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.
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.