The reality that we were going to Israel for a month took equally as long to sink into my brain. It was one of those things that seemed unbelievable, like meeting your favorite celebrity or being gifted a brand new car. I couldn’t believe I was actually going, and every time it occurred to me I’d end up shaking my head, getting chills, giggling like a kid.
Some people congratulated us, some were so envious they chose not to respond or just forced a “so happy for you” through their gritted teeth. But the consensus from most was that we would experience something powerful, something divine in the Holy Land where the Bible first came to life and history is as vibrant as the hot Israeli sun.
In all honesty, I expected the same. The Bible stories I’ve heard all my life had firmly implanted themselves in my brain and taken on a life of their own. I was convinced that touching down in Israel, feeling the ancient ground beneath my feet would infuse me with some heightened sense of God’s presence, that every corner of the country would bestow some deeper enlightenment of the Gospel. And it isn’t difficult to understand why; I think most people with Israel on their bucket list expect to be fulfilled, to experience God in a more impactful way, if not to find Him altogether.
After a few days in Tel-Aviv my preconceptions began breaking down and I realized I needed to reset, or perhaps just entirely abandon, my expectations. There is nothing “holy” about Tel-Aviv. It’s a bustling, noisy city that sleeps even less than New York, has shoreline as scantily clad as Miami, and its boutiques and shops on the city streets could rival those in Paris, Milan or Budapest.
Over the two weeks we spent in Tel-Aviv, I fell in love with its Mediterranean breezes and culture and buzzing undercurrent of tension. And although looking up I was reminded every few feet that I was in Israel by the blue and white flags flying from every other balcony, I also had the odd sensation that I could have been in almost any other big city in the world–so great were its similarities to the West.
Those similarities began disintegrating on the train to Jerusalem. My excitement to see it grew as the miles between the two diverging cities whizzed by in a literal 100-mile-an-hour blur, as did my awareness of the sidelong looks at my bared shoulders from the other women on the train, both young and old, themselves dressed in long skirts and modest tops. It didn’t take long for me to dig my cardigan out of my backpack and slide my arms through the safety of its sleeves.
Their looks walked a fine line between curiosity and disapproval, and I became very accustomed to this kind of attention for the duration of our visit to Jerusalem. No matter how hard I tried to be respectful, to meet the basic requirements of religious decorum in a city that is preternaturally conservative, I kept finding myself being carefully observed–either by the women, who watched me shamelessly, or the men, who did so secretly under their wide-brimmed hats, trying their best to avoid direct eye contact or accidental physical contact with me at any cost.
And I found that so funny, and indicative of the heart focus that Jesus touched on in His teachings so long ago, that I, someone who would be considered pretty conservative by American standards, was squarely in the provocative and unacceptable camp in Jerusalem. Whether it was my exposed shoulders on the street, my blonde hair uncovered and unbound, or holding hands with my husband in public, I was definitely not “good” enough.
But I’ve known that for a long time–that I’m not and never will be good enough. And as crazy as it sounds to 21st century philosophers who love to say “you are enough,” the disappointment that I’m not, but Jesus is, is the most freeing and wonderful thing I’ve ever come to understand.
As we walked the Old City of Jerusalem, squeezed past shoulders in the holy sites of Galilee, and dodged tourists at the Church of the Nativity, the disconnect between God’s intended simplicity of Gospel of Jesus Christ and the contrived holiness that men have created at these places over the centuries in an effort to improve upon what God already did perfectly, was unnerving to me and my family.
I found myself conflicted in ways I had not expected. Why did I feel more moved just seeing the countryside of Galilee than being inside a church that was built at the spot where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish? Was there something wrong with me, that I didn’t want to touch the rock where supposedly Jesus shared breakfast with Peter?
Why did I feel so disappointed to see candles and incense hanging over the manger where the Messiah was born? Should I have been on my face weeping in front of the slab where Christ’s body was prepared for burial, like so many others were doing? Or standing in a four-hour line to see the empty tomb?
I wrestled with these thoughts for days, eventually coming to the conclusion that all the reminders of my lack of holiness, my distaste for man’s definition of what holiness is centuries after my Savior walked the Earth, whether it be in appropriately covered shoulders and hair, or specific prayers prayed in a shrine, were refreshing in their confirmation that I was and am disappointing enough to have been graciously redeemed by God.
The righteous overkill that still permeates every corner of Jerusalem are just a sideshow to the fact that these are all historical sites that remind us that Jesus was real, that the Gospel is real, that He lived and died and rose again making all the memorials helpful in the context of who he was, but not holy in and of themselves.
I don’t want to make it sound as though I’m minimizing what may have been happening between the Holy Spirit and the people on their faces and in tears in the Holy Sepulcher. It’s understandable to be overcome by the magnitude of what happened in these places.
But my connection with God in Jerusalem wasn’t so much about the specific sites as it was the historical significance of the Gospel roots of this land–the Light of the world being born in Bethlehem; the scenery along the dusty roads we drove; walking the small, crowded streets with the disapproving eyes and imagining Jesus being judged under their gazes as well; and finally, the stone courtyards where he was pronounced guilty, beaten, tortured, and given a cross to bear because I, because we, were so disappointingly, blessedly incomplete and imperfect in our own skin.
No shrine, no mausoleum, no tapestry or incense or prayer could ever fully represent or reflect the holy adequacy of Jesus’ life and sacrifice in Jerusalem, his story through the people of Israel, and his origins from the foundations of the world. And here, in my bedroom on the other side of the world in the United States (a country that was not even dreamt of during the years he walked the Earth), his presence is just as real as it has ever been. What a gift, to have your expectations crushed so perfectly. That is the awakening gift that I took home from Israel.
Adrienne Gross is a writer based in North Carolina. She is a lover of travel, fitness, wine, good conversation and quality time with her friends and husband and three young children. You can find her blog at presentlysite.blog or on Twitter at @adrienne_gross.