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:

https://jpburgess.me/2014/07/16/abraham-father-of-many/

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.”

Amen.

Kab Elias, Lebanon

P1080389I am in Beirut, Lebanon, for the fourth time since 2010, when I first came and was introduced to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in this small country by the Mediterranean Sea. We spent about four or five days here on that trip visiting various expressions of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), whether the leadership of the synod, the pastors and churches, a beautiful mountainside elder care facility or a brand new school in the Bekaa Valley. These are amazing, resilient, intelligent and educated people. The evangelical, or reformed, church took root here in the 1830s as American missionaries came in the great movement of that century.

We also spent a week in Syria, visiting the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the Syrian parts of NESSL, as well as historic places such as the Street called Straight and the Ananias House (see Acts 9), the Grand Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the ancient maze-like souq and the citadel in Aleppo.

These are old places bearing the marks of an ancient church as well with names like Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite Catholic, and Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. Christians have walked here since the first Pentecost after the resurrection.

In 2010 in Lebanon we learned how the church had a prominent role in offering hope and witness during the civil war here that lasted from 1975-1990, and we also saw how the church in Syria offered that same hope and witness to refugees who had fled from the Iraq war to their east, beginning in 2003.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Returning to Lebanon in 2013, there was a completely different set of circumstances. The new war being fought was in Syria and had been going on for two years at the time of that trip. Refugees from that war had found their way to Lebanon as well as being internally displaced in Syria. And what we found was that same church offering hope and witness anew.

Now, in November, 2014, the crisis has increased ten and maybe a hundredfold. There seems to be no end to the streams of people being forced out their homes in one place, carrying only what their hands can hold, and setting out in a vast migration to a new place. And hopefully one where they can find at least a semblance of peace. Syrians – maybe a million or more – have come to Lebanon, a country of only four million people. They live in tents. There is really no infrastructure for their children to go to school. There are no jobs. But at least the war and the bombs and the killing machine are on the other side of the mountains.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

But one thing that is common on both sides of the mountain is the church. It is a common and constant presence in Syria and Lebanon. The church is here. God is here. Hope is here.

In 2013 we had the chance to visit one of those places of hope. NESSL was refitting an old, now unused school to become apartments for refugees from Syria. Rooms where once uniformed students learned reading and math and science, would be transformed into bedrooms and kitchens and bathrooms. There was even a small church here and that would remain as a weekly gathering place to come together and worship the God of peace and salvation and to study his word in the Bible.

Walking up the hundred-plus stone stairs of this multi-level compound, we saw workmen installing kitchen equipment and making bathrooms for the families who would eventually call this place home. All of those items needed for daily living – sinks, toilets, cooking stoves, refrigerators, heating stoves – had to be hauled up those stairs that had been worn by years of small feet going up and down to learn the lessons of life. Now they would be trod by families who had learned the lessons of war and fear, and would find peace in this place of God.

Yesterday upon my return here, I met three of the families who have found refuge here.

Ziad from Homs.

Ziad from Homs.

There was Ziad from Homs, who was sharing his apartment with another young, single man who was not there when we arrived. Homs is a city that had been under siege for a full three years, having been liberated just this past May. I am sure if we had more time and more ability to communicate, we could have heard some horrible stories from Ziad, but also stories of escape and survival. His simple room contained a small bed, a chest with a television on top and some meager mementos from home. It looked like a college dorm room. Young men really don’t need much, do they?

Another room was occupied by Dunia, who had come from Safita in the northwest. Her apartment was much cozier, made so by a beautiful rug on the floor, a couch and chairs in the living room and a few more reminders of her home. Her son was living there with her and he has been recruited by a local Christian leader in helping others. He has applied for admission to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut with the hope of studying to be a pastor. These are seeds of hope being planted for the future of his land.

