Wade in the water/wade in the water, children/wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water (African-American spiritual)
Flat Polycarp and I had all kinds of things to say about our wanderings through the UK. The first two-thirds of my sabbatical journey were easy-going, green and friendly. In contrast, upon my arrival in Israel/Palestine, all my muscles tightened, words stopped working and the travel experience became largely sensory and visceral. So no blog for a week.
One week ago I arrived in Tel Aviv. It was before I even had left London, however, that I entered Israeli territory. I spent 20 minutes at Heathrow answering questions about why I was going to Israel, who I was seeing, what I was doing, where I was staying. And for how long. And why was I going, again? I don’t know anyone there? Where was I staying? Who? What? Why?
This is my second time in the Holy Land. Last time, our tour guide was an Israeli Jew: a scholar and former soldier born the same year as the nation. This time, I am taking a course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem (“Women of the Bible”), and our guide is an Israeli Arab Christian. Suffice it to say the two men tell the story differently.
This land we call “Holy” is a strange place. Bitterly contested for thousands of years, given by God to several people at once: the land itself is a story. From the desert wilderness to the cities to the lush Galilee area, today’s people live right on top of the ancestors.
We pilgrims have traveled the land and told the stories of the women, in their places. We remember some of them by name: Bathsheba, Elizabeth, Martha and her sister Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and of course Mary of Nazareth. Others are known to God, but we know them only by their relations or their deeds: Jephtha’s Daughter, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman healed of the hemorrhage, the woman who talked to Jesus at Jacob’s well. All these women lived and died in an area which today can be traveled from top to bottom in less than three hours.
You know how in the movie National Treasure, one of the great finds is this freaky pair of glasses with multiple, colored lenses? Manipulation of the lenses made it possible to decode the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This land could use such a translation device.
One’s view, and one’s perspective–one’s truth– depends entirely on the lenses one sees through, and where one stands. There are infinite contrasts and layers: of history and religion, hate and love, war and peace. We strain to understand this land, but ultimately it can only be felt in the gut.
I waded in the water at Banias, one of the three springs that create the River Jordan. The springs rise on the Israel/Syria border, form the boundary with the Kingdom of Jordan, flow into the Sea of Galilee and beyond, and finally die in the Dead Sea. Banias is a paradise of archaeology and greenery and cold water. It also sits adjacent to a mine field. Like I said: one’s experience depends on where one stands.
The Holy Land speaks and sings and prays and scolds and feeds. The music of prayer layers–like baklava–with the music of the people’s speech and the smell of spices and dust. Depictions of the Lion of Judah pop up all over: near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in Christian cathedrals and monasteries in the desert. Like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, this lion engenders awe and fear and deep love: this is not a tame lion. We must not presume to say we understand it.
The separation walls and barbed wire, the soldiers and the checkpoints, are outward signs of deep divisions. And yet they do not tell the true story. So many people- Jew, Muslim and Christian-are working and praying for peace and the healing of the Holy Land. Last Sunday at St. George’s Cathedral, we sang The Church’s One Foundation. Like a cloth woven of many textures and colors, we embodied the people of God as one body. We sang in English (from several continents) together with Arabic:
Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth. Her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name she blesses, partakes one only food. And to one hope she presses with every grace endued.