Lessons from the Christians in the Middle East

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It’s been almost a year now since our family moved, rather suddenly, away from Iraq. So much has happened, and it’s still an ongoing whirlwind. Moving across the globe and settling in, especially on short notice, isn’t easy, and that’s an understatement!

As the one year mark nears, it’s a good time to reflect back a bit, not only on where we’ve come this year, but also on what we left behind. A person’s past plays a unique role in their life; even though they move on, they can never fully leave it behind. Every experience – tears and laughter, success and failure, fears and longings remain indelibly engraved in the memory of the mind and, even more deeply in the memory of the heart.

Yes, I’m very happy to be living life as it is now, with the unique beauty and trials of suburban American life as a working Catholic wife and mother, but a piece of my heart was left behind in the rugged, and pain-filled beauty of a missionary life in the Middle East, and a piece of the Middle Eastern peoples and lands seems still resides in my heart and always will. Whether or not you ever have, or will, see the beauty of the sun rising and setting over the pink stone ridges of Petra, felt the waters of the River Jordan where Our Lord was baptized, bargained and hassled in souks, enjoyed the fresh aromas and tastes of Mediterranean cuisine, and experienced first-hand the warmth and determination of the Middle Eastern peoples, I believe all of us can learn a few timely lessons from our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters and the experiences they are going through.

A cultural heritage, in this case, the origins of the Judeo-Christian heritage, is worth preserving. Why do many Middle Eastern Christians want to stay in the Middle East instead of moving to a different country? They want to preserve what is theirs, and ours – the heritage and culture of our fathers in faith.

  • The oldest, continuously inhabited community resided on a hilltop in Erbil, Iraq, from at least 5000 BC, possibly earlier, until 2007. The “citadel” is still there and can be visited. The first picture shows the citadel as it looks today; the second shows it depicted in 15th Century art.
By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

15th C Erbil

  • Nearby, in Jordan, lies Petra, a city cut out of rock ridges dating back to the 4th Century BC, and a sight to behold. According to tradition, Petra is where Aaron, Moses’ brother died and is buried (Mount Hor), as well as the location where Moses hit a rock with his staff and brought forth water.

Petra
 

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  • The magi most likely came from a Zoroastrian priestly tribe that resided in the region of modern-day Iraq and Iran. Zoroastrian palaces and places of worship can’t be found on maps, but can be visited by accompanying local people who know the layout of the land and where these heritage sites lie, hidden from the rest of the world. The tales of the magi and the signs in the sky that led them to Jerusalem are still passed down as oral tradition.

Zoroastrian Worship

  • What’s in a name? You know the passage in the Bible that gives Jesus geneology (Jesus, son of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, and so on)? Many Middle Eastern cultures still preserve that sense of heritage. If you ask even young children, they can go back telling you their father’s name, grandfather’s name, great-grandfather’s name, and so on, for many generations. Their heritage is a part of who they are, and they are proud of it.
  • Where is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery? Iraq. The tombs of the prophets and other Biblical figures? All across the region.
  • Do you want to hear the language Jesus spoke? Aramaic is still the mother-tongue of the Chaldean Christians. It’s not only the language of their liturgy, but also the language that fills their homes. The Mass closest to the structure of the original Christian liturgy from the Church in Jerusalem? The Chaldean liturgy, also celebrated mainly in Iraq.

And that’s just a few examples of the rich Christian heritage safe-guarded in the Middle East. A comprehensive list would go on, and on and on…

We are One Body in Christ. The Middle Eastern Christians are showing us the suffering face of Christ right now. Their example from afar, as well as their presence among our communities gives us the opportunity to reflect on the redemptive value of suffering, take it upon ourselves to be vessels of consolation and solidarity, and make sure that, in whatever life circumstances we are currently living, we too show the face of Christ to the world – the suffering face of Christ, joyful face of Christ, compassionate face of Christ, Resurrected face of Christ. The suffering, challenges and beautiful testimony of our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters isn’t just something happening far away, across the oceans. It is something that touches the deepest fibers of our entire faith community. As the one Body of Christ, united through baptism, their faith is our faith, their heritage our heritage. The history they go through now is not isolated to the Middle East; it will always be part of our shared history of Christianity.

Attitude makes as difference. We can’t wish away reality, but how we perceive it makes a difference. If you’ve read or watched any mainstream media pieces on the Middle East, you’ve no doubt heard about the refugee camps in Iraq. If you go to Iraq, you won’t hear about refugee camps. You’ll hear about “centers” for displaced “families and relatives”. The difference? A matter of perspective and attitude. Many places in the Middle East, including schools and Church communities have opened their arms to the people who had to leave their homes behind. These people are welcomed as friends and family. The term “family/relative centers” emphasize this bond of friendship and solidarity, and reflect the hope and expectation that the current situation won’t last forever. It would be beautiful if each of us and our families viewed everyone who crosses our path and needs our help as family.

Looking to foster a more positive attitude towards something you are facing in your life? There’s a lot we can’t change in life, so let’s begin with what we can… Here are two stories that have helped me – you might like them too.

  • There once was a woman who woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and noticed she had only three hairs on her head. “Well,” she said, “I think I’ll braid my hair today.” So she did and she had a wonderful day. The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and saw she had only two hairs on her head. “Hmm,” she said, “I think I’ll part my hair down the middle today.” So she did and she had a grand day. The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and noticed that she had only one hair on her head. “Well,” she said, “today I’m going to wear my hair in a ponytail.” So she did and had a fun, fun day. The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and noticed that there wasn’t a single hair on her head. “Yay!” she exclaimed. “I don’t have to fix my hair today!” Author Unknown.
  • The second story is too long to type, so here’s a link: Choosing Life. Not sure if it’s true or not, but it has a message.

Forgiveness. A political solution in the Middle East is necessary, but won’t work miracles. Ending  the violence will be STEP ONE. The processes of grief, healing and forgiveness will take much longer. Countless people, including children, in the Middle East and other regions of the world are now trying to forgive others for crimes against humanity that they have witnessed or suffered from. They count on our prayers for their path forward. God-willing, our children will never be in this position. Nevertheless, it’s very important for us to teach them forgiveness – what it means and what it doesn’t mean, why it’s important, and how beautiful it can be. When forgiveness seems impossible, we often have the wrong understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t easy, but it’s something we can do. It’s something our kids can do. Contrary to what we sometimes believe based on the popular adage “forgive and forget”, Christian forgiveness doesn’t mean feeling good, forgetting past wrongs or necessarily rebuilding destroyed relationships. It does involve setting the offender free from bondage by releasing them from what they “owe” you, as the Lord teaches us in Matthew 18:21-35. This parable shows us how the Lord forgives a servant his debt and expects that servant to do the same. When the servant refuses to release from what he owes him, the servant himself is no longer worthy of forgiveness.  When someone has seriously wronged us, forgiveness is hard to come by, but it’s an essential Christian value that serves not only to give others the opportunity to experience mercy, but to also help us be more aware of the great mercy we have received.

If any of you have a minute, now, or on a daily basis, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako has written a prayer for peace with Iraq and other countries in the Middle East:

Lord, The plight of our country is deep and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening. Therefore, we ask you Lord to spare our lives, and to grant us patience, and courage to continue our witness of Christian values with trust and hope. Lord, peace is the foundation of life; Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us to live with each other without fear and anxiety, and with dignity and joy. Glory be to you forever. Amen.

(Patriarch Louis Sako)

God bless you all!

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