Thistle in the Cedars
This poem appeared a few days ago in my pigeon hole and perhaps it might speak to you as it spoke to me.
In the time of deepest sorrow,
When life seems without a ray
And the wound is fresh and opened,
Can you see HIm “in the way”?
When your plans and dearest projects
Shattered fell and broken lay,
And you vainly try to mend them,
Can you see Him “in the way”?
When your prayers remain unanswered
And you almost cease to pray,
Feeling that the heavens are brazen -
Can you see him “in the way”?
When your dearest hope has vanished,
When your friends forsake, betray,
All your earthly props are broken -
Can you see Him “in the way”?
Broken rays become a rainbow;
Broken clods, a fruitful meadow;
Pruned vines bear richest clusters;
Cut and polished gems, rare lustres;
Harvests rise from buried grain;
Lives are born through grief and pain; -
God dwells in the broken clay.
He alone leads “in the way.” – L.S.P.
It is cold and miserable today and I am seeking refuge from the elements, tucked up in bed in layers of clothes, cosied up with a hot water bottle. Classes this week have been cancelled at NEST (to my great relief because I hadn’t done my Christmas assignments). Now I have an extra week – which I’d better not waste… This week (again, to my joy, because I am trying to recover from a cold) nearly everything has been cancelled and most schools are closed due to bad weather. It is wild, wild, wild. Torrential rain, howling gales and snow forecast as low as 400m above sea level. Not such bad weather compared to other countries and nothing special for a Scot but in a place that is not prepared for such tempests, it is wise to tell us to stay at home. They say it is coming from Russia but perhaps it is what you had at Christmas at home – it certainly fits the same description with flooding and what not. A very well known homeless man near the university has died in the storm and I dread to think how many other people are suffering in refugee camps and over-crowded, damp flats.
The number of Syrian refugees seeking assistance from the UN and other NGOs has now exceeded 180,000 in Lebanon and the UN, in its weekly report, stated that they are registering an average of 1,500 new refugees daily. (naharnet.com) Due to such demand, the cost of rent has rocketed sky high and there is not a single room in our area for less than $800 a month. In other neighbourhoods people are paying $350 for a damp, windowless room to house a whole family and I am rolling around in a double bed all by myself. It just is not fair.
My friend Hanein (pictured previously) is one of these refugees. She is desperate for a place to live, and has to find something by Friday (when she will lose her current accommodation) or else she will take her little boy to Georgia where she has a friend. I am sure the friend is very well-meaning but I am trying to persuade her to stay here where at least she has a support network and can speak her mother tongue. She is in a dreadful state about it and I wish I could help but all I have managed to do so far is play with her boy and sit with her drinking coffee.
Oh..now the electricity has gone out again….It is too dark to read, I think I will take it as what my flatmate calls “sanctioned nap time” and will try to solve the problems of the world later.
Every year I thank God for the grace to turn the page, as it were, and start anew. What do you want to take with you from the last year? What do you want to leave behind? What are your hopes for the year ahead? Let’s put all these in the hands of God.
This morning as I was wondering about the year that has passed, I came across this poem from Streams in the Desert, by Mrs Chas. E. Cowman.
Forgetting ills behind me, the sorrows past and gone.
Forgetting all my wandering, too sad to dwell upon.
Remembering God’s great goodness, in times of stress and strain ,
Remembering His restorings, I praise my God again.
Forgetting all my doubtings, which dimmed faith’s vision bright,
Forgetting all the earth-clouds, the darkness, gloom and night,
Remembering God’s bright sunshine, and radiance of His face,
Remembering His long patience, I praise my God for grace.
Forgetting all unkindness which friends and foes have shown,
Forgetting and forgiving the wrongs that I have known,
Remembering God provided, unsought, each faithful friend,
Remembering loves devotion, I’ll praise Him to the end.
Forgetting all my pinings, when disappointments came.
Forgetting all the murmurings, which filled my soul with shame,
Remembering God was ever true to His Holy Word,
Remembering He was faithful, I praise my sovereign Lord.
I am ashamed at how much time has passed since my last entry. Whenever I have had free time I have made a coffee, written a to-do list and promptly fallen asleep. Now I have half an hour before my next appointment and so I am hiding out in my room where, with curtains drawn and candles lit, I am pretending it is the sort of winter I know. I am listening to Charles Aznavour and drinking Lebanese white coffee. Don’t be fooled, there is not a drop of caffeine in it, but only hot water and orange blossom water but it is delicious.
This is the first time I have been in the same country twice for Christmas (apart from home of course) and it is lovely! I thoughtit would be terribly lonely and I would have time to lounge around reading books and writing letters or painting pictures but instead I have been busy visiting people, eating my fill for the next year and being overwhelmed by people’s generosity. I don’t really believe it is Christmas if I am not at home with my family and all the songs and decorations seem like a ridiculous game to me. In fact, I had sort of forgotten about it altogether when, all of a sudden, the festivities were upon us and term ended with a very busy concert season for the AUB choir and the a cappella group I sing with, Beirut Vocal Point. Now, equally suddenly, it is all over.
