Where there is water, there is life: My time in Tunisia

My dear brothers and sisters, what a joy it is to be back in the States and hearing from many of you! I hope that you’re all doing well. Right away, I want to remind you how thankful I am for your many prayers during my time in Africa. It was evident in our time that the Lord was gracious to hear the prayers that so many were offering on our behalf.

I want to tell you as much of the story as I can, but still this will be the highlights version. The Lord was pleased to bless our time, and bless us, and since you participated in the ministry of our team I want you to share in the blessings we had as much as possible.

So then, this is a story about God’s work in Africa. It’s a story about the church; about God’s people and the fear they feel under persecution; about the growth they’re experiencing in the midst of hardship; about their desire for God and their perseverance to make Him known. The story begins in earnest in Northern France in a little town called Roubaix. This is the home of a North African man named A–, who is one of the most joyful, Godly pastors I have ever met. The reason he lives in Roubaix is because this particular town’s population consists of over 80% North Africans who have immigrated to France. When we arrived we were introduced to a few members of his small church, who fed us and fellowshipped with us. Over the next 2 days we would be introduced to the culture of North Africa among the people we met there. Perhaps most significantly, we would hear A–’s personal testimony. As a young man he was introduced to Christianity by a young woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and pestered him until he came to church. In A–’s words she “did everything wrong in talking to a Muslim. Every law of Islam, she broke.” But God honored her boldness. A– was finally converted after having a dream about Jesus Christ, in which he saw his own sin and God’s holiness. He told no one at first after having become a Christian, but his family suspected it. His father told him one day, “A–, I don’t know if it’s true, but if you have truly become a Christian I will kill you.” In North Africa, this is normal. Today, A– is a tremendously bold and influential missionary to North Africa. Most of his family and much of his village are Christians now, and we would get to participate in his very fruitful ministry.

When we arrived in Tunisia, we immediately got a taste of what it is like living in an Islamic dictatorship. Our leaders were questioned extensively as soon as we went through customs. We were out of the ordinary, and they wanted to know everything they could get about who we were, what we were doing, where we were going, and etc. In every hotel we stayed in, every single night, we had to fill out an information card with our information, and each day every hotel in Tunisia sends these cards in to the government so they can track any visitors in the country. We would be frequently followed throughout the week.

Now, so as to not paint an entirely bleak picture, I want to let you know that this country was beautiful! Most of our week was spent traveling to a different city every day. We drove about a thousand miles and saw 3/4ths of the country. We began in the bustling, European-like capitol. We swam in the Mediterranean on the coast of a small island one day, and soon after spent a night in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara desert. We saw touristy resort areas, and drove through nameless towns tucked away in the mountains. We looked out over the endless dunes of the desert, experienced the brutal heat of the salt flats, and walked under the explosive growth of an oasis or two. That is one of the most striking mental images I have of the trip actually: looking out and seeing nothing but pure heat being reflected up from the barren whiteness of the salt flats, and then all of a sudden coming upon a huge grove of palm trees. It was incredible.

Now, with that image in mind I want to begin talking about the believers in Tunisia. It is a nearly a perfect physical representation of what I felt the spiritual state was there. The country as a whole is dead spiritually, just as the desert is dead. There is no spiritual life there – only the brutal harshness of Islam. BUT! In the midst of the endless spiritual desert you sometimes can happen upon a thriving oasis of Christians who are being fed by the water of life, and the contrast is just as striking to see spiritually as it is physically. Where there is living water, there is spiritual life.

