It’s extraordinary how much one can experience in 9 days, 11 if you count the travel. The change began at Doha, when we realised that we were the only Western people in the departure lounge for the flight to Beirut. There were not many people on the plane at all. As we flew over the Sinai Peninsula, looking down at that arid, rocky land, I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for the Hebrew people to wander around there for 40 years. So began the connection to the Biblical story, although, since we couldn’t overfly Israel, the route took us along the coast of Egypt, then northwards across the Mediterranean, finally turning eastwards to Beirut. We flew in over the city, taking in the densely packed low-rise and high-rise apartment blocks crowding all the way from the shore up the hillsides all around, with snow covered mountains further back.
We were met by our friend Gaby Kabrossi, the Uniting Church minister at Bankstown, who had arrived two days before. He grew up in Lebanon. Our initiation began right away. Gaby said he was going to take us through one of the supposedly no-go areas, a Hezbollah, Shiite suburb. It was clearly a poor area. Then we began to experience the traffic which is quite amazing. Everyone has a car. The roads are packed. While there are some new highways, off them the roads are narrow and cars are parked every inch along the sides. Lane markings are ignored. If there is room on a three lane highway for 4 or 5 lines of cars, that is what happens. Cars always weave in and out. You just have to get your nose in front and off you go. You hardly need to stop at side streets – you just set out into the stream. Horns are tooting all the time. The pace is rapid. The stress levels high. Red lights mean little. Crossing a road is a brave venture. We managed. Thankfully we didn’t have to drive ourselves. We did walk a lot and that seems quite an unusual thing to do. We were staying at the Near East School of Theology, known by its initials, NEST. It was in an area called Hamra, and was a very good place to stay. There are students there from all over the world, some studying theology, as well as others who just stay there while studying or working, along with ministers doing post-graduate study. We sat in on a group of Armenian ministers whose class was about an Asian Feminist perspective on a particular biblical passage. They had been talking to someone in Hong Kong on Skype.
That is part of the background. All week while I was there I pondered the Beatitudes we just heard read from Matthew’s gospel, and thought about what they meant for me in this place where the connections with Jesus go back to the time of his life and ministry, to Peter and to Paul and the very beginnings of the Christian faith. We think of Israel as being the Holy Land, but Lebanon has its share of the story. If you look at Mark 7: 24 you will see that Jesus was in Tyre and Sidon to the south of Beirut. It is so easy for us Westerners to somehow feel we are the mainstream of the Christian faith, and colonialism has played its part in our often unconsciously superior attitudes. But here, people’s faith has a line of connection that goes right back to the beginning. Throughout the centuries, Lebanon, because of its location, has been the scene of conflict and invasion. It remains a place of tension. Much of this goes back to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the consequent displacement of so many Palestinians. Many of them became refugees in Lebanon. Many were Muslim and still remain in camps, trapped. You may remember the names Sabra and Chatila, camps where there were massacres carried out by Israel many years ago now. Tension with Israel is ever present. There has been a brutal civil war between Christian and Muslim and Lebanon has been invaded by Syria in recent times. With the current situation in Syria, life is difficult also. There are Syrian refugees everywhere. There are people begging on the streets everywhere. It is inescapable. The balance of power between Christians, which means, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Maronite and Protestant, and Muslims, is tenuous. The Christians know they are threatened, not by everyday contacts with Muslim neighbours where relationships are good, but by the spread of Islam that is enabled by Saudi Arabia, especially, building mosques everywhere. So churches are being built too. It is a statement of “This is who we are. We belong here.” When we arrived there were still Christmas decorations very much in evidence, because the Orthodox and Maronite churches, which are a big part of the scene, celebrate Christmas on 6 January. They were another part of that statement of identity. All the time one is moving between Muslim and Christian areas. One day we drove north, taking in ancient churches on hilltops along the way, and by ancient I mean 1,800 years old. Then we ventured into Tripoli which is another place that one is not advised to go to. It was Friday midday and the time for prayers at the mosque. Here IS was in evidence and we turned around and left.
But, back to the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Let’s note that while we have only one word for blessing and blessed, in the Greek there are two. There is blessing as when we pray for God’s blessing, often in terms of a special need. There is another word for blessing, in the Greek “mykarios”, which means that people already have a quality of spirit that is a blessing. They are blessed. Mykarios is the word used in the Beatitudes. “Poor in spirit” can be confusing. But Jesus is echoing Isaiah 66:2: “But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is poor and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is already theirs because of their attitude.
I spent a morning with five remarkable women. They meet every month to support each other in the demands of their lives. They were also planning a conference in May to affirm and inform women in their life of faith. Women do not have an easy time in their patriarchal society. One of these women has set up a school programme for refugee children at her church, mostly from Chatila refugee camp. They used to collect them in a bus but that was not very safe, so they have been building the confidence of the mothers to get taxis with the children and the taxi is paid for when they arrive. They not only have lessons, but also music and dancing and singing, and the mothers begin to join in too. Another of the women is a single woman who came from a village in the south near the Israeli border. She had emigrated to Canada and had a new life there. She had wider family in the USA. A nephew, a young, innocent man “of Middle Eastern appearance” was shot a killed a few weeks ago in Oklahoma. This woman had felt God calling her to return to her village some time ago, so had given up her security and now has a ministry of caring in her very unstable village. Another of the women had recently become the president of the Church’s Women’s Council of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Here they were, remarkable people, who did not feel themselves anything special, all working on the underside of things, all very aware of God’s blessing in their lives.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. Gaby drove us southwards to Sidon one day. It had been his home town. As we got near, he stopped outside an abandoned house that had belonged to his aunt. She had been forced to flee under rocket attacks and had made her way to the USA. She never wanted to come back. Beirut itself has so many once-beautiful abandoned houses. In some places the families come back every year and do a bit more of restoration, but far more end up being bull-dozed. We happened on an exhibition in Beirut by an artist, who we met, who had been drawn to one of the beautiful old houses. It seemed that someone was going to do work on it. He went in and met the new owner. He also found boxes of the original owner’s possessions, abandoned in haste in a corner. In it was a diary of the elderly man who had lived their having survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey and eventually rebuilt a life. The artist painted a series of very moving pictures based on what he found. He also made contact with the remaining family in New York and took the exhibition there. They had lost touch with their past. He showed us short films he had made of all this story as it developed. It ended up joyfully.
