But God graciously gave a promise

Galatians 3:14, 18 Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith . . . For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise.

God also graciously gave Karis a Promise when she was sixteen: Seu Amado está guardado. I learned from her journals that at the end of her life, she understood “guardado” to mean protected, rather than her first interpretation, “reserved or saved for you.” She believed “Anthony” was the Beloved of the Promise. Anthony believes she still prays for him.

Here’s part of a paragraph I added to the Spanish translation of Karis, All I See Is Grace:

The last time I saw Anthony was after the publication in English of this book in 2018. . . It was so good to be with him and be reminded why Karis loved him so much. He is charming, irresistible in his courtesy, his love for people, his passion for Christ, his courage in taking God’s Word to some of the most dangerous places in the world, his creativity and sense of humor. If you think of him, dear reader, please pray for his ministry and for his safety. Even though you don’t know his real name, I’m sure God will know who you’re praying for!

Lebanon. “Anthony” was there when Beirut blew apart August 4. Here’s what he wrote on September 9. I decided to leave it all in and let you decide how much of it you want to read:

Five days after I arrived, a massive explosion in the Beirut port destroyed a huge section of the city, killing approximately 180 people, injuring several thousand and leaving 300,000 people homeless.

I soon found myself wandering the streets of Beirut in what looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, armed with a shovel, work gloves and a facemask. I was part of a roving band of scouts and several friars from our parish, moving from house to house, street to street, clearing rubble from bombed-out homes.

The experience of these days following the explosion was surreal. There were hundreds of groups of volunteers like ours, crawling through rubble. The government seemed entirely absent. At times we were elated. At other times I couldn’t stop tears from filling my eyes.

The burn of tear gas claws the tears from my eyes and seeps through my double-layer of masks to strangle my throat. I grab my Lebanese confrere’s arm and hang on as we stumble blindly with hundreds of others running from the canisters that the police shoot into the crowd behind us.

It’s Saturday afternoon, four days after the blast. My Lebanese confrere and I finish cleaning up the blood-stained apartment of an elderly couple and then head downtown to join a massive government protest. We are incognito. I have been warned not to open my mouth nor to draw attention to myself as an American. We are there to support our parishioners: grandparents, parents and teenagers, and, more generally, the Lebanese people, who have come out for this.

We gather with tens of thousands in Martyr’s square. At first, things remain relatively peaceful. A small group of more organized protesters begin to try to push past the police to gain access to government ministry buildings. Government forces fire tear gas. Most of us watch, chanting, as these two groups push back and forth. Protesters begin to set buildings on fire, buildings that are already mostly destroyed from the August 4 explosion. The quantity of tear gas begins to increase. My confrere and I decide it’s time to move away from the conflict. It has taken an ugly turn. The police fire into the crowd from the opposite direction, right in front of us, and suddenly we are enveloped by a cloud of gas.

I am glad that the burn claws my eyes. I am angry.

“The blast still ringing in my ears, I got out of our destroyed hotel lobby and went up to a middle-aged woman standing in the parking lot, staring at her hand. The top half of her middle finger was gone, but she seemed pretty calm.

‘Can you help me get to the hospital,’ she asked?

I began walking her in the right direction, telling her how impressed I was by her calm.

‘My generation, we’ve seen wars, terrorist attacks, everything… we’re used to this sort of thing,’ she said. Then she began to bawl.”

And then Lea stops her story and begins to cry. This is the first time that she has opened up about what happened in the aftermath of the blast that caught her at her work in the Four Seasons Beirut Hotel lobby. We’re sitting with 10 of the girl scout leaders from our parish doing a follow up meeting to process what we’ve seen during our volunteer work, and to talk about the effects of trauma and how to deal with them.

We had been planning to hold this meeting with a psychologist and a counselor present. But now the government has announced the beginning of a new lockdown because the number of Coronavirus cases spiked following the explosion. And so, on the advice of my superior, I cut short my stay at a bare-bones hermitage in the mountains overlooking Syria where I was spending several days with another confrere praying and processing things, and I head down to Beirut for an early meeting with the scouts the day before the lockdown is scheduled to begin.

Because of the last-minute change of schedule there will be no psychologist or counselor present. I ask Lea before the meeting if, as one of the main leaders, she would be ready to talk one-on-one with any of the participants who need extra time and attention to process their experiences and emotions. “Of course,” she responds, her usual confident self.

Now she is the one crying. I pass her some tissues. We all sit in silence for a second. Then she looks at me and begins to laugh. “I was supposed to be the one to help people if they got emotional,” she chuckles and sniffles.

“Jesus has come to our home! Praise God!” Old lady number 1 is super-pumped that a Franciscan priest in religious garb is delivering food to her home as part of the post-explosion relief efforts. Her friends, old lady number 2 and old man, happily join us in a moment of prayer, a heartfelt word in my rusty French and then an “Our Father” all together in Arabic.

It has been two weeks since the blast. I’ve once again joined our parish’s scouts as we volunteer with a secular NGO, Nation Station, delivering food to victims of the blast who are living in their damaged homes. Almost everyone in this majority Christian neighborhood is happy to see a priest and most welcome a quick moment of prayer before we continue our deliveries.

