Creating Safe Spaces in Lebanon

I’m still dreaming about Lebanon.

But they are uncomfortable dreams … nightmares, almost.

My team and I learned a lot about what a real refugee crisis looks like when we visited Lebanon back in late February. Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, now finds itself accommodating over 1.5 million Syrians. As you can imagine, this causes a severe strain on societal infrastructure.

For the most part, the Lebanese have responded with courage and good will, extending basic needs to Syrian refugees: shelter, food, healthcare, and basic education.

But we also discovered that there are a number of pressing needs which are going unmet. The trauma caused by the war in Syria has affected an entire generation of children, many of whom have lost a sense of hope for the future. 

According to Dr Mohammad K Hamza, a neuropsychologist with the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), Syria's children of war have experienced more than just post-traumatic stress. He has coined a new term for the amount of emotional trauma that he is seeing in children — “human devastation syndrome.”

A study released by Save the Children last month, based on over 450 interviews with adults and children in Syria, showed that “toxic stress is wreaking havoc on children.” Half of the children interviewed said they never or rarely feel safe at school, and 40% said they don’t feel safe outside t heir own homes. Another 78% of children “feel grief or extreme sadness some or all of the time.”

In our brief visit, we encountered some of these children. One of them has become an emblem of the Syrian conflict to me. I met Pheros in his family’s tent in Marj, near the Syrian border. He was a hollow-eyed 19 year old, with no hint of hope. He didn’t go to school, didn’t work, didn’t have any spark of interest in anything. All he wanted to do, we finally got him to admit, was to return to Syria and fight alongside the rebels.

It may be too late to reach Pheros. He may eventually slip back across the border and join a rebel group. Maybe he’ll join an Islamist group. Or become a suicide bomber. 

Those of us who met Pheros have been dreaming about him ever since. We have been praying about what to do to prevent an entire generation of kids like Pheros from growing up without hope. 

As a result of this interaction, our team is working to put together an NGO called Safe Spaces, which will focus on the psychosocial health of women and children refugees in Lebanon. We plan to partner with some NGOs already on the ground in Lebanon, but provide training for their workers to identify trauma in women and children and equip them with some coping skills and strategies.

We plan to begin in the city of Saida/Sidon, which is south of Beirut on the coast. We want to partner with Al Reaaya, a Lebanese-based NGO that provides relief and developmental support to orphans and widows affected by the war. The first Safe Spaces will be housed in a new school, which we also hope to help finance and build.

Our dream is for this to be a replicable model, which can be expanded into other regions of Lebanon, and work closely with municipalities and school systems.

Don’t get alarmed — I’m not thinking of moving to Lebanon myself! Instead, I believe that I can help leverage the expertise, influence, and resource of the United Methodist Church in America to make a difference. I would also like to facilitate some short-term mission trips to Lebanon in the coming years. In fact, we are currently planning a return trip to Lebanon during the third week of September 2017. The Bishop has already expressed interest in going, as well as the pastor of a very large United Methodist Church in the Dallas area.

I would love for some of y’all to go on that trip, but if you can’t, there are other ways that you can become involved with Safe Spaces. In particular, I am looking for psychotherapists trained in the field of PTSD and children. If you know someone who fits this criteria, please forward their information to me. 

Even if you don’t know someone, there are things you can do to help support this initiative. Let me know; we’ll find a role you can play

Decision Time

This Sunday is a special day for our six confirmands. After special classes, trips, and a retreat with Matt Bell, the six preteens will be ready for confirmation.

When I take part in a confirmation service, however, I always have a few questions in my mind about the rest of y’all.

I know that many of you never went through confirmation. If you were raised in a church or tradition which does not “do” confirmation, then you didn’t; instead, you were probably baptized as a young person or adult. Often, I get lots of questions about confirmation — what does it mean, what is its purpose?

Let me briefly explain the Methodist understanding of baptism and confirmation. Baptism is a sacrament of joining, and being joined to, the body of Christ. Therefore, we will baptize any adult who makes a conscious decision to be joined to Christ, or any infant or child whose parents wish to make that decision on his/her behalf.

In the case of an infant, obviously the decision is not the child’s own until such time as he or she makes it personally. Confirmation is the formal process by which the church invites the child to do so. We usually make it an educational and social program, with classes and experiences that help someone learn more about what it means to follow Jesus, so that they can make an informed decision.

When they are confirmed, they are taking responsibility for the baptismal vows that their parents said for them. They are owning it for themselves. They willingly take on the rights and responsibilities that go with following Jesus.

