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Witnesses to the Light (John 1:6-8)

A Letter from Elmarie and Scott Parker, serving in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria

December 2020

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Dear Partners in Christ’s Gospel,

As the liturgical year comes to an end and we live into a new church liturgy year ushered in by Advent, I am captivated by how John the Baptist is described in the Gospel of John: John “…himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

There is grace in that description, and an invitation. At a time when so much around me feels chaotic and well beyond my control, when the powers and principalities of evil seem to be crowding out any glimmers of hope, somehow, it is a relief to again be reminded that I don’t need to be the light overcoming all that seeks to obliterate life. Rather, I need only to be a witness to the One who is the Light—a witness to the person, character, values, priorities and ways of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

The liturgical texts that accompany John 1:6-8 on the Advent calendar include 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. I invite you to read these texts. For me, they help to enflesh how I am called to bear witness to the Light. Especially, these days, the call in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 to hold onto good and reject every kind of evil.

My friend and colleague, Dr. George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) here in Beirut, captured well how our partners, in the midst of multiple severe challenges, continue to hold onto good, hold onto hope, and reject every kind of evil, and in this way continue to bear witness to the Light. His reflection follows:

Scott and Elmarie Parker

“…let me end by saying that facing crises is never just a matter of finding the right economic and social and political path to follow or measures to adopt. For us, as a theological seminary, there must be a spiritual will to fight, to resist, and withstand. Those of us who are still here are not about to give up. As I told our students and the whole NEST community in the Opening Convocation this year, we cannot be like those who live without hope or without the conviction that life and history have meaning and purpose. We belong to an ecclesial institution which chose a motto for its mission and put it on its theological periodical, the NEST Theological Review, that verse from 2 Cor. 4: 6: “Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” We are entrusted with this light, and we cannot but keep it shining, yet it is at times like these that we realize how vulnerable and threatened and weak and fragile these earthen vessels are, namely we and our situation; but that, as the apostle tells us, is to teach us that the power belongs to God, not to us. So, I told our community, “Let our guiding thought for this academic year be, what the apostle Paul told the Corinthians about how Christians, in whose hearts the light of Christ shines, live in the midst of trials and difficulties of this life:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” – 2 Cor. 4:8-10
Afflicted, depressed, perplexed, confused, persecuted, surrounded by negativity –these are the marks of our lives today, here in this very country and region. We see nothing positive on the horizon; we don’t understand what is happening around us or why; we wonder anxiously about the future; how can this be happening to us? How come our world just crumbled around us, while we were making other plans? What Paul describes here is precisely the situation of life in our Lebanon today, but Christian life does not stop here; it introduces a preposition, a conjunction and a negation: “but not”:

“… afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down but not destroyed;”
It is this negative conjunction that gives meaning and value to our lives as Christians. Without it we would be crushed, desperate, forsaken, destroyed. Without it, the three 3 blows of 2020 would have knocked us out already. But, thanks be to God who never forsakes us, and thanks be to our friends and partners all over the world who are standing beside us, praying for us and supporting us morally and materially. It is not the first severe crisis we are facing, nor will it be the last. The important thing is never to lose faith and hope, for our God is the Lord who creates out of nothing and raises the dead.

To be Christian is to witness, to serve, to be for God and for others. Without authentic witness to the incarnate God, the Word who became flesh, to Jesus of Nazareth who lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again for the salvation of human beings, Christian existence in this part or any other part of the world is meaningless. Christians do not have to invent a new witness; it suffices if they witness in their lives, in their deeds and words and their whole existence to the gospel of forgiveness, reconciliation and love in appropriate and relevant ways which may change and be renewed, but it is the same witness: that God so loved the world that God gave His Son, Himself for it, and that Jesus Christ, “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born of the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name…” (Phil. 2:6-9).

This is not a new witness, but it is a unique one which only the committed Christian and the faithful community of faith can render, and it ought not to be absent from the Middle East [or the world], especially in these days.”

Scott and I remain so very grateful for you—you who have faithfully partnered with us and with your Middle Eastern siblings in Christ. In this season of Advent, as we once again pay special attention to the longing deep within us and in all of creation for the wholeness of God, may Immanuel, God with Us, the one who is the Light, continue to fuel you and sustain you in every way—that together we may continue to bear witness to the Light.

With deep gratitude and affection,

Elmarie and Scott Parker

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