Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Thinking about a trip to the Holy Lands?

I thought I would give some reasons why a trip to the Holy Lands is worth your time. Having been there recently, I am convicted that every Christian who can go should go. Specifically, for those of you with Church of Christ roots as I have, you should really take a trip led by Evertt Huffard. I'll enumerate some reasons below.

1. You will understand your Bible in ways that are not otherwise possible. Just being able to sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, looking around the shore locations where so many things happened, or standing atop the Temple Mount, looking over at the Mount of Olives at all the white tombs, and envisioning Jesus' words to the Pharisees...there are some things that must be experienced to be understood fully.  Having a better grasp of distances, elevations, and places will make the stories you read in Scripture come to life like never before. Some have said that this trip helped them to read the Bible "in 3D."

2. You can support the cause of Christ in a place where the Church is weak. One of the highlights of my trip was worshiping at the church of Christ which meets in Nazareth. There are only a few Christians around, and they value their times of worship and fellowship so very deeply. It made me feel great to be there to encourage them however I could.

Another thing really surprised me. Many of the locations you visit have huge church buildings on top of them at this point. Most of these have awesome acoustics. Those of us in churches of Christ can do a cappella singing unlike any other fellowship I know of. While visiting some of the places, we decided to sing a few songs together. Our group was tired, and many of us were weakened from the journey and the jet lag. Our singing was not up to our average standards. However, to the ears of people who never hear singing like ours, it moved them to tears. I was privileged to lead our group in a few songs at one cathedral called St. Anne's by the pool of Bethesda. When we started, it was only us in the building. By the end of the third song, the church was standing room only. People asked me where all we were touring, because they were convinced we must be a professional choir. I have never been more proud of our singing heritage. We were able to minister to and bless a lot of people with our singing. We didn't have to go knock doors...they flocked to hear it. That was really special.

3. Forget the milk and honey, this is the land of HUMMUS.  Even if you think you don't like hummus, you need to try it over here. Unbelievably good with pita bread.

4. You can give your stomach a break. I have chronic stomach problems, and have frankly suffered a good deal in the last year here in the states. But in Israel, between the strictness of the Orthodox Jews and the food laws of the Muslims, their standards for food preparation and cleanliness are very high. The only rumble I had in my stomach the entire trip was when we ate at a McDonalds. Go figure. My stomach feels better than it had in months, which is not typically how that sort of thing goes on vacations. I not only had zero stomach problems from what I ate, I was even drinking tap water from the hotel sink. Not a single problem. My stomach was better there than it is at home.

5. Evertt & Ileene Huffard are as competent of tour guides as you'll ever find. Evertt worked with a tour guide who lives in Israel, and the two of them handled most of the teaching and presenting. Evertt grew up as a missionary kid in Israel, then returned with Ileene for a few years after college to do more work. They were foundational in building up the Galilee Christian School, which is an incredible ministry there. He speaks the language and he understands the culture. (You'll gain a lot of insights from him about the political situations over there that you'd never pick up from our news sources.) But not only does he understand the locals, he is a top notch Biblical scholar, and with a heart for ministry. (He is Dean of the Harding School of Theology.) Evertt is a truly rare combination of abilities and interests that make him invaluable for this sort of work. The Huffards lead a trip every year, and if you can go with them especially, you absolutely should.

Another perk about Evertt is that unlike some groups of Catholics or Orthodox folks who get all caught up in sentimentality, he really doesn't have any use for explanations about places that are not rooted in data and archaeology. He's happy to tell you about places and events, but he absolutely won't permit people to give you scoops about things that are only for the purpose of evoking "ooohs" and "aaahs" unless they are grounded in evidence. (A good example would be the stone of preparation at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There were a bunch of Asian people gathered around it, weeping and kissing it. When I asked about it, our guide said, "It's just a tradition that that was the rock where they prepared Jesus, but there's no basis for it." I like people who live in reality. Evertt's is not a tour for people who are always forwarding sappy e-mails about modern miracles which Snopes.com has discredited. This is a tour for people who want to see real stuff and talk about real stuff.

Evertt leads a very fast-paced tour. He is aware that this trip was not cheap for you, and he works masterfully with the other guide and bus driver to navigate through places in ways that will maximize your time. You will see so much. I would dare say you'll see a lot more than you might with other groups.

6. It is a really easy place to visit. I had been brushing up on modern Hebrew, and brought about $300 worth of Shekelim with me for the trip. It was completely unnecessary. I realized as we were getting ready to go that I could have brought only American money and spoken only English, and I would not have had even a small kink in any of the trip. The people there are all trilingual (Hebrew, English, and Arabic). I have never been to a foreign country so easy to get around without knowing much.

7. It is a really safe place to visit. Yes, I know that Fox News says you're supposed to be afraid to go over there, and God forbid we should ever question what we hear from our nation's leading set of talking heads. There are tons and tons of tourists around wherever you go, but few of them are American. We're all scared to go, but the rest of the world continues to flock to Israel for visits. If the only thing holding you back from visiting is a fear for your safety, let me say emphatically, that safety here is a non-issue; especially if you are traveling with a tour guide (which you will be). They love tourists, and they rely on you for their income. They were friendly and helpful. Not a single time did I ever feel the least bit threatened or concerned for our safety. Occasionally you see some Israeli armed troops, but these are here for your safety as well. We were able to walk at night down to a couple of the sites without any trouble. I felt safer in Israel than I do at the local malls in Nashville. The issues with Iran do not all center around Israel, as you typically hear on the news. It is very unlikely that they are going to bomb Israel. It is such a diverse nation, and the people generally seem to live around each other desiring peace and harmony. Many of the locals would acknowledge to us that there is tension that exists between different groups, but all emphatically asked us to pray for peace. They live close together, and don't desire any conflict. Peace is better for everyone.

If you've never done it, you should do it. Totally worth what it costs. Totally changes your outlook on so many things.