Good intentions pave the way to... somewhere!
I had really good intentions to write a blog during my stay in Israel, I was going to write my thoughts down every night and post them for you so I could enter into a conversation about the experience. Well, as they say, 'how did that work out for you?'
Between spotty wifi, not having put a robust data plan on my cell phone and a program that has kept us to a challenging pace (to say the least), I did not get this done.
So here I am, on my quiet day in Jerusalem contemplating catching up! Not sure how to tackle the task, whether to do it chronologically or thematically, I think I may do a combination of both. So I am going to backdate some blog posts to the days that things happened and see how that works. If it doesn't make sense then I may do something different, but I want to have a go in any case.
I am going to review the notes I made as I went, and for each day write something. It may be based on questions I was asking myself that day, or it may be to do with a feeling, or experience from the day. At the end I will write up where I think I am. Let me know if it works out as a reader.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
When I broke this trip I knew it would mean I was celebrating my 41st Birthday in Israel. My birthday would also fall on Shabbat.
As Christians we have a sense of the Sabbath as a day of rest, but we don't really take it quite as seriously as observant Jews. On Friday night, after the third star could be seen clearly in the night sky, we were treated to a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem. The traditional prayers were prayed, we broke Challah and drank wine together. It was a community evening and the start of the day of rest.
Earlier on, during his lecture on the conflict, Dr Goodman had talked for a moment about the concept of Shabbat. In Exodus we are told that Shabbat is a day of rest, as we imitate the creator. In Deutoronomy a new dimension is added. Shabbat is not just a day of rest, but a day to let go of control.
This idea hit me hard and began to take on a life of its own in my imagination. As we entered into Shabbat I contemplated the fact that I am on Sabbatical myself, sabbatical takes its meaning for the word Sabbath, or Shabbat.
What does this mean? It means that my sabbatical is a time to rest, but also to give up control. Back home other people have taken on responsibilities for the parish, Monica and Noreen working with Fran and Mike to make sure things keep going. I can worry a lot, it is hard to let go for me. It was wonderful to begin the first part of my sabbatical with an extended reflection on what sabbath means.
As we entered more deeply into the sabbath we were taken on an outing, to the desert where we toured Herod's palace at Masada and the Dead Sea. It was a wonderful way to spend a Birthday. We heard about the building of the palace on a mountaintop in the desert, and also how it was used as part of the Jewish resistance to Roman aggression centuries later. Finally I floated on the Dead Sea, a once in a lifetime experience.
My day of rest/birthday was busy, but very enjoyable.
Why this trip?
Going on a religious pilgrimage to Israel was never really a priority for me. I have a vivid imagination and the stories of the bible lift off the page and find form inside my head. So whenever anyone asked if I would go I politely said no or changed the subject. After 18 months of dialogue with christian ministers and jewish rabbis I was offered a chance to go on a trip sponsored by the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) of San Francisco. This would be a trip with civic leaders trying to find out more about the social and political life of modern Israel. I am going to write about that more fully in a later post, but for now I wanted to say that, if I was in doubt about the benefits of saying yes to this trip, the first full day laid them to rest.
Stories that wound and heal
Over 18 months I have been thinking about my christian faith through the lens of discussions with local Rabbis. Our Jewish hosts came with us to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. This was incredibly moving. How do we tell the story of Jesus death? How is it heard by others? What does it sound like to Jewish friends and colleagues when they hear us reading the stories that say they killed Jesus? For me the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is about how we can all fall victim to the temptations of power, and the cross itself provides a critique of power itself. But to Jewish ears it often feels like an accusation, still, after 2000 years. I talked to one of our Jewish leaders, Abby, and to Rabbi Doug on the steps of the church. It was a moment that I will remember for years to come. Precious beliefs for one group can be damaging to others if not understood and contextualized carefully.
Power in Israel
Half way through our tour of the Old City and Christian sites we took a detour to the Shalom Hartman institute for a lecture on the conflict in modern day Israel. Dr Micah Goodman opened by telling us that we didn't have time to be polite, that the conflict was so urgent we had to ask him direct questions. "Don't worry about being rude," he said, "there is no such concept in Israel."
The presentation was from an undeniably Jewish perspective, but it was honest and vulnerable. It raised many questions for me and our speaker was a brave and imaginative thinker and addressed many questions in the course of his talk. It was the best presentation about the conflict I have heard to date.
In essence Dr Goodman talked about power, it's use and abuse. The Jewish people had been powerless for much of their history, this had led them to acquire a deep seated fear of persecution that has often been realized Now they had a degree of power in a nation state, what were they to do with it? How might they balance a need for self-defense with a desire to respect all human life? Dr Goodman told us that the fear is not generated by the violence of Palestinian protest, but amplified by it. As the Israeli people defend themselves the methods they use are humiliating to the Palestinian people. Ancient Egypt was a powerful metaphor in Dr Goodman's talk: how do we leave Egypt (become free from slavery and persecution), without becoming Egypt?
