In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

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The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]

My Love of Bazaars

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I have a low tolerance for malls in the United States. I get mall headaches and feet; I feel quickly overwhelmed, tire easily of the glitz and the poster children for anorexia dressed in pretty much nothing with gaunt cheeks and blemish free skin. I find that discontent goes hand in hand with the American mall experience – show me a content woman, put her in a mall for one hour, and I guarantee discontent. It’s just the way it works.

But take me to a bazaar in the east – whether it be Pakistan, Turkey, or Egypt and all my sights and senses are engaged in an amazing process of hunting and gathering. The smells of pungent spices mingle with perfumes; the vibrant colors of fabric and pottery fill my mind with possibility. And I rarely get tired.

On our trip to Istanbul last year, my husband and I were talking about crowded bazaars as we walked to the Spice Bazaar in the Eminönü quarter of Istanbul. The Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) is one of the largest bazaars in the city. And while the Grand Bazaar is known for its glitter, the Spice Bazaar is more appealing to me. This bazaar has been in the city since the 1600’s and is a covered space holding hundreds of shops. It was and continues to be the center for spice trade in the area. Huge containers of pungent spices, large quantities of boxed and fresh Turkish delight, pottery stores, cushion covers and carpets of bright colors and textures,Turkish towels known world over for their softness — all of these and more are in abundance. I know this world and am fully comfortable in it. Bazaars like this were part of my childhood experience and I am at ease even without language skills. What would make many of my friends tense with frustration and worry is home to me.

I mingle comfortably with shop keepers, interacting with confidence, knowing when to bargain and when to compliment, knowing when a price is good and when it’s far too high. I know it’s ultimately about a relationship and a business deal, that it’s a game with a clear set of rules to the skilled – rules that seem ambiguous to the uninitiated.

My adrenaline flows and I am fully engaged in a game I know and love well. I know that you don’t get into this game unless you’re serious. I know what will be insulting, and what will be fun. I know when it’s getting old and when to stop. And I almost always win at this game.

I know bargaining. I know spices. I know fabric. I know pottery. I know carpets.

I don’t know Ralph Lauren. I am unfamiliar with Lacoste or Yves St. Laurent. I have never met Coach or Gucci. Calvin Klein is a stranger. Thin, headless mannequins do nothing for me. but take me to the crowded shops overflowing with color, fabric, texture, and smell in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul and my heart is satisfied.

 

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Colors of Istanbul

This post was written on my recent trip to Turkey. In a world of bleak – sometimes all we need is color! Enjoy! 

Put me in a mall in America and I grow discontent and paralyzed. Put me in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul and I come alive.

I am drinking up the colors like I am dying of thirst. Vibrant reds, oranges, blues, and purples. All shades of the color wheel are present. It is an artist’s delight. The colors engage all my senses, bring my eyes, and mind into a world of possibility.

As much as I want to wander and just take it in, I know in a short time my world will no longer have these colors.

I will be longing for their life-giving vibrancy. So I begin using my crude version of a camera called an iPhone 4 and snap away. And in all the imperfection that is my photography – I still capture the colors; the colors of Istanbul.

Sometimes all you need to move forward is to know that life holds color. 

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Stories from a Refugee Clinic

I am sitting in a sun-filled room in Uskudar – an area of Istanbul on the Asian side of the city. I heard the Call to Prayer a half hour ago telling me that it is late afternoon and we will soon be getting ready for the evening activities.

I am tired in the best way possible.

The day began in chaos. It was the first night since arriving that I did not sleep well. Carol (my sister-in-law) and I were heading to a refugee clinic on the European side of the city and we knew we would be late. We ran to catch a ferry from Uskudar to Kabatas, and slid into seats by the window, breathless.

The morning was beautiful, partly cloudy but sun spilling through at odd moments, reflecting off a blue-gray Bosphorous Sea.

“This is a beautiful city” – the same words came to mind that I had said to myself and aloud all week. Beautiful. Breathtaking really, with Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia on a hill, the Blue Mosque back a bit creating the picture perfect sky-line that is Istanbul. And the ferry rides were perfect places to slow down and experience the view and the city.

Arriving at the dock, we headed to an underground cable car, taking it the rest of the way to Taksim. As we set off in search of the clinic, Carol remembered that Google maps doesn’t do construction. This is fact.

But no matter – we were determined. And determined won, as it usually does.

We found the building and after walking down a dark hallway, trekked 4 flights up a set of stairs. Istanbul is not a city for the short of breath.

The room we entered was full of language. Turkish, Farsi, English, Arabic – it all melded into indefinable verbs and nouns, participles and dangling. It was a gift to my ears.

One of the side rooms was designated as a nurses room and we did a quick survey of medicines and equipment. It was quick because there was none (apart from Sarah Goodwin’s 2 year expired antibiotics from Michigan). No blood pressure cuff, no stethoscope, one thermometer, and medicine that fit into one 8 by 11 plastic container.

Our first patient was an Iraqi refugee. With rusty and wanting Arabic I asked her what was wrong. I barely made out the words headache and chest pain when the interpreter came to my rescue. And the story came out. Bit by bit by bit. The head ache – but really the heartache; the chest pain – but really the stress and a heart broken. The words gave a picture of a family exiled. Refugees. Forging a new home in a new place.

What is the remedy for a broken heart? A life cracked by circumstance?

