There are many advantages of making a journey to the Holy Land. An on-location-immersion in the history and geography of the biblical narrative makes the Bible come alive in a fresh way. The stories are no longer distant, flat, or abstract. The stories of the Bible become multi-dimensional and packed with new insight. Having the opportunity to see the sights Jesus saw, walk the streets he walked, and breathe the air he breathed can transform the way we think about the extraordinary measures God took to invest in humanity.
But there’s more: Going to the Holy Land can be dangerously disruptive to the way one worships God. It has the potential to transform one’s practice of worship by renewing one’s sense of place. Philip Sheldrake points to this potential transformation when he reminds us that “the concept of place refers not simply to a geographical location but to a dialectical relationship between environment and human narrative. Place is a space that has the capacity to be remembered and to evoke what is most precious” (Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity, 1).
In the Holy Land, whether following the wanderings of the Hebrew people, the footsteps of Jesus, or the journeys of the Apostle Paul, one cannot help but come face-to-face with the multiple connections between place, memory, and our identity as human beings. And this, in turn, can be a powerful force in shaping the way we think about the vocation of guiding the people of God in worship. Immersion in the Holy Land—as holy ground and holy place—challenges my thinking and practice of worship. That is, a theology of place takes seriously the incarnational, historical, and spatial aspects of worship. A trip to the Holy Land is a forceful reminder that our faith is not merely, or even primarily, a collection of religious affirmations. The Bible is not a book of systematic theology that dispenses theoretical truth. Rather, it is the story of the eternal God’s intersection with the temporal, historical, embodied world of space, place, geography, and culture. The story of the Scriptures pulsates with God’s unflagging determination to engage creation with self-giving grace. From God’s walking in the cool of the garden with the first humans to the burning bush, Mt. Sinai, and the Exodus; from the symbolic actions of the prophets, the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of a new heaven and a new earth—the story of the Bible is a story of engagement, embodiment, and incarnation.
The implications for worship are vast. If these things are true then authentic worship cannot merely involve the impartation of some information—even if it’s true and good. Rather, worship will involve remembering God’s great acts in the past in ways that make them present in our own place and time. Authentic worship will take seriously the people, place, and culture of the worshipers—precisely because it is in the very nature of God to be known in and through the things of place, time, and history. Authentic worship will involve the fully embodied participation of the worshipers in action, proclamation, and response. Authentic worship will incarnate the very presence of God in a particular geographical place, an actual physical space, among flesh and blood people. It will resist any expression of worship that is merely cognitive, ideological, or even spiritual.
So, going to the Holy Land is dangerous business. It may completely change the way you do church.
Doug Cullum, vice president and dean, visited the Holy Land in summer 2012 in preparation for the trip he will lead for Northeastern Seminary from July 1—July 17, 2016. To learn more about this study tour of the Holy Land and how to register visit the Northeastern Seminary website at www.nes.edu.