Yazdieh

That's me, sandwiched between Huda and Rev. Michel Boughos of Yazdieh, Syria, in their home.

That’s me, sandwiched between Huda and Rev. Michel Boughos of Yazdieh, Syria, in their home.

Steve and I returned to Beirut from our six days in Syria on Thanksgiving Day, November 27. He was sick so he missed having a marvelous dinner that was prepared for us by Dr. Mary Mikhael, the former president of the Near East School of Theology (the NEST), the seminary in Beirut. He missed the meal, but he did not forgo being thankful for all we had seen and done and especially for the people we had met and shared life with for those six precious days.

Two of those nights in Syria we spent in the company of Rev. Michel Boughos and his wife Huda. Steve and I spent those nights in their home, a home they had shared for 37 years. Michel graduated from the NEST in 1977, married Huda (who was from Lattakia,) and was assigned to be the pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, the Presbyterian church.

The church bell in its tower at the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, Syria.

The church bell in its tower at the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, Syria.

When they moved into this home, it was very tiny and I as understand it, the house was just a tiny appendage of the tiny church. The two are still attached, but both parts are much larger now with 37 years of ministerial work by Michel and Huda.

Our first experience of both of them was when we arrived in Amar Hosan on the day of the two-lane trip which you can read about here:

https://jpburgess.me/2014/12/12/the-two-lane-journey/

Michel reminded me of a little elf, with a quick smile and twinkle in his eye. Huda was his counterpart in smiles, and it was obvious she was a real worker bee; everyone flocked to be with her and share their needs. She listened to every person and every story. These two were just meant to be together, ministering together. Two gifted saints, who would serve amazingly as individuals, but when the two were joined, synergy was created. God sure had a plan there!

Steve preparing to read Psalm 46 as Rev. Michel introduces him.

Steve preparing to read Psalm 46 as Rev. Michel introduces him.

After the visit to Amar Hosan, we went back down the road to Yazdieh to prepare for another worship service there. We spent some time at Michel and Huda’s home having coffee and tea and planning the service. Steve was volunteered to read from the Psalms (46 actually, “God is our refuge and strength, a present help in times of trouble…”) and there would be a Power Point by Huda of the families they serve in the area and the ways they serve.

Bassam tells part of his story as Rev. Nuhad Tomeh translates for us. (Nuhad has been a part of each trip I have been on with The Outreach Foundation. Yazdieh is his home.)

Bassam tells part of his story as Rev. Nuhad Tomeh translates for us. (Nuhad has been a part of each trip I have been on with The Outreach Foundation. Yazdieh is his home.)

Here we met Bassam, a veterinarian by profession. He was a refugee from Qusayr, near the Lebanon border, a place that had experienced tremendous loss at the hands of ISIS. Bassam and his family were now an integral part of this congregation at Yazdieh, serving in many capacities. Where Huda lacked the technical know-how to get the pictures up for the presentation, Bassam stepped in to load the photos and run the computer.

I need to tell you about Bassam.

You can Google Qusayr and find lots of stories about the fighting there. When I am at home I just devour news about Syria because of my relationships there. I had read these stories about Qusayr, so when I heard that Bassam came from there I had to ask.

“Did you lose family members?”

“Twenty-two.”

Twenty-two men in his extended family had been murdered by ISIS! He told us the story of one uncle who was missing for several days. When one of the family asked where there uncle was, his thumb was returned.

His thumb.

This beloved uncle was returned over several days in 200 separate pieces. Butchered.

Bassam, the veterinarian from Qusayr, helps unload the truck for the food parcels.

Bassam, the veterinarian from Qusayr, helps unload the truck for the food parcels.

And here was Bassam, calmly telling us the story, bringing up pictures of his now dead relatives on his phone to share them with us.

And here was Bassam, loading the pictures up for Huda to share at the worship service. A man who heals animals for a living, now a refugee in a place not his own, but serving his neighbors in the ways that he can.

And so we went to service and saw the pictures as one by one, Bassam changed them for Huda on the screen.

Here was how they put the food baskets together.

