Postcards from the Promised Land
A ten-day trip (to anywhere) is highly unlikely to permit a person to return home with a complete picture of where they have just been. But even ten days is enough to learn a great deal; for at least some preconceptions (and even prejudices) about a place to be dispelled; and despite its relentlessly frenetic itinerary, our visit to Israel this summer turned out to be such a time as that.
Above: Panorama of Jerusalem
On paper, it promised to be little more than a staccato series of diverse samples: bite-sized appetisers each calling for a fuller serving at a later date. Each day was to be filled with up to five different destinations: too many to do justice to any of them, surely! And yet (perhaps because of there having been so much preparation before the trip) these marked the beginning of something more far-reaching and profound. What follows is a part of that new understanding: a handful of reflective “literary snapshots” or, as I have called them, “Postcards from the Promised Land”.
Within the walls: Along The bustling Via Dolorosa
Above: The Kidron Valley
Above: The Mount of Olives
We were walking a route that Jesus walked: out of Jerusalem and over to Gethsemane across the Kidron Valley. Then, sitting peacefully on the Mount of Olives, gazing across to Jerusalem’s eastern wall, we heard the call go out for Friday prayers, jarring us out of our first century reverie. Thus drawn back to present realities, we walked back into the old city, its streets beginning to stir once more with life after their Friday rest. Burning bright sunlight gave way to shady cool; but the busy, narrow streets, flowing with people going this way and that, shops and shoppers strung out along them; the bright colours of the market stalls, the flashes of sunlight reaching down, the stalls arrayed along the way – the sights, the sounds, the smells – all so distracting and devoid of peace! How could the faithful ever enjoy a “spiritual” moment with all this around them?
Above: Streets waking up on a Friday evening
The answer, for me, as it turned out, depended not so much on requiring a particular kind of “spiritual moment” (as if there were only the “tranquil” one), but more on the emergence of profound moments when least expected. Although I loved walking through those characterful medieval streets in Old Jerusalem, I could not have felt much less conventionally “spiritual” (although I must add that I felt in no way separated from God – indeed, I was aware of an underlying joy being present throughout the entire visit). But a peaceful, meditative feeling? A so-called “mountain-top-experience”? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I later discovered something extraordinary, for consider: I was walking through streets in a city where Jesus walked, in a culture not so far removed from the one he knew, and as I did so, I began to realise that my experiences were like those of his. The noise and bustle, which so precluded tranquillity, instead provided something equally precious in their own way: authenticity. This was, for me, a step closer to the world in which he lived; something that brought alive anew his life, his works, and his teaching.
The Western Wall: Through Jerusalem by night
Above: The Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque
My first visit to the Western Wall came as part of a largely unplanned walk out into the old city. It was at the end of only our first day, and we had been out exploring throughout all its sunlit hours – so wisdom counselled rest for the evening. But, excitement and curiosity said otherwise. A small group of us had already discussed the idea of going out, and that small group only grew as the moment of departure approached – so much so that we were, in the end, quite a crowd, breaking forth from the safety of the hotel. Across the road we went, through one of the ancient doorways in the medieval walls, and on into the mysteries of night-time Jerusalem. The night was seething with summer warmth, the streets thronging and vibrant. There were celebrations, music; a light-show on a synagogue, and so many people.
Above: The Western Wall Plaza
The Western Wall Plaza was therefore a fascinating contrast to all this merriment. Floodlit throughout, its night-time cradle was reached only through a metal-detector barrier. Overlooked by mosque and wall, it contained an air of threatening enchantment, though its expanse still bubbled with life. Donning a skull-cap (kindly donated), I walked across the plaza to stand before the wall. Resting my hand very gently against that ancient stone, I spoke to the same God as those around me, grateful for the freedom to pray a mere stone’s throw from where Yahweh once spoke to Abraham. An unplanned walk, an unanticipated stop, an unexpected blessing.
Walled off where walls began to fall: Bethlehem
Above: The land around Bethlehem
Bethlehem! Birthplace of the Messiah – the Christ: the one who would deliver the Lord’s people from oppression and inaugurate a new age: the Kingdom of God.
Bethlehem! Where walls divide people from people: a place where (seemingly) the Lord’s people oppress by means indistinguishable from their ancient foes. How can this be? Why is it so? What went wrong (and how to put it right)?
By the time we had reached the place where Jesus had entered the world, even the handful of days in Jerusalem had been enough for me to realise that, no matter what I may encounter in Bethlehem, there was no easy solution. A continuous blending of observation with conversation had impressed upon me that the problem was complex. But one thing I knew: regardless of what I saw (whether walls and guard towers daubed with graffiti, or a severed town cut off from its land), the origin of that problem lay elsewhere, and any lasting solution would require that problem to be solved first, before real change could be effected. In the meantime, I also knew that no individual need accept what may be wrong, nor need they forget what once took place here. Rather, the fact of Jesus’ birth could scarcely be more vivid for the visitor to Bethlehem; and the need for the one who can reconcile God with humanity scarcely more evident.
