Hmm.. that was ‘interesting’ and totally ‘unexpected’.

We were on the way out to recommence our food distribution to the Syrian refugee field workers.  On the way, we had a short discussion about English.  I was clarifying the meaning of the common English word ‘sure’.  One example I gave was “I’m sure this is right.”  And someone raised a counter point about the word ‘positive’.  Again, an illustration like: “I am positive I left it right here” was given.

Routine traffic stops are common in Turkey.  They do not stop every vehicle – there is often a winnowing, a selecting of whom to stop.  There are two kinds of traffic stops. The first is to issue fines for offences committed (speeding).  The other kind is a routine stop – checking for various things.

This was a routine stop and all the officer wanted was to see my driver’s licence.  This was not an unreasonable request.  And for me, there was no problem because I always have my driver’s licence with me.  Of this I was sure.  In fact, I was downright positive my license lives in my wallet.  This is a product of my upbringing.  I learned you MUST always have your driver’s license when you drive.

So, I had absolutely no qualms when I reached for my wallet….

Now, regardless of qualms or no qualms, I confidently reached for my wallet.  No matter how thoroughly and diligently I searched, I did not find my driver’s license!

In Turkey, this is an undisputed offence. There is no point in declaring: “It is my other trousers, I forgot it at home or whatever.”  All such statements are pointless and utterly meaningless.  

The officer could have hit me with a 4,000 fine AND having to appear in court (!)The fine would have been bad.  Appearing in court would have been very disruptive and frankly unappealing.

And, he could have written me up for not having a notarised translation of my license.  Thankfully, he didn’t make either of those two choices.

He wrote me up for not having my license to present.  T, always going the extra mile, had taken a photograph of her and my license.  We showed this to the traffic officer on her phone.  Thankfully, he accepted it as proof I have a license to drive. This was a gift.  For how could he know if I possess a license?   

But then it was in English, hence the requirement to have a notarised, translated copy.  He asked for my father’s name, a key Turkish requirement.  And asked where it was written on my license.  Well…. It isn’t

The upshot is he wrote the ticket with this photograph of my license. My offense: not having my driver’s license to show when required.

So, having earned a new piece of paper requiring a payment, we carried on to our food distribution. And, I continued to drive. The officer stated there was a risk of another fine. He felt any reasonable traffic officer would not write a second ticket.

All this was unintended….  I was sure it was in my wallet.  Indeed, I was positive.  But now, I had no inkling to its location.  I never move it about nor take it out. Nothing, I do nothing clever with it. It belongs in my wallet, and my wallet belongs on me. So, whenever I am called upon to drive, I have my driver’s license.

Needless to say, we did not find it where I expected it to be.

Oh, on returning home, not encountering any more traffic stops, we found my driver’s license.  The only conceivable place to look was my English wallet.  And true enough, there we found it.  When we arrived back to Turkey, it never made the transfer over.  Yani, I’ve been driving without a license for nigh on three months (!).  God is Gracious!

Interestingly, previously and for a few days I have been ‘feeling’ that I should get my license translated and notarised…. But I did not follow through.  If I had, this whole episode would not have happened.  Except what would have been a simple meet and greet with the traffic officer.

Anyway, it was a worthwhile – and tiring – day with the refugees.  We went to an encampment we have named Isken 1 which is teeming with children.  There I spent the time holding hands with the children, walking about, sometimes in a great circle.  Over the years we have built up relationships with umpteen children.

We are scheduled to go to the Syrian refugee children on Thursday, the second day after this incident.  Happily we have found my license and AND we will get it translated and notarised before we go. One fine is one too many for me.

I think the year was 2006, and we were in the ‘pearl of the Aegean’, the city of Izmir. T and I travelled and stayed in the city for two-weeks every month for over a year.

When there, we stayed with our friends and coworkers.  They lived in an area of Izmir called Balçova, a place noted for its hot springs.  In this area the thermal water is so abundant that they use thermal hot water to heat the homes and apartment buildings.

This, I found to be magnificent, free heating and free hot water.  At the same time I found this to be quite terrifying that the conditions to heat the water were so close, so very, unnaturally near; in fact, just under our feet.  Still, one advantage of staying there was the ability to visit the thermal springs.  It was a real treat to indulge and relax in the natural hot water.

Izmir, was in ancient times known as Smyrna.  It was then a thoroughly cosmopolitan city.  It still is today whilst at the same time is also a typical Turkish city.  And so it was not surprising that many signs in the hot springs were bi-lingual, Turkish and English.

Once, as I was passing through the lobby, my eyes fell on a rather large notice.  Typically, the English drew me.  I read that “parents are liable from their children”.  I must admit this tickled my funny bone.  I snickered to myself over the obvious error.  My assumption being it was supposed to be ‘for’ in ‘for their children’ but had been misspelt as ‘from’.   No doubt the sign writer did not know English and so this error silently passed by.

Feeling smug, I then turned my attention to the original Turkish.  I confess, reading the Turkish surprised me.  The Turkish states that “Veliler çocuklardan sorumlu”.  Let me explain.  Turkish is a suffix based language.  This means suffixes are added on to words, and so, if we translate this literally it is: “parents children-from responsible [are]”.

This straight away brought two things to my attention.  The first is the method which shows the relationship in the Turkish language and according to Turkish syntax is using the suffix ‘den/dan’.  This we typically translate into English as ‘from’.  The dilemma isn’t Turkish but our translation of the suffix which is most often, but crucially, not always accurately rendered as ‘from’.  Another thing that stuck me was I would constantly translate wrongly as I would eschew ‘from’ and consistently use ‘for’.  The Turkish for ‘for’ is ‘için’ which is not a suffix but a separate word.

Oph!  I completed the rapid descent from smugness to chagrin.  One moment I felt superior, and the next embarrassment.  I again realised that my Turkish is full of English-inspired errors.  I was reminded my Turkish reflects English forms and English syntax.  These I subconsciously wield to create my own, personal form of Turkish.

I giggled when I read the English.  That was wrong.  If, in like fashion, Turks chuckled at my linguistic faux pas, they would be justified.  But there is a problem.

We have lived amongst Turks for thirty-five plus years.  In that time I’ve never witnessed or overheard them mocking, laughing, ridiculing or making fun of foreigners’ verbal blunders.  I have heard of many foreigners’ gaffes.   Some of which are funny – er, am I doing the same thing again?  But, I’ve never heard them from the Turks.

It seems making a mockery of someones struggles in a second language is more the forte of foreigners.  I have found the Turks to be genuinely gracious.  Turks strive to understand what the foreigner is trying to communicate.  Full stop.  They do not take the mickey, nor take pleasure at the expense of the foreigner.  Here the foreigner can take a lesson from the Turks.

Oh, as for the grammar lesson… it is only this year I’m applying it to my Turkish.  In guess I’m a slow learner.

Today, 18 December, 2017, we returned, once again, to ‘the Grove’, this most challenging of the ad-hoc Syrian refugee field worker encampments that we visit. On this expedition, we endeavoured to be ‘smarter’ than in the past and to try and hopefully, to avoid some of the most egregious problems we have previously encountered.

Indeed, this is the only encampment where we have experienced the theft of a bag of foodstuffs off the back of the lorry.

As this occurred whilst the lorry was reversing and to hinder a repetition of that theft, on this outing, we arranged that I would be reversing the van and the lorry would be set up to drive straight off at the conclusion of our time here. The lorry would do no reversing in this encampment.

Additionally, we normally travel past this encampment on our way to a more distant encampment, and visit this encampment on our return, they know we are coming and they are ready for us… maybe too ready.

We felt that denying them this advanced notice may make the encampment more manageable. Therefore, we drove the back way, a much longer route, to the furthest encampment. On completion of that encampment we just arrived at ‘the Grove’ with no forewarning.

‘The Grove’ is also the encampment where we have tried, and sadly, failed to fully distribute the special treats that have been provided for the children.

However, we are still endeavouring to bless the children and give them these special treats. As the former method had consistently floundered on the rocks of this tumultuous encampment, this time we introduced a new method – just for them. Here we would include the special treats bundled together with, and at the same time, as we provided foodstuffs, pads and where appropriate, nappies and milk. This is not as nice a method, and you can never be certain that the children will actually get the treats – the mums very well may consume the treats themselves, or they may favour one child over another.

Applying this special method, just for this encampment, we strove to ensure that every child on the system had their treat given with the foodstuffs. A side benefit of this method here was the Team was not besieged by an unruly mob or, at times, nearly rabid rabble of children. Oh, and additionally there were no attempts by the children to gain forced entry to the vehicle with a view of pillaging the store of treats.

As we seek to serve this particular encampment, we try to work with the realities on the ground and still accomplish our goals.

Whilst we were processing the various inhabitants from one side of our ‘working zone’, I noted two wee boys, on the opposite side. Both lads were under six years of age. The one boy, slightly taller, suddenly grappled with the other in an obvious attempt to simply inflict pain. This was not rough-housing, nor play fighting, he was going for blood. He was squeezing, punching and twisting to make as much pain for the other child as he physically could.

