To and from Lebanon with love

After almost a year of planning and anticipating, our two-week ministry trip to Lebanon is now “in the books.” We’re in the midst of flying home from Beirut as I write this, and one of the benefits of this long flight is the opportunity to process and ponder the past eleven days as we partnered with our Evangelical Armenian brothers and sisters in Christ who are serving Him faithfully in this often times unstable part of the world.

Quite honestly, we are a bit dizzy as we consider all that we did in many different contexts and all that we heard, saw, experienced, and ate in this place which now holds part of our hearts.

This all began last August when we were speaking for the family camp of the First Armenian Presbyterian Church of Fresno, headed by Badveli (the Armenian word for “pastor”) Greg Haroutunian. Greg and his wife Sossy served the Belmont Evangelical Armenian Church (in Belmont, MA) for 10 years, during which time we became dear friends. Now in their fifth year at the Fresno church, it was a joy to serve together at their family camp last summer. Attending the family camp, all the way from Lebanon, was Sossy’s sister Kayane and her “badveli’ husband, Raffi. Kayane had attended family camp at Berea with the Haroutunians in 2006 and had taken Letters to my Daughters back to Beirut, where she has used it extensively in mentoring young women. A happy reunion last summer ensued and spawned the idea in Raffi’s mind to invite us to Lebanon to speak on marriage and relationships.

  The Messerlian family: “Mommy”, Kayane, Raffi, Nayiri, and Hovsep. “Chosen family."

The Messerlian family: “Mommy”, Kayane, Raffi, Nayiri, and Hovsep. “Chosen family."

And that’s how this opportunity came to be.

Raffi put together an energetic schedule for us with our blessing and as it turns out, we gave 20 talks in 11 days, held several counseling sessions, saw some of the major tourist attractions in Lebanon, ate mouth-watering Lebanese and Armenian food, walked dozens of miles, and spent hours in the car bonding with Raffi and Kayane. It’s hard to imagine how our time could’ve been improved upon.

Our ministry opportunities were quite varied and included speaking in multiple educational settings. We spoke at several Evangelical Armenian High School chapels, a couple of which took place at 7:30 am (adding fuel to the current belief that the brains of teenagers aren’t necessarily awake at that time of day!). We spoke at Haigazian University’s final chapel of the year on relationships and were so pleased with the interaction and appreciation of the students. The 11th and 12th graders of all four Evangelical Armenian Schools gathered for an 1.5 hour session on relationships one afternoon, and they also were very engaged and responsive. We did two sessions at Christian Teaching Institute (CTI), one to the 10th grade class and one to the 11th graders, again on relationships, and we were blown away by how “in to it” they were. One more presentation on dating/relationships happened for a youth group in Anjar (a village in eastern Lebanon, very close to the Syrian border) and that also went well.

  Dr. Chris Moacdieh is the principal of CTI and was so pleased with our coming to speak to his students.

Dr. Chris Moacdieh is the principal of CTI and was so pleased with our coming to speak to his students.

  Here are some of the sophomores who contributed to the list of characteristics for a lasting marriage.

Here are some of the sophomores who contributed to the list of characteristics for a lasting marriage.

  And here I am, photographing them. :)

And here I am, photographing them. :)

  We did an early morning chapel at Badveli Hrayr Cholakian’s school . . .

We did an early morning chapel at Badveli Hrayr Cholakian’s school . . .

 . . .  and were rewarded with a beautiful breakfast made by his lovely wife, Garineh.

. . . and were rewarded with a beautiful breakfast made by his lovely wife, Garineh.

  Chapel for the 7th-11th graders at the Armenian Evangelical Central High School

Chapel for the 7th-11th graders at the Armenian Evangelical Central High School

  Principal Maral was a delightful host.

Principal Maral was a delightful host.

  Paul is speaking to all of juniors and seniors of all four Evangelical Armenian Schools in Beirut who came together at Central HS.

Paul is speaking to all of juniors and seniors of all four Evangelical Armenian Schools in Beirut who came together at Central HS.

  The list!

The list!

  The youth in Anjar, with selfie-master Hagop Akbasharian (Besides taking photos, he is a Badveli and the principal of the Anjar school.)

The youth in Anjar, with selfie-master Hagop Akbasharian (Besides taking photos, he is a Badveli and the principal of the Anjar school.)

  At Haigazian University with some of the students who attended chapel. The Chaplain Wilbert is in the upper right hand corner.

At Haigazian University with some of the students who attended chapel. The Chaplain Wilbert is in the upper right hand corner.

