Into Iraq #1: Love in the Time of Isis

So we fly into Iraq in the middle of the night.

We’d seen the news, the headlines.

The footage of kneeled men in orange jumpsuits and black-masked men behind them, knives in their hands. On what planet is this warped nightmare that is 2105?

We’d all tried to stop seeing the carnage and medieval horror that ensues, taunting knives held high in the air.


The Wake-Up Call that is ISIS: Who in the Church is Answering?




My father had told me not to go: “I do not approve of this. I cannot possibly approve of this.

You could hear it in Dad’s voice on the other end of the line. Sometimes, if you just wait and really listen, you can hear what isn’t being said.

There’s no point being angry with him. Sometimes we all just have to unlearn fear to learn to love.

Why in the world would you do this? You don’t watch the news? You don’t know they’re kidnapping and cutting off heads of people like you?

“Dad.” I stop cleaning out the dishwasher, press the phone to my ear, say it quiet, hoping he can hear:

“Listen — this isn’t about sensationalism or CNN shrill news cycles or fear mongering or terrorists or beheadings — and actually it’s about something bigger than Iraq. This is about Preemptive Love. This is about what they call: ‘Love First — ask questions later.’”

“This is about risking and reaching out first to the other — the Other across the chasm that is your table, the Other that is your disagreement, that is your soapbox, that is the debate of the hour, reaching out to the other across party lines and lines drawn in the sand and across the aisle — and serving the Other.”

This is about mapping out your life so that you take the path that lets you meet and serve “the Other.”  

It’s the journey to “the Other,” to the outsider, to the outlier —  that always leads you higher up and deeper in.

I’m doing this because I really believe: In the heat of culture wars, we need to be deployed on Listening Tours armed with Preemptive Love.

Before I’d flown out, I’d stood there at the back door, kids clinging to me, their tears streaming loud and a little bit wild. Shalom had whispered it into my ear, her fear wet cheek pressed against mine: “Please don’t go, please — I don’t want you to die.

She’d touched that Cross I had drawn on my wrist with a dying Bic pen. People of the Cross.

“Mama —“ she looked me in the eye, “You could really die.”  

Oh Child. There are a thousand ways to die — and to never have really lived. And there is a way to pick up your cross and die so that you get to really live.

Die to your rights, die to your reputation, die to your convenience, die to your comfort, so you get to literally live love. So you literally become Cross-shaped love.

We’re not playing here.

We can talk of love all we want when we’re living in our own ghettos of like-mindedness. But we only get to live love when we actually go walk to The Other, where folks think and live something other than we do. We only get to stop talking about love and actually live it when we stop waiting for someone else to do it and reach our own hand out.

When I had sat in Israel at a Friday evening Shabbat dinner in the home of a rabbi, he had stood up at the end of the table and said something utterly unforgettable, that I had scratched down on the napkin:

Love one another means — Love the Other.

I’d sat there staring at that: Love one another doesn’t just mean loving the people who are like you — it means who are you loving who is opposite of you?

Love, sacrifice, suffer for the Other — the Other who thinks something other than you do, the Other who believes something other than you do, the Other who lives something other than you do.

And it’s been pounding in me like a drum, like a marching beat, like a war cry in the middle of a thousand culture wars:

Love doesn’t necessarily mean bless or agree with — it means sacrifice for and suffer with.

Only when you have some skin in the game, can you say that Christ is in you.

And that’s why I get on the plane and fly to Iraq. Talk’s cheap. Sacrifice is expensive and it’s exactly what you do when you’ve bought and paid for with a price.

So I’d stood there at the back door before I left, scooped Shalom up close, buried my face in her: “You know I’d never, ever go, if you didn’t have the very best daddy in the world…. “ She’d smiled through tears and nodded brave.

When a Father’s love is your atmosphere, you’re willing to risk anything to love the world.

One of our boys hugged me goodbye. Slapped my back just a bit too hard and grinned: “Love you, Mom. Keep your head on your shoulders!”

Uh — son? He’d laughed way too loud. Couldn’t have loved the crazy kid more.





When Lynne and I land in Iraq, we come in on a plane of nearly all men, land at almost 4’ O very dark in the morning.

I keep telling my stomach to unknot. Keep telling Dad to hush up there in my head as we stop at checkpoints, soldiers and their machine guns peering in our open windows, checking out our nodding smiles.

When we are standing there in a refugee camp, with all these beautiful people, these families fleeing ISIS, Dad’s voice has grown real quiet. All I can hear is my heart pounding loud and right.

