God With Us
For the Team, Jack Baca
One of the key affirmations of Christian faith is that, in Jesus, God came to be with us. The angel said to Joseph that the child to be born would be called precisely that: Immanuel, God with us. We Christians take our clues for how we are to live from what God did and does in Jesus, and so we, too, go to be with others. This is an expression of love: to do what it takes to be with others.
This ancient theology kept running in my mind on Saturday, the second full day of our time here in the Middle East, as we spent the better part of the day traveling. Early in the morning we left Beirut for the arduous trip through that bustling city, into the countryside and through farmland, across the border, and into Syria, as we made our way to Latakia, on the coast.
Border crossings can be tricky, as can be the business of getting permission to enter Syria at all, given the current conditions here. But all went well. Representatives from the church met us at the border, and we were welcomed by the two-star general in charge of the border post, ushered into a reception room, and given tea and warm conversation while our papers were being processed. They knew that we were making a hard trip. They appreciated the fact that we had come to be with them.
After settling into our hotel we had dinner with the pastor of the Latakia church, Salam Hanna. Several elders joined us, including one whom I now consider a close friend, Nazih Khasho, who works as a director in Syrian television. The elders of the churches here are like elders everywhere (in my experience): engaging, educated, involved people from all walks of life who love Jesus and love his church.
When dinner was over it was time to turn in for the night, and I found myself again thinking about the journey. Basically, we had spent the day getting from one place to another. To one way of thinking that would be an amazing expenditure of time. But the time and trouble is worth it, in order to be with folks.
The next morning was different. We joined the Latakia congregation for worship and fellowship. This particular church is the largest in the Synod with about 1,000 members. It is vital and needing more physical space. The mood was joyful. The people were gracious. On the surface, it was like any other church that a Christian from the states might encounter. Underneath, however, there is another story. The pastor is relatively new, a replacement for the one who emigrated to Canada. They have had an increase in participation of church activities partly due to the result of new residents of Latakia who have left other places in Syria to escape the hardship and danger of war in their own hometowns. One of our group, Ed Hurley, preached about forgiveness. That's a tough topic in any circumstance, but it takes on fresh overtones when considered in the context of a people who have lost family members, homes, and an entire life, because of war.
Still, there was joy, and hope, and faith. We shared the Lord's Supper. We sang the great old hymns (in Arabic, of course). We enjoyed the Christmas tree still standing in the corner of the sanctuary. And we celebrated the Savior who traveled far to embrace his world.
Afterward, we shared coffee and conversation in the fellowship hall. We spoke in broken English, broken Arabic, and perfect hugs, smiles, and laughter. The bonds of love were strengthened. The body of Christ was refreshed. And the many miles traversed and hours spent faded into total insignificance. Being with each other is a good thing. It is sacred. It is the stuff of which heaven is made.
Rev. Dr. Jack Baca
Village Community Presbyterian Church, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.