Three weeks ago, in a hot parking lot outside a Virginia Chuck E. Cheese, my husband and I stood in a circle, prayed over our two boys, said our goodbyes, and prepared our hearts for the trip of a lifetime. I cried the whole way to the airport, took a break as we went through airport security, and then continued with the water works until shortly before our flight took off.
In the previous weeks friends had asked, “Are you excited about your trip?”
“No,” I’d said. And I meant it.
While the idea of following the steps of the Apostle Paul and Jesus were exciting and spiritual and exactly how my husband and I wanted to spend our ten-year-anniversary, the idea of two weeks without our children – without snuggles and whispers and hugs and even flared tempers – was impossible to fathom. We knew we were embarking on a trip many will never take, a trip many would live for, and a trip that had the potential to enrich us spiritually, but we were trading familiar comfort and joy for an unknown.
Two weeks away from the kids was a far greater ordeal for us than it was for the kids. Most days they were too distracted to talk to us. We’d sit with our faces focused on Facetime – epic ancient ruins as our backdrop – and try to steal our children’s attention from the trampoline, the dog, the new bike, the video games, you name it. They were at home in their comfortable while we trekked thousands of steps a day on a holy pilgrimage.
Many people take the pilgrimage to the Holy Land to get closer to God. Truly, that’s what we initially thought would happen. And for some pilgrims, perhaps it is that way. What we discovered, however, is all the places Jesus isn’t, and through that, we discovered exactly where he is.
Jesus wasn’t at the Church of the Multiplication, a church built on the place where Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying fishes and loaves. Even with the gorgeous mosaic tile, he wasn’t there.
Though Jesus was recognized by three of his disciples as the Messiah during his transfiguration somewhere near the Banias spring and waterfall, at the northern part of the country where ancient Caesarea-Phillipi once stood, he wasn’t in that swift water rushing over the mountainside.
Jesus wasn’t in the Jordan River. As powerful and symbolic as it was to toss our heads back into the murky water and give our lives over to God again, Jesus wasn’t in the water.
Jesus wasn’t on the Via Dolorosa, the cobbled pathway that meanders through the Old City of Jerusalem and is the symbolic walk of Jesus’s experience from his imprisonment until his burial. Even as we stood in front of the giant stone on which Jesus was whipped by the cat of nine tails, stunned into a momentary silence of its preservation dozens of feet below the modern street, he wasn’t there.
Jesus wasn’t in the dark, damp, cold carved-out stone prison cell or in the dozens of candles burning there to honor him.
Jesus wasn’t in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not on any of the altars or the hanging candles, or the stones where people laid gifts, or the images of his face people kissed, or the incense that wafted through the air.
So where was Jesus? We traveled all this way. Spent all this money. Left our kids for a pilgrimage of faith.
Jesus was in a woman named Cindy who opened her home to us even though she’d never met us. Jesus was in the way she served us, prayed over us, encouraged us, and guided us. Jesus was in the way she patiently told us her testimony, how her faith has shifted, strengthened, and developed into a beautiful love story with Yeshua, our great Savior. Her House of Stories marked our faith and our life. Because Jesus was there.
Jesus was in the tour guide at Magdala who crawled along the dirty floor and rose with dust on her knees to show us the magnitude of desperation and faith the hemorrhaging women felt when she reached out just one finger to touch a thread of Jesus’s clothing to receive healing.
Jesus was in Daniel, the boat captain of the Faith Boat on the Sea of Galilee, whose daily purpose is to teach believers how to praise Jesus both in English and in Hebrew, and who guides us pilgrims onto the sea with confidence so that we can lift our arms in abandon to the God who walks on water.
Jesus was in the man who offered me a scarf to put around my shoulders so that I might walk into the prison cell where Jesus had spent the night before he was crucified. He approached me with kindness as I stood stubbornly trying not to cry after being shamed a moment before by another man for my immodest tank top.
Jesus was in a man named Zak who showed us the intricacies of his antique shop in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Jesus was in the way he treated us to lunch and pulled out chairs for us to sit. Jesus was in the way he cleared out his tiny bathroom, which he uses as a storage area, so I could avoid walking through the city to find a public restroom. Jesus was in the way he made us feel at home on a day when we felt lost, tossed into a blender of mixed cultures and eyes that felt narrowed on us.
Jesus was in Maher, the cab driver who stopped to pick up two very out-of-place people as they tried to trudge up a mountainside at 2 PM without any coffee, food, or water to drink, without a clue about direction or an ounce of patience left, and in one-hundred-degree temperatures. Jesus was in the way he stopped the cab to get us each water even though we said we were fine. Jesus was is the way he drove us around all of Mount Olives to help us find our bearings before he dropped us off. Jesus was in the way he didn’t charge us a single scheckle, and refused to take a donation. Jesus was in this gift.
Jesus wasn’t only across the water in that Holy Land, that place where we sought his lessons in earnest. Jesus was in the sweet state of Virginia where my mother-in-law, April, watched our children for two weeks without a complaint or an expectation of anything in return. Jesus was in the way she protected our children and prayed with them, easing their fears so their parents could learn that Jesus isn’t in the Holy places; Jesus is in his people, in each of us with his spirit, and wherever his people are, there we will find Jesus. Jesus is in his people, in each of us with his spirit... tell a friend
I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (John 14:20b).