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.

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.

 

We Are Marked

One of my chances to write the travel blog from my July trip back to Lebanon…

Traveling with The Outreach Foundation on these ministry experiences as I have for the last seven years, I have learned many things. One of them is that you are part of a team, and even though we begin as strangers, very quickly we bond into a family knowing we have a common Father. Tonight we had the privilege of coming into deeper community with each other as we reflected on the day. Pam Hillis of First Presbyterian Tulsa led our devotion around Romans 12:9-16. In my travel NRSV Bible, the heading says, “Marks of the True Christian.” To paraphrase, we share our gifts, we lift each other in faith, we love and we serve. Those marks should reflect our lives in Christ, marked for us on his head, hands, feet and in his side. This is our model, and today we experienced those same marks on those we came to be with.

The focus of our day was Our Lady Dispensary (OLD) in Beirut, a ministry founded in the days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In a small second-floor office in a poor area of Beirut, fifty years worth of war refugees have found their way to Christ’s hands and feet in action. For the past seventeen years it has been lovingly and excellently run by Grace Boustani, a Lebanese social worker and sister in Christ. With limited resources, limited even more by donor fatigue due to the length of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, she serves some 500 families looking for help with food, medicine, rent and trauma healing.

Our team of nine women gathered in a circle with Grace and Rola, who has been trained to lead trauma healing workshops with a Bible Society curriculum revised for the Middle East context. We heard of children in a pilot week-long camp who arrived on a Monday with no smiles, no words and no hope, and left on Friday as engaged young people, speaking, playing and using their own hands to draw pictures to share their stories.

We met two young women, one Iraqi, one Syrian, each the mother of three, each having experienced the flight-in-the-night story that is so common among refugee families. It is cruel and heartbreaking, and yet here at Our Lady Dispensary these two young women opened up to share with us. And in their stories is where I find Pam’s scripture so perfectly reflected today. Even in the brokenness of lives torn apart by loss and war, these two were in our midst sharing their gifts, lifting us in faith by their acts of love and service.

Sweet R. from Iraq was pregnant with her third child when forced to flee in the night with but a half-hour’s warning as ISIS moved in. Four days later in the temporary sanctuary of her church, she gave birth to her son, now two years old. Coming to Lebanon, her family found OLD and received some help. Not just willing to receive, she has since become Grace’s chief volunteer for the Iraqi refugees served by OLD, serving as a liaison for the families and OLD. She does whatever she can around the office to help, including making coffee and cleaning. How is it possible for this sweet young traumatized mom and wife to be able to serve out of her situation? A woman just waiting for hope whose prayer is “God, just open a door for us”? The answer we experienced is that she is marked: she uses her gifts, her faith lifts those around her, she loves and she serves.

Our new friend Y. is from Syria with another story of loss. So much loss for such young women! High rents. Menial labor for a husband if he can find it. How do you cope? And yet, when she made her way to the OLD neighborhood and Grace’s outstretched hands she found something different than she had ever known. In her words, “The day I started to know God, I started to hope and everything changed.” Y. met Jesus and came to know him through reading God’s word, going to church, and is now a Christian. Her husband has also accepted Christ. One day when she returns to angry parents in Syria who do not want to accept this she will repeat what she has already told them: “Open the Bible and you will see the truth.” She is marked, and having shared those marks with her husband, will one day share them with the rest of her family.

As we reflected on the lives of these two young women tonight, Pam’s devotion brought us all back to the same place: we are the Body of Christ, and that body is marked. May those marks be seen in us all and shine God’s glory as brightly as the marks on Grace, R. and Y.

A Day’s Contrasts

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is "The Weeping Women." This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is “The Weeping Women.” This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

I find myself once again in a place that has become so close to my heart. When I return to Lebanon and Syria it is like coming to a second home, and I think that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived her whole life in Omaha, Nebraska! But on a January day in this new year of 2017, I have returned to Beirut, and from here I will travel on into Syria to places I have been before in a time of peace and in this time of war.

From our first appointment on Friday to our last cultural experience at the Beirut National Museum, my mind kept focusing on the contrasts.

