Lord’s Day 11 (Q/A 29-30): THE AXIS MUNDI

29   Q.    Why is the Son of God called “Jesus,”
                meaning “savior”?

A.    Because he saves us from our sins,^1
and because salvation should not be sought
and cannot be found in anyone else.^2

^1 Matt. 1:21; Heb. 7:25
^2 Acts 4:12


30   Q.    Do those who look for
                their salvation in saints,
                in themselves, or elsewhere
                really believe in the only savior Jesus?

A.    No.
Although they boast of being his,
by their actions they deny
the only savior, Jesus.^1

Either Jesus is not a perfect savior,
or those who in true faith accept this savior
have in him all they need for their salvation.^2

^1 1 Cor. 1:13, 31;Gal. 3[:1-4]Gal. 5:4
^2 Heb. 12:2; Isa. 9:6; Col. 1:19-20; 2:10; John 1:16


Lord’s Day 11 (Q/A 29-30)
The Axis Mundi

After traveling in unfamiliar places and as a way to become re-acquainted to home and to our time zone, our family (or even just me when I return home) goes for comfort food, which for us is soup, and then we get into our pajamas and veg in our living room.  These experiences and sources center us back.

In the 155,000 miles I have traveled thus far as General Assembly Moderator, I carry in my travel bag homemade art and photos from my sons as a continual means to center me back to home.

Then in the adjacent compartment pouch in my luggage is a pocket Bible and a Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer.  These are the sources that center me upon the One who is our Center.

The 20th century historian of religion, the late Mircea Eliade, said that every religious culture has a symbol, a narrative, a myth that is the “axis mundi” or the cosmic axis, believed to be from which the center of universe emanates, the fulcrum or hinge.  From that “axis mundi” meaning and significance flows, explanatory power of existence flow.

Q/A 29-30 asserts for us what we confess as followers of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, the Son of God, the only Savior, is the “axis mundi.” In fact, He’s not only the Center; He is the Circumference, the Perimeter, and everything in-between. In other words, in Him we live, and move, and have our being.  From Him, our life flows. In Him, our life is nourished. Through Him, our life is anchored to the heart and life of God. By Him, our life is directed towards the broken and hurting world which He gave His life to save, reconcile, and heal.

While Q/A 29 confesses the unique, exclusive, and distinct person and identity of Jesus as the Savior and the Son of God, and, therefore, the only “axis mundi” from which all of life, meaning – in heaven and on earth – originate and find their meaning; Q/A 30 alerts us against attempts, strategies, ways and means in which we as human beings create other “axes mundi,” whether in the form of wood or metal, or in our own image – all the many ways that we (un)intentionally seek to live our lives away from the One who is the “axis mundi.”  To do so would be like placing our automobiles on another axes, spinning in other directions, rather than a life directed by Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

No amount of technological savviness, political connections, material or physical resources, personal charisma, education, family…not even our best and sincere intentions can save and redeem our hearts, souls, and lives. In the final, no one and nothing can save and redeem.  Otherwise, in the words of A.30, “Either Jesus is not a perfect savior, or those who in true faith accept this savior have in him all they need for their salvation.”

As I pen this reflection, I’m coming off of a long week of a funeral, a wedding, and a baptism. With each of these momentous events, I have carried with me in prayer for

-the death of an uncle in the Philippines
-my buddy’s niece who is a preemie needing surgery
-a deacon in my congregation desperately needing a liver transplant
-the gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai, India
-a chemical weapon attack in Syria and over 1 million children who are now refugees from Syria
-the senseless murder of a World War II veteran in Spokane, WA in the hands of two teenagers
-the violence and kidnappings that have terrorized the Presbyterian Church of Colombia
-burning of churches, shops, and terrorizing of Egyptian Christians by radical Islamists
-the seepage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan

And so much more. . .much, much more.

To which I can only bow my head, and clasp my hands:

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Jesus, Son of God, Savior – is the “axis mundi” of all of us, and of this world.

Rooted and Grounded in Love: A Reflection on Lebanon and Syria

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,. . .

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15   and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

-Psalm 104:1, 14-16 (NRSV)

Jlala Refugee Camp in Al Marj, Lebanon – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

I came here to Lebanon almost 3 days ago at the invitation of our partner church, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, following the bombings of churches in Aleppo, Syria.  The Evangelical Synod has about 45 churches in Syria and Lebanon, 25 of those churches in Syria.  I leave from this land with the stories of lives of sisters and brothers, young and old, who are living out faith and their humanity with the devastation of a war that has raged for two years, and left nearly a million people displaced from their homes, living in refugee camps, and so many thousands killed in the conflagration.

