The Birthing of Thankfulness

On the day of a predominantly American tradition, I love to look back and remember the heart of a day like today. For centuries there have been celebrations during a year of bountiful harvests. Giving thanks to the one who gives rain and sun had always been a part of ancient and native living, especially when times are good. Thankfulness has always been the main reason for celebrations like our modern day Turkey day.

In 1621, however, there was an amazing harvest on the heels of one of the worst years of sickness that brought death to both Pilgrims and Natives alike. It was the companionship of sorrow and suffering that gave birth to celebration that we know of in the West called Thanksgiving. When the ground finally produced a plethora of crops again, along with the hard work of the newcomers and the Natives, they rewarded themselves with a unity meal of thanksgiving.

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My wife is currently re-reading a book to our children called Hinds Feet On High Places. The story of the Natives and the Pilgrims and their year of great tragedy that gave birth to a thankful celebration reminded me of the two companions that the “Shepherd” in the story of Hinds Feet On High Places gave to “Much Afraid:” “Sorrow” and “Suffering.” It was “Sorrow” and “Suffering” that she was to grasp hands with so that she would be able to get to where she needed to go. This isn’t something that we like to talk about because of the tragic nature of suffering and loss, and it’s definitely not something we ask for. But none the less, sorrow and suffering cannot be ignored, as they are ever before us.

It seems that it’s the embracing of (not the numbing from) sorrow and suffering that actually produces celebrations of the heart. To focus on the abundance with a neglect of the loss and sorrow that came before the harvest would be to cheat ourselves of the depth of celebration that we were meant to experience. It is precisely the pain and death in various ways that gives birth to something new and fresh, but never disconnected from the loss. I believe it to be this way only because it was the Creator who became the one to lay his life on the line, to embrace sorrow and suffering for the abundance of everyone else, so that with him and through him, the tomb would become a womb, in which new life would come. It would be on the heels of defeat and death that a celebration of such great magnitude would erupt and bring for great joy and new life.

Today, I want to remember the heart of Thanksgiving, and to grieve that what happened on that day in 1621 did not continue and much more grief and loss was brought upon the Natives of this American land. I want to be intentionally connected to the pain and loss in my life and the lives of others throughout our world today, so that my thanksgiving would be rooted in the fabric of the sorrow and suffering of Christ, the one who gives purpose to our losses and gives life from death. In a day when suffering covers the globe and widows and orphans will go unfed with no homes, I want to stand in solidarity (even if it’s only through remembrance and acknowledgement of their pain and loss), that there will be a day of celebration for them and for their suffering and sorrow to make way for new life, that their tomb today would create a womb that gives birth to thanksgiving.

Until that day comes, I will always fight to hold the tension of all my celebrations in light of those who having nothing to celebrate at the moment, and eat with a heart of gratitude and remembrance of my savior who gave suffering and sorrow meaning and purpose, something that I don’t have to be afraid of, nor pretend aren’t happening on such a fun day of feasting. This scripture passage below has meant so much to me through the years, and continues to help me hold the tensions of suffering and celebration:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts usin all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (NIV)

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Armenian Genocide Remembered

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion on 301 CE, although the presence of Jesus followers dates back to the first century, where we learn in extra biblical literature that two of Jesus’ disciples, Bartholomew and Thaddeus, who traveled to Armenia sometime between 60-70 CE. Since it’s inception, this church has been an oppressed church, spending much of their Christian existence in hiding, persecution, or in suffering.

The Armenian people have lived in the modern day Turkish region for some 3,000 and were an independent nation, although control over their region had many empires who came into and went out of power and control of that area. In the 15th century, the Armenian people were swallowed up and absorbed into a very powerful empire called the Ottoman empire.

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The Ottoman empire was a Muslim empire, and they allowed the Armenians to maintain some of their identity as orthodox Christians, but were also treated as subservient subjects and had many economic, political, and social obstacles that kept them from thriving, but they thrived none-the-less. Armenians were known to be better educated and wealthier than their Turkish neighbors somehow, which slowly led to resentment of the Armenian people. There was also a fear among the Ottoman empire that the Armenians would be more loyal to a Christian government, particularly to their neighbor, Russia.

