It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
It was a delight to meet with local Muslims today to affirm our shared concern for one another, our city and peace in the world. A number of people spoke well, not least Dr Shahab Abdullah the spokesman for the local Iraqi Muslim community. Tea and cake then helped seal the deal. What a contrast with the over-reaction of some, including those who closed three local military museums this week, thus, to my mind, exacerbating community anxiety rather than alleviating it. Even the police present seemed a bit embarrassed about currently having to wear firearms as part of the security reaction to recent events. Whether that is alarmist or not, it certainly does not reassure those of us who tend to feel less secure in the presence of weaponry rather than with it. More positively, it was a joy to speak with five Indonesian Muslim women who are in their last week of five in Toowoomba. They spoke with wonderful pleasure of their experience here, not least the excited interest they had conjured up in visiting a local school yesterday. Once again the benefits of 'table fellowship' shone through: last week in the Buddhist monastery, Sunday in St Luke's, today among USQ Muslims. Such is an important path to peace. As another Christian pointed out to me last week, in a much more conservative Christian setting, Jesus was much more a guest than a host. Should more be willing to step out of their comfort zones and risk vulnerability, there would similarly be much more joy and solidarity to quell our own anxieties and transform the world's genuine fears. Anyone for another cup of tea?
John Donne's view that 'no one is an island' becomes ever more real in our increasingly interconnected world. Recent violence across the globe has certainly impacted on Australians in a variety of ways, including directly in Toowoomba with the tragic loss of two deeply loved and respected doctors in the destruction of the MH17 flight. Others are directly or indirectly affected by war and violence elsewhere. This can easily raise tensions and prejudices. In addition to a number of community laments and intercessions (such as our ecumenical and interfaith service after the MH17 tragedy and the Day of Prayer for Iraq), local Toowoomba leaders are therefore renewing our efforts to work together for peace and harmony. For peace is not something we can take for granted but always has to be renewed by active relationships and purposeful prayer and action. In this we remain blessed in Toowoomba by our 'Model City' peace and harmony network. It was thus good this week to meet with other members of our Goodwill Committee to talk about how we can make a common stand against violence (see conversation photo above), reaffirming the commitment of all our varied faith and community groups to nurture a more inclusive and humane future. ABC journalist Belinda Sanders was then able to interview us for local radio, helping the positive values of our faiths and communities to balance out the violent excesses which are often over-exaggerated by less responsible media and which then feed negative responses based too much on fear and insecurity.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it." (1 Corinthians 12.26) - this is part of the reality of our contemporary lives in the one world we now inhabit. It is very difficult not to be affected by the sufferings of other parts of the world, particularly if we share in Christian relationship. The situation in Iraq is a particularly grave one. As the Archbishop of Canterbury observed recently:
what is happening right now in northern Iraq is off the scale of human horror… we cry to God for peace and justice and security throughout the world, and especially for Christians and other minority groups suffering so deeply in northern Iraq.
It is therefore a sad but important duty to share in prayer and solidarity with those who suffer. As we do so, so much of scripture also comes alive in a powerful manner and we are drawn back to the cross and mercy-power of God.
Yesterday, in St Luke's Church, we shared a particularly poignant Prayer together with other Christians. The initiative was from a young Christian, Courtney Heyward, from another (independent Evangelical) church, who has been touched to the heart by the situation in Iraq. It was a reflective occasion, with readings from scripture interspersed with times for silent or shared prayer. Stones, or 'prayer rocks', were given to everyone present to hold as we prayed, reminding us of the hard things endured by others (including the burying of loved ones by the side of the roads of flight) and of the rock of God's love at the heart of all things. Towards the end of the gathering, each of us laid our stone at the foot of the cross and lit a candle of hope. We also shared some ways in which we may offer practical support to the persecuted, including giving to appeal funds and advocating for the needs of refugees. May God's mercy and strength comfort, turn the hearts of those who inflict terror, grant wisdom to those in leadership, and renew all who suffer.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.