Our Story, Turkey

Waiting for the Sun to Rise

Every night during the month of Ramadan (or Ramazan as it’s called in Turkey), our town is awakened by the steady beating of a drum. Dressed in traditional Ottoman attire, the drummer weaves his way up and down the neighborhood streets with a stick in one hand and a drum in the other. A ritual dating back hundreds of years, the drum’s purpose is to awaken the locals to begin preparing for sahur, the last meal eaten before the sun rises. The neighbors begin to stir and kitchen lights slowly click on, giving off a dull glow behind window shades.

The beating gets softer as the drummer moves on to the next neighborhood. I let the curtain fall back to its place and crawl into bed. The nights are warmer now so we sleep with thin sheets and open windows. The dog next door barks in reply to the sound of the drum. I flip over my phone on the nightstand to check the time. It’s 2:30 am.

The other evening, after we had finished washing dishes and cleaning up dinner, my husband and I walked by the river running through our town. Each picnic table was occupied with multi-generational families. Savory smoke swirled out from miniature charcoal grills. Everyone sat perched in front of their plates waiting for the call to prayer to signal the start of iftar, the highly anticipated fast-breaking meal when the sun finally sets.

Ramadan brings a communal change in rhythm. The days are quiet, still, and sleepy until the late morning when neighbors begin emerging from their homes to tend to their gardens, climb into cars, and roll buggies on uneven sidewalks to the markets. The nights are alive with meals eaten with friends in the late evening. Children kick balls and ride bikes with the moon as their flashlight. And a drummer announces the approaching sunrise.

***

The other week, we were crowded around a circular table where waiters placed in front of us hot plates of chicken kabab and refilled our water glasses. After hearing a little of my husband’s and my immigration worries, our friend placed his fork back down on his plate, rested his hands in his lap and said, “Hard times always have a destination.”

Usually, when hearing spiritual platitudes by those who are anxious to say something encouraging, my eyes glaze over and my head nods in a polite response. I give the encourager a gentle smile; they’re trying to be supportive.

This time though, the words landed a little differently in my ears. Like the falling shapes in a game of Tetris, each word effortlessly locked itself to the next, one on top of the other. As they were released into the air, I felt something in my heart whisper, “Grab onto this. Remember it.”

We’ve spent the last year feeling like we were walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Our days felt like they were decorated more with sorrow than joy. Hope seemed elusive and dwindling. My Bible remained buried in the nightstand, like a too heavy bowling ball, the unturned pages made of lead. I wrestled with the promises written in scripture. Why doesn’t God make things right, right now? Here’s his chance to do something big and miraculous, but he’s quiet.

I’ve felt huge swells of doubt rise up in me. I’ve asked questions and received no answer. I’ve cried out and heard my laments bounce off the walls and return back to me.

Hard times always have a destination.

Those six words spoken across the table over lunch felt liking tiny dots pulsing inside me, an ember of hope pushing back the encroaching darkness. They punctuated my skeptical heart, one by one.

I thought about the Turkish drummer, banging loudly in the middle of the dark night. His sole purpose is to alert the town of the coming light, to wake up, to begin preparing the feast. Each knock of the drum shouts out the message, “The sunrise is coming! The sunrise is coming!”

We may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death right now, but God promises to lead us to green pastures and to fields of peace. It may feel like endless midnight but the sunrise is coming.

There is a purpose in the darkness. I may not know what the reason is right now, but I will one day. Consider all the activity that happens when the sun sets and the world becomes dark during Ramadan: meals with neighbors, children playing, feasting, and spending time with family. There is life to be lived in the darkness. There is growth, refinement, and cultivation.

God is certainly not the author of the bad, but he paints beauty out of it. The rays of the rising sun will one day scatter across our valley, sending the dark scurrying away, and things will make sense. All those tattered scraps will be woven into something beautiful.

Not now, but soon.

While we wait for the morning to finally come, we firmly hold on to God’s promises and his goodness.

Beautiful things grow in dark places and dawn will always overcome the night.

Our Story, Refugee Stories, Turkey

When Peace Kisses Righteousness

There’s something about the Advent season that’s so cozy to me. Maybe it brings back memories of growing up, arguing across the dinner table over who gets to light the wreath-encircled candles and who gets to blow them out. It brings visions of coming home from school, letting the backpack fall to the ground as another numbered paper door is peeled back revealing a tiny piece of candy.

Pondering on this season for a moment, one of my favorite names for Jesus has always been Prince of Peace. The second week of Advent is traditionally the time we meditate on this: Christ the babe, bringer of Peace.