Before I could intervene, they broke off their clinch. Not a sound was emitted by either.

However, after I turned my back, the victim of the earlier encounter, the smaller boy who had been assaulted, turned and forcefully grabbed his former assailant by the head and drove him vigorously, face first towards the side of the van. Before I knew what was happening, there was the sound of the impact of his face coming into a forceful encounter with the van.

Once again no sound was forthcoming and they broke off their hostilities and scattered.

This really is a very dark, a very sad encampment. Harshness, casual violence, shouting, thrusting, jockeying, striving, grasping for advancement is the norm within this gathering of souls.

And it is in this encampment where a young bride whom we encountered a year previously – she married at 14 years of age – still a child herself, now resides. It is in this harsh and unwelcoming encampment that she dwells with her equally young husband and their baby girl. One of the members of our American team was touched by her plight and purchased some baby things for her and her child. The American, herself, a pregnant mum, wanted to help her and to ‘visit with her’ – the only impediment being she speaks no Arabic and the wee child-bride-new mum speaks no English.

Nevertheless, they spent the majority of the time we were in this encampment, ‘visiting’. Sometimes it is remarkable the degree of communication that can transpire in spite of lacking a common language.

At the end of the day, if any place needs to see light, needs to be exposed to a better way, needs to see love and grace and patience and perseverance, it is this place.

Twice a year is carrot season, the spring and winter. This photo is from the spring harvest.

Many of the inhabitants were away in the fields working – this is the season for pulling carrots from the muddy soil – and so on arrival we were not confronted with as large a mob as on our previous encounter. Also, neither of the two, rather problematic, rapacious gang-masters were present. And so on this occasion, our distribution was a bit more manageable and a little less chaotic.

Mind you, the formidable ladies still seemed to think the most effective means to communicate with us, even those of us who speak no Arabic, was to shout emphatically at us – in Arabic – vigorously gesturing all the while.

Nope… absolutely no comprehension on our part.

When we thought we were done… we were not rushing to leave, we wanted to make sure we saw all who were to be seen, but, quietly we were thankful that it seemed to be finished…

… a minibus flew up and skidded to an abrupt halt near our vehicles positioned at the entrance to this encampment… it was transporting some of the missing inhabitants from the fields where they were labouring….

It is known that on our arrival to an encampment we will leave the provision with an immediate member of the ‘registered’ family – but if there is no one from the family present, we leave nothing.

And so, on the arrival of these late-comers, the work carried on…

When, finally, we had worked our way through these belated individuals, we were confronted with a small gaggle of various ones who were presenting to be registered and to receive some foodstuffs.

It has been our experience over the course of the three years we have been engaged in this activity, that at the end of our time at an encampment, that the chancers, the charlatans, the liars come out – and oh, mixed up amongst them can be bonafide late-comers or honestly unregistered new-comers.

Within this cohort was one individual we had dealt with on our previous encounter. Nothing had changed in his circumstance, and no, we were not about to give him anything. On our previous encounter it was determined that whilst he is living alone, and he waits for his family to join him – which he believes will happen at some time in the future, he is, in the meantime, eating from the kitchen of a relative, and on checking the number of people in that family, they were already in possession of the extra needed to feed him. Nevertheless, he keeps trying it on…

Then there were others who presented, but claim they do not have any ID. This is possible – just. But the whole picture taken together, it was unconvincing to me at least.

They were presenting in this context of misrepresentation, dubious presentations, and these two, who were claiming to be four individuals staying together, but there were only two before us, and they were young men with no ID – Turkish or Syrian.

Again, I was feeling unconvinced

The lack of any ID is hard to accept in this part of the world where everyone has some form of ID – with the very rare exceptions of those who have just fled a disaster. These young men were claiming not to have Turkish ID, fully understandable, but they must surely have their ever-essential Syrian ID.

Grace would have even to give them a bag of foodstuffs – but, unfortunately, I was not feeling very gracious at that point in time.

At a different encampment, or earlier in our time there, I very well may have been more gracious in my response….

Methinks, there be a lesson in here for me… grace over all…

We departed…

From ‘the Grove’ we made our way over to an encampment we have named ‘Isken-1’.

This encampment also looks to be wintering in the fields like ‘the Grove’.

But this is a very different encampment.

There are 185 people registered in this encampment with 59 children between two and ten years of age and 36 babies – which means that fully half the encampment is under ten years of age.

On our arrival, down the poor field road, the sun was pleasantly shining. Vibrant, young, green grass has grown among the multitude of stones in the fields beside the encampment. This vista provided a delightfully rich, captivating and verdant background. The weather was warm. But, most importantly, these Syrian refugee field workers are very different in attitude and behaviour to those in ‘the Grove’.

Here they stand around, in a pleasant cluster, in a non-threatening, patient manner, waiting their turn. There is no shouting, gesticulating, shoving, intimidation or ruckus behaviour by demanding adults crowding in on the zone where the team is working.

The children are, well, everywhere. They are, by and large, clean and clean-conscious. There are no adults driving the children back with sticks – so unlike ‘the Grove’.

The children are friendly and cleaner than you would expect for people living without adequate washing facilities.

I moved away from the vehicles and the crowd and began tossing the children up in the air. They loved it. A small cluster gathered around me asking for ‘their turn’.

Then two young men came towards us, animatedly speaking and gesturing at us in Arabic, which I do not understand. But one word they kept repeating was ‘haram’ which is the same in Arabic and Turkish meaning ‘sinful’, ‘forbidden’,‘unlawful’.

I thought, is it ‘haram’ to toss children in the air? Am I doing something offensive? Am I, inadvertently, doing something wrong?

I speak Turkish. They speak Arabic.

But, with their descriptive chatter, and hand gestures, I began to get an inclination of what they were saying.

I called our bi-lingual minder over and asked him to enlighten me.

It was just as I was beginning to suss out. They were concerned that I, a white beard, an older gentleman, was tossing children in the air… a vigorous and demanding action. They felt and feared that I may do myself an injury in the effort. It was, in their view, haram’ for the children to be asking to be so entertained and played with.

They were merely concerned for the ‘old man’.

Later in the distribution and this was the last encampment of the day, actually of the year… the next distribution is planned for 2 January 2018, I mounted the lorry and moved a number of bags from the front to the back of the lorry to be ready for distribution.

A couple of the children were by the lorry, and I lifted them up into the lorry – they really enjoyed being inside the ‘forbidden zone’.

As I was moving the bags, they too, spontaneously begin moving the bags… mind you the bags are disproportionately large and heavy for them to move, but with all their effort, they would tug, pull and cajole the bags towards the back of the lorry.

They were being helpful, without being asked.

When it came time to alight from the lorry, I called them, in Turkish, I do not know Arabic and they, in truth, do not know Turkish, but they understood. They came and were happy to be lifted down – out of the desired, prized location. No resistance, no demanding to remain there, they quickly and happily acquiesced to my request.

Later, when it came time to move the rest of the bags to the back of the lorry, a young Syrian refugee mounted the lorry and shifted all the remaining bags forward. No one asked him to, he saw the need, and jumped in to do it.

He was being helpful. There was nothing extra in it for him.

This is so unlike ‘the Grove’.

In ‘the Grove’, the van is always locked and there is no way we could trust anyone up on the lorry. Sometimes the young lads have offered to assist… but always and obviously with an eye some the reward they expected to gain for doing so…

Here in ‘Isken-1’ the van remains unlocked and help is welcomed in the lorry.

Two children were holding my hands, and we were walking beside the lorry. There was some mud to one side, and the person on my left accidentally stepped in the mud. Her sandal and toes were soiled with mud.

She immediately stopped, got a piece of paper and commenced throughly cleaning her footwear, and then her toes. She is aware and striving to be clean.

So unlike ‘the Grove’.

In the end, some people came who ‘used to be in a nearby encampment’ (we called it ‘Isken-2’). That encampment is no more – the inhabitants have either moved to ‘Isken-1’ or the relatively nearby town of Kirikhan.

It became clear that these late comers are no longer living in the fields, but have come from Kirikhan, and we do not provide for those who are not living in the fields.

In any event, the last bag came off the lorry, so there was no more to give. They didn’t press, which is also an established tell of those who are ‘trying it on’.

We still had some ten or so litres of milk left on the lorry. Normally we would return them to Antakya, and take them out on the next run.

But here, I grabbed the box and gave a litre of milk to each small child I saw until they were gone.

It was a good day. The team will carry on the work in the new year, but it was our last day before we return for our annual sojourn in the United Kingdom.

It was a good mix of encampments.

And, once again, some more lessons for me to learn had come to the fore.

Truly it was a good contrast between the two encampments; one, which you naturally want to help and enjoy, and one, you realise is the neediest of them all and we really need to prioritise and spend time there being loving, caring, gracious, serving, patient, understanding and always being true to who we are in Christ and allowing Him to shine forth in us.

The venue where the Antakya Christian Church gathers is a rented former courtyard house in the oldest part of the city of Antakya. It is not overly large – but we’ve been gathering in this location for over ten years now and, well, it feels like home.

