Commencement

The simplest definition for the word commencement is the start of something new, which seems counter-intuitive as I tend to think of commencement as the end of something. We graduate from high school or college (or even kindergarten nowaways) and we celebrate commencement. We’re done! School is over! No more teachers, no more books… you know how the old rhyme goes. But of course commencement is not about the end of something, but the beginning of the new thing: first grade, college, life.

Today, our first full day traveling with The Outreach Foundation, we found ourselves climbing up 105 steps to visit one of the six schools for Syrian refugee students run by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). This was the last day of the short summer session of the school at Kab Elias, the building itself an old Synod school now replaced by a state of the art school down in the valley. It commenced a new life three years ago when the Synod’s vision of reaching out to Syrian children living in the camps was realized.

Evangeline, Marilyn, Ramak, me, Sheryl in Ramak’s office at Kab Elias school. Next fall this room will become a much needed classroom.

When we arrived today, all the children were sitting quietly outside with their teachers waiting for us. Once we arrived, Ramak Aboud, the principal of this school, called up nine children, aged 8-13, who represented the graduating class, having completed up to the second elementary grade, the highest the school offers. They had been learning from the ground up – reading, writing, math, science, Christian ethics – for three years. Today was their commencement to something new. Two of the kids were heading back to Syria with their families. One was emigrating to Canada with his. One, a 13-year old girl named Shama’a was now old enough to be married and start her own family; her mother had advocated to keep her in the school for as long as possible, so she will take more classes next term. For the rest, maybe they would be able to enroll in the government schools. Sometimes the something new doesn’t seem so bright or sure.

Ramak gives the commencement speech

There were tears from these children as they realized that something new was coming. Why tears? Because in this place, high up on the hill in Kab Elias, children whose families had been treated as less than human as they fled Syria and arrived in refugee camps, had found the love of God through the intercession of their teachers. The teachers were teary-eyed as well as they sent these new graduates off to the new unknown.

As with all commencements, there was a speech, this one given by Ramak. “Remember what you learned here. Support each other and help others. Find people you can help. Remember there is a God who loves you and cares for you. Seek his help. We love you. May God go with you.”

And with all good commencement proceedings, it ended well with food and music and party games, so smiles and laughter were our final memories with these kids.

Evangeline gets close with sweet kids at Kab Elias refugee school

As the refugee crisis continues with nearly 1.2 million displaced Syrians in Lebanon, Ramak and other leaders of these schools are planning for another year. What began with fifty-eight students in 2016 in Kab Elias, will continue with 180 when the new fall term begins. They are not only changing the lives of the children they teach, but they have huge impact on their families. They unashamedly share the love of Christ with the children, and families who have only ever been taught that Christians are infidels and evil are standing in line to have their children come. Fathers who have taught their children to steal, have been lectured by their children that this is not the right way to live. Ramak will tell them, “Do you want your child to grow up as a criminal or to find a good job? No one will hire a criminal.”

Izdihar preaches the gospel

We ended our day in Zahle with our dear friend Izdihar Kassis whose ministry Together For the Family does amazing outreach in many ways. Today we went with her to visit fifteen mothers, each of who had a new baby. They were given a blanket stuffed with onesies, socks, diapers and formula. But they were also given a very direct message of the Jesus who came as a baby, was loved by a mother (just like them!), and who gives us all the gift of life.

“Wow, Izdihar, you were so direct sharing the gospel with them.”

“I don’t have time to waste. God gave me a message and I need to take every chance to share it.”

Two-day old boy in Zahle refugee camp

This was a different kind of commencement, but a commencement nonetheless. Each pregnancy for these women had commenced with something new: a new life, swaddled and bundled and settled into a mother’s arms. As we sat there with fifteen moms, fifteen new babies and the other children those moms already had, we heard the hard news of this life. Although each of those children had been given a birth certificate, none of them was registered. Not in Lebanon. Not in Syria. For governments, these very lives are not recognized and have no rights. There would most likely be no school for any of them, and there are many under the age of seven, born in refugee camps, in this predicament. Maybe one day they might get the opportunity to climb the steps of Kab Elias to go to school. Maybe. The something new of this commencement is harsh, and yet God has called Izdihar to his ministry in this place.

“Sometimes I get angry at God. Why do you let this happen? Why does this have to be so hard? You call me to love my enemy, and these are my enemies. They have killed and maimed so many Christians in Syria, my family, my friends.”

And God answers her. “Yes I know. For this I have gone to the cross. For all were my enemy, even you.”

