Tonight nearly thirty young people gathered in a home up here in the Lebanese mountains to remember a tragedy that took place ten years ago today. Bonnie Wittherall was showing grace and care,in the name of Jesus, at a health clinic in Sidon, when a gunman entered and shot her in the face.
A few years after this tragic death, I stood at the closed gates of the church, where the clinic was once housed. Tertullian once said the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. But Philip Jenkins has also made the case that there are times the blood of the martyrs is the end of the church. As far as I know, the church is still closed.
This helps to explain why Beirut is not a tourist mecca for most people I know. When I first flew over the city in 1996, it looked like one gaping wound. Years of civil war had left a lot of the city broken. Over the last sixteen years, I have seen the city change. There are some beautiful parts. But underneath the daily commerce is always the threat of chaos breaking out, as evidenced by the recent bombing.
The traffic is maddening, but people cope. The electricity occasionally shuts off, but people adjust. If you have a hard time flexing, this is a place to avoid. I watch with admiration as ministry leaders are thrown curves almost every day. I liken the context of their work to an emergency ward. You never know what will happen next.
Still, for some reason that I can only attribute to the Spirit, I am drawn to this place. The people are special–the food is amazing. But it is far deeper. I come here because of Acts 1:8. In the circles in which I am to witness, Beirut represents my "outermost parts of the earth." I come because I believe the Middle East is one of the most strategic places on earth. I come because there has been a cycle of conflict and suffering, and the only hope in this place, as in every place, is the reconciling work of the gospel. I come because there is a measure of dysfunction in the Christian community, and maybe, in some small way, I can help. I come because I genuninely love these people.
I also come because I need to be with the suffering church. On Friday nite, I joined some 200 believers from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, US, Korea, and Hong Kong. Some came from Baghdad or Aleppo or Amman at a certain risk. We come and worship and feel an incredible bond. We come to feel the grief and pain of displaced people.
When you are on the ground here in Lebanon, you get a much better feel of things. Here are some random impressions–
-there is a certain nervousness, with civil war next door in Syria and Gaza imploding to the south. Life goes on here, but there are fears Hezbollah might draw Lebanon in some conflict, conflict that could invite Israel to respond.
-Christians in Syria are in a no win situation. Aligning with any side comes with a real price. I was extremely impressed with the Syrians I met this weekend. Some have experienced great loss, but none asked for anything except our prayers.
-it is clear that for the body of Christ to matter in Lebanon, we will have to come together as a united community. This is the work of NEI, which I am so grateful to be a part of.
-businessmen, pastors, parachurch leaders, educators are coming from all over the world to be part of something God is doing in Lebanon. Every year this gathering grows. You can sense people are looking for a cause bigger than themselves and bigger than their comfortable suburban setting where indifference too often defines the world they have left behind.
I come because I get to work with people like Grant and Elie, men with gravitas who are passionate to see this region claimed for Christ. I come because there are a lot of young people with great hopes for the future. I want them to know churches like Village really care. I am grateful for a church that has a global vision and sees the need to share my training and gifts with others.