Over 3 million of these people bearing the image of God. Over 3 million internally displaced people who have fled ISIS and instability and war. 3 million men, women and children who have somehow pried their way through into northern Iraq — and have nothing.

When we meet Hanen, she tells us that she’s buried 3 children already. Left their graves back in Fallujah, when she and her remaining two children fled ISIS. Her hair falls long down her back, the weight of glory of these women cascading.

They’re living here in what is an abandoned “collective” — a collective of cement block cubicles that Saddam Hussein had built for women in this area after Hussein had their husbands and sons lined up and killed.

Eventually the water was cut off to the collectives and the widows had gathered up bits of their lives and limped on. Now families fleeing ISIS with only their clothes on their backs have moved into these crumbling cinder block squares.

“How do you bury 3 children?” I stammer out the words to Jeremy, Co-Founder of Preemptive Love with is wife, Jessica.

There’s an abandoned doll splayed across the ground behind Hanen.

“Heart defects. Massive unprecedented number of heart defects because of uranium tipped ammunition shells used in all the fighting.”

I can’t stop staring into the face of Hanen — who has to bury 3 of her children, all at the age of 9, because no one was there to fix their hearts?

The rate of congenital heart defects in Fallujah in the wake of all those uranium-tipped bullets? 95 per 1,000 births —- 13 times the rate of heart defects found in Europe.”

I’m a bit slack-jawed. War is literally breaking all our hearts.

“I have one more daughter.” Hanen shows us the doctor report. She is 7. She has a fourth child— with a serious heart defect. I can feel mine cracking. Reeling.

If someone doesn’t fix her little girl’s heart soon —- Hanen’s eyes are wild, desperate —-  her fourth daughter will be dead by 9 too.




Let us take her to Nassiriya,” Jeremy leans in to Hanen’s fear.

We have heart doctors in Nassiriya — we will get her heart fixed in Nassiriya.”

Hanen is shaking her head, violently shaking her head —- “No. No, we cannot go. They are Shia in Nassiriya. The Shia will kill us in Nassiriya.” She’s wide-eyed, terrified. I can’t take my eyes off her face.  Sometimes the only way for our hearts can heal — is to risk them to our enemy. 

Jeremy tries to assure her that this is about peace, this is about refusing to be enemies, this is about us loving one another —- loving the Other. He convinces her to let them take copies of her medical report to send to the doctors in Nassiriya.

Nassiriya. Which is Ur of the Chaldees —- the home of Abraham. Preemptive Love wants to take one girl’s heart broken by war back to Ur —- Ur that accepts all the children of Abraham — Muslim, Christian and Jew.

On our way out, we step over the forgotten and wide-eyed doll, waiting for someone to pick it up.









A few crumbling blocks down is a family that ran from ISIS less than two weeks ago.

“We were in front of our house, cooking — and a rocket from Daesh exploded right beside our house,” Ahmed tells this to me as we stand outside under this tree erupting into a blossom of spring.

I look down into the faces of their two little boys. They call ISIS something different here— they call ISIS Daesh. Because it sounds similar to the Arabic words daes — which means someone who crushes something underfoot.

Who crushes boys like this underfoot? Who cuts throats of babies and rapes 9 year old girls and sends mamas, who have buried 3 children, and on the brink of burying a fourth, fleeing in wide-eyed terror?

“We just grabbed each other — we have no time to grab anything else, we just have to grab and hold on to each other — and we run to the river, to cross at the bridge, but Daesh has blown up the bridge — crushed it.” The father, Ahmed, shows me with his hands…. his trembling hands.

“So then we have to run for our hours. For two long days, we keep walking and running, to find another way to get across the river, and we beg a man with a car to take us — take us far away from Daesh.”

I kneel down. To steady myself. To look into the little boys’ eyes.

Your dreams and hopes?” I ask the mother.

The mother’s chin trembles — and Ahmed whispers their heartbeat: “We just want to go home.

And some dam in him lets go, crushed — and the man openly weeps.

Weeps for hopes destroyed, home obliterated, life as he knew it, worked for it, sacrificed for it — completely crushed.

And I’m standing there in front of this family, face to the sky, brushing from my cheeks away whatever is spilling unbidden, and wondering where in God’s holy name is anyone to help these abused and beaten people rebuild a bridge to the future?

Bonhoeffer had said of the Church, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

Who is going to show up and bandage up the wounds of the victims being crushed beneath the wheels of injustice? Who’s going to step up, and lay a bit of their life down and drive a spoke into the wheel of ISIS, Daesh, the Crusher?

