(written May 2008)

If it seemed like we had just arrived in Antakya it was because, well, we had.

We had been in Antakya for just three weeks and already we were back on the 1,000 kilometre trek, heading north to Istanbul. I had seriously considered taking the train back, but as we had a video shoot planned in Antakya in June, and as a consequence, I needed to bring lights, and our home-made Teleprompter and other bits of video kit back with me. Practically speaking, we had no choice but the car.

It was not that long ago that I would have completed a trip like this in a single day – it is, after all only a 13½ hour drive. However, it seems that time, and dare I say the reality and effects of diabetes, have taken their toll on my stamina and physical resources. As a result, we now split the journey over two days. The plan is the first day, when we are freshest, will be the longer day and the second, when the freshness has grown a bit stale, will be the shorter day. That is the theory at least…

We commence the journey on a dual-carriageway for the hour long drive from Antakya to Iskenderun, crossing over the Amanus mountains via the only pass in this part of the mountain range. This pass was known in ancient times as the ‘Syrian Gates’.

Having successfully traversed the pass, travelling through the wee village of Belen and passing under the shadow of an old Church bell tower – the last remnant of the former Christian presence in the village – we then join the motorway. This is a six lane modern motorway whereby the landscape has been tamed and now the roadway consists of gentle inclines and smooth curves.

For the next hour we travel up the plain between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, past the battlefield where Alexander the Great with his much smaller army of Greeks and Macedonians decisively defeated Darius III, King of Persia.  This spelt the end of the mighty Persian Empire and the dawning of Greek ascendancy under Alexander.

The motorway turns westward at the end of the bay and then strikes across the fertile Çukurova plain, amidst vast crops of cotton.
After another hour and a bit, we approached and passed through Turkeys fourth largest city,  Adana.  This high rise city lies straddling the Seyhan River.

The motorway crosses the river just north of the ancient, 13 arch, Roman stone bridge. In the beginning, when this bridge was first constructed, it consisted of 21 arches, but over the nearly two thousands years it has stood over the river, the banks have been stabilised and the width of the river reduced.  Consequently the over -all length of the bridge has been reduced.

It is remarkable that until recent times this was the single main crossing point in the city.  Even as late as the early 1980’s  the bridge was open to motorised traffic, cars, buses, lorries, and well overloaded lorries  – those Romans knew how to build.

Passing through Adana at speed, it was now in our rearview mirror as we carried on towards Tarsus, another half hour, forty-five minutes down the road.  Tarsus was the birthplace of the apostle Paul.

Just prior to Tarsus we turned  90º to the right and proceeded north, paralleling the course of the ancient Roman road.

Travelling at motorway speeds it is not long before the plain was left behind us and we entered the foothills, forging forward on our way towards the Taurus mountains.

Motorways are truly a marvel; bridging, spanning and, at times, removing vast amounts of mountain to enable a high speed motorway to pass.

Remarkably quickly we are up into the mountains, travelling up an ever-narrowing valley until the valley narrows to a point where the left and right mountain sides are almost touching and the minuscule passage between is the bed of a river which occupies all the real estate at the bottom.

This is the famous Cilician Gates, one of the few passes through this coastal mountain range. Once there was a Roman road that traversed this narrow valley and through the profoundly narrow pass. It was upon this ancient way which the apostle Paul would have trudged on his second journey.

When the season is right, the river would dominate the pass as a raging torrent.

Today, the massive stone mountain sides that descend to the bottom of the pass have been blasted and reduced, making the narrow pass wider.  Then a concrete span has been built from edge to edge and above the river.  It is upon this newly created space, just wide enough to to carry the six lanes motorway.

The motorway continues its’ climb through the valley at a challenging incline, our wee Fiat Uno straining to maintain a reasonable climbing speed.

Finally we complete the passage through the Cilician Gates. We crest the top of the pass and immediately begin dropping down the opposite side towards a valley below.  This new valley winds its way up through the high mountains that are now surrounding us.

When we made this passage in 2008, following our decent into the valley, the motorway came to a sudden, complete and abrupt end. This main transportation link between the west of Turkey, the major cities and the fertile region to the south and east, once again reverting back to a simple, two lane roadway.

In 2008, we were somewhat tormented as we could see that the motorway, all six lanes of it, were being pushed, thrust and blasted forward into and through the mountains. The new motorway paralleled us for a while, massive concrete via-ducts soaring over the raging stream in the bottom of the valley – the only way that you could create new space for the roadway.

To complete our passage through these spectacular mountains, the old road turned left up the old, passable valley whilst the new section of the motorway turned right up a different, and fully impassible valley (that is, until modern building techniques and a massive amount of determination was thrown at it).  But with the liberal application of tunnel after tunnel connected by vast concrete via-ducts to join up the tunnels and spanning the wild stream which owns the bottom of the valley, this new motorway would be possible… but not on that day…

We carried on with a two lane road winding its way through narrow valleys. Impressive mountains rising all around us as we travelled, on a constant, steep incline up through the mountains towards the vast interior plateaux.

The next 40 or more kilometres is a mixture of breath-taking scenery and occasionally, breath-taking driving as the two lane road is clogged with heavily laden lorries slowly trudging up the mountain passes.

We fell in behind a smaller lorry and were slowly proceeding up the valley when we happened upon a straight section of road. In the mountains, these are rarities and only when traffic allows, do they present the only hope you have of passing over-burdened transport lorries labouring up the inclines. Behind the lorries, your best speed is set by the capabilities of and state of the lorries, but, if you can get by the lorry, then you may be able to travel closer to the posted speed limit of 90 kph. Otherwise, the passage will be dictated by the slowest crawl of the lorries. Additionally, we will be treated to breathing in the vast clouds a pitch-black exhaust that they are continuously belching out.

I took a quick peek and the road was clear, so I indicated and moved into the on-coming lane to overtake. However, as I manuoevered, simultaneously the lorry in front of me did likewise.

It seems there was an even slower lorry struggling up the road in front of him. Now, instead of a smooth acceleration to overtake the lorry, I am reduced to the speed of the lorry in front and to its rather limited ability to increase speed.

After a ponderous start, the lorry abandons his attempt, slowly slows and pulls back in. Before me the reduced length of the straight section of road continues for a distance, but now, being in the opposite lane as I am, I have a clear view of the challenge and my eyes take in the fact that there are actually three slow moving lorries, hunkered down and plodding up the hill. It is a moment when you have to make a split-second decision.

The lorries are tightly packed together, each one following the one in front with the most minimal space between.

The decision, made in the twinkling of an eye, is to press on and pass all three.

As I down shift, our little Uno does its rather feeble impression of a race car, the engine noise increases as does our speed – the engine noise increase is greater than our speed increase. The engine sounds like we are flying – the speedometer indicates that our increase in speed will not make it into any record book.

In these seconds T.’s telephone rings and I become aware that the road markings have changed from ‘passing allowed’, to ‘passing not permitted’.

However, I am committed, we are in the act of passing.

We are past the first lorry and abreast of the second with the third to go; our speed is increasing and the engine, roaring , throbbing and straining with all its diminished might, is giving it all it has.

Then ahead, at the bend, I see a car round the bend and coming in our direction.

I am not mathematically inclined. I do basic maths, er, basically. And yet in this situation, my mind, at some unconscious, subconscious level is calculating the distance yet to travel, my speed, my rate of increase in speed, the speed of the vehicle I am passing, the speed of the on-coming car and the distance left between us and him. Calculating all of this data, doing an incredible amount of assessment and evaluation (not me consciously but, automatically, somewhere deep in my mind),  the conclusion comes to my conscious mind: “hold your course”.

