A letter from Nuhad Tomeh in Lebanon
Faithful Women on the Road, to Lebanon and Syria,
for understanding, friendship and partnership
August 17 – September 2, 2010
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong — that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1:8-12)
Writing from Corinth, Greece, across the Adriatic Sea to a group of Christians he had never met in Rome, Italy, the opening words of Paul’s letter sound oddly intimate when addressed to a bunch of strangers: “I thank my God for all of you”; “I mention you always in my prayers”; “I long to see you.” Paul understood the importance of maintaining contact with the global body of Christ, and he made it his business to know their individual situations. Through his letters, and through those of Peter and John as well, the latter half of the New Testament presents us with an important model of one of the tasks of the church — yesterday and today: the mutual support, mutual encouragement and mutual strengthening of the Body of Christ, i.e., His Church.
But for Paul, “thanking,” “praying” and “longing” was not enough: “… by God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you,” he writes. Paul understood the importance of “showing up”: an incarnational witness to the “thanking,” the “praying” and the “longing.”
One of the great joys in my ministry is to facilitate encounters between the church in the States and the church here in the Middle East, knowing how meaningful and encouraging this can be for both parties. In August, I was the lone man accompanying a group of eight “Faithful Women” who came to Syria and Lebanon led by my longtime friend and partner-in-ministry, Marilyn Borst. Marilyn now works for The Outreach Foundation, one of our denomination’s validated mission support groups, but she has been a frequent visitor to this region, having served on the staff of two large PC(USA) churches as well as serving as executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, and each time she brings a group she makes more friends for the Church here.
Some of the richest times spent by this group, being a women’s group, besides visiting with religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, was meeting with key women in leadership positions in the two countries. In Syria they met with Ms. Collette Khoury, a Presbyterian woman writer, member of the Syrian parliament for years and consultant to President Bishar Al Assad for literature. The highlight of the these visits for such groups is when they are able to worship with congregations and build relationships through the fellowship and conversations that surround these times of shared prayer and praise, Word and witness. This particular group spent one Sunday in Minyara, which is home to one of the largest Presbyterian churches in Lebanon, and another Sunday in Aleppo, Syria, which is one of our larger congregations in Syria. The Rev. Ibrahim Nsier, pastor of the Aleppo congregation, had extended an invitation for one of the women to preach, and so I was the interpreter for the Rev. Sue Jacobson from Watkinsville, Georgia, that morning. As she spoke to the Aleppo congregation, Sue acknowledged the challenging ministry they are doing with Iraqi refugees who have been embraced into the fellowship and family of this church:
… the thing that will, for me, forever be a large part of how I will remember your church — my context for understanding God doing a good work in you — is how you have opened your hearts and your arms to Christians who have come from homes, perhaps, forever lost. You have experienced difficulties with lack of funding, materials and resources, but you have faced this with God’s ever-present grace and served as His hands and His heart. … You too have been swept up in the necessary plan of God’s grace.
And my [Iraqi] brothers and sisters who have come from so far to this place, your stories have forever changed those of us who stand in your presence. You came to this place seeking help, yet despite your frustrations and great difficulties you have opened yourself to this congregation and become a part of it — sharing, laughing, crying, loving. Wherever you go in this world, you will forever carry them with you, as I carry my church. They are your context, and you, theirs. God often rearranges our ways of seeing, being and acting ….
These eight women concluded their two-week journey by participating in a women’s conference sponsored by the Synod of Syria and Lebanon. Having met many local women at each church they visited along the way, there was now an extended time, at the peaceful mountaintop retreat center in Dhour Chweir (Lebanon), to enrich those friendships and enter into one another’s lives, sharing stories of faith and even envisioning future opportunities for shared mission and ministry. I am quite confident that all the women involved returned to their homes, in Syria, Lebanon and the United States, “encouraged by one another’s faith. This is what Ms. Najla Kassab of the Presbyterian synod of Syria and Lebanon wrote to the group after their visit:
Dear sisters in Christ,
Two weeks ago you were with us. You have reached home by now, but you remain on the road as you discover the will and love of Christ. Your visit meant a lot to us. It opened our eyes for a new journey that we can experience together. I want to thank you for your contribution, and for sharing the love of Christ with us. You made our conference a special one.
I hope we meet again in this part of the world, and ask that our Lord will grant us this opportunity. You remain in our prayers.
Perhaps God might be nudging you or your church to “show up” here in Syria and Lebanon? Let me know how I can facilitate such an encounter!
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 354