Lebanon/Syria Day 3: Little Is Much When God Is in It
Jack Haberer, for the team
“Little is much when God is in it.” So said Pastor Lisa Culpepper in her sermon this morning. Her exposition showed that truth in a miracle story from the life of Elishah. But for the worshipers gathered at the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Tripoli, Lebanon, the evidence was all around.
The congregation, the only Presbyterian church in this city of about one million, brought energy and enthusiasm to the worship. And we, the guests in attendance, thrilled to see it.
Pastor Lisa, one of the eight Presbyterians traveling on a goodwill mission partnership tour of Lebanon and Syria, is pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Florence, South Carolina. She and six others in the group have toured this part of the world from once to seventeen times over the past decade. (As the lone rookie in the group, in just three days I already can see why they have fallen in love with the people here.)
In the sermon, based upon the miracle of the flowing cooking oil, Rev. Lisa compared the needs of the church to the staples required in any homemaker’s kitchen. She spoke of the experience of depletion and inadequate supplies to feed a family – such that small churches experience. But she also showed from the text how God can turn little into much, in places like Florence, South Carolina, where her church has just twenty-two members, and in places like Tripoli, where the day’s attendance was about fifty, including us pilgrims.
Without any melodrama, she acknowledged the kinds of depletion the congregation has endured in recent decades: the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 (bullet holes still riddle buildings around the church); another uprising three years ago when warring factions were taking shots at one another; the influx of refugees from Iraq and, later, from Syria.
The congregation’s “little” has become “much” as they have overflowed with generosity. Their few resources have multiplied like the loaves and fishes, as they have welcomed immigrants of all races, nationalities and religions. They have participated with the synod in establishing six elementary schools for Syrian refugee children. They have helped the dispossessed find housing and work. They have shared the love of Christ candidly without insult or strings attached.
And, while they have mourned and grieved losses and deprivation along the way, they have seen God’s hand at work, empowering them with courage and bringing the joy of lives made well.
In the fellowship time following worship the eight American visitors heard stories of their fellow worshipers. Among them:
- A couple from Homs, Syria, whose home and community were destroyed in the ISIS attacks, made their way here, were welcomed by the church, and their two sons have found work. She has been hired to work in one of the refugee schools, but her husband remains unemployed. They have the papers needed to work, but they are hoping for the chance to move anywhere in Europe, North America or Australia. Sponsorship is needed.
- A vendor who sells underwear from a wooden cart on the sidewalk outside the church, whom the church has welcomed and even invited to store his cares and goods overnight. Not a Christian, he nevertheless sees himself as a protector of the church and spreads a good report about their graciousness toward him.
- Pastor Rola Sleiman, who grew up in the church and proceeded to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology and psychology at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut (which our group visited on our first day here). She served for four years as church educator for a group of churches, and then came back home to serve for seven years, before – upon unanimous request of the members of Tripoli church – she became the first woman to be ordained in the denomination on February 24, 2017.
- Paul, a young father, who served in the worship service as the organist, pianist, trumpeter, drummer, photographer, chair mover, elder-serving-communion, and just about everything else. “You do everything here,” we said. “I multi-task” he said with a broad grin. He had shown his smile earlier when Rola’s nephew Jack (perhaps 11 years old) played piano with him pounding the drums for the singing of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” He smiled again after the service when another Jack insisted on getting photographed with the piano playing young man, Jack, along with the two American ‘jacks,’ Jack Baca and yours truly.
The evidence was aplenty: “Little is much when God is in it.”
A very special personal joy for me was getting to worship in the home church of Afaf Khoury a beloved leader and friend of mine in FPC Allentown, and getting to visit with her cousin Najla Khoury on her own turf. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Jack Haberer
First Presbyterian Church, Allentown, PA