I’m writing this note at 12:46 AM. We leave for the Holy Land in six hours so I’m going to have to go to bed soon. But before I do, I simply reflect on how this trip came about. In the long view of things, it started forty-five years ago, when my childhood pastor, J.O. Colley, took a trip to the Holy Land. When he came back, he showed the church his slides using a Carousel projector. Even back then, I always wanted to go someday.
I finally got my chance twenty years later when I got a call one day asking if I would like a free trip to Israel. Sure, who wouldn’t? Someone had backed out of a tour, and if I could get ready to go in two weeks, I could go for free and Marlene could come along for $700. That was right about the Pan-Am hijacking and tourism had taken a bit hit so they wanted pastors to come to Israel, hoping we would lead a tour later. With the help of many people who stepped in to help out, we managed to make that trip. I remember this very clearly. When the plane landed in Tel Aviv, they hustled us through Customs and on to the tour bus where we met our guide, Susan Marcus. As we were pulling away from the terminal, she picked up the microphone and said, “Welcome to Israel, land of the Bible.” Tears filled my eyes unexpectedly. Something about those words triggered deep emotion in my soul. We weren’t visitors. We were pilgrims following an ancient tradition of visiting the roots of our faith. In the years since then, Marlene and I have traveled around the world. Only of Israel could I say that to go there is to go home to a place you’ve known all your life. I did not feel like a visitor. I felt like a pilgrim.
In 1994 we led our first tour. And again in 1997. We planned to go in 2001 but the situation in the Middle East made it impossible. When we finally announced this tour in early July, I thought it would fill up quickly. Little did I know that Israel and Hamas would go to war a few days later. I have quite a few friends–including some who read this blog!–who planned to be with us when we leave in a few hours but decided against it. And as late as early December, we wondered if we would have enough to make it happen. But as is so often the case, God showed up at the last second and gave us a total of 25 people for the tour. That’s ideal because we’ll have plenty of room to spread out on the bus. And that’s a good size for getting to know people.
And you do get to know people when you live and travel together in close quarters for ten days. Little by little friendships are formed as you travel from Caesarea to Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. And slowly it sinks in–all these places I’ve read about all my life–I’m here. This is where it really happened. It’s not a story. It’s true truth, as Francis Schaeffer would say. Jesus walked these roads 2000 years ago. The sensation grows as you travel to Jerusalem, the Holy City, where David lived and where Solomon built his temple and where our Lord was crucified and rose from the dead. You eat together, laugh together, get on the bus, get off the bus, round up the strays, count off, and the guide talks as we head to the next site. Most people come home spiritually exhilarated and totally exhausted, feeling that their brains can’t take a single new bit of information. We like to tell people, “You can sleep when you get home.” Which they do, but only after they call their friends and tell them all about it.
So that’s what is ahead for our brave band of biblical adventurers. We’re going to the land of the Bible. But first we have to get to O’Hare Airport.