wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

Paul Peterson, a co-leader on the trip to Israel that I’ve been blogging about recently, talked about his father’s reaction upon returning from Israel several years ago. “I get it,” he told Paul. “Old stones. Lots of really old stones.”

What’s impressive, of course, isn’t the stones themselves but how they got to where they are. Thousands of years ago somebody stacked them atop one another to make walls, houses, temples, and the like. I’ve been reflecting on all those ruins. What lessons do they have for us?

I’ve seen “old stones” before this trip–at the acropolis in Athens, the forum in Rome, and the excavations in Ephesus, to name three places that come to mind. The Levant contains ruins that are much older than those sites, though. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled about 11,000 years ago. When we went there we didn’t visit the site of the ancient settlements, but we did see very old ruins in other locations. For example, at Tel Arad there are ruins of a Bronze Age Canaanite city that is about 5,000 years old. The site was abandoned for about 1,500 years before the Israelites settled nearby in the 11th century B.C.

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

This pattern of successive settlements at the same site made an impression on me. We saw numerous tels–hills consisting of layer upon layer of settlement, each abandoned, then built upon by the next occupants. At the first site we visited, Tel Gezer, we sat near the city gates in the 13th level; 12 more settlements had been built atop those ruins. This level is thought to have been the city built by Solomon mentioned in I Kings 9, so it dated to about the 10th century B.C. There are more levels beneath this one; no one knows how many.

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

Tels confound our simplistic historical schemes that divide all of human existence into just a few categories such as ancient, medieval, and modern. Even if we look at single tel, it’s quickly apparent that many different people groups once lived there and these residents were often separated from each other in time and probably in customs as much as we are separated from figures like Julius Caesar or Clovis. That way of looking at human existence challenges our tendency to privilege living in the present, in modern times. We moderns are just putting down one layer. With the passage of enough time, if anyone remembers the USA they will probably be hard-pressed to say how it differed from the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg monarchy. That’s humbling.

For the most part, the ruins we saw were walled cities or fortresses. They were probably constructed out of stone because its sturdiness provided advantages when a neighboring king decided to invade. We learned something about what made for good fortifications. For example, the city gate was the most vulnerable point so a double wall was often built there, with a chamber between the walls to hold soldiers ready to fight anyone who breached the outer gate. Of course, even the most sturdy defenses could be surmounted. At Tel Lachish and again at Masada we saw massive siege ramps built by attacking armies (the Assyrians and Romans, respectively). At both sites the attackers were ultimately successful.

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Ancient Canaanites and Jews lived in a world much different from ours, but we can understand their impulse to protect themselves. Though we no longer literally wall in our cities, modern nations use munitions, firewalls, and border fences to protect against threats. On an individual level, we lock our doors and turn on our security alarms; some of us have guns to defend ourselves. We accumulate savings to protect our retirement, buy insurance to protect against loss, and limit our openness with others to protect our emotions.

City walls were for the most part a good thing, as are our modern forms of protection. Once we have such fortifications, though, we are tempted to rely entirely on them. Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judea:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh” (Jer. 17:5).

A couple verses later, he draws this contrast:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him” (v. 7).

Trust God. Do lock your door at night, though. None of the Old Testament prophets advised God’s people to dismantle the walls around their cities so that they would have to rely on God alone. There are a couple New Testament passages in which Jesus told his followers to dispense with ordinary precautions (e.g. Luke 10:4), but these instructions don’t seem to have been intended for everyone.

How do we insure that we depend primarily on God rather than turning to other sources of security? Jesus told stories about birds and flowers to help us with this (see Matthew 6:25ff). Birds and flowers don’t erect walls, but they’re doing fine. All the fortifications I saw on the trip are a good reminder that I, too, am prone to rely too much on my defenses. It’s important to remember that God is my source of security and only by trusting in him can I live in freedom, not in fear.

