Together, Apart

Eight weeks into a pandemic that has us quarantined at home, I know I am one of the lucky ones. Where I work is just a walk through a door of the place where I live. Keeping away from people – in the physical distance sense of away – is easy. My circle of safety at home is Steve and Jana and I. At work in the family printing business, now so much smaller than when I started there after high school, the circle is of similar size: Mike, Kirk, Adrienne on some days, and sometimes Barb. Jana joins us as well, and Steve, now working from home next door, comes for lunch at least once a week. He is our hunter/gatherer as he searches for elusive items like toilet paper and now, meat.

My social needs have been met by Facebook connections, texts and phone calls, and even a Zoom meeting for a church committee on which I serve. Four glorious times I have been called to church to participate on the worship team, singing in harmony with good friends for the recorded services we have attended since the second Sunday of March.

This is life in the pandemic for my family in Omaha. Maybe some day we will all sit around and reminisce about how we stayed together while apart. I know, we all hope that day comes sooner than later!

I did manage to carve out some special time this week from the routine of life lived inside for these past eight weeks. Facebook provided the opportunity to join a Zoom gathering called “Singing Our Way Back Home.” It was led by a woman I know from Facebook, Ana Hernandez, who is a mystic, spiritual musician and singer. I don’t have a better way to explain her multitude of gifts other than those words. We did sing a bit with her, and we all voiced a mantra as well. I found myself finding the note that would harmonize with the other voices, creating peaceful and moving chords that were healing.

Ana has a great knowledge of sacred music from many traditions and shared about a number of pieces. One of the ones that really struck me was this hymn based on a scripture from Luke:

A Christmas Hymn by Richard Wilbur

“And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”—St. Luke XIX, 39-40

A stable-lamp is lighted Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

Ana gave us homework to do that reflected on this hymn, especially that doubled line at the middle of each stanza: “And every stone shall cry.” Amazingly enough, the creator who gave us voice has connected us to the rest of his creation. “Walk outside,” she told us. “Look around at the inanimate objects as simple as rocks, and know that they sing, too.” We are all in this together, animate and inanimate, even though apart.

She told us to find the object that revealed this connection in a personal way. And I knew just what I would choose as I ended the meeting. Being me, it couldn’t be just one, as I have a hard time choosing; indeed, there were two things I chose.

I have written about that little Roo before. In a trip to Syria in January, 2017, my group had the chance to sit with about thirty women who had all been displaced by ISIS from their homes in Homs. I was drawn to a beautiful woman with dark curly hair named Mahassen as she told her story. It was very much like the others, but her English was so good I really was able to capture the depth of loss.

Her family had mere minutes to get out as extremists came calling; there was no time to pack or gather what they would need to set up in a new place. Other than the clothes on her back, her husband and her children, all she took was that little Roo. I don’t know the meaning of the Roo to her, but it must have been special. It was the only thing she took.

After sitting with her at lunch, and spending time head-to-head and heart-to-heart, our time of parting was upon us. She took that little stuffed animal and placed it in my hands. “Oh, no! I can’t take it. It is too precious.” She would not leave until I accepted this gift.

It was all she had, and she gave it to me. Everything. She gave me everything.

The other item in the photo is a piece of broken blue glass. It was once part of a stained glass window in the Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria. I had the opportunity to worship there in August, 2010, before the war, in community with that congregation. Like many churches, the sun shines through those colored windows and glows in different colors. That church was destroyed by extremists in November, 2012. Only rubble remained. The glow disappeared.

Returning to Aleppo in 2018, we had the opportunity to walk around the rubble with those same congregation members who still live and worship in Aleppo. Bits of Sunday school lessons littered the piles of stones, piled up for safekeeping and rebuilding. And there, winking at me as the sun caught its plane, was the piece of glass. Assis Ibrahim said I could take it as a reminder of what was, what is and what will be.

Those two objects, for me, define the idea of being connected in this time of being together, apart. As far as I am from Mahassen, Roo connects me to her and her story of losing everything, but still being able to give everything. We all have too much, really too, too much. But this little thing, this Roo, is enough. And what we have, we share. It may be the kind word on the phone, the personal card to a family suffering death, or the uplifting blending of voices in song. It is a little thing, yet it is everything, and it is enough.

