A Day’s Contrasts

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is "The Weeping Women." This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is “The Weeping Women.” This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

I find myself once again in a place that has become so close to my heart. When I return to Lebanon and Syria it is like coming to a second home, and I think that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived her whole life in Omaha, Nebraska! But on a January day in this new year of 2017, I have returned to Beirut, and from here I will travel on into Syria to places I have been before in a time of peace and in this time of war.

From our first appointment on Friday to our last cultural experience at the Beirut National Museum, my mind kept focusing on the contrasts.

We spent the morning visiting the Our Lady Dispensary, a partner of The Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission-connecting agency that I have traveled with. OLD is run by a real life angel named Grace Boustani. Well named, she exudes grace and gives glory to God for placing her right where her sweet spot is: serving in his name. OLD provides social and medical services to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq who find their way to this poor mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Grace herself grew up in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She and her family left for a time, but she returned as a social worker to bring healing to her country. She uses that same touch with every person who walks through the door at OLD, Monday through Friday.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Today we had the opportunity to hear three very personal stories from three women who fled the Mosul area of Iraq in 2014 when ISIS moved in. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa each had similar stories, but to hear them each tell their own experience was a reminder that everyone who has been affected by the happenings in the Middle East since we first invaded Iraq in 2003 has an individual story to tell. We owe it to them to hear them, see them as real people with real families. They have names! And now, we know them and can put faces to those names.

They each told of fleeing in the middle of the night. “Leave now or you will be killed! Take nothing with you! Just go!” Taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, they each left with their husbands and children, walking the fifty-plus miles from Mosul to Erbil. In Erbil, they lived in a refugee camp located in the open-air courtyard of a church there. Months later, living in extreme conditions, they made their way to Beirut and the neighborhood of OLD. They told of leaving everything behind. Former neighbors sent them photos of their homes burned to the ground by ISIS. Family graves were dug up in the Mosul cemeteries and the remains of the family members were strewn around to leave no trace of their existence. Two years later, they are all trying to be resettled in other places by the UN, but the lists are long, resources few, and the list of countries willing to take refugees from Iraq and Syria is shrinking.

It sounds hopeless, but at OLD they have found caring hearts and listening ears. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa have each been through the trauma healing ministry led by Roula al Kattar, and have been able to talk through their grief, forgive their trespassers, and be reminded that the God they have known all their lives is still with them. It was a humbling experience to meet these three women and share the morning with them, tears and all.

The contrast came later in the day as we made our way to two museums. The first is housed in an old Beirut mansion that is filled with contemporary art. Works by people whose names are written down and celebrated are displayed in home that once was a gathering place for a wealthy family. The Sursock Museum is indeed a treasure; their belongings are well displayed and preserved, unlike the former possessions and now burned down houses of Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa.

13th century children's clothing in the Beirut National Museum

13th century children’s clothing in the Beirut National Museum

In the Beirut National Museum, well restored since the civil war, we visited the newly reopened lower level where we saw well-preserved mummies, a child’s garment from the 13th century, and a long line of beautiful sarcophagi. There were steles engraved with the names of the long dead. And yet, there were the names of someone’s ancestors. There were the preserved remains of ancient people on display for those of us walking in this century to see and marvel at. There was the evidence of lives lived in specific places.

There was and will be no evidence of the life lived in Mosul by Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa, or their families. The only memory for them is what is in and on their hearts that they shared with us. And so we will be their museum, holding onto these treasures. May God grant them new lives and new homes to make new memories in the days to come. May they continue to process their grief and call on the Lord who knows all our names. May they find restoration and peace.

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.

