In The Holy Land: The Value of Traveling to Israel

Last June I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was one of those “study tours,” a structured, rigorous trip aimed at seeing as many biblically-relevant sites as possible – and learning as much as possible.

Israel. I try not to overuse the term “unique,” but it applies to this nation and its people. It exceeds my faculties and surpasses my knowledge. How does one fully appreciate such a trip? How can you capture the experience? What should I learn from it?

Perhaps it would be best to start with the negative. As a Christian, I came to value my time to Israel not for an experience of place. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about being baptized in the Jordan River, as opposed to a baptismal in Washington, DC or a swimming pool in Bakersfield, CA. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I touched the rock where Jesus was likely born or the rock where he was likely crucified. And the prayers I offered up at these places, though perhaps a bit more informed than they would have been otherwise, were not exceptionally sanctified compared to my prayers in America.

The legions of sketchy souvenir and pilgrimage shops around these places soured the experience. Watching them profit off tourists’ (should I call them pilgrims’?) attempts at piety, I thought of the money changers that Jesus purged from the temple: I don’t want your trinkets. I recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Here, man seems to be looking on the outside, but the God of the Bible strikes me as more concerned with the inside.

shutterstock_135319565There are competing Catholic and Orthodox churches built on most of these traditional locations, lending an aura of spiritual significance to the place. At first blush I find this off-putting. It’s as if two millennia of religiosity, conflict, tradition, and superstition have marred and obscured their original simplicity – the earthiness of the place. I want to be careful here, though. I won’t presume to search out the heart postures of the people in these churches making the sign of the cross in front of a rock. As a born-and-raised Evangelical (who happens to be Baptist at the moment), I cannot empathize well with the high-churched and their icons, incense, and relics. Perhaps these physical elements aid their worship. I admit I feel a heightened sense of solemnity and awe in these Constantine-era churches, but I’m still wary. They’re just rocks, after all.

No, the true value of my time in the Holy Land was more subtle than that, but I think more beneficial in the long term. More than anything, it gave me a new appreciation for the poetry of Scripture – the beauty of its prose and the richness of its historical narrative. For me the parts of the trip that really mattered happened in the brief moments, the quiet moments alone in the places that inspired the biblical authors. At the spring of Engedi, where David fled from Saul and cut off part of his cloak in the cave, I contemplated the Psalms that may have been inspired by this brook in the wilderness:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

At Masada, one of Herod’s fortresses during the first century AD, we considered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fortress is basically in a desert, but it utilized a brilliant system of irrigation to catch and store rainwater in massive cisterns carved into the mountain. These cisterns were lined with plaster to keep water from escaping, and in the event of a siege they would have stored enough water to supply the defenders for years. They would have provided a lifeline in desperate times, but they could be damaged, infested with debris, and eventually exhausted, so they were a poor substitute for a natural spring. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet uses them as a metaphor for the vapid pleasures of the world compared to finding satisfaction in God:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

While staying on the Sea of Galilee, one evening I walked to the shore and contemplated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, watching as the sun set over the hills where he preached. Why should I worry? God knows what I need. The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. Will you sell yourself to buy the one you’ve found?

When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have pointed to a port on the Galilee called Magdala, which was a major exporter of salted fish at the time. When he says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he may have pointed to a real city on a hill overlooking the Galilee, the lights of which would have been visible across the entire region.

After all these years, we’re so used to those metaphors. It’s easy for me to lose sight of their tangible, historical roots.

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Outside of the geopolitical conflicts that torment the region, we hear mostly good things about the Holy Land – the glory of Jerusalem, the richness of its history, the fertility of its fields. But I think its religious significance gives us rose-tinted glasses. Israel isn’t a beautiful, remarkable land, at least not relative to many other places in the world. It’s southern California without Hollywood, Santa Monica, or San Diego. The hills and fields around Galilee look almost exactly the same as the Grapevine that connects California’s central valley to Los Angeles. I’ve taken it dozens of times. No one drives that route for its scenery.

But isn’t that just like God? Israel historically has strategic value, with the ancient International Coastal Highway running through it, creating a critical juncture of commerce between Asia, Africa, and Europe. For thousands of years, the world’s eye has been drawn to the land of Israel, and still is. And yet if God wanted his people to have a beautiful country or to be a world superpower, he could have picked a lot of other places. But God doesn’t operate by the same calculus we do. Here’s what he tells Israel about his rationale in Deuteronomy:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.

The divine reasoning is similar in the formation of the church, as the Apostle Paul writes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

There is much theological debate among Christians over the significance of Israel today and its relationship to the church, but regardless of your position, both give us insight into God’s nature – his care for the poor and downcast, his concern for the integrity of the heart, his tendency to favor the underdog, his desire to make himself known to the world through his people, his longing to satisfy us with himself, and perhaps most incredibly, his willingness to get dirty.

I don’t know for sure if I touched the exact spots where Jesus was born and died. Just as you never step in the same river twice, I didn’t swim in the same Galilee water that Jesus walked on. But that doesn’t negate the reality that he did, in fact, enter history as a flesh-and-blood man – the same history on the same planet that I am living on right now 2,000 years later. Indeed, the land of Israel reinforces that reality, standing as a testament to it. God left the abstract realm of spirituality and ideals and theory, and he came down and got in the dust and grime and corruption of the human experience. He wept and hungered and wearied and bled, so that someday we wouldn’t have to.

In Israel. That’s a remarkable thing to consider.

