Israel

My wife, Barb, and I recently returned from a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel. The opportunity to join a group from our community on a pilgrimage surfaced about a year ago. Though not sure of the financial ability to make the trek, Barb and I agreed together that we should move toward this experience.  It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us (cf Acts 15:28).

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two things in mind.  I discovered over the years that I am able to process my theological learnings and ponderings through writing, especially if I’m writing for others to understand (I credit my doctoral work at Bethel University for solidifying this for me).  So blogging has become a means of processing for me and in this posting, I will start to assess the amazing opportunity we had to visit the land central to our faith.

Secondly, I want to develop a theology that is practical, both for me and those reading these blog posts.  Thus the descriptor of this blog: We each need a theology that is practical for day-to-day living. A simple definition of theology is the attempt to understand God and what he is up to. Practical Theology Today is a blog focused on gaining a better understanding of God so that we can join in his work.

Though we went on this pilgrimage because it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us, I didn’t go simply to “get closer to God” (though that certainly happened). I think I traveled to the Holy Land to solidify my theology (keeping in mind the definition of theology), further my understanding of God, and ultimately enlighten my journey as a Christ-follower.  So please join me as I start processing my trip…

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

As I said, this was a pilgrimage.  Our leaders, David and Elizabeth Sparks of Footstep Ministries, regularly referred to our time together as a pilgrimage. I’m beginning to understand the significance of the terminology. By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey of a pilgrim. A pilgrim is one that journeys in foreign lands and travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee. We certainly got to do that. The second definition of pilgrimage is the course of life on earth. The pilgrimage continues!

Pilgrimage is the course of life on earth.

With Context as one of my top CliftonStrenghts, I suspect visiting the land we call Holy will have a transformative effect on my ongoing pilgrimage. It occurred to me that God is the designer of the concept of pilgrimage (i.e., regular journeys to the temple) as part of the Israelite’s course of life (with their God).

Four times a year they were instructed to trek to the temple in Jerusalem for various festivals, with Passover as the granddaddy of them all. As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels as Christ-followers, we read several times about Jesus and his disciples, his students, going up to Jerusalem to attend a festival (the last one, the Passover, leading to his crucifixion).

Consider that journey, that pilgrimage from the Galilee region to Jerusalem in the first century. It was a 100-mile (160 km) walk, covering most of a week. They would typically travel south along the Jordon River to Jericho, then west the final 20 miles (32 km) up into Jerusalem on the road made famous by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. [When the Gospel authors wrote “go up to Jerusalem,” that’s what they literally meant. The elevation of Jericho is roughly -850′ (-260 m) – yes, below sea level. Jerusalem’s elevation is close to 2500′ (760 m) above sea level – a climb of 3350′ (1020 m).]

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem (on the far side of the wadi)

As a Lenten practice this year, I’ve been reading through the Gospels. One does not need to spend a lot of time immersed in the Gospels to realize that Jesus and his disciples did a lot of walking. In addition to their regular Jerusalem treks, they traveled from Capernaum out to the Mediterranean Sea, north to Tyre and Sidon, north to Caesarea Philippi, south to Samaria – to name a few of their journeys. After seeing the very rugged, hilly, and rocky geography and topography of Israel, I’m beginning to realize how much time they spent together “on the road” (or on pilgrimage?) navigating the terrain.

As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels, we begin to realize that much of Jesus’ teaching was directed toward his followers as they journeyed from place to place, as they trekked the hills and valleys of Israel. It’s the nature of following – being with Jesus and learning from him (see Follow the Leader). I picture those first-century followers watching Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God throughout Galilee with an approach significantly different than they had ever seen or expected, then Jesus taking them on long treks, pilgrimages, where he could help them understand what was going on, help them better understand the God of the Kingdom.

As Christ-followers, we are on a lifelong pilgrimage to seek and understand the God of the Kingdom. May it not be just a course of life on earth but rather the course of our life on the earth. Immersion in the Gospels is primary to our pilgrimage; a trip to Israel is a close second!