A Very Special Trip

In February 2009, I was blessed to be part of a group from Beltway Park in Abilene that went to the Holy Land. A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv and there we were, in Israel!

Our first stop was Akko, on the Mediterranean coast in the far northwest corner of the country. Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11. In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7. The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

We went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – 1 Kings 18.  We headed east, through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake).

On February 10, we visited the site where it’s believed that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then it was on to a chapel by the lake itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection – John 21. Jesus and Peter went for a walk along the rocky shore, and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next. Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me. We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel. The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood. The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof. Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish. And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people there did not believe. 

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there. I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more. Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would probably fit between the Haskell square and the high school – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing. Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hear them telling me those stories again. And here I was, standing in the middle of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

We were in Israel for almost two weeks. We visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea. Of course, we toured Jerusalem, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

Here I am on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem and the site of the ancient temple.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back. There are some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit. For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so. The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20! Stay with your tour group, and you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible. It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined. And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Remembering a Very Special Trip

Today – February 10 – is the anniversary of a day that is very special to me, part of a very special trip that I was blessed to take, nine years ago in February. (If you would like to read the details about the trip, and the miraculous way God worked it so that I COULD go, see “Visiting Israel,” from this blog for Feb. 18, 2013.)

February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.

Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows Pastor David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were in Capernaum. (This picture shows me standing in the synagogue there.) I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.

Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

After lunch in Tiberias, we went to the museum of “The Jesus Boat” – a truly stunning archeological discovery of a wooden fishing boat from the time of Christ, very typical of the kind of boats Jesus and the disciples would have used. I won’t go into how they discovered and preserved this boat, but it’s a fascinating story.

From there, we walked down to the lake (AKA, the Sea of Galilee), and boarded a small motorized boat of our own, for a ride out on that famous body of water. (We call it the Sea of Galilee, but it’s actually a freshwater lake.)

Brenton Dowdy began leading us in worship, but in just a matter of moments, the weather changed from a sunny, pretty, spring-like afternoon, to a cold, windy, rainy day!

Remember those stories in the gospels about storms coming up suddenly? Well, God let us see one in action. (That’s rain you’re looking at in the picture – and a few whitecaps!)

Finally, with the day winding down, we drove south to where the lake empties into the Jordan River. There, many of us chose to be baptized in the Jordan. It was cold and still raining, but it was a very special, sacred moment, and the perfect close to a wonderful day.

For my part, I still hope to return to Israel some day, maybe even to lead a group over there. It is no exaggeration to say that the things we saw, and the experience of being there, continue to shape and inform every sermon I preach and every lesson I write. I thank God for the opportunity to go, and I still pray blessings over the anonymous friend (or friends) who made it possible for me to go.

“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:1, 2, 6.)

 

The Magic Carpet Made of Steel

The next time your travel plans call for a long-distance trip, let me suggest that you take a page from the past, and go by train.  In my opinion, traveling by Amtrak is one of America’s best-kept secrets.  And most of the time, it absolutely beats flying as a way of getting from here to there.

I have had the pleasure of taking the train on several overnight trips, and it’s a wonderful experience.  Some trips I’ve had a private roomette; other times I’ve gone the cheap route and just gotten a seat in the coach car.

Riding in coach is a pleasant surprise for anyone used to flying.  The tickets cost about the same as taking the bus, but it’s a much more comfortable way to go.  The seats are roomier, and there’s a LOT more leg room.  There are also electrical outlets at every seat where you can plug in and recharge your laptop or cell phone.  You can easily get up and walk to stretch your legs, go to one of the several restrooms on each car, or go to the lounge car.

If you do go to the lounge car, you’ll find lots of very comfortable seats and ginormous picture windows for looking out on the passing scenery.  You’ll also find a snack bar selling heat-and-eat meals, soft drinks and adult beverages, as well as sundries like playing cards, post cards, toiletries, and other items for sale.

My friend Phil Stallings – a retired airline captain – likes to say, “It only costs a little more to go first class; you just can’t go quite as often.”  That’s true of Amtrak, and if you can at all afford getting a roomette or a bedroom, I would highly recommend it.

Roomettes are small compartments, just right for one or two people.  In the daytime, they come with two comfortable seats that face each other, a drop-down table between them, and a sliding, locking door with a heavy curtain over it for privacy.  The rooms have electrical outlets, and adjustable climate controls, and space to store a couple of suitcases.

In the evening, the porter will fold down the seats and make them into a comfortable twin-sized bed for you.  There’s also a drop-down “Murphy” bed above the window, if two people are sharing the room.

Your first class ticket also includes meals in the dining car.  Eating in the diner has always been one of the best parts of train travel, and while Amtrak cuisine can’t quite match up to the glory days of the Super Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, it’s still pretty good.

When you get up in the morning, the porter will bring you complimentary coffee or juice.  You can also reserve a time to go downstairs and take a shower.

Try doing that on a 737…

The last time I traveled first class, I took Amtrak from Ft. Worth to Cincinnati, via Chicago.  We left Cowtown early afternoon on the “Texas Eagle,” stopped in Dallas for a few minutes, then continued on from there.  I had supper in the diner – a really good steak, as I recall – then hung out in the lounge car and read as the night fell over East Texas.  I went back to my compartment and went to bed, “rocking to the gentle beat.”

I woke up briefly as we went through Little Rock, and then it was dawn and we were in St. Louis.  My good friend Mike Kloog lives there, and he came to the station.  I went in and he and I had a nice visit as the train was being serviced.  I climbed back aboard, and had breakfast as we went by the St. Louis Arch and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois.  Later, I had lunch near Joliet, then we were in Chicago, where I caught Amtrak’s “Cardinal” to Cincinnati.  All in all, a wonderful trip.

Let’s consider some negatives:

  • Yes, the schedules are not always convenient, and you sometimes have to drive an hour or two to catch the train.  But then, I’ve often driven to Dallas or Lubbock to catch a flight, so that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
  • Yes, it takes longer to get there than flying.  Sometimes when you travel, speed is necessary.  But not always.  When you have the time, you should consider the train.
  • Yes, it can be a bit pricey if you get a private room.  But that balances out when you consider the cost of gasoline, meals and motel rooms for driving across country.  And you don’t arrive feeling beaten up and strung out from the road.
  • Yes, sometimes the trains run late.  But then, so does every other form of public transportation.  And outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks, so it has to juggle schedules around the freight railroads whose tracks it leases.

All that said, I still think it’s well worth it to take the train.  No security hassles getting on, and no TSA agents copping a feel.  No extra charge to bring along a suitcase.  No cramped seats, or not being allowed to go use the restroom while the train circles the station.  Scenery that you can actually see, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of this great country of ours.  Food that you’d actually pay money to eat.  And wonderful people to meet, with whom you can visit and share the ride.

Whenever I talk to people about long distance train trips, I often hear, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”  Maybe it’s time to take a page from Nike’s book, and just do it.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  And you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the ride.