But when I look around, when I read the headlines across my screen, when I hear stories of those close to me struggling, peace is the furthest feeling in my heart.

The other day, my husband got a call from a desperate man who had lost his family (like, literally lost, as in could not find them) while trying to cross from Afghanistan into Turkey. Traffickers confirmed to the 400 fleeing people that the coast was clear, and yet when they moved, the border patrol flashed their lights and sirens and everyone scattered in a panic.

He’s been searching for his lost family for three years.

What does peace mean when the world is a mess, people are separated, and there’s war, famine, and comfortable apathy across the globe?

What does peace mean when my family is spread out over three different continents? What does it mean when my husband has held the title “refugee” for five years?

When I get overwhelmed by the blackened headlines and tragic stories of those who live just a town over, my view of God narrows quite a bit. Those Christmassy words: hope, peace, joy, and love become blurry before my eyes.

I listen far too much to the nightly news, irritating sound bites, political panels, and op-eds. I wring my hands, at a loss of what to do with the sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis. The migrant caravan at the border. Police brutality. How the Church seems to have lost sight of the gospel.

I tend to gather all of these things in my arms and then inevitably buckle under the weight of the racket.

But if I stand still for just a minute, raise my hand up to the noise, I know God is whispering something to me and, ever-patiently, waiting for me to stop and listen to his voice.

Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps. Psalm 85:10-13

Through a gentle whisper, I am reminded that our Savior has already come into this mess of a world, ushering in an intimate greeting between peace and righteousness. Two things that seem so opposite, wholly embrace. And up springs love and faithfulness too, linking arms. Jesus Christ coming as a babe to Bethlehem is the fulfillment of this.

Oh, how we yearn for eternal, divine peace.

True peace, heavenly peace, peace that exceeds our understanding, is found only in Christ Jesus. This child, born to a teenage girl and a carpenter, made heaven and earth kiss. The mysterious love of God reached down from above and became fully human so that we can experience his peace. This Prince of Peace is the bringer of Peace. He came and he is still here with us. Heaven and earth have embraced.

So like most days in our life, I hoist happiness onto one hip and sadness onto the other – two companions that are always with me. We will string up dried orange slices like we do every year. My students will cut out white paper snowflakes while dancing to “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. We’ll put up our humble little Christmas tree (it’s somewhere between Charlie Brown’s and Clark Griswold’s). There’ll be phone calls across the ocean to family. My mother-in-law will hum “Silent Night” as she makes tea in the kitchen. Hymns will be sung in a cozy living room. Every evening before dinner we light a candle (labeled as cinnamon scented but proved to be completely false upon purchasing and lighting it #expatproblems).

And yes, somewhere in my heart there’s the ever-present feeling of homesickness, of praying for stability, for that one phone call to come through. The wondering of how this is all going to work out (will it ever work out?). There’s the burden of the brokenness and the chaos and the injustice of this world sitting in there too. Joy and sorrow, hand-in-hand.

True peace, shalom, is what we all long for. This has and will happen through God’s only Son. His kingdom is here now, working and moving and restoring. I know this and I cling to this. It is also not yet. And we yearn and anticipate for its full completeness.

This Christmas season, may we all know the promises of true peace and righteousness given to us through Jesus Christ.

The Prince of Peace has come, he is still here, and he is coming again.

Our Story

Home, But Not Really

Nope, no balloons yet.

I let the curtain fall back and silently tiptoe out of the bedroom. At half past six this time of year the sun takes its sweet time pushing past the horizon and with it, the hot air balloons. They won’t be hanging in the sky for at least another hour. 

In the coolness of the dark November morning, I grab a sweatshirt and two thick socks, hopping on one foot while putting them on, taking care not to bump into any plastic bins and cardboard boxes strewn about in the corners of the hallway. A mop, a broom, tape, and a bursting black garbage bag lay obediently on the ground just as they were left the day before in the frenzy of moving. 

In Route

After the US’s travel ban was enacted in early 2017, we pieced together a sweet and simple wedding here in Turkey and moved into a 200 sq foot furnished apartment. Nesting our new humble home was pretty nonexistent save for a few picture frames and house plants (that may have caused a few arguments). We conceded to living among someone else’s couches and dinner plates and made it work with a dorm sized refrigerator and a bedroom with no window.

This was all well and good because in the next two months — three tops — we’d be gone. This administration is crazy right now but they’ll figure something out. They can’t do this forever, right?

