Saturday, 7 January 2017

My goals for 2017

I know it’s a week into 2017 already, a little late to write out resolutions. But there are still 358 days to go, so I figure I’m good. I wanted to think carefully about what I would like to achieve this year, and how. Resolutions can be so vague that it makes it all the harder to keep them, because we don’t even know where the heck to start. For this reason, I wanted to reflect upon my priorities, upon the values I would like to cultivate in 2017, and the goals I would like to achieve.
As a Christian, my #1 goal is to become more and more like Jesus. I’m not afraid to say it and I’m couldn’t care less if it makes me sound like a religious nutter. To me, it’s not about being a religious nut, but about bearing spiritual fruit (I didn’t come up with that one, but I think it's a great phrase).
To become more like Jesus, I mean to study his life and character more closely than ever. So I have decided not only to read through the gospels again, but also to read (or read again) books that help me know Jesus more and better. I am currently reading NT Wright’s “The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion”. I will read others, too : Philip Yancey, CS Lewis, Stanley Hauerwas and Rachel Held Evans are on my to-read list.

The issue with sticking to this is that I get distracted easily. And guess what it my main distraction: the Internet. I spend a lot of time on social media. I do not intend to take extreme measures, however, as the Internet is a valuable tool, and social media enables me to keep in touch with loved ones who live far away.
I am going to have a day off the internet, every week. It will benefit me in lots of ways. Whenever I want to sit down and concentrate on something, I always think, “Hang on, let me check what’s going on on Facebook first”. If I give myself a day off a week, I will be able to answer myself  back, “Today is your day off, girl. You can always catch up with the world tomorrow.”
I intend to study Jesus’ life and character, but there are already numerous things I know about him, so I would like to emulate the aspects of his personality I alread know. Jesus preached non-violence (Matthew 5:5, 9:38-42) and taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). His Kingdom is one where there will be justice and the oppressed will be defended (Matthew 5:6, 7, 10; Matthew 25:34-40, Luke 4:18-21). He told us we were to be recognisable by our love for one another (John 13:34-35). I’m going to try and cultivate those attitudes and actions, through specific courses (I am going to register for a course on non-violent social action and I am going to complete an online Amnesty International course about the rights of refugees). I also want to pray for my enemies - for people I don’t like.
In order to reach my goals, here are my resolutions:
1. Every Sunday, I will keep off the internet. My laptop will be closed. I will read instead from the New Testament and from Christian authors.
2. I will pray for loved ones every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
3. I will write to, make a call to or visit someone every week.
4. Every Friday, I will spend some time praying for people I dislike.
5. I will enrol for the peaceful social action course and attend it; and I will complete the Amnesty International course about the rights of refugees. I will set aside half a day every week to work on the Amnesty course. The day I set aside will depend on my work schedule (it’s different every week) as I will need to be at home to do this, obviously.
6. Every time I want to curse someone (be it a driver who cuts me off, an internet troll or some politicians whose views I abhor), I will say a quick prayer for them.
Have a wonderful 2017. Be the change you want to see. Be kind to yourself and to others. Plant flowers; plant hope. Cultivate joy.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

If I am not part of the solution, I am part of the problem.

When Trump first announced he was running as a candidate for the Republican party, I dismissed it as a joke. Then, as months passed, mockery gave way to disbelief, then to anger, frustration and indignation. How could such racism, bigotry, and misoginy appeal to so many people? How could someone whose speeches had no substance and no content convince voters? 

I cried and shouted and poured contempt on Trump supporters, and on all those who supported fascist politicians. I despised them for their perceived stupidity and bigotry and for their hatred. I felt proud that I was "not like them" (Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, anyone?).

Tonight, I read this article, and it dawned on me that like any other story, it's not all simple; it's not all black and white. It's not just stubborn Fundies. It's also people who have been left behind by an elitist system, and felt more support was given to minorities than to them. And they have been deceived into believing Trump will fix that. (Or that a fascist European politician will fix that.)

And suddenly it dawned on me. I cannot humilate them into changing their minds. I cannot bully them into behaving like decent human beings. I cannot even try to "educate" them because by doing this, I am only arrogantly putting myself above them. Humiliating and despising them will only reinforce the problem. 

