The Tree of Life

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Rev. 22:1-2)

I cannot help but mention that this is Earth Day, which reminds me that from the beginning God made us stewards of his garden and all of creation. And I come from Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, which we set aside to recognize the importance of planting trees. These things struck me as we began our day at the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo with the planting of an olive tree, but I will return to that later.

Rev. Jim Wood of First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, receives a stone from the demolished Presbyterian church in Aleppo from Rev. Ibrahim Nseir.

As we gathered with our brothers and sisters for Sunday worship, I couldn’t help but think back to a hot August Sunday in 2010, the last time a group from The Outreach Foundation experienced the Lord’s day in this place with these people. It was in a building, which dated to sometime in the mid-19th century. That building was destroyed in November, 2012. We stood in the midst of the rubble of that place today with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and some of the church’s elders. “Where was the sanctuary, Assis?” we asked. As he stood on the broken stones of the place where he once preached and served the Iraqi refugees who were in his city, he pointed over his shoulder to show us. Broken bits of crystal chandeliers and terrazzo flooring were scattered about with pages of burned books and Sunday school papers with the story of Noah. All of this was hard to see for two of us who had been there before the war, and I could hardly imagine how it was for those who then called it their church home.

Rev. Tom Boone of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, North Carolina, preaches while Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, of The Outreach Foundation, translates.

But destruction was not the message we received in their new building today, a building which opened for worship on Christmas day, 2015. Today Rev. Tom Boone told us the story of a Syrian name Ananias, a story we know from Acts 9, where Saul the persecutor has his eyes opened by Ananias, the persecuted. Tom wanted us to grasp what Ananias knew and what the church in Syria knows as well as they serve in this place: If we are in Christ, we are called not to be safe, but to be obedient. God hears our, “Why should I? He wants to kill me,” and answers not with punishment, but with grace because he understands our fear…and yet still he sends us. Just as for Ananias, so for the people of Aleppo church: In courage they stay and serve, because it is not fear that defines them, but hope.

There are many things I could write about in a day that began at 10:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Indeed, it is very late when I write this. I could write of meeting with the leaders of the church ministries and hearing their challenges and dreams. I could write of the challenges facing the elders of the church as they deal with needs that would send most of us back to our beds with the covers pulled over our heads. I could write of imams cleaning up and reconstructing the Great Mosque destroyed just a few blocks from the rubble of the Presbyterian church. I could write about the amazing hospitality we experienced in this place and the food we consumed. And if my fingers and brain had the energy, I would do so.

An olive tree newly planted in hope.

But instead, I will write about hope, for we are a people of hope, and the planting of an olive tree, for that is what we did as the family of God today in Aleppo. In a small yard next to the church building we put our hands on the muddy red root ball of a very young olive tree. After Rev. Ibrahim poured water into the hole prepared to receive it, we lifted the young tree into the hole and pushed the dirt around it.

Who would plant a tree in a place where destruction is all around? Who would go to their persecutor and open his eyes? The people of God, called out of their fears into hope, into life. This small tree is the church of Aleppo, and it has, it does and it will bear fruit, fragile as it seems, and will be a part of the healing of this nation.

Between the lines

Draw a line.

Cross the line.

Line up.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

There are lines everywhere, and we have experienced them here in Lebanon. There was a huge line when we arrived at the airport with multiple other flights. We cued up, snakelike, in the immigration line as we each waited our turn for that Lebanese visa stamp.

Terrace lines near Dhour Chouier

There are lines on the hillsides, terraced garden plots and vineyards, which climb up and up, fruits and vegetables all growing in straight lines.

 

 

 

 

Lines of prayer cranes

There are lines of my paper peace cranes hanging from the lights up at the conference center.

Lines on the crane paper

There are lines of writing on paper, including the ones I captured today to fold into another crane of peace for my flock at home. I am grateful for this one today as it came from the Lebanese member of parliament who represents the Protestants in the government, Dr. Basem al Shabb, who is also a cardiac surgeon. I am sure he sews straight lines of sutures when he closes the chest again over a beating heart.

The berm in Mahardeh

In this region there are also lines of conflict and much damage and destruction has occurred on either side of them. Almost exactly two years ago I was in Mhardeh, Syria, and posed for a photo. Behind me was a line of trees where extremists would approach to shell this city of 23,000 Christians. I was that close to the line. I was just as close a year ago, also in Mhardeh, when we stood next to the berm that separated Mhardeh from those on the other side who would see them destroyed.

