Sacred & Ordinary: Reflections from the Holy Land

I think I’ve always been a dreamer and yet the dreams I dreamed have never been completely out of reach or elusive. Somehow, I’ve never doubted their possibility. Maybe it’s a millennial thing; I’ve always been told I can do anything.

On the top of my list of dreams was to visit the Holy Land but to make it more difficult for myself, I dreamed of not only visiting the Holy Land but also traveling with experts and scholars from whom I could learn. When I happened to stumble across the Fuller trip to Israel/Palestine the summer after my graduation, my top-of-the-list dream became accessible. When my aunt offered to pay for the entire trip cost, I believed that God had a specific purpose in store for me and that this trip was not by chance.

Leading up to the trip, I surprisingly experienced moments of doubt and even disinterest in the Holy Land. It seemed ungrateful and out of character for me to not be excited about this incredible opportunity. I’d have thoughts wondering why I needed to go to the Holy Land when I have the presence of God with me at all times. I’d wonder if there was anything there that was relevant to my life in God presently. Even as I was on my flight to Israel, I began having doubts about the election of such a small people group in such a small piece of land. Why was this land so significant? Since reflecting about my experience in the Holy Land, I wonder if these feelings were foreshadowing to the struggles I would face on this trip; the struggles of the ordinary and the sacred and holding in tension the humanity and divinity of God and Holy Scripture.

On the second day of the trip, we were offered an invitation to a lecture by Stephanie Saldaña titled, “What refugees can teach us about hope, compassion, and our common humanity.” Saldaña had spent time with refugees all over the Middle East and she spoke with passion about a justice that looks like sharing stories, valuing heritage, and taking action.

By the end of that second day we had already visited some of the most significant and sacred sites for Christians: Golgotha and the tomb inside of the Church of the Holy Seplucar and the church at the Garden of Gethsemane. I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what Jesus would have wanted. I couldn’t help but think that Jesus would be more honored and venerated by the acts of kindness by Stephanie Saldaña than by church buildings and tourist attractions. I think this was the beginning of my disenchantment with the Holy Land.

The remaining ten days of the trip ignited my curiosity and exposed my ignorance. There were moments of inspiring wonder and moments of frustrating confusion. Each and every day was full of fascinating history lessons that left an impression on me and contributed to my own spiritual journey. I could talk about the uncontrollable tears that fumbled out of me at St. Anne’s Basilica or the hospitality of the Bedouin tribe that fed us the best meal on the whole trip. I could talk about the enlightenment and perspective that I gained about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or the strange power I felt at the Western Wall on Shabbat. However, the most impactful experiences came from the most ordinary and human things.

Things like political biases throughout ancient Israel and small village life in the first century.

In regards to politics, I like to stay away. Especially in the kind of drama we witness today. And somewhere in my brain, I came up with this idea that God was not political. God doesn’t pick sides – not Republican or Democrat!

But after two weeks of listening intently, scrambling to take detailed notes and asking a lot of questions, I realized that throughout history not only was God political but Jesus was really political too. It kind of upset me…actually it really upset me.

In the midst of this, I was receiving more information than my brain could process in a short amount of time. I could feel my emotional capacity getting full but I had to push forward because there was more to see and more to learn. But more and more I struggled to accept the strong political influence in the Bible. I wanted the Bible to be above the corruption and deceit of politics. And yet, I was learning that it wasn’t…it was smack dab in the middle of all of it. The stories in the Bible don’t sugarcoat the ugliness of humanity’s greed for power. And the stories of the Bible don’t portray God as detached, uninvolved or untouched by the political systems.

As I processed all of this with the professor who specialized in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East life, he said something that struck me: “What if God’s perspective, then and now, is biased and political? What if the challenge, then and now, is not to be impartial but to be on God’s side?”

Oh. Boy.

If that is my challenge, then I need to know where God stands. And how do I know when human opinions and thoughts have gotten in the way and muddied the waters?

Ultimately, what I have accepted is that the story of God throughout history is complex and dynamic. The words of God are not static and once I think I understand God, I realize that I only understand through a human lens. The God of the universe who is expressed in Holy Scripture is much more mysterious and different than the constructs I can create.

I think this makes spirituality and faith hard.

The religious history of Israel cannot be reduced to a simplistic, flat explanation that is steeped in modern evangelical frameworks. The Bible was written by human beings within a human context, but has been divinely inspired to strengthen our faith in God. It is equally divinely inspired and humanly composed. By faith, I have chosen to align with a long tradition of biblical infallibility that seeks the heart of God in the scriptures.

The full humanity and divinity of Christ helps bridge this theological struggle. And it is the humanity of Jesus that I found to be refreshing and soul quenching.

In the small towns of Nazareth and Capernaum and on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was so human. He grew up in a small village, doing manual labor and enjoying family and friendships. There wasn’t any extravagance to most of his life. It was a simple, humble, hardworking, local, homegrown kind of life. That fascinated me.

I read an article that said, “Jesus is most divine when he is most man.”

The theological discussions regarding the full divinity and full humanity of Christ are difficult to understand and digest. There is an element of mystery and unknowing that must be accepted with faith. We believe that Jesus is fully God, yet we read the history and learn the archeology of the fully human Jesus in his earthly context. The acceptance of divinity has been natural for me. It is the humanity, the ordinary and the plainness that has been difficult to compute and receive.

While my expectation of the Holy Land was to experience the divine and sacred, it seems that God desired for me to experience the ordinary. The doubts that I experienced before the trip prepared me for this tension and struggle. However, as I reflect on this trip, I believe that God has invited me into a deeper and more full understanding of the divine through such ordinary things. I wasn’t necessarily disenchanted with the Holy Land…I just realized how divinely ordinary it is.

My time in the Holy Land impacted me in more ways than I could have ever expected. I will never forget being able to see geographical places with my own eyes that I have read about in the Bible, like standing on top of the city of David looking across the Kidron Valley toward the Mount of Olives or walking from Bethlehem to Jerusalem or sailing across the Sea of Galilee. As I read the scriptures, I can visually imagine the words on the page and the story comes alive.

I am grateful for the blessing and opportunity to visit and explore the Holy Land. God met me in ordinary ways by challenging my traditional understanding of scripture and disrupting my understanding of sacred. How I relate to the God of Israel is more mysterious and how I relate to Jesus is more personal. I am humbled and honored to have learned from brilliant scholars and witnesses of the glory of Christ. The experience was a beautiful display of God’s sovereignty and God’s imminence to the created world.

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