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My first real encounter with a person from the Middle East was when we lived in Hannover, West Germany, in the 70s.  His name was Mustafa. I don’t remember what country he was from. We were a little afraid of him—I’m ashamed to say.

I had gone to the big Holiday Inn Airport hotel in Hannover and registered with them as “clergy” because I had read an article about how people traveling sometimes sought help at hotels. One night the hotel called because they had an employee that was distraught, and they were afraid he might be suicidal.  I drove to the hotel and met Mustafa.  We talked. He wasn’t really suicidal, but he was distraught and pretty isolated in Germany.  We met several times. He came once to our apartment for dinner and even brought Sherrylee a red silk robe from his country—a very nice gift!  But I have to admit that we were only cautiously friends.

lufthansa-boeing-737-hijacked-to-somaliaThe 70s were scary times—maybe more so than today.  We had only lived a few miles from the Olympic Village in Munich when the Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered. Airplane hijackings occurred frequently, some ending in grenades being rolled down the aisles of the planes. The Red Army Faction, known to us in Germany more as the Baader-Meinhof Group, were kidnapping people, bombing establishment sites, and assassinating well-known figures.  Wanted posters were everywhere.  I even had the German Bundespolizei call me for an interview once because after driving back from a youth rally, one of the young Germans with us had seen a VW van with lots of anti-government slogans painted all over it, and so he reported it to the police.

Those were scary days in some ways, but our fears of swarthy people were mostly from movies, and only somewhat from reality.  When I think about it, it reminds me of the first time I ever flew into Germany in 1968. At the airport in Munich, German soldiers with rifles stood at the entry to the airport as we deboarded, and my heart leaped into my throat because they appeared to me to look like all the enemy German soldiers I had seen in the WWII films that I had grown up on in the 50s.  It was a silly, but visceral response—and I think that’s where our apprehension about Mustafa came from as well.

Wednesday was our last day to teach English to refugees at the Omonia church in Athens, Greece. The farewell was similar to many we have experienced—a few tears, lots of hugs, and group pictures. Selfies with our students were new– and exchanging IM addresses.

And new was that virtually all of those that we were leaving were Middle Easterners! Most were Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Some were Christian background, Persians or Kurds.  All were refugees. Some needed clothes or medicine or diapers for their babies; others needed papers—they had no official nationality because their papers and/or passports were lost, stolen, or destroyed.

I hesitate to tell you what some of them had seen. One young man said that he had been in a store in his city when a man in a truck drove up and started warning people about planes coming to bomb their homes.  While the man was warning the people, a rocket hit his truck and totally disintegrated it and the man.  “Poof” was the word the sixteen-year-old Syrian boy used to describe what he had witnessed.  What would that do to you?

Then there was the family of five from Iraq who came to Sherrylee’s class every day. Even though he was horrified at the destruction of their country by the military actions of the West, and even though he had worked with American forces during our occupation—or maybe because of his cooperation—he and his wife and children had had to flee.there-is-no-fear-in-love

How can people who have seen and experienced such horrible things be saved?

Two are being baptized in the name of Jesus today—it is eight hours later in Athens, so maybe they are already celebrating.  Sherrylee and I are home—glad to be here, but now our Facebook pages have Arabic writing in many of the posts which we have to use Google Translate to read.

John 3:16 may be the most publicized Bible verse in history and the first one that we and many of our children memorized.  I sometimes have the feeling that we are just beginning to learn what it means.

God so loved the world—not just the USA, not the West, but the world. And that’s why He sent us to every nation.

I’m just figuring out that Jesus was a swarthy, Middle Easterner too.

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jesus-teaches-in-the-synagogueThe young man had come home.  Here he was in his own synagogue, surrounded by the people who had seen him grow up.  Of course he was asked to do the Scripture reading from the Torah and to make brief comments afterwards. After all, he was one of them.

