This Is My /HIS Story (pt. 4)

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.

This Is my/HIS Story (pt. 2) 

Coincidence or Providence?

Last week I shared how God uprooted all my plans when He providentially directed us to pastor a small rural church in Ohio when I was only 23 years old.

But does God always direct in such a specific manner?

Sometimes God directed men like Peter to go to specific place. At other times, it seems like Peter just went with the flow. Consider this passage in the book of Acts:

“Now it came about that as Peter was traveling through all those parts, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. [Present day Lod in Israel.] And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bed ridden eight years, for he was paralyzed” (Acts 9:32).

It sounds like Peter just meandered into Lydda, where the Holy Spirit empowered him to heal the paralytic. While in Lydda, an urgent message arrived from believers in Joppa (present day Jaffa) entreating him to come quickly. Tabitha, a beloved member of the Joppa fellowship who had faithfully served many people, had just died. Having heard of the amazing miracles being performed through Peter, the church in Joppa were trusting God to restore this saintly woman to life. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Peter asked God whether he should go to Joppa or not. As far as we know, he just got up and went. It was, he probably reasoned, “the right thing to do.” And God used that trip to Joppa in a huge way. By restoring Tabitha to life through the power of God, the report of this miracle resulted in many people trusting in Jesus Christ.

So what do we conclude here? Were Peter’s decisions and the resulting miracles providence or coincidence—or both? Peter had chosen to go to Joppa, but the miracle of raising Tabitha was God’s work! 

Peter remained several days in Joppa, making himself comfortable at the home of a man named Simon. Peter may have seen the R & R as a nice break in his apostolic schedule. But God had another plan—a most surprising change in Peter’s itinerary. His next stop would be miles up the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea, to visit with a Roman Centurion named Cornelius.

I can’t imagine that hanging out in a Roman city like Caesarea was ever in Peter’s daily planner. But it was in God’s.

 Cornelius was a seeker of the one true God, and was respected for his compassion and generosity toward the Jewish people. One day, as Cornelius was praying, an angel appeared, instructing him to send to Joppa and bring Peter to Caesarea. Immediately, the Roman officer dispatched two servants and a “devout soldier” to retrieve Peter.

Meanwhile, back in Joppa, Peter had received a vision that would challenge his prejudice against Gentiles. Three times Peter pushed back, clinging to his Kosher tradition. And three times God responded, exposing Peter’s pride and prejudice. 

As Cornelius’ messengers were approaching Simon’s home in Joppa, the Spirit clearly told Peter to go with these Gentiles without misgivings. This time, unlike choosing to go to Lydda and Joppa, God had a sovereign plan for Peter.

I have experienced both of those options in my life: God has at times given me freedom to choose my own destination, and at other times, He has clearly and sovereignly directed me. 

Here’s another chapter in my story:

After serving seven-plus years in Pulaskivile and assisting in establishing a Christian school in Marion, Ohio, I was ready to go to seminary. I had planned to go to Dallas Seminary when I accepted the call to Pulaskiville. Now, ten years later, I knew my strengths as well as my weaker spots. Seminary would help fill in the blanks.

I considered three seminaries: Dallas, Trinity (in Chicago) and Western (in Portland). Even though I prayed, I never sensed a direct leading from God to attend a specific seminary. He seemed to be leaving it up to me. I remember asking myself, “Why would I return to Chicago or move to Texas when we could move to the Northwest?” When I was eight years old, my family had visited Oregon, where I had been impressed with the lush greenness and the beautiful mountains. Besides that, Western Seminary had a strong Old Testament department—an area that had been lacking in my undergraduate work. So I chose to pursue a Master’s Degree in Old Testament studies at Western. 

Moving to Portland was a family-driven decision. While in Portland, however, God once again revealed His sovereign plan for my life. I was in my mid 30s with ten years of local church ministry experience under my belt. One of my professors’ teaching assistants took note of that. Andy attended Powellhurst Baptist Church, knew they were seeking a pastor, and decided to submit my name. 

The search committee requested a résumé, which by now, after serving as a pastor ten years, I could provide. Reading Powellhurst’s annual report wasn’t encouraging. Nor was I seeking a pastorate. I was a full-time student at Western, worked a night shift at UPS, and we had two sons. My plate was already full. 

Pastoring a dying church wasn’t on my agenda. But was it on God’s? Was He opening a door? Was His plan—improbable as it sounded to me—better than mine? 

What do you do in a situation like that? You pray. With great intensity!

As Mary and I kept putting this decision before the Lord, I began to sense a tugging on my heart. One day I said to her, “If ever there was a church that needed to either be put to rest (closed) or, by God’s grace, to be raised to health and life again, it is this church.” 

The challenge was daunting, to say the least. Powelhurts’s building, large enough for 800 people, was in very poor condition. Less than a hundred people regularly attended. Powellhurst had enjoyed a great history, but was in severe decline.

I served 13-plus years at Powellhurst, and we grew to love our church family. God saw fit to breathe new life into the church. A large corporation purchased the original property, and we were able to relocate—debt free—on a very visible corner less than a mile away. 

The congregation grew, so that two services were necessary. 

When I began to receive offers from larger churches to candidate, I would immediately decline. I was planning to serve Powellhurst until retirement or death. 

But once again, God had another plan—another surprising chapter in my/His story.

But that’s another story for another visit here on the Front Porch Swing.

Oh, by the way, one of the ways God helped bring Powellhurst back to health was when thieves broke into the building one Saturday night and stole the sound system. Next morning the small congregation had to move forward to hear, not only the message, but to hear each other singing in the large worship center. I wonder if the thieves knew they were being used to accomplish something good?

Yes, God works in mysterious ways. That, I know, by experience.