The only helpful, Jesus-like thing I can do is the same thing I have been doing for Muslims in my centre for asylum seekers, despite my initial fears and misgivings about Muslims: love them. Reach out to them. Listen to them. Seek to understand them. Show them empathy.

So this is where I want to start. Holy Spirit, enable me, because I cannot do this on my own.

I want to follow Jesus, and I foolishly believe love will save the world. You may tell me I am a fucking fool. You're most probably right.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Why I am not a Muslim, and why I love Muslims regardless

There is a lot of negative talk about Muslims, and many people are hostile to Islam because of terrorism. I have written about this issue time and again. Indeed, I feel upset, sad and angry when people demonize all Muslims because of Daesh. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people who are appalled by terrorism and Daesh just as we are, and the majority of Daesh victims are actually Muslims. I also deplore the fact that whenever someone commits a crime and is of Muslim background, the media is quick to highlight it, whereas they seldom mention origin when someone from a "White, Christian" background is the culprit.

I have no personal issue with Muslims. I have Muslim colleagues and I work within a predominantly Muslim environment (a majority of the asylum seekers currently staying in our Red Cross centre identify as Muslims). I love working with them.

Lately, I had a conversation around faith with a Muslim friend. When I said I was a believer, he said to me, "If you were a true believer, wouldn't you accept the Word of the Prophet Mohammed, as he was foretold in the Bible?" 

This is interesting, because looking into Islam, ironically, played a part in my choosing the Christian faith:

"I met a Muslim. We discussed God and religion, and I read some booklets about Islam. As a result, some of my beliefs were challenged. Indeed, I had always thought that all religions all led to God. However, in Islam you had to obey lots of rules and do good deeds, and then maybe, if you were found good enough, God would accept you. On the other hand, I was being told in Church that as a sinner, there was nothing I could do to make myself acceptable to a perfect, absolutely good God, and that all I could do was accept what Jesus had done for me and commit my life to Him. That wasn’t the same thing at all – one belief system told me I had to work hard to deserve God’s acceptance, and the other told me there was nothing I could do and nothing I needed to do, because God had already done it all for me… all I had to do was receive His gift.

I was extremely confused. I could see both beliefs couldn’t be true at the same time, because in all logic they were self-excluding. But I had no idea which one was right. Both seemed to make sense. I knew I had to choose one or the other, and I did want to please God and do what He required, but I simply didn’t know which way was the right one.

I was more attracted to Islam because it fitted my views about God and religion: God wanted us to obey a certain set of rules and be good, and when we'd die He would weigh our good and bad deeds on a pair of scales and see which way it tipped. But I could not dismiss Christianity, because it could make sense too."

I am not going to get into why I don't believe the Bible foretold Mohammed; many Christian theologians have done in much better than I could. I am just going to explain why, personally, I cannot embrace the Muslim faith: because of Jesus. 

Muslim doctrine denies core elements of my faith. It denies the divinity of Jesus, while believing he really was God incarnate is crucial to my faith: God to me is not abstract and aloof, he is close to us. He got his hands dirty. He shared in the messiness of humanity. He knows our struggles because he's lived through them. I would go as far as to say that God LEARNT from the incarnation: instead of an "academic" knowledge of the human experience, he knows because he experienced it personally, which makes him able to fully empathize with us. As far as I know, this is absent from Islam. Second, Muslim doctrine denies Jesus's death. To them Jesus never died: God subsituted him for someone else and gave that other someone the appearance of Jesus. First, why the trickery? Why would God deceive us? Second, Jesus' death and resurrection is crucial to my faith. They bring me redemption and hope. Whatever your theory of atonement is, Jesus had to die, if only to fully identify with us in our humanity. His death reconciled us with God - he took our sins upon himself so we could be free of that burden, freed to do good instead. And if he didn't die, neither did he rise - and then where is the hope of our own resurrection? Jesus's incarnation, life, death and resurrection bring me a hope and peace that I have not found in Islam (I have read Muslim booklets explaining the faith, booklets designed to win over converts, as well as several passages from translations of the Holy Quran). This is why I am not a Muslim.

