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The Spirit Sighs

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon and evening with a delightful bunch of young adults from around the world who were visiting our area and our church as part of MCC Alberta’s Planting Peace Program. The idea behind the program is to gather young adults from many different places for two weeks in Alberta to learn, to share stories, and to share life together.  The hope (and the reality) is that the participants will come to deeper understandings of their common humanity, and that their common commitment to peace and to breaking down of walls that we human beings are so good at erecting between each other will be strengthened. Yesterday, there were representatives from Kenya, Cambodia, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, South Africa, and, of course, from various parts of Canada. It was a good day full of good stories.

There were also two young men from Syria. Father Lukas Awad, an Orthodox priest, and Subhi Naddaf, a humanitarian worker, both hail from the city of Homs, the “capital of the revolution,” the place where many trace the origins of the Syrian civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced nearly half of the Syrian population (over ten million people).  There have been more deaths in Homs and its vicinity than any other area of Syria. Given this horrific reality, and given that our church has recently decided to sponsor a group of Syrian refugees to come to our city, I was very interested in speaking with these two men about the reality that they live with every day.

Father Lukas spoke about how ISIS had just the previous day taken the city of Palmyra, only 100 km from his home. He spoke about the destruction that this group has visited upon his country, about the brutal and merciless ideology that holds countless people in fear every day. He spoke of his uncertainty about what the future might hold for him, for his wife and his two children, aged ten and five, and for his church. “Do you think that Homs could be taken in the same way as Palmyra?” I asked him. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Anything is possible. We don’t know what to expect. Palmyra had been safe for weeks, months… And then one day, it is in the control of ISIS. This is what we live with every day. I don’t think people in the West realize how brutal these people are, how hateful their ideology is.” I shook my head in silence. No. We surely don’t.

Subhi spoke of walking down the street and having bullets whiz past him, about this being “normal. He talked about how he was coordinating a child-friendly space for kids of displaced families in Homs. He spoke of being the last remaining member of his family who had not left the city. He spoke of how 90% of his evangelical Presbyterian church has fled the city, about how his parents had gone to Germany, his sister to Italy. I asked him why he stayed while others did not. He shrugged and smiled. “This is my home,” he said. “I may leave, but for now, I stay.” Again, I shook my head in stunned silence. How does one make sense of such senseless things?

This morning, I read over the texts for this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. Among them, was Romans 8:22-27, where we read these words:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

When I was younger, I associated the Holy Spirit with something like spiritual pyrotechnics. The Holy Spirit seemed to be all about tongues of fire and strange utterances and peculiar manifestations that I had no experience with and little interest in. The Holy Spirit was claimed by many people to do weird things that seemed (at least to me) to be more about spiritual exhibitionism than with accomplishing anything useful in the world.

Yet, as I read this passage this morning, I was struck by how one of the roles of the Spirit is simply to groan, to sigh alongside a groaning and sighing creation. The Spirit prays for us when we have no words. Like when our hearts break for two Syrian brothers who will go back to a context of unspeakable violence and fear. Like when we feel like any words we might say to them are too soaked in comfort and privilege to be of any use. Like when we simply feel like weeping for the barbarism that human beings are capable of. The Spirit gives a shape, a texture, an anchor in the life of God to all of our sadness, our longing, our hope.

Last night, after we had shared stories and shared a meal together, the Planting Peace group put on a short program for our church. At the end, for our benediction, our two Syrian brothers performed a song. Subhi played piano and Father Lukas sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of his community, the language of his Lord, of our Lord. He asked us to stand with him. And so we stood, together.  We bowed our heads and we listened as the haunting beauty of a tongue that we did not understand washed over us, praying for us, praying with us, sighing for all the things that no words of any tongue could ever express.

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The top image is a picture of the Old City of Homs, taken on January 27.  The two pictures immediately above were taken last night—one of Father Lukas and Subhi performing our sung benediction, the second of me with my two Syrian brothers.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Look at how beautiful the three of you look together. Faces of saints. Whatever the material outcomes may be, yours are smiles of redemption. Thank you for sharing.

    May 23, 2015
    • Thank you, Paul. I would say two saints, at least. 🙂

      (But then, my grandfather taught me—very publicly, at my baptism!—that I should never hesitate to claim the title for myself because of what Jesus has done…)

      May 24, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        That must have been a startling experience, to say the least. 🙂

        I must admit though, your grandfather’s audacity is starting to make more and more sense to me. Claim to be a saint publicly and you’re going have to live like one. People will give their all for a whole lot less, why not strive for sainthood.

        May 24, 2015
  2. Renita Hamm #

    Thanks for this, Ryan. I was really moved by the conversations you shared and the experiences of your new friends. I read the May 21 Aidan reading in the Celtic Daily Prayer book that night.

    The authors quote Elie Wiesel from “A Jew Today” in this prayer: “Master of the Universe, I know what You want – I understand what You are doing. You want despair to overwhelm me. You want me to cease believing in You, to cease praying to You, to cease invoking Your name to glorify and sanctify it. Well, I tell You: No, no – a thousand times no! You shall not succeed! In spite of me, and in spite of You, I shall shout the Kaddish, which is a song of faith, for You and against You. This song You shall not still, God of Israel.

    The authors continue by saying: “We pray to God because He has too much to answer for to be allowed simply to disappear, because we have to protest against him as well as to Him, and because the only alternative is despair, or silence.”

    This hits home when you think of the large scale suffering of a nation like Syria. Or simply the suffering of a family member meeting the ravages of ALS daily in his body.

