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The Coronavirus Diaries: Being Rather Than Doing

The Coronavirus Diaries: Being Rather Than Doing

Wednesday June 17 2020

The Rev John McCulloch is a Mission Partner of the Church of Scotland and minister at Jerusalem: St Andrew’s and Tiberias. He writes about his experience of furlough and a desire to return to his home and views of the Jordan hills. 

From our home you can see the Jordan hills rising in the distance over the saffron coloured earth.

I would often sit on the ancient stone terrace outside our kitchen in the early hours of morning, as the sun rose over the horizon, watching expectantly as the rooftops were bathed in the pale incarnadine light of dawn. It is a view that I have come to appreciate even more since lockdown, as the skies have been silent, and the hustle and bustle of early morning traffic and commerce have disappeared from the nearby streets.

We have been in lockdown since early March, and after a month of not being able to get out because of curfews, closed checkpoints and strict lockdown rules (and therefore unable to fulfil my role), I was furloughed and returned to Scotland. My wife Annette, who is a medical doctor, was asked to come back and assist with the Covid response here in the UK.

Lockdown at first provided a welcome break. The final weeks of Lent and the lead up to Holy Week are some of the busiest in the calendar year in the Holy Land, with numerous church services, Good Friday processions on the Via Dolorosa, visiting pilgrim groups, baptisms in the Jordan, seminars and Seder meals, and much more. We were also about to start communion services at The Olive Grove Chapel at the Tent of Nations, on land that will be threatened by the proposed annexation. After Easter I was meant to be in Gaza visiting some of the Church of Scotland partners.

Everything was cancelled from one day to another, and the diary emptied.

Whilst it was a welcome relief to step off the carousel of competing demands and engagements, there was a part of me that struggled, no longer with a role to fulfil. I have been re-reading Thomas Merton’s The New Seeds of Contemplation and was reminded of how as human beings, we struggle with what he calls ‘the false self’. The false self is the part of us that lives in the expectations of others. The false self measures its worth by how others perceive us, it always thrives on being busy, and making sure that others know how busy we are, and Thomas Merton says that if we are to grow spiritually, it has to die. Being furloughed and in lockdown has been a reminder to me of how ministry can fall into the trap of ‘doing’ over being’, fuelling the ‘need to be needed’.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Merton, Ian Cowley  argues that 'The false self is the part of us that is most concerned with outward appearances, with appearing strong, or self-confident or successful or busy. If my main concern in any situation is "what are people  thinking of me? How do I appear to them?" then it is likely that my false self is playing a major role. In parish ministry we can easily find ourselves constantly responding to the pressures of meeting other people's expectations'. Cowley recognises that 'Being comes before doing. Ministry is primarily about who you are, not about what you do'. Prayer frees us from our false self. Cowley reminds us that 'Finding our true selves means moving away from those parts of ourselves that are mainly concerned with proving ourselves to others'.

The desert fathers spent years in the desert, being stripped of their 'false selves'. Henri Nouwen tells the story of St Antony, who was born in 251 CE, and withdrew into the wilderness for twenty years where he lived alone:

During these years Antony experienced a terrible trial. The shell of his superficial securities was cracked and the abyss of his iniquity was opened to him [...] when he emerged from his solitude, people recognised in him the qualities of an authentic healthy man, whole in body, mind and soul. They flocked to him for healing, comfort and direction [...]

The story of St Antony, as told St. Athanasius, shows that we much be made aware of the call to let our false, compulsive self be transformed into the new self of Jesus Christ. It also shows that solitude is the furnace in which this transformation takes place. Finally, it reveals that it is from this transformed or converted self that real ministry flows.[1]

Lockdown has been both a rest from the unrelenting pace of everyday life, but it has also been a challenge. 

As I await to return to Israel Palestine and resume with the mission of the Church of Scotland there, these three months of lockdown have made me more fully aware than ever, of my need to draw deeply from the wells of God’s grace, who accepts us and calls us into service as we are, and by no merit of our own.