I don’t know how all those calculations have been made. I do not know the math or the trigonometry or whatever other math is required to complete this complex task and couldn’t do with my conscious mind as I have never learned that math.

But I trust the result of the calculation. I don’t know how it has been done, but I trust it and act on it.

The accelerator can not be depressed any further – it is already on the floor. The wee Uno is giving its’ all.  There is nothing left in reserve, nothing more to call upon.

The decision has been made, we are now passengers as events unfold, literally, before us.

The frenetic roaring of the engine fills our ears, I hear T. on the phone saying “No, I’m not driving…” – the person on the other end would have been reasonably alarmed if she had been.

There is a palpable tension in the car.

“Hold the course” – the calculations have been made, the speed and distance are all still within acceptable limits.

Somewhere, deep in my mind, the calculations are being continuously updated and checked.

There is no need to panic, yet. There is no need for draconian, emergency measures, at this point…

I breast the third lorry, space, time and distance remain… just. I indicate and as soon as we fully clear the last lorry we return to our designated side of the road, shift gears and the engine reverts from its maniacal raging to its normal din.

We traverse the last kilometres of the two lane road section and as we descend onto the vast interior plain of Anatolia the road reverts once again, to a four lane dual carriageway.

This interior plateau is a vast plain dotted here and there with proud mounds, often still covered in scree – the remnants of the last volcanic eruptions some time in the very distant past.

Our mid-trip destination is a town an hours’ drive across the plain. The town is built at the foot of a massive volcano – extinct I trust. This mountain soars into the sky, dominating the plain and seen from a great distance.

The road itself stretches off to the horizon, straight as a die with no wiggle or curve, just a straight line leading all the way to the end of sight.

In spite of it being a dual carriageway and basically dead flat and straight as an arrow, the speed limit remains frustratingly posted at 90 kph. Driving on this plain is easy driving – but, from a driver’s point of view, rather boring.

Traffic is light, and anything that we do encounter that requires overtaking, well,  is the antithesis of our experience in the mountains and the two lane road. Overtaking is a doddle as we have our own, dedicated, overtaking lane.

This last hours’ drive before we stop and rest for the night is neither exciting nor challenging. The task is dead simple, hold a steady speed and hold a steady course. There are no hills, no curves, no movement to break the monotony.

Even with the lack of challenge, as a driver, you are always scanning ahead for potential risks, and ahead I see a rare side road that will soon intersect with our dual carriageway. On the side road, coming straight towards our road is a rather large blue tipper lorry.

He is barrelling towards the dual carriageway with speed and determination – one could almost say with ‘reckless abandon’.

Once again, sub-consciously, a calculation is being done; our speed versus his speed, our distance to the ‘meeting point’ and his distance to the ‘meeting point’, the distance by which if he hasn’t stopped (as he is incumbent to do), we will have had to stop…

Now, Turkish drivers rarely slow down before they have to. Possibly in the West, some drivers may let off the fuel feed and allow the vehicle to begin to slow naturally before having to apply the brakes, but not so here.

We are advancing at 90 kph – holding our course, he is approaching at what I would estimate to be the same speed. The distances are closing rather sharply and he is showing absolutely no signs whatsoever of relenting.

It appears as if he is claiming right-of-way.

Somewhere deep within my brain the calculations have been made and continuously updated, and now the word comes down “Do NOT hold your course”.

This, by interpretation means “STOP”.

I vigorously apply the brakes and quickly downshift and our wee Uno begins to slow.

It is at this juncture that the large blue lorry must have become aware that he was approaching the dual carriageway, that he didn’t have the right-of-way and that it was incumbent on him to stop.
The lorry was also now in sudden stop mode.

Quite a sight actually, seeing this rather large vehicle decelerating so.

He stopped. We slowed. We passed one another.

At one time it was appropriate to “hold the course” and at another the message was “do NOT hold the course” – both times as the result of complex, subconscious calculations. These calculations were not performed by my conscious mind; I was not party to the various deliberations and evaluations – all was done silently, at a subconscious level with only the result being sent to my conscious mind. And yet I trusted the result implicitly.

Different situations, different calculations and clearly, there was and is no easy rule or simplistic determination to be applied in all situations.

This could be construed as a microcosm of life.

As we travel through life, various events adorn, intrude and otherwise encroach on our path. Some of these are planned, some are welcomed and many, well, they just happen, intrude and ‘are’. Indeed, some are extremely unwelcome and yet, there they are.

As we manoeuvre through our life, encountering and dealing with these events, the planned and many that, well, that just intrude, we seek the best way forward, the best choice. This can be fraught with pitfalls and dangers – the right choice can mean life and the wrong choice…

As one who has trusted the Lord Jesus Christ, to guide and lead and, well, be ‘Lord’ of my life, yes, I use the mind that God has given, I apply logic, I reason, but now, in addition, I have access to the leading of the ‘Spirit of God’. Now, I can listen to the ‘still small voice of God’. In this way, in addition to my logic, in addition to my reasoning, both which are God-given, I can listen for the voice of God and can learn when to ‘hold the course’ and when ‘not to’.

Logic is good. Reasoning is essential. God does not call us to live illogically – He, after all, gave us reasoning and logic and gave them to us to be used.

However, to successfully engage with, respond to and overcome the multitude of challenges that daily crop up in life, it is essential that as I trust the unseen and subconscious reasoning and calculations done in my subconscious mind and to also trust the ‘unseen’ and yet more trustworthy than all my logic and all my reasoning, the ‘still small voice of God’.

May God continually give me ears that hear what the Spirit is saying.

(written October 2012)

We live in the old part of Antakya – a city with ancient roots. However, having acknowledged the age of the city, it must be confessed that the old part of town is merely old and not truly ancient. This city has seen more than its fair share of the power and devastation caused by earthquakes. As a result, the city has been built, lived in, shaken, destroyed and rebuilt innumerable times throughout its long history.

And so the reason the visible part of this ancient city is merely old, that the majority of the buildings are probably in the hundreds of years in age, is mute testament to the result of the most recent powerful earthquake that occurred in 1822.

But this is predicated upon the reality that the ancient city has been fully destroyed multiple times in ancient times and therefore not much has been left as a visible heritage for subsequent generations to appreciate. In the years: 114, 342, 458, 525, 528, 565 and 587 the city was hit by repeated earthquakes and looking just at the sixth century (the 500’s) there were four significant earthquakes with an estimated total of 380,000 deaths – the first earthquake in that series alone claiming an estimated quarter of a million lives. Hence there is not a lot from ancient times, that is anything built prior to 600 AD, that was still standing even at that time.

Today, there are some notable buildings which are of a size and status that they were repaired after the last great ‘quake – but they are few and far between. Taking a strolling tour of the narrow lanes and byways of the old quarter and the observant will notice that there are a number of buildings with fine, finished stone courses in the lower reaches – often changing to a field stone construction to complete the wall to height. This mix of quality and dare I say, shoddy or primitive building methods, draws a line between the old, durable and astonishingly well-built parts and the more slap-dash workmanship exhibited in the more modern elements.

Underlying this all is the awareness that the ancient city is never very far away, mere meters beneath our feet.

Recently the local Council commenced a project to build a cable car system to take tourists from the old city to the top of the hill that rises along one side of the city.

This is a great and grand project which, initially, forged ahead with great speed and vigor.

