Fear of God

A slight detour on my countdown to sabbatical. In three weeks, I will return to Jerusalem for the first time in over thirty years; God willing.


It was a dangerously hot summer in Jerusalem. I got food poisoning from a falafel stand; but that is not why I am afraid to return.

I remember the bazaar, burrowing through narrow alleyways, accosted on all sides by street vendors offering tourist trinkets at inflated prices. “I’m not American,” I would tell them, and the price would instantly halve. “Fish and chips!” they would cry. These days, I am an American. No doubt the prices will be steeper.

A local boy assaulted me mildly, casually, on my way back to the youth hostel at sundown. I can still see him silhouetted against the pale yellow sandstone, his curls sharpened into stone themselves by the setting sun. But he is not the reason I am afraid to return.

I climbed the Mount of Olives, traced Jesus’ journey through Holy Week to the cross, and the tomb. I was not afraid of resurrection.

Thirty years older, and not much the wiser, I spend my days praying under the Presence of Christ, over the bread and wine, the simple stuff. I am a professional at proclaiming the promises of God.

I make excuses not to put God to the test. What I am really afraid to put on trial is the absence of innocence, after the long decay of youth. World-wearier, and decades more cynical than the first time around, I wonder if I could survive the solar plexus punch of raw religious experience, or whether I have armour-plated myself against it.

They say that when you get an electric shock, you can’t pull your hands away. At the remaining Wall of the Temple, a reckless teenager, I placed my palms flat against the stones. The current running through the living stones, the centuries of prayer and lament, the outpouring of blood, sweat, and tears gripped my hands and held them tight against the house of God, as though They would never let me go; as though I could never leave.

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