The first city I traveled to overseas was Paris, France, my senior year of high school. I still remember the breath-taking view of the city from near the top of the Eiffel Tower. I remember the mass hysteria of traffic around the Champs-Élysées. I remember the best art I have ever seen in my life at the Louvre. But I also remember being told before our trip that the French are unbelievably mean, egotistical, arrogant, narrow-minded, and pretentious. And yet I remember kindness, generosity, hospitality, and heart-felt encouragement to experience all their nation had to offer.
I’ve been unexplainably blessed in this life, or perhaps flat-out lucky at being born at just the right time, to benefit from classes and choral groups going many places in the last just over ten years. High school was France and England, college was Japan and South Korea, and seminary was Israel and Palestine (and I guess I would consider myself lucky enough to get married that led to the honeymoon in Italy). But of all the places I’ve been Paris is still by far the favorite, not just because of the architecture or culture or the overall city atmosphere. It’s also because of my French teacher, who helped a farm boy from Upper Sandusky see a world beyond Ohio and the United States in a different light: to imagine the possibility there was just as much awe-inspiring beauty beyond the farmland, just as many incredible people, just as much loved and adored by the God Who was just as much part of that land and that people as anywhere else in the world. She was the one who instilled in me the determination to look deeper into humanity, to minimize the stereotypes we create in an instant, to realize God loves others just as much as God loves us. Truly, I tell you, God loves Paris as much as anywhere else in the world, and Friday night God wept over the horrendous atrocity that brought the City of Light into the unfathomable darkness of death.
Nevertheless, amidst all the gut-wrenching anguish and despair humanity was hard at work in recrafting the stereotypes that were actually already shaped long before; but because of the ever-emerging presence of ISIS and al-Qaeda we firmly believe that all Muslims are inherently evil, destined in trying to destroy all non-Muslims, preconceived to be the most terrible people imaginable. We also have come to the conclusion that all the battered refugees fleeing from the longest nightmare of civil war in Syria are all undercover terrorists infiltrating the European countries in order to cause the greatest harm possible, including the countless number of helpless children, who have no experience whatsoever of peace and serenity, and yet are evidently just as much as agents of death as the men who use what is meant to be a peace-filled religion as a cover-up in their lust for power in ISIS and al-Qaeda. All this awful hatred that only adds to the disgusting pile of hatred that continues to take human life across the world: from Paris to Beirut to Baghdad to Lebanon and beyond.
However, what made Friday night all the more sad for me was also remembering that Paris was filled with every faith expression you’ve ever heard of and more. The city with the most picturesque gothic Notre Dame Cathedral was surrounded not only by Christians, but Muslims and Jews and Buddhists, and on and on. Paris had found a way to welcome everyone from any religious background whatsoever, and somehow made sure everyone would feel safe in living out their respective tradition. Of course there will always be those who wish that would not be the case, snickering behind peoples back as they walk past on the sidewalk, obviously believing they were superior to everyone else: all of us human beings do that incredibly well. And then that intolerant superiority boiled over to the count of over one hundred lives across the City of Light.
But I have a feeling as the years go by and I look back at what happened in Paris this weekend, the images and sounds that will come to mind the most are not the bombs that went off outside the Stade de France during a soccer match, or law-enforcement officials in hazard suits looking for evidence. Instead, it will be the crowd of people evacuating from that Stade de France in what must have been the most excruciating fear in their life after hearing those bombs detonate; but instead of uncontrollable panic to immediately get out the exits and knock every other fan down in the way, they boldly sang their national anthem with as much pride as anytime in their country’s history: all of it in spite of the men who tried to take their life away.
That moment will stick with me, as well as the next day: when before city blocks were silenced in the darkness-plagued aftermath, French men and women flooded the sidewalks in droves to donate blood to help their fellow French citizens as well as complete foreigners save their life. The unfathomable darkness of death overtook the City of Light only for a night. The unquenchable light of Christ had penetrated the darkness yet again. No bomb, no AK-47 assault rifle, no level of disgusting hatred could stop Him from showing up.
So the reason why I decided to switch the Hymn of the Day was because of the end of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, written by fellow European Martin Luther nearly five hundred years ago, when war was just as alive and well, not to mention plagues and famines taking life in mass at horrific rates. Nevertheless, his words mean just as much now for the people of Paris, as well as throughout Europe and all over the world, who feel overwhelmed with fear after what happened this weekend:
Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day.
The kingdom [is] ours forever!
They most certainly tried Friday night. Men with lust for power tried to wrench life away from hundreds of people, and attempted to unleash an unfathomable darkness on the City of Light. They failed. Christ rose again out of the darkness of death for the people of Paris and all over the world. They tried, but they cannot win the day. The kingdom of God is for the people of Paris, Beirut, Syria, Lebanon, and for all of us. Nothing: no ISIS, no al-Qaeda, no terror whatsoever can take that away from them and the rest of the world. The kingdom of no more war no more weeping, no more pain, no more death: that kingdom of God is ours forevermore! God be with them all. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Dennis Smith, Interim Pastor
Office: Tue - Fri: 9 a.m. - Noon