Tag Archives: love

Loving the Unlovable

Hi, my name is Victoria and this is my first post on The GWBlog. I will briefly introduce myself and my interests, then talk about something God has been teaching me recently.

I recently graduated from Princeton University (2015) with a major in Comparative Literature and a love for languages, culture, and teaching. I am currently working for a year as a full-time English teacher at a middle school in South Korea, and am planning to return to the US next year to continue teaching. On this blog, I will probably mostly be writing about teaching, education in general, living in Korea (or wherever the Lord leads in the future), traveling, and learning about new cultures and languages.

Today I want to share about one of the main struggles I have faced since coming to Korea and beginning my first real year of teaching. This struggle is, perhaps unsurprisingly, uncooperative students. There is a variety of reasons for students being uncooperative, though in my classes I have gathered that the main reason is usually a dislike of English or of school in general, and occasionally a lack of respect for me as the “foreign teacher.” It is very hard to deal with students who refuse to learn, especially when their negative attitudes affect the students around them. I have also found it very difficult not to take things personally. This is not my first time encountering uncooperative students; I have met the odd one or two in summer camps in the past as well. However, uncooperative behavior definitely occurs more regularly during the full-time school year. Furthermore, I have to see–and attempt to teach–them every week for a year, and not just for ten days.

My struggle has been not only how to teach them, but how to love them. I dreamed of becoming a middle school teacher because I wanted to share God’s love with those who are the least loved. In the past year, nine out of ten times when I have told someone (no matter how old they were or what career they had chosen) that I wanted to teach in a middle school, I have gotten a mixture of surprise, disgust, and/or awe in response. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” and “You’re a saint!” have been some of the most common reactions, because nobody wants to teach middle schoolers. They’re too old to be cute and not mature enough to act like adults. They’re confused, emotional, irresponsible, and likely to be rebellious and disrespectful. I have a longer rationale for why I want to teach MS, but for now let’s just remember that Jesus came to love and care for the least, the trampled, the rejected. I believe that we are called to do the same, at whatever cost to our comfort and pride.

Of course, as I began to actually teach at my middle school, I struggled with my natural gut reactions against those students who were exactly what most people fear, and whom I needed to love the most. I knew deep down that those disruptive, sleeping, whining, or simply rude students were probably in need of more love than those I was tempted to favor (the best students, the kind, sweet, hardworking and helpful ones), but I didn’t know how to do it. I couldn’t do it on my own strength. I am not, in fact, a saint.

Recently I have been reading Pastor Timothy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage. Of course, this book is primarily about marriage, but it is applicable to most, if not all, of our relationships; human relationships are all meant to reflect our relationship with God, with marriage simply being one of the strongest examples. One of the chapters talks about love as an action and not a feeling. In order to truly love someone, we often have to perform loving actions even if we don’t feel affectionate. More often than not, the feelings follow the actions, though our culture tends to tell us that it has to be the other way around.

I think this is true in our everyday relationships, not just romantic ones, and especially good to think about as a teacher faced with unlovable students. How do I love these unlovable students even when I don’t feel like it? The answer seemed to be: act like you love them. Say hello in the hallway when you see them. Wave and intentionally smile more, especially at the ones you are tempted to ignore because they ignore you. Learn their names and use them often. Praise them for the littlest things.

On the other hand, sometimes loving also means doing what’s best for them, not always just smiling and being nice. I still stand by the in-class discipline measures I have stated, and call out their behavior and take away their stickers when necessary. At the same time I make an effort to continue to greet them with a smile and by name when I see them in the halls, regardless of how they were in class earlier.

A few weeks ago, I started to practice loving my students in this way, and I have really begun to notice change in their attitudes, albeit slowly. There have been minor breakthroughs, like going from being purposely ignored to getting a little wave in the hallways, or an occasional willingness to raise their hands in class. I find myself even liking them sometimes and thinking of them as (kind of) cute, though I’m still exasperated by their in-class behavior most of the time.

