Monday, July 22, 2013

The Mother-love of God

At last yesterday I could see the end of the project. There are some 30 windows in our eccentric five story tower of a house by the sea in southern Turkey, and they needed curtains.

The last nine pieces were cut and ready to sew, just in time to block summer’s intense sun. I had the sewing machine whirring when my neighbor Çiğdem appeared hugging a wrinkled bundle of shimmery fabric. Treasure to her, she said her sister had given it, and she wanted to make curtains for her son’s room. I thought she wanted to borrow my machine. No. She is afraid of the machine and wants me to make them for her. By today.

Weary as I am of curtains, “Tabii, canım.” I said. “Of course I will do this for you, dear one.” For weeks now we have watched them prepare for their youngest son’s sűnnet, the Islamic rite of circumcision for boys entering puberty. Furious cleaning, fresh paint, new furniture, rugs hauled onto the roof terrace and scrubbed. They even replaced their cookstove. This family is not wealthy, but they are proud. Extended family they rarely see will come from faraway parts of Turkey and all must be shiny.

Orkun, the boy at the center of all the hooplah, is nine. He’s still sweet and fun-loving. Respectful, well-mannered, and treasured by his parents. Though he was circumcised last summer the family is only now able to manage the expensive celebration. Sűnnet parties are a big deal.

Family will start to arrive Thursday. Friday night their closest friends will gather--in our garden. My husband Curt is down there now power-scrubbing old stone to make it as nice as we can for them. There will be music, traditional dances, plates and plates of food handed around, and the place will be awash with glasses of sweet Turkish tea until the wee hours. The men will huddle together to talk and laugh and argue. The women will make another circle of chatter and fun, all the while bobbing up and down to serve. And Orkun and his buddies will clamber all over the property to hang from olive trees and jump off terraces.

Saturday morning the ceremony will take place. Orkun will be dressed like a little prince
Orkun's big day

complete with scepter and shoes a genie would love. Four imams singing continuously for an hour, prayer, and then a feast for 200 of the family’s larger community. Friends and relatives will hug, pat, kiss and pinch Orkun’s happy cheeks. Though we are to sit in the grandparents’ place at the family table, we will be the only foreigners present and I will be the only woman without a headscarf.

Two weeks ago I was listening to a guest when Çiğdem came in. She made small talk for a few seconds, then burst into tears. Turkish streamed too fast for me to understand more than that she was heartsick and it was about one of her sons. I moved to hug her, to get eye contact, and to slow her down so I could understand. Gradually the trouble immerged. Not an emergency, but deep pain. “Orkun’s sűnnet is coming and my mother won’t be here, and you won’t be here either. No mother! I am so alone!” she wept. Çiğdem’s mother died suddenly two summers ago. Ever since she has, from time to time, put me in her mother-place. And two weeks ago our plan was to be away for the summer by the date of the big event.

I held her, I rocked her, I listened. I empathized, and she knows I can because I lost both of my parents in recent years, too.

Çiğdem stood shy at the fence the day she asked to use our garden for the party. That also was back when none of us thought we would be here. She claimed Orkun wanted it, because (she said he said) we are grandma and grandpa to him. Now that our travel is delayed, she rejoices and tells us that at the Friday night gathering the grandparents dance a blessing on the boy. She says we must take that part, too, along with the grandparents’ place at the feast table during the ceremony.

How did we get here?

Six years ago we responded to what seemed an invitation from God to settle in Turkey. We moved to this house in our retirement to establish a place for prayer and listening, for contemplative retreat. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, it is our home as well as a place of welcome to whoever God draws here. We came to Kaş and then to the nearby village of Gőkseki for the ambiance—a lavish outpouring of natural beauty, delightful climate, sounds and smells of peace and simplicity, abundant Biblical imagery, and a bohemian community that celebrates peaceful outdoor and artistic endeavors. We bought property and put down roots without knowing much about the people here, or the civic or religious life, except that Kaş is much more than tourist town or foreigner enclave.

Six years and two major renovations later Spa for the Soul is open, and we know a good deal more about this place.

We know more facts. Kaş is a relatively open town where foreigners are received in peace. The winter population of 7,000 souls is a mix of Turks whose families have dwelt here for generations, Turks who came here for summer tourism jobs and ended up settling down and starting families and businesses, Turkish retirees from cities like Istanbul who are educated and relatively wealthy, and a smattering of foreign residents like us. In summer the population multiplies many times over with tourism workers who mostly come from eastern Turkey, part-time foreign residents, and, of course, tourists both Turk and foreign.

We know that Kaş is relatively secular and tolerant religiously, though with many observant Muslims in the mix. We know that many consider it the most beautiful place in Turkey. We know that Christians were forcibly expelled in the ‘20s as part of the great population exchange between Muslim Turkey and Orthodox Greece, and that many still refer to the old Orthodox church as “the mosque that used to be a church.” The traumatic memory of a community torn asunder remains. We know that since then there has been little Christian witness here, and there is no church today—other than us. Some tell us they never met “real” Christians until we came, and most are certain that it is impossible for a Turk to be Christian because to be Turk is to be Muslim. The two things go together—end of story—though faith in Allah and religious practice is not understood as necessary.

And over time I have come to know this another thing. Jesus loves this place. Intensely.

From the first we chose to understand the five-times-daily Islamic call to prayer that echoes over the hillsides, penetrates our bedrooms and our sleep, and wafts out to sea, as God’s call to us to go to the balcony and pray for this place. In early days I would think hard about ways to pray as I observed people go by on the street below and listened to the singer. Over time, I became conscious that I stood there beside Jesus, watching with Him. I sensed him loving, brooding, longing, and sometimes weeping, intensely interested in each life, in the agriculture and the hum of business and family. My own prayer simplified to that of Jeremiah, asking for the peace of God and His prosperity to come to this place. Awash with the tenderness and compassion of His presence, and with how He knows it all.