My first question to the rest of you, then, is, “Have you ever owned the faith for yourself? Have you made a conscious decision to follow Christ?” This is an important part of the journey of faith. As I said in a recent sermon, we are not born Christian, we are made into Christians. It is an act of the will, an intention, a choice. Too many people have never made a real choice to follow Jesus, but instead rest on the laurels of their baptism, as if it were a magical ritual that saves them from hell. That’s not the point of it at all, though. Baptism is a joining of our lives to Jesus.

Now, while the intention to follow Christ is an important part of the confirmation ceremony, it’s not the only piece. We believe that baptism is a means of grace for the follower of Jesus. In other words, it’s not so much about what we do, but about what God does on our behalf. We are joined to Christ, not by our own efforts or worth, but by the free gift of God. We are given new birth, a new start in life, by the mercy of God. As the baptismal liturgy reads, “All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

So my second question to all of you is, “Have you received the grace of God for yourself? Have you found that the power of the Holy Spirit lives in you, and gives you a strength that is not your own?”

If you have never been baptized, then perhaps it’s time to think about making the plunge (pun intended) for yourself. You are invited to a new relationship with God that begins with the forgiveness of sin and a renewal of your spirit in God’s love. I would be happy to talk about baptizing you.

If you have never been confirmed, then it’s up to you to answer the two questions above. Have you accepted the baptismal vows that were made for you, and have you received God’s grace? Perhaps you simply would like to learn more about what the faith journey is all about. I encourage you to join a Sunday School class or a small group, where you will have the opportunity to learn more about the Bible or the specific shape of the Jesus-centered life.

I certainly hope that all of you will be present on Sunday morning, as we listen to the witness of our newest confirmands, and as we celebrate the next steps they are taking on their own journeys.

Experiencing All of Holy Week

There’s a saying among pastors that you can’t get from Palm Sunday to Easter without going through Good Friday.

Believe me, there is a tendency among many American churches to jump from the parade-like quality of Palm Sunday straight to the glory of Easter morning, without ever delving into the messiness and horror of what actually happened that last week of Jesus’ life. We tend to be very uncomfortable with the blood and suffering; not only does Holy Week veer mightily close to our own pain, but it forces us to look upon a Jesus who was betrayed, battered, beaten, and executed.

No thanks, we tend to say. We’d rather imagine a resurrected, bright and shiny Jesus. We like winners!

But I don’t think the story of Jesus Christ has any power at all unless it is true that he experienced so much suffering. The entire point of the resurrection is that evil does not have the last word in our world, despite the enormous amount of evil that exists in the world.

A Jesus who did not face his own personal terror would have nothing hopeful to offer the people of the world who are terrorized by the threat of nuclear weapons. A Jesus who was not whipped and beaten would have nothing meaningful to say to a Congolese woman who was raped by rebel militiamen. A Jesus who did not die on a cross would mean absolutely nothing to a Syrian refugee whose father and three children had been killed by sarin gas.

This is not to say that Jesus’ suffering was unique; his pain was not any greater than any other. Instead, it was representative. It marks him as human, like the rest of us. He was one of us, a member of our race, a participant in our plight.

And what God did through Jesus was to herald a coming age in which humanity would be saved from the plight and plague of evil and wickedness. In God’s reign, tragedy will be transformed into beauty. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a kind of parable of what God is doing in the world — even today.

Frankly, the only way to encounter the fullness of Easter is to become immersed in all the events of Holy Week, to get in touch with Jesus’ suffering, as difficult as it might be.

That’s the reason we gather on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for worship. We hear the rest of the story, the part that happens in-between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

Another way to experience that part of the story is to walk the Stations of the Cross, which are now open and available in the sanctuary at Kessler Park UMC. The Stations of the Cross are an ancient spiritual practice of the Christian church, meant to imitate the journeys of early Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, who retraced Jesus’ final steps on the way to Calvary.

There are fourteen stations, scattered throughout the sanctuary; each one represents a different moment in Jesus’ suffering and death. A booklet guides you to each station and offers a Scripture reading, reflection, question, and prayer. You are welcome to linger at each station as long as you like, and meditate on what it all means to you.

I walked the path this morning, and found myself marveling, once again, that Jesus had the courage and love to say of his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

These words would mean nothing at all if Jesus said them on the back of the donkey while entering Jerusalem; likewise, if he’d said them on his deathbed at a ripe old age, they would ring hollow and trite. Instead, the fact that he said it while he was hanging on the cross gives the phrase a force that challenges all the world’s evil.

At that moment, Jesus truly overcame the horror of humanity’s inhumanity. Jesus refused to be sucked into the cycle of vengeful violence and hate, and chose to forgive.

Confronted with such a love, our only response can be, “Lord, have mercy on us.”

The Stations of the Cross will be open for visitors on Thursday and Friday from 8:30 am to 9 pm, and on Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm.