03/23/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Holy Tensions: Lessons From a Christian Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

I have always loved water. Growing up, my friend Chris and I would spend hours of each day playing by and in a creek that ran near our apartment complex. I loved trying to balance on the rocks and watching the little crayfish swim by, but I especially loved those brave moments where we had the courage to actually step into the moving creek. I remember thinking with wonder that the water that was pushing my legs forward started way upstream and that as it flowed past, it might be moving some kid in another neighborhood. Refreshed, I would return home in time for dinner, longing to return to this holy play the next day.

My visit to the Holy Land was something like that. Stepping into an ancient stream of deep waters that originated thousands of years before me. A stream that has witnessed the ancient civilizations of David, Solomon and the prophets that I have read with awe all of these years. A stream that has seen kingdom after kingdom take power, tear down, and build up. A stream that saw Jesus born, live, die and resurrect. One which has witnessed nearly 3,000 years of war, peace, hope and fear. Amazing and tragic moments balancing on the ancient mountain peaks that stand as sentinels over this land that is deemed holy.

When asked to describe my recent visit to Israel-Palestine, I end up describing it as a place of "holy tensions." Even in its names. Israel to some, Palestine to others. Some avoid the risk of betraying a political opinion by sticking with "Holy Land." One can't even speak of the place without experiencing the tension.

Walking with a rabbi friend along a road that has held up the feet of sojourners for thousands of years, we considered the various sides of the some of the complexities within the Holy Land: The modern cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv and the tranquil country sides of The Galilee. Ancient buildings and ruins dating back to Biblical times surrounded by tall modern hotels built within the last few years. A deep abiding peace in holy places that have heard the whispered prayers of saints for generations and the frightening reality that war and violence are never very far away. And perhaps the most present tension, the very complex competing and interlocking narratives held by both Israelis and Palestinians. One would think that these and other tensions would paralyze a space, hindering it from progress. It is quite the contrary -- the tensions are somehow moving it forward, revealing a deeper truth caught somewhere in between.

Holiness and Trinkets

In the Old City of Jerusalem, near, but not on, the famous Via Dolorosa, stands St. Anne's Church, a place dedicated to the memory of Mary's mother. The acoustics in this 12th century Crusader-built sanctuary are among the finest one will ever hear. Pilgrim groups often break into song when entering this beautifully simple space. This beauty lies not only in the majesty of the hymns and praise songs offered up throughout each day, but also in the very real witness to the breadth of and diversity within Christianity. In just my short time visiting the church, I saw a group from Indonesia praise with hands raised, a Russian Orthodox group led by bearded priests in all black, a group from West Africa huddled in prayer, a German group listening to a tour guide's reflections and several other waves of tourists from the U.S. It's hard to not be moved to tears when hearing group after group praise God in their own language, sometimes singing familiar melodies reminding listeners that we aren't so different and that the borders between us are indeed thin. Holy.

And yet, there is always another side in Israel. Just a few steps away from this holy place, sojourners will encounter a seemingly endless number of souvenir stores on the streets of Old City Jerusalem. Tourists are invited inside where icons, holy oil, olive wood statues, rosary beads, Dead Sea lotions, shofars, scarves, tiny menorahs, key chains, mugs, maps, umbrellas, placemats, necklaces, rings and T-shirts are all for sale.

"How could they demean the holiness of this site by selling trinkets? How could they make money off of holiness?" I ranted to my journal. And while one no longer sees merchants who are selling doves and other animals for temple offerings and sacrifices, there are indeed plenty of merchants willing to sell you everything else that we happily offer to the powerful god of materialism.

But it's more complex than that, isn't it. I noticed that it's usually Arabs, specifically Palestinians, who are selling these souvenirs. It is easy for me to sit in judgment on the peddling of items that cost a few cents to make, marked up by several dollars. And yet, for many this is the only job that they can get. And it's a job that is feeding the mouths of their children. In some communities, tourism and the business that it brings to that community are the only game in town; thus, my self-righteous, judgmental posture has an ironic harmful side to it. Likewise, is it so bad to want to bring a piece of the Holy Land back with you?

