Lebanon/Syria Day 9: Perfect, Purposeful Ambiguity

Mark Mueller, for the team

On day eleven of our trip to Lebanon and Syria it is increasingly likely that we will not venture into Syria. While our group remains hopeful that we will make a mad dash into Syria, with each passing day our chances diminish. It is not without trying. We have prayed fervently for the granting of a visa. The Synod of Syria and Lebanon has contacted ambassadors, friends and clerics to help us, but nothing has happened thus far. We seem caught in a political chess match based upon current administrative policies that have their origin in the United States. Hence, we are left to reflect upon what God has done and is doing in our midst.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”

Scholars have pondered why Paul was not permitted to go to Asia. No one really knows. Perhaps the people of Asia were not ready to listen to Paul. Maybe it was too dangerous for him. Obviously God had another plan.

In the quieter moments of each passing day when our group scatters to walk the streets of Beirut, to shop alone or in pairs among the many merchants or simply to buy a cup of coffee from a local vendor and sit by the roadside, not going to Syria has caused me to reflect about what God is doing to me and to our group in keeping us in Lebanon. I cannot speak for the others in our group. I can only offer my reflections in times of purposeful ambiguity.

I recall the prophet Isaiah in 55: 8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts and neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

It is difficult for me to fathom that God did not want us to drive into Syria and visit with the people of that troubled land. So many of us have strong relationships with members found in the various churches in Syria. I would have enjoyed seeing Wafa Zaour in Damascus. Wafa has stayed with my wife and me. She has dined at our table and kayaked in our native waters. I would have enjoyed seeing the new bakery opened by the church in Homs. The church is doing something new and is hoping to give employment to people looking for work. Likewise, I wanted to lay my eyes upon Aleppo, to witness first hand the troubles of Pastor Ibrahim. The Presbyterian church building was totally destroyed in Aleppo along with 72% of the city. They need help. In order to tell the story I need to go for a visit.

Our group has painfully asked God to open the gates of Syria for us. We have given God many good and compelling reasons in our prayers, but God has said, “No!” I have wondered why. 

Maybe God’s response is for our safety. We have heard of heavy fighting between ISIS and Syrian government troops in Idlib not far from Homs. Likewise, today we heard that Damascus has suffered another rocket attack killing several. Perhaps God has spared us from some tragedy. I have always been grateful (after the fact) that some of my prayers have gone unanswered or that God has simply said, “No!” Maybe this is one of those times. I do not know.

Maybe God’s response is a form of encouragement for me. Maybe God is asking me to go back to the United States and communicate to my church that current administrative policies in the United States are creating hardships for the churches in Syria. Syria is filled with many good people. The Christians are phenomenal. The non-Christians are stellar as well. For example, it was a Muslim cleric (friend of some of our Syrian pastors) who advocated on our behalf to enter Syria. I plan to tell that story loudly in my congregation. Syria is no more a terror infused land where everyone carries a bomb and a gun than the cities of the United States. I am more fearful driving to Midway Airport through south Chicago than I am in walking the streets of Lebanon or Syria. Yes, maybe God wants to wake me up a bit, to simply tell the truth that the many layers of struggle in the Middle East do not deserve a label whereby all people must suffer. Some of the rhetoric and decisions in Washington have created another layer of pain in the Middle East. We want to reduce the suffering, not create more. I need to say something about it when I go back to the United States. I will!

Maybe though, I have come all this way to simply put my life and witness in the palm of God’s hands and let God work out the details. I have done all I can do. I brought fifty pounds of medicine in my luggage. Gifts were found as well. I have given funds to a dispensary, hugged every Syrian pastor, funded a women’s conference in Homs, bought a basketball court in the Bekaa Valley, helped pay for the surgery of a one-year old in Aleppo and purchased needlepoint to bring back to the United States. Maybe I am to find comfort in this and celebrate what God has done though me and my colleagues.

Everyone will have their viewpoint on what I have written. The thoughts are simply mine. We said good-bye to the Syrian pastors today. Since we could not go Syria the synod brought Syria to us. I am so grateful. Now we are off to celebrate a birthday in our group this evening. We will do so at a café on the beach. We will raise our glasses, eat hummus, sing a happy birthday song and celebrate life with our sisters and brothers in Christ from Lebanon. I will be doing this in perfect, purposeful ambiguity.

Rev. Dr. Mark Mueller
First Presbyterian Church, Valparaiso, Indiana