If you’re a Christian, why go? Why sign up to go with a church group, why race around Israel for nine days in an air-conditioned tour bus listening to a government-licensed tour guide, why sing hymns at holy sites when no one is quite sure that what is supposed to have happened there actually happened there, why wade out into the Jordan to re-affirm a baptism, why sail on a Jesus boat on the Sea of Galilee, why celebrate communion at the Garden Tomb (where, most agree, Jesus did not rise from the dead)?
Why do all of these things and more (see my last post about floating in the Dead Sea)?
I’ve been thinking about these (and related) questions because I just made my fifth pilgrimage in 20 years, involving groups from three churches I’ve served along the way. For what it’s worth, the last trip may have been the best yet, so I’m no longer thinking in terms of diminishing returns as the tour leader. Each tour seems to have its own unique charm (and challenge).
An objective opinion
I’ll admit that I may not be the best person to answer these questions. It’s a little like asking a 10-year veteran of the NFL to reflect on violence and aggression in professional football. I may be too caught up in the phenomenon, too compromised, to think objectively about it.
On the other hand, maybe it’s important to hear from someone who’s been there and has seen first-hand what happens. Just so you know, I’ve done it more than some, but a lot less than others. A few of my colleagues seem to be supplementing their income by leading lots of these tours, going as often as once each year, an issue I’m not going to address in this post, though it’s an issue that’s troubling to me and worth noting.
The religious pilgrimage
Travel to Israel, as I’ve described it so far, might best be thought of as a religious pilgrimage. It’s travel, true, like travel to other parts of the world, but it’s travel with an explicit faith component, travel with faith as the central theme. If you ask most people what happened as a result of their trip to Israel, they will say that their faith was deepened, that they are now better able to visualize the place, that Bible stories have taken on new meaning and depth.
I can attest that those things have happened to me as well. I now read Bible stories with a heightened sense of the place – the geography, the weather, the soil. On my first tour I cried nearly every day as I discovered places I had been hearing about since I was a young boy in Sunday school. Seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time nearly did me in.
Is it essential?
But is a visit to Israel essential for one’s faith? Clearly not. Not in the way a visit to Mecca would be essential to the faith of any Muslim. Many people over the years have had deep and vibrant faith without ever laying their eyes on Capernaum or the Mount of the Beatitudes. I have known plenty of people for whom a visit to Israel would have added nothing whatsoever to their faith, to their courageous, day-by-day living of the faith.
So, why go?
I’m not altogether sure. I’m conflicted about the subject, as I am (perhaps you’ve noticed if you’re a regular reader) about a number of other subjects. I see the value of such trips, and I’ve experienced that value for myself. I’m glad to have had the experiences I’ve had. But a number of issues trouble me.
From stones to “living stones”
One is the one-dimensional view of Israel that pilgrims often have.
For most tour groups there is very little attempt made to get to know, to worship with, to understand the plight of, Christians who live in the land today. When tour groups visit holy sites and do not get to know Christians in the land, they tend to see the land as frozen in time. Yes, we see ruins from the Byzantine era and we see evidence that the Crusaders passed through, but we often miss the Christians who struggle to survive there today.
If Christians continue to go to Israel – and given the industry that has grown up around these tours, it seems likely that the numbers of tourists will continue to grow – then I hope that the typical one-dimensional experience will expand to include relationships with Christians who live there today – the so-called “living stones.”
This means more than shopping in their souvenir stores; this means listening to them, understanding them, working with them to improve their situation. They are, after all, our brothers and sisters in the faith, are they not?
A return trip?
I don’t know if I’ll be going back. There are certainly other places around the world I would like to see. But if there’s another church group that expresses an interest, I’ll probably go. In fact, I will lead enthusiastically.
But I plan to make every effort to do what I do whenever I go. I plan to meet and get to know the people there who believe what I believe, who live the faith that I attempt to live each day.
They – not the ruins – are the ones who give me joy.
(Photo: Taken with my iPad inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethelem. Not visible are hundreds of pilgrims, from nations around the world, standing behind me and waiting to descend into the grotto where, it is believed, Jesus was born.)