Bursting at the seams

Steve & I collaborated on this one…

Our team with Rev. Mikhael and Nadej Sbeit, their daughter Nour, and their Korean missionary partners. (Sidon)

We began this day driving down to Tyre to visit the Presbyterian church there. As we approached Tyre, we saw many groves of trees laden with ripe oranges and bananas. Then we began to see trucks filled to overflowing with this fresh fruit, and then the fresh fruit and vegetable stands with fresh produce spilling out of crates and baskets.

First grade Syrian students from the refugee camps squeezed into a classroom at the back of the sanctuary. (Tyre)

With these images before our eyes, we arrived at the church in Tyre. It is a small church with a few rooms, the sanctuary and the pastor’s house. Every nook and cranny of the church had been converted to classrooms for Syrian refugee children. Just when we thought there could not be any place left for other activities, we were taken up the stairs of the house to the roof. There was a small room accessed from the roof that had been converted to a classroom for sewing and cosmetology training. In here the Syrian women create wonderful textile objects and other artistic decorative projects. After our tour of the ministry of this small church, we sat on the roof having coffee, tea and sweets, while we listened to some of the women describe their projects and teaching methods.

We met as the family of God on that roof. We were Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese and American. We were Muslim and Christian. There was even a family in a combination of these identities who are being cared for as they seek asylum to begin a new life together in a place of love and acceptance. Even as they are served, they serve. The wife, who has benefited from the sewing classes at this church, will now become the teacher who will pass on the knowledge of what she has learned to benefit others.

Hanan and Julie with some of the items she has handmade, which will soon take up residence in our kitchen. (Tyre)

Another woman, Hanan (which means care and love) went on to explain the importance of community in these classes. She has learned much herself and will begin teaching advanced knitting classes. But the most important thing she has discovered is the interior knowledge that she has worth as a human being. She is not just a refugee, but a beloved child of God. Her worth does not come from what she can make with her hands, but simply because of who she is. She and the others are good women and will give a good picture of who Syrians are. In her words, “When we knit, we take a small thread and turn it into something great.” In the circle of knitters, they are free to be open and to share their troubles. As a Muslim, she has found a family here in this church.

Here was a church literally bursting at the seams with classrooms and workrooms, so much so that the only place left for us to sit and have coffee was the roof! And there we heard about the other programs and ministries the church was involved in.

The Korean missionary couple in Sidon help our two Jacks purchase some of the needlework produced by Syrian refugee women.

We ended our day visiting the church in Sidon, just north of Tyre, where Pastor Mikhael Sbeit and his wife Nadej, along with a Korean missionary couple, shared their work from similar projects with Syrian women. Just like in Tyre, not only are physical objects made as a result of these projects, but human dignity and value are discovered and koinonia blossoms.

As our time in Lebanon draws to a close, this could not be a better image for we, too, are beginning to burst at the seams literally and figuratively. The incredible hospitality of the people has left our stomachs full, but not as full as our hearts and minds. Images of God’s people filled our minds as evidence of God’s love filled our hearts.

I believe in the remnant

The old olive tree at AUB still sprouting branches of life.

Since we are still in Beirut awaiting in the visas to Syria that we trust will come, we have some extra non-programmed moments. Today Steve and I, like others have done, strolled down through the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB). It is a lovely campus and if you go far enough west, you will come to the side that is right on the Mediterranean. We don’t have views like this in Omaha! Today we came across this ancient olive tree. Bearing the scars of a long life, it grew there in the spot it must have been planted in long before Presbyterian missionaries founded this school, and even centuries before that. At first appearance, it seemed lifeless, as there were no spreading branches like the other trees we had seen. But it begged the photo as there were these little sprigs of new growth that said, “Wait! I am not done with life yet. I am still here and green and growing.” I tried to find out information about such old olive trees and here is the result:

Tucked away in the village of Bechealeh, Lebanon, 16 olive trees have witnessed 6000 years of political unrest, plagues, diseases, varying climatic conditions and changing civilizations. In fact these “trees of Noah” are considered by locals to be a living miracle because nature, as we all know, is often silent and passive in the face of hardship, greed and violence so the fact that these arcane olive trees have managed to skirt 6000 years of climatic shifts, hacking axes and diseases…“The Sisters” olive trees remain one of the great unresolved and virtually unexplored pre-Biblical mysteries; common folklore and a few Biblical Scholars believe that these are the trees from which the dove took the branch back to Noah when the deluge subsided.

