In my parents’ yard sits a big hunk of limestone. When I was a little girl, we lugged this rock home from Osage County, Missouri—a gift from my great-great-uncle Ed, who lived out his golden years in a furnished chicken coop.
I remember how it weighed down the car’s rear-end when my dad heaved it into the trunk. A strange souvenir maybe, but it was a special reminder of the chunks of limestone scattered over the ground and in the quarry near my great-grandparents’ crumbling homestead. At some point, the Lambeths had come from England to live in the hills and hollers of Missouri, and the GI Bill brought my grandpa to St. Louis, then southern Illinois.
Back to the limestone. It is shaped like a bird’s nest, with rough stone around the sides and a shallow pool hollowed out of the top by Uncle Ed, who quarried limestone throughout his ninety-some years. Sitting in my parents’ yard, the rock is sometimes a resort pool for birds. Sometimes it offers a sip of water for a thirsty animal. Other times, it’s a bone-dry begging bowl—asking the skies for a few drops of rain.
Hot summer days reveal rings of minerals left behind by evaporated rain. In autumn it collects dead leaves and debris. In winter it does what a rock does best: sits there, contracted and still.
Although I walked past this rock in every season of my childhood, I never gave it much thought until I traveled to Israel on a Holy Land pilgrimage with my church. I noticed from my charter bus window the strong resemblance between the highway bluffs and caves of Israel and those of southeastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois, where I’ve lived my entire life. The landscape of Israel is varied, from desert to lush farmland and even snow-capped mountains in the north. If you’re looking for the unfamiliar or exotic, you will find it. But it was the familiarity of this ancient limestone landscape that spoke to me.
To prepare travelers for our upcoming trip to Israel, Rev. Shane Bishop held a few orientation meetings. During one of these meetings, he posed a simple ice-breaker question: “What are you most looking forward to seeing on the trip?” Aside from reading the itinerary a few months earlier, I had done no research and could barely remember what we were supposed to see.
While many people spoke of longing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, when my turn came, I blurted that I was looking forward to seeing everything there is to see. Which was true, but not very interesting, and definitely not an A+ Sunday School answer.
Truthfully, I’d been thinking of it not as a pilgrimage or religious journey, but like any other trip: endure the flight and/or ride, enjoy the scenery, learn cool things, and head home with some new insights about other parts of the world. I don’t like to research a locale too deeply in advance, probably because I enjoy surprises and possibly because I hate disappointment. It’s part of my personal expectation-management system.
The funny thing about traveling, no matter how exotic or mundane the location may be, is this: wherever you go, there you are. I’d love to be tan and thin when I go to the beach, but it’s always just me at the beach—with a slight sunburn. Wherever I go, there I am.
However, at this meeting I realized many of my fellow travelers were expecting a dramatic spiritual experience in the Holy Land. I started to reconsider my expectation-management system. I may be a little slow on the uptake, but I began to wonder if I might experience something spiritual and transforming while walking where Jesus walked.
Back to the limestone, this time in Israel. The Dead Sea is a large bowl about 1,500 feet below sea level, with awesome stone ridges sweeping around its perimeter. Stepping down into the super-salty, mineral-rich water, I felt like a bird in my parents’ heavy birdbath. The water of the Dead Sea seemed strangely alive, lifting me to the surface, surrounding my skin with the touch of oily fingers. It was the most astonishing experience of the trip—a bodily experience. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this short book, I’ll describe my experiences in the Holy Land through the five senses, partly by necessity of not knowing how to wrangle all that I experienced into a cohesive whole, partly because spiritual experiences originate in the physical. We couldn’t walk in the footsteps of Jesus without having feet, after all. Furthermore, we couldn’t do it unless Jesus had had feet—unless God had been made flesh. And besides having two feet, Jesus was a man with at least five bodily senses like ours.
When we try too hard to draw sharp boundaries between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the sacred, we expose cracks in the box we’ve built to contain God. God can’t be contained in a box, try as we might, but ironies like this are part of the journey. On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land you might notice incongruity between the desire to locate God’s presence in stones or cathedrals rather than inside oneself within the body of Christ—or maybe the irony of marketing and tourism of God’s localized presence.
Things that make you go hmmm.
Since I love the water, wading into the Dead Sea was one of the highly anticipated stops on the itinerary, and it did not disappoint. When we arrived at the beach area, I noticed a sign prominently posted with a list of safety guidelines: “Safe Dead Sea Bathing.”
I had to read the sign more than once because my jet-lagged brain divided up the words into two phrases, “Safe Dead” and “Sea Bathing.” I understood “Sea Bathing” as swimming, but “Safe Dead” stumped me. Finally, I put it together more logically—a guide to safe bathing in the Dead Sea.
(Travel tip: blame all confusion on jet lag.)
Yet in this phrase, “Safe Dead,” is a striking incongruity. As I floated in the strange, grayish water, you better believe I kept the safety instructions in mind. I even carried a bottle of water to drink while floating out there, heeding the warning to “consume drinking water frequently.”
I’d rather be safe than dead.
Even so, “Safe Dead” makes a certain kind of sense to followers of Jesus. As a Christian I believe there is safety even in death, for the promise of eternal life is at the heart of the Good News that Jesus brought to the world—from the precise locality of the ancient Roman province of Judea.
With a wink and a smile at some of the ironies I noticed, I wrote this poem on the bus ride back to the hotel, sticky with the distinctive residue of safe Dead Sea bathing.
the fine line
I, for one,
will never be
after this trip
Each of us travels to the Holy Land for different reasons and with varied expectations. I wanted to see the places I had read about in the Bible, like the Sea of Galilee and the Garden of Gethsemane. I suppose I went to experience the part of the world where God appeared in a particular place at a particular time. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son to live and die and live again in ancient Judea—to serve the locals and to save the world.
The apparent incongruities, like the ones I’ve mentioned, began to make sense to me only after returning home.
Before I get to that, I must tell you about what I smelled.