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.

Remembering

I had a great email discussion this week with some of my younger colleagues here at West Hills. They are all so smart! So passionate! So willing to discuss and wrestle… Their parents should be proud and I know they are.

It started with this blog post about liturgy:

http://millennialpastor.net/2014/10/07/confessions-of-a-high-church-millennial/

This was the part that really resonated with me:

…the liturgy was more of a timeless aspect of our worship. As a kid and then teen, I could feel the prayers, the liturgical songs, the actions of standing, sitting, praying, responding, receiving were starting to ingrain themselves in my very body. I remember myself starting to set the hymnbook down more and more. I would simply pray or sing or respond. The phrases like “And also with you” or “Thanks be to God” or “Amen” started to come naturally and unbidden.

The actions, the words, the songs…ingrained in my very body. Remembered.

This was my response in one part of our conversation about liturgy:

I think the reason I sent the blog out originally was because of the part that resonated with me most: the act of liturgy as remembering. I think we forget sometimes that the work of the people or for the people was handed down by real people who lived so long ago and set the rhythm in motion that we would remember who it was that brought us there in the first place. That we remember that the Gloria was sung by the angels to the only one worthy of it. That the bread and the cup were first lifted by the one who gave his life for us. That when we say the Lord’s Prayer it is in the words he taught to those listening to what he had to say. That when we arise and declare what we believe in the Apostles’ Creed, it is the work of ancient generations hammering out what do we believe anyway.

So remembering is important to me so we can pass it on to others, just as it was passed on to us.

I surround myself with touchstones of memory, not gathered to me for the importance of having stuff, but important because of what is attached to them: remembrances of real people and places that God has put in my path.

20141010 rosaryIn my purse is this old rosary. It’s there next to a glow-in-the-dark plastic statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I need the rosary when I attend the rosary service of dear people who are Roman Catholic. It reminds me of the rosary we had when my own mother died. It even takes me back to grade school – first and second – at Christ the King here in Omaha. One service in the gym was led by Father Hupp and a human chain of rosary beads in the form of the altar boys and others. Father carried the big crucifix and they all followed behind him as we recited the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the decades of Hail Marys, the joyful mysteries of Christ. The rhythm of that celebration is ingrained in my body. I don’t need the rosary to count; I can do that with the motion of my hands in the praying. But the rosary itself in my purse with the plastic Mary helps me remember who passed that faith on to me and helped me grow in it.

I have a credenza full of the stuff of memories.

There are photos of my German daughters Fine and Johanna and Kathe who remind me that young people still come20141010 inside credenza to faith and want to share it, even in another language!

There is my West Hills Holy Cow award from Kathy Leach, who loved our group portrayal of the Little Sisters of Perpetual Responsibility at a Super Supper several years ago. It reminds me that others love the joy of worship with laughter.

There is my reminder from Jody Filipi to “SING: make music with your hearts to the Lord,” from Ephesians chapter 5. If there is one thing I NEVER forget, it’s to sing.

There is the picture of the peace pole that George Moore took for me in the Holy Land. “May peace prevail on the earth.” That pole with a prayer reminded him of me, and now the picture reminds me of him and how he knew how much I long for peace.

There is a picture of me and my siblings with our dad at Easter, 2007. He stopped his dialysis the next day and went to be with mom and Jesus two weeks later. It is a reminder of how we all laughed and joked and ate a big dinner in celebration of life and then two weeks later, sat by his side together as he took his last breath in this life and was released from his earthly pain into an everlasting life.

20141010 credenza topThere is a framed poster from the church in Germany that represented their theme for that year, “Himmel und Erde werden vergehen. Meine Worte aber werden nicht vergehen.” (Mark 13:31) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away.” It will not be forgotten. It will be remembered.

There are a number of other things up there from my travels in the Middle East. There is my Druze princess hat from Byblos in Lebanon. There is an acrylic plaque from the Middle East Council of Churches and a porcelain plate from the Sunday school in Damascus, Syria. The silly together with the sacred. They all remind me of names and faces of people dear to me, but even more dear to God.

20141010 map of middle eastAnd next to me, on my wall, is a map of the world. The reminder is that God’s people are everywhere. His family, my family, everywhere. And the ones who handed down this faith to me started right there in the middle. They are in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, in Palestine. Some of them still offer their worship – do their liturgy, their remembering – in languages that go back to Jesus.

And as I look at that map and watch the news, I remember that many of them are in great pain, undergoing a horrible time of trial, as they come face to face with war and death and evil. And I remember to pray.

And that is my liturgy, the ingraining in my body and heart, the remembering, the work of this person.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.