Staring at 4,000 year old ruins bent my mind into a new shape. I was literally walking through the Old Testament. Item one on my bucket list was checked off. I was finally in Israel and on a pilgrimage through the Holy Land.
It seemed the timing was perfect and I felt drawn there. Having declined an opportunity to go years prior, I decided I wasn’t letting this chance go. One of my sons wanted to go too so we signed up together. Classes were attended in preparation and 9 months of anticipation followed.
The first day we overlooked azure waters of the Mediterranean while sitting in a Roman amphitheater- otherwise known as the “Vomitorium.” Next door were palace ruins of the Roman Centurions. Pontious Pilate was one. Progressing inland from Israel’s coast, we traveled through time going back four millennia. The toppled remnants of ancient cities whispered their stories both sad and shocking. One site, Megiddo, was a layer cake of ancient city upon city that literally stacked on top of the other. The valley below was Armageddon and we wondered if all would one day end there?
Our guide was unusual in that she comprised the last remnant of Christians living in the Holy Land. Less than two percent are left in all of Israel, including Palestine. She shared that when she asked her mom why they stayed when others moved away, her mother said, “We have to stay. Otherwise there will be no more living stones in the Holy Land.” That saying inked itself on my heart. I realized as a Christian, I also am called to be a living stone- wherever that may be.
The landscape of Israel was glorious as wildflowers in brilliant yellow, red and lavender peeked between ancient stones. The lush, green valley of “milk and honey” was blooming with fruit and olive trees. I could easily understand why it was the “Promised Land.” Israel was achingly beautiful.
Our sacred site visits included history and geopolitical lessons that increased our understanding of the past and present. Scripture readings added to the spiritual significance of each location. The Bible suddenly became three dimensional. Stories were no longer fable-like but tangibly real. All of a sudden I wanted everyone I knew with me. Instead, I did the next best thing and posted pictures each day on Facebook.
Our schedule was extremely tight allowing for little rest. It did not matter, however, because as our guide said, we were pilgrims, not vacationers. Rain was a mere inconvenience and didn’t stop the day’s schedule. Danger was never a concern — the most dangerous thing about Israel was walking while looking down at your phone. You were sure to trip or fall over something if not paying attention. No, I was not once scared and yes, I will go back, God willing.
My “aha” moment occurred while in Jerusalem. I was down in the Sacred Pit where Jesus was thrown after being wrongly convicted. He was beaten, deserted by all His friends, and thrust into a pitch-black, cavelike prison. He must have fallen 20 or more feet against the cold, hard stone. All of a sudden His pain, suffering and loneliness hit me. HE KNOWS, I realized. HE FELT EXACTLY HOW WE DO BUT WORSE…I began to cry and couldn’t stop. (I am not a cryer, for the record.) Recognizing He felt every imaginable human suffering and knowingly went through it all gave me gratitude beyond measure. It was comforting to know that even though He experienced extreme, human suffering, He loved us enough to die on the cross. He became the ultimate sacrifice and sin was defeated. There was nothing left to fear, I realized! My heart nearly exploded with gratitude.
Once we reached Golgotha, tears dried as I knew the triumphant outcome. Jesus wasn’t in the tomb, nor would He ever be. He arose and ascended to be with His (and our) Father. The stone, skull facade of Golgotha peered at me but I didn’t feel dread. I had received the hope-filled message. I needed to bring Israel with me and become a Living Stone.