Pilgrimage is an Endless, Tameless Endeavor of Hearts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude

The NEXT Church ad grabbed my attention: “Holy Land: a pilgrimage together through the land where Jesus walked.” I had been to Israel before, as a Union Presbyterian Seminary student in 2014, and was compelled to re-visit. I needed to be present there again and to share the experience with my husband John, who had heard little about my time in Israel. He, like many Christians raised in the church, had harbored an interest in walking where Jesus walked, but children at home needed tending in 2014, and I learned of his disappointment only when I returned.

NEXT Church’s consideration of the political tensions, scheduled time with Rev. Mitri Raheb in Bethlehem, and a visit to Hebron on the itinerary all reinforced my determination that John and I would join this pilgrimage together. My previously closeted experience in Israel contrasted with reports from other acquaintances whose voices swelled with the joy of standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, of praying at Gethsemane. Typically, their only ventures into the West Bank were quick forays to the Church of the Nativity, undertaken hesitatingly by Jewish guides who spoke of Bethlehem as a dangerous place.

(Janna VanderWoude)

To truly see Bethlehem — or other parts of the West Bank, including a Jewish settlement — is indeed a dangerous undertaking for a follower of Jesus. The Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel wrote, “Faith is not clinging to a shrine but the endless, tameless pilgrimage of hearts.”1 An expansive and ever-growing system of Israeli-built walls, sectoring the West Bank and dividing its people while amplifying fear of those who are “other,” reinforces what Heschel writes in his essay, Faith. “The tumult of strife and envy, insidious selfishness, inflation of cruelty, is a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. Yet a force from beyond our conscience cries at our insolent haughtiness of humanity, reminding and admonishing that the wanton will fail in rebellion against the good. Those who listen to this voice open their lives to the sight of the unseen in the desert of indifference.”

Pilgrimage is listening to the voice that is often unheard, opening one’s life to the sight of the unseen — in a desert of what often appears as indifference. Western media communicates little about the realities of Palestine: astronomical unemployment, restricted road use, managed water and electrical limitations, night-time house raids in which boys are seized and held, overcrowded refugee camps, and manipulative land seizures. The place indeed seems a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. So perhaps I just needed to see that Mitri Raheb’s voice persists, that the confiscation of a Palestinian’s land at Tent of Nations is thwarted by volunteers from all over the world who come to plant trees, that children from a tenement-like refugee camp in Nablus can learn, laugh, sing and dance at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, supported internationally by advocates including Covenant Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.

There is a bold metal sculpture on my church office wall declaring, “Something wonderful is about to happen.” Pilgrimage is living in that expectation, believing that when you get off the thousandth bus, you will hear-see-feel-touch something that is otherwise unseen. Hopeful expectations are answered by crowds of people from every corner of the world, all clamoring to touch, as best they can, the Teacher’s garment. The mix of languages in swarming places like Church of the Holy Sepulchre must truly bring joy to God’s ears. Hebron, where Abraham, the common father of our oft-warring faiths, is buried, is by contrast eerily silent. Anxious but vibrant five years ago with merchants delighted to see Americans, it is now heavily patrolled and highly restricted — a ghost town served by two remaining souvenir vendors.

One of the objects I hurriedly purchased was a small, ceramic “Hebron” bell; again, the words of Heschel, “Audacious longing, calling, calling, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind — it is all a stalwart driving to the precious serving of Him who rings our hearts like a bell, wishing to enter our empty perishing life” (Faith). We who follow a living Jesus receive him as God’s entrance into our empty, perishing life. Just as he did in that little, dangerous town of Bethlehem, “The dear Christ enters in.”

1 “Faith.” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays. Ed. Susannah Heschel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude, LCSW, ministers alongside the congregation of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Reisterstown, Maryland, a transitioning suburban community outside of Baltimore where people from many nations, languages, races, and religious faiths are trying to learn to live joyfully together without walls. The Northminster campus also houses a Messianic Jewish congregation, a start-up summer camp, and Jesu Christo es el Señor Iglesia Evangelica. Together we celebrate a saving God who enters our empty, perishing life, opening us to the sight of the unseen.