Above: The separation barrier at Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity lies clothed in swaddling-scaffold, courtesy of the United Nations and countless years of campaigning. The eyes of the world are drawn by Banksy’s brilliant art to the plight of the beleaguered Palestinians, while faithful Palestinian Christians in their dwindling numbers find their own cause missed by all (or so it seems). It is a place where despair finds easy expression, for in some ways it typifies the rift in society; the gulf between peoples whose faith forbids the sharing of God’s earth one with the other. Can both be right? (Surely not!) Would that meeker souls would one day prevail and receive the true peace-maker! On that day, true peace would come to that little town of Bethlehem.
By the middle of the next morning, we were gone; but Bethlehem was not gone from our hearts. Its essential work done, we took with us a memory, and a stronger resolve to see the hearts of people changed and lives made better. I pray that carried away in every pilgrim’s heart will be a longing to see that dream become reality.
Above: Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee
The city on a hill
It had been an almost indescribably busy day. That morning we had left Bethlehem, skirting the separation wall as we went; making our way east across to Jericho. And there, down on the plains of the Jordan Valley, we strode out towards Tell es-Sultan while temperatures soared to forty-six degrees Celsius – marvelling at ten-thousand-year-old towers in ancient Jericho. We had swum in hot springs at Sakhne, deliciously and ironically refreshing in contrast to the searing air. And then we were straight back in the ancient world, climbing the tell at Beit She’an. Drenched in heat, we gazed out over the earthquake-torn vista of Roman Scythopolis below, remembering that, a millennium before the Romans, it was there on these walls that the bodies of King Saul and his sons were hung by the Philistines. But, no sooner had we begun to drink it all in than we were off on the coach again, transported from that ancient layer-cake to a contemporary Jewish supermarket where, suddenly, we were playing guessing-games with Hebrew labels in our attempts to buy food for the following days of exploration.
You can probably imagine how we felt as our coach drew up to our hotel that evening – our third in three nights. But tiredness vanished as we saw, by the light of a glowing sunset, the beautiful rooms that were to be our home by the Sea of Galilee. After a shower and dinner, even though night had fallen, a few of us went off exploring, so eager were we to see the sea where Jesus lived. Off into the seething semi-lit darkness we walked, down to the beach and out along a stone pier, to a place where we could begin to take in our sublime surroundings. The temperature was hovering around thirty-degrees. Lights twinkled mysteriously out across the water on the Golan Heights. To our right, beyond a rocky silhouette, perched high on a hill, was the breath-taking spectacle of Tiberias: pre-eminent town of Galilee in both first and twenty first centuries, a fairy-light tablecloth splayed out over the promontory whose sparkling reflections in the lake below were enchanting in the moonlight. Our hotel was at Nof Ginosar, not a name that meant anything to me, but recognition became easier when “Ginosar” became “Gennesaret”, and “Gennesaret”, “Kinnereth.” In Kinnereth one finds oneself back with Moses and Joshua; while at Gennesaret one is right there in Galilee with Jesus. What a place to stay!
Above: Mount Hermon
Fresh hope from God: Revelation in a Psalm
One Sunday morning, not long after our return, I was sitting in church, and the sermon that morning was inspired by Psalm 42. The Bible reading was, appropriately, the words of the Psalm: familiar words which, to me, though still meaningful, had somehow lost their impact because of that very familiarity. So perhaps it was that expectation of the familiar that made me almost jump when the reader reached the sixth and seventh verses:
6My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
Above: Tel Dan Banias Suspended Trail
As soon as I heard the words: the mention of Hermon, the roar of the waterfalls – I found myself transported immediately back to Tel Dan, seeing in my mind that same waterfall, remembering the sight of wave-upon-wave; and feeling the longing in the psalmist’s heart for the land of promise. It may sound trite, inconsequential – a resonance beyond need of reference; but for me it was not. I revisited the Psalm with renewed interest, and found that the phrase “deep calls to deep” (something I had always found perplexing) conveyed, in poetic Hebrew, the sense of waves being so close together they could call out to each other: a relentless succession of onslaughts threatening to overwhelm the poor psalmist. And yet that same symbol of torment was drawn from a precious memory of the land the Lord himself had given them, tangible evidence of his faithfulness. It was a means of reminding Israel of his power, of his willingness to forgive, and, ultimately, of his desire to deliver them from disaster.
Above: Nimrod Fortress overlooking the Golan Heights
A place worth visiting
Before leaving for Israel, I had decided (gently but firmly) not to have any great expectations. I had heard from other people that visitors to holy sites were often met instead by unholy sights: an unwelcome cacophony of trinket sellers hoping to persuade the pious to make a purchase. But were not busy, bustling market places just as much a part of Jesus’ life as any quiet sanctuary? Did not he also have to seek out quiet places for himself? For such is real life, and it was into this real world that he came. As Christians, we speak often of “The Word made Flesh”, a vivid description of God become fully human: but was that human God not also an inhabitant of the human world? The sun and sand, the lakes and light: would these not be as he had seen and felt them? And the towns and cities: were they not frequently noisy, smelly and overwhelming for him too? For me, this Palestine was therefore a real reflection of what it might have been for him: a destination which was, more than anything else, genuine. The fact that I had also experienced profound moments of surprising peace – at times and places unexpected – was a blessing over and above those already received. I had come to a land I had fallen in love with; an unforgettable place I hope one day to visit again.
Above: And to conclude, a few of those in Chris’ Biblical Backgrounds module