Each winter, Christian Studies professor Stephen Von Wyrick takes a group of students on a study-abroad trip to Israel. This year’s two-week trip included stops in Jordan, Petra, and Jerusalem. Student Jenna Keefe shares the experience.
By Jenna Keefe ’11
Ask God, tell His people
It’s never been easy for me to ask others for help, especially when it comes to asking for money. After applying for the Israel-Jordan Study Tour earlier this fall, I found myself in one of those uncomfortable situations of needing help. To attend, I would need to raise $4,800.
I am a college student. I eat PB&J at least four times a week. Where am I going to get $4,800?
That question had played in my head weeks before making the decision to apply for the trip, and even the weeks following my application. Never before had I been in a position of needing to trust God for such a large amount of money.
While the thought of asking others for support unnerved me, I felt the Lord very clearly prompting me to write a support letter and send it—simply asking God, and telling His people.
One week after the letters hit the mail, I realized the deadline for payments-due was sooner than I had originally expected. With less than $200 and the Friday deadline quickly approaching, my fears and worries multiplied rapidly.
That Wednesday I opened my mailbox to find the fi rst support checks had arrived—all very significant amounts. I cried as I opened the envelopes. That same evening, my cell phone rang and a friend informed me that a large portion of money had been provided to them and they felt the Lord was urging them to give it away. My trip fund had been specifically placed on their heart, and another large check was in my hand by Thursday morning. Even more remarkable than the large amounts given so generously was the incredible means by which it came to me. Through only six donors and in less than 48 hours, exactly $1,600 was provided!
However, this was still $2,900 short of what was needed to complete my payment. Claiming God’s sovereignty, I asked for His grace to guard my heart as I contacted the travel agency to inquire about options of paying late fees for sending my payment in after the deadline.
I prayed over the call for two days, then dialed the travel agency. As I began to explain my request, I was stopped mid-sentence.
“Honey, you do not need to pay a late fee. We can work with you. Right now, we need to get your plane tickets purchased. Now you said you have $1,600. The tickets will cost $1,580, so that works perfectly.”
As I hung up, and all I could do was laugh out loud. Of course God comes through! Of course He does.
Over the next couple of weeks, the entire trip fund was paid in full by friends and supporters. At the last minute, I received more checks in the mail, one from a person I have still never met. The total equaled exactly what was needed, and in God’s perfect timing and sovereignty my trip was paid off!
Every circumstance is perfectly orchestrated and purposed by God’s divine sovereignty. He numbers the stars, He counts the hairs on our head, and He is powerful to move in the hearts of believers who write checks for a little college student perfectly equaling the amount needed for a study trip, at the proper time they are needed.
Despite initial setbacks from flight cancellations due to blizzards in New York, our trip to Israel finally commenced Wednesday, Dec. 29th.
We landed in Tel Aviv-Yafo and navigated the large Ben Gurion Airport from our terminal down to passport control. The long walk to stretch our tired legs was refreshing after nearly 15 hours on airplanes.
Exiting the airport, our group was immediately ushered to our tour bus where we were met by our trip guide, Pitch (“Peach”), an Israeli gentleman in his sixties. He greeted us in Hebrew and English, remaining quite stoic as he made witty jokes, spoken in a deep, Israeli accent: “Please walk quickly, boys and girls, we have a long drive! This is why it took the children of Israel 40 years in the desert.”
Driving three hours from Tel Aviv to our hotel off the Sea of Galilee, Pitch managed to keep us (mostly) awake with his animated stories and commentary on the sights around us. Taking the toll road up to Galilee—the fastest and most direct way of travel—we were still met by thick traffic, as Thursday evening in Israel (the day before Sabbath) is like Friday in the US and is the heaviest traffic day of the week. With surprisingly westernized highway systems, Israeli vehicles travel on the right side of the road and follow traffic regulations and signs quite similar to those in America. However, the driving etiquette observed on our way from the airport served as quite a source of entertainment.