Climbing to the very top level of this vertical compound we met Elder Moussa from Aleppo and his daughter Fibi. Elder Moussa was an electrical engineer by trade and one day his skills will be needed desperately as a city of two million people will have to be rebuilt. We have heard that 55% of Aleppo has been destroyed; ISIS is active there and soon the government forces will try to surround them and deprive them of weapons and supplies to snuff them out. There is more tragedy still to be experienced in the months to come. There is still an active Presbyterian congregation there meeting in a fifth floor apartment with no electricity or water, led by a courageous pastor named Ibrahim Nsier. But that is another story.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Let me tell you why Moussa and his daughter Fibi and her sister Grace were in this apartment at the top of the stairs. They had not fled Aleppo in fear for their lives. Indeed, they were a part of that congregation still meeting there in an equally high place at the top of five flights of stairs. Moussa is an elder there (and I most likely met him in that church in 2010). He is a leader, seeing to the spiritual needs of that congregation. But his wife had cancer. Oh, how I curse cancer! His wife had cancer and there were no longer working hospitals or even doctors in Aleppo. (Think about that for a minute. In a city of two million people, what used to be a modern 21st-century city, there were no working hospitals.) Moussa and Fibi and Grace left with wife and mother to find treatment in Latakia to the west.

Moussa’s wife died two months ago. This man, who is probably only in his early 60s, this educated electrical engineer who owned his house and raised his family with a wife of decades, now lives with his daughters at the top of the former school. A widower, he can look out the window to the mountains, knowing she is not buried in her homeland, but that she is in the arms of a loving God.

This is the view out of Dunia's window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

This is the view out of Dunia’s window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

A loving God, who has led him to this place for this time.

A loving God who will see him come home, either to Aleppo to help rebuild or to one of the mansions in his father’s house.

A loving God who walks up the stairs with him to the top of the school, now made home.

A loving God who walks among the thousands of tents in the valley below.

A loving God he worships in the small church a few flights below.

A loving God embodied in the churches and pastors and flocks of this place.

I pray a prayer of thanksgiving to this loving God for allowing me to enter into the lives of these people who are living in a place prepared for them by brothers and sisters of mine and yours.

And I pray to this God for peace in this land.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

Thin Places

Thin places are those places where you can just reach out and grab a hold of God or feel that he has grabbed you in a big bear hug. I love those hugs and try to give as many as I can. I gave one to Julia Ann, also known as Peg, yesterday, and she hugged me back. I received an embrace from Jesus yesterday in the arms of an elderly lady with beautiful white hair. A thin place. The veil was torn. The divine invaded the mundane in an incarnational and relational way as we would say here at West Hills Church.

I have experienced those places on my holy trips to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq as well.

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

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

Can you imagine being invited into the home of an Iraqi refugee family in Aleppo, Syria? Neither could have I, but it happened. The Aziz family had found their way to Syria to escape the sectarian violence of Iraq due to our invasion and subsequent war in 2003. Why would they invite in the source of their loss and pain? Why would they use their meager treasure to prepare a banquet for us? Why would they let us share their dreams of a bigger and better life for their lively son Martin? Why indeed. The hospitality they offered to three American women around that table in a place not their home was the communion table that we are all invited to. It was a thin place.

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

I have experienced that same thin place in the mountains above Beirut at a place called Hamlin Hospital. Started by missionaries to treat those with tuberculosis, it is now an elder care facility run by Jesus incarnate, also known as Sanaa Koreh. In the most holistic and gentle ways possible, Sanaa and her staff care for those near the end of life whose families cannot bear the burden anymore. Christian, Muslim, Druze, it doesn’t matter. Each is a soul loved with beautiful mountain air, fed with homemade food that was grown in the gardens, clothed, sheltered and loved amid music, games and play. When I have been to Hamlin, I have walked as close to heaven as I can get in this world.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

In Iraq – in Basrah and Kirkuk – I have heard the stories of an amazing radio ministry that reaches out kilometers across the country to share the good news with those far and near. One of those stories was about a young jihadi who had been bent on killing his own sister for what he thought were violations of some religious code. And then he heard the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery. You remember it, it’s in the book of John. “Let any among you without sin cast the first stone.” And they all walked away. And so did this young man. He walked right into the arms of Jesus because of what he heard on that radio station. He is now a pastor, working to plant churches. And I imagine he is somewhere in the north, caring for those who have fled from the fires of hell in the form of ISIS.