I’ve been writing recently about my experiences during a recent trip to Israel–see, for example, this post. I haven’t said much about Jesus yet, but he was on my mind throughout my time there. Several times I thought or said to someone “It’s incredible that Jesus was here.” I meant something different by that than when I remarked on places where other Biblical figures had been–David, Samson, Hezekiah, Peter, Paul, and the like. The difference has to do with who Jesus is. Christians believe that he was both divine and human–“fully God and fully man.” During the trip I think I came to appreciate both these aspects more fully.

This post will describe a couple insights I had into Christ’s divinity. First, there’s water. As I mentioned in an earlier post, hiking in the Judean wilderness gave me an appreciation for water and for Biblical descriptions of Yahweh as water for the soul. Thus, the psalmist compares his thirst for God to a deer longing for living (that is, flowing) water (Psalm 42), and Jeremiah said,

“…all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the Lord,
the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)”

Ezekiel described a vision of water flowing from the temple–God’s dwelling place–getting deeper and deeper the further it flows, eventually entering the “sea of stagnant waters,” or Dead Sea, transforming it into fresh water that sustains fish (Ezekiel 47:1-12). I swam in the Dead Sea, and it’s truly dead–nothing lives there. The image of it being restored to life is remarkable!

Christ applied the image of living water to himself. In John 4, Jesus breaks custom by asking a woman from Samaria for a drink and, when this puzzles her, he remarks, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” I imagine this response as something of an offhand comment, an “Oh, by the way, here’s something you might find interesting.” The conversation goes quickly from a cup of water to profound spiritual depths.

A couple chapters later, Jesus is in Jerusalem for  the Feast of Booths. Tim Keiper, our guide, explained that during the last day of this feast, there was a celebration in which everyone worshiped Yahweh, the living water. What did Jesus say on that day? “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. (John 7:37)” The connection Jesus made between himself and Yahweh couldn’t be more obvious. As C.S. Lewis put it, someone who makes such an audacious claim could only be one of three things–umad, evil, or truly God incarnate.

So Jesus is the living water available for all to drink. Another metaphor for him is the bridegroom.  Here, too, Jesus is describing himself using a term that in the Hebrew scriptures was reserved for Yahweh. For example, Ezekiel describes God as becoming the husband of his people: “I spread out my hem over you, and I covered your nakedness, and I swore to you, and I entered into a covenant with you,’ declares the Lord Yahweh, ‘and you became mine. (Ezekiel 16:8)” Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom when the religious leaders asked why his disciples didn’t fast; the disciples are the bridegroom’s attendants, he said, and don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them (Matthew 9:14-15). Other writers of the New Testament pick up this theme, describing the church as Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:23; Revelation 19:7-9).

Something that happened our first night in Israel made the bridegroom and bride theme particularly poignant for me. We were at our hotel, finishing dinner and looking forward to bed, when someone said, “There’s a wedding going on outside.” We went out on the hotel balcony, where we could see the Mediterranean Sea in the distance and, nearby, a courtyard where a traditional Jewish wedding was taking place. Portions of the ceremony were sung, portions were chanted, and portions were spoken. We were fascinated, even though we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. The service ended; joyful music played; the married couple came slowly down the aisle. Men danced in front of them, gradually retreating; women danced behind them. The bride was dancing, too. On and on it went. The ceremony took place at sunset, and the sunlight was gradually fading, eventually diminishing to a genial glow levitating above the sea.

There was an elderly Jewish lady on the balcony with us. She and I talked a bit about the wedding. Our conversation started like this:

Lady: It’s too bad I lost my husband. He would like to see this.”
Me (thinking he had died): “Oh! I’m so sorry you lost him.”
Lady: “It’s fine. He wandered away after dinner. He’ll show up.”

She told me that traditional Jewish weddings are held at sunset because that’s the start of a new day. She indicated that it isn’t typical for the bride to dance, as this bride did. The lady concluded, “She must be very happy.”

So I don’t think I’ll ever read those Bible passages about Christ and his bride the church without thinking of the wedding at twilight that started a new day, and also of the bride who danced for joy. The eschatological promise is that, when Christ returns, the wedding to end all weddings will take place. There’ll be plenty music and dancing then! I’m looking forward to it more than ever.