Then it came time to construct the base station in the heart of the old quarter. The first step was to demolish the old, dilapatated shelters that were occupying the site and then to excavate the foundations for the base station. Compulsory purchase and the demolition of the old homes was accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Then, according to a new policy in Turkey, before any excavation could commence, the archaeologists were sent in to ensure that no valuable archaeology would be destroyed in the process of building the base station.

It didn’t take long, nor did they have to go more than just under the level of the old, dilapidated structures that formerly occupied the site to discover much archeology in situ. As the soil was painstakingly removed, first walls came to light, then floors, then, as the work progressed, deeper levels. As they dug down, the intricate ceramic water pipes of the ancient sewer and water systems came to light. The work continued and deeper levels were uncovered.

Often the changing levels representing the effects of an earthquake and the rebuilding efforts. These form natural devastation levels. In the aftermath of an earthquake, it is much easier to pull out useable stone from the destruction, level the site somewhat and build on top. The archaeology demonstrates this. Sometimes later walls plough through earlier structures. Sometimes there is a distinct layer of rubble laying between levels. This also means that the city slowly rises above its previous levels, resulting in the ancient, normal street level of the city now being found multiple meters beneath our feet.

As the archaeologists went down, they travelled back in time. Wells came to light, here and there, some smaller and others larger. Then, down about two and half meters or so then came across a fine mosaic – still in its original location. This mosaic was installed in the dining room of a house, not centuries ago, but millennia ago. When I first caught a glimpse of it, peering over the protective fence as I am wont to do, I was not impressed.

Don’t get me wrong, the workmanship of this ancient mosaic is outstanding. It was the motif that was chosen for this dining room that I didn’t appreciate.

It shows a skeleton reclining at table with the fine food about.

Is it reminding the diners of the transience of life?

Or is it a comment of the meaninglessness of the things we take as so important?

Is it an ancient way of saying, “Dead men walking?”

I do not know.

But, for me personally, I do not relish the notion of eating a fine feast with a smiling skeleton staring up at me from the floor.

It was not the only mosaic found in this site. And remember, this site was not selected because people thought there was archaeology of merit buried there, but was opened up, basically at random, in the old quarter, to facilitate this modern conveyance of a cable car.

This random discovery reinforces the fact that the old city, or the shadow of the glory of the old city and the marvels of the ancient world and its workmanship are not far away, but are lying just beneath our feet.

In the course of this dig, they went down a total of about 3½ , maybe 4 metres and in doing so went back some two thousand and four hundred years in time.

One wonders what would be uncovered if ancient Antioch was not abiding under a living, modern city and hence there was the ability to take a large segment and do careful, modern archaeology – as in Ephesus. I wonder, would the remains of the ancient main thoroughfare, one of the first streets in the ancient Roman world to have street lighting, the street upon which the Apostles Paul and Peter would have strolled, come to light?

Anyways, it has been decided by the powers that be, that they will (somehow) build the base station over and above the now exposed archaeology. They will construct the base station so that it straddles over and with carefully situated piercing insert supports amongst the archaeology so uncovered and thusly creating an ‘open air’ museum of what was found, and yet, finally, having the base station for the now many year delayed cable car project.

This project has provided a glimpse of what lies hidden from sight, under our feet.  Most of what is above ground, however,  in the old quarter, is not ancient.

It is true that there may very well be ancient cut stones forming part of the construction of these ‘modern’ structures. As one wanders the lanes of the old quarter it is not uncommon to see a random column sitting upright and sticking out of the floor, in the street, beside a building, in a courtyard or even forming part of a grave beside a mosque, all mute testament to former splendour and the wonders of the ancient world.

Now our own house, for example, like many, is maybe a little under a hundred years of age – the result of a bit of a building ‘boom’ when France was the protecting power and had dominion over the province of Hatay in the aftermath of World War I.

It was during this time that the Central Park, now a pivotal focal point for the population, was constructed on the banks of the Asi River (ancient Orontos River). The French prepared the province to become an independent Republic, and constructed a number of fine stone buildings, a small Parliament, a mansion for the leader, and other governmental buildings. These were all made of fine, fitted stone and although not large in size are impressive structures even today.  The resultant republic was very short lived as its first act was to hold a referendum with the result that the Republic of Hatay became part of the the Turkish Republic.

Many houses were built at that time in a mixture of old and newer construction methods. Everything was built without regard for whatever may be ‘down below’. The construction was undertaken utilising old and tried construction methods.

As has been done for centuries, you begin by creating thick rough stone outer walls. These walls are comfortably 70 centimetres in depth. Fine cut stone – most likely made to order but some may have been scavenged from the detritus of the ancient city, were used to create a feature wall and often, fine stone was used around some windows and, almost obligatory, around the main door.

One of the distinctives of the French period is the use of rather large, impressive steel I-beams to span that space between the thick walls. These I-beams form the main supporting structure for a flat, poured concrete roof. In their day, the construction technique called for the use of reinforcing steel bar. However, now, nigh on a hundred years hence, it is observed that this steel has been subject to the cancer of rust and over time the integrity of the concrete is somewhat compromised. This is universally true for all the buildings constructed at that time.

The ceilings are high, the interior height of the average room is 3½ metres. This creates a space which tends to be cooler in summer. Again, in a nod to the old building principles, in various places in the thick outer walls, cupboards were built in to hold the bedding and other things, which, traditionally, were stored in the daytime in the cupboards, brought out for the night and returned in the morning – rooms being multifunctional, day room in the daytime and bedroom at night.

It seems, as well, that there was no understanding of what a ‘damp proof’ course is and so these stone walls are directly connected to the foundation and hence to the soil. The result is capillary action which draws moisture up from below creating a chronic problem with damp and mould in these substantial outer walls.

The old quarter is noted for its narrow and twisty lanes. Often the houses are constructed so close together that the roofs overlap above the ‘lanes’. In summer you are granted a shady relief from the relentless summer sun. In winter, the runoff may mean there is no dry place to walk as the water is forced to flow in the narrow pathway. Throughout the old quarter there are innumerable cul-de-sacs which come to an abrupt end.  In this warren of streets, half streets, lanes and byways, even some of the ‘through roads’ that exist can be reduced to just over a meter in width.

In the old quarter, many of the houses are legitimately old – but at the same time, all of the houses, those two hundred or possibly older and the newer ones, well, they all look old.

As has been observed, some have exquisitely cut stone foundations that speak of a more prosperous time when houses were made from dressed stone, finely fitted together, from foundation to cap stone. For some, that ‘prosperous’ time may have been hundreds of years previously, for the wealthy have always be able to build in quality. Some of the dressed foundational sections speak of a durability and resilience that is bordering on the thousands of years.

Most of the houses have rough, uncut or roughly cut stone walls speaking of a time when there were not the resources, or the skill, or the desire to make meticulously cut stones precisely fitting together.

This is most graphically exposed when you see a combination, the lower courses of the building made of fine dressed stone, well-fitting even today, and the upper courses are composed of the rough cut and uncut stone.

It is incongruous to say the least.

As believers and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have slowly tried to improve our home. By small, daily sacrifices, we were able to make incremental improvements that both improve the over-all health of the building and the comfort of those who abide therein.

It really isn’t rocket science. You do what is in your strength to do. At the very least you clean, scrape and make neat. You attack the mould and seek to expunge it – it isn’t easy and may not even be possible, but you aim to overcome it.

Over time we would purchase a pot of paint and then paint. At another time, when possible, we contracted to install a sun roof. When we have been enabled, we had the floor of the terrace tiled. Thusly, and in many, little, often incremental ways, we have made our home stand out in the neighbourhood.

