedly said that cleanliness/ purity is half of faith. Throughout much of the Middle East, showing the soles of one’s feet can be offensive.

One foot connotation in the Hebrew scriptures is authority. The psalmist praises the Lord for making humans “rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Ps 8:6); John also notes that “Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power” (John 13:2). In illustrating the authority of the Messiah, Jesus quoted Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” (Matthew 22:44). The author of Ephesians echoes this connotation when describing Jesus’ authority: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.” (Eph 1:22). 

Jesus and his followers supplement another connotation for feet: peace. In sending out his disciples, Jesus instructs: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The Kingdom of God is near.’” (Luke 10:10-11). The letter to the Ephesians encourages believers to “stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15). 

In this foot-washing, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love (John 13:1), and the scene appears to conclude with the words, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17). Jesus sent his disciples with his authority to bring peace to the world. 

At CMEP we try to walk in this authority, speaking out against injustices to people in positions of power. We believe peace can be achieved if it becomes the world’s top priority (that’s why we advocate). We believe local churches and their denominations are uniquely obliged to seek peace because of the vision of God’s Kingdom the Hebrew Scriptures declared and which Jesus continued teaching (that’s why we educate our partners and elevate the voices of those working towards peace). 

In washing, Jesus fitted his disciples’ feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, so they could continue to make level paths and bring peace wherever they went– wherever Jesus was to go next. He loved his disciples by commissioning them, letting them partake in the Kingdom of God, inviting them to join his lasting work. In this spirit, we pray these words from the Scriptures:

 “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)

May you also “burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9). May the peace that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as you declare Jerusalem’s redemption, even as we wait for its peace and redemption, “for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). Amen.

____

Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.

Lent 2022: Palm Sunday

Hope and Deliverance in Jesus’ Triumphal Entry
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon

As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Luke 19:37-38

Today the town of Bethany can be found on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. The village, on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier, is known in Arabic as العيزرية or Al-ʿAyzariyyah – the place of Lazarus – for it is where Mary and Martha’s brother was raised from the dead by the person of Jesus. Today many aspects of the modern Palestinian village seem quite distant from the hope of resurrection. The streets are full of piles of refuse, burning garbage, and other signs of neglect because of a lack of services and infrastructure. Bethany is in Area C – a segment of the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) under Israeli civil and security control. While Israel is responsible for civil services, few if any are provided.

Formerly a thriving East Jerusalem enclave, Bethany today is cut off economically, socially, and in many other ways from the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of the city of Jerusalem. Once walkable, East Jerusalem schools and hospitals are now out of reach and unemployment has risen since the building of the wall in the early 2000s. Crime has also risen in the city because of a lack of government involvement and intervention. Bethany exists as a community increasingly desolate, suffering repercussions from the decades-long occupation of the Palestinian people.  

What would the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem say to the residents of a community like Al-‘Ayzariyyah?

Jesus’ entry into the sacred city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey did not represent the “triumphal entry” that many expected. Where was the strident warrior king who would lead the Jewish people to victory and deliverance? Rather this humble son of a carpenter chose the lowliest of animals upon which to make the declaration of his Messianic mission. Some studied witnesses of the event would have understood Jesus’ humble mode of transportation as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! … Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” (9:9).

Jesus met people during his day in the midst of their circumstances. He responded to Mary and Martha when they let him know of Lazarus’ illness by saying, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (John 11:4). Later Christ wept at the hearing of Lazarus’ death… only then to redefine reality and bring his friend back to life (John 11:35).

Similarly, the purpose of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem celebrated on Palm Sunday symbolizes the declaration of him as the Messiah. The triumphal entry marks the momentous occasion where Jesus was acknowledged as the “King” of the Jews who came “in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). While the people continued to expect a military victory over their oppressors, instead Jesus’ entry marked the beginning of the Passion of Christ – his suffering, death, and resurrection – that is celebrated during Holy Week.  

This year as we wave our olive branches in church and remember Jesus’ journey down the Mount of Olives – may we hold in our hearts the people who live in that community today – including the Palestinian residents of Bethany living under occupation. Hope in Jesus’ day did not come the way that people expected. Rather God’s goodness and mercy were revealed in the humblest of circumstances.

Through Jesus, hope and deliverance prevailed.

May this be our prayer as we together pursue peace and justice in the Middle East.

