Friday, March 14, 2008

Irving Sylvia, A Saint with Clay Feet

My wife's dad, Irving Sylvia, is nearing the end of his life. He's the last of our parents to cross the finish line, and he has finished well. Irving, as he has allowed me to call him, is a far-from-perfect man through whom untold numbers of people's lives have been changed for the good. Like any man, he has had his rough times, but he has always returned to the One who calls us each to be the absolute best we can possibly be.

The Early Years
Irving met and married Mary Anne in his college days at Seattle Pacific University. While walking in a cemetery, he asked her to be his wife. How fitting that he asked her there, since their lives would affect the eternity of so many!

They married and headed off to the Middle East where they felt God had called them to reach a little-known people group in Baluchistan. These people lived in an area that spanned across Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan-- not a very welcoming region for Christian missionaries! So they went as tentmaker missionaries; not sponsored by any large missionary organization, and fully self-supporting.

Family Life
While serving in the region they had six kids: Paul, Ruth, Sarah, Dave, Jim, and Grace. Paul died when only six months old from spinal meningitis. When Grace, my wife, was only six months old, they returned to the U.S.A. After returning to the U.S., God gave them a seventh child, Jon.

They purchased a home in Great Neck, New York-- on the west end of Long Island-- and lived there until their kids were all adults. Ruth and Sarah settled in Colorado, Dave in Florida, and Jim, Grace, and Jon in California (Jon eventually moved to New Hampshire). So, as the TV song goes, 'they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverley'… well, actually to Alta Dena, and then to Fountain Valley. But they knew where God had called them, and so they also spent a lot of time back in their beloved Baluchistan.

Clay Feet
While in New York, Irving's struggles with his humanity overcame him. Though he never told me so, I think his struggle may have had to do with the frustration of feeling called to a high purpose-- reaching an unchurched people group with the Good News that Jesus made a way for each to have a relationship with the loving God who created them-- yet not being able to live in a way that is equal to the calling. In his frustration, he turned to what became his thorn in the flesh: drinking.

The family went through some very hard times as Irving struggled with his demons. But, as I said earlier, he eventually found peace and victory and returned to his life's work.

First Impressions
If God allows, Irving will be 82 next month. I first met him 23 years ago, when he was just a little older than I am. I was impressed with how articulate he was in his speech, and gracious in his manner. As I grew to know him over the years, I saw his clay feet as he struggled at times. But I saw something in him that I appreciated so much. I saw in him what might be a kindred spirit with that of the Apostle Paul. In fact, knowing Irving helped me get a sense of what it might have been like to have known Paul.

Irving was driven by a single-minded purpose: that of reaching the Baloch people. As I got to know his wife and kids, I had the sense that at times they felt they were second in line in his love to these people. I'll bet that's the way many who knew Paul felt, since he was so focused on reaching the lost and establishing churches.

Where Irving and Mary Anne ministered, there was no Christian church presence… until they came. They worked with the people they were trying to reach, and were willing to sacrifice whatever cost was necessary to accomplish that which God had set before them. And they truly loved those they met and partnered with while serving there.

Family, Phase II
The Lord took Mary Anne home nearly seven years ago. She went as she had always hoped-- suddenly and painlessly-- when a blood clot took her life. Six months later Irving married a friend from their Baluchistan days who was a dear friend to both he and Mary Anne. Betty had lost her husband, Christy, to cancer a couple of years earlier. Grace remarked after visiting her home, "It was like walking in to Mom and Dad's home! She has the same rugs and knick knacks. It's kind of weird!"

Betty and Christy served God in the same region of the world as Irving and Mary Anne for many years. The four of them were close friends.

Irving and Betty have been sweet to watch these past six years. They shared the same vision for what God wanted to do through their lives, and continued to reach out and minister to the Baloch. Watching Irving being taken from her by cancer has been tough. She told Grace, "I wasn't ready to lose him yet."

St. Irving
Irving qualifies in my book as a great man. He's not a perfect man (but then there was only one of those!). He's not been a perfect father either. But he's done his best, asked forgiveness when he failed, and corrected his path when needed. He deeply loves his kids and their kids-- and even their kids' kids! I'm glad I've known him, beyond the obvious reason that without him my wife wouldn't have been born. I'm glad I've known him because he's modeled what it means to be an imperfect man who wants to do all he can to serve the Lord. And, in so doing, he has impacted the lives of many, many people. Including mine. I will miss you, Irving.

Irving passed away on March 4, 2008, and memorial services were held on March 8th & 9th. Many family members and friends attended the services to honor Irving. I was honored that the family insisted in reprinting this blog in the memorial service program! I was also privileged to serve the family by putting together a slide show of pictures of Irving's life. If you'd like to see it (10-1/2 minutes long), it's available on YouTube. Unfortunately, due to copyright issues the YouTube version is without music.


Jim said...

Thank You Nick,
As always very insightful. Reminds me a bit about the Billy Graham special this past Saturday about Ruth graham's life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nick- it meant alot to me to read this and that you took the time to write this. I appreciate the California Family for doing so much at this time.

love, Sarah

Anonymous said...

I just read this and I can't stop crying. I'll write more soon Nick. Thanks. Ruth

Anonymous said...

he moved me in many ways and I think he is still helping others

Anonymous said...

He was a man who walked handin hand with his higher power i feel blessed to have known him

Anonymous said...

I loved to hear Irving speak. His message was always of love and faith. He sparkled with a profound faith. He will be missed, here in New Hampshire.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick and Grace,

I am sorry for your loss. May God comfort you.

Milpitas, CA

Anonymous said...

I am grieved over the passing away of Brother Irving Sylvia.

I am a native Baluch and am indebted to him for all that he did for my hapless people.

Brother Irving also helped form the American Friends of Baluchistan and was a founding member.

Please convey my delayed condolences to Betty and the rest of Brother Sylvia's family.

Ahmar Mustikhan
Cell: 301-957-0008

Erik said...

I am sorry to hear he has passed away. He was a real man of God. I was privileged to spend time in his home back in the mid-60's and was tremendously impressed by Irving's heart for God and vision for the lost. He greatly impacted my life as he did countless others.

Mrs Vicki Holland said...

My late husband and I were greatly touched and inspired by Irving's ministry with International Students (ISI) in New York in the early 60s and my family was blessed to have him visit our home. I have never forgotten his zeal for the Lord, and for those in the Middle East. Thank you for your loving tribute of him!

Rahadyan Sastrowardoyo said...

Mr. Sylvia was a friend of my parents, Sumarsongko and Teresita Sastrowardoyo. On June 8, 1962, he gave my mom away at their wedding (my grandfather had died ten years before).

May his memory be a blessing.