Keeping up this attitude of love without expecting anything back is really difficult, so I constantly have to remind myself that we love because God loved us first. As Timothy Keller said, it was not because we were so lovable or sweet or kind that God loved us and died for us. The image Keller used to make this point was very poignant; it was that of Christ dying on the cross, rejected, betrayed, belittled and suffering unimaginable physical and emotional pain–yet choosing to stay for the very people who were hurting him. He chose to love, acted in love even when it must have been impossible to feel loving. He did this so that we might one day recognize His love and thereby become loved, lovable, and in turn loving as well.

I hope this post encourages you to think about the unlovable people in your life (sometimes colleagues, classmates, or even close friends and family members) and how you might love them in action even when the feelings of affection are lacking–because that is the true love that Christ showed us and has given us the privilege to emulate.

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Separation and Cosmic Love in the Tesseract

When you love someone, whether that someone is a child, parent, friend, or spouse, suffering will sometimes come in spurts, other times all at once, but it is a raw, inevitable reality. And needless to say, an obvious cause for suffering is explicit harm that hurts the lover or the beloved. I do not make light of that kind of suffering, especially when patterns of abuse and co-dependence trap two people in a stasis that only the grace, love, and forgiveness of God can break. However, and in my 27 short years that I’ve walked this beautiful, broken world, I am led to believe that separation from one’s beloved is a much deeper suffering—often plunging both the lover and beloved into a pit of despair and irresolution.

Yet, the Judeo-Christian story should at least give us pause and ideally a living hope on which we can stand and from which we can stare brokenness and separation in the face and shout, “You will not have the last word; this is not the end!” Across the pages of Scripture, an epic drama unfolds in which we encounter a loving Creator God who relentlessly pursues His beloved to minimize the cosmic separation created by the beloved’s chronic unfaithfulness—ultimately at the cost of Himself being beaten and brutally executed on a Roman cross. That first Good Friday was anything but good, for the very Tri-unity of God was cosmically and violently ripped, with the Father and the Son experiencing a harsh separation infinitely more intense than we can ever fathom.

With this in mind, I cannot help but think that God cannot and will not sit idly by as the separation between Himself (lover) and fallen humanity (beloved) dis-integrates into chaos, apparently sealed by the finality of death. With God Himself being a relation of three Persons, any ruptures in the relationality of the Universe must go against His very nature and His intentions for this Universe to reflect the inherent relational nature of his being. So, what is God’s answer to reconciling humanity to Himself and people to one another?

Love.

Specifically, the incarnate love in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel accounts there are events and utterances that repeatedly shock us with the radical, inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrative example of love than Jesus’s reaction to the death of Lazarus. It was haunting, beautiful, and so…human:

“….Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the others with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said.

Jesus wept. [And they] said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

-The Gospel of St. John

The combined anger and heart-rending pain Jesus expresses here is not only a signal of how much He loved Lazarus, but also of how much this death-induced separation is an affront to the Ever Living God, in whom every creature lives, moves and has being. We know that despite the grief and loss that was keenly felt by Lazarus’s family, friends, and Jesus Himself, that is not the end of the story. Christ, in the privileged position of having both human and divine natures, was and is not limited by the patterns and constraints of biological and physical laws, to which any other human being must accept and succumb. Fueled by his deep love for Lazarus and the goodness of life, Jesus resurrects him from the cold, lifeless abyss of death. This kind of love has true power, power to effect changes in our spatio-temporal realm because it points to the God of Love, who, in and through Jesus “upholds the Universe with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

*          *          *

Where else do we see this kind of love that is cosmic in scope, yet so real and palpable as once-dead human flesh that has been revitalized and restored? Funnily, I think we get a picture of it in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Nolan paints a not-so-distant, future earth where most natural resources have been exhausted and the surviving humans lead a frugal, fearful existence marked by a “just get by” mentality. Humanity’s days are numbered, at least on earth. The protagonist, Cooper, along with a team of scientists leave our solar system to probe the feasibility of colonizing other worlds. Their precise mission is incredibly daunting: after a two-year journey from earth to Saturn, a wormhole will take them to a distant star system where there are several candidate planets. One catch is these planets are proximal to a dying neutron star that is being consumed by a black hole. This black hole distorts the surrounding space-time, creating intense time dilation effects. In turn, Cooper and the rest of the crew will not age as quickly (normally) as everyone else on earth.

