The Defiant Act of Putting Down Roots

As I sit here writing this, I’m on our balcony off the kitchen. The school kids are breaking for recess and kicking around a soccer ball, their shrieks coming from the middle school across the street. I have laundry pinned to the line – linens and pillowcases. The October noontime sun is strong enough to dry them quickly. The fall weather has come to Turkey but the concrete sides of our apartment building still radiate the heat of the day.

This month marks five years of living in Turkey.

In 2014, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in hand, leaving behind the flat prairie lands of the upper Midwest, my family, friends, and most of what was familiar to me, and traded it for dry arid weather, a new community, and something called fairy chimneys (yeah, I didn’t know what they were either). What was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig in a foreign country turned into five.

~~~

It’s weird and insignificant but one of the things I get joy from is looking at the weekly ad circulars with my husband. My mom sends them to us tucked into her care packages. It’s a silly ritual the two of us do together because it reminds us of home. Flipping through the Target and Kohls ads that have traveled across the ocean is a glimpse into life beyond Turkey. It means looking forward. Planning. We do the same with homes on Zillow and things on Facebook Marketplace. It shows that one day we might build a life outside of Turkey.

To us, it’s a strange little symbol of hope.

But what if we cannot, at least for the foreseeable future, make a home in the US? What if, due to politics and bans and greed and misplaced fear, we cannot leave where we are? How do we put down roots when we don’t want to?

Making a home amid waiting is tricky.

Look at this way: If I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next six hours, what would you do? You have six hours so you’d probably open your laptop and get some work done. Maybe answer some emails. Watch a movie, work on a hobby, read a book. You’d be productive.

What if instead, I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next five minutes? What would you do? It’s just five minutes so you’d probably stare at the wall. Drum your fingers on the desk. Gaze out the window. You’d wait.

Making a home in the midst of waiting is tricky.

Then what if, after the five minutes were up, I came back and said, “Sorry, sorry. Please sit for just five more minutes.” You’d wait again. What’re another five minutes? And again. And again. Until those five minutes have turned into six wasted hours.

It’s hard to make a home when you’re in prolonged waiting. It makes the heart sick.

~~~

Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown amid bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage. The powers-that-be forced us to hit the pause button on life, to waste those five minutes over and over again, to live indefinitely in the temporary.

We don’t feel like we have much control over anything.

But what if there was one thing we could control? What if we could shift our mindset from a temporary-bags packed-we’ll be gone in five minutes- way of thinking to something more settled? Solid? Home?

Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown in the midst of bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage.

What if deciding to make a home right where we are was the ultimate act of defiance against the forces keeping us in the temporary? What if deciding to put down our suitcases and put down roots right where we are meant we have some semblance of control over our lives?

There’s a certain freedom in realizing we have a choice to make our current place home.  It won’t be forever, but for now. My arms are big enough to hold on tightly to our dream of one day moving to the US in one arm and cultivate rootedness in the other – even if it’s temporary.

Are you in a place where you are reluctant to put down roots?

