We arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, and are spending our last days of the trip here in this famous city. On our first night, some of us walked to the western wall, also known as the wailing wall, which was in full post-Shabbat glory. As we entered the courtyard, I was stunned to find two very different scenes. Near the wall, which I vaguely understood to be a place where great emotional suffering is commemorated and expressed, groups of men and women rocked back and forth, praying. The courtyard, however, was filled with a celebratory crowd: adults chatting and laughing, children dodging in and out, and groups of youth singing what sounded like pep rally songs while jumping up and down in circles. I was overwhelmed by the contrasting emotions: great sorrow and great joy, great reverence and great tumult, happening all at once.
The evening exemplified for me much of the dissonance I’ve experienced while visiting Palestine and Israel. I’ve often felt like we’ve been on a ship in stormy seas, tossed from one side of the boat to the next. We’ve visited ancient ruins where the first century is palpable and the next moment been confronted with modern political debates; we’ve entered spaces that many find highly sacred and exited through gift shops selling tchotchkes made in China; we’ve come into Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, through a checkpoint manned by armed guards; we’ve heard conflicting religious and political views and we are acutely aware, thanks to the pope’s visit, of how even a celebratory occasion can put an army sniper on the roof.
I have found myself marveling at the integrated way I live my own life, at how nothing much jars me on a day to day basis (whether it should or not), and I have found myself wondering how those people for whom Jerusalem is home integrate what seems to me to be such dissonance into their daily existence. How does the crash and jostle of busy crowds and conflicting narratives and divergent faiths affect them?
Several of us have noticed the difference between our time in the cities–Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jerusalem–versus our time in the Galilean countryside, where many of the harsher aspects of the modern situation were discreetly tucked away under a tourist facade. While we were there, we took an evening boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and we read the story in Matthew 14 of Jesus walking out to the boat on the water. What struck me most from our reading of that passage was a detail I’ve always gotten wrong–I’d always imagined Jesus calming the waves before he walked on water. Why wouldn’t he? Who would choose to walk through crashing waves when placid waters were an option? But he doesn’t. He walks out into the storm, and invites Peter to do the same. The wind doesn’t die down until both are back in the boat.
My first instinct when being tossed in choppy waters is to hold tight to the boat, to what is familiar, to what I know has kept me safe in the past. But God has invited us not only into the still waters of the Psalmist, but into the raging storm of the Galilean Sea. Here, in Jerusalem, where there is suffering and rejoicing and holiness and hostility and wealth and poverty and all the busy hustle of everyday life, we have been invited to step out of our human-built boats and into the storm. We cannot simply cower in the boat and wait for Jesus to snap his fingers and make everything peaceful; we are called to walk with Christ in the crashing waves. Peter began to sink, and sometimes so will we. If we have learned anything from this trip, it is that humans fail and fall in so many ways. But Jesus caught Peter, and that is the God we trust in, whose hand is outstretched as we do our best to pick a path amidst the wind and waves.
It is far easier to stay in the boat, to put on the blinders and hope (even pray!) that the storm dies down soon so we can get back to shore and get on with our lives. We will arrive home on Thursday, and I cannot help but feel lured by the promise of an “average day” with no human rights violations or religious conflicts or police blockades in my way. It is my hope, however, that this trip has taught me a little more of what it means to walk in the storm, and to be unafraid to step out of the boat and stretch out my hand to those who have no choice but to live in the storm every day, and to take other hands as they are offered to me.
We pray for the still waters, but we must also be willing to step out of the boat and into the waves, however wet and cold and seasick we may be, since it is in those waves that we meet Christ.