Over the next few centuries the Ottoman empire began to lose power and in the late 19th century, the Armenians had a strong voice and were fighting for civil rights among their people. This angered the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who was fanatically committed to the Ottoman empire and demanded loyalty to it and was committed to silence the Armenian voice again.

In 1894 and in 1896, many Armenian villages were attacked and hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered. This was the first organized ‘silencing’ that gave rise to young militant Turks who were committed to removing the “pesky” Armenians. In 1908 Turkey had a regime change. These were the young reformed Turks who wanted a more modernized Turkey, which eventually was realized by the Armenians, that a modern Turkey meant a Turkey without Armenians. These “pesky” successful Armenians (despite opposition) just kept thriving and this was a threat to Turkish leadership.

Then in 1914, Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany, and at the same time the Ottoman empire declared a holy war against Christians (namely Armenian Christians), because they saw them as traitors. The Armenians had sided with Russian military during this time, and then the dam broke.

On April 24th, 1915, genocide of the Armenian people began. This day in history, 100 years ago, marks the day when Turkish military arrested and slaughtered hundreds of Armenia’s top leaders and thinkers. Then they focused on the institutional removal of all Armenians from that region. They were forced out of their homes, sent on mass marches into the desert that led them to slaughter.

Many Armenians died by being stripped naked while being forced to walk in the desert for days with no food or water until they died. If they resisted, they were shot and killed. The method of murder ranged from anything one could think of; they drowned people in rivers, threw them off cliffs, crucified them and burned them alive, smoked them out in buildings, etc.

Stories like these were shared in a small meeting that myself and a handful of other friends had with Armenian friends in Scottsdale. We share a time of refreshments and a short movie with them before we had a chance to hear their family stories of pain and loss at the hands of Turkish rulers. Children were kidnapped and converted to Islamic faith, women were raped and forced to be sex slaves, and Turks moved into the abandoned homes of the Armenians.

This went on until the early 1920’s. Many sources vary in the final number of Armenians who were slaughtered during the genocide, but most agree that over 1.5 million were killed, and many more were deported and never allowed to enter their homeland again.

To this day, the Turkish government still does not acknowledge this genocide nor do they admit that these events actually happened as stories tell them. Many Armenians and social justice advocates speak out against the Turkish government, but it has not changed the fact that it is still illegal in Turkey to talk about what happened to Armenians during during that era.

To add to the injustice, American news outlets and politicians have also been reluctant to use the word “genocide” to describe what the Turks did to the Armenians. The United States of America has still not formally recognized what happened to the Armenians as genocide out of fear of losing Turkey as an ally. Some ground has been gained to honor the families of this genocide and to recognize what has happened, but we still have a long ways to go.

I write this post to honor my friends who have taught me how to suffer and not die from the pain and to bring awareness to grave injustices that still go on in the name of keeping allies. Many Orthodox Christians being killed in the present day in the Middle East are Armenians, and the silence of this event allows other dictators and terrorists organizations to think they are capable of such great evil without proper consequences and accountability. There is no doubt that Adolf Hitler learned from the Ottoman empire  on how to systematically slaughter a whole people group and justify it.

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This is Father Zacharia, he was exiled from Turkey and is now the first Armenian priest in Arizona. He and the other leaders and parishoners at St. Apkar in Scottsdale are godly people who have welcomed us into their lives as friends.

We must speak out against the silencing of all evil, terrorism, dictators, and work to eradicate such evil in this world. The first step is to recognize this still goes on today even though we don’t see it as clearly as we can see other types of genocide in hind sight. Your voice matters. Retell these stories. Get to know survivors of genocide from various nations. Open up your world view and become friends with refugees and immigrants who most likely live next door or around the corner from where you live.

Today, I want to honor the Armenian people group and thank them for not giving up and continuing the legacy of their people through story telling no matter the cost. I pray you would have the courage to tell the unspeakable stories in your life and to stand for those who have been silenced for too long. I pray that through this story you may have the courage to fight for those being oppressed in your world and to stand and fight for those who can’t stand or fight on their own. We need communities of courageous healers in the days to come, and want to invite all who have ears to hear and eyes to see, to commit to a new way of living that fights and stands and pleads for those who need allies.

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