This time yesterday I decided to forego my hotel breakfast. Heroic.
The reason? So Jacqui and I could attend a prayer meeting at the Harrogate International Centre, where the New Wine Leaders conference was being held over three days.
As we arrived at the Queens Suite I was feeling especially holy. Not only had I got up exceptionally early but even more, I had gone without my favourite meal of the day, all for the sake of the Kingdom.
However, any illusion of saintliness was immediately dispelled as Edward Awabdeh, accompanied by his wife Ranaa, began to speak.
They had come to us from Syria where Edward is pastor of the Alliance church in Damascus. For the sake of the Kingdom of God they had decided to stay in a land ravaged by war and uncertainty.
Even in the immediate neighbourhood of their church five bombs have exploded. And members of their fellowship have been caught up in the violence; one little girl had her feet blown off.
Even 24 hours later I still cannot dispel the first few frames of an ISIS execution video featuring three Christian men in the now familiar orange jumpsuits.
The man at the centre, Edward explained to us, was a doctor who decided to stay in his village as ISIS advanced. He could have easily fled but decided to stay in order to take care of his people and to encourage them in the Lord. He was shot in the head.
But this is what these brave disciples have been doing – caring for everyone in their communities. Their own church supports some 2000 families. Their medical centre offers free medicine., for anyone and everyone.
Edward informed us that the Ministry of Social Affairs asked their church to help teenage girls in Damascus. And sadly it is the children who suffer the most. I attach a child’s drawing. The Arabic reads “I wish my father would come home.”
Even as ambassadors leave Damascus, these Christians have decided to remain as ambassadors for Christ, to be his presence, to represent his peace, to a society overwhelmed by suffering.
For this is an ancient Christian community. Damascus, of course, appears in Acts 9 when Saul of Tarsus is confronted with the risen Christ. He is directed to a house in Straight Street where Ananias, one of the Christians there, prays for him.
Straight Street is still there, lined with sandbags and guarded by check points.
Some 20 years later the apostle Paul, now using his Roman name, reflects on his ministry as he recounts how he has suffered for the sake of the Gospel in contrast to the “super-apostles” who have sought to displace his leadership.
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. . .(2 Corinthians 11:22f)
Quite a list – but no details. We have no idea, for example, of where and when these shipwrecks took place.
However, he concludes his account with the one incident he actually describes.
“In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands. “ (v32f)
So why the detail?
Simply right at the outset, as soon as his life was claimed by Christ, Paul realised that this was to be his life from now on, one of suffering for his loving Lord.
This is what being a Christian is all about: we are to expect no less. Those present-day disciples in Damascus are a rebuke to our consumerist Christianity. Their commitment to their Lord is shown is their commitment to each other and to their community. It puts our individualism to shame.
They show us that suffering for the Gospel is part of our job description as Christians.
It was Dietrich Bonheoffer, himself martyred in the closing weeks of WW2, who reflected: “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”