2 Stories to illustrate the barrenness of the spiritual land: One of the first cities we visited was called Kairouen. It is considered the 4th most important city in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. As we walked into the city, we were invited in a family’s home for tea, but first they showed us up to the roof so we could look out over the city. It sprawled out wide, and there were mosques everywhere. One of the young men was speaking to me because he thought I was muslim, and he very proudly told me that every single person in the city, without exception, was Islamic. And so looking out over this city of thousands and thousands of people, you could be sure that nearly every single one did not know Jesus Christ. This was one of the times when you could almost feel the spiritual darkness, it was so heavy. The second story is to illustrate the power of Islam over the people. We were in a town called Sbeitla, where there are some incredibly well-preserved roman ruins. We were out walking around and looking at things, and we found the ruins of a church which was 1600 years old. And in the ruins, almost perfectly preserved, was a baptistery. It went down into the ground and was inlaid with tiny bits of colorful tile making crosses and fish and roses. We were all standing around just enjoying the thought that we were standing where Christians had been born so long ago, and a very kind older man walked up to us. He talked with us for a moment, and then let me hop over the barricade and go have a closer look at the baptistery. While I was doing that, one of the brothers with us began talking to the man about what baptism means, sharing the gospel with him in the process. Just a few sentences in, from way off far away, someone whistled…and the fear of islam was so great over this man that he ducked down and ran away because he was instantly scared to be seen talking to Christians near a Christian ruin. The darkness in Tunisia is deep, and it has a powerful hold over the people there, brothers and sisters.

But even so, by the grace of God, the church is alive.

So, what did I learn about the church while we were there? We had the great privilege of meeting to fellowship and pray with quite a few believers in several different cities.

First: they are often scared, but they persevere.

We met one brother quite by accident. We were eating in the restaurant he worked at, and we prayed together before the meal, and he came up and introduced himself. His name was M–, and he was very nervous about even introducing himself. He had stopped meeting with other believers, and told is it was very bad to be a Christian in this place. All he wanted was to leave the country and go live in Canada. In another city, there was a break-in at a church. The police accused and arrested one of the believers from the church, held him in jail for some time, beat him up, and finally let him go. This happened while we were in that city, though we didn’t find out about it til later. However, even though they are scared, they trust Christ. We met another young man named Y–. He was my age – 25. He had been in the military when he became a Christian, and so all his officers new immediately. He was harassed and punished for years, sometimes enduring 12 hours of interrogation at a time while they tried to force him to convert back to Islam. And yet, when we received a call that we were in town he left his job and immediately came to meet us. When he shared his story there was nothing but joy in his face for his love for Christ, and he was overjoyed to meet and talk with us.

Secondly: They are often lonely, but never abandoned.

In one town we met a young woman named H–. There were a maybe 1 or 2 others in the area, but because of their fear they refused to meet with her to fellowship and pray. She told me that oftentimes people she had known for quite some time would stop being her friend when she told them she was a Christian. She stayed with us the entire day, because we were all immediately bonded together in Christ because of our faith. It was maybe the first and last time she would have the opportunity to fellowship with a group of Christians as big as ours. We also had the opportunity to meet a Brazilian missionary named E–. He was an engineer living in a town to help with irrigation and drinking water issues, and there were no Christians. The townspeople would not associate with he or his family. After school his children could do nothing but sit in their house until it was time for bed. You could see the weariness in his face. But with both of these – H– and E– – the most present thing in their speech was their delight in Christ. Neither of them held grudges against the people around them. Much the opposite! They desperately wanted people to know the same love they were constantly comforted by, because Christ never abandons them.

Third: They are thirsty and hungry for God, and are being filled.

We were able to meet with a small group of brothers in Sousse one day. This was the city where the Christian was falsely accused, arrested and beaten. They shared their stories with us, and we talked and prayed together for several hours. Before we left, we asked them what they needed and how we could pray for the church. Do you know what they said? “We need nothing but to know Jesus better, so pray that we could understand the Bible and live without fear as good witnesses for Him.” They are HUNGRY to know God. They THIRST for His word. “As the dear pants for the water, so my soul longs after Thee, o God.” Psalm 42

Fourth: They are bold, because they treasure Christ.

