Assis Ibrahim from Aleppo

(Back) Wendy Moore, Sue Jacobsen, Kate Kotfila, Emily Brink; (standing in middle) Mary Caroline Lindsay, Assis Ibrahim Nsier, Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, Rev. Nuhad Tomei, Marilyn Borst, Betty Saye; (kneeling) me and Barbara Exley

(Back) Wendy Moore, Sue Jacobsen, Kate Kotfila, Emily Brink; (standing in middle) Mary Caroline Lindsay, Assis Ibrahim Nsier, Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, Rev. Nuhad Tomei, Marilyn Borst, Betty Saye; (kneeling) me and Barbara Exley

I first met this man of God in the summer of 2010. I remember coming home and telling my pastor George about him. His church in Aleppo was doing the kind of relational, incarnational ministry in their neighborhood that our church in Omaha was doing. Their neighborhood in Aleppo was a bit different than ours, to say the least.

But this was before the war that came to them just seven months later. We were privileged to worship with them in their lovely building, and to hear how they were caring for Iraqi refugee families in their midst. These displaced families were, of course, refugees from the war our country had brought to Iraq in 2003. Like other refugees from other wars who could not go home, they were waiting to be resettled in still other countries, unknown to them.

But this small Presbyterian congregation in Aleppo, led by this young energetic cleric was making a difference to those families, and to the kingdom of God.

I still keep a picture on Facebook as my cover photo to remind me of those precious days in August, 2010. It’s the one on the top of this post. Assis Ibrahim is in the back row standing next to another Ibrahim, Syrian Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who was kidnapped in April, 2013, and still has not been heard from. I pray for them both when I see this picture, and I hope others do as well when they visit my Facebook page. I wrote about them here:

https://jpburgess.me/2014/07/16/abraham-father-of-many/

Assis Ibrahim is a man I admire, to say the least, and I will never forget him.

I had the chance to hear him on phone calls twice in the last two years as I returned to Lebanon to hear about what was happening to the Syrian churches in the midst of the war. Other Syrian pastors had been able to make it to Beirut, Lebanon, to tell us firsthand of the difficulties they were facing, but Assis Ibrahim could not come from Aleppo. I listened to his voice as he told us what had happened, and what was happening. I closed my eyes and remembered the worship we had participated in back in that hot glorious August in a building that was now rubble.

And I could see the face of that young, energetic, man of God, holding onto faith and hope and love.

IMG_0936This past November, for only the second time in four years I got to spend some precious time with him as he came to Beirut to meet with our group. He may not have remembered me, but oh! how I remembered him. His face unchanged. His voice strong as ever. His vision for the future was God-sent. Who else could see a Presbyterian boys’ high school reimagined as the National Evangelical University of Aleppo, even while a war still raged?

Assis Ibrahim.

And I wanted to tell you about him so you could pray for him.

Before I could come up with my own words, I received this extraordinary email from him telling the story of the church in Aleppo. And I think in the reading you will know what I have come to know about him:

This morning I woke up early at 4:30 to the sound of a mortar exploding. I said to myself, “A new day is started.” This is something normal in Aleppo.

I went to the kitchen, hoping to get some tea or Nescafe, but I had an urgent call from one of our members who was injured by the shelling. He needed someone to take him to the hospital. I got my shoes and got to the car quickly.

Thanks to God, they dealt with his wounds very quickly, and he was in church for our service.

Today, I preached that we should use what God has given us. No one can say, “I don’t have,” because if God has given us even a tiny thing, we can do a lot with this tiny thing in this situation in this community.

The church where we worshipped before the war was bombed, so now we meet in an apartment building. It’s up five floors, almost 120 stairs. We have had mortars hit the building, but God saved us and as many as 150 of us continue to worship there.

Being a pastor in this crisis is not as much about preaching as it is being with the people in their difficult time. Even if we cannot give money or fulfill their physical needs, we can at least pray with them, at least try to comfort them.

After the service, I received another call — two older women who had not one ounce of water and had run out of money to purchase water after paying for their rent and medicine. I got my family and went looking for someone in order to get them water, which I am sorry to say costs a lot of money. We need $300 a month for a family of five for drinking and washing water.

After that I received more calls asking me to go quickly to look for a home for two people whose houses were damaged from the mortar attacks that morning. We called a family from church that was out of town. They agreed to lend their house for a week until we can make repairs.

This day I described is like every day. Even what I have said doesn’t describe fully what is going on.

I am thankful to my wife and my family who remain with me in Aleppo during this crisis. Without my wife, I could be failing. She is my supporter.

We have three children, ages 6 to 12. This situation has forced itself over their lives. My children, when they hear a lot of bombing, they come to our room to feel a little bit secure. When we send our children to school, believe me, we say goodbye to each other because we don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity to see each other once again.

