israel

Free To See

I still have trouble framing my experience in the Middle East. Trying to communicate it results in collections of sentences that do little to capture what I actually felt. But I look back at the photos I took, and I’m there again.

The trip was unique in many ways, but the most profound was that I was simply an observer. My job often takes me to unique places, but I’m always there with a mission in mind, a story tell that comes with a timeline to meet. Those constraints dictate every decision, usually keeping me at arms length from the place itself.

Just past the security line in Chicago one of my supervisors stopped me. “I'm hoping you can turn off your storyteller's brain on this trip,” she said. “There’s certainly a story to tell here, but this time around, just experience it.” 

She could have given me no greater gift than those few words. I was free to see, really see.` 

And I did.

I took only my iPhone. I thought about taking more, but as a father of two I saw this as one of my rare opportunities to travel light. I also wondered if everything might feel that much more immediate if I limited myself to a singular and simple tool. I easily get bogged down with arranging the perfect equipment, dialing in the perfect settings, and composing the perfect shot. I miss moments that way. Travelling with just my phone allowed me to just shoot.

Don’t think, just snap. 

Along with the pictures I took I tried to jot down a few questions, thoughts, and emotions as often as I could. In all of these writings a few words and themes seemed to repeat themselves again and again. I wanted to share a few of those.

Tension

Reminders of the tensions that partly define this place are everywhere. This device, used by security forces to detonate bombs that may be discovered on the premises, sits just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Pride

Normal History

There’s no region more rich with history. All of humankind can trace our beginnings back to this area, and there are near-constant reminders of what this place means to the people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths alike. Yet there are very real people here living very real lives, normal lives. Their daily activities take place amidst the constant collision of old and new.

Division & Disparity

I sat sipping tea, while contemplating the view from my sixth-floor room at the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem. Though the Jacir may be a little worse for wear in places, it still provided a sharp relief to the slums of the Aida Refugee Camp outside my window.

Holy

The trip involved several visits to holy sites, unrecognizable places crawling with tourists, trinkets, and ornate icons. Across the crowded plaza from the wide wooden doors at the entrance the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the cathedral that stands over the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried—was a tiny open archway. Curious, a friend and I stepped through into the quiet of a little courtyard, peaceful and bathed in sunlight.

I was reminded that sacredness can invade any place and every place… if we'll let it. 

Courage

I leaned my head against the cold of the bus window as Bethlehem slid by outside. My cheeks were wet with tears, unexpected and unbidden and there nonetheless. I was tired, tired of hearing and tired of seeing so much hardship and hardness. I was weary of information and weary of stories, weary of caring so much. I wished my empathy would run dry, but it was always there, a bottomless well in a land with little water.

The land. Israel. That hard, holy land.

I was on day seven of a ten day trip, and each one of them had been full of full things. This was no ordinary trip to the holy land. It was an excursion into the depths of the conflict and tragedy that darken the storyline of this newish nation. Along with many others I spent every waking hour meeting with people from every point of view—Israelis, Palestinians, activists, rabbis, sheiks, pastors, refugees, farmers, settlers, etc. They were gracious and hospitable, and they were often funny and endearing. And each of them held opinions and lived stories that could change your mind or break your heart or both. Add in the newness of experiencing a new country and a unique culture, seeing ancient sites and "walking where Jesus walked," and it had fashioned itself into a harrowing adventure. It was guerrilla tourism.

On that seventh day, as the trip neared its end, I could finally see the finish line. When you're running a race they say that you have to push through to the end, but if you've ever run you know how hard that is. As you round the last corner you can feel your breath getting away from you and your form beginning to falter. Then, when the white line is in sight, your body begs you to slow down and trot to the end. You have to push. The trip's itinerary was going to demand a mad sprint to the end, but I could feel my own mental and emotional footing beginning to slip.

So I sat there and cried. And at the time I couldn't have articulated a lick of this, so I just looked like a basket case crying in the back of the bus, my forehead bouncing against the window glass.

And then a verse was in my head, scrolling by like the headlines of a news ticker.

"Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!"

I wish I could say that this sudden memory of Psalm 31:24 made me sit up, wipe away the tears, and smile. Instead I started crying harder. Ugly kind of crying. I knew instantly that this wasn't God cooing, "Don't worry, it's alright." No. Far from it. He was whispering, "Be strong. Keep going. The finish line is a long way off yet." In that moment I realized that the plane ride home was anything but a finish line. In fact, my courage was going to be most needed when the trip was over.

Deep down I think I believed that the trip would be incredible but that it would be something I could easily set aside when I got home. What I found was that it was incredible ... and very difficult, difficult in a way that one might want to hide from. I suddenly saw in myself the instinct to have my cry here in Bethlehem and then do my best to pretend it never happened, to repress it, to come home and for the next couple weeks tell a few good stories, nod soberly as I recounted the toll of the conflict, and then move on.

But I was being told to be strong. I was being told to have courage. And courage often requires action. I took out my journal and wrote.

My heart has been broken for this place and these people. God, give me the courage not to set them aside.

The next afternoon a friend I'd made on the trip leaned across the aisle of the bus and handed me a bag full of bracelets. She told me I could pick one if I liked. Each of them was emblazoned with a word: hope, love, peace, etc. I reached in and indiscriminately grabbed a handful. Every single one of them read: COURAGE.