We had a brother from Tunisia meet us in the airport our first day. His name was M–, and he was one of the funniest little arab men I’ve ever met. He was wonderful, and we all instantly loved him. He knew very little English: “HowareyouveryniceI’mgood.” “Hellelujah!Amain!” Well, this brother was also incredibly bold. We were walking through a market one day and saw a bookstore. He walked in and asked the man if he had a Koran, which he did. M– opened it up to show him a passage that encourages Muslims to read the Bible and then challenged the man on Islamic beliefs…right there in the middle of the market. Other times, we would be standing around people and he would begin to have loud conversations with us about Jesus, lower his voice and say “It’s for them.” meaning the people around, and then continue talking about the gospel to us. His life was constantly lived boldly to share the gospel with his countrymen. A huge example of boldness was our brother A–. He continues to go into North African countries where there are warrants for his arrest and people want to kill him. He will even share the gospel with the officers who stop him at military checkpoints! These brothers, and many others, are extremely bold. They are modern-day Paul’s of a sort, who as long as they are alive will not stop preaching the gospel no matter what…and it’s because they treasure Christ more than any earthly thing. At the end of our trip, as we were discussing all we had done, at one point A– said to us: “It is very comfortable here in France. I have a car. I have a family. I have a house…but these things are not where my comfort is. I will always go to dangerous places and do what God wants me to do.” They are bold, because Christ is more important to them than anything they might lose.

Fifth: They are growing, because they believe and seek Christ.

God is working in North Africa, brothers and sisters. He is working in tremendous and mighty ways. Things are just beginning in Tunisia – there are maybe a few thousand believers. However, right next door in Algeria, a country where the missionaries and foreign workers were all kicked out, the church is experiencing explosive growth! 15-20 years ago there were only a handful of believers. Now there are upwards of 1 million according to the local pastors in the country. In 15 years, under serious oppression, they have seen almost a million people come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. There is NO ONE who can take credit for that except our God, who is pouring out His spirit on that place. Maybe Tunisia will be next. Perhaps the wave of God will flow through and begin to wipe away the darkness there. The work has already begun in the hearts of those we met. They seek the Lord and believe what they read in the Bible. They serve him boldly, even though they are scared and lonely sometimes. And they are THIRSTY for more.

I wish you could’ve been there to see the depth of peace and joy on their faces. I wish you could’ve heard the passion in their voices as they prayed and as they talked about knowing Christ. What I hope, and what I have prayed for is that WE would hunger for Christ in this way; that WE would be satisfied in Christ like this, and that the chains of complacency that grip so much of the American church would fall off of you so that you might find your unshakeable joy in Christ and boldly serve him right where you are.

In some ways we are more blessed than our brothers and sisters in Tunisia: we have freedom, wealth, comfort. But in significant ways they are more blessed than us: their struggles push them to deep faith, which in turn makes Christ more satisfying to them than all of our wealth, comfort and freedom.

Now, after all this, it would be a mistake to assume that the spiritual struggle that these brothers and sisters are experiencing is any more dangerous than our own. Their PHYSICAL struggle is harder, but they are wrestling with the same spiritual forces of darkness that we are, brothers and sisters. Moreover, I daresay we have the more difficult task. They have the luxury of being able to look their enemy more in the eye – spiritual oppression is much more overt in that place. But we struggle with the same enemy!, and he works much more covertly in this place. He waits until we are lulled to sleep by the ease and comfort of our lives, and then he gently nudges us away from the narrow path. We have just as much need to put on the armor of God as our brothers and sisters do, and we need to pray for one another just as much as we need to pray for them.

–>So, how can you pray for our North African brothers and sisters? You can pray that they would know Christ more, understand his Word, and live fearlessly as bold witnesses.

–>Now, how can you pray for each other? You can pray that we would know Christ more, understand his Word, and live fearlessly as bold witnesses.

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One thought on “Where there is water, there is life: My time in Tunisia

  1. Pingback: Missions week « The Occasional Theologian

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