Cooper is depicted as a devoted, loving father who holds out a promise to his daughter (Murph) that seems awfully difficult to keep: that he will survive this epic, intergalactic journey and return to her. Of course, he’s probably consumed with great fear and doubt as he faces potential eternal separation from his daughter, should the mission face any setbacks or mishaps. When her father makes this promise, Murph protests fiercely. She is enraged and feels that her father is abandoning her.

*          *          *

Although the movie is visually stunning and sets a new bar in the space science fiction genre, Nolan uses human elements as the engine to drive the plot forward. In doing so he asks the audience two key questions: (1) What if human beings, in their current state, are limited by their experience of four dimensions (3 space, 1 time), and are maybe meant to experience and pass through others? (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); and (2) What if love is the mechanism by which we may be able to access and ascend to higher dimensions?

In an incredibly trippy but nonetheless poignant scene in the film, Cooper finds himself in an awe-inspiring three-dimensional structure called the tesseract, which affords him the ability to perceive time as just another spatial dimension. The confines of the tesseract are tantalizingly transparent and reveal Murph in her bedroom at a multitude of time points. Just like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, Cooper is angry because he is separated from his beloved daughter and wants nothing else but to be with her again. Also like Jesus, Cooper is in the privileged position to access multiple dimensions of reality to which humans aren’t otherwise privy. In a final desperate act, he attempts to reach her by shrieking her name and pounding at the edge of the tesseract, which in Murph’s room is the back of her bookshelf. He is able to successfully manipulate the gravity in the room to communicate with her, and she realizes that it is not a gravitational anomaly but her father reaching out to her from another realm. By the end of the film, we learn that the love between a father and a child has saved the human race.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds.

-Fr. Richard Rohr

Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq

Most journalists I meet in the Middle East are disenchanted with religion. They are spiritually cynical, agnostic at best. Many are unusually humane, intently aware of our world’s wounds, yet invariably critical and distant from any organized faith.

I can see why. I’ve just spent 6 weeks reporting from Iraq, where faith seems saturated in hatred and blood. “Christians are not Arabs. Arabs cannot be Christians,” a displaced Chaldean from Mosul tells me. “We can never live with Muslims,” a widowed Yazidi cries. “Watch these Shi’a bastards,” a Kurd says as he sends me videos of elite militias abusing Sunni civilians. “You dog,” the soldiers in the videos laugh as they kick and beat a cowering man.

Religion starts to hurt. “In the name of God” becomes the sound of sectarianism, the anthem of a thousand gleaming daggers cutting lines and boundaries across the broken earth: I’m in, you’re out. I’m a believer, you’re not. I am good, you are bad. You dog. I could never live with you. You could never be like me. In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent, you heretic! You infidel, in the name of God, go to hell. In the name of God, the merciful, burn.

As a reporter, I tread the lines between Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. I see giant crosses and green flags demarcating different neighborhoods of Beirut. I see Jewish stars graffiti-ed on the staircases of Amman with “Al-Mot, Death” scribbled underneath. I see overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and I am seized with an urge to damn religion. To hell with this hell, I want to say. To hell with the institutions and social constructs that give men self-justified license to rip other human beings apart. To hell with the lines, the walls, the moral police and everyone judging everyone else as unrighteous. To hell with God, I almost think.

But LORD have mercy, I cannot pray this. I almost curse the name of God, but then I stop, I cannot, I don’t.

