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We must've learned something

We've survived until NOW! A year in Jerusalem, toiling at the bottom end of the social spectrum (that's 'lower working class' for all you classless Kiwis out there) has been an education in itself. So what have we learned?

Teaching old dogs new tricks - the old dogs being we two geriatric Andersons - requires something akin to a surgical operation. Israel is purpose-built for such a procedure.

The life-and-death, wow-it-happened-here, in-your-face lump of Middle East territory that is the Promised Land (promised by God Himself to the Jews, please note) has the gloriously unsubtle way of ripping into your prejudices and yelling that there might just be another viewpoint, mate.

So what have we learned?

To hop on and off buses, gaily (we like that word and want to repatriate it) pushing aside other pensioners, soldiers, teenagers with all the chutzpah the locals used on us a year ago. To confront a taxi driver with 'I know your meter doesn't work; it never did; ten shekels to the Jaffa Gate, b'seder?' To haggle deep in the gloom of the Moslem Quarter with a ferocious Arab merchant whose cuzzybros crowd the shop doorway, get him in fits of laughter as we plead ten starving childen at home, and buy nice (like really nice) shoes for a fraction of their NZ value.

In a word: we've learned survival.

Speaking of survival - we've learned about terrorism. It's there; it's real. But the media are professional manipulators. (Why, we wonder, does the BBC call the IRA 'terrorists', but call the PLO 'militants'?) Trouble is localised. Nobody wants to upset tourists or volunteers. And think for a moment of all the places in New Zealand you don't visit. When did your kids last play in a park, after dark, unsupervised - like they do here, six floors down below our window.

We've learned out-of-the-way places.

How do ultra-Orthodox get through the Arab shuk when there's an Islamic 'Day of Rage'? Answer: up an iron stairway near the Maronite convent and onto a romantic rooftop maze - like something out of an action movie - where we peer down through gratings into the spice-scented murk of the bazaar below, then stride across the housetops in full glare of the sun with domes and minarets at eye-level, close enough to touch.

There are the 'alternative' holy sites that have been overlooked by the regular tourist trail, but which make strong claims for validity. If the location of the Upper Room (above the so-called David's Tomb and below a mosque) seems unconvincing, how about an Upper Room that's in fact underground? (Reason: street levels have drastically and obviously changed over the past twenty centuries.) Find the Syrian Convent of St. Mark, listen carefully to the guide, then judge for yourself.

We've learned to expect important, life-changing questions to be thrown at us. Any place, any time. We can't betray confidences regarding staff and residents here, but outside these four walls...

...we were being trotted under armed police guard from the Western Wall tunnel exit down the Via Dolorosa last week when an Orthodox Jew walking with us asked: 'The Church of the Holy Sepulchre - is that where Jesus is buried?' He really wanted to know, and wanted all the background details. Ponder your own reply sometime.

It's like that in Israel. Strangers strike up conversations anywhere. They can be quite inquisitive. 'What did you pay for that shirt?' Equally, they aren't abashed to talk about God. Or Jesus. And they're finding Christians are pretty familiar with the Old Testament.

We've learned what cheery, devoted, even-tempered Christians we are - not!

There's a reason for that. Much of this life is spent dodging from one situation to another. Any episode in the long-running soap opera we call our Christian pilgrimage is short enough to keep our brightly spiritual image untarnished. However...

...a year here, living and working in the same building with 140 old folk and some 40-odd (odd!) far-from-placid staff has meant there's been no escape.

We've found that Israelis are under enormous stress, surrounded by millions of Arabs whose stated aim is to kill every last Jew in the land. That makes for a siege mentality, an addiction to adrenaline, an inability to relax, a psyche that needs emergencies in order to function efficiently. Which, in turn, makes God's special people awfully hard to be close to on a long-term basis.

So, what has that taught us?

To trust God.

Let's explain. We've known and loved the Lord for well over thirty years. Before that we had a solid Bible-based church and family background. So we're in the running for the label of 'mature Christians'. (Okay, 'mature and humble Christians' if you prefer.) So how come we didn't trust God before?