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Sunrise, Sea of Galilee

Sunrise, Sea of Galilee

One morning midway through my recent trip to Israel, I got up early, just before sunrise. Our tour group was staying at a resort on the Sea of Galilee, and I decided to go down to the dock and start the day in quiet reflection. I took a seat, and soon was captivated by the motion of the water. Medium-sized waves slanted toward the shore at regular intervals. Nothing unusual about that. But there were also smaller waves heading straight out from the shore, and a light wind rumpled another set of waves–ripples really–atop the other two wave patterns. I was entranced. I couldn’t recall ever having seen water acting quite this way.

Wadi Qelt

Wadi Qelt

Water had been a significant theme for our trip up to that point. Every day as we got on the bus, we found the aisle stocked with dozens of two-liter bottles of water. We were encouraged–even hectored–to top off the water reservoirs in our backpacks whenever we had the opportunity and to drink regularly throughout the day. This injunction was typically followed by a warning–“If you start to feel thirsty, you’re already getting dehydrated.” During a long hike down Wadi Qelt in sweltering conditions on our second day, a couple members of our group got overheated and nearly collapsed. I joined with a few others in helping one of these people down off the hillside to a stream in the valley. She was so weak it took over a half-hour for us to help her walk about a hundred yards. I was fearful for her, concerned that she couldn’t make it back to the bus or that she would have to be hospitalized. After she reached the stream and sat in the cool water for five minutes, though, she revived remarkably well, and was able to hike without difficulty another half-mile to our pickup point. Another encounter with water was a swim in the Dead Sea, salt content over 30%. The sea was so buoyant that it was hard to get my feet underneath me when I wanted to stand up. One person got water in an eye, and it took a great deal of effort to get that eye clear again.

During the first part of our trip, the most meaningful encounter with water for me was at En Gedi. We went there the day after the long, dusty wilderness hike I mentioned above. En Gedi is located alongside the Dead Sea in the desert, so I expected another day of dirt, rocks, and sun. I was surprised when, upon exiting the bus, we walked along a tree-lined path to a welcoming pool of water feed by a clamoring waterfall. Tim, our tour leader, told us we were in Wadi David, named after the eponymous former shepherd boy and future king who hid here from King Saul. The wilderness offered protection, and, as at this wadi, water in the desert provided refreshment.

Waterfall at En Geti

Waterfall at En Gedi

Tim talked about the importance of water in this arid wilderness. He cited a number of passages in the Psalter in which the psalmist wrote about being thirsty or desiring water. Among such passages is Psalm 63, described by the compilers of psalms as written by David when he was in the Judean wilderness. It begins:

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”

The image is vivid: just like parched land longs for water, so the psalmist longed for God. The land is characterized as not only dry but also as weary. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages, the term here means “faint, i.e. pertaining to being a weakened physical condition, requiring food, drink, and rest in order to recuperate.” Lacking a recent sense of God’s presence, David is weakened, in need of God in order to recover. Fortunately, he has a prior experience with God to draw on:

“So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory. (v.2)”

That gives him resources that, like food and water, revive him:

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. (v. 5-7)”

Why did this site and this psalm resonate so much with me?  Later I realized that for the last six months, I had been, if not in a desert, at least in a parched place. In January my church disbanded. I tried to remain part of a Bible Study while looking for another church, but that study has been suspended for the summer. I don’t exactly feel distant from God, but I do feel distant from his people, and that leaves me thirsty. I’m glad I was able to go on this trip with a church group–not my church, mind you, but still a group that served as church for me for a time. I appreciate the refreshment I received.

As for the waves in the Sea of Galilee, I decided to turn them into a metaphor. Here’s what I came up with:

  • the big waves slanting toward shore represent God’s unceasing initiative to make all things new,
  • the small waves going out are our yearning for the newness and wholeness that God is bringing about,
  • but our temptation is to focus not on God but the ripples of daily frustrations and annoyances.

May I do better at ignoring the ripples and responding wholeheartedly to the never-ending waves of love that constantly wash from God towards us.

