Lebanon/Syria #2: God is there for them. God is there for me.
by Jack Baca, for the team
It is 7 o’clock Wednesday morning. I wake up thinking about all the day will bring and wondering just a bit if everything will go as planned. I’m in a hotel room in downtown Beirut, now a familiar place that feels like a home away from home because of three previous trips here in the past three years. My mind wanders back a few days to a gathering of leaders in my church back in southern California who have come together to discern where God may be leading us in the coming years. This morning, though, I’m wondering where God may lead us in the next 18 hours. And I’m praying that God will show up and help our group of ten elders, pastors and church members accomplish something that some of us were unable to do 13 months earlier. Our plan today is to drive from Beirut to Damascus, and then to fly to Qamishli, a small city tucked in the far northeastern corner of Syria, just a few miles from Turkey and Iraq. Last year some of us were not even allowed into Syria but now we are trying again.
An important affirmation of Christian faith is that God is with us all the time. In more than six decades of life my vision has improved when it comes to seeing where God is and what God is doing. God is there, even when our plans don’t pan out, and today I’m aware that even if our plan turns out to be pointless, God will still be around. But where?
My first task of the day is to repack all the gifts that I’ve brought along. Some of the items will stay behind in Damascus while we are in the northeast. As I rearrange things it occurs to me what a privilege and joy it is to express Jesus’ love for beleaguered brothers and sisters in the faith who live in war-torn Syria by simply bringing to them a few tokens of our encouragement and sympathy. Mine are not gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They are crosses, and liturgical stoles, and a few other things, including money. God is there in the simple act of preparing to give gifts.
A few hours later, the team is packed into two small vans taking us up the windy mountain road to the east of Beirut, then into the broad Bekaa Valley, and finally to the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. On the ride with us is a young theology student from Syria. Her family will meet her at the border and she will visit with them a few days. Because of the war her family lost their farm and so now is quite poor. Her education is financed through the gifts of churches like mine, which is another sign of God’s presence.
We come to the border. We are anxious about whether or not the promised visas will be granted. There are checkpoints, lines, forms, and then more, on both the Lebanese and Syrian sides. We are ushered into the office of the officer in charge and told to wait. The forms we have are not correct, they say. After many phone calls, and what seemed like several hours, and not a few prayers, the problem is resolved. God is there in the people who worked to make this happen.
We have another hour of driving to reach the airport in Damascus. It is not small, but it is nearly empty. Exactly two flights are listed on the electronic sign. Ours is one of them. So now there are more lines, more security checkpoints, and more hours of waiting. Again, we wait outside an official’s office and learn that there is a problem with one of the passports. Again, there are phone calls and prayers. And God is there again, in the efforts of the officials and in the goodwill on both sides, and the issue is resolved.
The flight to Qamishli is one hour. We are the only plane to land and park at an otherwise empty airport. It is rainy and cold, but in the terminal that is smaller than many of the homes where I live, we see the familiar face of the pastor of the three churches we have come to visit. After smiles, hugs, and hellos with him and the elders who have come along with him, we pile into a 60-year-old bus and ride to the hotel. God is there, in the welcome we are given, in the hospitality we are offered, in the hearts of men and women whose lives are so very different than mine, and yet, still the same. God is there, in the claim God has made upon us and the family into which he has welcomed us, the family of folks who follow Jesus.
It has taken twelve hours to make a 75-mile drive and take a short flight. Finally, we are in one of the places to which we believe God has called us so that we support and encourage brothers and sisters who witness to us that God has never left them, even in the midst of war. Their conviction of his presence has been tested in ways that I pray mine never will be. God is there for them. God is there for me. When we follow God, God never leaves us alone. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Jack Baca, Village Community Presbyterian Church, Rancho Sante Fe, California