Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
As I am writing this, I am seeing the reports about hurricane Dorian on the News. I see a report about bodies buried under the concrete sides of a church in the Bahamas. And the very first thing that comes to mind is “Where is God?” The next question that immediately comes to mind is “where was God in that horrible storm?” The same questions come to mind when we hear about the death of so many Christians in Syria.
Those are our first questions when we see disaster and tragedy but maybe we need to get beyond these moments and see more deeply.
It was more than the traditional ‘dark and stormy night.’ As the band of thunderstorms made its way across north-central Indiana, the sky took on a yellow-greenish cast that was all too familiar to a practiced eye. “This is tornado weather,” I said to the family. “If things get bad, we’ll have to move into the basement. Quickly.”
Now I was standing on the back porch watching a peculiarly dark cloud come out of the southwest about three miles away. The rain, already heavy, started to pick up its intensity as I ran upstairs to open a window in the northeast corner of the house. By the time I returned to the top of that stairway, rain was forcing its way around the frames of the old house’s windows. It sounded like a freight train was going to come right in the back door, along with the water flowing under it with the force of a fire hose.
“Get down to the basement,” I commanded and grabbed my sons. Seeing what was taking place, they didn’t have to be told twice. In an amazing action I have yet to comprehend, their mother remained on the couch, staring out through the ninety-inch windows.
“This isn’t really serious,” she said. I paused. Crying, the boys were starting to come back up the stairs to be with their mother.
“Get down here now. This is a tornado,” I said again. She didn’t budge. I shut the door to the basement, grabbing the boys as we waited in the dark, damp basement. It was over in about another 90 seconds. At least that’s what my watch said. But those ninety seconds contained an eternity.
In the calm that followed, after wiping up the water the tornado had forced into the kitchen, I looked outside to assess the damage. The tornado had jumped the house, being forced back into the air by the stand of trees that surround many midwestern farmhouses and thus also surrounded that church and parsonage.
“It was just heavy rain,” she said. Years later as our now-adult sons revisit that moment, they still marvel at their mother’s inability to take such danger seriously. I like to think this is because they went with me on the damage assessment walk through the little town. They saw the trees twisted up by the roots. They saw the gouge in the earth where the funnel had touched down. They saw what had been a confinement chicken house that windy dark finger had touched – and what was left of some twenty thousand chickens.
Life is full of moments where the deepest reservoirs of our faith and hope seem totally inadequate to confront the waves of eternity churning toward us with inexorable certainty. The doctor who, having instructed you to ‘bring your husband with you to the next appointment,’ now appears to be speaking in slow motion the words ‘the x-rays show a lump on your breast.’ The cement truck whose brakes having failed, now appears to be mercilessly unstoppable while a husband’s sport’s car seems suddenly mired in glue. A daughter who has never before missed her curfew is now three hours late – a father’s eternity to be sure! Moments such as these are ones where we would willingly trade everything, we own for a genuine mustard seed of faith! The measure of our own faith at such eternal crossroads seems utterly microscopic.
“Forget moving the mountain,” we may say. “Just brush aside this single dark sliver of fate,” we whisper with all the faith we can muster. But all too often the floodwaters continue to rise, the semi tractor-trailer careens into the school bus, and the EMTs find the son of our heart’s delight impaled upon a telephone pole. From the outside viewpoint of what Thomas Merton called The Guilty Bystander, such moments cry out for an answer to the question posed by Gordon Lightfoot in his ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: “Does anyone know / Where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
Amazingly, from the inside viewpoint of those who endure such moments, there comes the persistent report of love appearing, and sustaining grace making a surprise visit. Not every time, to be sure – this is why such visits are called ‘grace’ or ‘mercy’ after all. What distinguishes such moments is not their predictability or their frequency but the character of the Presence enfolding those horrific seconds with the beauty of eternity. Thus, in that small Indiana village there was an abiding sense of gratitude for survival.
Some twenty years later, one of those sons would undergo a challenge to life that would make that ‘dark and stormy night’ seem like child’s play. Hiking a northeast route from Sylacauga, Alabama he entered the Pinot National Forest at about the same time a vicious winter storm made its way eastward across the Deep South. Covering over twenty miles that day, with the wind mercilessly pounding his back and the trail obscured by gathering snow, several incidents of divine grace turned those hours into a lifetime of destiny.
Speaking later with me, he recounted terrible trail conditions with the usual markers completely obscured. “I finally cried out, ‘which way should I go?’ to no one in particular. A few moments later, I came to a fork in the trail. There in the mud was one of those large arrows just like you used to put in the trail when we were hiking. It was so fresh, Dad, that I was sure the person who had drawn that arrow was still around. I hollered for them. But there wasn’t anyone there.”
Night came and, with five miles to go, he pushed on to where he was sure there was a shelter. The cold froze the batteries in his flashlight. Finally, exhausted, he collapsed on the ground. “I was ready to die,” he said. “I tried to lay in the trail so that when someone came along later in the spring, they would find my body.” But then something happened. He continued, “I don’t know who – or what it was – but all night long there was something walking around my sleeping bag. I could hear it – or them.” When he finally awakened in the morning, there were no tracks on the snow.
