Our family was sitting down to dinner when the walls rumbled.
Assuming it was just an unusual surge of electricity preceding one of Lebanon’s frequent power outages, we readied to say our prayers.
And then came the boom, and the whole house shook.
“An earthquake?” I wondered, as we rushed our four children, ages 7 to 13, outside to presumed safety. But there we found neighbors, anxiously skimming through Twitter on their balconies, shouting out the news.
Beirut had just suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.
My nerves for my family’s security settled when I learned it was not an earthquake. But then the political nerves took over.
Was it an assassination? An Israeli strike?
Reporting for Christianity Today from Cairo during the Arab Spring, our family had become somewhat accustomed to instability. But that was my realm: attending demonstrations, visiting attacked churches. Yet there was always a sense that life carried on, like the ever-calm waters flowing in the nearby Nile River, where we would often board a felucca boat and float in peace.
Our year in Lebanon has been much different.
Within two weeks of our arrival, Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire at the border. Tensions rose quickly after a drone crash-landed in the Shiite Muslim suburbs of Beirut.
Within two months of arrival, we were greeted with another popular uprising. By some counts, a quarter of Lebanon’s 4 million citizens poured into the streets to demand a change in their political class.
Within half a year of arrival, the currency collapsed. We can escape the rampant inflation better than most, due to foreign income. But like the rest of Lebanese, we couldn’t get dollars into the country.
And when you add instability in current events to Lebanon’s history of war and famine, worry weighs not just on the reporter, but on the parent.
The Lebanese are very adept at adjusting to crises, and we aimed to learn along with them. But to do so, we all needed to learn the sectarian system.
“That is a picture of President Michel Aoun,” I pointed out to our children during an autumn drive through a mountain neighborhood on our way to hike in the shadow of the world-famous cedars. “His position is reserved for the Maronite Christians of Lebanon. Do you remember that monastery we just passed?”
But then after a bend in the road, the banners changed.
“That is Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal Movement,” I said. “He is the speaker of parliament, a position reserved for the Shiites.
“No, they’re not the same as Hezbollah, but they are allied. At least they are now. Do you remember what I told you about the civil war?”
A later trip to downtown Beirut brought up Saad Hariri.
“The prime minister position is for Sunni Muslims,” I explained. “But he’s not prime minister anymore after the uprising. And the man pictured next to him is his father Rafik. He was assassinated 15 years ago.
“There was this car bomb …”
Fast-forward to this week’s explosion. I walked my children down the street to overlook Beirut. A cloud of pink smoke rose from the Mediterranean shoreline. We are blessed to live in the mountains, a 30-minute drive from what was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. While 300,000 Beirut residents are now without a home, we can go back inside and eat dinner.
But first we finished our prayers.
I didn’t eat much; there was too much to debrief. The children were calm, but they could tell another politics lesson was coming. My third daughter calls it our family podcast.
“We don’t know what that explosion was,” I told them. “It may have just been an accident. Tonight you will go to bed like the rest of us, not knowing for sure. And that is okay.”
But it might not be. I walked them through the possibilities. The UN court formed to investigate and try the assassins of Rafik Hariri was due to give its verdict in a few days. Was this a warning? Is Saad now dead also?
Hezbollah and Israel had been trading minor attacks again, careful not to escalate as neither side would profit from a full-fledged war. But Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu had just warned Lebanon to rein in the Shiite militia, or else Tel Aviv would strike Lebanese infrastructure.
And then 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate detonated at the port.
“Lebanon has not witnessed explosions like this for several years,” I told the kids. “But we must be aware they might return.”
As of now, though conspiracies are whirling, there is no evidence of foul play.
It is important for our kids to know that we will keep them safe. But it is more important for them to know that God will keep us in his care, wherever we are.
One daughter asked that, if the bombings continue, would we return to the United States?
“I don’t know, maybe,” I said. “God has given you to us as our responsibility.
“But he has also given to me the responsibility to report about Lebanon, and to us the privilege of caring for this nation. If we can live in his comfort, then we can comfort others.”
Still, is this easier to say from the comfort of the mountains?
Our American friends volunteer through Ras Beirut Baptist Church in the historic heart of downtown. He works at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary; she oversees an orphan ministry.
Their oldest daughter was taking a shower when the explosion rattled like a sonic boom through their apartment. They have lived in Beirut for years and know a second bombing sometimes follows the first. Rather than running outside, they huddled together in the bathroom.
When the facts were known, they dropped their kids in front of Netflix.
That is no criticism; they had to settle themselves first. The window vents were blown open, pouring in dust. Their dog pooped in fear throughout the apartment. Sirens were wailing. How many were dead? What about their friends and neighbors?
When calm returned, their family talked through the very same issues. Like us, they woke the next morning and checked in again.
“How are you feeling? Are you scared?”
In separate apartments, we listened, we answered questions. We made sure to laugh, while cautioning sensitivity.
And then our friends went out to clean up the church.
“We feel like God calls us to be uncomfortable—to be the people who will run toward problems, and not away from them,” my friend told me. “But we also must know our limits.”
Their oldest daughter had a panic attack during the next day’s shower. Her mother joined her in the bathroom, talking her through it.
And then they went out again to serve.
“This event will shape the rest of their lives,” my friend said. “We don’t want it just to be something that happened, but for them to play a part in the story.”
Yesterday, as I wrote my first dispatch for CT, my wife had the kids downtown. It is not easy to volunteer in a disaster. Despite following directions given by well-known ministries, they mostly drove around in traffic.
Today was more successful. While I was writing this reflection, and updating yesterday’s article with more ministry testimonies, they helped the seminary prepare rooms to house the displaced, alongside our downtown friends.
“Everyone has their role,” I told the kids. “You recall my tears from yesterday, overwhelmed by events, and not sure what to write? God helped me to help.
“And soon, he will help you to help also. Your role might just be to be kids. To have fun with the others. You can lighten their spirits, and free up their parents.”
And then we prayed, and had dinner again.
I have the privilege to live amid Middle East politics, and I trust my kids will benefit. But I believe the key to family stability in a crisis is found in those two practices.
Communicate consistently. And give your lives to God.
By his grace, we trust he will keep us in the next crisis also. This is neither Lebanon nor America; it is simply our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
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