After more than twenty years, dreaming of a trip to Israel, that dream became reality this Spring when my wife and I joined Fifth Gospel Encounters in their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In my life as a pastor and in my wife Angel’s love for digging into Scripture, we had great expectations for this trip. We hoped to be inspired by the homeland of the Bible and to have our biblical imaginations stretched in deeper ways.
Our actual experience on this pilgrimage easily surpassed our expectations. In this report, we would like to briefly share some of the impact of this fantastic journey.
Each day seemed to contain a cornucopia of ways in which the world of the Bible and even the Kingdom of God seemed to come alive to us. Simply seeing the land in which the drama of both Testaments was lived out historically was more inspiring than we thought possible.
Both Angel and I were particularly struck during a teaching time where we sat on the hillside ruins of Hippos, not far from the shores of Galilee. Our rabbinic guide, Pastor Mark, taught just how unusual and radical it was for Jesus to have intentionally travelled to the Eastern shores of Galilee, interacting with Gentiles. Even his interaction with the demon possessed man in a graveyard took on new meaning as we considered how bizarre it would have been for a Jewish rabbi to enter a graveyard. This was a fascinating example of Jesus stepping across all kinds of boundaries to reach “the other side.”
Angel and I were significantly moved as we recognized in a fresh way, Jesus’ heart for those who were far from Him, those who were marginalized, rejected, and least in His culture. We were struck by how easily in our own lives and in our church culture, we can neglect this call to reach out and to prioritize evangelism in and through the church we lead. That evening as we debriefed this experience by Galilee, we sensed God was helping us renew our commitment to His commission to reach out to lost people with the Gospel.
Another significant benefit of our time in Israel was the learning that was a result of the rabbinic style of teaching. While Mark’s teaching times were excellent and filled with compelling content, we learned much about leadership simply from the experiential nature of carefully following a leader through challenging experiences. Perhaps one of the most frustrating but rewarding aspects of this leadership style was that we did not know where we were going. We weren’t given a detailed itinerary each day of our plans and we had to learn to trust our ‘rabbi.’
For example, instead of taking the bus up to Mount Arbel, to the place where rabbis and likely Jesus used to pray, Mark had us follow him up the mountain, much like Jesus would have walked to his quiet place of prayer. The sheer effort required reminded us of the physicality and humanity of Jesus. On another occasion we followed Mark and Cam into a sudden detour into a field where there was a herd of sheep and two shepherds. Mark led us to walk along behind the shepherds and the flock as he spoke of God’s nature as a shepherd and the leadership lessons that come from shepherding. The rabbinic style of teaching left us rethinking our approach to leadership, while also considering how we might creatively lead and disciple followers of Jesus in mission.
Perhaps the greatest value for us as students and teachers of the bible, was to discover that some of our interpretations of Scripture are substantially impacted by our Western upbringing and thinking. To not just hear a lecture about the East/West divide, but to repeatedly discover firsthand some of the significant cultural differences, has been invaluable to us. Someone once said “context is everything” and this exposure to the Holy Land was eye-opening to the middle-eastern context and lifestyle of the people of Israel, the NT background of Jesus and his teachings, and the cultural setting of the early church.
On a more devotional note, both Angel and I can attest to a renewed love of Scripture. Biblical locations that were once just geographic names to us before this trip now are living images seared into our imaginations. Stories that were very familiar have come to life as we can picture their geographical setting, like Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on the side of Mount Carmel or David’s fight with Goliath in the Valley of Elah.
We are sincerely grateful for the opportunity to join Fifth Gospel Encounters for this tour. Many thanks to all who helped make this journey possible.
~ Durwin & Angel Gray, Lead Pastor at Hillside Community Church