It took him nearly an hour to open his eyes. It was then he saw that he was within yards of the shelter. “I knew I’d crossed a road last night,” he continued. “So, I thought if I got back there someone might find me.” Stumbling back along the trail he’d walked; he was shocked to see the left side of the trail was a sharp escarpment. One misstep in the darkness would have ended his life. He reached the road and collapsed again. Hearing a vehicle approaching, he wondered, “Will they run over me or pick me up?”
The elderly couple found him and took him to a nearby ranger station. They just happened to be out riding around in the Pinot National Forest the morning after what was billed as the worst snowstorm in twenty years. They didn’t leave their name. The ranger had never seen them before.
As my son told me this story, and later recounted some of it to the local newspaper, several things that happened on my end on that most stormy of nights also bear telling. These form ‘The Rest of the Story,’ as Paul Harvey would say.
I am convinced they illustrate grace within the unfolding series of events that prevented tragedy. Throughout that Monday, all the while that I sat in my office listening to the concerns of people struggling with their own distress, my son’s face seemed to ‘float’ just inside the window of my office. I found myself replaying a single song on my computer’s CD – The Nightingale. After the last client left and I shut the door to our counseling center, I pulled my sleeping bag out from the closet, undressed, put a meditative CD on my computer to play all night and turned out the lights. I had prepared to spend the night in the office because of the arrival of this storm.
Throughout that night it felt for all the world like I was lying beside him. I didn’t know what this meant at the time, but I knew that I dare not move. I later learned that the family he had stayed with in Sylacauga had also spent the night in prayer; as had their church’s youth group; as had his mother.
Theologians may argue whether what we all prayed that night was ‘petition’ or ‘lament’ or ‘intercession.’ Theologians may also wonder if that couple was just two mountain old timers too stubborn to be stopped by a little snow or his grandparents who reached from beyond their graves to complete the rescue. I only know that his father, who sometimes preaches the good news, was convinced as never before that ‘the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.’
The question is where is God? Or Where is God in this tragedy and/or Storm? The answer maybe out of our reach. However, the answer may be right here next to us.
Habakkuk is a short book, consisting of only three chapters, it is a giant in the history of the church. Its teaching laid the foundation for the apostle Paul’s understanding of justification by faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11), and thus helped shaped the Protestant Reformation. Still today it is expressive of the trust of every faithful follower of Jesus Christ.
The historical setting of the book is 609–598 B.C., when Jehoiakim ruled as king in Judah. At first a vassal of the Egyptian empire, Jehoiakim was a tyrant who subjected his people to forced labor, who persecuted the prophets, among them Jeremiah, and who sanctioned widespread injustice, syncretism, and idolatry in his realm (cf. Jeremiah’s oracle against him in Jer. 23:13–17). When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia defeated Egypt, however, in 605, Jehoiakim transferred his allegiance to that nation. The first chapter of Habakkuk mirrors the reign of Jehoiakim and the incursion of Babylonian forces.
Habakkuk differs from the other prophetic books in that it is made up not of the prophet’s preaching to his compatriots, but of an extended dialogue between the prophet and God (chap. 1) which reaches its climax in 2:1–4. Then follow an extended illustration of 2:4 in 2:6–20 and a vision of the future granted to the prophet in 3:1–16, followed by a soaring expression of faith in 3:17–19.
Our text, 1:1–4, begins with a lament by Habakkuk marked by the typical “How long, O LORD?” The key word in the passage is mishpaṭ, “justice,” which is repeated twice in verse 4 and has the comprehensive meaning of God’s order for Judean society. That order was to be established by the application of God’s Torah. But the meaning of Torah is not confined to law. Rather, it signifies the whole of Israel’s religious tradition—her laws, her cultic practices, her narratives of God’s past acts, the guidance given by priests and prophets. But life in the light of God’s words and deeds has been abandoned, and the result is chaos in Judah’s society. On every side, Habakkuk hears and sees the violent breach of God’s just order—oppression of the weak, endless litigations, quarrels and deceitful dealings, strife, destruction, in short, the total perversion of God’s intention for Judah’s life. When the righteous, that is, those who cling to God’s will for life, try to set things right, they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the evil around them, and any reformation that they accomplish is immediately distorted by the wicked.
The prophet has not been a passive observer of such perversions of God’s will, however. Repeatedly he has prayed to God to intervene and to restore his order to Judah. But it has seemed to him that God has not heard and that God will therefore not save. His cry, therefore, is “How long, O LORD?” How long will you let this evil situation continue?
In this initial lament Habakkuk is one with every faithful soul who has prayed for surcease from trouble and evil. He typifies every churchgoer who prays for peace in the world and finds only war; who prays for an end to crime and violence on city streets and reads only of assault and murder; who prays for healing beside a sickbed and is confronted with death; who prays for love in a home and finds it dissolved by anger and hatred; or who prays for emendation in a child’s life and is greeted only with rebellion. Habakkuk is like every person confronted by the question of unanswered prayer, when God has seemed to do nothing. Equally, he is like every one of us who has grown so weary with the fight against wrong in our society and world and lives. Nothing seems to do any good anymore. “The wicked surround the righteous.”