That piece of glass reminds me that in the brokenness of pandemic and quarantine and isolation and social distancing, the light still shines through. Brokenness does not keep the light from shining through, and I see that in those same simple gestures of love, the drive-by birthday parties, the cheering for health care workers, a Kansas farmer sending his one extra N95 mask to the governor of New York.

Together, apart. The rocks sing out, and so do we. Let us join together in this song of love. Let the light shine through us and in us, and let that be enough.

Christmas 2019: Most Welcome

I’ve just had a wonderful weekend in the bosom of my birth family. Five of seven Prescott siblings spent time together at Lake McConaughy in the Nebraska sand hills. It has become a sort of tradition as we make our ways from eastern Colorado and eastern Nebraska to meet in the middle. It is the way we spend Christmas together, if not actually on Christmas day. The next generation and their significant others join us and are not too put off by the goofiness and teasing of those who are now the elders.

Yup. With Susan crossing over to her sixth decade in a few months, we are now officially a majority of sixty-somethings.

Prescott siblings 1966. FIrst Christmas without mom.

That seems weird as I contemplate the Christmases of our youth. Our gang of seven kids would descend upon Grandpa and Grandma Piskac’s home along with the cousins who are the children of my dad’s siblings. I can only remember it vaguely because I was so young, but I think my grandparents on that side must have been saints to invite such mayhem into their house. People were everywhere! As we got older, and grew to ten, it moved to our house. How those gatherings can still make me smile as I remember the fort of presents around the tree and Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s box of perfect cookies. And people were everywhere! When Jana and I bought a house to ease the burden on our parents, the celebration moved to Chicago Street. Potluck food! More Christmas cookies! Even more cousins! People were everywhere!

I appreciate the quietness of Christmas now, as Jana, Steve and I will open our gifts on Christmas day after spending Christmas Eve at the candlelighting service at our church. The advent wreath will be fully lit: purple, purple, pink and purple, for hope, peace, joy and love. The center white candle will also glow with the incarnation, the presence we have anticipated and waited for these past weeks. The quiet singing of Silent Night, Holy Night, as the church family passes the light from candle to candle has come to represent for me the perfect experience of oh holy night, the night that Christ was born. Because it was quiet, right? Says so in the song.

I have come to believe that it is especially those moments, in the bosom of family gathered, whether birth family, adopted family or church family, that is the Christmas story of Christ’s birth. In traveling back and forth to the Middle East for almost ten years, I have been a grateful student of those of who live in that context. They live and raise families in the place where Christ was born. They introduced me to a scholar named Kenneth Bailey who gave me a whole new vision of how that holy night was experienced by the family of Jesus, the Immanuel, God-with-us. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a silent night!

We think of the words of Luke 2:7, And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn,” and believe that Jesus was born to his parents alone in the night, rejected by everyone. Oh, that innkeeper! How rude! But read that link and discover this word: kataluma. That is the Greek word used in the passage that is not the same word for inn used in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is a word that describes a part of a typical house of that place and time where guests would stay. At this time in the world, all were gathering for the census and people coming from all over would go to their ancestral homes for the count.

In other words, Joseph’s family’s home was packed! People everywhere! No room in the kataluma, because the house was stuffed! Middle Eastern hospitality says, “Family! Come in anyway! All we have left is the place where we brought the animals in to warm and be warm, but you are most welcome!”

That’s where Jesus was born…in the bosom of family. Most welcome.

“Most welcome” are two words I hear over and over as I travel to be in the bosom of family in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Right now it is nine time zones ahead of me and the darkness of night has settled in there. Candles are being lit. Hymns are being sung. And the darkness of war and protest and violence does not overcome the light that is born this night. If I was there, I would be most welcome, and so would you. We would gather around that manger and marvel at the gift of God-with-us.

Jesus is born in the bosom of family. Oh come, let us adore him. You are most welcome.

