Reblog: God Is Interesting: A Mild Manifesto for Mission

Lots to like here from one of my favourite writers.

“I don’t think that finding God interesting is intellectual snobbery.  I certainly hope not.  It’s not a matter of needing to know that God is suitable for people with degrees, or of wanting to use God as a topic for cleverness.  Rather, it’s being drawn into thinking and talking about God – along with the Bible, church history, philosophical theology, etc – as an activity which can change you.  Just as prayer is a way of contemplating God, and of being drawn into a relationship with the divine, and so is singing hymns or worship songs, so is learning and thinking.

I know at least two people for whom those activities – learning and thinking – seem to be a major part of their spiritual life.  They follow them as other people might practice meditation or attend a worship session.  They don’t seem to study and discuss these things in order to find the right answer, or to extract ideas that they can “apply” elsewhere, but they do so in order to be present to God, and to be fully present to other people, as their truest selves.”


“God is interesting.”  It sounds like the most tepid theological declaration ever.  A creed for hesitant Anglicans, perhaps; “We believe in one God, who’s rather interesting really, when you come to think of it…”  Hardly very inspiring, and a bit lacking in theological rigour.  (I certainly don’t let my students get away with the word “interesting” in essays…)

But I was recently asked to explain what specific thing about God people needed to know, and I chose the fact that God is interesting.  Having started out mild, I hedged further: this isn’t the most important thing we could ever say about God, or the most urgent aspect of God for the world.  God is love, God is truth, God is beauty – all these have a far more central part in our understanding of God, and in our grasp of what the world (and our lives in it) might look…

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Photos from Palestine and Israel

Just a quick note to say I’ve been uploading images in the galleries here (see menu above) but also on my Flickr site. Please do have a look.

Capacity building

mum smilingI spoke to my husband on the phone last night and we talked about what we’re going to do when I get back. I said I want to go and see my Mum on Sunday. He’s a wise soul my hubby and said: Well, let’s see shall we? I’m expecting you to have a bit of a boo and fall apart a bit on Sunday.

He’s probably not wrong. It does feel like I’m keep a lot at bay at the moment, inevitably when you’ve seen and heard things and been to places that are so desperate and upsetting. Things that make you so angry you want to tear your own hair out.

But my colleague Neil and I were discussing how we both feel like the ping ponging around the region, moving from the West Bank and Jerusalem, to Galilee to Gaza then back to Jerusalem has been hard going but the contrasts have helped us not become too overwhelmed in one place. Before we know it we’re in another area so different it makes it feel like the previous location was another world. It all adds to my sense of dislocation and distance from the time and place. I was in Gaza the day before yesterday but it seems like weeks ago.

But sadly they’re not another world.  I’ve been in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank and I’ve been in plush restaurants and shopping precincts in Israel. I’ve seen fear and trepidation on a young IDF soldier’s face. I’ve been taken to a rather nice fish restaurant in Gaza. It’s a mass of contradiction. It’s a mess of corruption and occupation.

But nothing is simple. My reaction to it isn’t simple.

let all you doI spent yesterday meeting people at two different projects Embrace funds. The first is the Princess Basma Rehabilitation Centre in East Jerusalem, a highly esteemed facility for Palestinians, specifically disabled children and their families. Disabilities exist in high numbers in the region for many reasons including lack of education about inter-marriage. Small farming communities still promote the marriage of close cousins to ensure land stays in the family. Stigma is also still there – the disabled aren’t disabled but lazy, the parents are the cause of the disability. But the Centre is doing amazing work to help those with disabilities, their families and is equipping parents, especially mums to go back to their communities and change the way people see their children. They’re hoping to extend their capacity by building relationships with community based organisations who can deliver similar programmes in their own areas – which would be extremely helpful given the restrictions on movement for many Palestinians. There’s also a school and a vocational training facility – a sheltered workshop where the participants make the most beautiful furniture I have ever seen.

Then, I met an 11 year old girl who is supported to attend a school in the Old City through the Embrace education fund. We spent time with her at school, met her little sister in the kindergarten then went back to her home to meet her Dad, brother and see how and where they live. The young girl is shy, until we ask her what she would like to do in her future: “I want to be an actor” she says, throwing her hands in the air. Where would you live if you could live anywherewall? “America” she says again! I ask her to show me how she spends her free time – a concept she doesn’t really understand. She goes to school, she does her homework, and she works in the house then goes to bed. But she does show me how she likes to watch videos on her dad’s ancient computer so she can learn how to act.

The family told us long stories of how the conflict impacts their lives. We talked about their hope for the future and once again I was sad, but not in the least surprised to hear that the hope they have is in being able to leave the region at some point.

Seeing these things and meeting people, hearing their stories is so important. I feel I will be a better communications officer now I have visited and can even more honestly talk about the things I need to communicate. We talk a lot at work about working with our partners to increase their capacity to serve the people here. This has been capacity building for me.