A Deeper Tension

I have always been moved by Nathaniel's words uttered in the Gospel of John; "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" I was born in raised in Baltimore, Md., and I will always hold a deep love and gratitude for that wonderful city which played such an important role in my formation. And yet, I am also very much aware of the city's reputation. The challenges around crime, education, substance abuse and more, as well as the way that the city has been portrayed on various television shows, has caused more than one person to say to me, "Baltimore! Can anything good come there?" The fact that Jesus would call somewhere like Nazareth home and demonstrate that indeed something good could come from there always reminded me that God can and often does bring beauty from ashes and good from underdog cities like Nazareth and Baltimore. It's a powerful reminder that hope and light can come from the margins and not just the centers of power.

I entered this ancient city in the Galilee region in the North with the expectation of seeing a humble town quiet and full of small homes reflective of the 500 or so residents who likely lived there during biblical times. Instead, it was (with around 2,000 years passing since Jesus was among its residents) a modern metropolitan area with more than 200,000 mostly Arab individuals living there. But it wasn't the growth that caught my eye and presented another tension.

Like millions of pilgrims before us who have made their way to Nazareth, my group and I arrived at the Basilica of the Annunciation. It is hard to not be impressed by this and many other places of pilgrimage and worship in Israel. The Basilica is the most recent in a series of buildings built on the site believed to be where the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary telling her that she was to be with child and that the child would be the Son of God. Since as early as the fourth century, if not earlier, Christians have revered this site. The large sanctuary is awe-inspiring with the memorable large paintings from around the world with diverse representations of the Virgin and Child. Seeing amazing art from dozens of nations is another powerful reminder of the breadth of the Body of Christ. It's an amazing space. Just like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the space believed to be where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, on the sites where Jesus is believed by many to have died, been buried and come back to life.

All three of those sites were built under the auspices of Helena of Constantinople, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. These three magnificent churches in so many ways reflect the grand ascension of Christianity from the counter cultural prophetic movement of those at the margins who sought to reconstruct the center (of the lives of individuals and of the empire), to the favored religion of those in power.

This, I feel, is the greatest tension of the Holy Land, and the greatest tension perhaps within Christianity. Should the church (each individual building as well as the Church universal) reflect the prophetic marginalized spirit of Nazareth or should it instead reflect the centralized power of Rome?

This tension endures to this day. What should the relationship of the believer be with power? Do we speak truth to power or do we speak truth from power? Was the movement from an outlawed and persecuted faith to the favored religion of the emperor a part of God's will and sovereignty or something that has been quietly destructive? Or is it both? So often within the complexities of life, I've found that God is in the tension -- and above it.


In my reflections on my brief time in the Holy Land, I keep returning to the water, but not the small creek that I played in as a child -- rather, the much larger Jordan River that runs right through the heart of this beautiful space.

My experience at the Jordan River perhaps best illustrates the dueling sides of my pilgrimage. I had looked forward to visiting the Jordan River, referenced in both Jewish and Christian scriptures -- especially as the site of Christ's baptism in the latter. I had planned on reaffirming my baptismal vows in these ancient waters. After our bus parked outside of the state-sponsored Baptismal Welcoming Center, we walked into the gift shop (one must pass through it in order to get to the river). If you want to be baptized or in my case reaffirm your vows, you have to rent or purchase a white gown. Walking to the changing rooms, I was delighted to see a dove perched on a lamppost near the stairs that lead to the water. But my delight quickly changed to disgust and nervousness upon seeing a little nutria (a beaver-like animal, which most call a river rat) swimming in the area in which I was to be submerged.

While at the Jordan, the contrast between the dove on the lamppost and the river rat in the water presented a challenging icon of a peaceful good and a wild bad. And yet, like most tensions, there is truth on both sides with the deeper Truth lying beyond it. The almost tamed dove which alighted on the post just above the very profit-driven gift shop shows an attractive peace in the civilized welcoming center run by the state government -- a government that has worked hard to clean the water and make it safe for drinking and baptisms. And yet, the river rat is free and unbound, swimming back and forth beyond the boundaries made by human hands. It is wild and offers a powerful critique of the domesticated establishment. This Nazarene creature seems to point to something bigger, something far more beautiful that awaits us all downstream. I pray that we will have the courage to jump in these waters which once held the Body of Christ and swim beyond the boundaries to freedom. Or maybe we'll fly there. Or both.