Mount Arbel Carob Tree Lookout, January 2012

In January 2012 I traveled with 22 adults and students to Israel and Jordan. This trip was a little different than a student trip since we had a wide range of ages (one in high school, two college students, and several older retired adults). I tried to plan the trip with a little less walking (and more frequent bathroom breaks).

Heading to Israel (2012 Version)

Day 1 – Travel and More Travel!

Day 2 – Rainy Days (and Mondays) in Jerusalem

Day 3 – Into the Wilderness

Day 4 – Ibex, Rock Badgers, and Crabs, Oh My!

Day 5 – Crossing the Red Sea

Day 6 – Everything Floats in the Dead Sea

Day 7 – Appealing Caeserea

Day 8 – Following Jesus in Galilee

Day 9 – On The Road to Petra

Day 10 – Hiking in Petra

Day 11 – The Final Day in Jerusalem

Petra, Jordan, Travel

Petra, 2012

Mount Arbel Carob Tree Lookout

In May 2013 I traveled with 15 students and friends to Israel and Jordan.

Thanks to Ben Rolff for this video!

GBC – Israel Tour 2013

Day 1 – We Have Left, On a Jet Plane

Day 2 – Walking around Jerusalem

Day 3 – The Garden Tomb vs. The Holy Sepulchre

Day 4 (Part 1) – Down The Mount of Olives and Up the Kidron

Day 4 (Part 2) – Around the Zion Gate

Day 5 – Heading to Galilee

Day 6 – The Jesus Sites

Day 7 – Crossing into Jordan

Day 8 – Hiking in Petra

Day 9 – Swimming in the Red Sea

Day 10 – The Negev

Day 11 – En Gedi, Qumran, and then Homeward Bound

In May 2015 I traveled with 24 students and friends to Israel and Jordan. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader, without his help it would have been very difficult. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.

Thanks to Aaron Wienss for this video!

Day 1 and 2 – Traveling to Jerusalem

Day 3 – Seven Miles in Jerusalem

Day 4 – Museum Day in Jerusalem

Day 5 – From the East of Jerusalem

Day 6 – Heading to Galilee

Day 7 – The Jesus Sites

Day 8 – Visiting Jordan

Day 9 – Petra

Day 10 – Crossing the Red Sea

Day 11 – Mamshit, Arad and Masada

Day 12 – En Gedi and Qumran

Day 13 – Back Home Again

In May 2017 I traveled with 34 students, parents and friends to Israel and Jordan. This was my eighth trip to Israel and by far my largest group. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader (this was his fourth trip), without his help it would have been impossible to manage a group of this size. The students were remarkable – very attentive and inquisitive and (almost) always on time. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.

Day 1 – Reading Acts is Going to Israel

Day 2 – Arrival as Planned…Almost

Day 3 – Beginning from Jerusalem

Day 4 – A Day at the Museums

Day 5 – From the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron

Day 6 – Caesarea, Bet She’an and The Sea of Galilee

Day 7 – Following Jesus in Galilee

Day 8 – Crossing the Jordan to Visit Jordan

Day 9 – Hiking at Petra

Day 10 – Swimming in the Red Sea

Day 11 – Mamshit, Arad and Masada

Day 12 – Hiking at En-Gedi

Day 13 – Slouching towards Bethlehem

Day 14 – The Long Road Home







Phillips, Susan S. The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 256 pp;, Pb. $17.00  Link to IVP

The Cultivated Life

Susan Phillips begins her book on spiritual disciplines with a description of life as a circus. Most readers will appreciate this metaphor for overly busy lives bombarded with noise from both American culture and American evangelical culture. Rather than leaving the circus entirely and living a monastic, contemplative life, Phillips intends this book to be a series of suggestions for practices which might open our hearts to God in the midst of the circus-like culture in which we find ourselves (29). Some of these are familiar (silence, Sabbath) but others are not the usual spiritual disciplines found in these sorts of books (friendship, listening). She tries to avoid the language of discipline (which “sounds severe,” 136),

Phillips’s metaphor in this book agricultural. If the goal of the Christian life is to bear fruit, then it is necessary to cultivate that fruit. Like real fruit, this takes time and discipline. This is a biblical metaphor; she begins with Hebrews 6:7 and uses Jesus’s metaphor of the vine from John 15, but she resists the temptation to use Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit as a model. For Phillips, spiritual growth is participatory, one must recognize the need for growth and choose to cultivate their spiritual life. Although she does not make this point, it is entirely possible people who are busy serving in their churches or participating in emotionally moving worship services are not actually cultivating their spiritual life or bearing the kinds of fruit described in Scripture. This book is designed to move people from keeping busy to real spiritual life.

