Overwhelmed by Israel

Originally published Wednesday, 14 March 2018.

Many have asked me about our recent trip to Israel. I usually respond with, "It was great!" or "Amazing!" But beyond that, I struggle to put my experience into words. The truth is, what I should really say when people ask is, "Overwhelming."

Yes, overwhelming. Israel overwhelmed me. All of me.

It was an assault on my senses.

The sounds of Israel overwhelmed me. The sound of a ram's horn announcing Shabbat. The sound of the Muslim call to prayer, echoing off the old city walls. The sound of bells clanging from ancient churches. Sometimes, the sounds of these three religions would occur almost simultaneously. Then there were the sounds of languages I don't understand—not only of the locals, but of pilgrims visiting from all over the world. My favorite sound was that of our voices as we sang the Doxology in an old crusader church.

Then there were the smells. The salivation-producing smell of fresh falafel. The pungent aroma of spices in the Muslim quarter like cumin, za'atar, and curry. The foul odor of sulfur in the Dead Sea. The smell of freshly caught fish on the Sea of Galilee. 

Israel overwhelmed my sense of taste as well. The taste of creamy hummus and warm pita. The taste of tangy Israeli salads served before every meal. The taste of lamb kabobs in the Arabic Christian sector of the West Bank. The sweetness of Haman's Ears on the day of Purim. 

I felt Israel physically as well. There was the feel of the uneven Roman road beneath my feet. The cool slab of stone in the Church of All Nations, where Jesus cried out to his Father in prayer. The wind blowing across my face at the top of Masada, the fortress and final holdout of Jewish rebels so long ago. The salty water tingling my skin when I floated on the Dead Sea.

Above all were the sights. My eyes beheld things I had read, studied, and heard my whole life. The sheep running across the Judean hills. The sea where Jesus walked on water and called his first disciples. The caves where David hid from Saul. The gnarled olive trees from the time of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. The muddy brown water of the Jordan River and the place where John baptized Jesus. My eyes took in the very synagogue, hillsides, and streets, where Jesus taught, walked, and healed. 

Israel overwhelmed my senses.

It also overwhelmed my mind. At every site we visited, there were archaeological and historical facts to learn. Layers and layers of facts. Just as a tel contains layers of ancient ruins, one upon another, each site held layers of stories from the time of the Cananites, the United Kingdom, the Divided Kingdom, the time of Christ, the nations which have come and gone since then (Arab and Muslim armies, the crusaders, the British Empire, etc.), and Israel's own statehood since 1948. My mind could barely contain all the information. 

Israel overwhelmed my heart. My whole life, my faith has been a spiritual thing. And it is. But it is a faith about things that took place in history. About real, physical things. Being in Israel and walking where Jesus walked, the reality of the truth that Jesus entered this world as a human and lived, died, and rose again, during a specific time in history became more real to me. It gripped me. Seeing the places where stories took place that I read about since my days of children's bibles and Sunday school flannel boards made those stories come to life like nothing else could. I stood on Mount Carmel where Elijah went against the prophets of Baal. I saw the altar Jeroboam constructed in the Northern Kingdom. I walked through Hezekiah's tunnel. I sat on the hillside where Jesus preached to the hungry thousands. I took a boat ride on the very waters where Jesus calmed the sea. I entered the gates of Jerusalem. I wept in the pit of the high priest's house, the very pit Jesus was held in after his arrest.  

Israel overwhelmed my soul. Our trip was a time of worship. At each site we read Scripture, prayed, and sang praises to God. We read Scripture in the same synagogue Jesus taught at Capernaum. We read from the Sermon on the Mount on the hill where Jesus spoke to the masses. We read the Psalms of Assent as we followed the path pilgrims took on their way to Jerusalem. We sang in churches. We sang at the site of ancient ruins. We sang deep underground at the praetorium where Jesus stood before Pilate. We danced and sang on the Sea of Galilee. And we prayed, thanking God for who he is and what he has done. 

Despite these many words I've written to describe my trip to Israel, they feel inadequate to me. When I look at them, they seem like when a young child points at an object and tries to say the word for it. There really are no words. Just an overwhelmed mind, heart, soul, and body, filled with wonder and amazement at our great and mighty God. 

So if you ask me about my trip and I respond with, "It was great!" know that there is a lot packed into that statement— more than words can say.