Let me add that I am not referring to the exterior – it still, er, rather fits in as far as the neighbourhood goes – but the interior, the inner courtyard, the terrace, the living areas, these have been slowly improved and our neighbours, when they visit or come to drink tea are aware of the changes made.

The improvements have been the result of little money and a lot of effort. The on-going priority of scrapping together the funds for a bag of ready-mix plaster or a pot of paint, the result of mini-sacrifices, but slowly making a difference.

In Turkish there is a saying “damyla damyla göl olur” or by interpretation, “drop by drop a lake is formed”.

With the plaster or paint in hand and doing the labour ourselves to splash it on the walls we were able to make a cleaner, neater and more pleasant environment for all.

In the years since we began our residence, and, slowly, month by month, year by year, the changes have been wrought. We have been observed and, at the same time, we have observed that some of our neighbours have improved their housing as well.

Is this a response to our example?

Or have their situations improved sufficiently that they are able to do the things they have wished to do for a long time?

This I can not discern.

But some neighbours have put up protective roofs to make up for the invariable leaks that develop in old flat roofed homes. Others have plastered, covering up the decades of decay and presenting a pleasant, smooth, finish. And still others have painted.

All in all, a general improvement.

Let me clearly declare that I am not claiming credit for any of this general improvement… just observing the changes…

Having said that, what we have done over the first five years we lived here has been perceived by our neighbours. In seeing the gradual improvement, some may have been encouraged and others, possibly challenged and/or inspired to make a change in their own homes. But, whilst that may or may not be true, it is evident from some comments heard that not all people have responded positivity.

Indeed, some, unintentionally have let slip feelings of jealousy and envy.

For some individuals, it seems, in the past, they have been satisfied to live in a decaying house, with cracks in the plaster, peeling paint and wet, damp or mouldy patches due to winter rains and a leaking roof. When everyone is in the same situation, then inertia and entropy settle in, and nothing changes… Well, nothing changes for the better, the house continue to deteriorate until either the occupants move, the building becomes uninhabitable or it collapses about them.

Then we come along… raising dust and noise as we cut, saw, break, mend, pour, build, tile, plaster, paint and otherwise slowly change our ‘normal dilapated’ home into a pleasant, clean, healthy and modern home.

I believe that some people have been quietly encouraged, and it is evident that others have been bitterly displeased. It was in this framework that we noticed that in front of our front door there has been a collection of trash, drink tins, cigarette packages, crisps packages, general litter and worse of all, cigarette butts found on a regular basis.

Ugly, unsanitary – ugh – cigarette butts.

Since my youth, growing up in a home of smokers, I have been put off by ash-trays, and butt-ends and all the smell and half-smoked bits that end up being all over the place…

Now we – all the occupants of our home – do not imbibe in the smoking habit. So, the most natural question arises: from whence do these cigarette butts come?

Now our neighbour, two doors up, is a widow on a very limited income. She and her children live in a very dilapidated house – the windows leak, the door appears to be falling off it’s hinges, the plaster is missing from some walls and the small, rough stone core walls appear to be in danger of tumbling into the room. When it rains the roof leaks. When there is an abundance of rain, the street overflows with run-off, and, on occasion, the surplus rainwater has ‘run-off’ and into and through their home.

They have little money, and they do not seem able to take a wee bit of their merge resources to improve their home. But they do have the resources to smoke. Smokers tell me that there is comfort in smoking and that they receive a physical benefit from imbibing in the habit.

I will take their word for it.

Nevertheless, it is not a cheap habit to sustain.

Our observation was they would smoke in front of their house – the street in the front of their house doubles as their front garden. It would be the most natural of actions, when the cigarettes are exhausted to toss their used cigarette butts into the street. In this scenario the unintended consequence would be for the wind to encourage said refuse to move down the street and, ultimately, come to rest at our front door.

But why come to rest at our front door?

Why stop the journey part way down the street?

Why not continue on down the road?

Why does a collection of cigarette butts joined with an assortment of other trash congregate and wait patiently just outside our front door?

A conundrum.

But the observation of our eyes, and the application of logic and common sense drew us to one hypothesis.  In fact, we were so convinced of this hypothesis that it was our neighbour intentionally or, more likely, unintentionally that was the source of this detritus that we, nicely, asked the lady to be more careful with her discards.

She profusely proclaimed her innocence in this matter.

I’m afraid we did not share a high level of confidence in her declarations of innocence.

Now, we have a good relationship with the family and there is no trace of animosity or hostility on any side. Nevertheless, the cigarette butts are found outside our front door.

Then the day arrived.

It was unplanned, and occurred, basically, at random.

Several from our home were out on the street – going about their business when everyone noticed a soft drink tin rolling down the middle of the street, driven by the wind. Our street is lower in the centre, concave, which acts like one common gutter to take the rain water, down the centre of the street to the storm drain.

This disused drink tin was merrily, and remarkably quickly, tinkling its way down the centre of the street following the concave and being driven by the wind. All was as you would expect it to be, although the speed was a bit of a surprise…the wind is strong in Antakya.

The tin tumbled and tinkled until it arrived parallel to our front door…

And there it stopped…

And there it stopped!

The tin, just stopped in the centre of the street.

The wind was still blowing. Gravity was still calling it to continue down the street. And yet, it stopped.

This disused drinks tin then proceeded to turn 90º towards our front door and then recommenced it’s travel, proceeding now at right angles to its former course and up the concave of the street towards our front door…

Uphill……

Now, our front door does not open directly on to the courtyard, but to a long corridor that leads to our courtyard. We hadn’t really noticed before, but this configuration results in a funnelling effect – drawing the air, I suppose like a chimney, and in a profoundly counter-intuitive direction.

In summer, there is a strong, blowing breeze that caresses in the city, flowing from the sea towards the interior – roughly southwest to northeast, in keeping with the terrain and shape of the valley. Throughout the long summer months this is a constant and it flows consistently from one direction. The trees on the mountainside all lean in mute testimony to the power and consistency of the wind. The whole forest leans up the valley at an astonishingly acute angle.

However, here in the city, at street level, with the myriad of buildings, the wind can be twisted about and it flows ‘down’ our street. As we observed, when the breeze gets to our house, to our front door, the corridor acts as a funnel, and strongly draws the wind in towards the courtyard (completely and diametrically opposite to the normal direction of the wind).

As we witnessed, it was in this manner that all sorts of the discards of daily life, were consistently finding their way to our front door.

Without a doubt, our smoking neighbour has ignorantly and unintentionally contributed to the accumulation of cigarette butts, but she was not the source of the problem, just a contributor, a minor player.

It was all so easy. The evidence of our eyes, the daily collection of assorted mess at our front door. Every time you opened the door to leave, at each point when we came back to our home, there was this mess to greet us…

We saw the ‘evidence’ and, in trying to understand how and why, we ‘reasoned’ and ‘thought’ and used ‘logic’.  In the end we had come to an ‘understanding’ of the problem and once this was ‘determined’ then the ‘solution’ was clear.

The only problem is, we were completely wrong.

I guess that is one reason why we read the admonition about the dangers of judging – even when all the evidence before our eyes declares only one logical conclusion…

36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:36-38

New International Version (NIV)

(written September 2002)

The stories recorded in this blog began when this phase of our personal saga commenced in September 2002 with our arrival and settling into life in Selçuk, Turkey.

