It is a confrontation between a prophet and a king. In chapter 7 of Isaiah, the future of the nation is threatened by the combined armies of Aram and Israel. According to the text, the heart of King Ahaz of Judah and those of his court officials shook like trees of a forest in a wind storm.
The prophet Isaiah makes a bold statement to the king in this moment of national crisis. “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Isa. 7.9).
I wonder how we unpack the meaning of these words in our own time. The threats we face are different in nature; terrorist violence, environmental destruction, growing inequities, water and food insecurity, the massive movement of refugees, along with a loss of confidence in governments and international institutions.
I propose that standing firm in the faith requires a stubborn commitment and a determined missional engagement based on a few basic principles:
- God establishes his rule in the chaos and messiness of the world.
- Justice will ultimately triumph over evil.
- Truth will triumph over lies, political rhetoric, and calculated propaganda.
- Mercy and love will triumph over hatred, individual self-interest, and fear.
- God continues to call people to bear witness to his kingdom and to bring healing to the wounded places of the world.
This week my friend Gary Nelson is in Lebanon for board meetings of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, The principal, Elie Haddad and his wife Mireille, fled Lebanon as refugees. As professionals in Canada, they received God’s call to return to the Middle East to help train emerging leaders. The students come from countries like Libya, Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt. Like Elie and Mireille,they go back to their homelands as pastors and church leaders to serve God’s rule in challenging contexts. I am humbled by the ways they exemplify We could learn from these young men the meaning of standing firm in faith.
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The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference took place in Winnipeg 15-18 June 2016. The calendar timing was deliberate. One year had passed since Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded with calls to action for the healing of the broken relationship between Indigenous People and Non-Indigenous People.
Former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci stated that reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples was the most important social issue of our nation. Over the past days we were invited to look at the unseemly side of our history. Treaties were designed to acquire land and then broken. A pass system restricted freedom of movement from reserves for over 60 years. Indian Residential Schools were replete with horror stories of physical beatings, sexual abuse, and childhood deaths. The sixties scoop seized First Nation’s children. Issues of inadequate housing, unsafe water, lower nutrition and health standards, and substandard education have not been addressed. There is a legacy of racism in Canada. The results have been addictions, family breakdowns, unemployment, crime and suicides. I confess that we Non-Indigenous Canadians have often talked about the symptoms while ignoring the pathology.
I left the conference encourages and moved by the discourse of First Peoples’ leaders like Ry Moran, Wab Kinew, and Cindy Blackstock. Please allow me to share a few of their statements:
- Reconciliation will take a lot of hard work. (Ry Moran)
- We have drunk the toxic poison of incremental equity. (Cindy Blackstock)
- There are rewards for silence. What has been lacking is collective outrage. (Cindy Blackstock)
- Reconciliation is powerful. (Wab Kinew)
- Each of us needs to take a look in the mirror and ask: “Have I done enough to foster reconciliation?” (Wab Kinew)
Jesus spoke about loving one’s neighbor and then illustrated it with the parable of a Samaritan who risked his life to help an unknown traveller. St. Paul wrote that God had entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to scattered churches in the Roman world (2 Cor. 5.16-21). This mission had personal and social consequences. The cross, for most people in the Roman Empire, meant that Jesus had been executed as a political prisoner. His mission of reconciliation, although not political in nature, had implications for the emperor and his empire.
I am left wondering how church communities can express repentance and work toward building new relationships based on mutual respect and justice. I am grateful that there are some examples of reconciliation that already exist that can help the rest of us to find our way.
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We are in a place where the shadows of death surround us. Two family members are writing the last lines of the final chapter of life. It is certain that death marks the end of each person’s story. No one gets a pass. In that way death is familiar. So I wonder why it seems so foreign and threatening at this moment.
A Bolivian friend, Oscar Uzin, described the process of death as a solitary walk down a long hallway. We arrive at a place where there is a door to be opened. People we have known and loved are waiting for us on the other side just as there may be loved ones gathered around us. But each person is required to take the final steps and pass through the door alone. When we are in the position of waiting beside loved ones, we feel the pain of not being able to help them and to see them pass safely through the doorway to the other side. We are forced to release them long before we are ready to loosen our grip. The sorrow of this final farewell is far more acute than any past separations.
Oscar Uzin was a Dominican priest. His metaphor captures the hope and assurance of the Christian faith. It does not take away the fear and grieving associated with those moments when we let go and commend someone to the arms of God. St. Paul offered another image when he wrote about departing to be with Christ (Philippians 1.23). He used a verb that described a ship leaving harbour. The ropes have been loosened, the sails are set, people on the dock disappear from sight, and the vessel heads for a new destination. There is a purpose to the departure; the ship will arrive at a new place when the journey is over.
I find comfort in these two images as I sit beside my father’s bed and pray for my brother-in-law in Rwanda. I think of walking to the dock and seeing the empty berths from which they have departed. I also reflect on the loneliness of those final steps they must take. I ask God to assure them that he waits beyond the door to embrace them.
St. Paul asked two questions in the form of poetry.
Where, O Death, is your victory?
Where, O Death, is your sting?
He was confident that the weak and perishable body would be raised in glory and power. I think that Paul would understand that at this time we feel that Death has robbed us of precious relationships and we are wounded by the venom of its sting. We share the apostle’s faith in the resurrection of Jesus. We look forward to that time when God wipes every tear from our eyes and we participate in the great banquet with those people we loved and lost.
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There is a narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures about a courageous woman who risks her position in a patriarchal society in order to make peace. I hope someday to hear a sermon on Abigail whose story is told in 1 Samuel 25.
There are two big men with armed followers who are at enmity with one another. The threat of violence is palpable. David has been driven into the wilderness from where he wages a guerilla campaign. Nabal is a wealthy landowner with extensive properties, flocks, and hired labor. David and his men have never raided the estates of Nabal. Moreover, they have protected them from armed groups, marauders and petty thieves that stole from local farmers.
Nabal is preparing to celebrate a feast day. David sends a few representatives to request that Nabal share his bounty with his troops. The refusal of Nabal is immediate and insulting. David orders 400 of his men to prepare for battle. He vows that all the males of Nabal’s kinship group will be put to the sword.
Abigail, Nabal’s spouse, is informed that David’s soldiers are on their way to avenge his honor. She is caught between the future king of Israel and a brutal, rude husband. As a woman, she is in a place of weakness in a patriarchal culture that lives by the sword.
Abigail’s actions are a determined response to the impending loss of life. While her husband gets drunk at the banquet, Abigail orders that food be prepared for David and his men. She goes out from her home without permission to meet David. She confesses the truth about her husband and acknowledges the honorable behavior of David’s men. She entreats forgiveness for evils in which she had neither personal participation nor responsibility. She warns David of the grief and regrets that will be caused by the lives of people on both sides that will be lost in violence.
David blesses Abigail and accepts her provisions. He recognizes that she has been God’s instrument of peace. She has kept him from blood-guilt and disproportionate vengeance. “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.”
Women play a lead role in peace making in locations of violence. Simon Gasibirege’s program of Healing Life Wounds works with victims of rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Simon believes that these women will play an important role in the healing and reconciliation of their communities and region. Their suffering and deep personal healing gives them the capacity to work as instruments of God’s peace.
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