It is known in the immediate community, and over the years, many have come and visited with us there, sharing in our special occasions, Easter and Christmas and many other events.

But it is rented. The rent, as rents do, continues to increase year on year. In the beginning, the fellowship was able to meet the rent. However, over the years, we’ve passed the point where the believers are able to do so; every month there is now a short fall.

In former times, the landlord, a Turkish, ‘Greek Orthodox’ gentlemen whose house is adjacent, would provide his large garden and its most important feature, in the midst of his garden, a large water feature for Fellowship baptisms. It was within this water feature that a number of believers have been baptised.

Sadly, our landlord has passed-on and with his passing, so has passed the opportunity to use his ‘water feature’ as our impromptu baptismal pool.

Recently, a brother declared his desire to obey the Lord in the waters of baptism and that raised the question of where were we to do this?

In the past, in addition to the landlord’s water feature we have conducted baptisms in the Mediterranean Sea. The sea sounds like a idyllic place to be baptised, but the reality is, it is over thirty kilometres away and large sections of the beach are subject to a vicious rip-tide. Added to this is the complication of transporting everyone who would like to be there to the baptismal location, thirty or more kilometres there and naturally, another thirty or so kilometres back. A local venue is our clear preference.

As it is our understanding and practice that baptism is by immersion; a bucket or font does not fill the bill.

One possible solution was to construct a ‘water feature’, that is a baptismal pool, at the building we rent for the church, but:

• we are renters – we may have to move at some time in the future

• the property is small, and to put an adequately sized ‘water feature’ in the stone clad courtyard would dominate the courtyard to such an extent that it would impede our fellowship times, fellowship meals, and the children’s work

• we can not built the baptismal pool indoors as, well, there really isn’t any space to do so within the church building.

And so was born the notion of building a ‘water feature’ in the courtyard of our home, which belonging to the elder and will always be available for our use, and use it for Fellowship baptisms. Our courtyard is larger, and whilst the Baptismal Pool will dominate it, it would not impede the activities that occur in the courtyard.

So, we embraced this solution with the desire to have it built and established quickly to enable our brother to be baptised.

Two young people from the United Kingdom came down to help with the refugee ministry and, they declared, in any way they could be of a help.

We took them at their word.

They helped with the refugee work. They helped with the children’s work. And they helped with this baptismal pool project.

We felt that if we built the baptismal pool on top of the courtyard floor and with it being deep enough for a baptism, it would stand rather tall – too tall. Consequently, it was decided that we would drop the bottom of the pool lower than the courtyard floor. In this way, with part of the pool below the level of the courtyard, less would be required to stand proud – the required depth would be created without being too high in the courtyard.

To go lower than the courtyard required breaking open the floor and digging down sixty odd centimetres. This was no mean task.

Digging the pit is a task in and of itself, but it is not just the digging, but also the bagging up of the spoil and then lugging it out of the way, that makes this such a laborious task. With over one and a half cubic meters of compressed soil, broken up and dumped into bags, this equated to a disproportionately large number of bags.

The need to dispose of all the bags was a constant pressure dogging me. It is not enough to create the hole, it was not enough to bag the spoil, at some point it would need to be dragged, lugged, cajoled or otherwise removed from the courtyard and loaded (let the reader understand ‘lifted’, hoisted, manhandled) up into a lorry for transportation and disposal… somewhere.

The courtyard tiles were carefully lifted and cleaned as they were needed elsewhere, and our two, hearty and hail young people threw themselves at the task of excavating the hole.

Slowly, layer by layer, the pit, about 1.70 meters by 1.86 meters rectangle, was excavated. Beneath the courtyard tiles there was a sand layer of about five to seven centimetres deep – we bagged this relatively clean sand up separately as we felt it may be required later in the build (it was). The sand had been laid over a compacted layer of stones. Together this formed the base of the current courtyard tiles. Below this, as we dug deeper, we passed through various levels until, at about 60 centimetres down, we encountered an old level surface. This appeared to be constructed of cement, so, it would not be really old. As this was at about out desired depth, we stopped excavating.

I confess, it was rather satisfying to look down and see a smooth, flat bottom to the pit.

However, it was less than satisfying to look all around at the bags and bags and bags of spoil. All the bags were hand filled.  Some were on the light side, easy to shift, and others were beyond my ability to shift without extreme difficulty.

It was important that the sides of the hole be perpendicular and we did work at it to ensure they were so. And, to a degree, they were… to a degree… but, in reality, they really were not.

The young people, having expended their energies and sweat, returned to the country from whence they came and the labour baton was passed to a Turkish workman who does this sort of rough construction – forms, hand mixed cement, block walls and such.

He informed me that he had experience in this kind of thing, that he had made a large pool for his children and their friends to romp around in and it has never leaked.

I found that very encouraging.

He convinced me that he was the one to do the task and besides, I dreaded the notion of mixing a lot of cement by hand, and I have no real experience laying blocks.

Before he began his task of pouring a floor in the pit and building the sides, he jumped in the hole and measured the top and the bottom of the hole. He then declared that the top was larger than the bottom. True, my eye, which is not very accurate, did note a discrepancy.  His measured discrepancy was significant – accumulative over two sides was about 15 centimetres, on the one axis and the same on the other axis.

Now that is a large discrepancy, about seven centimetres per side.

In my ignorance, I thought he would trim the sides of the pit, creating more spoil, and make them truly perpendicular; that this approach would be easier, better, and result in a stronger structure.

I assumed he would make the bottom measurements the same as the top, with straight, perpendicular sides, and that then he would pour the floor and then build the walls.

The measurements at the top of the pit are true, framed by the courtyard tiles. To make the sides right it would mean excavating the bottom reaches of the sides to extract the excess soil – I acknowledge that this would be an added task, but I did not perceive that this was an overly taxing or difficult task.

Alas, no…

His first chosen task was to ignore the wonky sides and dig a hole in a corner to accommodate the sump pump. A sump pump was required as we could not put a drain in, partly because of the depth and mostly because we did not want to tear up any more of the courtyard tiles than necessary.

Leaving the sides as they were, his next task was to cut and put some steel rods in the bottom of the hole and then to hand-mix sand and gravel and cement in a pile on the floor of the courtyard. The idea is you roughly turn the pile over and in so doing, you mix the cement into the sand and gravel. Then you make a depression in the middle of the pile with walls formed out of the sand, gravel and cement, creating a lake-like basin. This space is then flooded with water.

Once sufficient water has pooled in the ‘lake’, you carefully chop slices off the interior side of the walls, that is the walls which are all there is holding the water in. These delicate slices of sand, cement and gravel are drawn into the centre and mixed with the water.

Thus, in this manner, slowly, slowly, the original dry pile, has been turned over and flooded and mixed until it is a large sloppy, soupy mixture on the floor of the courtyard.

To cement the sump pump depression, he first, carefully, put some of this cement mixture in the bottom of the newly excavated hole and then placed an old paint pail on top of the concrete. He then poured the cement around the sides. In this way, it would be encased in cement – the plastic paint pail would remain in-situ and provide the venue for the sump pump.

Then the remainder of the cement mixture was poured, pushed and coaxed so as to fill the bottom of the hole, carefully lifting the steel bars off the floor of the pit in the process.

This task being done, he departed.

On the following day with the cement now set, our rough builder set about building the walls of our Baptismal pool.

I did wonder if he would just make the pool smaller, using the bottom width of the pool his guide and build the walls straight up from there. This would result in a smaller pool and a gap between the tiles and the wall.

That was not his plan…

The constructing of these walls was one of the more intimidating aspect of the work for me… the walls need to be right, true and well built as they will, after all, be charged with holding in a tonne or more of water.

Turkish building block – Tuğla –

The chosen building material for the walls was ‘tuğla’, a special block made out of clay and formed with a hollow, lattice interior structure. These blocks are first sun dried and then baked hard in a special oven. This is the ubiquitous building material in Turkey for walls.

They are also some what brittle. Personally, I am not so keen on them, but, as I said, they are rather ubiquitous in Turkey. They are also comparatively cheap.

Now, our rough builder had been at pains to point out to me that the sides of the pit were not perpendicular. In assessing the problem he had determined that the solution to this problem was to knock off bits of the block, that is to reduce the size of the blocks laid at the bottom of the pit so that when the wall reaches the courtyard floor level we would be able to carry on using full sized blocks.

In other words, he decided to make up for the difference in the size of the hole (smaller bottom, larger top) by reducing the size of the blocks in the bottom of the walls of the hole.

I wrote this twice as it was not what I expected, nor desired.

In this way, at the courtyard level, the blocks will be their full 15 centimetres (full sized), but, as he was aggressively knocking half of the block away (sometimes more than half) at the bottom this meant that the bottom row of blocks were a mere seven centimetres wide.

I didn’t say anything partly because I reasoned that as the soil is the backdrop to the walls, the thinner wall will have nowhere to go, the soil behind it will hold it place… but, I wasn’t happy with his methodology.

Alas, it also transpired that the special hole for the sump pump was poorly located and actually came under the path of the wall – even the curtailed, reduced wall blocks. I feared that if this was not properly addressed at some point, then it would provide a weak point – an easy path for the water to escape from our enclosure.

