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Letter from the FSJ: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

IMG_0986Two students asked a rabbi, “Why does God command us to put the word of God on our hearts. Why did God not say to put God’s word in our hearts?” The rabbi responded, “We are commanded to place the word of God on our hearts because our hearts are closed and the word of God cannot get in. So God commands us to place the word of God on our hearts. And there it sits and waits for the day when our hearts will be broken. When they are broken, then the word of God will fall gently inside.” This parable was shared early on in the FSJ pilgrimage to the Holy Land by one of our leaders, and this pilgrimage indeed broke open my heart. We talk of God-moments in our lives; these were God-days.

IMG_0962On a single day in the Old City, we visited one of the holiest sites for each of the three Abrahamic religions, which involved passing through two security checkpoints. First we prayed at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, divided for men and women. These stones date back to the First Century B.C.E. when King Herod the Great built a retaining wall around the Temple. For present day Jews, the Wall is the place they can worship which is closest to the Temple Mount, where tradition places Abraham, prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Jews have continued to experience God’s presence near this site for over 3,500 years! On the last day of my pilgrimage, I returned to the Wall and witnessed a beautiful scene. A group in the corner of the men’s section was celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, and at one point the men lifted a young boy in a chair and were dancing around holding him up. Then a number of women got up on chairs next to the fence separating them from the men, and they lifted little girls over this fence so that they could participate in this celebration. For me it represented the exuberant nature of the Jewish faith, as they appeared to break the rules to include the whole family. My heart breaks open.

Next we went up on Temple Mount, which the Muslims call the Haram, where centuries ago they built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. This is the third holiest site in the Islamic faith, as it is from the rock located inside the dome where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended on his night journey and received the Five Pillars of Islam. I realize this city can’t belong to one faith; it must be shared. Why is that so difficult? Crack goes my heart.

Then after lunch in a local restaurant right off one of the narrow streets in the Old City, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (or “Holy Mayhem” as one guide described it). Inside are the traditionally recognized sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and his tomb. Six different Christian groups literally compete for space, and the disagreements among the various Christian sects got so acrimonious that in 1852 they gave the key to the church to a Muslim, whose descendants have been opening the doors each morning ever since! However, seeing Christians from all corners of the globe – Korea, Ghana, Mexico – many prostrating themselves in worship, made me realize how much bigger Christianity is than I had ever imagined, and what a powerful grip Christ’s love has on so many people’s lives. Two billion people worldwide proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ, and I was standing at the physical epicenter of this devotion. Paradoxically, due to the ongoing political tension and violence, the percentage of Christians who actually live in Israel is less than 2% of the population. Therefore our presence, with Jesus as the Supreme Peacemaker, is so desperately needed. It’s too much to wrap my mind around. The crack in my heart opens wider.

Our final Eucharist of the pilgrimage was held in the ruins of a Byzantine church near Emmaus, where the Resurrected Jesus was revealed to the two disciples as he took, blessed, broke, and gave them bread. Having spent ten days in intimate communion with thirty-five other pilgrims, my heart was overflowing with gratitude for their fellowship. It occurred to me that God’s truth is too big for a single individual either to understand it or to live it. As Eugene Peterson wrote, “Scripture knows nothing of the solitary Christian.” Community, most powerfully expressed in the Holy Eucharist, is absolutely essential to our faith. As a fellow pilgrim said, “Every time I sat down for a meal, I was happy to be next to anyone and to hear their unique story and to appreciate their God-given gifts.” Can you imagine a church where everybody walked in, expecting to share a pew, and eager to sit next to and get to know a fellow parishioner? Now there’s a vision of heaven on earth!

As our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says repeatedly, “We’re Jesus people… [who are] crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God like Jesus…and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” Now I can close my eyes and picture the places where Jesus healed and taught, was killed and resurrected. And I believe more strongly than ever that Love wins.

The pilgrimage cemented my belief that the 7.4 billion inhabitants of Earth are all God’s children and my sisters and brothers in Christ. A former Anglican Bishop of Pakistan, Mano Rumalshah, “who resides and ministers in the Peshawar, a community on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a refuge for the Taliban and one of the most hostile settings on earth,” said that when he created a peace group, he didn’t want to call it “interfaith,” since that typically called to mind divisions – Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. Instead he called it Faith Friends – letting “faith be the magnet of our relationship.” With the deepening of my own faith over these rich and meaningful days, I have a new appreciation for just how magnetic our faith can be. 

– Scott Christian
For more on Scott’s experiences in the Holy Land, check out his full reflection here. 

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