Monthly Archives: August 2015

Joyful Brokenness – Part II

Joyful Brokenness – Part II

In my previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the kids that I met on my trip to Iraq, and I’ll definitely get back to talking about them since they are the reason that I went and the highlight of my trip.  But in this entry, I want to talk a little bit about what I saw of the Christian church in Iraq.

When you think of Iraq, you obviously think of Muslims.  And Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of the population, but there is a sizable minority of Christians.  As recently as a few years ago, Christians were about 10-12% of the population.  Most are of ethnic Assyrians, who trace their ancestry and heritage in this land back 3000 years or more. The Christian heritage traces back to the mid first century AD in the western portions of the Assyrian homeland, and in northern Iraq to the mid 600’s with the arrival of Rabban Hormizd, a priest who built a monastery in Al Qosh, Iraq in 640 AD.

I spent a lot of time in Ainkawa, a suburb of Erbil that is 90% Christian, and spent a full day in Al Qosh, hanging out at a monastery talking to the priests and nuns and playing with some of the children at their orphanage.  I asked a lot of questions about their history and the present situation and was very surprised by some of the answers.  So here is a kind of a quick hit recap of some of my observations.


 

One series of questions that I always asked when I had a chance to really sit down and talk with people was what they thought of certain leaders.  Here is the overview of the responses from the four priests I sat down with (though obviously an hour long conversation can’t be summed up in a few words).

Bush 41? Unanimously disliked.  Not trusted.  He asked the northern tribes, Kurds and Assyrians, to rise up against Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, but did not support them when they did.  Saddam retaliated against the Kurds very harshly, including using chemical weapons against them.

Clinton? Meh.  Talked a lot, most of what he said was just what people wanted to hear.  Didn’t really impact Iraq a whole lot.

George W? This started an animated argument among the priests.  One loved him, one hated him, the other two had mixed feelings.  Most had no argument with the decision to remove Saddam.  All disagreed with the handling of the post-Saddam era.  The big argument came when discussing what they perceived to be his motivations and that they see him as “giving up” on Iraq and agreeing to move out too many troops to soon.

Obama? Hated.  HATED.  I can’t overstate it.  They often mocked a spit after saying his name to get the name out of their mouth.  The words they used were “liar,” “coward,” “terrorist,” “traitor to the world,” and the like.  While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of President Obama, it actually riled up something in me.  He may be a coward, but he’s MY coward, and how dare someone else talk about him that way.

Saddam? Overwhelmingly missed.  Three of the four priests said they’d take him back in a minute.  The fourth said “probably.”  The reasoning was simple…under Saddam you knew who your enemies were and “if you kissed the king’s ring, you got to live in peace.”  Now, your enemies hide in the bushes and ambush you.  There is no king to keep relative peace.  I asked them, “So, Saddam attacked his own people…killed thousands, tens of thousands, and you’d still choose him?” They all said yes. I pressed my point a little, saying, “It could be said that Saddam caused the current situation by pitting the different sides against each other to keep them from coming together against him.  He was always playing one side against the other, which has over decades has created the mistrust and hatred we are seeing today.”  The answer from one priest was, “That’s pretty amazing for someone who grew up as a farmer and didn’t finish school.  He was a gifted leader.”  They were overwhelmingly willing to give up freedoms for security.


 

 

I got to spend part of my day in Al Qosh at the ancient monastery of Rabban Hormizd.  Al Qosh is an ancient town (founded about 1500BC) where the Old Testament prophet Nahum was born and died (and his tomb is in the middle of the town).

The monastery was originally built in 640AD and then added on to over the years.  It was amazing to have the chance to walk into the ancient, 1400 year old cathedral carved right into the solid rock of the mountain side.  I got the chance to pray in the “room of darkness” where monks have gone to pray for centuries.  It was a powerful and emotional experience for me.  It was amazing also to have the priest give me a guided tour, translating the Assyrian and Aramaic writing on the plaques and rock carvings.  A once in a lifetime experience.

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Standing up on the balcony of the ancient monastery with a priest named Rony, you could see the Nineveh Plains stretch out for miles to the south.  Right on the edge of what you could see through the hazy heat lay the outskirts of Mosul.  The front lines with ISIS.  As I discussed the amazing history of the monastery with Rony, he pointed to the ancient Assyrian writing and stone archways and said, “We have great history…” and then he point off to the south towards ISIS and continued, “But I fear we don’t have a future.”

