A Letter from Elmarie and Scott Parker, serving in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon
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Hope. When people ask me what I’ve been thinking about lately, I tell them: “Hope.”
But not hope in the abstract. We returned to Lebanon in late October 2017, just days before a time of immense crisis for Lebanon — Lebanon’s Prime Minister was soon to be detained in Saudi Arabia, and nobody knew what the outcome would be. At the same time, tensions between other countries in the region were rising, the dynamics in Syria were changing from a proxy war to potential and actual direct conflict between international and regional governments in a geographic space the size of the state of Washington, and decisions by the US President to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem added yet more tensions to already complicated realities on the ground in the Middle East.
What does it mean to have hope and to live the hope of our Lord’s gospel in the midst of these types of geo-political pressures with all-too-real implications for the everyday people of the Middle East — including fellow sisters and brothers in Christ?
The watchful, dark days of Advent-waiting slipped into the passion journey of Lent, and still this question lingered in my prayers and spirit.
As Holy Week approached, Scott and I had the privilege of traveling to Iraq to spend those precious days between Palm Sunday and Easter, as well as the week between Western and Eastern Easter, with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Iraq.
Something happened as we spent those two weeks in community with the churches in Iraq. We shared meals and fellowship together, prayed our mutual concerns and gratitude together, laughed and wept together, gathered around the Word in worship together, and grappled with the difficult questions posed by the geo-political realities surrounding us together. I felt my soul breathe more deeply … no longer alone with its questions, no longer alone in its waiting.
But something else happened in the midst of these gatherings. Stories — told and received, stories of recognizing Jesus at work in the midst of unanswered questions and continuing challenges. Stories that helped me see hope — not hope as an abstract idea, but hope made visible through the choices and actions of living, breathing people.
A man from another religious background shared with us his encounter with Christ’s call through the Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemies. Tired of war and the rhetoric of hate, the thought of following someone who teaches those who have ears to hear to love enemies rather than kill and destroy them has been like a drink of cool, fresh water on a hot day to this man. He is one of hundreds who are coming to churches across Iraq wanting to learn more about following this Jesus who calls people to love of the enemy rather than hatred and fear of the enemy. Hope made visible.
In another conversation, a woman shared with us their visit with incarcerated wives of ISIS fighters. These women were shocked and overwhelmed that Christian women would choose to come and visit them, serving them by bringing the hygiene and food items otherwise denied to them, taking time to sit and listen to them and pray with them. “How could this be that Christians forced out of their homes by some of these women’s husbands are now visiting with us and treating us with kindness?” This is the question they asked their visitors.
How did these Christian women respond? “The love of God for us and for you compels us to come — we cannot but come to you.” Hope made visible.
“The events of our lives impact us and influence how we develop in our character and in our actions. But there is one event in history that has influenced not only us as individuals, but all of human history — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” These opening words, shared by Elder Samir of the Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk on Easter morning, have stayed with me as I’ve continued to ponder our time in Iraq. Surely the events of the past 15 years in Iraq have impacted and influenced our sisters and brothers — but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have left the deeper mark in their spirits and living, in their hearts and actions. Because of this deeper marking, they make hope visible to the people around them.
I witnessed the same marking on the spirits, lives, hearts and actions of our Presbyterian sisters and brothers from Syria and Lebanon as they gathered with partners from across Europe and North America in mid-April at the Synod’s conference center nestled in the mountains of Lebanon. Not content with having merely theoretical conversations about the work of reconciliation to which Christ has called his church, the Synod invited partners to think together with them about tangible ways to pursue this work in not only the Middle Eastern context, but also in Europe and North America. Already Syrian Presbyterians are pursuing the work of reconciliation through programs like “Space for Hope” that bring together children and young people from all religious backgrounds to help them get to know each other and learn how to respect and trust each other as they play team sports and create art and music together. Presbyterians in Lebanon are pursuing this work of reconciliation as they develop job-training programs for Syrian women (mostly Muslim women) refugeed in Lebanon so that they can support their families with dignity rather than relying on relief aid. Six Syrian young adults are currently pursuing their ministerial-theological training at the Near East School of Theology — all committed to staying in Syria to serve their local churches in the coming years of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just in a physical way, but even more so, rebuilding the society that has been torn apart around them through the ministry of reconciliation. Hope made visible.
Where are you finding hope made visible in your community? Where are you seeing the marks of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection?
Scott and I remain so very grateful for your partnership with us — through your constant prayers, encouraging emails, supportive visits, generous financial support and loving friendships, you also make hope visible to us. Thank you. Thank you for joining us in this work of making hope visible to our partners and to those whom our partners are serving. Your commitment through joining us in this work helps our partners know that they are not alone. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ continue to abound in you and overflow from you to make hope visible to those around you.
With gratitude for the privilege of sharing in this work and journey with you,
Elmarie (for Scott too)
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