This past May I had the amazing privilege to visit Israel through a Lilly Pastoral Sabbatical grant. I took a three-week class from Jerusalem University College entitled “Geography and History of Ancient Israel.” It was a first time for me to experience the land where Jesus lived and where a great deal of the events of the Bible took place. Four questions ran through my head before and during the trip:
Would it be safe enough to go? As a father of four, was I putting my life at risk unnecessarily? Some said to me that I should completely avoid the Middle East. Some asked me whether I packed my gas mask. I prayed and asked God to put a roadblock up if I wasn’t supposed to go. He didn’t and the surprise was I felt safe the entire time. Israel is filled with babies, children, families and elderly. There is lots of security. I felt very safe. My biggest fear was getting run over by crazy Jerusalem drivers (worse than Boston).
Would going to Israel be a let-down? I never voiced this, but it was in my mind. You study the Bible and imagine all these places in your head. Would seeing the places for real be a disappointment? No. It was even more than I imagined. In my 25 days in Israel, I experienced the land — how important water is, the role of shepherds and farmers, and the beautiful milky limestone of Jerusalem’s walls and streets. I saw lakes, rivers, mountains, hill country, desert, seas and plains — all in a country the size of Vermont. But what also inspired me most was visiting the actual places where Bible events took place: the Sea of Galilee, Mount of Olives, Shiloh, the Road to Jericho, Temple Mount, Jacob’s Well, Herod’s Palace where Paul was imprisoned, and especially the site of the crucifixion, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Whose side would I choose — Israeli or Palestinian? This was the question running through my mind as I traveled around Israel and visited four Palestinian cities (Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jericho). My visit to New Life Church, a Palestinian Christian church in Ramallah, brought me face to face with Arabic-speaking followers of Christ suffering injustice. My visit to Yad Vashem reminded me of the horrors of the Holocaust and the heroic struggle of the Jewish people in forming the country. I resolved I can’t choose a side and I don’t think God does either. We are all sinners and God’s heart is for all people. I pray for peace and that God will show himself once again in a mighty way in this land.
What would God do in me through this trip? You can’t go on something like this and not be changed. God spoke two messages to me. The first was through the kindness of strangers. I was injured twice (a spider bite that turned into cellulitis and a fall that cut my leg badly). In both instances, a Good Samaritan went out of their way to get me help. I sensed God was spurring me on to do the same — to slow down and look for ways to help those in need. But my biggest takeaway was that the land of the Bible is a real place. It is not legend or a myth. It is not Narnia or Hogwarts. It is a real place where real events took place. I have been on the roads where Jesus walked, swam in the same lake He swam in, and looked out over the same hills and mountains He saw. I’ve touched the rocks at his place of crucifixion. This land is a real place! I hope you can go there someday and see it for yourself.
The Rev. Peter Ballentine is pastor of Hope Community Church in Newburyport.