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

Thin Places

Thin places are those places where you can just reach out and grab a hold of God or feel that he has grabbed you in a big bear hug. I love those hugs and try to give as many as I can. I gave one to Julia Ann, also known as Peg, yesterday, and she hugged me back. I received an embrace from Jesus yesterday in the arms of an elderly lady with beautiful white hair. A thin place. The veil was torn. The divine invaded the mundane in an incarnational and relational way as we would say here at West Hills Church.

I have experienced those places on my holy trips to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq as well.

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

Can you imagine being invited into the home of an Iraqi refugee family in Aleppo, Syria? Neither could have I, but it happened. The Aziz family had found their way to Syria to escape the sectarian violence of Iraq due to our invasion and subsequent war in 2003. Why would they invite in the source of their loss and pain? Why would they use their meager treasure to prepare a banquet for us? Why would they let us share their dreams of a bigger and better life for their lively son Martin? Why indeed. The hospitality they offered to three American women around that table in a place not their home was the communion table that we are all invited to. It was a thin place.

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

I have experienced that same thin place in the mountains above Beirut at a place called Hamlin Hospital. Started by missionaries to treat those with tuberculosis, it is now an elder care facility run by Jesus incarnate, also known as Sanaa Koreh. In the most holistic and gentle ways possible, Sanaa and her staff care for those near the end of life whose families cannot bear the burden anymore. Christian, Muslim, Druze, it doesn’t matter. Each is a soul loved with beautiful mountain air, fed with homemade food that was grown in the gardens, clothed, sheltered and loved amid music, games and play. When I have been to Hamlin, I have walked as close to heaven as I can get in this world.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

In Iraq – in Basrah and Kirkuk – I have heard the stories of an amazing radio ministry that reaches out kilometers across the country to share the good news with those far and near. One of those stories was about a young jihadi who had been bent on killing his own sister for what he thought were violations of some religious code. And then he heard the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery. You remember it, it’s in the book of John. “Let any among you without sin cast the first stone.” And they all walked away. And so did this young man. He walked right into the arms of Jesus because of what he heard on that radio station. He is now a pastor, working to plant churches. And I imagine he is somewhere in the north, caring for those who have fled from the fires of hell in the form of ISIS.

And another story of the radio ministry: the signals from the broadcast tower itself miraculously kept a car bomb from exploding in front of the church. It was abandoned there, ready to be exploded by remote device because the driver who was supposed to blow himself up with the church got scared and ran. The robots of the bomb squad showed up and were stopped in their tracks too. It was only after the police learned that the radio signal was being broadcast at that time that they figured it out. The frequency of the signal had stopped the remote blaster from working as well as the robots to defuse the bomb. All came out well in the end. Saved by a holy frequency! A thin place indeed.

I know when I go back to Lebanon and Syria in November I will have these encounters again, feeling those embraces from a savior who walks with me, invites me to his table in communion with family and shows me over and over again that the promises in that holy word are true.

I wrote this poem in Basrah in 2012. I come back to its message time and time again, like yesterday when Julia Ann, also known as Peg, tore down that veil once more.

“Thin Places in Him” (11-12-12, Basrah, Iraq)

Sometimes we get a chance to see
A glimpse of heaven, gloriously
Where life mundane and life divine
Come close together, intertwine
We stand upon such sacred ground
We experience love that is so profound
It happens when his word is spoken
It happens when the bread is broken
It happens when FM radiowaves
From towers emit and lives do save
It happens in him and nowhere else
It happens when we forget ourselves
And look into another’s life
And share their joy and share their strife
When we find these places thin
When we choose to enter in
We look upon his loving face
We feel the warmth of his embrace
There is no time, there is no space
There is only His amazing grace!