One day a couple of months ago I encountered an acquaintance as I crossed the square. Mustafa is my age or older, a businessman who knows everybody, and who loves being called by honorifics. He embraced my hand with his two. “Gűnaydın, Momi!” he exclaimed. “Good morning, Mommy!” An affectionate greeting for sure, but Mustafa would never see me as Mom. My insides grin as I realize that he has heard me called Momi by so many others that he thinks it is my name. He doesn’t know that “mommy” is anne in English.

It was Halil who first named me Momi. A young married man just our daughter’s age and with a baby of his own, he has called me that for at least five years. For a long time I figured he must call a lot of women my age by that name as a gesture of familiar respect. But gradually I realized that I had been singled out for his special affection, and that of his wife and child. Even he can’t express why. When three years later I moved here to live full time, the circle of momi-callers expanded.

Halil's wife Gul with our granddaughter Lia

Now 20 or even 30 people call me either Momi or Grandma. I would divide those into three camps: the ones with whom I share special affection, the ones who don’t know that Momi is not my name but a term of endearment, and the Momi-wannabes.

This last group is the lonelies who see the sweet relationship and long to share in it, but with whom there really is not the relational connection of trust and affection that makes it feel comfortable, real. These dear ones need the mother-love even more, I think, and so I embrace them and stand ready to play the part as they are able to make the connection. Our neighbor Çiğdem is among those. She longs for the richness and freedom of having me as Mom, but it is uncomfortable and ill-fitting, too. So she is tentative, hopeful and recitent all at once.

And it is not just in Turkey. There are others who call me Mom. It started when we moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates nine years ago. Abu Dhabi is a big city where 87% of the population is expatriate guest workers far from home and family. There was Sri Lankan Nadeek, Nepalese Pawan and Khadka, Pakistani Tahir, Romanian Isabella, Kyrgyzstani Saliya, and American Jenn. Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. And my Albanian daughter-in-law Eda, and my American son-in-law Josh.

The whole thing bemuses me. Other expatriate women do not get adopted as Mom time and again. In fact, they think it's a little wierd. I puzzle over it and wonder what it is that draws this response to me. A retired lawyer, and thinker way more than feeler, I used to be dubbed intimidating. I’m older now, with wrinkles and gray hair. And I’m softer. Not so slim and fit. I no longer look the chic professional who has it all together. And I have mostly left organizer/leader/teacher-mode behind. I’ve schooled myself to listen prayerfully and ask gentle questions to help people move deeper into their own stories, their own journey with Jesus.

I think it must not really be about me at all, but a response to Jesus in me. After all, as the only believers we are Christ incarnate in this place. I think that for these who call me Momi, it is the mother-love of God that draws them. These dear ones are all far from birth family. Several suffer mother brokenness—separated by death, or illness and poverty that reverse dependency to child-responsible-for-parent. Absent in their lives is the mother-love that is present and safe, that listens, sees goodness and potential, and loves towards growth and maturity. With generous doses of playful affection, story-telling, small gifts and treats, feeding and prayer.

Our world is that of living among unreached people groups in closed countries. Not as “missionaries” but as expatriate professionals and lately as retirees. We live in places where traditional missions like evangelism and church planting are largely blocked. A place where long-term work appears nearly fruitless and can be dangerous. Frustrating places.

But our world is also a world of gracious hospitality. In contrast to the West, these are places where community trumps individual, and where people want to be part of a family with the daily in-and-out closeness of asking what happened yesterday and what is for dinner tonight and can we drink tea together now? We aren’t just Momi or, for my husband Curt, Grandpa. We are Abla and Amca—Big Sister and Uncle--in a culture that assigns to older friends terms of family relationship as honorifics. A month ago we were “cousins” at an annual family gathering of first cousins. When urged to join them I had said, “But we are not your cousins.” “Ah, but you are part of our family!” was the sweet reply. One cousin who arrived late and who did now know me greeted with, “Are you my cousin?” “Well yes, I’m your cousin from Alaska.” “Ah, my cousin from Alaska. So good to see you!”

I hear other believers speak of how dark this place is, of dark spirits and difficulty in prayer. I know the feeling because I’ve experienced it elsewhere. But I don’t here. Here it seems many just need a mother. And children need a funny, playful grandpa.

I think they respond to the mother-love of God, of Jesus in us.

I watch Him weeping over Jerusalem, longing, full of sorrow at her rebellion, desiring the return of His love, desiring relationship. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Luke 13:34-35 (NIV).

I watch Him weep with Mary. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ He asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him.’” John 11:33-36 (NIV).

I watch His prodigal father, the father Rembrandt painted with a mother’s hand, abandon all dignity to run to meet his wayward son. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20.

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands….” Isaiah 15-16a.

Mother-love. Love that watches and listens, notices and attends. Love that provides an oasis of safety in a scary world. Gentle, empathetic. Demonstrative. Truthful, seeing things the way they are and the way they could be—for truth wins over sentiment every time. Hopeful, encouraging. Rich with laughter as well as with tears. Wise, yet not much given to telling all she sees and knows. Love poured out and still pouring from some deep well that has no bottom.

Could it be that these dear ones who dwell in darkness will be met by the Father-God who made them not through argument or persuasion, not through shoe-boxes and well-told stories, or community development, but by means of His attributes of mother-love? Of family and community, of coming to know that there is a family place for them as a beloved child in the Kingdom of God?