I 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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.