"It is good to know that for a few short days I was blessed to walk in places where Jesus walked," Ron Little, Huntsville, Ala., said about his recent trip to the Bible lands. He was one of a diverse group of travelers who soon became friends and adventurers on a journey that took them from Nashville, Tenn., to Israel and Jordan.
For the 30 or so pilgrims, the new year began with a trip to the Bible lands under the auspices of FHU. Directed by Drs. Ron and Edna Butterfield, the group ranged in age from teenager to octogenarian, from a high school senior to those holding graduate degrees. The trip was offered for course credit with Dr. Mark Blackwelder teaching, but most travelers went for personal edification and spiritual growth.
Touring biblical sites in Israel and Jordan, as well as ancient secular sites, over a period of nine days enabled travelers to meet their individual goals. Experienced guides provided educational commentary on the history and significance of each site, as well as helpful information regarding the current situation in the Middle East. Worship services, periods of devotional, shared experiences and a sense of fun strengthened faith and bound the travelers into a cohesive group. New acquaintances quickly became friends as they struggled up and down the rocky hills, into ancient caves and through tunnels dug centuries ago.
"We had a great group of traveling companions. They were enthusiastic and cooperative," Blackwelder said. "We enjoyed tremendously developing relationships as well as getting to know the Bible lands. Though we've only known each other for a couple of weeks, we now consider ourselves friends, since we've experienced something important together."
Tom and Susan Campbell, Spring Hill, Tenn., traveled with two other generations of their family: Susan's mother, Nancy Skelton, and their son, Jacob, an FHU student. The family was fulfilling her mother's lifelong dream. "My father (Carmack Skelton) had been to the Holy Lands in 1959, before he met and married my mother," Susan Campbell explained. "He talked about that trip all of his life. He even wrote a little book about his experiences." Her father passed away in 2009, but a part of his memories went on the trip also. "My mother and I had his little book with us. We enjoyed reading it again with new insight and comparing our experiences to his," she said.
Jacob Campbell, on the other hand, is just beginning his path in life. He has recently decided to major in Bible at FHU. "It was inspiring to see him studying the Bible on the trip and taking everything in. He is fortunate to have experienced this at such a young age," his mother said. At the Garden Tomb, Jacob read to the group about the burial and resurrection and a passage from Hebrews about how Christ was a superior sacrifice for sin. Susan Campbell described this as "a proud moment."
A highlight of the trip for many in the group was worshipping with the church of Christ in Nazareth. The songs sung simultaneously in two languages, English and Arabic, were particularly memorable. The minister there said it was like the singing would be in heaven: many languages but one tune. The church, with 30-40 members, is the only faithful congregation between Egypt and Russia. "It was sobering to realize what a minority they are in the region," Susan Campbell said.
"I saw so much on the first trip I couldn't remember it all, so I thought if I ever had a chance to go back I most certainly would," Barbara Hodges of Henderson said of her second trip to the Bible lands. "I am so glad I went again, because the second trip was better than the first for me. We saw some of the same things I had seen last year and even more. I am so glad I had the opportunity to go two years in a row. I made several new friends and got to visit with some I already knew," she said.
"For me," Little, said, "this was the trip of a lifetime. It was a wonderful experience to see and photograph places I have often tried to describe in sermons and Bible classes. The archaeological sites were incredible, some of them breathtaking. The barrenness of the Judean wilderness is something I will never forget."
Sailing on the Sea of Galilee, touching the waters of the Jordan River, walking in Capernaum and visiting the Garden Tomb and Gethsemane were listed by many as favorite stops. Layer upon layer of various civilizations and church buildings built upon the ancient sites sometimes made it difficult to discern which were the actual sites of biblical events, but the geographic markers remain the same. "The Jordan River is still the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee is still the Sea of Galilee," some said.
"I didn't expect the trip to be so emotional," Marilyn Jones, Jackson, Tenn., said. "There just aren't any words to describe the feeling of sitting on a boat on the Sea of Galilee and listening to scriptures about Jesus being on the Sea or sitting in a cave similar to one Jesus might have been born in and singing ‘Away in a Manger.' I felt the Bible come alive from our first stop at Cana of Galilee until we exited the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate."
"Trips like this one are a great opportunity to ‘flesh out' your understanding of scripture. Seeing the places with your own eyes grounds the stories of the Bible in a way that is difficult to describe—you really need to experience it," Blackwelder said.
"Although I may wash the streets of Israel from my feet, leaving the sand of another day behind me, I cannot wash Israel from my heart," Jonathan Davis, a senior from Tullahoma, Tenn., said. "This trip has shaped me and provided me with a perspective I wish every Christian could have."
Next year's trip, Dec. 29-Jan. 7, will include Israel and Greece, visiting Athens and ancient Corinth. "Imagine walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the footsteps of Paul in the same week," Blackwelder, who will direct the trip, said. For more information about the trip, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 731-989-6624.