Humble, Lord Jesus. Peace in heaven and glory to the highest.
You are worthy of all praise and honor. You are the God of empathy and love. You are the God of comfort and joy. You are the God of peace and justice. As we worship you on this commemoration of your triumphal entry, be with those who have yet to experience relief from their earthly suffering. Come alongside those who live in isolation and difficult circumstances. Bring your hope and deliverance to all people. In the name of Christ. Amen.

____

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Cannon formerly served as the senior director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision U.S. on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC; as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International in Jerusalem; as the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church located in Walnut Creek, California; and as director of development and transformation for extension ministries at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. Cannon holds an MDiv from North Park Theological Seminary, an MBA from North Park University’s School of Business and Nonprofit Management, and an MA in bioethics from Trinity International University. She received her first doctorate in American History with a minor in Middle Eastern studies at the University of California (Davis) focusing on the history of the American Protestant church in Israel and Palestine and her second doctorate in Ministry in Spiritual Formation from Northern Theological Seminary. She is the author of several books including the award-winning Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World and editor of A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land. Her work has been highlighted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Chicago Tribune, Christianity Today, Leadership Magazine, The Christian Post, Jerusalem Post, EU Parliament Magazine, Huffington Post, and other international media outlets.

Lent 2022: 5th Sunday of Lent

Establishing Justice on the Earth?
Kevin Vollrath

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching, the islands will put their hope.”
Isaiah 42:1-4

This is the first of four passages in Isaiah commonly understood as describing the “suffering servant.” Many Christians understand these prophecies to be fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry, and others consider the Biblical nation of Israel as a whole to be the suffering servant. 

The passage strikes me for its repetition of justice. This servant will bring justice to not just one, but the nations. The servant will bring forth justice – as if it’s hiding somewhere waiting to be revealed. He will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes, or puts, justice on the earth.

If this passage does indeed refer to Jesus the Messiah, either justice has been established, the prophecy is false, or Jesus is still working on it. Though bewildering, the last seems most likely to me. 

So how might Jesus be still bringing forth justice? Has he really not faltered or grown discouraged?

I sometimes wish Jesus was more vocal about the injustices of his day. He didn’t seem to shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets. He raised his voice in the Temple, out of zeal for this Father’s house. Was he more passionate about teaching right worship, keeping the Temple from becoming a den of thieves, than about condemning the oppression surrounding him? 

How will he bring justice to the nations? How will he bring forth justice in faithfulness? Has he still not faltered or grown discouraged? For surely justice is yet to be established on earth. Jesus’ Kingdom theology isn’t the intuitive kind of restorative justice most of us would reasonably hope for. Instead, he offered healing and prophetic words and invited others to do the same. 

Yet his teaching is the hope of even the islands, the most marginal, those most distant from centers of power and influence. The next suffering servant passage also addresses the islands: “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations” (Isaiah 49:1)– this hopeful teaching is for every nation everywhere. Yet even the suffering servant can come to doubt the purpose and value of his labor: “But I said, ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain, and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God’” (Isaiah 49:4). 

If both of these passages are true and both refer to the same suffering servant, it is possible to doubt the purpose of one’s labor even while one is not faltering or growing discouraged on the way to establishing justice on the earth. 

May all of us working for justice take heart – our efforts are not for naught.

CMEP has the privilege of working alongside Jewish and Muslim, as well as secular, peacemakers. Perhaps many of us feel like bruised reeds or smoldering wicks, struggling to persevere. Despite theological differences, may we be unified by the fear of God which keeps us all seeking justice and hoping for redemption, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

May those of us who seek to follow Jesus’ teachings seek also to see his presence and work through our colleagues of different faiths. May all of us working for justice not falter as you put your hope in the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is still near. Justice is coming.

Lord Jesus, draw our eyes to you, the author and perfecter of our faith.
May we be inspired by your persistence. Give us eyes to see where you are continuing your work when it’s easy to only see war, destruction, and evil. We ask you to continue establishing justice around the world, particularly in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. May your Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Amen.

____

Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.

Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

Lent 2022: 4th Sunday of Lent

Waiting in Patience: God is at Work
Fayelle Ewuakye

“Patience is an extremely difficult discipline precisely because it counteracts our unreflective impulse to flee or to fight.” (Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, Compassion, 93)

Halfway through Lent… how do we feel? Are we weary and confused? Frustrated and impatient? I have long wrestled with patience. I want things right now. I want unpleasantness to pass right now. I want broken things fixed right now. I want conflicts solved right now. I want comfort and peace. And I want it right now.

Halfway through Lent… how are we waiting? Are we trusting God’s work?