The oversized suitcases perched on top of our wardrobe served as a reminder of the state of our hearts. We were in route, a short stopping point along the way. Roots shallow and our minds in another part of the world. This is just a minor blip in the plan. No big deal.

It didn’t happen all at once, like a ton of bricks hitting my chest. It was more of a slow realization, a gradual drip of understanding that, yes, this was a big deal. And, now 18 months later, we’d probably be here a lot longer than we imagined. 

Temporarily Permanent 

As the brewing of the coffee slows, I fish a mug out from one of the cardboard boxes and lift off the week-old newspaper surrounding it, serving as a temporary protection while it jostled in a van across town. 

I glance at the inked headlines before crumpling it up into the garbage. “CRISIS AT BORDER”, “CALIFORNIA SHOOTING KILLS 12”, “FIVE MIGRANTS DIE AFTER BOAT SINKS OFF TURKEY”

My heart heaves a heavy sigh as it thumps with anger and disappointment. Our prayers aren’t working. Things are getting worse. 

I look around at the boxes and plastic bags – so many plastic bags that I’m sure they’re multiplying – dirty rags and cleaning bottles. Did we make the right decision? Our move shows that we are reluctantly planting roots and watering it with couches, kitchen gadgets, and bedding. Is this a surrender? 

Changing Seasons

It seemed appropriate that the last morning in our studio apartment was the first day it snowed here. It wasn’t much and it melted as soon as it hit the ground, but it felt like a silent signal of the changing seasons, those strange few weeks that squeeze themselves between autumn and winter.

We find ourselves saying “happy and sad” a lot in our conversations. Feeling the tension of juggling two opposite emotions. And we now feel the balancing act of wanting to push forward and move on coupled with the roots that are sprouting from the soles of our feet. 

While not yet Thanksgiving, the approaching holiday season is before us as is the coming of the birth of Christ. Advent. A time of looking forward with anticipation to the Messiah as the baby in Bethlehem. It’s a season where our hearts yearn for Christ to come and set things right – in our messy selves and in this broken world. 

I think there’s a lot to be said on how the God of the Universe sent his only Son into the world. Here, in this mess, to live and dwell among us. God’s heart is to renew all things. Everything he does is backed by his desire for redemption. As I read the angry, screaming headlines while unpacking our belongings in our new and less-temporary home, I know that Christ is here with us and will one day set things right. We all find ourselves feeling the tension of the already and not yet of the Kingdom.

New Rhythms

There’s something about moving that forces us to reevaluate and re-rhythm our life. With the plastic bins, painters tape and the sharpie scratched across, we are forced to throw out the things we no longer need and keep and treasure the things we do. There are new routines to figure out, like when and how often to do laundry (and to be strategic when washing when there is no dryer). 

It’s an opportunity to re-rhythm our hearts too. Throw out the bad, hold fast to the good. While we prayed a lot about the decision to move, I still felt shaky. I felt shaky even when we made the countless trips down three flights of emergency exit stairs, carrying mirrors and plants and boxes. I felt shaky when we closed the door to the tiny space that was ours for a year and a half.

This isn’t the move we have been praying and hoping for. We don’t want to move across town; we want to move across the world. This new apartment is more expensive. How are we going to pay the bills and the heighten electricity costs? Thoughts of uncertainty swirled in my brain. 

This morning though, as I stood in our new kitchen, looking out at a new and unfamiliar view, I felt the Lord whisper the beginning lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want”.

I shall not want. I will lack nothing. God, with his father heart, is my shepherd. 

“There has to be at least 50!” I’m back in bed with my husband now, second cup of coffee in hand and he’s counting the balloons from our window. The curtains have been pushed back and the lazy sun has begun to make an appearance. All at once, it seems, bursts of colorful balloons suspend low in the sky. It’s still dark enough to see the giant puffs of fire surging up into the hollows of the balloons. I curl up under the blankets thinking of the eager tourists braving the cold morning air, 20 clustered into each basket. 

Deciding to move was a huge leap of faith. It’s not what we wanted to do, but we trust that God is bigger than we can understand and we know that Christ is near. Our step of faith made however reluctantly won’t go unnoticed. Things will be made right.

For now, we will enjoy the view. 

Our Story

Finding the Rope When Life is Shipwrecked

I’ve never been one to be afraid of the ocean.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. There was that one time, as a 4-year-old where I lost one of my new water shoes while playing in the low tide, sucked off of me by the slurping waves of the Atlantic. With one foot bare and one foot covered and feeling sorry for myself, my mother assured me a nice fish probably made her home out of my shoe. It was scary to have the ocean take something away from me.