The book has five pairs of chapters on particular disciplines. Phillips begins each chapter with Scripture and a personal illustration to introduce the topic which is briefly discussed. Phillips uses other biblical texts and a wide variety of other literary examples to flesh out her point (Karl Rahner to T. S. Eliot to characters from Les Mis). She often concludes with an illustration of the discipline from a cross-cultural perspective.

Her first pair of topics is refreshment and listening. She argues listening (to other, to God) cultivate both virtue and a deeper relationship with God. Similarly, her second pair of topics explore “stopping” and Sabbath. Sometimes slowing down and listening to God is not enough, we need to come to a complete stop and be silent from all activity in order to cultivate a spiritual life. In fact, stopping may require a period of fallowness: just as fields are left fallow for a season in order to be fruitful, so to the Christian ought to take a short time of rest, even a pilgrimage in order to develop a fruit-bearing life. This naturally leads to the idea of Sabbath. Although Phillips does not advocate for a legalistic Sabbath, she sees the value of devoting a day to slow, even silent listening to God.

In her third pair of chapters, Phillips discusses her view of cultivating attention and praying with Scripture. She draws on recent developments in mindfulness as “relief from the circus,” although she is clear spiritual cultivation requires faith-based attention. Rather the typical mindfulness practices common in pop culture (adult coloring books, etc.), Phillips suggests praying Scripture as a method for focusing attention on God and “watering the soul”

Fourth, she uses cultivation of attachment as a foundation for discussing spiritual direction. One must be attached to God if they expect to develop and grow spiritually (once again, coming out of the circus). Once oriented toward the right goal (God), a person is able to be directed through quiet reflection and prayerful attention to Scripture.

Fifth, Phillips has two chapters on friendship. In many books on spiritual discipline these chapters might concern mentors or accountability partners. But Phillips sees these relationships as more intimate friendships between people who spur one another on to cultivation of spiritual disciplines.

The final two chapters of the book concern how to grow spiritual by “enriching the soil.” The goal of cultivation of a spiritual life ought to be some tangible result, just as the cultivation of a tree is some fruit. Christians are, for Phillips, “walking trees” (202) and need to be enriched with things like joy and exaltation. Once again, a typical spiritual growth book may have used Bible study and prayer (along with other classic disciplines).

Each chapter includes a few questions for reflection. These might make good journaling prompts or discussions questions for a small group devoted to studying spiritual disciplines. The chapters are quite brief so that a weekly small group might discuss their way through the book. One possible criticism some will have of this book is the occasional lack of Scriptural warrant for some suggested practices. In some chapters the point is well made, but grounded in experience and contemporary literature rather than New Testament spirituality. For some readers, this might be a refreshing change from the usual sorts of things included in books in the spiritual growth and development category.


NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The last day of our Israel trip began with a 5:00 AM wake-up call in order to catch our 10:00 AM Turkish Airlines flight. We were to land in Chicago at 5:40 PM, losing the eight hours, but of course we were delayed in Istanbul slightly. With favorable winds we arrived by 6:00 PM. Luggage was excruciatingly slow (our group was the last set of bags off the plane) and one girl lost her bag. One of the group headed home from Chicago (bye Kaitlynn). Even though our bus was on time to pick us up at O’Hare, it was nearly 8:00 by the time we finally hit the road. It was nearly midnight before we arrived at GBC, so something like 27 hours of travel.

Since all electronics larger than a cell phone are now banned on flights from Turkey to the US, I needed to buy a book to read on the plane. The Steimatzky bookstore in the Ben Gurion airport has a very nice selection (better than any US airport I have seen). I ended up selecting Tom Bissell’s Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. This book is part travelogue, part “lives of the saints” and part New Testament introduction. I read about half of the book on the plane; even if he is not right on some of the New Testament material he is an excellent writer. Since Bissell is not a religious person he is able to report some of the more legendary aspects of the lives of the apostles more objectively than these sorts of books often do.

Now that I am back in the office, I will edit the previous posts and add some pictures. I plan on moving the posts to the “Israel Trips.” Thanks for following this trip, I heard many positive comments from people who vicariously traveled to Israel and Jordan with the Grace Bible College group.

Maybe you can join me for a Pauline Missions trip in 2018 (students) or 2019 (Alumni), or the Grace Bible College student trip in 2019.


