So, we’re nearly five months into our time here in Israel-Palestine, and I’m being asked quite a few of the same questions by loved ones back home. I’ve also had some of my partnering churches ask for a bit more information about my work for their newsletters. So here you go, friends. Your questions answered here. Feel free, newsletter editors, to take as much or as little information as you wish or have the space to fill. And if there are other questions I haven’t answered, ask them in the comments and I’ll write another post.
You’ve been there for nearly five months now. What are your first impressions of life in Israel-Palestine?
This is a very beautiful land. It’s now spring. The wildflowers are out. The desert is in full bloom. The sun shines every day (except for today). I’m warm all the time. Sometimes too warm. And it’s only mid-April.
The people I work with are amazing. It’s been a time of transition for all of us. My predecessor was charismatic and people loved him and missed him when he left, so I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in. But my colleagues in the churches in the north have welcomed me with open arms and have encouraged my ministry since the beginning. The staff and management at the Scots Hotel have gone out of their way to help us feel at home and give us whatever support we need. The partners have helped me to understand their contexts and the work they do. We are starting to meet people outside of all these different circles and put down roots and see some friendships begin to bud.
Does that sound overly positive and cheery? Perhaps. But it’s true. (See, five months in a land of sun, and all my Scottish melancholy has disappeared…)
The political situation here is complex. The cultural differences can feel insurmountable at times. The language issues are still issues (though Justin’s Hebrew is coming along much faster than my Arabic). It’s a steep learning curve and gets steeper the longer we’re here. But we have ever-widening networks of people to whom we can turn. I have felt lonely often in the past five months. But never alone.
How are you really doing?
The past months have been hard, despite the support we have. I have felt overwhelmed. I have talked more than once about packing it all in and going back to Scotland. I have been anxious, low, angry. I have taken things too seriously and overthought things people have said carelessly and thoughtlessly. I worry a lot about criticism. And if I’m brutally honest, I am terrified about the return of the Fog. But not once have I regretted coming here. And I suspect that if I were in a ministry position back in Scotland I would still be experiencing a lot of these things because that’s just how it is when one is in a position of leadership and responsibility.
Now, though, I feel much more settled. I’m happy. I’m beginning to see the shape of my ministry here, learning where I might make a useful contribution, and basically just enjoying meeting so many great people who are doing truly inspiring work.
I’m insanely busy a lot of the time and get stressed about the work I take on (it’s all so interesting I don’t want to miss out, so I say yes too far too much). But I’m also trying to be more intentional about taking proper time off. I go to the gym regularly. I am reading novels again. I’ve immersed myself in poetry and prayer.
And Justin and I are making a real effort to explore more because this land really is spectacular in all its diversity, and even though I travel quite a lot, I still need to get away from the house to feel I’m properly away from work.
Are you safe?
Do you mean do I feel like I’m living in a war zone? No. Do I feel the tension of the conflict? Most days, not really. But it depends on where I go, who I’m with, what I’m doing. Tiberias is a sleepy place. Most of my work is within Israel. I wish I could spend more time in the West Bank, and hope to in future. But even here I don’t have to travel far to encounter the ghosts of 1948 and 1967, to feel the sadness of others, hear the resentment and anger, and admire the determination and resilience of the people I meet. The occupation is always with us. And to some extent, fear is always present.
And how’s Justin? And Coleridge?
Justin’s doing well. He has a bit of web design work. And he’s really making an effort to learn Hebrew — studying for hours each day and attending a class. This is a place which is politically fascinating, so he’s totally geeking out on his reading and could tell you far more about the layers of history of the places we visit than I could.
Coleridge now spends his mornings happily wandering the garden and he has discovered that lizards are far more difficult to catch than the fat voles in Stow. When it gets too warm, he stays cool under the light duvet on our bed, and when it gets very hot, he lies on a damp towel which we cool in the freezer (yes, really).
Remind us where you’re living again?
We live just up the hill from the hotel in a traditional house called Yakfie, which is divided into two apartments. We stay on the ground floor and regularly have guests staying upstairs. Part of my ministry is to offer hospitality and respite to Ecumenical Accompaniers and other church workers and peacemakers who are often working in places like Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Hebron.
So at any given time, we could have up to four people (whom we may or may not have met before) staying upstairs. They can use some of the facilities at the hotel (so are not subjected to my cooking). It is an important part of my work, this ministry of hospitality, but I do end up spending a lot of time doing laundry!
What does an average week look like for you? (i.e. what do you actually do??)