Always we teach the children that although it is difficult in this time, our security is in God. We try to teach them that we suffer as Jesus suffered and that the day of resurrection will come someday.

We believe we have a lot left to do in this community. As I walk around the neighborhood, I see the despair on the faces of the people. I see children on the streets begging for money. I can see people walking in the streets without shoes.

In 2013, through the church, we distributed food baskets to 100 families for two months. Last summer we were able to help 118 families with monthly cash allowances, which helps families pay for things like medical treatment, food, tuition. From August to December 2014, 65 of the most vulnerable families got monthly allowances. (MCC supported these efforts through its partner, the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.)

We are not only supporting Christians, we are supporting the whole community to teach them that being a human means having a responsibility to the others. Believe me, we never think in ways that this is Muslim or this is Christian. We think differently. We think we are here for a message and this message should be clear for everybody — that God loves all the people and I insist on the word “all.”

We are called to live in hope. We trust God and we do our job — praying, taking care of each other, reading the Bible and being an instrument of love and peace in this community. This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.

Please don’t forget us in your prayers.

Please don’t forget them in your prayers. And if you can do even more than pray, please consider sending a donation for the work of the church in Syria to The Outreach Foundation, 381 Riverside Drive, Suite 110, Franklin, TN 37064.

“This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.”

Amen.

Watching the news

Micah 6 8We started the day here in Omaha with news from overnight. There was an attempted robbery at a Wendy’s not far from our home. The police responded and fired at the suspect because he had a gun and he shot first. (I am not finding any fault here with the police. I believe they were firing in self-defense.) The suspect was killed. His name was Cortez Washington.

Another man was also killed. The sound man from the television “Cops,” which has been riding along with our police department, was the victim of a police bullet as well. It was totally accidental and everyone is devastated by this, including the police officers who had come to think of him as their friend as they spent the summer together. His name was Bryce Dion.

Both deaths break my heart today, as I am sure they break the heart of God. There are so many deaths due to gunshots in our community and in our country. It just doesn’t happen like this in other places. So many lives lost, so many families with empty places at their tables and empty spaces in their hearts.

The other thing that makes me so sad is that we even have shows like “Cops.” Why is the reality of every day law enforcement considered entertainment? These are not documentaries. Our police chief said he agreed to this because he wanted the citizens of Omaha to have access to how our department does their job in a professional manner. Transparency. This is how it happens in real time. We have nothing to hide. And that is all well and good; it is good public relations to let citizens see how hard our police officers work and the dangers they face. They should be protected and respected as they protect and serve.

But Bryce was just doing his job too, and that’s the part I don’t understand, because in the end this was a commercial show being recorded for entertainment purposes. It would be edited, broadcast with commercial breaks (probably for some drug we should ask our doctor about or beer or some new movie), and then we would turn off the television and forget about it until next week’s exciting episode.

I think that is how we watch the news these days too. The horrors of war and earthquakes and Ebola epidemics capture our attention for the briefest of moments and then we move on. Or we get a twisted picture of all people of a place (like Syria or Iraq) based on the very small part of a much larger story that we get fed to us. It scares us. We overreact. We want to build our own arsenals because ISIS IS COMING! Right?

The other communication I had first thing this morning was an email from my sister. I love my sister and she loves me too. That was the point of her email. She is worried and scared for me and Steve to return to Lebanon and Syria this November.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about writing these thoughts down and sending them your direction. I love you, you’re my sister, but I fear more and more for your safety in your travels abroad. I respect your passion in your beliefs and am proud of you and the things you do. But the part of the world to which you are going in November is increasingly SO dangerous, I felt the need to express my overwhelming fear for your safety and that of Steve and everyone with which you travel.  You are an intelligent and compassionate person, and I need to know that you realize the danger in which you place yourself. I need to know that precautions are taken for your safety, and that you have considered the possible consequences.  They take Americans hostage, they detest Christians and kill them. I know I can’t stop you and Steve from going, but please know that we are all afraid while you are gone. I don’t know what to do if something happens. I pray that nothing happens, but the people committing crimes against humanity aren’t going to pay attention to prayers.

I need you to know that I’m afraid, and I love you.

They take Americans hostage. Yes, they have, but many more hostages are people who look and speak just like them. I am still praying for the release of two Syrian archbishops, His Grace Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and His Grace Boulos Yazigi of the Green Orthodox Church. They were kidnapped April 24, 2013, near Aleppo and have not been heard from since.

They detest Christians and kill them. Yes, some do, but they really hate anyone who doesn’t follow their twisted ideology including their own Sunni brethren. More Muslims have been killed in these wars than any other group of people. And the vast majority of Muslims love their Christian neighbors. They have lived side by side for centuries in peace.

But this is what we understand from the news. We watch it. We get disturbed by it. We turn it off. Hey! Football starts Saturday!

