My Dear Shepherds,

In the Holy Land it seems like stones do most of the talking. Everywhere we visited recently, from Caesarea Philippi in the far north to Masada towering over the Dead Sea, the stones had the best stories to tell. There were three that I touched that were like Braille with stories to tell by touch rather than sight.

One was a massive stone in the Wailing Wall, part of the foundation of Israel’s ancient temple. I pushed my palm against the limestone, smoothed by countless other hands. When I bowed my head, I was caught off-guard by a sense of the sacred. I wished that I had prepared myself, that I had collected thoughts and words for that moment. A friend told me of his experience there, “The moment I touched it, the tears started flowing.”

This was not at all like sitting in a little prayer circle at church. Rather, I felt I was gathered up into the innumerable company of those who had sought God at this very place, where his glory once filled the temple, the place which Jesus said was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus met my stammering prayer there with his mercy and his presence, helped by the touch of that warm, worn stone.

Not far away, outside the city walls in the Garden of Gethsemane, stands the Church of All Nations. At the altar, visitors moved slowly by a broad, flat stone, kneeling to touch it. I joined them. No one knows if this was the actual rock where Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears,” but imagining him bent there in such agony while his dearest friends slept was solemn worship.

I also thought of my seminary classmate, David Kyle Foster, who was born again kneeling at that very place about 50 years ago. He had come to Israel, torn between loyalty to the dark power of the Maharaj Ji and Jesus Christ. David wrote,

As I knelt in prayer, straining with hope that God would give me the answer, I said, “God, You can do miracles, and Satan can do miracles. How am I supposed to know who is truly from God?”

I was surprised that a reply came so quickly into my mind—a thought so abstract that it could never have been my own: Who proved His love for you?

The answer, he realized, was this: “The guru took. Jesus, the Savior, gave.”[i]

The third stone, also broad and flat, was part of Mount Moriah, rising a little from the vast plaza around Islam’s Dome of the Rock. The rock slab under that golden dome, as well as the smaller one nearby, are all that can be seen today of “the region of Moriah” where Abraham was told to take Isaac as a sacrifice.Today the whole area is crowded and conflicted, history piled on history. For Abraham, that mountain was lonely and profoundly foreboding, foreshadowing Golgotha. I stood there, trying to imagine Abraham’s turmoil, even though he reasoned that God could raise the dead. I thought about the ram found in the thicket. It was faith-fortifying, like touching Hebrews 11.

A touchstone is a hard, black stone used in testing the purity of gold or silver. Figuratively, it is “a test for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.” I’d come to the Holy Land in a funk of acedia (spiritual torpor and apathy). Who’d have imagined that touching those stones, Braille-like, could bring me in touch with prayer, submission, and faith?

Be ye glad!

[i] Foster, David Kyle, Love Hunger (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group), pp. 196-198.

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