Monday, May 19, 2008

The Place

I just returned from two weeks in Israel and Egypt on my annual trek to the Holy Land. Travel fatigue; sleep deprivation; information overload. It’s not a vacation; it’s a pilgrimage of faith. People go to the Holy Land with me for all kinds of reasons, but mostly they go to “touch the wound.” There are just some things about Jesus that I can only teach you there.

Early mornings, long days, lots of walking does nothing to diminish the power of place one feels. We stand in the places where the Word became flesh, read the stories, reflect on their significance and meaning for Jesus’ disciples both then and now, and sing watery-eyed songs of faith and hope and resolve. To stand on the Lithostrotos (the Stone Pavement where Jesus was scourged before his crucifixion; see John 19:13) and sing “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back” can drive you to your knees.

Lots of impressions this time. It was Israel’s 60th anniversary celebration and the tourists were everywhere. In over 20 years of leading groups to the Holy Land, I have never seen crowds like this. President Bush was there. No offense, but I’m glad we missed him; he would have ruined our itinerary had we tried to visit the same sites that were on his schedule. But what stunned me were all the pilgrims from Russia and Eastern Europe. They were everywhere. Ironic, isn’t it. All those years of the former Soviet Union we were told that the USSR was officially atheistic. And yet all the while apparently Russian Christians (Russian Orthodox) were secretly praying and reading their Bibles and worshiping. Now that they can travel freely and go anywhere they choose, they choose to go to the Holy Land...on droves. Amazing.

Of course, there were fun times too. It was not all serious business. It never is. But I never cease to be amazed at the hold this Land has on people. In all the din and noise and smells and hawkers and ubiquitous cameras and buses and all the rest, in places you’d never expect it, in ways you could never have predicted, it slips in and slips up and undoes you.

Of course, of course, God is not limited to or bound by place, any place. But that said, we are incarnational creatures, you and I. Faith can’t just float in a fog of vacuous vagaries and touch us, move us, change us; faith has to have a place for it to take root and take hold and take charge of our lives. That’s why I tell pilgrims, “You’ll never read the Bible the same way again.” I guess that’s why…I guess that’s why, among the names the Jews have held out for God (preferring not to say “God” lest their saying His name defile it), one of their favorite names for God was ha Maqom – The Place.

PS: If you’re interested in making the next Holy Land pilgrimage with me, drop me an email and I’ll send you a brochure.

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