The church, The Church, THE CHURCH

Confession: This last post from our trip to Lebanon and Syria will be written in first person. I (Julie) have had several days of traveling time with Marilyn and Nuhad. On the curvy narrow roads from Damascus to Homs and then to Mahardeh, there has been a lot to reflect on between speed bumps, or “sleeping policeman” as Rob told us they were called in parts of Africa. Every time I have traveled on a TOF trip, Marilyn has been my leader and teacher and her words ring in my ears, but never as much as this time. These trips are not about our faithfulness, our bravery, or anything that is preceded by the word our, but they are about the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! In times of peace, in times of war, the church is here. It remains and we have come to stand with it and be embraced within it. Since the rest of our team returned home, we have been with three faithful parts of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, his church.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

Last summer, Marilyn and I spent several days beyond the women’s conference at Dhour Choiuer to travel to Syria and visit a church she had never been to. Our visas were not granted and so we have waited an extra nine months to finally visit the Presbyterians in Bloudan. Bloudan is a village of about 5,000 permanent residents that in normal times expands to 400,000 as summer residents come up the mountain to escape the heat of the valley cities for its cool breezes, summer homes and restaurants. It is a mere 50 miles from Damascus, so the drive is short. Well, the drive was short. Now, the last nine miles up the road once you’ve turned off the main highway require ten different checkpoint stops. This little village is surrounded by five other villages, one of which is Zabadani. Last summer when we tried to get here, Zabadani was the scene of pitched battles between radicals, Hezbollah and Syrian army forces. Similar battles were fought in all five of the cities, and as we made our way slowly up the road, one of those cities was still cordoned off by razor wire as the battles still rage.

The Bloudan church elders and women's leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

The Bloudan church elders and women’s leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

Upon arriving (finally!) in Bloudan, we were greeted by the faithful elders and members of the Presbyterian church. There have been five years without electricity here. Five years when precious little supplies have made it up the road. Five years of shelling, some of which has hit and killed, including the sone of one of the elders. But in five years this faithful church without a pastor has not missed worshiping the one we call Lord. Indeed, we had an impromptu worship service led by Kamishly pastor Feras Ferah who is from Bloudan. The little children from the KG processed in and recited Psalm 100 from memory, sang us a song and then all bowed their heads and prayed. And as we sat there in this church

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

together, we were reminded that they might not have electricity but that the light of Jesus shines brightly in and through them all. In solidarity with the other Christians here who are Greek Orthodox, they will all celebrate Easter together on the Eastern calendar day of May 1. And they were teaching the children this word in song: Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the church!

After a refreshing drink from the spring that flows from this mountain place, we headed back down the road, through the ten checkpoints, past the razor wire and the pancaked buildings and back to Damascus for our final night there. Saying goodbye to Assis Butros and his wife Wafaa, we headed to Homs.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt' Mona's house which is currently under reconstruction.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt Mona’s house which is currently under reconstruction.

When Marilyn and I last visited Homs with a group from TOF it was November, 2014, and Homs had only been relieved of its near three-year siege for about five months. We visited seven different churches in the old city, which once was home to about 60,000 Christians. The churches, including the Presbyterian church, had all suffered destruction in different degrees. We gathered together as a group with the newly minted confirmation class under a cross-shaped hole in the roof and they sang hymns of joy for us in the promise that this church would be repaired. Now standing inside the beautifully restored church on an April day in 2016, the promise is indeed fulfilled. God is good. All the time. Elder Abdul Almessieh Salta, a civil engineer, pointed out the beautiful wood ceiling panels. Most of them are original but some are made of new materials to replace the damaged ones. The craftsmanship used on the new ones makes them indistinguishable from the original. Assis Mofid and his wife Michelline also walked us through what will be the pastor’s home once it too is repaired and refurbished.

Elder Najwa's home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Elder Najwa’s home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Refurbished homes in Homs was our next order of business. Although there is still much destruction all around on a massive scale, people are returning to this place. We were told that about 2,000 of those 60,000 Christians have returned to the old city. Driving through the narrow streets, we saw small shops and restaurants where hopeful people wait on those few who are back. And there is reconstruction going on. The Presbyterian church identified 39 homes of church members that could and should be repaired so people could return home. With several gifts, including one from TOF, a number of those 39 have been completed or are in different stages of completion. We visited the home of Michelline’s aunt Mona where workmen were busy. Although the rear of the fourth-floor walk-up is still open to the outside, structural posts and beams have been replaced, tiles have been laid in the kitchen and bathroom, and six rooms are defined. In my mind I can see Mona back here with her husband.