These past few days, to celebrate having time off, I have spent a lot of money, all in the name of Arabic practice. Among my purchases were some expensive make-up (which I hope will last the rest of my life), a pair of earrings made from old Lebanese money, a rug to cover my crumbling floor, yet another tablecloth (not sure why I have such a weakness for them), a box of pins, some batting material and some beautiful green and gold Damascus linen which I am going to turn into a quilt – my Christmas project which I hope to finish by the end of the holidays. Of course no linen is being produced now, and much of the fabric has been stolen and sold in Turkey. I had been in the sewing shop quite some time when suddenly one of them men said, “Are you Marjorie?” I was so surprised I wanted to say something along the lines of “and who on earth are you?” but soon we worked out the connection and he insisted on giving me a discount. This morning in a little tourist shop that I took a friend to, I was asking about chess sets and the proprietor took us downstairs to his workshop where there was a man working on a new one, all carved wood and inlaid with mother of pearl.
This evening I went to the Corniche for a walk with my Iraqi student and her adorable son who likes to say, in perfect English, “Oh my goodness!” and “Good job!” They were living in Syria as refugees and her husband disappeared just before the boy was born. No-one knows if he is alive or not. Now, because of the war in Syria, they are refugees again and are trying to get to America to be with her mother. They have become good friends and I hope I will see more of them in the new year.
It is these friends and little encounters that make this country so enchanting and I keep loving Lebanon more and more.
Flying somewhere over the desert between Dubai and Beirut, listening to enchanting Iranian music and considering my life from “above”, as it were… Travelling like this, in a sort of no-man’s land, unaware of the passing of time and soaring high above the daily grind, one sees life with a new perspective, something that I have been sorely in need of these recent weeks.
I was fortunate to be able to get out of the country for a few days rest and recuperation and a reunion with some old friends in Al Ain, UAE. I arrived on the Thursday night just in time for church at the hospital compound and visited an Anglican liturgical service which was attended by a handful of hospital staff while, simultaneously, several other services in other outbuildings were being held, the sounds of clapping, shouting and oriental song echoing about the courtyard.
On the Friday we went out into the desert on quad bikes to carve up the dunes and enjoy the open space and the desert breeze in our hair. We saw a newly born camel, a desert lizard, a camel spider and a gazelle leaping gracefully over the sands and drank sweet tea with milk on a small farm plot with our host.
On Sunday, we crossed over the border to Oman and “smelled the air” (went for a day out), stopping for coffee and fruit at someone’s house. There is a particular coffee ceremony that they taught us which involves drinking three small cupfuls, each time returning the cup to the server who continues to hold the jug throughout. When you have finished, you return the cup, shaking it to show you are satisfied. Together with our hosts we drove on until, in the middle of the rocky, barren hills came to an oasis and an abandoned village, nestling in between the palm trees beside a deep gorge. It was just beautiful. Peaceful and calm. While the boys set up a fire to grill meat, our host took us to the source of the water and, as we made our way along the edge of a channel, we heard the stories of the wadi and of the Omani people and stopped to play with frogs and red dragonflies while he challenged us with difficult theological questions about Christianity.
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we drove on to visit another family who welcomed us with more coffee and fruit, more chicken and warm hospitality. I tried to follow the Arabic while the beautiful daughters told us of the difficulties of finding husbands. Gulf Arabic sounds very different than Levantine Arabic and when I tried to answer, they laughed at my funny Lebanese accent. That encourages me to think I am getting somewhere with the language although my progress is painfully slow and I wish I could live somewhere where I never heard English at all! Maybe one day…
Anyway, back to Lebanon it is…and I will bring with me some of the stillness of the desert as I dive headlong back into life.
For the first time in my memory, I have dealt with all my emails and emptied my inbox. More than that, I have ticked off everything on my to-do list and am enjoying a little free time. It is a very un-nerving feeling. I have surely forgotten something.
Today I write from the chapel steps at the American University. I have tried a few benches but keep having to move to avoid noisy neighbours or smells from the street. Everywhere I go, a cockroach quietly goes about its business near my feet. There seems no escaping them. I don’t really mind their quiet company, it serves as a reminder of nature and puts life somehow back into perspective again. It is for the same reason that I love sitting and watching hens pecking and clucking at home and perhaps why some people buy goldfish…
The weather has become more reasonable, finally, and I am determined to wear a light jacket to feel autumnal. Here in Beirut there is little sign of the changing of the season except in shop window displays, early Christmas decorations and, in the air, the smell of chestnuts roasting.
Some aspects of life here have been completely exhausting recently and so I was pleased to have the opportunity to escape the city and go on retreat. In fact, so happy that I went twice in one week to the very same place, once with the Near East School of Theology and once with the National Evangelical Church where I met mostly Syrians. I learned very much about the situation there and the difficulties of living the Christian life in a time of war. What a lot we take for granted in Britain…
It was my birthday while I was there and thy surprised me with a huge cake shared between sixty people. This year was the year of the chocolate cake: one with NEST, one with my singing group Beirut Vocal Point and one from my lovely Arabic teacher, immi libnaniyye, my Lebanese mother!
Today, enjoying my new found free time, I met a friend for lunch and we went shopping together. We heard French chansons in Costa, country music in the souvenir shop, jazz in Starbucks…what a strange place this can be at times… Now I am on my way to choir to sing Bach’s St John Passion and Christmas carols and imagine that, somewhere, it is winter.