The awful grace of God: Thoughts on an MCC learning tour to Lebanon

This reflection is written by Jon Nofziger, constituency relations coordinator for MCCBC.  Jon wrote this reflection as he led a group of MCC constituents on a learning tour to Lebanon, where they learned about the Syrian refugee crisis and met with Syrian partners. 

“What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.  The Life-Light blazed out of darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.”  John 1:4-5 The Message

“He who learns must suffer, and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus, fifth century BC Greek playwright of tragedies

I liken a learning tour to being enrolled in the College of Life and taking a course in “hard knocks.”  While our group did not endure the same “knocks” as people  we met in Lebanon, one thing is certain: we learned that many who have passed through the crucible of suffering will acknowledge they have found themselves better for the experience—bitter though it may have been. These saints have insights to offer a hurting world.

Syria_PARD Psychosocial S. Leb MCC LT May2016

Syrian refugees, living in Lebanon and receiving psychosocial assistance informal education activities from MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development, pose with members of the learning tour. MCC photo/Scott Campbell

For centuries, skeptics have argued that the presence of evil in this world negates the idea that a good God exists. It is alleged that if an all-powerful God exists, who refuses to put an end to evil and suffering, then certainly God could not be all-good.

But blaming God for current woes in the world is akin to charging Henry Ford with the responsibility for the death of a person killed in a drunk-driving accident.

The argument against the goodness of God, grounded on the basis of earthly evil, assumes there is no logical purpose to be served by God’s toleration of human tragedy.  Yet at the end of the day, we must own up to the fact that we simply are not qualified to judge what God is doing. Our scope of vision is microscopic.

This is one of the lessons the patriarch Job had to learn when, in his suffering, he became very critical of his Maker, questioning the Lord’s wisdom. God gave him an examination to show him how “small” he actually was (Job 38-41); Job was in no position to subject the Almighty to critical analysis.

Rather than question God’s wisdom and purpose, we, like Job, should acknowledge God’s company/communion with human tragedy.

 With our lives, we testify to believe in one of two Gods: either an omnipotent idol that controls and arranges everything, or the God of hope who works alongside us.Dorothee Soelle, German theologian.

While in Lebanon, our group was introduced to the suffering of the church in Syria through our partner, the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC). We met and heard from Father Walid, a Catholic priest from Syria.  He and his volunteer crew of 16 have been distributing material resources from MCC and other NGOs to over 2,000 families in rural areas in the western part of Syria.

Syria Fr Walid

Father Walid and his team assist with the distribution of MCC blankets, September 2015. Photo courtesy of FMEEC.

Father Walid is a quiet, unassuming man. Another MCC partner translated from Arabic to English as Father Walid shared with us details of his work. At one point he stopped, visibly overcome with emotion. He swiveled his chair so his back faced us, taking deep breaths and gathering himself in order to continue. When he was ready to begin again, he said, “The burden is too heavy.”  He also made clear that his primary work is not simply to provide material help. Rather, it is to “bring hope and be with the people.”  When asked what does hope look like, his quick, humble response was simply, “We are Christians aren’t we?”

To be honest, I didn’t fully comprehend the profundity of his reply.  To my western, affluent ears, the words sounded rather fatalistic. Upon return to Canada, I went surfing the web for insight to what Father Walid could have meant by his reply.  I came across some writings of Ivone Gerbara, Brazilian nun/philosopher/liberation theologian who worked alongside Dom Helder Camara (grandfather of liberation theology).  She offers similar sentiment:

 God is our hope because we want to go beyond the terror, violence, and fear that crush us. God is our hope because we often have no visible hope, because the haze of fear that envelops us seems terrifying. God is our hope as the ultimate cry for justice: a no to unjust killing, to arms and armies, and a yes to dignified life. God is our hope in our despair…For this reason, within the mystery of our lives, God is our hope.

When we suffer or share in the suffering of others, our compassion for others deepens. It has been said that the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy” is that in the former instance one “feels with” (i.e., has feelings of tenderness for) those who suffer. One becomes aware there are 1.2 million refugees now living in Lebanon. With “empathy” one almost is able to “get inside” the one who suffers—because the one offering comfort has been there!  For example, we have met Amlah (not real name) and two of her children and she invited us into her current home, a UNHCR-provided tent.

If you choose to enter into other people’s suffering, or to love others, you have to consent in some way to the possible consequences.Ita Ford, Maryknoll sister, murdered in El Salvador 1980.

While our learning tour group has not suffered as those we met during our days in Lebanon, we will share in their suffering.  We will have images, names and faces, not just statistics, because we have been there.  We will be changed people.  There will be consequences. Thanks to the awful grace of God.

Prayer:  May acceptance of our brokenness, of our healing, of our being called to serve, be a sign of our faith in the ongoing goodness of a God who journeys with us– in the power and love to remove any barrier within and among us; in the mystery of the challenge given to each one to make bread and life and beauty available to everyone. Amen.

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