Each time we spoke on relationships to youth, we started with the question, “What are some of the qualities in a person that would contribute to a lifelong, healthy marriage?” A list on the white board was compiled as students volunteered many thoughtful responses, and then we had them sort the list under the headings “Conviction,” “Character,” “Compatibility,” or “Chemistry.” With every group, the words fell largely under the words “Conviction” and “Character.” It’s such a powerful visual of what is most important about the person who will have the best shot at being a lifelong partner . . . and we challenged them to each become the person they want to one day marry and not to settle for less in their future mate.

Each time we do this group participation exercise, we’re reminded that there is a universality among us that recognizes what is really important. We always ask the question, “How do most people get involved relationally?” and all agree it is most often through the doorway of “Chemistry.” We affirm that all four of the “C’s” are necessary, but often the “Chemistry” can have a blinding effect on a couple, causing them to gloss over the “Convictions” and “Character.” Many poor marriage decisions result.

We truly felt that God met us at each of these relationship talks and were deeply appreciated especially by the teachers/professors/youth leaders who said, “Your voice on this is more powerful than ours. It is hard for us to talk about many of these things here in Lebanon, but you have said what we want them to hear.” With deep hearts to be culturally sensitive and non-offensive, we were thankful for these responses. 

One evening, we held a small “Engagement Matters” for a group of five couples. We thoroughly enjoyed this eclectic group of couples, some of faith, some not. We appreciated the lack of “Sunday School” answers as they expressed many culturally accepted beliefs about marriage (separate money, common faith is unimportant, etc) and we welcomed the opportunity to share some Biblical insights with them. We tiptoed carefully through some landmine issues, such as how to navigate extended family relationships, but didn’t shy away from laying out a Biblical perspective with the caveat that each of them would have to figure out how to apply these truths to their situation. It was a well-spent evening.

  The couples who attended our mini-Engagement Matters evening.

The couples who attended our mini-Engagement Matters evening.

Two of our speaking opportunities were with groups of Syrian refugees. Lebanon has a total population of 6 million and 1.5 million are Syrian refugees. The “Karagheusian Center” is an NGO which provides support to some of the refugees who live in Beirut (though most of the population of the refugees live in make-shift villages in the eastern portion of Lebanon) and this NGO organized two speaking events for the refugees. The first was an evening for married couples and we were simply asked to give them hope for their marriages. You can only imagine the stress on the marriage of those who have lost their homes, communities, their country, their employment, etc., and are challenged every day to make life work. There were about 80 in attendance, and as we spoke through an interpreter, we observed their troubled faces and weariness initially, but amazingly, their hunger for “good news” was evident as they responded with nods and laughter at appropriate moments and we felt God met us in ways only He could, bridging gaps and connecting souls. It was both sobering and gratifying to spend the evening with them.

  We spent this evening speaking to a group of Syrian refugee couples. It was the first event hosted by the Karagheusian Center for both husbands and wives and they deemed it a great success.

We spent this evening speaking to a group of Syrian refugee couples. It was the first event hosted by the Karagheusian Center for both husbands and wives and they deemed it a great success.

The second event was held at the Evangelical Armenian Retreat Center, Kchag, where over 200 women (many of them refugees, but also some of the Lebanese and elderly women who get services through the Karagheusian Center) gathered for a mini-retreat. Oh my!!! We had a great time with these ladies—young and old, married and single, Syrian, Lebanese, and Armenian—who were absolutely giddy with delight to be there. It probably wouldn’t have mattered what we spoke on . . . they would’ve embraced it, but we spent the first hour talking about God’s heart for the displaced and a reminder that He hasn’t forgotten them and that His heart for them is very deep. The second talk was on how to build in to their relationships with their husbands, their extended family, and their children. Again, the universality of those things which challenge us is astounding. It was a great time.

  What a delightful day we spent with over 200 women at the Kchag Retreat Center!

What a delightful day we spent with over 200 women at the Kchag Retreat Center!

  Though all have many sorrows and burdens in life, they were ready to laugh and have a good time!

Though all have many sorrows and burdens in life, they were ready to laugh and have a good time!

We also spoke at several other marriage events. Our first visit to the retreat center Kchag was the first Saturday night we were in Lebanon and we spoke to a group of about 45 couples from the Evangelical Armenian Churches in Beirut on marriage. Both sessions were well received, which was a good thing since word travels fast and had it not gone well, there might not have been good attendance at all future events. Thankfully there was very positive feedback as well as follow-up with some couples for counseling. Our last weekend was spent in the village of Anjar and on Saturday night, the Anjar church hosted a couples’ night, which also went well. Several couples who hadn’t been able to attend the previous Saturday night’s event at Kchag drove out from Beirut to attend (about 1 hr 15 mins) after hearing it would be worth the drive. Several others were women who came without their husbands, hoping to gain some encouragement for their marriages. Two of the couples were “newlyweds” and most grateful for “early intervention” for their marriages. It was a time of sweet fellowship. 

