Israel: then and now

November 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm • Posted in UncategorizedNo comments yet

Recently I returned from my second trip to Israel and upon my return the most common question other than ‘how was your trip?’ was ‘how was it this time compared to last time you went?’ In October of 2014 I went to Israel through a tour group, but went on my own (I did have two pastors in the area that I know join me). This October, I went again, this time also with a tour group, but I brought 4 church members with me, including my wife Jessica.

The trip consists of many visits, stops and experiences: Jericho, Bethlehem, the Region around the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and other locations. I have had the opportunity to visit Holy sites, archeological sites, historical sites, natural wonders and memorials. It is an incredible trip and experience, something that was on my bucket list and something that I hope to do again in the future. I strongly recommend it for any followers of Jesus.

I cannot express in any amount of words (written or spoken) what these two trips, these two experiences meant to me. I cannot fully put in words what I learned, felt and how I was transformed by my time in Israel. That said, I have felt called to share some reflections on my two trips based on that question I continue to get asked, ‘how did this trip compare to the last time you went?’

The simple answer and truth is this: it was different. Neither good nor bad, but it was just a different experience. On a practical level, the group was different, we saw some sites I did not see last time and skipped others that I had seen last time. I was the only person of the 37 on our bus who had been to Israel before and the only Ordained Pastor serving in a ministry setting.

The more complex answer is the important one. As I have been reflecting on it, I recognized my own need to put it down in writing, and though deeply personal, felt called to share it publicly as well. So here is my best summary of the meaning and value of each of my two trips to Israel using three categories that have helped me to organize my reflection on my experiences.

Year 1-October 2014:

Meaningful Sites:

(the locations/sites that were most meaningful for me as I visited them)

  • The Upper Room-There are two main sites that are considered the possible locations of the upper room, the place where Jesus had the last supper with his disciples. In this case, this one is in the old city of Jerusalem where a church now stands. It is believed the be the home of the Apostle Mark’s mother. For me, the last supper and all that came with it (the meal, foot washing and communion) is one of the most powerful moments in all of the Bible. Maundy Thursday is a powerful day for me. Communion for me is the most meaningful thing that we do in worship. Sitting in the place, imagining the scene and the moment was very meaningful for me. Incidentally, I do believe this to be the most likely location of the last supper.
  • The location of the cross- Again there are two main sites that are considered possible locations for where the cross stood as Jesus hung on it. The most likely location in my belief is now the location of a church called the Church of the Holy Seplechure. Here you can climb up some stairs to an altar where the cross is believed to have stood. Kneeling and praying in that spot in that moment  (whether or not it is the right location or exact spot is irrelevant) I could not help but be moved. The greatest expression of love in all of human history.
  • The Sea of Galilee-Much of Jesus’ ministry happened on and around the Sea of Galilee. We had the opportunity to visit and stay in this area, but also take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. As we did so, I simply looked out and imagined this place where we know Christ was, where so many of the meaningful moments, powerful teachings and miraculous experiences happened. I imagined Jesus and the disciples on the boat as I rode on a boat on the very lake where Jesus called his disciples. So meaningful and powerful that it gives me chills to this day.

God Encounters:

(moments where I experienced something deeply significant and felt, heard from or encountered God in an undeniable way)

  • Ciaphas’ home-A church now stands where we believe the house of Ciaphas, the high priest who would have Jesus arrested, handed over to Pilate and crucified once stood. Located below the home is a cistern that was likely used as a cell for Jesus as he waited to be handed over to Pilate. Sitting in this pit alone (I went ahead of the group), I closed my eyes and prayed. All I could see was Jesus sitting alone in that place. All I could do was imagine what it was like for him. I felt the deep loneliness and isolation that he must have been feeling. I read the Psalm that expressed the rejection and isolation he felt at that moment, alone, distant from God, stuck in silence. I reflected on the pain of isolation and loneliness as it has impacted my own life. Then that still small voice came from the depths of my heart; though I have felt alone and though Jesus may have been alone in that moment, we are never alone. God is always with us.
  • Jerome’s cave-before visiting this cave, underneath a church connected to the Church of the Nativity (the church in Bethlehem that stands in the spot believed to be the birth place of Jesus) I had no idea of the significance of this place of even this person. Jerome was the first to translate the Old Testament into Latin and corrected some of the errors of the Latin translation of the New Testament. He was a scholar and a translator. Visiting this spot was powerful for me. My middle name is Jerome. I never knew the connection and the connection is not intentional because my family did not grow up in the church. My parents simply picked the name out of nowhere. I never liked it much and found it odd. I had always hidden it. In this moment I felt God gave me a new identity. Jerome. Translator. In this moment I felt God calling me to a renewed passion for translating the Bible for people in a language and way they could understand. I realized that was part of the call and purpose in my life and a key part of my ministry and faith; past, present and future.
  • The Western Wall (known also as Wailing Wall)-praying at the Western Wall was certainly of the five most powerful prayer experiences I have ever had.It is hard to describe into words, but praying with people of all different languages in this place that is clearly Holy was very powerful. There were some truly miraculous moments for me. I had to go twice because it was so meaningful for me. It was very freeing and intimate in nature and is something I will never forget.

