City of Hope

Dhour Chouier women’s conference’s City of Hope

…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

How did it get to be Friday already? Now nearing the end of the women’s conference, the hour for goodbyes is not far away. What this means is that the rate of picture taking increases among us so we can capture that one last special moment of hugs and smiles before we part in tears. Where our cameras had measured the photos in hundreds per day, we will probably be in the thousands by later this evening! How special it is when sisters in Christ gather to share their faith, their hope, and their love.

Each day when we have gathered in the morning, we have a time of worship. Elias and Petra lead us in song and prayer, we have a Bible study (these have centered on scriptures about women) and sandwiched in between is a theological reflection on our theme of hope. I had the great privilege today of presenting that reflection, and I took my cue from Marilyn’s on Tuesday about the people in our lives who have been witnesses of this hope that does not disappoint.

I get the chance to tell about my sister Jana, on the screen behind me, as I speak of our journey of hope.

I shared with the group that hope is a journey. Where fear freezes us in our tracks, tells us to stop, hope tells us to go. God is with us. He has already written the end of the story. I told them that I thank God every day for Facebook because it keeps this global community hooked together across the miles so that we can share each other’s stories. Most of my posts fall into three categories: my husband, the people of Syria and Lebanon (you can read my message about that in the most recent edition of The Outreach Foundation magazine here, just go to page 12), and my sister Jana.

Jana’s life verse is that passage from Isaiah. She is head injured. She cannot speak clearly and walks with support, but has no strength in her body. And yet her life of hope brought me back to the community of faith, my church in Omaha. It was there I met my husband. Together the three of us are a family of faith. And it was from joining that church that I met Marilyn Borst who introduced me to the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and engaged me with the community in this place. Jana’s witness of hope, her waiting on the Lord, renewed her strength and mine, has allowed us to walk and run and soar in the journey that Jesus calls us to.

Our worship leaders Petra and Elias Jabbour surround our trip leader Marilyn Borst on the steps of the Cedar House in the city of hope.

Elias’ Bible study on the story-in-a-story of the bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43) was just the extra blessing I needed today about hope. As Elias told it, this story is the meat in the “Mark sandwich.” It interrupts the story of Jairus who wanted Jesus to heal his daughter. It was a great reminder that Jesus’ miracles are not feats of magic, but an invitation to those who are weak physically (like Jana) or spiritually (like me) to reach out in faith and grab onto Jesus, if only onto the hem of his cloak. Her healing restored her to the community, in fact, put her right back into the center of it as he singled her out for her faith. You see, fear says stop, but hope says go!

Amal (which means hope) sits with Marilyn on the terrace. Amal is from Sweida, the town that lost over 200 in a terrorist attack on Wednesday.

For some of us this day of hope began with sad news, a reminder that the war continues. At last report, 238 people had died in Sweida, a city in the south of Syria near the border of Jordan. Surprise and suicide attacks by ISIS decimated families and neighborhoods in this place that is mostly Druze, but Christians are there as well. At least one woman at the conference lives there, so she would know by name those who died and were buried today.

Here in this place of peace and calm, we rely on that word from God that says he is with us always, and we recover our hope. Indeed, hope remains with us and in us, and tonight we gathered all the houses of hope – all those signs in shining lights – into one great village. And we remember where we began our journey of hope this week in God’s word:

For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you. I have become a sign to many; you are my strong refuge. (Psalm 71:5-7)

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15a)

Jesus is our hope. The sign has been given to us by others.

Jesus is our reason for our hope. That is, and remains, our answer.

Evangeline, Marilyn, Me and Sheryl on the center’s terrace for afternoon coffee.

And so we gathered at the Cedar House tonight, little houses of hope lit from within, like the spirit of God lights us from within. We circled up for a prayer service, a community of hope. Sheryl opened us in English, and Arabic voices followed, as we prayed for couples, for children, for new families just forming, and for women. We punctuated each prayer by singing the Kyrie Elieson to a haunting Middle Eastern tune.

Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Back now on the porch of the Carslaw House, we can look up the short road to Cedar and see the lights brightening the dusky night. Here there is hope. Here there is light. Here there is Jesus.