Some stories had spread in the small village about amazing things—unbelievable things—that he was supposed to have done. Lots of these kinds of stories circulated in those days. But here he was at home, where he belonged, in the synagogue, looking out for the need of his own! What a good son Joseph had.

The Scripture for this Sabbath was from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,   for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,   that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,  and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

What a great Scripture! This wonderful Good News is for the poor—that’s us! We are so poor. And we are captives to the Romans who oppress us. The Lord’s favor has not come yet. We know the Messiah will come and give us prosperity and freedom again, but at least this Scripture offers us future hope.

The young Nazarene sat down to deliver his comments. Well, he is still young.  But then he said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” 

Well, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean! After all, this is Joseph’s son. We’ve known him since his family came back from Egypt years ago.  He is such a nice young man—and here at home, where he belongs, to take care of his own!  A strange message, but he’s one of us, and he will lose that youthful arrogance over time.

Then more pointedly, Jesus said,

But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 And many in Israel had leprosy in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.

Jesus said, It’s not about you! You don’t want to hear anything but what is about you. It’s not about you; it’s about the Syrians and the Lebanese, it’s about Iranians and Iraqis, North Africans and . . . Others. God sent his spokesmen to foreigners—because the hometown folks are chasing other things. Sure, they long for the Messiah, but they only want the one who will save THEM and who will bless THEM and who will free THEM!

The hometown folks became a mob. They hated hearing that God loved foreigners! And they hated the Messenger, so they tried to kill him.  Eventually they did.

But He still loves foreigners.

 

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Happy-Thanksgiving-PicturesLet me tell you a true story about refugees.  There were over 100 who had already fled their home country together because of severe and dangerous persecution. They had sought refuge in one country, but now needed to move on.  They paid a lot of money to arrange two small boats to carry them across precarious waters to a country where they thought they could be free and safe.  One of the boats was so leaky that after just a short ways, both of the boats turned around and went back to where they started. Those refugees in the leaky boat decided either not to risk it again or to overload the boat that had a chance of making it. The bravest or the most afraid launched out again on their dangerous journey.

Sixty-six days they were on that boat, many of which were quite stormy. Lots of seasickness, one baby born, and lots of prayers—as if they were their last words.

Finally, they made it to land—not where they intended to land, but at least they made it to land. They were received—more or less–by the locals, although theirs were very, very different cultures, different languages, and very different values.

Housing and food were barely adequate for the harsh weather that they experienced. Some of their people got sick, some died—actually many died.

As the traditional story goes, the winter months passed and after a successful harvest, these surviving refugees set aside three days to give thanks for their blessings. They invited the locals to join them, so 50 pilgrims and about 90 Native Americans feasted on deer and turkey and corn and much more, giving thanks to God for His provision.

We told this story to about a hundred refugees mostly from Iran, Iraq, and Syria on Thanksgiving Day in Athens, Greece, many of whom had quite similar stories of escape from danger and oppression. Sherrylee and I sat at the table with two families of believers from Iran who fled because they were persecuted as Christians. I asked if they ever wanted to go back, and they said they could never return for fear of being killed.

We shared turkey and cornbread dressing, green beans and mashed potatoes, apple and pecan pie—quite a feast, but before that feast we stood together, held hands, and thanked God for His provision—in Jesus’ Name.

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rain in athensIt was raining hard this morning when we woke up in Athens.  Our apartment for this LST project is near the center of the city, so we are surrounded by tall buildings which block the sun a bit.  All this to say, that it was really a dark, rainy morning.

Sherrylee and I take Uber to the church building every day, so upon arriving, we went up to the third floor where Sherry’s classroom is. The church has only had access to the third floor for about five months, so, of course, there is no electricity yet. To explain the delay would take the whole page, so let’s just say it is always moderately dark on an average sunny day, and on a dark, rainy day, Sherry wondered how her students would be able to do their work—and there were no ready answers.