So there are ancient olive trees here in Lebanon. And maybe, just maybe, one of them is the tree from which the dove gave a sign to Noah that there was dry land: deliveranc, life to come. I want to share with you some of the olive branches that have come with our three days (one still to come) with the pastors of Syria who came to us because, as of yet, we have not been able to go to them. Here are their words, not mine.

Rev. Ibrahim Nsier, Aleppo Church

I have grown through the crisis, not because of the crisis, but because I really touched the work of God. From family members, from the community outside we are asked: why stay? What it means to be a minister was made more mature in me during this time. There were challenges, but it wasn’t negative. What it means to have ministry, to look to those who are surrounding you. The spirit of God was with me whenever I was speaking, or taking actions, or building relationships. “All things work for good,” was experienced by me and my family. Although they were threatened, this was true. (Rev. Ibrahim Nsier, Aleppo Church)

I am called to serve here so I will do that. The most difficult thing is when you can’t do the thing that is asked for: meeting needs, favors from the government, etc. Not all problems could be solved, but we tried always to listen and be inclusive. Sometimes that is the only thing you can do: hug someone when they are crying. (Last week he and Sunday school leaders spent three hours with 200 young cancer patients, trying to spread joy and smiles.) We won’t be the followers of Jesus Christ if we took care only of our members. “I was thirsty, I was hungry, I was sick…and you didn’t.” I challenge us all that our role goes beyond walls. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Boutros Zaour, Damascus Church

Even with all the hardships of crisis: On the plus side, we built more intimate relationships with each other. For example, the women’s group increased day by day. Children in Sunday school increased. We sent two buses to bring people in the suburbs into worship. We need each other. We are one family, the church. (Rev. Boutros Zaour, Damascus Church)

We are the people of life, of resurrection. We should live and continue living without stopping. I see the feedback through their faces and their participation in church activities. There is a good, healthy experience in the church. They see the need to do things for the coming generations. (Boutros)

The church tries to bring healing to the bodies and souls of those affected. (Rev. Maan Bitar, Mahardeh Church – There are 80 martyrs from this village, including six killed in the last three weeks)

The Presbyterian church has good reputation in Aleppo. We should care for that reputation by giving as much as we can, and working in the coming generation about being involved in the intellectual conflict with terrorists. End the ideology that excludes the other. Jesus had problems with political, religious and economic authorities in the Bible. This should be our message as well, not to be in conflict but to speak the truth. The church is one. When we speak of being evangelical or orthodox or catholic, we are hurting Jesus Christ. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Michael Boughos, Yazdieh Church

Many families led by widows: The government gave space for small shops that they give to these women to manage. We provided them with items to sell in the shops. So they are still giving some food aid, doing these small projects and providing medical aid where they can. Teaching them how to fish. (Rev. Michel Boughos, Yazdieh Church)

Many thanks: First to God, who never left us. Emmanuel was not just a word, but an experience in our community. Second to partners who work through the synod. We hear about partners a lot, for us a community in Aleppo, we have a unique partner in The Outreach Foundation, not just for money but for compassion, for prayer. We are the first concern of your minds. You will go out of the iPhone to be with us in Aleppo itself. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Firas Ferah, Qamishli Church

How do the church folk feel about investing in their property (with renovations and improvements) when others are taking control of the area? It is an encouraging step for our members and the other Christians. A sign that we are trusting God to stay in this place. The others are happy as well because they send their children there (to our school) as well. 90% are Arab Muslim and Kurds. It is good to develop ministry as it gives us wider impact. (Rev. Firas Ferah, Qamishli Church)

I think I am still in that season of newness as I return here. God is continuing to do a new thing in and among us. It is good to see and talk with you. Newness is a part of what God does. This brand new day for instance. The newness of the relationships and the renewal of same. As I turn to scripture, the text for my Sunday back in Valparaiso is the call of the disciples and the new thing God will do by bringing men and women together to proclaim the gospel. (Rev. Mark Mueller, Valparaiso, Indiana)