What I’m trying to remember is how patience can be defined during this time: to voluntarily stay in and embrace the place of not knowing how or who or when or what or why. But instead, remembering who God is, reflecting on what He’s done in the past, and trusting that He is at work now. And when I can, being part of that work.

I’m thinking of the Israelites waiting for a conqueror, a king.
God was at work.

I’m thinking of Moses and his people waiting for the Promised Land while wandering for 40 years.
God was at work.

I’m thinking of the disciples waiting to learn their own fate after Jesus breathed His last on the Cross.
God was at work.

I am waiting for governments to put the health and well-being of the people in their land before their own interests.
God is at work.

I am waiting for holistic peace and thriving to exist for every person in Palestine and Israel.
God is at work.

I am waiting for Easter when I can celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, and be reminded that He is that conqueror, that king, that loving Shepherd who cares for every soul.
God is at work.

 In the waiting
The same God who’s never late
Is working all things out.”
– Yes I Will by Vertical Worship

Jehovah Shammah, You are the Lord who is THERE. You are watching, You are in the details, You are working. Help us to remember You’re always right on time and yet keep us yearning for more of You as our hearts cry out with longing. Open our eyes to what we can do while we wait, how we can be part of Your work. Amen.

____

Fayelle Ewuakye is CMEP’s Communications Coordinator and earned her B.A. in Humanities at Jacksonville State University, in Jacksonville, Alabama with a concentration in Anthropology and Geography. She’s been the Social Media Curator for her local church in Northwest Georgia since 2018 and finds the gifts and benefits of social media to be great blessings toward any organization wishing to reach out to the masses. She wants to be a part of some meaningful work, both locally and globally, and believes peace and justice are two things the public at large needs to know more about.

Lent 2022: 3rd Sunday of Lent

Good Light 
Nicole Morgan, Executive Administrator at CMEP

My mother has a collection of potted plants inside her home and a garden full of flowers designed to attract butterflies and bees to her yard. She always has an aloe plant on hand for scrapes or burns. I didn’t know you could buy aloe gel in a plastic container until I was in college. My father grew up on a farm and can coax food out of the ground or mix fertilizer into the red Georgia earth to balance out the nutrients needed for whatever they desire to grow.

Me? I can’t keep kitchen herbs alive and once killed an aloe plant (in less than a week) that my mom had propagated for me. Recently I sat a vase of flowers in front of the window in my office, delighting at how the light shone on the small vase of delicate pink roses and small yellow wildflowers that looked like little puffballs. The next day I sat down at my desk and noticed that while the wildflowers were still strong and tall, the pale pink roses looked positively roasted – their petals wilted and withered. The light was good, or at least bearable, for one flower and absolutely crushing for another.

I often first think of light as universally good. And that its goodness exists on a scale of “the more light, the better.” So often when I think of plants and growth I think of the light it needs, not the need to protect it from the light.

But seeds start in darkness and some blooms are delicate.

The Psalmist exclaims: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) A bright light is most likely to be detrimental to one who is already parched, in a dry land. The Psalmist continues: “My soul is satisfied . . when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.”  They have found comfort in darkness and shade. It is this cool and quiet place where they are able to find rest and express joy and satisfaction.

The harshness of all the injustices in the world seems ever more scorching and destructive: the pandemic still kills thousands a day, racial injustice is rampant, the economy seems designed to reward only a few and destitute others, wars begin and stretch on, people live without basic human rights, and our political advocacy on behalf of justice and human rights in the Middle East and elsewhere can so often seem like we are throwing drops of water at a plant that is wilting in this blistering heat.

I’m asking myself what it means to “meditate in the watches of the night” and to “rest in the shadow.” What does it mean for me as an individual human to acknowledge that at times I and my communities are more delicate blooms than hardy wildflowers and we can’t be in the harsh light forever without some respite? How do I resist the myth of a resilient people especially qualified to suffer and demand that we find a way to offer relief from the searing heat of injustice? What does it mean for all these hopeful seeds of justice we seek to plant? Where do I need to rest in darkness until there is good light and what does it look like to think about our work for justice and peace with a knowledge that darkness and soft warm light is part of the process? How do we shade those seeds and soft blooms of hope?

Each plant is different. Mature wildflowers and cacti exist. We are in different phases of growth. We are different seeds and blooms. The light that is oppressive or endurable is different for all of us and our work for justice.

