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.


Damascus Symphony

A Greek Orthodox priest in the patriarchate, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014

A Greek Orthodox priest in the patriarchate, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014

I have been able to visit the ancient city of Damascus twice. The first time was in August, 2010, when I traveled with eight other women from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with the Outreach Foundation. (https://jpburgess.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/faithful-women/) It is an amazing city! We saw the sights and met the people who lived there in peace. One of the many we met was a woman named Colette Khoury. An author in her own right, Madame Khoury is the granddaughter of Faris Khoury, a former prime minister of Syria (the only Christian to ever be so) and a founder of the United Nations.

This is me and Colette Khoury, in her Damascus apartment on a hot day in August, 2010.

This is me and Colette Khoury, in her Damascus apartment on a hot day in August, 2010.

We met so many wonderful people there, including those in the Presbyterian Church in Damascus.

In January, 2014, Steve and I were back in Damascus to encourage those brothers and sisters in the Damascus Church. We experienced amazing worship and fellowship and I think we shook hands and/or hugged everyone in that congregation, grown larger because of the refugees from the war in that city.

The differences in three and a half years were very apparent to me as we walked through the Christian quarter. The little Ananias Church is still there at the end of the alley off the street called Straight. It’s the place where Saul was baptized and renamed Paul. You can read about it in Acts chapter 11. What’s different is that many of the shops are closed because there is no tourist traffic there anymore. I wrote about it here:


Coffee and tea outside a shop in the Street called Straight, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014. The street was quiet except for the mortars we heard.

Coffee and tea outside a shop in the Street called Straight, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014. The street was quiet except for the mortars we heard.

Another change was in the sounds I heard. Yes, there were still honking horns and the call to prayer from multiple mosques, but there were also explosions from mortars falling near the city. “Welcome!”, the head of our security contingent said. Sadly, the people who live there have become accustomed to it.

One of the most wonderful sounds we heard was the sound of Greek Orthodox priests singing ancient texts in a church that dates to the third century, their voices resonating off the stone walls and floors. The only word I have to describe the sound is heavenly.

There was a symphony of sound all around us in those precious three days. And it pulled these words out of me:

Damascus just like every place has its notes and sounds
When you walk along its streets it totally surrounds
The honking horns of cars and cabs
The clack where cobblestone meets heel
Yella, yella, come here quickly!
Schweih, schweih, slow down! Tires squeal.

There are sounds that call five times a day
For the faithful to bow down in prayer
From loudspeakers perched on minarets slender
It comes from everywhere.

The early churches rooted here
Add sweet harmony to the air
Ancient songs of prayer and praise
Music fine and rare.

Other directors have added percussion
That we could not help but hear
Guns and mortars lobbed in anger
Causing some tremors of fear.

My prayer for this land of music so fine
Is that the orchestra gathered
Will remain in place for centuries still
That all will remember it mattered
That it takes the percussion, the woodwinds, the brass
It takes the family of strings
It takes everyone working together for peace
Each one of us, together, should sing!
God made us all, each one to reflect
Uniquely the range of his glory
Let our voices and lives blend harmoniously now
To continue his musical story.

I pray for the end of war. I pray for united nations and peoples. I pray for a symphony of peace.


Hand in hand

Holding hands on wedding dayThere we are on our wedding day, May 18, 2002. Gosh! We look so young you can’t even tell we are 43 and 44 years old (she said while wearing her rose-colored glasses). I remember that day like it was yesterday!

For both of us, it was our first – and we have pledged! – only marriage. First time for two folks in early middle age. Steve’s parents were married when his mom was only 19 and Chuck was 25. My mom was 23 and my dear old dad was 27. It seems so young to me!

So there we are, standing in the church for pictures on the big day, and I love this one because we are holding hands. We get teased often at church for our PDAs: public displays of affection. We often hold hands, stand arm in arm, and even exchange kisses. It’s still first love for me. It always will be.

We did meet at church, in Sunday school actually. I sat in the front row with Jana, and Steve sat in the last row. He used to tease us for being “teacher’s pets” and I accused him of flinging arrows at our heads from the back row…figurative arrows. Somehow we were friends who liked to tease each other and then we ended up on the adult education committee together. Our families joined together with other friends after church for lunch on Sundays at Arby’s. Our pastor George and his wife Pam were part of that group. After we got engaged, George shared the story of how he woke up in the middle of the night after having dreamed that Steve and I would be married someday. He woke Pam to tell her, too. Oddly enough, it was before any of the rest of our “keeping company” started. He just had a vision and I have always loved that story.

