Its New Years eve 2020 and my husband and I Istanbul flat with a takeaway and our friend. I don’t even make it midnight as we wish one another happy new year. The lack of a party or a crowd of friends (lockdown hadn’t even started yet- little did we know!) and the clock striking twelve make us joke about it being the most ‘low key’ NYE ever! What a prophetic utterance for 2020.
It started with rumours about a freaky virus in China as I had breakfast with the Turkish school mums. Then one Thursday all our kids were sent home. And they weren’t allowed out of their apartments for the next 3 months. In Turkey there was no ‘one hour of exercise and fresh air a day’ allowance. Apart from my husband going to the local shops we did not leave our home at all. With a newborn baby in the mix and my 80 year old mum with us (high risk!), it certainly was an intense time and, like the rest of the planet, we dealt with various stresses and anxieties.
We began to meet on Zoom for our church meetings. And over the weeks we began to see different and new faces hovering in the little boxes on our Zoom calls. There were believers from different cities in Turkey. Two precious families who came to faith two years ago but didn’t stay in Istanbul. For them being able to join in fellowship and time in the world with other believers was life changing for them. Then we had those who always expressed an interest in finding out more about Jesus but the their work lives were so intense they could never find the time or space suddenly had all the time in the world to engage online- and their hearts had time to stop from the pressures of life and feel the spiritual void in their hearts. As a community we were reminded of the two vastly different expressions of his body- the gathered (Sundays) and the scattered (groups of disciples making disciples themselves in their own communities by reading the bible and obediently applying to their own lives).
For us as disciples of Jesus trapped at home as the weeks ticked on by we had a choice. We had begun to assume the role of spectator in many areas of life. Watch the news, watch the local figure updates for Covid19 cases, watch our kid’s school lessons on Zoom. Suddenly it was very tempting to become a spectator of Jesus and call it being a disciple, as we settled onto our sofas with our coffee and muted and un-muted ourselves to our convenience on Zoom.
We began to fast and pray. Daily we held prayer meetings online. Our prayer was that God would make us into the people he wanted – it was clear he was using this global event to galvanise his church. A video from Francis Chan went viral at the time (see it here) where God spoke to him from Jeremiah 21. This words were so true for us- ‘He knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb. He appointed us as prophets to the nations (paraphrase)’. On New Years Eve in 2020 when we joked about it being ‘low-key’ God knew. He knew us before we were even born and he knew we would live for such a time as this – his church in a global pandemic. He knew how we would suffer but also how that suffering would develop perseverance. That perseverance would develop fruit. Jesus knew what we would go through, and he understood.
Over the summer as restrictions lifted in Turkey we then began to meet with social distancing and wearing masks in local parks worshipping and praying. Even though it hurt not be able to greet one another with a holy kiss (both cheeks Turkish style!), it was such a big privilege to be able to meet freely with our brothers and sisters in Christ. What a humbling perspective on the persecuted church in parts of the world. Now as autumn draws in we tentatively began to meet back in our building with masks on. We are small in number and the building has been unused and dormant for 7 months. But the church hasn’t – we are living stones his Holy Temple. A community that is called to love one another so much the world is gobsmacked. A community where signs and miracles are the norm. Our prayer meetings continue midweek on zoom. We both cling to and heed the words of Hebrews 10:38:
“But my righteous[a] one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back
We are his righteous people set apart for his glory in Turkey and we need to live by faith. We don’t want to ‘shrink back’. We don’t want to give God an hour a week in a building and call it church. Because that is not our destiny and it took a global pandemic to remind us that.
We grieve with those who grieve who have suffered from or lost loved ones to Covid. We go forward with our ‘new normals’ here in Istanbul like the rest of the world and we continue to seek God’s face for what it means for us to be his church here in Turkey. We are sad about the pandemic but excited about what it means for the church. It has helped us learn how to make disciples in the home. It has taught us how to pray without ceasing. Now our prayer is, may the pandemic stop, but the awakening of the church of Jesus Christ from her slumber… may that never stop.