I still remember the moment I felt called to ministry here in the land of the Holy One.
It was almost six years ago. I was standing in the middle of an empty playground at a community centre run by the YWCA of Palestine in Jalazone refugee camp in Ramallah. It was raining.
As I gazed up at the heavy grey clouds and down at the rain bouncing off the slide, I knew.
I didn’t hear God speak in a voice.
I felt God move, deep within. Something was quickening in my spirit, a new ministry was waiting to be birthed. And this was the place to which I was to return. I didn’t know how or why or when. But I knew God was calling me.
As the weeks passed, I watched and waited and wondered. My curacy at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh was coming to an end and the post in Tiberias became available. I discerned and prayed and applied and interviewed, and in August 2015 I started my work as Mission Partner. It had been nine months since that first hint that God had something planned. And almost exactly a year to the day that I felt God’s call, I was back on a plane to Israel to begin this ministry in Tiberias.
Little did I know what the next five years would hold. My understanding of the conflict, first seen in black and white, would fade and merge into a complex range of grey, hovering like those heavy clouds that overshadowed Ramallah that day. Stories of past traumas and present hurts have fallen around me like raindrops; opposing narratives, a multitude of truths, and confused identities have poured down, stinging my eyes and soaking my skin. But over time, I have learned to see how this desert land, its ground cracked with violence and oppression, blossoms with the vibrant colours of human resilience, hope and faith.
These five years have held personal challenges and pastoral joys. They have reminded me daily of the cost of ministry but also the rich life it brings. And my time here is now coming to a sudden end as a result of the tragic and devastating death of someone who had become as close to me as breath.
As I write, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God has just passed. I know this is not a day observed widely in the Church of Scotland, but it is nonetheless precious to me as the day I first celebrated the Eucharist as a newly ordained priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. It is a reminder of all the holy yeses uttered by those who are foolish enough to believe in Mary’s song of justice and brave enough to allow God’s wondrous creative imagination of peace to be brought to life within them.
I have asked myself in these last weeks: If I had known then all that lay ahead, would I still have said yes to God on that dull dreich day in Ramallah?
And the answer is yes. Knowing what I know now, knowing how it would end, I would say yes and yes again. A thousand times yes.
Because here I have felt and witnessed and lived the fullness of life-giving, death-defying Love.
This land, which is soaked in millennia of conflict and bloodshed, is also seeped in God’s perfect love for humanity and humanity’s flawed love for God. From the lush forests of the north to the red rock formations of the south are never ending signs of the Creator’s goodness. The steps that Jesus took through communities and across boundaries infuse the stones with grace. The Spirit swoops and dives on the hot summer afternoon wind that stirs the Sea of Galilee.
I have witnessed the human expression of the Divine love in our partners who fundamentally believe that each face they gaze upon bears the likeness of God, and who feed and heal and forgive and liberate in the name of the One who desires a life of flourishing for all people.
And I have lived overwhelmed with daily gratitude for one love in particular that in only a short time taught me what true companionship means and brought me a lifetime of joy.
I did not know it then, but the holy yes I uttered to that holy calling was a yes, like Mary’s, to allow Love to be birthed.
Almost a month ago, the day that Peter was buried, was the feast day of another Mary who lived not far from here, Mary of Magdala, first witness to the resurrection, apostle to the apostles. In the garden where she went expecting to find death, she encountered new life. But when she reached out to touch the Risen Lord, Jesus spoke to her saying, ‘Do not cling to me’.
Love is to be given and received freely, abundantly. But love is not to be grasped. We too often try, but it is as futile as trying to contain the sea or harness the wind.
And so it was with the words do not cling to me whispering in that same deep place where God speaks that I made the decision to resign from this post and leave Israel. I will not pretend it was easy. Some days (hours, minutes) it feels like one more huge loss in a season of losses and the weight of it knocks the breath from me.
I will fly back to the States after Rosh Hashanah, a day which has throughout my time here marked the pain of endings and the hope of new beginnings.
I take this step in courage and hope that Love cannot be contained by time or place, and faith that it cannot be conquered even by death. I trust it to continue its work here in this land of the Holy One, and as I move on to shelter and guide me. I know I will leave upheld by the prayers of many, including yours, dear friends.
So as I prepare to leave, I pray that God may grant us the grace to say yes to holy Love and the strength to not cling to it.