In October of 1977, I was twenty years old. I was young and adventurous and with a rail pass in my hand, a back pack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars worth of American Express Travellers cheques in my pocket, I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece.
I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head for Greece, where the living is easy, where the warm sun, blue skies and equally blue waters held the promise of rest and relaxation.
As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of rest and relaxation with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean.
As the train rattled through Austria toward what was then Yugoslavia it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey, by car, through Yugoslavia and how at the time, I had marvelled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as there ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra modern city of Belgrade; the showcase of Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor people in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade with its towering skyscrapers and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in Yugoslavia.
I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the right papers and that my back pack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, guns and uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa that I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar alphabet.
The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I am not sure that my feet even touched the ground. After a long lonely wait in a drab windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order.
I gathered from what she was trying unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia, but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport.
Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. After several fruitless attempts to try and get her to tell me what I was supposed to do, I found myself in a small room. Its only window was reinforced with bars.
In the darkness of a Yugoslavian holding cell, I sat down and I began to cry. I cried like I have never cried before or since. I was terrified and my sobbing was uncontrollable. After a while I became conscious of a sound that did not come from me. Susssssssssh.
I realized that I was not alone in the darkness. Someone else was in the room with me. In the shadows, I could make out the shape of a woman. My sobbing began to subside as she continued, Shussssssh.
The woman began to pace back and forth in our tiny room and gradually her shusssh turned into humming. She hummed unfamiliar tunes that somehow managed to calm me. Occasionally her humming would turn to singing. She sang softly and quietly and my sobbing began to ease.
In the shadows I could not tell how old she was. Her hair was long, dark and curly. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes, whose laces flapped back and forth as she paced. It took only a few hours for my travelling companion to contact the British Embassy, sort out the mess and secure my freedom. The sunlight was just beginning to find its way into our room when my captor arrived to release me. As I left, I took a close look at my roommate. I smiled, hoping that she would understand my smile as gratitude for her kindness. Her tender sounds had calmed me and helped me through one of the darkest nights of my life. She returned my smile and added a wave of her own. Then the guard roughly escorted me out into the bright lights of the customs house. Before I boarded a train that would take me safely out of Yugoslavia, I thought that perhaps I should try to help my roommate. Maybe I should try to find out why she was being detained. Perhaps I should try to help her get out. But this was not a place that welcomed questions and the warm sun of Greece beckoned me. And so, I boarded the train and I left. My few hours of captivity – I chalked up to just one more adventure on the road and I rarely thought of my roommate again.
Twenty-one years later, I sat in the comfort of my living room and watched the evening news. I had paid very little attention as yet another deadline was imposed against the Serbs. Over the years I’d lost track of who is doing what to whom in what was once called Yugoslavia. As the reporter droned on about the massacre of an entire village, the camera zeroed in on an old man who was wailing. The old man rocked back and forth as he tried to explain to the reporter the atrocities that had just been committed. He pointed to a body that lay in the bush behind him. The camera angle widened and the lower half of a woman’s body became visible. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes.
The old man tried desperately to get her story out. The voice of the translator explained that she had been forced to watch the execution of her sons, and then she was raped, stabbed and finally shot in the head. The old man went back to his wailing. He rocked back and forth, tears streamed down his face as he wailed. From somewhere deep inside of me there came a sound. Shusssssh…
For the first time in years, I remembered the woman whose compassion had soothed my pain. For the first time in years I wondered what had become of her. I do not know whether she was Serb, Croat or ethnic Albanian. I do not know f she was Muslim, Christian or Jew. I don’t even know her name. Nor do I know if she has escaped the horror of ethnic cleansing.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” This apocalyptic vision placed in the mouth of Jesus by the writer of the Gospel according to Luke disturbs me. Over the centuries people have used these words to insist that current events point to the end of the world and Jesus’ triumphant return. This very week political pundits debate the optics of former president George Bush’s upcoming speech at a fund-raiser for Jews for Jesus; a group of fundamentalist Christians who seek to hasten the apocalypse and thereby Jesus’ return by converting untold numbers of Jews to Christianity. Prophets and doomsayers just can’t help pointing to storms, earthquakes, wars and rumours of war and shouting “The end is near!”
Biblical scholars remind us that the author of Luke attributed apocalyptic sayings to Jesus long after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in an attempt to make some sense out of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Modern biblical scholars can caution all they like against interpretations that herald future events, but they can’t discourage the doomsayers. Somehow the notion of the end of the world, visions of destruction, wars, plagues, earthquakes, holocausts, hell fire and damnation remain more vivid in our imaginations than visions of the new heavens and a new earth that sustained the authors of the New Testament.
While some choose to ignore Christian apocalyptic ramblings, leaders of the most powerful nation in the world are wont to entertain such notions as they debate the future of the Middle East. Our own Canadian Prime Minster worships in a church that eagerly anticipates the apocalypse. If someone believes that there is no way for God’s promised re-creation to come about than through the holocaust of some cosmic Armageddon, then why should we resist the horror. Why not hasten its coming?
The powerful Temple Mount Society continues to spend millions buying up real estate in and around the Temple Mount of Jerusalem so that they can begin to rebuild the Temple. They know full well that the rebuilding of the Temple would cause violence between the people of Islam and the Jewish people and welcome the notion of such violence as a harbinger of the Second Coming. Far too many Christians who focus on Jesus’ triumphant return have adopted an attitude of arrogance toward people of other faiths, an arrogance that fosters religious intolerance. Trapped by arrogance, intolerance, violence, and hatred, visions of destruction, wars, plagues, earthquakes, holocausts, hell-fire and damnation remain more vivid to us than visions of the new heaves and a new earth.
On a dark evening, long ago, what remained of a band of rebels who were followers of a political radical, gathered together in the house of one of their supporters. The doors of the house were locked because the rebels feared the authorities. Their leader had been executed just a few days before. The rebels feared for their own lives. Rumours had been circulating that their leader was had not been defeated by death.
Suddenly, I cannot tell you how, it was as if their leader stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” In the midst of their fear and grief, in the turmoil of their attempts to figure out what to do next, in the midst of their panic about the dangers that surrounded them, the image of the risen Christ came to them as if to calm them, bidding them peace. Peace. Shalom. Peace. Shussssssh.
Today we sit in safety and listen as our risen Christ bids us peace. Just as the disciples were huddled behind a locked door of fear, despair, disappointment, and disillusionment, we huddle in front of our TV sets, or clutching our tablets and smartphones, gazing on the horror that unfolds day after day. Our hopes for world peace seem futile.
But when the disciples hopes were dashed, the image of Christ stepped right through the locked door of despair, disappointment, and disillusionment, and said, “Shalom”, shusssh, peace -peace that surpasses all human understanding, peace not like the world’s peace.
As the body of Christ we have a responsibility to seek peace, to provide comfort, to offer nourishment and shelter. In the midst of uncertain and troubled times, our God who dwells in us, greets us in the face of our sisters and brothers and says…Shalom…Shussssh…peace.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, our God declares: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…I will rejoice and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…they shall build their houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…Shusssh They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by God– and their descendants as well….Shusssh…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together….Shusssh
Remember that our God goes about the business of re-creating by engaging us in the work of creation.
There is much work to be done. The peoples of the world need much to sooth their fears. We must find ways to sooth our sisters and brothers. Shussssh……our God is working in, with, and through us to make all things new. Shusssh….Shalom….peace.