By Scott Carlson, South West District Superintendent

I have just returned from my second pilgrimage to Israel through the Wisconsin Annual Conference, led by The Society of Biblical Studies. It was an honor for me to be one of the leaders of this group of fourteen people from around Wisconsin and the United States.

In 2016, I attended my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, hosted by Bishop Jung. Last year, I naively went on this trip, looking forward to see the land of our ancestors of faith. I was excited to “walk where Jesus walked”. I was completely surprised what happened to me on this journey. It was because of being completely surprised that I became committed to helping our Annual Conference return regularly and participate in such pilgrimages. One of the first things that surprised me last year, was how each day, because of seeing the land, my eyes to the scripture were opened in new ways. A second thing that surprised me on the first trip to this part of the world, is how complex the current situation is. Both of these insights returned to me on my second trip.

While I was on my second pilgrimage in 2017, it became very clear to me why I am committed to continuing to go on this (and other such journeys in my life). The reality is each time I go, my faith is deepened and my understanding of the world is enlarged. Because these trips have been so meaningful for me, I want to share with everyone I love and care about, how important such a pilgrimage could be for their/your life.

Our trip for 2018 will be led by Bishop Hee-Soo Jung. We will travel on our ten-day trip from March 7 – 17. Our four day add on trip will be to Jordan next year. Click here for a copy of our brochure for next year. It is my hope that if you would like to see your faith grow, deepen, and be enhanced, and that you will consider traveling with us on our next pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine.

The first item I want to share is how important this pilgrimage is to help me learn more about the scriptures. It has been described that the land of the Holy Land is the fifth Gospel. That has certainly been my experience. Just being in the place that is talked about in the Holy Scriptures, opens up how I hear the stories anew.

When in Nazareth, I had a chance to see how a first century home may have looked. The home consisted of just a few rooms. One was a living area, where the food was prepared. Where, at night, the bed mats were laid out and where, during bad weather, the animals were brought in and placed (The stable). Seeing this house helped me hear the birth stories very different. In the past, when I thought about this story of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke. In my mind, I thought of the only place where a stable-like feature was, I thought of my grandparents farm. I thought of the stable as a separate structure (the barn) where the animals where stored. In this understanding, Jesus was born in the midst of animals, very separated from other people. Yet when I saw a home from Nazareth, I realized that if Jesus was born in the stable, he was born, in a home (where a stable was located) surrounded by people. It was one of many “a-hah” moments.

In a recent worship service, my wife shared of how when she heard of the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, how she kept thinking of being at that well (Jacob’s well) and how she was able to see water still being drawn out of that well and how this added meaning and life to the scripture for her. When I was standing on the Mount of Olives, I was shocked to see that at the bottom of this Mountain was the Garden of Gethsemane, which was on the edge of the Kidron Valley and right on the other side of the Kidron Valley is Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock resides). Everything was so very close. On these mountains around Jerusalem, the mountains themselves are filled with rocks and stones everywhere. I was reminded of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem so long ago on Palm Sunday. When I read the scripture that the Pharisees told Jesus to tell his followers to be quiet, I can hear Jesus say with a smile on his face, seeing all of the stones and rocks around him, “If my followers were quiet, even the stones would shout out to God in praise today.”

The last story I will share of how the land was opened up scriptures for me came at the edge of Jerusalem, it was the Herodion. The Herodion is a mountain that overlooks two valley’s that lead up to Jerusalem. Herod build one of his places on top of this mountain. It was also a place where soldiers were stationed, to help provide a strategic protection to the city. What is interesting about the Herodion is that right beside this mountain is another mountain, with a flat top that is currently about 1/3 of the size of the Herodion. Before Herod built the Herodion, the mountain where the Herodion resides was smaller than the mountain that is now currently about 1/3 the size of the Herodion. The problem was that mountain, was not the strategic mountain. So King Herod said, “Let’s move the larger mountain to the strategic location and build a palace on that and create a new command center for the army.”

As I was looking at these two mountains, I found myself hearing the words of Jesus as it comes out of the Gospel of Mark, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain move from here to there and it would.” And all of a sudden a passage that before I had never preached on, because it really didn’t make sense to me, now made much more sense. Every person that would have heard Jesus say these words would have known what Herod did. And in this context, faith is about working together for a common goal, and when we do that, we can literally move mountains and change the world.

My going to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, has reshaped and added depth to my own faith journey.

The second item going on this pilgrimage has done for me is that it is helping me to understand the complex issues that are taking place, currently, in the Holy Land. One of the real gifts to going to Israel / Palestine is to realize it is much safer than I initially would have thought. If I believed all of the news that I see on TV, I would think this is a very unsafe place. Yet, what I have learned is that Massachusetts (which is roughly the size of Israel / Palestine) has a 4% higher crime rate than Israel and Palestine. And Florida, has a 17% higher crime rate than Massachusetts. Believe it or not, but it is more dangerous to go to Florida than it is to go to Israel / Palestine.

While we were on this pilgrimage, almost each day we would be introduced to a speaker who could talk to and address the current issues that are taking place in Israel & Palestine. Just this past year we heard from a Zionist Jew. We heard from a former soldier in the Israeli Army about how destructive the occupation of Palestine is for the soul of Israel. We heard from a Palestinian Christian about what it means to live under occupation. We heard from a Palestinian Muslim about what it means to live under the occupation. In the past, we have met others who are working toward building bridges and working toward peace. This has been a very important part of the pilgrimage. We don’t just go on a sight-seeing tour. We are on a pilgrimage to learn and to grow, not just about the scriptures, but also to learn how to be a better world citizen.

The leadership of Society for Biblical Studies is very intentional about teaching us about the scriptures and about understanding what is happening on the ground in Israel and Palestine and how our US Government can and might influence what is happening in this important part of the world.

The last item I want to share with you is how my world has been enlarged because of this travel. Over the last two years, I have meet wonderful, beautiful people who are an awful lot like the people in the US that I have come to know and love. I have been exposed to terrific food and drink. I have experienced new traditions. I have come to see how decisions that are made in the United States affect the rest of the world. The reality is that my faith has deepened. The scriptures have come to mean so much more to me. I have come to see that the world is a lot smaller than I initially have thought.

At the end of the first time I went, I knew that I couldn’t wait to return. This year, about four days into the journey, my wife Debbie was particularly moved and said, “I can’t wait to come back next year.” In all honesty, I too, can’t wait until 2018 to return.

If you have any questions, feel free to give Forrest Wells or myself a call.