Little did I know when I wrote that last blogpost what a wilderness we would find ourselves wandering in this Lenten season.
Just over a week ago, I submitted a report to the Society of the Friends of St Andrew’s outlining all the exciting projects the hotel and church here in Tiberias were engaged in: a new shop at the hotel selling products of our partners, our Lenten bible study at the church, the development of the floor above the church to house volunteers, interns, and clergy on sabbatical/study leave.
My days were full. Too full. Meetings with partners and pilgrim groups, pastoral conversations, report writing, and a constant stream of volunteers staying in the guest flat in the manse filled the working hours. My Lenten intention of switching off all screens at sunset was proving impossible; after dark was the only chance I had most days to check emails and prepare for Sunday worship.
As I sent the report, news was coming in that Bethlehem was shutting down. Cases of the coronavirus had been discovered at a hotel in Beit Jala. International travel restrictions were increasing. Occupancy at all the hotels in Tiberias, including the Scots Hotel, was plummeting as groups from abroad were cancelling.
We had sent out one set of guidelines for Sunday worship already, but then revised it as the news changed and concerns grew. Amongst the uncertainty and anxiety, I was surprised when we had our normal attendance at church, including visitors. We held a simple service of the word.
As we walked out the door of the church, I had little sense of the desert landscape we were walking into.
I woke last Monday to the news that all who had visited Bethlehem in the last 14 days were to enter self-isolation immediately. I’d been there the week before collecting products from L’Arche and Bethlehem Bible College. ‘Enjoy your retreat’, several people said on social media and by email when I posted I’d be in quarantine for the week. I made my to do list of all the work I could do from home and loaded up my kindle.
Each day since has brought new government announcements, which in turn have required new decisions. Difficult decisions. About how to safely worship together in the church. Then about whether to worship together in the church. About how to mitigate the impact of lower international tourism on the hotel. Then about whether to close entirely.
Navigating the past ten days has been like walking up and down the scree-covered desert hillsides, desperately searching for stability as the stones shift and slide underfoot. I and every other leader and decision maker I know is wearied by the effort. There have been nights I’ve collapsed into bed, looked at the time and seen it’s only 8.30. I wake still exhausted.
The Scots Hotel is closing today. No one knows for how long. If we hadn’t already taken the decision, it would have been made for us by the government recently shutting down all restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels.
We had hoped to have church today, with services in both Jerusalem and Tiberias lay-led because all the clergy are affected by the quarantines and shutdown of Bethlehem. But the government announced last night that all gatherings of over 10 people were prohibited, so we had to cancel. Time now to make more decisions about future arrangements, not knowing yet what this next week will bring.
Most people do not go into the desert unless they have to, the Godly Play stories tell us. I’m guessing most of us would not choose to be in the midst of this harsh, unfamiliar terrain.
We are all anxious about what the future holds, about our health and the health of loved ones, about our paycheques and bills and those who rely on us to provide for them. These are the same fears which are present every day of our lives, but we find ways of staying busy, ignoring them, compensating for them. In the desert, we are not only faced with our fears, but the effects that our coping mechanisms, and our complicity in systems which are profoundly broken, have had on others.
What we are witnessing are the consequences of giving into the temptations of ego and empire as decisions are based on protecting the reputations and interests of the privileged and powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable. We see clearly the ways our imaginations are held captive by the dual myths of supremacy and scarcity as supermarket aisles are left empty by people panic buying. We look around and see the tarnished image of God in the faces of the children who now have nothing to eat because school was the only place they got a meal.
Through tears of frustration and grief and tiredness and disorientation, I have thought a lot about my claim that there is life to be found in the desert.
The desert is where we know our need of God. This is the one certain thing that has remained in these uncertain days. I have leaned into God like never before. But life in this barren landscape? I wasn’t so sure.
I wasn’t so sure until I started looking more carefully.
I’ve seen people online and in real life contacting those in self-isolation with offers of shopping, errands, or even just a chat. I’ve watched clergy across the faiths checking in with one another, encouraging one another. Countless networks are springing up to ensure elderly people, people with disabilities, and others at higher risk of infection are not being overlooked, that families are fed. I’ve read posts by medical students saying they’re available to provide childcare for hospital staff. I’ve heard people talk about how with meetings cancelled and commutes discouraged, life is slowing down and with kids home from school, new routines are developing and different priorities emerging.
And I realised that for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten regular, healthy meals every day. I’ve exercised every day. I’ve had space every day to breathe deeply and laugh loudly. I’ve had time to read every day, seeking out the voices of women, people of colour, and people of other faiths and perspectives to listen and learn from their prophetic wisdom.
The desert is a dangerous place. And this one is proving no different. People do not go into the desert unless they have to.
But maybe in this desert time, we have the opportunity to relearn what is important. Maybe we will discover that we need one another, that communities of compassion are possible. Maybe we will learn to live again.
Maybe there is life to be found in the desert after all.