Trying to make a home while living in a state of limbo is a messy thing. But we can thrive, strive, and take our unwanted situation and build on it. We can take the dirt surrounding us and press our roots down deep, just a little. And maybe something wonderful will grow.

~~~

Home for me is pretty ambiguous these days. It’s transient. But being in this state of prolonged uncertainty for so many years has widened my definition:

Home is adding one more book to an already packed bookshelf.
Home is nailing picture frames to the wall (when we’re sure the landlords are gone).
Home is watching the potted plants grow and bloom.
Home is the two little painted wooden houses dangling on a string in the kitchen.
Home is a soft place to land. Safe, secure, welcoming.
Home is temporary; it changes, and flows, and exists through everything.

How would you define “home”?

Putting down roots in a place I don’t want to is sanctifying me, preparing me, and cultivating fruit in me. God’s not wasting this time. I don’t want to either.

I thought about trying to tie this all back to something about how, for believers, the earth is not our home because our eternal home is in heaven *insert cute little bible verse here*. But honestly? That’s not where my heart is at the moment. It isn’t easy to decide to let the roots start growing. It isn’t easy to juggle both the present and the future.

I still have that itch to get out of here. Believe me, Turkey is not home. But if I don’t embrace where I am right now and trust God is carefully holding my dreams, I’ll be terribly itchy.

So how do I embrace a life that is forcing us to be stationary? Maybe it has to do with the little things, like putting up photos, organizing knickknacks, and planting gardens. I don’t really know for sure yet. But I know for the health of my soul and sanity I need to keep pressing deep into the dirt and letting the roots grow, just a little, just for a while. I’m sure we will figure it out…right after we check Zillow one more time.

 

The Gift of the Wilderness | Finding Rest

My waiting season oftentimes feels like the wilderness. Vines wrap their tight fingers around my heart. Pine needles poke relentlessly at my sides. The sticky cobwebs of my mind muddle my thoughts. I am tired, out-of-breath, and ready to give up.

For me, this season has lasted 19 months. Twists and turns. Nerves unraveling. No appointments scheduled, no plane tickets bought. Every morning when the phone rings, we hold our breaths that maybe today is the day when the skies will clear and we will stop circling this mountain in front of us.

We have all been in a place of waiting, stranded on an island inhabited with more questions than answers. We have all cried out to God, praying that He would just answer that one fervent prayer.

Does your waiting season feel similar? 

God is whispering to our anxious hearts, “Dear one, not yet”. He beckons us to rest at his feet while he does his mighty work in us, preparing us for the days to come.

This overgrown place is the womb in which trust and hope can grow. It is here that God speaks and moves and restores. Like a slingshot stretched tautly preparing to launch, it is here he is doing the most. The God who was in the garden is also here in the wilderness.

Blessings Unwanted

The other day as I was standing on my balcony taking in the summer sunrise and the chatter of magpies, I felt the Lord whisper to me, “This season is a gift”. I almost cried when I felt those words dot across my heart like goosebumps on skin. How can you appreciate a gift when its contents are the last thing you want? I can think of hundreds of things that the Lord should grant. But, out of all the cries and dreams saturating my soul, this is what he gives me? Like a spoiled child at a birthday party, I shove the unwanted gift back and stomp and pout.

“The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the one who looks for Him. It is good that one should be quiet and wait for the saving power of the Lord.” Lamentations 3:25-26

Sitting there that day, watching the morning sun stretch through my neighbor’s leafy grape vines,  I felt a new perspective opening up in front of my eyes. The camera lens finally came into focus, lifting up my drooping spirits.

Yes, I’d love to be in America working, setting up our new home, and planning for our future. To be close to family and friends. I would honestly give my right arm to be there.

But right now, I get to be here.

Not “have”, but “get”.

I get to be intentional with my time. I get to spend my days next to my husband, settling into life together as partners and teammates. I get to slow down and hang the clothes on the line, letting the rays of the sun bleach and dry. I get to walk through the streets of our town to buy fresh fruit and warm bread. I get to put on quiet music and wash each dish with my hands. I get to do things that nourish my soul like write and draw and read. I get to live simply and slowly. I get to wait and rest in this season.

But God Meant It For Good

“Do you think God really wants the best for us?” I leaned over to my husband one night before bed, feeling the constricting twists of anxiety.

