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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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.


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.

A bucket list is a list of things that someone wants to do before they die.  According to an  article by June Thomas in Slate, the term wasBucket List popularized by the 2007 movie of that name and first was used in the sense we now think of it in a 2004 book.  Ten years ago, no one was making bucket lists.  Now it seems that everyone is.

The site bucketlist.org invites people to create an online bucket list, add to it as new ideas come to mind, and check off items as they are accomplished.  As of this writing, the site reports 63,826 members, 1,144.887 goals, and 192,121 completed goals.  A blurb on the site states “There are thousands of people on Bucketlist living massively successful lives. Feel free to follow the individuals with similar goals or invite your own friends and family.” Among the most popular goals on the site are “Learn to Paint,” “Backpack Europe,” “Ride a Hot Air Balloon,” and “Hike the Appalachian Trail (take note, Mark Sanford).”   Lists tend toward travel (“Visit the Pyramids,” “Travel to all 7 Continents”), experience (“Swim with Dolphins,” “Be in a Flash Mob”), and achievement (“Set a World Record,” “Learn French”).

It’s interesting to me that most users of bucketlist.org are young and presumably aren’t expecting to die anytime soon.  The goal of maintaining such a list—to complete the bucket list before kicking the bucket—seems to frame life as a contest between oneself and death.  I win if I finish the list before death snatches me away.  Checking off items on a bucket list seems to be a modern version of the denial of death that Ernest Becker thought was so central to human motivation. He didn’t think we actually convince ourselves that we won’t die but that we work to keep at arm’s length the distress that can be produced by thinking about our mortality.  An alternative to making a bucket list is to take the approach of this blogger, who wants to avoid a race with death and instead just start doing interesting things as they come to mind.

I’ve never written a bucket list.  At my age, I wouldn’t be likely to win any contest with death!  As I think about what I would put on such a list, I realize there are quite a few books I would like to read yet and a couple of places I would like to visit (the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Prado in Madrid).  Creating a list of books seems futile (I would always be adding more titles than I checked off), but traveling to those two museums does seem feasible.  There it is, I now have a two-item bucket list!

Swimming With Dolphins.  Image: bucketlist.org

Swimming With Dolphins. Image: bucketlist.org