From there, we drove a short distance to the home of elder Najwa, who had been our constant companion on this visit in Homs. We had first met her on a video at the consultation of this home-rebuilding project in Homs. She was the first one from the church to return to her place and begin rebuilding it even before this project was put in motion. She was a teacher and a principal in a government school, and before the war lived in this apartment with a sister and two brothers. They had precious little time to leave before ISIS came storming in. These radicals had moved all of her beautiful furniture out of the sitting room and just sat on the floor. Before they left, they burned most of it and stole the rest. Now sitting here with her sister and brother (one died before he could return), it was like every other beautiful home we had been invited to on these trips. Pictures on the walls. Rugs on the floor. Reminders of life all around. And one precious original chair, which had somehow survived.

We enjoyed lunch at a newly opened restaurant called Cello, owned and operated by yet another Presbyterian church member named George. It had always been his dream to have a real restaurant in Homs, more grand than his former fast-food operation, and here we sat. Ninety would be here later this evening for dinner and karaoke. Dream realized. Life renewed.

This is the church!

Assis Ma'an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma'an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

Assis Ma’an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma’an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

From Homs we headed back to the road. Faithful Assis Nuhad drove through more unfamiliar roads on a roundabout way to Mahardeh, our final destination in Syria. Through small towns and farm fields, even where all seems peaceful, there are reminders of war. Besides the numerous checkpoints we stop for (maybe 30-40 on this part of our journey) we drive by gas stations where empty pumps stand. We know when a station has fuel because there will be a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles waiting, sometimes as long as six hours, for maybe five gallons. Nuhad stops periodically at roadside stands. “Benzene?” he asks. As we watch the fuel gauge drop to about a quarter of a tank, his question is answered in the affirmative and a 20-liter container of gas is brought to the side of the car with a funnel and hose. A quick transaction and we return to the journey, but this is daily life here.

Mahardeh. Sitting peacefully on the terrace of Assis Ma’an and his wife Gwath, I have my own dream come true. Six years have passed since I first made this journey with TOF, Marilyn and a group of faithful US Presbyterian women. Sipping a cold beverage, I take in the blooming beauty of roses, onions and parsley in the garden and a view of the church where Ma’an’s father served before him. As we speak about how the war has affected this place in Syria, the only 100% Christian town in the whole country, we hear about the 6,000 mortars and shells that have rained down since the beginning back in 2011. Claude, a young man without family here now except for this church family, obediently retrieves an unexploded shell that had implanted itself in the garden bed right next to the terrace.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

A bright beautiful morning greeted us after a peaceful night’s sleep in the Bitar’s home. Breakfast of fried eggs right from the chicken, homemade zatar, dried figs, birthday cake (another story!) and coffee gave us strength for this day. If you think our energy tanks were empty, we quickly had them filled with a visit to the KG run by this church and led by Gwath. 70 precocious children had arrived in the church yard and were standing in lines organized by age groups, singing a welcome for us. Dark hair, blond hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, some in their official KG uniforms, they said in unison “Good morning! We welcome you! Thank you for everything!” This vital ministry has never stopped and its importance cannot be over emphasized. These children will be the reconcilers of this land in the future as they learn the ways of Jesus.

Looking a little closer beyond the group to an individual, we look into the deep dark eyes of three-year-old Fala. Clutching her rolled up bread sandwich, taking intermittent tiny bites, her eyes never leave Marilyn’s face. We are told that her father suffers from mental illness and the church has tried to help him find a job, and to supervise his taking his medication so he can remain stable. This KG is a place of peace and solitude for this precious little girl and all the Falas like her.

