Spools of Thread

April 23rd is a holiday in Turkey. They call it Children’s Day, dedicating the hopeful future of the nation to the children of the republic. People dress-up, flags are strung, and picnics are spread out on every green surface available in order to glorify this commemorative festival.

However, outside of the city, April 23rd takes on a more subdued mentality.

Every year on this same date, 50,000 pilgrims of all faiths crowd Buyukada -what I’ve come to call one of Turkey’s “getaway” islands- for a soul searching pilgrimage to St. George’s monastery. Known as “Aya Yorg,” this historic orthodox church peacefully sits atop Buyukada’s highest peak, looking over the turquoise seas of Marmara.

Ever since I heard about this event from a stranger in a coffee shop, it immediately caught my interest as well as my curiosity. A Muslim nation making a prayer pilgrimage to a Christian monastery?

As the date neared, some friends and I decided to ‘participate’ in the pilgrimage. We brought along a guitar.

The hike wasn’t easy- it was about an hour and a half going uphill. Trail-side venders seemed to be making a killing on fruit and water…

As part of the spiritual ritual, many people were unwinding spools of thread, twirling it around the trees and fences from the bottom of the hill all the way up to the monastery. It’s said that if their spool lasts the whole way, they have found favor in the heavens…

The roadsides quickly began to layer with the tangled thread in every color, like a brightly-woven chaotic river.

It was an epic day for the church in Turkey; people came on this pilgrimage with hopes and prayers, so the church made itself useful. Prayer stops were spaciously stationed along the trail. The voices of believers and nonbelievers blended in requests for various needs, searching for answers, seeking out truth.

We paused once we reached the top of the mountain to take-in the breathtaking view. But my gaze was quickly reverted to the monastery. Outside the exit, the pilgrims were writing their hopes on paper and tying it to the branches of trees.

Prayers were being written with chalk on the rocks nearby.

An array of candles lined the rock wall, wax melting into a colorful stream.

Their focus was on ritual. On outward action.

We took out the guitar and for the next four hours, every pilgrim who exited the monastery was washed with melodies of praise resounding from the Hope living in us.

Hope that is Alive. Hope that’s Real.

Piercing the air with song, we breathed out worship to our God. Sometimes in Turkish. Sometimes in English. It didn’t matter.

What did matter is that we weren’t just singing; we were full-on fighting.

This was no ordinary mountaintop experience.

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The Flag

Traffic was a beast. I was on a bus. On my way home.

I stood in the aisle, squished-in among the masses. The bus driver kept letting more people on. It was like a game to him: let’s see how many french fries you can fit into the carton. Hello, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The capacity was beyond capped. I didn’t even have to hold onto the bar above me since the bodies pressed all around me kept me propped up and stationary. Despite being a head taller than the majority on the bus, I was struggling to breathe and decided enough was enough.

I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but there was no way I could stand like that for much longer. I was still pretty far away, but not more than an hour on foot… Making up my mind, I planned to escape at the next stop. I’d rather stretch my legs than breathe in the entire population.

Dodging underneath arms and stepping on many toes, I forced my way to the doors, practically leaping out when they clunked open.

Fresh air. Well, as fresh as it possibly can be for one of the largest cities in the world. Filling my lungs with a variety of pollutions, I continued the journey home. Thankful of the choice I made. For the “alone” time this walk provided.

The street ran parallel to the water so I caught glimpses of it in between buildings. In fact, I searched for it, and I now understand why Superman valued his laser-vision powers. Whenever an open space gave the slightest inclination of viewing pleasure, my eyes burned through to find the water. Finding freedom.

Earphones drowning out the traffic, I continued home in this manner. Searching. Praying. Receiving.

At one of these gap/viewing intervals, I also saw a flag. It was a big one, spread out wide atop a strong iron pole, planted firmly on a mound near the water’s bank. Behind it was the city. A city brimming over with more people than even this extrovert can honestly handle at times. Case example: remember the bus?

As I searched and prayed, God showed me the flag. From it He spoke to me His authority over the land my feet are treading, claiming it as His territory. He has planted His flag and He is fighting for it. Warring for all living here to find freedom from the chains they’re suffering.

With this vision, He reminded me of His heart and why He brought me here: He wants to bring His nations home. I carry His flag, and the truth is brought everywhere I go: unto every crowded bus, into every home, and to every heart.

Staking Christ’s victory. Planting His flag.

Fighting for freedom for the people He loves in my city- all 13.9 million of them.

Ignorance

We spent the day showing a friend around Old Town Istanbul. It was snowing. The last time we were here we were in t-shirts and sandals. This time we were bundled up, covered from head to toe. Due to our appropriate coverings we were finally allowed inside the Blue Mosque.

We threw off our shoes, bagged them, and set them on a rack, alongside 50 other pairs. The sight of so many shoes reverted my thoughts to childhood playdates at the MacDonald’s playarea…

Once the flasback subsided, I was able to focus on the Ottoman splendor I was now engulfed in.

I tilt my head back.

Chills. Pure chills.

Our friend who was with us has been studying Arabic, and I learned that in written form, Arabic doesn’t have to be in a straight line– it can be all mushed together and catty-wompas! So that’s what the gold strokes everywhere are… Definitely made me appreciate the “simplicity” of Turkish…

My focus shifts from the adornments to the people.

While many worshiping in the mosque at that moment could be praying from their hearts, it hit me that many might not even understand the words being recited, nor whom they’re reciting to…

Tasbih (prayer beads) in hand and forehead on the ground, they’re relying on the religion: being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing.

Cowlicks form from their prayer posture- a desired sign of holiness that some try to obtain by bashing their foreheads against walls instead of by praying more.

Appearance is everything.

I gaze back to the infrastructure.

Everything about the bold colors, the stained-glass designs, the giant columns, and the golden swoops of foreign cursive spoke power and beauty, but also screamed out hopelessness.

Empty. Fake. Impersonal.

Paul’s message from the book of Acts (17) ran through my mind:

“I observe that you are very religious in all respects.  For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people  everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

I stood there, observing as they prayed, all the while silently pleading my own prayer:

God, may you be made known.