I read the Bible in Iraq out of desperation. I needed to know that God is good and understand how that could be true when our world is as poisoned as it is. I couldn’t understand how God could be loving and exclusive at the same time. “Christ is the only Way,” I thought, “But what does that mean for all those who don’t know Him? Shall I condemn them, as other religions will condemn me?” Deuteronomy reads like an instruction manual for ISIS, I thought[1]. I spent my days collecting testimonies of genocide and my nights fearing that God was pleased to see this happen. I reported on violent religious extremism and feared: what if God actually condones this?

This fear paralyzed me for a while. Then I picked up the Gospel and read.

It’s much easier to picture Christ now that I live in His neighborhood. I picture Him coming to a land under oppression and celebrating life. Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.[2] He walks around healing, casting out spirits, multiplying food and telling tantalizing parables. He shows Martha that being with God is better than doing anything for Him. He weeps with Mary when she tells Him, My brother has died, and if you were there, it wouldn’t have happened. But she still calls him Lord as she says this. Jesus weeps- and raises Lazarus from the dead.[3] The next day, Mary pours expensive perfume on Him, worshipping, and small-hearted Judas says, “What a waste.” Think of the food distributions, cash programming, and hygiene projects that money could have funded. But Judas is a thief who’s been helping himself to the disciples’ moneybag. He’s really thinking of himself, selfishness twisted with self-righteousness, and Jesus sees right through him.[4]

I picture Jesus coming to historic Palestine, where the Israelites are under Roman occupation. Surely our LORD will save, his disciples must have thought. Our people worship the One True God and now the Messiah will break these chains of oppression, they must have hoped. FREEDOM, I imagine them whispering to one another, the way my Syrian friends tell me they spoke in 2011 for the first, daring, dangerous time. The word tingled on your tongue, they say, then grew until it grabbed your whole being, flung you into the street and had you yelling, roaring, electrified in sudden exultation with brothers and sisters and countrymen: FREEDOM, we stand and claim our humanity. Freedom, we protest and demand.

Surely Jesus’ followers thought this way as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Hosanna, they cried, save us now.[5]
Surely they thought he would lead them to social and political release.

I imagine how the earth must have shattered beneath the disciples’ feet when they found their leader had no intent of rebellion. No uprising, no overthrow, no victory – rather, death. I see photos of ISIS crucifying people in Raqqa and I picture Christ, then I picture his dearly beloved wracked with heartbreak and fear. So injustice continues. The world wins. All things are broken and we thought you’d fix them, but you’re gone, we’re lost, LORD -[6]

What the hell is this Gospel? Why would the disciples believe it, as Jesus died and Roman rule continued? Why should I believe it, as I stand in front of a Yazidi woman whose daughter is enslaved, counting atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Sudan, feeling like the smallest person in the world, taking notes and knowing they’ll do nothing but elicit some fleeting public sympathy and exert a featherweight bit of pressure on military and political powers?

In Iraq, I consider this unlikely message: Jesus did not end suffering and injustice, but He will end them. He did not fight the way the world fights, with swords and guns and drones and jingoistic anthems. He did not win an ethno-nationalist victory for the Jews. He did not stop Lazarus from dying, nor did he heal every person or raise every Beloved from the dead.

Christ rejected Pharisees and went to the sinners, even to the Gentiles. He was like a Palestinian going to the Israelis, a Sunni going to the Shia, a Kurd going to an Arab, a Yazidi going to an ISIS fighter. He crossed all the lines.[7] He didn’t form a new club to supersede all the others. He said, being in a club won’t save you. Nothing you do will ever save you. Stop trying to be good. Seek God, repent and ask to be saved.

He washed feet.
Then He died.

There’s a trick of the devil that says, God hates the world because it’s sinful, so prove that you’re righteous and maybe you can be saved. Everyone else will burn.

The Liar whispers poison-thoughts of revenge, fear and self-pity in our heads. They bleed into systems of greed, power and money that rip the world apart. Then he stands at our ear and sneers, “The world is damned and you are damned with it. God hates you. Hate Him back.”

