Prayer of solidarity in a string of beads

Bowl of glass stones

Sisters and brothers in Christ, today we gather around the baptismal font, remembering both God’s gracious promises to us and our sisters and brothers in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and Egypt). We are united by a common faith in Jesus Christ and a family bond that reaches from east to west, and north to south around this globe; one that covers all time.

This was the start of a prayer of solidarity for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Mission co-workers with our denomination, the PCUSA – and friends of mine – came to our pulpit to share stories of their first year living in Beirut and working with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. Powerful stories. I have shared a few on this blog myself, that I have experienced personally. I recognized the places, the faces and the loss and grief as Scott and Elmarie spoke.

And since we are God’s children, we are God’s heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share Christ’s glory, we must also share his suffering.

On this day we shared by praying together in solidarity with them. And to remind ourselves to keep praying, we each came forward to the baptismal font and took a polished stone to hold in our hands.

Glass stoneMine is green glass. Polished. Smooth. Easy to hold and to admire. And when it is cupped in my hands, clasped in a gesture of prayer, it is a tactile reminder of those who are heirs to God’s glory and even now sharing in his suffering.

As I look at that picture of the collection of glass stones, I can easily assign names to them; each representing a real person, people I know and love.

There’s Lamis from Lattakia who gave me lovely earrings in 2010 in a quieter time and place.

There is Toeh, a young woman from Homs, now a refugee with her family in Amr Hasn, who doesn’t even have any photos to remind her of life before the war.

There is Huda in Yazdieh, the pastor’s wife who collects food and blankets and distributes with love and prayer to some 1700 families, like Toeh’s.

There are the eight pastors still serving fifteen Presbyterian congregations in Syria: Salam, Ibrahim, Yacoub, Ma’an, Michel, Boutrous, Firas and Mofid.

There are the synod leaders: Fadi and Josef and Adeeb and George, along with Assis Salim, the head of the organization of evangelical churches.

There are the pastors in Lebanon as well, serving their own congregations plus those who have fled there: Mikhael and Rola and Fouad and Hadi.

Educators bringing the word of God and the values of Christ to new generations: Najla and Dr. Mary and Nellie and Hala and Izdihar and Riad.

Pastors and elders and priests who are doing the same work of provision and reconciliation in Iraq: Haitham and Farook and Magdy, Patriarch Louis Sako, Fr. Aram and Fr. Turkum and Msgr. Emad and Zuhair and all the teachers in the kindergartens.

One polished stone for each of them, and I hold this green one in my hands and pray.

Saving God, hear this day the cries of those in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon (and Egypt) who have been over-run by violence. For those who are able to flee, guide them to safe havens. For those who stay, whether by choice or lack of means to leave, grant them courage, perseverance, hope and what they need to survive. May your church embody and freely share these gifts with those around them.

RosaryI always carry a rosary with me, a habit from my Roman Catholic upbringing. It’s a tool for prayer: 59 beads strung together with a crucifix on the end. My Aunt Carolyn, a Franciscan nun, gave this one to me on a trip earlier this year. She received it on a trip to Rome in 1998 and it has been blessed by Pope John Paul II. It’s a lovely remembrance of her trip, her vocation, and my connection to her and to the faith I was raised in.

Adeeb's prayer beadsI also have a set of beautiful amberwood prayer beads that I purchased in Lebanon this past November from a street vendor named Mohammed. Many of the pastors I know in the Middle East carry these same 33-bead strands with them everywhere, constantly moving the beads through their fingers, not out of habit, but in prayer. It was one of the first things I noticed about Assis Adeeb when I met him in 2010.

And this green polished glass stone that is now in front of me while I work, is a visual and tactile connector for me to these strings of beads used in prayer by people like me who follow Jesus. It may be a solitary stone, but it binds me in solidarity with each of those other stones as we pray together.

So let us pray.

