"Whatever you do, don't go to Jordan. Egypt, sure. Syria, maybe. But don't go to Jordan. Better yet, just don't go anywhere there at all."
By the time I heard these words from an expert working with Middle Eastern governments, I'd already been accepted into a study abroad program to Amman, Jordan. Tickets were booked, gifts for my host family carefully picked out, and bags packed. Well, nearly packed. The point was, it was too late to change anything. I was bound for a country that an expert was telling me was unstable at best. I honestly can't say why, but the warning didn't unnerve me. Something told me I was meant to be in Jordan. Besides, how bad could it be?
A week after this conversation took place, on December 17th of 2010, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia decided he could no longer survive under the corrupt, oppressive nature of his government. He walked into the street, and set himself on fire. Thus began the string of civil uprisings across the Middle East that we now refer to as the Arab Spring.
I was already in in Amman when the protests began to spread across the region - Oman, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Libya... a friend who had chosen to study in Egypt was rushed to the airport within a week of arriving in Cairo, when gunshots had rung out all around his hotel. My friend in Syria was moved from Damascus to Aleppo, where she was safe for some time. But she too had to leave abruptly when the protests began rapidly spreading beyond the capital. Decades of simmering anger bubbled into violent uproar as people across the region demonstrated their frustration with repressive governments. Many were successful in overthrowing unjust rulers, but not without a fight. Thousands died in the process, and even successful coups didn't guarantee that a better leader would follow.
My five months in Jordan, however, remained untouched by the anger that was ravaging the region. I saw a few peaceful protests, but that was the extent to which my life in Amman was affected. Instead, I spent a semester immersing myself in one of the most beautiful cultures in existence. I learned a language that is deeply poetic in its nature, studied history under a man who helped negotiate the Oslo Accords, and forged friendships that will last a lifetime. I developed a profound appreciation for how mint tea and a slice of kanafeh (Jordanian cheese pastry) can turn any frown upside down. My friends and I saw ancient archaeological cities lit up by paper lanterns and starry skies, travelled across the desert on camelback, and basked in the generosity of Bedouin hospitality. I was welcomed into people's homes and families with unrivalled sincerity and love.
It's hard to reconcile these two pictures as occurring simultaneously, so close to one another. But believe me, they were both very real - and very apparent to those of us enjoying the safety of Amman. Every day ended with the news telling us of more protests and riots, more people dying, more countries crumbling. I watched Jordanians weep for their Arab brothers and sisters, helplessly torn by gratitude for their own life and grief over the loss of so many others.
Then I saw a church burdened with prayer, like I had never seen before. They prayed unceasingly, sharing God's heart as it broke for the region, but surrendering to the hope of His redemptive love. I have never been more inspired to pray for the land in which I've been purposefully placed. Nor have I been more encouraged by how the church can experience joyful sorrow resting in the arms of Christ. We are meant to be a people at peace in the midst of chaos, being confident in the knowledge of Him who called us. This is a lesson I may never stop learning. But the strongest picture I have for it was witnessing the church in Jordan. In the midst of turmoil, they demonstrated both a heart-rending love for people and a firm trust in the sovereignty and goodness of their God.
Perhaps the warning not to go to the Middle East during the Spring of 2011 was well-founded, and I appreciate the sentiment with which it was given. The person offering it clearly knew something I didn't. But God's purpose for me went beyond the wisdom of this world. He carried me to safety, all the while teaching and humbling my heart before Him to see that my trust need be in Him alone. I'm grateful for the relationships I formed and things I grew to love while in Jordan. Even more important, though, is what I learned about Christ, His love for people and His will for the church. This will forever shape my understanding of Him.
I'm reminded of a quote of John Piper's that has stayed with me:
"I rejoice in the sovereignty of God because He wields it in all things to preserve Himself as my greatest treasure."
No cause could be more worthy of our hope and trust. If we can, as Paul describes in Philippians 3, count all things as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, we will see His purpose in every circumstance. Then we will know and trust Him in increasing degree, and experience His peace that passes understanding.