Here was how they did crafts and games with the children at Christmastime.

Here were the blankets they could obtain and share with families for the winter.

Here were refugees needing desperate medical help and this is what we could do to help them.

On and on. Picture after picture of families in need who had left their own homes to find life in another place.

Comic relief was provided for us by a black cat who wandered into the church during this service. (Huda feeds eight cats every day at her back porch.) His name was Simony and he just kept rubbing up against her legs, Michel’s legs, the podium, my legs, Steve’s legs; anyplace he could find his comfort. Priceless!

Steve helped unload the truck as it delivered the last three parts of the food parcels.

Steve helped unload the truck as it delivered the last three parts of the food parcels.

And after the service was over, we went down to the fellowship hall to see the items gathered for the next food parcel delivery. Huda works very hard to collect it, organize it and store it until it is ready for delivery. It was enough food for 300 families, but it would be made into parcels to serve 600 families, so more would receive. (There are 1700 refugee families in their area that this small church reaches out to and tries to serve. The need is overwhelming, but they do not stop serving.) They were still waiting for three items before they started delivering: canned vegetables, zatar (a spice) and tea. (The day before we left Yazdieh, these other things arrived. Steve helped load them down in the hall and Huda began deliveries the day we left.)

Many of the families came down from the worship service with us, and we heard more stories of pain and loss and death. Picturing all this in your head is one thing, and it completely crushed my heart. I had had a meltdown earlier in the day upon arriving at Yazdieh after listening to the stories at Amar Hosan.

But then another family wanted to show us and pulled out their phone to load up a video…

I simply could not do it, but there was my Steve, offering the strength of his heart to share in their pain.

He watched the whole video on the phone and I watched his face as he watched it. There was a language barrier but he knew that one of those poor souls whose head was being cut off was the family member of that family, that was very obvious. I don’t know how he keeps that image out of his head when he sleeps, but this was the gift of being with people that he had come to give.

And so I tell you the story. When you see the news and hear stories of what is happening in Syria I want you to pause and think of this. These are real people – veterinarians, engineers, teachers, pastors, students – who look and live lives just like we do. They laugh, they cry, they learn, they love, they worship, they work. And an unspeakable evil is in their midst pushing them out of their homes and cities and countries and committing crimes against humanity that are unfathomable.

Think of them. Pray for them. And if you can, please help them. You can give to the Syrian Relief effort of The Outreach Foundation by donating at their website:

http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org

Thank you.

Reunion in Lattakia

Julie Lamis Bitar and Marilyn at Latakkia churchTraveling to the Middle East has been a life-changing experience for me. I have gone to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq a total of seven times since August, 2010, when I traveled for the first time with The Outreach Foundation and my new friend, Marilyn Borst. I have gained more friends on those trips that I am so grateful to be connected with by email and Facebook. And, of course, reuniting with them when I return.

I will return!

Back on that first trip in August, 2010, I traveled with a group of women – faithful women – as the trip was called. They were all veterans of short-term mission trips to places all over the world. They had been to Cuba, Russia, Malawi, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria…and many many more places. I had been to Germany, the Czech Republic and Cameroon on similar trips. But this one was new for all of us, except Marilyn of course.

We were traveling to be connected with Presbyterians (like us!) in Lebanon and Syria in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). We got a great overview of the history of the Synod: how Presbyterians from the U.S. came to the Middle East to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Upon arriving, they found no Jews to speak of and also there was this small thing about it being illegal to convert from Islam to something else. Illegal as in the death penalty.

Instead, they reached out to the ancient Christian community already there – Melkites and Maronites and Syrian, Orthodox and Catholic – and built schools and hospitals. The reformed church was planted alongside the ancient, and that is how it still is today.

We visited historic sites in both countries. We shopped in souks. We met with Iraqi refugee families. We visited schools. We sweltered in the 115 degree summer heat.

We bonded as a community of friends, sisters in Christ.