The critique of social injustice present in Habakkuk’s complaint is typical of prophetic speech, but the literary form in which that critique is expressed here is somewhat unusual. The most common form within which such a prophetic critique is delivered is the judgment speech, a two-part address drawn from the judicial sphere, in which an indictment, outlining the people’s sins, is followed by a sentence, prescribing punishment for them (e.g., Isa 5:8–10; Amos 1:3–5; 2:6–16). In a judgment speech, the prophet assumes the role of the court messenger or herald, delivering to the public the verdict of the presiding judge: a list of sins for which the defendant has been found guilty, followed by the sentence imposed by the judge on their account. In such a literary form, the prophet adopts God’s perspective on the world, indicting injustice, proclaiming its punishment, and affirming divine rule with all of the authority, power, and certainty of the heavenly court.
Habakkuk, however, has selected the opening stanzas of a lament with which to describe the injustices of Judean society. It is a fateful choice. In doing so, Habakkuk has abandoned the divine perspective common in prophetic discourse and has assumed instead the role of the victim whose case has not been redressed by divine intervention and who can only appeal to God for aid in a prayer of lamentation. In such a literary context, the abuses in Judean society are viewed not as crimes already judged but as injustices that have gone unseen and unpunished. God’s administration of justice in the world is immediately posed as a problem rather than assumed as a certainty. Habakkuk’s first sentence, his address to God, which begins his lament, drives the point home. With his opening words, Habakkuk accuses God directly of being inattentive and inactive.
Two key traits of biblical religion are embedded in Habakkuk’s opening lament: the concern for social justice and the willingness to argue with God. 1. One of the great legacies of the prophetic movement, reflected clearly in Habakkuk’s opening critique of Judean society, is its absolute commitment to social justice. Authentic religion, according to the prophets, was not merely a matter of personal spirituality or of the ritual activity of worship. It required a public dedication to principles of fairness and equity in political, judicial, and economic life. Habakkuk’s central theological concerns involve public affairs often relegated today to the secular world: the inequities in the judicial system, the economic exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, the breakdown of social order. Habakkuk considered these “secular,” social affairs to be those in which God held Judah primarily responsible for its ethical behavior.
Moreover, the prophets demanded such standards of fairness and equity especially of those who wielded political and economic power: Israel’s kings, priests, judges, and its wealthiest citizens. When social unrest increases, it is easy for a society to blame its poor, who are often disproportionately involved in crime and in prison populations. It requires much more courage to hold accountable, as did Habakkuk, society’s elite and powerful figures and organizations, who customarily protect the privileged and institutionalize the disparity between rich and poor. In the eyes of Israel’s prophets, the real cause of social conflict was to be placed, not at the feet of the poor, but in the corridors of power, where the policies that structure a society, in just or unjust ways, are formulated and executed.
Prophets such as Habakkuk provided one of the strongest and most persuasive critiques of the abuse of power and one of the clearest defenses of the underprivileged and the marginalized that is to be found in Western literature. On the contemporary scene, this prophetic concern is represented powerfully by liberation theologians. Living in countries whose populations have been exploited by oppressive regimes, such theologians have recognized clearly the real political implications of the prophetic concern for social justice. “The God of the Bible,” asserts the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, “is a God who takes sides with the poor and liberates them from slavery and oppression.” James Cone, an African American theologian, makes a similar claim: “The doing of theology, on the basis of the revelation of Yahweh, must involve the politics which takes its stand with the poor and against the rich.”11
2. The other trait of biblical religion prominent in Habakkuk’s opening speech is his argument with God. Having taken his stand with the victims of injustice, Habakkuk is prepared to defend their cause, even to the point of questioning God’s handling of their case. Such a direct challenge to God arises out of a tradition of arguing with God, much more prominent in the OT than in the NT.
The reason for Habakkuk’s argument is the discrepancy he faces—spelled out clearly already in his opening lament—between belief in a just God and the experience of an unjust world. In Habakkuk’s eyes, the divine judge appears either uninterested or unable to do justice in the world. This problem, the problem of theodicy, has been put in no simpler and starker terms than it was put by Nickles in Archibald MacLeish’s adaptation of Job, J.B.:
If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God.
If God is really God—in control of the world—God cannot be good or just and also allow injustice and suffering to exist and to endure. If God is really good and just, God cannot be in control of such a corrupt world.
The religious person may confront such a crisis as urgently in private and personal tragedies as in massive social catastrophes. It is the problem Habakkuk faced by the miscarriage of justice under Jehoiakim’s administration in the final days of the Davidic dynasty. It is the basis of his argument with God, an argument taken up in one form or another, privately or publicly, by every believer who experiences firsthand the pain of oppression or the suffering of the innocent.