Life in unspeakably hard here for so many. Many people on all sides of this conflict live in fear, not that I feel comfortable calling them sides, so complex and varied are the positions and feelings I have heard expressed.

I am also very aware this is my first time here and I am bound to have a visceral reaction. I’m not a glass half empty person but I have found myself feeling the despair more than the hope. Because there is hope here, in places. The priest who sat and cried with us also smiled and laughed and cared very, very deeply about his people. “In Jesus Christ we have hope.” I’m left dazed.

I asked Neil, who lived in East Jerusalem for 3 and a half years, if it is just because we’re here for the first time and asking them questions that all people want to talk to us about is the conflict. He says no, it is always in conversation because it is always in their lives. For the Palestinians especially whose freedom of movement, access to education, healthcare, family is limited, of course it is always there. I think back to the young woman I met in Gaza who I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “You might be alive, but you’re never safe.”

view east to wallI sit here typing away and I desperately want to finish with some happy memories. We fly home tomorrow and the day is mostly traveling and most likely having a long chat with the border guards at Ben Gurion so this will probably be my last blog from the region. Until next time. But I am very ready to go home – as I give this blog one last read over before posting, I’m already having a bit of a boo.

  • The one thing you don’t have to press people to talk about is their kids. They ask me and Neil if either of us have children. When Neil tells of his nearly 4 and nearly 2 year old the immediate reactions is “God bless them” and he replies “and yours.” I have never heard anyone ask about another person’s children without them asking God to bless them.
  • The smiles of mothers when asked if I could photograph their babies at the Well Baby Clinic in Gaza. They are incredibly proud of their children.
  • Every child wants their photo taken. The kids in Jabalia Camp in Gaza loved looking at their images on the view screen more than most.
  • Being high-5’d by a toddler in Jabalia.
  • Bethlehem – how very glad people were that we were staying there and for 6 nights.
  • “Hello, welcome!”
  • The warmth of the limestone that so many houses here are built from, glowing in the setting sun. It reminds me of the city of Bath and how we build our houses on and of the same stuff.
  • How much women are valued by so many of our partners. I think every single partner talked about empowering women, equipping them, loving them. The one time I have allowed myself to cry these past two weeks was hearing about a women’s education group in a West Bank refugee camp.
  • Our Encounter tour – a fantastic group of people. Betty’s laugh which meant you knew where she was at all times, and the yell of “cows!” every time we spotted one out of the coach window.
  • The call to prayer echoing across whatever place I’ve been in. It still sounds exotic to my ears so I know I need to spend more time here. I want to be familiar, not a visitor.
  • Felafel!
  • Makloubeh!
  • Arabic coffee!
  • All the people I have met, every single one has taught me something and I am grateful and humbled. I come away from this experience, one I never imagined I’d have, knowing that I know next to nothing and never will know enough, feeling my privilege heavy on my shoulders.
  • The peace and beauty of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – I was all churched out but it was beautiful. So lovely I forgot to take lots of photos which says something.
  • Being able to put locations and distances on places I have read about my whole life has been very special. I have walked from the Mount of Olives via the Garden of Gethsemane into Jerusalem and along the Via Dolorosa. I have traveled through the Judean Hills. I have seen the pass from Nazareth to Galilee and seen places Jesus very probably walked and lived. Whether you believe in His divinity or not, Jesus was an incredibly influential historical figure and being here has turned what can often be words on a page into a 3D world. For that alone I’d recommend a trip!
  • “Yalla, yalla!” (Hurry up!)
  • One of those ‘coincidences’ when on our last day in Galilee we were meant to have a communion service at Magdala but because of the gender of our leader, we weren’t allowed. Another British female church leader had passed through earlier in the day and had left her card, which we were duly given and we ended up celebrating in her church in Tiberias.
  • Spring has sprung while I’ve been here. The odd bit of oil seed rape was out two weeks ago, now there are pink and red and purple and yellow wild flowers everywhere.
  • The view of the Jordan Valley from Jerusalem. Not one of my photos does it justice, I’m not sure it is one of those views that can ever be represented through a camera lens, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it.

Gaza: Contrast

passportI’m sat in the shade of an olive tree in the café gardens at the Lutheran World Federation guesthouse that is my home for the last three nights of my stay. I have some cheesecake and a glass of apple juice cold from the fridge. There are children playing in the garden, chasing the multitude of cats. I can hear Arabic, German and English speakers, the last in a variety of accents including Canadian. I can hear the drums of Ultravox’s Vienna coming from a window in the compound.

Clearly it is a stark contrast from this morning.

I woke early this morning and could hear the cleaners out in the hall. I thought one of them kicked the door but the windows rattled too. I figured if it was anything untoward the host or Neil would come banging on the door. No one did. I checked Twitter and found reports of a Hamas rocket test in west Gaza City, which is where we are staying.

Ten minutes later the reports on Twitter changed and said it wasn’t an explosion but a sonic boom caused by Israeli fighters buzzing the coast. It seems they’ve been doing it the rest of the day.