Remembrance and Community

After a full Saturday, I ask that you walk through it with us in reverse, for that is how I found the message of today that birthed the title of this blog.

Marilyn, Grace, Reem (refugee from Mosul, Iraq, who serves at OLD), Sheryl, Evangeline, Rola, me

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,[b] and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

We ended our day at a beautiful treasure in Beirut, the Beirut National Museum. Like many museums housing artifacts of the ancient world, the treasures housed within its stone walls remind us of just how old the world is. Civilizations left markers – remembrances – that people have walked these lands for way longer than the average attention span of smart-phone-wielding 21st century folk would care to think about. We are people who live in the moment. Yesterday’s news is, well, yesterday’s news. But even as we have marked our days here on this trip with data-draining amounts of photos on those smart phones to remember, the ancients left markers as well so they would be remembered.

Tombstone of Theoros and Alaphatha, Beirut National Museum

From a Roman period tomb, these words are carved in the lid of the sarcophagus: “Theoros. Alaphatha who purchased and built [this tomb].” Clearly, Theoros and Alaphatha wanted to be remembered, and on this day some twenty centuries later, they are. In a museum, a place that stands filled with what has happened in the past, we remember: Here is a marker that is witness to the fact that Theoros and Alaphatha walked this earth in this place.

Two-sided sheet of Syriac hymns, ink on paper, Beirut National Museum.

There are mummies in this museum that date to the 13th century, CE, found in a nearly inaccessible cave. Not only the mummies themselves, but due to the climate in that area, clothing and even paper items with ink writings were preserved. There apparently was a community of people who left a nearby region due to the clashes between Crusaders and Muslims for the control of that area and settled in these caves for safety. The finding of these tombs and relics helps us to fill in a bit of history and remember them. We may not know their names like Theoros and Alaphatha, but we know they could read, they could write (hymns!), they could sew and embroider, they sought refuge in times of crisis, and they lost children at a very young age.

These things struck me as I wandered the museum because we had just come from a visit to the Our Lady Dispensary (OLD), a ministry partner that is supported by The Outreach Foundation. Founded in the 1980s during the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, it is located in a second-story apartment in a Christian area of Beirut that houses the very poor. If Jesus was walking the earth today instead of first century Palestine, this is most likely where he would have pitched his tent! In the more than thirty years since this ministry moved into this neighborhood, they have served waves of poor refugees who have knocked at their doors. Where once it was Lebanese trying to survive in the conflict that raged from 1975-1990, now it is more likely Syrians who started arriving in 2012 and Iraqis in 2014.

Knock on the door and you will meet Grace Boustani, the social worker who is herself a survivor of the Lebanese war. Her family fled to Canada, but Grace felt the call to return to her homeland to serve. An angel of God if ever there was one, no one has been more aptly named. With support from ministry partners, Grace and OLD have provided relief for up to 1,000 families monthly over the past six years. Rola al Kattar, another angel of God, serves along with Grace at OLD in providing trauma recovery programs for women and children.

Today Grace and Rola introduced us to two Syrian families. Khadija from Raqqa and Aisha from Aleppo have been in this poor neighborhood for two years and one and half years respectively. Each woman has two sons. Both Muslim, they did not know each other except that one lived on the first floor of an apartment, and one lived below. The community they have formed, almost combining families really, came out of tragedy. Khadija’s then less than two-year old, Sami, got hold of a lighter and lit the crib of his baby brother on fire, burning the baby severely. As with most refugee families, there are limited resources. Fathers find only day work in Beirut. There is no health insurance. Daily bread is not assured. How would they get treatment for this severely burned child?

Aisha, whose home and family were also impacted by the fire in the building, stepped forward to help. She would care for Sami, along with her own two sons, Mahmoud and Abed al Kadr, while Khadija went north to Tripoli to find emergency care and surgery for the baby. “I put myself in her shoes: What if this had happened to me? Would anyone step forward to help?”

Looking at these two women who have endured so much in a world where it seems that everyone around you is only thinking of self-survival, there was a bond of community – of family – that reminded us of the empathy, the compassion, that Jesus modeled. Aisha, a woman with nothing, gave all she had to care for Khadija’s Sami.