Now, throughout the two days of rough construction, including the essential building of the block walls, our rough builder had brought along a ‘helper’, someone less skilled than he to do the simple tasks and the basic grunt work.

After the walls were, er, ah… custom trimmed and built up to the level of the courtyard, the rough builder departed as he declared that he had some other business that he had to attend to. He was adamant that he would be gone ‘no more than half an hour.’

Now, culturally, when a Turkish speaker gives a time reference it is not intended to be a precise, digital reference. That is to say, “half an hour” is not intended to mean thirty minutes duration. It is more the emotional intent – what he was saying was he would be gone a relatively short while, do not worry…

He left his semi-skilled ‘helper’ behind to carry on the task of building the walls up to the finished height.

In the event, we didn’t see the rough builder again until the task was completed and he had to return to pick up his helper, his tools, oh, and to be paid…

Now, to be honest, the helper worked to the best of his limited ability. It is true that the size and shape of the finished product will be a lasting monument to his skill set. Suffice it to say, a master block layer he, most definitely, was not.

At this point I also learned that it seems our rough builder has a tendency to over purchase material – to avoid running short when doing a build. The problem for me is that he charges for all the material that he has brought, used or otherwise!

Now, I acknowledge that I should pay for what was used, this is as you would expect. But it was a… er… surprise for me that I was expected to pay for all the extra that he didn’t use. He had no intention of carting the surplus away, and some of it was brought in preparation for the plasterer, nevertheless this was not what we needed, wanted or expected.

Indeed, it was a rather unpleasant turn of events.

However, on the positive side, he did load all the spoil; lugging, dragging, lifting, hefting, hoisting it all on to his lorry and then he deposited it somewhere. As I said, some of the bags were a doddle to lift, and others were beyond what Health and Safety would ever condone being hoisted by anyone.

Removing all the spoil almost made his exorbitant charge worth it – almost, but not quite. I still smart when I think of what he was paid. It was the agreed price… no one to blame but me – I agreed after all…  There are times when I make bad deals… and this was one.

Now with the walls so built, it does not look like anything that could hold the waters of the baptismal pool in place. I was informed and assured, by the rough builder, that the plasterer, would line the inside of the pool with a mesh and use a special plaster that is more or less water proof. He was adamant that this combination would be able to withstand the pressures of the water.

From our projects in renovating our flat, we knew a Master Plasterer. He had been sent out to work as a child and hence, learned his trade the old fashioned way. On the plus side, he really is a master of his art, but, on the other side, he didn’t choose this profession and he doesn’t really enjoy it.

Currently he has found other employment, which still involves his plastering skills, but the work is more varied, and most importantly, the pay is more consistent. We called him to come and examine our project. In his examination, complete with a tape measure and a level he found that there were quite a few challenges before him.

It seems on careful inspection that the new block walls were not straight, were not level, and the structure was not square. It could have been; actually, it should have been, but, alas, it was not. The shape of the pool had its own, unique, kinks and quirks.

The task for the Master Plasterer was to try and straighten out and correct some of the fundamental flaws and make the top of the walls level.

On the day he came, our first task was to go and source the essential mesh which would reinforce the walls… but as we traipsed from shop to shop, he couldn’t get the mesh he wanted. In the end he settled on some plastic coated wire mesh – good stuff, but harder to work with.

Initially he said he would put the mesh on the inside and on the outside of the walls of the pool – he had measured and had me purchase sufficient material for this.

Affixing this metal mesh proved to be an unexpectedly difficult and labour intensive task. At times it seemed as if the wire mesh had a mind of its own. Even once it was fitted and secured in place, it would sometimes find it within itself strength to pop away from the wall, or to refuse to stay in the selected position that had been determined. The plasterer used nails to try and keep it fixed in place until the plaster has been applied… sometimes to no avail.

He had arranged that we would have ‘black sand’ (brought by the rough builder) for this stage of the project. He said it is the best for this task. Also, he sourced a special package of something or other which was to be mixed with the cement and sand and will make the finished plaster, water… er… resistant…

After wrangling the mesh into place and standing in the pool, he expertly applied the ‘mud’ to the walls, embedding the mesh. The notion is, the wall provides form and shape and basic strength, but it is the wall, plus the mesh, plus the plaster in combination that will, ultimately, be sufficient to contain the water. As the water pushes outwards, the mesh, embedded in the plaster, will counter this powerful force. Hence, it is the wall augmented and strengthened by the mesh and plaster which are reinforcing one another, which will resist the outward pressure of the water; kind of like a Chinese finger puzzle – the more pressure, the stronger it seems to be.

As he worked, it became clear that at one place the plaster is just thick enough to bury the mesh, at another it is three or four centimetres thicker to make up for a wobble in the wall. It is a challenge to make right something that is, well, rather wrong.

When the interior was done, he carefully extradited himself and was about to commence the exterior walls. Now, initially, he said he would apply the mesh to the inner and outer sides… now, because of the difficulty in working with this plastic coated metal mesh, he suggested this was not really necessary.

I disagreed.

I could be in error; indeed, the wire mesh may not be required on the outside; truly, at the end of the day, it may offer little structural support. But as we had the mesh, and as our initial plan was to lay it on both sides and as we had the workman to fit it, and as he was being paid for the task, I insisted.

He fitted the mesh.

In this way, all the mesh purchased was used – nothing left over.

He then applied the plaster, smoothing it, levelling it, aiming to make the best base for the finish which will be ceramic tile on the interior and stone cladding on the exterior.

He had to add more plaster to the top of the wall than he desired and felt was acceptable. But, as the walls were not level and they really needed to be.

At the end of the day, he was both done and done in. The pool looked much better – this is just the foundation for the finish, but it looks like something now.

As he was worn out, and as we had the ‘excess building material’ that the rough builder had delivered and I paid for, it was agreed that I would take the Master Plasterer home (he lives in a nearby village) in the church van. We would also take along the building materials that were extraneous to our needs. We know that he could make good use of the building material and we appreciate him and he did put the mesh on the outside as I desired, and he is a jolly nice bloke.

With the pool now prepared, we needed a Master Tiler cum Stone Cladder.

Again, due to the renovations we had been involved in, we just happen to know a Master Tiler.

Before he came, I was sent out to source the tile. In so doing, I found I had the choice of one ‘pool’ tile, and, thankfully, everyone approved of it.

For the exterior, I had in mind a specific type of stone – travertine. I love stone, and travertine is, to my eye, a very pleasant stone. I was able to source and purchase the travertine – it comes from the west of Turkey. It was about the same price as ceramic tile so did not impact the cost of the project, but will look so much better in the courtyard when it is finished.

Now this tiler is a Master – he really knows his trade. He is the one who tiled the upstairs flat, over 90 square metres. He prepped the floor, found the ‘centre line’ and drew out the tiles from there and it took him but one day to do the entire flat.

A wonderful job which was very done as well.

I thought, “For a master tiler, this wee little baptismal pool should be a trifle.”

And I suppose it could have been except everything was off.  Nothing was square and nothing was true. The plasterer had brought it much closer to true… but much closer is not the same as true.

Our Master Tiler set to work and completed the inside walls of the pool in a couple of hours.


But the exterior stone cladding, well that took a lot of time. And the floor of the pool, that was a real challenge for as as you work, you run out of a place to stand and the high walls prevent you from leaning over to complete the task… and the sump pump hole presented its own, unique challenges partly because two sides were under the edge of the wall… and it was a round hole. He is a Master Tiler, he wants the sump pump to look good as well.

In any event, by the end of the day, the task was not yet completed. He completed a 90 square metres flat in one day, but our wee pool, proved to be such a difficult challenge that one day was insufficient time.

He returned in the morning, to grout the interior and to cut and place the stone cladding for the top of the walls. These walls that are 20 centimetres thick on one side and are 17 centimetres thick on another – even the most basic elements are not true.

Throughout the project, he was cutting the travertine stone using an angle grinder with a large stone cutting wheel fitted. At one point we noted that the cutting wheel was damaged (chunks missing at the cutting edge), nevertheless, with no alternative and no spare cutting wheel, he carried on. This is definitely not what is recommended by those involved in Health and Safety. You could argue, nor is it recommended by simple common sense.

We were near the end of the stone work. In fact, we are at that stage that his helper was cleaning tools – an essential task and one left to the end of the job. The Master tiler was himself cutting one of the last stones with the angle grinder. I’m standing off at the other end of the courtyard trying to stay out of the way of the dust.

Suddenly there was this almighty BANG … I mean it was sudden, it was very loud, and it was absolute… sharp, abrupt and unrestrained. It emphatically declared something had gone very, very wrong.

The Master Tiler’s helper, who had been standing in front of the angle grinder abruptly dropped what he is doing, his hands instinctively flying to his head and he twisted and turned away, walking towards the end of the courtyard. My first thoughts was injury to the face/head.

Thankfully, he was not injured, just shaken up with a serious smack to the face and a few minor cuts. Everything missed his eyes!