And, albeit not the ocean but deep water nonetheless, there was that other time where I had to jump off the diving board at swimming lessons in order to graduate to the next level. It ended up being 15 minutes of me teetering at the edge of the board, knees knocking, clutching onto my lifejacket. The bubbly lifeguard, named Cinnamon of all names, was treading below coaxing me to jump off while a line of impatient shivering kids stood behind me. The deep waters were an enigma, unknown and dark.

Yet there is always something so peaceful about sitting at the edge of the ocean’s shore, toes caked with sand, the waves lazily lapping up and then receding. Or grabbing a blanket and a friend and sitting before the water after the sun has sunk for the night, talking about the stuff of life and not being able to see where the shore meets the water and the water meets the sky.

Or when I wade out into its body, taking a deep breath, plugging my nose, and plunging my entire self into its cool water.  Slowly going further and further out until my toes barely brush the rocky bottom and realizing, in a reassuring sort of way, just how small I am compared to the expansive water.

I’m drawn to the power, mystery, and beauty of the ocean but also frighten by those same reasons.

Wherever You Will Lead

Remember that popular song we all sang so confidently in 2013? “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon your waters, wherever you will lead me…”. This was back when I was in Bible college and my biggest worry was if I had time to grab a coffee before class or if I could make my measly part-time paycheck last so that I could buy… more overpriced coffee, probably.

I sang these terrifying words so boldly without realizing what I was actually singing, without understanding the journey God would have in store for me in just a few years, where my faith would be stretched in all directions.

At this point, in 2013, the Lord had already begun calling me away from the safety of the shoreline. I had left behind my three-fourths finished teaching degree to pursue Bible training – completely the opposite direction of where I thought I was going. And then a year later, I was beckoned even further into the unknown waves, literally across great bodies of water and into a foreign land.

The Ocean of God

I’ve been feeling like God is similar to how I view the ocean: beautiful, sure, but also powerful and mysterious and honestly a little scary.

God’s beckoning us into the deep waters can actually be really alarming despite what a trendy song lets on. As our feet stop brushing the sandy floor beneath us and our legs and arms begin to tread, things can look dark and uncertain fast.

Deep waters don’t feel like a fun day at the beach building sand castles. It feels like the waves are swirling and crashing and the water is blinding and choking and we’re doing all we can to keep our head above the waves. With the chopping waters getting higher, we desperately try to move towards the promise of the land we cannot yet see.

When the travel ban was put into place in early 2017, the little hold I thought I had on life was ripped out like a rug from underneath my feet. My prayers sounded like Jesus’ disciples on the boat while the storm began to brew. “Teacher, don’t you even care that we are all about to drown?” (Mark 4:38 TLB).

This same accusation darts across my mind when I stand before the literal sea in Turkey. Staring out at the Mediterranean I can’t help but image the thousands of families who had no choice but to board their sons and daughters and aging parents on illegal plastic boats, paying traffickers an exorbitant about of money, not knowing how to swim, just to find a safer life somewhere else. And the very waters that swirled around my ankles became the cemetery of those souls. God, don’t you even care?

medupdate-for-pbn
IOM|Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 88,736 in 2018; Deaths Reach 1,839

Looking for the Good

I’ll be honest for a second: I like to end my posts with something positive, something encouraging and spiritual. But with the season I’m in, I oftentimes have difficulty really believing those things I write.

I’m having a tough time squaring God’s goodness with the crazy things that are happening in this world. It’s hard to believe that the Lord has a perfect sovereign plan in all this mess. It’s hard to believe the Lord is good. Life on earth seems so broken and unjust and…sad. Does God really care that so many of us are drowning?

Treading in the deep waters, unsure of what will happen next, I search desperately for some word of truth or encouragement to grasp onto. When all God’s promises woven throughout scripture seem to be made for the next world, what can we grab onto while we are here in the dark? Hey, Jesus, can you throw us a rope down here? Hellooo?

I know God doesn’t promise a pain-free life nor does he promise to strike down every evil leader (ahh, wouldn’t that be nice?). But I know that the Lord promises to be with us through the deep waters. Not out of the deep waters, but through.

From my viewpoint, things look out of control, swirling, crashing, and chaotic. And yet God can see the bigger, complete picture. There is a reason for all of this. He knows how all the puzzle pieces will fit together, how these knots of string will be worked out. God’s in the business of making beautiful things out of the messiness of life.

