As you read this column, 29 Kentucky Baptist pastors, church staff members and convention personnel, including myself, are just returning from a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, coordinated by Steve Rice of the KBC’s Church Consulting & Revitalization team.
After going to the Holy Land, one will never read or preach the Bible the same again, Rice maintains. “Before going to the Holy Land, the Bible was in black and white, but now it is in vivid color,” he adds, explaining that the geography of Israel has become a pivotal part of his Bible reading.
KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood, the group’s tour host, agrees, “Bible study for personal devotion and sermon preparation will be richer and more personal, as the many sites visited will appear before them when they are encountered in the text.”
When Rice visited Israel with a group of 25 in 2011, the Galilee region was especially meaningful, he recalls. “Of course, the Garden Tomb, Calvary, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, and so many other Jerusalem sites are life-changing as well,” he notes.
That’s why he planned this trip, Rice says. “I wanted to help as many of our KBC family and staff experience what I did when I visited. I know the impact the trip will have on their lives.”
For Chitwood, who last visited the Holy Land in 2001, the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee made a profound impression. “The thought that I was walking along the hills where my Lord had walked and preached gave me a feeling of being more connected to Jesus than I had been before,” he recollects. “I took a swim in the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and stood on Mt. Carmel and the Mount of Olives. How does it get any better?”
So, when Rice presented the idea to Chitwood, he knew the trip would be a blessing to those who may have wanted to go but were hesitant, since they might feel more comfort and confidence traveling with a group organized by the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
In 1996, I had the opportunity to go with several of my state Baptist newspaper colleagues and other media reporters as guests of the Israel tourism ministry. While I, too, enjoyed the voyage across the Sea of Galilee in a boat similar to one in which Jesus and the disciples might have ridden, the Garden Tomb and Golgotha most affected me.
The Garden Tomb, although it most likely is not where Jesus was buried and arose, is a lush, quiet respite from which it is easier to imagine a place like where his body was laid after the crucifixion. Here, Mary Magdalene’s and Peter’s encounter with the angels who first delivered the good news, “He has risen,” is as rejuvenating and joyous as ever. Visitors frequently read from Matthew’s or John’s gospel, sing hymns, and hold communion together imprinting sacred moments in the garden.
The rocky outcrop some think could have been Golgotha, the “place of the skull,” was the backdrop of a bustling bus station when I lasted visited Jerusalem. Hundreds of passersby moved hurriedly on to destinations of import giving little mind to the eternal significance of long ago events which occurred not so far away. The inattentive patrons seem oddly reminiscent of Roman Centurions and the crowds who gawked at Jesus along the Via Dolorosa route and from the foot of the cross — yet did not comprehend what they were seeing.
This trip, I’m excited about having some new experiences. For example, I’m looking forward to floating in the salty Dead Sea, hiking the steep climb to the ruins of a fortress atop Masada, and perhaps visiting the grotto in Bethlehem and viewing the shepherds’ fields where angels sang. I’m especially grateful to the Western Recorder’s trustees who graciously provided this pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a sabbatical, and I trust you will experience it, too — at least vicariously — through photos and video reporting from Israel, as a group of Kentucky Baptists walk where Jesus walked.