Protection while we sleep

Sami Sadeeh Syrian national guardsman from SafitaI am on the worship team this Sunday at church and the special song we are singing is Laura Story’s “Blessings.” It is a lovely song and I am happy to be singing it with three good friends for the glory of the Lord.

There is a line that goes like this:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace, comfort for families, protection while we sleep.

And it’s true, we pray for all of that. Peace, peace, peace, has been my prayer these last four years especially, since my traveling to the Middle East started.

But today I am centered on these words: protection while we sleep.

Protection while we sleep…

We had it in spades on our trip to Damascus in January, 2014, and I didn’t even realize it until the last day we were there. We would come up to our room in the hotel and there would be two or three normal looking men sitting in the lobby on our floor, like they were waiting on their wives or something. When we left in the mornings to accomplish our schedule and make our visits, there they would be again. Back and forth and back and forth for our three days there, those gentlemen were always in the lobby on our floor.

Walking through the Christian quarter in Damascus after having visited the church where Saul became Paul (Acts 9), we visited a craftsman shop to make some purchases of fine Syrian wood inlay boxes and lovely local fabrics and scarves. As we continued our walk back to the Presbyterian church, Steve commented about our security detail.

“There must be ten or twelve of them,” he said.

“Really?” I replied. “Where?”

In front of us, behind us, bulky automatic weapons bulging from under their jackets, they had been with us the whole time. They had also been staying in the lobby of our hotel floor. Protection while we sleep.

And now I flash forward from Damascus to our trip back to Syria in November. We had another contingent of security with us as soon as we crossed the border. I was not so naive this time and grateful for their presence. I had the opportunity to talk to them and discovered that some of them had come from the city of Raqqa in Syria. Raqqa is now the capital or main city that ISIS controls. These men had lost family members there and their homes as well to this evil that is trying to drag their country back to the seventh century.

And there they were for us: protection while we sleep.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

When we arrived in the Wadi al Nassara – the Christian valley of Syria – these troops handed us off to four men from Safita, all members of the national guard. They were with us for our remaining time in Yazdieh, Amar al Hasan and in Lattakia. Sweet, sweet men! The one named Tony held Marilyn’s hand through all our walking and hiking, to steady her as she was due for orthopedic surgery when we returned home.

Up and down the roads we traveled, through town after town on our way to the places on our schedule. Every town had pictures of those who had given their lives for their country, Syria, in this four-year old war. Poster after poster after poster would be at every intersection, in front of every business. And I am sure these men with us knew many of them. And I am sure that every one of those martyred soldiers had families that were missing them greatly, and who would share that same prayer: protection while we sleep.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

For four days and three nights, they were with us as we traveled through this beautiful place to meet with churches and refugees and families who had been driven out by ISIS from Homs and that part of the country. They went to church services with us. They ate dinner with us. They stood by while we traipsed through the world heritage site known as the Krak de Chevaliers, a former crusader castle in wars fought long ago. They told us how fanatic rebels had taken this high ground to fire on the Christians and others in the towns below. They told us how terrible things had been done to those captured, including throwing them from the high ramparts where we sat and had our photos snapped.

These four went with us everywhere for those four days, and were our protection while we slept.

On our last day there and before we left them behind, we gave them each an Arabic bible as a gift. All four are Christians, probably Greek Orthodox, and were thrilled to get the bibles and the little peace dove ornaments that we gave with them.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

When we arrived back in the U.S. we talked about what more we could do for them. Those four gentlemen were all serving in the National Guard of Syria, but their day jobs were just like us, maybe an engineer, a teacher, or some other normal job. They weren’t doing those paying jobs while they were with us. They were volunteering their time as members of their unit to protect us while we slept and while we worshiped and while we ate and while we climbed crusader castles and had our photos taken. And we wanted to do something for them.

So Nuhad wrote to their commanding officer to find out how we could give them a small monetary honorarium for our appreciation of their great service to us, and this was the response we got back:

What he asked instead is that we make a gift in their honor to support the 100 displaced families in Safita that their unit is responsible for.

No money for them, but money for the refugees that their unit is responsible for. That is what they wanted. No greater gift…

Today on Facebook, my friend Nuhad shared this picture of one them, Sami Sadeeh. He has lost his life in this war, in protection of his family and his country. I am sure there will be a poster of him on the roads of Safita, just like the others we saw.

And so now I pray for his family: protection while they sleep.

Paper crane Sami SadeehBut my prayer for Sami is different and I wrote it on the 301st paper crane that I folded just today in his memory. It was not dona nobis pacem, for peace has been granted to him. Instead I used the words from that prayer used at a requiem mass, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Grant him eternal rest.

And I will sing “Blessings” on Sunday in worship, and when I sing the line, protection while we sleep, I will see Sami’s face, and know how that prayer was answered by God through Sami and all the others.

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.