My husband, in all the things that he has gone through in life, responded with, “I think so. Looking back on my life and everything that has happened to me, yes, I think God wants the best for us”.

And so I take heart in God’s track record as my anchor as I paddle through uncertain waters.

Waiting is tiring. It is exhausting to see the days and weeks and months slip by while so many questions are left unanswered. It is tempting in the midst of suffering to take things into my own hands, convinced that God’s timing is taking too long. If I were in control I would have hopped a plane out of the country months ago.

I don’t know when we will leave. I don’t know when this season will end. I have no date on a calendar in which to squeeze tightly. No countdown. But I know we are supposed to be here. I don’t know why and I’m not really searching for a reason. I don’t want to stay stuck in the reason and miss the revelation. 

I don’t want to spend my time here twirling my fingers and impatiently tapping my toes. Or let the darkness take over as I pull the covers over my head waiting for this all to pass. I don’t want to sit and wait to get out of Turkey when God is calling me to be here now.

Waiting really is a precious blessing. Oh, how difficult that is to write. But I know God is with me. I know He is working and He is keeping His promises. He knows what is good for me and will give it to me when it is good for me. 

God tells me this season is a gift. And while I’m not yet ready to shout that from the rooftops or tattoo it across my skin, I am choosing to step into trusting Him every day. It is not an easy truth to swallow and I do not say it lightly. I wrestle to accept it every day as I stand on our balcony in the soft, still mornings.

He is inviting me to slow down, to look to Him, to be quiet, and wait. I don’t want to waste this slow season, especially when I know that the Lord is doing so many things right at this moment.

This is where I secure my foothold: He is calling me into his goodness and mercy today and his steadfast faithfulness tomorrow.

The Uninvited Waiting Season

I remember once seeing a magnet stuck to a fridge that said: “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans!” While I don’t necessarily agree that laughing at our hopes and dreams is in line with God’s heart toward us, I do believe there is some truth to that refrigerator aphorism. I’m reminded of Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

Eight years ago, in the thick of college and in the thick of a desolate North Dakota winter, I was driving to my part-time job at the city’s public library. I had plans to work my full Saturday shift then meet up with friends for dinner once I was off. I jumped into my car, running late. My shift started at 9am, which is basically the devil’s hour for 19-year-old me. Hearing the hard snow crunch beneath my turning tires and waiting for the heat to kick in, I approached one of the three intersections I had to pass through to get to the library. My light was green and I crossed the intersection dreaming of what to order for dinner that night and listening to Justin Timberlake’s “Carry Out” play on the local Top 40 radio station (hey, judge me all you want, it was 2010).

As I was in the middle of the intersection, my mind literally went blank as I heard the awful crunch of twisting metal and the crack split across my windshield. The vehicle going perpendicular to me failed to stop at their red light, T-boning my hood, sending my car lurching into the boulevard.

Plans, whether short term or long term, can be wiped away in a blink of an eye. It causes everything to come to screeching halt. The plans that were written down suddenly disappear in a split second.

I feel that so heavily now in the season we are in. This uninvited waiting season. We had a plan, didn’t we? We had a plan and it’s not working out. It’s not supposed to be like this. It feels as if I’ve been thrown off a merry-go-round, left with my head spinning, trying to regain my balance.

But we are here. The waiting has shoved itself in through the door and parked itself on our couch. It’s here to stay and we are learning to make the most of it. By the grace of God, even though we thought we’d be somewhere else right now, we are learning to live in this waiting season.

We can make plans and lists and to-dos all we want. We can research and highlight and post-it note to our heart’s content. Yet, at the end of the day, God’s plan prevails. The Lord is the one who establishes our steps. I don’t believe God sardonically laughs at our plans, yet I believe he wants us to humble ourselves to the point where we give over our hopes and dreams to him, trusting that he will do what’s best and what’s good.

I can so easily clutch my hopes and dreams of being a family in America tightly to my chest, eyes squeezed shut, turning my shoulder away from God. But the Lord, in his ever loving kindness, draws me to him and gently calls me to lay my plans at his feet. He tells me to trust him.

