The Sunday after “Paris” an unusually tall Korean pastor stepped up to the podium and quietly faced his audience. Not young and not old and with only a hint of an accent he gently began to read the following passage:
You have heard that it was said, you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. Matthew 5:43-48.
“I know how hard it is to love these people who brought such carnage and pain upon the people of Paris,” he says. “But Christ has taught us to love even these. And while we know at the same time we love them we also must seek justice, yet it must be justice with love, and in God’s direction. It is not ours to hate.” What is so remarkable is that the pastor is a Chaplain speaking on a military base, his audience filled with military women and men, soldiers and sailors and airmen who indeed might one day be called upon to participate as God’s tools in His justice upon evil.
The service went on with another Chaplain who, in the midst of our anxiety, taught us what Central’s pastors taught only a few days before.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 4-6.
In the midst of pain. In the midst of it all, we are taught love and we are taught thanksgiving. God does require these things of us.
In the early fall of 1968 a young newlywed woman stepped onto a train in Yokosuka, Japan, nervous but determined to make her way from the port city to Tokyo, some 45 miles away. It was not the distance that bothered her. It was her circumstances. She was alone. She was American. She had been in Japan all of two days, never having been in a foreign country before. She was a single blond presence in a sea of dark haired Japanese rushing shoulder to shoulder on the crowded platforms and onto the trains. Her husband was on board the 7th Fleet Flag Ship, the USS Oklahoma City, steaming south to Vietnam, where the war was raging. Lugging her oversized over packed suitcase her goal was to reach the parents of her husband’s best friend, who happened to be living in Tokyo, and who could provide safe haven until her husband returned some weeks later. The complication was she had to change trains somewhere between the two cities and the station signs were all in Japanese writing, directions given her from others not really very clear. The train moved forward. Very few Japanese spoke any English during those days. Would she get stranded in some out of the way Japanese town? How could she know when and where to change trains?
As the train left the station she gazed around at the faces of the passengers. Was there someone there she could ask for help simply by saying “Tokyo?” It was only 23 years since the end of World War II. Japan had not yet transformed itself into the very modern country it is today. There were those around her who certainly looked like they were old enough to have been participants in that war, and indeed to have survived the terrible aftermath. Was there hatred, or as she believed, certain hatred there? She turned to young school girls, obvious from their uniforms, books, and fresh young faces. Might they speak a little English learned from their classes? “Tokyo?” she queried. “Tokyo?” pointing to the trains outside. Giggles all around but no English, no pointed directions, and no help. Then the little miracle happened. The train stopped. An unsmiling Japanese man, looking very much like a veteran of the war, walked over, picked up her suitcase, said nothing, but led her out onto the platform, fighting his way and hers through hundreds of others going against them in the opposite direction. He eventually stopped at another train, set down her suitcase, and disappeared. He never said a word. But she knew this was the train to Tokyo and she called “thank you” in Japanese, the only words she knew. He did not turn around and she never saw him again. Had there ever been hate there? Or was the hate just gone? The face was not kind but the actions were.
I wish I could say I had prayed for help in those earlier moments. I did not. But I did say a prayer of thanksgiving when I arrived in Tokyo, and I knew then that whatever the past, this was no time to hate.
Fast-forward 47 years, that same blond woman, now mature and considerably older, sits on a plane leaving Seoul, South Korea. This time my husband is with me, sitting in the aisle seat on my left and an Asian woman of unknown origin to me in the window seat to my right. She is elderly, and obviously unfamiliar with the plane or what she is supposed to do. I suspect she has never been on a plane before. I soon realized she would need help. The Korean flight attendants tried to talk to her but she did not understand. And they did not understand her. Was she Chinese, Japanese, other? Her elderly face full of wrinkles and sagging skin hid clues and although she tried to talk to me I understood nothing. My mind flashed back to the incident so many years ago when a stranger in a train station helped me in my uneasy fear. And here I was in another day of concern, Paris only a few days past. Twelve and one–half hours of flight lay ahead. Ok, no time for hate, no time for fear. It was time to love and to help a fellow traveler, a stranger lost in a foreign world of a large and crowded airplane. She became my mother on that flight and I became her daughter. I buckled her seat belts, ordered her food, directed her to the bathroom, and got her help whenever I could understand her needs. And maybe in some small way I repaid the kindness of another stranger so many years ago.
Despite all the evil and fear in the world today we have a choice. Do we act with love, in big ways or small? Or do we succumb to hate. Not long ago I discovered some of the writings of a little known writer who, under the most horrific circumstances, answered that question for herself, and perhaps for us, too.
Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), a young Dutch Jewish woman, died in Auschwitz at the age of 29. In her early years she led a life many of us would not have approved. But war and study led her to become and express a deeply ecumenical mysticism, drawing on scripture, literature, and Christianity. She wrote many letters and journal entries that showed her incredible growth as a child of God. A few months before she died she wrote the following entry:
God is not accountable to us, but we are to Him. I know what may lie in wait for us. Even now I’m cut off from my parents and cannot reach them…I am also aware that there may come a time when I shan’t know when they might be deported to perish miserably in some unknown place. I know this is perfectly possible…the English radio has reported that seven hundred thousand Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives.
And yet I don’t think life is meaningless. And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.
June 29, 1942. [excerpt from Etty Hillesum, Essential Writings; Modern Spiritual Masters Series, Orbis Books, 2009]
So here I sit, a couple of weeks after returning from Korea, listening to Christmas music and reliving the words of yesterday’s sermon. It is advent now. We are told to anticipate the joy, the celebration of the birth of our promised savior. We are to prepare for his arrival as did the prophets of old, know the joy, the excitement of the “wait.” The parties and the gifts are ok. But the anticipation of this advent season is the most important gladness we can know. And we also know from the teachings of that coming savior there is no time to hate, not now, not ever.