The reason we can know – and remember! – their story is because of OLD. Aisha came seeking medical help for her own sons, caring also for the son of another. When Grace heard the story, she and OLD have provided the small relief they can. In a poor community in the midst of a refugee crisis where so many need so much, OLD stands in the gap where it can to serve the Khadijas and Aishas of this world. Praise God for the faithfulness of this ministry and those who support it! As the woman in that passage from Mark is remembered by us today for something more beautiful and sacrificial than a tombstone in a museum, Aisha’s love and the love of Grace and Rola and OLD will be remembered by the God who created them. We remember them with this story and are grateful to carry it to you.

Rev. Najla breaks the bread in remembrance

I said we were walking this day in reverse. We began it this morning with the culmination of the women’s conference as we gathered for a communion service led by Rev. Najla Kassab. Marilyn read the words of institution for us from 1 Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Rev. Najla lifts the cup in remembrance

We celebrated communion this morning with the community of faith, the same community of faith that has birthed ministries like OLD and serves through the hands of people like Grace and Rola and Najla in the name of Jesus, whom we remember in the breaking of the bread and covenant of the cup. The only marker is a simple plate and plain cup, not a painted tomb in a museum. The words remind us. The community remembers. May it ever be.

P.S. This is a long narrative, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a bit more about Reem. She is a refugee (with her family) from the Mosul area of Iraq who has been in the neighborhood for three years. They are stuck here, refusing to return to Iraq (there is nothing to return to, all is lost there for them) and rejected for emigration by other countries. It is a difficult existence for people like Reem.

Even in such difficult conditions, Reem, who was embraced with small bits of hope from OLD, now serves with OLD as a kind of right-hand to Grace. She knows and reaches out to hundreds of Iraqi families in this poor neighborhood. Grace to grace, that is the story of Reem and OLD.

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.

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)

The Tree of Life

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Rev. 22:1-2)

I cannot help but mention that this is Earth Day, which reminds me that from the beginning God made us stewards of his garden and all of creation. And I come from Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, which we set aside to recognize the importance of planting trees. These things struck me as we began our day at the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo with the planting of an olive tree, but I will return to that later.

Rev. Jim Wood of First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, receives a stone from the demolished Presbyterian church in Aleppo from Rev. Ibrahim Nseir.

As we gathered with our brothers and sisters for Sunday worship, I couldn’t help but think back to a hot August Sunday in 2010, the last time a group from The Outreach Foundation experienced the Lord’s day in this place with these people. It was in a building, which dated to sometime in the mid-19th century. That building was destroyed in November, 2012. We stood in the midst of the rubble of that place today with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and some of the church’s elders. “Where was the sanctuary, Assis?” we asked. As he stood on the broken stones of the place where he once preached and served the Iraqi refugees who were in his city, he pointed over his shoulder to show us. Broken bits of crystal chandeliers and terrazzo flooring were scattered about with pages of burned books and Sunday school papers with the story of Noah. All of this was hard to see for two of us who had been there before the war, and I could hardly imagine how it was for those who then called it their church home.

Rev. Tom Boone of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, North Carolina, preaches while Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, of The Outreach Foundation, translates.

But destruction was not the message we received in their new building today, a building which opened for worship on Christmas day, 2015. Today Rev. Tom Boone told us the story of a Syrian name Ananias, a story we know from Acts 9, where Saul the persecutor has his eyes opened by Ananias, the persecuted. Tom wanted us to grasp what Ananias knew and what the church in Syria knows as well as they serve in this place: If we are in Christ, we are called not to be safe, but to be obedient. God hears our, “Why should I? He wants to kill me,” and answers not with punishment, but with grace because he understands our fear…and yet still he sends us. Just as for Ananias, so for the people of Aleppo church: In courage they stay and serve, because it is not fear that defines them, but hope.

