“A Lutheran pastor, a Southern Baptist preacher, and a Methodist minister walk into a bar . . . “
Sometimes my journey to Israel was like being part of an old joke come to life. Yes, there was a priest (and although not part of our group, I’m sure there were plenty of rabbis around to round out the cast).
Some of us did actually “walk into a bar” together at least once. One evening an ecumenical group of us hung out for a while at Dublin, an Irish Pub in Jerusalem. Guinness flowed (for those whose denominations didn’t frown on drinking alcohol) and decidedly non-Irish bass-heavy music pounded as we shared our ministry experiences and call stories.
That kind of interdenominational sharing happened not just at the pub but throughout the pilgrimage. And it was perhaps the most unexpected blessing of the experience.
It is easy for pastors to become entrenched in our denominational domains. Even when it comes to worshiping an all-encompassing God, our human tendency is to divide and define “those people” by how they are not “like us.”
This is evident even at the two most holy sites in Christendom. You would think (hope!) that differences could be set aside at the purported places where Jesus was born (Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and was crucified/buried (Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem). But both of these massive shrines are denominationally divided sort of like the old sitcom plot where a feuding husband and wife would draw an imaginary line through their apartment – “You can’t use the bathroom, that’s on my side!” At least at the Church of the Nativity the factions are united when each sends a representative for 15 minutes of cleaning together.
Now that’s ecumenism at its finest! (Make sure you read that with an appropriate tinge of sarcasm.)
The Israel pilgrimage in which I just participated was, in fact, ecumenism at its finest (no sarcasm). Thirty-seven pastors of varied denominations, ages, races, regions, backgrounds, and genders traveled together without dividing the bus into denominational enclaves. We became part of each other’s experience of Israel . . . in a good way. Folks from denominations that don’t ordain women accepted (or seemed to) women pastors as colleagues and fellow-pilgrims.
For me, the pastoral sharing was a highlight of the journey. Several nights I gathered with pastors from denominations as different as Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, at least two varieties of Baptists, and so on, to talk about topics that could be theologically divisive. But we listened to each other rather than trying to convince each other of our theological correctness as we discussed baptism and communion and the forms our worship services take. I learned a great from my brothers and sisters in ministry, especially when they shared the stories of their own faith journeys.
I am pretty much immersed in Lutheran theology most of the time. There are some ecumenical ministries in which I participate, but those are focused more on getting things done rather than really bridging denominational gaps. There just isn’t time in most of our ministry contexts to sit around and chat with clergy about our varied beliefs as I had the opportunity to do in Israel.
I was surprised to make friends – friendships that I hope will endure beyond the trip – regardless of denominational or regional differences. Somehow “walking in the footsteps of Jesus” was even more powerful being reminded that although we differ in the details, we all meet at the cross and at the empty tomb. On this trip, we did meet there, not just theologically but physically.
On our last day in Israel, we had short service of communion at the Garden Tomb site in Jerusalem. In the brilliant sunshine just yards away from a tomb where Jesus’ body might have been laid, we sang together – as we had often done during the pilgrimage – listened to Scripture, and then shared bread and wine. Communion – the union of the community of saints – happened.
In the life to come, there aren’t going to be denominational sections. Those human constructs will be as useless as national borders and definitions of ethnicity. We’ll be one body praising and worshiping together for eternity.
I am thankful to have experienced a glimpse of that eternity with my brother and sister pilgrims in Israel.
I need to express my profound gratitude to the Knights Templar who made this pilgrimage possible. It is properly known as the Knights Templar Holy Land Pilgrimage, and it allows pastors who have never been to travel to Israel all expenses paid. (And when they say all, they mean it – transportation from home to New York City, airfare to Israel, accommodations, (excellent) meals, admission fees, and even tips!)
About a year ago a member of my congregation approached me and asked if I had ever been to Israel. I said that I had not but really wanted to go. He told me about this opportunity and asked if he could nominate me. I said sure, as long as I didn’t have to join anything (I’m really not a joiner). The rest, as they say, is history.
I have been tremendously blessed by this experience that would not have been possible without the generosity and dedication of the Knights Templar organization.