The Tree of Life

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Rev. 22:1-2)

I cannot help but mention that this is Earth Day, which reminds me that from the beginning God made us stewards of his garden and all of creation. And I come from Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, which we set aside to recognize the importance of planting trees. These things struck me as we began our day at the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo with the planting of an olive tree, but I will return to that later.

Rev. Jim Wood of First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, receives a stone from the demolished Presbyterian church in Aleppo from Rev. Ibrahim Nseir.

As we gathered with our brothers and sisters for Sunday worship, I couldn’t help but think back to a hot August Sunday in 2010, the last time a group from The Outreach Foundation experienced the Lord’s day in this place with these people. It was in a building, which dated to sometime in the mid-19th century. That building was destroyed in November, 2012. We stood in the midst of the rubble of that place today with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and some of the church’s elders. “Where was the sanctuary, Assis?” we asked. As he stood on the broken stones of the place where he once preached and served the Iraqi refugees who were in his city, he pointed over his shoulder to show us. Broken bits of crystal chandeliers and terrazzo flooring were scattered about with pages of burned books and Sunday school papers with the story of Noah. All of this was hard to see for two of us who had been there before the war, and I could hardly imagine how it was for those who then called it their church home.

Rev. Tom Boone of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, North Carolina, preaches while Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, of The Outreach Foundation, translates.

But destruction was not the message we received in their new building today, a building which opened for worship on Christmas day, 2015. Today Rev. Tom Boone told us the story of a Syrian name Ananias, a story we know from Acts 9, where Saul the persecutor has his eyes opened by Ananias, the persecuted. Tom wanted us to grasp what Ananias knew and what the church in Syria knows as well as they serve in this place: If we are in Christ, we are called not to be safe, but to be obedient. God hears our, “Why should I? He wants to kill me,” and answers not with punishment, but with grace because he understands our fear…and yet still he sends us. Just as for Ananias, so for the people of Aleppo church: In courage they stay and serve, because it is not fear that defines them, but hope.

There are many things I could write about in a day that began at 10:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Indeed, it is very late when I write this. I could write of meeting with the leaders of the church ministries and hearing their challenges and dreams. I could write of the challenges facing the elders of the church as they deal with needs that would send most of us back to our beds with the covers pulled over our heads. I could write of imams cleaning up and reconstructing the Great Mosque destroyed just a few blocks from the rubble of the Presbyterian church. I could write about the amazing hospitality we experienced in this place and the food we consumed. And if my fingers and brain had the energy, I would do so.

An olive tree newly planted in hope.

But instead, I will write about hope, for we are a people of hope, and the planting of an olive tree, for that is what we did as the family of God today in Aleppo. In a small yard next to the church building we put our hands on the muddy red root ball of a very young olive tree. After Rev. Ibrahim poured water into the hole prepared to receive it, we lifted the young tree into the hole and pushed the dirt around it.

Who would plant a tree in a place where destruction is all around? Who would go to their persecutor and open his eyes? The people of God, called out of their fears into hope, into life. This small tree is the church of Aleppo, and it has, it does and it will bear fruit, fragile as it seems, and will be a part of the healing of this nation.

Bursting at the seams

Steve & I collaborated on this one…

Our team with Rev. Mikhael and Nadej Sbeit, their daughter Nour, and their Korean missionary partners. (Sidon)

We began this day driving down to Tyre to visit the Presbyterian church there. As we approached Tyre, we saw many groves of trees laden with ripe oranges and bananas. Then we began to see trucks filled to overflowing with this fresh fruit, and then the fresh fruit and vegetable stands with fresh produce spilling out of crates and baskets.

First grade Syrian students from the refugee camps squeezed into a classroom at the back of the sanctuary. (Tyre)

With these images before our eyes, we arrived at the church in Tyre. It is a small church with a few rooms, the sanctuary and the pastor’s house. Every nook and cranny of the church had been converted to classrooms for Syrian refugee children. Just when we thought there could not be any place left for other activities, we were taken up the stairs of the house to the roof. There was a small room accessed from the roof that had been converted to a classroom for sewing and cosmetology training. In here the Syrian women create wonderful textile objects and other artistic decorative projects. After our tour of the ministry of this small church, we sat on the roof having coffee, tea and sweets, while we listened to some of the women describe their projects and teaching methods.

We met as the family of God on that roof. We were Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese and American. We were Muslim and Christian. There was even a family in a combination of these identities who are being cared for as they seek asylum to begin a new life together in a place of love and acceptance. Even as they are served, they serve. The wife, who has benefited from the sewing classes at this church, will now become the teacher who will pass on the knowledge of what she has learned to benefit others.

Hanan and Julie with some of the items she has handmade, which will soon take up residence in our kitchen. (Tyre)

Another woman, Hanan (which means care and love) went on to explain the importance of community in these classes. She has learned much herself and will begin teaching advanced knitting classes. But the most important thing she has discovered is the interior knowledge that she has worth as a human being. She is not just a refugee, but a beloved child of God. Her worth does not come from what she can make with her hands, but simply because of who she is. She and the others are good women and will give a good picture of who Syrians are. In her words, “When we knit, we take a small thread and turn it into something great.” In the circle of knitters, they are free to be open and to share their troubles. As a Muslim, she has found a family here in this church.

Here was a church literally bursting at the seams with classrooms and workrooms, so much so that the only place left for us to sit and have coffee was the roof! And there we heard about the other programs and ministries the church was involved in.

The Korean missionary couple in Sidon help our two Jacks purchase some of the needlework produced by Syrian refugee women.

We ended our day visiting the church in Sidon, just north of Tyre, where Pastor Mikhael Sbeit and his wife Nadej, along with a Korean missionary couple, shared their work from similar projects with Syrian women. Just like in Tyre, not only are physical objects made as a result of these projects, but human dignity and value are discovered and koinonia blossoms.

As our time in Lebanon draws to a close, this could not be a better image for we, too, are beginning to burst at the seams literally and figuratively. The incredible hospitality of the people has left our stomachs full, but not as full as our hearts and minds. Images of God’s people filled our minds as evidence of God’s love filled our hearts.