I wasn’t frightened because I thought the noise and vibrations were a wayward cleaner. Even knowing where I am, having an app that alerts us to any incident across the region, having had lots of training, it just didn’t occur to me to think that what I heard and felt was anything to worry about.

But I thought of the people who have talked of the terror they experienced during the wars and how these things must be terrifying in their own right but the memories they must bring back.

I thought of a girl I spoke to who said “we’re alive, but we’re never safe.”

I thought of the high percentage of people, of all ages, who have PTSD, anxiety and depression and what their days must be like when they were woken by an explosion.

Life goes on but this constant pressure is tangible. It is very, very real.

We talked with a Palestinian Christian this morning. He is married with three children under seven. He spoke about the occupation, the unemployment, the infighting, the low wages and high food prices, the lack of homes. He said “Gaza will soon explode.”

We asked him if he could leave, would he? “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation. “I would stay, but I must leave for my children. For their future, always, I think about their future. But I can’t leave.”

He has family all over the world, in Germany, Canada, Finland. But he has a Gaza ID card and is around 30 so will not be going anywhere.


The wall separating Gaza and Israel at the Erez crossing from the Israeli side.

The wall separating Gaza and Israel at the Erez crossing from the Israeli side.

We walk through the kilometre long cage-tunnel towards Israel. There are sheep accompanying us on the walk, albeit on the outside of the cage.

There are a couple of groups of young men with wheelbarrows and handcarts scavenging in what is essentially no man’s land up to the wall. They’re picking up bricks and pieces of metal. I fear for them as I’ve heard so many reports of people being killed when venturing too near the wall.

The crossing out of Gaza was as smooth as we could have hoped. There are a series of checks, our luggage is well rummaged and x-rayed. Our bodies are scanned. We are herded through a series of scanners and pens; you must wait for the light to go green before proceeding.

A row IDF personnel peer out of windows high above the processing area, watching us. Neil is asked questions ahead of me by a border control guard: Who are we, who do we work for, what were we doing, who did we visit, when did we enter, where are we going next, when do we leave the country?

I’m asked for my father’s first name. My face is scrutinised; I let my hair down before I entered the booth because I might look more like my passport photo. I know this sounds silly but I don’t think I look like my photo, especially today as I have a rotten cold and my sinuses are swollen, changing the shape of my face. She looks at me for a long time, then stamps my passport.

We pop into West Jerusalem to a café just outside Jaffa Gate for some lunch. It’s a whole grain sandwich with falafel, pickles, harissa, boiled egg and is possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

We have a couple of hours to spare and thought about walking in to the Old City but there have been some more incidents, this time at Herod’s Gate where were just last week. Instead we head to the guesthouse after eating lunch. On the way I nip into a pharmacy to grab some lozenges for my throat.

It’s all so easy.

augusta victoria

Augusta Victoria hospital

We arrived in Jerusalem and drove onto the Lutheran World Federation compound and past the entrance of the gates of the Augusta Victoria Hospital. This is the facility we heard about yesterday in Gaza at Al Alhi hospital. We were told that this is where Palestinians from Gaza would come for cancer treatment, if they were able. A handful of permits to travel are given to those needing treatment, but more often than not they aren’t issued at all. Or they aren’t issued until it is too late. I heard about a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy but couldn’t access chemo or radiotherapy and waited a year for a permit. She died while she was still waiting.

It took me less than 3 hours to exit Gaza and drive to the front door of the hospital.

I don’t have cancer. I do have a British passport and a job with an NGO.

We’re in the kitchen of the guest house now as the sun has gone down and it is cold. I’m chatting to Neil and he said it feels like we should be in a different time zone. Leaving Gaza and being back in Jerusalem feels like we have taken a long flight to a far off land rather than driven an hour up to the mountains from the coast.

I wanted to come out of Gaza focusing on the little bits of hope I found there, the inspiration from the young people I met, Father Mario. Buoyed by the dedication of the staff at NECC, Al Ahli and the YMCA. And I am, when I focus on them and think of their stories, I have hope.

But it is hard to keep focussed on that. It feels like that little bit of hope could be so easily extinguished. Can they take another war? Aren’t they always at war? Maybe if I get to return and meet some of the people I’ve met again. The conversation may not be about the war and occupation and the impact on their lives and families. Maybe it won’t – it invades everything from what I can see.

I find myself comparing the situation of the people I met in the West Bank to those in Gaza. Their struggles are different and the same and different and the same….but will the West Bank end up like Gaza when the wall is complete. God, I hope not, please.

Because my overriding feeling is that while right now the West Bank is still waiting for a solution, Gaza is waiting for the end.

I know this is a tidal wave of emotion after my first visit to this region, let alone the West Bank and Gaza. Talk about in at the deep end. On a training course before I left the UK I was told it would be like this and I should arrange to speak to someone, a counsellor maybe to help me process what I feel. I will. But I feel bad about using the word ‘I’ so much. I can’t wait to start telling the stories of the people we met.