Reflective Prayer, Thursday Meditation for Advent 2023 Written by Lauren Draper, Middle East Fellow
Hebrews 7:1-6| Mark 10:17-27
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:17-27
At that time, Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way, they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.”
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to live in Jesus’ day and to be among his disciples? Today, I invite you to imagine just that.
The spiritual practice of gospel contemplation is a form of prayer in which you imagine that you are present with Jesus in a story from the Gospels. By envisioning yourself physically in the room with Jesus, the words will be transformed into the language of your heart, and your spirit will be opened more widely to Jesus’ ministry to you today.
Begin by reading the passage from Mark reflectively. Now, read the passage again, then set the text aside, and contemplate the scene:
Jesus has arrived in Capernaum with his disciples, and he asks them a simple question. Knowing that the answer is awkward, the disciples are silent and perhaps embarrassed. Of course, Jesus knows the answer already, but his next comments are not a rebuke so much as kind guidance.
As you reflect on the unfolding story, imagine you are there, literally and physically present. You walked with Jesus and his disciples earlier that day, and you have now arrived in the house. Look around the room. What do you see? Hear? Smell? When Jesus asks what the disciples are talking about, he is asking you too. How do you respond?
As the experience proceeds, Jesus brings a child into the middle of the room. Where does the child come from? Do you know the child? What is going through your mind as Jesus proceeds to teach you about what it means to be great in His kingdom?
Then the topic turns when John asks a new question. As you hear Jesus’ response, does it seem to be a new topic, or is it part of Jesus’ earlier teaching about greatness and humility?
These moments in the house with Jesus seem informal and conversational. Do you have a question you want to ask Jesus? What might it be? As the story unfolds, notice details you’ve never seen before.
As with all spiritual practices, the purpose of gospel contemplation is to place yourself into God’s forming hands. With this particular practice, it is not about using your imagination to control or conjure up a scene – but allowing God to use your imagination to speak more deeply to your heart, mind, and spirit about who God is and to see the world by God’s light.
About the Author: Ben is a researcher and public organizer. Inspired by his study of higher education in Palestine, Ben currently works on the ways educational and epistemological structures develop responsively to physical landscapes, especially those that are highly configured and imposed. In his local community, Ben helps churches engage more thoughtfully with Native communities and come to terms with histories of injustice.
Ben holds his Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University (Los Angeles) and his M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College (Annapolis). Ben’s dissertation is a qualitative project exploring adaptive Palestinian approaches to pedagogy.
In his career in higher education leadership, Ben has experience building international educational partnerships, teaching, and establishing an academic center for applied public research.
I was introduced to the meditative practice of Lectio Divina a few years ago, and it’s been a great help and inspiration to my spirit ever since. Lectio Divina is Latin for “divine reading,” “spiritual reading,” or “holy reading.” The goal is to read through a passage of Scripture three times and commune with the Spirit of the living Christ. Read in the mind and out loud, with careful concentration on the words, pausing at the commas, and breathing after the end of sentences. While this is a beautiful practice any day of the year, please join us in thinking of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East as we go through these steps:
In Palestine/Israel, few things feel certain. In spending time there, one grows accustomed to a life that moves at the speed of the news cycle and days that often feel shadowed by grief. Even so, no matter what trials the day holds, it ends with the sky painted in the most beautiful sunset– a sign of the land’s enduring beauty and an expression of faith for a better tomorrow to come. There is much tension in a place that is both so sacred and so enmeshed in conflict. This makes it even more vital to share the truth of this place– in all of its joys, sorrows, and yearnings.
The final session of the Embrace the Middle East and Churches for Middle East Peace “Conversations with Middle East Christians” webinars featured Rev Colin Chapman speaking to Dr Martin Accad and Revd Dr Rima Nasrallah from Lebanon.
Dr Accad grew up during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). He served as Chief Academic Officer at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary until 2020 and is leader and founder of the Action Research Associates.
Revd Dr Rima Nasrallah is the associate professor of Practical Theology at the Near East School of Theology. She is an ordained minister at the National Evangelical Church of Beirut and is active in the work of Embrace’s partner the Middle East Council of Churches.