Jesus said, you give them to eat. I don’t know how we will do this. My wife Huda said, “God will do it.” The paralyzed man needed four people to lower him to Jesus. We in Syria are holding him from one side, and you and others are holding the other side to bring him to Jesus. (Michel)

Marilyn Borst with Mathilde Sabbagh, pastor of Hasakeh Church

These have been astounding days, to sit and listen to the stories of the Presbyterian church family in a place so far from our own homes. Mathilde Sabbagh, the newest member of this clerical community, is serving the church of Hasakeh in the far northeast corner of Syria. When she arrived on a three-month assignment after graduating from seminary about eighteen months ago, she found a worshiping community of eight. After three months of difficult work were completed, they surveyed what they had to work with and said, “Let’s go! I believe in the remnant!” Unlike the olive tree that might have stayed passive in times of hardship, these churches have been actively engaged in ministry. Like the olive tree, they are scarred and battered, with the broken branches of those who have left. But, oh my, that remnant is pushing out from that scarred trunk, rooted deep in the soil where God has planted it. As members of The Outreach Foundation team, waiting patiently for visas which may never come, we celebrate joyfully as the dove brings these branches of hope to us. There is dry land. There is life to come. Thanks be to God.

 

Waiting for Aleppo

 

2015 with the Nsier family in Lebanon. Elinor (now 16), Assis Ibrihim, Tami, Matthew (now 14) and Lutha (now 10)

I flew to Beirut with The Outreach Foundation team one week ago. We boarded our planes in our home cities of Omaha, Valparaiso, Hemingway, Allentown, San Diego and Atlanta, and made our way seven, eight and ten hours to the east. We came with the expectation of spending days with the church in Lebanon and then heading into Syria and reconnecting face-to-face with the churches there. One year ago I was part of a team that spent ten glorious days in Latakia, Yazdieh, Safita, Homs, Mhardeh, Fairouzeh and Damascus. We worshiped, we fellowshipped, we shared life in the body of Christ. We were hoping for the same this year. A similar trip with many of the same destinations plus one additional.

Aleppo.

I have longed to set foot in Aleppo for second time. I was there in August, 2010, on a similar trip. In Aleppo I witnessed the love and care that the Presbyterians of that city extended to the Iraqi refugees who had fled from the American war for safety and the hope of moving to new places. I walked the ancient streets. Ascended the steep and slippery-from-wear steps of the citadel. I shopped in the souk, enjoying tea while a spice vendor measured out precious saffron to take home for Steve. I was able to bring home stories of amazing neighborhood outreach to inspire my own church in Omaha.

Aleppo.

Three years after that trip, two years into the war that continues toward a seventh anniversary in March, I heard Pastor Ibrihim’s voice on the phone. We were in Beirut and he was in Aleppo, caring for the people of his church and his community. In a city that is now 72% destroyed he and his family have stayed. Hearing the voice of the man who had now become for me the epitome of what a pastor looks like, was the closest we could get.

Aleppo.

Two years after that, as part of another team we took part in the annual women’s conference of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon in the mountains above Beirut. A van full of Aleppo women was the last group to arrive that year. After a 15-hour trip along dangerous roads and through countless checkpoints, they tumbled out of the van into the embraces of the larger community of women who had prayed them in. Their joy was infectious, and it was almost as if life was normal and there was no war. The stories that came out as the week went on reminded us that life back home was not normal and the war still raged. Bombs fell. Bullets whizzed through the air and many times found their mark in human flesh.

And so Aleppo has been on my mind for years now. The lovely Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, whom we met in 2010 and then was kidnapped in 2013 along with his Greek Orthodox colleague Boulos Yazigi, has never been heard of again. The souq where I purchased my beautiful matched set of Arabic coffee cups and saucers was destroyed long ago, as was the Presbyterian church where we worshiped. And this man Ibrihim whom I so admire continues to show me what a deep and abiding faith looks like, a faith with feet planted deep. His words: “I have grown through the crisis, not because of the crisis, but because I really touched the work of God.”

Aleppo.

Rev. Salam Hanna of Latakia, me, Steve, Rev. Ibrihim Nsier of Aleppo, Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, my leader and mentor.