We spent the morning visiting the Our Lady Dispensary, a partner of The Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission-connecting agency that I have traveled with. OLD is run by a real life angel named Grace Boustani. Well named, she exudes grace and gives glory to God for placing her right where her sweet spot is: serving in his name. OLD provides social and medical services to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq who find their way to this poor mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Grace herself grew up in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She and her family left for a time, but she returned as a social worker to bring healing to her country. She uses that same touch with every person who walks through the door at OLD, Monday through Friday.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Today we had the opportunity to hear three very personal stories from three women who fled the Mosul area of Iraq in 2014 when ISIS moved in. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa each had similar stories, but to hear them each tell their own experience was a reminder that everyone who has been affected by the happenings in the Middle East since we first invaded Iraq in 2003 has an individual story to tell. We owe it to them to hear them, see them as real people with real families. They have names! And now, we know them and can put faces to those names.

They each told of fleeing in the middle of the night. “Leave now or you will be killed! Take nothing with you! Just go!” Taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, they each left with their husbands and children, walking the fifty-plus miles from Mosul to Erbil. In Erbil, they lived in a refugee camp located in the open-air courtyard of a church there. Months later, living in extreme conditions, they made their way to Beirut and the neighborhood of OLD. They told of leaving everything behind. Former neighbors sent them photos of their homes burned to the ground by ISIS. Family graves were dug up in the Mosul cemeteries and the remains of the family members were strewn around to leave no trace of their existence. Two years later, they are all trying to be resettled in other places by the UN, but the lists are long, resources few, and the list of countries willing to take refugees from Iraq and Syria is shrinking.

It sounds hopeless, but at OLD they have found caring hearts and listening ears. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa have each been through the trauma healing ministry led by Roula al Kattar, and have been able to talk through their grief, forgive their trespassers, and be reminded that the God they have known all their lives is still with them. It was a humbling experience to meet these three women and share the morning with them, tears and all.

The contrast came later in the day as we made our way to two museums. The first is housed in an old Beirut mansion that is filled with contemporary art. Works by people whose names are written down and celebrated are displayed in home that once was a gathering place for a wealthy family. The Sursock Museum is indeed a treasure; their belongings are well displayed and preserved, unlike the former possessions and now burned down houses of Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa.

13th century children's clothing in the Beirut National Museum

13th century children’s clothing in the Beirut National Museum

In the Beirut National Museum, well restored since the civil war, we visited the newly reopened lower level where we saw well-preserved mummies, a child’s garment from the 13th century, and a long line of beautiful sarcophagi. There were steles engraved with the names of the long dead. And yet, there were the names of someone’s ancestors. There were the preserved remains of ancient people on display for those of us walking in this century to see and marvel at. There was the evidence of lives lived in specific places.

There was and will be no evidence of the life lived in Mosul by Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa, or their families. The only memory for them is what is in and on their hearts that they shared with us. And so we will be their museum, holding onto these treasures. May God grant them new lives and new homes to make new memories in the days to come. May they continue to process their grief and call on the Lord who knows all our names. May they find restoration and peace.

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

I lost my dad on April 23, 2007. As a family, we knew it was coming because he had decided to stop dialysis after one year. Three days a week he was tethered by tubes to a machine for four hours. The machine would do the work his kidneys could no longer accomplish due to the ravages of diabetes. A good man of sound mind, he made the decision for himself. As his children we were glad he could make this decision, but we knew it would mean we would no longer have him and his sense of humor and his love for high notes.

We were all by his bed in the hospice house when he took his last breath. We had been sitting with him for thirty hours, rushing there when the nurse told us to come. He wasn’t awake. His breathing was labored. The end was coming. It was the most precious time we have ever had as brothers and sisters with this man who had brought us up day by day. Since Mom died in 1966, it was his love and persistence and faith that held us together without her, and it was that same love and persistence and faith that brought us to his bedside for that very long night.

He donated his body to the medical center and a whole group of young doctors-to-be learned about the anatomy of a human body from him. I am most positive that they were even able to identify his funny bone, and were amazed by the make-up of his vocal cords, even though they never heard him nail a pun or sing “Danny Boy.”