Some lines are just too hard to cross.

But today we had a Bible study on the book of Jeremiah, and I am grateful for teaching that asks me to read between the lines.

Rev. Hadi Ghantous

Rev. Dr. Hadi Ghantous is the Presbyterian pastor of Minyara, Lebanon, in the north of the country. He is a trained medical doctor who went to the Near East School of Theology, the reformed seminary in Beirut, and earned his M.Div. He went on from there to get his doctorate in Old Testament studies and we are all the better for his teaching.

He took us through the definition and purpose of the prophets today. What is a prophet? The prophet is a person – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, etc. – but the prophet is also the book we read so named for the person. The book is not totally the words of one person in many cases, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Indeed, the history they cover provides the evidence that these books were the words of more than one person written down over decades and sometimes centuries. You might say the book is from the school of Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are multiple theologies in one book. That was a good lesson to learn.

Hadi then led us to the purpose of the prophets, and here is where it got interesting, and where you can see how one book, Jeremiah in this case, has multiple theologies. What is the dominant line of theology in the books of the OT Prophets? Judgment against nations. The prophets are calling for justice, but the main theme is that God is the God of retribution, dealing with the nations like a judge. This also included Israel and Judah as well, but they had a chance to do something different, to repent. If they turned from their evil ways, going against God’s word, he would turn his angry face and return to them the blessings that came with a righteous life.

The prophet is the one who speaks the word of the Lord, and a lot of that word is about judgment. Part of why we are judged is what we do in the name of the Lord, and that was the lesson for today.

When we make war about God, wage it in his name, we have a serious problem, and for that we will be judged. God is the God of peace, and reading between the lines of the different theologies of judgment in Jeremiah we find this nugget to underline that thought:

Yet hear now this word which I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lordhas truly sent the prophet [ my emphasis].(Jer. 28:8-9)

Hadi’s teaching on this subject did not go on long enough for me. He did go on to say that this word of true God-given prophecy was difficult to hear. More power is better! Victory over enemies is better! More guns! More war machines…in the name of God. It was so hard to hear at the time this was written down, that other writers of this word buried it with additions and corrections. But if you spend more time in this book, reading between the lines, the truth will out.

When we hear the nations and our leaders demanding more planes, bigger ships, more bombs and bullets and more money for military build up, let us remember that this is not the way to true peace. It is about a peace that is in our own self-interest: our safety vs. the safety of the other. But God has a bigger idea of peace, and his true prophets will speak to that. It is a hard job because their voices are drowned out by louder ones. But if we spend some time reading between those lines, perhaps we can erase the lines of warfare and shorten the lines between the point of our hearts and those we see as the other.

This is my prayer today: to read between those lines and walk the one that leads to this peace.

 

Gathering

Our team from The Outreach Foundation, based in Franklin, Tennessee, http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org

Our team has fully assembled at the conference center up in the mountains above Beirut: Tom & Joy Boone, Jim Wood, Brian Collins, Marilyn Borst and myself. Dhour Shweir Evangelical Center is our home for three days of a gathering of the global body of Christ. For some of us, it is like returning to the bosom of family in a big reunion. For others, it is the first time but you all probably remember the first time you met distant relatives. This is the feeling we have when we gather. Lebanese, Syrian, American, French, English, Swedish, Swiss, German, Hungarian, Irish…it is a big family!

We have gathered around this theme, “Together for Reconciliation and Reconstruction,” and we take our call from the book of Nehemiah, the second chapter, the eighteenth verse: “And I told them of the hand of my God which had been upon me for good, and also of the words which the king had spoken to me. And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hands for the good work.”

Opening day of the consultation: Many nations, one body.

We have gathered in the mountains together to join in a process of reconciliation and rebuilding for the country to the east of this place, Syria, now in the eighth year of the crisis, as they call it here. And the only place we can begin this process is in corporate prayer. This morning we opened worship with these words:

Lord God, you are a redeeming God.
It is not your desire that any of your children should suffer.
You hear their cries and you come from heaven to save.
As we gather to remember your saving purposes for all who are displaced; dispossessed of home, workplace, and school; filled with fear and unsure of who to trust, despairing of living ever again in a society of peace built upon the foundation of reconciliation and justice – give us minds, hearts and wills to hear your word to us, and then to live it.
We pray this in the name of Christ the Savior. Amen.