Sundays I often go to worship with local congregations in the morning and then lead worship at St Andrew’s in the evening. That’s about the only thing that’s predictable about my weeks. Last week I was in Jerusalem for a couple of meetings, one of which was with the Episcopal Archbishop. Later in the week I was in Jaffa for a school board meeting for Tabeetha, the Church of Scotland school. I also met with a couple of architects to talk about the church building and get some ideas for that renovation. A woman from Italy whose grandparents lived in Tiberias around 1948 came by to hear more about the Church of Scotland and the area around that time. This week, I’ve met with a couple of church leaders from the States and enjoyed talking with a visiting group. Next week, I’m meeting several partners in Shefr’amr and Haifa and then going to Jerusalem for an ongoing conversation we’re having with members of the Scottish Jewish community.
My ministry at the hotel is really just a ministry of presence, so when I have sermon writing and service prep or other admin tasks to do, I’ll work from the lobby and usually find myself chatting to staff and visitors.
Some of the groups staying in the hotel invite me to join them for their services or prayer times. Some of the staff invite me to their homes or out for a coffee.
I take Arabic classes in Nazareth once a week and study less than I should in between lessons.
I blog when I have something to say.
I shoot footage for my video blog when I’m out doing interesting things.
I visit our partner organisations and drop by and have coffee with people I’ve met and want to see again.
I join in ecumenical services or patronal festivals locally.
I drive. A lot.
Today I realised I really needed a day to myself — a day to introvert — so I packed my rucksack and rain jacket and headed up north to a waterfall and a beautiful (if very soggy) walk to clear my head.
You’ve talked a lot about the church building in past posts. How important is it really?
Well, for all the sins I have committed and those I have yet to commit, part of my work will likely be overseeing a major building refurbishment, if we can secure the funding. It’s daunting and exciting. It is most certainly not my strength. But I love that it is forcing us all to think about what the CoS’s ministry is here and how we can do that better. I want a church that isn’t hiding behind a locked gate, a space that can be used by anyone walking past, a place for pilgrims to stop and pray, a place for children to stop and play, a place for all people to stop and find peace. And if it is done well, it will strengthen the connection with our partners, with the local community, and with the wider church. So yes, I see this as being important.
Why aren’t you writing more about politics?
Honestly? Because if you want politics, there are far better places for you to look than here, and far more eloquent commentators on the situation than I.
Oh, I have my own opinions. If you want to hear them, invite me for a drink. But in my work, particularly at this stage, it is vital that I remain publicly neutral. Does that mean that I don’t cry at wounds inflicted? No. Does that mean that I don’t rage at injustices? No. Does that mean that I don’t care about what’s happening elsewhere in this land? No.
I will speak the truth I see back to people in Scotland as they make decisions about how to respond to the situation here.
But my immediate ministry — in Scotland, here, wherever — is to ask where God is. And to see God’s image in all people. I cannot assure the people I meet here that that is what I am doing if I am seen to be pushing a religious or political agenda.
What are the greatest challenges you’re facing?
I’d love to say something really earnest here. Something along the lines of: finding solutions to the conflict, bringing peace to the region, writing earnest blog posts about politics which are both balanced and insightful.
But really, the biggest challenges are the ordinary challenges of ministry: lots of work and limited time and energy, never quite knowing what exactly it is I’m meant to be doing and whether I’m doing it right or well (it‘s by the grace of God we do not know the good we do, as I was often reminded in my curacy), being an off-the-charts introvert in a job which requires me to be with people all the time. In short: finding balance and maintaining it.
Where do you find spiritual refreshment?
Sitting on the floor of the church, usually at night, blaring Tallis or Palestrina.
On the treadmill. Sometimes.
Walking by waterfalls in the north. I must do it more often.
What do you love most about your work as a mission partner?
This is going to sound incredibly cheesy and improbable, but I mean it: I love everything. The people. The place. The potential. The highs and lows. The variety. Every day is different. And God is in it all. Some days I have to search harder than others. But God is always there.
When are you next in Scotland?
In July. For three weeks. I’ll be on retreat in the Highlands for the first week. The second and third weeks are H.O.L.I.D.A.Y. So no, sadly I am not available to come speak to congregations about my work here (but I’ll be on deputation next year, so stay tuned for that fun time). But I will be available — no doubt on more than one occasion — for a drink or two in an Edinburgh city centre pub.
How can we in Scotland (or elsewhere) support you?
First of all, pray for us. Second of all, tell us you are praying for us. Honestly. The best cards, the best emails, the best Facebook and WhatsApp messages are the ones which say simply, ‘Hey, we remembered you in our intercessions on Sunday’ or ‘I woke up this morning and said a prayer for you’. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me, because seriously, I cannot do this work alone. I also love hearing about your lives, your churches, your families: what books are you reading, what tv shows are you enjoying, what was the best part about Easter, and what are you looking forward to this summer.
And know, my dearest friends, that I pray for you too.