Finally we spend some time with about twenty men of Mahardeh who have organized themselves into a kind of national guard unit to protect this place. They have 13 separate points around the city where they take turns on patrol and duty. When shells do hit homes and buildings in Mahardeh, they immediately repair the damage because they are determined that they will remain in their homes. We walk to a place where we can look just a short distance down into the valley and see how close the front line is. All of these men are volunteers with every day normal jobs: contractor, painter, carpenter, engineer, teacher. They are men of the chuches – four Greek Orthodox and one Presbyterian. They are men with families, and their families have suffered loss, but they remain constant and determined. One man named Simon who acts as the leader, invites us into his home and we are served refreshing lemonade and the always present cookies by his wife Reema. And before we leave, in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ, he gives us each a Russian icon of Jesus which reminds us that we are one in the Lord.

This is the church!

This is the joy I have as I travel with The Outreach Foundation: the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! I am humbled to be a part of a global body, to be present with them in times of war and in times of peace. To mourn with them. To rejoice with them. To walk with them and to sing with them and to dance with them. I pray it for each of you who reads this: to lift them up daily and see their faces when you close your eyes to pray. They are you and you are them, and we are one together in Christ.

Encountering the other

Many of the members of the consultation in Lebanon meet with the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon in dialogue about the situation in Syria.

Many of the members of the consultation in Lebanon meet with the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon in dialogue about the situation in Syria.

Our last full day at the consultation of global partners was a full day that once again began with worship and reflection. Elias Jabbour of Aleppo led us through the music of a Taize service and voices were raised in English, Latin and Arabic. Najla Kassab, who not only runs this conference center but is also in charge of Christian education in NESSL, offered a meditation on 2 Cor. 5:16-21. This portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is about reconciliation and offers that since we now know Jesus, it is through those lenses that we should look as we seek to reconcile one to the other. We need to look “beyond the flesh” and get beyond those prejudices and hatreds that hinder reconciliation. It is not a process that takes three days or months. This is April 13, the 41st anniversary of the start of the civil war in Lebanon that last for fifteen years. The process of reconciliation is ongoing here, and that was the message that Najla wanted us to hear. Reconciliation is a long journey, but we must do it from a perspective that is beyond the flesh.

Our speakers today had the task of reflecting biblically, theologically and personally on encounters with the other, and in the context we are in here in Lebanon/Syria, those encounters are of the interfaith variety: Christian to Muslim, Muslim to Christian. Rev. Agnete Holm of Denmark and Rev. Hadi Ghantous of Minyara, Lebanon, friends of long standing, carried us through several biblical passages – Old and New Testament – where these encounters take place. And Hadi offered this thought to us about how we read and understand the Bible. The Bible is about encounter. From the beginning God created someone to have an encounter with. Not only does it show us what we are meant to be, but what we really are…what we should NOT be! It is a mirror. The bible is not telling us to do that, but to learn from that.

Agnete reminded us that interfaith dialogue is about building loving relationships, but there are always ups and downs. We fall out, disagree, hate, debate. It is not about agreeing or reaching consensus, or creating harmony. It is about maintaining relationships no matter the fallings out or the comings together. That is long-term vision, not built up in three days, but three decades, the slowest type of ministry you can engage in and the easiest to destroy.

And from there we moved into an actual interfaith dialogue as Dr. Ibrahim Shamseddin, a Shi’ite Muslim, deeply religious man and friend of the Synod, came to the podium. His first words to us were that he had come with a prepared, written presentation, but as he listened to Najla’s reflection and those of Agnete and Hadi, he offered this: “We change our text when we dialogue.” He talked of the diversity of God’s creation: this is his will and should remain this way until he calls us home. If he had wanted merely clones, he would have made us this way. “Interfaith dialogue is about making relationship with others. We see ourselves in the other. Christ is a part of me as well.” And he finished with this thought, which is a good place to leave the formal part of this day: This is an earthly experiment, to live peacefully with each other. I can be with you fully without fitting into your doctrine or dogma. We do not need to clone each other. Diversity is salt, is wanted, and will remain a part of creation.

