In the Boat with Jesus

Rev. Salam Hanna, pastor of the church in Lattakia and head of the Synod Relief Committee, and Mary Mikhael, former president of NEST and communication chair for the Synod Relief Committee.

Rev. Salam Hanna, pastor of the church in Lattakia and head of the Synod Relief Committee, and Mary Mikhael, former president of NEST and communication chair for the Synod Relief Committee.

First of all, it is such a humbling privilege to be here with the church of Syria and Lebanon, learning from them about being the church in the midst of a crisis. Every moment we spend with these faithful brothers and sisters is a gift. There was a cost to come and spend these rich moments with them, but the cost they bear to travel difficult roads and cross formerly open borders is greater. So it is our joy to sit and listen to their stories of faith, even on a day that begins in the sunny morning and ends when that same sun has set for the evening. This will be long this evening, but stay with it until the end.

There was a theme to this day of worship and reports and sharing and questions, whether there are answers or not. It began with Synod General Secretary Joseph Kassab’s meditation on Mark 4:35-41. Crossing the Sea of Galilee in a small boat, Jesus sleeps as his disciples tremble in fear at the storm that has blown up around them. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they ask Jesus. And Jesus wakes up and tells the wind and water to calm. “Peace! Be still!”

That same question is asked over and over in the midst of this crisis in Syria: Where is God in this storm? Does he not care that his people are perishing? As Joseph said today, the question comes out of honest hearts. It is a question that challenges our faith. But of course, we know the answers that come from God’s Word: The Hebrews are freed from bondage in Egypt. Jesus and his family escape Herod’s wrath. The early believers fled from Jerusalem after the resurrection and spread the gospel. John was exiled to Patmos and wrote of a vision of a beautiful homeland for a persecuted people. These are the stories of those who have cried out to God, “Where are you in our troubles?” This is story of flight, of asylum, the story of God. God is in the boat in the midst of the crisis. This is his place; his real presence in the midst of pain, where redemption has its full meaning. And as St. Theresa of Avila reminds us, there is no body of Christ anymore, but our body. Together, we are Christ in the boat, awakened to calm the disciples even if we cannot calm the storm. He cares and that is why we are here.

Rev. Mofid Karajieli, pastor of the church in Homs, and Rev. Adeeb Awad, vice moderator of NESSL and today's meeting moderator.

Rev. Mofid Karajieli, pastor of the church in Homs, and Rev. Adeeb Awad, vice moderator of NESSL and today's meeting moderator.

We heard from Dr. Baasem Al-Shabb, the member of the Lebanese parliament who represents the evangelical community, tell of the broader picture of politics in Lebanon and Syria and beyond. As we know and have learned before, it is a very complicated picture and it would do us all well to read and listen to media voices from outside our own country to get the bigger picture; to learn and understand instead of react. There is too much to share here other than to say that. Politics do impact the church, but this missive is to give you news of the church and its work.

The Outreach Foundation has been and continues to be a major partner in the work the churches of NESSL are doing in this crisis. We heard reports of how the relief work has been carried out these past four years and the amount of families who have been impacted by the hands and feet of Christ that are the NESSL churches. In this storm-tossed boat, families have been fed and clothed, their rent payments have been assisted, school fees paid and medicine provided. Over 200 Syrian refugee children are now in four schools in Lebanon being taught in the Syrian system so that when they return home they will be at their level. At the same time evangelical schools are still operating in Syria. This is so important as all these children are learning how to be ethical and moral people and they will have a reconciling influence as they move into adulthood in Syria. “We are a better church if we are helping those around us,” said Joseph.

We heard stories from pastors and lay people of the work that continues in their churches in Syria beyond their relief efforts. Young people are still attending youth activities to learn about their faith and to retain relationships. They, too, ask the big questions about where is God and what does the future hold. But they have a safe, open environment to ask these questions together even when answers are not easy or even at hand. Women continue to be the engines of the church. The women of Lattakia meet every Monday to pray for peace and for the needs of their community. Pastor Ibrahim Nsier of Aleppo shared his own challenges as he lives in a city that is hard pressed to be called a city anymore, the destruction is so great. Two of his bigger challenges are having an accurate understanding of scripture in this crisis. How do you love your enemy when he displaces you from your home and steals your possessions? How do you hold on to hope for the family whose child has died for lack of medicine? The second is keeping discipline when chaos is around you everywhere. The church is called to keep a high level of standards: to reveal the value of giving, to confront that which is wrong, to reflect the power of the Holy Spirit.

Difficult to listen to, but powerful to reflect on in the late evening. This is the story.

And yet…

…the hopeful word arises as well.

Rev. Jacob Sabbaagh, pastor of the church in Fairouzeh

Rev. Jacob Sabbaagh, pastor of the church in Fairouzeh

Rev. William Marrs of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland is one of the global partners at this event and brought us the perspective of one who has lived through another crisis in the last century. The “troubles” as they were called in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, shaped his early life. But using the scripture in Luke 7 about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at the home of the Pharisee, he offered that it could teach us four things about the church in times of crisis: conversion, clarity, the church at the crossroads and the church’s capacity. When we minister, Christ wants to minister to us as well and that is not easy to hear. We can be like the Pharisee, sure of our being correct, or we can be like the woman, broken and teachable. What is our attitude in the crisis? We should be clear that as we act, we act for an audience of one: God Almighty, and our first duty is to him. We cannot be undecided and one step removed from God. The sinful woman was clear that her focus was on Jesus only. As we stand at the crossroads, will the broken alabaster jars of our lives pour out the sweet perfume of the love of Christ? Do we walk away or step up? Do we run or pick up our cross and follow with courage? These are our choices at the crossroads. And finally, our capacity; to be open, honest and vulnerable about what we have to offer in the clarity that God is God and we are not. It is about our attitude and not the amount or abundance or scarcity that we bring.

And finally this message to us as the church: Go forth in unconditional love, not seeking to convert but to care. God will build his church with this offering. We bless. God builds.

And it brings us back to our place in the boat with Christ in our midst: We are being a witness for our God to this world. For those of us living in the church in comfort, we must learn from the church in crisis to not be defined by the crisis, but by the Christ.

God bless you for reading this to the end. May the words bring you thoughts to ponder in the days and weeks ahead. And above all else, may your think of your brothers and sisters in Syria and Lebanon and pray for them.

Julie Burgess
West Hills (Presbyterian) Church, Omaha, Nebraska