A Life-changing Pilgrimage To The Holy Land
For many Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a truly fulfilling—if not the most fulfilling—means of understanding the origin of their faith. To read about it in the Bible is one thing, but to travel on foot and see everything with one’s own eyes is another experience altogether. For 11 days, through Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, it was a journey unlike any other that we had ever gone through as it was a true spiritual awakening: a life-changing experience that each and every one of us would never forget.
In all my travels, no place has ever held my curiosity as much as the Holy Land, with its ancient history of intimacy with God Himself, and its epic continuing conflicts in modern times.
And in my recent 18 days as a pilgrim, in search of archaeological proof that the Bible’s contents are accurate and verifiable, none will my heart ever hold more sacrosanct than scaling Mt Sinai, touring the city of Dan, and being baptised in the Jordan River.
The Bible guides us through the journey which Moses led the Israelites on: “The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the Mountain. So Moses went up.” (Exodus 19:20)
Daunting yet divine, Mt Sinai represents the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, shortly after the Passover. Moses walked to its peak, alone and with only his faith to guide him. Here he waited 40 days and nights for further instructions about the Promised Land. In reply, The Lord gave him the 10 Commandments to bring to the Israelites waiting in the desert.
Mt Sinai is replete with life’s metaphors. Ascending it after midnight, I was a curious tourist. Descending it at the break of dawn, I came back with an exhausted body and an enlightened soul.
We all live our lives in frequent chances, never knowing the outcome of our actions nor the impediments along the way. Unforeseen bends that can throw us off course are plenty, but we simply must forge on in faith. Retracing Moses’ steps up the Lord’s mountain was an acute personal realisation that life is never easy. But trust in Him, and all will be well.
The Old Testament referred to the entire Israel as “from Dan to Beersheba” (from North to South).
“During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” (1Kings 4:25)
In the Bible’s Book of Numbers, Dan, according to census, was the second largest Israelite tribe. Today, Tel Dan is a nature reserve and an archeological site with the remains of old mud-brick walls and the Gate of Abraham. It was named after the patriarch of the Israelites because it dates back during his lifetime.
An hour’s hike brought us to a forest dotted with small lakes and streams with cold running water. It was a quiet place, allowing one to meditate and vividly picture what life within its confines was like 3500-4000 years ago.
The gate has been restored to its original height of seven metres. As in ancient times, it features two towers and a horizontal structure linking them below the arches, the oldest ever found in Israel. I was so drawn to this gate, as I imagined living in the time of Abraham when he was designated by God to found a nation for Israelites. That nation was later known as Canaan, a place of much historical drama that standing on its threshold became a most awesome boon to my newly refreshed spirituality.
The Bible is replete with conflict among God’s chosen people. Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, set up an altar in Dan to prevent the people from going to worship in Jerusalem. He installed a golden calf in Dan and another in Bethel, a symbol of Egyptian priesthood (1Kings 12:26-33). The kingdom was later destroyed by the Assyrians in 722BCE.
Personal meditation and historical application to life’s truths unravel the golden calf in our lives—our destructible material idols, the sins of the flesh, and internal persuasions of evil itself in our minds. From this awakening, this passage has since become my constant prayer:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, acceptable and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
Baptism in the Jordan River
Known as the site of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John the Baptist, the River Jordan falls 950 metres from its source in the mountains where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon meet. It joins the Sea of Galilee, finally flowing into the Dead Sea. Despite its impressive course, the river measures a mere 2 metres deep and 10 metres wide, and anyone can wade through to the Jordanian border.
Its physical dimensions clearly belie its historical significance. More so, with the surprise that met our visit.
We arrived expecting clean and clear water, as appropriate for pilgrims seeking to be cleansed and be born again in Christ. But behold, heavy rains the previous evening had turned the water mocha brown, silted with layers of desert sediment caused by flooding.
Utterly shocked, I toyed with the wisdom of instead postponing my baptism until we got back to Makati, where Christians are baptised in a sanitised swimming pool free of Jordan’s muck.
But no! Wasn’t this all consistent with Jesus’ earthly life—humble and lowly and in stark irony to His heavenly kingdom?
How fortunate I am to be here in the waters where Christ was baptised, be born again to commit to follow God’s way and to move by the power of the Holy Spirit and declare my faith in Him!
No mire nor sludge will matter now, for as long as my relationship with the Lord is joyful!
