Midway through our worldwide research into quality education there was an opportunity to visit schools in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv Yafo, and explore some of the Holy sites in Bethlehem and The Galilee – including Magdala (above). The only thing I can recall about Magdala was a restaurant on the roundabout as we entered what is now the Israeli municipality of Migdal.
Since we weren’t part of an organised tour Rachel and I enjoyed the freedom to walk around, immerse ourselves in the culture, and engage with locals going about their normal everyday business; it was actually quite refreshing in what could otherwise have been a rather ‘touristy’ trip. Of course, there were some who were ‘cashing in’ on tourism. The fact that you could buy Wedding Wine in Cana raised a smile – we didn’t – nor were we tempted by the apples at Adam’s supermarket in Bethlehem, or a triple shot of coffee at ‘Star bucks’ on Star Street.
Magdala itself really wasn’t that memorable, but as we chatted with friends a few months later, their enthusiasm about the film Mary Magdalene (2018) transported me back to the hills and shores of The Galilee; where Rachel and I shared a picnic of Arabic bread, humus, olives, and an ear piece each, as we listened to Scripture from the region on my iPhone.
Our friends loaned us the film, and it didn’t disappoint. Mary’s views on Jesus’ mission resonated deeply with my own – especially how she questioned the mainly revolutionary seeking, but mistaken, men who followed Jesus – who was the real revelation of the film.
For some time now my Spiritual Director has been encouraging me to describe how I see Jesus, and – honestly – I’ve always struggled with seeing him. Whilst I’ve written at length on the ‘active Jesus’, I never been able to see Jesus’ face, whether I’m praying, singing, or reading the Bible. I couldn’t even imagine his baby face at the Church of the Nativity, his tear-full face in the Garden of Gethsemane, bleeding face on the Via Dolorosa, or risen face as I sat inside an empty Garden Tomb. I tried. But this film really got to me, especially Phoenix’s portrayal of an always-on-duty, at times exhausted, frequently misunderstood, often lonely, completely self-emptying Jesus. Whilst I can’t claim to know what raising the dead takes out of you, I do find myself relating to this ‘spent’ version of Jesus more than the other faceless Christs I’ve followed in the last 25 years. As I type this note, our work-life has reached the point where – regardless of whether we’re at church, shopping, enjoying a coffee at the other Starbucks® – someone will stop us, ask if we’re that Phil and Rachel, and if so:
“When is the school starting?”
It stirs a range of emotions in me; from the pressure to give an attractive, inspiring, succinct account of ourselves – just in case these are potential partners – to pulling something tangible out of my hat – tadah! – even without the resources one would logically need to acquire the buildings / land to start a school. Catch me on a ‘good day’ and I’m surprised, delighted, and encouraged by people’s interest; there is a certain degree of comfort / reassurance in knowing you’re not the only one’s passionate about education, equality and integration in South Africa. Some of the ‘chance’ conversations we’ve had, have opened up some incredible opportunities. But being ‘on duty’ all of the time does take it out of you – which is why Rachel and I both simultaneously turned to each other before Christmas with a felt need to retreat to the bush for a few nights; I’m almost reluctant to say it – in a year of so much travelling, experience, learning, and opportunity – that its as close as I’ve come to a feeling of ‘burn out’.
As we read, rested and reflected in the bush, I realised that if we really are following God in the Way of Jesus, then there really is no escaping that feeling of being ‘on duty’ all of the time. If we claim to be seeking a more authentic Christianity, then there can be no time when we are not being Christ-like or like Christ. It was a thought that reminded me of something I shared in one of the first books I wrote on ‘bringing mission to life’ back in 2004:
Jesus’ mission was his life and his life was his mission: it was hard to see where one stopped and the other started (p. 4)
Followers of our work-life will know that South Africa’s claim to be 80% Christian, whilst remaining the most consistently unequal nation in the world, has been at the heart of my holy discontent for some time. I’ve assumed – rightly or wrongly – that these conflicting stats are the result of Christians (like me) who’ve clocked off from God from Monday through to Saturday. It can’t go on. When we were in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to pray at the Wailing / Western Wall as the Jewish population began their Sabbath. As I poked my prayer in between the bricks, I asked God to be at the centre of the school we would establish…
“You’re the only one who is in control of that” God replied.
We can not, must not, never limit what it means to be Christ-like to the few hours we’re at Christian-type gatherings. Jesus didn’t come, live, or allow himself to be killed, for limiting faith. As followers, Jesus is quite clear that we are all called to even greater things (Jn 14:12).
What those ‘greater things’ are for you, I neither know, nor can say. All I do know – for now – is that after all these years, I have finally seen Jesus’ face, and he looks totally switched on.