Meanwhile Gaby also commented as he drove us along through Sidon: “This is where my uncle was shot dead.” “This is where my cousin was killed”. Along with that were stories of how he survived a mortar attack on his house and being strafed by machine gun bullets fired from a swooping Israeli plane as he held his sisters’ hands, running through and olive grove on their way back from school. After we had wandered through the souk, the old bazaar, and visited the ancient church where tradition says Peter met with Paul, we drove high up into the hills where Gaby’s family had fled to their small summer house, thinking it was just for one night. They never returned. We had lunch with his father, his sisters who had come from Beirut, and a brother who had arrived from France. He and his sisters had been evacuated there during the war and Jacques had never returned to live in Lebanon. This was the first meal the sisters had made for guests since their mother died 4 months ago. They used some food she had prepared that was in the freezer. It was a time of blessing. It is said that it is people who know grief who understand joy.
“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth”. Clive and I spent some time with students at the Baptist Theological College. Gaby translated for us as we talked with a woman from Algeria, a man from North Sudan and a man from Egypt. Life for them as Christians at home was not easy. Yet they wanted to hear about us and our stories. We talked about climate change, which concerned them all. It is a big and complex issue in Lebanon which is enveloped in a pall of smog from all the cars. They were very interested in the concept of pastoral supervision of ministers that I explained to them. We ended up talking about shame and what it meant in their cultures. They were so grateful to us for being there. Yet these are the kinds of people who will shape the future of their churches and their communities, and it is in good hands. They were people of deep faith.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” On our last evening we were taken out for a meal by the faculty at NEST. I sat next to a young woman who teaches Christian Education. She and another woman on the faculty are devising a second programme for men and women from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, including Armenians. These are people who are maintaining churches that have no minister. They have no theological training or other support. There has to be fundraising to bring them to NEST. They come, under such difficulty, and find so much. It reminded me also of Gaby telling us how the Bible Society has now made individual audios of the gospels that run on solar power. They cost $100 US each but they have managed to distribute I think 400 to Iraq.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. I had a very special time with a remarkable woman who has campaigned for the ordination of women all her life. She was President of NEST for 17 years, which is extraordinary in itself. This year, in March, the first two women will be ordained. One, presently, has care of a congregation in Tripoli. The other, whom I also met a while later, has a major role among women in the church. But this remarkable woman will not now be ordained. She has retired. She has prepared the way for others. Now she is in charge of setting up programmes for refugee children who otherwise just roam the streets and become victims of organised gangs. They are rescued in buses are shown another way to be safe and given schooling and safety.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. One late afternoon we went into a Christian bookshop near NEST, originally started by Gaby who worked for the Bible Society in Lebanon and Syria for 20 years. It is now run by in individual group from a church. It looks very inviting from outside, which low lighting on the spacious shelves at the sides. We were welcomed by a young man offering us sweets from a basket. Towards the back of the shop, on a slightly lower level, were couches and a cafe. There was an elderly man sitting there. It turned out that he was from Iraq, a Muslim. His wife was being treated for cancer at a nearby hospital. He had been drawn to the shop and there met welcome and friendship. After he left, we were greeted by the woman in charge, a volunteer as all the staff are. She knew Gaby and insisted we sat down while the young man made coffee. After a while the door opened and a schoolboy came in. Immediately, the young many got up and gave him a big and took him to a table in another area. This boy had arrived from Iraq, from an area near Mosul, only a few weeks ago. He had fled with his mother, brother and sister, having witnessed appalling things. They came here because the father had got out some time before. The father had a job looking after a parking lot at a nearby apartment block. We had seen him sitting there, all day and all evening. They lived in one room. The father refused to let the 15 year old daughter go out at all. She is beautiful and he was afraid. The woman in the shop visited her and her mother. The young man in the shop was teaching the boy English and helping him with school work. He was beginning to feel safe and knew he was cared for. This young man had become a Christin 2 years ago, in November, he told us. He had been a Shiite Muslim. The woman wanted us to talk about our faith journey and recorded us speaking. It was a really blessed time of sharing.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We met many peacemakers. Indeed they are everywhere. Not least Gaby himself. We met many people who know about persecution and certainly the threat of it. Gaby had organised our trip and also that of our President, Stuart MacMillan, along with 3 others from the Uniting Church, who arrived 5 days later, with whom we overlapped - though they were doing very high-powered things. This was all important, Gaby says, because the churches in Lebanon feel very isolated. No-one wants conflict. They have had enough. But the support for people as they hold onto their faith is very important.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” I have shared with you several stories. There are so many more that could be told. Clive and I came away from Lebanon feeling that we had received great blessing from so many different experiences and from people whose lives are lived in such a different context from ours. We do not know what it is like to be persecuted. They do. But what I came away feeling more strongly than anything perhaps, is that to follow Christ is to always keep our eyes, our minds and our hearts focussed on him. And that will always have cost, but, much more, blessing. To understand the love of God that he shows us is a lifelong journey that we share with people everywhere. We need to know we are on that journey of faith with them because we need to learn from each other, across all the boundaries that, in the end, are not boundaries at all. That is the blessing of the kingdom of heaven.