(Hiebert, T. The Book of Habakkuk. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 7, p 630–33)
Verses 5 and 6 tell us that faith is the greatest force in the world. We must again remember that it was the custom in this part of the world to use language in the most vivid way. This saying means that even that which looks completely impossible becomes possible, if it is approached with faith. We have only to think of the number of scientific marvels, of the number of surgical operations, of the feats of endurance which today have been achieved and which not so very long ago would have been regarded as utterly impossible. If we approach a thing saying, ‘It can’t be done,’ it will not; if we approach it saying, ‘It must be done,’ the chances are that it will. We must always remember that we approach no task alone, but that with us there is God and all his power.
Verses 7–10 tell us that we can never put God in our debt and can never have any claim on him. When we have done our best, we have done only our duty; and those who have done their duty have done only what, in any event, they could be compelled to do. As Isaac Watts wrote in that wonderful hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’:
Were the whole realm of Nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
It may be possible to satisfy the claims of law; but every lover knows that nothing can ever satisfy the claims of love.(Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p256–257)
Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples realize in verse 5 that all this will require more faith than they think they have. Jesus is quick to respond. It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peephole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of. Of course, this cannot be used for your own whim or pleasure; as soon as you tried, it would show that you’d forgotten, once more, who this God really was. Humility once again.
Finally, the shocking lesson that all we do, even the hard work we do for God, never for a moment puts God in our debt. How often do we hear it said (and how many more times is it thought): I’ve done all this, I’ve given all that money, I’ve worked so hard—surely God will be satisfied with that? The answer is that all genuine service to God is done from gratitude, not to earn anything at all. Saying ‘We’re not worth anything at all’ doesn’t mean that we lack a proper sense of self-worth and self-love. It just means that we must constantly remind ourselves of the great truth: we can never put God in our debt. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] p204)
The question is simple and very Biblical. How do we understand God in terms of the many disasters we face as a people, nation and world? The answer is equally simple. We just need to pay close attention. God’s mercy and love breaks out again and again it just sometimes does not get included on the news. The real truth is that we as human beings often edit out God’s wonderful love during these tragic moments in our lives and our nation’s life. Maybe we should stay more tuned in not to the national or even local news but to God’s news.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Hurricane Dorian's death toll in the Bahamas climbed to 50 on Monday as more deaths were reported from the storm that plowed through the country last week, officials said.
Health Minister Duane Sands confirmed the latest death count, up from 44 on Sunday, to NBC News.
Forty-two bodies have been found in Abaco and eight recovered on Grand Bahama, said Anthony Ferguson, commissioner of Royal Bahamas Police Force.
Thousands of people remain missing, and relief efforts were underway on the battered islands.
"The situation is pretty dire here," college student Kristoff Strachan on Grand Bahama said by phone over the weekend. "It's just a lot of people trying to get out."
Rescue workers were going door to door and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters were evacuating critically injured residents.
A Bahamas cruise ship ferried more than 1,100 Bahamians to the United States, and Customs and Border Protection delivered food and water by helicopter. The U.S. president on Monday dismissed the idea of allowing Bahamians into the U.S. after the storm, not long after the acting CBP chief said it was worth considering.
On Great Abaco, the storm's devastation was evident in wrecked boats, flattened homes and downed power lines.
At an airport in Marsh Harbor, dozens of Haitian refugees were boarding a Delta flight to the Bahamas capital, Nassau, on Sunday morning. Many had fled their native island after the 2010 earthquake, settling in a hard-hit Marsh Harbor neighborhood known as “the Mudd.”
“These clothes on me — that’s all I have,” one migrant, Joseph Farine, 69, told NBC News. “Everything’s gone.”
The slow-moving Category 5 storm had 185 mph maximum sustained winds, gusts that topped 200 mph and a storm surge that reached nearly two-dozen feet.
The most powerful hurricane on record to strike the Bahamas, Dorian made a direct hit on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama.
At 76, disabled, with half the roof of her Grand Bahama home blown off and facing the prospect of months without electricity, Myrtle Cartwright decided she had to leave.
Ms. Cartwright escaped in luxury: On Friday, she boarded Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration with about 1,200 other Hurricane Dorian survivors and headed for Palm Beach, Fla. She had her own handicap-accessible cabin.
“They even had a medical attendant come and see if I was O.K., because I have hypertension,” Ms. Cartwright said. “Someone had a heart attack on the ship and a helicopter took them off the ship at 12 o’clock at night to the hospital. If they were at Freeport, they would not have made it.”
The Grand Celebration was the first to dock at the Grand Bahama port last week, and the ship arrived packed with doctors and nurses. Bahamas Paradise only sails to the Bahamas, and so company officials decided that instead of sidelining its ships and waiting for better times, it would launch a humanitarian mission to help the thousands of people forced from their homes who lacked food and running water.
Bahamas Paradise joined Royal Caribbean, Disney, Norwegian and Carnival and other cruise companies in providing among the most robust corporate responses to Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm and has so far killed at least 50 people and wrecked thousands of homes on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands.