Houses of Hope

For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you. I have become a sign to many; you are my strong refuge. (Psalm 71:5-7)

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15a)

Marilyn gathered our little team at the front of the conference center for the morning worship portion of the daily schedule. Sweet Elias Jabbour, now assigned as pastor to the congregation in Yazdieh, Syria, and his beautiful wife Petra, lead worship each morning so beautifully in word and song. Marilyn was doing a reflection for the group on hope, which is this year’s theme. You read about it yesterday. The theme verse is Psalm 71:5, but she took us two verses farther into the text.

“I have become a sign to many…”

As Christians, followers of Jesus, we do have this hope. It is not the wish kind of hope: I hope I get a close parking space. I hope I get into the university I want. I hope the cancer goes away. No, this hope is not about circumstance, but the assurance that a gracious God has already written the end of our story and accompanies us along the journey. The verse puts the emphasis on the I have, but Marilyn took the moments to remind us all that we have because others have been those signs for us.

She invited Evangeline and me to model this by each of us offering a story of someone who had been a sign of hope to us in our own journeys. Everyone has these signs, whether it is the nurse from Ghana in a one-night hospital encounter who reminds you that your faith is strong and will see you through the anxiety, or the pastor who walked with you for ten years using his terminal cancer to point you to the reason for your faith.

We have this hope. It is modeled to us by others. And as Peter says in his first epistle, we are prepared to give an answer for why we carry this hope inside us: Jesus and his sacrificial redeeming love.

That hope resides in us like we reside in our houses. The light shines forth from those who have this hope as a testimony about our Jesus to the world around us. It shines the light you might have burning in your kitchen, that lights the center of the house and spreads outward.

Houses of hope, lit from within. It is a powerful image.

And so we spent this afternoon down in the old conference hall setting up tables of welcome. Four chairs per table, one cardboard house per seat, six cups of paint, one cup of gesso and an assortment of brushes, were the tools for the women to create their own individual house of hope. Our sister and friend Izdihar Kassis, who shared her ministries with us last week in Zahle, is an artist of the finest kind. In the previous months, she had taken various sizes of these cardboard houses and buildings and painted them in different shades, each having the iconic red roof of this country. They were arranged in the hall before our ladies as the City of Hope. It was a great reminder of what it means when the houses of hope and light form a community.

We invited half of the conference attendees in for a two-hour session. Izdihar showed them how to proceed: first the gesso is applied and allowed to dry. Then just paint away. Apply glitter to your roof for a good sparkle! What would your house look like? Would it be green or blue or red? Would it have a red roof? Would the window frames be a different color? Well, picture yours in your mind, but take a look at the beauty that came out of the house of hope studio at Dhour Chouier today. Magnificent!

The final addition to each house was a small flickering battery light. Oh yes! These houses of hope radiate light. As we finish the project tomorrow afternoon with the rest of the ladies, we will have a city of hope that contains around one hundred shining houses of hope. We hope to arrange them along the paths here on Friday so that the whole place will be shining with hope.

The sign has been given to us. We take it and shine it for the world to see. Our reason is sure: Jesus. Jesus. Give us Jesus.

Amen and amen.

Roads and Boundaries

But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Eph. 2:13-14)

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30-31)

It is the Sabbath, the Lord’s day, and one of the joys of traveling to be with the church in the world is the gathering with brothers and sisters to celebrate and worship together. Language barriers don’t have to be a problem: hymn tunes are recognizable and if we don’t know the Arabic, we can sing the English snippets we know or create whole new hymns. We can confess in any language. And we stretch out our hands to receive the benediction. We were made to worship and to glorify our Lord, and that is what we set out to do on this Sabbath day.

Dear Rev. Nuhad Tomeh had us loaded into the car and on the road from Beirut at 8:30 this morning. Our destination was the church in Deir Mimas, in the far south of Lebanon, right by the Lebanon-Israel border. We drove through Sidon and by the old crusader castle ruins there and the same fishermen from yesterday with a fresh catch. We turned east before Tyre, where we had spent such wonderful hours yesterday. The view changed from seacoast to rolling hills and eventually the low mountains. We rose on the twisted roads as we came to Deir Mimas, a beautiful mountain town with at least seven churches, one of them the Presbyterian church where we would gather.