We lost him that early Monday morning eight years ago. And as I was supposed to receive his ashes back after the anatomy department was finished with him and then never did, I thought, “Well, I guess he won’t get to lay next to Mom at Calvary Cemetery.” It was okay. I knew where he was and that Mom was there with him, rooting us all on in the lives we had left to lead.

And then Daddy came back to me.

My stepmother had apparently been the recipient of his ashes back in 2008. She recently passed away and my sister-in-law asked me what to do with Daddy’s ashes.

“You have them?” I asked, astounded at the information.

“Yes. We can put them in with Pat, or you can have them back,” was her end of the conversation.

Knowing that my sisters and brothers would, like me, want them with Mom, I asked for them back.

My lost father is now in my laundry room. I need to convince the cemetery to let us bury them with Mom and our sister Cathy, who are resting side by side. Again, I know my dad’s essence is not in those ashes. Mom and Cathy are not in the ground. They are all living in heavenly glory, free of the grief and pain and troubles on this side of life.

But there is a place we can gather as a family when we need to to remembere them together.

There was no impediment to us gathering to sit with Daddy in the moment he passed. Some had to come from miles away, but good roads and peaceful times make roads shorter.

And I think sometimes we take that for granted. It’s 2015, for Pete’s sake. There is nothing hard about traveling from one side of this big country to the other.

I pray that it would be that easy in other parts of the world.

My friend Hala lost her father this past week.

IMG_0019I pieced it together from the weirdness of Facebook’s Arabic translation and the photos Hala had posted of her dad and her on her wedding day and when she was a child. It became very clear when I saw photos of his service posted from the church in Aleppo, Syria. I knew it was Aleppo because Assis Ibrahim was in the pictures. Again the Arabic translation indicated that the coffin pictured contained the earthly remains of a person named Bitar, which is Hala’s last name. It was confirmed when I exchanged messages with this dear sister in Christ.

And so I am grieving with and for Hala and her family. Grieving for the loss of a father, something I know well.

But my grief for her is compounded by the circumstances of this death. You see, Hala lives and works in Beirut. She is an amazingly gifted and educated teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys. She teaches religion and leads chapel services for students who are Christian and Muslim. I have been the recipient of her gift of teaching as she led our summer group of women in a study of the book of Ruth.

Hala lives in Beirut, but she is from Aleppo, and that is where her parents live.

Aleppo. Syria. Where war has destroyed 60% of a city of two million. There are no safe roads in or out.

And so where me and my brothers and sisters could gather at my father’s bedside in response to a phone call in the middle of the night, Hala could only pray and grieve from a distance. It used to be only a few hours’ drive from Beirut to Aleppo. Now, it is a journey that is impossible.

I am grateful that there was a church community to celebrate the resurrected life of Edward Bitar with his family still in Aleppo. There was the family of God to grieve his loss in Hala’s absence and to comfort her mother as the man who said, “I do, in sickness and health, in good times and bad, till death do us part,” was laid to rest. These are the tender mercies of life in Christ.

But sitting in my home, eight time zones west of Hala, I grieve with her. And I share the deep feelings of loss as a beloved father is gone. I wanted Hala’s words to be in this essay and I take comfort from her description of her father. I see in her words that she loved him as the father and teacher and faithful man he was. So hear my sister’s voice:

My father’s name is Edward Bitar, and my mother is Najah. We are four in the family, Amal, Bashar, Manar and me. My father was more than a father, he was my example of faith and love. He never received a day without the Bible in his hand, and never ended a day without having his knees down to the ground praying, asking for blessings.

He was a teacher, but not like any teacher I ever met. He taught English, he dedicated his time to his students and us. He used to go around from one library to another to check out new novels and we were his first audience and listeners.

As a woman living in the Middle East I was raised by one of the most well educated and open-minded persons. His dream was to see me and my sisters happy, but happiness had to be through finishing our college degrees and continuing education. I shocked him when I decided to study theology, but knowing I will dedicate my life to serve God gave him extreme joy. He used to tell me whenever he used to see me tired and depressed, “Hala, you are serving a powerful lord, depend on Him and he will be beside you.”

His memory, his picture, his smile, his hands touching my face and head will never leave my eyes. His spirit is a source of joy, and I will never forget him. Having a father like him was so helpful to understand the meaning of the word “the fatherhood of God.” I will never forget him Julie. I will never.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost. Tender memories of times shared and lessons learned.