The efforts are notable because the cruise companies have long had a contentious relationship with the Bahamas, replete with protests over their impact on the islands from activist groups — and in some cases, checkered environmental legacies. Now, Royal Caribbean is serving 20,000 meals a day and helping shuttle people off Grand Bahama to Nassau, and Carnival is spending $1 million on medical supplies. But some industry critics argue that they should do even more to help a country that brings them billions of dollars a year. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/travel/bahamas-hurricane-dorian-cruise-lines.html)
The persecution of Christians by ISIL involves the systematic mass murder of Christian minorities, within its region of control in Iraq, Syria and Libya by the Islamic extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Persecution of Christian minorities climaxed following its takeover of parts of Northern Iraq in June 2014.
According to US diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez, "While the majority of victims in the conflict raging in Syria and Iraq have been Muslims, Christians have borne a heavy burden given their small numbers."
On February 3, 2016, the European Union recognized the persecution of Christians by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as genocide. The vote was unanimous. The United States followed suit on March 15, 2016, declaring these atrocities as genocide. The vote was unanimous. On April 20, 2016, British Parliament voted unanimously to denounce the actions as genocide. A similar motion however failed in Canada when it was opposed by the majority of MP's in Justin Trudeau's Liberal government.
After the fall of Mosul, ISIL demanded that Assyrian Christians living in the city convert to Islam, pay jizyah, or face execution, by July 19, 2014. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi further noted that Christians who do not agree to follow those terms must "leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate" within a specified deadline. This resulted in a complete Assyrian Christian exodus from Mosul, marking the end of 1,800 years of continuous Christian presence. A church mass was not held in Mosul for the first time in 1,800 years.
ISIL has already set similar rules for Christians living in other cities and towns, including its de facto capital Raqqa. However, on 29 March 2016, ISIL issued a decree preventing Christians from leaving Raqqa. ISIL had also been seen marking Christian homes with the letter nūn for Nassarah ("Christian"). Several religious buildings were seized and subsequently demolished, most notably Mar Behnam Monastery.
By August 7, ISIL captured the primarily Assyrian towns of Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe, Bartella, and Karamlish, prompting the residents to flee. More than 100,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes and leave all their property behind after ISIL invaded Qaraqosh and surrounding towns in the Nineveh Plains Province of Iraq.
In early November 2014, a "price list" for Yazidi and Christian females surfaced online. While a human rights NGO Defend International immediately verified the document's authenticity, UN official Zainab Bangura didn't confirm it to be genuine until August 2015.
The civil war that raged from 2011 caused at least 470,000 deaths and gave rise to 7.6 internally displaced people and over 5 million refugees, many of them in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Over a million Christians have fled the country or are internally displaced as a result of the civil war, and many others have been raped, tortured, kidnapped for ransom and killed.
The civil war grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement. Syrians began to protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party government and to demand the release of political prisoners, and in March 2011 troops were ordered to fire on protestors. The ensuing unrest led to the development of an armed opposition that grew into a coalition of rebels trying to overthrow the government, including foreign Muslim extremists who flooded into Syria to join the fight.
The majority of Syria’s Muslim population is Sunni, but President Assad and his supporters are Alawites, members of a Shi’ite sect that makes up only 12% of Syria’s population. Alawites are influential in the army and government.
Christians in Syria
The Syrian church dates back to New Testament times. Before the civil war, Syria was one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian and while there was some discrimination (for instance in connection with housing and employment) and some emigration, Syrian Christians enjoyed relative freedom and stability, were prosperous, had good relations with Muslims and were respected in society. They were allowed to worship and practise their faith without much official interference, and although meetings were monitored, Christian literature was freely available. The Christian population was concentrated in cities, especially Damascus, and consisted mainly of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but there was also a small Protestant church.
During the civil war, Christians were particularly affected in areas under the control of extremist Islamists who viewed them as an obstacle to a Sharia-governed country. In these areas, widespread violence included attacks on Christians, their property and church buildings. Some historic churches were demolished or turned into Islamic centres and militants kidnapped several Christian leaders for political purposes or financial gain. Some Christians who were killed in the civil war were martyred for their faith. The Christian quarter of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was bombarded for months on end and the Christian population of the city dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000.
The UN estimates that of the 1.8 million Christians living in Syria before the war only 600,000 – 900,000 remain. Almost the entire Christian population of some cities has fled. The Christian population of Homs, a city particularly badly affected by the war, declined from at least 60,000 to fewer than 1,000. Aleppo, on the front line of fighting between the government, rebel forces and Islamic State for much of the war, had one of the largest pre-war Christian populations in Syria, but it dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000 Christians.
In August 2015, Islamic State militants captured Qaratayn in Homs Governorate, took over two hundred Christians hostage and murdered 21 of the three hundred Christians trapped in the city. Some hostages were taken to Raqqa in northern Syria, Islamic State’s de facto capital; many were ransomed by their families. The ruined city of Qaratayn was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces in April 2016 and Raqqa was retaken in November 2017, as Islamic State militants were pushed out of the large swathes of territory they had taken in Iraq and Syria. Some of the terrorists reportedly dispersed into the Syrian countryside, while others are believed to have escaped into Turkey.