Those are a lot of questions without any answers. But the questions keep me motivated in my work as they remind me of the possibility that darkness is good in the growing process. I was recently asked how we approach burn-out and despair in our work at Churches for Middle East Peace. My answer is that we celebrate small progress and we acknowledge that it won’t be bright and sunny and victorious looking often. This acknowledgment of small things is not a consolation prize. It is a vital way that plants grow and thrive. It is part of the process. We are planting seeds and they are resting in the cool darkness. They will find the light when it is a good light. 

I’m giving my office window and its bright, harsh light another chance. I bought an aloe growing kit and dutifully filled the bottom of the container with small stones, topped with wet soil, and finally carefully buried a few tiny seeds just under the surface. The kit calls for the whole thing to be covered in plastic and sat in a warm place for a couple of weeks until it starts germinating. I sent pictures of my set-up to my mother, asking her about what would be a good light for this plant. She advised me on moving the table back from the window a bit, closing the white curtains to diffuse the light, and paying attention to which hours of the day the curtains are open or closed. Even this desert-dwelling aloe plant can be sensitive to the bright light and harsh heat of the direct sun, she said. If I want this plant to root and sprout, to grow and flourish – I’m going to have to be mindful of a good light versus any light. The seeds are covered for now under the dark soil. I’m going to try my best to ration out the sun and the shadow and learn what amount of each will help this plant to thrive.

Creator God, We thank you for light and we thank you for shadow. We pray that we will find respite in shadows and darkness. That we will not yearn to be in a light that will ultimately whither the fruit of our work, but that we will know what light is good for the work you have created in and for us. 

————–

J. Nicole Morgan is CMEP’s Executive Administrator. She endures the bright summer sun near her home in Atlanta, GA but much prefers the shade. Her writing has been published in Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Christian Century, Sojourners, and others. She is the author of Fat and Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves (Fortress Press). Nicole earned her Masters in Theological Studies from Palmer Seminary at Eastern University.

Lent 2022: 2nd Sunday of Lent

Seeds Planted on Fertile Soil
By Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, Executive Director at CMEP

“But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.”
(Matthew 13:23)

Many years ago, when I lived in Jerusalem, I was shocked that the Jericho Road into the “wilderness” was a desert full of rocky soil. I grew up on the east coast of the United States and our wilderness was wooded terrain with lots of trees and hidden beasts like black bears and wolves. Or at least that’s what I feared when I was a child! The soil of the Middle East shocked me. The rolling hills of the Judean wilderness do not have fertile soil, but rather rocky sandy terrain where it is difficult for anything to grow.

Some of you may be horticulturists who will challenge my assertion about plants not growing in the desert as there are some incredible desert flowers that defy the harsh conditions and bloom into beautiful colors and specimens – such as the crown anemone (most likely the lily of the field mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 6:28), the tumbleweed gundelia, or the toxic Golden henbane. Despite these exceptions, Jesus was clear in his parable of the good sower that seeds planted in good soil will “bear fruit and yield plenty.”

Clearly, in the Scripture, the parable of the good sower provides a metaphor for someone who “hears the word and understands it,” but what does this story teach us about our work for peace and justice in the Middle East?

I believe this parable is about what it means for us to be “good soil” – ready and prepared, in a posture of willingness to embrace God’s good news for all people – a message of love, acceptance, justice, and reconciliation. There are times in my life I can look back on and acknowledge that the soil of my heart was hard and rocky, unreceptive and not loving towards those who hold opposing views. What does it mean for someone to be loving while not compromising on holding fast to core values and practices of human rights and justice?

This question became very profound for me several years ago. I was working for an international development organization and often led multi-narrative experiences in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for conservative Christians from the United States. We sought to have speakers and guests from across the spectrum related to Israeli politics and Palestinian perspectives. No one voice, thought, or idea is monolithic within either society. Our goal was to honor every person’s individual experience and narrative while still addressing the devastating effects of the occupation, the repercussions of settlement expansion, limits to mobility for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, and other such realities.

One speaker’s views and perspectives were antithetical to my own. I abhorred his politics and views toward the Palestinian people. At the end of his presentation, I couldn’t even shake his hand. My heart was hard, I was filled with rage and grief that Palestinians in the audience had been asked to listen to his racist stories and perspective. After the meeting, I was overwhelmed. First, I asked forgiveness from the Palestinians in the room. How could I have welcomed a speaker who reinforced so many false narratives about them and their people? My second thought was an overwhelming conviction that I was not living out one of the core teachings of Jesus. Love your enemy.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

This Lent as we reflect upon what it means for us to be fertile soil upon which seeds can be planted, and grow, and prosper – what does it mean for us to hear and do the word of God that calls us to “love our enemies?” What does it mean for us to love all people – even those with whom we completely disagree? I believe the transforming power of God allows us to transcend human limitations – so that we can become people who love boldly, while not compromising on pursuing truth, goodness, reconciliation, and justice.