I’ve been reflecting recently about my recent trip to Israel. As I’ve written, I gained  greater appreciation for the contexts which frame the Biblical story. Tim Keiper, who guided our tour,  talked extensively about the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts of various Biblical customs and stories. As insightful as his comments were, they wouldn’t have had the weight they did had he not carefully chosen the settings where he said what he did. In this post, I’m going to describe a few points he made, the settings where he made them, and the conclusions I drew.

We started the tour in the Shephela, the area of low hills between the coastal plain to the west and the mountainous region to the east. The Israelites occupied the mountains and the Philistines occupied the coastal plain. Battles between the two occurred mostly in the valleys that punctuated the hills and thus were the easiest routes for incursions by the Philistines or other peoples who lived in the plains from time to time, including the Egyptians and Phoenicians.

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

On our first day, we went to the Aijalon Valley and climbed Tel Gezer, site of several ancient cities that were occupied by various civilizations over thousands of years. One city constructed on the site was built by Solomon. From the top of the tel we could see both the Mediterranean to the west and the hill country to the east.

Early the next day, we climbed another tel (a tel is a hill made by layer upon layer of ruins, one atop the other), this time Azekah, guarding the next valley, the Valley of Elah. This was where the Philistines sent out Goliath, their champion, to challenge any Israelite who was willing to fight him. There were no takers until a shepherd boy named David decided that Yahweh would protect him against this mountain of a man. It took faith to accept the challenge of someone who seemingly  outmatched him so completely! “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine, (I Sam. 17:37)” David told King Saul, and so it was.

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

What stuck with me most that day, though, was the next site we visited, Tel Bet Shemesh, which has both Jewish and Canaanite ruins. Samson’s hometown of Zorah was located across the Valley of Sorek; Delilah was “a woman in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4).” Samson’s exploits occurred up and down this valley. Tim described both Samson’s mighty acts and his egregious failures to follow Jewish law. He didn’t excuse  Samson’s shortcomings, but he did note that it was more difficult to live in the Shephela, surrounded by temptations to immorality, than to live in the protection of the mountains. He said “the Shephela is the area of conflict and danger, and it’s easy to get tired when we are there.” He invited us to think of how that might apply to us.

I have always thought–simplistically as it turns out–that the Israelites and their neighbors were segregated by something like modern national boundaries and that conflicts between them occurred only during periodic military engagements. If there was instead an area of overlap where there was constant tension between different Weltanschauungs, or world-and-life-views, that provides a useful metaphor for our modern situation. We live in what Charles Taylor has dubbed “a secular age,” meaning not that everyone is irreligious but that religion is under constant pressure from the secular (and vice versa). In other words, our Shephela is not a geographical but a psychological region and, as Taylor explains, there is no moving away from it, though some try to do so by creating Christian enclaves. More than just a troubled figure driven by his passions, Samson may have been a victim of the struggles that accompany life in the Shephela.

Another example of how physical setting enhanced Tim’s teaching pertains to Herod the Great, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. On our fourth day we visited Masada, a huge mountaintop fortress by the Dead Sea that Herod surrounded with a wall and equipped with mammoth cisterns to supply water (capacity 10 1/2 million gallons, per the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible). He built an opulent three-tiered palace there, complete with a swimming pool. I couldn’t help but wonder what it cost in terms of human life (slaves were pretty expendable at the time) to provide such luxury in an arid wilderness. Several days later we visited  Caesarea Maritima, another of Herod’s huge construction projects, complete with artificial harbor, hippodrome, theatre, and mammoth palace. Finally, two days before our trip ended, we visited Herodium, Herod’s fortress and palace atop the highest mountain in the Judean wilderness.  The palace consisted of four towers of seven stories each along with a bathhouse, a theater, gardens, courtyards, and extravagant living quarters.




So, by this point, I was impressed by Herod’s building projects. Which of us will produce anything that will be so imposing after two millennia? If being remembered by history was his goal, he certainly achieved it. Yet, what did Herod really accomplish? The stones of his fortresses and palaces remain, but two of the three Herod-built sites we visited were abandoned within a century of his death (Caesarea remained a prominent city until the 7th Century, and later was a Crusader port).

