Sounds and Reflections

As I was walking through my neighborhood this morning, I could hear church bells ringing out of my left ear and the call to prayer out of my right ear. I was struck by the mixture of these sounds and the meaning they convey to the surrounding community, Christian and Muslim alike. Yet I wondered to myself. How much is the surrounding community oblivious to the sounds around them as they go about their business of the day? Do they appreciate the complexity of the society they live in? In fact do any of us really appreciate the complexity of the world we live in or do we paint things black and white as we attempt to categorize and make sense out of what seems, at times, so senseless?

As I was walking through my neighborhood this morning, I could hear church bells ringing out of my left ear and the call to prayer out of my right ear. I was struck by the mixture of these sounds and the meaning they convey to the surrounding community, Christian and Muslim alike. Yet I wondered to myself. How much is the surrounding community oblivious to the sounds around them as they go about their business of the day? Do they appreciate the complexity of the society they live in? In fact do any of us really appreciate the complexity of the world we live in or do we paint things black and white as we attempt to categorize and make sense out of what seems, at times, so senseless?

Living in the Middle East for 28 years has taught me a few things. One such insight is that I am in a part of a world full of many tones between black and white. Things are not always what they appear to be nor are they easy to understand. Yet I know that there is a general level of discomfort among progressive thinking Turks and among Turkish Christians in general as a level of paranoia in the guise of nationalism rises. When people feel a strong need to assert an identity of who is "right" and therefore who is "wrong", I worry about who it is making those determinations. What is truly beneficial to a people is to have open and honest dialogue in an atmosphere of acceptance, trust and security. Yet these qualities are rare in today's world.

One year has passed since the murder of the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. His murder has had a major impact in Turkey but it was not until this week that a true glimmer of justice has appeared. Through the hard work and courageous perseverance of a Turkish prosecutor many prominent figures in a huge ultranationalist gang have been detained in connection with Hrant Dink's murder as well as other murders and threats. Is this a sign of hope for justice?

I was in Beirut in November for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Near East School of Theology. To reach the celebration in the oldest Protestant church in the city, we had to enter through a perimeter of razor wire and police checkpoints. Once inside the church, it was truly a warm and joyful celebration attended by representatives of partners from within the city as well as from a number of countries. Our own UCC President John Thomas gave a moving speech as he represented one of the two founding bodies of the NEST. Dr Mary Mikhael, the President of NEST, was gracious and hospitable in true Middle Eastern style. One could momentarily forget the insanity outside the walls of the church. Yet bomb explosions and violence continue to try and destabilize Lebanon's future. Could a joyful celebration in the midst of great uncertainty be a sign of hope?

Yesterday (January 26th) I attended the closing ceremony of the Week of Christian unity. During the preceding week a worship service was held in a different church each night, with Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics praying together and enjoying one another's traditions. This closing ceremony was held at the church on the grounds of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the heart of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This Patriarchate can trace its beginning back to the beginning of the Christian tradition. One had to be in awe as scripture was read in Greek and Syriac among other languages. I thought to myself that these were the languages that theological discourse of our faith first occurred in. These were the languages that often misunderstood one another leading to some of the earliest splits in our Christian tradition. To this day these faith traditions have survived in the city that was one of the five most important Christian centers in the world. And there we all were Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic standing side by side, praying for the unity of the church, for the fellowship of all of humankind and for world peace. A blond blue-eyed group of students from St Olaf College in Minnesota was present and I thought of how small our world truly is. The Ecumenical Patriarchate remarked after the worship service that our hope truly lies with young people such as those young students from St Olaf. The Patriarch expressed hope to those who listened.

Ash Wednesday is coming upon us soon. I always liked the tradition of marking the beginning of Lent with an ashen imprint upon one's forehead. Lent is the period that marks Jesus' journey towards the cross, with all of the fears, dreams and hopes of a people bundled into one. Lent allows us to focus on the meaning of the journey of our faith as well as the destination. For some Christians in the world this journey is much more demanding than many of us could ever imagine. We must never become oblivious to God's still small voice nor complacent to what we truly value and love. Our faith at times may be the only hope that carries us through the roughest of days and darkest of nights. Lent is the reminder that the journey must be experienced one step at a time. In the midst of days of uncertainty people of all faith traditions must walk together towards the dawn.

I want to end this letter thanking all of the wonderful people who hosted me, fed me, listened to me, and shared care and concern for me as I had a wonderful home assignment in Washington, California and Minnesota. May God bless you all in your continued ministries.

Selam / Shalom
Alison Stendahl