Just over three weeks ago, I returned from Israel, and it's taken me this long to process what, exactly, I just did and sit down with my laptop, sharing my words with y'all. The culture shock coming back is more challenging then the culture shock getting there, for sure (especially since I literally came straight back into Step Sing, lol).
Given the opportunity, studying abroad in Israel for two weeks seemed like an unreal dream. A place so far away--impossibly exotic-- an experience that was on my bucket list but would never actually come to fruition. To give some context, I had never been out of the country prior to this trip, so the shock I experienced at being immersed in a culture that spoke an entirely different language and boasted an entirely different culture was so new to me.
I'm going to preface this post with this: Summing up the entire country of Israel in a single word feels cruel, as I could never do such a beautifully diverse, paradoxical, breathtaking country justice in a simple word. Pictures don't give much understanding for its sheer beauty, either--it's the kind of place where I keep telling people: "Just go. I can tell you how it was, and I can show you how it was, but nothing will ever compare to you going for yourself."
So, if you have the means, go to Israel. Make it happen. Prioritize it. If you're a believer that Christ is who He says He is, and want to know Him fully, go to Israel before you take that dreamboat trip to Italy or Greece or France or Spain or England. Those places are (I'm sure) beautiful and culturally diverse and crazy fun, but Israel is too, and moreover, it's the place where FREAKIN' JESUS WALKED. SO much history has occurred within those Israeli borders! Those Old Testament stories that seem like fairytales feel real when you see the backdrop of the passage. Those New Testament parables make so much more sense when you learn about who Jesus was in the context of his Israeli heritage, not just his whitewashed American lineage that the Protestant church has incorrectly established.
There is only so much I can actually put on this post, because if I actually wrote and published everything I did, thought, learned, and felt while in Israel I would never stop typing. Honestly, I know I will spend the rest of my life telling stories and reminiscing about Israel. So, this won't be the only time it comes up on here, it will definitely have a presence in my faith for many years to come. But if you have a question or want to hear about something in greater detail, please please reach out to me because I LOVE talking about Israel.
So, with all that being said, know that Israel is not boring, it is not to be overlooked. It is a vibrant place filled to the brim with real and true people, busy streets, flourishing coastal lines, dry, arid deserts, jungle-like waterfalls, Tennessee-looking hills, and biblical history to boot.
At the age of 13, my heart began to yearn to know Christ in His fullness, and since then it's been with a somewhat hesitant and apprehensive spirit that I prayed, asking God to change my heart and life for His glory.
I believe I felt this way because I didn't truly know Christ. Up until college, I knew Him in the way you know a friend who you see in passing a few times a week. I liked the idea of Jesus, and tried a few times to know Him fully, but telling Him my deepest heartaches and secrets felt strange, uncomfortable, and impersonal because I didn't take the time to get to know Him.
My freshman year was deeply humbling in the sense that knowing Jesus well (or at least the pretense of it) is somewhat of a means to a social end at Samford. I'm not promoting the use of Christ as a social ladder, I am, however, saying that this culture is what urged me to know Christ as a friend rather than as an acquaintance.
I didn't know it then, but this trip from Israel was a literal gift from God, aiding in my heart's deepest desire to know Christ more. I realized this while washing my clothes in the laundry room in one of our hotels, where I met an American pastor who went to Israel in his mid-20s, just after finishing seminary. He told me that he wished he'd gone before he went to seminary so that the Bible had some semblance of life, color, texture, flavor, and reality when he'd studied it so thoroughly. Since then, he's led 23 separate trips of 18-year-old college freshmen to Israel. Hearing this perspective humbled me greatly--I got to experience seeing the places where Jesus was physically present, where most of Biblical history occurred--and for the rest of my adult life, I'll be able to envision the setting of Israel when reading the Bible. To me, that is the biggest gift.
After 30 hours of travel, we landed in Tel Aviv. We started out our trip by driving down to Mizpe Ramon in Southern Israel, down in the Negev Desert. This is where the Israelites wandered for 40 years just outside of Egypt. Seeing how dry and arid the land is gives you a deep respect for the Israelite people. As my beloved professor, Dr. Leonard, put it: "These people were tough as nails--every day was a gamble as to whether or not they would survive." Imagining the plight of living in an area where natural bodies of water are scarce, the surrounding land dry and still, gave me a great deal of empathy for the women who would’ve had to walk miles and miles just to get to a source of water. I understood Moses’s distress and revered in his reliance in the Lord, because in order to be stuck in a desert this lifeless for 40 years you’d have to know and trust that the Lord has a greater vision than one you could ever imagine.