To say the least, Israeli driving is more aggressive than anything you see in the US. Houston rush hour traffic now appears mild. Honking constantly in mobs of thick stop-and-go is mandatory. Changing lanes occurs with no blinker or any pre-warning to the driver beside you. Cutting people off, or even out of the road in some cases, is not rude, it’s just driving. In fact, missing your exit does not even mean you must fix your mistake by way of a looping overpass. Simply reversing back down the exit ramp, probably into oncoming traffic, will suffice. (This was indeed seen on many occasions, and experienced on our own bus when our driver missed a turn on a two-lane highway!) Israeli’s are quite efficient, really.
Around 8 p.m. we arrived at our hotel, the Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We ate a three-course gourmet Israeli meal while our bags were unloaded. Luckily, I’m a very adventurous eater, and quickly piled everything colorful and appealing on my plate to sample different tastes.
With full bellies and drooping eyelids, my roommate and I walked from the main office after dinner and straight to our room in a building across the lawn from the dining room. We were asleep before our heads hit our pillows.
“On this rock I will build my church”
The next morning, we piled into the bus and arrived at our first site within half an hour. At Hazor (“HAATzor”), ruins of the powerful Canaanite city destroyed by Joshua, we walked through the entrance to one of Solomon’s three palaces (mentioned in 1 Kings 9:15).
Leaving Hazor, we traveled to the Old Testament city of Dan. As we crossed a bridge built over the head waters of the Jordan River, we learned from Pitch’s expert description that in Hebrew, the words “Yar” and “Dan” combine to create the name for the river. “Yar”, meaning “flows from”, and “Dan”, the name of the city, become the “Yar-Dan” River, expressing the geographical point from where the river starts.
Continuing on to Caesarea Philippi, we visited the Hermon Streams, within the kingdom of Herod the Great. Near the streams, we walked to the Temple of Pan, a pagan temple built for sacrificial worship to the false god Paneas.
This historical site is the spot mentioned in Matthew 16, where Jesus said: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Our trip sponsor, Dr. Wyrick explained that the passage begins with Jesus’ question: “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”
Doctrinally, this question is not only significant to the disciples’ affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God, it is also culturally appropriate that Jesus would ask such a question at a place of pagan worship. In essence, Jesus asks, “Am I another one of these pagan gods or prophets? Or am I something more?”
That’s a pretty fitting location to ask such a question, don’t you think? It’s amazing to see scripture in the context of its own historical location come alive!
Herod’s palace and a glimpse of Nazareth
We began the next day with a stop at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the students abandoned their shoes at the parking lot and took off towards the water. Florida’s crystal clear waters are pretty but could not be half as beautiful as what we saw of the Mediterranean Sea. The waves are the most deep, aqua blue you can imagine.
With barely 20 minutes on the shoreline, we dried our feet and returned to the bus to drive up to see the ruins of ancient city of Caesarea.
The wonders of archeological excavation continued to fascinate me during this trip. Under large hills of sand and gravel, ruins of vast cities have been unearthed to reveal the most precisely engineered architecture. We had the opportunity to see one of Herod’s greatpalaces, positioned perfectly on theshoreline of the sea. Archeological excavations uncovered a Herodian amphitheater with room for over 10,000 spectators. The huge area between the seating and the beach was likely used for horse racing and large sporting events. Not only did Herod pick a primo spot to build his mansion, he spared no cost to create a giant playground to go with it.
After visiting Mt. Carmel and the city of Megiddo, we drove through the city of Nazareth. Traveling at a break-neck speed can be nice when we approach less interesting sites, but looking out over Nazareth, the home city of Jesus himself, made us all wish we could have stayed for hours.
Entering Jordan, traffic jams, and answered prayers
Next up on the itinerary was a three-night stay in Jordan. A 45-minute drive brought us to the gates of the Jordanian border control. Led by Pitch, we passed through several pre-check points guarded by armed soldiers before reaching the steps of the initial clearance office. Without a single glitch, exactly as we had prayed, our group made it through without delay.
We commenced our drive toward Petra, listening to lectures by Firas (our Jordanian guide) and Dr. Wyrick.
After a few hours, we approached the first bit of thick traffic. Our speed slowed gradually until we came to a complete stop, where we waited for nearly 15 minutes before Firas could discover what was causing the standstill. Negotiations were made, and our bus was given clearance to bypass the traffic by off-roading for a bit to reach a different highway.
After another 20 minutes of travel, we stopped at a rest area to use restrooms and briefly stretch our legs. Returning to the bus, the last leg of our trip began. We continued to the hotel and arrived around 8 p.m.
