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15 June 2022

Singing God’s story


CMS worker J is serving in the Middle East. Here she describes how the telling of Bible stories can open pathways to faith for women and their families.

My teammate and I are sitting on mattresses that line the edge of the living room—four refugee women and us. There are five children jostling around me, all talking over one another, each trying to tell their version of what happened when they found a new kitten in the empty block next door. The dialect they speak is rural Syrian Arabic.

Smaller children are finishing the remains of their breakfast in the middle of the room. One mother swoops in to clear away dishes from the mat on the floor between us, while another mother is fending off a child from pushing food into her mouth. The grandmother has rested her head back on the wardrobe behind her, closing her eyes as though it might shield her from the decibels of the children.

Hamida* spends her days in this three-room house with her elderly mother, her two sisters-in-law and the nine children they have between them. Her brothers are out most of the day, but when they come home, the women move quickly into action to feed, mend and obey. Sadly, each of the women at times meet with a fist or a palm when their response doesn’t please. Each of them struggles to have hope that their situation might change or that they would find joy in their daily life.

Mattresses lining the edge of the living room.

Meeting Jesus through stories

Hamida met Jesus when some women (who were visiting the family as part of a refugee assistance team) began telling stories about Jesus from the Bible. It was the beauty of Jesus’ character that drew her in. She saw his gentleness, his love that was willing to give up everything. When the team members explained that we all have a problem with sin that we can’t fix ourselves, she was ready to listen.

I met Hamida a year into this journey when we began visiting the home regularly. In a hushed voice when the others left the room she told me, “I was baptised a few months ago. Rana* (her sister-in-law) believes as well, but even she doesn’t know that I was baptised.”

Unusually, even the unbelievers in this home listen as we share from the Bible. However, they all find it hard to read, and because the Bible’s Arabic is harder than Shakespeare, even if we listen to a recording they often don’t understand. And yet when we tell the Bible as stories, they are captivated.

Telling the whole story

New believers will often hear these stories we share from an Islamic worldview. They look for, “What good thing did a prophet do in this story that I’m meant to try harder at?” Early on it was clear that while Rana loved Jesus, she didn’t really understand how big our sin problem is. So, we started working through a set of 17 stories that covers the whole Bible story. The first story was based on Genesis 1, and as the children drew the seven days of creation, we asked the mums and kids, “Where are the sad people and the fighting people and the sick people in these pictures?” It was a new discovery for these women that God didn’t make the world with suffering in it.

We continued telling stories each time, knowing that linking the stories together was crucial for them to understand why the world is broken, and that all the Old Testament stories point towards a coming Rescuer—even right from the garden of Eden. Tying them together was challenging. The women would come and go from the room during the story times and miss important parts. The children were loud and distractible.

Connecting through song

A few stories in, we decided to gradually write a song as we went. Each story had its own verse, and the tagline was “Where is the Saviour to crush the head of Satan?”

It was amazing to watch kids with low literacy levels memorise multiple verses of a song.

And the mums down to the youngest kids enjoyed ‘smashing’ the head of Satan with their fist when we got to that line each time. It still takes repetition and reminding with every new story that the Bible shows us we can’t be good enough and we need a Saviour. They believe the gospel, but the ‘try harder’ view of scripture is slow to change!

Stories for changed lives

As we move forward with this family, we wonder what change God will work out in them amidst their messy context. How will the mums, who feel poor and powerless, discover the joy of generosity with the little they have? How will the boys learn to use their growing muscles to lift up the weak, rather than beat them down as they see other men doing? How will their confidence in heaven sustain them in the struggles of here and now? And how will they carry the gospel out into their community?

We’re praying that the boys would learn to tell each other stories like handsome, strong Daniel who entrusted himself to God’s rescuing rather than defend himself. We’re praying that their mums would remind each other of the widow whose copper coin drew Jesus’ admiration. We’re praying that they will strengthen each other by describing the eternal city with gates that never shut because there is no evil.

In the Middle East, whether you want to entertain or get a point across, stories are a normal part of adult conversation. Would you pray with us that this family would become storytellers to one another and to those around them, and that as they do, God’s Spirit would bring fruit?

* Names changed for privacy reasons. 

GO

In the Middle East God is shining the hope of the gospel into people’s hearts through stories from the Bible. Is God calling you to serve with CMS in a place like this? Contact your CMS branch to find out more.