Rev. Tim McCalmont from California offers Christ's body, broken for us all.

Rev. Tim McCalmont from California offers Christ’s body, broken for us all.

And should you one day make the journey to this part of the world, you would be blessed to come to the end of a conference or consultation where the body of Christ is invited to his table. Lebanese, Syrian, American, Danish, French, Swedish and German followers share the peace of Christ and remember his sacrifice in broken bread and shared cup, for this is the encounter that changes us all.

Jars of Clay

The eight Presbyterian pastors serving in Syria (back row left to right) Jacoub Sabbaagh, Fairouzeh; Mofid Karajieli, Homs; Salam Hanna, Latakia; Elias Jabour, Aleppo; (front row left to right) Firas Ferah, Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh; Ma'an Bitar, Mahardeh and Hama; Butros Zaour, Damascus; and Ibrahim Nsier.

The eight Presbyterian pastors serving in Syria (back row left to right) Jacoub Sabbaagh, Fairouzeh; Mofid Karajieli, Homs; Salam Hanna, Latakia; Elias Jabour, Aleppo; (front row left to right) Firas Ferah, Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh; Ma’an Bitar, Mahardeh and Hama; Butros Zaour, Damascus; and Ibrahim Nsier.

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” 2 Cor. 4:7-10

Marilyn led us in worship Tuesday morning around this passage of scripture which is incarnated for us here by the serving Syrian pastors who have been among us and are the reason we came: to sit with and listen to them tell the stories of affliction, persecution and perplexity of their home places, but also the resurrection stories that come from those same places. This is the church of Lebanon and Syria, and why we need each other. The global church models perseverance for us, and that is Paul’s theme. The church remains hopeful, constant. This text refers to the faithfulness of the church over the long time through difficult circumstances.

This is what the stories of the church in Lebanon and Syria do for us in the west: they become a living epistle. We lift up these stories of faith and faithfulness in Aleppo: Walking up five flights for worship because the building has been destroyed, and then building a new building because they may be struck down, but they are not destroyed as a body. Starting a water ministry for the community to love their neighbors. Or the stories from Homs: Nurturing a community in diaspora. The evangelical school that never closed despite mortar shells and bullets. The elderly home, not only providing loving care to this vulnerable population, but providing a place for worship when the church was bombed. A confirmation class that was conducted from home to home that took two years, but on Easter, 2015, the whole class was brought together. In Kamishli, the church found a way to be present to the Yazidi refugees by providing a source of fresh water and sunk a well. It seems that in these times the church could just hunker down and take care of itself. But the church is not called to survive, but to thrive. In Damascus, the church women devised a project for the refugee women to regain their dignity with the needlework project. In Mahardeh, the continuing education of young children by the kindergarten keeps faithful life incarnated. Mathilde Sabbaagh, a fourth-year student at the Near East School of Theology, who chooses not to flee to Canada because “God has not given me a word for Canada, but he has given me a word for Syria.”

Story upon story, picture upon picture, video footage that brought smiles one moment as smiling Sunday school children in the northeast of Syria showed their Christmas projects, and then sadness the next when a series of coffins was displayed, victims of a series of cruel bombings in the same city.

But as we hear the sadness and overwhelming circumstances of life in this war-ravaged clay pot of a country, we experience the resurrection as well. In Homs, a city under siege for almost three years, churches are being rebuilt and homes are being repaired and families are moving back in.

This is the church we have come to be with. This is the church we are a part of. This is the body of Christ and its life of faith and hope and love and endurance is the witness to the glory of God. May it ever be so.

Narrowing the distance

20160409 cranes photoHere we go again.

