Jesus was here: A desert reflection

I want to walk as a child of the Light, I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus.

      --The Hymnal 1982, 490 / words by Kathleen Thomerson

Light.  Necessary for life.  It brings definition, clarity, opens knowledge, reveals danger and invites hope.

The first light of day has not quite reached the horizon as I sit on the edge of a precipice among the cliffs in the Judean Desert, in the West Bank of Palestine.  I am at Wadi Qelt, less than a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem and high above a deep winding valley.  The road Jesus took to Jerusalem is cut into the rock on the canyon floor far below me.  It is the road set as the location of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.

All around me, everything is various shades of gray; the hills are near, and the canyon is straight down in front.  The sky is ink black.  The mountains in the distance are black and ominous.  All is quiet and still.  Nothing is moving.  Not even a breeze to accompany the slight chill.  Silence is as loud as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Jerusalem Desert Bishop Gayle Harris The sky slowly changes to a midnight blue for a while, and then ever so quickly, navy, with streaks of gold, rose and mandarin over the Moab mountains in Jordan a few miles in the east.  Black turns to gray, gray turns to various shades of brown, then beige.  In a matter of 10 minutes infinite colors stretch across the sky, finally yielding to an azure blue. The terrain is now visible, filled with earth and hard stones of brown, white and gold.  It is very dry here, yet rich.  With the light I can see ridges, channels and terraces in the hills, formed by water over millennia.  As the sun dashes upward swiftly, shadows form and eddies of heat rise from the wadi floor below, providing thermals for two hawks to spiral upward silently with motionless wings.  The desert is alive and it is vibrant.

Here in the desert, light reveals peril and beauty.  With the light in this almost alien landscape, humans feel stripped and bare.  Your soul is naked.  No distractions.  In the light there is clarity and definition. Just you, creation and the creator. And in the silence, there is now room for God’s grace to enter your heart and being.  The desert makes you yield to God.

Jesus was here.  The light of God is here.

Jerusalem street Bishop Gayle Harris But this visit to the desert ends, and I return to Jerusalem, and its sidewalks crowded with people and carts, clogged traffic, myriad loud sounds and so many smells.  The sky is a soft blue, the sunlight is so bright it is piercing.  Looking around I can see some eyes stab at others with harsh glances.  Quiet hostility in the midst of warm greetings.  My eyes and ears are assaulted with so much, it is hard to distinguish what is happening and from which direction. Which way to move?

So many languages, colors, tastes to absorb.  Instead of being naked in the soul, here I find we clutter ourselves and take on facades like stone:  race, ethnicity, religion, sectarianism, age, social and economic status.  Outside of the desert, whether in the Holy Land or in America, instead of being open, we become hesitant as we focus on our differences.  We live behind screens and closed doors, in the dark, reflecting closed hearts and minds.  Instead of clarity there is confusion.

Jesus was here.  The light of God is here.

But which is the real desert? In those Judean hills, or the desert inside of us?

I love the Holy Land.  I love leading annual trips there for members of this diocese, not just to visit holy sites, but to embrace the holy within us. To be open, naked and allow room for the light of God and the grace of God to enter.

The light of God is so very present in the Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land.  They are proud to have been followers of Jesus since the day of the Pentecost.  I have yet to experience people as gracious, hospitable and generous as they are. God’s light shines in and through them.

Yet that light has dimmed by the exodus of Arab Christians from Palestine and Israel.  Being among the most educated, they find little opportunity for jobs and security given the political realities.  So many emigrate to Jordan, or Britain or the U.S.A.  They bring the light of God with them, but that light also needs to remain in the Holy Land.  Entire towns which were 100 percent Christian just a generation ago now have few Christians.  Please take the time to view the “60 Minutes” episode concerning the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land at:

As I reflect on the political situation of the Holy Land, the intractability that there seems to be, I could feel myself giving up on hope; a void of disillusionment could form within me like a desert, seemingly lifeless. But the desert is full with light and life, like all the colors at dawn and those hawks circling on the thermals, if you wait for it, if you seek it.  

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, the Rt. Rev. Suheil Dawani, strives to keep Christians in the Holy Land by providing quality education, medical care and job opportunities.  That work gives the light of hope to our brothers and sisters.  And our partnership with that diocese, which includes Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, has assisted in renovating and equipping some of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem’s hospitals and clinics and the vocational school in Ramallah, building a housing complex and directly funding parish ministries in Israel and the West Bank.  These institutions provide services and care to all, no matter what race or creed.  These institutions and Palestinian Episcopalians are a light in the darkness of animosity and violence.  The Diocese of Jerusalem enlightens the region with the work of peacemaking and respecting the dignity of every human being.  They are the “living stones” of Jesus.

This is the light; the brightness of God is incarnate in the faith and witness of our brothers and sisters of the Holy Land. 

Jesus is here.  The light of God is here…still.

I want to see the brightness of God.  I want to look at Jesus.
Clear sun of righteousness, shine on my path, and show me the way to the Father.
In him there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the City of God.  Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

      --The Hymnal 1982, 490 / words by Kathleen Thomerson

--The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan

Bishop Harris and the Rev. Beth Grundy will lead a Holy Land mission pilgrimage Nov. 9-21, 2014, and invite members of the diocese to join them.  The registration deadline is July 15.  More information is available by contacting Marsha Searle at 617-482-4826, ext. 445 or

Opinions expressed in Reflections are those of the writers. Reflections are original essays intended to provide insight and perspective on faith and daily life; some first appeared elsewhere and are republished here with permission. Submissions are welcome; all material is subject to editing. Submit Reflections for consideration to