I believe a part of the answer to what it means to love our enemies is to enter into the paradox of both loving people with whom we disagree while working to respond to injustices they may perpetuate. This can look like sitting across a table from someone who holds positions different than your own. This might mean acknowledging and seeking to learn from disparate narratives, while still advocating and working for policy changes that promote human rights. Loving your enemy might not have a visible manifestation, but could mean looking at them with compassion and not harboring hatred in your heart.

I have many friends who are Israeli and who are committed to spending their lives and resources to bring an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people. And I also know many Israelis who hold similar views to the man in my story. How do I respond to them? What does it mean, as Jesus calls us, to love them? I hope and pray over the past several years my heart has softened while at the same time, my commitment to justice and human rights has never wavered. I do not believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a zero-sum game. But rather any solution to the injustices of the occupation will also be a solution that is in the best interest of Jewish Israelis as well.

This Lent, my prayer is that we at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) might be a place of fertile soil – where love for all people is held as a core value as we seek to live out God’s love and justice in the Middle East and the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

God, make us good and fertile soil.
Soften our hearts and root out any hatred within us.
Give us perspectives of love toward all people.
Help us to hear your word and to understand it.

Help us to understand and pursue both your love and justice,
To not be afraid, but courageous in our efforts toward peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Amen.

____

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Cannon formerly served as the senior director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision U.S. on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC; as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International in Jerusalem; as the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church located in Walnut Creek, California; and as director of development and transformation for extension ministries at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois.

Lent 2022: 1st Sunday of Lent

By Kyle Cristofalo, Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at CMEP

“For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.” 1 Corinthians 3. 9-10

­I do not have a particularly green thumb. One time when I was in Seminary, I accepted a plant-sitting job. The family had stopped their mail and brought their pet with them on vacation. The only task I had was to water their plants. If it rained enough (which it did), I only had to water the inside plants. One simple task. No problem, right? Well, the plants survived, but by the time I left, they were not looking particularly healthy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did not receive any future plant-sitting requests.

What does gardening have to do with Lent? What does it have to do with my work at Churches for Middle East Peace? During this season, I have been reflecting on a prayer written in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated due to his criticism of a corrupt government that overlooked the needs of the people. One section, in particular, stands out:

“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds the leaders of the community that while they play an important role as “co-workers in God’s service,” ultimately, God brings the results to fruition. In other words, “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.” This does not give us an excuse to sit back and wait–indeed the work of being God’s field and building comes with great responsibility. Whether we are master gardeners or struggle to keep plants alive, is irrelevant. The seed is not good because we plant it. We can plant the perfect garden only to have our hard work undone by an animal or a particularly bad storm. It is good because it is part of God’s redemptive work for this world. Our role is not to do everything, but to be faithful to our call to help bring about God’s justice in a world that so desperately needs it.

 “We plant the seeds that one day will grow….”

Every day we hear more news of death and destruction throughout the Middle East. In Yemen, 16 million people live on the brink of starvation as the Saudi-led civil war enters its seventh year. In just over the year since President Biden began his term in office, Israel has demolished more than 1,000 Palestinian properties resulting in the displacement of over 1,300 Palestinians. The economic crisis in Lebanon continues without indication it will let up anytime soon. We might be tempted to ask whether it is worth continuing to advocate if the facts on the ground continue to deteriorate by the day. Does our voice really matter? On days when I feel particularly helpless, I remind myself that I am a worker, not a master builder; a minister, and not a messiah. I am not responsible for “solving” all of the challenges faced in the Middle East. Yet, I am not absolved from doing my part, either. The results might seem small, but they are a step along the way, an opportunity for the good seeds planted to blossom into a future in which all of God’s people are finally free.

Creator God, on the days when we feel our work is for nothing, remind us that you have called us to be co-workers in the service of peace and justice for your creation. May we trust that the seeds planted today will one day blossom so that justice will prevail in the Middle East and throughout the world.

_____

Kyle Cristofalo, Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations/Special Advisor to the Executive Director. Kyle holds a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Messiah College and a Master of Divinity Degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Kyle was first introduced to Middle East advocacy work during a semester abroad in Cairo, Egypt. After graduating from college, Kyle spent 10 months serving with the Mennonite Central Committee in Bethlehem, Palestine, where he was seconded to work with Bethlehem Bible College. 

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