[Gladys, 10 years ago, in the Garden of Gethsemane]
Except, I hope not to go all the way to Zion in any ultimate sense. I’m going to Jerusalem, which, in some ways, I guess, is a city just like any other city, except much much cooler. And more exciting than, say Binghamton, which is more like Babylon. Oh man, that escalated quickly.
Matt and I went to the first Gafcon ten years ago for reasons I can’t quite piece together. Was it for Stand Firm? That’s probably what it was. I drug along Gladys (not her real name) who must have been about eight months old at the time. I flew with her on Ukraine Air or some other more out of the way flight purveyor. Matt went on Air France or the super fancy British Airways, #patriarchy. Or maybe it was that I went at the last minute after he already had his ticket, and we were poor, probably. And anxious, being in the middle of a lawsuit we were certain we would lose. Which we did. Funny how ten years seems like a lifetime ago.
That trip, as you can imagine, was life changing. It entirely shifted my mental landscape, rearranging all my spiritual and theological furniture, sending me limping back, wondering about the meaning of it all. God, always a stranger and a friend, became more strange, even, than ever before. I remember standing on the Mount of Olives, jostled by Anglicans from every corner of the globe, looking out over the graves sloping away into the valley, my eye caught by the Dome of the Rock, and finding everything I thought I knew about what God was like slip away like sand. It was so beautiful, but so strange, and so fraught.
I mean, as an American who has gradually become used to wide vistas and drive-through coffee, I easily shifted into the comforting haze of being pretty sure that God must be basically happy with me and all humanity. The green rolling hills, the very comfortable cars. Of course God would become incarnate, would want to come and be with me in the flesh. Not because I’m a terrible sinner, but because it’s just so nice, and everybody is so kind, and milk is so cheap.
I never thought this in Africa, hauling the water up from the well, rushing to fill the lamps at twilight so that we wouldn’t be in the dark. Honestly, I didn’t think about the incarnation at all. But I was a child, then, and children don’t think, do they. Really, they don’t.
The fact is, life around the world is hard, and not often that comfortable. It’s a lot of hard work just trying to get through the day without getting dysentery, or trying to organize a bath, or trying to buy a big wheel of cheese. And that’s just if you’re a fancy westerner. If you a true ordinary person you might have to walk several miles for water, or pound your grain into fine flour with a mortar and pestle. You have amazing bone density but you lost your middle child to malaria.
Standing there, though, counting the little piles of rocks placed on the corners of so many graves, I felt the terrible cunning of God break through my complacency. I found a rock underneath as the sifting sand of all my goodness (or at least a modest portion) blew away. The vista was so beautiful, but so, well, fraught. Graves and…a mosque, which has come to have a peculiar relevance for me.
But not a far distance. Like, you don’t need a big fat minivan to go from the Mount of Olives into the city itself. You can walk. How easy for Jesus to go up and down the length of this small space, on foot! If by easy you mean hot and exhausting, but humanly doable. How beautiful the city that sits on that hill. And there, walking up and down the streets, going to buy vegetables and soap, arguing and misunderstanding each other, just like everybody else in the whole world, is humanity jumbled together, enduring a tenuous, but more often shattered, peace.
God didn’t have to create us. He didn’t have to set the stars into place. He didn’t have to organize the atmosphere and planets and oceans. He didn’t have to bother. And then, when we broke it and made everything harder, more combative, troubled and deathly by our own sin and rebellion, he did not have to come to repair and restore the break. He didn’t have to gather up and bear our sin in himself. But he did. I stood there until the crowd moved on and asked myself, “Why?”
For love? That’s the answer in the Bible. Out of his great kindness, his patient mercy he came to the center of his creation to be with us, to rescue us, to bring us out of the darkness and into the light, to bring us to Zion, to himself. Not because of how comfortable and nice we had made everything, but because we had totally ruined it and were helpless to make it better.