Other volunteers with Nation Station

Back at the NGO, in between delivery runs, I rub shoulders with secular youth from various backgrounds. Game designer Muhammad and I strike up a conversation about his hilarious double-entendre Pacman t-shirt (“I scored in the 80’s”) and from there we move on to questions of faith and physical healing. I compliment Shiite background Aya on her nose ring and soon we are discussing her family’s organic farm in the Bekaa valley. For many of these secular young people, religion (which in Lebanon is at times in bed with the corrupt political system) is viewed only as the source of problems. They are a little shocked to see a Franciscan with robes drenched in sweat, asking for orders, lugging bags of vegetables (e.g. “No Father, please, please let someone else do that…” [clericalism dies hard in Lebanon]) and joking about nose-rings and telling them about the beauty of prayer and confession.

Little Marie Rita (age 10), Andrea (8), and Elio (6), look at me with deep, serious eyes. On August 4, they were staring out of their 6th floor kitchen window at the sparks flying from the port. They dove out of the way at the last second before the shockwave from the explosion tore through the window. Only three small rooms of their top-floor apartment remain intact. The rest were balconies enclosed with inexpensive glass and aluminum. All of that is gone.

Raja, a scout from our church, interviews the children’s mother and we fill out the damage evaluation form. We return to Nation Station to hear that the NGO might be able to give them mattresses…

One of Anthony’s co-workers

“But what about the thousands of dollars of damage to the home,” I think? I call our Catholic Bishop, Cesar, once our Franciscan confrere before he was promoted to shepherd the Latin-rite Catholics of Lebanon. He has his own people out on the ground, seeing where help is needed, but he had asked me to keep my eyes open and let him know if I saw any situations where he could give a hand. I tell him about little Marie Rita and her family’s predicament. The next day I hear that his people have visited the family and promised to join others in helping them… a small sign of hope.

“It’s crazy, there are months where I have just barely enough money to buy bread… I can get a little bit of meat once every couple of weeks.” Myriam is a parishioner at our upper middle class/upper class parish in Beirut. She has a decent job. But the inflation from the economic crisis has devalued her salary.

Pause… eyes shifting, looking for words, slightly lost. John Paul is one of my oldest friends in Lebanon. A college teacher and professional musician. We met playing music in church, did a Christmas concert together, and a few years ago he asked me to speak to his Western Civ university class because he wanted a religious voice to balance out his newly acquired militant-atheist views.

Now as we sit together catching up, he seems to be having trouble finishing his sentences. His eyes get bright and watery. He was on his honeymoon in northern Lebanon on August 4 and the reality of the explosion only hit him when he got back and saw the destruction. He’s one of many people I have met in the past weeks who are having difficulty sleeping at night.

He tells me that he and his wife are planning to leave the country, for good. Over the next days I hear that every single person from my circle of peers, Christian background young professionals in their mid-30’s, are trying to find work or study opportunities that will allow them to leave Lebanon.

Anger. It comes up again and again in my encounters.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between anger as a natural reaction to evil/injustice, and wrath as a deliberate choice of the will to desire to take revenge and hurt others.

Jesus was angry when he entered the temple and saw the corruption… he reacted… and at the same time he was Love incarnate.

So I guess He can handle it if I bring my anger into my relationship with Him…?

“We can have all of the correct theological responses,” Bishop Cesar tells me after hearing my confession. “But when you go out on the ground and you see the awfulness of the destruction, it doesn’t fit (c’è qualcosa che non quadra). You have to bring that back into your conversation with God.”

Signs of hope:

Despite the economic crisis, Covid-19, the August 4 explosion and the political crisis, we finished construction of our church in Zahle last week. On Sunday we celebrated the first mass in the finished building with Bishop Cesar presiding.

Yesterday evening I presided at my first mass in Arabic. I’ve been taking advantage of my time here to do Arabic tutoring with a local parishioner who has lost her job as a teacher since the economic crisis began.

“Of course, you can celebrate,” said my Lebanese confrere Elias when I mentioned to him that I hoped my Arabic would be good enough to preside. A brief chuckle and then he sighed, “Haram (roughly translated “Too bad”) for the poor people of Zahle who have to put up with your Arabic.” (LOL).

But the mass-goers of Zahle turned out to be very generous and patient as I struggled through the tongue-twisting guttural lilt of the Fissha Arabic prayers. I sensed a new connection with them as we prayed together. After mass they kindly expressed their appreciation for the sweat and tears that a middle-aged foreigner had gone through to enter their linguistic world. 

 …

Thank you for reading this and for your prayers and support for me in this journey. Even though my trip to Lebanon ended up not being the “safe” visit that it was supposed to be (I’ve gotten tested for Covid-19 three times since I got here because of all the potential exposure), I’ve had the sense that the Lord brought me here for a reason.

Please keep me in your prayers as I travel back to Oxford this Thursday. I have had many chances to be exposed to Covid-19 since my last test a week ago (including Sunday mass with a full church, all the windows closed because of the air-conditioning and only half the people wearing masks) so I would appreciate your prayers that I not get sick and that I not get anyone else sick. I try to wear my mask “religiously”  . Please pray for Lebanon, for our friends and for the Church here. Through these stories I think I’ve touched on at least 4 of the 5 crises that are plaguing the country. But more importantly, I’ve tried to share with you the voice and experiences of the people here whom I love. Blessings.

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