In the fall of 1999 I traveled with a longtime friend to Israel. From Haifa we drove to Vered HaGalil, a remote Jewish guest house and horse farm high on the slopes of the steep hills encircling the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee.
As we visited the sites associated with the Sermon on the Mount and other events of Jesus’ ministry, and wandered over the semi-arid rough slopes among the scattered, gnarled olive and fig trees, thistles, and grape vines, images of the man who had roamed these hills before us and who has become such a part of our lives and culture flooded through my mind. Jesus at the synagogue in Capernaum rebuking the unclean spirit. (Or was it what we’d call a trauma? An addiction? A mental illness of some sort?) Preaching the restoration of God’s kingdom in Israel to the farmers and peasants around him.
And now, after 2,000 years? Had he been wrong? Fallible? Had the kingdom judgment come with the fall of the Temple in C.E. 70? Or with the spirit-led communal life of the first Christians? And later, George Fox? Jesus alone at night praying to the Father. But if he were the Son of God, divine, why would he need to pray?
As I wrestled with the questions, the conflicting images of Jesus, I tried to center on my own journey. Where I had found peace over the years in my own life. The stages of understanding that had carried me toward a deeper appreciation of the figure I had come to Israel to spend time with. What of Jesus today? Was he still available? If the older images no longer worked for many modern believers, how would Jesus wish to speak with us now?
That night, unable to sleep, I went out onto our stone patio at about 5:00 a.m. As I began writing, just as the darkness was beginning to lift over Galilee, I was energized to trace the flow of my conflicted reflections. Looking back, these reflections seem relevant to the wrestling of Friends today with the roots of our Quaker faith.
Moving from one’s accustomed life into the transpersonal, transcendent realm, one may initially perceive reality as becoming less certain, more blurred at the edges. In time this amorphous presence of goodness around us, this marginal presence of hopefulness, may sharpen for us into the more focused shape of a human figure—a person, Jesus.
Revisited by what has been for us a cultural icon, the figure of Jesus—radical prophet, healer, demigod, quixotic teacher—may begin to take on new life, at times a model for our own behavior. He may become a symbolic presence, like Moses or Gandhi or Mother Teresa, that reminds us of the possibilities inherent in our problematic nature—and then some aspect of his personality or mission may draw our attention. From the kaleidoscopic images of Jesus reflected by the culture a few may become more real for us. And Jesus, stepping away from the colliding images supplied by others, seems to move in our direction for a more intimate visit.
As we sit and talk with this gentle man who speaks with such authority we may sense he has come from a great distance to seek us out—to speak to us one on one, as one talks with a friend, to listen to our difficulties, to sympathize with our hurt feelings, to respect the particularities of our individual life. As he listens we may sense that he does not so much resolve our dilemmas—though he may touch our needs as he did the wounded ones in Galilee—as invite us into a fresh companionship, befriending us, being with us in the struggles ahead.
At some point—earlier for some, later for others, but for all when ready—Jesus invites us to care in a new way for the lives of those around us. Love for our sisters and brothers, near to us and as wide as the entire human family, becomes our passion. We become fearless in the particular enterprises to which we are called. Aware of our personal package of strengths and weaknesses, we are asked to contribute to the upbuilding of God’s kingdom. And we may sense that the inner companion, the inner teacher, Jesus, who spoke to so many earlier Friends still waits on our attention and wishes to speak to us one at a time, in stillness and in love.