My prayer is that we will still get there before we return home eight days from now, but so far no visas have been extended to us. Our beautiful plan A of eight days in Syria has now become plan B and Syria has come to us. Instead of spending time in Yazdieh and Homs and Fairouzeh and Damascus and Mhardeh and Aleppo, the pastors of the churches have come to us. We had four hours today to sit and listen to the situation in their cities, and tomorrow and the next day we will hear of what has happened and is happening in their churches. I spent the evening with two of them at dinner hearing of their families whom I know well. One of them was Ibrihim. Steve and I even got to spend some Facetime minutes with his beautiful wife Tami who sang “happy birthday” to Steve.

There are days when I think the time spent with my sister head-injured sister Jana has taught my how to be patient, to take life in very slow steps to match hers. To wait upon the Lord, for his ways are good and true. But…

…Aleppo is calling me and I am tired of waiting.

Please, God.

Aleppo.

Sewing School

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when someone first put a needle and thread in my hands, but I remember who it was. Actually it was three people. My Grandma Thirtle had a sewing box filled with bits of embroidery floss and sharp needles. She used to embroider pillowcases and dish towels. Many years later it was large tablecloths. For someone whose hands shook so badly with Parkinson’s disease, I realized many years later just how difficult the task must have been for her. But those dishtowels and pillowcases usually became gifts for someone, and I can remember that it took two of her tablecloths to cover our holiday tables because we were such a big family.

When my sisters and I were small, she would iron a pattern onto a muslin towel or pillowcase and show us the stitches. Running stitches. Satin stitches. Daisy stitches. The hard to master French knot. When you learned the stitches and used the appropriate ones, when you changed the color of thread in your needle for a new part of the pattern, eventually you would have a frolicking puppy or a bunch of daisies or maybe even a butterfly. As we grew older, we would find designs to put on shirt jackets or tops. It wasn’t high fashion, but it was our own artwork.

Before our mom died when I was seven, she used to sew all our clothes. There is this great Easter photo in which Jana, Susan, Sally and I (Cathy hadn’t come along yet) were in matching dresses. It is not the only time we were, but oh! how I remember those dresses. She left us when we were so young, that she didn’t get the chance to teach us what she knew, but that’s where the aunts came in. Aunt Suzy and Aunt Heddy made sure we learned how to use a machine. In seventh grade – back in the good old 1970s – all the girls took sewing. Because of those good aunts, we already knew how. We had sewn clothing for ourselves for more than two years before Mrs. Schiebe had us in class.

That same Aunt Heddy hooked me on quilting when I was in my early thirties. Cutting large pieces of cloth into smaller ones of different shapes and then stitching them back together in new patterns created a top that was then layered with backing and batting. After quilting the layers together and binding the edges – presto! – you had made a quilt. I still have a large stash of fabric and many projects ready to finish that just await some good free time. It is therapy, and something that will blanket you with warmth comes out at the end.

The best gift received from those lessons was the good time spent together in the learning process. Sharing moments and sharing love. Making something for someone else. Easy sisterly chatter. It was all good.

I have had the joy and privilege of seeing that same kind of community in much harder circumstances than the ones I shared with Grandma and my aunts. There are thousands of Syrian girls and women who have fled the war with their families and are currently living in tents in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, among other places. When husbands or brothers are lost to the war, how do these women provide for their families? Who provides the milk? The diapers? The every day needs? How do you plan for a future? A special woman I know named Izdihar – an artist by trade, a lover of Jesus to the core – has taken some of these women under her care. A number of years ago she saw a need in her own country of Lebanon to care for the overlooked impoverished families residing there and began an NGO called Together For the Family. Izdihar and TFF have channeled resources in these days to use what they have learned from those earlier years to reach out to Syrian women. And part of her ministry revolves around the needle and thread and sewing machine.

Today our team visited her in the new campus she has set up near one of the non-UN organized camps. It was a sweet group of women we discovered inside. Wafa, a Kurdish woman from the northeast of Syria with five children, has worked with Izdihar for several years to help shepherd her sister refugees through a process of learning to sew. With other women about Wafa’s age (early 30s) all the way down to 11-year old Alla from Raqqa, these women were gathered together in a small room working on projects that would be part of their portfolio as they worked toward graduation from Izdihar’s sewing school. They make table runners, tissue holders, dresses, pants, baby clothes, pajamas and other items, all learned together in this little classroom that is furnished with sewing machines and a serger. Upon graduation, they will be each be given a sewing machine so that they can begin their own small business, producing some income for their family. Income means food on the table. Survival. As the saying goes, they are not given fish, but they are taught to catch fish. Izdihar has been able to sell some of what they make now as they learn, so they earn some money before the graduation day.

