What is this? Having recently returned from two weeks in Lebanon as missionary, nomad, and tourist, I am still processing all that I experienced, enjoyed, and absorbed. Our six-person mission team worked with True Vine Baptist Church in Zahle, about an hour east of Beirut. Going in, I thought we’d stay in tents and be eating a rough diet, but we actually had comfortable accommodations and tasty food. Our mission work focused on reaching out to the Syrian refugees forced to leave the country due to the Syrian War and Isis-related activity. There are more than 5 million Syrian refugees and 2.5 million relocated right across the border to Lebanon. These are not established camps sponsored by the United Nations with peacekeepers around to keep order. These are basic, make-shift settlements, less than sanitary, where the landowners permit them to temporarily reside if they pay rent. Each day we traveled to two or three of these encampments to provide children’s ministry, dramatize a parable, sing songs, hand out shoes or toys, and preach the gospel. Wherever and whenever we showed up, we were swamped by these beautiful children, a fair number of mothers, and even a few men. There were plenty of translators on hand to help us communicate, but between tossing the children in the air, playing with the parachute, and taking thousands of pictures, we didn’t need translators as much as you would think. While the joy of the children boosted our spirits, their lack of a future and the poverty broke our hearts.
What does this mean? The immensity of the need is overwhelming and the fact you have seven years of refugee children who have not been educated is reason to be full of sorrow. The boredom, hopelessness, being homesick for Syria, and just trying to survive make life for refugees worse than just exile. Yet, as is so often the case, God shines a light into the darkness of the refugee wilderness. True Vine’s senior pastor, Pastor Jihad (no kidding), told us that they believe God has given them an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with their Arab sisters and brothers. In partnership with an enormous Egyptian church, they are pouring their manpower, manna, and ministry into these refugee settlements. As hard as it is to believe, the pastors suggest that what has opened the door for Christianity in the Middle East was the horrific events of Nine-Eleven. When local Muslims experienced the violence of, not only the regimes in power, but Al-Quaeda, Isis (home-based in Syria), and the Muslim Brotherhood, many rejected the Muslim faith. Whatever the reason, the Holy Spirit is moving in the Middle East. True Vine has weekly baptisms, a medical clinic, a thriving school, and an active outreach for children, all in the last six years. I know it is difficult for we science-centered Westerners to comprehend, but we heard countless stories of miraculous healings, faithful Muslims having visions and dreams of Jesus causing them to convert, and many planning to return to Syria to share the gospel with Muslim family there. On the ground, it feels like another Great Awakening, right out of the Acts of the Apostles. Our host pastor said something rather prophetic, “Here we (the church) started and here we will end”. On the first Pentecost, the disciples went out to make disciple of all nations. Now, the church is right back where it started, witnessing to the last frontier for evangelism! Thanks be to God who is always more active, invested, and intrusive than we believe.
What is the takeaway? The whole experience was so humbling. Who was I to witness the work of the Holy Spirit in such God-forsaken circumstances? With a dynamic team from Egypt and the True Vine people, I was basically a pastoral waterboy. Holding their coats, while they fought the good fight. Even still, it was energizing and I hope to bring that home to my congregation. If I had doubts about the gospel going nowhere in this world, that got blown up, big-time. This is all God’s doing. My hope is others will rejoice in hearing what God is doing among the Muslims. Mercifully, may God be active and on the move in our churches. We in the American Church tend to arrogantly believe we are so essential for mission work to get done around the globe. Pastor Jihad offered a refreshing viewpoint closer to Scriptural reality, “You know, we don’t really need your financial support here. We have God and the Holy Spirit that have been supplying us with all we need”. Amen. After the mission, a friend and I enjoyed a few days in Beirut; relaxing, sight-seeing, and having a beer overlooking the Mediterranean. This pilgrimage had all the elements that I look for in travel; exotic destination, encounter a different culture, and experience God at work in new ways. I have been blessed to see God at work first-hand- calling, redeeming, blessing, changing, forgiving, and reconciling in unexpected places; a cancer hospital, an orphanage in Mexico, building houses through Amor, a drug and alcohol rehab center, and now in the refugee camps of Lebanon. The really good news is the same Holy Spirit is at work in your congregation in unexpected ways. May God give us eyes to see, faith to believe, relationships to reinforce, and experiences to comprehend this holy work in our lives and churches. This Lutheran is constantly surprised and refreshed by God’s amazing grace!