Steve and I are sitting in the airport in Minneapolis as we wait for our flight to Paris to board. From Paris, it is on to Beirut, Lebanon, and a rendezvous with our precious brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. As always, we are traveling with The Outreach Foundation and our intrepid leader, Marilyn Borst. After being in a consultation with NESSL and their global partners, we will make our way back into Syria.

It always make my heart sing to be setting off on the long journey to an ancient land, a land where the church was born and even Saul-turned-Paul saw the light, was blinded, healed and rose from the darkness to preach the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This time I am going not as a church employee but as a theology student, and I just wanted to start this trip out with a short blog reflecting some truth from one of my classes: THL331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, led by Dr. Thomas W. Kelly, professor theology at Creighton University.

One of our texts for that class is a book that Dr. Kelly wrote with a very appropriate title for me coming from a church with the vision statement, “…on the journey with the living Christ.” The name of his book is When the Gospel Grows Feet, and it is about a Jesuit martyr from El Salvador, Rutilio Grande, and the church in El Salvador, and the gospel of liberation that has been preached from the first day of Jesus’ ministry. I have brought that book and my other required readings with me to keep up with the classes I will be missing and as I sit here in the airport, this is what I read:

“The Eucharist is the symbol of a shared table, with a stool for each person, and tablecloths long enough for everyone. It is the symbol of Creation, which requires redemption. It is already being sealed with martyrdom!” (From Fr. Grande’s last homily before he was assassinated)

This all-inclusive meal, the Eucharist, was the symbol par excellence for Rutilio that God wanted everyone to have a seat at the table of creation. He wanted this symbol of Jesus’ final meal to influence and structure social relationships very concretely. What followed in his homily was a careful argument for what the role of the church should be in the context of El Salvador, how that role should imitate the incarnation of Christ, and how it should perceive the world and its people. After a brief introduction of a church in service to the world, fragile but incarnated in history, the homily is divided into three distinct parts: (1) equality of the children of God, (2) the risk of living the Gospel, and (3) persecuted like Jesus of Nazareth. (Page 208)

There are a lot of geographical miles between El Salvador and Syria. But this I know: the church and its saints in El Salvador and Syria bring me closer to the meaning of this Gospel and that distance should be made smaller as we draw closer to it.

Dona nobis pacem.

Heartburn

That's my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I've led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

That’s my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I’ve led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

I was looking through my dog-eared, spine-busted journal tonight for an email address. There are so many inserts into this broken-backed book! And while I found the email, I also found this. On this night, before I begin my journey into a master of arts study of ministry at Creighton University, it reminds me of one of the big reasons I am stepping out.

I wrote this article in May, 2013, shortly before my second trip to Lebanon. I am so happy to share it tonight.

 

 

Wading Into Deeper Waters

There is a difference between heartburn and a heart that burns. The former is felt usually around some poor eating habits or gastrointestinal issues. It’s very uncomfortable if you’ve ever experienced it, but you can take a pill. The latter can also be uncomfortable, but I would describe it more as comfort-afflicting. If your heart has ever burned for something or someone, your only response is action. If you don’t do something about it, it just gets worse. There is no magic pill.

My heart has burned for the situation across the Middle East since I was in high school and my step-brother Charlie worked for NBC News in Lebanon, covering their civil war which raged for fifteen years. Every night we would watch the news and see pictures of the atrocities that Charlie had stood in the midst of to get the story to us in the U.S. It was hard to watch and understand why these things went on, but more than anything, we hoped Charlie would be safe.

My heart kept burning through the years and then I met Maya in a women’s bible study here at West Hills. A native of Lebanon, she returned there to visit family in 2006 and was stuck in the middle of another war. When she came back thoroughly shaken, heartbroken and angry, reliving her childhood, she shared with us her story. This woman of faith simply asked, “Why do they hate us?”