At the morning huddle, we were warned not to go near the government offices downtown because anarchists have gathered from all over Europe to demonstrate for . . . . no, against governments, I think. Eleni also said that probably only ten people would come today because people from super dry climates don’t like to get out in the rain, especially with their children, so our clothing distribution this afternoon was postponed and our common meal scaled down.

All in all, it promised to be a rather dark, dreary day.

At the end of our English classes for the day, we have a 30-minute devotional with all the participants, where we talk about God in four different languages.  Everything is translated, so one minute of a message takes four minutes to deliver to all the participants.

About one minute before we started, I was asked to present the message at the devotional.  Maybe because we had all been dealing with the weather all day, I thought to myself, Jesus said many things about rain, so let’s talk about rain.  I did a quick search and actually chose a passage from Acts 14, where Paul and Barnabas talk about rain to the people of Lystra

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

We had expected 10, but we had about 50 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, and others who gathered to hear the word of God that said the rain is God showing kindness on them, showing Himself to them, so they can find Him. And God not only gives you rain and crops that become the food that fills your stomachs, He also wants to feed you spiritually so that your hearts will be full of joy!  I concluded by saying,

So when you go out in the rain today, don’t let it depress you or make you afraid. Remember that this rain is an act of kindness to you from the Living God who loves you. Let that give you joy and make you want to know and trust this Living God.

The message to the people of Lystra was still powerful and alive for the people of Athens two thousand years later.  It wasn’t a dark day after all!

 

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refugees welcomeI visited with a Christian man from Albania today who moved to Greece seven years ago because he felt called to plant a church among the million Albanians who had fled to Greece in the 80s and 90s.  The Soviet Union was quite successful in purging all of its satellites—but especially Albania–of Christianity, so the million Albanians then in Greece seemed like a ripe mission field.  He and his family moved to Greece and began a church which then multiplied into other Albanian churches throughout Greece.

When the refugees started pouring into Athens, these Albanian Christians felt like they had to do something in spite of the fact that many of them had been refugees themselves. Every evening, they now go out on the streets of Athens looking for homeless, hungry, and otherwise needy refugees. On the spot, they give them sandwiches and clothes and try to give them information to help them find long-term solutions.

While I was visiting with my new Albanian friend, Sherrylee was visiting with a Brit who is in Athens running an organization that helps Muslim refugees who become Christians find housing. Most of these new Christians are refugees who have nothing anyway, but when they become Christians, they often are expelled from their family, harassed by their community, and sometimes physically attacked by their former Muslim friends.  These people literally leave everything and everyone they know in order to follow Jesus.

About the time we were finishing these conversations, an American attorney from Colorado walked up and put the keys to the upstairs in my pocket to return for him.  He and another attorney are in Athens for two weeks to give free legal counsel to refugees.  The Omonia church is providing them meeting space so that they can help the refugees coming to the church for help.

Jesus in Egypt

This is not a Christmas picture. This family is seeking refuge in Egypt!

While Elena (one of the missionaries at the Omonia church in Athens) was telling the group about the attorneys who would be here for two weeks, a refugee spoke up and asked if any doctors were coming. She said, “Not yet, but we hope some will come later!” 

Then she told the 70-80 people in the room not to be afraid because God loved them and that He is near. He is not far away, and if anyone tells them differently, then they were not telling the truth. (I love her boldness!)  She then asked everyone to stand for the time of prayer: I prayed in English, one brother prayed in Arabic, and another in Farsi. After the prayer, the church fed all us.

Here we were . . . in a room full of Muslims . . . praying to Our Father, who is an Unknown God to many of them . . . in languages that most often curse Christians . . . with Christian workers from countries that American Christians usually consider mission fields . . . . breaking bread.

I pray that you can imagine yourself in this room too—because God is here!