At Herodium, Tim talked about Herod’s end. He died in 4 B.C. after an excruciating illness featuring intolerable itching, abdominal pain, and gangrene of his privates. He died within a year or two of Jesus’ birth. The book of Matthew reports that Herod was disturbed when the magi appeared looking for the newborn king (Matt. 2:3). Why would Herod have been troubled, since he was unlikely to live long enough to be challenged by a newborn? Possibly because he had built a kingdom that he thought would last long beyond his death. The prospect of another king threatened his dynasty.

Now, here is where physical setting comes into play. Herodium is just seven miles from Bethlehem. Much of the modern city is visible from the fortress. Tim imagines Herod looking down from his palace during the slaughter of the innocents, watching as his soldiers tried to eradicate the threat this tiny village posed to his kingdom. Whether or not Herod was there at the time (it was a favorite site of his and he was probably buried there), he was deeply affected by what he had heard. Approaching death, he was a troubled man.

So, the question that comes to mind is what kind of kingdom is worth building? A political and military kingdom like Herod’s, the ruins of which still inspire wonder today? Or the kingdom that had its start just a short distance from the fortress Herod named after himself, the kingdom of a carpenter whose woodwork has long turned to dust but who continues to build something more impressive than any of Herod’s projects? Christ builds his temple in human hearts. May his construction project never end.

Hiking up Tel Azekak

Hiking up Tel Azekah

I wrote recently about going to Israel with a tour group. The tour was intended as a pilgrimage; as I said in my earlier post, it was difficult to put aside my touristy ways and become more of a pilgrim, but it did eventually happen. I want to write more about some of what I learned during this Holy Land pilgrimage.

Our tour was led by Tim Keiper,a  former professor of Education at Western Washington University who became interested in Biblical history and archeology and went to Israel to study at Jerusalem University College.  One basic message Tim repeated over and over again in varying ways is that context matters. That certainly isn’t a new idea for me; for a long time my faith and understanding has been enriched by learning more and more about the cultural, historical, geographic, and literary contexts of the Biblical text. It is one thing to think of context while sitting at home reading the Bible or a commentary, though, and another thing to think that way while in the actual locale where Biblical events occurred. I think that’s true whatever sort of Holy Land tour you take, but it’s even more true when, as with Tim’s tour, the group both walked some portion of the land every day and  listened to a detailed explanation of Biblical references pertaining to that portion of the land.

I want to write about the two elements of the tour mentioned in the previous sentence. This post will be about  walking the land; a subsequent post will be about Tim’s teaching. In my earlier post, I wrote about walking the land as follows:

“We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down.”

It was hot every day except the last two, when we were in Jerusalem. It seemed to me at first that Tim was making things unnecessarily difficult for us by having us hike so much. In particular, I thought this the second day, when our bus let us off about a half-mile from the archeological dig at Bet Shemesh. We dutifully trudged down a dusty road, along a rock-strewn path, and up the tel, only to see another tour group exiting their bus in a parking lot a couple hundred feet from the site. I’ll admit it: I envied them!

To Bet Shemesh

To Bet Shemesh

Over the course of the tour, though, I came to appreciate our hikes. I was even disappointed when at places like Capernaum and Chorazin we had only a short distance to walk! What did I appreciate? As I alluded to above, I appreciated the deeper, more encompassing sense of context it gave me. Over and over again I marveled at the people who walked this land thousands of years ago without sunscreen, electrolyte replacement tablets, bottled water, or an air-conditioned hotel waiting at the end of the day. I imagined that living in these conditions either drew them closer to God or prompted them to reject him and look for an easier religious path. As I walked in the arid wilderness, along flowing streams, and up large hills, I gained more appreciation of the historical events that occurred in and the Biblical passages that referred to each kind of setting.

All that hiking was a gift in another way, in that gave me time for reflection (though I had to work to get rid of my self-generated distractions before I could make productive use of that time). I found myself singing hymns and praying. I reflected on the parts of the Bible that the Israelites may have been thinking about when they were walking through this landscape. For example, I thought of the Songs of Ascent, psalms that were sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for religious festivals. I must have recited Psalm 121, the only one of these psalms I know by heart, at least a couple dozen times. I also recited the Beatitudes and other passages from the Sermon on the Mount while hiking in areas where Jesus taught.

