O’ Mysterious God! (or, The Pain of Observation and the Blessings of a Pizza)

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I HAVE VISITED foreign countries; boarded planes to hop between them, trains within them. I have meandered the streets of ancient Bath in England, seen the beauty of Paris in the rain, touched the stones of the Roman Colosseum; I have prayed at the Western Wall, and ventured the darkened streets of Old City Jerusalem; I have stood in the incontestable footsteps of Jesus in his synagogue at Galilee, and touched the shore where Peter was reinstated.

And by most of these, I have not been moved.

People tell stories of their profound experiences visiting these places—the majesty, the profundity, the splendor and the pain. As we returned from Galilee, someone told me of how God had spoken to him on the Mount of Beatitudes, clearly, viscerally. He admitted that he’s not the emotional type, the experiential type. He’s visited these streets, these paths, these waters a hundred times in his youth, but it was only now—at this time—that the Lord spoke to him, and he was floored.

As I visited these sites, I felt as one disconnected. It’s how I often feel when visiting any foreign place or incredible landmark. It’s something that once confounded me; how could I not be impressed? How could I not stand in awe?

But, now, I do know why. It’s on account of something I carry that turns the moment from a personal experience to an observation of another’s experience. It is a screen through which I capture a moment for others to experience vicariously through me, and for me to revisit, dimly, through an indistinct memory. The truth is, as vicariously as others experience my adventures, I am their equal, as if I had never truly been there at all. The thing that disassociates me from an experience is my camera.

I have considered, very seriously, setting the camera aside. I’ve told myself to experience the thing for myself, then capture the memory if I must capture it at all. But as a photographer, I have learned that this is nearly impossible. There is a moment, and then the moment is gone. The light of the morning sun illuminating the orange in the rocks, the shadows in the crags of a steep face in the Canyon, the glinting of light off the Colorado River… and the knee-high socks and sandals of a German tourist. A moment sooner and the photo would have been mine. But the tourist has found his spot, and will not be moved. He’ll call to his family five meters away, but not move closer to them. The opportunity to take the photo is missed.

If one is to take a photo, better to take it while the opportunity is there, even if that means seeing it through a lens before seeing it through one’s own eyes.

But of the two of us, the tourist has it right. His moment is an experience, his poorly composed snapshot more meaningful to him than my work of art to me. My art is as much—if not more so—a gift for others to enjoy than it is a memory for me.

And the photo is a hard reminder. Take a look at any one of my photographs, the ones that move you, the ones that you wish were on your walls, or the ones you wish you had taken. Look at those ones for a moment and tell me what you see. What is missing from the frame?

I look at them and I know what is missing. To me, it is profoundly obvious. The element that is missing is me.

This is a photographer’s dilemma. When he travels alone, his art calls to him to capture the beauty so as to express it to the rest back home. But, he risks missing the moment himself. If he travels with others, he hopes to set the camera down, to experience the laughter of his friends, the beauty of a splendid vista. But so often, he cannot. Inevitably, his companions will call to him, demand he take a photo. In a strange way, they feel he owes it to them. So the photographer must take the photo or risk ruining the moment with debate. In either scenario, the moment is gone.

This dilemma can become more insidious. If the companions don’t call for the photo, the moment itself does. The photographer’s eye spots a perfect composition, and the camera calls to him, like heroin to an addict, like drink to the drunkard. It can be a hard voice to ignore, and an irritating distraction if attempted, like a pebble inside a shoe.

In my experience, as a photographer, and as someone who believes that honesty is one of man’s most important virtues, there is moment that I dread. It’s the inevitable question after a memorable event: “What was it like?”

Well, let me tell you:

I rush from hospital room to hospital room, already feeling invasive with my camera, but I am here to capture the giving of a gift to a child in an infirmary.

People tell me, “Capture this. Capture that.”

“Over here, photographer.”

“Where is that guy?”

I can only be in one place at one time.

To their credit, the team wants to include me; they hand me a toy and tell me to give it to a child. But it’s almost as if I am suddenly dropped into awareness. The world is no longer a dozen calibrations of light and angle and motion, as it was just a moment ago. Now, in an instant, I am told not through words but actions, “Be a compassionate human being. And do it quickly.” I have gone from robot to human with no transition. And just as soon as I begin to adjust, it’s time to return to the camera.

“Okay, now this. Are you filming?”

The day is done and I am asked by my teammates, “So what did you think? Wasn’t that great? To bring a smile on those children’s faces, to lighten their day just a little… isn’t that a blessing?”

I know the right answer, and I can give it because, technically, it’s not lying, “Yes,” I say, “it is a blessing…”

But for me, it is not a blessing that I know, not in the literal sense of the word, the biblical sense of the word. To know, as in, to experience. Yes, the blessing is still there, only I am unaware of its manifested presence.

It’s later in the week that I confide to a teammate. “Do you want to know what truly stood out to me on this trip? It was the hour or two when we explored the streets of Akko, separated from the rest of the hurried group. When we did our own thing. When the clouds turned orange and red as the sun dipped toward the vibrant blue water, behind the ruins of what used to be a wall some centuries ago.

“It was the lunch we all had at the fish place, where for the first time in my life I ate, not one, but four whole fish; the jealous meowing of a street cat just outside, contesting with the music inside.

“And it was the two hours I spent in the morning, getting lost in the labyrinthine Old City of Jerusalem, watching the city slowly come awake with street merchants opening their shops, the warm fragrance of incense and spices wafting through their doors. How much the city reminded me of the landscape of my dreams, and one of my favorite video games I used to play as a child.”

These are the moments that stood out most to me, because these were the moments that I, for the greater part, set the camera aside and drank in the experience. When I was able to interact with my companions and the locals, as opposed to observing their interactions with one another. When my heart raced for a moment as I leapt from steps to rooftops to catch another vista, or wandered down an unlit corridor that I, perhaps, ought not to have wandered down. When I felt, for a brief time, what it was like to experience a moment—what it was like to truly live.

As I write this, I’m tapped on the shoulder by a new friend from England, who now lives in Israel. He’s brought me half an Arabic pizza from a restaurant he and his Israeli girlfriend had recommended two nights before. Meat and cheese, seasoned generously with a popular spice here called za’atar. These are the moments that mean so much to me. Even more so than a whirlwind tour through important historical sites, even more so than capturing the smiles of children receiving gifts from others—all those moments, seen through a lens.

What makes a moment memorable to me is the human element, the connection and bond being formed between people, familiar and stranger alike, without the barrier of glass—that emotional disembodiment that observation so often brings.

I know God has blessed many people through our work over the past two weeks here in Israel. But what He used to bless me most was the sunset over Akko, the cats who own the streets, a whole-fish lunch, the dreamscape of Jerusalem, and a newfound friend seeking me out in the morning to offer me a pizza.

The Lord speaks in mysterious ways;
And this is how He speaks to me.


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