Anyway, how we eventually ended up going out that first night is another story for another day. It involves a letter from me and then a returned letter from him. It’s not fodder for an HBO mini series, but I am sure there will be a movie about it someday. Steve will be played by Kevin Costner and I will be played by…me.

The first night we went out was exactly one year before that wedding picture: May 18, 2001. We met at Delice, a bakery/bistro in Omaha’s Old Market area. He had a cup of coffee and I had a Diet Coke. We each paid for our own. I had nothing else to compare this to as I told Steve, “This is my first date. With a man. Ever in my life. Did I tell you I was 42?” That was the truth!

After our caffeine intake, we decided to walk a bit farther into the market for dinner at the Upstream Brewery. And that is when it happened: he reached out for my hand. And for the first time at the advanced spinsterly age of 42, for the very first time, (did I stress that enough?) my hand was nestled into the larger hand of a man who was not my father, not my uncle, not my grandpa. And I will never forget the wonder of that feeling. I can close my eyes and see us walking down Howard Street, hand in hand, and thirteen years have melted away. I knew then and there I would marry him someday, so it was funny when George told us of his dream.

I also experienced my first kiss that evening, but this story is not about that either. It’s about holding hands.

At dinner that evening, Steve ordered a burger and I ordered a salad. My whole self was just in shock that I was even there, and I was so enthralled that I just couldn’t eat, so Steve finished mine. But that was the end of the meal. The beginning went something like this. Steve said, “Should we say grace?” And I just nodded, knowing I couldn’t say anything. He reached his hands across the table and took both of mine in his and thanked God for our meal.

And we have never done it any other way.

After that first date (I only use that term because it’s easier. We never considered that we were dating, just keeping company.) the story got out quickly that we were a couple. We tried to keep it just to ourselves for a while because it was new and special, and frankly, I think we were both a bit scared. But once we were discovered, it was wonderful to be so easy with our PDAs, especially holding hands. We started sitting together in church and when it was time for prayer, somehow we just reached for the other’s hand and held them until the “amen.”

And we have never done it any other way.

I think of how many times we have prayed hand in hand like that in the last thirteen years. So many meals. So many church services. Weddings. Funerals. We have prayed for our family members in their joys and sorrows; we have prayed with and for our friends in theirs as well. We pray with our small group when we gather to share lives and learn more about our God. We have prayed on trips to be with the church in Germany, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. We have prayed for peace, over and over again.

I know when we join our hands like that, God meets us right there as we pray.

praying hands in DamascusAnd so this picture means so much to me. We were in Damascus, Syria, in January with The Outreach Foundation. We had traveled to Lebanon to be with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon along with other global partners of NESSL. Sixteen of us made the short journey to Damascus to be with the church in a country that had been at war for almost three years. They still are, and we continue to pray for them even now with the news of the impending U.S. participation in a plan against ISIS. Oh! How we pray for peace.

While we were in the church service that day, surrounded by the members of the Damascus congregation plus the refugees who had fled other parts of Syria to be there, we bowed our heads in prayer as we have done so many times. And we reached out our hands to each other as we have done so many times. And somehow that caught the eyes of a photographer and this photo was posted on Facebook.

If there is only one picture that you can pick to describe the life you have shared with that one person you know God picked for you personally, this is the photo I would pick to tell the story of Julie and Steve. And they are not the hands of Kevin Costner.

They are Steve’s, and they are mine. Hand in hand.

The Key

Church keysThose are my church keys. One is the master key and it opens most of the doors here. One is just for the pantry. Sadly, we had to rekey it and carefully distribute the keys, as food and supplies kept going missing. (People never seem to steal our bibles…) One opens the server room and one the mechanical rooms. There is an Allen wrench to dog out the doors from the inside so they will open freely when they’re not locked. There is a key to the safe and a key to the cabinet for important papers. There is a security fob for online banking. There is my flashlight from the Sunday school at the Evangelical Church in Damascus, Syria, which always says to me that even when your light is small, you can still shine it out in love!

And then there is that daily reminder, the most important key of all…pray for the oppressed. It was a gift from a dear friend who opened the doors to me to the church in the Middle East. And if you didn’t already know it, they are suffering greatly these days, and they need our daily prayers.