The other day, while my homeschool kiddos were finishing up their work, I sat down in front of a piano and began thumbing through a tattered church hymnal. Flipping over the vintage red gilded pages with my left hand and lazily playing the melody of familiar songs with my right, I came across a hymn we sang together with our guests on our wedding day. The words of this old tune held a lot of meaning as we sang along with our loved ones, but after a year these words seem to take on a heavier, more real meaning to us:

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

Last weekend, we had some crazy wind storms blow through Cappadocia — like doors rattling, windows howling kinda storms. I looked up on my trusty weather app and it said we were experiencing a “moderate gale”. Reminded of the lyrics of this hymn, I further investigated. A moderate gale is described as difficulty staying upright (my 5 foot 2 self had trouble standing in one place when taking out the trash that night) and branches breaking off of trees.

I certainly feel difficulty just standing upright in this season of life. It feels as if the waves are 30 feet high and we can no longer keep our head above the water. Life will never go perfectly as planned. I feel that now more than ever. But because of the difficult stuff of life, the hard spots, and the dark periods, I have never felt more confident in my Father’s love for me. Oh yes, we can rest, really rest, on his unchanging grace. 

I don’t know when this waiting season will finally get the hint and packs its bags. I don’t know what next year will bring, let alone tomorrow. But whether it’s beauty or heartache, I know that Christ is my Cornerstone. He holds all things together while I hold fast to him.

Holding Joy and Sorrow in Both Hands

“So, how’s hope for you these days?”

I turned my attention toward the voice, unsure of how to answer. Hope? As I readjusted my seatbelt and looked out the passenger side window, my gaze fell upon the jagged rocks, the palette of brown and spots of green that so distinctively decorate Cappadocia. Hope. My mind tumbles toward my husband and the little daydreams tucked away of the apartment we’ll share in America, the jobs we’ll have, the pitter patter of kids who will one day fill our home, to Target down the street and Starbucks around the corner, of my car waiting for me at my parents’ house, and all the Pinterest ideas I’ve shamelessly (ok, maybe with a little bit of shame) pinned on making my own granola and gallery wall inspirations. I think of how many times our conversations have started and ended with, “…when we’re in America…”.

Midwest Meets Middle East

It just happened, like many things in life do. During those early-on dates in warm cafes in the middle of winter, with two people from two parts of the world and two different lives, sitting across the table from each other. Hot cups of tea in our hands, a story beginning to stir.

The stirring continued as months went on. Feeling safe enough to share what his life is like as a refugee, his penny colored eyes turn into storms of gray and his face seems to age 20 years. The fleeing, the survival, the uncertainty – oh, the uncertainty – and the fight to keep his eyes on Jesus in the middle of the storm blowing around him. When will he be able to move on with his life? When will Turkey stop feeling like a prison?

I hold the things he shares safely, gingerly, like a precious, fragile gift.

And the story formed another chapter.

“My life is like this”, I demonstrate what I mean by holding my hand out flat, palm-side up, unmoving. We sit next to each other on the rocks, still wearing jackets as the days haven’t quite moved fully into warmer weather. The temperatures hang somewhere between winter and spring. Neither season, only somewhere in between. “But my life is like this”, he holds out his hand now and loosely wobbles it back and forth.

The story continued to stir. And it stirred as security interviews were scheduled. The immense, overwhelming, almost unbearable stress that slammed into him like wave after wave as he sat across the desk of a rigid DHS officer who held the power to change the course of his entire life with a simple “yes” or “no”.  The story continued to stir through the security checks, and the fingerprinting, and the waiting.

What do I have to offer to this person who has experienced such grief, such loss, such uncertainty? Especially when my life is as steady as my flexed hand and his as shaky as the leaves threatening to slip off the trees with the weather now turning from summer into autumn. Neither season, only somewhere in between.

A Ring of Gold and a Heavenly Churning

Author Mike Mason writes, “The impact of love may be felt as an exclamation mark, but vows ask a question. “How bright is the sun!” exclaims love, while the vows ask, “How dark a night are you prepared to pass through?”.

How dark a night are you prepared to pass through? That probably wasn’t the thought foremost in my brain on that windy day in April when I pledged my entire life to the boy with the penny colored eyes standing before me. Two circles of gold were exchanged, 30 seconds of promises, a kiss.

But something supernatural happened during that 45 minute ceremony. The Holy Spirit encircled us with a phenomenal, marvelous oneness. A boy from Iran and a girl from North Dakota, joined together their lives – his shaky, hers solid. But it wasn’t a merely joining together of these two very different worlds. It was an abandoning of each of our worlds to form a new world, a new life. One together.

