February 6th we landed in Tel Aviv, Israel around 1pm. Security is extremely intense when traveling in and out of countries over here. Two member of our group were detained and taken to interview rooms to check out their stories and explain their respective backgrouds. One of the girls on our trip is half Persian and her dad is from Iran so she gets stopped at every airport checkpoint. After waiting in several lines and clearing customs we met our tour guide for the trip, Yossi. He is by far the most knowledgeable man I have ever met. He hold doctorates in multiple fields, teaches university classes on comparative philosophical and religious theory, speaks 5 languages (that I heard while on the trip), plays the flute, and knows more about the bible than I can ever hope to. I am incredibly grateful for the amount of time we were able to spend under his direction. Throughout the 10 day trip we were shown amazing things, and not just stops on a typical tour. We would often go to "Yossi spots" that are either little know or off limits.
On the bus we had a whirlwind summary of the Holy Lands and the history of the Judean area that we would experience over the next week and a half. Our first stop was in Jaffa (of Acts and Jonah fame). We looked out over the Mediterranean. We meandered through the back alley and rooftops of the beautiful port city. We ate our first authentic Israeli meal of shawarma (a delicious round pita filled with grilled chicken or pork and hummus). After a quick walk through the city we left to settle in at the hotel in down town Tel Aviv. It was about a block from the water and was surrounded by high rises, neighborhoods, and shopping strips. The fisrt day in Israel was a whole new experience for me. It is hard to explain the feel of the places we went. I can take pictures and try to describe it, but so much is lost in translation because you can't experience the smells or sounds. The culture and feelings are so unique and distinctive. We met one girl at the hotel with a gun strapped to her back. She is a guard for one of the tourist groups that stayed at the hotel. She is an American from California and moved to the Holy Lands two years ago after high school to join the Israeli army (like all the other 18 year old in the country). She finished her two years of duty a few months ago and is now working as a guard for tours around Jerusalem. We got to talk to her for a really long time about her story and interesting things about the country. She is the same age as me and grew up just a few minutes from Disney World and yet here she is in a hotel in Israel with a rifle slung over her shoulder. This was just the beginning of a world of things I would see and experience over the course of the trip.
|The view from a roof in Jaffa|
February 7th was a wonderful day. We went to Caeserea Maritime, Mount Carmel, and Nazareth. Wow, can you believe that last sentence? In the course of our 9 hour day we saw three distinct things from three great times in the Bible. Mount Carmel, the place where Elijah called on the dominating power of God over the hundreds of prophets of Baal. Nazareth, where Jesus spent 27 years of his life. Caeserea Maritime, the port city of Herod the Great where Paul stood in the stadium infront of Agrippa and Festus. I stood on that mountain side and had falafel for lunch. I walked the streets of Nazareth and stood over the excavated main street of Jesus' hometown. I sat on the marble stones in the theater at Caeserea and pictured what the city must have looked like in its glory days and what it must have felt like to stand before the crowds of people professing faith in Jesus and spreading a new thing called Christianity.
This trip changed my view of the Bible. I now hesitate to call the scriptures "Bible stories". They are more real to me now. Calling them 'stories' seem distant and diluted by fantasy or time. After standing on the sites, seeing the artifacts, and learning the history, the Biblical accounts are so much more real to me.
One things that really stood out to me during our trip is the human desire to be close to something holy. One thing I had not expected was the amount of churches and monuments set up at all of the sites. When I say churches I don't mean an auditorium with pews, a youth room, a gym and lots of purple carpet. These churches are the most ornate buildings I have ever been in. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there are 42 different churches! All 42 different groups clamour to grab a piece of real estate at the place where they think Jesus was in the tomb and was raised. Thousands of people flock to this place every month and wait in lines to kiss a spot on the ground or say a special prayer. I found some of the displays difficult to grasp and appreciate. I was stirred as I tried to understand this human need to dwell in the presence of God. For many, this is their one shot to be in front of God. They wait their whole lives to come to these lands and have access to God. I could not help but feel overwhelming gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus and the relationship he opened to us. While I don't think this was my one shot, I can appreciate the power and reassurance of seeing these places in person.
|A Muslin billboard in front of a Catholic Church in the center of Nazareth.|
February 8th was one of my favorite days! We stood on top of the Mount of Beatitudes, hiked down the muddy paths and a Roman road to the Sea of Galilee, toured Capernaum and the house of Simon Peter, stood on top of Mount Tiberius, and drove through Gennesaret. The Region of Galilee is beautiful. It is not at all how I had pictured the land of Israel. I guess I never really thought about the climate and landscape of the biblical times and lands. I think the false assumptions I had stem from early on in life. When ever we colored pictures in Sunday school or watched flannel graph stories about Jesus or David and Goliath there was always an abundance of desert . I remember searching for the brown and tan colored crayons so I could color the land around the bible characters. I never thought about the areas of this land that are beautiful and fertile. I never thought about the Jordan River, or the seas, or the Mediterranean. I can't tell you how many times people in our group would exclaim "Jesus walked in mud!" or "Look at all the trees. Were these here 2000 years ago?"The Mount of Beatitudes was the first place I really understood the area where Jesus lived. The Galilee region is amazing. We hiked through the mud down a mountain to a spot that would be similar to the place where Jesus preached to and fed the masses. As we looked out over the valley and the Sea of Galilee I tried to picture what it must have been like to sit in the crowds of thousands straining to hear everything Jesus said. As we were walking, our guide pointed out some yellow flowers and asked a few people to pick them to eat. What Yossi was pointing out to us were mustard seeds. When Jesus spoke to the crowd about faith as small as a mustard seed moving mountains they were sitting in a field of mustard plants at the base of a mountain. How cool is that? How great is our God? I love it.
Standing in the Sea of Galilee was one of my favorite things. Jesus totally controlled this water. He told the disciples to cast their nets on the other side and to catch "many, many fish in the nets in the hands of the men in the boat on the Sea of Galilee" (as the song says), he calmed the storm, and he walked on the surface of the sea. There was no question of Jesus' power when it came to this body of water. He showed time and time again who he was and what he controlled. Wading into the water was such a wonderful experience, and soon after we visited a small Bizantine church built over the "Resurrection rock" on the shore. In the center of the small chapel was a rock said to be the place where Jesus had breakfast with his disciples after the resurrection. I sat in that church and read in John 21 where Jesus sits and eats with his friends and followers. This is when he restores Peter for the three times of denial. He sits and asks "Peter, do you love me?" To which Peter responds "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." They repeat this three times and Jesus calls Peter to follow him. This resonated with me. I imagined what it must have been like to be Peter. He denied Jesus, his Lord and friend, three times in a row. He must have been so guilty and ashamed. I wonder how many times I deny Jesus with my words or actions. I question how loyal a friend and follower I am, and yet like Peter, I am forgiven, restored, and called. What a relief Peter must have felt to have been given the chance to tell Jesus how much he loved him. That redemption and love shown by Christ is indescribable and perfect. I will always be thankful for these moments of clarity whether they be by the Sea of Galilee or sitting in my room in Texas.
Later in the afternoon we ate a fish lunch by the sea. Galilee fish! I picked the bones clean. However, I was not in the group of students who tried the eyeballs of the fish... too far for me.
|My muddy feet in the Sea of Galilee|
|A fishy lunch by the Sea|
This trip is so full of unique experiences and I can't begin to share them all here, but I hope some of these details will give you a glimpse of one of the greatest adventures I will ever have.