“The comfort zone is where God’s plans for you go to die.” – Matt Cassidy
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, fresh off an illness that turned out not to be COVID, my husband, my mom and I all loaded into my car at 3 AM and drove out to Austin Bergstrom International Airport to hop a plane to Newark, where we would spend about three hours staring at the Manhattan Skyline while waiting to board a plane to Israel. We, along with about 44 other members of our church, landed in Tel Aviv 23 hours after first waking in Austin.
In the months leading up to the trip, people asked me the standard “Business or pleasure?” Question about my travel plans. I didn’t have a good answer though, because it didn’t fit neatly into either box. Of course we wanted to go, and were excited. But even though we had no official business in the country, it felt more like an essential need to travel there than a vacation. The trip carried with it a longing to learn, and to see the place where Jesus walked and lived.
“It’s more of a pilgrimage, I think?” I would answer these inquiries uncertainly. “Kind of like spiritual tourism, I guess?” always with the upward inflection of a question, not because I was unsure of my reasons for going, but because I was confounded by the categorization of the trip.
Christians are not required by our faith to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. There are few actual requirements on Christians when measured through scripture. We are required to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves. We are required to make disciples of all nations, and we are required to get baptized.
Christianity, at its heart, is more of an invitational faith rather than a rules-based faith. Christ invites us to him, and then invites us into an increasingly deeper understanding of and more intimate relationship with him. When I think of my faith, I imagine myself on a beach, watching my savior standing in the water calling to me to come join him as I stand on the shore. The sand is hot, so I dip a toe in, and the refreshment of the water draws me nearer, my feet are wet and I splash in the shallow waves, delighted. As I learn more and more about Jesus I am drawn nearer to where he is, ankle deep, then calf, then knee, but my fear keeps me from fully diving in. Because to love the Lord is to deny “the world”.
I put that phrase in quotes because it means something different in Christianity than it does in common vernacular. “The world” doesn’t refer to every other human on the planet. In this case it means “worldly things” – that is, experiences, and ways of life valued by the secular world. As a Christian, I have two lives, not in the reincarnation sense, but in the sense that I have to work and raise kids and do normal human things, that’s my worldly life. In doing those things I have to look not to my own selfish ambition, but to God’s will, and seek to carry it out. That is my Christian life, where I am meant to deny myself and follow Christ. In following Christ, sometimes my own plans fall by the wayside. For example, the world at war within me seeks vanity and fortune, singularity, significance and renown, while Christ in me seeks to serve God by serving others, and to make myself nothing. These two aspirations cannot coexist.
Christians are called to be in the world but not of the world, which is hard. It’s a hard line to walk. I’m working through the “Experiencing God” Bible study book by Dr. Richard Blackaby with my discipleship group, and we recently discussed session four, where God’s commands are compared to being led through a minefield in a war-torn country. I protested at this imagery to my group – “This isn’t entirely accurate though,” I complained. “Because a lot of sin is appealing. It feels good and there is instant gratification, however fleeting. It’s more like you’re following Jesus through a minefield and on the left is what looks like a carnival with rides and cotton candy and on the right is a dance floor with what looks like a lot of people having a great time, and you have to constantly be on your guard and stick to your guide because where the mines are doesn’t look war-torn at first glance. It’s only upon experiencing these fleeting pleasures that we realize how pointless, empty and unfulfilling they are. Solomon tried everything and found it all to be meaningless at best. (See all of Ecclesiastes 1 for reference). We know the land mines are real. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death”, but in His infinite mercy, death isn’t always immediate.
In Genesis Eve looks at the fruit the serpent is telling her to eat and she, “…saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,…” Genesis 3:6 NIV The sin was appealing, even though she knew it would be deadly. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said, and she didn’t. At least, not right away. The forbidden fruit wasn’t like Snow White’s poisoned apple, but more like cured bacon.
In 2015 scientists determined that cured meats are directly linked to cancer. Buying one package won’t immediately kill you, but the cumulative effects of putting carcinogens into your intestines over and over again might eventually contribute to a deadly illness. But cured bacon is pleasing to the eye and good for food. It tastes good. That’s a metaphor for sin. I’m not telling you to give up bacon, although read up on it and maybe switch to uncured meats.
