On old experiences in light of new ones

Well everyone, there isn’t much to say other than the semester is almost over and I’m still trying to keep myself from forgetting everything I’ve learned. Such a thing can only end in failure, especially for me. I guess it’s not completely over yet, but as I take my last final tomorrow and allow God to put the finishing touches on this semester, I can’t help but think about how fast everything went. I can’t help but remember how much I’ve learned about Jesus and how much Jesus has shown me about what he demands from the world, and from me.

I realize that some things can’t be described in a short piece of writing, and even fewer things can be described in a blog post written at three in the morning. Still, I think it’s important for me to meditate a little bit on the end. Not necessarily just the ending to this semester, but endings in general, any ending in the history of endings. Most people’s opinions about the end change dramatically the closer they get to it. Usually, when one experiences something stretching and often uncomfortable (like, say, studying in Israel for four months with fourty people they have never met before when they’re a homebody from the American Midwest and have never been to another country other than Canada and have this peculiar problem making friends in a short period of time), they generally look forward to the end as some kind of pressure relief, a chance to snuggle back into what feels good. They see proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and though it may be far off, it’s there, and they can see it, wish for it, hope for it, dream about it. They can imagine what it’s like to leave the dark, damp shaft and walk back into the comfortable and face-warming sunshine.

Please excuse my platutudes in this post; I know I’m rehashing (ha! another cliche) material that has been used ad nauseum (cliche) by other writers (passive voice) for years (cliche). But after studying a lot of random information about Jewish religion/culture/literature and battles and kings and dynasties of the history of Ancient Israel, and then written papers and essays about said topics, my creative well has not received rain in a couple weeks. My writing suffers after such a period. I wouldn’t be surprised if I totally lost my sense of humor soon (assuming I even had one to begin with). Nevertheless, the point remains. People outside the society that they have grown accustomed to long for when they can return to that society. If they realize they can’t return (or worse, don’t want to), they generally go insane and personify exactly what it means to be depraved (Lord of the Flies, if you missed the allusion). But, that is not the case with me. I knew I would eventually return to America, and I have looked forward to that event for a while.

But a strange thing happens next. Just as this person gets close to the light, they realize that it’s different than they remember. No that’s not it, they think. It’s the same light. The same people, the same places, the same home, the same everything. But something is still different. That’s when they realize that they are the thing that is different. Walking through the tunnel did something to them, changed them in some way. Whether it’s for the better or not is irrelevant, and it can’t be determined then anyway. But they are different. And they’ve found that this tunnel has become a new kind of comfort zone, they’ve gotten used to the damp darkness. They’ve become comfortable in the uncomfortable. And this happens to the point when going back to what is comfortable is a different, new, even uncomfortable experience. The tunnel ain’t so bad after all, or maybe that light outside isn’t quite as warm and welcoming as it seemed in my head. That’s when a two-fold problem arises.

At various times in my brief and wondrous life, I’ve thought about writing a story about a high school kid who is mature enough to get what he wants but naive enough to not know exactly what that is. I always imagined him dating a girl for a while. She’s a nice girl, not alarmingly gorgeous or anything, but simple and classy and smart. She’s too good for him, to be honest, but like every generally thoughtless person who has something good, he takes her for granted. I always thought he eventually got bored with her and moved on to the enchanting, smoking hot, even a little promiscuous cheerleader girl (no offense to cheerleaders, this is just what was in my head). Now I know that he moved on to the second, prettier girl because he wanted to try something new, to go for something quite different. But after awhile, he realizes that she isn’t really any better than what he had before. In fact, she is a little worse. But he doesn’t want to go back to the first girl, but he doesn’t really know why. It could be that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself, but it could also be that he doesn’t want to embarrass her. Furthermore, his tastes in girls has changed significantly. But, at the least, he knows that he’s had enough of the edgy girl. So now he’s stuck with no girl, and he can’t figure out whether that’s because he likes both girls or because he doesn’t like either.

You can now see why I’ve never written such a story. But, like Chesterton’s English yactsman, I guess I can use it for the sake of illustration. Our friend in the high school dilemma is in the same position as the man at the end of the tunnel. They are both at the end of something different, and they want/don’t want to enter the thing that is old. They are both afraid that something will be lost from either, maybe something good from the first experience, maybe a lesson from the second. Either way, there is great ambivalence in both. They don’t know what to do.

