The Middle East: passion and compassion

Sermon by The Rt Revd Michael Lewis, Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Did you hear St Paul’s real anguish in the letter to the Romans? “I’m telling the truth in Christ. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There is such great heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart.” Heaviness and sorrow and anguish at what? For whom? For people, especially his own people, getting religion wrong, missing the point, misrepresenting God.

Iraq visit with Bishop Mouneer 2013When I visit Baghdad I almost always call on a Shi’a Muslim Grand Ayatollah. He’s about my age, 61 or so, but looks at least twenty-five years older, mainly because under Saddam Hussein his body was revoltingly tortured. Now, with the Shi’a in the ascendant at last in Iraq for eleven years, you could imagine he’d be exultant at a redressing of the balance of power. But far from it. He could speak verbatim St Paul’s words in Romans 9. “I tell you the truth. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There’s such heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart – for my co-religionists who are Sunni Muslims but really for all Muslims, Shi’a too; and for all believers, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who make free with ‘religion’ and ‘God’ but miss the point; who get him wrong; who traduce his nature and his will.”

There are four dioceses in our Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Between us we cover a region where at this moment anguish is acute. Not every country is in turmoil, but we’re certainly full of heaviness and sorrow and anguish for those that are.

In Egypt an inept and partial Muslim-Brotherhood government squandered its chances, and we hold our breath to see how the military strongman who swept it away intends to rule. Frankly it looks ominous. Somalia remains as weak a state as you could imagine, and the vicious Al Shebab terrorise everyone who baulks at their puritan Sunni fundamentalism. Libya, violently freed from the Gaddafis, now seems to be on the verge of being split and enslaved by militias with aims unclear apart from grabbing ports and oil. On Iran, the jury is out. Under a new president is it finally taking steps in from the cold, or, under its more powerful supreme religious leader, is it bluffing? Meanwhile in that country the active harrassment of Christians, Anglicans among them, amounts to state persecution – a big word, and not one that we like to use so readily as some do. Syria, a nation of mostly gentle, cultured people, is going through the most prolonged agony, and now it’s years, not months. A much feared dynasty isn’t giving up easily, and its opponents turn out to be a mixture of the reasonably well intentioned and the positively dangerous and fanatical, and, of those last, many are not Syrians. Most topically, what’s happening in Gaza – a pathetically unequal and unconscionable conflict in which ordinary non-combatants are apparently calculated to be tolerable collateral in the pursuit of war aims – is only part of a wilful humiliation of the Palestinian people and a shocking neglect of hard-headed,  adult, sustained diplomacy.

All these are in our wider province. In my own diocese, the Yemen drifts in and out of the news as the years roll on: a dictator gone, but not really gone; and three separate insurgencies for the few good politicians and soldiers to contain, let alone disperse. And lastly and so painfully Iraq, where the stated ambition of the ultra-extremists of ISIS is a restored Sunni Caliphate far harsher, far more frightening, far more blinkered and absolute, and in fact more deeply unIslamic, than anything in Haroun al Rashid and the Thousand and One Nights, never mind the last actual Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire.

In our region at this time Christians aren’t the aggressors. At this time, it’s some of those who profess to follow one of two other great monotheistic world religions who are at the forefront of terrorising and killing. In some places Christians are specially singled out, but mostly they take their place among the poor of the land, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who long and sigh for peace.

But of course at other times, too many times, Christians also have killed and terrorised; been puritans and fanatics and absolutists.

Whenever and wherever the point is missed, whenever and wherever religion is perverted, God is traduced: God’s will, God’s nature. Our hearts should be heavy and sorrowful.

The collect for today most movingly asks God to increase in us true religion and to nourish us with all goodness. Just so.

Faced then with cruelty and injustice that’s mostly allied to, if not explicitly in the name of, bad religion, what can we do? What do Christians do?

