Just a few months ago, the day after I graduated from Dordt College, I flew with fourteen other Dordt students to Israel for a three-credit course titled “Encountering The Land of Israel.” Some people went to learn more about theology. Some went to learn more about international politics and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I’m not entirely sure what made me decide to go on the trip; I’m starting my first year of seminary in the fall, and I decided that this was the perfect time in my life to see the Holy Land.
A few days into the trip we walked The Via Dolorosa which translates from Latin to “Way of Grief” or “Way of Sorrow. ” It follows a street within the Old City of Jerusalem, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. I’m not sure if I realized it, but I was expecting one of the most transformational spiritual experiences of my life. This was, after all, the journey that changed my life the most; this was the road that Christ bore the cross that carried my sin. But when we actually began walking it, I found myself thinking about how thirsty I was, how hot it was when we stood in the sun, and how much I would love to sit and take a quick fifteen-minute nap. We walked with other pilgrims and weaved in and out of people doing their grocery shopping.
Our guide stopped us in front of someone’s apartment just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the church that tradition says was build where Jesus was crucified and where his empty tomb was. We were only a few feet away the place that had been journeying towards all day, and our guide pointed up to laundry hanging on a clothesline.
She said “It may not seem like it … but this is what Jerusalem is all about.” Our tired eyes widened in confusion, and our entire group stared at her. “Jerusalem is all about the intersection of the human and the divine. You wouldn’t come here just to see the city. It’s dirty, it’s crowded, and there’s not much here besides the religious sites. But if you come here only to encounter the Divine you will become insane. It is always a mixture between the human and the spiritual in this city, and that’s what makes it so special.”
We turned the corner and waited in line to entire the church. I looked over to my left and noticed a group of people sitting against the wall. A man was smoking a cigarette, another was reading a book, and a woman was sharing her falafel with people in their group. All-the-while they were sitting underneath a cross.
Everyone at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was human … people who had dirty laundry, smoked cigarettes, shared falafel, and were looking for ways to encounter the Divine.
Our entire trip was filled with stories like this. As we were walking around the Dome of the Rock – one of the most holy sites for many religions, a group of children were playing a game of soccer in a nearby courtyard. When we took a boat tour on the Sea of Galilee, our captain started a playlist of songs he thought we would enjoy; before we knew it we were doing the “Cha Cha Slide” in the same place that Jesus walked on water. Each night we would come back to our base, climb to the roof or sit in the swinging chairs to discuss the Palestinian conflict, prom horror stories, feminism in the Middle East, and how much we missed good coffee.1
When people ask me how my trip was, I have a difficult time coming up with a quick answer. Some people want to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what my opinion is after being there. Some people want to hear about what it was like to walk where Jesus walked and how it’s going to make my preaching and ministry so much deeper. Some ask about our tour guides, the group dynamics, the food, and the weather. The truth of the matter is, I can’t pin it down to any of these things because it was all of that and more.
My trip to Israel was one of the most humanizing experiences I have had. It was filled with tension, confusion, and so many more questions than I had before I left. The course was properly named; we truly “encountered the land of Israel” in so many different ways. Our guide was right – it’s all about the combination and intersection of the human and the Divine.
Israel has some of the most incredible food I’ve ever had, but I envied my leaders who were wise enough to think to bring their own coffee along. ↩