We ended that trip in the mountains above Beirut at the Dhour Choieur Conference Center to be part of a women’s conference, just like we would have at home, only in Arabic. (They translated for us.) We sang worship songs. We delved into a Bible study about the fruit of the spirit led by my new friend Barbara Exley from Atlanta. She had brought pounds and pounds of Jelly Belly jelly beans in flavors to represent the fruits. For instance, watermelon jelly beans represented patience. It was the most joyful and sweet-filled Bible study ever!

Part of the grace of being in the Middle East is the mindset of hospitality and gift-giving, and it played out at this conference just like every other place. We made friends with women. We traded little gifts. If you admired someone’s bracelet or earrings, she would immediately remove the item and give it to you. Amazing grace in the form of jewelry.

And that is how I met Lamis Bitar from Lattakia.

She was tall, statuesque actually, with beautiful dark hair and eyes. Her smile came slowly, but when it did it was genuine. She and I became friends on that weekend and in the generosity of these people, she bestowed upon me the earrings she was wearing.

And then the conference ended and we made plans to do it again in 2011, with even more women, perhaps from Iraq. And we went back home to the USA.

And then March, 2011, came and war erupted in Syria. There would be no women’s conference in Syria, and we would not return in 2011.

I would wear those earrings at home. Precious they were to me. Every time I put them in my ears I would think of the fun we had at that Bible study with the Jelly Bellys and I would see Lamis’ face in my mind, her beautiful face with the slow smile, and wonder about her in Lattakia. I would pray. I would tell people where those earrings came from if they admired them, and I would ask them to pray for Syria.

I wondered what had happened to Lamis Bitar.

And then just this past month, November, 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Lebanon and Syria with The Outreach Foundation. Steve was with me and Marilyn of course (our fearless leader) and Barbara. We walked through the streets of Homs in Syria, looking at the devastation from three years worth of bombs and mortars, but also seeing the churches beginning to rebuild. There was some hope there. You can read about it in my previous blogs.

And then we went to Lattakia. The third largest city in Syria before the war, had now grown even larger as people found their way there to escape danger in other places. It was relatively safe, although there were still checkpoints and military personnel to be seen. Large as it is it still suffered from the results of the war: high prices and electricity that did not work 24 hours a day. (Think about that for a moment in your own context. How do you manage when the electricity goes out? Maybe for a day, or even rarely for a week? What would you do if it was on for only four hours a day and you didn’t know which four? That is Syria now.)

Joyfully, we were set to visit our friend Rev. Salam Hanna who is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Lattakia. It was Marilyn’s first time in this city, although she has been in Syria many, many times. So, of course, it was our first time there as well. It is a beautiful old church, renovated in the last couple of years by its previous pastor. It is also the largest church in NESSL, and we expected a large turnout, and there was one.

I wore my earrings from Lamis, hoping against hope that she was still there and had not already departed for another country.

And in the gathering darkness of night, in the midst of a rainstorm that should have kept everyone away, there she was. My friend Lamis had come to meet the American Presbyterians and I recognized her right away.

Tall. Statuesque. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Slow smile. Amazing grace.

We hugged. We reminisced about that women’s conference with the jelly beans. We locked eyes as friends and hugged some more. It was just a moment of pure joy for us both.

And that is why I go. I go to be “with” and to come home, responsible for remembering the people and their stories and to remind the church here at home that there is a church serving in Syria in the midst of war and death and loss and lack of food and fuel and electricity. They are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus walking and loving among those who need the light. And Lamis is one of them and I want you to remember her name and her face and her life.

And I want her to remember me. In addition to the earrings which I was wearing, I now have a beautiful bracelet with a cross. And Lamis has my watch, set to the time in Omaha. When she looks at it, she will know that she has a friend and prayer partner eight time zones to the west who loves her and remembers her.

Lamis, my sister in Christ. Please pray for her and for her church and for her country.

Kab Elias, Lebanon

P1080389I am in Beirut, Lebanon, for the fourth time since 2010, when I first came and was introduced to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in this small country by the Mediterranean Sea. We spent about four or five days here on that trip visiting various expressions of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), whether the leadership of the synod, the pastors and churches, a beautiful mountainside elder care facility or a brand new school in the Bekaa Valley. These are amazing, resilient, intelligent and educated people. The evangelical, or reformed, church took root here in the 1830s as American missionaries came in the great movement of that century.

