Open the newspaper today, turn to news about the Middle East, and you will read about unrest in Israel, clashes between police and protestors in front of the American embassy in Beirut, and Palestinian rage over Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Throw in the day to day rage between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and it is little wonder the tourism industry is hurting in this part of the world. There is a lot of hate. There is a tragic civil war. And there is a lot of suffering.
But here’s a story you won’t find on CNN—or most anywhere else. It is 10:30 Sunday morning, and in a simple, non-descript building in south Lebanon, near Sidon, Muslims of all varieties are fighting—to find a place to sit in church. Druze and Sunni and Shi’ite MBB’s (Muslim born believers) have gathered to sing and worship and declare Jesus is their Lord. They keep bringing in plastic chairs for those who come late. Soon it is standing room only. Some shuffle in. Others come with head coverings. Most are wearing their nicest clothes—sweatshirts, jeans, T-shorts, and well-used coats. They are, for the most part, Syrian refugees. So far I am counting 112. At least 70% have made their decision to follow Jesus. The others are curious, searching. This year alone, 80 families will go through waters of baptism. Their faith will not be private. And Lord willing, they will one day return to rebuild their country, and share the love of God.
A Kurdish man reads the morning Scripture from Ps. 103—“Bless the Lord and forget none of His benefits…who pardons…redeems…crowns…satisfies…and performs His words.” Who can forget? God’s pardon, His redemption, and the power of His word to perform are evident everywhere in this room. A Lebanese ministry leader preaches from Matthew 15:21-28. Do you remember this story? The Phoenician woman from south Lebanon encounters Jesus, who has a divine appointment with her (much like the woman at the well). She receives the healing love of Jesus, while His disciples shake their heads. They are still bound by tradition and culture. Jews aren’t supposed to engage with Gentiles, men aren’t supposed to reach out with compassion to women (sort of like Shi’ites and Sunnis who aren’t supposed to sit together and exchange love). But God’s love knows no boundaries. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Muslim, American nor Syrian, man nor woman, rich nor poor. We all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). And all of us in this morning worship, with hands lifted up, are expressing gratefulness for God’s grace. You can sense this message is like cold water on parched souls. Most have not heard about love or grace or forgiveness. All they know is law and performance and shame.
Afterwards the pastor and I, my wife and others, share lunch. Hard to believe this man, who once was a fighter for Hezbollah, who could have been a Lebanese ambassador with all of its privileges, is now a simple servant bringing the healing word to hurting people. He has made the difficult decisions they are making. He too has lost his privilege to go home. He too has been threatened with death.
You can see why I am drawn here to Lebanon. I have been to Lebanon and Syria numerous times, but this trip is different. I am witnessing a movement of the Spirit that is nothing short of miraculous. Two days earlier I was in the Bekaa, where there are thousands of Muslim refugees. I was sitting in a tent listening to women share what they are learning about the Bible. Heather and I were in a school where kids from desperate situations were singing about Jesus. We and our close friends shake our heads. It was not that many years ago when I was in Damascus, listening to missionaries lament the fact no one seems interested in Jesus. Those days are past.
This is a story CNN should tell, but maybe it is better it is not. God’s kingdom works like a tiny seed, doing what no one imagines. Jesus said it would be this way (Matthew 13). There is a certain glory in hiddenness. Hopefully, something of this spiritual wave will cross the ocean and touch my country. Hopefully it won’t require a similar tragedy, a civil war of our own making.