Worship with Deir Memas congregation, July 22, 2018.

Deir Mimas church dates to 1861 when the missionaries planted it. It once had around 300 members and an evangelical school, where Dr. Assad Skoury, an elder and leader of the church, told us his father had attended. Many people have left this area due to the long occupation by Israel, and the church now worships about 20-25 people on summer Sundays like this one. Families who have emigrated return in the summer, as the climate is beautiful. In the winter, they only worship two Sundays per month. The numbers don’t matter because as we know, where two or more are gathered in his name, there he is among us.

It was a very special treat today, as two Syrian seminary students supported by The Outreach Foundation were on a two-week temporary assignment with this congregation. Adon Naaman of Latakia was preaching and George Shammas of Aleppo was assisting. Dr. Skoury, who runs an amazing clinic and dispensary for those in the area (including Syrian refugees) was our accompanist. As Adon preached his well-presented sermon, Dr. Assad sat next to me and whispered a translation into my ear, most of which I caught.

“What is an apostle? An apostle is one who is sent, not to be in charge, but to serve and to encourage. They are sent to the wilderness, where they are challenged and strengthened.”

Adon told a very personal story of visiting a gentleman in his Latakia congregation who had been made quadriplegic by a surgical accident. Expecting to be the comforter and encourage to this man, Adon instead found himself the receiver of encouragement when the man reminded him that he should always remember the spirit of life inside him that made him smile.

“That smile will invite people to ask, ‘Why do you smile?’ and you will be quick to tell them it is because of Jesus. This is the best way to share the gospel.”

Indeed. As each of us is sent to a wilderness – a wild place, a desert place, a place to be the ambassador of the incarnate one – let us be the smile that begs the question why? and thus share the gospel in the best way.

Map from my Bible showing Tyre on the west coast of the land near the top. Deir Mimas would be just a bit south of Caesarea Philippi.

After worship we hit the road again, this time for lunch. The twisting mountain road took us right up to the border, not easily missed due to razor wire, electric fences and a wall of tall concrete panels. Looking across from an observation point, it was my first experience confronting the reality of not just a geographic boundary line on a map, but a separation of people. In the map in the back of my Bible you can see where Tyre is in the time of Jesus. Due east and a bit south is Deir Mimas, which is not marked but you know where it is by a modern map. What is interesting on that map in my Bible is that there are no national borders. It is one land. But here, we were confronted by that fence and wall. No entry.

Ducks on the Israeli side of the river. There is no border for them.

From there we continued on to lunch outside at a restaurant on the Wezani River. Sitting by the small stream with young people swimming to cool off on the hot day, our hosts explained that the center of the river marked that border again. The river was not deep or wide. It was easy to cross the middle and even get out on the other side, and yet the young people never made the attempt. The invisible boundary kept them on the Lebanese side, even as high up on the hill there were two military checkpoints keeping watch, one Lebanese, the other the U.N. I couldn’t help but notice that the ducks in the water could get in on one side and out on the other, but not the people. There wasn’t a difference in the water; it all ran together.

Lunch along the Wezani River, dividing line in this place between Lebanon and Israel. You can see the watch posts at the very top of the hill.

I went back to the earlier reading from worship, the one from Ephesians above. “In his flesh” he joins the groups together and erases the boundary. On a night when we have finally arrived at our destination for the women’s conference, driving three hours north to Dhour Chouier on those same twisty roads, my prayer is that one day the boundaries will be truly erased like they are on the map in my bible, and all shall be one in his flesh, and in his name. On this Sabbath, I can pray for no less.

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)

Gathering

Our team from The Outreach Foundation, based in Franklin, Tennessee, http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org

Our team has fully assembled at the conference center up in the mountains above Beirut: Tom & Joy Boone, Jim Wood, Brian Collins, Marilyn Borst and myself. Dhour Shweir Evangelical Center is our home for three days of a gathering of the global body of Christ. For some of us, it is like returning to the bosom of family in a big reunion. For others, it is the first time but you all probably remember the first time you met distant relatives. This is the feeling we have when we gather. Lebanese, Syrian, American, French, English, Swedish, Swiss, German, Hungarian, Irish…it is a big family!