That foundation of reconciliation and justice is modeled for us in the passage from Nehemiah. After twenty years, the temple had been rebuilt and worship inside– a key word – resumed. But 70 years later, Nehemiah appeared and heard about the walls and gates. Closed in worship in a restored temple did not give God enough glory. People could not return to the city to live an abundant life because it was not safe with no walls. The lesson is that faith that is locked in the temple – our endless songs and prayers – lived out only among those with this in common, will fail by staying locked in. We will always fall short if we don’t work for the good of the people, to restore their lives.

TOF associate director and leader of our team, Marilyn Borst, me, Pastor Joseph Kassab, general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, based in Beirut.

Rev. Joseph Kassab, the general secretary of our host, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, reminded us that this has been the focus for the church here. Living stones are not to be found in the temple only. They are outside the temple walls in the city and they must be cared for. Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to save those outside. Unless the power of transformation reaches those outside the church, there will be no protection outside the city.

Reaching outside the church walls has come in many ways in these lands. Perhaps there is none more important than the six refugee schools that are operating in Lebanon for Syrian children living in the tent camps. The lives of 634 children and their families have been impacted by the teaching of normal subjects like math, science, Arabic and English, but also by Christian ethics. The impact on life in Syria after the crisis is over will be a building up and not a tearing down.

Pastor Najla Kassab of Beirut, Lebanon, and Pastor Mofid Karajili of Homs, Syria

Nehemiah knew that strength came from numbers and unity, not one man. NESSL could not do by itself what needed to be done. Our strength comes from our unity in Christ, with and through our partners. He used that great example of the geese flying in the v-formation. They can fly 72% further than a group that doesn’t form up this way.

Today, Joseph reminded us, there is better church because the crisis pushed them outside the temple. We are called to fortify our faith by witnessing and ministering to others, to tell them in words and deeds what Nehemiah said: The hand of my God is upon me for good. We will rise and build together because we are called by God together.

This is why we came. This is why we gather. This is why we reunite. To rise up and build.

 

 

Why do I go?

Dear Tom,

You asked me twice why I go to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and in my own ineloquent way I tried to answer. In flying off to those lands today I took a book from my shelf of unread books to accompany me on this journey. Mystics was written by Fr. William Harmless, S.J., a former theology professor at Creighton, now deceased. First of all his name is a reminder to do just that: harm less. How could I not take it to a war zone?

Studying the mystics is part of my master of arts in ministry program at Creighton and I spent part of the summer and fall in the readings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Alice of Foligno and others including men. But I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of mysticism in the sense of Christianity until I weirdly grabbed this book at four this morning on my way out the door.

A 15th century theologian named Jean Gerson offered a definition that was very helpful to me as a strong feeler on the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers Briggs assessment. “Where scholastic theology focused on the mind, mystical theology sprang primarily from the heart, the affectus.” (Pg. 6 – I love that, affectus…affect us…touch our heart!) “…the way he says that mystical theology offers a knowledge of God that comes from love.”

And Fr. Harmless used this wonderful analogy of marriage to explain that, words that were so life-giving to me this morning that I texted them to Steve, a man who shows me God’s face every day:

Think about the knowledge that married people have of one another. They have not read books about one another. They have not studied each other academically. They know one another through the union of their lives, an intimacy that touches heart and mind and body…it is not what we would call an intellectual knowledge. It is certainly not theoretical. Instead it is a love-wrought knowledge. (6)

After that text I emailed Wendy Wright, my theology professor who introduced me to the mystics as part of our coursework, I was so grateful!

(I am getting to why I go, by the way, it just has to run its course through the journey I have had with this book this morning. That’s what I do best. Blather.)

So as I was contemplating love-wrought knowledge and “the embrace of unitive love,” (as Gerson put it, that whole affectus thing) Fr. Harmless began with a chapter on a modern mystic, Thomas Merton, a man who converted to Catholicism during college and eventually became a Trappist (of the Benedictine tradition) monk and priest. He was a prolific writer (and now I need to get some more books…), but Fr. Harmless quoted from one in particular, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The title of the book alone might be a partial description of why I went the first time. But it was the quotation that said, “Julie, here are the words you needed to say to Tom. Get to Houston and write him!”

From a man who had decided the world we live in was a place to escape from, came this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, and they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence in a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life; but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being…And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. (30-31)

He went on and it just got better:

A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…There are no strangers!

Here it comes, this is what I tried in my own feeble, stumbling words to say to you about why I go:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts [affectus!] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… (31)

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

It was on that first trip back in 2010, as I told you. We were in Aleppo, invited into the home and to the dinner table of the Aziz family, displaced to Syria from Iraq by our war. We could see the depth of pain in their manner, in their eyes, in their reduced circumstances. Where there should have been hatred and shunning directed at their American visitors, there was an invitation to the table, the table of grace. The Lord’s table.

