Lebanon Mission- 2019

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Lebanon Day 7-May 24

I have a confession to make…I’ve never been good at “good-byes.”

Maybe that is because saying “good-bye” is something I don’t really want to do with people that I want to stay connected to. Maybe it’s because there seems to me to be nothing “good” about taking leave of people we have come to love. Maybe it’s because saying “good-bye” sounds so definite…so permanent…that it sticks in my throat and bores a hole in my soul when I am faced with that moment of parting from friends and family. And the deeper the love…the bigger the hole…and the harder the task.

Our final day together was filled with these difficult moments. However, the truth is that they may have been some of the most important moments we experienced all week! During the day on Friday we had a campus wide clean-up day as the school was preparing for its annual fund raiser that would happen on Saturday evening. Our team was working alongside students and faculty members sweeping outdoor areas, trimming grass, planting new flowers, and just generally bringing out the natural beauty of this place. After school, some of us played games with the resident kids, and then at 4:00 pm there was helping them with homework just like every other day. But then Friday evening came…and it was time to begin the last chapter of our time in this incredible place with these incredible people.

Friday night there was a pizza party thrown in our honor. I know…some of you are saying to yourselves “Pizza party? What kind of honor is that?” Much bigger than you might think. For the resident children who live here at Dar El Awlad, pizza is not something they get often. So when they do, it is a real treat! Therefore, the fact that we had pizza together was a testament to the excitement the kids had because of our time together with them. And it showed! We ate together, we laughed together, and we played games together. At one point, they called out all the boys who had birthdays during the Month of May and we sang “Happy Birthday” followed by cake! And at the end of the evening, they thanked each member of our team by name, and gave each of us a small “thank you” gift. But the greatest gift was yet to come.

The very last thing we did together was that all the kids, as well as the staff and their families, circled around our whole team as we all held hands, and prayed for us. It was a prayer of thanksgiving for us, it was a prayer of blessing and protection for us, and it was a prayer full of love, sincerity, genuineness, and gratitude that simply cannot be faked. In short, it was the most beautiful prayer I have ever heard in my life!

Maybe now you can understand why I’m not good at saying “good-bye”. Because in the wake of that beautiful prayer as I stood connected to both my new friends in Beirut, as well as the brothers and sisters in Christ that had traveled with me there, it was time to physically take our leave of each other…and there was a part of me that didn’t want to. Which is not to say that I didn’t want to return home! I missed my wife and my family. I missed my church and the friendship that we share together at Faith. I just felt this tension that had me saying to myself, “There is nothing good about ‘good-bye’”!

And then it dawned on me. What if it’s so hard to say “good-bye” because we are not meant to say “good-bye”? What if God’s desire for us is not only to be connected, but to remain connected even when we are separated? In that moment, I was reminded of something I have known all along and have said to our church many times. And that is that “In Christ…we never really say ‘good-bye’…it is always more like ‘See you later!’” Because that is the truth of it! Because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Because we have been saved by grace through faith and given the promise of eternal life. That means that no matter what happens in this life…even if circumstances never allow us to physically see each other again in this life…we are guaranteed that this is not the end…and we will always have the opportunity for reconnection and reengagement.

I am forever thankful to God for leading me to Beirut and allowing me to connect with my new friends who are like family to me there. And I pray that, if it is God’s will, I might return to them in the future. But my real comfort…my real hope…is in the truth that we are now eternally connected in spirit…eternally connected in love…and nothing can ever change that!

I guess you could say that I am choosing to say “good-bye” to good-byes! ... and looking for opportunities to develop Relationships that Matter in order to experience “Hellos” that last forever!!! And I sincerely hope that you will join me in doing so as well.  

--Pastor Rusty

Lebanon Day 6-May 23

When I was a boy, my Dad would often say to me “Rusty…life is full of both mountains and valleys.” And what he was trying to teach me was that life would have ups and downs at various times. To teach me that in life, I would experience some magnificent mountain top moments, and some really difficult days in valleys of adversity, loneliness, and pain. And the reason he was teaching me this was to prepare me to handle both of these high points and low points of life with courage, integrity, and faith. So that I could fully enjoy the ups without becoming cocky, and I could endure the downs without becoming discouraged.

But what my Dad forgot to mention was that there might be situations when I would experience both mountains and valleys on the same day…when I would have to negotiate both mountains and valleys at the same time! Because that is precisely what happened today for me, and the team, here in Lebanon!

Today was always meant to be a pinnacle of sorts. Today was the day when all those theme projects I told you about yesterday that we were behind on had to be completed, and then brought together. Today was the day when a school wide assembly was planned where each class would share what they had learned about ecology this week. Today was the day when parents and the community were invited to come to the school and, not only participate in the assembly, but also attend an exhibition of all the work and projects that had been done. And it happened! Even though there were moments this week that I wandered in the valley of doubt (and so did some of the rest of our team!), it all happened and came together in a magnificent way. And there was joy! In the voices of the children, on the faces of the parents, and in the hearts of the staff, faculty, and our team…there was joy as we stood on that mountain top together!!!

But then…we went to the valley…  

We traveled to the Beqaa Valley (sometimes transliterated as “Bekaa”) near the Syrian border, to visit a refugee camp for Muslims who have been displaced because of the Syrian war. The people in these camps have lost virtually everything. They have lost their homes, lost their lands, and lost many of their family and loved ones to the war. They take shelter in make-shift tents, and get work to make a living anyway they can find it. They don’t just literally live in a valley …they actually live in one of “those valleys” that my Dad once warned me about.  