In Mizpe Ramon, we stayed overnight in adobe huts that overlooked the Jordanian border, the nighttime desert stillness incredibly captivating. At dawn, we arose with the sun to watch it rise over the elongated horizon, the 30 degree weather not deterring us from witnessing our first Israeli sunrise. For our meals, we were treated to authentic, homemade Israeli food--fluffy pita bread with freshly-crushed hummus, mouthwatering baked chicken coated in spices and oils, yellow rice and lentil soup, pickled cabbage, dates, and piping hot sweet tea. I'm getting hungry just thinking about this meal.
The next day, we traveled to arguably one of the best parts of the whole trip (I say that about every place we went though): Ein Avdat, a quiet, still stream hidden within the depths of a cavernous canyon--the place where many biblical scholars believe David could have written Psalm 23. I understand now why David felt the comfort of God in this place. I had never pictured Psalm 23 to take place in a location like this—I’d always imagined a quaint, green hillside with a few trees scattered about, a herd of sheep moving in unison down the hill as the shepherd walks before them, his staff guiding the way. Now, I see a shepherd walking alongside one sheep who struggles to keep up as the rest are in a herd a good few yards ahead. He is surrounded by towering rocks, steep slopes, and streams that seem daunting to cross. However, the shepherd is not afraid. The shepherd uses his rod and his staff, guiding the sheep down the steep slope and across the daunting stream, just as God does with us. This site reaffirmed what I was already learning to be true: we will never be able to understand the context and the full gravity of God’s word as long as we are on earth. We will never have a full visual for what the psalmist or the prophet were picturing when they wrote their words. We will never fully understand some things in the Bible, but for now, this psalm clarified is enough. The gravity of it is incredible. I am so moved by the truth of His love and protection over us, and I will never forget the beauty of this place or the hike we took to discover it.
After this, we started our slow journey northward, which began with another hike to a beautiful, flourishing cave called Ein Gedi. Known for being the location where David hides from King Saul in 1 Samuel 23 and 24, Ein Gedi appears as though it's straight off the set of Jumanji. There's a long waterfall that slides picturesquely off of a giant cliff, abundant palm trees and other greenery, and the hike to get there is no less breathtaking--there are parts where you have to climb through rock tunnels packed with palm fronds, streams running through the middle, stepping stones conveniently located throughout so your shoes don't get wet. When you're hiking through, you begin to wonder how David so conveniently stumbled upon such a beautiful spot.
That same day, we swam in the Dead Sea, where we floated in the water like seals and stumbled upon chunks of salt larger than our fists. Even though it was a chilly 60 degrees outside, the water was warm, and it felt like we were in some kind of geothermal spa. We were also able to go to Masada and the Qumran Caves on this day. A quick history lesson: Masada is one of King Herod's 15 (!) palaces based in Israel, one that tops all the others in excessiveness. However, it's unlikely that King Herod himself ever set foot on this territory, which is a huge shame considering its beauty. And the Qumran Caves is the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a wandering shepherd boy in the 1940s. It's so remote, I'm not surprised that it took around 1100 years for these records to be discovered.
We continued trekking northward, stopping to see Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asked Peter "Who do you say I am?" in Luke 9. This location is *really* close to Syria, so the reality of being in proximity to a location with such political strife was unreal. We learned that, at the time when Jesus and His disciples would've traveled to this location, it was an army base for Titus's forces and on top of that, they had a temple to Caesar Augustus there. This is where we all began to realize that Jesus rarely, if ever, took his disciples to "comfortable" places. Jesus knew, in training his disciples, they would all eventually have to evangelize in places that were incredibly daunting. They would become martyrs for their faith, and in order to get to the point where they found joy in doing the earliest known Kingdom work, Jesus had to train them in endurance.
Next, we traveled to the Sea of Galilee. I have never felt the presence of Christ more evident than in this very place, where so much of his ministry occurred. I'd always imaged the locations of Jesus's ministry to be remote places, randomly scattered across Israel. But in reality, three of the places that are the most memorable from Jesus's ministry are within a few miles of one another: Capernaum and Mount of Beatitudes are literally down the street from one another, both overlooking the gorgeous Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water and calmed the seas. *Footnote: the Sea of Galilee is not a sea. It's a huge lake--smaller than any of the Great Lakes.
