Coincidence or Providence?
I have appreciated your responses to the last three blog posts, sharing how God has led us to specific churches. Reflecting on 50-plus years of ministry, we are convinced that God has providentially directed our path and blessed us in so many ways.
God has also directed my path in other ways. Today, I want to share examples from a mission trip to India and Pakistan in 2002.
The first example of God’s providence on this trip was how I was chosen to go to India. I was serving as pastor at Foundry Church in Bend. (I shared last week how dramatically God directed us to Bend.) I was in the process of planning another mission trip to our sister church in Sigulda, Latvia—a small Baltic nation—once part of the former Soviet Union. I had ministered in Latvia several times and anticipated an opportunity to return. Dates had been set, I was preparing to purchase airline tickets. My plans for the trip to Latvia were firm.
God had another plan.
One morning I received a telephone call from a representative of Open Doors Mission, informing me that I had been chosen to be one of three American pastors to minister to the persecuted church in India. (Open Doors is a mission that was founded by Brother Andrew, known for smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. Today Open Doors serves persecuted Christians around the globe.)
I wondered, and still do, “How did they choose me?” I hadn’t applied, nor was I even aware of this mission trip to India. Why me? I was just a pastor of a medium-sized church in Central Oregon. Foundry had participated in the International Day of Prayer for The Persecuted Church, observed on the first Sunday of November. But how had we shown up on the radar of an organization like Open Doors?
When the man on the other end of the phone conversation shared the dates for the trip to India, I responded by saying that I had already made plans for a trip to Latvia at the same time. I agreed, however, to pray about the offer (how could I not?) and said I would get back to him.
When I shared about the invitation from Open Doors with our elders and the global mission team, we concluded that I could always schedule another trip to Latvia. We decided, after praying together, that I should accept this unexpected invitation from Open Doors.
Our team consisting of three pastors, a photographer and the Open Doors representative would meet in Paris and fly to India together. We would spend three weeks crisscrossing India by train, bus and airplane to spend a week in each of three locations where pastors and church leaders would gather to be encouraged by their American brothers.
With plans for Latvia off the table and three weeks scheduled in India, I felt led to also include a visit to Pakistan, where a couple from our church were missionaries. It seemed like a simple thing. I would serve with the Open Doors team three weeks and then catch a train across the border into Pakistan. The wheels were set in motion. All bases were covered. Visas were in hand. Days were flying by quickly.
Then a couple of glitches changed everything that I had planned. First, a border skirmish between Pakistan and India closed the borders. There would be no short train ride from New Delhi to Islamabad. Neither could I take a direct flight from India into Pakistan. I would need to fly into the United Arab Emirates before entering Pakistan. This meant leaving our team in New Delhi by myself, and flying to Mumbai to catch a flight to Dubai. (Sounds a little dizzy?)
Several people familiar with the situation cautioned not to make that flight through Mumbai by myself. Jim, the regional director of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Missions (Now WorldVenture), emphatically warned me not to go. It would be too dangerous to make this trip by myself. Other people waved caution flags at me.
I had to decide quickly because tickets needed to be ordered—as well as getting a visa into Dubai. I prayed. I worried. But it seemed as if God was saying, “Syd, trust Me. You won’t be alone.” My response to Jim and others went something like this: “Why should I doubt God now, in the shadows, when I had trusted Him when everything seemed good and peaceful?”
Then the second glitch occurred just one month before departure. On Easter Sunday, March 17, 2002, two terrorists threw grenades into the Pakistan International Church where I was scheduled to minister. Forty-six people were injured, including 10 Americans. Five people were killed, including two Americans.
Now what should I do? Turn back? Take the safe route home and enjoy visiting the Taj Mahal with the rest of the Open Doors team? Or should I trust God? Stretch my faith?
I chose the latter option. Yes, I was a bit fearful, but still trusting God to go before me.
I am so grateful for that choice. The experiences of those five weeks in Asia were valuable for both me and the Indians and Pakistanis with whom I ministered.
It is one thing to pray for my persecuted brothers and sisters that I have never seen, but it was wonderful to personally meet persecuted Indian believers—some with physical scars suffered at the hands of militant Hindus. I cherish the memories of sitting around a fire in the evening and listening to their stories. Today as I write, I recall some of their faces and long to see them again. Perhaps someday in heaven we will embrace again.
My trust in God to protect and lead after I left the team in India was rewarded. I was sitting in the New Delhi airport waiting to board the plane to Mumbai when a handsome, well dressed Indian businessman sat down next to me. When I asked if he was from New Delhi, he responded in perfect American English, “No, I’m from San Diego.” When I shared with him about the warnings against going through Mumbai alone, he responded, “Don’t worry. I’ll lead you through and get you on the correct bus to take you to your next flight.”
Coincidence or providence?
I flew through Dubai and spent a week at a medical mission compound in the southwestern tip of the United Arab Emirate, where I preached at Pakistani and Sri Lankan church services. I enjoyed their unique styles of praise and worship–and food! On Sunday morning I was the guest speaker at the large English language service. Talk about a triple-dip banana split with every flavor or color of ice cream imaginable!
Now, to share the last amazing example of God’s sovereign protection and provision. Arriving in Islamabad and going through customs, it appeared that every piece of luggage was being gone through piece-by-piece. I was nervous, because I was carrying Christian literature and had an Indian stamp on my passport. Just as I started to move toward the customs agent, an African woman dressed in a colorful, traditional dress cut in front of me.
The agent gave her a strong, loud rebuke and sent her to the end of the line. Perhaps he was prejudiced. She didn’t wear the traditional Muslim burka hijab. All I know is that the custom agent hardly peeked into my luggage and waved me through. I don’t know why, but I believe God placed that woman to assure that I safely passed through customs with all the Christian material intact. After all, if God did that for Brother Andrew time after time, why couldn’t He do the same thing for a timid old preacher passing through customs?
The ministry in Pakistan was more special as a result of the terrorist attack on the church. Visiting the wounded in the hospital or in their homes, several shared how much they appreciated me coming to pray with them—when I could have remained safe and secure in America. Seeing an Islamic country and culture from the inside has helped me understand and identify with my persecuted brothers and sisters around the world today.
Thanks for permitting me to share my story. It has been a story about a loving God calling and leading and patiently growing a sometimes reticent, even rebellious, child.
Truth is, I now understand that this has been His story all along.
Sadly, many people have a diminished or distorted perception of God. Is He an absent landlord or is He still active in our world and our lives today? Is He cruel and malevolent or kind and good? One thing is certain: He is not safe, but He is good.
That is also the reason I authored the book, God in His Own Image: Loving God for who He is not who we want (imagine) Him to be.
If you have appreciated these stories about God’s providence in my life, please pass the word on to your friends.