We were shown the first of a number of quilt tops that they are making. In the center panel is the simple shape of a baby sleeping on a quilt. Once these are layered, quilted and bound, they will be given to babies, also cared for by TFF, who have been born in the camps where Izdihar works. Stitched with loving hands of women who have borne much pain, those new babies will be wrapped in the love of Christ.

From 30,000 feet, the view can be daunting. There are thousands of women and children like the half dozen we met today. Where do we start? Come in closer where Izdihar is and hear her prayer: “Please Lord, give me this day work to do.” She sees the ones God puts in her path and she meets them where they are. She gathers them in. She puts the needle and thread in their hands. She teaches. She loves. She shows them a future. They will pass it on as it was passed on to me, and through the work of women’s hands, chattering together at the table in this small room, a little corner of a great big world will be blanketed with love.

May God continue to bless this work and the hands that move the needles.

Encounter

Baalbek, Temple of the Sun, 2010

Beirut, Lebanon, is a fascinating city. There are places we have found to visit once that draw us back again and again. One of those is the Sursock Museum. It was once the home of the Sursock family (funny how they named it after them…) and is a grand old three-story Lebanese home, now filled with modern art. Mr. Sursock and his family were great patrons of encouraging and collecting modern art and every time we come there is a new display. This trip was no different. I have encountered two rooms that are my favorites. One usually has a great collection of old photos, much older than the rest of the art in the place. On Friday, there were late 19th and early 20th century sepia photos of Baalbek, a place I visited in 2010. The color quality of the old photos seemed to match my 2010 versions; the sun was so bright the day I was there that any color simply washed away in its brightness, sacrificed as it were in the Temple to the Sun. The other room is a beautiful old salon with benches that curve around a small fountain. You can just imagine sitting there with a good book and wiling away the hours escaping that same sun on a hot summer day.

After I scanned the Baalbek photos and poked my head into the salon, I walked a bit farther down the corridor and came across this painting. It is called Encounter and it is by Amine al Bacha, the artist whose work was the feature display of the Sursock. I was entranced by the face-to-face encounters he depicted. Except for the one pair of humans, they are all birds, which I found to be kind of whimsical, as I don’t think I have ever seen birds gaze into each other’s eyes. I noticed that in some of the blocks of the painting they were farther apart and some closer together. They are even touching beaks in one block. They are encountering each other, maybe for the first time, or maybe for the second or third. And I love how the distance closes.

This is how I have experienced my own encounters as I have traveled in these places. The first time in 2010, I encountered new people from a distance. I encountered my roommate, my team members, the church people we met, first in shy conversations and then near the end in nose-to-nose embraces. We encountered each other in those spaces and drew closer to one another in deep relationships. That first roommate is now my dear friend and sister, Barbara Exley. Those team members are faithful women who have gathered me in by Facetime to pray with me over my continued travels. Our faithful leader and my now mentor and friend Marilyn Borst, along with The Outreach Foundation, have enabled me to encounter the churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in ways that help me understand that the body of Christ is much bigger than my church in Omaha, Nebraska. In their midst, I have encountered Emmanuel – God-with-us – who closes the gap between us that our sin and failings create.

Past the painting of encounter, I discovered a series of paintings Mr. al Bacha did of the last supper, a meal we celebrate and remember every time we have communion. We encounter that same Jesus in the bread broken and the cup raised. That is the place where the gap is closed. And we all are invited to the table to encounter our brokenness and his sacrifice that forgives and heals and redeems us. It was fitting today that in Tripoli, Lebanon, we encountered him again. The words were in Arabic, but the breaking of the bread and the raised cup are universal. He drew us to each other as we shared the elements, and we were all drawn closer to him.

Rev. Nuhad Tomeh and Rev. Rola Sleiman offer the words of institution.

Whether for the first time, or the second, or the thirteenth, I remain grateful for these encounters and the opportunity to meet Jesus face to face.

