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Mission Musings

Becoming "Kairos" in Times of Suffering

By Thomas Kemper*

It is hard to share the joyful Christmas message in a world of so much suffering and uncertainty, yet in this time of year we so clearly know the need for the rebirth of Christ, a birth to respond to the needs of this world.

Recently, 145 students and teachers were gunned down at a school in Pakistan. Thousands of persons of all ages are sick and dying from Ebola in West Africa.  The United States is weighed down by an epidemic of the killing of unarmed black males by white police officers. Protests vent frustrations but do not restore lives or establish the worth and sacredness of all life. Children want to know why. In the Holy Land, outside Bethlehem where Jesus was born, a wall separates Palestinian communities from the rest of the world.  

Two weeks ago at a migration consultation in Germany, I heard story after story of the lives of families, of children, on the move, seeking refuge, a reminder that Jesus and his parents were themselves refugees in Egypt.

So what is the Christmas message for us in 2014?

In the midst of the heaviness weighing on God’s world, I find words of promise and assurance in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison.  As is well-known, Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor and activist who spoke out against the Nazi regime. At the time, many of his friends were concerned he would be imprisoned; they wanted him to play it safe in order to help rebuild the church after the war. He accepted refuge in New York City, living just a few hundred feet from where my office is located.  But he could not isolate himself from what was happening to the people of his homeland. In the Daily Moravian Watchword he read, “The one who believes, does not flee.” After a few weeks in the US, Bonhoeffer returned in 1939 to Germany, where he would eventually be jailed and finally hanged for his anti-Nazi work.

From prison, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent . . . one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”

To celebrate Advent means being able to wait; we need to learn to lean into the divine laws of sprouting, of growing, of becoming Kairos—God’s time, God’s promise. We need to trust, as Bonhoeffer wrote, that “even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. . . God answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.” Believing this to be true, we can be reborn with the Spirit of Christ and call upon God’s authority to take responsible action against injustice. 

The church’s role is not only to heal the wounded but also to jam the wheel of injustice, as Bonhoeffer sought to do, wherever it turns—in Pakistan, in Palestine, in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, or Cleveland, Ohio, places where unarmed black males were recently killed by police. And we are not on this journey alone; we are part of a community of believers.

  • Are we ready as part of a community of joy and promise to listen to the hopes and anxieties of our brothers and sisters?
  • Are we ready to build community that hears the fears of parents who are people of color?
  • Are we ready to listen and hear stories from the land where Jesus lived and offer a spark of hope to our partners there?
  • Are we ready to hear and learn from the struggles of refugees?

As we listen and journey together in community, the Child is born again. Listen once more to Bonhoeffer:

But now it is true that in three days,
Christmas will come again.
The great transformation will once again happen.
God would have it so.
Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world,
A world will come in which the promise is given.
All crying will be stilled.
No tears shall flow.
No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore.

*Thomas Kemper is the General Secretary for Global Ministries.