It transpired that the cutting wheel, spinning as it does at an extremely high speed had burst apart; all parts of the disintegrated cutting wheel being propelled at that extreme speed away from the angle grinder. The tile master himself, was aware of the danger, and had angled the machine away from himself. He was unscathed.

The bulk of the cutting wheel, with the largest pieces which had been, thankfully, expelled backwards, away from the helper in front of the angle grinder, had flown towards our flat and towards our closed front door.

The largest piece struck the window in the door where it pierced the glass and after creating a massive hole in the window, continued travelling all the way down the corridor to the far side of our flat. The corridor was liberally littered with debris, glass and bits of the cutting disk.

Thankfully, T was not in the corridor at the time but in a side room.

That was… er… exciting.

We were all extremely glad no one was injured.

And, as is in the nature of things, the work continued.

Finally, the master tiler finished his task and now the baptismal pool looks proper. His workmanship was 100% but he was paid less than the rough builder – life is not fair.

I paid him an honest amount – he would not take more. It was the rough builder who had the inordinate recompense. The rough builder, too, has a family to support and being a small builder, work can be inconsistent – paying him more, whilst it irked me, is providing essentials for his family.

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To finish off, we had a wooden cover made for the baptismal pool. This enables the baptismal pool to function as a table when we prepare the assistance for the Syrian refugee field workers. It also is effective in keeping the children from falling in when it is not in use.


The pool is complete, and has been commissioned – we recently had our first baptism.

The construction process has been a bit of an adventure.

What really struck me was how the walls alone could not do the task, and how the walls and plaster could not do the task, nor just the walls and the mesh… all three elements are required to make the whole complete and strong and up to the task.

Reminds me that God saves, the Holy Spirit in-dwells and the Church – the Body of Christ – provides the living context for the living out of our Faith. Or to put it another way, we have faith and trust in the finished work of God in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit abiding within us to encourage us to walk in the Way and to give us power to do so, and God has established the Church, our brothers and sisters in Christ – we are not alone, but need one another.

All three elements are necessary.

They are necessary for the baptismal pool to function.

And in the same way, all three elements are necessary for me to grow in Grace and in the Knowledge of God.

(written January 2012)

We reside in a dusty backwater of a town with a population nominally posted at 509,000.  This is rather deceptive as number is for the greater or metropolitan city – our actual part which was before the restructuring, consisted of the formerly much smaller city of ‘Antakya’ with a population of around 200,000. 

CC BY-SA 2.0 it,
Seleuceo I Nicatore – founder of Antioch

Regardless, for in reality, it feels more like a large village than a proper city.

This city, in ancient times was known as Antioch, which was founded, or rather, re-founded by a general of Alexander the Great in about 293 B.C..

Through the passing millennia, through changes in empires, ruling powers, languages, strife, turmoil and not the infrequent and violent earthquakes, the name has remained for all intents and purposes the same.  Over time it has morphed into the Turkish rendition of Antakya which is still very similar in sound to the original.

However, after being known as some derivative of this name since its re-founding some 2,300 years ago, it has now, in the last ten years or so, been rebranded as ‘Hatay’.  I’ve not found a meaning for ‘Hatay’ other than the name of the region and now the city where we reside.

Additionally, it is notable that in spite of the history that it was in this very city, some 2,000 years ago that ‘followers of the Way’ were first described as Christians, that currently there are but a small number of churches in the city.

Greek Orthodox Church

The largest of these small churches, is the Greek Orthodox Church, home of the ancient Christian tradition dating all the way back to the time of the apostles.  Then there is an extremely tiny Roman Catholic Church.  Additionally, there is a small Korean Methodist Church.  Last, but by no means least, one, also small, Turkish Protestant Church.

The physical home for this Turkish Protestant Church – the Antakya Christian Church, is a rented, old courtyard house, modestly modified to serve the needs to the fellowship.

Antakya Christian Church

Like all courtyard houses in Antakya, the inner sanctum of the property is hidden from the street by a massive, three metre high stone wall.  I suppose in the days when these homes were constructed, they really did believe that a man’s home was his castle.

IMG_5288Typically, entrance is afforded by one single, solitary steel door.

Entering the Antakya Christian Church through its substantial and

the courtyard of the Antkaya Christian Church

reinforced street door, you find yourself in a rectangularly shaped, 11 metres long, and 4½  metres wide, stone clad courtyard. On the right side there is a primitive, poorly constructed wing hosting two small multi-purpose rooms followed by a minuscule kitchen and finally the toilet. On the opposite side, across the courtyard is the left wing, constructed of finely finished dressed stone and looking the part of a fine old Antiochian house.

Today this wing houses the main meeting room. Formerly this space was divided into two ‘fancy’ rooms but over the years, with the landlords permission, it has been merged into one larger space with seating for about 70 souls (75 in a squeeze).

Sunday by Sunday the space is more than adequate, however, on special occasions the space can be rather restrictive – and so an idea was born.

DSC01729 (1)

Currently there is a large, rather fruitful orange tree living and dominating the far end of the courtyard, but we reasoned that if we were to put a roof over the ⅔ of the courtyard remaining, then when the weather is inclement, this space could be used for children activities and, after meeting, also utilised for fellowship and drinking tea.

Tea drinking is an important social activity in Turkey.

Christmas was approaching and the church – that is the people who constitute the church – were planning on inviting those with whom we have had contact in the past year, plus the neighbours where we live, plus the neighbours near the church building – all people we have had dealings with and built a degree of personal rapport with. And so, anticipating a larger than normal number of people for the celebrations, this added a new impetus for the construction of a roof over the courtyard – and if possible, in time for Christmas.

However, there were just a few obstacles to be overcome for this to be a reality.

  • First we needed the landlord’s consent which was two-fold; consent for the actual construction of the roof and, most importantly, agreement from the landlord to off-set some of the expense of the roof against rent – after all, it will be part of his property.
  • Then a quote on the cost of fitting a roof – it had to be within our means
  • Finally, we desired, if possible, for it to be built before Christmas.

A rather tall order.

We prayed and asked the landlord, but he declined to accept a modest reduction in the rent for the next two years to off-set the cost.

Falling at the first hurdle as we had, it looked like it was a ‘dead deal’ rather than a ‘done deal’.

As we waited on the Lord, we felt it was right to offer the landlord a modified proposal, which was to hold the rent at its current level for the coming two years (meaning, no annual increase in rent). In this way, at least a part of the cost of the roof would be recovered in not having our rent increased for two years.  If this would be acceptable, the cost would be shared between the landlord and us.

To this proposal the landlord consented and so the first hurdle was cleared.

Now to get hard quotes for the work.  There was still sufficient time to get the task done before our special Christmas event.

I contacted a welder we had used in the past and was commissioned to meet him at the church, explain the task and get a hard quote. The hard quote was essential as we can not afford to have price creep – we need to know what it will cost up-front – with no surprises.

The welder came at the agreed time. The landlord also came. We talked about the task and discussed how it could be done. In the course of this discussion our landlord took a rather strong dislike to the chap – he leans over to me and muttered “Where did you find this guy?

It was not a positive query.

The fact is, he had done some work for us at our home and we were reasonably happy – happy enough with his workmanship – but clearly our landlord was not impressed with his persona.  To be fair, not everyone is enraptured with him – our landlords reaction was not unique.

We came to one of the finer points for the roof, how to deal with our flourishing, young olive tree, situated just inside the street door immediately on the left hand side.

Earlier, this flourishing olive tree had become a point of contention with the landlord – a point of contention that we felt had been fully resolved.

DSC01730It was some years ago that we had planted this olive tree in the courtyard of the church and it had flourished.  Mind you, it had yet to bear olives, but was a green, leafy, pleasant, shady addition to the courtyard.

But, it is to be noted that in its flourishing, it had now grown too high for the proposed roof. I noted that we would need to trim the top of the tree – that is the tree we had planted.

But the landlord adamantly declared: “No, it will not be touched.

He was emphatically emphatic. Our landlord could be very emphatic when he wished.

It is clear that we cannot leave a hole in the roof to facilitate the tree – it needs to be a complete roof in order to keep the rain out. Therefore, I rang the elder and we agreed that if the tree has to stay at that height, the project cannot go forward – if we are to do this project, it is either we do it right, or not at all.

Consequently, I told the welder that we had decided not to do the project and he departed.

Truthfully, I was rather downhearted at this unexpected turn of events, but, there was no choice – the landlord, well, is the landlord – it is, ultimately, his property.

The project is dead – there will be no roof.  Result: we will continue as we have been doing, so nothing has been lost except the hope and expectation.

However, as soon as the welder had departed, the landlord informed me that I needed to be at the church the next day as we will engage in reorganising the courtyard with a view to building the roof.

Say what?” I think. “One minute the project is absolutely, completely and summarily scuppered and now we are re-organising the courtyard greenery to facilitate the construction of the roof….

Rather bemused, I agreed.

The following day, a simple, hard working, rather religious labourer had been engaged by the landlord; engaged by the landlord but to be paid by the church.

His tasking for the day, under the watchful eye of the landlord, was the reorganising of the greenery.