One lesson I’ve learned in Israel is that things are never as good as they seem nor are they as bad as they seem. Being in Israel seemed like it would be the experience of a lifetime (which it was, but in a different way), and that I would squeeze every moment out of my time here and be perefectly content in the end. Of course that was fantasy. When I was here for a month, all I wanted was to be home with my family, where everything is comfortable and things are predictable and expected. I don’t have to be flexible, I don’t have to adjust. Everything is as I like, or want to like. But of course, I was missing out on what truly was a great experience here. By the grace of God, this attitude didn’t last long, and officially died in my Apathy post about a month ago (though it was in its final stages well before that). But nothing has been quite at the extreme I expected. The only thing that truly exceeded all extremes I could think of was my brief time with my parents, which is honestly already one of the most treasured experiences of my life. That was the one thing that actually was as good as it seemed. But the rest of the time is marked by a longing for the future and a dissatisfaction with the present. I actually realized this while watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda is rebuking Luke, and telling him how he has no patience. “Never his mind on where he was,” Yoda says to Obi-Wan’s spirit, “what he was doing. Hmpf.” This really convicted me, actually. We should definitely show Star Wars clips on a regular basis. There is inspiration in these words.

The two-fold problem I mentioned earlier is this wood between the worlds, where one doesn’t feel comfortble where he is because he wants to go home, but doesn’t feel completely comfortable at home because of how he has changed where he is. It’s the pimply-faced kid without a girlfriend. How does he go back to the society he is comfortable in when he no longer feels comfortable in the comfortable? Or, God forbid, that he goes back to his old, comfortable ways, before he moved into the tunnel. It’s a Catch-22 of the highest degree.

If you haven’t realized it by now, I am the man. Here I am, at the end of the tunnel. What do I do? How do I return home? Should I be myself? What does that mean? How have I changed? For the better? What if I’ve changed for the worse? Then what? Then what, smarty-pants?

Well. It’s now four in the morning. I’m writing this in an e-mail room and I’m getting angsty because I’m already getting worried about the “real world”, things like dorm situations next fall and things like that. This whole essay is like an Ernest Hemingway short story. The point is there is no point. Sorry to ruin it for those of you who read it all. There are no answers, at least none that we can see. This is like the greatest parables of Jesus, the ones that have no endings like the Prodigal Son. The ending is not told, but lived out instead. Real life is the ending. The same is for this post. When I return home, how I act is how this essay is answered. Perhaps I haven’t changed at all (that’s always hard for the person who think’s they’ve changed to gauge). Maybe I’m the same old Andrew Smith who will talk about sports and be sarcastic and make stupid puns and talk about reading and like to annoy people just to see their responses. Maybe none of that will change. It probably won’t. But hopefully something changed. Hopefully, I don’t come back the same Christian that I was when I left. Hopefully, I have a greater impact on those around me for Christ. Hopefully, I am more than a friend, but a brother. I know this is cliche. Ending posts with Christianese is not only safe, it’s almost required. That’s why I don’t like doing it. But my admission will hopefully underscore its necessity all the more. Some things are more important than good endings in essays or literary allusions. This is one of them. The primacy of the gospel and the kingdom of God. This is what is really important. Hopefully, that’s what’s changed the most: that I actually live that and don’t just write it. Then it won’t really matter whether I always feel comfortable (BTW, of course I’ll feel comfortable when I’m home), or whether I’ve really changed. It just won’t matter.

Galilee: Where the Stones Cry Out

For evangelical churches, one of the biggest selling points for going to the Holy Land is having the opportunity to “walk where Jesus walked.” The phrase has become cliché—it may have been platitudinal from the beginning—but the idea is significant to most American Christians. The older, more sacramental and iconographic (among other things) Christian branches think the places where Jesus lived and ministered are important, though for fundamentally different reasons. While Protestants glean a more subtle, spiritual significance from experiencing the Holy Land, Catholics and Greek Orthodox see such trips to Holy sites and the churches built over them as meritorious deeds designed to achieve some kind of divine favor. Both views are flawed. “Walking where Jesus walked” doesn’t really make sense, if you think about it. The water Jesus sailed on and walked on and probably even swam in is gone, and the actual soil that Jesus touched is buried beneath two-thousand years’ worth of destruction layers and other debris.