But the Gospel speaks the opposite. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

I read headlines from Kobane, Jerusalem and Darfur, and turn this over in my mind. We are not condemned. The world is burning, but those who believe are not condemned. “The prince of this world stands condemned,” Jesus says in John 16 – then He goes to the cross. He dies, then rises again. The Liar is condemned, Christ said, so don’t despair or bow before him. He is the condemned one, not you, Beloved.

There’s a secret message in Christianity that doesn’t make sense unless you believe in Christ not just as a teacher and moral example, but really as God giving Himself for Man: life comes through death. Everyone thought Christ was losing, but He won through loving sacrifice. His shocking call is this: “Follow me,” not to kill unbelievers, but to die for them.[10]

Lay down your life, Christ said: love those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and speak Jesus’ name.[12] Follow Him, not toward comfort, privilege or resettlement to suburban America, but to wash feet and tell people that God loves the world. We may be killed in the process. But He is victorious. We are not condemned, darkness is. Nothing can separate us from our Father’s love.[13]

I don’t want to be religious anymore, I prayed in Iraq, recoiling from the vortex of exclusion, revenge and sanctimonious hate. At the same time, I feared the real cost of following Christ. I didn’t want to burn. I didn’t want to see any more of our world’s self-destruction. I’ll vomit, I cried. God, I’ll fall apart.

Religious people are like candles who don’t want to be lit. We’re adorned with gems and carvings, standing high and proud. We think our decorations make us good. Christ says, Forget your self-righteousness. The smallest scrap of paper that blazes from my Presence is more useful than a thousand pieces of regal unlit wax. I’m going to set you on fire and send you into the dark. You’ll melt, Beloved, but do not fear. You’re surrendering to a Light that will never go out.

The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth.[14] Follow Him, and invite others to do the same. [15]
[1] Deuteronomy 20.
[2] John 2.
[3] John 11.
[4] John 12.
[5] John 12:12-19.
[6] “They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’” – John 20:13, Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
[7] John 4: Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman.
[9] Romans 3:23, John 3:16-21.
[10] Matthew 10:38-39.
[11] “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:24-26.
[12] Matthew 5.
[13] Romans 8.
[14] “He tends his flocks like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
[15] John 10.

1 John, ISIS and the Gospel versus Terror

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love each other. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother… We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
– 1 John 3:11-12, 14-15.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
– Genesis 4:6-8

I have been afraid lately. I think often about the deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, many more journalists and millions of children, women, fathers, brothers, best friends, uncles and neighbors in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and more. I can’t shake the feeling that death is crouching around the corner, at the doorstep of all the journalists, of all the civilians, of too many people who have become dear to me and thousands more that I’ve yet to meet. Everyone I know is scarred. Some are still bleeding. Hate and fear are in the air, and things are getting worse.

How do Christians respond to terrorism? My church answers falter. “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” OK, but really? What if I were Iraqi or Syrian or Gazan? What if the Islamic State crucified my father? What if an Israeli bomb blew my family into pieces? What if everyone I loved was hit with chemical weapons? I meet person after person for whom this is reality. I wonder what I can say to them. I write down their stories. I cry. I want to vomit. I turn to God.

A few weeks ago I was reporting in Lebanon. I walked through Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps where people are treated like dogs, drinking tea with the most dignified and brave families I have met, fearing they would not survive the next month. I heard stories of those they have lost in the last few years, months and days. I filled notebooks with sorrow. Then I came home. I prayed angrily because I felt so tiny. The world is Dark and I can’t do anything about it. I have no power. I can write. What else? Why am I so small? Why can’t I save my friends? What do I have to give them?

A thought came into mind: You have the Gospel, habibti. 

Me: WHAT GOOD IS THAT?

Dear friends, help me figure this out.

What is the Gospel? What good is it? What does it mean to share Jesus Christ with my friends when His message does not promise any change in their physical circumstances? Here is Jesus, but you’ll still be a refugee. Your country continues to burn. Your daughter is still sick. You have no money for her treatment. She may die. Your father has already died. You may be killed tomorrow.
Here is Jesus.
What does He promise?
Who is He?
What does He do?