This came in my email box this morning. It’s the story of another Christian village in northern Iraq – biblical Ninevah – where ISIS has forced the Christians and other minorities out in their zest to create a new Islamic Caliphate and spread their version of a dangerous ideology. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28686998

The town is Qaraqosh and it was one of the places Christians had fled to from Mosul, another ancient place in the history of my faith. The historical loss of artifacts is devastating. The loss of life is too much to bear. And so I pray for oppressed…and the oppressor. This prayer seems to put the words in my mouth and heart that I am just too grieved to come up with myself. Won’t you join me?

From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


And 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!

St. Tekla and Elias

The icon of St. Tekla decoupaged on a wood inlaid frame.

The icon of St. Tekla decoupaged on a wood inlaid frame.

I heard the story of St. Tekla (Taqla) while having tea and coffee with my traveling companions in Damascus, Syria, this past January. We had journeyed to Lebanon as partner churches of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon from the U.S., Sweden and Switzerland, to hear how the church is dealing with the war in Syria, now in its fourth year. As part of this encouragement trip, sixteen of us traveled to Damascus on the highway from Beirut. As you can imagine, the journey was a lonely one with very little traffic, most of it going the other way to leave Syria.

When we arrived at the immigration station just outside of Damascus, we were met by the Minister of Protocol for President Assad. We enjoyed dark, sweet Arabic coffee and sweets with him before making our final journey to our hotel in Damascus. It is simply the Middle East hospitality which you find everywhere. Indeed, when we had a meeting with President Assad himself the next day, we were served the best tea in beautiful china cups as we had 72 minutes of question and answer with him, all in regard to the status of the church. But I digress from St. Tekla…

On a walking tour of the Christian quarter of Damascus, we visited the house of Ananias. This is the very same place mentioned in Acts chapter 9, where Saul of Tarsus is baptized and renamed Paul. This Paul would go on to be a great apostle of Jesus, starting churches all over what is now Turkey. Paul himself discipled many, and the story is that young Tekla was one of these students. She professed her faith, and as many in those first centuries were, was persecuted for it. She was marked for death by her family and by the man they wanted her to marry. She escaped, as legend tells it, through a miraculous opening in a mountain into a place now known as Maaloula in Syria. There is a monastery there bearing her name, Mar Taqla, and her remains are said to be entombed there. Considering the value of a woman in those days, it was a wonderful story for this woman of faith to hear. (Maaloula might have been a refuge for St. Tekla in the first century, but it is not a refuge anymore. Just Google Maaloula and you can find stories of what happened there.)

Just like the coffee, tea and sweets at the border and in the president’s office, this story was told over coffee and tea at a table on the street outside the house of Ananias. Some of our cohort had been shopping for local crafts in a small craft store right next to the house of Ananias. Indeed, we had shopped there more than three years earlier on another trip, that one made just months before the Arab Spring and all its aftermath, including the war in Syria.

Elias in his then craft shop with the inlaid box he made and I bought for Steve, signed on the bottom by Elias.

Elias in his then craft shop with the inlaid box he made and I bought for Steve, signed on the bottom by Elias.

On that trip we had shopped in that same store, and as it was small, after making our purchases left the store to make room for others. My friend Sue and I walked just across the narrow street to another craft shop and met Elias, who showed us how they make the beautiful wood inlay on boxes and crosses and backgammon sets, souvenirs to bring home from this ancient city. I bought a box for my husband and had Elias sign the bottom. It is a treasured possession!

As we were sitting out on the street, enjoying the tea and coffee served by the friendly shopowner, it struck me that he and the shop looked familiar. It was the same shop! Our server was Elias, the woodworker, only now due to the war there are no tourists to buy his wares, just some random Christians from another land sitting at his table while mortars exploded in the distance. His life has been reduced to selling coffee and tea to area residents who wander by. I was so excited to see him again that I jumped up and overwhelmed him with an embrace. His smile spoke volumes and though I don’t speak Arabic and he doesn’t speak English, we both understood the other.

Elias and me on the street outside what is now his coffee shop.

Elias and me on the street outside what is now his coffee shop.

As we continued to sit and enjoy the beverages, Elias went back in the shop and brought out a dusty laminated icon. Yes. It was St. Tekla. That was how I heard her story. I wanted to pay him for it and he refused. It was a gift. Another in the party suggested I could get an authentic icon at an antique shop. But that’s not what I wanted. I had been given this gift by my brother in Christ and therein was its value.

Because of this brother, I learned St. Tekla’s story. And now you know his story. And his name…Elias.