  The couples evening at Kchag was attended by couples from Raffi and Kayane’s church.

The couples evening at Kchag was attended by couples from Raffi and Kayane’s church.

  The marriage night in Anjar provided many sweet reconnections for Raffi and Kayane who served this community for 18 years, prior to moving to Beirut 4 years ago.

The marriage night in Anjar provided many sweet reconnections for Raffi and Kayane who served this community for 18 years, prior to moving to Beirut 4 years ago.

Although we truly enjoyed and were energized by every opportunity, one of the highlights was spending an afternoon with five Badvelis and their wives, talking about balancing marriage and ministry. That balance is hard to strike for every ministry couple, but especially here the task seems overwhelming. The churches are relatively small, have low budgets, and the only staff is the Badveli. Though there are volunteers and members who are very involved in serving, the Badveli is the one whom congregants want to visit them, pray for them, marry and bury, etc. It was good to talk through ways to prioritize their marriage and their children while trying to meet the needs of their congregation. They were all so sincere, so dedicated, so hard working, so principled. We loved being with them.

  We had stimulating conversations with this group of ministry couples, with whom we spent a whole afternoon talking about balancing marriage and ministry.

We had stimulating conversations with this group of ministry couples, with whom we spent a whole afternoon talking about balancing marriage and ministry.

We were able to give Badveli Raffi a bit of a break by filling his pulpit the first Sunday we were there—though he did serve as our translator, which is taxing in a different way. The second Sunday, Paul preached at the Anjar Church, which also gave Badveli Hagop a break, though he too served as translator. We loved being in their church services! They sing hymns, most of which we knew, so we sang along with them . . . in English, of course. Our Armenian language acquisition mainly includes food words, none of which showed up in the hymns. We felt joyful unity with the Body of Christ—a foretaste of heaven when every tribe, tongue, and nation will praise God together for all eternity. The very thought of it was tear producing (for me).

  The Anjar church was full with the two congregations merging.

The Anjar church was full with the two congregations merging.

Badveli Raffi and Kayane brilliantly planned a mini-retreat for their congregation from Marasch Evangelical Armenian Church on our final Sunday (April 29) and 86 from their church drove out to Anjar for the day. They joined the Anjar congregation for church, but then continued with a community lunch at a local restaurant (which was fabulously executed and delicious besides!). Following that, we reconvened for our final session, during which we spoke out of Hebrews 12 on “Finishing Well.” Especially after absorbing so much Armenian history these two weeks, we’ve become much more aware of how much pain this people group has suffered, having endured the Armenian genocide from 1915–1923, and how much they continue to suffer as a result. They are a displaced people who have experienced tremendous loss. Though we’ve taught out of this passage many times, it sounded different as we spoke to a sea of faces which know all too well what it means to endure, to suffer, to press on. The words of hope that come from this passage took on an even deeper meaning in this context: “Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured . . . even to death on a cross.” As is usually the case, we sensed God speaking to us, not just through us.

April 24th has been a very special day for us since 1976 when we got married, but we were entirely unaware that April 24 is also a day of huge significance for Armenians. While it is a day of great celebration for us, it’s a day of mourning for them as they remember the Armenian Genocide every April 24. We felt privileged to attend the church service commemorating the day, which featured two children’s choirs, a sermon, hymns, and prayers. Our souls felt knit with theirs in even a small way, and we know that April 24th will have a double meaning for us the rest of our lives.

  Badveli Raffi welcomes the congregation to his church on Martyr’s Day in recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Badveli Raffi welcomes the congregation to his church on Martyr’s Day in recognition of the Armenian genocide.

  These precious little ones sang and recited scripture at the service.

These precious little ones sang and recited scripture at the service.

  Many came to the Marasch Church on this holiday for Armenians.

Many came to the Marasch Church on this holiday for Armenians.

But speaking of our anniversary, it was sweetly celebrated with Raffi and Kayane and Nishan and Maria (a very dear couple who were our neighbors in the Union Center which housed us during our stay) over a wonderful Lebanese meal and a special cake, ordered on the sly by Maria. Nishan and Maria were also accomplices for Paul in procuring a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a balloon that greeted me the morning of our 42nd anniversary. Paul always comes through. :)

  Our anniversary celebration with the Messerlians and the Bakalians. It followed a fabulous meal out and was very festive.