Then I met Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation and she was taking a group of faithful women to visit the churches of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon. We would travel to Beirut and visit the churches founded by missionaries in the 1800s. We would travel to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, doing the same. We shared worship. We shared time at a women’s conference. We were welcomed into their homes. We shared coffee and tea and sweets. We met with Iraqi refugee families who were being cared for by the church. We heard stories of courage and of love and of faith, a faith lived out for over 2,000 years.

And I came home with new friends and new connections in this global gathering we call the Body of Christ. And my heart burned to return, to be back in the company of those women and those churches, to share life together again. And we would have returned the following year, 2011, but once again, war broke out.

This time the war was in Syria – first an uprising in a small town, now a two-year old war – and we couldn’t go back because it wasn’t safe…for us. It’s not safe for them either, but they live there. Or they did.

The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria, where we sang Amazing Grace and shared with the families who were caring for Iraqi refugees was completely destroyed in November, 2012. We got this news from synod officials who had traveled to be with us in a large gathering in Erbil, Iraq. Those of us in that room who had worshipped at the church in Aleppo were grieving: grieving for the ministry that would no longer be done in that neighborhood, grieving for the plans of the renovation of a Christian high school that would have served all faiths, grieving for the work that Assis Ibrahim and his congregation had done together as incarnational witnesses. Their church home was destroyed, many of their own homes were destroyed, their jobs were gone. Those who cared for refugees were now refugees themselves as they fled to safe parts of their country or to Lebanon.

In some of Paul’s epistles he refers to a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The churches created from his and other missionary journeys were collecting money for the benefit of the persecuted church there. The Outreach Foundation and other churches in our denomination are doing the same thing for the present day persecuted churches in Syria. They are collecting money to send to the Synod of Syria and Lebanon to aid these now displaced brothers and sisters in the small but important ways they can. And the people of our church have responded to that plea in the form of a $10,000 gift granted by our Mission Team. And my heart burns with gratitude at this response. We are not called to suffer as they have been. But we are called to stand with them: to show up when we can, to release the resources that God has provided us to be used in their time of need.

This burning heart of mine will return to Lebanon in May. My prayer is that these people of God will know his peace that passes all understanding. That they will be comforted by his gracious Holy Spirit. That they would have abundant life restored to them. That they would continue to shine the light of Christ wherever they are. And that they will be strengthened in this time of trial.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

And now in January, 2016, I am happy to reflect back on this. The church building in Aleppo has been rebuilt in a safer place and the saints worshipped there for the first time on Christmas. The church body never stopped meeting, climbing five flights of stairs to meet in an apartment together for the last three years.

The Aleppo College for Boys, that Christian high school, has never closed its doors during the continuing conflict, now approaching its fifth anniversary. It continues to be a place where Christian and Muslim learn side by side.

My church, West Hills Presbyterian, has given other gifts to the Syria Appeal of The Outreach Foundation totaling some $25,000. (You can give too! http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org)

I have traveled back to Lebanon three times and to Syria twice. Steve and I will be returning to both again this spring.

And the inspiration of the church in persecution has put a vision of ministry in front of me, and the fulfillment of that vision begins tomorrow night when I take my first class at Creighton University.

May God continue to cause my heart to burn, and may he inflict you with that as well.

Dona nobis pacem.

525,600 minutes

“525,600 minutes…how do you measure a year?” Jonathan Larson did the math for me when he wrote that beautiful song in his musical Rent.

365 days times 24 hours times 60 minutes equals 525,600 minutes in a year. And today on the first day of 2016, I want to look back and see how my 2015 was measured.

WordPress, this wonderful platform on which I pound my thoughts out to share with whoever wants to read them has measured my year in this way:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

There were 102 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 761 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was January 26th with 189 views. The most popular post that day was Not as she died, but as she lived.

I write the blog for me, but it makes my heart feel joined with you when you stop and read my words, so thank you. If I say something that triggers a response – good or bad – please take a moment and comment. My two most faithful commenters are my writer sister Sally and a sweet padre I have never met named Michael. Interestingly enough, Padre Michael is going to marry Sally to Robert in April so we will both get to meet him!