However, before commencing work on the living, green things, his first task was to remove an old tree stump from the far end of the courtyard, under the shade of the five metre tall orange tree.

The tree stump was a stubborn, well entrenched remnant of a quince tree which had dominated but not graced that end of the courtyard.

The labourer struggled mightily with the stump. He didn’t have the correct tools for the task, but he was dogged and determined, utilising those tools which were at his disposal. Whenever he was particularly frustrated, he would exclaim “gavur” which being translated, means “infidel” in English. It perplexed me as to what I, in his view a full-blooded infidel, had to do with the inanimate stump.  What was the connection between me (or my ilk) and this passive, lifeless, wooden remnant of the once unappreciated quince tree – mind you it was proving to be very well rooted, determined, recalcitrant remnant.

These little verbal pejoratives are laced throughout the culture and language, quietly tainting peoples view and fouling their understanding of us as Christians.

In time the ‘infidel’ stump submitted to his labours and was grudgingly  dragged from its former resting place. Its final fate was to be given to a neighbour to be used as fuel for their wood stove in the coming winter.

Maybe the quince tree would find momentary appreciation yet.

Then it was the turn of the olive tree – yes, ‘the olive tree’ that the night before the landlord had adamantly, emphatically proscribed it being pruned let alone the removing of it to a new location. Now this very same man, our landlord, ordered it to be uprooted and replanted in the now vacant space left by the evicted quince stump.

To add insult to injury, midway through the relocation, whilst lying helpless on the ground, the olive tree was well and truly, one might say, savagely pruned – far beyond what we had ever contemplated, envisioned or suggested.

At this point I understood: when the landlord objected the night before, it was his way of saying, “I don’t want this man to build the roof…” and not, “I do not want the olive tree to be pruned…”

Hmm… a little lesson in cultural communication there…


The pomegranate tree was next to swap ends of the courtyard. Then the rather anaemic grape vine was summarily removed and consigned to history.

Finally, the orange tree was vigorously trimmed.

DSC02377At the end of the day there remained no impediment for a roof to be constructed to cover ⅔ of the courtyard and redeem the space which is lost in winter to rain and in summer to the intense Antiochian sun.

The landlord then arranged for a welder, a welder that he approved of, to come and discuss the project. The man arrived and gave us a firm, hard quote and followed on by writing up a detailed description of what he would be doing and he signed it. A written and signed statement of what the work would entail – I had never had that happen to me in Turkey before – this seemed a good sign.

Whilst there still was just enough time before Christmas for the roof to be constructed, T. and I were about to leave for the UK and so I could not be there to superintend the actual construction.

But, we had a written description of the work, and the landlord would be there, and it was in his nature to ‘supervise’, and it was being done by the landlord’s chosen welder – so there was some reassurance in that.

As we had agreed the project, in my capacity as co-treasurer for the church, I had to hand over from Church funds, a goodly portion of the price to facilitate the purchase of the necessary materials. I understood that work would commence on Monday and be completed by Tuesday or Wednesday at the very latest.

The task would be completed days before Christmas.  I was happy.

On Sunday, after preaching in the meeting, T. and I left for Istanbul in a borrowed car. We broke the trip into two parts, stopping at a near half way point in Aksaray on the vast interior Anatolian plain.  We arrived in Istanbul on Monday evening.

My first task on arrival was to ring and learn what progress had been made.  It was then that I learned that the welder hadn’t come, but I was assured, he would be coming on Tuesday.  I’m still happy, but now mixed with heavy dollop of consternation.

And so, on Tuesday I rang again only to be informed that the welder had failed to come yet again.  Although I must add that, reportedly, all the materials had been purchased and preparations at his workshop had been accomplished. I subsequently learned that on Wednesday they got a good start and erected the bulk of the steel but on Thursday the rains settled in.

Now, even I can understand a reticence to do electric arc-welding in the rain.

So work had come to a complete and absolute halt due to rain.

Time was no longer running out before Christmas – it had now run out.

The rains persistently continued through out the rest of the week – not uncommon in winter in Antakya, and the very reason we desired the roof in the first place.

By faith we were expecting a full building for the special Christmas celebrations. Invitations had been printed and given to people we had met or know – not blind, mass distribution, but focused on those we know. The roof remained unfinished and could not now be completed for Christmas.

And so we prayed.

The day of our Christmas Celebrations dawned overcast and rainy.

But at the appointed hour the rain ceased, the clouds lifted and parted.  The day brightened. There was a wonderful, dry interval that encompassed the time of the meeting and fellowship afterwards.

2011-12-26-331979_328171080546433_567032000_o.jpgWe wanted a roof to keep the rain off, but the Lord of the rain took care of it in His own way.

On the day, there were 85 souls present – 36 guests, 20 believers from another meeting, and our own folks. The building was brimming full to capacity, actually, well beyond capacity, as ten people had to stand.

Because it was not raining, after the meeting people could spill out into the courtyard and drink tea and chat. So we had room for the visitors to comfortably visit and chat afterwards without being cramped or crowded.

The roof was completed on the Monday following Christmas – ready for our normal Sunday meetings and special occasions as and when they happen.  It will be a blessing and expand our limited available space.

God does all things well and this was a poignant reminder. Our goal, in this case, was a place for the visitors to, uh, visit, and consequently we felt that this required, or so we thought, a roof. On the day, the ‘roof’ was still an unfulfilled promise.

Yet He accomplished that goal without a roof, hence keeping our focus and trust where it really, always, ought to be – on Him.

The title of this two part blog is inextricably bound with the notion of losing weight.  However, to be concerned with losing weight, you first must have excess weight to lose.  Whilst many seem to share this concern, it is not universal.  For instance, our younger son has the opposite challenge, he actively labours to gain weight.  Personally, I do not have his challenge.

My whole life I’ve been a ‘chunky’ individual.  At no point in my 64 years have I been athletic, svelte, lean, muscular or trim.  Oh, there have been occasions, when I’ve lost weight, but then, I often looked more ‘sickly’ than ‘lean and mean’.

In my beginning, I was born prematurely and, except for the extraordinary efforts of an extremely dedicated nurse, I would not have survived.  You could say that my physical preparation for this world was not fully completed on my entrance.  I was, if you will, somewhat ‘half-baked’.

Additionally, I was born in a time when it was not only acceptable but it was the ‘norm’ that people would smoke whilst pregnant and there was no impediment to imbibing of alcohol; all of which my dear mother did, as virtually all mothers at that time did.  

These combined together, did not give my physical body the best start in life.

What else can I say?  By temperament, I am a sloth.  I can sit, remarkably still, for extended times.  Additionally, I, by nature, am profoundly lazy.  Exercise, sports, anything requiring ‘effort’ held and, truth be told, continues to hold, no appeal to me.

Ah, but fatty foods, deep fried foods, these have held and continue to hold a prodigious, immense appeal to me.

Thus, as I grew, and left to my natural inclinations, I progressed from being a ‘chunky’ child to an overweight teenager and then to a fat young adult.  As time rolled by and the years mounted up, I proceeded to very fat until I arrived in the territory of being ‘obese’.  

This progression took over forty years to achieve.

Obese is not a word that we like to use, nor even acknowledge in polite society.

Nevertheless, when you look at the medical charts and after you hit a certain weight, size, waist measurement, BMI or whatever scale or measure you choose, you qualify as ‘obese’.  

I was obese.  There is no pride in admitting that – but it was true.

At that time people would never have described me as being ‘obese’.  As a society, we do not do that.  They would have said that I was big, fat, portly, big boned, full-figured or overweight or some euphemism to avoid the socially unacceptable term ‘obese’.  We simply do not call anyone ‘obese’, not even behind their back – it isn’t done.  

But I was obese.

Even thought I was obese, I fit right in in society.  There were many as large as I was, some larger, others less than myself, but, clearly on the same road.  I looked ‘normal’ – big, portly, etc…

Unfortunately obesity does not travel alone and has its own entourage, its own travelling companions.  Number one, a person’s self-esteem takes a violent knock, for you know exactly how ‘big’ you are, and all joking aside, you don’t find pleasure in it.  

As a man, I tried to obscure or camouflage my girth.  “Can’t be done,” I hear you muttering to yourself, and you are correct.  Nevertheless, I attempted it.  Why do you think I wore neck ties?  Does it work?  Of course not… nevertheless…

Now it is interesting that I never felt ‘bad’ when I was obese.  As one who did not engage in physical exertion, I never felt that I couldn’t do something or was winded when attempting something.  I simply never did, nor tried to do, those things.  

Truth be told, I simply felt ‘normal’.

For me it was all very ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.  As my obesity had developed slowly, over time, my sense of ‘normal’ modified with time.

I did not exercise.  

I loved eating.

There was a lot of food that was extremely appealing to me, and often, when so confronted I would only semi-seriously ponder “why have a wee bit, when it tastes soooooo good?”  I rarely even tried to give a good answer to that query.  Moderation wasn’t a primary consideration or concern.

Therefore, in the place of one portion, a portion and a half would be ordered.  Or if I settled for a single portion (which would be enough all by itself) I would follow it up with additional items (which, individually were sufficient in themselves to make a fulsome meal).  Often, the resultant combination together formed an over-indulgent feast.

