Remembrance and Community

After a full Saturday, I ask that you walk through it with us in reverse, for that is how I found the message of today that birthed the title of this blog.

Marilyn, Grace, Reem (refugee from Mosul, Iraq, who serves at OLD), Sheryl, Evangeline, Rola, me

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,[b] and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

We ended our day at a beautiful treasure in Beirut, the Beirut National Museum. Like many museums housing artifacts of the ancient world, the treasures housed within its stone walls remind us of just how old the world is. Civilizations left markers – remembrances – that people have walked these lands for way longer than the average attention span of smart-phone-wielding 21st century folk would care to think about. We are people who live in the moment. Yesterday’s news is, well, yesterday’s news. But even as we have marked our days here on this trip with data-draining amounts of photos on those smart phones to remember, the ancients left markers as well so they would be remembered.

Tombstone of Theoros and Alaphatha, Beirut National Museum

From a Roman period tomb, these words are carved in the lid of the sarcophagus: “Theoros. Alaphatha who purchased and built [this tomb].” Clearly, Theoros and Alaphatha wanted to be remembered, and on this day some twenty centuries later, they are. In a museum, a place that stands filled with what has happened in the past, we remember: Here is a marker that is witness to the fact that Theoros and Alaphatha walked this earth in this place.

Two-sided sheet of Syriac hymns, ink on paper, Beirut National Museum.

There are mummies in this museum that date to the 13th century, CE, found in a nearly inaccessible cave. Not only the mummies themselves, but due to the climate in that area, clothing and even paper items with ink writings were preserved. There apparently was a community of people who left a nearby region due to the clashes between Crusaders and Muslims for the control of that area and settled in these caves for safety. The finding of these tombs and relics helps us to fill in a bit of history and remember them. We may not know their names like Theoros and Alaphatha, but we know they could read, they could write (hymns!), they could sew and embroider, they sought refuge in times of crisis, and they lost children at a very young age.

These things struck me as I wandered the museum because we had just come from a visit to the Our Lady Dispensary (OLD), a ministry partner that is supported by The Outreach Foundation. Founded in the 1980s during the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, it is located in a second-story apartment in a Christian area of Beirut that houses the very poor. If Jesus was walking the earth today instead of first century Palestine, this is most likely where he would have pitched his tent! In the more than thirty years since this ministry moved into this neighborhood, they have served waves of poor refugees who have knocked at their doors. Where once it was Lebanese trying to survive in the conflict that raged from 1975-1990, now it is more likely Syrians who started arriving in 2012 and Iraqis in 2014.

Knock on the door and you will meet Grace Boustani, the social worker who is herself a survivor of the Lebanese war. Her family fled to Canada, but Grace felt the call to return to her homeland to serve. An angel of God if ever there was one, no one has been more aptly named. With support from ministry partners, Grace and OLD have provided relief for up to 1,000 families monthly over the past six years. Rola al Kattar, another angel of God, serves along with Grace at OLD in providing trauma recovery programs for women and children.

Today Grace and Rola introduced us to two Syrian families. Khadija from Raqqa and Aisha from Aleppo have been in this poor neighborhood for two years and one and half years respectively. Each woman has two sons. Both Muslim, they did not know each other except that one lived on the first floor of an apartment, and one lived below. The community they have formed, almost combining families really, came out of tragedy. Khadija’s then less than two-year old, Sami, got hold of a lighter and lit the crib of his baby brother on fire, burning the baby severely. As with most refugee families, there are limited resources. Fathers find only day work in Beirut. There is no health insurance. Daily bread is not assured. How would they get treatment for this severely burned child?

Aisha, whose home and family were also impacted by the fire in the building, stepped forward to help. She would care for Sami, along with her own two sons, Mahmoud and Abed al Kadr, while Khadija went north to Tripoli to find emergency care and surgery for the baby. “I put myself in her shoes: What if this had happened to me? Would anyone step forward to help?”

Looking at these two women who have endured so much in a world where it seems that everyone around you is only thinking of self-survival, there was a bond of community – of family – that reminded us of the empathy, the compassion, that Jesus modeled. Aisha, a woman with nothing, gave all she had to care for Khadija’s Sami.

The reason we can know – and remember! – their story is because of OLD. Aisha came seeking medical help for her own sons, caring also for the son of another. When Grace heard the story, she and OLD have provided the small relief they can. In a poor community in the midst of a refugee crisis where so many need so much, OLD stands in the gap where it can to serve the Khadijas and Aishas of this world. Praise God for the faithfulness of this ministry and those who support it! As the woman in that passage from Mark is remembered by us today for something more beautiful and sacrificial than a tombstone in a museum, Aisha’s love and the love of Grace and Rola and OLD will be remembered by the God who created them. We remember them with this story and are grateful to carry it to you.

Rev. Najla breaks the bread in remembrance

I said we were walking this day in reverse. We began it this morning with the culmination of the women’s conference as we gathered for a communion service led by Rev. Najla Kassab. Marilyn read the words of institution for us from 1 Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Rev. Najla lifts the cup in remembrance

We celebrated communion this morning with the community of faith, the same community of faith that has birthed ministries like OLD and serves through the hands of people like Grace and Rola and Najla in the name of Jesus, whom we remember in the breaking of the bread and covenant of the cup. The only marker is a simple plate and plain cup, not a painted tomb in a museum. The words remind us. The community remembers. May it ever be.

