Middle East

The Citadel of Erbil

#Advent15: A Car Bomb and a Coming King

One year ago today, I stood on holy ground.

I was in the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq. I had gone to Kurdistan to see first-hand the situation on the front-lines of the work among refugees that had fled from Mosul, Sinjar, Kirkuk, and other parts of Iraq and Syria.

In our orientation to the city, our host had taken us to a site where two weeks before a car bomb had gone off and a number of people had been killed. I stood in silence–fighting back tears–as we listened to one of the guards tell us about the car, and the bomb, and his friend who had died in the attack. I watched as he knelt down on the pavement and pointed to a small piece of metal. “There’s part of the bomb,” he said.

It was in that moment that I knew I was standing on holy ground. Ground where people had had their lives stolen from them.

I whispered a prayer.

The only prayer that I could find to pray in that moment.

Kyrie eleison. God, have mercy.

The Citadel of Erbil

The Citadel of Erbil

As we walked solemnly back to our car, along the foundations of the Citadel of Erbil, I took in the sights and sounds around me. Life still going on. People still shopping in the bazaar. Taking photographs beside the fountains.

It’s a bit like Advent.

We wait and hope for a better King.

A better Kingdom.



And, while we wait, life goes on around us. Millions not knowing that this King has already come. That this King has set in place His Kingdom. And, that–someday–the Kingdom will be full and beautiful and glorious and nothing will be missing and nothing will be broken.

War will cease. Devices used to bring destruction will be turned into tools to bring life. Lions and lambs will lie together in the cool grass.

And, yet, the message of Advent is that we’re still not in a fulfilled Kingdom. We long for it. We hope for it. We pray for it. We yearn for it.

And, we work towards it. What if the Prophet Isaiah wasn’t just dreaming when he said that swords would be beaten into plowshares? What if he meant for us to do the beating?

It is between these two things that we are stuck. The promise of a new Kingdom, and the birth of the new King. Somewhere, we find ourselves in the middle of it all.

How do we balance between the two? Between the yearning for fullness of the Kingdom and the pain of living in a world of not yet. A world of pain and struggle and illness and war and car bombs.

I left that crater in the road knowing that I had stood on holy ground. Sacred space. I had been face-to-face with mortality and fear and death. But, I got to walk away.

I don’t understand why some of us get to walk away and why others don’t. I don’t understand why some of us get to go on with our trading in the bazaar and taking photos at the fountains. I don’t understand.

But, I know that Advent is here. The hoping. The waiting. The longing. The King is coming.

As I sat in the hotel that evening, I searched for words to put to my feelings and thoughts. I looked for something to say. But, was left with nothing but “Come, Lord Jesus,” and that old Leonard Cohen chorus, “Hallelujah.”

And, it is with those words that John ends his Revelation. The Beast of the Empire has been defeated. The King of Kings and His new Kingdom are fully realized. And, John writes:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! — Revelation 22:20 (ESV)

Together with John and with the guard in Erbil and with the families and friends of those killed that day and with all the saints and angels we proclaim: “Come, Lord Jesus!”

All That’s Left

(Photo courtesy of Mission InfoBank)

Syria. It's a nation that has dominated the news cycles for the past few days, and has been a recurring fixture in the media for the past couple of years. I'm not even going to begin to try to rehash or explain what's going on there. Many others have done a good job doing that already (for instance, this piece from the Washington Post).

What's a Christ-Follower to do in the face of so much chaos?

Brian Zahnd does a fantastic job of helping us try to find an answer to this question by inviting us into his inner monologue.

And we would be remiss to have a conversation regarding the Middle East and a Jesus-Followers response to it without hearing from Carl Madearis. In this post from the other day, he urges us to ask, “Who would Jesus bomb?”

What do we do when we don't even know where to start?

I'm grateful for friends like the great folks over at 24-7 Prayer who help us by giving us some suggestions for how to pray into the situation.

And for Jesus-Followers like Rachel Held Evans who posted this beautiful piece on her blog this evening. As I read it, I kept coming back to something that's been hounding me for the past few months now.

What do we pray, when we don't know what to pray?

Lately, I've found myself in that position more often than not. As I see the hurts and struggles of people close to me and of those that I've never met, I find myself without words to even pray.

So, what now?

Even in writing this post, I've found myself trying to find the right thing to say and the right way to say it. As I said on my FaceBook page last night, I struggle to put my thoughts into words:

“Weighing what I want to say with what is prudent for me to say with what God wants me to say.

“Knowing that my words won't change the situation, yet feeling compelled to use my words to spark prayer, contemplation, and love from those who believe that God longs to bless, redeem, and bring shalom–nothing missing, nothing broken–to the situation.