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London: First impressions

London Eye

In October I visited the U.K. for the first time – just for pleasure. I spent all of the week-long trip in London, with the exception of a day trip to Oxford. This is what I thought about it:

It feels like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road – smaller, generally, than vehicles in America. Many of the trucks, vans, and fire engines are made by Mercedes, which strikes me as odd given Mercedes’ status in the U.S. Everyone is speaking a language I can understand, even though I can’t replicate its tone, style, and vernacular. For the first time I am self-conscious of how my voice sounds – of how it stands out. The currency in my pocket in familiar denominations – bills of twenty, ten, and five pounds, and coins worth two, one, half, fifth, tenth, twentieth, hundredth. Like the American dime and nickel, their value does not line up logically with their size. The underground public transportation system runs on familiar electric rails, but trains come every few minutes at all hours of the day, unlike in my current home of Washington, DC. Reports of “good service on all lines” echo from the intercom more often than anything else (also unlike DC), and the lines have fun names like Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Jubilee – rather than being called by the colors that denote them.

A river flows through the city, moseying under a series of ever-trafficked bridges, grimy but affectionately embedded in the national consciousness. I think of my own Potomac River. Americans know it thanks to a famous painting of George Washington, but the River Thames goes back in civilization’s memory more than a millennium. I try to reconcile this with the glass-paneled buildings puncturing the skyline around aged structures like Westminster Abbey and The Tower, marveling at the contrast. Over the week I will tour these places, along with Parliament. I do not have a category of experience for any of them, no reference point for places that go back seven or eight hundred years. In preparation for this trip I read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. All of them have seen more historic events than I can keep track of. I will continue to try wrapping my mind around it the rest of the week.

London Slouching

The government buildings surrounding parliament are remarkably similar to those in D.C., reminding me how much of my heritage as an American I owe to the British. Their War Department building, for instance, could pass for a congressional office building or the IRS headquarters on Constitution Avenue. On the narrow, tangled streets surrounding these marvelous buildings, men and women in sharp suits swarm everywhere, as well as tourists, foreigners, and people who look like they could be in one of my favorite indie bands.

I probably use that description about the bands because it seems the U.K. produces a disproportionately large number of music artists and actors. I chalk this up to superior culture and civilization, evident even after a brief observation of the public space. “Mind the gap” sounds nicer than “watch out,” as does “alight” rather than “get off.” And that’s only considering the way everyone talks. It’s the norm. I’ve already mentioned the superior public transportation. I never venture to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but just by look of them, I’m convinced I would find anyone in the surprisingly diverse mix of people streaming past me on the tube profoundly fascinating. London is the hub of the U.K., after all; people come here from all over the place. After a day or two I come up with a formula from my America-centric experience: London = DC + New York City + 1000 years.

What a seductive cocktail for anyone who has any sort of ambition in almost any field – business, foreign affairs, the arts, academia. This is all apparent the first time I emerge from Waterloo station and walk to the path along the River Thames to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Unlike the gently-flowing Thames, the city’s waters are vigorous and tempestuous, and they run deep. I decide within the hour that I want to be here. I want to live here. I want to be a life among all the others, riding the swells of the vast sea of knowledge and experience that humanity has to offer. I want to let wave after wave of history and creation and innovation break over me as I walk past these bridges, monuments, pubs, museums, business meetings, markets, and theaters. I want to be in the setting that inspired Shakespeare and captured the imagination of Dickens. The city that survived the blitz with a stiff upper lip. The city which even still lingers in the fantasies of the English-speaking world (Sherlock, anyone?).

London Tower bridge

For all of the Brits’ talent and sophistication and place in the world’s attention, I notice after a day or two that Londoners are generally not a physically attractive bunch (the bad teeth stereotype comes to mind). They compensate plenty for it, however, by dressing and speaking well. I’m reminded of a joke I share with one of my best friends that British girls instantly become two points more attractive as soon as they start talking – as in she would be like a six, but with that accent, a solid eight. This creates an amusing contrast between the United States and the U.K. With American girls, it’s usually the other way around.

I oscillate between the feeling of intense alienation that comes from being a foreigner, and the sense that I could easily make this city my home. Three times during my week there someone stopped me to ask for directions. This was a source of immense pride for me because I think it means that I look the part – at least before I open my mouth.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Bakersfield, California, I assumed the identity of being from Bakersfield. When I moved from California to D.C. I assumed the much-cooler identity of a Californian. In London, I’d be an American, and I’d be okay with that, even if it came with certain baggage and stereotypes. It would be an instant signifier to anyone I met, a conversation starter.

I start making a mental list of the virtues of living in London. I would become more conscious of my American-ness as I fully steeped myself in the parent civilization that has long since ceded its world superpower status to its offspring. My use of the English language would improve markedly, even if the accent never developed. And the ghosts of literary past, the universities, the libraries, the museums and bookstores – surely they could all be absorbed through osmosis or something like that.

But perhaps I’ve added a touch of rosiness to my glasses on that last point. On my last day I took a train out to Oxford for the afternoon. It was delayed an hour and a half. A friend there took me around a number of the colleges, all of which were delightfully old and full of serene gardens and Hogwarts-like lecture halls. I had tea in his dorm room and we talked intelligently about literature and politics and film. But the true purpose of my visit was a pub called the Eagle and Child, which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien frequented as part of a group called the Inklings. I sat down with some fish and chips ready to breathe in a bit of Middle Earth or Narnia, only to find American pop songs by Train and Owl City filling the ambiance. I like both of those songs, but I cannot think of a more ill-fitting place or time for them.