Transformation Experienced:

(the overarching change I experienced as a result of the trip)

  • Renewed Passion for the Bible and Ministry- As one guide pointed out, visiting Israel helps you to read the Bible in color instead of black and white. Walking these places where the stories of the Scripture were written and occurred enhanced and transformed my understanding of the Scripture. After years of reading, studying, researching, taking classes on the Bible I was able to see it in a new light. I fell in love with the Scripture all over again and my passion for the Bible, for my faith and for ministry was renewed. As I was told would happen, my teaching and preaching were transformed.

Year 2-October 2015:

Meaningful Sites:

(the locations/sites that were most meaningful for me as I visited them)

  • Ciaphas’ House-This was a transformation location last year, and was meaningful once again this year. Reading the scripture in that place meant a lot to me as I could once again imagine what it was like for Jesus to feel alone. Feeling alone, rejected or isolated is far worse than any physical pain we could experience. As we left the place, I could hear in the distance the crowing of a rooster. It gave me chills.
  • The Jordan River- This is the river where John baptized Jesus and a nice site to visit. I enjoyed this site the previous year, but this year it was both meaningful and a God encounter. What was meaningful for me was being able to reaffirm the baptism of 13 people, 4 of which were members of my church, one of them my own wife. I also baptized a complete stranger from Spain or Latin America who came to this place seeking God. It was very meaningful.
  • Jerome’s Cave-It was meaningful to visit this place once again (and to explore a little more). It was fun to sit in there and just contemplate and have my wife come and join me and share the story from the previous year with her as I had not done so yet. A great and meaningful reminder of part of the call and purpose of my life.

God Encounters:

(moments where I experienced something deeply significant and felt, heard from or encountered God in an undeniable way)

  • Jordan River-As I had the privilege of dunking several people in the river where Jesus was baptized, I could not help but to be moved. Sharing with them, both in jest and in all seriousness was deeply meaningful. Words cannot describe what it meant to me to baptize Jessica, my wife in that river. As I stood in that river, the truth, power and importance of my life and ministry became so obvious to me. It was hard to deny that the whole experience was truly a God moment.
  • Western Wall-Once again praying at the Western Wall was one of the five most powerful prayer experiences in my life and one I will not forget. It was very freeing as I prayed at that wall in a unique and miraculous way that could only be the working of the Holy Spirit in this holy place. It is a very powerful place and as I touched that wall and prayed unlike I have prayed very often before that, there was no doubt that I was encountering God.
  • Sea of Galilee-The Sea of Galilee is so powerful. Riding out on the lake on a boat as Jesus would have, being able to see all that he would have seen and knowing that this area is mostly like it would have been in that day can be powerful. As the boat came to a stop and I shared some words from the Bible and my heart, I found myself experiencing something powerful. Again, to experience this very thing and place that Jesus had experienced, where his disciples were called, succeeded, failed, were restored and miracles happened is tremendously powerful.

Transformation Experienced:

(the overarching change I experienced as a result of the trip)

  • Letting Go-I came back from this trip feeling very good. I am always a little tired, but do not struggle a ton with jet lag. I felt and continue to feel a great sense of peace and though I cannot put my finger on it, it seems as though on this trip I let go of things that were weighing me down, things that I did not even know existed and could probably not name. A renewed sense of freedom and peace is truly a gift.

In the end, the exact locations and places of things does not matter. Even the Holy nature of these places is not as significant as the One they point us to. I love Israel, it is a beautiful country where much of the Bible unfolded and is truly a Holy Place.