"They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.' When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:
'Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you…'" Nehemiah 1:3-6
The turn from summer to fall of 2013 brought Egypt’s and Syria’s Christians into sharp focus. Media reports barrage us with pictures of burned devastated churches, and of Maalula, the last Aramaic village in Syria, under siege. Daily we hear of victims of the Arab Spring, and editorialists speculate about Christianity’s disappearance in the region. It is the conundrum of our times, and we ask: “What’s the real story, who do we support, how can we meet those Christians’ needs, why is this happening?”
Nehemiah faced a similar situation. The walls of Jerusalem had fallen. The people were living in misery, harried by their enemies. The presence of God’s people in the Promised Land was being stamped out. And hearing these reports, Nehemiah’s heart was breaking.
This narrative prompts four strategies of devotion for each of us today: listen, weep, repent, intercede.
Our first response must be like that of Nehemiah, to increase our awareness of who is truly suffering—to listen, and complicating our approach further, we hear Jesus’ charge in Matthew 5:44-46, to love our enemies. Concern must be for all victims and refugees, whether they are labeled by the world as friend or foe, near or far. We must hear the cries of Syria and Egypt, but also of Moderate Muslims in Nigeria, and of Anglican Christians in Peshawar, Pakistan. Perhaps the profoundest prayer I have heard uttered these past months came from the voice of a young Egyptian Christian in mid-August: “God, do for those men, who act as terrorists, what you did for me, even when I didn’t deserve it, so they will come to love you, and be changed.”
Second we must weep. In Romans 12, the same context we hear Paul’s charter of Christian Love, we are confronted with the definiteness of affliction, persecution, and evil—but are commanded not to revenge, but to mourn: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer… Bless those who persecute you… Mourn with those who mourn… As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath…” (cf. Romans 12:12ff). This was exactly how the Spirit of God led Nehemiah, driving him to intercede. We must allow ourselves to enter into emotional (weeping) and physical (fasting), in communion with the persecuted.
Third and fourth, intertwined, we must repent and intercede as Nehemiah did—knowing that as much as God desires to bring justice and healing to his loved ones, he desires to have holiness from all we who consider ourselves his servants. Seeking a renewed personal relationship with the living God, we pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness to fall on us all, for sins of complicity and commission, for our loved ones, for all Israel, and for our fellow Arab Christians—none is fully innocent, and we must recognize this if we are to expect any rain to come from heaven, on the just and the unjust. God can do, indeed is doing, the miraculous, raising up peacemakers, who are working to bring dividing groups and sects together. We must pray, and we must lend our support to those in need—however small our contribution may be and regardless of whether that support is for Christian victims or others.
Our approach must be that of mature Christian leaders in the Arab world, like Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros, who recently proclaimed: The church is not of buildings, but of faith.
Pray for peace on the ground, bombs to fall short, Christians to stand and speak for faith and peace. Pray for the political and constitutional process in Egypt, for the rights of all people to be upheld, and for those who are elected to positions of power and parliament in these coming months to be competent peacemakers, not fanatics incapable of representing the ready rain of God’s grace.
[Photo: Flickr user sethoscope]