The Forty Days

You might not believe it, since the image of the Middle East most people have in their heads involves sweltering heat and rolling sand, but it gets quite cold here. Not as cold, perhaps, as the -66 windchill the Midwestern United States is experiencing right now, but cold enough. With houses designed to draw heat out during the summer and no indoor heating, the temperature is often the same chilly 50 degrees inside that it is outside, if not cooler.

We’ve entered what Palestinians call “al-muraba’ia,” “the forty days,” the coldest days of the year. Thunderstorms blow in from the Mediterranean, dumping rain and sleet and hail on the hills of Jerusalem before pacifying in the Jordan River Valley. Wind sneaks in through the windows, making candles and electricity alike flicker. From Christmas until the middle of February, we will wear extra layers and huddle around space heaters for warmth, piling thick fleece blankets on our beds. Then, the warmth will return, spring will break out, and we will move on.

It seems particularly fitting that these days number forty, and that they are coming now, of all times.

Forty is a significant number in the story of God and Her people: forty days and nights of the catastrophic flood, forty years of wandering in the desert, forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Forty days of darkness and cold in this Holy Land after the business and excitement of the Christmas season.

I feel it deep in my bones, these forty days.

To put it simply, these forty days are hitting me hard. I knew that a year of global service wouldn’t be easy, but it turns out that knowing it wouldn’t be easy doesn’t make it easier.

I keep coming back to a poem that was read to us during YAGM Orientation in Chicago, which gains new layers of meaning every time I return. Now, during these Forty Days, I come back again seeking wisdom in the wilderness, adding my own harmonies in prayer to the song.

“Passover Remembered”  – Alla Bozarth-Campbell

Pack nothing.
Bring only 
your determination to serve 
and your willingness to be free.

O Calling God, I am tired. Sometimes it seems I’m really not doing much of anything here, and this weakens my will. I want so to be free, but could I have some different clothes first? I confess I’m struggling with layering the same five long sleeve shirts I brought across the sea for the sake of warmth. These clothes take so long to dry on the line inside the chill of the house. My determination to serve flickers like the electricity in our home. Why can’t the lights just stay on? Remind me of Your light and provision during these winter days.

Don’t wait for the bread to rise.
Take nourishment for the journey,
but eat standing, be ready
to move at a moment’s notice.

Do not hesitate to leave
your old ways behind —
fear, silence, submission.

Eternal God, it’s so easy to fall back into the old ways – anxiety, depression, fear. It’s so easy to stay in bed beside the space heater where it’s warm, rather than emerging into the cold to be in community and get work done. Some days, it seems beyond my own power to pull myself out. Some days, the weight of my old ways is so heavy I cannot even lift a pen to write, although I know I will feel better when I do. Hold me, strengthen me, warm me again.

Only surrender to the need
of the time — to love
justice and walk humbly
with your God.

Do not take time
to explain to the neighbors.
Tell only a few trusted
friends and family members.

Then begin quickly,
before you have time
to sink back into
the old slavery.

Sometimes, All-Knowing One, it hits me how quickly I began this thing, holding my breath and jumping in before I sank into those old ways. Now, though, I feel the weight of those old chains on my ankles as I doggie-paddle through the deep end. What on earth was this choice to move across the world, and how will I explain it to those neighbors who didn’t hear before I left? I, who preferred to live my faith quietly before becoming a missionary – how will I tell them? Give me courage and reassurance.

Set out in the dark.
I will send fire
to warm and encourage you.
I will be with you in the fire
and I will be with you in the cloud.

Mothering God, I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of what it does to me, what it means to me, this not-being that robs me of my sight and independence. I want to walk home from the gym in the dark, God, without worrying that I will run into a tree or a sign or a parked car. The bruise on my cheekbone shows where I did just that. But I still walk on, trusting you are beside me.

You will learn to eat new food
and find refuge in new places.
I will give you dreams in the desert
to guide you safely to that place
you have not yet seen.
The stories you tell
one another around the fires
in the dark will make you
strong and wise.