On 23 March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces declared territorial defeat of Islamic State after taking the terrorists’ last piece of territory in the Middle East, the town of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. Thousands of captives remain missing, however, and pockets of IS fighters remain a threat throughout Syria and Iraq. The caliphate leaves a legacy of instability and destruction, with Syrians facing food shortages, lack of employment and ruined infrastructure.
With conditions in Syria so difficult and the future uncertain, refugees are hesitant to return. Many of them have ended up living in squalid and dangerous conditions, often trafficked by brutal, extortionist smugglers. Church leaders in Lebanon and Turkey have been overwhelmed by the numbers of Christian refugees looking for food and shelter, while Christians in official refugee camps face violence from extremist Muslims in the camps.
Two bishops kidnapped on 22 April 2013 in the village of Kfar Dael in northwestern Syria are still missing. Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox bishop Boulos Yaziji were on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests abducted on 9 February (Michel Kayyal of the Armenian Catholic church and Mahar Mahfouz of the Greek Orthodox church) when their car was intercepted, and their driver was shot dead. The identity of the kidnappers has never been established.
Why were Christians targeted?
Christians were targeted by Islamist opposition factions that wanted Syria to become a Sunni Muslim state, notably Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Such extremists adopted the slogan “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut”.
Christians were widely believed by the opposition to be supporters of President Assad, since they enjoyed relative freedom and security under the rule of the secular Baath party (which many Christians joined). The Baath party and other secular parties suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists. The belief that Christians were pro-government meant they were very vulnerable in areas controlled by opposition groups. Furthermore, many radical fundamentalists come from poor rural communities and urban slums and targeted Christians because of their perceived prosperity. (https://www.churchinchains.ie/country-profiles/country-profile-syria/)
In many churches, around this Sunday we celebrate World Communion Sunday. So often when American Christians interact with partner Christians in the third world, we want to do something to help them. And often our help is needed. But sometimes what is most helpful is to do nothing, but simply to sit and listen and weep with those who weep. After the first Gulf War, I sat in the nation of Jordan with Christian refugees from Iraq, many of whom had been wounded or lost family members in the fighting. When we asked them how we could help, they simply asked that we hear their stories and tell them to others, and that we might pray for them. It seemed too little a thing for us to do, but for them it was precisely what brothers and sisters in Christ should do for one another.
A mother waited for her child outside a kindergarten classroom, confused because as all the children exited, her child still had not come. Going into the school, the mother found her child walking to the door with a friend. Slightly irritated, the mother asked what they had been doing. Her child explained that the friend had a beloved doll which had been broken. “Oh,” the mother responded, “so you were helping her fix it?” “No,” the child replied, “I was helping her cry.”
Rather than feeling helpless in the face of the tragedies and trials that face us, we are to look with hope to God. Back during the 1960s a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania by the name of Martin Seligman identified the phenomenon which has become known as “learned helplessness.” In an experiment, he took a group of dogs and gave them slight electric shocks. No matter what the dogs did, they would keep getting shocked. For the next phase of the experiment, Seligman placed another set of dogs into an area where it was possible for the dogs to learn how to avoid the shocks. The area where the dogs were placed had a small, low wall in the middle of it. If the dogs jumped over that wall, the shocks stopped. Within a few minutes those new dogs learned what to do to stop the shocks. But when that first set of dogs, which had been shocked at random, were placed in with those other dogs, those dogs did not even attempt to jump over the wall. Even when they saw the other dogs jumping over the wall, and even when they saw that the shocks were stopping for those other dogs, that first group of dogs did not even attempt to follow suit. Apparently their past experience had taught them to become helpless. They had learned that they were powerless to bring an end to their suffering no matter what they might do. Therefore, they didn’t even try.
The typical newspaper is a form of lamentation almost every day. In various ways the news reports lament and bemoan the countless tragedies that occur throughout our world on a daily basis. According to Reuters (12/24/03), Germany’s top-selling newspaper decided to forego the bad news for a day. On Christmas Eve last year Das Bild had the following headline in two-inch high letters: “There’s only good news today.” Usually the newspaper’s headlines feature announcements about sex scandals, murders, and corruption. But in order to help German citizens get into the holiday spirit, the editors decided to focus on the good news for a change. The stories that day included the fact that many churches were full for Christmas services, an earthquake in California had spared San Francisco, the stock market was up, and government leaders promised big tax cuts. Usually the paper ran a feature called “the loser of the day.” In its place, Das Bild ran a piece called “the winner of the day.” The paper even managed to put a positive spin on a story about a Berlin celebrity who was divorcing by saying, “Great news, Djamila Rowe is single again.”
Although we pray to God to protect us from evil, governments around the world are taking more steps to prevent sinister acts from happening. According to National Geographic (November 2003), Great Britain began installing closed-circuit television camera on streets and in parks, train stations, and shopping areas in the 1970s and 80s. Starting in the 1990s, repeated attacks by the Irish Republican Army led to a rapid proliferation of the cameras in an attempt to spot and deter would-be terrorists. Now Britain has more than four million such cameras positioned throughout their nation, about one camera for every fifteen people. It is estimated that the average visitor to London is captured on video about 300 times a day.