My worldly desires are constantly at war with my faith. On one hand I crave significance, I want to leave a mark on this world. I want to make a name for myself, I want to be important. But that’s cured bacon. It’s cotton candy and roller coasters. It’s not the stuff of eternal life, it’s the stuff of mortal life. As a Christian, I have to take an immortal view of things. I can’t spend my time on worldly pursuits. Instead, I want to be a reflector for Jesus.
When I was little I was so confused by these poles on the road that had lights on them that only seem to illuminate as cars passed them. My mom explained that the reflectors don’t actually have any light of their own, they just reflect the headlights of the cars passing by. I want people to see my light and then recognize that I am not the actual light source, and then I want them to look to see where the light is coming from, and find Jesus.
So, going to Israel was not a vacation to be precise, it was more a (privileged) attempt to draw nearer to Christ. It was also not relaxing. It was exhausting and cold, but fulfilling. God didn’t waste that time with me. He showed me His constant nearness, but also revealed some areas of incredible brokenness in me while I was there.
In Nazareth, our pastor allowed all the married couples in our group to do an impromptu mass vow renewal if we wanted to, so Eric and I participated in that, and it was my favorite part of the trip. I know there were many people standing around us, all repeating after pastor Matt but I only saw my husband’s face, and I only heard his voice. I cried, and he cried, which made me cry more. Then, a few days later, still in Israel, we had one of the biggest, worst fights of our 16 year marriage. I’m not going to detail that here, but suffice it to say that he did something selfish and I reacted selfishly and we are still working through it, but recovering well. My precious memory of our spontaneous mountaintop vow renewal isn’t marred by my memory of the awful fight that followed, it’s just a reminder that we are both broken, imperfect people, still working to love Jesus and one another better.
In Israel God gave me a profound love for all people. In particular God gave me a renewed desire to pray for my Muslim brothers and sisters. He showed me just how much He really loves them, and longs for their redemption. Nearly every sacred site in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, has had a church or a mosque built on top of it. It was in those spaces where I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to pray for Muslims.
In Jerusalem near the entrance to the Via Dolorosa, there are two churches. There is a church where Christ was beaten, and a church where Barabas was set free. I could write a whole blog just about the release of Barabas. When you enter that church you see his name in large, engraved letters on the wall above, in Latin. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and tears started flowing, and I turned to anyone who would listen and started repeating over and over, “We are Barabas. I am Barabas. We are the criminals set free by the crucifixion of Christ.”
In truth, I had been afraid to go to Israel. Part of that was ignorance. It’s funny how foreign dangers can seem so much more turbulent than domestic, familiar ones, Even though I live my life in a place where gun violence is tragically commonplace, I was still afraid to go to Israel because of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Although I am more knowledgeable about it now, I confess I still don’t grasp all the nuance of it. You read about so many violent things happening in Israel. While we were there though, the main thing I saw was an extremely diverse population living in peace, if uneasy peace, and just going about their daily lives working alongside one another, and in some cases, friends. Our Jewish Israeli tour guide seemed to be good friends with our Muslim Palestinian bus driver.
I was also afraid because Israel is the most foreign country I have ever been to. I have been to Mexico, but I grew up in South Texas, not far from Mexico, and I speak a little Spanish. So it’s not that foreign to me. Israel is the first place I have ever been where not only do I not speak either of the two most common languages, (Hebrew and Arabic) but I can’t even read either alphabet. I was afraid I would get lost. I got lost on a trip to London in 2019 even though I am a native English speaker equipped with an internet-capable cell phone.
I did experience culture shock for the first time. Some of it was pleasant. The elevators are different in Israel. You push the floor button before you get in the elevator. Honestly I think that’s far more efficient, but it took some getting used to. Every hotel we stayed in housed a cafeteria with a buffet that served breakfast and dinner, why isn’t that a thing in the US? Hotel food here tends to be so-so at best, and that’s assuming you can find a hotel that serves food at all. They keep hot milk for the hot coffee so you don’t lower the temperature of your morning beverage when you put milk in it. Simple, but genius!
Some of the culture shock was less pleasant. You can’t buy what we Americans call “over-the-counter” medicines in Israel anywhere but a pharmacy. So Tylenol, Dramamine, Benadryl, etc. were not available at any of the many grocery stores in the country. Also, Israelis scorn lines. They do not wait in line. I learned not to leave any space between myself and the person in front of me in line because if I did, that space would get filled by an Israeli. They’re not being rude, it’s their cultural norm. It was so confounding though that I googled it to make sure I wasn’t just being overly sensitive and it is indeed a thing.