The next morning, Firas announced that the large traffic jam the night before had been caused by political upheaval that escalated to violence, leaving at least two people dead. Other tour buses that had been behind us were stuck on the road, not allowed to pass for over seven hours. They did not reach their hotels near Petra until 3 a.m. The night before, the road police were told that our bus of tourists only needed to get through to reach the rest stop 20 minutes away. They were not aware that we were traveling towards Petra, which was two hours past the rest stop. Without realizing the potentially dangerous situation we might have found ourselves in, the Lord miraculously caused our bus to be the only one that passed immediately that night. We had prayed, but did not know what our prayers had accomplished until that next morning.
One of the seven wonders of the modern world
Just past 8 a.m., we arrived at Petra—for many, the most anticipated site of the whole trip. Once we were past the front gates, we walked at least an hour into the mountains and in between cliffs to reach Petra’s main attractions.
Luckily, Firas had plenty of history and geology to explain to us, which made the walk less monotonous. Even the rugged cliffs bordering the long path towards the Treasury became interesting to look at after his explanations.
The crowds of people walking with us through the mountain path soon became more excited up ahead and camera flashes went crazy. We rounded the final corner and could see, just barely, through the last hundred feet of the path, our first glimpse of the great Treasury! Th e cliff s opened up into a large open area in front of the amazing structure, and the hard surface of the ancient road we had walked transitioned into loose, dark red sand; it felt like walking in a giant sandbox.
Of all places visited thus far, the great structure before my eyes should have been the most picturesque of all. Walking up to a giant, thousand-year old carved rock, realizing that it is now recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, was a bit unreal. But I was a bit disappointed to not be more awestruck by the grandeur of the giant rock. The reason (very clear to me now) was the comparison of the enormously great, man-made structure before me in contrast to the absolutely magnificent presence of the Lord at previous and future sites we walked.
A walk down the Via Dolorosa
Of all my incorrect expectations about Israel, the Via Dolorosa was the biggest shock. I had always imagined a long, dusty road leading towards Calvary, located a distance outside of the city and removed from large groups of people or gathering areas. Our guide explained to us that the scenery had probably been the exact opposite: busy, bustling streets leading through a heavily populated and crowed part of town towards the place of crucifixion. Contrary to my third-grade Sunday school imaginations, we were further informed that the crucifixion of Jesus had most likely not taken place “on a hill far away.” Jesus traveled through the heart of the city in plain view of the people, and was nailed to the cross in a more public area on flat ground, at the eye level of his beholders. We walked 12 feet below the buildings of Jerusalem to see the original street of the Via Dolorosa. Initially, I was a bit fl ustered to stand in what should be the most significant street in the world surrounded by commotion with mobs of people pushing past me. But I realized that this scene was a picture of what Jesus was all about. In complete sinlessness, the creator of the universe became one of us so that he could stand in the midst of sinful people—souls in need of saving grace—and with them brushing past Him, his offering of grace remained unaltered.
Leaving Israel: one last look
After two weeks of visiting places of such deep biblical significance, I was surprised that my first tearful moments came only in the last few minutes on Israeli soil. With our jet barreling down the runway towards takeoff, an unexpected mixture of emotions suddenly emerged, and I cried as I watched the lights of Tel Aviv disappear below the clouds. I wondered if that final glimpse of Israel would be my last sight of the Holy Land before the coming of the new heaven and new earth. I dried my eyes and quietly began praying for the peace of Israel.
This trip not only fulfilled a life-long dream of mine to visit the Holy Land, but the experience I received through a study-abroad program also far surpassed any sight-seeing trip to the Near East I could have joined on my own. Having the option to travel with an archaeologist from my own university allowed for a rich and unique environment of hands-on learning that simply cannot be matched in the classroom.
With a traveling group of 45 people, Dr. Wyrick focused on developing and maintaining personal relationships with each of his student travelers before, during, and after the tour, which is the trademark of a Mary Hardin-Baylor education. I’m confident that I gleaned more knowledge through this experience than I could have hoped to retain from any 16-week course.
Jenna Keefe is a senior psychology major from Huntsville, Texas. You can read more about her study-abroad experience in the Holy Land in her blog.