Embracing the ‘Spirit’ in Bethlehem

I was never the most spirited person when it came to Christmas. Come New Years, Passover, Mother’s Day, Halloween, literally any other holiday, I’ll be making plans, creating surprises, planning parties and decorations. But during the Christmas season, I am the family’s Grinch. I never understood why the acclaimed “Christmas Spirit” – the niceness, kindness, care for others – should be only expressed during this particular time of the year.

Back when I lived with my parents, I enjoyed the Christmas dinner because we had such good food – my great aunts would get together and cook every favourite dessert for their 16 great nephews and nieces. It is impossible to not love that dinner.

In August I started an MCC assignment based in Bethlehem, Palestine. You can imagine how ironic it felt when I finally rented an apartment in the place that arguably most represents Christmas. When I was moving in, I realized that at the beginning of my street there were some Christmas decorations and I rolled my eyes at it. I truly believed that God enjoyed a good old chuckle at my expense in that moment.

However, in the months that followed, I couldn’t focus so much on the relationship between Bethlehem and Christmas. This past year brought a lot of changes to my life. Moving to Palestine meant dealing with an international move, trying to understand cultural differences, learning new languages, figuring out a new job and context, making new friends and discovering new tastes and colours. Oh and all this while developing a self-care plan. I didn’t have time to stop and think about what Bethlehem represents.

Another reason why I was not thinking about the holidays, was the realization that this region – Palestine and Israel – as beautiful as it is, is so restless, always on the verge of war. There is so much suffering, so many walls and barriers between the people, that honestly, I sometimes forget that it is the “Holy Land.” The first months here felt like anything but that. I felt powerless and asked God many difficult questions. I was struck with the reality and complexity of the conflict in such a way that it seemed unreal to me to think that this is where Jesus was born, where he walked, preached, and gave His life so we could have salvation. I believe this land needs salvation – in many different ways. Amidst all of that, I barely had time to breathe properly or to notice that the months were passing me by.

On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, I was returning from Aida Camp, desperately looking for an open coffee shop, when I suddenly saw some workers decorating Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem for Christmas. I thought to myself “Not this again.” It was the last Friday of November, and later that day a very excited friend informed me that the lightning of the Christmas tree would be the next day. In that moment I decided to not go anywhere near the Church of the Nativity or the Christmas tree until this was all over.

I realized soon that I was naïve to think that I could avoid Christmas in Bethlehem – it is all around. All of my friends wanted to go see the lights, see the church, visit the Christmas market, and despite my best efforts to avoid all of that, my curiosity got the best of me. When I left my house, with my best Grinch face on, I was sure that there isn’t such a thing as a Christmas Spirit, not even where Jesus was born.

5a2c675e-5ac0-4642-b5f6-22d7cad1a131

As I walked to the Church of the Nativity, trying not get run over by cars on my way, I noticed the stars on ‘Star Street’. My little grinchy heart started to soften. Bethlehem is a beautiful city, and truth be told, it looks even more fantastic with the lights all around. The lights made me happy. I kept walking, mulling over my new-found love for Christmas lights, until I finally reached the church and saw the gigantic golden Christmas tree in the square in front of me.

In that moment, my heart calmed down. I did not feel an increased urge to help others, I did not feel overwhelmed by joy, or the necessity to sing any Christmas songs. However, in that moment, while I stood with so many people from many diverse backgrounds, where He was born, after 2000 years, I felt in peace. I felt as if He was right there taking care of my anxious heart. My heart, which missed home and family, felt powerless and restless, and on most days does not know where it belongs. The beating of it slowed down, and I was struck by a ferocious sense of gratitude.

1030db4e-9751-43ac-bbec-944a54891755And there, in front of that enormous tree, around the red and green lights, surrounded by mostly tourists, God took a little bit of my stubbornness away and I remembered once again what we celebrate in this time of the year. Yes, we can celebrate and live it more often, but I finally stopped and thought about the world-changing impact that the birth of that baby had in this world and in my life. Still broken, fallen and failed, but now, because of that birth that happened in this small little town, we received salvation. Then I felt the Spirit, not the Christmas one, but the Holy one.

