“I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5c NRSV)
I was standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem when I felt it. It began like a shallow wave across the surface of pool, but as I reached out my hand and touched the cold, hard stones that shallow wave became a surge, an overwhelming flood which rushed my spiritual senses and washed over me with cascades of all-encompassing, life transforming peace. It was one of the most powerful experiences of God’s holy presence that I have ever had. Standing there, with my hand resting upon the ancient stones making up the last remnants of the Second Temple, I had absolutely no doubt that I was being touched by Almighty God.
It’s not as if this were a new or foreign experience for me. Throughout my life, like many Christians, I have had moments in which I knew that I was in the immediate presence of the Creator. It has happened at times when one would normally expect it, such as when I knelt before Bishop Blake, he placed his hands on my head, and I was ordained a Presbyter. It has happened at high, holy moments of worship and in times of private prayer and meditation. It has also happened when one least expects it, but often most needs it: at difficult moments in the midst of hospital calls, while struggling for words when counseling someone, and even while trying to fight one's way through the insanity of afternoon traffic. And, then, there are those glorious times when I have found myself in the real presence of God as I have been witness to the glorious beauty of creation from the deck of a ship or while standing in my back yard gazing through my telescope at some celestial sight. The experience of being in the real presence of Christ is not foreign to me, nor am I necessarily surprised when I feel it, and this was particularly true while standing at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
This is the holiest site in modern Judaism. It is the closest that Jews can come, today, to the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple. The stones that make up the Western Wall are a continual, historic and spiritual reminder of the connection that exists between the children of Israel and the land, walls, and Temple Mount which make up the Old City of Jerusalem. Their very presence serve as a reminder that they, as a people, belong in Jerusalem; despite what politicians might say, this is an incontrovertible truth.
I was standing at the Western Wall amid the press and noisy den of hundreds of praying Jews. It was the Sabbath day and the site was jammed packed with people, all of whom had one objective: making their way up to the wall and praying. I was just one gentile among the crowd, and yet there was no pressure to keep me away. I had wormed my way through the mass of people and, here I stood, my hand on the wall, being literally encompassed by the real presence of Christ Jesus my Lord. It was an amazing, soul-fulfilling experience. I stood there for a few moments, allowing that inner sense to rage through me. And, then, I began to pray. In accordance with long-standing tradition, I had brought with me some slips of paper with the names and concerns of others written upon them; as I prayed I committed those people and their needs to God by placing these slips of paper into the cracks of the Wall. And I knew - I knew - that God had not only heard my prayer but that those people, and their many varied needs, were as much in the immediate presence of God as I was at that moment. It was, truly, a realized experience of Holy Presence that I will never forget.
It was at that very moment, with the feeling of being in God's presence flowing over me, that the words from Hebrews 13:5 went ringing through my head: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God has said these same words to many different people and in many different circumstances in the past, and now he was saying them directly to me. Suddenly, a shudder of confirmation ran through me as I heard those same words a second time, only now they were in Hebrew and were coming from the fellow who praying to my right. He was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy in his prayer, repeating the phrase : "Lo yarepekha velo yaahzevekha" over and over again. This was a powerful, unmistakable affirmation of the message which God was giving to me. No matter where I am, no matter what God calls me to do or be, I know that I will never be alone -- God promises to go with me. And, glory be to God, this same promise is true or us all.
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
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