And so it came to pass that despite a severe cold, hacking cough and an inexplicable sense of dread that possessed me prior to departure, I visited the Holy Land. Israel and Palestine studied with the thoroughness of someone seeking a theology degree. On the bus by 8am and on and off all day as we witnessed one historic ruin and miraculous site after another. We listened and looked until we were numb with information, finally making it back to the hotel for an early supper and bed.
Our first six days were by the Sea of Galilee. It was mystical watching the sun rise over the water, knowing that it looked the same two thousand years ago. Although it was beautiful, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to jump in the boat with the disciples and cast a net. Pulling it up empty, I wanted the Holy Spirit to send the fish away to teach a lesson about faith and fear.
I want to be one of the thousand Jews who fled Jerusalem during the Roman occupation. Outwitting the Romans, they lived in King Herod’s village on Masada for years, ultimately killing themselves rather than be held captive. I want to draw lots as they pick the twelve to hold the sword as suicide was a sin.
I don’t want to visit churches venerating events that happened long ago, shop for souvenirs and eat Mediterranean food. Thanking the Palestinian chef for his scrumptious cauliflower and rice pie and appetizers, I am struck by the cavern that yawns between me and the disciples. Wanting to be closer, I imagine him drawing up a chair and sitting beside me.
I am the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus knew her sins and all about her many husbands. I want Jesus to touch my hand and tell me to go and tell others about the living water. I want to listen to him and follow.
When Caiphas’ evilly plotted to condemn Jesus, I want to throw myself at him, beating his head and denouncing him. I am sick with guilt and the possibility that some of the blame is mine. That like Peter, I probably would have denied our love for each other. These feelings run so deep they must be true.
When I gaze at the Temple Mount or lean into the wailing wall lifting my family, the Palestinian-Israeli relationship, the Syrian refugees and world peace, a numbing silence reverberates and it doesn’t feel holy. Yet I look around at the hordes of Jews and Arabs in traditional dress, big furry hats, black oversize skirts, hair covered and I can tell they feel something because they are crying and moaning and rocking in their despair. “I want to feel something too,” I cry to God.
The crush at the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus is such that our feet are lifted off the ground. Folks crowd under the rock altar where tradition tells Jesus may have hung on the cross. But it doesn’t seem possible. As young drummers bang and frolic in the courtyard, a group of protesters collapse in the entryway and it seems desolate. “Where are you?” I cry as Mary Magdalene did when she found the tomb empty and feared Jesus stolen. Yet still he is not there.
The dust of the dessert is covered with green crops, olive trees, wheat, corn, orange and lemon trees, grapes and mangoes. You hardly recognized it as a dessert unless you looked closely for the water pipes snaking through the sand. But there is not enough water. They are fighting over both water and territory. Jordan and Israel siphon fresh water that should feed the Dead Sea as it shrinks to dangerous levels. And still they bicker.
I swam in that sea. My arm hurt so much that I did the breast stroke and back stroke and floated forever in that salt marsh. Salinity 37%, so thick you could hardly stand up, the density pushing and holding you horizontal. “Lady, lady, don’t swim!” they shout as I slide by. “Why?” I ask, confused. “You could die if it gets in your mouth. Read the signs.” But I don’t read them and probably never will.
Two days later we were leaving the Jaffa Gate for the airport. We boarded the bus and as we were driving away fifteen police cars blue lights blazing raced by. The Jaffa Gate closed and traffic came to a standstill. Turning around after many pensive moments, we knew a significant act of terror had occurred. I prayed deeply for a car accident or fire, “Don’t let it be conflict. Don’t let more be hurt or killed. Keep the tourists safe, God, including us. Help us get to the airport,” I begged silently.
The next day we heard two policemen had been shot at the Jaffa Gate, just minutes after we left. We learned about the group of twelve from Vanderbilt who were stabbed, one fatally. A West Point graduate and Navy Seal died trying to protect others. His wife kneeling at her own wailing wall now. There was another incident that day but the media finds it redundant and so there is no news.
The land is old. Jesus was in Jerusalem only three years. There was prejudice and religious persecution then and two thousand years later, people are still killing, stabbing and hating in the name of religion. Each sect believes they own the holy city. This monument is mine. This temple, this house, this tract of land belongs to me. Their beliefs trump love and so they continue to hate. Can’t you hear the wailing, the whip flogging and biting into his back, thorns stripping his flesh and nails piercing his wrist? Don’t you experience anguish as a young leader hoping to bring entrepreneurial businesses into a war torn country lies bleeding to death?
I hear God sobbing. I feel His desperation. I wonder at a universe that continues to ignore the message of the living Lord that we must deny our mother and father, son or daughter and follow Him. “Pick up your cross and follow me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
There must be a time to end divisions and barbed wired segmentation of a wondrous land, to live in peace and break down boundaries that destroy human spirits. The reason God sent his son, had his son live on earth and offered him unto the cross was to end sin, hatred and death. But just like Eve’s decision in the Garden, the choice is ours.
NYTimes.com: Solar Project Pairs Muslims and Jews to Aid West Bank Farmers