The author’s name is omitted at their request.

Advertisements

A prayer of response to Mary’s Magnificat

The Magnificat is often understood to be a song of praise. Recorded in Luke 1:47-55, it is Mary’s response to the prophecy that, through her, God’s fulfillment will come.

I sometimes struggle to believe Mary’s strong and powerful affirmation of the coming of God’s “upside down kingdom.” Mary’s words are meant to comfort and give hope to those seeking justice, but injustice continues and at times even flourishes.

Where is the mercy for those who fear the Lord? Did I miss the proud being scattered? When I look at the leaders of the world, I still see dictators and tyrants, who remain on their “thrones” of power. I don’t see the lowly being lifted up or the hungry being filled with good things or the rich being sent away empty.

How do I respond to the intense hope and joy recorded in the Magnificat when, for so many, the world seems so bleak?

As I wrestle with these questions, I find myself praying as Mary sings.

Magnificat

My soul seeks to magnify the Lord as my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for the Almighty has done good things and
though change feels slow and is sometimes hard to find,
I know that it comes. I know that it happens.

With Mary I wait for what has been promised.
I wait for tables to be turned and power to shift.
For a scattering of the proud and a tumbling of the mighty.
I wait for new life and a new world.

For those treated as social outcasts just for being who they are
or because of events outside their control,
I pray for God’s loving presence to be as real to them
as it was to Mary when she proclaimed
the Lord has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

To the Mighty One who has done great things
I pray for an open heart and unblocked ears
that I may hear the voices of the poor and oppressed
and act to share their struggle for justice.

For those who have experienced violence,
or been forced to flee their homes,
I pray for God’s mercy which Mary promised
is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.

For those who experience racial hatred
and suffer the bigotry of the narrow minded,
I pray that they might know the Lord has shown the strength of his arm
and the proud will be scattered in the conceit of their heart.

For those suffering under the oppression of tyrants and dictators,
I pray they may take comfort in knowing justice is coming
for the Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

For the poor and hungry,
I pray they may experience what it means
to be filled with good things
while the rich are sent away empty.

To the one who helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
I pray with longing that all may have the joy of the Magnificat
as its promise is fulfilled with God among us.

By Monica Scheifele, Ottawa Office Program Assistant

Be encouraged

Our last blog entry for 2016 is written by Clare Maier, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Clare completed her internship just before Christmas.

For kids, some things can be hard to get through. Sitting through Math class just before recess is difficult. Waiting quietly while old people ramble before you can open your presents on Christmas morning can seem impossible. As a university student, fourth year seems insurmountable, and as an adult, it may seem impossible that the mortgage will be paid off before the kids are fully grown.

In the world of advocacy, we too get frustrated with delays and endless talk. Sometimes the solutions seems so simple and the complications so unnecessary. Sometimes groups may work for years to champion an issue or raise a concern with Canadians and with the government, only to have the government suddenly take interest, act like it was their idea in the first place, and then move in a totally different direction.

This frustration can especially be the case for Christians, people who understand the Biblical call of God to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This passage, along with many others in the Bible, makes it clear that true obedience and worship of our Saviour and Lord includes not only heart following and church-centred praise, but action stemming from our gratitude and love for God and for His people.

There are many, many ways to act justly and lovingly toward our neighbours. But my point with this reflection is not to motivate anyone to any particular type of action or advocacy. Instead, I simply want to encourage all people as they do their best to follow Jesus.

