A Feature Review of
Where Jesus Prayed: Illuminating The Lord’s Prayer in the Holy Land
Reviewed by Alex Joyner
On my initial visits to the Holy Land I felt under-mapped. Overlaid on every piece of terrain I visited there were lines and boundaries – some seen, (like the security barrier that snakes along as fence and concrete wall), some unseen, (like the real and present divisions between Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem). I was always uncertain of the significance of the land where I was standing.
Pilgrims bring their own maps to the Holy Land along with images of how things should be, these shaped by felt board Sunday School lessons and storytelling preachers, among other things. All such expectations are soon cast aside as the imagined gives way to the real. And some pilgrims are so captivated by their experience of the land that they fall in love with God all over again.
Danielle Shroyer is that sort of pilgrim and her new book, Where Jesus Prayed: Illuminating The Lord’s Prayer in the Holy Land, is an unabashed “love letter to the Holy Land and to all its pilgrims who travel there (in mind or in body) in hopes of seeing a deeper and truer glimpse of the One in whose steps we seek to follow” (ix). This devotional book is the fruit of a two-week journey she took with a group of practicing pastors to places connected with Jesus’s life and ministry. In it she shares her practice of approaching these sites through the lens of The Lord’s Prayer, something she found herself repeating often as she visited places from Capernaum to Megiddo to Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We go on the journey with her to experience how those familiar prayer words sounded in varied sanctuaries and locales.
Shroyer doesn’t give us much introduction to herself, but she makes a trustworthy guide. A Presbyterian pastor, who self-describes as “half-Lebanese, half-WASP” (81), Shroyer leads one of the most interesting “emerging” communities in Dallas, Journey Church, as their theologian-in-residence. She is an author and blogger with a Princeton Theological Seminary pedigree and she is in demand as a speaker. What that means is that she is at home in settings as varied as classrooms to bars where some of her most interesting small group ministries take place.
Given that background, one might expect an edgy, idiosyncratic book. But if anything, Shroyer reaches back to some very traditional methods of devotional writing. Each of the 20 chapters begins with an historic and descriptive account of a site Shroyer visited, a biblical passage related to the site, and then Shroyer’s own imaginative reflections on how the locale worked with Jesus’s words to lead her to new understandings. The Lord’s Prayer is reprinted at the end of each chapter.
At times Shroyer can be Buechner-esque as when she imagines herself into the scene of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law: “Even in the midst of miracles, Jesus of Capernaum seems unflashy, as if healing were so integrally part of who he was that of course he spent time doing it here and there…I wonder if the very ordinariness of it, the fact that she just got up and moved right along into normal life as if nothing had happened, was so surprising and noteworthy and different that he [Mark] had to say it was like that or nobody would have believed it” (10).
There is a lot of playful exploration with biblical narrative here, sometimes inspired by the spot in which Shroyer is sitting and sometimes drawing on her own fertile mind. When she complains (gently) about the restrictions on what could be touched at the Church of the Beatitudes, Shroyer notes, “It’s a little like being a child in an art classroom with a strict teacher. There’s all this stuff you can imagine with, but you’re not fully allowed to use it” (23). That tells us something about her learning style and her rich gifts as a preacher.
Shroyer has a light touch; she’s not prone to pronouncements. When she encounters a pillar in the church in Magdala designated “to represent all the women throughout time who have followed Jesus, and all the women who have ministered to his church,” Shroyer sighs “silently” and then gives thanks for having been given “a tangible place in this pilgrimage, a direct, physical way that my own story connects and intersects with the work of Christ, and the ministry of all the women who have come before me, and who will follow” (55). It is the gift of her openness that she is more likely to feel gratitude than resentment at such moments.
This comes through as well in her appreciation for those she meets and travels with on this journey. She acknowledges that the exact history of many of the Holy Land locales is dubious (Do we really know where Mary was born? No, but the Church of St. Anne claims that distinction). However, the historical accuracy “is not the primary focus, but rather the tradition of remembrance that has brought countless pilgrims to this place for two thousand years” (14). In sharing this journey with pilgrims of this and every age she finds a strong connection.
For all of its strengths, the most disconcerting thing about Shroyer’s book is her setting aside of the contemporary issues of the Holy Land. Every so often, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes an oblique appearance, as when she stands where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and says, “If Jesus were to stand on the Mount of Olives today, his eyes would see a city divided and divisive. God help us if we do not weep over Jerusalem still” (87). At the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, she describes how “the Muslim call to prayer commenced right on top of” the noon bells of the church (63), reminding us of the complex religious environment surrounding these sites. But for the most part, the map of this book is a narrowly devotional one.
The decision not to address the contemporary conflict more directly is justifiable. After all, any foray into that field runs the risk of overwhelming the narrative and alienating readers who will find nourishment here regardless of their perspectives on the issues. But some note about why that decision was made would help free the reader to take this journey with Shroyer, recognizing that there are layers of complexity to the land, and many other maps, that go far beyond any one narrative.
What we do have in this journey is Shroyer’s open heart and quick mind and her invitation to take an imaginative journey with her. At the end of the book we have also been given The Lord’s Prayer as a gift once more – fresher and more alive than when we began. Perhaps this prayer is the map that matters most – illuminating not only the Holy Land but every place where we hope to glimpse “the One in whose steps we seek to follow.”
Alex Joyner is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine [Englewood Review of Books, 2015]. He is a United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.