This being said, I have no personal problems with Muslim people. They are my human brothers and sisters, created by God and loved by God. He knows their hearts and I do not, so I cannot presume to know whether they are "saved" or not (whatever that means). I can only follow Jesus' command to love them. I work among Muslims every day at the center for asylum seekers. They are humans. They can be kind, loving, funny, rude, angry, hospitable, touching, humble, proud, they can be peaceful and they can be violent. They are human brothers and sisters, not better than us and not worse, either.

Finally, I think as Christians, we can learn from the devotion to God we see in Islam. Who among us prays 5 times a day? I know I don't. Who fasts from sunrise till sunset for 40 days? I know I don't. Who learns verses of the Holy Scripture by heart in order to be closer to God? I know I don't. So I have a lot of respect for my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A time of violence and grief

I just switched on the news, and there it was. Another attack from "jihadists", this time targeting a church and murdering a priest. Violence goes on and on (and if we take off our Western-centered glasses for a second, we'll realise such attacks on Christians is nothing new at all).

I feel like my arms and legs have been cut off.

I want to believe in love, peace, and this crazy idea that we can all live together as the human brothers and sisters that we are. Yet, such horrendous acts scream at me that it cannot be. That humans are always going to tear each other apart. That I'd better give up on hope and love and peace. That I should be afraid of Muslims - afraid of the men and women and children I look after at the centre for asylum seekers and of the many other Muslims who live in my country. That I should hide away from them, be wary of them, push them out of my life and even out of my country. Just in case.

I don't want to listen to the screams of terrorism. I don't want to stop loving the people I work with. I don't want terrorism to colour my dealings with the Muslims I come across.

Let us not forget that Daesh aims to divide us, to create a rift between Muslims and the Western world. Let us not allow them to create that rift. Let us not allow them to divide us. I have said it before and I will say it again: the majority of Muslims are as appalled as we are. Besides, in Daesh-controlled territories, they are targeted too. Blaming Muslims and rejecting them will only create more tension, more hatred, and more potential terrorists. This is why I want to love Muslims and offer them my friendship: because I believe this is the only way we can resist a spiral of hatred and violence. To me, this is the only sustainable weapon we have against terrorism.

If you are grieving for Father Jacques Hamel, do not forget what he stood for: he was a Christian, he believed in Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ asked us to love our enemie and pray for them. Is it hard? Yes, it is. It is hard, painful, heart-wrenching, and dangerous. But this is what Jesus asks, and this is what Jesus did. He was brutally murdered, yet he prayed for his murderers. Jesus gave his life out of love for his enemies.

If you are a Christian, don't forget this: we are supposed to fight hate with love, persecution with prayer, evil with good. And if you are not a Christian, remember all that Father Jacques Hamel stood for, all he believed in. He would not want you to respond with hatred and vengeance.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Climb every mountain

Every year, Nicholas and I go to the French Alps for a couple of weeks. Nicholas cycles up the "cols" (mountain passes) that the Tour de France often goes through, and I hike in the mountains.

The first year, we went to the Col Agnel (Lamb's Pass), which marks the border with Italy. Looming above that pass is a 10,525-feet-high slate summit called le Pain de Sucre (the Sugar Loaf). It is a popular hike as you can enjoy a 360°-view from the top, allowing you to see Italian 12,602-feet-high Mount Viso, the beautiful Barre des Ecrins (Jewellery Case Range), and even the Mont Blanc on a clear day. I felt fascinated but I didn't have proper mountain hiking shoes back then, and decided not to risk it as the slope was very steep. I vowed to go the following year.

Alas, the following year, I sprained my foot on a ridiculously easy hike and had to stick to easy walks using hiking poles after that. And the next year, the Sugar Loaf was shrouded in clouds every time we up there.

So today, finally, I set off to hike up the Sugar Loaf. I had my good mountain shoes, a windproof jacket, and some food and water in my backpack. 

I had been walking for hardly half an hour when I noticed something moving up the slope. I squinted to see and realised they were six ibex (bouquetins) feeding. Unfortunately, my camera doesn't have a very good zoom, but here you can just about make them out.

