This is a blogpost I wrote a couple of weeks ago, which originally appeared on pisky.scot, the online magazine of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
When I arrived in Tiberias nearly two years ago, it was immediately clear to me that the church building had suffered from neglect for many years. Visible electrical wires snaked along the outside. Air conditioning units hung from the facade. Plaster crumbled inside. And damp had destroyed the pointing in the stonework.
Spaces often speak to me. And this one felt weighed down, burdened by all the piecemeal repairs and clumsy additions. I sensed there was something quite beautiful underneath; it just needed to be uncovered.
So for the past eighteen months, I and others have been working towards a renovation. Thankfully money was already set aside. Committees didn’t take much convincing. The Church of Scotland has a good relationship with a Tel Aviv architect who has worked on other projects for us. So while the process took a while, it was, on the whole, relatively painless.
On 31 July, eight of us from the Scots Hotel moved the furniture out of the church as the temperature crept towards 40C. On 1 August, we relinquished control of the building as the contractors moved in and began work. They had the plans that the design team and I had imagined and discussed and dreamed and argued over. They knew our vision. I had to trust them to do the hard work.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the church for the first time, and as I stepped inside, tears came to my eyes.
Part of the emotion was at seeing a project I had worked on for so long finally beginning.
But deeper than that, walking into the worship space, I felt liberation, a lightness of spirit. The workers had stripped the plaster off of two of the walls, revealing the dark basalt stone underneath. The arches above the windows were masterpieces of craftsmanship. The rotting window frames were gone and light streamed in. The humid morning breeze wafted through the windows as I wandered through the rooms in awe, running my hands along the stone, feeling their cool solidity. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Initially as I reflected on it, the word that kept coming to mind was purity. I thought maybe our efforts were to restore the building to its pure state.
But I pushed it aside. It was a word I was trying to impose.
This was not a building originally meant as a place of worship; it was a school — still is a school for Messianic Jewish children on the upper floor. So in the restoration, we cannot say we are restoring a space to a pure holy prayerful perfection. Its simplicity, its flexibility, its lack of religious pretension is one of its most appealing qualities I think.
This past week, the builders removed the roof. I get a good view of the church from the treadmill in the hotel gym, and as I ran, I looked down at it. I felt the emotion well up. But this time, I was moved by the vulnerability of the skeleton structure of the wooden frame, stripped of its tiles.
‘It’s a building’, I kept saying to myself with each breath. ‘Why am I crying over a building? The church is not a building. Is that not what we’ve always been told?’
And then I realised that what was so moving was being witness to the transformation.
Transformation doesn’t happen in an instant.
Transformation needs the agonising, sweaty, physical effort of emptying all that lies inside and removing all that burdens and distracts. Transformation requires the stripping of all past accretions, the gutting, the ripping to the core. Transformation means that there are moments when beauty is revealed. And then going one step further and exposing that beauty to whatever comes — the blazing sun, the winds, the dust, the wildlife.
In all its fragility, I am seeing the soul of the building being exposed.
And it is only when the soul shines through the bare frame that we can begin to add again, this time honouring the beauty, the integrity, listening to the past, envisioning the future, hoping for wholeness. Not purity. Wholeness.
Of course, by this point, you know where I am going with this.
So often we (or at least I…) seek purity, rightness, perfection. We seek it in ourselves and in the process exhaust ourselves buying into all the external expectations of what that looks like and how we achieve it.
We are seeing a narrative of purity growing at a global level too. I see it in this land, in the violent rhetoric of the extremes: those who long for a pure Jewish state and others who wish to drive Israel into the sea. We’ve looked on in horror as it played out in the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our corporate historical memory has flooded back, reminding us of precisely where this desire for racial or religious purity leads.
God does not call us to purity … at least not that sort. God invites us into transformation.
God asks us to entrust God with our visions, our dreams, our deepest longings, and then allow God to do the hard work of removing that which hides who we really are — the piecemeal repairs that we have used to patch up our broken hearts, the worn out furnishings of old stories that we have clung on, the dirty windows of past hurts which block out the light.
And so God uncovers the beauty. And God makes that beauty vulnerable and visible. And then God rebuilds, putting within us a new spirit, and replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36.26), that we may be whole.
But what about our nations? A wise friend of mine — referencing someone who I now can’t remember — said that reconciliation requires peace with justice, justice with mercy, and mercy with truth. And I wonder if that’s perhaps the same process as transformation but with different language.
Because what is truth but that terrifying moment of beauty when our very soul is exposed?
And what is mercy but the acknowledgement of the courage and trust it takes for another to stand before us in vulnerability?
And what is justice but our listening to the past, our confession of the role we played in burdening others, and our visioning together the future?
And what is peace but the embrace of another who is not perfect, is not pure, but has been made whole?
This is hard work. Incredibly painful work. It does not happen in an instant.
So, in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.