Certainly we can go back beyond Romans 9 to Romans 8 and at least find the comfort of solidarity. Here’s St Paul again: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long.” We can echo too what Paul says at the start of his great peroration: “What – who – shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Answer: “Nothing. No one. Therefore the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that shall be revealed.” But perhaps they and we should also watch what Christ does in today’s Gospel at Matthew 14:13. The passage follows straight on from the tragic beheading of St John the Baptist, an atrocity no less cruel for being whimsical. Those who knew John are full of anguish and sorrow, and wonder what their world is becoming, and where hope might be. But Jesus goes into retreat. “When he heard this, he withdrew to a desert place by himself.”

Then, emerging, he sees the presenting needs of many, among whom doubtless are not a few traumatised by the killing of the Baptist. He feels their sickness of mind as well as body, their restlessness of spirit. “And he had compassion on them.” When they need it, he feeds them; not just his committed disciples but all who come into his view. Just how much more eloquent can he be about the true nature and will of God? Just how much clearer can he be about who God is, what God does, and how God wants us to be? Just how much more touching, and revolutionary, can he be about good, not bad, religion?

Tragic passion is answered by infinite compassion in a proto-eucharist of love, mercy, sharing, inclusion, and revelation. May believers in Gaza and Hampshire, in east and west, in bad times and good, always have the grace to join Jesus Christ in such a celebration, such a holy communion.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached by Bishop Michael at Winchester Cathedral on Trinity 7, Sunday 3 August 2014.

November 2012

Dear FriendsBougainvillea frames the old Flagstaff Station, Aden, Yemen

In a few days’ time we shall take our suitcases from the top of the wardrobe, dust them down and start packing, filling any empty corners with packets of mocha coffee, and head home. It has been a good visit. We have been here five weeks. It seems much longer. Nancy says that coming to Aden is like entering Narnia – the magical world of author C.S.Lewis’ creation, encountered in his children’s books.

There are some similarities between the waning power of the dreadful white witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – the first of the chronicles of Narnia – and that Enjoying  tea with friends during the eid holiday at Christ Church Adenof Yemen’s previous president, who still lingers on in the country causing mischief. We’ve not encountered the books’ magnificent lion, Aslan, who represents God, or more particularly Jesus, but we have certainly sensed his presence around. However, I do not think that any of these things were in mind when Nancy mentioned Narnia. It was rather the sense that in Aden, as in Narnia, time seems different to what it is in other places and that within what seems an incredibly short time a lot can happen – both wonderful and sometimes rather horrible.Apprentice guard dog in the garden at Christ Church Aden

Fortunately, we have not encountered anything very horrible though I did have a moment’s horrible reflection: On a rare occasion when I ventured to drive ourselves rather than have someone else drive us, I parked the car in an empty parking lot and an hour or so later returned to it. As I turned the ignition key, I suddenly thought, ‘I hope we don’t blow up’. Obviously, the car did not blow up but those sorts of things do sometimes happen here. It was a sobering moment.

Sadly, much more common and now often reported in the local media is the kidnapping on their arrival by sea on Yemen’s shores of some Somali and even more Ethiopian refugees. Those who take them appear to be Yemeni thugs, people-traffickers who hold their victims – some of them very young – until their poor relatives can send $300 for their release. Each of them will already have paid $50 for their long and hazardous passage over to Yemen. Those held are frequently tortured, abused and even sometimes killed.

Joining in celebrations at nearby St Francis Church in Aden, YemenLess anguished, nearer home but also tragic, is the plight of many Yemenis who go to bed hungry every night. Dr Nada, of the General Clinic has just informed me that 60% of the patients whom she has seen this morning are suffering from malnutrition evidenced in the rough, peeling skin of young children and their dark, crinkly, brittle hair. Some of them, with their families, subsist on a daily diet of sweet black tea and cheap bread. We try our best to help as we can. The situation is apparently worse in rural areas where 70% of the population live.

