I recently moved to Israel for a few months of studies, researching genetics. It’s a fascinating country – historically, politically and culturally. It’s a confusing clash of Western amenities; the shopping malls, clubs, and cocktail bars could fool you into thinking you’re back in London. But the sunshine, driving, and elusiveness of bacon remind you that you’re somewhere quite different.
Since I’ve been here, the biggest change to get used to has been the language gap. Just about everyone speaks English to some degree – and all the science is in English – or rather, the language of biochemistry – so no problems there. Well, apart from the biochemistry… And now I’m getting to grips with the basics of conversational Hebrew.
Communication isn’t impossible, but it isn’t always comfortable.
It can take me over a minute to read and understand a shop sign. Supermarkets are more like a lottery – I know whatever I picked up isn’t bacon – if only! – but besides that it’s a guessing game, with some help from Google translate. Everyone is speaking a language I don’t understand. Are they talking about me?
You can be surrounded by people and still feel very, very much alone. Every guttural ‘kcha’ and every written word is a reminder that I don’t really belong here. I’m an outsider. I’m a tourist.
It’s a feeling I’ve felt before back in Britain, in a space that really should be about belonging. I’ve always thought that the Church should be a space where anyone and everyone is invited, welcomed, and accepted. I love trying to imagine what was going through the minds of the tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts when they were sitting alongside that rabbi that broke every social taboo and purity boundary. When he spoke their language, of farming, shepherding, and baking. This is crazy. This is radical. Maybe they thought: “This is for me”.
So why have I been thinking: “This isn’t for me”, recently? The last few years I’ve been seeing some things differently – things that I used to be sure about. It’s like I’ve swum to the end of a narrow stream of certainty, into a wide and deep sea of questions, doubts, hopes, and space to be honest about them.
It’s felt liberating, but it’s also felt lonely. I go to church and people are speaking in a language I don’t understand – I’m not fluent in it like I used to be. It’s not my culture any more. Suddenly, familiar places are foreign and far away. To get there I’d have to swim back upstream, fight the currents of my questions and it’s too hard. I don’t belong anymore. I’m an outsider. I’m a tourist.
It’s lonely, in the filled pews.
Is there space in the Church for our doubts? Should there be? How much of our language for talking about God, faith, and the Church isolates those who are unchurched or unsure? Is there space for questions? And is there space for the questioner in the crowd?