When disaster strikes, we often attempt to make sense out of it. We try to offer some explanation as to why such a tragedy was permitted to occur. The Christian Broadcasting Network (6/26/03) told viewers that it was no coincidence that the Bush administration’s April and May announcements to support a separate Palestinian state were followed by the worst months of tornados in American history. Within eight days, 375 twisters had touched down. The Christian Broadcasting Network declared that God was punishing the United States for “supporting the biblically unthinkable division of Israel.”
When tragedies occur, we often look for someone to blame. Christian Century (8/9/03) recounted a traditional Jewish tale: Moshe was nearing death. He was extremely old, and he had seen much suffering during his days. Golda, his wife, sat on the edge of his bed and wiped his forehead. They had been married for more than 70 years. Moshe looked at his wife and said, “Golda, do you remember the horrible pogrom in our village in 1905?” She replied, “Of course I do. I was right there with you.” “Do you remember when the Communists beat me up in 1918? Were you with me then?” Golda answered, “Certainly I was with you.” “Were you with me in the Lemberg ghetto?” “Yes, dear, I have always been with you.” Moshe lay silently for a few moments and then looked at his wife and said, “Boy, Golda, you’ve been bad luck for me.”
We don’t necessarily like thinking about disasters befalling us. But at times it is important to consider such eventualities in order to prepare for them. According to the Washington Post (4/23/04), the House of Representatives passed a measure that would ensure that the Congress could continue to operate even in the event of a terrorist attack. The bill passed by a vote of 306-97, requiring states to hold special elections within 45 days if the Speaker of the House certifies that at least 100 members of Congress have been killed in a catastrophic event. The bill was partially in response to the belief that the hijacked United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania was intending to strike the Capitol. Legislators are concerned that if too many lawmakers are suddenly killed, the House or Senate may be left without a quorum and unable to provide national leadership at a time when it might be most needed. Congress had previously debated such a measure back during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s but never acted on it.
One of the purposes of lamenting is to provide an opportunity for people to express the hurt and the anger they feel. Unfortunately many feel that they don’t have an outlet for such expression. According to Reuters (5/5/04), a fellow in Maine is seeking to solve that problem. Philip Doyen has established “Vent-Line.” It’s a number that people can call and for $1.99 per minute people can rant and rave about whatever is troubling them. Doyen says that in an average week he receives between ten and twenty calls.
The passage in Lamentations bewails what happens when violence in one society is unleashed against another society. In that particular case, it was the Babylonians unleashing their violence against the Israelites. Research indicates that certain beings have insatiable urges to vent their aggression, and they are not content until they find some victim to unleash their wrath against. In On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz observes that a certain species of fish, if deprived of its natural enemies (the male rivals with whom it continually fights over territorial rights), turns its aggression against members of its own family and destroys them.
In a time of tragedy, fear is one of the greatest problems that has to be addressed. In 1994 Pope John Paul II published a best-selling book called Crossing the Threshold of Hope. On the back cover, where usually you find laudatory blurbs written by fellow authors or specialists in the field, three words appeared. They were inscribed in the pope’s own handwriting: “Be not afraid!”
Why does God permit evil? That is an underlying theme in Lamentations. In Evil: An Investigation, Lance Morrow offers his take on the question of theodicy—the mystery of why a good God permits evil in the world. He contends, “Evil is our greatest and perhaps our only effective instructor....Evil, in some strange way, is what keeps us in motion toward the unseen destination....If we were perfected, then we would be motionless at last, and so would God.”
Joan of Arcadia is a delightful TV series in which God appears frequently to a high school girl to call her forth to a mission. Joan almost always resists because the task seems either too difficult or makes no sense. She is told to destroy her boyfriend Adam’s art project that is the pride of the school art show, or to build a boat. She tries to refuse or to dodge, but God persistently keeps after her, appearing in a wide variety of guises—a teacher or student, a little girl, a sanitation worker on a garbage truck or a street sweeper, an old woman or a homeless person. When she finally does carry out her mission, wonderful things happen that would not have if she had refused or failed. At such times she understands that there had been an overall plan that she could not see. She feels good then, and tells God so. God seldom praises her, but is always back the next time to give her another task. Sometimes she complains that she has done enough, that God should not expect so much of her, but like the master in Jesus’ parable, God brushes this aside and asks her to get on with the new task.