We’ve been married just over 4 months, and I’ll be the first to say that I know zilch about being married. But what I do know is that he and I have already climbed mountains together. And there are still many more ahead of us. With the ever-changing, highly politicized immigration policies, we are here and waiting – together.

I think what marriage is, in all my 130 days of being married, is the willingness to carry each other’s burdens, even when they’re heavy, even when you don’t even know what those burdens are yet. It’s pledging yourself to this person no matter how dark the night gets, how high the waves roll, no matter how uncertain our life is or will be. It’s vowing to always be next to each other on the high mountaintop but also in the low valley. Clinging to each other and clinging to God.

And Yet Always Filled With Deep Joy

In the great mystery of life, we sometimes find ourselves standing on the top of the mountain and at the very same time in the trenches deep. One foot on the peak and one foot in the valley. Happy and sad are not always diametric.

And that’s where we find ourselves now, my husband and I. In the sweetness of a new marriage, learning how to live life together, going to sleep and waking up next to each other, turning to each other in the middle of dinner, wide-eyed, exclaiming, “Can you believe we are MARRIED? You’re my HUSBAND! And I’m your WIFE!”.

But happy and sad do not always move like a teeter totter.

In our lives there is also always an undercurrent of anxiety and anticipation. Will this be the day he will get the phone call? Another day, week, month passes and – nothing. Sometimes this drives one of us into the valley and the other is left with either pulling the other out or just joining them in the pit for a little while.

There’s Wii Sports competitions, FRIENDS episodes, belting out Michael Jackson songs, and dancing in the kitchen. There’s riding our scooter around town, pulling over to gaze at the stars, sitting by the river, drinking tea, and feeding the ducks. There’s worshiping, praying, and doing ministry side-by-side.

And there’s also late night sorrow, with a head melded to a chest, tears streaming down two faces. There’s 3am insomnia and praying together on the balcony. There’s fights and I’m sorry’s and foreheads pressed together and pep talks, We are going to be ok. God is above us. He has His perfect time. Trust, trust, trust. Hang on for just one more day. 

So, How’s Hope For You? 

My mind wanders again to the quiet dreams of blazing white walls filled with IKEA furniture (with a touch of mid-century modern, of course), with Instagram-worthy plants pouring out everywhere, and cute decorations. To stability, to predicability, to moving on with and building up our lives together.

But is that where my hope lies? In America? In four walls? In having a full kitchen? In things? In this earth? Is that where I’m putting my hope? Does my hope lie in the government? In the UN? In our President? Do I think they are the ones who are really in control of our future?

Sometimes yes, I admit.

But I’m learning. In this tension of sorrow and joy. In this tension of anxiously looking forward but also being present here and now. In the tension of half of us being a refugee and the other half a US citizen. But the best thing I can do is invite God into this. To give Him my quiet, simple daydreams and say, “God I trust You. I am putting my hope in You”.

What a peculiar feeling to hold sorrow and joy in both hands. We mourn the loss of things that have had to be surrendered and the loss of things that may never come true. But we dance – oh we dance – in all that has been given to us in our quiet, little story in the middle of Turkey. We lay ourselves down at the foot of the cross again and again and remember that God is so good. He hears us. He is with us. And He is in control.

How wondrous it is that despite the pain and burdens of the world we can rejoice in the truth that Christ lives in us.

In His name,
Sarah

Can You Help Us?: Stories of Refugees in Turkey

This is part one of a series titled “Stories of Refugees in Turkey” dedicated to sharing the stories of refugees with hopes of giving readers a look past numbers and statistics into the dreams and lives of real people. Read part two here.

“He is asking you,” my translator quietly tells me as she places her hand on the arm of the sofa where I’m seated.

I look up from the coffee table. I had been examining papers laid out before me from the UN, precious papers that give evidence that this family has been accepted as refugees.

I had assumed the question was rhetorical but her emphasis on the last word told me otherwise.

“They are asking, ‘What can you do for us? Can you help us?’” she repeated, her soft Arab accent woven like silk around each word.