And another story of the radio ministry: the signals from the broadcast tower itself miraculously kept a car bomb from exploding in front of the church. It was abandoned there, ready to be exploded by remote device because the driver who was supposed to blow himself up with the church got scared and ran. The robots of the bomb squad showed up and were stopped in their tracks too. It was only after the police learned that the radio signal was being broadcast at that time that they figured it out. The frequency of the signal had stopped the remote blaster from working as well as the robots to defuse the bomb. All came out well in the end. Saved by a holy frequency! A thin place indeed.

I know when I go back to Lebanon and Syria in November I will have these encounters again, feeling those embraces from a savior who walks with me, invites me to his table in communion with family and shows me over and over again that the promises in that holy word are true.

I wrote this poem in Basrah in 2012. I come back to its message time and time again, like yesterday when Julia Ann, also known as Peg, tore down that veil once more.

“Thin Places in Him” (11-12-12, Basrah, Iraq)

Sometimes we get a chance to see
A glimpse of heaven, gloriously
Where life mundane and life divine
Come close together, intertwine
We stand upon such sacred ground
We experience love that is so profound
It happens when his word is spoken
It happens when the bread is broken
It happens when FM radiowaves
From towers emit and lives do save
It happens in him and nowhere else
It happens when we forget ourselves
And look into another’s life
And share their joy and share their strife
When we find these places thin
When we choose to enter in
We look upon his loving face
We feel the warmth of his embrace
There is no time, there is no space
There is only His amazing grace!

 

St. Simeon

A beautiful and peaceful spot, St. Simeon Stylites near Aleppo.

A beautiful and peaceful spot, St. Simeon Stylites near Aleppo.

I received an email from Marilyn today with an update on what is happening in Syria. This one is not about what is happening to people there, but what the people there are trying to do to preserve and protect their history. So much has been lost! This is an ancient place where many civilizations have come and gone, each leaving those traces of history for us to learn about who and where we came from. It’s tragic. It’s awful. You can read about it here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191181

The Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, as it looked in August, 2010. This is the burial place of Saladin and also perhaps the resting place of St. John the Baptist.

The Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, as it looked in August, 2010. This is the burial place of Saladin and also perhaps the resting place of St. John the Baptist.

It was heartbreaking to read about this cultural loss. I have been to some of those places mentioned here like the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Citadel in Aleppo, and the marvelous maze of the old souk in Aleppo. The last has

A soap merchant at the souk in Aleppo. This man was an Olympic wrestler.

A soap merchant at the souk in Aleppo. This man was an Olympic wrestler.

been bombed and burned and is no more. I brought home saffron for Steve from one of the spice vendors. I look at that jar and remember the man who sold it to me. He sat me in his booth, brought me tea and sweets and smiled as he waited for someone to fill my order. Centuries of stories like that simple transaction are now just memories.

The Citadel, Aleppo, Syria, as it looked in August, 2010, when the faithful women visited.

The Citadel, Aleppo, Syria, as it looked in August, 2010, when the faithful women visited.

Me and Barbara at St. Simeon near Aleppo.

Me and Barbara at St. Simeon near Aleppo.

As I read the stories of damage and the people who are working to save what is left, I took heart at their courage and effort to preserve this for others who will live there one day. I also remembered another special site that we visited and wondered if it was still standing. Of course it was ruins when we visited, but the remains of the place will always mark the story of Saint Simeon the Stylite and how he lived out his faith. His story reminds me that Christians walked these lands from the beginning and they are responsible for my being able to hear the good news.