Ah, Selçuk, the modern descendant of the ancient city of Ephesus – the magnificant fourth city of the Roman Empire, home of one of the Wonders of the ancient world. The ruins, which are one of the most extensively excavated archaeological sites in Turkey, are a vast complex with streets, forums, homes, baths, theatre, gymnasiums, Odeon and brothels exposed, cleaned, persevered and now on public display. These outstanding ruins – the results of over 150 years of archaeological excavation, lie just outside of the modern locale known as Selçuk.

Our flight from the UK was too short for jet-lag, and yet for the first few days we were in a bit of a daze as we wandered the lanes and byways of Selçuk.

Our daze, was it caused by the unfamiliar sight of so much sun? Or maybe the heat which was so much hotter than we were used to in the United Kingdom? Maybe it was moving from a large town – and working in a very large city (London) – to a small Turkish town with a population of 23,000.

Oh, did I say “town”, maybe large village would be a more accurate description of Selçuk, for it had more of a village atmosphere and village pace than that of a town.

After more than twenty years since we first went overseas, we were back in Turkey.

August was a chaotic amalgamation of disparate activities and emotions. We were packing and preparing to go, still involved in the Sunday meeting and other activities as well as the annual Turkish Family Camp that we ran every August and at the same time breaking ties with a work and with people that have been so much of our lives for the previous eleven years.

On our first Sunday in Selçuk the weather was sunny and warm. We stepped out of the flat and as always, we were dazzled by the brilliance of the sunshine, our hands snapping up to cover our eyes.  As we initially staggered about, I rapidly readjusted my hat to provide some relief from the shock caused by the intensity of the light. We turned left onto the street for the short walk to the Church.

“To the ‘Church’”, – my how things have changed in Turkey – while some twenty years prior there were so few Protestants and Protestant ‘churches’ in Turkey that if you had said “none”, no one would seriously argue – using the most generous of definitions, there were maybe five fellowships in the whole country. In fact, in 1981 there were about 44 million souls living in Turkey and only 40 believers from a Muslim background in the whole country.

Back to the our story (2002); we walked up the quiet cobbled streets past a few children happily playing with a ball and then past the little kiosk where the local Council sells freshly baked bread – very reasonably priced and exceedingly tasty. At this hour there were still people coming and getting their morning bread – it was nearly 11:00.

Sunday mornings start slowly here.

We came to the little mosque by the main road and as we crossed the road I looked ahead, the church building stands on a corner not more than a hundred metres from the main road, up a side road, and I noticed a black stain on one of the window frames.

“Strange”, I thought to myself “that is some bad mould on that window, I hadn’t noticed that before – there must be some water leakage”.

You see, in England it is not uncommon to see black mould, especially around windows. Rain, damp and humidity is the norm in the UK resulting in mould, moss and everything green or black adorning many if not most surfaces.

As we neared the front door it then became obvious. This was not black mould – actually highly unlikely given the heat and long dry summer that is common in this part of the world. The reality is that someone, on that lazy Sunday morning had risen earlier than most to throw tar at the two Church signs. They were fairly poor shots in fact, as attested by the tar on the window frame, missing most of the one sign. On the other sign, the logo was obliterated, but the name of the Church and the fact that it was a Church was virtually unscathed.

What was truly ironic was that this action was most likely intended, so I presume, to intimidate and frighten the believers. But on that Sunday there were two visiting groups, one, a group of Turkish Christians doing a tour of the places in Turkey where the Apostle Paul visited and the other, a group of believers from Moldavia.

The room was full, extra chairs being required, the visiting Turkish group took the meeting, leading the worship and with several sharing; and it was an exciting and encouraging time for all. We prayed for those who threw the tar as scripture says to pray for them and to forgive them.

It seems, our re-introduction to Turkey had commenced…

A few days later, I was sitting in a friend’s car in town. The car was stopped by the side of the road and we were chatting with someone when the car lurched side to side. It did this twice, two rather definitive, almost violent lurchings. The driver looked over his shoulder, did someone bump us? He didn’t see anything nor did I. I, at least, assumed that somebody must have bounced the car for a laugh.

On my return home T. reported that as she sat at the kitchen table the rather large, 19 litre water bottle began to move, as did the wall.

The wall?!?

It didn’t last long and she didn’t know what to think of it.

Hmm, car bounces, no apparent cause, water bottle dances – the wall moves – not normal, usual occurrences for us, I wonder?

We checked the news and sure enough, there had been an earthquake with its epicentre in the Aegean sea just off the coast from where we were. It registered at 5.4 on the Richter scale. It seems that 5.4 on the Richter is sufficient to lurch cars, dance large water bottles and move walls…

Our re-introduction, included a reminder that Turkey is a very active earthquake zone.

As we begin the process of adapting to living once again in Turkey, and in a new town and in a new flat, I discovered, we have a pet!

Well, that may not be totally true.

Ever since we lived in Adana in the south of Turkey, we have been aware of these, uh, delightful creatures. Not harmful, so I am assured, and actually beneficial – or so it is said. Our flat is the proud residence of a wee lizard.

They reportedly eat insects (good) maybe even mosquitoes (great). So we co-exist. My only fear is his ‘defence mechanism’ seems to be to freeze and by not moving, it would appear to believe, become invisible to me, as if I am hunting it. However, if I get up in the middle of the night – which is not unlikely as I grow more mature in years – it is then that I truly can not see anything, whether he freezes or not, I can not see anything. So, freezing, staying in one place and not moving may not be the best defence in the world. The facts being I am not hunting him and I literally can not see him and at the end of the day, or the middle of the night for that matter, I really do not want to inadvertently stomp on him.

We have chosen to co-exist.

In typical Turkish fashion, the flat is finished to a high standard. It has ceramic tiles on all the floors. In winter, area rugs are laid out for warmth – in summer said rugs are put away allowing the bare tiles to help cool the flat.

And in all seasons, this provides an easy to clean surface. The tiles themselves are a light white grey pattern which is light and cheery.

The kitchen and bathroom have ceramic tiles on the walls, floor to ceiling. You have a reassuring feeling of cleanliness. This kind of surfaces helps ensure there is no mould or flaking paint.

Additionally the flat was basically outfitted with all the basics with the exception that there was no washing machine and no fridge. We have been able to borrow a little, pint-sized, fridge which meets all our needs. For our washing needs, we hand washed for the first months and then, in the new year, we purchased a proper washing machine.

And so our housing was established, but we weren’t there to simply live.

One of the things that we were involved in was the production of Turkish Christian videos. Our first video shoot was in Izmir – ancient Smyrna about an hours drive north of Selçuk. An hour’s drive and, oh, er, we don’t have a vehicle.

And so the solution, not only to convey us but all the kit needed to shot a video, we decided the only alternative was to rent a car. We found a small place which let cars and the price was surprisingly affordable.

I smiled.

It turns out that I’m a bit naïve when it comes to renting a vehicle, I haven’t done it much and in the UK, it is pretty much standard stuff. Well, here was a reminder that we weren’t in the UK any longer.

On driving the car to the flat to load it, it didn’t take long before we realised that this was not your typical UK quality rental car. The car did function and most of the basic features did work, even if on a somewhat sporadic basis.

My smile dimmed a wee bit.

So we loaded up the vehicle and headed off for the metropolis of Izmir.

The journey commenced by joining the autobahn/motorway/freeway – whatever word conveys these modern masterpieces of roadway engineering, straightening, flattening, spanning and otherwise taming the terrain.

My, how Turkey has changed!

