After spending two weeks in Israel, the phrase I heard most was: “This is where…”
This is where Jesus grew up.
This is where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac.
This is where David fought Goliath.
This is where Deborah ordered the war to start, but only after it started to rain.
This is where Elijah conquered the prophets of Baal, then ran for his life.
I swam in the Sea of Galilee. I stood on Mount Carmel. I passed underneath the Holy of Holies, in tunnels that made me dizzy with claustrophobia. I prayed at the Western Wall. I ate Hummus in Nazareth (and, let’s be honest, in every other city I visited). I sat in the Negev desert, wide open with its conflicting desire and barrenness.
This is where it happened, I kept hearing. Right here.
But then I heard this caveat: It happened many layers underneath the ground upon which we were standing, hundreds of feet below. Layers of earth and time and history have covered all the years of conflict and peace. History has buried what happened long ago, and yet, there it is in real time, and you can smell it. Sometimes you can feel it.
The mystery of Israel is that the layers both cover and reveal what is happening right now.
To get to Jerusalem, you must ascend. You walk up, upon all the years of history, to the Mountain where it is said that time began. And when you get there, you find yourself standing on top of your own story, whether you knew it was your story or not.
Jerusalem is a city of layers and contours. When we checked into our hotel room and opened up our windows, Rage Against the Machine blared from a nearby wedding reception just outside the walls of the Old City. The next morning found us wandering through the olive trees of Gethsemane, the faint cries of betrayal whispering just as loudly, the ancient olive trees standing like sentinels, guarding the sacred past.
At the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock gleams golden in the morning sun, we saw faithful Muslims bowing in prayer towards Al-Aqsa Mosque that sits just two hundred yards away. The Dome of the Rock sits on top of the Foundation Stone, where Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice him, where Solomon’s temple stood for centuries before being sacked by the Babylonians, and where the Second Temple stood in the time of Jesus before eventually being destroyed by the Romans. There it all stands, layer upon layer, and if you could see a cross section in your mind’s eye, you’d see the rise and fall of you and me, and all of humankind.
We tend to think of our lives as a horizontal timeline, with the past splayed out behind us, sloping away and gone forever. We recall the good and the bad and we remember ourselves as we once were, sometimes cringing with regret and sometimes wincing because we liked that version of ourselves better. We act as if those selves aren’t with us anymore. But they are there, buried under the layers of today and yesterday. My history is not a horizontal timeline. I am my layers, and if I have the courage to integrate my present with my past, down through the layers and contours, I will find the clear way into the future. It’s all there, covering and revealing what is happening right now.
Because you and I have Goliaths to fight; they’re waiting for us right now. You and I are sometimes called to lands we do not know, before we know how to get there. You and I wrestle with God for a name we can proudly wear.
I am almost 43 years old; I’m a pastor to many, a father to three, and a husband to one. Half of my life is likely gone, maybe more than half. And I find myself at a threshold of sorts: how will I spend the energy of the rest of my life? What layers do I need to unearth so I can find my way forward?
Life is pilgrimage. We are always in search of the God who whispered our names long ago, and who calls us to go forth from our native land, to lands that we do not know. We are always wrestling with God to bless us, to name us, to call us beloved. We are always moving forward and also moving downward into the layers of the Story.
Where are you on the journey? What layers of history do you need to unearth so that you can find your way forward?
More to come.