by Joanie Butman
So, did I return from Israel a changed woman? Other than an extra five pounds, a better understanding of biblical culture and a deeper appreciation for scripture, the answer is no. I have to admit I’m disappointed I didn’t experience the spiritual transformation so many pilgrims told me to expect and wondered if there was something wrong with me. It’s not that there weren’t moving moments, but they had more to do with community worship at certain sites rather than the sites themselves.
On the last night of the trip, our touring ‘tribe’ shared a meal, communion and take aways from our ten days together. As I listened, I felt more than a little envious of the deep Divine connections that brought many of my fellow travelers to tears, particularly in the sacred pit where Jesus awaited his execution. One woman explained that it was the first time she fully understood just how alone Jesus must have felt. I wish I could say the same, but isolation and loneliness was difficult to imagine crammed into a pit the size of a large elevator with 56 other people and another 50+ staring down at us impatient for their turn. Expecting God to show up in the three-minute allotted timeframe is not typically how He works. God will not be rushed (or our guide for that matter). You can’t have an agenda on a spiritual journey. You just need to let God’s plan unfold with an open mind and heart for whatever He has for you – ditto for traveling with a group.
A demand performance is not typically God’s style. He chooses to reveal Himself to each of us in different ways and places. For some on the trip, it was in that stone cell. My envy made me think of Jesus’ response to Peter when he asked about Christ’s plan for John, “What’s it to you?” God’s going to do what’s God’s going to do. If He wanted to connect with me in that place, He would have.
Now that I’ve been there, the old city of Jerusalem is the last place I’d expect to experience a close encounter with God. There are just too many distractions. It is a cacophony of sounds, smells, colors and a barrage of people. Walking the Via Dolorosa with crowds pushing and vendors hawking their wares, vying for your business is hardly conducive to a Divine encounter. Even in the churches, the constant flow of visitors and clicking cameras detracted from the reverence you’d hope to find there. While going up for communion at one church, the woman in front of me was snapping pictures until the priest put the host in her mouth. She was more interested in getting a better shot of the altar than receiving the body of Christ.
It was in the silence of the desert where I felt closest to God, and I was grateful we began our excursion there - much like Moses did. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised because it’s always been in the desert times of my life that His nearness became most palpable. It was there that I learned to trust Him completely. And it’s there I return to when the noise of life gets too deafening. I can fully appreciate why “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16) The important skill is finding that quiet place in your soul while you are in the midst of chaos.
What was the biggest lesson from my trip? I didn’t have to travel 6,000 miles to find Jesus. He was with me all along. God’s kingdom isn’t confined to a book or a building. It’s in His people. If you’re seeking Him, you needn’t look any further than the person next to you wherever you find yourself. While I didn’t find Jesus in any particular site I visited, I did witness the living Christ working in the lives of each person on that bus. Traveling with 56 people longing to get closer to God and hearing their stories was worth the trip in itself. It’s hard to wrap your head around. We are now the Holy of Holies* where God chooses to reside. What an awesome privilege and responsibility as we choose to go about sharing His light and love with others in our families, our work, our church, our community, our country, our world.
The other thing I learned is that human beings haven’t changed all that much. We’re still building walls, fearful of anyone different from us. Why do we have such a hard time living the shared life Christ desires? The more history I learned during the week, the more I saw it playing out over and over. Jesus came to knock down walls, to reach those outside the confines of the city that society rejected. Yet here we stand 2000 years later still judging and isolating from those we perceive as different from us, fearful that they threaten our security and comfort. Our fear overrides our trust in God. How it must sadden Christ that we worship and build shrines over the places He’s been but need to police them with armed guards because we can’t get along with each other. Somehow, we’re still missing the message He came to relay. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mathew 22:37-39)
One last observation: Jerusalem felt a little like a spiritual Disneyland where every ride/site exits through a gift shop eager to sell you religious icons and tchotchkes like the glow-in-the-dark Mary I’m holding. Conversely, any ride with Jesus begins in His gift shop as He welcomes us with His presents/presence of love, mercy and grace. It’s the beginning of an awesome, invigorating, bumpy journey well worth the price of admission Christ paid for us. That’s one ride you don’t want to miss. Will you choose to get onboard? Choose wisely.
*The Holy of Holies is a term in the Bible which refers to the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God's presence resided. The only people allowed to enter the Holy of Holies was the high priest. There was only one high priest at a time, and he could enter only once a year.