We drove in relative… uh, relative, er, well, we drove to the outskirts of the city, then off at an nondescript exit, left, right, left and so on to a road that we followed towards the centre of town.

We had a Turk with us giving directions, this was in the days before in-car navigation via satellite – without our guide, I would still be in the car going in mindless circles in the Byzantine labyrinth of roads that make up the maze called Izmir.

“Thank you, Lord, for providing E. to guide us to the Church.”

A Christian band were doing a concert in the church and I was there to video tape the performance with a view of creating a lasting snapshot of the ministry of the concert.

The group was from Canada and hence a long way from home. They spoke English or was it French or both, I can’t remember, anyway, they shared their faith through verbal translation of comments and things said, they also projected the Turkish translation of the songs via an overhead projector and distributed paper copies of the lyrics to those who came. The people came to hear a foreign band and enjoy the music – and they were afforded an opportunity to understand the words as well.

The room was empty as the group went through their final sound check – everything was as ready as the kit and acoustics of the room would allow. I looked around the starkly empty room and quietly wondered to myself where the people were for the concert. With just a few minutes to go, the doors were thrown open and people streamed in – they must have been queuing outside.

Within a matter of minutes the room was full.

With all the technical stuff done, the band and supporting people all retired to pray – not a rushed, “Let’s start the concert”, but a real pause and waiting on God and committing each other, the evening and all aspects to God.

After prayer and returning to the main room, I slipped my shoes off and climbed up beside the main camera – this was to be my first time using the main camera in a real filming situation (it was an exDemo, professional, used camera – so the camera had far more experience than I).

I ran through a mental tick-list:

  • tripod stable and balanced, tick,
  • correct filter selected, tick,
  • white balance done, tick,
  • fresh battery loaded, tick,
  • full tape loaded, tick,
  • second tape ready, tick,
  • mike turned on, tick,
  • mike recording levels set, tick,

Everything going according to plan and almost done the tick-list and, what’s this, a member of the band asking if they can turn the house lights down?

I think to myself, “It is important that this concert is the best it can be for the people who have actually come and made the effort to be here….”

I say, “Turn the lights down…”

The number two camera is set on fully automatic, so it should adjust okay – but the main camera, the number one camera, well, this is the first time I’ve used it in an actual filming situation and it is all set to manual (as it should be).

Before we began, I had set the correct setting for the lighting… the lighting that was now dramatically changing… I hit the aperture button and it seemed to cope, but no new ‘white balance’, no adjusting for the colour temperature… just trying to adapt whilst things merrily carry on around me…

As the concert began, I started with framing a wide-angle shot… and now the myriad of questions flooded my mind: “How is the sound?”, “What is the light like?”, I was not liking the light and so I made an adjustment on the fly… good/bad thing to do, the video looks better, but now we have a dramatic change part way through the shot…..

…and for the next two hours, I remain, steadfast, standing beside the camera, trying to do my best, sore feet notwithstanding, trying not to move too much and doing my best not to bump the camera… and so the evening went.

Without question, this was a good experience with much being learned on preparation, camera technique, lighting and the co-ordination between the number one and number two cameras. I thought and hoped that there may even have been enough good video to actually produce something. The proof of this particular pudding is in the editing stage.

Unfortunately what became clear in the edit suite was that this was just a ‘good learning experience’ with no viable product resulting.

Our evening efforts in shooting the video were finished, but our evening was not yet over… we still had miles to go before we could rest.

And so after the concert, we broke down, lugged and loaded up all the kit and headed out to return to Selçuk.

We drove to first one motorway, which was leading to another, and then that motorway split three ways, two lanes going left, two going down into a tunnel and two peeling off to the right – by God’s grace I was on the right and was carried away by the departure of the two lanes.  It so happens that this was the direction that we were supposed to go.

Yikes, this is not fun.

We then merge with and join another motorway. But we are separated from the main carriageway by a rather formidable metal crash barrier, four lanes thundering along, all going the same way, but yet, separate.

“What is going on here?” I frantically mutter to myself. A bit ahead, the two lanes to my left go up and over an overpass and we… and we go down, to the right towards, yes, yet another motorway.

We got home in the end.

My, how much Turkey has changed, but in the last twenty years, I must confess, so have we.

It seems the only constant is that nothing stays constant.

There is much to learn, much to adjust to, much to unlearn as things have most definitely changed and are continually changing.

Regardless of where we abide, of new locales or old, I’ve found that there is another constant constant: we need God’s Grace day by day to live, adjust, change, to learn, to unlearn, to be light and salt in this world.

(written 8 August 2016)

In the wake of the previous week’s experience of the recommencement of distribution after a short hiatus, we knew this too, would be a demanding day.

This was one of those times that things lived up to their billing.

Two days previously, the bulk food stuffs arrived in our courtyard, ready for the task of assembling the distribution bags. And so, on the previous day there were 17 from our fellowship including children (who genuinely helped), who were engaged in assembling the bags of food stuffs. The preparation is divided in to several tasks: some people grab a large bag and walk around the circle, while others stand in front of the various kinds of foodstuffs, rice, lentils, etc. and place the correct number in the bag being filled.  The bag is lugged around the circuit until it is completed and then the bag is twirled and a cable tie is used to seal it and the bag is passed on to the person responsible for putting them into a pile that doesn’t spread over the whole courtyard nor go too high as to be hard to shift to the lorry and gently enough so as not to damage the food stuffs in the bags.

On the morning after,  the lorry had arrived, and, as it seems is the norm, we were short handed when it came time to commence loading. We were blessed as an Ethiopian Refugee had come just to help load the bags on the lorry – her help was deeply appreciated.

All told, we had eight souls (seven of the team going out to do the distribution and one helper), just enough people to form a bit of a conga line.  One person less and you could not form a conga line.  The line begins in the courtyard where someone lifts the bag and swings it up and around, and, importantly, at the end of this swing, it is grasped and carrying on the momentum, it is with a pivot and swing, the bag advances to the next person and so carries on until it get to the last person standing at the back of the lorry. This person then has to swing and lift it up on to the lorry. For the line to work efficiently, the bag must never stop moving… for when it stops, you have to hold the dead weight and then get it moving again.

All tasks in the process are somewhat strenuous and unrelenting and as you are part of a process, you can not take a brief break when you feel the need, unless you are prepared to stop everyone.

From my perspective, as one who has been in every position in the line, the most difficult task, is the final lifting of the bags up on to the lorry. The second most difficult position is the initial lifting of the bags. But, all positions are demanding. A conga line is still preferred to lifting and lugging the individual bags, or carting them two at a time out to the lorry to then be lifted on to the lorry – that really is the most difficult way to load the lorry.

I guess I should point out at this point that the bags are a little over ten kilogrammes each, so not a tremendous burden in and of itself. However, when you have 250 to shift, that relatively light weight, over time, can become quite a burden.

I began the day at the end of the line, lifting the bags up and onto the lorry.

After a too-short period of time, my dominant arm weakened, and began making expressing of fatigue, so I shifted to using my non-dominant arm… I wasn’t sure how long I could keep up the pace nor how long I would be able to continue to do the required task.

Then someone suggested they take my place as I was labouring under the morning sun.

I gratefully accepted, not because of the sun, but because of my arms… they didn’t know that.

I then moved to the other end of the line and began lifting the bags into the line. This too, for me, was a strenuous task. When my dominant arm objected, I again switched to my opposite arm. The work carried on.