We also spent a week in Syria, visiting the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the Syrian parts of NESSL, as well as historic places such as the Street called Straight and the Ananias House (see Acts 9), the Grand Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the ancient maze-like souq and the citadel in Aleppo.

These are old places bearing the marks of an ancient church as well with names like Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite Catholic, and Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. Christians have walked here since the first Pentecost after the resurrection.

In 2010 in Lebanon we learned how the church had a prominent role in offering hope and witness during the civil war here that lasted from 1975-1990, and we also saw how the church in Syria offered that same hope and witness to refugees who had fled from the Iraq war to their east, beginning in 2003.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Returning to Lebanon in 2013, there was a completely different set of circumstances. The new war being fought was in Syria and had been going on for two years at the time of that trip. Refugees from that war had found their way to Lebanon as well as being internally displaced in Syria. And what we found was that same church offering hope and witness anew.

Now, in November, 2014, the crisis has increased ten and maybe a hundredfold. There seems to be no end to the streams of people being forced out their homes in one place, carrying only what their hands can hold, and setting out in a vast migration to a new place. And hopefully one where they can find at least a semblance of peace. Syrians – maybe a million or more – have come to Lebanon, a country of only four million people. They live in tents. There is really no infrastructure for their children to go to school. There are no jobs. But at least the war and the bombs and the killing machine are on the other side of the mountains.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

But one thing that is common on both sides of the mountain is the church. It is a common and constant presence in Syria and Lebanon. The church is here. God is here. Hope is here.

In 2013 we had the chance to visit one of those places of hope. NESSL was refitting an old, now unused school to become apartments for refugees from Syria. Rooms where once uniformed students learned reading and math and science, would be transformed into bedrooms and kitchens and bathrooms. There was even a small church here and that would remain as a weekly gathering place to come together and worship the God of peace and salvation and to study his word in the Bible.

Walking up the hundred-plus stone stairs of this multi-level compound, we saw workmen installing kitchen equipment and making bathrooms for the families who would eventually call this place home. All of those items needed for daily living – sinks, toilets, cooking stoves, refrigerators, heating stoves – had to be hauled up those stairs that had been worn by years of small feet going up and down to learn the lessons of life. Now they would be trod by families who had learned the lessons of war and fear, and would find peace in this place of God.

Yesterday upon my return here, I met three of the families who have found refuge here.

Ziad from Homs.

Ziad from Homs.

There was Ziad from Homs, who was sharing his apartment with another young, single man who was not there when we arrived. Homs is a city that had been under siege for a full three years, having been liberated just this past May. I am sure if we had more time and more ability to communicate, we could have heard some horrible stories from Ziad, but also stories of escape and survival. His simple room contained a small bed, a chest with a television on top and some meager mementos from home. It looked like a college dorm room. Young men really don’t need much, do they?

Another room was occupied by Dunia, who had come from Safita in the northwest. Her apartment was much cozier, made so by a beautiful rug on the floor, a couch and chairs in the living room and a few more reminders of her home. Her son was living there with her and he has been recruited by a local Christian leader in helping others. He has applied for admission to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut with the hope of studying to be a pastor. These are seeds of hope being planted for the future of his land.

Climbing to the very top level of this vertical compound we met Elder Moussa from Aleppo and his daughter Fibi. Elder Moussa was an electrical engineer by trade and one day his skills will be needed desperately as a city of two million people will have to be rebuilt. We have heard that 55% of Aleppo has been destroyed; ISIS is active there and soon the government forces will try to surround them and deprive them of weapons and supplies to snuff them out. There is more tragedy still to be experienced in the months to come. There is still an active Presbyterian congregation there meeting in a fifth floor apartment with no electricity or water, led by a courageous pastor named Ibrahim Nsier. But that is another story.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Let me tell you why Moussa and his daughter Fibi and her sister Grace were in this apartment at the top of the stairs. They had not fled Aleppo in fear for their lives. Indeed, they were a part of that congregation still meeting there in an equally high place at the top of five flights of stairs. Moussa is an elder there (and I most likely met him in that church in 2010). He is a leader, seeing to the spiritual needs of that congregation. But his wife had cancer. Oh, how I curse cancer! His wife had cancer and there were no longer working hospitals or even doctors in Aleppo. (Think about that for a minute. In a city of two million people, what used to be a modern 21st-century city, there were no working hospitals.) Moussa and Fibi and Grace left with wife and mother to find treatment in Latakia to the west.