Now that the musical stage version of Alan Paton’s great novel Cry, the Beloved Country is available on video (entitled Lost in the Stars), we can see and hear how its tone is similar to that of Jeremiah’s lamentations. Set at the beginning of apartheid in the late 1940’s, it is the story of an anguished father’s search for his son, ending in a prison and a courtroom where the son is sentenced to death for killing a white man. Anglican Pastor Stephen Kumalo, apprehensive because no word has been heard from his son for a long time, leaves his little church near the village of Ndotsheni to make the long trek to Johannesburg where his son Absalom had gone seeking work in the mines. Finding no work, the young man had fallen in with a bad crowd seeking an easy living by burglarizing white homes while their occupants were away. They had miscalculated in the case of Arthur Jarvis, who had been home the night of the break-in. In a panic when the white man discovers them in his home, Absalom had unintentionally shot Jarvis. Although all the gang was caught, Absalom was the only one willing to admit his guilt, the others lying and thus going free. Ashamed of his recent past, Absalom wanted to return to the ways of his father, a path which both lifted and shattered the spirit of Stephen. After the judge pronounces the death sentence the chorus breaks forth in Kurt Weill’s hauntingly beautiful song:
“Cry, the beloved Country,
Cry the beloved land,
the wasted childhood,
the wasted youth,
the wasted man!”
The novel and the play had begin with a poetic description of the beauty of the highlands where the white landowners dwelt, and then of the wasted lower lands, denuded of trees, its soil almost worn out, and its young men gone away in a vain search for a better life in the mines and factories of the white man. The lamentation that is “Cry the Beloved Country” continues with the lament for the broken tribes and the injustice of the white man’s rule, ending with the cry for “the unborn son” who should expect little in the present world of wrong. Interspersed are scenes of Absalom in prison with his father presiding at the marriage of his lover so that their unborn son would have a family name.
To what extent is gambling consistent with good stewardship? That question certainly came to the forefront last year when it was revealed that Bill Bennett had gambled and lost millions of dollars during the past decade. The former cabinet member had “preferred customer” status at four Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos, where he lost more than $8 million. When questioned about his betting, Bennett indicated that his winnings during that time period nearly equaled his losses. He added, “I’ve gambled all my life and it’s never been a moral issue for me.” During this time of year when many congregations give special consideration to the theme of stewardship, it would be helpful to lead people in a moral consideration of gambling. The need for such discourse is great considering the fact that 82% of adult Americans say they have gambled in the past twelve months, according to the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo. In 1975, only 61% of Americans said they gambled. Of the various forms of gambling, the most common is buying state lottery tickets. The greatest total amount of money, though, is wagered in casinos.
Although the average American household experienced a 16% increase in income between 1970 and 1999, after being adjusted for inflation, the number of people who described themselves as being “very happy” declined from 36% to 29%.
“What happens in the next twenty years with the 2.8 billion people whose average income is $2 a day or less will say a lot about the moral quality of our generation’s Christians—and our generation of human beings.” (Michael Novak)
“Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” (Andrew Carnegie)
“If a person gets his attitude toward money straight, it will help straighten out almost every other area in his life.” (Billy Graham)
“Riches are not forbidden, but the pride of them is.” (John Chrysostom)
“Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.” (Thomas Jefferson)
“What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.” (Wendell Phillips)
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” (Martha Washington)
“A strong positive mental attitude will create more miracles than any wonder drug.” (Patricia Neal)
“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” (William James)
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.” (William James)
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” (Abraham Lincoln), Lincoln’s Own Stories)
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” (Abraham Lincoln)
“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
“Personality can open doors, but only character can keep them open.” (Elmer G. Letterman)
“In attempts to improve your character, know what is in your power and what is beyond it.” (Francis Thompson)
“It is the fire of suffering that brings forth the gold of godliness.” (Madame Guyon)
“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” (William Barclay)
“In every pang that rends the heart, the Man of Sorrows has a part.” (Michael Bruce)
“We are healed of grief only when we express it to the full.” (Charles Swindoll)
“We should be thankful for our tears; they prepare us for a clearer vision of God.” (William Arthur Ward)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases!
People: His mercies never come to an end!
Leader: The Lord is my portion, and I will hope in Him.
People: The Lord is good to those who wait for Him.
Loving God, we confess that we don’t want to wait for you and your will. We pray for something once and turn away from you if you don’t give it to us immediately. We seek other ways of getting what we want when we want it. Forgive us, Lord, and grant us your peace. Teach us to wait quietly for you, serving each other and abiding with each other in hope. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We bring you these gifts, O Lord, of our lives and our labors. Use these offerings to the glory of your will and teach us how to be Christ to one another in our own lives this day and every day. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
God of Glory and Might, we thank you for your beautiful creation. As summer has turned to fall, we are reminded that in order for their to be rebirth, there must also be death. In order for resurrection, there had to be crucifixion. We thank you for our changing seasons in your creation and for the seasons in our lives.
We pray this day for our brothers and sisters around the world. Bless those who are are all too familiar with the gunfire and heartache of war. Be with those who are hungry or sick or impoverished and cleanse our eyes so that we may respond to those in need, knowing that even those whom we might call enemies are still your children.
We pray for our nation, our community, and our church. We pray for those who are healthy and those who are ill in mind, body, or spirit. Bring your healing presence upon those who are suffering. We pray for those in our own congregation today who need your special touch. Help us to be Christ to one another, caring for and serving one another as Christ did for those around him. Unify our hearts so that together we may serve you. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.