I placed the handful of worn papers back on the table, and my eyes went from her hand to her face and then to the eyes of a man sitting across from me. A 54-year-old man who had been a refugee for 14 years, seeking safety first in Syria, then back to Iraq when the Syrian war broke out, then to Lebanon, then back to Iraq, and now in Turkey, where he waits with his wife and teenage son. Their first appointment with the UN isn’t scheduled until 2019.

“Can you help us?”

The question hung in the air and suddenly everything felt heavy, like lead. I became painfully aware of the sound of the string of plastic prayer beads rolling around the palm of the man’s hand, the black and white static of the television in the corner, the picture of the Virgin Mary hanging above the sofa, and the fact that I was the only non-refugee in the room.

His wife comes through the doorway holding a tray of tiny teacups filled with black Turkish coffee. I quickly sip from the glass of water offered and accept the coffee, thankful that her entrance shifts the mood and the interview continues on without me having to provide an answer.

The story of this man and his wife and the trauma and loss they have experienced and are still experiencing is not an uncommon one. Most stories begin with a painful retelling of ISIS invading hometowns, stories of people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs and their children at their sides, just one hour – 60 minutes – before the invasion occurs. Fleeing at a moment’s notice, leaving behind homes, memories, and lives that they will never know or return to in the same way again. Each story stops here, in Turkey, where thousands of people’s lives hang in the balance, where every family is forced to hit the pause button and wait in agony for an unknown, unclear future. Working stops, school stops, money stops. The decision to freeze in place, unable to move forward and unable to move backward, is made for them.

The bones of each story, weighted with grief and torment, are the same, yet the details that fall between are unique.  Entering homes, sharing a cup (or two, or three, or four) of çay, sitting across from one another, laughing and crying with each other, and hearing their stories hardly leaves the listener unchanged. Each story I heard, I cherish with such respect. Each story that entered my ears lays heavily on my heart. Such courage was shown as each story was spoken out loud, as thoughts and feelings that have stayed locked inside for so long come tumbling out, like rain pouring down in torrents.

These stories are with me now as I lie in my warm bed. These stories will stay with me as I hop on a plane to Italy and Greece. These stories will stay with me as I freely move across the ocean, home to America for the summer.

“Can you help us?”

What do you say when a 60-year-old woman shows you to a bedroom in the corner of her apartment where her debilitatingly depressed brother lies in a bed, not showering, not eating, waiting to die?

What do you say when a family of seven all sleep in the living room of their tiny attic apartment and have gone three full years without being in school yet still have dreams of being doctors and engineers when they grow up?

What do you say when a woman shares that one day her husband just disappeared in Iraq and has not been seen or heard from since 2014?

What do you say when a Yazidi family with five beautiful, graceful girls have no food in their cupboards, who have crossed into Turkey on foot, escaping sex traffickers, whose father has crossed into Europe on a boat and they live in fear that their neighbors will find out who they really are?

What do you say when a man shoves a photograph of his dead brother in front of your face, his body filled with bullet holes placed there by ISIS?

What do you say when everyone in the room turns to you and asks, “can you help us?”

What do you say when you are a white girl from Midwest America who has the entire world at your fingertips, can go anywhere, be anything, yet cannot help these families?

Sometimes it is okay to be silent. There are times when words ruin the moment, a contrived response minimizing what was just shared. Sometimes there are moments that call for sitting in uncomfortable, awkward stillness, and to just grab the shaking hand across the table and pray.

That uncomfortableness, that awkwardness, that frustration of wanting to say something, to do something, anything to help – that’s what we all should be feeling when we hear stories, numbers, and statistics of these hurting souls on the news. We need to be uncomfortable. We need to fidget in our chairs. We need to feel the injustice rise up in our chests, like lava threatening to erupt. We need to do something, anything to help.

“Can you help us?”

I’m still figuring out how to answer that question. But I can listen. I can pray. I can carry these stories in my heart and share them with you. You can listen to these stories and you can pray. We can keep these stories moving and alive. We can watch the news and see hearts and souls and real human beings.

“It’s a kind of healing, to speak the hard things”, my translator told me after I assured her she only had to share with me what she wanted to share. We had just met and sat at a çay bahçe, a Turkish tea garden, discussing what tomorrow’s interviews would be like. “It’s difficult. But I think we all want our stories heard”.