Fruit That Will Last
by Rev. Nancy Fox, National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.
This morning I enjoyed the amazing privilege of leading the women of this Synod conference – Syrians, Lebanese and Americans – in a Bible study of John 15:1-17. This passage is a part of Jesus’ urgent parting words to his disciples as they are gathered around the table for what Jesus knows to be his “last supper” with them. He is preparing them to carry on with his own fruitful ministry when he is no longer walking among them: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (v. 5).
We talked about the pain of pruning, very real in their lives in this time of war in Syria and of the crush of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. We talked about what it means to abide in Jesus, and that we are all refugees in this world until we find our home in him. We talked about how Christ’s life in us bears lovely fruit that is a blessing to others around us, and as I looked at them, I thanked the Lord for the lovely and creative generosity their churches are showing in this time with refugees and displaced people – from food aid to sharing water to giving blood to educating refugee children who have been out of school for over six years to helping restore dignity through productive lives and opportunities to support themselves through business opportunities…and the list could go on and on.
The women were hungry for the Bible time today because the two earlier Bible studies this week focused on the difficult passages in the Bible related to women. The studies were challenging, but important because in the last few months their Synod has ordained its first two women pastors. The session that followed a coffee break was about remaining positive and not falling into negative patterns of thinking; the positive message resonated with all present and added to an upbeat mood. As we came out of the meetings and took our turns in the dining hall, a cool breeze blew in to camp and brought fingers of cloud and fog swirling down through the trees. What a surprising and welcome reprieve!
Claire and I shared lunch with her new best friends from one of the churches in the Christian valley of Syria. Though the violence of the war has not directly reached them there on the coast, the reality of the war still affects every aspect of life: the economy has crumbled; everything is in short supply; prices and inflation have skyrocketed; opportunities and hopes for the future have evaporated; and previously peaceful places have become crowded with those displaced from other parts of Syria. Nearly two-thirds of Syria’s population has now been displaced, and only about half of those have left Syria!
Today, with the Bible study in our minds, we talked with our three friends – who are married to three brothers – about their church. Their families make up more than half of the roughly twenty-five members of their Evangelical congregation. They do not have an official church building, but meet in a house that has been adapted for worship and church activities. Though small in number, they are bearing rich and abundant fruit – a bountiful harvest! Many Sundays, seventy-five gather for worship! They are drawing into their fellowship friends from the traditional churches who seem open to knowing Jesus more deeply. Since the war began and many Muslims have become disillusioned with Islam, some Muslim friends have also been coming to worship, and a number have even received baptism, though they cannot officially or legally convert.
Though their town is in the “Christian valley,” Muslims are the majority. One of the sisters, Nervine, has been discriminated against for employment because she is a Christian. She trained to teach English, but has not been able to find a job until recently, and it is not in her field. She loves to travel and is well aware of the broader world. She teaches her own children English at home, and they are learning Russian in school, partially so they have the option of someday studying in Russia – just to keep their options open. Her husband is a civil engineer whose work used to take him all over the world, but as a Syrian, he now no longer has those opportunities. Claire and I are committed to praying with these sisters for peace and for their futures – and in the meantime, we are giving thanks for the positive attitudes they model and the fruit of lives transformed in their not-so-little house church. This is indeed “fruit that will last” (John 15:16)!
Tonight, the ladies have mostly walked up to town for a free concert by the famous multi-platinum-label Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram. Google her! As I write, I can hear the fun Arabic-sounding music. I know this is a great thrill, especially for the women from Syria who simply do not have such opportunities, but I confess that I miss our final evening of dancing with them here on the patio. The concert started with a bang – or a series of bangs – of fireworks! There have actually been fireworks most of the evenings here, for weddings or graduations, or any excuse. The ladies who are new to this retreat are often afraid at first because the sounds remind them of other kinds of explosions, but they seem to quickly adapt and enjoy the fireworks that they also used to have for celebrations.
Tomorrow morning’s farewells will be poignant, but we will keep these ladies in our hearts and treasure up the memories of deep conversations, often labored through with language difficulties. May our times together and the memories and stories we all take home bear fruit that will last!
Rev. Nancy Fox
National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.