P.S. This is a long narrative, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a bit more about Reem. She is a refugee (with her family) from the Mosul area of Iraq who has been in the neighborhood for three years. They are stuck here, refusing to return to Iraq (there is nothing to return to, all is lost there for them) and rejected for emigration by other countries. It is a difficult existence for people like Reem.

Even in such difficult conditions, Reem, who was embraced with small bits of hope from OLD, now serves with OLD as a kind of right-hand to Grace. She knows and reaches out to hundreds of Iraqi families in this poor neighborhood. Grace to grace, that is the story of Reem and OLD.

Roads and Boundaries

But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Eph. 2:13-14)

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30-31)

It is the Sabbath, the Lord’s day, and one of the joys of traveling to be with the church in the world is the gathering with brothers and sisters to celebrate and worship together. Language barriers don’t have to be a problem: hymn tunes are recognizable and if we don’t know the Arabic, we can sing the English snippets we know or create whole new hymns. We can confess in any language. And we stretch out our hands to receive the benediction. We were made to worship and to glorify our Lord, and that is what we set out to do on this Sabbath day.

Dear Rev. Nuhad Tomeh had us loaded into the car and on the road from Beirut at 8:30 this morning. Our destination was the church in Deir Mimas, in the far south of Lebanon, right by the Lebanon-Israel border. We drove through Sidon and by the old crusader castle ruins there and the same fishermen from yesterday with a fresh catch. We turned east before Tyre, where we had spent such wonderful hours yesterday. The view changed from seacoast to rolling hills and eventually the low mountains. We rose on the twisted roads as we came to Deir Mimas, a beautiful mountain town with at least seven churches, one of them the Presbyterian church where we would gather.

Worship with Deir Memas congregation, July 22, 2018.

Deir Mimas church dates to 1861 when the missionaries planted it. It once had around 300 members and an evangelical school, where Dr. Assad Skoury, an elder and leader of the church, told us his father had attended. Many people have left this area due to the long occupation by Israel, and the church now worships about 20-25 people on summer Sundays like this one. Families who have emigrated return in the summer, as the climate is beautiful. In the winter, they only worship two Sundays per month. The numbers don’t matter because as we know, where two or more are gathered in his name, there he is among us.

It was a very special treat today, as two Syrian seminary students supported by The Outreach Foundation were on a two-week temporary assignment with this congregation. Adon Naaman of Latakia was preaching and George Shammas of Aleppo was assisting. Dr. Skoury, who runs an amazing clinic and dispensary for those in the area (including Syrian refugees) was our accompanist. As Adon preached his well-presented sermon, Dr. Assad sat next to me and whispered a translation into my ear, most of which I caught.

“What is an apostle? An apostle is one who is sent, not to be in charge, but to serve and to encourage. They are sent to the wilderness, where they are challenged and strengthened.”

Adon told a very personal story of visiting a gentleman in his Latakia congregation who had been made quadriplegic by a surgical accident. Expecting to be the comforter and encourage to this man, Adon instead found himself the receiver of encouragement when the man reminded him that he should always remember the spirit of life inside him that made him smile.

“That smile will invite people to ask, ‘Why do you smile?’ and you will be quick to tell them it is because of Jesus. This is the best way to share the gospel.”

Indeed. As each of us is sent to a wilderness – a wild place, a desert place, a place to be the ambassador of the incarnate one – let us be the smile that begs the question why? and thus share the gospel in the best way.

Map from my Bible showing Tyre on the west coast of the land near the top. Deir Mimas would be just a bit south of Caesarea Philippi.

After worship we hit the road again, this time for lunch. The twisting mountain road took us right up to the border, not easily missed due to razor wire, electric fences and a wall of tall concrete panels. Looking across from an observation point, it was my first experience confronting the reality of not just a geographic boundary line on a map, but a separation of people. In the map in the back of my Bible you can see where Tyre is in the time of Jesus. Due east and a bit south is Deir Mimas, which is not marked but you know where it is by a modern map. What is interesting on that map in my Bible is that there are no national borders. It is one land. But here, we were confronted by that fence and wall. No entry.

Ducks on the Israeli side of the river. There is no border for them.

From there we continued on to lunch outside at a restaurant on the Wezani River. Sitting by the small stream with young people swimming to cool off on the hot day, our hosts explained that the center of the river marked that border again. The river was not deep or wide. It was easy to cross the middle and even get out on the other side, and yet the young people never made the attempt. The invisible boundary kept them on the Lebanese side, even as high up on the hill there were two military checkpoints keeping watch, one Lebanese, the other the U.N. I couldn’t help but notice that the ducks in the water could get in on one side and out on the other, but not the people. There wasn’t a difference in the water; it all ran together.

Lunch along the Wezani River, dividing line in this place between Lebanon and Israel. You can see the watch posts at the very top of the hill.

I went back to the earlier reading from worship, the one from Ephesians above. “In his flesh” he joins the groups together and erases the boundary. On a night when we have finally arrived at our destination for the women’s conference, driving three hours north to Dhour Chouier on those same twisty roads, my prayer is that one day the boundaries will be truly erased like they are on the map in my bible, and all shall be one in his flesh, and in his name. On this Sabbath, I can pray for no less.

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.

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.

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.

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!