Simeon was born around 390 CE in what is now Turkey, the son of a shepherd. The story goes that he was converted to Christianity, convicted of the truth of Jesus after reading the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

He joined a monastery at the age of 16 and disturbed his brothers when he chose to live a very austere lifestyle. He even spent two or three years in a hut by himself, fasting through that Lent – no food or water – and miraculously survived.

St. Simeon's pedestal in the center of the church.

St. Simeon’s pedestal in the center of the church.

He left the confines of the monastery to be alone with God, choosing a solitary existence to deepen his prayer life and relationship with the Lord. People would seek him out for his counsel and help, and to escape all those clamoring after him, he climbed a stone outcropping, large enough for him, but barely. He would spend hours and hours in prayer in awkward, uncomfortable positions, for instance holding his arms out for long periods of time as if crucified like Jesus. His superiors decided to test him in his obedience (and sanity I think) by demanding that he come down. If he was obedient he would submit. And he did. Passing this test, they let him be and his story spread. More came to see him and over the course of years he moved to higher and higher pedestals. It was said when he died, the pedestal was over fifty feet off the ground. He wrote letters, he preached to those gathered below. He prayed. He spent 47 years up there and died September 2, 459. His feast day is celebrated on September 1.

Inside the compound at St. Simeon near Aleppo.

Inside the compound at St. Simeon near Aleppo.

The Roman emperor was so taken with his faith that a beautiful church was built around his pillar. Four basilicas meet at the center where the pillar stood, and the remnant of which is still there. The remains of that place are what we walked through and explored that hot day in August, 2010. It was so peaceful. You could look for miles in every direction. It was a place where you could feel the closeness and accessibility of God, even without being fifty up on a pillar. I don’t know what has happened to this place where St. Simeon inspired so many, including other ascetics who followed him and became stylites, needing little but to be close to God. I don’t know what has happened to the family who ran the little gift shop, supplying cold drinks for us on that hot day. I know what I read in the BBC news today and it angers and saddens me. I pray for them all and I hope their courage and fortitude will allow them to continue to preserve and protect this history and these stories so that others may hear and believe. But this I know: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Faithful Women

 

(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 had some great friends growing up: through elementary, junior and senior high school and college. One of them goes back with me to the third grade! I have made many friends in my adult years, too, through church, quilting guilds, a community choir and the Omaha Press Club shows I’ve done. But today I am thinking of a group of women who joined together for a special trip back in August, 2010.

Faithful women, that’s what our group was called. Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation assembled us from various places, mostly the Atlanta area. Wendy Moore, Betty Saye, Mary Caroline Lindsay, Barbara Exley,and Sue Jacobsen joined me from Omaha, Emily Brink from Michigan and Kate Kotfila from New York on an exploration of the church in Lebanon and Syria. I have never traveled like that before, with a group of people I had never met. I knew Marilyn from one encounter at a church staff retreat in Omaha, but we connected over a subject that few others want to discuss with me because my passion gets inflamed and I become a bit, shall I say, too much to take?

I talked about something that is in the news every day: how horribly we treat those that aren’t like us, seeing only differences and finding ways to dehumanize them. Then, I was talking about our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how we came to wage them. Marilyn understood where I was coming from and at the end of the day said, “I like you. I think you should come with me to the Middle East.” And that is how I got there with this amazing group of faithful women.

That is me and Barbara in front of a cedar tree in the mountains above Beirut, red-faced due to the heat.

That is me and Barbara in front of a cedar tree in the mountains above Beirut, red-faced due to the heat.

She put me together with Barbara. And now three and half years later, we are simply “Roomie” to each other. We’ve stood on the altar at Baalbek and been baked by the sun god on a day when it was 115 degrees…and there was no shade! We have walked the street called Straight in Damascus under that same heat during Ramadan, when it would have been more than impolite to take a drink of water when no one else was. We have visited with amazing clergymen in Aleppo, Mahardeh, Damascus, Beirut, and met with others who came to those places to see us. We have cried buckets of tears and raised countless lamentations and prayers for what they are living through now.