And even if the dirt itself were the same, there’s no way to know the exact spots where anything happened. This can be frustrating to evangelicals; at least those who want to feel like they touched what Jesus touched. As for the more orthodox churches’ sacramental view of the land, there is nothing physically holier or more important about the land of Israel than any other place in the world. When the woman at the well in John 4 asked Jesus whether it was better to worship in Jerusalem—as the Jews did—or to worship on Mount Gerazim—as the Samaritans did—our Lord’s answer was characteristically both unexpected and cryptic. He said that the day will come when “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” It doesn’t matter where you worship, but who you worship. It is not better to be baptized where Jesus was—in the Jordan River—than it is to be baptized in a sticker blue plastic children’s swimming pool behind a trailer church in some backwater region of Kentucky. Our prayers are not more valuable when uttered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher than they are in the dark and smelly loneliness of dorm closets.

On the other hand, being in Israel and seeing the places where Jesus walked and manifested his divine authority does stir a deeper meaning in our hearts to the words Jesus spoke and the things Jesus did. I wanted to get that in there before my parents begin to wonder whether their trip here in a couple weeks is worth it. There is a special spiritual impact that comes with seeing remnants of old Roman roads, touching cracked stones torn down in charred heaps from Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, in sitting by the Sea of Galilee at night and feeling the waves lick at your ankles as you watch the lights of Tiberias glisten beneath the moon, knowing that Jesus may have done the exact same thing. There is something to be said for walking through the broken streets of Beth Shean, skipping stones on the sea while standing on the scattered ruins of Capernaum, sleeping in Nazareth—the very town where Jesus spent most of his life. There is power there. Certainly not saving power, meritorious power, or even special power that one only experiences when they come to Israel. Christians are not ordered to take pilgrimages. The fact that I’ve sailed on the Sea of Galilee and John Piper hasn’t doesn’t make me a better Christian. There isn’t anything particularly holy about Galilee; in fact, selling droplets of water from the sea is the kind of thievery that may have ignited a whip-cracking, table-shoving anger in Jesus.

But there is still power. There is still a spiritual meaning that can be gained from being where Jesus was, and yes, walking where Jesus walked. Galilee provided that. It renewed my mind to the reality of Jesus’ life, scrubbed the rust off the parts of my faith that have grown old and jaded to the specifics of the Gospel. We evangelicals often get caught up in the message of Jesus’ ministry that we forget the means. If the places weren’t important, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would have never gone to such tedious lengths to record them. If geographical and historical studies of Jesus’ life were meaningless, then Jesus going in the wilderness, or being crucified in Jerusalem, or dying over Passover, or being born in Bethlehem, or going down to Egypt after birth, or experiencing agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, or any of the other things he did would have never been mentioned in such detail. Instead, Jesus came down to earth, came right here, to the very places where those before him failed, and overcame it all to purchase redemption and victory over sin.

Places have memories, and Jesus turned all those memories onto their heads. To stand on those sites—to sleep where Jesus slept, see what Jesus saw, and sweat where Jesus sweated—is to feel and see the truth of what we believe. Our faith is not a lie, it wasn’t made up, it wasn’t conjured by some master storyteller—unless the storyteller is God, of course, who not only wrote the story but orchestrated the flow of history to create it (something modern writers can’t touch; we have to make up our stories). These places—Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Mt. of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Tiberias, Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, Chorazim and all the rest of Galilee—testify to the truth of what we believe. It is powerful indeed when inanimate nature can speak so loudly and attest so strongly to the truth of what Jesus said and did. It can drown out those who deny Jesus’ claim to deity, as it did when he died and the wind blew and the rocks were split and the tombs were opened. Even when stubborn man doesn’t obey the voice of its creator, nature will. That’s what makes Galilee so special—it declares the glory of God, and validates what we believe. It points to Jesus, and reminds us once again of what makes his so awesome. And anything that does that is worth its weight, even if we don’t exactly walk where Jesus walked.