The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

by Julie Burgess

“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of Heaven has come near.’”   Matthew 10:7

Thursday of the women’s conference week is a day away from sitting and listening and a day of journey to some special place for fellowship and laughter and food. Not that those three things aren’t happening daily! We loaded up four busloads of women and one man, our gracious worship leader Elias, for a trip to the Bekaa Valley and the Dairy of the Convent of Tanail, a nature preserve and organic farm. It was so hot, we headed out a bit early so we could have a leisurely walk before the heat of the day really set in.

106 women and Elias entered the beautiful old Catholic church for a wee bit of worship before we walked. Najla led the women in several songs in the old stone church, a structure meant to amplify the blended human voices in glorious sound. They ended with the Arabic “Abana in Heaven,” the Lord’s Prayer. Find it on YouTube, close your eyes and listen, and you will hear that the kingdom of Heaven has come near.

So we filed out of church, Elias counting to make sure we were all present, and headed for the walking trail. The heat had already intensified so small groups of women walked at different paces, some stopping to admire the horses or the chickens or turkeys, as others charged ahead. We tried to walk on the shady side of the path to avoid the sun, but I was drawn to the other side as we approached a beautiful vineyard. Following the rows to the east are the mountains, beyond which lies Syria, where most of these women came from. Here they were in Lebanon, just a few short miles away, families on the other side in cities still in various stages of war or ceasefire, but all living in hard times. Each of these women has a cell phone, but email or Facebook has been their only connection point as they have no cell service here. But as they walked down this path, miraculously they all of sudden could connect. Phones now engaged, the walking path and vineyard forgotten, they were able to speak with those dear families on the other side of the mountain, and the kingdom of Heaven had come near for them in those moments.

Circling around a small lake, we headed in for cold drinks, purchases of pickles and herbs, and loaded back up on the buses for Anjar and lunch in an Armenian restaurant. Served by a veritable army of waiters bringing out the multiple appetizer courses known as mezze, the music began. Where there is the combination of the Arabic beat and one hundred Syrian women, the only possible outcome is…dancing! By the twos and threes they arose from crowded tables, clapping their hands and making their way to the open spaces. Cares of the world, the heat of the day and everything else fell away as the rhythm drew them together into a line of moving feet and graceful hands. Pastors, elders, leaders and lay people were all just one family, and the joy on their faces and in their laughter and their movements was infectious! The wait staff grabbed cameras to record this moment as once again this day the kingdom of Heaven came near.

It is impossible to come to Lebanon and spend time with the body of Christ in God’s church here and not know the truth of that good news that was our devotional this evening led by Caryl. In the cool of the church, in the heat of the day, by the side of the mountain, in the Armenian restaurant, the kingdom of God has come near. This team is deeply grateful for the work of The Outreach Foundation to connect us with the church in these places so that we may proclaim his glory through his people.

Julie Burgess
West Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, NE