I’ve got to say it, God – I miss food from home. I miss enchiladas and spaghetti and burgers and salmon and chowder and Pad Thai and butter chicken and barbecue. But, God – I’ve begun to crave Palestinian food too, the warm spices and roasted vegetables and doughy pita and golden rice. This new food, cooked shoulder to shoulder with my friends and mentors, has begun to taste like home too. What will I do when mujaddara and musakhan and maqlooba and manaqeesh aren’t just a lunch away? And I am finding refuge around the gas heater that smells of propane and in my three-year old host brother curled in my lap, in the warming of fingers and toes and hearts with hand-clap games in the dark of yet another power outage.

Outsiders will attack you,
and some follow you,
and at times you will get weary
and turn on each other
from fear and fatigue and
blind forgetfulness.

This place in particular, Creator God, seems to bring out nastiness in people as much as wonder. Although I knew it was coming, the Facebook comments and news articles  and loud opinions on the bus are hurtful. Some days I fear my heart will break open from hearing people – some my friends and family at home – deny the humanity and dignity of my companions, our brothers and sisters. This wears on the soul, and makes me tense, strung tight like a wire about to snap. Sometimes, God, that wire does snap, and I bring more hurt into the world rather than alleviating it.

You have been preparing
for this for hundreds of years.
I am sending you into the wilderness
to make a new way and to learn my ways
more deeply.

Some of you will be so changed
by weathers and wanderings
that even your closest friends
will have to learn your features
as though for the first time.

Every day here, I can feel myself deepening and widening with perspective. Often, this growth hurts, reminding me of childhood years with too many inches gained too soon. I’m frightened that my friends at home will not recognize me when I return, that I have already moved so far from them that they have forgotten me (or I, them?). Still, God, I can feel somewhere deep down that this is perhaps the most right thing I’ve ever done in my life, although most of the time I can’t figure out what “right” even means anymore. I know with a knowing deeper than thought that I am where I am supposed to be.

Some of you will not change at all.
Some will be abandoned
by your dearest loves
and misunderstood by those
who have known you since birth
and feel abandoned by you.
Some will find new friendships
in unlikely faces, and old friends
as faithful and true
as the pillar of God’s flame.

I give thanks to you, Faithful One, for the presence of old friends and new during these Forty Days and throughout my year. I give thanks for first graders who scream my name and throw themselves into my arms, for the growing trust of even the smallest kindergartners who light up when they see me, for my host family who cares for me and makes me laugh. I’m grateful for surprising friends in grandmothers and small children. I’m grateful to my amazing cohort for their unending support and understanding and vulnerability. I give thanks for those friends from home who’ve stuck with me during this transition, even despite the distance and time changes and life changes, and for old relationships that are coming back stronger than ever.

Sing songs as you go,
and hold close together.
You may at times grow confused
and lose your way.
Continue to call each other
by the names I’ve given you,
to help remember who you are.
You will get where you are going
by remembering who you are.
Touch each other and keep telling the stories. 

Make maps as you go
remembering the way back
from before you were born.

Loving God, despite the confusion and the cold and the mosquitoes that won’t die despite that cold, I know that You are here and that I am not alone. I will get where I am going, even if I don’t know where that is. I am not creating but remembering who I am – a blessed, complex, imperfect Child of God. Hold me close to You and to the others alongside me in the journey. I need You through these forty days.

So you will be only the first
of many waves of deliverance on these desert seas.
It is the first of many beginnings —
your Paschaltide.

Remain true to this mystery.
Pass on the whole story.
Do not go back.
I am with you now
and I am waiting for you.

This is the whole story: These days are hard, and good, and hard again. I often struggle. I miss home sharply. More days than I care to admit, I am lonely. I am afraid of my own lack of control. And yet, this time is awe-some and wonder-full. It is transforming and powerful and needed. I am grateful to be here.

Thank you for being with me on this journey.


Hannah J. is a Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer serving in Jerusalem and the West Bank! Hannah arrived to her placement in Jerusalem and the West Bank in August 2018, along with 6 other young adults from Young Adults in Global Mission, a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). YAGM sends 70 young people from ages 21 – 29 to nearly a dozen country placements, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Volunteers with the YAGM program serve for one year and focus on living in accompaniment with the ELCA’s companion churches. You can read more from Hannah on her blog, Yalla, Hannah. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.