Answer: we did. Just that, this past year, it was different. On a scale of one to ten, this was lots.

God gave us a time-frame: one year in Jerusalem with no remission for good conduct. He removed us from the cosy environment we know and appreciate, family and friends, animals and land, home comforts, tools and books, quietness. And inserted us, inescapably, into a foreign (in every sense of the word) situation that we would never have chosen in a million years.

So we had to trust Him. Trust that when things - rather, people - got too much, He'd get us through.

Things - people - got too much. Often.

God got us through. Like, every time.

We've been in the Israel that tourists don't see. The 'me first' work attitudes. Ongoing psychological problems because of loved ones killed or maimed by sniper fire from a nearby village. Long-term anger and resentment at needless casualties and deaths (remember the banquet hall collapse?) caused by incompetence, greed and bureaucratic bribery. The stress, noise-levels, guilt trips of multi-ethnic Middle East society. The religious tensions as Orthodox and secular Jews pressure each other to change, and both try to come to terms with Christians who historically have murdered them and currently claim to love them.

Perhaps you may live in a hectic, full-on, high-volume society. Normally we don't. We've had to discover that God would be here, enabling us to survive.

Sure, we knew all the right scriptures. And the right hymns. They're useful. But what we needed was a combination of strength and sanity when the behaviour and emotions of those around us - time and time again - became intolerable. When quitting wasn't an option.

One little incident half-way through our stay here will help to describe God's involvement in this saga.

We'd been called from painting corridors, told to clean ourselves up, then to go round thirty apartments, take down all the full-length curtains (no easy feat, balancing on chairs and tables in the tropical heat, trying not to break pictures and ornaments) for the laundry gentleman to wash.

With the worried comments of the residents still ringing in our ears, we sorted the curtains, numbered them, borrowed a trolley and took them through the courtyard leading to the underground hell-hole the Home laughingly calls the laundry... be greeted by the steam-wreathed human dynamo who runs that department. He said (or rather, screamed and shouted) to take the curtains all back and only bring them down at a future, unspecified date that he, and he alone, would choose.

(His speech loses something in the translation from vivid Hebrew, but you get the drift. We got the drift.)

We were tired, hot, and fed up to the back teeth. And began pushing the rattling, laden, cumbersome trolley up the long ramp into the blinding sunshine outside. Muttering rebellious mutters.

And down flew a snow-white dove to land on the path beside us. It settled its wings the way birds do, cocked its head to one side, and gave us that sort of look that had the makings of a wink or a grin. Totally unafraid.

(There aren't any white doves around here. We feed half-a-dozen grey-blue ones and a scattering of sparrows. That's all.)

Just God's special, symbolic way of saying He's aware of the situation and He's around. And we stopped grumbling and carried on.

This gave us a deeper glimpse of the love of God. Human love - even the much-vaunted love of a mother for her children - has its limits. We were working in Israel out of a genuine burning love for the people and the land. And for a whole heap of reasons, we'd found our limits. But, hey! God doesn't have those limits when He's involved with us. Sure, He'll rough us up every now and then - but the intense, unconditional, extravagant love doesn't stop. Or go sour. Or hang guilt trips on us.

(Sorry, that was a digression. But it's something else we've been learning.)

But now almost all the year is behind us. Now we have to get ready for - God willing - the trek back to Kiwiland. A year in one room means we've accumulated all kinds of goodies. Common or garden junk - bits of string and cardboard - often essential in a strange place. Books by the armful; they weigh a ton, so we'll make parcels and post them home. Clothes? Many of those we brought have been thoroughly thrashed; we'll put those out for the late-night collectors to sort through.

Which just about wraps up the most satisfying, challenging, tiring, hilarious, sobering year of our lives. There's only the heartbreaking goodbye to say to residents and staff who have been constant companions, friends, enemies and teachers over twelve long months. We'll be glad to return to the isolation of our little lump of Northland - and we'll miss every one of the Jews and Arabs who have lived and worked with us in Jerusalem.

No - there's one thing we've forgotten.

You go and stay somewhere, it's only polite to write a thank you letter.

But that'll have to wait for the next next chapter.

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