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All the priests felt the pressures of being trapped.  They are pressed from the South and West by the Sunni extremism of ISIS.  And the spreading influence from the east and north of Shi’a Iran and the Kurds.  They would stay, until the end.  But that end may not be very far off.  It was a sobering reality check for me.

I asked Rony what he thought of American Christians (he had served in a church in Las Vegas, so he had experienced America first-hand).  He said, “It is the same everywhere.  There are Christians who are only interested in Jesus on the holy days and then those that follow Him every day.”  He asked me what I thought about American Christians and my response was, “I think we too often confuse comfort of our own creation with a blessing from God.”

He didn’t understand what I meant, so I elaborated about how I believe that God often keeps us uncomfortable so we rely on Him alone.  But too often, we sit in our nice houses in our safe neighborhoods and say, “God must really love me since He has given me all this.”  Rony just nodded his head and said, “That’s a problem everywhere…the only difference is the size of the house.”


 

 

I also got to spend some time in a refugee camp for Christians who had fled Mosul when ISIS took over as we made two deliveries there. Mosul once had a thriving Christian community that numbered in the tens of thousands or more.  But after ISIS took control of Mosul on June 10, 2014, that changed.  The change was slow at first…for the first few weeks, as ISIS reinforced, the Christian community was respected.  But on June 29, ISIS declared a caliphate (Islamic government) and started to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.  On July 14, ISIS issued an ultimatum to the Christians.  Convert to Islam, pay the tax as an infidel (handing over all their possessions and leaving), or die.  The deadline was July 19.  On July 14, there were about 20,000 Christians left in Mosul.  On July 19, it is reported that there were 20 who refused to leave and are presumed to have been murdered.

ISIS marked the houses of the Christians with the Arabic letter ‘nun’ which stood for “Nasrani” (Nazarene) to indicate the Christians. Those who resisted ISIS were killed.  Men, women and children were beheaded.  In some cases, heads were mounted on spikes in public parks as a warning.  Nuns were kidnapped.  Priests killed.  It was a systematic persecution.  Religious genocide.

I was with those Christians from Mosul on July 19…the one year anniversary.  I remember reading news reports last summer questioning a lot of the stories coming out of Mosul.  One story on a major newspaper website openly said that the marking of the houses with the N letter never happened, that it was purely a propaganda invention.  I talked with men and women whose families have lived in Mosul for generations who were there and lived it.  I saw pictures from some of their phones of what happened.  This refugee camp had a giant heart with the Nun painted in the middle of it as a reminder and a memorial.  There is no doubt what happened.

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I asked one of the men what specifically we could be praying for.  He said, “Hope.”

That’s what so many of them seem to be lacking.  They lack hope for a future, especially a future in Iraq.

“Where can we go?  What can we do?” he asked.  “We can’t go home.  There are no jobs for us here [in Erbil], we are stuck with no future.  And without a future, where is the hope.”

That was the recurring theme from the Christians I talked with.  They have a long-term hope with Jesus.  But short-term, they are hopeless.  And after a year of complete desperation, they are falling even deeper into that hole.

But then there were the kids.  The kids still had joy.  And where there is joy, there is hope.  And so I still have hope.  I love my shirt from the group “Hope Iraq” that calls it “Outrageous Hope” for Iraq.  I have that outrageous hope that won’t ever quit.

Because with Jesus, there is always outrageous hope.

 

 

 

 

 

Joyful Brokenness – Part I

There is no way that I can describe in a handful of words what I experienced during my nine-day trip to northern Iraq.  But here is the first post in a series…a few words, which will be a feeble attempt to relay some of what God did, what He showed me and what I got to experience.  This series of posts will be a “highlight reel” not a complete story.

First, I’ll say that I full expected going in to the trip to have a moment where it kind of “hit me” that I was finally in Iraq.  But it never came.  I never had that “Holy crap, I’m here” moment.  What I had instead was an amazing peace and restfulness and joy of being home. I’ve never felt more “right where I was supposed to be” than I felt when I was with those sweet kids. That made coming back harder than I expected.  And it made my time there much more emotional than I expected.  And that emotion still comes at me in waves more than two weeks later.

My first trans-Atlantic flight was easier than I expected.  I rested well, and we got to see a little bit of Amman, Jordan, on our eight-hour layover there.  We left Amman at 1:30am Friday and arrived in Erbil, Iraq, at 3:30am.  After a few hours of sleep, we were ready to get busy.