And that is why I go. My eyes have been opened to see the other, to see me, to see us all as we really are: Beloved children of God.

Affectus. Let it affect us. It has affected me.

Thanks be to God.

Soli deo gloria.

Vah-sayers invited to the table

A service of Holy Communion in Tripoli, Lebanon, January, 2018.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Matthew 26:26-28

Last evening we gathered at West Hills Church for a solemn Maundy Thursday service. It’s Holy Week, and this is the reminder of the table we are invited to on this day between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. I say it every year: we can’t get to Easter without this in between time of suffering, loss and grief. We come to the table and remember who did this great sacrificial thing for us. And then we walk through the Friday we call “good.”

Last night was special because the choir played the role of those who called for the death of Jesus. We sang Dubois’ beautiful “Seven Last Words,” and marvelous soloists took the parts of Jesus, the Father and the Mother. But the choir took the part of the crowd yelling “Vah! If thou art king over Israel save thyself then!”

Because we are the crowd. We yell like that all the time when we choose to not see Jesus in the homeless man: Get off the sidewalk! Quit panhandling! Vah! Or in the grieving high school students whose friends have bled out in front of them: Don’t walk out of class! You are too young to preach about gun control! Vah! Or in those seeking refuge from war and poverty: We don’t want you here! You’re not like US! Vah!

We come to the table spread for us by the one whose bread/body is broken for us and whose wine/blood is spilled for us. And even though we cry “VAH!” he still…

…takes

…blesses

…breaks

…gives

All over the world his actions are repeated in churches big and small. And we remember that it is Jesus who invites the broken, sinful, vah-spewing mob to his table of forgiveness. May we be taken and blessed and broken and given in his name and in his memory to love like he showed us to love.

This is my prayer for Holy Week.

 

Gathering

They’ve gathered by the hundreds and thousands and the hundred thousands today all over the country to say, “Never more!” Enough young lives and old lives have been taken in horrible events across this land. On another day, I would have stood there with them.

But today marks five years.

March 24, 2013, my brothers and sisters lost one of us in a way no family should. Our baby sister, Cathy, who should be living life as the 53-year old she would have turned last December 7, was taken by a stranger who sits locked up in Riverside, California.

So we gathered today to remember Cathy. To put purple flowers and dried Russian sage in the vase in Calvary Cemetery that is centered between her marker and the marker of our mom who left us March 27, 1966, not yet 34 years old. Mike and Barb burned some sage and offered beautiful words as the scent ascended among us. As for me, in the quiet of my heart, I heard these words: Dona eis requiem sempiternam…give them eternal rest.

Mike and Barb light the sage as Jana watches.

We took pictures as we do every year when we gather here to share with Susan and Sally and George. We once were seven…

Cathy and Mommy are not in this place where the markers are set and the flowers are laid and the sage has been burned, but this is where we gather to mark the day.

We gathered by the ones, remembering the ones we love.

We Once Were Seven (March 29, 2013)

In sixty-four on seventh December
She joined the family
Myself I really can’t remember
But there she was, our Cathy.

Number seven was her place
In order of our births
You can find some larger clans
On this planet Earth.

From one to seven we arrived
In four months and eight years
Year by year we each arrived
Like steps in a flight of stairs.

First was George, named for our dad
The one who is the namesake
Then came Jana as number two
Who stirred up a mighty wake
Julie came in fifty-eight
The “good one,” it is true!
Then number four was Susan Marie,
We never called her Sue.
And Mike was next, our firebug,
At least that’s what aunties said
And Sally followed after that
With blue eyes and curly head.

As I said before the last one came
And that was Catherine Gerard
Although we wanted more for her
Her life would be so hard.

We lost our mom when this youngest one
Was just three months past a year
It was hard for each and every one of us
But especially so for her.

She searched in ways throughout her life
To find the ties maternal.
And maybe now she has her answers
As she’s gone to life eternal.

I like to think she’s with our dad
And also with beloved mother
I do believe her pain is gone
That she’ll never feel another.

While walking through her days on earth
There was no solid ground
I’m thankful now that where she walks
There is peace that she has found.

Where once was seven, six remain
To hold each other near
My prayer for us as the days go on
Is to hold her memory dear.

 

 

 

 

 

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.