By Marshall Hayden
It was our first trip with church members to the Holy Land. Driving from the airport, our guide (who has since become our favorite guide) asked the bus driver to pull onto the shoulder of the road about a hundred yards from the top of a hill.
“Follow me,” he said. As we topped the rise, there it was, spread out ahead of us, filling the horizon! “Welcome to your spiritual home,” he said.
When we climbed back on the bus we heard the first strains of a recording, “Jerusalem.” It was pretty quiet. Except for a few sniffles! On every trip since then, when we have driven over that hill, the same feeling has come back.
For several years, when someone said to me, “Why don’t you make a trip to the Holy Land?” I brushed it off. “Being a follower of Christ today, in this place and with these people, is more important to me than visiting those faith places of long ago,” I would say.
But I also didn’t know where my wife and I would find the extra money to pay for a trip like that. Then a member of our church contacted me. He was part of an organization that sends one busload of ministers from across the U.S. to Israel every year, absolutely free. He offered to nominate me for a seat on that bus.
My tune changed. It worked out. I went. And when I got home I said to my wife, Judy, “I’m going back, and you’re going too.”
That was 25 years ago. Now this guy who didn’t want to start going doesn’t want to stop going. This coming fall we’re planning trip number 10.
Before telling you what I think these trips have done for our church, and for the folks who have gone with us to Israel (and also to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Rome, and islands in the Mediterranean), let me pass along a few comments made by some in our church family. In a great collection of letters that people wrote upon our recent retirement, several who have made trips with us commented about those visits.
• “The two trips to Israel are very memorable events in our lives, memories that we will treasure. They have made my walk with Jesus much different than before. The trips have filled the Scriptures with visions of the actual locations where events took place. Thank you for that. We look forward to traveling with you in the future.”
• “Our greatest memory is the trip our family took to the Holy Land. The reason we went is because you made the trip available. We are very thankful for that. As I study my Bible, my whole perception is improved, as I can better picture what took place.”
• “We will always remember all those special days we spent with you in Israel—walking the Jerusalem wall, the great sunset over the Sea of Galilee, the challenging walk up Masada, a lot of shopping to support the local economy. We consider you both as being lifelong friends and travel companions.”
• “I’m glad I had the opportunity to travel with you to Bible lands, to other lands, and to Christian events. You always gathered pleasant travel companions and provided memorable experiences.”
• “We will never forget my husband’s baptism in the Jordan River.”
“What would you say the trips have done for us, for the church, and for those who have traveled with us?” I asked my wife. This is the word that kept coming to her mind: revitalize. Then she thought of booster shot—for faith, teaching, service, witness, and relationships.
For some individuals, faith in Christ is awakened. For others it is confirmed and strengthened. For just about everyone, faith has been informed and has found new and lively expression.
As we read the Bible, a video now plays in our mind’s eye. The Scriptures come alive.
We can see David and his men hiding in the caves of En Gedi.
We see Peter in a little boat, riding low from a huge catch of fish, and rocking from the sudden storm, with disciples in wide-eyed fright while Jesus slept.
The Garden of Gethsemane!
The fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (where Amos worked, David sang, Ruth and Naomi walked on their way home, and shepherds were frightened silly by angels)!
The valley below Megiddo!
The mounded-up, fallen walls of Jericho!
Many pieces of Bible history will never be colorless again. And some of the videos will come with music—words in hymns and songs that describe what we have seen; and we can hear the melodies that we sang in some places (slow songs, with tones that echo back, sung in St. Ann’s church near the pool of Bethesda, and sad songs sung in the little “Jesus wept” church that overlooks the Garden of Gethsemane). Teachers now teach more vividly, and with a noticeable sparkle in their eyes.
This is a real place. These biblical events were real—not stories, but history. This Savior is real.
Several things you will see are exactly as they were. You will walk up what is called Mount Zion on stone steps that Jesus used. You will sit in a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee and see the cliffs of Gadara (where the demoniac was cleansed), Capernaum (the center of Jesus’ ministry), the Sermon on the Mount hillside, and the “catch of fishes” cove. You will pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Some people are concerned about the commercialism. There is some of that. But, surprisingly, it is much more first-century commercialism than 21st-century commercialism—much like the world Jesus faced.
Some are concerned about the rigors of travel to such a distant place. But we don’t begin to undergo (or even understand) the strain under which Paul and Peter traveled.
Ministry partnerships will be begun, refreshed, and deepened. A minister friend of mine says just about every new leader in his church is someone who has made a trip with him. In 10 days together we let our lives teach each other. We study Bible places and talk about the implications and applications.
And we keep talking as the years pass. Friendships are started. Relationships are deepened. Together we watch the Scriptures being illustrated and illuminated. Together—preacher, leaders, and learners!
And several people in our groups have made it an extended family experience. Siblings, spouses, children, and parents have shared this faith place, this spiritual homeland.
On almost every trip we have had baptisms in the Jordan River. Christian baptism can happen in any river, pond, pool, or baptistery. Sure! Yet something stands out as I think back to those baptized (after much planning, or no planning at all) in a beautiful spot where the Sea of Galilee spills into the Jordan River. Those people are strong in their faithfulness and eloquent in their witness today. They have not flagged. They have followed through. It has proven to be a time and a place of firm decision.
Anyone who visits the sites in the Holy Land will have favorite places—spots with special personal meaning. Because of its vivid images related to the most important events of all time, the Garden Tomb tops my list. It may or may not be the actual place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, but it is close to that place, and it looks like the place. On each trip we stand in an unoccupied tomb, and we celebrate our faith with a Communion service using an olive wood cup, which each of us can bring home.
After my second visit there our younger son was on his way to college, and I sent the cup to school with him. “Please remember that this represents the most important thing of all to your mother and me, and we hope to you.” He now serves as the minister with a fine church in Kansas.
The group that we have traveled with has this motto: “Changing the church, the ministry, and individual lives through Christian travel.” That has been our experience.
Oh, yes, there are swarms of Palestinian kids selling just about anything they can get their hands on. The sectarian squabbles in churches that mark some of the very special “holy sites” make us shake our heads. Long flights don’t afford much sleep. And flexibility is always necessary.
But the folks keep asking us, “Where shall we go next?”
One of these days you might look at the land around the Sea of Galilee and sing, “I walked today where Jesus walked,” and you just might top a hill on the road from Tel Aviv, look across to another hill, and hear “Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing ‘Hosanna!’”
Welcome to your spiritual homeland.
Marshall Hayden is recently retired from a long ministry with Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church. He has been a tour leader for 25 years and is a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.