Our first stop was at a makeshift Yazidi camp that surrounded a building that had been under construction.  The 100 or so people lived in tents and other temporary housing scattered around the half-finished building.  As we pulled in to the camp area, kids came running to see who the visitors were.  When we got out of the car, they all surrounded us and begged us to play with them.  I wore myself out lifting the kids up in the air, spinning them around in circles.  They just begged for more…more hugs, more tickles, more holding them…they craved physical affection.

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After a while of playing with them, one of the kids was always by my side. The moment below was captured by my friend Calvin…I know this will be a defining moment in my life a piece of my heart was left in Iraq right then.

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At this camp, we distributed a few weeks worth of food and talked to the elders of the camp to see what their biggest needs were.  They desperately needed a bread oven and air conditioning units for a few of their tents used by the children and the elderly.  We would return to this camp a few days later with those items. So I would get to spend more time with the kids.

At one of the camps, one of the girls always stayed right on the edge of the commotion.  She was a little bit older, she had recently turned 11.  During both of our visits to this camp, she never got directly involved in the play or the affection, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘She wants to so bad.’ I asked her name and she just turned away and didn’t reply. “Her name is Dilan (name changed to protect her identity),” said another girl.  I offered her one of the bracelets we were giving out (made by American kids) and again she just turned away without answering.  It was obvious there was more going on with her.

On our second visit to this camp, it was the same thing…Dilan was always right on the edge of the activity…wanting to join in, but not letting herself.  I asked one of the men who spoke Arabic (most of them only spoke the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish, which I don’t speak) about her.  He just said, “Da’esh (ISIS) took her away for months.  She got free a few months ago.”  My heart just sank.  It’s one thing to hear the story of the Yazidi girls being taken away…sold as sex slaves…raped, beaten, abused…sold to another ISIS terrorist and have the whole process repeat. But then suddenly, I’m sitting 15 feet away, looking into the eyes of a 11-year-old girl who is trying to figure out if she can trust this foreign man.  If she can trust any man.  Ever.  As a father who has been trying to adopt and be a daddy to a little girl for over four years, that caused one of the deepest hurts I’ve ever experienced.

We spent a few hours at that camp that second night.  We interviewed some of the kids and the leader of the camp, capturing their story (which are still being translated).  We played.  We loved on kids, with hugs, tickles, and about 7,000 hugs from the kids.  But as we were leaving, I heard a girl saying “Wait.”  I looked back and saw Dilan running towards me.  I didn’t know what to expect as she ran towards me, but she just buried her head in my chest and cried as she hugged me.  We sat that crying for a few minutes…I had no words whatsoever.  The only thing she said was “Thank you.”  Over and over.  If I could’ve gotten it out, I would have said, “No, thank you!”  But hopefully my tears said that.

After a few minutes, I pulled back and managed to get out, “Do you want this bracelet?”  I had pulled a purple one out for her after one of the girls told me purple was her favorite color and was wearing it on my own wrist.  She smiled and held out her wrist for me to slide it on. Knowing that we needed to go (another camp was expecting us), I told her I would always remember her and would be praying for her.  She asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?”  I shook my head. “The next day?”  I couldn’t make myself say no out loud, so I just shook my head again.  She asked, “Then when are you coming back?”

“Some day,” was all the response I could get out.

She pointed her finger at me, and in a tone that said she was taking it as a promise, she said, “OK…some day.”

That moment on a hot July afternoon in Erbil, Iraq, changed me.  It broke me.  It took everything I knew, and shattered it into a million pieces.  It took me and shattered me into a million pieces.  That night, I sat on the edge of my bed and couldn’t even form words in my mind to pray.  I just sat there in the presence of God and cried. My soul cried out for God to do something.  His response was clear: I AM.  Not “I am doing something.”  But just “I AM.”  That He is enough.  He’s big enough…He’s powerful enough…He’s loving enough…that He’s got this.  I’ve learned it’s easier to take a step of faith than it is to sit down and rest in faith.  But that night, my Daddy calmed my soul with only His Name.

I told my wife when I got home that God had broken me completely on this trip and He was putting me back together as something different.  I can see a lot of the pieces, but even more than two weeks after returning to my “normal life” I still don’t know what God has in mind for all the pieces.  It’s not a Humpty Dumpty story of just putting me back together.  It’s something new.  It’s a painful process.  But there is joy in it.  I’ve written before about finding joy in being “a little bit broken.” In being broken for others and finding life and joy and peace in that.  But this was not a case of being a little bit broken.  I was shattered…to the core.  And it changes everything.  And I’m so thankful for it.

If you would like to give a gift to support the work The Great Need is doing in Iraq, you can find more information at www.thegreatneed.com/shout