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.

 

The Politics of Hope

crabapple tree in bloomIt’s started.

Our great American political circus, I mean the presidential campaign season, has started for 2016. Cruz is in! Rubio is in! Hillary is in! (In case you don’t know me, that last one makes me happy. 🙂 )

“I still believe in a place called ‘Hope,'” said the last president named Clinton.

I still believe in that place as well, although I don’t find it in the political circus or any of the performers in that ring, even Hillary.

But I don’t blame politics for that. I just blame what we have let the meaning of that word become.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary the fifth listed definition of politics is this:

the total complex of relations between people living in society

Total. Complex. Relations. Between people. Living. In society.

It’s what has been modeled for me in the body of Christ – the church – a place that has struggled with politics since its birthday two thousand years ago, and yet still walks on, humbly and imperfectly. With hope.

Its totality: global, existing in its varied parts across the whole planet. I have walked with my brothers and sisters – the eyes and ears and limbs I cannot get along without – in Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Germany, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. It’s a big family!

It’s complex: orthodox, catholic, reformed, apostolic, evangelical, monotheistic but based on a trinitarian dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s relational: in worship, in creeds, in sacrament – sharing life together with the one who gives us life.

Between people: and among people! Caring for each other in crisis. Praying at the bedside of the dying. Feeding the hungry. Standing with the oppressed and imprisoned. Seeing the value of our human lives as our created made us. High and low, young and old, male and female. Between. Among. Connected.

It’s living: ISIS can’t destroy it (although it is trying); purveyors of the prosperity gospel can’t dilute it and sell it like indulgences (although they try). Its message of the real good news – death is defeated! – puts air in our lungs.

In society: I have seen it care for the least of these in a home for the handicapped in Ludwigsburg, Germany. I have it walked with it among Syrian refugees in camps in Lebanon. I have heard it shouted from displaced Iraqis now in Kurdistan: we may have lost everything, but we still have Jesus! It will not be silenced. It is in the public square and ministering there.

And that is where I find hope in politics. Not in the mud-slinging that is to come as we sort out who our leaders should be, but there in that buried fifth definition from Merriam-Webster.

I find hope in that crabapple tree on our back patio. It’s roots are bound by concrete on all but one side, and yet every year it pushes out those gorgeous pink blossoms which will fall like snow in a week. The blossoms will wither and descend. The tree will hibernate in the fall. And then…BAM! Here they are again.

John 1:14 says the word was made flesh and pitched its tent with us. The complex totality of the word of God moved into the neighborhood, into our society, to live with us.

And hope is here still.

 

 

 

 

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.

What hurts them, hurts us

Peace hands worldIt is the day after another election here in the U.S.

Sigh.

Personally, as a liberal in a conservative state, it was a tough night politically for the people I supported. But I woke up this morning and the sun was up and God was still on the throne. God’s mercies are new every morning!

And it was not a total disappointment for me and others. The people of our state voted to raise the minimum wage, and the people of our city voted to approve a bond issue that will improve the facilities of older schools in our main district and also build new ones to meet the responsibility to educate future generations.

I guess the best part of an election being over and done with is that the airwaves will now be free of the millions of dollars worth of advertising spent telling us over and over again why that person is a no good, dirty, crime loving, tax raising, hog castrating, gun hating, gun loving, idiot who speaks out of both sides of the mouth. There has been nothing uplifting about any of it. And the waste of money in such a way is just mind boggling to me. Think how many more schools could have been built, or people fed, or cancers healed, if the money spent in an election cycle were used for those kind of building up activities, instead of the tearing down kind.

As I was driving home in the early evening before coming back to church for a meeting, I was listening to NPR. It was too early for any election coverage, but I thought they might be doing some commentary. I was going to be at that meeting during prime time coverage so I was just a bit anxious I guess to hear something now. But what I heard instead was this report about happenings in Iraq’s struggle with ISIS:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/11/04/361422673/we-are-not-slaughterers-an-iraqi-village-rejects-islamic-militants

The tribe mentioned in this story is the Jubbour tribe, who are Sunni. They are trying to protect themselves from ISIS, who are also Sunni. But as the headline says, “We are not slaughterers.” The Jubbour see ISIS as an ideology not for anyone’s good; they are just a killing machine. The Jubbour reject this ideology and name it for what it is. They have also paid a very heavy price.

What struck me most about the story, however, is the reaction of a neighboring village of Shiite Muslims. The schism between Sunni and Shia happened almost at the beginning of Islam, once Muhammad had died. It is a deep divide of long standing.

