Living in the Middle East, where every day is a day of adventure, is like taking a giant leap back in time. But, there are some days that are more adventurous than others. Today was one of those days. This adventure actually began several weeks before when my husband helped a Bedouin man with directions in the maze of the city. This man did not live in our city but in a smaller city a few hours away. He was extremely grateful for Stephen’s help. Right there, in the middle of traffic, with green traffic lights shining, with horns blaring, and people shouting, they exchanged numbers as he insisted that our family visit and eat dinner with his family.
This brings us to our story. When my husband first talked to this man, he said he lived in a nearby city with which we are well acquainted. But, just before we left our house, the man called to give us more specific directions through the interpretation of our neighbor. Rather, this family actually lives in a small border village more than an hour from the city he first mentioned. The longer we drove, the more we realized that not only our afternoon, but also our evening would now be spent in traveling and visiting these dear people. Such is life here in the Middle East.
We made three stops on the way – one pitstop, one gas break, and the other for a special Middle Eastern dessert to present to our host and hostess – and we were on our way. Very quickly, we left our bustling city that is crammed with people, houses, buildings, shops and cars.The further we drove from the city, the rougher the roads became. The scant scenery yielded to the barren desert – kilometers and kilometers of rocks and sand, and more rocks and sand with the barren landscape broken by an occasional village, cluster of shops, or gas stations. The closer we came to this remote village, nestled near the border of three Middle Eastern nations, shepherds tending their flocks of goats and sheep became more and more common, and, of course, the occasional camel pack. There are times such as these that I almost have to pinch myself to be sure it is all real. It feels like I have stepped out of a time machine and into a people locked in ages past.
We finally arrived at the village and were warmly greeted by our host and hostess, Abu Sultan (father of Sultan) and Umm Sultan (mother of Sultan), with the traditional Arabic kiss. After long overtures of introductions, we were ushered into the nondescript, simple cement house. We all sat on fabric-covered cushions that lined the walls of their living room floor and were immediately served coffee. Let me elaborate on this. Arabic coffee is traditionally served in a small cup that resembles a proper English tea cup but without the handle. It is quite strong and potent and nothing at all like the sweetened Starbucks drinks that many (including myself) enjoy! My husband was served first, and then I was offered some out of the same cup – which we quickly realized was the communal coffee cup! We talked with our host and hostess for a little while, and then out came a steaming, traditional dinner of rice and chicken tossed together with roasted peanuts and fresh parsley and thoroughly drenched in a yogurt broth. If it sounds a bit strange or unappetizing, let me assure you that it is one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. It was placed on a small round coffee table, and we all scooted up close – still sitting on the floor – to share the meal out of the massive, main dish. There were no individual plates, and spoons were provided for our family, although the native people here will typically eat this dish with their fingers. With licked-clean fingers, our hosts served us more and more by pushing more of the food to our portion of the round, communal dish.
After everyone had eaten their fill, we sat back and talked in simple Arabic about life. Even after a year of intense language learning, the Arabic language is still difficult for me to speak, but I was encouraged that I understood most of what was said – even if our hosts had to repeat themselves two or three times very slowly. We talked about families. Our hosts both come from very large families – Abu Sultan has fourteen siblings and Umm Sultan has twelve siblings. We talked about the differences between the large city in which we live and their tiny village. We talked about prices, weather, and children. Throughout the course of the conversation, we were repeatedly welcomed to their country, to their village, and to their home with the traditional Arabic, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” For Bedouin people, it is a great honor and privilege that we would visit their home. Hospitality is a time-honored tradition in this part of the world. Our simple time with them means more to them than we, as Westerners, will probably ever know.
Of course, one does not visit with a family without going for a stroll to meet extended family and friends. As Stephen and the girls went out for a walk with Abu Sultan, I sat alone with Umm Sultan and her energetic, now-sleeping son, Sultan. She was eager to talk, and I was content to listen and try to understand and try to communicate with her as she desired. She spoke of her sisters and sisters-in-law, of her love of jewelry and clothes, of how she wants to decorate her house but money is tight, and of her son’s birth story. After a short time, Stephen and the girls returned to the house. After another cup of tea and some delicious Arabic dessert, we began to say our good-byes. Our hosts pressed us to stay and spend the night. Imagine, complete strangers offering other complete strangers a place to stay in their home for the night! But, we insisted that we must return to our apartment. With more kisses, promises of a return visit, and an invitation for them to come visit us, we were on our way.
The girls snuggled in the back seat of the car and watched a movie on the iPad as we began the 2.5 hour trek back to our house. I was weary and tired in every way possible – physically, mentally, spiritually – but extremely grateful for the silence and the beautiful star-lit sky as I reflected on our day. Of course, I immediately thought of how desperately these people need to know of God’s love through the person of Jesus Christ. This is the one thought which constantly runs through my heart and mind. At times, it is almost overwhelming. However, tonight I was also reminded of one particular Bible passage.
Matthew 25:34-30 says, “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I felt deeply ashamed and humbled as I thought on these verses. Because, as much as these dear people took us into their home, gave us plenty to eat, even more to drink, and honored us, even though we were complete strangers, I, as a child of God, I have utterly failed. I have been so content to pat myself on the back for attending church services and special meetings, listening to the Word of God being preached, singing in the choir, and teaching a Sunday School class. All of these things are well and good as well as necessary, but these things have been consumed upon myself. Why have I failed to look outside of my home; to look beyond my family, my church, my friends, and seek the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned? When did being a disciple of Jesus, mean sitting in a church building week after week, singing beautiful songs, and simply hearing the Word God? Again, it is important that believers are engaged in these things – the Bible tells us as much – but, in our busy-ness with spiritual matters, we have sorely neglected those who need the Great Physician.
When was the last time we had a cup of coffee with a coworker – simply listening and offering to pray with them for the burdens they are carrying? When was the last time we invited our neighbors into our homes for lunch or for dinner? Do we ever smile and warmly greet those around us, or is the opportunity lost in meeting the demands of our schedule? When was the last time we welcomed a stranger and offered our assistance? What about the lady wearing the hijab, or those who are clearly speaking Spanish or some other foreign language? An amazing thing happens when you meet the physical and emotional needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, etc. Miraculously, many of them become receptive about you speaking about their greatest need – the needs which only the person of Jesus Christ can meet.
At the beginning of this new year, I am asking God to open my eyes and my heart to not only see those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are naked and strangers, those who are sick and imprisoned, but also to meet their needs both physically and spiritually. Because, “…inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Jesus).”
Will you join me?