by Kurt Maerschel
Two weeks ago I returned from a 16 day tour of the Holy Land. This trip was through my pastoral education at SMU. Our group was made up of approximately 15 students and 10 lay people from various Dallas congregations who joined us on our trip.
Needless to say this was the experience of a lifetime. Before the trip I was so excited to see places of relevance mentioned in the New and Old Testament. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to get a feel for the locations themselves. My expectations were not disappointed. I felt I got a comprehensive overview of the sites. I was able to “touch and feel” the land.
What I wanted to write about today was this aspect of touching and feeling our faith. As Protestants and especially as Methodist Protestants, we are very heavily focused on the intellectual and abstract spiritual aspects of our faith. In Methodist tradition this has not always been that way. As you might know, Methodism is an offshoot of the Church of England, which itself is basically Catholic without the Pope. I know this simplifies everything to an extreme, but my point is that Methodism traditionally shared many physical practices as they are still common in the Church of England or the Catholic Church today. Such physical practices include the use of incense, anointing oil, and bells during the Eucharist.
I am not saying that one practice is better than the other; all I am saying is that while travelling the Holy Land, I was constantly confronted with the physical aspects of our faith. For us living in a country that is by all measures very new to this world, it is difficult to take in the historical depth of a place like Jerusalem. Not only are there layers over layers of historically significant sites, but it is also the stories and traditions which have been passed down over centuries and in some cases millennia (!!!!!) which hover over every inch of this city. Many of the places we know today as Golgotha or Jesus’s tomb or the Garden of Gethsemane, are places which have been passed down to us through tradition, from generation to generation. Almost all of these places match the biblical description of where they ought to be or what they ought to look like, but some places are in dispute. In Bethlehem for example there is the field where the Catholic shepherds saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus Christ and there is also the field where the Greek Orthodox shepherds were made aware of the incarnation.
Our guide responded to this problem with “If you believe it, it’s true.” And I think this attitude settles these issues – at least for me – perfectly. But there is a deeper physical spirituality in this place that one can only experience over there. Faith is visible and touchable everywhere. Not only do Jews and Muslims dress up in specific outfits to make their faith known to others, but also certain Christian denominations leave no doubt to the outside world which faith they follow based on their clothing. If that were not enough, there are synagogues, mosques and churches everywhere. The houses of worship also don’t simply rest silently in their existence, as they do here for most of the time, but the Muezzin calls the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day (starting before sunrise I may add), and the Christians are not very shy either by making the mass and Holy Communion times known to the world by the frequent use of their church bells. Day to day interactions with others might also be influenced by the faith of the other. Some people might refuse to touch a woman (such as shaking hands), some people might refuse to touch objects which might have been touched by a menstruating woman such as a shekel bill (the local currency) or a seat in public transport. Starting Friday evening everything shuts down for the beginning of Sabbath. Merchants hastily pack up their stores since they have to be closed before sundown, which occurs in the winter already at 4 pm. A holy veil of silence descends on the land. The traveler can sense that there is something “special in the air.” Even if one does not realize it is Sabbath, one senses that “something is off.” Our senses of smelling, hearing and seeing notice less movement, less exhaust fumes, and less noise throughout the city.
The craziest thing of course is when one visits the sites where Jesus walked by and taught. It is hard for me to describe the feeling when one stands in the actual synagogue where Jesus taught. There is a sudden realization “this is real!” Obviously we ought to know that it is real, but being there imbues an additional dimension of experienced faith.
Now I know that it is not possible for everyone to get to go on this trip/pilgrimage of this sort, so the question arises: “How can we experience this added dimension of physical faith in our lives here in Dallas?” This is where our Christian heritage as Methodists comes into play. John Wesley pointed out that humans not only perceive reality through their physical senses, but that we also perceive reality through our spiritual senses. The human being however is one –not two split in body and soul, but one as body and soul together. The interaction between physical and spiritual senses leads us into fulfilling our God given purpose as God created beings. Thereby the physical reality can stimulate our spiritual reality and vice versa.
For this reason I encourage you to deliberately light a candle from time to time throughout your prayer time. The adventurous among you might experiment with incense (which is available at any Catholic store). Incense has been used since ancient times as a representation of prayers rising to the heavens. Their smell and the visible smoke alter the reality around us and draw us in. If you are suffering ask someone to anoint you with oil. Sit deliberately in your garden and enjoy the sounds of nature in silence as a concert of praise for the glory of God. Sing in the church choir and let the air you release though your vocal cords become a pleasant fragrance in the sight of the Lord thereby contributing to your own and your Christian family’s edification.
If you questions about this article please feel free to talk to me in person, by email or by phone. Kurt Maerschel firstname.lastname@example.org 972-835-1909.