That's Kate and me in the back of the bus, eating our famous lunch of rice and lamb shanks with no utensils. Our job was to take care of the trash and hold up all those suitcases!

That’s Kate and me in the back of the bus, eating our famous lunch of rice and lamb shanks with no utensils. Our job was to take care of the trash and hold up all those suitcases!

But back on that trip in 2010, we were a group of church ladies exploring our sister churches in Lebanon and Syria at a very hot time of year: August! Most of us got sick at one point or another and we took turns caring for those who were down. Baked and boiled potatoes were good remedies. We laughed on our bus rides back and forth from Beirut to Byblos, Baalbeck to Damascus, then to Aleppo and back to Dhour Choieur in Lebanon. We shopped at souks and tourist stops, buying countless scarves, prayer beads and spices. We we served bottomless cups of tea and coffee and endless sweets. And all the time we were taking in the pictures of destruction around us from prior wars, learning about what had happened in these places and how the church reacted, served and gave witness. We were on holy ground.

And what I had known all the time I found to be absolutely true on that trip. We may all have differences, we are individuals after all. But we all have this in common: we are human beings made in the image of a loving God, and he said we were very good and I believe him. And I had found traveling companions – faithful women – who knew it and believed it too. And having traveled with them that far, I would go even farther. To steal a phrase from my dear Roomie, I would travel with them to the gates of hell…and the devil better look out!

Abraham: Father of Many

It is the end of  day and time for sleep. My nightly ritual as I lay in bed is to say my prayers. As I expressed before in an earlier blog, most of my prayers are of gratitude. And those follow my prayers for peace. In between, I pray intercessory prayers for specific individuals. For the past fifteen months, since April 22, 2013, I have prayed for a father named Abraham.

With Bishop of Syrian Orthodox ChurchIn this case, the father is actually a priest, and more properly, an archbishop. He is in the center of this photo from my trip to Aleppo, Syria, in August, 2010. His name is Yohanna Ibrahim (Ibrahim being the Arabic form of Abraham) and he is the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo, Syria. As I look back on this photo, he is surrounded by a group of women who made this journey together – faithful women, we were called for this trip – to travel to Lebanon and Syria and learn of our brothers and sisters in Christ in a land so far from home. (How is it possible that a woman who grew up in the middle of the U.S., in Omaha, Nebraska, could travel so far from home and meet such an eminent representative of a faith that can trace its origins back to the original apostles? On this side of heaven, I will never know!)

He is an important figure in that ancient church, a church that has schools and hospitals, and has a liturgy in a language that is similar to what Jesus spoke while he was here on earth. And after the war broke out in 2011, he was a voice for peace and reconciliation. His voice was silenced along with his Greek Orthodox colleague, Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, when they were kidnapped on that day in 2013, April 22. The story is they were negotiating the release of other hostages when they were taken themselves. There has been no evidence to this day that they are alive or dead. No remains found. No ransom demanded. Just silence. And so I pray nightly between my prayers for peace and my prayers of gratitude for their safe release. They are fathers of many and they are loved and missed. Their voices for peace and reconciliation are missed. Their example and their witness are missed.

Assis Ibrahim and Abuna IbrahimWe were introduced to Msgr. Ibrahim that day by one of his clerical colleagues in Aleppo, another Ibrahim: Assis (Rev.) Ibrahim Nsier, the Presbyterian pastor of the church in Aleppo. Before meeting the archbishop, Assis Ibrahim introduced us to yet another colleague this one named Efrem, a Syriac Orthodox priest (Abuna Efrem) who served with the archbishop in Aleppo. One of my most endearing and enduring memories of that day is this photo of  Assis Ibrahim and Abuna Efrem. They were having a conversation in Arabic together, smiling and laughing as they talked. I asked them what was so funny and they told me they were talking about the differences between different branches of our faiths. “It’s a language issue,” they said. “We split over things we don’t have the words to explain. How do you find the words to explain the mystery of the divine and human natures of Christ in one being?” To this day, it strikes me that I went halfway around the world to see a pastor of our reformed faith having this amazing conversation with a priest of the ancient faith that began in the Middle East. This faith had traveled from one side of the world to the other, reforming and refining as it went, and it still exists in all these expresssions so many decades and centuries later…and we can talk together about it even if we understand it differently. There was peace; there was reconciliation; there was collegiality and conversation. It was the most marvelous picture of the church I have ever experienced.

Abram was called out of his homeland by God and told his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. God changed his name to Abraham, father of many. And tonight I am thinking of his decendants that I met in Aleppo and praying that those who call them Archbishop, Pastor, Father, will be able to do so again in peace, continuing the reconciling mission of Jesus.

Amen.

Fragile

Aleppo porcelainI have been reading stories all day long about what is happening in Israel and Palestine, what so many of us refer to as “The Holy Land.” It’s awful. Horrendous. Unspeakable. Tragic. There are so many words to describe what is happening to actual flesh-and-blood human beings in an exchange of bombs and missiles between people whose family histories can be traced back to the same beginnings. They are brothers and sisters, just as we are with them.

I pray, I weep, I mourn. Some days I can’t do anything else. “How long, oh Lord?” is a constant thought.

There are wars going on in lands where I have walked with my brothers and sisters in Christ and they are holy lands to me. Syria. Iraq. Lebanon. The same bone-shattering weapons are flung back and forth between people who have shared the land for centuries. Homes lost. Churches and mosques blown to bits. Cities flattened. A generation of children who, if they haven’t already been killed, will spend their early years in shattered shells of buildings and minds. It’s all so fragile and tonight all I can think of is the broken pieces.

I wrote this poem after a visit to Lebanon when the only way I could visit the pastor I had met in Aleppo, Syria, in 2010 was to hear his voice on a phone. In that long ago summer – only four years ago! – we walked the streets of his city. We worshiped in his church. We saw the reconstruction of a high school for boys. We shopped for treasures in a souk whose aisles stretched into the eternity of the maze it was. I was looking for a set of the small cups and saucers that we were served coffee in everywhere we went. My shopping excursion paid off and I brought home a set of blue and gold china cups and saucers, which sit in my cupboard. Such fragile things, but they are a constant reminder of what has been lost. The church building has been destroyed. The school was bombed and ransacked. The ancient souk is no more. So many have died and the war continues.

Aleppo Porcelain

They sit ensconced upon my shelf
In glorious gold and blue
Perfectly matched for twelve of us
For tea and coffee too

We searched for them inside the souq
We went from stall to stall
‘twas in Aleppo, Syria
Me and Kate and all

We had been served so many times
In every place we went
Dark coffee with such sumptuous sweets
Hospitably, time well spent.

When I look upon the pictures now
Of Aleppo in the news
I see the shattered buildings
Broken homes and scattered shoes
People running for their lives
Their idea of normal is lost
Children crying, people dying
This is what war has cost.

The cups are gone, the saucers too,
The souq is history
All are now but faded scenes
Inside my memory.

But there is another memory
Of another cup and plate
A reminder of a sacrifice
Made on an earlier date
Of one who spilled his blood and life
That we might know forgiveness
The gifts upon these precious plates
Would remind us of the richness
Of life poured out for you and me
In sacrifice divine
Redeeming love for all on earth
For each of us for all time.

Each night as I raise prayers for peace
I ask this Lord of life
That he would send his spirit to earth
To end the days of strife
That he would show us how to serve
With fragile cup and plate
The kind of love he modeled
The love that conquers hate.