Moussa’s wife died two months ago. This man, who is probably only in his early 60s, this educated electrical engineer who owned his house and raised his family with a wife of decades, now lives with his daughters at the top of the former school. A widower, he can look out the window to the mountains, knowing she is not buried in her homeland, but that she is in the arms of a loving God.

This is the view out of Dunia's window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

This is the view out of Dunia’s window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

A loving God, who has led him to this place for this time.

A loving God who will see him come home, either to Aleppo to help rebuild or to one of the mansions in his father’s house.

A loving God who walks up the stairs with him to the top of the school, now made home.

A loving God who walks among the thousands of tents in the valley below.

A loving God he worships in the small church a few flights below.

A loving God embodied in the churches and pastors and flocks of this place.

I pray a prayer of thanksgiving to this loving God for allowing me to enter into the lives of these people who are living in a place prepared for them by brothers and sisters of mine and yours.

And I pray to this God for peace in this land.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

Persistence

julie-with-kids-at-zahle-camp.jpgWhen Steve and I started dating, we use to wrestle with each other. It was good, honest fun, I tell you. A 6’3″ gorgeous dark-haired man wrestling a 5’5″ woman, eighty pounds in weight under his. He had me in size, in weight, in strength. But the one thing I had in bigger quantity than him was persistence. I would keep coming back, even when he had both my arms pinned. I wouldn’t stop. I just wouldn’t say “uncle”!

I may not ever have won one of those awesome matches, but I never gave up!

One definition for persistence is this:

firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition

I have seen it other places besides my wrestling matches with Steve.

I have seen it in my sisters Susan and Jana. Their car hit by a train in 1983, and both severely wounded, neither gave up. Susan marched through her injuries and continued her studies at Colorado State University to become a veterinarian. Today she is a married woman of over 25 years and the vet you want your animals to have in an ER in Loveland, Colorado. She runs, she bikes, she camps and canoes, and she is an amazing nature photographer. (She is afraid of spiders, but that is another story!)

Susan never said “uncle.”

Anyone who knows Jana has seen the personification of persistence. We siblings who have known her all our lives refer to it more as stubbornness, but it is the same thing. Doctors said she would never recover and it was best just to let her go. Three weeks after the accident, although deeply in coma, her heart and brain would not quit, so they did surgery to repair all her broken bones. Doctors said she would never walk once she did come out of the coma. Six months after the surgery to repair those broken bones, she walked back into the Longmont United Hospital to embrace the doctor who did the surgery. She has traveled to Australia, Ecuador, Germany and the Czech Republic, and she has been back over and over to Washington, D.C., to advocate for poor and hungry people all over the world.

Jana has never said “uncle.”

Persistence. Stubbornness. Whatever you want to call it, we don’t say “uncle.”

There is a great parable in Luke chapter 18 that has been with me all week about another woman of stubborn persistence. And even though I am not a widow pleading my case before a judge, I am feeling some of her frustration and the need to persist:

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (Luke 18:1-8, The Message)

Maybe I am impatient, but my cause is just. I don’t have a judge to plead to. But I have a persistent prayer about helping my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have been trying to use Facebook and Twitter and email to share the story of the church in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq with as many people as I can. I am trying to create an Internet flashmob, for lack of a better term. If you are my friend on Facebook, perhaps you are sick of my posts by now, but I can’t stop. They all contain the link below and I am trying to get it to go viral, so instead of the 320 views it has now, it will have 3,200 or 32,000…or 3,200,000!

