Friday, 13 November 2009

Incense, icons and co-operation

The Sunday service in Tiberias is an evening one, so it allows me the opportunity to worship in other churches in the morning. Last week I went along with a friend, Margaret, to her Greek Orthodox church of St George in Sakhnin, a large Arab town, 45 minutes drive from Tiberias. Sakhnin is famous in Israel for its football team, who are the only Arab team in the Israeli premier league (There is a massive stadium, built with money from Qatar rather than Israeli government cash).

The orthodox service is very different from your run-of-the-mill Scottish service. Like in many churches I was used to in Africa, the women sat in a different part of the church from the men. Every space on the walls was covered with icons, and there was wonderful chanting throughout. To me, there was a real sense of the presence of God. The wonderful thing was that all generations were present at worship, with the young especially participating in the processions, etc. A strong sense of identity, I imagine.

After the service was over, the priest, Abuna Saleh Khouri, invited us to his home for lunch (the man sitting next to me had also invited me – people are very hospitable). The priesthood of the Orthodox church in Sakhnin is a family affair, with Abuna Saleh the 6th generation of his family to be priest there. He had been a teacher before his father retired. Interestingly, Abuna Saleh’s son, Fadi, was there, leading the choir, and I wondered if he would also one day be the priest? He has just returned from a 3 year course in Pennsylvania and is an optometrist in Tiberias, travelling from Sakhnin each day.

Sakhnin is a predominately Moslem town, with less than 2000 Christians (Orthodox and Catholic) out of a population of 27,000. However, there seems to be a sense of togetherness, which isn’t always the case in the villages of Galilee, with Moslems contributing towards the massive new church the Orthodox are building, while the Christians bought flowers and organised a feast for those coming out of the mosque at the end of Ramadan. They seem to take a pride in working together, and the priest is shown the same respect as the imam from the mosque.

After lunch, we went back into the church, where the Sunday School was on – not so many children, as families are still involved in the olive harvest, but maybe about 20.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Encounters with some saints

Almost a month has now passed since I arrived in Tiberias, though in many ways it seems far, far longer. A good sign, as I feel very much settled here. What’s more the unbearably hot weather which has been characteristic of my stay here so far has ended, and the heavens have opened with rain. Not just that, but the wind has been strong, rattling the windows and banging doors all night! The last few years has seen the level of the Sea of Galilee fall drastically, as there has not been much rain, so people are really excited, as a several inches have been added on over the weekend. Maron the reservation manager at the hotel, has linked the weather to my coming, but I think he is just being kind.

I am gradually getting into a routine, with my Ulpan lessons a priority – Ulpan is my Hebrew class, and it is going really well, though with just too much homework. I do try to practise, but inevitably people answer back in English! I always try to be at the hotel, chatting to guests and staff. At the moment I find that I need the staff more than they need me, just to help me feel more rooted here, but saying that, I like the staff immensely and find them incredibly welcoming.

I also spend some time at the office down at the church, which is situated on the road down to the waterfront. I like to keep the church door open, and it is amazing how many people look in. Some are locals who are just curious, but many come in specifically because it is a church. One was a young woman, fashionably dressed, who entered the church and fell prostrate in front of the cross, and stayed in this position for several minutes. Later she told me that she was Russian living in Tel Aviv (one million Russians have emigrated to Israel in recent years: many are Jewish, but some are Christian with a Jewish connection in the family). She was married with a baby, and she said she missed church so much!

Last Sunday, immediately after the service, a young Palestinian couple walked in and sat in a pew. They had been living in Chicago for the last few years, but have now decided to move back to Israel. She was obviously pregnant, and they asked for prayers. Again, a couple of days ago, it was a Japanese girl, working on a kibbutz, who came in. Her boyfriend is Jewish (and from a very religious family) and she needed to talk to him about her faith, because she is a Christian. She was delighted to find a church. Just a few examples, but in these and many other cases, they seemed ‘holy moments’, somehow charged with God’s presence.

It is a different kind of ministry here, in that I talk with so many people, whom I will never see again. Yet to me, there have been many memorable encounters, and I pray that I will somehow be used!

Happily I had my largest congregation to date yesterday (1st Nov), with 40 there. Again, because I left the church door open on the Sunday afternoon, and a few Dutch people came in, found out that there would be a service, so phoned their friends to come (which accounted for just over half the number). It did through me into a panic, as I had to rush to get more bread for communion (it was a bit like Loaves and Fishes, especially with the wine) and print more orders of service. We also need to invest in more hymnbooks! Still, a nice position to be in.