Tourist Trap

Tourist Trap

Pastor Joel continues his thoughts while on his trip to Israel.

If you’ve been keeping up, I’m in the middle of a sort of pilgrimage across the Holy Land. I’m trying to blog some of the thoughts and insights that this trip is generating in my mind and heart. You can read my first entry here and the following one here. Today I want to talk about an experience I had at the Mount of Beatitudes a couple of days ago.

When I signed up for these trip a few months ago I thought it was crazy that we were going to be here for 10 days. Sounded like too long of a time. That is, until you are here and realize there is a historic site almost in every square mile of this country, it’s just insane how much there is to see. However, there were a few places that were in my “must-see” list. The first one of those was the Mount of Beatitudes. The Mount of Beatitudes is a mount where tradition believes that Jesus preached His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. As it is the case with most of the sites in the Holy Land, there is no way of knowing for sure if this is the place, but the church has maintained it is since the 4th century.

Now, I know this, I know most of the places we go to may not be the “actual places where it happened.” If anything, most of the time, the sight to see is the church that was built to commemorate the event. However, I do think it is still incredible powerful to a) Have as much of a close idea and image of what the life of Jesus must have been like and b) To use the opportunity provided by being here to reflect on the particular event that each site commemorates. This is why I was really looking forward to the Mount of Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is my favorite collection of sayings of Jesus. I believe it contains some of the deepest wisdom, and some of the most open disclosure of God’s mind, heart and character. The beatitudes in particular have given me comfort and courage at times when I have been deeply discouraged.

So I was so looking forward to be able to go to the Mount of Beatitudes and read the beatitudes and take some time to reflect on the passage. I thought our group as a whole would gather somewhere and someone would read the passage. Instead, our tour guide proposed we wander around the site and find a quiet place to reflect on the passage, which I thought was an incredible idea. The first place I stopped at was the church that was built to commemorate the Beatitudes. You can see a picture of the church here:

The Church of the Beatitudes

The Church of the Beatitudes

The chapel has a very clever design, the inside has eight sides, representing each of the beatitudes. This is a picture of how it looks inside:

The ceiling of the Church of Beatitudes. Notice how there is a window for each side of the chapel.

The ceiling of the Church of Beatitudes. Notice how there is a window for each side of the chapel.

I was really excited of walking in there. However, there was a long line, and a ton of people, probably most people than at most sites we have visited so far. And as I was making my way in, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. As you walk into the chapel, there is an altar, with a cross on top, and yet, unlike some of the other churches we have visited that had people praying, at this particular site, the majority of people were taking pictures, as a matter of fact, I thought it was funny how I could see all these phones raised towards the cross, as it they were hands worshiping. I was actually able to take a picture of it.

Notice all the phones taking a picture of the altar

Notice all the phones taking a picture of the altar

Now, the irony that I’m showing you a picture I took with my phone, of people taking pictures with their phones is not lost on me. However, I share this with you, because as I noticed this I just felt uncomfortable. There was nothing sacred or special about the whole place, it was just overcrowded with people trying to take pictures. After I tried to find a quiet place to meditate on the Beatitudes, but it was impossible because there were so many people everywhere. Now, I’m aware that I’m just sounding like a grumpy old man complaining about the crowds. But this was the first time that I felt underwhelmed by a site in the Holy Land. It felt.. like a tourist trap. It is a a beautiful space, great view of the Sea of the Galilee, beautiful church, but it felt, I don’t know what word to use, mundane maybe?

And as I have been reflecting on that experience I think I can point to what was bothering me. I think that the issue is that for the first time I felt like we were all there not necessarily looking for Jesus, to find time to reflect on His teachings and His wisdom and love. But to take pictures for our Instagram account. We were all there, with our phones lifted high, not our hands. And I felt horrible about it. You know what passage came to my mind? When Jesus takes down the money changing tables at the Temple, because the people selling stuff there and changing money had turned “a house of prayer” into “a den of robbers.” I got why He did that you know? It is so easy to be at a church with Jesus’ name on it and still miss the point. Whatever the Sermon on the Mount represents, a multitude of people taking a picture with their phone of a cross in a chapel wasn’t it. And I’m not saying there’s not a place for taking pictures, but there was no reverence there, no awe, we were all treating the site like a Tourist Trap.

And I wonder if sometimes we treat our own churches and our own lives like that.We gather together and sing songs to the King of the Universe and we open this book that is thousand of years old and we take part in this ancient ritual of the bread and the cup, and yet, so many times the one thing that is on our minds is “I wonder where we should go for lunch after.” We live in this world that is thoroughly enveloped by God’s love. Where every second is a gift from above. Where the very breath that we take is this incredible miracle, where we live with people that we love and who loves us and yet we treat all of it like it’s a mundane thing. We experience our lives through insta-stories and live streams. And I wonder if sometimes Jesus wants to flip over the whole operation because we have forgotten that His house is meant to be a house of prayer. That the whole world is enchanted and we are missing out on the daily opportunities for awe and joy and worship.

Anyway, this is something I’ve been thinking ever since then. Tonight we celebrated communion on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, and I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t in a church, and we didn’t have a band playing in the background. As a matter of fact it was raining and I wanted the guy that was giving the devotional talk to hurry up because it was really cold. But once I took the bread and drank the wine, looking at the city where Jesus was crucified… for me. It felt so overwhelmingly holy.

And I guess my point is that I wonder if the sacredness and holiness of a site or of a moment has as much to do with perspective and attitude as it has to do with the site itself. If the whole Earth is covered with His glory, then there is no place where He isn’t. And there is no place where we cannot be surprised by the wonder of the infinite love of the God of the Universe.