I’ve just visited Northern Ireland, where bloody sectarian strife distressed that nation from 1968 to 1988. Fault lines between Catholics and Protestants go back hundreds of years there, exacerbated by British rule over Ireland and just a history of deep discord between faiths and peoples. The good news is that the bombings and carnage that was so prevalent in Northern Ireland over the last decades has abated and the city lives in peace, if not true concord.
Belfast was the last destination on my recent trip abroad and I found it interesting to be going from Beirut, Lebanon to Belfast, Northern Ireland. If you’ve kept up with the news over the years, you’ll know that both places were almost constantly flashpoints between warring factions, and in both places “religion” was a major factor. I personally don’t consider myself religious; I think of myself as spiritual. But “religion” to me brings up thoughts of altars, robes, swinging incense, unintelligible chants and usually meaningless traditions.
I don’t think Jesus was religious. But then we have to admit that the factions in both Beirut and Belfast had what we can call religion in mind as they fought and bombed and plotted for years against citizens in other parts of their cities. Pitiful, isn’t it?
For me on this trip, I wasn’t in either place to see the sights or rehash history. People are the most important thing to me. How are the people of God? Solomon said to “be diligent to know the state of your flocks and look well to your herds.” (Proverbs 27:23) In this case, they aren’t your flock or mine but they are the Lord’s. And as Paul said to the elders of his day, we should “feed the church of God”, “over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers.” (Acts 20:28) And in these days, that goes for all of us. Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go again and visit our brethren … and see how they do.” (Acts 15:36) There aren’t really a handful of Paul’s and Peters anymore but there are a lot of us who the Lord calls to be shepherds and feeders of the flock.
It was very encouraging to see how the people of God were doing in Belfast. I visited two churches and one prayer group while I was there and it was inspiring. One was Presbyterian and the other church was Baptist. In both places there was a real mix of age groups, not just “old people”, as I feared. And the conversation in both places was about reaching others for the Lord, bearing fruit and on-the-ground activity to bring the gospel to the people there.
I’ve written in a few places about conditions I’ve found in other places in my travels. I wrote in “German Awakening” about my visits to Germany and Christian churches I encountered there. In “A Flock of Whopping Cranes” I wrote about the church I attend in Texas and how it’s been heartening to see those of the younger generation who have been keeping the faith and not “casting away their confidence.” (Hebrews 10:35)
But I was pretty surprised, both in Beirut and Northern Ireland. Particularly in Northern Ireland there was an overall sense of the people there not having fallen away from the faith anywhere near as much as you can see in some other parts of Britain. And it was not like a “hold the fort” type of faith but a ground-gaining boldness in their faith that I found very heartening.
In Beirut I heard of churches there that are in use for 16 to 18 hours a day, with one denomination after the other using the building to hold packed out services for both Lebanese citizens as well as Syrians and even Africans who’ve come there to work. And there’s just a lot of witnessing going on there with inspired individuals doing sometimes astounding things to reach a part of the world which is really reaching out to the Lord in their time of desperate need.
In future blog posts I can explain more about why I was in Belfast. It is all mission-related and some very important things were happening, both in Beirut and Belfast which should help further the Lord’s work in hopefully significant ways. But I’m glad to be back at my base in the States after this most recent 11 weeks abroad. Sometimes we have to not get so busy gaining territory for the Lord that we don’t securely consolidate the gains He’s giving us in His work. I have a lot to do in the next months to work on the many things that got started on this recent trip. I’ll be letting you know how that goes. God bless you, Mark