I was one of the older people on the trip, and all that hiking left me sore at the end of the day. Soreness was part of the experience, though. I was gaining not just a cognitive understanding of the Biblical context but a kinesthetic one as well. Sitting at home now, my body still remembers well what it experienced!

All that hiking also helped prepare me for the second aspect of context I mentioned above, the teaching that Tim gave regarding Biblical references to the places we went and things we saw. I’ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny


At Masada

I recently traveled to Israel. I went with a church group on a tour designed to enhance our faith by learning more about the history, geography, and culture of Biblical times. This was intended to be a pilgrimage and I tried to approach the trip with that mindset. In other words, I tried to be something other than a tourist.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a tourist is “a person who travels to a place for pleasure.” In contrast, the term ‘pilgrim’ can refer to any traveler, but more specifically it is “one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee.” I am a devotee of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and saw this trip as an opportunity to visit the places where God shaped his chosen people, especially those places where Christ walked and taught. As with most pilgrims, I hoped the movement that occurred would not merely be external but also internal, a journey closer to the heart of God.

The problem with such aspirations is that, regardless of my desire that it were otherwise, my schema for travel is mainly that of the tourist, not of the pilgrim. Our tour leader had prepared an ambitious itinerary of sites to visit, starting with Old Testament sites such as Azekah, Bet Shemesh, Tel Lachish, and En Gedi. Eventually we also went to New Testament sites such as Capernaum, Chorazin, and Caesarea Philippi and relevant extra-Biblical sites like Masada and Gamla. The tour ended in Jerusalem. The leader gave extensive talks explaining what we were seeing and relating it to the larger cultural, historical, and Biblical context. All this was interesting, but I was stuck in a tourist mindset. My thoughts were focused on such touristy matters as getting good photos, chatting with others on the tour, watching people on the street, eating well, and getting back to the air-conditioned bus (the last was understandable in that temperatures were regularly in the 90s and topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit at least once).

Hiking in the Wilderness

Hiking in the Wilderness

I think I managed to eventually think more like a pilgrim and less like a tourist There were a couple of things that prompted the change. First, there was the pure physicality of the trip. We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down. When matters of endurance and survival are foremost, it’s hard to maintain a tourist’s mindset. Too, such exertions fostered reflection on the conditions that the Israelites faced. When God compared his provision for his people with shade or water, that referred to deliverance in life-and-death conditions, not to superficial satisfactions. I have much more sense than I ever did that the story of God’s dealing with his people is bound to the geography and climate of where they lived.

The other thing that helped me think more like a pilgrim was a series of fasts. I got the idea for the fasts after Tim, our tour leader, said that a disciple is one who wants to become like his teacher. That’s something I want, but at the same time I tend to interfere with it happening. I got to thinking about what I was doing to keep from becoming like Jesus. My touristy ways were obviously part of the problem. So, over the course of five days, I fasted one day each from:

  • taking photographs
  • looking at my map
  • taking notes
  • using the internet
  • initiating conversations

Each fast removed something that was taking up too much of my attention. I started noticing and appreciating my environment more–the coloration of plants and stones, the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the trail beneath my feet. My mind had more empty space that started filling with prayer and song. I thought the fasts would be hard, but for the most part I enjoyed the freedom they gave me.

Now I’m back home, no longer a tourist or a pilgrim. Yet I think that the dichotomy between tourist and pilgrim pertains to daily life as well as to traveling. I too often act like a tourist, thinking in terms of my immediate satisfactions and not attending to how I’m being shaped by what I am doing. I need to be more aware that I am always being shaped one way or another–bent towards self-centeredness or towards humility and wholeness. I don’t yet know what I need to do to consistently take a pilgrim’s attitude toward my daily experiences. Whatever it takes, I do hope to become a perpetual pilgrim, always on a journey of spiritual transformation.