FOR PILGRIMS, JOURNEY MORE IMPORTANT THAN DESTINATION
By MEREDITH STONE
Did you feel closer to God?
This is the question that I have been asked several times since returning from a two-week trip to Israel/Palestine in May.
And I must admit that I haven’t been exactly sure how to answer the question.
On the one hand, I definitely had significant and meaningful experiences with God while in Israel/Palestine.
As you’re riding in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, it’s tough to not feel the presence of Christ when the driver turns off the engine so you can imagine what the instant calm might have been like when Jesus said, “Quiet, be still.”
As you sit and pray in sacred spaces venerated for their significance in the life of Christ, it’s difficult not to feel convicted by Jesus’ teachings.
As you place your hand on the Western Wall, where so many have come to sense the presence of the Almighty God, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of connection not only with God, but also with all of God’s people who have sought God in that space.
But on the other hand, when I am asked if I felt closer to God, sometimes I begin to deconstruct the question.
Because for some, a trip to Israel can become a way of validating or proving their faith.
To hear one’s tour guide describe that this is the very spot where Jesus was crucified, and to touch that spot, can become a physical way to authenticate or corroborate the existence of Jesus, what he did, and how that impacts our lives.
I found myself having this conversation with my fellow pilgrims many times over the course of those two weeks. Even though our tour guide tells us with assurance that these are the remains of the very house that Peter, his mother-in-law, and Jesus lived in during Jesus’ ministry, does it really matter if this is the actual house? Would it change something about our trip, the place, or us if it was where Jesus, Peter, and Peter’s mother-in-law slept?
For me, it didn’t matter one bit, regardless of what our tour guide said. I think that faith, by definition, requires that we believe and shape our lives in a certain way WITHOUT requiring tangible proof. I don’t need archaeology to believe in Jesus..
…but it sure does bring the story of God’s people and Jesus to life in a whole new way!
Even if that wasn’t Peter’s house, or it wasn’t the spot where Jesus was crucified, both of those things were probably in the vicinity of where we were honoring those things.
When Jesus started out on a journey, he probably saw some of the same rocks we were looking at, maybe took a moment to stare out across the Sea of Galilee as we did, and then headed on his way. I found myself wondering how did that location shape Jesus’ imagination of his ministry? How did the people there impact Jesus’ character and concerns?
Even if the spot we saw wasn’t where Jesus was crucified, his crucifixion happened near that space. And for thousands of years, pilgrims, just like me, have approached this particular place to touch a stone and remember the sacrifice of Christ. Being connected to millions of pilgrims over thousands of years is a pretty holy act in itself.
On this one tiny strip of land, not much larger than the state of New Jersey, God revealed God’s self to people for thousands of years. Then, in that geographical location, God chose to become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The same air, ground, vegetation, landscape that we visited was the air breathed in, ground walked on, and vegetation ate by Jesus.
Without the archaeological sites (which the nerd in me totally loved!) and the apologetic stance of needing physical proof, that in itself was worth the trip.
Pilgrimage is a physical journey through which one seeks deeper connection with God. The journey of a pilgrim can be to any place where the connection might exist and is found more in the journey than the destination itself.
So I guess I would have to answer the question, “Yes, I did feel closer to God…but maybe not in the way you would think.”
Meredith Stone is Assistant Professor of Scripture and Ministry at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology & Seminary