I am so grateful for a police department that protects and serves. I pray for them in the situations they find themselves in, standing between me and my family and those who would hurt us.

I am grateful for news reporters who work hard to get the whole story and present it fairly. I mourn when their lives are taken in the pursuit of bringing that story to me.

I love my sister and am so grateful that all my family worries for what Steve and I are doing. I am also thankful that at some level they understand the call, the passion, the will and desire to go.

I am grateful for my brothers and sisters in the Middle East who are steadfast in their faith, with hearts of great courage. As Marilyn says, their courage makes us brave.

Today from Sojourners came the Verse and Voice blog via email later in the day after the news story and the email from my sister, and as usual, it was what seemed to draw these words of mine together for this day:

Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in [God’s] ways. You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you. – Psalm 128:1-2

“Every day there are people in our world that do absolutely amazing things. People of all ages are very capable of doing tremendous, courageous things in spite of their fear.” -Mairead Corrigan

Steadfast God, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is why you continue to entrust the work of your kingdom into our clumsy hands. But we are forever grateful that you do not want to change the world without us. May we become the church you dream of. Amen. – From Common Prayer

I want to walk in God’s ways every day and I look forward to walking with his people in Lebanon and Syria in November. Oh! The fruit of that labor is indescribable!

I don’t think of what we do by traveling this way is an amazing thing, but if Susan thinks so, awesome! Our friends there make us brave.

My hands are clumsy, but God has formed them and calls me to use them for his purposes. I want to be a part of his kingdom come…which is a world changer.

Amen.

Abraham: Father of Many

It is the end of  day and time for sleep. My nightly ritual as I lay in bed is to say my prayers. As I expressed before in an earlier blog, most of my prayers are of gratitude. And those follow my prayers for peace. In between, I pray intercessory prayers for specific individuals. For the past fifteen months, since April 22, 2013, I have prayed for a father named Abraham.

With Bishop of Syrian Orthodox ChurchIn this case, the father is actually a priest, and more properly, an archbishop. He is in the center of this photo from my trip to Aleppo, Syria, in August, 2010. His name is Yohanna Ibrahim (Ibrahim being the Arabic form of Abraham) and he is the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo, Syria. As I look back on this photo, he is surrounded by a group of women who made this journey together – faithful women, we were called for this trip – to travel to Lebanon and Syria and learn of our brothers and sisters in Christ in a land so far from home. (How is it possible that a woman who grew up in the middle of the U.S., in Omaha, Nebraska, could travel so far from home and meet such an eminent representative of a faith that can trace its origins back to the original apostles? On this side of heaven, I will never know!)

He is an important figure in that ancient church, a church that has schools and hospitals, and has a liturgy in a language that is similar to what Jesus spoke while he was here on earth. And after the war broke out in 2011, he was a voice for peace and reconciliation. His voice was silenced along with his Greek Orthodox colleague, Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, when they were kidnapped on that day in 2013, April 22. The story is they were negotiating the release of other hostages when they were taken themselves. There has been no evidence to this day that they are alive or dead. No remains found. No ransom demanded. Just silence. And so I pray nightly between my prayers for peace and my prayers of gratitude for their safe release. They are fathers of many and they are loved and missed. Their voices for peace and reconciliation are missed. Their example and their witness are missed.

Assis Ibrahim and Abuna IbrahimWe were introduced to Msgr. Ibrahim that day by one of his clerical colleagues in Aleppo, another Ibrahim: Assis (Rev.) Ibrahim Nsier, the Presbyterian pastor of the church in Aleppo. Before meeting the archbishop, Assis Ibrahim introduced us to yet another colleague this one named Efrem, a Syriac Orthodox priest (Abuna Efrem) who served with the archbishop in Aleppo. One of my most endearing and enduring memories of that day is this photo of  Assis Ibrahim and Abuna Efrem. They were having a conversation in Arabic together, smiling and laughing as they talked. I asked them what was so funny and they told me they were talking about the differences between different branches of our faiths. “It’s a language issue,” they said. “We split over things we don’t have the words to explain. How do you find the words to explain the mystery of the divine and human natures of Christ in one being?” To this day, it strikes me that I went halfway around the world to see a pastor of our reformed faith having this amazing conversation with a priest of the ancient faith that began in the Middle East. This faith had traveled from one side of the world to the other, reforming and refining as it went, and it still exists in all these expresssions so many decades and centuries later…and we can talk together about it even if we understand it differently. There was peace; there was reconciliation; there was collegiality and conversation. It was the most marvelous picture of the church I have ever experienced.

Abram was called out of his homeland by God and told his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. God changed his name to Abraham, father of many. And tonight I am thinking of his decendants that I met in Aleppo and praying that those who call them Archbishop, Pastor, Father, will be able to do so again in peace, continuing the reconciling mission of Jesus.

Amen.