Let me openly declare, lest you think that being in the line is any easier, experience has shown that that, too, is wearisome… the bags keep coming and the task is to grab, swing, release, swing back and grasp the next one… and so on…  As in all positions in the line, each is just a cog in the machine, you are tied to doing your task, non-stop as long as the bags keep coming…

In the end the lorry was duly loaded and headed off to our rendezvous point.

After prayer, and thanking our loading helper, we climbed aboard the Volkswagen Transporter and set out to the  rendezvous point.

At our rendezvous point, a petrol station with very fine public convenience, we met up and made use of the said public convenience as this is the first and the last opportunity until the day’s work is done.

We also met up with a believing family who, although he is from this region, they now live in Istanbul. They wanted to come out and see and help.

We were pleased with their interest, although, in the distribution there are a fixed number of tasks and we came prepared to cover all tasks. They were more than welcome to join us, and as they had their own vehicle, they would be free to leave whenever they desired.

We headed out towards the first place on our list for the day…a place we hadn’t been to for, well, nigh on two months.

As we drove out towards the particular field this encampment is situated in, I turned on to a raised roadway, like an isolated levee or dyke (with no visible function – just a raised roadway in the midst of a broad plain). As we came onto the elevated, poorly asphalted road, we saw, stretching off into the distance, that the road seemed to be covered with some material.

As we got closer to this ‘material’, it became clear what it was. It seems that something had dug three deep furrows in the road surface and the gravel, pieces of pavement and soil so dislodged had been spewed up and onto the surface of the road. Of course, added to this were the three new furrows carved into the roadbed.

Well, this was the most direct road to our goal, we were relatively close, and there really wasn’t a suitable place, on this elevated roadway, to turn about.

Truth be told, I didn’t really contemplate turning about, but, almost instinctively, ploughed on forwards. I moved the van onto one side of the ravaged roadway, I choose the left hand side of the road, one tyre on the old, cleanish road surface, not far from the drop off and the other bouncing and hopping about in the detritus of the shattered road surface.

The car with our visitors and the lorry were coming on behind me. They may have not approved my choice, but, like the morning conga line, not much can be done about it once it has commenced.

As we made our way along we caught up with the cause of this destruction, a grader, purposely and intentionally carving up the road surface. He stopped and pulled to the right-hand side to enable us to pass him by.

This, it turns out, was a fitting beginning to our days distribution.

We arrived at the first encampment, and on agreement with the lorry driver, the two vehicles were parked with their back ends side by side to establish a single, common point for distribution.

The encampment had more than doubled in size since we were last there. We were planned up for eleven shelters, and we were confronted with some thirty.

Immediately the back of the van was engulfed with a swarm of people; men, women, teenagers, children, babes in arms. This conglomeration of registered and unregistered people were pressing in around us, many with their ID papers in their hands each competing with their neighbour to put them in our faces….

It was somewhat chaotic….

The temperature was in the 40sº C in the shade….uh… and the only shade to be had, was under the open rear door of the (black) Volkswagen… and it had a large window in it, over which we laid some cardboard to establish a minimum of shade.

That was the sum total of the shade available.

Oh, yes, and it was quite warm…

Now our system is that we call the names of those registered on the database, verify who they are and then provide that which we have prepared for them.

Their system is to push in close, thrust their ID papers in our face and gain our attention, after which, according to their system, we would then find them on the database and process them and then they will receive their provisions.

This conflict of systems inevitably leads to inefficiency, confusion and a degree of tension on all sides.

We made our way through the registered individuals – remember there were only eleven previously registered shelters at this encampment. Then came the task of registering the ‘new’ folks.

This has been complicated because, in times past, new refugees entering Turkey were issued Turkish Language ID-like cards which we used for registration – all in beautiful Turkish.

However, for many months now, the powers that be no longer do this. This change has been done partly as a disincentive to Syrian Refugees, to dissuade them from coming over the border. The intention is that they would stay on the Syrian side of the border where camps have been set up to provide for the basic necessities of life – Turkey will continue to aid these newly minted refugees, but from ‘safe havens’ within Syria proper.

I guess these folks didn’t get that memo.

Anyway, now we are registering families and individuals using Syrian ID papers.

Oh, and naturally, Syrian ID papers are all in Arabic – a language unlike Turkish in grammar, form, vocabulary and and most importantly, script.  Completely and totally foreign.

Being aware of this change and to address this need, we had asked a Christian Syrian Refugee who lives in Antakya to accompany us and help in reading the ID papers and registering these new-comers.

That is great!

But – don’t you just hate the word ‘but’ – but, he doesn’t speak Turkish, and has very weak English. So, he can read the papers and understand them, he can chat with the folks and ask questions and understand what the situation is. But, he can not easily communicate that to us.

But he can read Arabic which is essential, and he is very familiar with the ID papers being a Syrian himself.

So, now comes the truly challenging task. The Arabic names are read in Arabic, and the recorder, T. has to, accurately, transliterate that vocal Arabic into Turkish.

All this with the pressure of a crowd of people surrounding you, the sun, unmercifully blazing down, precious little breeze to offset the heat and a seemingly never ending mass of people to register… all clutching their ID papers and whenever possible thrusting them forward or tugging on your sleeve… T. is the focus of this activity as she is the one doing the physical registration.

To give you an example as to how it felt, our visitors who have been with us on site for about thirty minutes or so, came and asked if it would be acceptable for them to depart – the sights, heat and fierce sun was draining them of energy and emotion.

They had their insight into what we do; they had a tour of the encampment, saw the state of the people, the children, the babies, and the conditions they endure and what their daily ordeal is like. So, for them, they had accomplished all they really needed to. I sent them on their way with our blessings – directing him to go back via a different route avoiding the newly destroyed road we had come by.

But, let us not lose sight of this important fact, for the occupants of this and similar encampments, this is the ‘daily grind’;  for them there is no escape, there is no relief.  It is just each and every day being a repeat of the previous… heat, hard work, crude accommodation, no proper washing facilities. Sun, flies, mosquitoes and hard labour… this is their daily lot.

It takes time to register the new comers. As the registration process continued, and we distributed food stuffs to the newly registered, people noticed that the odd tractor would arrive and drop people off, and the odd car would pull up and disgorge people or the odd motorcycle would appear, coughing and sputtering and one or more individuals would alight and then come up to be registered.

The ‘gangmaster’ of this encampment, the one in charge of organising the labour, providing a place for their shelters to be erected and transportation to and from various fields, is an individual that our past interactions has caused us to doubt his integrity and honesty. Some ‘gangmasters’ are a delight and seem to be genuine individuals who actually care, not just about the work but the workers. Others, like this one, appear to have their own, rather selfish agenda and try as they might, it can not be hidden.

He was in the midst, kind-of organising the process – this unmitigated chaos – and he was ‘vouch safe-ing’ various people.

It is in this context that various conveyances are arriving and ‘new registrants’ are joining the melee.

The fear and the very real possibility at this particular encampment and with this particular gang master, is that these new ‘registrants’ were in fact ‘ineligible’ people or ‘cheaters’ or even his relatives who were being brought in to receive ‘free’ food stuffs.

Maybe…

These new-comers very well may be ineligible or cheaters or relatives….

But, just to complicate things, it must be acknowledged that by the same token, if I lived in any particular encampment, during the daytime, I will not be in the encampment, but out working in some field somewhere… if news reaches me that there is a distribution and I need to be there with my ID, then it is only reasonable that I will arrive by tractor or vehicle or motorcycle…

This arrival by various forms of conveyance after we commence is not uncommon – and it is fraught with questions and introduces an element that is hard to discern truth from fiction.