There are many things I could write about in a day that began at 10:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Indeed, it is very late when I write this. I could write of meeting with the leaders of the church ministries and hearing their challenges and dreams. I could write of the challenges facing the elders of the church as they deal with needs that would send most of us back to our beds with the covers pulled over our heads. I could write of imams cleaning up and reconstructing the Great Mosque destroyed just a few blocks from the rubble of the Presbyterian church. I could write about the amazing hospitality we experienced in this place and the food we consumed. And if my fingers and brain had the energy, I would do so.

An olive tree newly planted in hope.

But instead, I will write about hope, for we are a people of hope, and the planting of an olive tree, for that is what we did as the family of God today in Aleppo. In a small yard next to the church building we put our hands on the muddy red root ball of a very young olive tree. After Rev. Ibrahim poured water into the hole prepared to receive it, we lifted the young tree into the hole and pushed the dirt around it.

Who would plant a tree in a place where destruction is all around? Who would go to their persecutor and open his eyes? The people of God, called out of their fears into hope, into life. This small tree is the church of Aleppo, and it has, it does and it will bear fruit, fragile as it seems, and will be a part of the healing of this nation.

Between the lines

Draw a line.

Cross the line.

Line up.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

There are lines everywhere, and we have experienced them here in Lebanon. There was a huge line when we arrived at the airport with multiple other flights. We cued up, snakelike, in the immigration line as we each waited our turn for that Lebanese visa stamp.

Terrace lines near Dhour Chouier

There are lines on the hillsides, terraced garden plots and vineyards, which climb up and up, fruits and vegetables all growing in straight lines.

 

 

 

 

Lines of prayer cranes

There are lines of my paper peace cranes hanging from the lights up at the conference center.

Lines on the crane paper

There are lines of writing on paper, including the ones I captured today to fold into another crane of peace for my flock at home. I am grateful for this one today as it came from the Lebanese member of parliament who represents the Protestants in the government, Dr. Basem al Shabb, who is also a cardiac surgeon. I am sure he sews straight lines of sutures when he closes the chest again over a beating heart.

The berm in Mahardeh

In this region there are also lines of conflict and much damage and destruction has occurred on either side of them. Almost exactly two years ago I was in Mhardeh, Syria, and posed for a photo. Behind me was a line of trees where extremists would approach to shell this city of 23,000 Christians. I was that close to the line. I was just as close a year ago, also in Mhardeh, when we stood next to the berm that separated Mhardeh from those on the other side who would see them destroyed.

Some lines are just too hard to cross.

But today we had a Bible study on the book of Jeremiah, and I am grateful for teaching that asks me to read between the lines.

Rev. Hadi Ghantous

Rev. Dr. Hadi Ghantous is the Presbyterian pastor of Minyara, Lebanon, in the north of the country. He is a trained medical doctor who went to the Near East School of Theology, the reformed seminary in Beirut, and earned his M.Div. He went on from there to get his doctorate in Old Testament studies and we are all the better for his teaching.

He took us through the definition and purpose of the prophets today. What is a prophet? The prophet is a person – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, etc. – but the prophet is also the book we read so named for the person. The book is not totally the words of one person in many cases, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Indeed, the history they cover provides the evidence that these books were the words of more than one person written down over decades and sometimes centuries. You might say the book is from the school of Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are multiple theologies in one book. That was a good lesson to learn.

Hadi then led us to the purpose of the prophets, and here is where it got interesting, and where you can see how one book, Jeremiah in this case, has multiple theologies. What is the dominant line of theology in the books of the OT Prophets? Judgment against nations. The prophets are calling for justice, but the main theme is that God is the God of retribution, dealing with the nations like a judge. This also included Israel and Judah as well, but they had a chance to do something different, to repent. If they turned from their evil ways, going against God’s word, he would turn his angry face and return to them the blessings that came with a righteous life.

The prophet is the one who speaks the word of the Lord, and a lot of that word is about judgment. Part of why we are judged is what we do in the name of the Lord, and that was the lesson for today.

