By: Alistair Brown
Have you ever kept something so safe even you could not find it again? It’s happened to me more than a few times. For the last three months that has been true with notes I made after getting back from Beirut, last reflections on the trip there with students.
Well, I finally found them. They were safe but safe in the wrong place, buried in a file that was not about the Beirut visit. Hopefully those reflections are better late than never. With almost no revision, here is what I wrote about 10 days after returning with students from Beirut:
After being home for a week and a half, I thought it would be easy to identify lessons learned during the visit to Beirut, Lebanon. It’s not easy. But here goes.
Probably thoughts stay jumbled because the issues of the Middle East and Christian-Islam relations are not straightforward, not simple, and easy answers are not there. Many of the big struggles are thousands of years old and wrapped up in the challenge of human relating to human. It has been messy, is messy and will likely stay messy.
The issues related to the so-called “Arab Spring” were invisible to us in Lebanon. People were very aware what was happening next door in Syria, but most people in Lebanon were getting on with their lives much as normal. Lebanon may not have a strong democracy, but there is democracy so the protests seen in other countries were not happening in Lebanon.
At all times we felt very safe. There are places – like near borders – where you have to behave wisely. There were places where it was prudent to dress conservatively. But we experienced nothing but welcome and helpfulness.
Other visitors to Lebanon we talked with admitted they had not realized there were Christians in the Middle East. They had assumed everyone was Muslim. Of course the first Christians came from the Middle East and there is an unbroken record of Christian presence there since the days of Jesus.
It was an awesome experience to stand on the shore in Tyre, turn my back to the modern city, and gaze out over the Mediterranean Sea and think “Jesus saw this”. The majority of our time was to the north of where Jesus walked, but yet in part of the world where so much biblical history was forged. That was moving and thought-provoking.
The very clear signs of ancient Roman history were all around. We saw them most in Tyre, Byblos and Baalbeck. The last of these has some of the most extensive structures still standing, and the scale and intricacy of the work is astounding. Byblos has the reputation of being the oldest city in the world with first settlement in 6230 BC. Tyre provided close-up views of how life was lived and enjoyed. Yet, deeply impressed as I was, it is hard not to also consider the dreadfulness of the slave system that built and operated these great sites, and the cruel rites that were part of ancient pagan worship.
The words above were written some 12 weeks ago. What is obvious now was the need for a final paragraph. Here goes:
I give thanks to God for every student who came with me to Lebanon. They were great companions who took their work seriously. Each has told me in their own words how important the course has been for them. Some said that being in Lebanon has been life changing, and they have highlighted meeting Christians from the Middle East and North Africa and learning about historic and current religious movements. I feel deeply moved and deeply privileged to have walked the journey with them. Theological education takes many forms, but what Northern stresses is that it is never only about intellectual learning but also about hearts and minds turned God-ward and out of loving the Lord so we love and engage in mission to our neighbors near and far. That kind of change happened for these students, and they will always be better ministers for the gospel because of that.