The country’s Government of National Unity, under leadership of interim President Abdo Rabba Mansour Hadi, has actually achieved much, not only in holding the country together but also in conferring with almost every party and grouping in the land from Yemen’s neglected and shunned akhdam or gypsies to the still hopeful and energetic youth of the Arab Spring, in anticipation of a significant conference to be held imminently in Aden on the nation’s future. There has not been a lot of energy left over to address the nation’s dire economic and humanitarian needs.

When last we wrote, we were poised for the visit of Bishop Michael. It was brief but very happy, encouraging and useful. One evening we had a party in the garden for the staff and their families. We Remembrance Service - Aden, November 2012were about 40. The food, a traditional lamb dish called, Zorubian, was delicious. Food, overseen by Mansour, always is! The atmosphere was wonderful – hard adequately to describe – an excited buzz and an enormous innocent delight at simply being together.

Children laying the wreaths at our Remembrance Service - November 2012It was just one of a whole kaleidoscope of encounters, experiences and meetings that have made up our brief visit. When we return home, some neighbours will probably say that they never realised we had been away and we, like the children in Narnia on their return home, will do our best to tell them of this troubled land and its remarkable people.

With our love and sincere best wishes in Christ

Peter and Nancy

PS. We have just learned of the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He preached here at Christ Church a few years ago when one of his sons, Peter, was working here as a volunteer. Justin is a fine person – so is Pete.

Flight from Aden

The cat moved delicately around the edge of the bean bag before settling comfortably in the ray of spring sunshine in the front of our son’s home in Reading. The cat, though far from obese, is fatter than any we ever saw in Yemen and, if a week ago, or even three days ago we had been told that we would today be watching Holly on her bean bag, we would have been surprised. But, as a friend of ours once said, ‘in the Middle East things can take a long time to happen, but when they do – they happen fast.’

Over the last weeks there have been fire fights across Aden almost daily and often well into the night. There have also been occasional roadside bombs. A few days ago, Mansour, our administrator told Nancy and I that we should leave the office and go to our less exposed apartment for ‘security reasons’ for the rest of the day. The next day, Joel, an American language teacher was gunned down in Taiz, two hours drive away. A few days before, a Swiss woman was kidnapped in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where she too had been working as a language teacher. Both were known to be devout Christians. The group who took the one and murdered the other, is openly affiliated to Al Qaeada and singled Joel out for his Christian zeal. The organisation has promised to kidnap others. We thought it unnecessary to further test their resolve or to put ourselves and those we love and work with in Aden, at further risk by staying.

We flew out with Royal Jordanian via Amman yesterday. Today the lovely Korean couple, Drs Jihong and Sunghye, who had come from Korea to join us for a few weeks, have reluctantly taken the same decision as ourselves and flown out.

It was hard to leave without saying good bye to the staff, which we thought it best not to do. Before dawn, Mansour drove us in a beat up, nondescript car by a circuitous route to the airport.

Waiting to leave Somalia for Yemen

Waiting to leave Somalia for Yemen

A few minutes before the clinics closed on our last morning, a tired young Somali lad called in wanting help. He was from Mogadishu and had arrived by boat ten days earlier. The crossing had taken 40 hours. There were 120 squeezed aboard. Each one had paid a million Somali shillings – equivalent to US$50 for the trip. The only thing he brought with him other than his clothes was a plastic bottle of water. He is 17. He is just one of hundreds who make the perilous journey every week. He left his family and a city in flames for a refugee camp and a country itself, teetering on the brink. We flew home, thankfully, yesterday – swiftly and in comfort to security, friends and our family. I think the young Somali’s name was Omar.

Remember him in your prayers, Joel’s family too, and Jihong and Sunghye as they ponder their next step, and all who continue to work so faithfully and well back at Christ Church. Thank you for your support and your prayers.

Holly the cat, has now moved into the window, in pursuit of the sun.

With much love and our very best wishes in Christ

Peter & Nancy