Hope came down and pitched its tent is a mash up of John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:1:

The word became flesh and dwelled among us.

Now faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.

Those two verses have been with me for most of the past year as I came home from a trip to Lebanon and Syria. The children in that refugee camp had no business to be singing joyful songs and dancing with us in innocence. Didn’t they know where they were? Couldn’t they see the desolation of nothingness around them? The outhouses? The putrid drainage ditch? No parks, no trees…nothing!

And that’s when it came to me that they were seeing something else. They were seeing it with the eyes of their heart…with hope.

And they are persistent in their joy, and stubborn in their singing and dancing. They won’t say “uncle.”

And what they did see with their eyes and feel in warm embraces was the love of Christ in the person of Assis Fadi and Assis Ramsey, pastors of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. They hope because someone has given them something to hope for. The church has been walking in the camps bringing food and supplies and, well, love. They have been caring for others not in camps by supplying food and rent vouchers and helping children stay in school. They have provided medical care to those who need it.

In the midst of a war, surrounded by death and chaos, they have not said “uncle.”

And on their behalf, neither will I.

The people I sleep with

Assis Boutrous Zaour, his wife Wafa and their three children, all amazing young people!

Assis Boutrous Zaour, his wife Wafa and their three children, all amazing young people!

Assis Joseph Kassab with me and Assis Adeeb Awad

Assis Joseph Kassab with me and Assis Adeeb Awad

Since Steve and I got married on May 18, 2002, we have slept in the same bed every night, with very few exceptions. It’s expected that a married couple would share the same bed, right? Well, I guess Lucy and Ricky on the old sitcom had separate beds, or at least that was the way early television and movies would have it!

The truth is, there have always been many people that went to bed with me before I met Steve…

Talal, a refugee from Aleppo, whom we met in the refugee camp

Talal, a refugee from Aleppo, whom we met in the refugee camp

I used to start my prayers every night with

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
Guard me safely through the night
And let me see the morning light.

That is not the way everyone said that prayer, but it was the way it was printed on the night light in the bedroom I shared with my sisters when we were very small. That’s where I learned that prayer when I could first read. Years later when I learned the version that went, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” it scared me that anyone could pray that way. “The morning light” vs. dying before waking, was a much brighter vision!

Either way, those prayers were always followed by the Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be and then my list of family and friends whom I wanted God to protect and bless. It was a long list of people that came to bed with me.

Gladys Aboud of the synod in Beirut and Hala Bitar, a teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys

Gladys Aboud of the synod in Beirut and Hala Bitar, a teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys

There are many people that I pray for regularly. I think it is part of my call as a follower of Jesus to bring those I love and he loves before him; to bring to the foot of the cross all those I carry burdens for. I love them; he loves them more. He knows all their names before I speak them and what a comfort it is to walk with a God like that.

I still pray for my family. Oh! How I want their safety, their provision, their comfort. Let them see the morning light! I can’t help thinking as I sleep that I have many family already sitting with God in glory who died before I woke, their souls taken to a place where there is no worry. My mom. My dad. My baby sister Cathy. All are safe on the other side.

Rola Sleiman, the preacher at the church in Tripoli, a graduate of the Near East School of Theology

Rola Sleiman, the preacher at the church in Tripoli, a graduate of the Near East School of Theology

But here on this side of heaven, are still so many.

And this night and the next, they all go to bed with me and Steve. He is as aware of them as me. Steve has traveled to their homes with me to walk with them and learn from them what faith is. They pray for us. We pray for them. And God loves and knows us all.

Assis Boutrous  Zaour and Assis Ma'an Bitar

Assis Boutrous Zaour and Assis Ma’an Bitar

Sleep has been much harder to come by lately and I’m trying to find ways to encourage my body to get to a restful state so once I am in bed, sleep will come. Last evening I took a half hour’s walk as the sun was still up but with a shadow cast upon it by the moon as a partial eclipse was happening. And as I walked my mind had a slideshow, a veritable mental Power Point of all the people who come to bed with me: pastors and preachers and leaders of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, pastors, elders and kindergarten teachers in Iraqi churches, refugees from Iraq who had been in Syria, refugees from Syria now in Lebanon. Ordinary people living ordinary lives in extraordinary times, loving God in the act of loving their neighbors.