    May 24, 2015
    • Thanks, Renita. Fascinating quote from Wiesel. It is something that he and those who have suffered perhaps have a right to pray in the way that those of us who haven’t do not. Or at least not yet.

      It might sound irreverent to some, to say that God “has a lot to answer for.” But I think it expresses something deep and true about the nature of reality. There’s an old Jewish saying, I think that goes something like, “Before creating the world, God had to forgive it.” Maybe in some very limited way the same is also true from our perspective.

      May 24, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    We must be so careful when discerning. What resources are we using? Are the people we allow to influence us truly walking with God? From my limited understanding, Wiesel appears to reason as does an academic, as does a political activist. Are you sure he has the heart of a prophet? If he does not, should we allow him to influence our understandings? Would God confuse us in this manner by sending us a messenger who does not claim his mission?

    We must not let sympathy trump reason.

    Scripture seems clear, for loves sake God has handed us over to the tempter. So that by love we may freely choose Him who would save us, over him who would destroy us.

    We are Job.

    Go to your quiet place. The place where you and the Lord commune. Test the spirits that influence you. Ask the Lord if they are from Him. Wait peacefully on your God. He will always answer you with the truth.

    May 25, 2015
    • Renita Hamm #

      Well, Paul, I’m not claiming that Elie Wiesel has the heart of a prophet – but he does have the experience of walking through and surviving unimaginable suffering, and having his faith challenged in a way that I never have. That’s why I think this quote from “A Jew Today” is quite remarkable. And somewhat connected to the experiences of Ryan’s Syrian friends.

      As Ryan said, sometimes ‘[We may] feel like any words we might say to them are too soaked in comfort and privilege to be of any use. The Spirit gives a shape, a texture, an anchor in the life of God to all of our sadness, our longing, our hope.’

      That’s why I consider Wiesel’s quote to be Spirit-fuelled. It came at such a high personal cost, regardless of whether I’VE judged him as a ‘person truly walking with God’. Wiesel ‘s words may bring comfort of deep and lasting value to those in the middle of human suffering,

      May 25, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for a thoughtful and tempered response, Renita. I raise delicate issues. Issues that at first glance can seem offensive… but are they? Maybe so to you. Maybe so to others. Certainly so to a younger previous version of my former self. But the more important question is and always will be, what here, if anything, is offensive to God?

    Certainly the horrors themselves more grossly offend God then even we are able to imagine. A loving Father continually suffering the brutal destruction of beloved children.

    I speak with an honest heart when I tell you that despite the excruciating horrors that mankind have foisted upon one another, if it were God’s will for me, I know I am called by God to accept the unspeakable burden before willing in thought or action, such atrocities on another.

    Even in my moments of great faithlessness I would like to believe even I would be able to accept these things unto myself before I would surrender one of my own children. If I a sinner believe this to be true of myself, how much more true must it be of our God?….” God so loved the world”….

    Sin is why it all happens. Love is why it will be redeemed. Not all of it, only that which repents and believes.

    Certainly Mr. Wiesel has suffered and witnessed first hand, unspeakable horrors. Perhaps their is no greater sin committed against another then the slaughter of the innocent. We will all be held accountable to the degree to which we are culpable. The perpetrators, the collaborators, those who made efforts to do something, those who did nothing…..even the victims….even the victims. Judgment awaits us all.

    It is God’s judgment alone that matters, Renita. All other judgment, apart from God’s, is sin. But there is an important, crucial, caveat. God has empowered many to discern His judgments. Those whose faith is true and tested, have always been empowered.

    Those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and whose repented selves operate solely based on the promptings of the Spirit are so gifted. We all must believe this, for it is so.

    Speaking for myself, I am not yet so fully gifted. Sin is still an issue for me. It is an ambition though,….. a holy one, a just purpose….. If it is God’s will for me and I continue to pursue repentance honestly, again following the promptings of the Spirit, it should be regarded as an expected blessing.

    For me, for you, for Mr. Wiesel, for anyone.

    May 25, 2015
    • Paul Johnston #

      I have some final words on this subject. Words that I believe are inspired.

      After rereading the original post and the subsequent comments I was concerned (and a little embarrassed, truth be told) that I may have unintentionally hijacked the Godly purpose of this post. I crafted a short two paragraph response redirecting my words towards our Syrian brothers and the horrific plight of their families and nation. They were good words I think, words of affirmation and prayer but before I could click, “post comment” my Spirit troubled.

      It seemed to me that God was asking me if I was satisfied with what I had written. Were the word all that should be said or just what I wanted to say. So as has become my habit now, when posting, I stopped and prayed. I did not get the sense that God wanted me to post these words as they were. I did not sense the Spirit confirming that these words were from Him. So I erased them and prayed some more.

      To the best of my understanding this is what I think I am supposed to say. Brother Subhi and Father Lukas are answering the call to be Saints. They are Christ on earth. Angels rejoice at their names. They are cloaked in the armor of faith. We are to pray for them daily. For courage, for protection, for the constant renewing of their faith that allows them to continue to love such a merciless enemy.

      Our words are not useless. Though we be privileged, though we are not being put to the test, we are needed. Our words as prayers are invaluable to the cause. We must not become self conscious or suspicious of our motives. It is the spirit of the destroyer who would have us think that, not the Spirit of our Lord.

      Mustards seeds will move mountains if we will all do our part.

      May 26, 2015
      • Thanks for sharing this, Paul. I appreciate the prayer and the care that you put into choosing these words. I, for one, am very encouraged and convicted by these last two paragraphs, particularly the last one. Such a timely reminder for me.

        May 27, 2015
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Funny thing, it was the last two paragraphs that were missing the first time around.

    May 28, 2015

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