Belmarouf: With what is known to be good

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8-9 NRSV)

TOF team outside of NEST

It is the end of our first day on this trip to Lebanon and Syria with The Outreach Foundation. I am tasked with encapsulating it for you at home, and so I have taken good notes through our visits on this Friday in Beirut. But as usually happens, the threads of the day all come together into a whole cloth of beauty and truth when someone brings the word to us in a team devotion. Tonight that was Marilyn, our fearless and faithful leader, who gave us the words of Paul (which he gave to the church at Philippi) and the title of this blog.

The words are appropriate for this group of American Presbyterians as we wait in hope for our visas into Syria next week. We will see many hard things. We will hear many hard things. We will wonder where to find hope in a land that is in its seventh year of war. Most of those on this team have experienced it before on other trips to Syria, but some have not. The seeing before does not make the seeing now easier, as those pictures are easily drawn to the front of our brains and we know the names of the people who are the subjects and objects of those stories. Lisa put it very well tonight: they are just like me. But Marilyn’s – and Paul’s – caution is to think on what is good, what is true, what is honorable, what is just and pure and pleasing and commendable. That is quite a list of words to keep in mind, so let us concentrate on the good. I will get to the title later!

Our program visits today were to two of the special partners of TOF in Beirut: the Near East School of Theology (NEST) and the offices of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). To sit with Dr. George Sabra, the leader of NEST, is always like being a part of the best class experience ever. He speaks softly, and is always willing to give the numerical facts of this theological institution – how old it is, how many students, how many faculty – but then will give you the meat of what this place means to the life and vitality of the reformed churches in Lebanon and Syria. For example, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of NEST this past November, NEST published the culmination of a multi-year project to translate John Calvin’s 16th century Institutes of Christian Religion into Arabic. It’s a book for scholars, not the every day reader, so why bother? What do 500-year-old words have to do with today? But then this educator goes on to remind us that Calvin wrote those words in a time when this new reformed faith of ours and the churches which professed it were under great oppression themselves. These words have importance in a 21st century context for Christians in the Middle East and so it was very worthwhile.

Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary of NESSL; Dr. Johnny Awad, New Testament professor at NEST; Rev. Lisa Culpepper, South Caroline and TOF team member

We also spent time with Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary of NESSL, and an esteemed group of Synod leaders, including Rev. Suhail Saoud, secretary of the Synod’s Committee on Social and Medical Services. Before the crisis in Syria, this committee was a minor committee of the Synod, but since the crisis began in 2011, its mission and ministry have increased exponentially. We have heard about the growth of a project dear to many of our hearts, the five – now six! – schools for Syrian refugee children. A sixth school was recently opened in Anjar, an Armenian area not far from Beirut that already serves 230 students in two shifts. Forty-five teachers in six schools are educating 600 students age 4-11 in English, Arabic, science and math in the Syrian system in the hope that when they can return home they will be ready to continue their education at grade level. These children and their families, almost all living in tents in camps, are cared for with the love of Christ. Rev. Suheil shared the words of one family: “This is the first time we have felt like humans.”

NEST class of 1997

These institutions have interesting challenges. For NESSL, it is coming to the conclusion that the church needs to get outside its walls; it cannot be an insular community. Projects like the refugee schools give the opportunity to daily touch the lives of refugees, nearly all Muslim, with the love of Christ. For NEST, one of those challenges is walking alongside their Syrian students and preparing them for future ministry in the east, in Syria, where the need is great for church leaders. I was reminded of the importance of that leadership as I took the picture of the plaque which represented the class of 1997. Three of those names go with faces I know well who perfectly represent the fact the NEST and NESSL are meeting those challenges. Rev. Tony Aboud is the pastor of the church in Kerbet Khanafar in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. His wife Ramak is the principal of the refugee school in Kab Elias. Together this ministry couple and their team touch the lives of sixty-plus students and their families daily. Rev. Rola Sleiman, pastor of the church in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon, is the spiritual leader of a large Synod school there as well as another of the refugee schools. She is also the first woman ordained to the pastorate of a Presbyterian church in the Middle East. Rev. Ibrahim Nsier is the pastor in Aleppo, Syria, a church that volumes can be written about the infinite ways they have served faithfully through the destruction of war. You will hear more about that church and others in the coming posts.