Mary Mikhael, past president of the seminary in Beirut

Mary Mikhael, past president of the seminary in Beirut

And even as a shadow is cast over them right now, just like the moon was trying to blot out the brilliance of the sun last night, we know from the the scripture, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me safely through the night…and let me see the morning light.

Amen.

#hopecamedown

Hand in hand

Holding hands on wedding dayThere we are on our wedding day, May 18, 2002. Gosh! We look so young you can’t even tell we are 43 and 44 years old (she said while wearing her rose-colored glasses). I remember that day like it was yesterday!

For both of us, it was our first – and we have pledged! – only marriage. First time for two folks in early middle age. Steve’s parents were married when his mom was only 19 and Chuck was 25. My mom was 23 and my dear old dad was 27. It seems so young to me!

So there we are, standing in the church for pictures on the big day, and I love this one because we are holding hands. We get teased often at church for our PDAs: public displays of affection. We often hold hands, stand arm in arm, and even exchange kisses. It’s still first love for me. It always will be.

We did meet at church, in Sunday school actually. I sat in the front row with Jana, and Steve sat in the last row. He used to tease us for being “teacher’s pets” and I accused him of flinging arrows at our heads from the back row…figurative arrows. Somehow we were friends who liked to tease each other and then we ended up on the adult education committee together. Our families joined together with other friends after church for lunch on Sundays at Arby’s. Our pastor George and his wife Pam were part of that group. After we got engaged, George shared the story of how he woke up in the middle of the night after having dreamed that Steve and I would be married someday. He woke Pam to tell her, too. Oddly enough, it was before any of the rest of our “keeping company” started. He just had a vision and I have always loved that story.

Anyway, how we eventually ended up going out that first night is another story for another day. It involves a letter from me and then a returned letter from him. It’s not fodder for an HBO mini series, but I am sure there will be a movie about it someday. Steve will be played by Kevin Costner and I will be played by…me.

The first night we went out was exactly one year before that wedding picture: May 18, 2001. We met at Delice, a bakery/bistro in Omaha’s Old Market area. He had a cup of coffee and I had a Diet Coke. We each paid for our own. I had nothing else to compare this to as I told Steve, “This is my first date. With a man. Ever in my life. Did I tell you I was 42?” That was the truth!

After our caffeine intake, we decided to walk a bit farther into the market for dinner at the Upstream Brewery. And that is when it happened: he reached out for my hand. And for the first time at the advanced spinsterly age of 42, for the very first time, (did I stress that enough?) my hand was nestled into the larger hand of a man who was not my father, not my uncle, not my grandpa. And I will never forget the wonder of that feeling. I can close my eyes and see us walking down Howard Street, hand in hand, and thirteen years have melted away. I knew then and there I would marry him someday, so it was funny when George told us of his dream.

I also experienced my first kiss that evening, but this story is not about that either. It’s about holding hands.

At dinner that evening, Steve ordered a burger and I ordered a salad. My whole self was just in shock that I was even there, and I was so enthralled that I just couldn’t eat, so Steve finished mine. But that was the end of the meal. The beginning went something like this. Steve said, “Should we say grace?” And I just nodded, knowing I couldn’t say anything. He reached his hands across the table and took both of mine in his and thanked God for our meal.

And we have never done it any other way.

After that first date (I only use that term because it’s easier. We never considered that we were dating, just keeping company.) the story got out quickly that we were a couple. We tried to keep it just to ourselves for a while because it was new and special, and frankly, I think we were both a bit scared. But once we were discovered, it was wonderful to be so easy with our PDAs, especially holding hands. We started sitting together in church and when it was time for prayer, somehow we just reached for the other’s hand and held them until the “amen.”

And we have never done it any other way.