We have gathered around this theme, “Together for Reconciliation and Reconstruction,” and we take our call from the book of Nehemiah, the second chapter, the eighteenth verse: “And I told them of the hand of my God which had been upon me for good, and also of the words which the king had spoken to me. And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hands for the good work.”

Opening day of the consultation: Many nations, one body.

We have gathered in the mountains together to join in a process of reconciliation and rebuilding for the country to the east of this place, Syria, now in the eighth year of the crisis, as they call it here. And the only place we can begin this process is in corporate prayer. This morning we opened worship with these words:

Lord God, you are a redeeming God.
It is not your desire that any of your children should suffer.
You hear their cries and you come from heaven to save.
As we gather to remember your saving purposes for all who are displaced; dispossessed of home, workplace, and school; filled with fear and unsure of who to trust, despairing of living ever again in a society of peace built upon the foundation of reconciliation and justice – give us minds, hearts and wills to hear your word to us, and then to live it.
We pray this in the name of Christ the Savior. Amen.

That foundation of reconciliation and justice is modeled for us in the passage from Nehemiah. After twenty years, the temple had been rebuilt and worship inside– a key word – resumed. But 70 years later, Nehemiah appeared and heard about the walls and gates. Closed in worship in a restored temple did not give God enough glory. People could not return to the city to live an abundant life because it was not safe with no walls. The lesson is that faith that is locked in the temple – our endless songs and prayers – lived out only among those with this in common, will fail by staying locked in. We will always fall short if we don’t work for the good of the people, to restore their lives.

TOF associate director and leader of our team, Marilyn Borst, me, Pastor Joseph Kassab, general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, based in Beirut.

Rev. Joseph Kassab, the general secretary of our host, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, reminded us that this has been the focus for the church here. Living stones are not to be found in the temple only. They are outside the temple walls in the city and they must be cared for. Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to save those outside. Unless the power of transformation reaches those outside the church, there will be no protection outside the city.

Reaching outside the church walls has come in many ways in these lands. Perhaps there is none more important than the six refugee schools that are operating in Lebanon for Syrian children living in the tent camps. The lives of 634 children and their families have been impacted by the teaching of normal subjects like math, science, Arabic and English, but also by Christian ethics. The impact on life in Syria after the crisis is over will be a building up and not a tearing down.

Pastor Najla Kassab of Beirut, Lebanon, and Pastor Mofid Karajili of Homs, Syria

Nehemiah knew that strength came from numbers and unity, not one man. NESSL could not do by itself what needed to be done. Our strength comes from our unity in Christ, with and through our partners. He used that great example of the geese flying in the v-formation. They can fly 72% further than a group that doesn’t form up this way.

Today, Joseph reminded us, there is better church because the crisis pushed them outside the temple. We are called to fortify our faith by witnessing and ministering to others, to tell them in words and deeds what Nehemiah said: The hand of my God is upon me for good. We will rise and build together because we are called by God together.

This is why we came. This is why we gather. This is why we reunite. To rise up and build.

 

 

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.

 

Belmarouf: With what is known to be good

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8-9 NRSV)

TOF team outside of NEST

It is the end of our first day on this trip to Lebanon and Syria with The Outreach Foundation. I am tasked with encapsulating it for you at home, and so I have taken good notes through our visits on this Friday in Beirut. But as usually happens, the threads of the day all come together into a whole cloth of beauty and truth when someone brings the word to us in a team devotion. Tonight that was Marilyn, our fearless and faithful leader, who gave us the words of Paul (which he gave to the church at Philippi) and the title of this blog.

The words are appropriate for this group of American Presbyterians as we wait in hope for our visas into Syria next week. We will see many hard things. We will hear many hard things. We will wonder where to find hope in a land that is in its seventh year of war. Most of those on this team have experienced it before on other trips to Syria, but some have not. The seeing before does not make the seeing now easier, as those pictures are easily drawn to the front of our brains and we know the names of the people who are the subjects and objects of those stories. Lisa put it very well tonight: they are just like me. But Marilyn’s – and Paul’s – caution is to think on what is good, what is true, what is honorable, what is just and pure and pleasing and commendable. That is quite a list of words to keep in mind, so let us concentrate on the good. I will get to the title later!