I leave this land with a prayerful commitment to never forget the harrowing accounts of Syrian pastors who traveled dangerous roads to meet us, to share their passion of the truth, where we in the West have been treated to daily doses from media as if this conflict were simply about a dictatorial regime and a movement for democracy.  Far from it. We learned the truth, from stories and from the eyes and faces of young children in a refugee camp. Imagine this, nearly 1 million people who have emigrated from Syria to Lebanon over the last two years. That would be equivalent to taking most of the city of Philadelphia and moving them in makeshift tents to New York City. On so many levels, the human cry is breathtaking: whole generations of children who are living the effects of a war of religious factions; humanitarian need to provide food, shelter and water; petitions and prayers for healing, peace, and cessation of violence in a land racked by a civil war decades ago.

The geo-political complexity and conflict runs so deep were it not for the personal intervention at the airport of the president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, His Excellent the Rev. Dr. Salim Sahiouny (himself a Presbyterian Lebanese), I would be sitting in a jail cell, detained, and ordered to leave the country because my passport bears a stamp from my 2008 visit to Israel/Palestine; both countries will not receive visitors bearing the passport stamp of the other out of a conflict rooted and grounded in the war between their two countries.

My soul and heart were pierced with the stories of whole families uprooted from their homes and land to find refuge in Lebanon. Children without a ball to play, or no schooling for those below grade 6 because the infrastructure is not able to care for them. What about the story of 19 year-old Abed, a Palestinian, whose had to move four times.  Or the horrific story of a Christian woman in Syria who was brutally gang-raped by 80 Islamist radical rebels, and then left for dead with a cross shoved in her mouth?  It is gut-wrenching, it brought tears to my eyes…more than that, it brought a conviction in my soul to pray and act, look to that vision of the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb” (Isa. 11:6), or the hope-filled prayers where bullets and wars will be no more, no more bloodshed, no more tears.


Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

My soul is moved by the generous hospitality and persevering faithfulness of sisters and brothers of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon who have more almost two centuries serve with the means they have. While we argue with our theological realities, their living theology and lived theology is one focused on working alongside the Muslim communities, in such places as the village of Kab Elias (dome of Elijah), where the former Synod school for boys and girls is being renovated to be a refugee home for 20-25 families, changing plans for what was to be an orphanage. In a few weeks, because of this joint effort of Christians and Muslims at Kab Elias, 20-25 families will have a place for a second chance. Today, that school for boys and girls is at a new facility, K-9, and will be K-12 shortly. Even as 100% of the teachers are Christian, 80% of the student body is Muslim, and 20% Christian, where families are driving as much as 45 minutes. Imagine that… the level of trust built over the years to have Muslim families send their children to a Christian-sponsored school, to pay the tuition, and to study alongside other Christian boys and girls!

Or take the Synod’s nursing home, that was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, established by Presbyterian missionaries. The nursing home is a place of joy, life-giving…comparing it to many nursing home facilities I’ve visited in the U.S., this nursing home was paradise, because of the hard work and vision of the Synod. Today, Hamlin Hospital is a thriving place, where older adults find community, where daily worship service is offered, where love is shared.

The director of Hamlin Hospital, Ms. Sanaa Koreh, has arranged for me to serve as a “godfather” of a cedar tree in the mountain next to the Hamlin Hospital. The tree will be an official PC(USA) tree, with an inscription testifying to that fact. Her word was: “This will indicate that you and the PC(USA) have deep roots in our land.”

I leave from this place, rooted and grounded in love…love for the people of Syria and Lebanon, love for the witness that has been going on and is going on in the midst of the darkest and difficult time confronting faith communities and both countries, love for the PC(USA) and our historic relationship with the Synod over these nearly two centuries and how that durable and enduring relationship and commitment will and must continue and be strengthened, and a deep love for the Lord, who roots us and grounds us in God’s love, in God’s heart, that we may be transformed and moved to love that which and whom God’s own heart pulses.  God’s heart pulses for peace and healing for Lebanon and Syria.

Lord, move us to action, move us to prayer, rooted and grounded in your generous and radical love. Abide with the people of Syria and Lebanon, for the facing of this hour. Bring healing to these lands. Use your people here and around the world to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and displaced. Receive our prayers, incline your eyes upon the tears of so many. Intervene in a way that only you can to bring the bloodshed to an end. Strengthen your people here with courage, with confidence, as you accompany them, in your strong love.  Amen.

