Filling our buckets
(Note: the blog tonight is longer than usual. Take your time. Come back to it and read each chapter. You will be glad you did.)
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. (Matthew 4:28)
Our Bible study this morning was led by our own Marilyn Borst. The topic was change on the journey and the text was the woman at the well. Marilyn’s gift to every woman was a small tin bucket, representing the vessel the Samaritan woman used to draw her water. What Marilyn emphasized was this simple verse above. Upon this encounter with Jesus, the living water, she abandoned this bucket to run back into town to tell the good news. This bucket was no longer necessary, because the real bucket, the vessel, the container for this living water is our hearts. And the grace of Jesus pouring into our hearts is what changes us on our journeys.
Her question for us to ponder was: Who are those people who have filled your bucket on your journey? And so tonight our team is sharing their voices individually so that you can know the people who have filled our buckets this week.
Houda is a school teacher. My job is “critical” she tells me. By that she means tenuous, important, risky? I translate that to mean “called by God.” She tells me that her pastor encouraged her to accept many Muslim Kurdish students whose families immigrated from across the border from Iraq. So she opens her door and her heart to these children. The school has chapel each day and all of the children – Muslim and Christian – attend. They read the “injil,” the gospel, and pray. Houda seizes the opportunity to visit the relatives of these children who are hospitalized due to the violence of war. When she visits, she takes her injil; she reads; she prays.
Samira greeted me as she walked in. “No good English, you speak French?” She had been taught by French nuns as a child so she hoped this American could understand. Though we had no common words, I understood. Her hospitality was universal. She opened herself to me and welcomed me in. She found her daughter, whose English was remarkable. “You must come to my home. I live on the road ‘Straight’ near the church. You come. I will make coffee.” At meals she often called me over to them. One evening she offered to write a lexicon of Arabic words in Roman and Arabic letters. Each day she added to the list.
Jesus’ arms of welcome have embraced me every day at Dhour Chouier and his smile has greeted me with joy and delight through Samira.
Elham: Christ’s hands and heart
Elham is the epitome of a servant: quietly anticipating needs, answering questions, taking time to be hospitable. A retired teacher, she works with Najla Kassab in the summers at Dhour Chouier center. She is also the editor for the synod’s devotional publication, “All in the Family,” a compilation of meditations written by and for the people of NESSL. Her servant heart overflows with the joy of Christ. What a blessing!
Tammy Ibrahim is a young woman, wife of the Aleppo church pastor, mother of three children (Elenor – 14, Matthew Chris – 12 and Lutha – 7, who is named after Martin Luther). All three kids were with her because it would not be safe to leave them in Aleppo. She is a teacher in a public school and most of her students are Muslim. “An opportunity, yes?” she asked me with a twinkle in her eye.
That strong and feisty spirit emerged in a number of conversations I had with her. Christian churches have been targeted by extremists; their building was damaged by a rocket attack and then completely destroyed by bombing. Their home has been marked with graffiti warnings, and a car bomb was planted near their home. When she mentioned much of her extended family lives in Germany, I asked if she were tempted to join them. “Oh, no,” she said adamantly. “We have a mission. God has called us to Aleppo.”
It is that courage, sense of purpose and abounding joy that expressed Christ’s love to me. Tammi is a joyful person, confident in hope and open to new learning. She is an affectionate mother and loyal friend. She views herself as a partner with her husband in his ministry.
Until a new building can be erected, the church is meeting in a member’s apartment. The struggles of persecution have actually galvanized people who were not active before – as many as 100 people have gathered in the apartment to worship, pray, sing and fellowship together.
“Though we’ve lost some of the simple necessities of life, we have inner peace. We pray always for peace in our community, our nation, world.”
With her words and actions, Tammy demonstrated the love of Christ that enables her to be patient in tribulation, persevere in prayer, and rejoice in hope. I will be forever inspired by her witness.
Lydia is from Kharaba in the southern part of Syria. She is now in Damascus because her village is in the hands of extremists and the churches are closed. Sometime before leaving, Lydia’s son-in-law was kidnapped. Her husband and the orthodox priest took the ransom, went to negotiate with the kidnappers. The kidnappers took the ransom money, did not release the victim, kidnapped the other two and demanded more ransom. Lydia’s husband apologized to the priest for getting them kidnapped. “It is my call to be with you. It is what I have to do.” After saying this, the kidnappers killed the priest. Eventually Lydia’s husband and son-in-law were released after paying the money demanded. But the priest’s sacrifice is clearly recognized by her. She says quietly, “His name was Fadi.” Fadi is the word for “redeemer.”
One of the first conversations I had at the conference was with Samiya Eliya from Malkieh in the northeast corner of Syria. She had shared at the session that her six children left Syria to live in a safer place. She felt all alone and depressed because her husband was really struggling with how their lives had changed. She looked very sad and depressed. The next evening our team handed out gift bags. All of the women were so excited and happy including Samiya. She grabbed me and we danced down the aisle! After that we saw each other many times. She spoke no English but made it clear she wanted me to come visit her in Malkieh. Over the week she seemed to cheer up and connect with other people. We exchanged many hugs and smiles. I definitely will be keeping in touch.
I have been on a prayer journey of folding paper cranes for peace. I am working toward 1,000 in a flock which currently holds about 400. I came to the conference hoping to collect one origami square for each woman here, but I never expected that they would want to learn to fold them. It was in amazing moments on the porch of our residence here at Dhour Chouier that I had the encounters with two women from Hasakeh who filled my bucket, Maahsen and Nadia. In our quiet moments on the porch, in humidity and heat, the wind blowing our brightly colored papers around, I taught Maahsen how to fold, and Nadia observed, not wanting to try. We sat and folded and gently coaxed out a story of life in Hasakeh.
This city is in the northeast of Syria, near Malkieh. It stays “safe,” for lack of a better word because the Syrian army has it surrounded to protect it from extremists. This church has a wonderful young pastor who has filled the buckets of many Iraqi refugees from its east and also Syrian refugees from the west. These two women have stayed, because their families are still there. They are sisters-in-law, and Nadia told how when the church was built there she had gone door to door to collect funds for its construction. Her brother is an elder, and he was part of the group who dreamed that a church could be built. They are so proud that it is still there and has a worshiping community with a pastor.
I am happy to say that they have not had anyone in their family killed, but family members have left for Sweden. And here they sit with me, folding these cranes and praying with me for salam, for peace. And today they returned and Maahsen, now a seasoned crane folder, helped others. And Nadia, feeling more relaxed and at home with this handwork, made a crane as well. Bucket. Filled. Overflowing.
This blog is long tonight, and the hope is that you will read it as chapters in this story. Look at the faces in those pictures and recognize your family in there. They love Jesus. Their buckets overflow with their love for him. Their faith is deep and enduring. Their perseverance teaches us that they know he is with them. They have been changed by this difficult journey. And this week, they have changed us.
Thanks be to God.