And so I lived and as the days, weeks, months, years, nay, decades, flowed by, I continued in this manner… slowly growing in my girth and weight…

But, there was a price to pay. 

Silently, sleeping in my body, buried in my DNA, was a genetic predilection for diabetes and its’ travelling companions, hypertriglyceridemia with an added propensity towards hypertension.

In the fullness of time, after an extended period, and a lifetime of fleeing exercise and indulging my culinary passions and, significantly, before even reaching my 50th birthday, I was diagnosed with diabetes and hypertriglyceridemia.  My doctor informed me that on the test for my triglycerides, the machine was unable to measure it because it so high it was beyond the machine’s ability to quantify. 

Now, before my diagnosis, there were times when I was feeling bad about the unflattering state of my weight and consequently, through great effort and determination, I had lost tens of kilos.  However, after the time of ‘losing the weight’ was over, and I went back to eating without the harsh encumbrances of restricted eating, I observed that slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, the weight came inexorably back.  In fact, I noted that in the fullness of time my weight would reach and often surpass the former high point.  

Losing weight took great effort and much time, the reversal took no effort and little time. 

But now, with my diagnosis, in plain terms, I had simply reaped the fruit of my life-style.  With this diagnosis I now needed, not for my ‘self-esteem’ sake, but for health’s sake, to lose weight and keep it lost.  I had proven in the past that I had the ability to lose weight, but herein was the true challenge, to lose it and keep it lost…

I have observed in life that some people, due to a combination of their metabolism, activity level and appetite, seem to always be slim, trim and ‘looking good’.   As a result some people can look at these individuals who are ‘naturally slim’ by virtue of their build, inclination and natural predilection and can attribute ‘virtue’ to them because of this.  By the same token, people can look at those of us who, by virtue of our build, inclination and natural predilection are over-weight, fat or obese as being somehow purposely indolent, slothful and, well, lacking in ‘virtue’.  And yet, both can adhere to the same basic lifestyle.

Be that as it may, I, as one in the latter camp, was faced with a very real health condition.  The equation was simplicity itself – if I believed the diagnosis, then, basically, I needed to lose weight, eat right, exercise, and, hence, live… otherwise… well, it was not a pretty picture (amputations, blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, an increased likelihood of an early, painful death).

Without labouring this account with all the details, weight was lost.  But the challenge was two-fold, losing weight (track record of being able to do this) and the second, most important challenge, keep the weight off (I hadn’t managed that in the past).

Therefore, let’s leap forward fourteen years…

Without question, losing weight is difficult.  But maintaining a healthy weight is the elusive, golden prize that has proven to be almost outside of our collective grasp.  

In our world there is a vast marketplace that has come into being to sell the dream, ‘the way to lose weight’.  There are a myriad of methods, programmes, plans, books, diets galore, self-help, support groups and it seems the list continues to grow and expand by the day.

All these diets, books, methods and groups declare that losing weight is a problem, and, by and large and for most people, it is a surmountable problem.  

Whist it is true that losing weight is ‘a’ very real problem, it is not ‘THE’ problem.  The real challenge is in maintaining a healthy weight, over time.

It seems that my body is designed to thrive in times of famine.  When I eat something, whether a ‘healthy’ something or an ‘unhealthy’ something, my body extracts all the energy hidden within the food and, anything surplus to the momentary requirements is immediately stored away against that ‘rainy day’, against the future ‘famine’ that my body is perennially preparing for.

I have friends whose bodies seem to be rather cavalier with regards to saving for the future.  These are individuals with a combination of a naturally more active life-style, a natural inclination for better foods and seemingly with no compulsion towards the worst of foods.  These friends of mine are able to eat without regard to what or when or how much.  I’ve seen individuals tuck into a large plate of macaroni at 10:30 at night, as they are peckish, and polish it off and still be the slim and trim individual that they are.

If I did likewise, my diligent, hard working, frugal, forward-planning body would tuck every excess calorie away for future consumption.

Alas, we are not all alike.  Some can say it is not ‘fair’ but whoever considers life to be fair?  

To be balanced in my evaluation, let me declare that in a famine, I would be living off the fat of my own body whilst my slim and trim friends would be wasting away…

So, how can I, prone as I am to be a porky, tubby, big, ‘full figured’ individual, lose weight and keep it off?  

My body has one goal, and I another.

I feel emboldened to write this as I have, by the Grace of God, lost weight and kept it off, with highs and lows, for 14 years and counting.


We all know the theory on how to lose weight – eat less.  

Exercise is good, beneficial and helpful, but the key is what and how much we put in our mouths on a daily basis.

It is oh-so-simple to say “eat less” – and, for a limited time, it can be relatively ‘easy’ to achieve.  There are all sorts of diets and special regimes that work in the short term but they are all fundamentally unsustainable over the long haul… the ‘cabbage diet’ comes immediately to mind.

Throughout my sojourn on this terrestrial ball, I’ve never subscribed to any of the various ‘diets’, pills’, ‘potions’, ‘fads’ or ‘plans’.  Because of my predilection for fat, greasy and fatty foods, I did gaze longingly at the Aiken’s diet – but I was fundamentally unconvinced that my body-type would lose weight on such an attractive and desirable regime.

Rather, it has always seemed that the most reasonable, and the most sustainable path was to take the age-old dietary advice given to everyone, the same advice which I have heard throughout my life, which is to eat a sensible, healthy, balanced diet and to get regular exercise.  

Now, diagnosed with diabetes, a sensible, balanced diet and avoiding the foods which spike blood sugar levels seemed the most practical and sustainable  way forward.

Oh, and also adding to my routine regular daily exercise (the very thing I have consistently avoided all my life).  Because of my age and fitness level, I have of late, adopted walking (briskly) with a goal of 10,000 steps a day as my regular, daily exercise activity.

As I have declared, my body is profoundly efficient.  I do not require a great amount of food to maintain my weight.  

Herein, then, is the problem.  

When we eat, it is not just for nutrition, not just for the maintainance our bodies, but eating is also a social activity, a pleasurable activity and often, a comforting activity.  

There are multiple reasons why we consume food – it is not just to live.

LET ME SAY at this juncture, that what I’m about to share is my experience and reflects me and where I am at.  Please do not take offence, especially if you feel that my experience or understanding bears no bearing on you or your situation.  We are all different.  We are all at different places.  

This is my story….

For me, the realisation that I was not just enjoying what I was eating, but I was also, and sometimes primarily, eating to enjoy.  It dawned on me that I would initiate snacking and eating for the sole purpose of the enjoyment it brings.  This was an epiphany, a revelation, a ‘light bulb’ moment which captured my imagination.  

It was also rather disturbing.

There is a profoundly emotive word to describe this approach to life and eating.  It is not a word that is easily or lightly used, and yet, I have chosen to use it to describe my case as it is the most accurate.  

The word is ‘hedonism’.

This reflects the motivation of my eating, the ‘why’ I ate what I ate, and when, and how much.  This understanding shifted the focus off of the ‘what’ I consume and placed it fully on the ‘why’ I would eat.

This was a key revelation for me.  The ‘what’ – that is what foods I chose – is important.  The ‘when’ or ‘how often’ I indulge is also important.  But, the ‘why’, or the ‘motivation’ – it is this that drives both the ‘what I choose to eat’, the ‘when’,  the ‘how much’and the ‘how frequently’.

In Part 2, I explore how my understanding has practically affected the mundane task of maintaining a healthy weight state.

Earlier I described myself with the pariah word ‘obese’.  I now add to my self description, the equally unappealing, and often unspoken, unacknowledged pariah word ‘hedonistic’ to describe my approach to eating.

At the end of Part 1, I summed up my self definition with two, socially repugnant words: ‘obese’ and ‘hedonistic eating’.  

It was my realisation that my fundamental problem could be summed up with the provocative and evocative word ‘hedonism’ with regards to my approach to eating.

‘Hedonism’, like ‘obese’, is not a word to be lightly bandied about – it is a very serious word with a serious meaning and grave implications.

For me, the realisation that I was not just enjoying what I was eating, but I was eating to enjoy, that brought the understanding.  It dawned on me that I initiate snacking and eating for the sole enjoyment of it.  This was an epiphany, a revelation, a ‘light bulb’ moment.  

The best word to describe approach is ‘hedonism’.  Hedonism is the notion that ‘pleasure’ is the highest good, or to live a life in pursuit of pleasure or a lifestyle devoted to pleasure-seeking.  Not the best of life motivations, methinks.

Now, to be fair, I was not wholly sold out on and living in this manner.  But there is a spectrum to hedonism, and I was definitely being motivated by my desire to consume food for the pleasure, for the comfort, for the sheer joy it provided.

When I eat, the food being consumed is enjoyed, but the danger comes when my ‘motivation’ is primarily to eat for the pleasure that consumption brings.

When I eat and enjoy and when I eat to enjoy,  ‘enjoyment’ plays a part, but the motivation, the small but distinct difference in the eating experience makes the crucial distinction – is the  ‘what, when, and how much’ I eat simply a part of the experience,  or is it the goal of the experience?

