July 18, 2012

Becoming a Pilgrim

This is my third journey to Israel, and I think that I have come in a different way each time. I have come as a proclaimer, a student, and a pilgrim.
I first came to Israel in 1974 while a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I came as a "summer missionary" to do student ministry at the Jerusalem House on Nablus road. I have the privilege of living with a missionary family on the Mount of Olives, so you can imagine the visual panorama that greeted me each morning.
I was preoccupied that first summer with finding the exact historic places featured in the life of Jesus, and I was persuaded that the "fifth Gospel is the land." Working with Arab and Jewish students, I was proclaimer more than listener, hence I learned less than I could have.
My second sojourn in Israel was during doctoral studies, and I had the privilege of studying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There I practiced "faithful disbelief," in the words of Christopher Morse, as I asked if places were holy because of historical anchors or if they were holy because persons continued to find meaning
in being there.
While there in the summer of 1980, I had opportunity to water ski on the Sea of Galilee. For a few months thereafter I found myself humming "I Skied Today where Jesus Walked." One colleague thought I had solved the question of how Jesus crossed the lake!
Coming this time feels different. The express purpose is to learn about Jewish religion from Jews--we are seeking to understand them as they understand themselves. A pilgrim is one who expects to be changed in the process of journeying with others for new insight and deeper spiritual experience. A pilgrim knows that he or she must be open to unexplored horizons, expecting the presence of God to be clothed in new forms.
Today's study has not disappointed. We have learned the rabbinic practice of Havruta in this "house of study" (Beit Midrash). This is a slow process of studying Talmud where one enters a conversation that has been going on for 3000 years. Wrestling with words, finding a contradiction in other commentary on the matter at hand, and asking "what kind of God" is being engaged in this text is an enlivening practice. As a person who loves words, I am exhilarated with this approach to communal textual study.
This afternoon we had an initial session on Jewish liturgy, serving God through prayer. What most deeply impresses me is the forthright expression of complaint, blessing, and lament all wrapped up together in prayer. Only a relationship of intimacy can abide these emotions and truth-telling.
Of course, God is ever inviting humans to a pilgrimage of deepened wonder and trust. I desire that these days fulfill that longing of my heart.
Molly T. Marshall

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