Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reflections on Israel

Earlier this month, Sue Isbell led a group of travelers from Church Street on a trip to the Holy Land. Below are her reflections on this life-changing experience. 

On Thursday, January 17, twelve physically exhausted but spiritually energized pilgrims returned to Knoxville from a ten day trip to Israel. As tired as we all were after the 12 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia and then the connecting flights home, none of us returned the same person as when we left.

This was my sixth trip leading a Church Street group to Israel and my first day back at church I heard the same two questions I always hear: “Did you see anything new?” and “What new things were there to see?’ There is a difference.

“Did you see anything new?” usually comes from someone who thinks returning to the same place over and over is pointless, or boring, or just a waste of time and money. This question usually comes from a tourist. “What new things did you see?” usually comes from someone who has either been to Israel and knows that there is always something new to experience or someone whose heart is quietly nudging them to make this special journey. There is eagerness in their eyes as they ask the question and a reflective nodding as they absorb the answer. Once you make this trip as a pilgrim, you are never the same.

Every time I have been to Israel I have seen or experienced something new but there are places I look forward to revisiting each time. My favorite place is a tiny church in Tabgha that recalls the “breakfast on the beach” story from John 21. Something about that church, the lapping water of the lake, and the grove of ficus trees that leads to it that makes me totally understand why Peter returned there to fish when his life seemed to be in chaos. I also cannot adequately describe each time I first glimpse the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock rising brilliantly in the distance. I always get chills, overwhelmed with the comfort of being in a holy but familiar place once again.

But my very favorite part of each trip is always the same: Watching my fellow travellers see the stories and places they have read and studied about all their lives finally come to life. And, since I have been before I can tell folks which side of the bus to sit on so they get the best first view of Jerusalem, or which direction to look to see the snow on Mt. Hermon, or what to expect for lunch at the kibbutz across the Sea of Galilee. But our experiences always go beyond the holy sites: Getting to know our Israeli guide and our Palestinian bus driver and seeing firsthand how their similarities and friendship are uniting and not divisive; watching the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee; experiencing a rare snow in Bethlehem; spending a free day exploring the markets in the Old City bartering for souvenirs; enjoying a relaxing lunch at an outdoor falafel stand while trying to figure out how much Israeli money we actually have left to spend. I have been a Christian educator all of my adult life and to me, this is the greatest classroom I can imagine.

A tourist can sightsee, learn about new places, and return home with great souvenirs and amazing pictures. A pilgrim does all these things too, but when he returns home his life has been changed forever on a different level. If you don’t believe me, observe one of our “Tennessee Twelve” as we journey through Holy Week this year. Easter will have new meaning for each of them because they have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, they have touched the rock of Calvary, and they have seen the empty Garden Tomb. Amen!

Caesarea by the Sea

Mount of Olives

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