LING LING KING
The most inspiring part of this pilgrimage and where I learnt the most was the climb up to the summit of Mt Sinai.
Hiking up that mountain was an already challenging task; that I had almost no sleep at all made it more difficult. My mind was focused on worries and I started fussing over silly things like where to find a toilet, etc.
I rode the camel on the first leg of the climb, thinking this would make the experience more authentic—and of course, trying to make it easy on myself. But my camel guide mistakenly attached my camel to the back of Sister Deonna’s, which sandwiched me between her and Pastor Peter. Looking back, I happily welcomed this slip-up by the guide. It brought much needed comfort to be between two wonderful people, especially on this part of the journey.
After the camel ride, I set out on foot for anothe 750 steps on a steep elevation to reach the top. During the climb, I found myself with a group of good friends who had some health challenges. Without any verbal communication or pre-arranged agreements, we decided to stay together, at a pace dictated by circumstance, not minding how long it would take to get to where we were going.
It was a challenging climb. Most people consider me athletic, but I was still catching my breath most of the time. I could only imagine what my physically challenged friends were going through. Much as their tenacity inspired me, I also worried that something might happen to them. When we finally reached the summit and I saw the first ray of sunlight, I thought, God had been with us all along. He would not have allowed anything bad to happen to all of the people hiking that morning. We were all there to experience Him and just feel Him.
I just didn’t feel the presence of God in my heart, He made me see. He made me experience Him in the people around me. Witnessing Margie’s [Moran-Floirendo] perseverance to make it to the top with the help of a Bedouin guide, remembering the lady next to me with the inhaler that Anton [San Diego] needed badly, I thought of the verse of John 15:7 “If you remain in me and my words remain in you. Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
VINCE & RHODA ALDANESE
My husband and I went on this trip for the excitement of experiencing history. But this was no ordinary journey: this was a visit to historical sites, homes, and palaces of kings, conquer ors, and heroes we learnt about in history books. I always get an emotional connection and knowledge from the events of years past and marvel at the heroes who are part of the history of those wondrous sites long ago. Here, I experienced and met the Great I Am.
This pilgrimage started in Egypt where God revealed to Moses that He is the I Am, the One Above all the heroes, kingdoms, treasures, and wisdom of the world. But the ascent to Mt Sinai is where it all began for all of us, the only site the Bible calls the Holy Place.
The Bedouin guide shared a story that the climb has a special purpose. Once we reach the top, he said, we could cast away a heavy burden or ask for a blessing, then ring the bell. That is what we all did. For me, I was surprised with what happened next. All my feelings of hate, anger, betrayal, and injustice were replaced with love and forgiveness. This build-up of negative emotions cannot be cured without help. I realised that only by focusing my thoughts, my heart, and my prayers to the Lord could I achieve true happiness and balance in my life.
Moving on to Israel allowed me to know more about God’s chosen people and how they paved the way for our faith. More heroes who lived and obeyed the great I Am. Eventually, archaeological diggings and artefacts became secondary. I was able to understand and experience why He is called by so many names: Saviour, Deliverer, Comforter, Father. All we all really need is Him because He is all that to us.
Vince and I are back home now. Yes, we struggle still, but now we face the world with that confidence and trust that He fulfilled His promise to finish the work He began in us. We choose to know Him intimately by reading His truth and promise. The Bible reveals to us the way.
It was my fourth visit to Egypt and my second visit to Israel, but the CCF Holy Land Trip gave me a more meaningful perspective of these countries and an unforgettable first visit to Jordan.
I relived significant events from the Bible as the group went through the sites (like the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, journeying through the Red Sea and Sinai desert until they reached Canaan). We visited Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the temple where Jesus preached, and the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross) in Jerusalem.
A memorable moment was when we rode a boat in the Sea of Galilee and prayed as a group to let go of the things in our lives that keep us from following Jesus. I learnt the value of emptying ourselves so we can be filled with God’s blessings and His plans for us.
The trip was a good analogy for this. We had to empty our schedules and let go of several commitments to visit the Holy Land. But by doing so, we were filled with enriching experiences such as mornings that began with Bible Study, lessons on the Biblical significance of the sites, bonding moments with the group especially our bus-mates, the opportunity to see historical places, significant time to reflect and pray. We brought home so many blessings from that trip—lasting friendships, a deeper understanding of God, and a renewed perspective of the Bible.
DONNIE & CRICKETTE TANTOCO
It was a little difficult in the beginning as well as in some parts of the trip. But in the end, the 18 days of pilgrimage to the Holy Land evolved into the best experience of my Donnie’s life.