This Shiite village, so the report goes, has been working in defense of and to protect their Jubbour neighbors. Why? “Because what hurts them, hurts us.”

What hurts them, hurts us.

What hurts you, hurts me.

And so on a night of people speaking through the action of filling out a ballot, I have found some good news.

In my city, we have decided that it hurts us all when children – yours, mine, ours – don’t have good safe schools to learn in. It is not good for any of us to raise generations of children who lack knowledge, who lack opportunities to debate and discuss, who don’t have access to new technologies and safe surroundings.

In my state, we decided that folks who work in jobs where the minimum wage is the standard rate of pay, should have a raise so maybe they can move a bit farther from the abyss of food insecurity or poverty. Many people working in these jobs work more than one, so maybe this means they can have more time with their families, more time to sit down with their children as they work on their homework. What hurts them, hurts us…or it should.

I woke up this morning feeling some hope. I still believe that when we say “we the people” we mean all of us. I still believe that not only what hurts them, hurts us, but what helps them, helps us all. For really, we are them.

Let us be us together.

You can help to bring hope

20141010 map of middle eastYou can help the church in the Middle East to keep bringing hope and healing to those suffering from war and oppression.

Please watch the video, and if you are moved, please donate through one of the links below which are special accounts through my church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Thank you. God bless you. May he hear our prayers for peace.

ECOs in World Mission designated for partner churches:

Iraq – Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Iraq: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E051722/

Syria – Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E340202/

Gaza – Ahli Arab Hospital (Episcopalian Church of the Holy Land): http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E862371/

A Fragile Hope

Iraq is a place with many people. They are Arab, Kurd, Turk. There are descendants from the African slave trade. They are Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Yazidi. Each of them is unique, as are we all. Each one made in the image of God and together making up the amazing spectrum of humanity. Can you imagine what the face of God looks like with each of us reflecting just a small piece of the whole?

There is also great diversity just in the Christians in Iraq. Those are the people I have gone to visit, to learn from, to encourage and to be encouraged by. There are Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Protestants of several denominations including Presbyterian, plus others. There are churches there that go back to the beginning of the church, and they have lived with their Muslim neighbors since the founding of Islam in the seventh century. They have not always gotten along easily, but they have been neighbors and shared life together.

At one time, before the war we started in 2003, there were some 2,000,000 Christians in this ancient land of the church. That number had decreased to something like 600,000 since 2003. And they continue to leave due to sectarian violence, especially now from extremists who believe they have founded a new caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

The then 93-year old former Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk chants in Syriac inside the sanctuary of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk. Msgr. Louis Sako is on the right. (Nov. 2012)

The then 93-year old former Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk chants in Syriac inside the sanctuary of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk. Msgr. Louis Sako is on the right. (Nov. 2012)

I have met a man named Louis Sako. When we first met he was the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk. He has since been elevated as the Patriarch of this ancient church. He is a very learned man who speaks multiple languages, including Syriac, which is very close to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. And he is a man of grace and peace, with a strong but quiet voice.

A group of us had an audience with him in his salon on the church grounds in

On this monument are the names of the martyred priests of the Chaldean Catholic Church since 2003.

On this monument are the names of the martyred priests of the Chaldean Catholic Church since 2003.

Kirkuk. We shared coffee and sweets; always the hospitality of the Middle East is shared with visitors! We saw the grounds of his church compound, including the school where children were learning, playing and laughing, just like any school anywhere in the world. He took us into the sanctuary of the church where his 93-year old predecessor offered ancient hymns of worship in the ancient language of this ancient church. He took us to the roof of the school and cautioned us not to take photos. There were snipers in the upper floors of buildings nearby, perfectly willing to take out those who were pointing anything at them. He showed us the sign at the front of their grounds containing the names of priests of this church who had been martyred since 2003, evidence of their journey which has not been easy or cheap, and a reminder that when Jesus calls us to follow him, that road leads to the cross.

Msgr. Sako receives the cross from Rob Weingartner of The Outreach Foundation in Kirkuk, Iraq, November, 2012.

Msgr. Sako receives the cross from Rob Weingartner of The Outreach Foundation in Kirkuk, Iraq, November, 2012.

Back in his salon our leader presented him with a simple gift, a crystal cross. This symbol is the mark that we share as brothers and sisters in faith. No matter how we express that faith or what adjective we use to put in front of “Christian,” it is the cross that every one of us has in common. On the cross Jesus modeled for us what love costs.

And as Patriarch Sako opened it and accepted it he gave us these words: “It is fragile. Like our hope.”

The book of Hebrews tell us that “faith is being certain of what we hope for and sure of what we do not see.” Even when that hope is fragile.