How many times have I consumed something, not because I was hungry, nor because I ‘needed’ something, but because I was simply bored?  I was ‘bored’ and eating to alleviate my boredom was what I chose to do. 

Or have I eaten simply because ‘the food was there,’ or it was something that I really enjoyed and desired?  Eating driven by proximity.

Or have I eaten because I was tempted with something which I should never eat, but there it was and it looks so good?  Wherein is my ‘self control’?  Wherein is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing?

Or have I eaten because I was feeling low and I desired some ‘comfort eating’?  We all sense the need for comfort – but where do I turn for that necessary comfort?

The problem is not so much my eating, but the ‘why’ I am eating – the motivation in my choosing to eat.  

If my motivation is to seek pleasure, to bring myself joy, to engage in some comfort eating then I am dicing with hedonism.  It is not necessarily ‘hedonism’, but there is a danger of sliding into a pattern, a habit of indulging my pleasures and passions and giving way to my inherent hedonistic tendencies.

‘Hedonism’ is plainly the pursuit of pleasure, or pleasure-seeking, in whatever form it takes; it could be music, films, sports and it could very easily be food…

When do I lose control over my eating or my food choices?  When do I consume, imbibe, or otherwise indulge myself?  Why do I succumb to temptation?

Often it is when I say, “deep down, I have a desire (or want) for…” and follow that primordial urge.

From time to time there are various dishes and foods that we long for, and this is not a problem, but it can be a ‘stumbling block’ when what I am seeking is not the dish in question, but the joy and pleasure its’ consumption will bring me.  In this case that ‘primordial urge’ is simply to consume it for the pleasure, for the joy it brings.  

The subtle difference between a simple, natural longing for some dish or food and an hedonistic passion boils down to the ‘motivation’ – the ‘why’ we desire it and to a certain extent, our ability to walk away from it.

Why I want to eat it, how often I will partake of it and the amount that I will consume of it all form part of the appraisal of my eating and my motivation.

I firmly believe it is right, proper and good to fully, wholly enjoy the food that I consume.  

The problem arises when that enjoyment is the goal, when the motivation that is the determining factor in what, when and how much I consume, is the pleasure I derive from it.

Personally, I gain weight incredibly easily.  I only have to break from my routine in the minutest way, and I will gain weight.  As I said, this is a great blessing in a time of famine, but in a time of plenty, I need to manage this blessing lest it become my own, self-created curse.

I find eating routines to be very helpful.

As a diabetic, I need to ensure my blood sugar neither rises to too high, nor plunges too low.  To avoid ‘too high’, I need to be careful in what foods I eat, for some are natural ‘blood sugar’ accelerators.  To avoid ‘too low’ blood sugar, timing is essential – I need to consume a ‘slow-release’ food at the appropriate time to maintain the balance.  

A non-diabetic can benefit from a like approach – non-diabetics can experience low-blood sugar slumps and it is never healthy for anyone to have sugar highs.  What we eat, when and how frequent call all affect our health, well-being and can be crucial in how we handle the vagaries of life.

For most people, portion size is a small and yet powerful way to contain how much is being consumed.  Another meaningful aid is setting a simple rule of ‘one filling of the plate’.  This is especially helpful when the decision is made before the wonderful, delicious, savoury food is before you and filling your nose with all the tantalising and captivating smells.  This pre-decision can aid in ensuring you control you intake, and yet full enjoy it.  If you are determined to only have one plateful, then you can determine to eat it slowly and enjoy it in the process.

For my meals, I have procured a small plate – a small plate brimming full is more satisfying than a large plate with a meagre portion occupying a small segment of the vast space available.  

Additionally, it is easier to keep to small portion sizes on a small plate.  Once the small plate is full, there is no more room.  On a large plate there is a natural tendency to ladle out a wee bit more because ‘it looks so inadequate’.

As mentioned, one helpful approach is to eat slowly, taking small bites which can be fully consumed and paying attention to the flavours, chewing fully.  When you slow down and savour the food, you are more aware of all the flavours and derive more satisfaction from it.  

I must confess that rather regrettably, in times past, the food was moving so quickly into my mouth, and was passing down my gullet at such a rate that it resulted in not much attention nor awareness of the flavours and tastes of the food.  

However, the goal now is to slow down, savour it, appreciate it and to know it.  Fully masticated, and properly enjoyed, it makes the wee bit eaten of more value than the vast quantities that I previously vacuumed up.

At the same time, it gives the gut more time to report back that it is full.  When speed-eating, by the time the gut says, “I’m full,” a whole load of food has already streaked passed the mouth door and is inexorably proceeding on its way…

For me and my body / temperament type, I have the ability to store any extra calories away, therefore, I make it a principle not to eat after the evening meal.  In the evening my activity level natural diminishes, and hence any extra calories will be surplus to requirements and for me and those like me, it will be stored away for a rainy day.

For those of different body / temperament types, you will be able to judge where your balance point is, in order to maintain your weight.  If you are gaining weight, simply spoken, you are still eating too much.  By considering smaller portions, less frequent eating, being aware of late-night eating and being wary of wonton or habitual snacking, you can enable yourself to eat, enjoy and maintain a healthy weight.

What I have determined, ultimately, for me, is that the key is not so much what I eat, or how often I eat, or some kind of diet – nay, for me, the key is ‘why’ I eat.  These are all important, ‘what I eat’, ‘how often I eat’, but I have found that the motivation, the ‘why’ is the key and determining factor for me.

When I cease allowing my inherited, inbred, natural hedonism to influence, dominate or dictate, then I can both properly enjoy all I consume and keep it in balance and, most importantly, in control.

When my weight is where it should be, my blood pressure is normal, my triglycerides are normal and my blood sugar is ‘well controlled’.  There are real benefits for me to keep my weight in check.

But to do this I must be disciplined all the time.  

My body is fantastically efficient.  If I indulge, I will gain weight.  This I have observed many times as I have indulged many times….

I am challenged by many references in Holy Writ, the call to ‘deny myself’ – not of something necessary, but to deny myself the tyranny of my underlying hedonistic passions and desires.  To deny myself that which results in my self-esteem plummeting or health problems manifesting is not a hardship or something to be shirked, but to be welcomed and embraced.  

It is the way to life; full, abundant, enjoyable life.

Then there are the references to ‘self control’ – self control being expressed not to my harm but to my profit.  When I abstain from that tasty, and often for me, greasy treat which is brimming full of fat and sugar and has precious few nutrients, I lose nothing of profit, but gain much.  

I eat every day.

I dare say I enjoy my food more than most.  The smallish portions that I have a few times a day, I enjoy.  I enjoy what I consume, I am nourished, my weight is under control and I feel good about myself.

Jesus said that we are called to ‘freedom’.

I am free from being driven and controlled by my passions and desires.  Hence, I am also free from the consequences of over-indulgence.  

I eat.  I enjoy.  I enjoy the fruit of self-discipline.  At a healthy weight, I look better.  Although I never felt ‘bad’ in the former days, when I look at myself now, I feel better. 

Oh, and did I mention… I enjoy the food I eat.  

The opposite of ‘hedonism’ is not the absence of pleasure, nor is it extolling misery and suffering… the opposite of hedonism is choosing to live wisely, not by passion but by wisdom.

By eschewing hedonism and allowing my mind to dictate the motivation, the controlling factor, in my living and my choosing…  I can fully enjoy my food and my drink and not entertain the bondage hedonism inescapably brings… God enables us to enjoy our food and to take pleasure in our eating – but not that the enjoyment becomes the determining factor, the goal of eating, a form of bondage…

Because I am continuously addressing the underlying motivation behind my eating, because I address the elephant in the room, my fundamental hedonistic tendencies, then eating properly and maintaining a healthy weight becomes something that can be sustained over the long term.  

If I were to entertain the query: “When is indulging in hedonism advisable, or good or desirable?”  The answer to this rather rhetorical question is easy – “ah, never”.  

I recognise that in indulging my hedonistic tendencies, I may enjoy the experience, but, inescapably, I reap the extra fat, the clogged arteries, the negative impact on my health and my self-esteem.  I gain nothing of value except the transitory, momentary, fleeting joy of the act of over-indulgence.

Losing weight is not about diets, special or otherwise.  Losing weight is not about a ‘superfood’ or a ‘new tablet’ or ‘exotic regime’ or ‘eastern miracle’.  Generally everyone recognises that all diets come to an end, and when they do, our observation declares that the weight, slowly or quickly, piles back on.

It is my contention that losing weight can be sustained in the long term by changing my approach to consumption, by addressing the question of my underlying motivation, by focusing on the ‘why’ rather than on the ‘what’.  In doing so, I have the tools and outlook to enable me to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

All things in moderation – so says the Bible.

All things in moderation – so say the public health pronouncements that I’ve heard all my life.  

It is true.

Do this and live.

But if I allow my hedonistic nature to call the shots or simply to advise on the way forward, this becomes a perennially unreachable goal.

The choice is ours, in how we live and what we choose to motivate us…

(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…


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.


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).