At this, our first encampment of the day, with the seemingly never-diminishing crowd around the back of the van and with this particular ‘gangmaster’ there, I freely admit, that the potential for ineligible people and cheaters in amongst them was far greater than at other encampments.

Most troubling, some reported seeing the newcomers departing the area with their bags of food stuffs – something you would never do if you were truly resident in this encampment.  I did not personally see this – that would be a red flag to me.

Our procedure is to register by ID papers combined with visually looking at the photo and the holder of the papers. This is good as far as it goes… But someone can be living at a distance, working in the field while not living ‘under canvas’ which is one of our requirements for assistance. There are no means to verify where they live. Often, when asked, they will vaguely point at the cluster of blue tarpaulin shelters indicating ‘one of them’ without any way of actually verify it. If the gangmaster is a person of integrity, his word is sufficient. If you question the veracity of what the gangmaster says… you have no means to confirm.

Now, ultimately, we are serving Sovereign God who knows all hearts, and as scripture says He causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteousness alike. In this natural world, God Himself provides for people irregardless as to their personal integrity or honesty. So, in one sense, we need to be alert and take proper precautions, but, after all is said and done, it is the Lord’s concern and not ours…

Of course, in the course of this confusion, mistakes will be made. Not can be, or will possibly be, but they will be made… that, too, is a part of life.

At the same time, the recipients are desperate people, and I include all the recipients, even the ineligible and cheaters, and field work is tough and for the ones we are endeavouring to aid, they are living a hand-to-mouth existence, living in rude shelters, living in barren fields, without proper water provision and no proper toilets or washing facilities, with children and babies, in the unrelenting daily heat storm and at night persecuted by the onslaught of hordes of voracious mosquitoes.

What some may find incongruous is that people in such a desperate state, when they are receiving ‘grace’ (unmerited, unearned favour) – whether they acknowledge or recognise it as such or not – they can respond with an ‘entitlement’ attitude, as if they have ‘poverty and need’ and they ’trade’ that commodity for assistance, hence a feeling that they are ‘entitled’ to assistance. Where this attitude exists and I’m afraid, it is not as rare as one may think or wish, you may very well encounter in the place of ‘gratefulness’, a ‘grasping’ even ‘demanding’ attitude.

At this encampment, whether the bona-fide recipients or the suspected ineligible:

Not everyone was satisfied with what we provided.

Not everyone felt they had received their ‘right’… (?right?)

Not everyone felt, or at least, displayed, a modicum of ‘thankfulness’ nor ‘gratitude’… Some did for sure, but, in this encampment, this was by no means universal…

And one individual even proclaimed a ‘beddua’ – that is they pronounced a ‘curse’ upon us. Something to the effect of ‘may you be infected with cancer and die’.  I’m not sure of the exact words used, but there was no questioning what the intent of what was said was… It was a curse to our detriment.

Now my colleagues who have been doing this work, non-stop since the beginning, have encountered this in the past and their response is well established.

However, for me, this was a somewhat new experience – I’m not aware of being routinely cursed…

My initial response to such a one who made this statement was being freshly considered.

What do I want to do in response?

What do I feel would be the appropriate response?

Let me confess, my initial response wasn’t all that it should have been…

It seems that Jesus not only encountered this in His own life and ministry, but He knew that we, His followers, would as well.

He said, unequivocally, that we are to “bless those who curse you”.

I don’t think He was referring to a glib, cheap and cheerful, verbal, “God bless you”.

I believe, the Lord Jesus, the ‘Lord’ not the Suggester, or the Advisor, but the LORD, meant that we should actually do something that ‘blesses’ them.

It is inconceivable that we could just pray or say “God Bless you” and then go on our way, thinking that the will of God has been fully done…

For the Lord Jesus expressly states that if your enemy is thirsty, give them something to drink.

At no point, anywhere, will you find the Lord telling you that if your enemy is hungry, and they are ungrateful, and curse you and do not realise that what you are doing is an expression of the Love of God, you are then exempt from helping them, you are free to abandon them and leave them to their situation so that you can then concentrate on those who ‘appear’ to be grateful and provide for them…

The Lord Jesus Christ said: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him”.

Not a lot of wiggle-room there.

Some will say, “Well, we have no enemies, we love everyone,” – but that doesn’t absolve us of any of this responsibility – quite the contrary, it double downs on it – if we are to feed our enemies, then how much more should we do for those we do not consider ‘enemies’.

This momentary exchange at this encampment confronted me with an example of ‘Basic Christianity’. How I act and react in a situation such as this depicts clearly if I am acting according to Kingdom of God principles or according to this Worlds principles and the way of the ‘natural man’. My colleagues had long since been confronted with and dealt with these issues properly.

The intuitive, human response, when so cursed, is to write them off, to accept what they say, and let the natural consequences of their actions, of their words be their portion. The natural, human response is to leave them, not necessarily to verbally curse them, but to move on to those more receptive and who we think are more grateful.

We do not verbally curse them, but by denying food assistance, we are physically cursing them.

The lady so involved, for indeed it was a lady, did not ‘harm’ us in her vindictiveness, but if we end our aid, merely on the basis of words flung at us in her desperation, then we would inflict real harm on her, and her neighbours, and the children and the babies…

We would turn her empty curse, for it has no power over the children of God and repay it with a physical curse that will affect all in that encampment.

If anything else is needed to be said on this topic, let me turn our focus on how God treated us when we were enemies of God, when we were going our own headstrong, independent way, when we said whatever came into our mind and thence out our mouths, cursing and denying and defying Almighty God which was our norm….

What did God do, in the face of our repeated actions and declarations and rebellion? What was God’s response to us as we acted, repeatedly, doggedly, emphatically in this manner?

He sent His one and only Son to give Himself as a propitiation for our sins with the sole purpose to reconcile man, let me emphasise, ‘sinful man’, let me add ‘by nature a child of wrath’ man, let me say ‘spiritually dead in our own sins and transgressions’ man, His goal was to reconcile mankind with God……

That was His response to our rebellion and cursing and insurrection against Him.

Are we not called to be like Him?

If they curse us, should we not redouble our efforts to love them, serve them, and demonstrate the Love of God to them, whether or not they see it, accept it, acknowledge it and, indeed, to carry on in spite of their ‘cursing’… is that not what it means to be ‘like Christ’, is that not what it means to truly ‘serve’, is that not what it means practically, to love our enemies?

But this is particular encampment is rendered doubly complex, doubly convoluted, doubly difficult, for in this particular encampment and especially, with this individual gang master, it is rendered difficult, bordering on impossible, to distribute assistance in a fair and equitable manner.

If we suspend our activities with this encampment it is not because of empty words and a vindictive curse, but because of the dishonesty, cheating, misrepresentation and, let’s call it what it is, theft of the limited supply of food stuffs available for Syrian refugee field workers living under canvas.I said it was ‘rendered difficult’ and, well, life is difficult. I did say it was ‘bordering on impossible’ which is not the same as calling it impossible.

Once again we are reminded that it is our responsibility to follow our own guidelines – leaving ample room for mercy and grace – which means when we register people we need ID and also to see their face (of each person to be registered) – papers without a face will not be registered. We need to redouble our efforts to establish where people are living, maybe even taking the food stuffs to the various shelters.

Wisdom, as always is needed to know the way forward.

Our goal is not to hoard the assistance. Our goal is not to return to Antakya with ‘left over’ bags. Our goal is for all the essential food aid to be distributed to those in genuine need and according to our guidelines (always allowing for mercy and grace).