We had so little to offer. A small packet of Brufen (Ibuprophen), and encouragement to drink a lot of water, an offer to come back if the headaches worsened, if the headaches were accompanied by blurred vision or dizziness.

She was followed by more people, children and moms, more symptoms and more stories. And these were only the tip of a Titanic size iceberg of stories.

For years I have said that stories matter; stories give us a bigger picture, a narrative into which we offer our hearts. And these stories – they matter. They matter to the clinician who attempts to distinguish, with no equipment, symptoms that need physical medicine, those that need emotional, those that need both. They matter to the interpreter who skillfully takes the words and decodes them for the listener.

Most of all they matter to God; a God who needs no interpreter and no story-teller, a God who was present in the room with us, caring for all who were there. A God who gives eyes to see and ears to hear the cry of the heart.

The sun has almost set and the Call to Prayer was now over two hours ago. As I close my computer and type the last words, I whisper a prayer for the people I met, and those I never will; for stories I heard, and for the millions I will never hear.

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An Ode to the Well-meaning and the Clueless

As a child of missionaries growing up in the sixties through the late seventies, I have more than a few funny stories about some of the things that were sent our way — clothing and such sent to the “poor missionaries” in Pakistan. This post is an ode to those who sent them – but before you judge my heart and attitude, please read through to the end.

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You tried so hard!

You went through your children’s clothes, certain that you could find something, anything really, that you could send to the children of missionaries. You pictured the huts we lived in, the threadbare tunics we wore, the lack of stores and supplies.  You thought we would never know the difference between Levis and no name jeans.

You advertised and arranged special drop off times so those clothes could make their way from your basements to our homes, our bodies.

You packed up oatmeal, and flour, thinking that surely we would use these products and be so excited. It never entered your mind that chocolate chips and taco mix were what we craved.

You really did send teabags to the part of the world that invented tea.

You sent pants with no zippers and old-fashioned dresses, all with love and a pure heart. And we mocked with hearts that were mean and not pure.

And I thought you were well-meaning and clueless. And I laughed.

And then I began meeting some of you. And you really didn’t know. You really were giving us gifts from your heart. You were taking time and energy that could have been used in a hundred other ways to care for us so far away.

You put little stitches on big warm quilts and sent them our way so we could be warm. And with each stitch you prayed for us. You prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

When my mother and I went over a cliff in the mountains, with only a barbed wire fence separating us from certain death – you were praying. When my brother got in a near fatal accident in Turkey, you were praying. When we faced illness, and sorrow, and separation, you prayed. When babies died, and boarding school was too hard, and people hurt us, you prayed.

You were so much better than me – with my arrogance and my “well-meaning but clueless” song and dance. You prayed with a fervor and love that I never had. You knew what it was to care for people you had barely met.

I still have two of your quilts. And when I look at them I think of how much I judged – and how wrong I was. And I thank you in my heart. 

How Do I Eat Turkey With a Side Dish of Conflict?

Turkey doesn’t taste very good when the side dish is conflict. Any family knows that. If someone walks away from the table angry or offended, the turkey sits, rock solid, at the pit of our stomachs. We nervously drink water or wine, laugh uneasily, and our lips get dry. “Pumpkin pie, anyone?” says the peacemaker, known by some as that family member in denial.

But no one wants pumpkin pie and the holiday is suddenly tainted.  

This year turkey comes with conflict. Not family conflict but conflict across the world – ancient conflict that seems never to have resolution. Both sides post pictures of dead and wounded children. Both sides scream foul. Both sides feel justified. Both sides lose. 

And food sits solid, and my mouth goes dry, and my heart pounds for people I don’t know, have never met — people who are dying. Moms who are weeping over toddlers with gunshot wounds to their heads and sons who will never get married.

God is weeping. On this holiday that can be understood worldwide, that is at its heart not culture-bound, this holiday of giving thanks, there is a taint and God is weeping.

And I ask myself the questions that have been asked by many before me, and will be asked by many after me:

How do I rejoice with family while others are weeping over their dead?

How do I feast on turkey while others go hungry?

How do I bask in safety while others are drowning in rocket launches?

How do I enjoy good when others are surrounded by evil?

How do I not feel guilty when I have so much, others so little?

I sit quietly with a hot homemade latte, milk steamed to perfection. Psalm 27 blurs in front of my eyes – until I reach verse 13 and then suddenly the words come into focus. “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” I read on to verse 14 “Wait for the Lord, Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord” 

And as I wait I slowly begin to deal with the “How” questions. I give thanks for my family and I pray mercy and comfort for those who are burying their dead; I anticipate the delight of turkey and stuffing even as I buy the homeless man coffee and breakfast; I bow in humble gratefulness for a warm and safe house and I beseech God that the rockets will stop, that a cease-fire will be achieved; I kneel in thanksgiving for the good that surrounds me, for common grace, and I pray for deliverance from the evil one; I ask for a proper response to my guilt and pray I will be prompted by God to serve those with less.

With grateful thanksgiving and humility I move forward — That is my ‘How’. 

Thanksgiving, One Thousand Gifts

 This beautiful poem comes from a friend who has given permission to share. A Prayer for Peace by Pari Ali

Enough is Enough!
Hatred through the torn land sweeps
while Isaac and Ishmael weep
as brother’s slaughtered by brother
each bent on destroying the other
branches of father Abraham’s tree
living up to Cain’s dreaded legacy
in heaven an anguished Adam cries
as helplessly he watches his sons die

In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section!