I’m reading the Bible a lot these days. The more I read, the more radical it looks. It says: God made the world and loved His children, but they turned against Him. They would not believe He loved them and they wanted to take control. When that happened, everything went awry. The children started to hate, fear, and kill. They hurt each other. They hurt themselves. God hurt to see this. He asked His kids to listen, to turn back, but they wouldn’t.

So God came to earth. Jesus was God-turned-man, living to set an example and to save us from ourselves. He died. He gave up life even though He was innocent, and this paid for all mankind to find eternal life, which means life together with God, which means complete change, which means living in love rather than hate or fear.

Love, rather than hate or fear.
Love: self-sacrifice, thinking of others before ourselves, giving up breath and life for the good of people who want us to die.
Love: refusing to hate. Not fearing anyone or anything except for God. Crying out for justice, but leaving it in His hands.
Love: living our brief and uncertain lives in total humility, surrender and desire to bless those who hate us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
– 1 John 3:16-18

Those tropes about love are so warm-fuzzy-familiar. I’ve seen them cross-stitched onto comfy Christian pillows, stenciled on greeting cards and thrown around in a thousand Sunday sermons.

I’m sitting here watching a video made by fellow human beings just a few hours away from me. There’s a man in an orange suit kneeling on the floor next to another man in a hood, who makes his brother speak words he doesn’t mean. He calls on huge world powers to change, crying, “This is unfair, I am a victim, you are bad, I am good, I will punish you now,” and then the hooded man cuts off his brother’s head.

I think about Cain and Abel.
I think about Jesus.
I’m thinking, Christianity means I should lay down my life for this hooded man?
I’m thinking, That does not make sense.

I read the Bible more.

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
– Luke 22:29-51

Jesus died for Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, Isaac and Ishmael, David and Saul, journalists and extremists, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Gentiles, for the sick and the sicker, for all.

Lately I’ve found the Gospel a shocking, lunatic message. If you take Christ at His Word, this is what He says: Lay down your life for your brother. Lay down your life for the one who wants to kill you. Do not fight. Do not run away. Bless, serve and give.

According to Jesus, that’s the way to eternal life.
But I might die, I think.
Yes – lay down your life and be reborn, Christ says.
Me: NO, but like, I might physically die.
Christ: You’ll die anyway. It’s OK.
Me: No! I won’t! Who says I’m dying? Who says Death is real?
Christ: Look around.

Somehow as I pray, I am convinced that God is for us, not against us. The world is on fire, but it’s because we are against ourselves. Surrendering to God means self-sacrifice, not jihad, not struggle, not fighting our enemies the Muslims and Jews and infidel non-believers, but thinking: God is worth more than my life.

Fundamentalists think the same thing, but Christ redirects the results. If God is worth more than my life, then I die. I give my whole life as He did: not as a warrior, but as a sheep. He did not fight. We are not to fight. We are to give our entire lives to our brothers and sisters so that they do not feel alone, so that they have hope, so that we walk steadily into Darkness to take people’s hands and tell them, We have one Father. He loves us. He is good.

I would think this entirely crazy if I had not met Christians here who live it out in steady, fearless humility. I sit with brothers and sisters from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, places falling apart and families that attacked them when they decided to follow Christ. I wonder why they are not running away. Praise God, I’m going back! they say.

I am so easily scared. I fear danger. I fear death. I fear persecution for being American or Christian or a journalist. I fear terror itself.

My brothers and sisters spill over with light and peace. I want to hold them back. I am afraid they will be hurt or killed today, tomorrow or the day after. They laugh and lay a hand on my shoulder. Sister, my family needs hope.
What, the family that wants to kill you?
Sister, my people are trapped. They cannot leave. They need hope, and we have the one and only Hope. We’ve got to go and serve.