God of peace, empower and guide those who are working to make visible your kingdom ways of justice, peace, and transforming love in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and Egypt). Bring your transforming peace to these lands. For Christian schools and teachers working with both Muslim and Christian students we pray – grant them wisdom, creativity, and enduring love. For Muslim and Christian students studying side-by-side – grant them the courage to live into a new kind of future together in the Middle East where there is respect and opportunity for all, regardless of religious creed, ethnicity, or gender. For those working with children orphaned and traumatized by war – grant them daily hope and joy-filled love. For children, women and men maimed in spirit, mind, or body by violence – grant them healing and a new future. For government officials – grant them the will to seek the good of their people and courage to turn away from personal or outside agendas that seek gain from war and instability. For those caught up in violent political and religious radicalism – wake them up to true life. Grant that we, disciples of Jesus from east and west, north and south, bound together by baptism and the Holy Spirit, may live each day with Christ’s kind of self-giving love: doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with you. Amen.

And amen.

(A special thank you to Revs. Scott and Elmarie Parker for this prayer, which is adapted from The Worship Sourcebook, pp. 286-304; Job 19:7; Habakkuk 1:2; Romans 8:17; I Thess. 5:16-18, 23-24; Micah 6-8.)

Assis Ibrahim from Aleppo

(Back) Wendy Moore, Sue Jacobsen, Kate Kotfila, Emily Brink; (standing in middle) Mary Caroline Lindsay, Assis Ibrahim Nsier, Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, Rev. Nuhad Tomei, Marilyn Borst, Betty Saye; (kneeling) me and Barbara Exley

(Back) Wendy Moore, Sue Jacobsen, Kate Kotfila, Emily Brink; (standing in middle) Mary Caroline Lindsay, Assis Ibrahim Nsier, Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, Rev. Nuhad Tomei, Marilyn Borst, Betty Saye; (kneeling) me and Barbara Exley

I first met this man of God in the summer of 2010. I remember coming home and telling my pastor George about him. His church in Aleppo was doing the kind of relational, incarnational ministry in their neighborhood that our church in Omaha was doing. Their neighborhood in Aleppo was a bit different than ours, to say the least.

But this was before the war that came to them just seven months later. We were privileged to worship with them in their lovely building, and to hear how they were caring for Iraqi refugee families in their midst. These displaced families were, of course, refugees from the war our country had brought to Iraq in 2003. Like other refugees from other wars who could not go home, they were waiting to be resettled in still other countries, unknown to them.

But this small Presbyterian congregation in Aleppo, led by this young energetic cleric was making a difference to those families, and to the kingdom of God.

I still keep a picture on Facebook as my cover photo to remind me of those precious days in August, 2010. It’s the one on the top of this post. Assis Ibrahim is in the back row standing next to another Ibrahim, Syrian Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who was kidnapped in April, 2013, and still has not been heard from. I pray for them both when I see this picture, and I hope others do as well when they visit my Facebook page. I wrote about them here:

Assis Ibrahim is a man I admire, to say the least, and I will never forget him.

I had the chance to hear him on phone calls twice in the last two years as I returned to Lebanon to hear about what was happening to the Syrian churches in the midst of the war. Other Syrian pastors had been able to make it to Beirut, Lebanon, to tell us firsthand of the difficulties they were facing, but Assis Ibrahim could not come from Aleppo. I listened to his voice as he told us what had happened, and what was happening. I closed my eyes and remembered the worship we had participated in back in that hot glorious August in a building that was now rubble.

And I could see the face of that young, energetic, man of God, holding onto faith and hope and love.

IMG_0936This past November, for only the second time in four years I got to spend some precious time with him as he came to Beirut to meet with our group. He may not have remembered me, but oh! how I remembered him. His face unchanged. His voice strong as ever. His vision for the future was God-sent. Who else could see a Presbyterian boys’ high school reimagined as the National Evangelical University of Aleppo, even while a war still raged?

Assis Ibrahim.

And I wanted to tell you about him so you could pray for him.

Before I could come up with my own words, I received this extraordinary email from him telling the story of the church in Aleppo. And I think in the reading you will know what I have come to know about him:

This morning I woke up early at 4:30 to the sound of a mortar exploding. I said to myself, “A new day is started.” This is something normal in Aleppo.

I went to the kitchen, hoping to get some tea or Nescafe, but I had an urgent call from one of our members who was injured by the shelling. He needed someone to take him to the hospital. I got my shoes and got to the car quickly.

Thanks to God, they dealt with his wounds very quickly, and he was in church for our service.

Today, I preached that we should use what God has given us. No one can say, “I don’t have,” because if God has given us even a tiny thing, we can do a lot with this tiny thing in this situation in this community.