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“We used to pray for God to open the doors to the Middle East,” the tired missionary said today after supper, “but when he did we were naked—totally unprepared!”  I was reminded of those days not so long ago when all the talk at every missions conference was about the 10-40 window, that band around the earth between 10  and 40 degrees north of the equator.  We were always reminded that two-thirds of the world’s population lived in that band and that the countries in that belt included the least Christian and least accessible countries to Christian missionaries.

40_Window_world_map

               My second thought was less noble, i.e., that we had truly prayed for open doors, but we wanted those doors to be open over there, so that we could send the Gospel to them. We did not really want the doors to open the other direction and have all of those people in our neighborhood.

               But God’s ways are not our ways!  Today, here in Athens, I sat at the table with two young men born in Syria, and we read the story of Jesus. A tall, blonde 18-year-old sat down to join us. He is an American citizen, born in Pakistan and raised in Afghanistan.  I had hoped that the Iraqi Kurd would join us, but he was too busy registering new people for English classes as they walked in the door.  He did, however, have time to introduce me to two Iranians, whom we invited to join us tomorrow.

               So if we finally do recognize that God has moved millions of Muslim people out of their countries—at least temporarily—and moved them mostly to Greece and Italy and Germany, are we western Christians indeed unprepared—naked??

               The first step in preparing is to open our hearts to those God is bringing to us! God so loved the world . . . so His children will love the world as well.  And we will know who our neighbor is. As Jesus preached it, the neighbor was the Samaritan, the foreigner. Not the fear of terrorism, not the fear of lost jobs, not the fear of social impact, there is no justification for ignoring the homeless, penniless refugees who have fled religious or political persecution and who have knocked on our door asking for help.

That is why this church of Christ in Athens has opened its doors to any needy person who walks in the door. Their work is horribly underfunded and understaffed and amazingly under-organized, BUT God has provided them with the ability to do more than they could have ever imagined—just as He has promised to do for all of his obedient children.  At least hundreds and probably thousands of refugees have come through their doors. They have been noticed, fed, clothed, served, and taught about Jesus—unashamedly!

We who lead churches in America need to check our hearts to see if they are open or shut to all people who God brings into our neighborhood.  Our missionary (btw, a woman) told us about a church in Norway that had refused to let a woman in a hijab (head covering) enter their building to join their assembly. I wonder how our American churches would respond to the same situation?

Don’t pray for doors to open unless you are ready for your own front door to open!

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Glasco ChristianOne week ago we were worshipping with a little Christian church in Glasco, Kansas, of which in 1870, my great-great grandfather Mahlon Woodward and his wife Mary Ann were founding members.  After lunch at church with people who knew my grandparents and my dad, we accidentally went to a poetry reading that had been advertised as a Smithsonian program on Kansas waterways! I suppose towns of 500 can’t be picky!

Today, one week later, Sherrylee and I worshipped with the Omonia Church of Christ in Athens, Greece! Ten days or so ago, the missionaries in Athens put out a call for immediate help with their English program for refugees. Some very generous donors called us and said that they would sponsor us, if we were able to go, so here we are, getting ready to start tomorrow helping people mostly from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, and Afghanistan improve their English and become better acquainted with Jesus. 

MunichOur international flight was via Munich, a new airport, but the same city where in 1971 two pretty clueless young newly-weds landed and began their mission journey together.  We are slower than we were then, but wiser, I hope—certainly more experienced.  While we have definitely changed, the world has changed also. When we left for Munich in 1971, Christians faced Iron Curtains and Cold Wars and Walls. We could just barely drive to Berlin back then, much less the Arab world. Now Christians can go to a small church building in Athens and work in the Middle East. Look around your neighborhood and tell me the world has not changed and that the nations are not coming!

So we may need to work differently than we did forty-six years ago, but people are still riding around in their chariots and saying, who will help me understand what I’m reading here about Jesus.  And God still uses those he has used before–regardless of their job status or age–to serve and teach Searchers.

Sherrylee and I will be in Athens for three weeks, and I hope to post regularly.  Pray for us—for health and strength and courage and boldness.

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