When we make war about God, wage it in his name, we have a serious problem, and for that we will be judged. God is the God of peace, and reading between the lines of the different theologies of judgment in Jeremiah we find this nugget to underline that thought:

Yet hear now this word which I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lordhas truly sent the prophet [ my emphasis].(Jer. 28:8-9)

Hadi’s teaching on this subject did not go on long enough for me. He did go on to say that this word of true God-given prophecy was difficult to hear. More power is better! Victory over enemies is better! More guns! More war machines…in the name of God. It was so hard to hear at the time this was written down, that other writers of this word buried it with additions and corrections. But if you spend more time in this book, reading between the lines, the truth will out.

When we hear the nations and our leaders demanding more planes, bigger ships, more bombs and bullets and more money for military build up, let us remember that this is not the way to true peace. It is about a peace that is in our own self-interest: our safety vs. the safety of the other. But God has a bigger idea of peace, and his true prophets will speak to that. It is a hard job because their voices are drowned out by louder ones. But if we spend some time reading between those lines, perhaps we can erase the lines of warfare and shorten the lines between the point of our hearts and those we see as the other.

This is my prayer today: to read between those lines and walk the one that leads to this peace.

 

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.

 

 

Why do I go?

Dear Tom,

You asked me twice why I go to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and in my own ineloquent way I tried to answer. In flying off to those lands today I took a book from my shelf of unread books to accompany me on this journey. Mystics was written by Fr. William Harmless, S.J., a former theology professor at Creighton, now deceased. First of all his name is a reminder to do just that: harm less. How could I not take it to a war zone?

Studying the mystics is part of my master of arts in ministry program at Creighton and I spent part of the summer and fall in the readings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Alice of Foligno and others including men. But I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of mysticism in the sense of Christianity until I weirdly grabbed this book at four this morning on my way out the door.

A 15th century theologian named Jean Gerson offered a definition that was very helpful to me as a strong feeler on the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers Briggs assessment. “Where scholastic theology focused on the mind, mystical theology sprang primarily from the heart, the affectus.” (Pg. 6 – I love that, affectus…affect us…touch our heart!) “…the way he says that mystical theology offers a knowledge of God that comes from love.”

And Fr. Harmless used this wonderful analogy of marriage to explain that, words that were so life-giving to me this morning that I texted them to Steve, a man who shows me God’s face every day:

Think about the knowledge that married people have of one another. They have not read books about one another. They have not studied each other academically. They know one another through the union of their lives, an intimacy that touches heart and mind and body…it is not what we would call an intellectual knowledge. It is certainly not theoretical. Instead it is a love-wrought knowledge. (6)

After that text I emailed Wendy Wright, my theology professor who introduced me to the mystics as part of our coursework, I was so grateful!

(I am getting to why I go, by the way, it just has to run its course through the journey I have had with this book this morning. That’s what I do best. Blather.)

So as I was contemplating love-wrought knowledge and “the embrace of unitive love,” (as Gerson put it, that whole affectus thing) Fr. Harmless began with a chapter on a modern mystic, Thomas Merton, a man who converted to Catholicism during college and eventually became a Trappist (of the Benedictine tradition) monk and priest. He was a prolific writer (and now I need to get some more books…), but Fr. Harmless quoted from one in particular, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The title of the book alone might be a partial description of why I went the first time. But it was the quotation that said, “Julie, here are the words you needed to say to Tom. Get to Houston and write him!”

From a man who had decided the world we live in was a place to escape from, came this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, and they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence in a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life; but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being…And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. (30-31)

He went on and it just got better:

A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…There are no strangers!

Here it comes, this is what I tried in my own feeble, stumbling words to say to you about why I go:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts [affectus!] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… (31)

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

It was on that first trip back in 2010, as I told you. We were in Aleppo, invited into the home and to the dinner table of the Aziz family, displaced to Syria from Iraq by our war. We could see the depth of pain in their manner, in their eyes, in their reduced circumstances. Where there should have been hatred and shunning directed at their American visitors, there was an invitation to the table, the table of grace. The Lord’s table.

And that is why I go. My eyes have been opened to see the other, to see me, to see us all as we really are: Beloved children of God.

Affectus. Let it affect us. It has affected me.

Thanks be to God.

Soli deo gloria.