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.

Houses of Hope

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)

Marilyn gathered our little team at the front of the conference center for the morning worship portion of the daily schedule. Sweet Elias Jabbour, now assigned as pastor to the congregation in Yazdieh, Syria, and his beautiful wife Petra, lead worship each morning so beautifully in word and song. Marilyn was doing a reflection for the group on hope, which is this year’s theme. You read about it yesterday. The theme verse is Psalm 71:5, but she took us two verses farther into the text.

“I have become a sign to many…”

As Christians, followers of Jesus, we do have this hope. It is not the wish kind of hope: I hope I get a close parking space. I hope I get into the university I want. I hope the cancer goes away. No, this hope is not about circumstance, but the assurance that a gracious God has already written the end of our story and accompanies us along the journey. The verse puts the emphasis on the I have, but Marilyn took the moments to remind us all that we have because others have been those signs for us.

She invited Evangeline and me to model this by each of us offering a story of someone who had been a sign of hope to us in our own journeys. Everyone has these signs, whether it is the nurse from Ghana in a one-night hospital encounter who reminds you that your faith is strong and will see you through the anxiety, or the pastor who walked with you for ten years using his terminal cancer to point you to the reason for your faith.

We have this hope. It is modeled to us by others. And as Peter says in his first epistle, we are prepared to give an answer for why we carry this hope inside us: Jesus and his sacrificial redeeming love.

That hope resides in us like we reside in our houses. The light shines forth from those who have this hope as a testimony about our Jesus to the world around us. It shines the light you might have burning in your kitchen, that lights the center of the house and spreads outward.

Houses of hope, lit from within. It is a powerful image.

And so we spent this afternoon down in the old conference hall setting up tables of welcome. Four chairs per table, one cardboard house per seat, six cups of paint, one cup of gesso and an assortment of brushes, were the tools for the women to create their own individual house of hope. Our sister and friend Izdihar Kassis, who shared her ministries with us last week in Zahle, is an artist of the finest kind. In the previous months, she had taken various sizes of these cardboard houses and buildings and painted them in different shades, each having the iconic red roof of this country. They were arranged in the hall before our ladies as the City of Hope. It was a great reminder of what it means when the houses of hope and light form a community.

We invited half of the conference attendees in for a two-hour session. Izdihar showed them how to proceed: first the gesso is applied and allowed to dry. Then just paint away. Apply glitter to your roof for a good sparkle! What would your house look like? Would it be green or blue or red? Would it have a red roof? Would the window frames be a different color? Well, picture yours in your mind, but take a look at the beauty that came out of the house of hope studio at Dhour Chouier today. Magnificent!

The final addition to each house was a small flickering battery light. Oh yes! These houses of hope radiate light. As we finish the project tomorrow afternoon with the rest of the ladies, we will have a city of hope that contains around one hundred shining houses of hope. We hope to arrange them along the paths here on Friday so that the whole place will be shining with hope.

The sign has been given to us. We take it and shine it for the world to see. Our reason is sure: Jesus. Jesus. Give us Jesus.

Amen and amen.

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.

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.