By Thomas F. Jones Jr.
It was late afternoon and we had just landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. There were 25 of us in the group, all midcareer pastors, 35-55 years of age, men and women. We came from all over the country. We had left the Atlanta, Georgia, airport the day before, and stopped in Frankfurt, Germany, to catch a connecting flight. We were a group of tired, hungry, Christian travelers.
Once we landed in Israel we made our way through the crowded passport checkpoint, gathered our bags, and then met our Arab Christian guide and bus driver. We quickly loaded our bags, boarded the bus, and departed for Tiberias.
It was a two- to three-hour drive to our hotel. The guide distributed maps and oriented the group about the geography of the country, but mostly our group slept during the journey to our destination.
As I fought to stay awake and looked out the window of our bus, I began to wonder if all of the effort I had put into planning this trip was worth it. I had spent many years in ministry. I was taught that Christianity was not about geography, and my ministerial experience confirmed that truth. The local church was where the action was. We worship God in spirit and truth.
What possibly could be gained by taking folks to a holy site or two? Couldn’t our time be better spent at North Point, Willow Creek, Saddleback, Southeast, or actually doing something on a short-term mission trip?
A couple hours later I awoke from a brief nap and my mind changed. Our bus entered Upper Tiberias, came over a ridge, began our descent, and there it was—the Sea of Galilee (really a medium-sized freshwater lake)!
The bus was quiet, but no one was sleeping. My heart was pounding. I could barely stay in my seat. For most of us it was the first time we beheld the lake region where our Lord spent most of his ministry. For me, this was the moment I became a pilgrim and not a tourist.
A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
A pilgrim! I thought the word odd until I became one. After leading several trips to the Holy Land, pilgrimage has become an important part of my spiritual health and growth.
Like pilgrims since the time of Constantine, we traveled to the Holy Land to experience a renewed call to discipleship by walking in the footsteps of Jesus. We visited places like Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Caesarea Philippi, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Old City of Jerusalem, Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple Mount, Jordan River, Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Garden Tomb, and the Dead Sea.
We visited these holy sites with our spiritual eyes and ears open, expecting that Jesus would meet us in fresh and new ways, and indeed he did.
Our pilgrimage group arrived at the Scots Hotel in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Owned by the Church of Scotland, it was a great place for weary pilgrims to be renewed. We spent one week at this location and one week in Jerusalem at the Notre Dame Center (a Roman Catholic facility located near the Old City).
On that first night in Tiberias we got settled in, ate a wonderful meal together, then shared in Communion and worshiped in a small Church of Scotland chapel, a few feet from the Sea of Galilee.
A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
We were intentional about this being a spiritual experience and not a tourist trip. To set these pilgrims apart, we anointed them with oil and presented each person with a Jerusalem cross. Each pastor was given a pilgrimage journal that included each day’s itinerary along with site descriptions, Scripture, and ample room for writing.
The typical day included group morning prayers at 7:30. Morning prayers included lengthy Scripture reading, prayer, and singing. Each pastoral pilgrim was asked to take a turn in leading these spiritual times.
Breakfast was at 8:00, and we always ate together. We worked hard at creating community. Meal times were important to the group. Christian pilgrimage best takes place within a community of like-minded believers.
Our bus driver and guide arrived to pick us up each morning around 9:00. Mornings were spent at various holy or historical sites. When we visited the sites, we were not in a hurry. The experience was not a sprint. We allowed time for group and individual reflection.
Around 12:30 or 1:00 pm, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Highlights included experiencing local food and building relationships with local people. After lunch we returned to the hotel. There were several hours of free time each afternoon and early evening.
Each day we encouraged our pastoral pilgrims to do “something, anything, and nothing.” This could include getting out and meeting local shop owners, taking a long walk, swimming, journaling, meeting with one’s prayer partner or a small group, or just taking a long nap.
Dinner was at 7:00 pm. Evening Eucharist and worship took place at 8:00 with the pastors sharing the leadership. Breaking bread with one another around the Lord’s table became the highlight of each day.
A STRATEGIC EXPERIENCE
Because this journey was a pilgrimage and not a tourist trip, we suggested that pastors unplug. We asked them to leave their laptops, phones, and other electronic gadgets at home. We provided emergency phone numbers for family members. To fully engage as a pilgrim, it is essential to leave normal activities behind.
It was our goal to introduce the pastors on the trip to more than bricks and mortar. We wanted them to experience and get to know “the living stones,” the Christians who live in the Holy Land. We visited worship services in Cana and met with believers in Nazareth and Bethlehem.
The Christian Holy Land Foundation is
a Restoration Move-ment organization that does great work in the Holy Land. The Foundation supports the ministry of six ministerial couples in Israel. These Arab Christian leaders are outstanding witnesses and are doing great work in a tough place. We were fortunate to be able to have lunch with these good folks and their families. We learned much about their ministries and the substantial impact they are making in this strategic part of the world.
A TRANSFORMING EXPERIENCE
How were these pastoral pilgrims formed by this experience? Read their comments for yourselves.
“An absolute blessing that renewed my heart for ministry.”
“I can’t even begin at this point to summarize the impact of this time on my faith, my life, and my ministry.”
“This was a life-changing journey and one of the highlights of my life and ministry. Exceptional!”
“I thought the leaders did a great job in preparing us for each day, and helping us to approach it as worshipers and not tourists. We were led with great skill/sensitivity to encounter the Lord in these places through the reading of the Word, prayer, reflection, imagination.”
“I have already used the lessons learned in my preaching and teaching.”
“The trip brought the gospels alive to me.”
Perhaps the best way to summarize the pilgrimage experience is by sharing with you the following Pilgrim’s Prayer:
I have seen places I have only dreamed about.
I have seen places I have only read about.
I have seen places I have only heard about.
I have seen places I have only prayed about.
Now, I have walked into places where the footsteps
Of God are deep and yet new to you and me.
May I walk the pilgrims’ way again. (Author unknown)
Thomas F. Jones Jr. is executive director of Stadia: New Church Strategies, a national church planting organization. Jones has led several pilgrimages to the Holy Land. For more information contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.