A trip to the Holy Land is a journey the Rev. Chris Christenson thinks every Christian should take. The La Crescent, Minn., pastor joined 40 other people for an eight-day trip to Israel last month that he says changed his life. He placed his feet where Jesus trod, rode a boat on the sea that Christ is said to have walked on and experienced a region he previously had only seen through photos and read about in the Bible.
Now Christenson wants to share his experiences with the community: He'll give a presentation at 10:15 a.m. Sunday, March 27, at his church, First Evangelical Lutheran Church in La Crescent. The public is welcome.
Christenson and his group toured some of the Holy Land's most well-known landmarks, including Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, Bethlehem on the West Bank and Nazareth. Many of the Christian holy sites they visited are now home to churches that pilgrims flock to and worship at daily.
Christenson was encouraged to take the trip by his brother-in-law, a pastor in Barre Mills who has been to Israel twice before. Though he'd never gone, Christenson had heard from other pastors that it's a life-changing experience.
"You look at God's word from a new set of eyes," he said, noting he was allowed to take the trip as continuing education through his church. "You have a completely new perspective once you've actually been there and see the geography, the terrain and you understand the distance people had to travel.
"I can't think of any course (or) any class that I could take now that would benefit me as a Christian, and especially benefit me as a pastor, more than actually being there. ... It was everything people had told me and everything I had hoped."
The group started in Tel Aviv, Israel's most modern city, then went to Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea. They also made stops in Mount Carmel, Megiddo and on the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. They visited Capernaum, a city Jesus lived in during his years of ministry and also home to the Apostle Peter.
The group visited the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, set on the place where the archangel Gabriel told Mary she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit. It also was the home to the same
synagogue that Jesus grew up in. They traveled to the northern part of Israel and Golan Heights and Tel Dan, where King Jeroboam arranged for the golden calf worship.
"From the archeological standpoint, the history lesson goes back thousands of years," Christenson said.
Each encounter with the various sites was emotional, he said. At some, he'd see people in tears.
Christenson's trip onto the Sea of Galilee was that highlight for him because he was able navigate the same unaltered sea Jesus and his disciples did. While boating, the group sang "How Great Thou Art" with the boat's captain, who recited the verses in Hebrew and English.
"We're singing, and the sun drops just below the clouds, and it's right above the horizon of the hills around the Sea of Galilee, shining off the water," he said. "You can't put that feeling into words."
The trip was filled with worship, as well. Each morning, the group read Scripture on the bus en route to the sites. Once there, Christenson led devotions specific to those places.
"Not only are we taking it in, we're taking in the power of the Holy Spirit through his word as you're taking in all that at the same time," he said. "We were having worship at these different sites."
And as they toured, the group saw other Christians from around the world worshiping and sharing in the same emotional experiences they'd had. It provided a realization for Christenson.
"You listened to a group from Japan or a group from South Korea ... singing some of the same hymns that we know, but they're singing them in their language," he said. "They're rejoicing over the very same thing and they're overwhelmed with what you're overwhelmed with, and you get this idea that the kingdom of God - the church - is so much bigger than what we think of it in the United States."
Christenson has already started to use his Holy Land experience in his church back home. Some of the 2,000 photos he took have shown up in Bible classes and his sermons.
"When we're talking about Jesus being on the Sea of Galilee, I can throw a picture up there so that the people can see exactly what I saw and put it into a new perspective," he said.
"We don't need to go to Israel as Christians because God has given us all we need in his word. But I certainly do have a new-found zeal to share the things in God's word because I've been there."