Our anniversary celebration with the Messerlians and the Bakalians. It followed a fabulous meal out and was very festive.

  Yes!!! My anniversary bouquet!

Yes!!! My anniversary bouquet!

Between the 20 talks we gave, Raffi and Kayane made sure we would experience Lebanon and we did. We toured the Jeita Grotto, a underground cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites, which was unique and beautiful; Harissa, which has a huge statue of the “Mother of Lebanon” overlooking the Mediterranean Sea; the Cedars of Lebanon—the very ones spoken of in the Bible and used in the building of the temple; Byblos, an ancient seaside village turned tourist attraction, quaint and captivating; and Baalbek, the site of ancient ruins of two temples built in the 2nd century AD. We were awed by all of it and very touched that they were so committed to introducing us to some of the best of Lebanon.

  The Jeita Grotto

The Jeita Grotto

  The Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.

The Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.

  Cedars of Lebanon seen through this natural rock formation

Cedars of Lebanon seen through this natural rock formation

  Couldn’t resist. Imagine being in a grove of trees, some of which are 6000 years old!!

Couldn’t resist. Imagine being in a grove of trees, some of which are 6000 years old!!

  The waterfront of Byblos

The waterfront of Byblos

  Baalbek . . . it was stunning.

Baalbek . . . it was stunning.

Which leads me to what will stay with us forever from this trip. The people. Starting with Raffi and Kayane, and their family, who selflessly served us constantly for 11 days by making sure we were well fed and well taken care of in every way. They spent hours driving us around, organizing the schedule, indulging our wishes, and assuring us that it was pure joy for them. To find more servant-hearted, warm, kind people than they would be difficult. In 11 short days (okay, long days), we became “chosen family”—bonded not just by many shared ministry passions, but by hearts “in sync.” It was hard to say good-bye. 

And there were so many others: Dr. Chris, the principal at CTI; Mrs. Maral, the principal of one of the Evangelical Armenian Schools; Chaplain Wilbert, of Haigazian University, Dr. Paul, president of Haigazian; Nishan and Maria, missionaries to the Armenian community; Anto and Taline, whose decision to marry was largely influenced by Letters to my Daughters; Hrayr and Karineh, one of the badveli couples who had us for an amazing breakfast after doing chapel for their school; Badveli Solomon and his wife “Queen” Esther, who have served over 40 years together faithfully; Davtev, who works with the youth at all 4 churches; Hagop and Nanor, who run the church and school in Anjar; and many more. Everyone was warm and oh-so appreciative.

There were a few surprises along the way . . . things we didn’t expect to see.

  In Anjar we met Sbedig . . . who called out, “Hey! A New England Patriots cup!” She had spent a year in Maine as an exchange student!! Happy moment!

In Anjar we met Sbedig . . . who called out, “Hey! A New England Patriots cup!” She had spent a year in Maine as an exchange student!! Happy moment!

  Though the Dunkin Donuts definitely outpaced Starbucks, the Bucks was here too.

Though the Dunkin Donuts definitely outpaced Starbucks, the Bucks was here too.

  And if you’re not into DD or Starbucks, there’s always the barista alongside the road, vending coffee from the back of his van.

And if you’re not into DD or Starbucks, there’s always the barista alongside the road, vending coffee from the back of his van.

  Anto and Taline are thankful for Letters to my Daughters, which confirmed their decision to marry.

Anto and Taline are thankful for Letters to my Daughters, which confirmed their decision to marry.

In the morning, when we waken after about 24 hours of travel to get home to Boston, we’ll brush our teeth and be able to swallow the water, we’ll have enjoyed the comfort of our own bed, we’ll charge our computers without needing an adapter, we’ll turn our phones on and make calls with no thought to roaming charges or needing to use “WhatsApp.” We’ll walk in our neighborhood and not fear we’ll be run over by aggressive drivers who always have the right of way. We’ll drive to our office instead of depending on someone to drive us where we need to go, and we’ll hear our Mother Tongue spoken by all and will easily read street signs and written messages.

And we’ll feel the loss of no longer being in Lebanon, where we were well-loved, well-cared for, and well-used for His purposes.

Life continues to teach us that the heart is an incredible organ. We all know that physiologically, but I’m referring to its ability to expand larger and larger as people and places make their way in to it. How thankful we are that it is not finite, that we don’t have to stop loving something or someone in order to make room to love new somethings and someones.

Our hearts are full of joy and thanksgiving.

How very blessed we are.