Encouragement can be especially needed during the long months of a Canadian winter, a winter which often feels like it starts in November and lasts until April, regardless of the presence of snow. As humans, we often seek the short-term goals and easy-to-grasp rewards. We sit through the six-hour car ride because we are heading home, or we work hard on a paper or food drive campaign because the goals are clear and there is a definite end in sight. We aren’t as good at just plugging away at causes that require long term commitment and where solutions are murky at best.

winter-storm

A winter storm in Charlottetown.  Photo credit/Canadian Press

Luckily, God has something to say about this need too. In Isaiah 40:28-31, God reminds us that He is the Creator of the world and He cannot and will not grow weary. He knows everything and can see the “endgame” even when we can’t and we are tempted to give up. God goes further, promising that all who wait on the LORD will “renew their strength,” soaring effortlessly like eagles and not becoming tired, discouraged or weak. This promise is extraordinary, and a great encouragement to Christians, especially those who feel like they are involved in the “front-line” of advocacy.

So, as we trudge through yet another winter, remember that as Christians and as children of the Creator, Author, and Great Protector, we don’t need to be able to see the end goal. As the prayer “A Step Along the Way” encourages us, it is not our job to bring about the success of our efforts. Our job is to “plant the seeds that one day will grow,” remembering “we are prophets of a future not our own.”

Therefore, be encouraged and rest easy this Christmas season.

Light, peace and hope shining in the darkness

We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. –Henri Nouwen

It’s almost time – Christmas time! Our period of Advent waiting is nearly finished for another year. It is a time when many churches and families are lighting candles in anticipation. It is a season where we celebrate light coming into the darkness. Our hope is arriving—in many ways it is already here!

When I was working for MCC in Bogota, Colombia I experienced the Advent season as  an explosion of light. I have never seen so many bright and flashing Christmas lights. I remember taking a cable car up Monserrate, a mountain overlooking the city, to join with thousands of others, who waited for the Christmas lights to be turned on for another season.

lights-1

Night of the Candles.Noche de las Velitas in Bogota.  Photo credit/Anna Vogt

In the midst of the often extravagant celebrations, one of the most beautiful celebrations of light in Colombia is December 7, la Noche de las Velitas —the Night of the Candles. This is an annual celebration popular across Colombia on the eve of December 8th, when the church celebrates the immaculate conception of Jesus in Mary by the Holy Spirit, and the lights guiding Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem.

Every year on December 7 Colombians meet together in parks, on balconies and in the streets, to light candles, watch them burn all the way to the end, while visiting with each other. For the next few weeks and even months the parks and sidewalks are plastered with the remnants of candles.

Then we think about this year. 2016 has been a politically intense year in Colombia, to say the least. It began with the announcement in June that a peace deal between the FARC and the government was forthcoming with the signing of a unilateral ceasefire. Across Bogota people flooded the streets in celebration. After more than 50 years of armed conflict, there was a light of peace at the end of the tunnel.

colombia-1

Angélica Rincón lights a candle for peace. Photo credit/Anna Vogt

By the end of August, officials signed a peace deal in Havana Cuba, where talks had been hosted for the past four years. At the end of September, leaders, dignitaries and delegates from Colombia and around the world gathered to watch the formal signing of the peace accords. President Santos was then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, on October 2 in a national plebiscite to officially endorse the peace accords—to everyone’s complete shock—the support of the peace deal failed by less than 0.25%, or about 60,000 votes. It was a completely devastating moment for many Colombians, to say the least. The future seemed uncertain, the peace process potentially in tatters.

Enter, once again, the candles and cries for peace. In the weeks that followed, Colombians from across the country poured out into the streets, marching, lighting candles and urging continued efforts to reach a peace agreement. Students and social activists joined together with churches and faith leaders, meeting together in Plaza Bolivar in Bogota, singing, comforting each other and calling for peace.

Eventually, by December 1, after many consultations across various parties, the Colombian Congress passed revised peace accords. The process was back on track, but not without significant opposition. And not without hardship and ongoing doubts.. But then December 7 came again—La Noche de las Velitas.

candles-in-bolivar-plaza

Candles in Bolivar Plaza. Photo credit/Anna Vogt

As I write this, I’m thinking about our advocacy work with government in Canada and around the world. I think of the ongoing challenge of working for peace and justice within imperfect systems, where people so often seem to be looking for loopholes which will benefit themselves and their own interests. Sometimes I think about the futility of this work. Even when governments are committed to peace and justice, they will never be the fulfillment of true light in the darkness.

