Oh the Places You’ll Go: the Holy Land

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I spent 23 days of my recent sabbatical in the Holy Land. I’ve lost count (hoping that doesn’t sound elitist!)… as I’ve had the great privilege of going to Israel maybe 25 times in my life, usually with a group of 40 or so people in tow. I love showing people I love the places I love, none more so than the homeland of Jesus, David, Mary, Abraham, Mary Magdalene and Peter, not to mention Christian pilgrims and Muslims and Crusaders and the Mark Twain types who couldn’t resist the urge to walk where Jesus walked. My groups always kid me on this, saying “James runs where Jesus walked.”

In June, we took our high school seniors from church on pilgrimage. What fun for me! People, not knowing any better, gasp when I tell them I took teenagers – but ours were fantastic, always on time, never moaning or second-guessing, totally with the program. I’ve never had a batch of alleged grownups do so well! And it was spiritually profound in ways we’ll have to tell you about another day.

After I came back to the U.S. for July 4 festivities at Lake Junaluska, Lisa and I flew back to Israel for our first time there just as a couple. We went some places and saw some things you just can’t do with 40 people tagging along! We also got 3 precious days in the north, around Galilee and the Golan Heights, with our friends Hillel and Hana Kessler, who live in Jerusalem and have guided my groups for the past 16 years.

Our main reason for going though was so Lisa could fulfill a lifelong dream she’s harbored to be a part of an archaeological excavation. Lucky us: the only American university with a dig anywhere near Jerusalem is our own UNC Charlotte. The lead archaeologist, the brilliant and charismatic Shimon Gibson, has been a longtime friend – and the excavation he’s leading on Mount Zion on the southwestern edge of ancient Jerusalem is a wonder to behold. Every year, they land in the top 10 rankings of archaeological finds anywhere! Day by day she’d arrive at work by 6am (to beat the brutal heat!) and labor with scraping, a pick-axe, buckets and spades, finding coins, cooking containers, and even real human remains in what must have been a wealthy neighborhood during the time of Jesus.

Why does archaeology matter? Everything we visit in the Holy Land used to be underground, undiscovered. The villages where Jesus taught and healed, Capernaum, Magdala, Bethsaida, Jericho and Jerusalem, all were covered over by the debris of history and civilizations. But people like our UNC-Charlotte team over the decades have exposed the real places of the Gospel story, reminding us that spirituality isn’t some mystical, vague mental stuff, but it all happens in real towns, with streets, houses, businesses, wars, water supplies, garbage, farming and cooking – like our real world.

I’m impressed by the way UNC Charlotte digs, using local, under-employed resources when possible, and giving back to the local community to help the poor and disadvantaged women and children through the St. Vincent de Paul ministry in Jerusalem. We got to meet the nuns who lead this labor – a fitting partner as we dig down to find the real world of Jesus and the birth of our faith.

Me? I didn’t dig. I’ve dug before… and I wanted this to be Lisa’s space. I had plenty to do, between exploring obscure places I’ve missed (like the tomb of Haggai and Malachi and the tomb of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah!), and shooting video for a new book/video series our United Methodist Publishing House will be putting out next year. I also tried to walk intentionally, not in a rush, 7 or 8 miles daily, along ancient paths, pondering our Lord’s walking, and what I might share with you guys in the coming months – and what matters for me as a person, as a follower of Jesus, as someone trying to make sense of the world, and hopefully to be a small part of the change needed, the change God asks us to make.

I also tried to be quiet, and to pray – for you guys, for our world, for me and my family, and for the destiny of our church and the larger church. I was moved, again, by the gnarled olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, their twisted, knotty trunks a mirror image of the agony of Jesus’ prayer on Maundy Thursday night, and of the agony for any of us who take the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as God dreams of it seriously.

And now and then I’d jot down an idea for a sermon or a class once I was back home off sabbatical! Thank you for reading. I’m honored, and it gives me a peculiar delight to now some of you out there care enough to be attentive to stuff I care about – or as I’d prefer to think of it, to stuff God cares about.