And that spoke we drive into the wheel of injustice is never hatred —it’s always the Cross of a Greater Love.

The only spoke we have to drive into the wheels of injustice is making our lives speak of a dangerous love that embodies a sacrificed Christ.

Love the Other

Loving the Other means always going another mile, always turning the other cheek, always giving to the Other — because we’re all the same kind of other.

Love one another
& Love the Other:

Go another mile
Turn the other cheek
Give another shirt

Because you’ve surrendered to
an otherworldly Love.

We have to because this raging world has become absurd and mad.

When mothers keep digging up the earth to bury their beautiful children whose hearts have failed because we’re shooting uranium tipped bullets into the faces of those made in the image of God….  when fathers and mothers are grabbing each other and running from evil that crushes men’s windpipes, suffocates women’s dreams and slits babies throats — the insanity and absurdity demands people to rise up with something from the beyond the walls of this world.

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Absurd comes from that Latin word, ‘surdus,’ which means ‘deaf.’  The anger, the rhetoric, the noise under our own private roofs  and out in our public forums  has become so loud, we have fallen deaf — fallen deaf to God… fallen deaf and numb and dumb to the cries of each other.

Fallen deaf to the echo of God that beats in the heart of every God-made heart.

Whenever we deafen, demonize, and dehumanize anybody —  we can legitimize anything.

A faithful life is The Listening Life — because it’s that Latin word which means “listening,” audire, that gives us the word “obedient.”

The only way to a sincerely God-obedient life —  is to live a sincerely Listening Life.

Listen to the spouse who’s gutted and wounded you a bit, listen to kid who’s voice is making the hair on the back of your neck stand up just a bit these days, listen to that voice on the other end of the spectrum, listen to the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian who’s very different from you — really listen to broken hearts —- and be the one who reaches out.

“We are supporting and bringing food to families here in these camps,” Jeremy turns to me, “who have a cousin, a brother, an uncle who is serving with ISIS. There are relatives of ISIS here —  and we are serving them too.” Jeremy waves his arm toward hundreds of crumbling block ‘houses’  and the huddling brave who are caught and lost.

Love doesn’t necessarily mean bless or agree with — it means sacrifice for and suffer with.

That’s been ringing me for weeks. And: If we all made it a practice to genuinely listen everyday to one person with whom we disagree, we’d get to genuinely practice our faith.

We’d get to practice resurrection.

This is unspeakably hard. This is unspeakably holy.

Jesus turned and listened to the woman bleeding… paused to hear the woman caught in adultery… sat and attended to the words of the Samaritan at the well — and He never stopped waiting and listening on His Father.

In the space between God and earth, Jesus became all ear.

The editorials scream and opinion pages blare and bloggers rage and all the pundits and talking heads just keep doing that: talking.  The media screams because fear is what sells.

But if we’d pause our lives, be willing to be inconvenienced because that’s the evidence of real love, be willing to get close enough to each other to actually listen — we could crush fear with perfect love.

Not cheap love — but real, sacrificing, Cross-shaped love.

Not just  more talking about and wringing our hands over the evil that has infiltrated ISISbut actually doing something to help. 




The absurdity of a mad world only changes when we stop being deaf to the other —

and have the audacity to listen to each other’s hearts — and respond.

A Christ-follower’s first response in a crisis is to always take seriously the responsibility to listen — and not turn away.

When we become all eardrum, this changes the beat of world.

If you stand under an Iraqi sky at night and listen —

you can hear a thousand heartbeats, waiting… hoping.


This post is the tip of the iceberg in how Iraq is rocking my world — Part 1 in a series of Iraqi Posts: Love in the Time of Isis —
Coming over the next few weeks: Dinner with 10 Sheiks …
andThe ESTHER GENERATION & Sitting with the Tears of the Yazidi Women from Sinjar Mountain
The Posts that Started It: The Wake-Up Call that is ISIS: Who in the Church is Answering?
The Call: To the Nations & People of The Cross

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Let all of Our Small TOGETHER Make a BIG Difference

We love as well as we are inconvenienced  —
so this is our opportunity to love large & be love: (that we get to do this, get to be any little gift at all, small together is the NEW BIG) 
1. Help families fleeing ISIS start their own business

2. Empower a woman who’s lost everything because of ISIS
(Have you seen what these women whose husbands were killed by ISIS are now doing? These mothers whose husbands have been shot need our help right now.) 

3. saved some kids with broken hearts in Iraq?
What if we all gave just $5 and denied none of us the joy of getting to #BetheGIFT and saved some kids with broken hearts in Iraq?

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