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO's campus, it is the Castle of Perserverance, one my favorite places.

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO’s campus, it is the Castle of Perseverance, one my favorite places.

My walking app, MapMyWalk, also measured my year. I really started walking seriously in August after I returned from the Middle East. MapMyWalk logged 322 miles on 82 walks that took a total of 88 hours and amounted to 771,000 steps. I lost twelve pounds and hope to lose another ten in the next year. It was a resolution I didn’t make in January!

 

 

Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

I made my eighth trip to the Middle East, traveling to Lebanon with my mentor Marilyn Borst as she led a group of faithful women on behalf of The Outreach Foundation. We spent blessed precious time with our counterparts, women from Presbyterian churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We worshiped. We had communion. We laughed and cried. We went on a memorable field trip to a Bekaa Valley winery on three buses and each bus rang out with singing and shook from dancing. We folded paper cranes for peace together on a quiet porch in hot weather. One hundred women with ten thousand stories to tell of love and loss.

Paper cranes 209Besides the cranes I folded there, I have folded 500 here at home, with 500 more to go to make my 1,000. Each one has been prayed over at least four times: as I write the name or memory on the paper, as I fold the paper and rewrite the words on a wing, as I string them together in strands like rosary beads, and as I hang them in the flock in my office. The first 323 had two additional prayer times: as I removed them strand by strand from the church office where they flew initially and the rehung them reverently in my office at home.

Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem.

Write. Fold. Repeat.

I can measure this year in uncountable songs. The worship set that plays randomly in my ears as I walked those 771,000 steps. The choir anthems sung on Wednesday night rehearsals and most of the 52 Sundays in the year. Hymns and praise songs on Tuesday night worship team rehearsals with two or three voices and an amazing band that are lifted to the glory of God on Sundays as well. Singing Handel’s Messiah for the eleventh time in thirteen years with the Voices of Omaha, a choir this year of 165 voices.

2015 marked some endings.

We finished the addition to our home so that Jana can have a safe place to live. No more stairs for her to go up and down. Her seizures make that a gamble for her safety we could not live with. In the process we said good-bye to a tree that had been planted in Daddy’s memory.

My Aunt Heddy died on Christmas day. She was my dad’s last sibling and she lived for 95 years, longer than either of her parents and all of her four siblings. She taught me how to embroider when I was a little girl and she became my mentor and guide into the world of quilting.

Sami Sadeeh was killed in Syria, defending his country from rebels. He was one of four national guardsmen who watched over our safety as we journed through Syria in 2014. God rest his soul.

My friend Hala, a religion teacher and a preacher who lives in Beirut, lost her father. He died in Aleppo, Syria, and she could not be there to say good-bye because of the war. May God continue to comfort her as she lives not so far in miles from her mother and siblings, but an uncrossable distance in time of war.

I left a job I had held for ten and a half years as director of Support Ministries at West Hills Church. It was my own decision and I was and continue to be at peace with it.

Julia Child SteveIn those 525,600 minutes of 2015, there were celebrations, too! Steve and I marked thirteen years of wedded bliss. We opened the year with his 57th birthday and closed the year with mine. All my siblings – the Omaha ones and the Colorado ones – made it to 722 N. Happy Hollow to celebrate Christmas together on my birthday weekend. All these moments were marked with Steve’s amazing cooking and good bottles of red wine.

Even as I get ready to step into a new year of adventures – back to school for goodness sake! – I marvel at this year that was. And the thread through the whole 525,600 minutes is the faithfulness of God experienced in whatever place I was standing in each of those minutes. And I know that this golden thread of his love will continue to weave and tie and hold together the minutes of life to come.

So happy new year. And it’s leap year, so we get 527,040 minutes. I know they will be as full and memorable as the last 525,600.

Let’s get started…