Float; You’re Not Alone

The Mediterranean Sea is so packed with salt that you’re able to flip onto your back, lace both hands behind your head, belly poking up, and, without much effort at all, float.

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” Psalm 29:10-11

Just like Jesus in the boat with his frightened followers, God has the power to calm any storm, to part the waters, and stop the rain. Yet more often he commands us to be still through the storms and to trust in him. 

“I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can see something of the future he has called you to share. I want you to realize that God has been made rich because we who are Christ’s have been given to him!” Ephesians 1:18

While I still can’t completely reconcile God’s good plan with this messed-up world, I’ll cling to what I know: there is a lighthouse out there somewhere, planted in solid ground, pointing the way forward. I will swim until I find it, all the while knowing I’m not swimming alone. 

And this: There is a calling on and a purpose for each of us and the things we go through.  When God draws us out into the deep, unknown waters, it may be his way of drawing us closer to him. Seek him.

Oh to have that sort of faith. To really believe it, to understand it and stand under it and to be certain that without a doubt, the Lord is right next to me.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2

In His name,
Sarah

Our Story

When It Feels Like God Isn’t Good

It was inching closer to 9pm on a Sunday when my husband announces to grab a sweatshirt, “we’re going out!”. I’m used to his spontaneity, so I happily shrug on a sweater and we bound down the stairs to our motorbike.

Are we getting coffee? Going to the local festival downtown? I pester him with questions until he turns over his shoulder and says, “you talk too much”.

We head the opposite direction of town. Once the burning of the city lights and whining of the traffic are behind us, he turns the bike into a now deserted soccer field. The motor is cut and the gravel crunching beneath the two tires stops. Without a word exchanged, we simultaneously look up at the sky above us.

Out in the rural spread with no masking streetlights, a blanket of sky is peppered with tiny white dots, like a ginormous sheet of black fabric draped above our heads and little pin sized holes poked through. As our eyes adjust, more and more stars appear.

We stay seated on our bike, necks craned upward, quieted by the holy, mysterious sight.

What happens when God doesn’t seem good?

Lately, my go-to phrase, muttered angrily under my breath is, “Satan always wins”.

This world is hard and messed up and full of sin and confusion. I think of all the Sunday school memorized verses about God’s goodness and how he protects and provides and always wants what’s best for us. Yet, between clenched teeth, as I mutter those three angry words, it seems like those feel-good verses should come with some fine print or at least an asterisk.

Does God really care about that scary diagnosis? Does he care about her miscarriage? His job loss or their divorce?

Where is God’s goodness when he didn’t protect her as she walked home alone? When life is stolen from a womb? When 69 million people don’t have a place to call home?

And where is God now as we are waiting for this one dream to materialize? Does he really hear us? Does he really care that we are slowly exhausting our energy and our hope? Is God really bigger than the evil-infused earth?

The world is one soggy mess of grief, pain, and sadness, isn’t it?

With scary headlines and cynical twitter feeds, clinging to God’s goodness feels elusive and almost…naive. The doubt, the anger, the fear creep into our hearts. Sorrow has punched us in the stomach and the waves seem to only get higher. Why try so hard to find God’s goodness when it’s so obvious this world isn’t good?

I won’t pretend to know why God lets bad things happen or why it seems like Satan always wins. I won’t pretend to wrap up this post in a pretty little bow filled with good feelings and shoulder pats because I’m still very much wrestling with all these same questions.

But what I do know is that Satan hasn’t won. I do know that we already know the end of the story. That Jesus, on that day on the cross, won. He has full victory over this broken, messy world.

And I do know this: that God does care about our pain. He does care when devestating news is on the other end of that phone. He is there when our knees buckle and tears fall. He hears our prayers and knows our longings and dreams.

My trust is imperfect. My hope is half-hearted. But it’s a start, right?

God spoke to us, as we were staring up his creation in the late summer sky.

The breather of stars, who holds the sky in his hands when it feels like it’s crashing down, sits with us in this mess. He throws his arm around our shoulders, pulls us in close and whispers, “I know”.

“When I get to heaven, I’m asking God why he created the stars,” My husband says in the quiet night, still sitting on our bike.

I think maybe the One who holds all things together, the Victor, God who works all things for good, made the stars just for us. With one giant breath he spread the stars across the universe so that when we look up from the swirling waters and see those tiny pin-pricked holes shining down, we know that God is with us.

With all the dirt and evil and brokenness in this world, we can look to him, weary, blurred-eyed, and exhausted and trust that he sees us and he knows. His plan is to redeem and restore.

We can trust (imperfectly) that he has already won.