In October, I spent two weeks traveling through Lebanon and Syria.
The trip was organized by Presbyterian mission worker Elmarie Parker. Our group of 12 was a cross-section of pastors and members of Presbyterian churches in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New York and Ohio. The trip was framed around the theme of “encountering hope in the midst of lament.”
Six members of our group crossed the land border in northern Lebanon and spent three days in Syria visiting the churches and ministries of the Presbyterian Church there, called the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL).
One morning in Syria, I woke up and read Isaiah 2. The imagery of war and peace in this text is stunning. In Isaiah 2:4, we read,
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
I wondered if the people in Syria can even begin to embrace these radical images of peace. What thoughts come to mind? What sounds, what images, what feelings are present for Syrians when they read this? What thoughts, sounds, images, and feelings are present for those of us not living in war? Isaiah says that the warring nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Isaiah paints a stunning picture of a seemingly absurd vision of a world turned upside down. Isaiah doesn’t just talk about the end of war or the destruction of instruments of war – he talks about radical transformation! We have images of death-dealing tools turned into life-sustaining tools. Weapons of war are transformed into technologies that cultivate soil, build terraces and plant rows of seeds. Isaiah speaks of the human capacity to transform the machinery of warfare into a technology whose sole purpose is to sustain and enrich the lives of God’s precious children.
That is simultaneously a beautiful and powerful image. I’m guessing it is an image that resonates strongly for many, particularly for people whose lives have been touched by war and people who live in areas of agriculture. Over the course of my trip, I learned that it is an image that resonates strongly in northern Syria.
We visited Pastor Mofid and his congregation in Homs, Syria. It is a thriving Presbyterian congregation that is existing in a very challenging context. Pastor Mofid and his congregation are attempting to live this vision that Isaiah describes of a peaceable kingdom as war rages around them.
One way they are doing this is through the transformation of their church building. The city of Homs was hit hard at the start of the civil war in Syria in 2012. Islamist militants stormed into Homs and occupied large sections of the city, including the neighborhood of the Presbyterian church. In 2014, a huge battle broke out in Homs. At the end of the battle, once the city was cleared of extremists and a local peace treaty was signed, the Presbyterians were allowed to move back into their neighborhoods and back into their church. Pastor Mofid was one of the first to return to the city in fall of 2014. As part of the battle, the roof of the church was destroyed, but most of the structure of the church was preserved.
However, what Pastor Mofid and his congregation found was disturbing. While the militants destroyed many church buildings and mosques in Homs, the Presbyterian church was largely left intact because the militants had used it as a base of operations. The militants removed the crosses and other Christian imagery, but the building was preserved. When the congregation returned, they found evidence of how it was used. In the basement of the church they found a desk with recruiting applications and realized the church basement had been used as a recruitment center for these militant groups. They also found that some of the Christian education classrooms in the basement had been used for indoctrination, finding messages still written on the church chalkboards. And one of the areas in the basement had been used to imprison and enslave women. Under occupation, this church basement had been transformed into a weapon of war.
But Pastor Mofid and his congregation were undaunted. Inspired by this Isaiah text, they started to move back into the church during the season of Advent in 2014. Despite the impossibility of what they encountered, they were determined to redeem, restore and transform their space.
During our visit, it was clear that this seemingly impossible transformation had taken place. The church held worship to an overflowing crowd. People were moving back to Homs and finding hope in the presence and worship of the church in that space. I had the immense privilege of helping to preside over communion and bless the elements. We almost ran out of bread and grape juice that morning because the church was so packed full of Syrians seeking a space of hope and peace.
After the service, Pastor Mofid proudly took me down to the church basement. He showed me what can only be described as a holy transformation into a sacred space. The church has decided to make the basement space a library and cultural center for the whole community in Homs. They are providing a computer lab, books and meeting spaces for community groups of all religious backgrounds. They even have relics rescued from a local neighboring mosque that was destroyed; they are holding these pieces until their Muslim neighbors can get their house of worship rebuilt. The transformation of the space from a tool of war to a space of peace and reconciliation in the community is profound, and it is a stunning example of this Isaiah text coming to life.
It is clear that the Presbyterian church in Syria has embraced the seemingly absurd and impossible vision of Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. In an impossible context in the midst of a civil war, Christians in Syria are taking this text and putting it into practice – moving from a prophetic vision of hope into a lived reality of hope.
We have a lot to learn from our sisters and brothers in Syria. How seriously do we take these seemingly absurd texts from the Old Testament and attempt to turn them into a lived reality? How are we working to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and working at being a nation that shall not lift up swords against another nation? When will we stop “learning war” as Isaiah prophesizes about, and what are we doing to change our culture and our world to make this real?
May we all keep our sisters and brothers in Syria in our prayers, and may we all work towards this prophetic vision of a peaceable kingdom.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school. They are loving life in central Nebraska with their ridiculous beagador dog named Luna.