Maybe it's because I'm too cheap to ever pay the fees on Ancestory.com so that I've never been able to delve too deeply into the history of my own family of origin. Or maybe it's because I've never traveled to Ireland, which is where some of my folk are said to have come from, but for some reason, each time I visit this storied land, I always find a sense of home, a sense of belonging here. There is something magical about walking along the shores of the aqua blue Mediterranean with the salt spray tingling my nose as I pass through limestone ruins and cobblestone streets, each step with a story to tell.
Short on any sort of immediate family history then, the stories I cut my teeth on were from here; the stories about Moses and David, Deborah and Abigail, Mary and Jesus. And so, when I am here, I have a sense of visiting the 'old country' if you will. A feeling that I have been here before or that I am at least familiar with the scene such that the story loving child in me comes alive.
Today we leaned on centuries old pillars where Old Testament folk like King Hiram and Queen Jezebel passed through carried on elaborately decorated litters borne up on the shoulders of slaves. We walked down the road from the ancient sea port where we know Jesus himself and the apostle Paul to have traveled. And standing there, if you are very still and you listen closely, you can hear it on the waves crashing into the sea shore; the voices of the fisherman and merchants bartering over prices for fresh Phonecian fish. You can hear the minstrels playing happy music for the weary sea travelers and hoping that a shiny gold lira bearing the likeness of the emperor Tiberius will be tossed into their baskets; at least enough to purchase a day old loaf of bread. You can hear the children laughing and running in the streets, their leather sandals slapping the pavement with each quick step and the women calling out to them scoldingly as the women themselves carefully examine the rich purple fabric in their hands.
It is onto this scene that Jesus walks and encounters the Syrophonecian woman whose faith and perseverance move him to heal her daughter (Matt. 15). It is here that Paul landed and stayed 7 days with early believers who encouraged him not to press on to Jerusalem for fear of his life. It is here that Paul and all those in his company knelt on the beach before boarding the ship once more to pray for their safe return (Acts. 21).
Further into the city on that same Roman road lies the grand Hippodrome, a 40,000 seat Colosseum constructed in the early 2nd century by emperor Hadrian to house chariot races and other Olympic games. In the center now stands ruins of a church dedicated to the martyrs who lost their lives on this same sand; a reminder of the juxtaposition of the rise and glory of the empire and the fierce fires of persecution for the early church. And though the persecution was merciless, the church endured. Still today, carved into the bricks are crosses and symbols of peace left there by pilgrims. Crusaders stopped at this site to pay their respect on their way to Jerusalem.
It is a bible teacher's dream to stand in this sand, to hold in my hand a mollusk shell and to open wide my arms and breathe in the salty air listening to the palm trees whip in the breeze; to stand here, to take all in and to remember.
Editor's Note: Kimberly is traveling with CBH Viewpoint to Lebanon and Syria.
It happens to me every time I leave the country. I leave with a sense of trepidation and concern, unsure about what I will experience, frustrated because I'm never sure what to pack or if I should have said "yes" to the travel or not. I brace myself for the uncomfortably of inconvenience and the unknown of not having what you need or want in a given moment and as always, these are hard but good experiences for the control freak. So after some days of recuperation and adaptation, I begin to wake up, my senses are heightened and I am more aware of my surroundings than ever, and inevitably, I begin to see God and I fall in love.
Today was that kind of day; I saw God in everyone and in every thing, today stones became sacred, laughter like incense and food a sacrament, all of it a reflection of the divine.I'm not sure when it began, but the love affair with this place and it's people, with God in it all has been wonderful and surreal for me today.
Maybe it began in the early morning sunlight on the steps of St. Christophos in SedNayay, Syria where our team gathered together to pray. You could hear the longing in the voices that sang God's praises and spoke out praise.
Perhaps it began as we made our ascent up into the mountains where the air is crisp and the sky is clear and visited an ancient church, Our Lady of SedNaya. We gathered there with believers and listened to the cantors and marveled at the turiffers and acolytes, we stood in reverence as we observed Holy Mass and the congregants celebrated Eucharist. The church itself was a sight to behold, built in the 5th century by Justinian to venerate an icon believed to have been drawn by the hand of Luke the evangelist and author of the Gospel.
Maybe I began to see it all in the face of the monk I met on the top of that same mountain after we pressed higher towards the peak stopping at the ancient monastery of the Sepharim. Padre Michael only spoke Arabic and Koine Greek because he too has devoted his life to studying the word in its original languages. And so, there we were he and I, talking about the ekklesia and the adelphoi, and so on. As we explored we discovered caves and Padre Michael explained that these caves were protection for persecuted Christians who had fled from Jerusalem on their way to Antioch and later housed monks who had set out to live the disciplined life.
I know that I must have seen it in the eyes of Madre Pelaggio, the nun who welcomed us at the church of St. Thekla. She told us the miraculous stories of this woman apostle who had traveled with Paul and had later ministered to the Gentiles there in what used to be Seleukia. Mother Pelaggio and the sisters invited us into their quarters and served us coffee and cookies and asked us to sign their registry.
I have seen it for a week now in the face of my sugary sweet roommate, Jennifer Helvering who crinkles up her nose and dives into every food to which she is introduced proclaiming it delicious, amazing and "out of control." It is the way she challenges me to leave my comfort zone and do things like down a steaming cup of Turkish coffee in one sip like it were a jello shooter at a New Year's Eve bash.
I was aware of it tonight for sure as we gathered with the Church of God in Damascus, holding hands and praying in Jesus' name, singing and laughing and of course, eating together and finding we are much more alike than different. I see God alive and at work in the life of Viviane, a young college graduate who translated for me tonight and told me, "I love Jesus, I want to give him everything." In a war torn country in a small church of 25 believers we prayed together for revival and look to God for the miracle of sustaining and growing their number and trusting that this church will be a part of changing the world.
And so now it is time to count my blessings and sleep, aware and awake though I am to God at work in this place and in me, thankful for my friends along this journey, those with me here and those with me in spirit.
God be praised.