My prayer for Hala is that peace will return to Syria, and the road from Beirut to Aleppo will be as in the days of her childhood. That she will be able to travel that road and sit by his resting place, mark it with flowers and in the silence, hear his gentle voice and leading. She will know that she can depend on the Lord, the same one she learned of from Edward Bitar. This same Lord who was beside him, and continues to be by her side and by mine.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

The Father who finds us. We are sisters in him.

Bringing the Word

In the chapel at NEST with my well-worn, broken-spined journal of travels with the living Christ in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. I always take it with me, even though the people are engraved on my heart.

In the chapel at NEST with my well-worn, broken-spined journal of travels with the living Christ in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. I always take it with me, even though the people are engraved on my heart.

I had a new experience today. I was asked to bring the message to the chapel at the Near East School of Theology today in Beirut, Lebanon. I had prepared it about three weeks ago and have been pondering about it ever since. I am not good at self-critique, but I did edit it several times, never taking anything out, but adding to it.

Originally I was going to talk about the story of “Hope Came Down,” which you can watch at the end of this post. But what came out of me was the story of how scripture has become real to me in the people I share my life with. God’s story has intersected with mine in a powerful way. And that is what I shared.

 

 

I stand before you as a student, as a member of a flock. I am not a shepherd or a pastor and I find it amusing and humbling to be bringing a word to this gathered group of pastors and leaders and students who will one day be pastoring and shepherding your own flocks. I am a business administrator. I work with numbers and it is a very rare opportunity when anyone gives me the podium or lectern. I have a tendency to talk when given the opportunity…just ask my husband. And though I can speak confidently and clearly about numbers (and they will be accurate!) I usually like to remind people that numbers tell a story. And so today as I come before you, I will be a storyteller. I want to tell you through personal stories how shepherds and pastors and indeed, students, have taken God’s story – his word – and made it more than just words or numbers on a page. They have made these words part of my life and given me understanding of them in ways I could never have learned in a classroom. My prayer for you here, now, studying to be pastors, is that you would bless people in this same way.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

That is the first scripture I memorized and I did that in May, 2001, while visiting the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. I learned it alongside a classroom of about 150 children. And all of us memorized it with the entirety of the Sunday school children in the PCC that Sunday…tens of thousands of them!

I had read the Bible completely through three times by then, but a scripture never came as alive before that Sunday. I stood in front of a large congregation on Pentecost Sunday in 2004 when I returned as the leader of another trip that our church made and I recited it…and they all recited with me, having learned it with me three years earlier! I could see that the Holy Spirit had indeed descended upon this group of brothers and sisters so far from where I lived, and that they were great witnesses for the Lord. I learned a lesson about riches there as well: money in your pocket or in your bank account does not make you wealthy. True wealth is being transformed by God’s power and spirit and sharing that wealth through witnessing for God and telling his story.

“’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11

Those words were declared for Steve and me as we exchanged vows and rings in a service of Christian marriage on May 18, 2002. Can you imagine two 43-year-olds discovering the reality of that promise one year after their first date? It’s a living word, isn’t it? And Steve and I have experienced God’s grace in those plans which were not our own, but his, and those plans have included returning here again, to be with the family of God at NEST.

“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

Steve and I live with and care for my sister, Jana. Jana was hit by a train almost 32 years ago, and her life is difficult. She has trouble walking, trouble talking and these days does not have much strength. But in these last almost 32 years she has traveled to Ecuador to work with orphans and to help install a waterline to a native village high in the Andes. She has been back and forth to Washington, D.C., many times to advocate for poor and hungry people all over the world. She has led her sister – that would be me – back into the community of faith, which is how the first two parts of this story happened! She does wait upon and hope in the Lord, and I know that a day is coming in the kingdom of heaven where she will walk and dance and run and soar on eagle’s wings, renewed in an eternal strength that does not run out. This is the verse that speaks to Jana’s heart.