But the reason we went to this particular camp is because some of their children are in the school we have been serving this week. It is their children that we have gotten to know. And it is their children that we have come to love. So we were invited to come to this camp because they wanted to express their gratitude for what we were doing for their children.

I guess what I am trying to help you understand is that we were not there simply to observe the difficulty of life as a refugee, and feel sorry for them. We did not go so that we could assess their situation, and figure out a way to fix things.  We went because they invited us. We went to be their guests. We went to connect with them, to get to know each other, and to experience the gift of their love, gratitude, and hospitality. And we did!

I wish I could really describe for you just how significant and life-changing this moment was for me. I wish I could adequately share with you the genuineness of their gratitude, the warmth of their hospitality, the joy with which they greeted us, and the authenticity with which they offered their friendship…but I can’t seem to find words big enough to convey the fullness of my heart! In a word, it was nothing short of a holy moment, and a gift from God.  

And that is what surprised me. I guess that is what my Dad didn’t fully prepare me for. You see, joy was what I was supposed to feel on mountain tops, not valleys. Blessed was something I was supposed to feel when something had been accomplished, not when so much had been lost. And yet, here I was feeling both joyful and blessed while eating, drinking, sharing, and laughing with people whose situation is difficult and challenging. In other words, I had “mountain top feelings” in the midst of a “valley situation”.

To be honest I didn’t know what to do with that at first. My first instinct was to feel guilty both for the feelings that I had, and because I simply can’t imagine the kind of life that this kind of displacement really dictates. But as the night wore on God began to do a new thing in me (I told you it was a “holy moment"). He began to open my eyes not only to the difficulty, suffering, and challenge that I could plainly see… but also to the power of his presence and provision that was just as plain to see but often gets overlooked when we are in the valleys of life.

You see, the sin of this world had taken away these people’s homes, but it had not taken away their hope… because God had preserved it. It had significantly altered their life, yet they still lived life to the fullest…because God was still providing. And in that moment, I understood in a more profound and powerful way the truth of Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me

Your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in

the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Isn’t it interesting, ironic, and dare I say “providential” that our all inclusive God used a group of Muslims, to open my Christian eyes, in order to teach me a new truth about an old Hebrew Scripture! Isn’t it just like our amazing, loving, and always surprising God to lead me from the mountains into the valley in a single day…just to assure me that he is with us…all of us…in both!

Thank you, Church! For sending me to Lebanon so that God could make me a more complete follower of Christ, and a better pastor for you. I will see you soon!

--Pastor Rusty      

Lebanon Day 5-May 22

This is not my first time to travel internationally, and I lived abroad during my service in the U.S. Army. But one thing I have learned is that, while there is much wondrous diversity around the world, some things are the same everywhere you go. And one of those things is… Hump Day!

Hump day has the same feel wherever you are. It’s not the beginning of the week, but it’s not yet close to the end either…it’s Hump Day. All the things you thought you had plenty of time to do early in the week are now taking on a greater sense of urgency because you only have half the week left…it’s Hump Day. You have spent so much energy just getting to this point, only to realize that you’ll need that much and then some to get to the finish line…it’s Hump Day.

It was Hump Day here in Beirut. And I hate Hump Day!

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good day…a fruitful day…a productive and blessed day. It was all that and more. It was just one of those days that didn’t include many breaks in the action. There was of course the normal school class schedule that the kids, the faculty, and our Mission Team were all attending to. For example, Kim was working with some of the younger classes helping with Art. Tom was working with the newest Syrian refugee children as they were learning Arabic. And I was teaching a Bible class for 2nd graders.

However, each of the other days here we have had scheduled breaks built into the school schedule, and a break between the end of school (2:00 p.m.) and the beginning of homework help (4:00 p.m.). But today, because it is theme week that includes extra projects for all classes that have to be finished by tomorrow and because many things seemed to be behind schedule, there was little to no breaks in this day for us. Did I mention it was Hump Day? Did I mention that I hate Hump Day?

But something extraordinary happened today. We, as a team here, turned a corner with those who live here. And it wasn’t because it was “Hump Day”, but precisely because it was a hard day. On Monday and Tuesday we began the journey of developing a relationship with the children and staff in order to move from being foreigners to being friends. And we did. But today (Hump Day) it seemed to me that we made another move…a more significant move…we moved from being friends to being like family!

Because that is what families do. They help each other when things get in a pinch. They encourage each other when things get hard. They pull together, sweat together, and… yes…sometimes even complain together. But the most important part…the thing that really delineates people as “family”…is that they are indeed in it together! Today, I saw our Team in it together with people that just a few days ago were mostly foreigners to us, and we to them. Today, I saw this community become a family…and it was a beautiful sight!

So while Hump Day might be a universal truth, there is one other truth I have observed universally…and that is love. Love is something that all people need. Love is something that all people respond to. Love is the universal language that transcends all language barriers, cultural norms, and situational challenges. And that, my friends, is the language being spoken here in Beirut at Kids Alive International. It was a language being spoken here before we arrived. It is a language we have been blessed to receive in many ways while here. And it is a language that I am proud to learn, and the men and women that you are supporting on this Mission Team know how to speak fluently themselves!!!

Thanks for being such a great church that you would send us, and support us, in Developing Relationships that Matter…more than you can possibly imagine!!!

--Pastor Rusty