Ruth Everhart is a Presbyterian minister and author of the new book Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land.
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I was a newlywed when I started seminary. Between us, my husband and I worked three part-time jobs. Or was it four? No matter, we were young and in love and ready to take on the world!
As I did that first grand pass through the Bible — Old Testament Overview and New Testament Overview — professors sometimes talked about the importance of the Holy Land itself. They described its physical features, the distances between places, the nature of fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
“Every pastor should go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” one professor said. “And go early in your ministry, to get the benefit for your preaching all those years. Too often pastors go when they retire. That makes no sense!”
Well, to me it did make sense. By my second year of seminary I was pregnant and life was very uncertain. Where would we move in two years when I received my first call? Traveling to the Holy Land was the last thing on my mind. To be truthful, it seemed dangerous, as well as expensive. I was still working as a legal secretary, attending classes, and studying in the corners of the day. Every evening I also spent a great deal of time arranging the pillows to best support my growing belly. We were broker than ever. Travel to the Holy Land? Heck, I would have liked just to travel downtown to the Java Cafe for a spanakopita!
Flash forward fifteen years. I was in my third call and living in suburban Washington DC when I received a random email. A filmmaker was looking for clergy to participate in a documentary about pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As I read that stranger’s words and gazed at the accompanying photo of the shining golden dome that caps Jerusalem’s silhouette, I knew the email was intended for me. Dust and danger notwithstanding.
I said, “Yes Lord.”
I went to the Holy Land with an open heart, a modesty scarf, and two empty notebooks. I didn’t go as a scholar who needed to get all the historic details absolutely correct. I went as a disciple of Jesus who was somewhat weary and beginning to feel like a fraud. I went knowing it was time to finally face the faith questions I’d been ignoring for years, something that’s surprisingly easy to do when you’ve got a church to run and kids to raise.
The pilgrimage was faith-changing. In two weeks, I addressed nearly all of the questions that were on my heart when I set out. But I found, too, that I came away with a whole new set of questions. Better questions. When I returned to my pulpit, my sermons changed.
My congregation responded positively to this new emphasis on the journey of faith, as well as to the sensory details I was now able to bring to the biblical stories. My elders encouraged me to find a broader audience with which to share the story of my faith-changing pilgrimage. And so this book was born.
My hope is that it will inspire others to become Holy Land pilgrims — to discover Jesus anew in the places where he lived and taught — whether that means buying a plane ticket, or simply settling down in a comfy chair to turn pages and journey along with me.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace!