Little did I know that despite my attempts to prepare for every circumstance, Israel would surprise me in ways I could not have seen coming. Our God is a God of surprises, and Israel was no different. Through my Passages trip, I learned five lessons that have stuck with me and echoed in my life even after returning to my home in Kansas.
LESSON 1: Pack Lightly
Our Passages bus pulled into Jerusalem in the dark of night. We caught small glimpses of lights twinkling in the hills, betraying the existence of the city. As we arrived at our hotel, my first grace-filled experience came in the form of my assigned roommate, Bethany. Bethany and I knew each other a little from previous Forge Academy trips but had only spent a cumulative few days together. I was excited to get to know her more, as she was someone I looked up to and respected.
As I mentioned before, I like to be well-prepared for any circumstance that I go into. But as we walked into our hotel room, I began to realize that we can never truly be prepared for anything – but we can always trust in God’s provision.
LESSON 2: Pay Attention
The first morning in Jerusalem was like drinking from a fire hose. I followed our group to a spot just outside the “new” city walls (only 500-1,000 years old, comparatively new). We sat down in a semi-circle around our guide, Mark.
Mark was a small, blue-eyed Israeli man in his sixties. I immediately trusted him as he explained the history of the city and how it was divided into quarters; Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian.
While he talked, a car pulled into the city, a group of Israeli police strolled by, an Orthodox Jewish family herded their children along quickly, and the call to prayer could faintly be heard over a loudspeaker. After he explained the history, Mark led us into the city. We visited many historic sites, including the “upper room” where the disciples and Jesus met, the first churches in Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives. Then we walked the path that Jesus did when he entered the city on Palm Sunday and continued through the city through the Via Dolorosa – the way of the Cross.
Walking these paths wasn’t easy. Even coming down from the Mount of Olives, the streets were crowded, cars were honking, tourists were everywhere. It wasn’t calm and serene as I always pictured the Gospel stories to be. When I read the Gospel prior to coming to Israel, I imagined a spotlight on Jesus. Somehow I subconsciously imagined the entire city at a standstill, watching this carpenter’s son ride through the gate on a white donkey, or carrying a Roman cross in the middle of the day.
But why would that be the case? Both Palm Sunday and Good Friday were just normal days for the Jewish people. Maybe a woman stopped to watch for a minute, but dinner was burning and she had to finish it. Maybe a blacksmith paused to look up, but an impatient customer was waiting. There was work to be done; normal life to be lived.
And yet, these people had witnessed, even for a moment, God Himself incarnate. How much more do I miss God in everyday life? As near as He was to the shopkeepers and schoolchildren during His time on earth, He is near to me today. I just need to pay attention.
Later in the trip, Mark challenged us to pay attention to the words and phrases people used. He said that the names of cities, regions and even people were significant, as they revealed a person’s way of thinking. For example, a staunch Zionist might refer to the Northern part of Israel as the Galilee region and the Palestinian-controlled territories as Judea and Caesarea – while a Palestinian would not use these traditional names. It was a good reminder that everyone’s perspective is different, and everyone – even myself – betrays their true feelings in one way or another. We have to pay attention to see the truth.
LESSON 3: Participate
One of my favorite memories from Jerusalem was visiting a Jewish home for Shabbat dinner. I carefully dressed according to the specifications, and eagerly loaded onto the bus. I was excited and nervous; I had no idea what to expect. My group was dropped on a street corner where we laughed and joked for fifteen minutes with our Israeli guard, Alon, who was also coming to Shabbat dinner with us.
We had to wait until 7:45 on the dot to head to the house. Promptly at 7:45, I heard a “hello” from behind me. I turned, expecting to see an Israeli man or boy. Instead, a tall, lanky, red-headed young man without any noticeable accent was standing in front of our group. His name was Yishai, and he and his wife Rebecca were from Canada. They had moved to Israel a year and a half prior to that night, and regularly hosted groups for Shabbat dinner.
It was fascinating to take part in the traditional Sabbath dinner. The traditions associated with it were ancient and unifying – I loved the feeling that Jews all across the world were participating in the same Shabbat dinner and prayers as we were. The hospitality with which Rebecca and Yishai invited us into their home was also inspiring – they were eager to share something as important as their religion and donate their time to strangers.
The next day, our group visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. I knew that this wouldn’t be like other museum tours; this was the Holocaust as told by its victims. But there was no way to prepare myself for the weight of what I was about to see.
The information was not new; we walked through exhibits on the history of the Jewish people and their quest for a state; the rise of the Nazi regime, and the slow descent into the final solution. We stood above a pile of shoes ripped from the feet of men, women, and children before they were killed or worked to death. We saw the photos of starving prisoners. The quotes throughout were haunting and poignant. In particular, Imre Bathory’s quote rang in my ears:“I know that when I stand before God on Judgement Day, I shall not be asked the question posed to Cain – where were you when your brother’s blood was crying out to God?” Imre Bathory, Righteous Among the Nations, Hungary.The question each of us kept asking ourselves was just that: where were we? Where are we, when our brother’s blood is crying out to God? Where are we in the world’s suffering today, in the abortion, the refugee crisis, the humanitarian disasters and injustices of life? We were given incredible knowledge and perspective through the history we learned, but what were we going to do with it? Choose who you’re going to be: perpetrator, silent, or fighter.