Pastor Peter told me it would be life-changing. I was skeptical about what I felt was an enticing but also motherhood statement. Two months later, however, I felt that the life-changing part Pastor Peter was telling me about: the renewal of Donnie’s and my mind and the different visions we have of our circumstances, dreams, and struggles.
The awakenings in the Holy Land were liberating me from my ego and helping reshape the character and attitude that I bring to my work, as well as my interactions with my loved ones and my family. I understand much better now the meaning of words that I’ve used so loosely before, like faith. Today, faith is my number one value; and making it so has brought clarity and purpose to my day to day life.
The Holy Land strengthened my resolve to be a warrior, a peaceful warrior—not a cowardly martyr nor a vindictive, ego-driven, and greedy warrior. I have learnt what fixing my eyes on Jesus means; and how doing so can immediately improve our lives and our relationships.
25 years ago I went to Egypt and israel with a group of friends; recently I revisited these places with the CCF group of Pastor Peter and Sister Deonna. It turned out to be the most meaningful spiritual journey of my life.
We went to the places where Jesus did his ministry. Singing “Amazing Grace” on the boat on the Sea of Galilee was for me an inspiring and unforgettable time for prayer and self-reflection.
A memory that I also hold close to my heart was the climb to the top of Mt Sinai (and not riding a camel). Many things went through my head as we took the 750 steps on foot. What if I don’t reach the destination? What if I collapse? What if I die? However, through it all I kept remembering what Sister Deonna told me: meditate and keep on praying. That is exactly what I did and we joyfully and thankfully reached the top.
This truly amazing experience has taught me that no matter how hard the situation might be, or how high you have to climb, as long as you are anchored to God, everything is possible. Struggles may make you weary, but you will always find strength in the Lord. God will always guide us with His hand and we are always in His care. I praise Him for His never-ending love. I would say that a trip to the Holy Land should be on one’s bucket list. You will learn so much, find comfort, and create memories that will last a lifetime.
HAYDEN AND VICKI BELO-KHO
The Holy Land trip is not an ordinary trip. No doubt there are great hotels there, fancy restaurants, and “post-worthy” sites to see, but the CCF Holy Land trip is really not about these things. It’s a trip not just to another country but a journey into the heart—into our very own hearts.
Vicki and I joined this t our a few years ago when we made the decision to take our spiritual lives seriously. We used to think that “faith” is believing in something that is r eally not there. “Faith is blind,” so says the critics of God-believing people. But our understanding of what we believe in was completely changed during the trip. We realized that God has put enoug h in this world to make faith in Him the most r easonable thing, and in this Holy Land trip is where you will see plenty of them, albeit mostly in the form of archeology.
For example, when we went to Egypt we were able to follow the biblical narration of the birth of the nation of Israel starting with the calling of the forefather Abraham, to the arrival of the Israelites in Egypt, and their eventual exodus to the “Promised Land.” Then in Israel, we were shown all the significant biblical places such as the temple mount where Israel’s King Solomon built the temple for God, the sheeps’ pasture where the angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the birhtplace of Jesus and the places where He walked and preached and performed His miracles in His three-year ministry, and finally the tomb where His body was placed after He was crucified (the tomb is empty, by the way. Just in case you’re wondering).
All these are reminders that everything we read in the Bible is true. There has never been an archeaological finding anywhere in the world that proves that the Bible is not trustworthy. What it says about God is true, and what it says about who we are is also true. Thus, the most reasonable thing to do is to believe it and live our lives according to it.
This is the reason why we invited this “barkada” to the Holy Land trip this year. Vicki and I wanted them to appreciate the trustworthiness of the “Word of God,” the Bible. We believe that God has fashioned us to be nurtured and to grow in the Word, and that if one wants to truly know oneself, one has to know His Creator as revealed in the Bible. We are so happy to hear all the transformative stories that each of us shared when we got back in Manila. Everyone felt more alive as compared to when we left. The lesson of the Holy Land is this: that the nurture of the spirit ought to be the number one priority of our lives. We can know God by meditating daily in His Word. As our friend, Dr Ravi Zacharias the famous Christian apologist once said, “if you look at Him through the world’s eyes, you’ll never see a glimpse of Him. But if you look at the world through His eyes you will get a glimpse of the Him, and the world as well.”
Photography by Jairus Bernardo