Archbishop Samy is the Anglican Bishop of Egypt and the Archbishop of Alexandria. Dr Ghada Barsoum is an Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo and an advisor to the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services (BLESS) – the development arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As well as being a great destination for the holiday of a lifetime, Egypt is also a country with immense biblical significance and a long Christian history. It has a population of around 106 million, with Christians comprising roughly 10-15%*, making it the country with the largest Christian population in the Middle East.
Embrace the Middle East supports 10 different partner organisations in Egypt, in the fields of education, healthcare, women’s empowerment and helping people with disabilities.
Rev Colin Chapman: What does it feel like to be a Christian in Egypt today? Archbishop Samy: Things have changed dramatically with the economic situation over the past year, and it is a great crisis for many poor people. But Egypt is a very stable country and, as Christians, we feel secure. Our vision for the church in Egypt is a living church for a better society. We are passionate about discipling, evangelising, and being salt and light in our communities. None of this is for its own sake but because we want to reflect the light of Christ and influence society for good. We are not an NGO doing social work – we are a living church, serving and helping society in so many ways.
Dr Ghada: I think we are at a historical moment – there is a strong emphasis on religious dialogue. The Egyptian president visits a church every Christmas Eve, which is very unusual in Egyptian history. 2013 was a very difficult time for Christians, and in less than a week 200 churches were burnt. Today, most of these have been repaired. The state even builds churches today, which is a new and unusual development.
Rev Colin Chapman: Tell us about the general situation in Egypt. Dr Ghada: There are two crises that are defining the moment now. The first one is increasing food prices and inflation. The war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on this and Egypt is one of the top countries in the world impacted by it. We worry a lot about children – we have stepped up our nutrition programmes at BLESS and we provide nutritious meals to children on a regular basis.
The other big defining moment is what’s happening in Sudan. The conflict has led to a huge refugee crisis in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community in Sudan are generally upper middle class and well-educated, but they are coming to Egypt with nothing – and they are coming to the ‘mother church’ for help. The church had to respond – we started with food vouchers, and then onto housing. We used some of the church facilities for immediate housing for people with nowhere to stay. We’re now working on providing furniture and healthcare support, and getting children back into school.
Rev Colin Chapman: We talk a lot about the cost of living in our country. What is the reason for the economic crisis in Egypt? Archbishop Samy: Covid-19 played a big role. Then immediately after that, the Russia-Ukraine war had a huge impact on pushing up food prices. It hasn’t been easy for us to cope with these big changes.
I think the government has been clever – bread is a staple here and it’s very important. The government has been careful to keep bread affordable, and as a church we try to offer to help to poor families, especially refugees, by distributing packets of food. We have thousands of refugees from Sudan – they have no home, no food. The need is great but we do our best to help people in need. At 5am, Sudanese refugees stand in the street around the cathedral, waiting for a small parcel of food – often they stand for hours, just waiting for this food. It shows there is a great need.
Rev Colin Chapman: How are the relations between the different Christian churches in Egypt? Archbishop Samy: We have a wonderful relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church and other denominations, like the Catholics and the evangelicals. There are conferences we attend together and it is wonderful to have fellowship with many different Christians in Egypt.
When it comes to Christian-Muslim relations, the world can learn from Egypt! We have experience of living together for 1,400 years. We live in peace and harmony with Muslims – I have many Muslim friends and many Muslims come to the church for cultural activities. At our Centre for Christian-Muslim Understanding and Partnership, we have regular lectures from leaders in both faiths. We have lived with each other for many years – in many ways we understand each other very well. It is good to discuss what unites us rather than looking at the things that divide us.
Rev Colin Chapman: How can Christians in the west support Christians in Egypt? Dr Ghada: We need to pray for the many people who are serving their communities. We need to pray for the peace of Sudan. Before the crisis, I never thought about Sudan but now we pray that these displaced people would be able to return to their homes. It is devastating for them. We also need to pray for wisdom – at BLESS, we have to make tough decisions all the time.
Archbishop Samy: Pray that our vision (a living church for a better society) will become true. Pray for the refugees ministry. So many things are happening in Egypt. Pray for us as we continue to serve God and reflect the light of Christ in different ways.
Following the conversation with Colin, webinar attendees were invited to put their own questions to Archbishop Samy and Dr Ghada. Q: What is the role of women in Egyptian society?