Our program visits today were to two of the special partners of TOF in Beirut: the Near East School of Theology (NEST) and the offices of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). To sit with Dr. George Sabra, the leader of NEST, is always like being a part of the best class experience ever. He speaks softly, and is always willing to give the numerical facts of this theological institution – how old it is, how many students, how many faculty – but then will give you the meat of what this place means to the life and vitality of the reformed churches in Lebanon and Syria. For example, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of NEST this past November, NEST published the culmination of a multi-year project to translate John Calvin’s 16th century Institutes of Christian Religion into Arabic. It’s a book for scholars, not the every day reader, so why bother? What do 500-year-old words have to do with today? But then this educator goes on to remind us that Calvin wrote those words in a time when this new reformed faith of ours and the churches which professed it were under great oppression themselves. These words have importance in a 21st century context for Christians in the Middle East and so it was very worthwhile.

Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary of NESSL; Dr. Johnny Awad, New Testament professor at NEST; Rev. Lisa Culpepper, South Caroline and TOF team member

We also spent time with Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary of NESSL, and an esteemed group of Synod leaders, including Rev. Suhail Saoud, secretary of the Synod’s Committee on Social and Medical Services. Before the crisis in Syria, this committee was a minor committee of the Synod, but since the crisis began in 2011, its mission and ministry have increased exponentially. We have heard about the growth of a project dear to many of our hearts, the five – now six! – schools for Syrian refugee children. A sixth school was recently opened in Anjar, an Armenian area not far from Beirut that already serves 230 students in two shifts. Forty-five teachers in six schools are educating 600 students age 4-11 in English, Arabic, science and math in the Syrian system in the hope that when they can return home they will be ready to continue their education at grade level. These children and their families, almost all living in tents in camps, are cared for with the love of Christ. Rev. Suheil shared the words of one family: “This is the first time we have felt like humans.”

NEST class of 1997

These institutions have interesting challenges. For NESSL, it is coming to the conclusion that the church needs to get outside its walls; it cannot be an insular community. Projects like the refugee schools give the opportunity to daily touch the lives of refugees, nearly all Muslim, with the love of Christ. For NEST, one of those challenges is walking alongside their Syrian students and preparing them for future ministry in the east, in Syria, where the need is great for church leaders. I was reminded of the importance of that leadership as I took the picture of the plaque which represented the class of 1997. Three of those names go with faces I know well who perfectly represent the fact the NEST and NESSL are meeting those challenges. Rev. Tony Aboud is the pastor of the church in Kerbet Khanafar in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. His wife Ramak is the principal of the refugee school in Kab Elias. Together this ministry couple and their team touch the lives of sixty-plus students and their families daily. Rev. Rola Sleiman, pastor of the church in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon, is the spiritual leader of a large Synod school there as well as another of the refugee schools. She is also the first woman ordained to the pastorate of a Presbyterian church in the Middle East. Rev. Ibrahim Nsier is the pastor in Aleppo, Syria, a church that volumes can be written about the infinite ways they have served faithfully through the destruction of war. You will hear more about that church and others in the coming posts.

And that takes me back to the title of this post. Belmarouf is a word repeated in an old Syrian love song, which came to the mind of another pastor in Aleppo as he contemplated the destruction of his city. “Oh, how wildly I long for you; how cleaved is my soul to you! I am fully yours, belmarouf (with unconditional goodness). With patience, I will get what I am looking for belmarouf (with your unconditional goodness.” Out of the rape of war, “the new born will heal the wounds of many and will disturb others belmarouf, with goodness and justice.”

As we prepare to see what he has seen, and hear the stories of those who walked those days, we too will think on what is good and just, and remember that it is the people we met at NEST and NESSL who remind us that we have much material to work with.

Belmarouf.

For the team, Julie Burgess, West Hills, Omaha, Nebraska