I’m sitting on a runway here in Tel Aviv, Israel and its about 11pm local time. We just wrapped up our final day here in Israel, and what a day it was!
We began the day on the Sea of Galilee in the coastal town of Tiberius. I woke up around 5:15am and got some early pictures of the sunrise (below). The first half of our day was spent touring the sites where Jesus ministered, the second part of our day was consumed with geopolitical briefings, specifically the Syrian threat, and the Golan Heights. We wrapped up our day in Herzliya, just outside of Tel Aviv at a restaurant and final dinner as a group before heading to the airport.
This morning began at a museum which housed a 2,000 year old Galilee fishing boat which the locals affectionately refer to as ‘The Jesus Boat.’ You can learn more about their amazing find here. Next we drove to the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount, and likely other sermons. The Catholic church has stuck a small church on the hill (I know you’re shocked), but the area where He likely would have spoken – on the side of the hill – forms a natural amphitheater and it is untouched for the most part. The Catholic church has done a amazing job of constructing a beautiful garden around the hill. The whole area is really beautiful and it was nice to hear from Pastor Mark Smith (Cadiz, Ohio) discuss the beatitudes and the importance of reflecting outwardly the changed heart Christ makes within.
Next we traveled just a few miles around the Sea to a spot on the shore where Jesus is thought to have restored Peter in John 21. We heard from Ashland University Chaplain Joe Maggelet about how God “kicks us in the butt” sometimes because He loves us. After a great message, we splashed our faces in the water where He walked, and cast a few stones into the Sea. The mood was reflective but upbeat as we walked off the shore. It was at that point where some of us were led into a small chapel on the way up the hill, just off the shore. Inside was a woman praying – it was a very small chapel with a domed ceiling – and it was obvious she was upset. I came to find out later that Pastor Smith had just comforted her in prayer before a few more of us stepped inside. As more of our group filed in, our tour guide Uri began to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’. Soon we all joined in. The acoustics in that chapel were such that the harmony resonated the sounds of what could have been mistaken for a choir of 120 members! I don’t know what happened in that moment, but it gave us all goosebumps. Perhaps the Lord sent us there to simply exalt His name, but I have a feeling that our spontaneously song ministered deeply to that lady who neither spoke english, nor knew any of those who were singing. It was a special experience.
Upon departure from the shore, we headed to Capernaum where we saw the foundation stones of Peter’s home, and the foundation stones of the synagogue where he likely spent time listening and teaching the Word.
Once we had wrapped up our time around Galilee, we headed up north into the Golan. Uri told us that the Golan Heights are regarded as Israel’s wild west. There is wine country, there are sports, camping, hiking, and so on. This is where Israelis go to relax and have fun. However, its also the part of the country which directly borders Syria. Syria is currently engaged in a bloody civil war, with militant Islamic groups (perhaps including ISIS) pouring into the country in order to leave their mark and increase their following.
Our destination was a kibbutz on the northern border. When we arrived, our gang jumped in three land rovers and began to climb through the anti-tank trenches and between mine fields which the Israelis had laid down since their victory in the 6-Day and the Yom Kippur Wars (ironically the vast majority of remaining land mines from that time are Syrian, not Israeli, there are thought to be around 1million of them). On a ridge which looks down onto the Golan, and into Syria, we heard for ourselves the gunfire between Syrian rebels and the Syrian government. On my left I saw the Syrian flag, and the right an Israeli flag. It was all so close, and so tangible that I’ll never forget that view and the reality of how dangerously close to the border this northern situation is.
After that we ate an amazing lunch at the kibbutz and headed for south toward Haifa and Tel Aviv, crossing the River Jordan on our way. As we ate dinner together in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, we were all asked to give the top “aha moment” for each of us this week. Many of us had so many that it was difficult to nail down just one. I spoke about how the trip impacted me in three ways: spiritually, emotionally, and from a knowledge/learning perspective. My biggest “aha” moment was easy to pin point – it was hearing the lady from southern Israel whose kibbutz was under constant fire. Her resolve was heroic, and no one could have left that meeting unchanged. It deeply touched me and I’ll never forget it.
One of the really unexpected blessings of this trip was the amazing camaraderie that our group shared with one another. In fact, Uri, our tour guide, and group leaders from AIEF/AIPAC said they’d never seen or been a part of such a special group. It was a very deep and meaningful bond between all the travelers. The joking, the laughing, the love was unusual for such a trip, and our guides were unusually touched and emotional as we prepared to disembark. When something like this happens, 8 special days, it’s hard to explain, but everyone felt it and the discussion turned to how this could have happened. Some think that perhaps it was because we came in the midst of war – when Israel is being slandered in the international community and media, 12 Americans came and toured the country, lending support to generals, businessmen, IDF soldiers, wounded veterans, patriotic journalists with consciences, and ordinary people whose lives have been devastated by the thugs from Hamas.
One staffer, Becky, who helped arrange our trip put it well, “in order to really know a people and their land, you really have to come meet those people and walk their land.” That’s certainly true, and it was an extra comfort to know God was walking with us.
I’m thankful for the opportunity, and especially thankful for the scores of people who prayed for me during my absence. That meant more than you can know, and its the single most important factor that I attribute to such a safe and successful trip.
“Until next year in Jerusalem” …. Soli Deo Gloria!
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