By Sam Harrell
Since I was a boy, I’ve heard about the Cedars of Lebanon.
Various Biblical accounts venerating this tree as a majestic, towering, enduring symbol of strength and beauty have intrigued me. As a young man, the woodworker in me wondered what it would be like to shape the wood of this tree, so prized in the ancient world for holy and important work.
Now more content to sit in the shade of trees and ponder their majesty than to cut them down and use their product, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Barouk Cedar Forest, high on Mt. Lebanon where remnants of ancient Cedrus libani are preserved in the context of a reforestation effort that began in the 80’s. This band of forest, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, lies 2,000 meters up and about 2 hours out of the bustling, bursting city of Beirut with ¼ of its population made up of refugees.
The first trees I spotted were new growth. Relatively. The straight, slim trunk of a mere 40-year-old tree was hardly impressive and I was disappointed.
Growing at a rate of two inches a year, no wonder. My disappointment was short lived as I entered the forest proper and gazed upon ancient specimens, most over 1,000 years old. These are not towering trees however, as one might expect. Rather they are a gnarly mass of trunk and branches stemming from ground level in all directions. Not balanced, uniform or straight, but bent, misshapen and haphazard. Pummeled by ages and ages of wind, rain and snow, suffering through drought and struck by lightning — no wonder.
When they stop growing upwards, they continue to grow outwards and in girth and in the depth of their roots. Prolific in their generativity, spawning male and female cones at around age 30, providing scented oil from their seeds and nectar to bees yielding medicinal honey, with numerous new seedlings sprouting up at their base in the ancient soil of the forest. No wonder this ancient tree, Cedar of God, has pride of place on the Lebanese flag.
The next day, Easter Sunday, found me in the midst of a small, vibrant Kurdish congregation in a rented church space in Beirut. The song leader bore the scar of amputation and many others in attendance had no doubt experienced their share of the horrors of war and persecution, such is the tragic history of this region as countless numbers spill into Lebanon from regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other places. Our gracious hosts and remarkable colleagues, CBF field personnel Chauoki and Maha Boulos, assisted the Kurdish pastor in this Holy Day celebration, made all the more poignant considering the context.
Days later found me visiting sub-Saharan African migrants in temporary shelters in the city of Rabat, Morocco, guided by an amazing, eclectic and dedicated project staff representing The Protestant Church in Morocco.
From Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Congo Brazzaville and elsewhere, they shared stories of their horrific journeys through the deserts of Mali and Algeria to Morocco in their search of a better life. Fleeing poverty, conflict and environmental devastation and preyed upon by trafficking cartels all along their route, these remarkably resilient people pondered their options, knowing that this pause was temporary. Their physical and psychological wounds were evident as they recounted their experiences.
Why was I even in these places?
Among our Fellowship are individuals responding to the call of God to accompany their brothers and sisters in these places. We work to do all that we can to enable and support them in their obedience to that call. As they give their lives in service of that calling they will no doubt begin to accumulate the ‘scars of proximity’ that are inevitable results of faithful service. Reflecting on these days, my cedar forest experience merged with the focal point of Easter and its aftermath.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is not mere spectacle. Rather, it is the path that Jesus chose, that he was destined for and the example he has invited us to follow.
Indeed, it is the surprising pattern of the universe. Upon his resurrection, when Jesus showed the disciples his crucifixion wounds, perhaps it was less a test of their faith than the reality of incarnation, of his co-humanity — Emmanuel, God with us. It was a testimony that in this world, even renewed, abundant and victorious life bears the remnant scars of life altering suffering.
Much like the ancient and bent cedars of Lebanon, we bear in our bodies and in our lives the wounding of our existence. These scars are proof that we are indeed alive and not mere apparitions! The faithfulness of Kurdish Christians at Easter, the resilience of sub-Saharan migrants searching for more abundant life against all odds and those among us answering the call of accompaniment are all essential reminders of Christ in us.
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me. (Galations 2:20, English Revised Version)
Sam Harrell serves as the Associate Coordinator for CBF Global Missions.