It is a privilege to walk the steps of Kab Elias and into the tents near Zahle with these ministries that The Outreach Foundation partners with. There is joy and there is sadness, and sometimes at the end of a day, all we can do is pray. So I am ending with words of the psalmist, who questions God’s love but ends with words of trust and rejoicing. And we can do no less.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)

O Holy Night

15740751_10211438722274199_4657497256410435989_nIt’s 12:55 a.m. on Christmas morning. I just came home from the late Christmas Eve service at the church next door to our house, a tradition I began about nine or ten years ago when the services at our church were moved to earlier times. It’s a short walk to Dundee and I love being an anonymous worshiper in a church where I know practically no one. It is always a blessing to see the people I do know, Meri and Ron Crampton, and to give them a Christmas hug. Tonight I walked out of the church with another Ron I know. His wife Tami was sick, so if you think about it, please say a prayer for her healing.

Christmas at West Hills was bittersweet. There were glorious moments of praise on this night as we sang “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and other familiar carols which take me back to the earliest Christmases I can remember. Our dear Michael Dryver soloed on “O Holy Night,” and did it in a way that would have put you right there in Bethlehem. It is my favorite Christmas carol, and I especially love the third verse: Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease. The bitter came as I reflected that this would be the last Christmas Eve service I would get to share with Nicole and Mike Geiler. There they were, seeing to all the details of a wonderful service. They didn’t miss a beat. They love Jesus and they have helped us celebrate his incarnation for all these years. I don’t even want to think about next year. Steve, Jana and I were the Advent candle lighters and readers for this night. And I know in the bitter and the sweet that lighting that center Christ candle is the visual symbol that he is the light of the world and the darkness does not overcome it.

And that reminder came in the sweetest of forms as I watched the global church celebrate Christmas in the hours before I did. Nine hours east of Omaha came the posts from Basrah, Iraq. Merry Christmas Zuhair Fathallah and all the faithful there! And in the darkest of places on the world stage these days, in places where I have been praying for God’s gospel of peace and for the ceasing of all oppression, came the posts from Syria. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh leading in the children to the sanctuary in Hasakeh singing pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. And there was Assis Salam Hanna of Latakia soloing in a bass voice on O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I didn’t know he could sing! Elias Y. Ousta Jabbour was playing the keyboard, and that song had an awesome beat. Tami Dekrmnjian Nseir had posted a video earlier of the church in Aleppo singing “Silent Night.” Can you imagine? A silent night in Aleppo.

So here it is Christmas in Omaha and I am celebrating the reality that the word was made flesh and moved into our neighborhood, into Basrah, into Hasakeh, Latakia and Aleppo, and indeed the whole world. That word was the light of the world and all the darkness in it yesterday, today and tomorrow, cannot and will not overcome it.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear savior’s birth.

Merry Christmas!

Narrowing the distance

20160409 cranes photoHere we go again.

Steve and I are sitting in the airport in Minneapolis as we wait for our flight to Paris to board. From Paris, it is on to Beirut, Lebanon, and a rendezvous with our precious brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. As always, we are traveling with The Outreach Foundation and our intrepid leader, Marilyn Borst. After being in a consultation with NESSL and their global partners, we will make our way back into Syria.

It always make my heart sing to be setting off on the long journey to an ancient land, a land where the church was born and even Saul-turned-Paul saw the light, was blinded, healed and rose from the darkness to preach the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This time I am going not as a church employee but as a theology student, and I just wanted to start this trip out with a short blog reflecting some truth from one of my classes: THL331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, led by Dr. Thomas W. Kelly, professor theology at Creighton University.

One of our texts for that class is a book that Dr. Kelly wrote with a very appropriate title for me coming from a church with the vision statement, “…on the journey with the living Christ.” The name of his book is When the Gospel Grows Feet, and it is about a Jesuit martyr from El Salvador, Rutilio Grande, and the church in El Salvador, and the gospel of liberation that has been preached from the first day of Jesus’ ministry. I have brought that book and my other required readings with me to keep up with the classes I will be missing and as I sit here in the airport, this is what I read:

“The Eucharist is the symbol of a shared table, with a stool for each person, and tablecloths long enough for everyone. It is the symbol of Creation, which requires redemption. It is already being sealed with martyrdom!” (From Fr. Grande’s last homily before he was assassinated)

This all-inclusive meal, the Eucharist, was the symbol par excellence for Rutilio that God wanted everyone to have a seat at the table of creation. He wanted this symbol of Jesus’ final meal to influence and structure social relationships very concretely. What followed in his homily was a careful argument for what the role of the church should be in the context of El Salvador, how that role should imitate the incarnation of Christ, and how it should perceive the world and its people. After a brief introduction of a church in service to the world, fragile but incarnated in history, the homily is divided into three distinct parts: (1) equality of the children of God, (2) the risk of living the Gospel, and (3) persecuted like Jesus of Nazareth. (Page 208)

There are a lot of geographical miles between El Salvador and Syria. But this I know: the church and its saints in El Salvador and Syria bring me closer to the meaning of this Gospel and that distance should be made smaller as we draw closer to it.

Dona nobis pacem.