Two weeks ago, I had been in Jerusalem for a service at which I was invited to preside at Communion. Just before the service, I was told I had been prayed for by loved ones at a church back in Scotland, and I felt a wave of homesickness, not for the place, but for the people whose prayers sustain me.
Two weeks ago, I was preparing for a trip to Gaza, my first in 18 months. I wondered what I would see there, how much worse things were for all its inhabitants, how small and vulnerable the Christian community had become.
And then I was in Gaza, acutely aware that I was the only woman travelling with a delegation of men. I was welcomed by the young girls at the first place we went, a clinic for children who in their young years had seen more war than any human being should ever have to witness. ‘Selfie?’ I asked as they surrounded me and the cameras flashed. ‘How many children?’ they asked. ‘None’, I said. ‘No husband,’ in my faltering Arabic. ‘But you’re so beautiful’, they replied.
And then we entered a vocational training centre. I wanted to hear more about their work, but the large workshops were filled with teenage boys. It was cold, and I was dressed modestly, but my head was uncovered, and I felt their stares. I blushed deeply, held back and tried to disappear behind my male colleagues.
Then a church, where the ‘fathers’ were welcomed through one door into the sacred space behind the iconostasis, the rest of the men invited through a separate door, and I was stopped at the threshold. ‘No females allowed.’ I looked through into the space beyond and a painting of the Virgin Mary covered the domed ceiling above the altar. And was grateful for the solidarity of a couple of male colleagues who waited outside with me.
At our meeting at the YMCA that evening, the lights flickered and then the room went dark. Someone lit the flashlight on his phone. ‘Life in Gaza…’ he said, and we continued talking.
At night, I listened to the military aircraft flying overhead, a sound I’ve become accustomed to. But in the north of Israel, the planes are always flying towards the borders. In Gaza, they circled. I thought of the children we had met, knowing they were hearing the same planes. Do they fall asleep wondering if maybe this one or that one would strike… or if the night would pass with relative quiet?
It’s surreal, the transition between Gaza and Israel. Potholed roads, partially bombed buildings, vegetable carts pulled by donkeys. And then a 15 minute walk through no-man’s land before entering the Israeli security facility that feels like an abandoned airport. From there, only a ten minute drive to a cafe to pick up a cappuccino for the long journey back to Tiberias. The contrast is jarring.
I was still trying to get my head around it as I walked into the church that evening for our rededication ceremony. The building was filled with familiar faces — partners, colleagues, congregation, and all who had worked on the project — as we celebrated the completion of the renovation and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland led us in prayer. I had worried for weeks that no one would come, and to see the space filled with people who represented the breadth of the Church of Scotland’s relationships — more importantly, people who have become friends — well, it made my heart soar.
The next morning, I had been invited to celebrate Communion for the delegation traveling with the Moderator. It was a short, said service, and I used an adapted form of the Roman Catholic eucharistic prayers for reconciliation. As I spoke the words, I thought of all the conflicts I have witnessed and experienced since moving here. Conflict at every level in every part of life. I prayed, steeped in the truth of what I was saying.
In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together. Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
I raised the bread and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.’ My voice trembled, because at that moment, I remembered how my body had been the object of uncomfortable attention a couple of days before, and how it was deemed not good enough to enter a sacred space. I heard again the words thrown about — in jest and even affection, I know, but they had still stung because of the context: defiled, impure, minx.
I remembered the girls we had met, their young bodies which already carried the invisible scars of years of trauma. ‘Who can you turn to to feel safe, to feel supported?’ they had been asked. ‘Mom’. ‘Grandmother’. ‘Friend’. ‘Sister’. They had answered.
My heart broke; I fought the tears, and I bit back the lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Natural Resources’:
This is what I am: watching the spider
rebuild — “patiently”, they say,
but I recognise in her
impatience — my own —
the passion to make and make again
where such unmaking reigns
the refusal to be a victim
we have lived with violence so long
Am I to go on saying
for myself, for her
This is my body,
take and destroy it?
I took a deep breath and continued.
A few weeks ago, I preached on 1 Corinthians 6.19, Paul’s reminder to the people that their bodies were temples, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Where are those temples being desecrated? I asked. Where do we contribute to that desecration? How might our interactions and relationships be transformed if we were to stop and remind ourselves that we are in the presence of the holy when we are in the presence of others?
The passion to make and remake burns within me in this place where such unmaking reigns, where desecration is a part of daily life at personal and political levels and everywhere in between. But this is not something I have the power to fix. I have always needed our liturgy to remind me of that.
May you take away all that divides us, I prayed.
This is where truth lies. In the gratuitous grace which reconsecrates bodies through bread and wine. In the beauty of a newly green field dotted with wildflowers after days of heavy rain. In the kindness and safety of friendships and partnerships and family. In the faithfulness of prayers offered. In the heartfelt longings for peace and an end to division.
Most of all, truth lies in love: in a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.