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He had repeatedly told me that it was important to him that I be there. He would be getting baptized for the second time in his life. His first was at 13 when he was at a jamboree – he confessed that he got caught up in the moment and took the plunge.
Now, a 36-year-old father of four, he believed it important to consciously, thoughtfully, and publicly — as an adult — recommit his life.
Why he felt the need to have me there was a bit of a mystery. I’d met him through a men’s mentoring program; our weekly phone calls had almost always leaned toward family and finances, not faith. That he had skipped the church’s June baptismal event because I couldn’t make it was sufficient reason for me to attend the August date.
He stood in observable anticipation at the water’s edge in baggy shorts and a tee shirt. The AV crew flashed a 60-second video of him sharing why he was electing to get baptized. He entered the pool. Then the pastor said something I couldn’t hear. He pinched his nose with his right forefinger and thumb. Whoosh! The pastor pressed him into the water.
More words from the pastor. I’m counting in my head thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three …
My friend popped up and eyed the congregation; his face was expressionless. I scanned it to see if it gave any clues: had he heard God’s voice when he was underneath the water? Had he seen a flash of white? Did he feel a bolt of energy shoot through his body? Had his life perspective been reordered?
It offered nothing.
At that moment, I was transported to my trip to Israel three years earlier. As novel Christians, my wife and I had decided to travel there to visit the ancient sites. Outwardly, we hoped that experiencing (the sites of) the Bible firsthand would accelerate and deepen our learning and – transitively – our faith.
(Privately, I hoped for a flash of light – a supernova reordering of things – that would transform me and everything around me.)
In a whirlwind, we visited Capernaum, Caesarea, the Garden Tomb, Magdala, the shores of Galilee, Gideon’s Spring, the Dead Sea, and Temple Mount. We waded through Hezekiah’s Tunnel and fell dumbstruck in the Garden of Gethsemane. In awe, we passed Abraham’s gate and walked the cobbles of the Old City. We stood above the rim of the Jezreel Valley and wondered.
One afternoon found us at the Western Wall. Per custom, my wife approached it from the women’s chute and I from the men’s. It was more stout than I had imagined.
I reached into my rucksack and grabbed a fistful of scraps of paper and letters my friends had handed and mailed to me in the run-up to our departure. Anonymous to me, I imagined each one held a plea for God’s divine intercession in a highly personal matter of significance. (I had shoved two of my own into the pack several nights prior … one for each son asking that the Lord always hold them in the palm of His hand, protect them, and bless them with peace and health.)
The stones were so perfectly tucked and fitted there was nary a crevasse available into which I might wedge my petitions; the few I saw were already bursting with the prayers of other pilgrims. Unexpectedly, my breathing quickened and I began to panic. I had scores of these handwritten requests. Where would I put them? Could I make a pile on the ground next to the wall? And if I did, would they be scattered? If scattered, might they be overlooked by The Creator?
And I started to cry.
I found my wife. She wrapped her arms around me while I sobbed. I felt the gravity of friends and family who each had individually in one way or another imagined me climbing to the top of a mountain, extending my hand (with their note in it) high above my head to where the Lord could reach it and act upon it. The weight overwhelmed me. So too did the idea of trying to assure my sons’ safe and joyful passage in this life by cramming two scraps of paper with 35 hastily written words on them, into the crack of a thousands-year-old wall.
At week’s end, we made our way to the Jordan River. Having paid the $8 fee, we changed into white cotton frocks and stood waist-deep waiting our turn. The water was oddly cold for that time of year; schools of tiny fish nibbled at our toes. There were ten people in front of us. Then four. Then Lori. Now, me.
I had meant to prepare myself but the ceremony had unfolded too quickly. I made eye contact with the pastor. He said something, but I didn’t hear it. I pinched my nose with my forefinger and thumb. He moved behind me. Whoosh! I was under the water. The day’s sounds were blunted; I kept my eyes open and could see him speaking but couldn’t make out what he was saying. I could hear my own heart and blood coursing through my head, but little else.
He hoisted me up. People were clapping. I spotted Lori who was already on shore; I scanned her face looking for evidence that she had heard Him or saw Him or felt Him.
As I had been one of the last on our bus, once I toweled off, it was time to leave. I traded my wet clothes for dry ones and climbed on board the motor coach.
The final days would be a blur. Soon, we were back in Tel Aviv at Yafo Ben Gurion International Airport, belted into our seats and ready for take-off.
As the wheels left the ground, it hit me.
I had gone to Israel to underwrite my faith through intellectual observation. But faith isn’t the result of intellectual reasoning and pursuit. Faith is the result of faith.
It’s almost cruel. God created us to be curious and skeptical. He gifted us to learn through word, sight, and experience. Yet, with rare exception, none of us will ever auditorily hear Him, or visually see Him, or kinesthetically feel Him.
He communicates to us subdurally – at our fiber … our core … our being. To understand Him and His desire for our lives, we need new ears to hear, new eyes to see, and new hearts to feel.
I pray that while he was underneath the water, my friend Andrew received them all.Published in