Ten Things From Ten Years of Israel Tours
Thing One - Is that the same moon?
I have a friend in Israel who is also a guide. A few years ago someone asked him, “Is that the same moon we see back in the USA?” Yes, this really happened.
I can’t tell you the number people on my own tours, who ask me if the snail shells in the desert are left over from Noah’s flood. Actually, they are desert snails, which live in the desert.
As a joke, I once said there is a sandbar in the Sea of Galilee that Jesus used to walk on water. This is not even a funny joke. But a few days later a man on my tour shared just how much he was struggling with his faith after learning about the sandbar.
These lapses in judgment are pretty harmless and maybe it’s the jetlag. But it can get worse. Another guide I know had a man jump from his balcony, thinking he would be unharmed. He had Jerusalem Syndrome, a real thing, where people suddenly believe they are Jesus or a prophet or are being held by angels. The man almost died.
What is it about the “Holy Land?” It seems to have the power to trigger psychological disorders and to erase basic facts from the second grade. It’s as if it has the power to turn off reason and common sense for a week or so. It’s as if a miracle could happen at any moment, that God is somehow more active on his home turf than back home. And tour guides take full advantage of this, often telling people just what they want to hear, even if the guide does not believe any of it and even if the information is false. This is unfair and unhelpful.
I know this feeling of Holy Land specialness. I have felt it myself. For many of us, so much of our spiritual worldview is shaped by the soil, the wind, the heat and the landscapes of Israel. The land of ancient Israel gave birth to the Bible itself. And this is an amazing thing. To actually be in the Holy Land is like being able to enter Narnia or Hogwarts, the places of one’s childhood imagination. People on my tours express just how much visiting a real place make the Bible real. And it does. It is a gift. And it also brings out the crazy.
The “Holy Land” is a recipe for serious specialness. It is the combination of a so-called Promised Land, with a chosen people, together with the stories that support the very foundations of one’s notion of truth. Christians love specialness. I guess specialness is not a bad place to start. Thinking that God did something special in one place, at one time, and likes one place better than other places, is not necessarily a bad way to begin. It puts God somewhere, namely over there, in the Holy Land. And thanks to cheap oil, we can fly over there for a week.
This specialness is true in one sense. The Bible is rooted in real events, even if not everything is historical. And the stories and events happened in real places. The landscape itself gave birth to the symbols, images, and metaphors of the Divine that many of us still carry around. “The Lord is my Shepherd” can be experienced uniquely in the deserts in which the image was born.
Most tour guides and bus drivers and companies and pastors want to give people an experience that confirms everything they already knew before they signed up. In fact, you can travel around the Holyish Land in a well-insulted bubble, having never experienced that Israel is also just a place where people live, a lot of people, from all over the world, from different religions and families and histories. You can drive to ancient sites and never ask hard questions. You sail on the Sea of Galilee and never really ask, “Who was this enigma from Nazareth?” And this is too bad. Real pilgrimage is adventure into the unknown, not the known. The same goes for “following Jesus.”
I’ve learned that Israel is not the “Holy Land,” not any more or less holy than anyplace else. This in fact is what makes a visit so rich and messy. History is messy, if you will really take a look. The Bible is messy, if you’ll ask new questions. Faith is messy, is you let Israel push against some of your assumptions and convictions. And human beings are messy, then and now.
The answer is, “Yes, yes. That is the same moon we see back in the USA.” And maybe it’s okay to fall in love with the moon rising over the Dead Sea, in all its specialness, so we can fall in love with the same moon back home. Maybe we can learn to love the lake where Jesus walked so we can love the lakes back home, sandbars or not.
I believe we need to talk with the past, with all it’s unknowns and messy edges, so we can learn to talk with the messiness of the present. It’s worth visiting the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the Israeli mall and the Shuk, not because God lives any particular place, but because God lives in all particular places and in between, in the cracks maybe, if God lives anywhere at all. Maybe if we love the “chosen people,” or think we do, we can start to learn to love an actual person, no matter who their mother or father happen to be. Maybe a few Palestinian and Jewish friends can help us be friends with our own neighbors, even if we can’t quite love our neighbors as ourselves.
We need more ordinariness in this thing we call the spiritual life. I hate to tell you this, but the souvenirs are made in Pakistan and the holy water is from the tap anyway. I hope that when people say yes to a pilgrimage, some great adventure, the insulated bubble pops. I hope that whatever is real, ordinary, lovely, disappointing and surprising fills the new open spaces. I hope that whatever specialness is present at first will be the beginning of the embrace of the ordinary.