Transitions

by Matt Bell

Spring is always a busy time for students — tests, exams, final papers, and the like. This semester however is a little bit different for me. Because, by the great grace of the Lord God Almighty, I will graduate on May 20th! 

Paige and I were looking at a list of things that cause stress and “finishing school” was one of them. Along with buying a house — which we are also doing! If all goes well, we will move in sometime this week! 

So times are busy and strange for the Bell family. Internship responsibilities and paperwork for Perkins is ramping up and I’m also studying for a content exam in 7th-12th grade Social Studies. If I pass this content exam, then I’m eligible for teacher training and then hirable by various school districts. 

“But I thought Matt was going to stay at KPUMC until he gets ordained and then gets his own church?” Well, not quite. 

Since day one in seminary I was that one student who had a complicated answer to the seemingly simple question, “Why are you here?” Most students answered something like, “I want to be ordained and seminary is on the checklist of things to do on the way to ordination.” I typically answered that question like this, “I’m open to being ordained, I really am, but if that call isn’t for me I really don’t want to pick up that phone. I’m really interested in the intersection of religion and public schools. I had a world religions course in college and I just think everyone should know about religion and the best way to do that is to teach about and raise awareness of religion in public schools.” Upon hearing that, the questioners nod their head and scrunch up their noses mouthing, “Okay…” 

I came to seminary, Dallas, and KPUMC with this goal on my mind. I view jumping into education as my ministry environment and so have craved all the skills and knowledge one gets being in seminary and working at a church. And, let me tell you, I got what I came for. Perkins is a great seminary and KPUMC is a great church. I’ve learned about myself, the world, people, and God in ways I could not have imagined before arriving and I am so eternally grateful for this. My experiences will be carried into whatever job I hold next and beyond. 

I’m excited, nervous, scared, and hopeful about these upcoming months and anticipate a lot of change in my personal and professional life. Even after I leave KPUMC in August I won’t be far because the house we’ve found is about 15 minutes south. So whatever school I end up teaching in you’ll still be seeing us around ☺!  But first I need to finish this degree!

The Longest Week

If you haven’t noticed, the Scriptures chosen for Lent’s sermons are all drawn from the last couple of days of Jesus’ life. On the first Sunday of Lent, I spoke about the Last Supper, and last Sunday, I preached on Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slumbered. This week, the Scripture covers the moment of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:39-46).

I think it’s important to spend as much time as possible on the passion (which means “suffering”) and crucifixion of Jesus, because the bulk of the gospels are consumed with these events. In fact, a New Testament scholar once described a gospel as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction.” 

The point is that the passion and crucifixion of Jesus deserve a good deal of our time and attention. Lent is the perfect time to do that. In fact, it was designed to force us into a time of reflection upon these events and determine what they mean to our faith.

It means a number of different things to me, but in this space I simply want to highlight the vital and significant fact that Jesus suffered.

If the incarnation is true, if Jesus really was God incarnate, then it is highly significant that he suffered. Traditional Christian orthodoxy holds that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human.” If this is correct, then it means that, whatever divine characteristics he might have had, he was also very much flesh and blood. He didn’t get a break from the pain, from the shame and embarrassment, from the horror of what unfolded around him. He didn’t know everything that was going to happen to him; the prayer in the garden reveals that he was afraid and anxious. 

The reason that this is important to me is because it means that Jesus and I are connected by human suffering. Neither of us are exempt from the world’s worst. I feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus in this matter. And not only me, but all of those who suffer, all of the world’s people who feel alone or hopeless or afraid.

Taking the doctrine of incarnation one step further, this means that God understands my suffering. When I experience fear, I can trust that God empathizes with that emotion. When I experience pain, I know that God has been in pain. 

And this means that the God we worship is not an impersonal, abstract, or vague notion. It means that God has entered the human situation and chosen to be on our side. God is with us, not against us.

Everybody hurts in a different way, but the story of Jesus’ passion ties all our suffering together. Lent teaches us that our suffering is not meaningless or vain, but that it will be turned into glorious victory on Easter Sunday.

To Welcome Like the Lebanese

It’s not like I had a lifelong dream to visit Lebanon. To be honest, I’d never given it a thought. Beirut is just not one of those vacation spots that pops up on most people’s bucket list.

I didn’t plan our Lebanon trip because of a desire to vacation, however. Instead, my colleagues and I wanted to travel to the front line of the Syrian refugee crisis, and see what is going on.

And Lebanon is on the front line. In fact, it shares a long border with Syria, and for the last five years, has borne the brunt of much of the civil war’s fallout. It has received the second-most number of refugees from the conflict — over 1.5 million people.

That number sounds abstractly high by itself, but when you consider the fact that the country of Lebanon only had a population of 4 million before the war, then you can see how all-consuming the crisis has become for the Lebanese.

Everywhere we went, we heard how difficult the Syrian crisis has been on the hosting community. We found municipalities which are overwhelmed by water, electricity, and sewage needs. We discovered overcrowded schools and hospitals. And we heard ordinary citizens worry about the future.

Despite all that, the Lebanese are doing their best to serve the needs of their Syrian neighbors. We met a number of highly committed and dedicated Lebanese men and women who were spending large amounts of time to care for the refugees amongst them. We saw multiple NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at work in the country, providing family planning assistance, health care, education, vocational training, and more. 

Our team started calling these Lebanese folks we met, our “heroes.” They are doing their best to serve where they are needed. They are Christian — Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. They are Muslim — Sunni and Shiite. They are Druze, atheist, Buddhist, and agnostic.

I sense that what unites them is a shared sense of vulnerability. In other words, the Lebanese people are intimately acquainted with suffering. They know what it is like to be displaced.

The Lebanese have vivid memories of two major disasters — the civil war of 1975-1990, and the Israel bombing of 2006. Both events displaced large numbers of Lebanese people, destroyed infrastructure, and destabilized civil society.

But the people of Lebanon received generous help from other peoples, survived the conflict, drew together, and forged a path forward for a hopeful future. There are lots of challenges still, to be sure, but the point is that the Lebanese know what it is like to be in need. They know what it’s like to have to rely on aid, on the kindness of others.

So when the Syrian people are in need, the Lebanese have resolved to receive them with open arms. They share, not only a common border, but a common future.

The same kind of logic is at work in the Torah. Time and time again, God’s law demands that the Israelites care for the alien and stranger. This is not an abstract rule; it is rooted in empathy. “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34).

The Israelites are to welcome the stranger in need because they have known what it is like to be a stranger in need.

And now let’s turn the spotlight on our own nation. Shouldn’t this country of immigrants, this motley collection of persecuted and battered refugees, which has found refuge in these amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, also open its doors to those who are now persecuted and battered? We share a common story of suffering and hope, a narrative of displacement and rebirth.

Why are we afraid of those who should remind us of ourselves? Why is the Statue of Liberty so dark these days?