Dr Ghada: The MENA region has one of the worst rates of female labour force participation in the world, and we’re not sure exactly why. Women in Egypt are not as present in public life as they should be. I think more women are starting to join the labour force, but we’re not yet seeing this reflected in the statistics.
Q: For young Christians in Egypt, how do they engage with the church?
Archbishop Samy: This is a hard question. I think the most important problem for youth in Egypt is to find their vocation in life so it’s really important to give them training and opportunities to develop new skills. In the churches, when the church allows them to participate, many young people are so gifted.
Dr Ghada: We want them to have a strong relationship with God – that gives them meaning in life. A lot of the time we talk negatively (e.g. about high levels of unemployment) but we need to adjust the narrative and think about how young people can have a more purposeful life.
Q: How is the church engaging with climate change?
Dr Ghada: Water is a big issue. We have the River Nile but the water from River Nile is not enough for the growing population. We are working with farmers on improving irrigation methods and choosing the best seeds that can handle drier conditions. We are also working on sending text messages to farmers about expected weather patterns.
Archbishop Samy: We do a lot of work around raising awareness about this issue, for example in schools. We talk about keeping the environment clean and recycling. We want to help young people look after the environment. Climate change is a big problem for us in Egypt. Sea level rises pose a huge threat to Alexandria.
Q: Can you talk more about how Christians in Egypt are helping refugees?
Archbishop Samy: More people are coming every day. The latest statistics tell us there are about 9 million refugees in Egypt. Egypt has always been a land of refuge, since the time of Jesus. We do our best to help and accommodate refugees. Egypt is not a rich country, but you cannot ignore people who cross your borders for help and support. The presence of refugees in Egypt does not help with the cost of living and inflation – but we welcome refugees because it is very important.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
*There are no official figures as to the exact number of Christians in Egypt.
The above post is a condensed version of the third session of our summer series, “Conversations with Middle East Christians”, from August 2023. Watch the full session above.
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).
Thirty years ago on the 13th of September, with a great deal of fanfare, the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization met in Washington and signed the Oslo Accords. For many of us, this was an occasion for hope, a promising signal of a brighter day in the Middle East. The Accords established a process of land for peace in Israel/Palestine; the ultimate outcome being two states- Israel and Palestine, with peace and justice for all.
Thirty years later, what we celebrated as the dawn of a new day for the peoples of Palestine/Israel has failed to deliver. The hope and promise of September 13, 1993 has proved to be an illusion. On that day we were like the people of Jeremiah’s time, hearing words of peace, when there is no peace.
In the second installment of our ‘Conversations with Middle East Christians’ webinars, in partnership with our friends at Churches for Middle East Peace, Rev Colin Chapman speaks with Archimandrite Abuna Emanuel Youkana. ‘Father Emanuel’ is a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Director of CAPNI, an Iraqi Christian NGO. He is based in Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Father Emanuel opens by acknowledging that for many decades Iraq was making the news. Today, it does not feature so prominently in western media, but he hopes that his country is still in the minds and prayers of Christians around the world. He reminds listeners that Iraq is part of the biblical lands – it was the homeland of Abraham, and the prophets Jonah and Daniel walked there too.
Today, Christians make up just 0.6% of the Iraqi population, compared to 3% before the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing exodus of many people. Father Emanuel is passionate about shining a light on the practical and vital role of Christians in the land, who can trace their lineage back 2,000 years.
I had the great privilege to hear the first of the Embrace the Middle East and Churches for Middle East Peace “Conversations with Middle East Christians” webinars, where Rev. Colin Chapman spoke with Christian leaders from Israel-Palestine. The two speakers shared powerful accounts of their experiences at the intersection between political situations and the outworking of their personal faith.
First was Jack Munayer, coordinator of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Jack describes himself as ‘a half British and half Palestinian Christian with Israeli Citizenship’.
When asked ‘After the recent violence in Jenin, what does it feel like to be a Christian in the land today?’ Jack replied: ‘I think that we are reaching now the point that we have been warning and expecting and dreading for decades… Since COVID the human rights violations, the violence, the challenges that specifically Palestinian Christians are facing, are reaching a turning point. I think that Jenin was a part of a new phase that we are about to enter where the levels of violence, displacement of people and carnage, in many cases, is what we are expecting to see in this next time to come.’