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Oh, how I love this verse! It’s the one I lean into every day. Justice and compassion are two words that I use to describe my life and my calling, but where I finally understood the humility part was when I heard Abuna Elias Chacour speak to a large gathering of Presbyterians in Houston, Texas, in August, 2007. That was the year my father died, Steve’s father died and I thought God had shut the door on my further travels in his mission. But then Abuna exhorted us to learn about what is happening in Israel/Palestine and not to take any side but that of God. Get the politics out of it and find the justice, the mercy…and the walking humbly part. (And three years later I discovered one of God’s previous plans for me was to meet a woman named Barbara Exley, who was at that same gathering and challenged in the very same way. And his plan was for us to walk that scripture together and be friends for the rest of our lives in that walk.)

“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. “ I Thessalonians 1:2-3

In August, 2010, I traveled for the first time to Beirut with Marilyn Borst and the Outreach Foundation. Marilyn was the first Presbyterian I had ever met who gave me an amazing picture of a church I have since come to love very much, and this was the scripture she put on the hearts of eight women who traveled here that very hot summer to see in this part of the world what the church has done, what the church is doing and what the church is leaning into for the future – that sure hope we have in Jesus. And we met those who had lived through fifteen years of civil war and who had endured and kept the church alive through faith and love and hope, people like Dr. Mary Mikhael and Assis Nuhad Tomeh. I still remember sitting in a room just down the hall from here listening to Assis Adeeb Awad tell of his travels as a pastor during those years of war, all the while holding those prayer beads. Pray without ceasing… you can find that in I Thessalonians 5:17. And I do. I want you all to know that you come to bed with me every night as I pray for peace in these lands.

I was hooked! And I have returned. I have witnessed these scriptures, now all so dear to my heart, in three dimensions and in living color in the people and places I have walked in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq. They are not just black words on a white page speaking to a people from long ago. They are words lived out in the here and the now by children of God who have inhaled the breath of his spirit.

And as I have said, I have returned to this place. This is my second trip this year and my fourth overall to Lebanon. While here in January, Steve and I had the opportunity to visit a large refugee camp near Zahle. I had been in that part of Zahle the previous May and had visited a small camp of about 45 families. In January, however, the camp we visited was 500 times the size of the small one and we were told it was one of two, neither of which had existed the year before. I was prepared to be overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness.

And then the children appeared.

They surrounded us with singing and laughter and soon we were all dancing together in a big circle, enlarging as more joined in. I found out later these sweet ones were singing, “Yesterday I lived in a house. Today I live in a tent, but tomorrow I will live in a house again.” Our President Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. I have never read it, but I had just witnessed it all around me. It struck me in a way that nothing ever has and that evening as we rested in a hotel in Damascus, I wrote a poem called “Dancing in Circles” about that experience.

The pictures of those children came home with me in my head and my heart and I couldn’t let them go. And then a funny thing happened. I had one of those scripture lessons like those I described earlier overcome me. This is how I described it in an email to one of my church friends:

And when I came home and looked at the pictures I saw the dear smiling faces of the clergy who were with us. The pastors in that area have visited the camps many, many times, carrying the love and the joy and the hope of Jesus into a place where he is so desperately needed. And I couldn’t help but think of the scripture I had heard so often from John 1:14, “The word was made flesh and dwelled among us,” or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “he moved into the neighborhood.” And I of course remember my own pastor George phrasing it like this: “He pitched his tent with us.” His glory – his shekinah – his tent was right in the middle of ours. There it is: Hope came down.

And those children were hopeful! And the passage from Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for, certain of what you do not see.” And those kids were singing that tomorrow they would be in their homes again. I couldn’t see it, but they could! That is a hope-filled faith and that is what I want to honor.

And so a vision given to me by God through his word and through his witnesses here kept me busy all year trying to fulfill it. It is in the words of the song “Hope Came Down” and the pictures of it being fleshed out in a refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon. And I have sent it out into the world so that God may be glorified through the work of his church.

God has plans for us all and when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, through his power we will be witnesses of justice and compassion; we will be humble laborers of love in the midst of tents of refugees; and we will be certain of what we do not see but sure of what we hope for…and we will endure, inspired by the hope we have in Jesus. And in the waiting and the hoping, we will be renewed.

Hope came down and pitched its tent, in our midst, went where we went. Hope came down for you and me, hope came down and we could see with the longing of our hearts. Hope came down.”

Amen.

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!