Nancy and I have been gone for a couple of weeks, on a pilgrimage of sorts. It appears that some things haven’t changed in America during our absence. We’re at a stalemate in Libya, the debt is mounting, and government is every bit as partisan as it was when we left. But, there are some hopeful signs. Lilacs are blooming by the southeast corner of our front porch and lettuce and broccoli are springing up in our raised beds out back. It’s comforting to know that some things are beyond the reach of government.
As our flight from Tel Aviv made its final approach into Newark this past Thursday I found myself daydreaming of the many times I’ve come back to America over the years. There was 1966, when I returned home from Vietnam. I kissed the ground. In 1969 it was thoughts of civilian life and an honorable discharge as the plane landed in Charleston, South Carolina. In the nineties it was usually business, flying the jumpseat on a FedEx cargo plane. During our sunset years we’ve found ourselves preoccupied with the customs declarations and whether or not anything we were carrying was animal, vegetable, or mineral.
I’m always glad to return home. I’m thoroughly American. My eyes get moist when I hear “I’m Proud to Be an American” on the Fourth of July. But, there was something different about this homecoming. I love my country, but I also came back with a deep bond of affection for Israel and its people.
This was my third trip to Israel. I came home from the first two trying to put the historical pieces together, rehearsing the words of the tour guides. “This is Beth Shean, where the Philistines nailed Saul’s body to the city wall.” “This is Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley, where many believe mankind’s final battle will take place.” “This is Masada, where 900 or so Jewish patriots chose death as free people to a life of slavery under the Romans.” “This is Jerusalem, the city of which the psalmist said, “If I ever forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” “This is Yad Vashem, where the memories of the Shoah are enshrined.”
If one is seeking just facts, Israel can be infuriating. As filmmaker Ridley Scott observed, “Jerusalem is the place that drives men mad.” One can ascend the temple mount and wonder what treasures lie beneath the Dome of the Rock. Is it the place where Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice? Or was it Ishmael? And, what of the Christian sites? Was this church the place of the last supper? Or, was it here? Is this the real Golgatha? Or, is it here?
I came home this time sensing something quite different. It was a feeling that there’s much more to Israel than the “facts.” German theologians have two words to describe history. There is “history,” which is a litany of the facts. Then there is “high history,” the history that is being written by an “unseen hand.” It was the “high history” that captured my attention this time.
It’s said of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, that he was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. That search called for an eye which valued the unseen more than the material. It’s an eye that’s quite foreign to us Americans. We value the material. As Madonna put it so aptly, “We live in a material world and I am a material girl.”
I see now that a change of focus changes both the questions and the answers. The material me asks whether or not the retirement and social security checks will get deposited. The material me thinks about tomorrow’s meals. The material me seems to be at the mercy of the powerful. “What will I do if the government takes this away from me…or that?” “Will I cease to be a free man?”
I think there’s a great lesson in focusing on the unseen. Abraham was a pilgrim and Israel is a nation on a great pilgrimage. In that sense I’m a pilgrim too. Hence, their task is my task - seeking that city being built by “unseen hands.”
It’s not an easy task. At one point along the way I shared with our group that, while we felt something very special happening to us in Israel, we would all go back home where mission creep could easily sink in. The really important things might surrender to the tyranny of the unimportant. I’m home now and the questions born of that experience are raised. How can I maintain my focus when I’m so bombarded by the material? How do I keep my feet on the ground and maintain the pilgrim’s sense of longing for that city I haven’t yet seen?