The church where we worshipped before the war was bombed, so now we meet in an apartment building. It’s up five floors, almost 120 stairs. We have had mortars hit the building, but God saved us and as many as 150 of us continue to worship there.

Being a pastor in this crisis is not as much about preaching as it is being with the people in their difficult time. Even if we cannot give money or fulfill their physical needs, we can at least pray with them, at least try to comfort them.

After the service, I received another call — two older women who had not one ounce of water and had run out of money to purchase water after paying for their rent and medicine. I got my family and went looking for someone in order to get them water, which I am sorry to say costs a lot of money. We need $300 a month for a family of five for drinking and washing water.

After that I received more calls asking me to go quickly to look for a home for two people whose houses were damaged from the mortar attacks that morning. We called a family from church that was out of town. They agreed to lend their house for a week until we can make repairs.

This day I described is like every day. Even what I have said doesn’t describe fully what is going on.

I am thankful to my wife and my family who remain with me in Aleppo during this crisis. Without my wife, I could be failing. She is my supporter.

We have three children, ages 6 to 12. This situation has forced itself over their lives. My children, when they hear a lot of bombing, they come to our room to feel a little bit secure. When we send our children to school, believe me, we say goodbye to each other because we don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity to see each other once again.

Always we teach the children that although it is difficult in this time, our security is in God. We try to teach them that we suffer as Jesus suffered and that the day of resurrection will come someday.

We believe we have a lot left to do in this community. As I walk around the neighborhood, I see the despair on the faces of the people. I see children on the streets begging for money. I can see people walking in the streets without shoes.

In 2013, through the church, we distributed food baskets to 100 families for two months. Last summer we were able to help 118 families with monthly cash allowances, which helps families pay for things like medical treatment, food, tuition. From August to December 2014, 65 of the most vulnerable families got monthly allowances. (MCC supported these efforts through its partner, the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.)

We are not only supporting Christians, we are supporting the whole community to teach them that being a human means having a responsibility to the others. Believe me, we never think in ways that this is Muslim or this is Christian. We think differently. We think we are here for a message and this message should be clear for everybody — that God loves all the people and I insist on the word “all.”

We are called to live in hope. We trust God and we do our job — praying, taking care of each other, reading the Bible and being an instrument of love and peace in this community. This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.

Please don’t forget us in your prayers.

Please don’t forget them in your prayers. And if you can do even more than pray, please consider sending a donation for the work of the church in Syria to The Outreach Foundation, 381 Riverside Drive, Suite 110, Franklin, TN 37064.

“This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.”


Shoveling with St. Francis

Pine tree with bent topWinter arrived in Omaha this week. We don’t have as much snow as Buffalo or Boston or Bangor, but we have what I consider to be our share. It came on Saturday, canceling church on Sunday, and it came again today, Wednesday, causing another snow day.

It came mostly today after Steve left for work, and if I was going to get out I would have to shovel. My small snowblower is busted and Steve’s is too big for me to handle, so the shovel would have to be my tool.

I was facing another 4” in our lengthy driveway, and thought if I could just shovel the top part I could make it out to the office.


Two hours later I am back in the living room, boots off, jean bottoms soggy with melting snow and a pulled muscle in my left arm. No getting out today.

And the thing is, I went out to do the task in the darkest of moods. More snow? Sheesh! Can’t winter which just arrived on Saturday be over already?

When it was just Jana and me on Chicago Street, we had an equally long driveway, front stoop and stairs and miles of sidewalk to clear as we lived on a corner. And once my dad got that snowblower for me, I would head out and clear it all, even doing the whole west sidewalk to the next block! Steve and I have made a great team here on Happy Hollow Boulevard with our his-and-hers snowblowers, but mine is twenty years old and out of commission. I knew the shoveling would be hard, and it was. I am older now and don’t have the strength. My weakness makes me mad and grumbly.

So I knew it would be rough, but amazingly, there was this blessing of quiet time where all the cares of the world just rolled off my shoulders.

Without the noise of the gas engine turning the turbine of the blower, there was the sound of the wind in the pine trees, which reach to the sky. And the sky was this beautiful shade of pale grey blue as the clouds were dissipating. The sound of the wind in those tall graceful trees was like music.

And that’s when I realized there was music, too.