When we checked into our hotel in Tiberius there was a constant crowd at the elevator bank filled with tourists unloading from their buses. One night we stood behind a group of probably ten or eleven Spanish tourists when an Israeli family walked up. The petite, middle-aged matriarch sighed audibly, navigated through the crowd to the buttons, pushed her floor number, barged over to her assigned elevator car, then turned and stood with her back to the elevator door, defiantly staring everyone down and daring anyone to speak. It would have been funny if she hadn’t seemed so deadly serious. At first it was jarring and frustrating, but then I began to feel a tug from the Holy Spirit, reminding me of Paul’s words:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Philippians 2:3-4 NIV
Maybe I feel affronted when people seem to cut in line, but maybe that’s a me problem.
This was confirmed when another member of our group shared that he had also been meditating on the same verse and had a similar conviction. God had to remind me that these are my brothers and sisters, and that I should be valuing them as more important than myself.
I could tell you about our trip to Israel as a great adventure, about hiking Banias Nature Reserve with my 74-year-old mom, or climbing the hill at Bet She’an to visit ruins of a Roman city in the rain, or seeing dozens of surfers on the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv. I could tell you about getting baptized in the Jordan river, or floating in the Dead Sea, or seeing Masada with my own eyes and visiting the Temple Mount and Bethlehem. We did all that stuff and a lot more, and that blog would probably get me more social media clout. And to be honest, that’s what I put on Instagram, but the story is so much bigger than a fascinating vacation because God worked on my soul out there. I got celestial heart surgery so to speak.
Micah Tyler wrote a song called “Different” which speaks of the desire to be completely changed by God. The chorus goes like this:
I wanna be different
I wanna be changed
‘Til all of me is gone
And all that remains
Is a fire so bright
The whole world can see
That there’s something different
So come and be different
I’ve heard this song a lot, but the lyrics really hit home after returning from Israel, where my constant prayer was, “God, please empty me of myself and fill me up with you.”
In “Experiencing God” one of the first things we learned is to take ourselves out of the equation. We learn to stop asking God “what is your plan for my life?” And just ask God “What is your plan?” And then go join Him where He is already working.
In Israel, our pastor gave a great many mini-sermons, multiple times a day. They were usually 10-15 minutes apiece and he would deliver them at different sites. One thing he said over and over again is that God is all good, all loving, and all powerful. Apparently, I needed that reminder.
In 2019, when my best friend Michelle died of colon cancer at the age of 35, God showed me that He is still with me even when the answer to my prayer is no. I wrote about that experience on this blog. I had previously had a transactional relationship with God, treating Him like a big miracle dispenser. What I didn’t realize is that afterwards, I had slipped off in the opposite direction, expecting the answers to all my prayers to be no, and developing a slow resentment against God. In Israel He showed me that, though I never doubted His power, I doubted His goodness. I was asking for a fish and expecting a snake. Since then I have tried to prepare my heart before God when asking for anything. I try to remember that God is all good, all loving, and all powerful, then I remember that I can ask for things with shameless audacity, but still in humility, with the understanding that He is God and I am not.
When we left Israel on December 6th, 2022, the liaison for the tour company asked us to pray for rain for Israel, so we joined the Israelis in prayer for rain, and reminded each other several times to ask God to send rain to Israel. He granted that request with a large rainfall event in late December.
God’s work will take you outside of your comfort zone. That is not to say that serving God should necessarily be uncomfortable, but like the discomfort that comes with stretching our bodies, it is healthy. Serving God stretches us spiritually. The Bible is filled with fallible people who did not want to do what God asked of them. Jonah tried to run away when God asked him to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent. When Moses met God in the burning bush, he protested about his slow speech, and even asked God to send someone else. Gideon was so unsure of God’s choice in asking him to defeat the Midianites that he asked God for two really specific signs, even after witnessing the Angel of the LORD burn up his sacrifice in person.
It’s hard to wrestle with the jobs God gives us, just as it was hard for me to reckon with the prejudices, shortcomings and doubts that God revealed to me in Israel. I’m still learning to take myself out of the equation, rest in God’s sovereignty, and be at peace with the work He asks me to do. I hope I never stop accepting Christ’s invitation to know him more, and I hope you’ll join me. Come on in, the water’s fine.