When I was in seminary, there was this in-between time between fall and spring semesters called a J-term (January term), where students could take a three-week crash course on Hebrew (which I begrudgingly went along with to fulfill that requirement for graduation) or learn more about rural ministry, for example. Every once in a while, though, they would offer an immersive experience in the “Holy Land.” Thankfully, my parents were more than supportive enough of me in this whole wanna-be-a-pastor trek that they financially backed me to go. But the long-term effects on me spiritually-speaking were not anything I expected.
I still remember gathering with the rest of the travelers months in advance of our departure, as the faculty duo leading our international excursions were trying to best prepare us for a taste of life in the Middle East. That evening, we were certainly made aware of the supposedly “holy land” not being the safest region in the world, to say the least. Then, fast forward to the night of our red-eye flight across the Atlantic: Hamas started firing missiles into their enemy territory. Needless to say, a few of our touristy spots on the itinerary were abruptly removed from the plan. Nevertheless, we pressed on to Tel Aviv.
Yes, I could tell you about stops in Bethlehem with the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where many believe is the site of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) in Jerusalem or even getting on an old boat in the Sea of Galilee, among numerous others of the touristy spots. There were certainly a fair share of awe-struck moments along the way, but some other moments just stuck to the soul a bit more.
I distinctly remember our venture into Jericho. We were incredibly spoiled staying in a rather nice hotel with luxurious enough amenities to have a nourishing breakfast after waking up early to watch an Ohio State football bowl game on the other side of the world. Except, only a few blocks away was a poverty for Palestinian families that is some of the worst dilapidated living circumstances I have ever seen: images that stick the spiritual craw as much as a soothing Dead Sea or a majestic altar on the site of where the Beatitudes were supposedly proclaimed.
From there, we made the drive into Jerusalem. At the check point, Israeli men with rather intimidating weaponry walked onto our bus. They did a double take as they approached one of the seminary students whose skin color was a little too close to the Palestinians to their liking. I cannot imagine his most immense anxiety as they went through various questions with him. Soon enough, we would see hundreds of Israeli soldiers go through a special blessing by the Wailing Wall, a cherished pilgrimage site for the Jewish people as they believe it is last remains of their ancient temple. As warring violence destroyed a beloved structure on their holy land, such human awfulness unfortunately continues thousands of years later.
However, one of the most eerie and yet fondest memories of our time was when we gathered in what felt like the Upper Room, where Jesus appeared through a locked-door to unleash the peace that surpasses all understanding in the Holy Spirit (John 20:19-23). The speakers were Israeli and Palestinians who were working together for some semblance of that peace. I remember another classmate struggling to hear their words with the unfavorable acoustics of the room, as he put his hand to his ear. Looking back, that seems like the perfect metaphor for the world struggling to hear that Holy Spirit yearning of wholeness for all humanity.
That evening, we concluded with worship. Yes, Palestinians and Israelis and a bunch of wanna-be-pastors worshiped together. The most poignant, holy moment was a flute playing a solo piece as we all sat in silence, trying to take all this in. After all, those several days were much more than going from A to B to C and beyond on the travel itinerary: trying to get to as many Jesus-possibly-traversed spots to supposedly help us feel closer to the Lord or have a better image in our mind whenever we read the Bible going forward. This was much more than being immersed into Scripture pages. This was about being in the midst of a colossal struggle that no blog or article or news reel or book can come close to fully describing. This was about wondering if this really still can be holy land anymore with all the lust for power and annihilation that emerges on the paths that a carpenter’s son and plenty of prophets before and since have most desperately cried out for the rest of us to just stop it all, because there is a peace that surpasses all understanding that is much more truly powerful.
In the end, I worry such prophetic voices like those Palestinians and Israelis in that holy-in-its-own-way upper room are even more faint now. That their hope and drive and passion are drowned out by those sitting in even higher upper rooms of power and money and access to the means that can wipe out scores of God’s children within an instant. But I know God’s still going to play the solo that will still manage to pierce through all the seemingly endless hopelessness and lack of drive to try anymore. I know that God will continue to empower the prophets of today to never stop giving up on all God’s children. I know that God deems all land to be holy, because God dwells throughout. I know we don’t have to make a flight across the Atlantic to feel close to the Messiah.
And it remains our call to raise the awareness not just of that holy presence, but of a peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that is much more truly powerful, a peace that God does not want for us to wait until some heavenly destination, but right here, right now. Whatever we can do as the present-day disciples to bring a little more peace, a little more, a little more love: God unleashes us to do so; because God insists the Story did not stop with the cross and the empty tomb or even the final verses of Revelation. Instead, to be continued…with us. Amen (so let it be)!
Image: Jerusalem (TouristIsrael.com)