I kept going up an easy track on the grassy slopes until I reached the Col Vieux (Old Pass), a mountain pass you can only reach on foot, as opposed to those you ride or cycle up, like Nicholas does. From there, the path got steeper and steeper. This doesn't necessarily bother me, when it means climbing amongst rocks you can hold on to. But this path was winding up in slate dust and stones that looked rather slippery, on a very steep rock face with a rather scary drop. And I had no hiking poles. Soon enough I felt utterly stuck.

Fortunately, a couple of fellow hikers passed by and I could ask for help. The man was very kind and reassuring and guided me along the path, and lent me his poles. His name was Jérémy, and his partner was Marguerite.

Reaching the top was breathtaking, and I don't think photos truly do it justice.

Mount Viso

We started the descent, which, paradoxically, was much easier as we took a different path that took us through some rocks we could support ourselves on. I was very grateful to those hikers for their help.

Fulfilling my dream of climbing up the Sugar Loaf leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm happy I did it, but I'm somewhat angry at myself for not realising how tricky the climb would be, and for not preparing accordingly. I feel I was careless, and put my life in danger. I don't know what I'd have done without those fellow hikers, and I'm grateful they helped me.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Voices of refugees: "They dug up our dead"

"I was a village chief.

Every year, we held a ceremony for our dead. We sang and danced in their honour. It was a way to pay our respects and to remember them with joy, even those who died long ago. We've had this ceremony for thousands of years.

One day, the djihadists came to the village during our ceremony. They said it was heresy. In fact, they called it 'shit'. They dug up our dead.

I was shot that day. The wound still causes me great pain in my right side.

One year, before the time the jihadists came, I filmed the ceremony on my phone. Look."

The video plays. Men and women dance in a row, chanting a joyful tune.

"I'm glad I still have this video. I listen to it before going to sleep, and then I spend a good night. If I don't listen to it, I start thinking of all the horrible things they did. So I listen to the music instead."

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Bible, homosexuality, and abomination

Last summer, I described how my beliefs about homosexuality had changed over time.
In Biblical times, the main purpose of couples was to produce offspring to ensure the continuity of the family line and the perennity of the group. If any people felt love and attraction towards the same sex, they probably weren't encouraged to form a lasting bond, as it would have been of little social use. Much more visible, however, would have been the sexual abuse of young boys - and therefore, it would have been vigorously condemned by anyone with a strong sense of morality. So, if Bible authors were familiar with abusive homosexual behaviour, but not with committed, faithful same-sex relationships, they would have called it wrong and immoral. This notion has been brought forward before by scholars and Christian LGBT advocates, and they've argued the case much more convincingly than I can. But recently, something unexpected came to support this theory for me.
I never thought that working in a centre for asylum seekers would help me better grasp the issue of homosexuality, and why it seems, on the surface, to be so adamantly condemned in Scripture. Yet, meeting people from different cultures throws a very interesting light on the morality of this issue.

In our center, we have been holding discussion panels about life in Belgium, and mentioning things such as gender equality, freedom of religion, and LGBT rights. The question of gay marriage got a variety of responses. Many people, including those coming from a Muslim background, were very matter-of-fact about it, saying that we all need to respect the life choices of other people. Some people from Africa got their Bibles out and emphatically argued that homosexuality was inherently sinful. 
But what I found particularly interesting was this: many of our residents from Afghanistan or Iraq, when confronted to Western acceptance of homosexuality, state dryly that there is no such thing in their country. Some Afghans even protested, "Pedophilia is illegal where we come from!". Aghast that they would make such a comparison, I dug further. They explained to me that in Afghanistan, there is no such thing as two men loving each other the way a man and his wife do (or at least, they're not aware of it). What they have often witnessed, however, is the abuse of young boys by older men, not only back home, but also during their journey to Europe. Hence the way they recoil from the very mention of homosexuality, and the way they were quick to state that such things were illegal. Of course, we explained to them that pedophilia is illegal (and immoral) in Europe too, and that being attracted to someone of the same sex is totally different from child abuse. But I find their comments and reactions very enlightening. If the only type of homosexual relationship you'd ever witnessed was one of abuse and control, driven by lust and the desire to overpower the other person, rather than committed, loving relationships, you'd find the practice despicable, no doubt. You would be very likely to call it... an abomination. Wouldn't you?