My Palestinian brothers tell me that they can and will continue to pray for all their neighbors, Muslims Jews and Christians, radical or not, Zionist or Hamas, even as they are being bombed from one side and targeted by the other. They tell me, this is what it means to follow Jesus: to suffer for your neighbor’s good, and your neighbor includes every person no matter if they hate or love you.

My Coptic friends in Egypt say, someone tried to burn down our church. But we will not take up arms to fight.

My Iraqi sister says, I am going back. ISIS is there, yes, which means people are afraid. Everyone is desperate. Our world is burning. So we need Christ. So I’m going.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
– 1 John 4:18-19

I think, why am I so hesitant to speak the name of Jesus? On the one hand, I care too much about my reputation. I don’t want to be associated with close-minded Christians and the institutions that have perpetrated so much hate and bigotry throughout the ages. I don’t want to be judged. I am afraid for my public image, my career and my ostensible objectivity.

On the other hand, I am thinking too much of myself and not enough of Christ.

When I really think of Him, He says, Look at me. I look. I blink. I am almost blinded. I am moved. I fall to my knees. I think, this is too bright to be true, too much to hold, too deep and fiery – I am moved out of my mind.

I look.
He says, Every person is your brother.
Love them.

Lay down your life for them.
As I did for you.
I love you so much.
I am for you, not against you.
Your life is in my hands.

I believe.
Against all odds, I believe. I see my brothers and sisters going forward and I pray, Lord, give me the faith to walk alongside them. I see them going forward as sheep to the slaughter. I pray, Lord, give me grace and courage to do the same.

The Gospel offers a call to die, not to take anyone down but to lift them up. To give our lives up in peace and sacrifice and brotherly love. It is not sane. It is utterly unsafe, flying against all my self-righteous inclinations. But that is Christ, and we love Him so, for He first loved us.

When we see and know and taste this, we walk forward with joy. We are walking on a stream of living water that flows from Him in and through us. It grows trees with fruit in all seasons and leaves for the healing of the nations. We are so alive! Even if we may die today or tomorrow. We live in light.

We are not afraid.

Christianity, Journalism and Gaza: I do not know it all; I know very little at all.

“When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener… The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.
—-

I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did – or, more to the point, more than they did… Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing.”

I loved reading this piece today by Adam Shatz, long-time reporter in the Middle East. Partly because he is an eloquent writer full of insight, and partly because the brash, youthful presumption he describes is so familiar to me. One year ago, I thought I had answers to all the hard questions, from “What’s going on in the Middle East?” to “Whose fault is it?” to the biggest of all, “Who is God?”

Graduating from Princeton, I was confidently groomed to analyze, critique and defend political and religious views. I had the perfect blend of sureness, urgency and occasional condescension. I’d only studied the Middle East for four years, mostly from outside the region, but felt justifiably self-righteous, often indignant, and obliged to jump into punditry and political debate.

That changed this year. It doesn’t matter how hard I studied at Princeton or Oxford, how many books I read on Islamism, Zionism or Orientalism, how well I presented at the State Department or how many drafts I wrote of my thesis. I did not know the sound of church bells and calls to prayer in the mornings of Jerusalem, the scorch of beating sun on your 400th day in a refugee camp, the jostling of bodies as soldiers herd you like cattle through a checkpoint, or the rush of Mediterranean blue along Beirut’s Corniche as you pass old men smoking argileh and toasting kaakeh on its coals.

Journalism is humbling, especially from abroad, because I realize that I do not know it all; I know very little at all. Thankfully, reporting is not about projecting my own opinions but gathering knowledge, walking the streets, drinking tea, making friends, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.

My best friends now are from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. I’ve never felt my heart swell with an entire region’s revolutionary promise, then break as my heroes were killed, arrested or forced to flee. I’ve never fled across a border. I’ve never watched anyone that I love die. I don’t know what it’s like to live through war, occupation or genocide. I barely dare to imagine. But I can ask.

As a journalist in the Middle East, the most foolish thing I can do is to assume I know what’s going on. As a Christian, the same mistake applies. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:9-12:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

This passage used to confuse me. So am I a child or a man? Surely I’m a ‘man’ by now, I’d think. But the longer I’m a Christian, the clearer it becomes that I am but a child.