“All creatures of our God and king. Lift up your voice and with us sing. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Dundee Church towerThe carillon at Dundee Presbyterian Church was playing this wonderful old hymn, written by my favorite saint, Francis.

“Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!”

And I just sang along as I shoveled, the trees keeping a rhythm with the gentle blowing of the wind. It was a moment of worship. And I took the time to pray a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving for turning my grumbling heart to joyful praise.

I came inside, arm hurting, soggy jeans and all, to look up the story of St. Francis’ glorious hymn. And what I discovered is that he was paraphrasing Psalm 148, which begins this way:

Praise the Lord!
 Praise the Lord from the heavens; 
praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels;
 praise him, all his host!

And down a bit further in verses 7 and 8, after the psalmist has exhorted sun and moon and stars and so much of the rest of creation to praise God, he says this:

Praise the Lord from the earth,
 you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Snow and frost and stormy wind: Praise the Lord!

Julie B. with pulled muscle and soggy jeans: Praise the Lord!

How could I not? And so I do!

Alleluia! Alleluia!


Sunday snow

Elmwood panorama 1

My first thought upon waking up today was to be mad at the weatherman.

Friday’s forecast: snow coming for Saturday night. Total of a trace to an inch.

This is the kind of winter storm forecast I love. I’ve gotten kind of grumpy about snow as I get older. My dad moved to the ninth floor of an Omaha high rise in 2000 and laughed at the rest of us. “It can snow as much as it wants. I live on the ninth floor!” and then he would smile.

It was snowing when I got up on Saturday morning. So much for the timing of this negligible snow that the weatherman had told us about.

It was snowing when we went to the grocery store. Sloppy stuff that was pretty while it was falling, but it was slushy on the drive, on the walks and in the parking lots.

It got to be the inch pretty quickly. Sheesh! We would probably have to shovel.

Upon waking up this morning, Sunday, it was still coming down. Steve had gotten up and out to start moving it and popped his head in the kitchen to tell me it was about six inches so far. Heavy. Wet. Six inches. And still coming down.

God bless this husband of mine. He knew Jana and I wanted to get to church and he actually moved enough out of the driveway for the little red Mini to head out. I had talked to the pastor already and he wasn’t canceling, so Jana and I proceeded through the gray landscape, trying to take the route that would be the most clear and the safest.

Arriving at church to find one car, we went into the dark space. No power. I guess I should have realized it would be that way when we drove through intersections with no stoplights working. The power came on about that same time, but we discovered that our pastor had decided to cancel just before we got there, so home we drove.

And I must say, I was so glad we had made the trip. The beauty of what God had done overnight was overwhelming. The amazing sight of a black and white and gray world was a gift to me. With hardly anyone moving through the city by car or foot, the snow blankets everything wherever you look. The trees outside our windows which are thick with leaves in the spring and summer, are just as thickly coated with snow right now. The temperatures were in the 30s yesterday when it started, and so the wet branches are holding on to every flake that came after. It is just beautiful!

Elmwood panorama 2

Just like when we were kids all those decades ago, pulling out our sleds to make multiple trips down the big hill behind our house, the kids in this neighborhood have hit the hill across the street. Good for them!

I had to call the television stations to let them know that West Hills Church’s youth group would not be meeting this evening for their Super Bowl party. On the call to KMTV-3, I had this conversation:

“Channel 3 newsroom, this is Jim.”

“Hello Jim. I’ve got to change our church’s weather cancellation. We aren’t just canceling services today, but all evening activities, too.”

“Okay. We’ll take care of that.”

“Thank you! Did you say your name was Jim? Are you Jim Flowers?”

“Why yes, I am.”

Snow from front car windowJim Flowers is the chief meteorologist for Channel 3. The same guy I was mad at when I woke up. Somehow, the trace to one inch of snow had become the six to eight inches Steve was clearing out of the driveway, and still coming down. But something had changed since I had made that drive through the beauty of my city on the way to a church service which had been cancelled after I left the driveway.

I was able to see this glorious beauty with different eyes.

“Thank you, Jim, for the snow! It’s beautiful! The trees are amazing and the landscape is a winter wonderland.”

“You’re the first person to say ‘thank you’ to me for the snow! I bet it is beautiful.”

“Have a great day. I hope you get to enjoy it like I have.”

I hope you get to enjoy it, too. A trace of snow has never been more beautiful.