And that takes me back to the title of this post. Belmarouf is a word repeated in an old Syrian love song, which came to the mind of another pastor in Aleppo as he contemplated the destruction of his city. “Oh, how wildly I long for you; how cleaved is my soul to you! I am fully yours, belmarouf (with unconditional goodness). With patience, I will get what I am looking for belmarouf (with your unconditional goodness.” Out of the rape of war, “the new born will heal the wounds of many and will disturb others belmarouf, with goodness and justice.”

As we prepare to see what he has seen, and hear the stories of those who walked those days, we too will think on what is good and just, and remember that it is the people we met at NEST and NESSL who remind us that we have much material to work with.

Belmarouf.

For the team, Julie Burgess, West Hills, Omaha, Nebraska

The family gathers

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 NIV)

I love that story of the young Jesus. I’m not a parent so I cannot appreciate the worry they must have when a child turns up missing, but I can appreciate that this child wandered to the place where God would be: His father’s house, gathered together with those who could teach him about the Father.

I love family gatherings! Indeed on the weekend before my 59th (egad!) birthday just one week ago, my siblings gathered as family with assorted spouses and children in a big house in the sandhills of Nebraska to celebrate our Christmas. It’s the only way the Colorado Prescotts and the Nebraska Prescotts can meet halfway in neutral territory where no one has to host, but everyone contributes.

It is reminiscent of Christmases in our youth when we would gather at Grandpa Piskac’s house with all the cousins. When the George Prescott clan grew to seven children, that gathering was eventually moved to the George Prescott house. When the family kept expanding with grandchildren and cousins and second cousins, and the responsibility of hosting grew ever larger, it moved to the house Jana and I purchased for just that reason on Chicago Street. That tradition eventually disappeared as families kept expanding and wanted to start their own Christmas traditions.

Over all those years we lost so many of the familiar faces who would make those gatherings so special. Bubby Piskac. Grandpa Piskac. Aunts and uncles and eventually our own dad who left us in 2007, and our own sister Cathy, the baby of our family, in 2013.

For the six of the George Prescott children who remain after the loss of our Cathy four years ago, it is still important that we do gather. And so we meet at the lake. We cook. We eat cookies! If the weather is good like it was this year, we hike. We look for eagles. We laugh. We hug. We gather. The family gathers.

I know of other families who gather as well, and they gather in the Father’s house. I have watched over the last two days as the family of God has gathered in Basra, in Homs, in Aleppo, in Mahardeh, in Hasekeh, indeed all over Syria and Iraq. With all of the loss they experienced though years of war, they still gather in the house of the Father, light the Advent candles, sing the carols, lift the prayers, and welcome the Christ child into their homes, their lives, their hearts. They follow the star to where it leads…the incarnation of God lying in the manger.

For me, it is the family gathering at church on Christmas Eve, that is the best gift of Christmas. For my church, West Hills in Omaha, this has been a difficult year. Though a difficult transition in leadership, many have left. Elders like Steve, who built so many VBS sets that transformed the building into castles and swamps and airfields. Leisha, who traveled with Steve and I to Germany on our honeymoon mission trip. Gene, Janet and Barb, who all served in worship and music. Oh! How their voices are missed in the choir. Henry and Paul who worked so hard on making our building welcoming and well kept. So many others, too numerous to mention…all missed and not gathered with us on the twenty-fourth as we lit the candles.

When the family gathers, we miss the ones who are not present, even as we revel with the ones who are. Sitting in the choir loft last night before the service began, I was feeling the joy of that night just as I have for so many years. And then the gift appeared. Melissa, whose family had departed back in the early spring, came up on the chancel to hug our organist. I blinked twice to clear my eyes. Yes! It was Melissa! Which meant that Kevin was there as well. When the service was over, I found them all for Christmas hugs, and thanked them for being there.

“Where else would be on Christmas Eve?” Kevin asked. “Truth be told, it was Mia. Mia is why we came.”

Mia is Kevin and Melissa’s high school senior daughter. She had been raised at West Hills and confirmed there just a few years before. This is the church – the family – that she has spent Christmas Eve with for as long as she could remember. Where else should they be, but the Father’s house?

As we know, Christmas is not about the presents. It’s about the presence. And as the family gathers, presence is a gift.

So eat the cookies. Light the candles. Follow the star…to the manger, to Grandpa’s house, to the Father’s house.

The family gathers.

Merry Christmas!