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Whether or Not to Adjust: Living through Tension while Teaching in the Middle East

by Emad Botros

Living and teaching in the Middle East in the last few years raises the challenge of one’s continuous adjustment to the ongoing unrest in the region. Every time we try to “adjust” to a new reality resulting from instability, a new development takes place: for example, the current war between Israel and Palestine, and its impact on Lebanon.

Sometimes I may instead resist adjusting because I am angry at those who force us to live through such difficult circumstances. Why should the decision of one person, group, or party control my own life? Here I resist coping with injustice, destruction, corruption… and you name it.

Indeed, all these events create a sense of instability.

As teachers, this sense of instability can paralyze one’s own ability at various levels. We may experience symptoms of burnout, stress, exhaustion, and sadness. Stress, for example, can reduce performance and might lead to a negative attitude. As we can see, the emotional and mental well-being of a teacher is at risk.

Moreover, as theological faculty, we are called to develop written resources for the church in the region. As we all know, writing requires a clear mind and a sense of stability. It needs much consideration and focus. The loss of a conducive environment can make one less productive. Living through unrest and wars takes much of our mental, emotional, and physical energy.

Unrest also creates new realities on the ground and raises new sorts of questions to the biblical text. These new questions require the ongoing process of adjusting the content of our courses to meet the needs of church. For example, developing a theology of the land becomes a priority as I am about to teach the historical books of the Old Testament in light of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

What about our students?

We are preparing the next generation of leaders for the church in the Middle East. Those leaders are living in or coming out of war zones. We cannot ignore the impact of war on these students: some of them are traumatized, while others are struggling to create a decent learning environment. This makes our task even more demanding because we need to be a source of encouragement to those students as they continue with their life and ministry.

We live in tension, between living with hope and facing the daily realities of life in the Middle East.

It seems that we live Jeremiah’s struggle, as well as that of the exilic community as described in Jeremiah 29:1-14. What is surprising in these verses is the instruction to settle down. In other words, Jeremiah is asking the people to adjust to the new realities in Babylon and to pray for the city.

As we reconsider our place in God’s economy, we can hear Jeremiah calling the people to adjust with care for the family (vv. 5, 6), adjust to seeking the peace of the city (v.7), adjust with hope (v.10), adjust while trusting God’s plans for peace (v.11), and adjust while seeking God with all their hearts (v.13).

Adjustment as submission to the work of God. It seems that Jeremiah is asking the people of God for a temporary submission to their current circumstances, as a direct submission to the work of God. We are potentially living in a critical moment in history, where we are crossing the bridge from an old era to a new one. If so, we should adjust to our own temporary circumstances as submission to the work of God.

At times, we may need to accept reality from God’s hand. To live in exile is to live in accordance with God’s plan. This means to accept living under suffering because of the heavy hands of the oppressors. However, it will not always be necessary to adjust, because the time for the people in power will one day cease.

Adjustment does not mean acceptance. Rather, it means to realign ourselves to our new place in God’s economy in light of new temporary circumstances. If we see ourselves as victims, we might be hindered from going through a self-examination process that can prevent us from reliving the same situation in the future. If we ask the rhetorical questions of the exiles, such as “Why are we here?”, the answer may help us not to be in this situation again. Therefore, we should carefully read the signs through prayer to reconsider our place in God’s economy at such a critical moment in history.

Adjustment while praying and working towards the peace of the city. Of course, I am not living in exile. But I am living in a country that is not my birthplace. While doing so, I am seeking and working towards the peace of this country, Lebanon. In the last few years, Lebanon has been going through a lot, as well as the whole region. One of my fears is losing the freedom we have here in Lebanon, which might impact the whole region. This keeps me asking: How can I/we work alongside others to continue enjoying such freedom? I do not have the answer yet, but I will keep asking the question!

We will continue living in tension, wondering when to adjust and when not to adjust. Living with this tension may create resilience: that is, the ability to strive/function in the face of severe ongoing crises. With resilience, God enables me to continue my teaching ministry while maintaining a relatively stable mental, emotional, and physical health.

The level of our hope that is grounded on biblical promises elevates our resilience. Support from family, friends, and colleagues helps us to continue the journey. Love for our students, our commitment to God’s calling on our lives, satisfaction in the workplace, and support received from leadership, strengthen our hearts to press on. Finally, better understanding from the Western world of the realities of life in the Middle East can greatly reduce stress levels for people like me who are connected with both worlds. It takes all the above, and more, to live in the tension of knowing when and how to adjust to the ongoing challenges in the Middle East.

Emad Botros is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at ABTS.

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