“Finding it hard to bring hope–confident and joyful expectation in the goodness of God–in the midst of despair.”

Here is what I know: God is good. God is not the author of confusion or chaos, rather God is the Creator of Orderly Order. God's desire is for people to be blessed–not for their own benefit, but rather so that they can bless others. God longs for His Kingdom to be established on earth as it is in heaven.

His Kingdom–that place where what God wants done is done as Dallas Willard described it.

His Kingdom–where in the midst of chaos, we see orderly order emerge as John the Gospel Writer described it.

His Kingdom–where the life of God is made accessible to man, and they enter its enjoyment here on earth as Andrew Murray described it.

His Kingdom–where His shalom becomes our reality.

I'm coming to learn that all I can pray is the prayer that our Savior taught us: “Your Kingdom come.”

As I search for words to pray in regards to the situation in Syria, I'm left there. I'm left with nothing other than the words of Jesus. To pray anything else would be to pray my opinion. It would be to pray out of my own understanding. Instead, I have no cry other than “Your Kingdom come.”

It's a cry for mercy.

It's a cry for grace.

It's a cry for hope.

It's a cry for justice.

It's a cry for Shalom.

It's a cry for that which is missing to be found.

It's a cry for that which is broken to be repaired.

There's a beautiful passage in the story of the birth of John the Baptist (the one who proclaimed that the King was coming and in His coming was bringing the Kingdom–much like we are called to do as followers of The Way). It's in the prophetic prayer that Zechariah prays over John the Baptist at his circumcision. In that prayer are these words:

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. — Luke 1:78-79 (The Message)

And, so, all that's left is for us to pray. “Your Kingdom Come.” May Your sunrise break in upon the people of Syria. May it shine on those in darkness. May it bring life to those in the shadow of death. May it show the way–one foot at a time–down the path of peace.



Lent 2013: Guest Post – Neal Locke

As we have done throughout previous Lenten and Advent seasons, we are again blogging through the Lectionary readings in this Lenten season. This year, however, due to our travels in Central Asia, we have asked a number of guests to blog for us. These guests are individuals who are influential in our lives and work. We’re honored to share this space with them-and with you–in this season of reflection.

Rev. Neal Locke
Rev. Neal Locke

We are honored to once again have Rev. Neal Locke guest blogging for us. Neal and I met 15 years ago as students at Oral Roberts University. I am thankful that all these years later I can still call him my friend. (And, can say that we both successfully graduated.)

Neal, his wife, Amy, and three children, Grady, Abby, and Jonah live in El Paso, Texas, where Neal is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

A reading from the book of Genesis.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’

— Genesis 15:17-20

The “pieces” referred to in this passage are pieces of animals sliced in half—not an appealing thought to our modern sensibilities, but part of an important ritual in antiquity. The ritual would go something like this: Two powerful and wealthy men (as displayed by their ability to sacrifice several large and expensive animals) would make promises to one another. The sliced, equal halves of the animals represented the equal status and commitment of the men making the promise. It is also possible that the cleaved animals served as a veiled threat of the fate awaiting anyone who broke such a promise. The two men would then pass through the animals, representing a shared and irrevocable journey.

But something is missing in this ritual as performed in Genesis 15:17-20. And that something is Abram. This is a completely one-sided covenant, for it would be impossible for God and Abram to make a covenant together as equals. Instead, God makes the journey through the halved animals on his own, as a “smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch.” This is the first of many times in the Bible that God manifests himself as fire (burning bush, pillar of fire, pentecost, etc.). It is a reminder to us today that God’s covenant to us, his people, is not something that we can earn, or to which we can even contribute anything of worth. Our salvation is something God undertakes alone, for our benefit.

The promise is certainly a good one. God promises Abram descendants and land—two things that an elderly nomad would have no right to expect or even hope for apart from God’s grace. But this promise is perhaps not without cost. Earlier in the chapter, in verse 12, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” We are not told exactly what terrified Abram in his sleep. Perhaps it was a vision of the future in which his offspring would be aliens, slaves and oppressed. But when I look at the land which God promises Abram—land in the Middle East that has seen tremendous bloodshed and violence throughout recorded history right down to the present day—I cannot help but wondering if this is the terrifying vision Abram sees.

God’s promises are good, and God is faithful to keep them, but sometimes the road is long and fraught with seemingly insurmountable enemies. Again, we must remember the nature of the covenant: God does not ask us to surmount the insurmountable. That’s his job. Abram’s job was simply to be obedient, and bring the animals for the sacrifice. When we are obedient to God’s calling, when we sacrifice our time, talents, and resources to answer his call, God goes before us as a flaming torch to guide our way.