I think of how many times we have prayed hand in hand like that in the last thirteen years. So many meals. So many church services. Weddings. Funerals. We have prayed for our family members in their joys and sorrows; we have prayed with and for our friends in theirs as well. We pray with our small group when we gather to share lives and learn more about our God. We have prayed on trips to be with the church in Germany, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. We have prayed for peace, over and over again.

I know when we join our hands like that, God meets us right there as we pray.

praying hands in DamascusAnd so this picture means so much to me. We were in Damascus, Syria, in January with The Outreach Foundation. We had traveled to Lebanon to be with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon along with other global partners of NESSL. Sixteen of us made the short journey to Damascus to be with the church in a country that had been at war for almost three years. They still are, and we continue to pray for them even now with the news of the impending U.S. participation in a plan against ISIS. Oh! How we pray for peace.

While we were in the church service that day, surrounded by the members of the Damascus congregation plus the refugees who had fled other parts of Syria to be there, we bowed our heads in prayer as we have done so many times. And we reached out our hands to each other as we have done so many times. And somehow that caught the eyes of a photographer and this photo was posted on Facebook.

If there is only one picture that you can pick to describe the life you have shared with that one person you know God picked for you personally, this is the photo I would pick to tell the story of Julie and Steve. And they are not the hands of Kevin Costner.

They are Steve’s, and they are mine. Hand in hand.

Dancing in Circles

Dancing in circles photoI visited a refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, on a trip I made in May, 2013. It was part of a visit of presence to offer fellowship and encouragement to Christian brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon who were dealing with the refugee crisis from the war in Syria.

Eight months later, in January, 2014, I went back on a similar trip and we visited another camp near Zahle which hadn’t existed eight months before. Instead of visiting a pretty small camp of 45 families, we visited one of two in the area that was now home for thousands of families.

In Lebanon alone, there are approximately 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian war which has raged since March, 2011. It was the onset of that war that had prohibited my wonderful group of faithful women friends from returning to Syria to take part in a women’s conference that would allow more of our Iraqi sisters to join us. So much sorrow and pain is concentrated in this small part of our world. It’s heartbreaking to say it in my most understated words. There is an ever-flowing stream of tears to accompany them.

At that camp last January our group was surrounded by a sight I never expected to see in such a place of sadness. Children singing and dancing came pouring down the dirt road beside the sewage filled canal that drained their camp. Singing. Dancing. Smiling. Laughing. We were swept into their midst and joined in.

From that encounter came this poem:

Down the hill they came running with smiles on their faces
Unusual I thought, in this saddest of places
But they sang and they clapped
Oh my word! How infectious
So we clapped and we smiled in this moment of grace notes.
They grabbed on to our hands and soon came the dance
Round and round we did circle in this desperate land
We kissed and we cooed, just like all children do
Voices raised in sweet choruses of “I love you too!”

It wasn’t ‘til later when I learned that their song
Was a reminder of all in their world had gone wrong
“I used to live in a house” – so it went,
“But now I live here in this land in a tent.
Tomorrow will come and a house there will be
For me and my folks, the whole family.”
It made me so grieved for the horror of loss
I still cannot grasp the heartbreaking cost
Of hatred and war that would drive them away
From the home where they spent every night, every day.

And yet here we were in a circle of glee
And they had this vision, in mind’s eye could see
That where they were now was just temporary
Even though it was alien, maybe even quite scary
It was only a stop on the journey of life
That someday the end would come to this strife
And they would be dancing and singing with glee
Enlarging their circle with people like me
God in heaven above, hear my prayer, let it be.

I came home from that place with an idea I have no clue how to proceed with, but I have. I have a wonderful co-worker, friend and brother in Christ who has taken a version of this poem and put it to music. Mike did it because he could see what I saw with my heart and not with my eyes. I would like to take that song and make a video to share the story of the suffering and the sadness, but also of the hope that exists there, to raise money for the needs of the refugees from this war and the now renewed war in Iraq. I want the video to be able to take on a life of its own – it won’t be mine or Mike’s or whoever can help me make it – but it will be a tool that almighty God can use to bring a small amount of love to a place of overwhelming need.

Please pray with me that God will make a way.

Amen.