Fear leads to humiliation and humiliation to violence which feeds the fear. This cycle feels impossible to resolve. Dr Goodman hoped that in time the Jewish people might reflect on what it means to move from powerlessness to authority whilst fully recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He hoped that successive generations may find new ways to conceptualize a peace that can move beyond the cycle of violence.
So in my busy day of prayer, discussion and personal reflection I encountered two narratives in which precious truths for one group could become oppressive to another.
The cross of Christ is a symbol of sacrifice and powerlessness that has been used as a weapon to abuse the Jewish people in the darkest moments of our history. That being said, I love it: it shapes my faith, and it helps me to analyze and understand the use and abuse of power, but we must be careful with it. Applied carelessly the lessons of the cross can create more pain, not healing.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict starts with a desire for safety, and becomes a cycle of retribution. The desire for safety is understandable, but the cycle perpetuates is destructive to all involved. I wish I had more wisdom than I do to offer about the experiences of my day. The only thing I have to offer is gratitude that the juxtaposition of these experiences created space for new insights.
As the day ended I was also reminded of our episcopal approach to irreconcilable differences. When things look impossible to solve, when we have a situation in which one person has to lose for another to win, our episcopal faith invites us to try and look for a third way forward. I hope we can find it.
The Last Stop of the Day.
At the very end of the day, suffering from the spiritual indigestion I mentioned above, we made one final stop at the Western Wall. I wrote my prayers down on a piece of paper and folded it up, posting the paper into a crack in the wall, I prayed.
It was remarkable, I felt unselfconscious, not even noticing one of our hosts taking a photo. The wall, it's great age, and the thoughts of my day made a heady combination. putting my hand and forehead on the wall my prayers flowed free and sweet, I felt at peace.
"Today we visit the place of Christ's death, burial, resurrection and then later the Garden of Gethsemane." Yishai, our tour guide made my heart sink. I would encounter these holy sites for the first time in 'tour mode' spending fragmented periods at each. I wanted each to be special and meet my expectations, not a 15 minute hop off and on the bus again. But perhaps this was gift I told myself. Left to my own planning I would be wracked with indecision about where to go, when and for how long. At least someone else was making those choices.
So we jumped in, the first stop of the day was a vantage point from which you could see the whole city, I rather self consciously said some prayers. I wanted to pray at each site, and yet I didn't know the other tour participants well, so the prospect of spending a day moving through sacred spaces exploring my faith alongside strangers was daunting. I think I withdrew inside myself in order to make the day work. My prayer was halting, but it happened, I used some of the Psalms of Ascent as a framework, they helped.
We moved quickly through the sites, and as we did I realized that I was more familiar with the movement than I thought. It was like the stations of the cross that I have known and loved for years. I was visiting these places for the first time, but I had been here before, in my imagination, and I had already spent plenty of time at each.
Did it really happen here?
There is some debate about the death and resurrection of Jesus took place. We were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for 6 streams of Christianity. It is not certain that this is the site. Our guide invited us to suspend the need for a precise explanation and instead ask what these sites means to the millions of pilgrims that have visited here.
Walking down the stone streets of Jerusalem on the way to the church Yishai asked if I was Roman Catholic. We talked about my faith journey for a bit. We were about to arrive at the church of the Holy Sepulcher, he suggested that I take time to go to the Garden Tomb if I could. He seemed to read my reticence and recognized that I was looking for some silence and solitude. We would have no time to visit this alternate site on our tour, but I had booked to be in Jerusalem for 5 days after the official tour finished. More on the reasons for that in another blog entry, but for now, I realized that I would have time to revisit these sites later, and to visit other sites, such as the Garden Tomb. Remembering this helped me see my first day as an 'orientation' rather than a pilgrimage in itself.
By the end of they day I would tell some of the other group participants that I was experiencing spiritual indigestion from having seen so many holy places in such a short time. There was no time to process what I was experiencing at each one. I was to discover that this would be a theme for the whole trip.
Well I am tired. It is 11:58pm in Jerusalem, 1:58pm in the Bay Area, and we have been on a 14 hour direct flight. In case you were wondering what a 14 hour flight feels like: It feels like sitting in a seat that is slightly too small and pretending to sleep, for 14 hours. Also there were lots of families on our flight and very engaged Israeli dads juggling what seemed like unfeasible numbers of children. To their credit the children seemed to get that crying was ok for hours 1 and 2 and then again 13 and 14, but that it would be less tolerated in the middle!
When we got here our perennially cheerful tour leader Abby Porth, of whom I am sure I will write more later, corralled us on to a bus. I wondered if this was going to be tough with a range of self starter civic leaders all ready to head out in their own directions. Then I realized, we had all led things like this before and knew how tough it could be. No one caused Abby any trouble at all.
On the bus, our Israeli tour guide Jesse, pronounced Issay, produced an instant sense of wellbeing in my tired self. It felt like we were going to be looked after by someone who understood his role and would carry it out with charm and humor.
