Well, we’re back, and it was quite a trip! Being in Israel at all the historic sites where God unfolded his story of redemption is a moving and stimulating experience. I even got to be in some places I had not been before, like the high place Jeroboam built to keep people from going to Jerusalem to solidify his power over half the kingdom when Solomon died, Caesera Phillipi where the events of Matthew 16 happened, the tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The other sites I’d been to before, but sharing them with Sara and 39 others was a joy. Our guide (pictured at left with Sara and me) was incredibly helpful and deeply touched by the love and life that our group shared together. I’m still blown away with it myself, and I’ve been through this kind of thing a number of times before. I’m sure there will be more about all of this on this week’s podcast.
How can forty strangers show up from all over the world, with little similarities in cultural or spiritual backgrounds, and spend ten days together and in the end become such a tight-knit family, where the emails I’m receiving this morning are how much they already miss each other having returned to our various corners of the globe? I’ve had tastes of that wherever I’ve traveled in the world and find it always hard to part after a few days together because of how God knits hearts together. Many got a taste of it at our gathering in Ireland a couple of years ago that promted the article, Friends and Friends of Friends. I do see Jesus knitting his church together just through things like this that bring people together from distant places and allows them to connect as friends that will go far beyond the days we got to spend together.
Ten days in a bus as well as shared meals in hotels will do that. I love how quickly people fall in with each other and this trip was filled with lots of laughter, as well as walking with people through some painful bits in their lives. People were really ready to let others into their lives, to be genuine without the need to try to impress each other. No one was pressured to do anything other than they freely chose to do (other than wake up earlier than some wanted to catch the bus) and friendships began that will last a lifetime. Through our time together God built us into a family that learned to walk together, love each other, and share a life-changing experience. Yes, the circumstances were a bit artifical. We were on a task together (exploring Israel), free from the responsibilites of everyday life, outside of our own routines, and together constantly with the same people. Our time in Ireland offered the same dynamics. But just because the environment is a bit artificial, the relationships aren’t. I can think of so many of those people I’d love to invite over to dinner tonight and continue the conversation. The bonding of our hearts was deep and real and I’ve no doubt will continue to bear fruit around the world in days and years to come. I’ve been enjoying relationships like that for a long time now.
But doesn’t that same bonding happen with every tour group? Not according to our Israeli guide and our bus driver. They both commented how much they enjoyed all of us and the way we navigated life together. They’ve seen hundreds of groups but knew they were witnessing a different dynamic here. I loved watching the journey unfold through the eyes of our guide. He continued to make comments and asked questions and I watched him won into our friendships even has he was trying to maintain a professional distance. He was continually surprised that these people had not met each other before and yet so quickly and joyously became part of each other’s lives. He didn’t have a box to fit us into, and soon found himself endeared to so many in our group and repeatedly asked questions about what we believed and why we were there. On our final day we paused in a Jewish cemetary as we descended down the road Jesus took from the Mt. of Olives into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion. There we sang and shared gazing on Temple Mount and in the end our affection spilled out in a sea of hugs that he was caught up in as well. He later told me he was undone by it and wasn’t ready for that to happen. Later he sat in the hotel with us as people gathered their things to head to the airport. For two and a half hours he joined our conversations, sharing pictures of family and stories from his personal life. He told me he never does that but couldn’t stop himself. With a smile in his eye he accused me of making him break his own rules. That made me smile!
When people are engaging Jesus as a real person in their lives, I find the only thing that’s needed for fellowship to be rich and full is proximity. That’s how he builds a family. By connecting us to him and then letting us live alongside each other long enough for friendships to take hold. Even if that is for only ten days, a marvelous reality emerges. Jesus takes expression in his family and the fruits are a delectable feast! This was one of those times when we got to be part of something so much greater than the sum of our parts. We got to experience what common-unity is in his family, not because we agreed on everything, but because we were people growing in his reality and could enjoy each other freely.
This is the fruit I enjoy most traveling around the world, whether it’s something like this or being in a home with 4-5 or 35 people. I love it when God connects people on this journey and they discover how easy it is to share the life of Jesus together with others who are growing in his love as well. If you ever have a chance to go to a gathering of folks in your area who are learing to live loved, do it. Even if you have to cancel some things and drive (or fly) some distance. It’s worth doing and you’ll find that when people no longer have theological agendas, or a need to push others into their way of thinking, that it really isn’t so difficult to love each other and share his life together.
Of course our very human need now will be to memorialize this event and try to hold on to the exprience longer than we need to. Though we joked about a yearly retreat somewhere in the world, that’s the stuff of human imaginings. We were part of an amazing ten-day experience and we got to touch the reality of the family Jesus is building in the world. As an event it’s time has passed. Life happened there and certainly those friendships will endure as we cross paths throughout the world in years to come. But there’s no way to recreate it and trying to would destroy the mystery of it. What was true about his family that we experienced there will grow on with the next person we find ourselves engaging at home or at work.
Passion and proximity allowed the family of God to take shape around us. That can happen right where you are, too. It may mean that you have to break some of your routines as well. If what you’re doing now doesn’t lead you to community, it may be time to blow up some routines, and lay down some of our distractions. It may help to be on a task together, rather than trying to build a group. We didn’t go to Israel to build a community and we didn’t do ice-breaking games to artificially provoke it. Community is the work God does as we make room in our lives for others. That task can be as simple as exploring who Jesus is, but being intentional about relationships without manipulating people to a desired outcome will go a long ways.
We were part of an amazing family for ten days, and all the more that it comprised people from five different continents, from virtually every walk of life. We were enriched by the life we shared together, but it is only a brief picture of a larger family God is shaping in the world. Ask him how you can see that take expression near you.