That fulfillment comes through the Incarnate One.

During Advent and at Christmas we celebrate this one authentic hope—Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness.  And this is the reason we continue our advocacy work, despite what comes our way, praying that our efforts point to this true light.

I close with an Advent prayer from one of my favourite theologians, Henri Nouwen. I offer this prayer for Colombia, for Canada and for places where the darkness threatens to overwhelm—may peace, light and hope shine brightly.

Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

By Bekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office

A light to the nations

This week’s guest writer is Carolyne Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg. Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen serve as MCC Representatives for Jordan, Iraq and Iran and live in Amman, Jordan.

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Isaiah 42:6-7

It’s a privilege – a conflicted privilege, to be sure – to meet and visit with refugee and displaced Iraqi families who are so destitute and then to go back to our plenty. Our lives are not worth more than theirs and so we do need to step into their lives when we can.

Iraq IDP

Internally displaced persons living in Enshika camp, NW of Dohuk, Iraq, where an MCC partner distributed food rations recently.

In October we met Christian families displaced by the sudden and brutal advance into northern Iraq of the group that calls itself ISIS. These displaced families are still in shock. They are grateful to be alive. They are living in conditions they could never have imagined. They are realizing that homes, businesses, and livelihoods are gone. Their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children are, at best, uncertain.

It is here, among these displaced families, that I am learning about what it means to be a light to the nations.

The Chaldean and Syriac Catholics are a small minority in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Their faith and language (neo-Aramaic) descend not from recent missionary efforts but from the time of Jesus. They have lived peaceably with their neighbours – Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Turkman – over centuries. They want to remain in Iraq among these others to be a light. Despite decades of war and the violence and hatred it breeds, the Church wants to stay.

Carolyne and freinds

Carolyne with new friends, Christian refugees from Mosul and Nineveh, living in a church yard in Ankawa, Iraq.

Father Douglas Bazi is a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. He met us in his office in the midst of tents for displaced people on the church grounds. He is charged to meet the needs of over a hundred families. He laughed as he described his unfortunate choice of shampoo for the young ladies. Our meeting was interrupted by a boy about age 8 who came in crying. Father Douglas tenderly cleaned his scraped leg and applied a bandage. Father Douglas said, “My heart is full of pain because I am taking the trauma from the people. This is the time to show who we are (the Church); in 15-20 years I do not want to be ashamed for this time.”

Together with his church, Father Douglas wants to care for the displaced people so these Christians can stay in Iraq and be a light to the nations.

The displaced people of Iraq remind us of what is important – to be alive, to have faith. As we hear their stories, we come to realize the extent of the evil they have fled. We encounter the trauma that they are experiencing. Displaced families, of necessity, must seek out shelter, food and work. The focus of a first generation is on coping, adjusting and transition. The Chaldean Catholic Christians are being encouraged, even in these difficult times, to remember their faith and heritage. They are asked to consider their important role in the greater history of Christianity and the region. The leadership of the Chaldean church sees a calling for Christians to remain in Iraq, to live with, work beside and share with their neighbours.

Advent-2012The displaced people of Iraq remind me of my own Anabaptist history of persecution and fleeing from evil. Only a generation or two ago, my people were frightened, homeless and hungry. Now that we are safe and warm, how are we bringing light to the nations? I fear that we have not always lived up to this part of our calling. Most of us are no longer first generation newcomers. It is time to look beyond our own needs to see how we can be a light to the nations around us.

Advent is a festival of lights. We light candles for four weeks to symbolize core elements of our faith. The lights shine in the darkness of winter. As servants of God we are called to be light to the nations.