The last exhibit of the museum was the most powerful to me. As we came upon the end of the museum, Mark told us that at the end of the Holocaust a Jewish Rabbi was asked what the Jewish people would do now. What was the path forward after near extinction? He quoted the Talmud, saying, “Live well. It is the best revenge.” The Jewish people vowed to survive, to thrive, and to live well with everything they had in them. As this quote was echoing in our ears and the Israeli national anthem was playing, we walked out of the museum onto a platform overlooking the Jerusalem Valley. It was an incredibly powerful moment. Despite the death, the destruction, the attempted annihilation of their people, Israel was thriving. We could see houses speckling the valley below and bushes blooming and hear the distant roar of the city. The Jewish people were resilient and alive, alive, alive. Nothing could stamp them out, and here was the proof.
The Shabbat dinner with Yishai and Rebecca and the Yad Vashem visit, while incredibly different experiences, both rang with the same message: we cannot sit back and wait, we cannot be passive. We must participate. Whether that means engaging our community and opening discussions like we did at Shabbat, or fighting for freedom, or advocating for Israel – we are called to action as Christians and as people who have been given knowledge and awareness. It’s not enough to think about these things; we must act on them.
LESSON 4: Prepare For The Unexpected
On our last day in Jerusalem, we were scheduled to go to an overlook of the West Bank and Gaza. We had just listened to a speaker discuss the situation there and were eager to see it for ourselves – until we heard that there were missile alarms going off. Instead of going to the West Bank, Mark scheduled a surprise for us. We drove through a small town built into the narrow valley between Israeli foothills – a complete scenery change from the stone-walled city. Finally, we arrived at Tel Azeka, which overlooked the battlefield where David fought Goliath.
It was a breathtaking view – fields of crops created a patchwork below us; a flock of sheep drifted slowly from one side of a lush green field to the other. Mark retold the story of David and Goliath so it was fresh in our minds. He encouraged us to “not let anyone look down on us because we are young.” David was but a boy but he was ready, he was bold, he was able to go forward and do what the older soldiers could not. It wasn’t visiting the Gaza strip, but it was a worthwhile alternative. After the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, this little hilltop excursion was a breath of fresh air. The entire day was calm and breezy – I was able to gather my thoughts. An unexpected schedule change ended up being one of my favorite memories from the trip.
Plans change in life all the time. Personally, I have had many plans change and shift in regards to college in the last year. I ended up going to my local state school instead of traveling to a private school several hours away – but it, too, has been a blessing in my life. That day overlooking the peaceful, historic fields was a reminder that the best way to prepare for the unexpected is to embrace it as it comes, and trust that there’s a gift from God hidden in the change.
LESSON 5: Pray For The Journey
After six days in the city, it was time to head to the Galilean countryside. The long bus drives to and from our hotel and the sites we visited were some of my favorite times – I had many amazing discussions with my friends, plenty of quiet reflection, and even some naps. But mostly, I soaked in the scenery and tried to engrave it in my mind, because no photo could capture it.
The day that sticks out the most in my mind is our visit to the Mount of Beatitudes church and the Sea of Galilee. The Mount of Beatitudes was beautiful, with a magnificent church and gardens overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Mark described where Jesus would have stood, how thousands of people would have been sitting on the mountainside listening to him speak. At this point, we had grown close to Mark. He challenged us to pay attention to our surroundings, ask probing questions, and think deeply about what we were learning. We, in turn, challenged him with our questions and trusted his wise guidance and knowledge. We had shared many laughs that week – most notably over Mark’s catchphrase: “Follow me.” At virtually every site we visited, Mark would give his explanation of what we were seeing, then beckon and say “follow me.” Sometimes, we even counted how many times he said it because it happened so often!
But despite the humor in the situation, this connection between Mark’s “follow me” and the call of Jesus was surprisingly powerful. I’d often read this story and been touched by Jesus’ call to action, but it sometimes left me with more questions than answers. What did it actually mean to follow Him? What did it feel like to trust Him without abandon? Somehow, at that moment, hearing Mark say “follow me,” I realized what it must have been like to hear Jesus say that to His apostles.
We had only known Mark for a week, but already we trusted him – partially from how good of a guide he was, but partially because he was the only person in our group who knew the terrain and had our safety in mind. We knew if there was a crisis, Mark was the one to talk to. If we had a question, he could answer it. How much more must the apostles have felt like Jesus was their provision – how much more would they have been willing to drop everything and follow Him because they knew Him and trusted Him.
It’s not enough to just know about God. You can have a complete knowledge of theology or religion and still not know who Jesus is. And without knowing Him, I realized, it’s hard to trust Him. Praying for the journey is incredibly important in order to know Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, there’s no way that I can include in five pages all that I took away from this trip. Even as I sit here, attempting to convey the most important lessons I learned, words fail me. I’ll be thinking about Israel for a long time. The first thing I said to my family when I got home was “I want to go back.”