“One of my lifelong dreams is to visit the Holy Land!”
My wife Karen and I often hear those words when people learn that we lead guided group tours to Israel. For most individuals a visit will be a once in a lifetime experience, and many approach such a trip with a singular purpose in mind: to walk where Jesus walked, to see the lands of the Bible or to experience baptism in the Jordan River. Each of those desires is good, but maybe they’re missing the bigger picture. Karen and I made our first visit to Israel in 2000. Our goal was to experience the biblical story in Israel. We didn’t give as much consideration to the country’s more recent history or the factors affecting the people living there today. Our guide was Israeli. The perspective on current politics and society was Israeli. Our biblical study experience was rich, but our understanding of modern life in the region was limited.
Both sides of the wall
Since 2000 we have returned to Israel sixteen times. We’ve participated in biblical journeys, lived and studied in Jerusalem and led groups on pilgrimage tours through the region. During these subsequent visits we’ve interacted with Christians, Jews and Muslims. We’ve stayed in the homes of Palestinian Christian friends and shared dinner in the home of an Israeli guide. We’ve sat in the Old City of Jerusalem with our Orthodox friends Moshe and Dov, who grew up in Toronto, and listened as they wove their Jewish story with our Christian story. Our Arab Christian guide shared about his family’s displacement from northern Galilee to Nazareth in 1948. We have a friend named Dauod whose Christian Palestinian family is struggling every day to keep their inherited farmland while seeking peaceful reconciliation. Now we look at each side of the wall which separates Israel from Palestine, and consider the Israeli perspective of security and the Palestinian perspective of apartheid.
Our dear Palestinian friend Abdullah passed away two years ago. His life was productive and inspiring; he worked in Jordanian radio, served for a time as press secretary for a Middle Eastern leader, led a Lutheran School near Bethlehem and raised funds for the Al-Basma Special Education Center in Beit Sahour – an organization that we make a point to visit on every trip. During our frequent visits and stays in Abdullah and Noha’s home, he would say to us, “Why do you spend so much of your trip seeing the dead stones in the land, and not spend more time with the living stones!”
Abdullah knew that our primary mission for leading these pilgrimages in Israel was for our tour participants to connect with the stories of the Bible in the lands where they took place. But he challenged us to balance our time between Bible study and deepening our relationship with brothers and sisters living in the lands we walked. Over time, the focus of the biblical journeys that we lead has expanded and our priorities have shifted. A duality of purpose now defines the type of experience that we try to give to our travelers during their time in the Holy Land.
Soul and strength
Jesus called believers to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Those words challenge us to continually grow in our spiritual walk, while involving our entire being (our souls) in the process. This is what we seek to do on our journeys through the Land. We open our hearts to turn our fuzzy, black-and-white biblical pictures into living colour. We train our minds to add geographical, cultural and historical context to the stories we know. We apply all our strength as we walk along some difficult paths in the rugged deserts, the stark wilderness and the mountainous region of Galilee. And now we also engage our hearts and minds as we seek to understand the contemporary perspectives and challenges facing our Palestinian Christian and Jewish friends. As Abdullah wisely encouraged us to do, we’ve found that spending time with the “living stones” in the Land is one of the most valuable and enriching aspects of our journeys.
Past and present
We advise all individuals interested in visiting the Holy Land to give serious consideration to the type of experience they hope to have. Yes, being in Israel, visiting Jerusalem, walking in Capernaum, and floating in the Dead Sea will be memorable no matter who you travel with. But when researching itineraries and comparing tour operators the crucial question to ask yourself is, which will provide the richest experience?
The type of trip we recommend is one that takes a multidimensional approach to the journey, weaving together spiritual and educational components while balancing the stories of the past with the narratives of local people in the present. Like a chorus of voices that join together in one harmonious song, a pilgrimage in the Holy Land should blend various parts – walking the Bible lands, placing the biblical story into context, spending time with “living stones” and growing in one’s personal faith – into one resonant experience that will echo in your heart forever.
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