Onward to Egypt. . .

On Solidarity, Unity, and Difference

Throughout the week and until Sunday, flags across the country have been flying half-mast in honor of the late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, the second-longest serving U.S. senator in history and a decorated World War II veteran. Humble in his ways, he brought passion, conviction and wisdom to national crossroads as evidenced by his distinguished service on the Watergate committee and subsequently leading the Iran-Contra hearings. He recalled the time when as an American soldier in Italy, he confronted a German solider. Thinking that the perceived enemy was reaching in his uniform for a weapon, Inouye said that he (Inouye) “smashed him in the face,” killing the German soldier. He walked over to the now dead solider and Inouye discovered that the soldier was reaching for photos of his family. It was in that moment that Inouye saw the humanity of the “enemy,” so much so that as a U.S. Senator, he would cast votes against the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War in 1990, and was one of the group of 22 senators who voted against the Iraq war. This did not diminish his commitment to the U.S. Armed Forces as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, but it did change his posture towards war, the enemy, and hostility.

Yesterday, bells tolled in churches and civic plazas in solidarity with the 26 massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As a father of two elementary-aged sons, I cannot imagine the deep grief of the families of the young children. I wept last Sunday in front of my congregation as I read the names of those killed during our prayers. They were victims in the chaotic evil of human violence.

Yet, the 26 bell tolls missed two other victims: Nancy Lanza and her son, the murderer, Adam Lanza. These were two souls who lost their lives, victimized by their own actions. As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I recall the words of the Lord, “Love your enemy”; and again, as the Lord was being crucified on the cross by religious and political leaders, the ancient Scriptures record that he cried aloud, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Jesus sets the bar quite high. Love your enemy? Even a mass murderer and the mother of the murder who owned guns and taught her son how to use these weapons of mass destruction?

The Scriptures prompt me to say, Yes! As difficult as that is. As difficult as it is to utter.

It’s not excusing Adam Lanza and the violence he inflicted. What “Love your enemy” does do is a call for all of us to reframe our thoughts of a murderer to ask ourselves, “Why and how?” What would cause him to do such a thing? What would cause a mother to own guns that are not for recreational use nor self-defense, and then take her son to the sporting range for lessons? Interviews of school classmates, distant family members, and even customers of the barber shop that he frequented showed a constellation of people who orbited around young Adam Lanza, regarding him as “the weird kid” and leaving him alone, setting him aside , or just altogether dismissing him as some “crazy.”

The immediate response after news spread of the Sandy Hook tragedy was of national and global solidarity effort of prayers and thoughts pouring from all quarters; Facebook and Twitter generated millions of hits as the on-line community prayed and lamented. As was the case for us in New Jersey when hurricane Sandy hit, as is the case in every instance when some tragedy occurs.

Yet all of this prompts me to ask: why can’t we be neighbors and community in times of relative peace as in times of national devastation? How can we embrace the radical posture of regarding the “other” (the “weirdos,” the perceived “crazies,” the ascribed “enemies” among us) as our neighbor, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “dignity of difference.” This is not mere toleration or respect for difference; it’s understanding difference, seeing in the “other” as someone who carries wounds, scars, confusion, hurt as we all do to some varying degree.

I resonate well with James Davison Hunter’s call for a theology of “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is far more difficult to live into because it’s not so much a matter of passing legislation and thinking that a new law will change hearts, or somehow implementing a policy will eradicate the violence that breeds in human hearts; indeed all those are needed but they are not the end-all. Faithful presence means to be in radical and generous solidarity with our collective human condition, to do as Jesus did when He Himself descended from the heavens to be among the world, in flesh and blood, as the Prince of Peace, yet rejected by the world for His life and message of radical peace and reconciliation, to the point that He Himself met a violent death in the grips of religious and political powers that preferred power, politics and scapegoating over and against people. It’s the kind of love that enabled Pope Benedict XVI to pardon his ex-butler today, or for theological progressives and conservatives at a meeting I convened recently to begin to regard one another as friends.

Underneath the glitter of lights and golden wrapping paper this Christmas, let us be in solidarity with each other – the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the healthy and sick, victims and victimizers, Democrats and Republicans – seeing in one another flesh and blood and soul, broken and being made whole, created in the image of God, the whole lot for which God came into the world in the person of Jesus the Christ.