My favorite place of these three, however, was the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. If I had to spend an entire day somewhere completely unbothered by anyone, I would likely choose to come here. The Sermon on the Mount was the first Biblical passage that I did a Bible study on when I first became a Christian in middle school, and it has meant so much to me ever since. Those pages in Matthew are highlighted over and over, with notes scribbled in the margins, and that day--January 9, 2019--I got to scribble a note in my Bible that dedicated the day I saw the Mt. of Beatitudes in person. The reaffirmation and renewal of the Old Covenant serves as a foundation for us as Christians, and the place of its birth is stunning. We went into the Chapel on the Mount where I sat down on a bench and read through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the importance of its words washed over me as if I were reading them for the first time again. As we were leaving, a rainbow appeared out of nowhere in the sky. I teared up and began thanking God for this miracle, as the rainbow signifies God’s eternal covenant with us sinful people—a covenant to love us forever, to protect us forever. That rainbow felt like God smiling upon us as we left a place so sacred, His eternal reminder that we are loved.
After an amazing few days spent by Galilee, we headed down towards Jerusalem, where we stayed the rest of our trip. All of what I learned in Jerusalem can be summed up in this: The cross is personal, and we all (myself included) need to do a better job of taking it seriously. On our last few days, we began traveling to places in Jerusalem that were all associated with Jesus's final hours: the Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Upper Room, Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, and the Temple Mount, just to name a few. However, one place we went that I had never heard of before was St. Peter of Gallicantu Church, and it ended up being possibly the most impactful of all those locations. This church is where Jesus was held captive in an underground cell right before His crucifixion. He sat in this cell, reading Psalm 88 over and over as he wept to the Lord, begging that the cup might be taken from Him if possible. We got to sit in this very cell and read Psalm 88, and our professor cried (which was not an uncommon occurrence, but still, it brought emotion to the experience) as we read the psalm of David. As a means of closing, I'll share with you my own personal reflection that I wrote sitting outside of this church on a hill overlooking Jerusalem.
My savior, hunched over in prayer (Psalm 88), begging his father to prohibit the loss of his life.
My savior, chained and starved, drug to the home of Pontius Pilate to be tried for the highest criminal charge when all he ever did was love the poor and needy, forsake his own comfort for the comfort of others, gracefully push the limits of the disciples knowing that their evangelization would be humanity’s saving grace.
My savior, beaten and bruised and catered and flogged, nailed to a cross, left to hang as his lungs collapsed. Damned to hell to take on my sins of gluttony, envy, pride, shame, deceit, gossip, self-preservation. Who does that? Who willingly takes on 3 days in the darkest place so that I might live this selfish life of consumerism? What is that kind of grace?
Never again will I take the cross for granted. Never again will I imagine myself outside the bracket of “sin.” Never again will I look at the image of Christ on a cross and feel nothing inside. The cross is personal because the cross is for me. The cross is personal because it means that yes, I have free will, but to do anything but worship the giver of my life and its contents is fruitless. Free will is meaningless when held up to the light of the savior who defeated hell, defeated death, and defeated sin: my 3 greatest, deepest fears.
Need I fear when i worship someone who defeated the 3 things i loathe the most? Need I shed tears in worry over destruction and death when the Man who I so deeply cherish is one who leads me through still waters, who cherishes my soul, who makes me lie down in green pastures?
Jesus, never again will I take you for granted. Never again will I take your story for granted, now that I’ve seen it, lived it, walked through it, prayed through it. I have enough because I have you, the defeater of all things unholy.
Jesus, your sacrifice means everything to me. Thank you thank you thank you.
Like I said, I have so much more that I could say about this place. There will likely be many more blog posts coming in the future--but for now, this long one will have to suffice. Sorry for the length of this post, but I feel like you can't go across the world to the Holy Land and then write a short blog post about it, ya feel?!
Thanks for reading, friends. If you want to get a visual for my Israel trip, here is a video I made while there! And there's a photo gallery of some of the places I mentioned below! Also, if you want a more detailed day by day synopsis of what we did, check out my good friend Hannah Harris's blog where she did an amazing job of cataloging that.
I'll close with this: Go. To. Israel. Put it at the top of your bucket list, and go see the places where the Bible happened.