This year, God is suddenly very real. I talk to Him, ask questions, seek Him hungrily, because I find that I do not know. My quiet times of repeating religious adages to self have been replaced by what I call “faith like a crazy person.” It includes tumultuous emotion, exuberant bouts of joy, really cheesy moments and a lot of me just sitting on the floor yelling WTF ARE YOU DOING? Who ARE You!?

In journalism as in faith, we must listen humbly and ask hard questions. That includes “What’s going on in the Middle East?” “Why?” “Who is God?” and one more: “What would He have me do about it?”

In Gaza, for example, more than 2,000 people have been injured and 268 people killed from Israeli attacks this week. 70% of them were civilians. 1 in 4 were children. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations have all condemned the strikes as illegal human rights violations, but the killing continues.

Hard questions: Why is this happening? What role are America and Christian church playing in it? Who told me so? Why do I believe them? Could I be wrong?

Harder questions for Christians: What is justice? God, how am I to seek it?

Usual side question from me: Can we just avoid this topic? It’s so sensitive and contentious. Also I hate oppression and it’s easier to just pretend this isn’t happening.

Steady answer from Christ: No.

I bring up Israel specifically and intentionally because it’s a vortex of all the hardest questions of all. But dear friends, we must ask them.

People often ask me how to help refugees in Jordan and the Middle East. Donate to UNHCR and pray, I say, but also ask questions about the region’s current crises. Too often do we feel sad for innocent victims without realizing that our states and institutions are involved in ongoing injustices, ones that depend on constituents’ apathy and ignorance to continue.

Accountability is harder than charity because it demands our effort to seek out truth, and then strength to acknowledge that we might have been wrong. But we needn’t be defensive or afraid of admitting mistake, because God is for us, not against us. He is gracious and ready to show us who He is – as long as we ask genuinely, surrendered, willing to drop our comfort and assumed righteousness.

I ask a lot of questions. I don’t have answers for all of them. Re: Israel and Christian Zionism, for example, I do not know what will happen in the “end times” with the Israelites, the state, the temple, etc. Based on Jesus’ words in the Bible, I don’t think I’m supposed to know. But I do know this:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:13

Faith and hope can be difficult. Last night I stayed up late writing about the refugee crisis in Jordan, thinking about the Syrians begging here in Beirut, scrolling through my Twitter feed to read about the plane shot down in Ukraine, fascist racism in Tel Aviv and children killed on the beach in Gaza. My mom sent me a text at one point: “I wish I can be next to you and hug you right now. Grieve the loss of a child’s innocent dream about the beautiful world.”

I closed my laptop and cried.

If I weren’t Christian, I would be scoffing at all the soft-hearted fools who believe in humanity and kindness and people’s rights. Obviously they haven’t read history or even current affairs. Obviously they don’t know that people just hate each other. In Darfur the paler Arabs hate the darker Africans, just like in Israel the Jews hate the Arabs, just like in Germany the Nazis hated the Jews, just like in America the whites hated the blacks, and so on. I’d be a skeptic and a realist, attributing everything to power and interests and safely removed from the foolishness of belief in compassion.

But I am a Christian, which means by the Holy Spirit and God’s grace I have this lunatic faith and hope that God is just, He is sovereign, He is for us, not against us, and He wins.

Meanwhile, I ask questions. I listen humbly. I pray for Christ-like love, which means to consider others above myself, resist violence and to seek the good of people that hurt me.

It means to keep my Twitter feed open, to look, read, listen and think long and hard, crying and feeling for children who play in the sand and dream of a beautiful world that suddenly stops.

It means ignoring the cynic that cries, “Fool!” in my head, insisting until the day I die that every human being is a human, Holy and Beloved, regardless of their color, race or religion.

We do not have all the answers. But we can and must ask the questions. In the meantime, we know enough to love.