On the 45 minute drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Jesse popped up from time to time to give us bits and bobs of information. They were scrambling to make up time as our flight had been 45 minutes delayed, but you would barely have noticed. One of his monologues included a reflection on "Earthliness vs Heavenliness". 'Earthliness' included the following: this drive is 45 minutes long, drink plenty of water, when we get to the hotel there is check in followed by a snack, breakfast is at 7:30am. 'Heavenliness' reminded us that: people come to this city because of dreams, they come here and are full of emotion and passion, Jerusalem is like many other places, and unlike any other place.
His talk reminded me of the many pilgrims who had made there way here over the millennia. I was different and similar. Different as I was on an air conditioned coach driving rough the night to the holy city, not walking with a band of pilgrims up a hill. Similar because I am searching for something, and hoping that this group of civic leaders will form a community over the next 10 days and this civic tour will become sacred in its own way.
I decided to read the first three psalms of ascent: Psalm 120, 121 and 122. I love these psalms and my vivid imagination can take me back to the time when the tribes would gather in the foothills around Jerusalem before a holy day and ascend the mountain together singing these songs.
The first is a reminder to call for peace, even when everyone else is calling for war. The second asks us to look for our help in these hills, where we will also find the presence of God. The third says it is good that we should go to the house of the Lord and reminds us to pray for Jerusalem as we cross its border. Even in the coach, at night, it felt right to contemplate those thoughts.
So I am here. I wonder what this trip will bring. Tomorrow will come soon enough. Bed time now.
A guest blog entry written for the Society of Laprascopic Surgeons.
A strong, healthy looking young man walked into the ER complaining of a bad asthma attack. A friend of mine, Peter, who had recently qualified as a nurse was part of the team that cared for him. They did everything they could, but his asthma attack had progressed too far and fast and he had waited too long to seek help. Despite valiant efforts by the team he died. Peter felt like he had hit a wall of grief and guilt. It was a stark moment for him. That night he went home and sank into a warm bath, crying about what he had witnessed.
Just a young priest at the time I did not know what to say to Peter when he told me the story. I sat with him quietly as he talked about his experience and how it had made him feel. He wondered whether he could have done more. He felt guilty. He remembered the patient being about his own age, and looking strong when he walked in to the ER. He could not believe the fact that a few hours later he was dead.
I didn’t know what to say at the time so I just listened. Looking back, I hope Peter knew the following as he reflected on this young mans death. I offer these reflections to you also.
Do Your Best
You have been given skills and training that make you the practitioner you are, do your best with those gifts. That is all that can be asked of you. Your skill as a healer is what your patient needs, so apply it with all of your energy. On occasion it is not going to be enough, but do all you can.
Remember Your Team
You are part of a team and your whole team works together to heal patients. In Peter’s case, no one person was responsible for the loss, and no one could have stopped it.
If we take personal responsibility for saving every life we encounter it will create an impossible burden for us to bear. Share the load of work with your team and share the load of emption when a patient dies with someone who will listen carefully, a priest, pastor, therapist or rabbi.
Remember you are part of a team that extends beyond the walls of the OR. There are chaplains and social workers, family and friends who all contribute to the healing of patients. Learn to recognize the gifts of each and see yourself as a part of a whole. It is in community that we care for the sick. It is also in community that we can receive healing ourselves when we encounter loss.
Let Your Role Carry Some of the ‘Weight’
You are a surgeon, so become fluent in understanding your ‘role’. Be aware of the capacity and limitations of your role and let your role carry some of the weight of the difficult choices you must face.
The role you occupy has a standard of practice associated with it; you had to train to enter into it, and you know what you are meant to do when you occupy it.
When I walk into a traumatic pastoral situation I always remember that I am walking in as a priest. I am not just Matthew Woodward, a friendly, slightly dippy guy who wants people to feel good. I may have to hear things that are hard to hear, or say things that are difficult to say, so I need to remember my role and listen and speak as a priest.
You may think I am detaching somewhat and hiding behind my role, but it is not insensitive or dismissive to say that I am being a priest when a priest is what is needed. A surgeon is what is needed in the OR. If I didn’t acknowledge my role and let it carry some of the weight I would be crushed by the responsibility. So, I contemplate what it means to be in my role every day when I put on my clerical collar.
Take a moment to do that; contemplate what it means to be a surgeon every time you start a shift, when you put on your scrubs, or when you step into the OR. Be mindful of it and let your role carry some of the weight of what it is you have to do.
What is the alternative to these three suggestions? Well, you might think that you are personally responsible for every life you encounter, you may imagine that you are solely responsible for every healthcare choice that someone else makes, and you could imagine you have the capacity to bend the laws of nature and make impossible outcomes occur. But none of that is real…
In order to avoid crashing into a wall of grief and guilt I recommend you get to know who you are and embrace your limitations; know what your role is; know who your team are; and, always do best with your skill and training.
Having said all of this, difficult moments will still take place: not every patient survives. The most important thing I can recommend when that happens? Be gentle with yourself and try to find someone at the end of the day that will listen to you as you tell him or her how you feel.
The Rev. Matthew Woodward leads Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo, California. He is originally from the UK and over the years has tried to learn to listen more than speak when people are telling him how they feel. http://www.transfig-sm.org
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.