Today is our last full day in Israel, tomorrow we fly out at 10am and arrive back at Grace Bible College around 10pm. The flight times are longer than that since there is a seven hour time difference. 

We left Tamar at 9am, allowing for a little more rest before a long drive to Beit Guvrin, also known as the Bell Caves. There is not much biblical significance to the site. There are some Roman era remains (when the town was called Eleutheropolis), but the real treat is climbing down into the caverns carved by the residents of Maresha. From the top, they do not look like much, there is a narrow entrance into what looks like a basement, but it is actually a large cistern carved from the soft rock. I told the group of thirty five to go on down, and they wondered if we would all fit. I told them it was “bigger on the inside,” and so it was. The series of connected halls could fit many more people than our group! In fact, in the second cave house we walked through there many Israeli families with small children enjoying Shabbat at this national park. 

Walking back down the hill we visited the Sidonian tomb of Apollophanes. The large family tomb is decorated with wild animals and a few mythical beasts, including Cerubus. This three- headed dog guards the underworld, but if you play him a bit of music he just goes to sleep. The paintings have been restored but the tomb remains a fine example of a painted Sidonian tomb. 

After we managed to pry everyone away from the ice cream vendor, my intention was to drop everyone off at the Jaffa Gate for final shopping before heading to our hotel in Tel Aviv. My driver suggested we go instead to Bethlehem and shop there. He was persistent so I spoke to the group and the concensus was to visit Bethlehem and do our final shopping there. The group was extremely tired but this point in the trip and we were really “slouching towards Bethlehem” (and I know that is not quite the way Yeats wrote it, but I am mixing high-brow literature and Harry Potter references here…) 

The original idea was to shop in a very nice shop with great security, then walk up to the old city of Bethlehem and do more touristy shopping. The nice shop had items ranging from inexpensive trinkets to massive olive wood carvings the Vatican might be able to afford, but out of the price range of college students on their last day of a Long tour. Some of the gifts were really embarrassing. One student bought a set of Jesus-icon air fresheners for her boyfriend (I will not use the name so it is a surprise). 

After the nice shop, a guide walked us up into the market area. We had a few overlooks of the shepherd fields and key churches, even if the walk was punctuated with cars squeezing through the narrow streets locals slowing down to look at the tourists. The guide led us too far into the regular shopping district, which is not what we wanted, but ended up being a good cultural visit for the students. This was a busy Palestinian market with all the sounds and smells you might expect. We eventually found the tourist area, and everyone finished out thier gift shopping. We found a sign for Starbucks, which was clearly not legit. The first clue was the 13 year old kid running the shop. I did buy a Starbucks Bethlehem mug with a Palestinian flag on it for my international Starbucks collection. 

We had more than an hour drive to Tel Aviv. The hotel we originally had was overbooked, so we were upgraded to a very nice hotel a few blocks from the Mediterranean. This is the second excellent upgrade on the trip, I am not always so lucky. Maybe tomorrow I can get a bump to first class? 

Probably not.

I will post a final reflection on the trip after I get back home. I plan on editing all the posts (sorry for any errors. iPad typing is not always easy). I will also insert more pictures and eventually videos produced by some of the students.

Our second-to-the-last day in Israel began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few rock badgers on the hike and a group of ibex on the way out of the park. An ibex is a wild goat common in the Negev. 

For the first time that I have been coming to En-Gedi there was a security guard at the final waterfall to make sure hikers do not try to go under the waterfall. One of my students said he warned one person, “rocks fall with the water-do you want to die?” Perhaps there was an incident which forced the park to post the guard. (Not that any of my students ever went into that waterfall…) 

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for Biblical studies. 

Since this was our last day in the desert, we ended with a Dead Sea float. The place I have taken groups in the past is a spa with a small restaurant which allows free swimming. We usually order some pizzas when we arrive and they are ready by the time we are finished in the Dead Sea. The spa has either changed owners or the owner has shifted his business model, because we paid a higher fee for the beach and a buffet. Although the food was good, they played glaringly loud techno music (which I approached less than some of the students) and we amused ourselves at dinner watching several drunken America servicemen drink on the patio. This was disappointing, and I am not sure I will return to this spa in the future. 

We have two people who are sick, and all are tired. Tomorrow we return to the Old City for final shopping and our last night in Tel Aviv. We fly home Sunday morning and return to Grand Rapids later Sunday night. I hope to get a final post finished before we leave and add a few pictures to the previous posts. 

Since we are staying at Tamar we needed to leave at 8 AM to travel north to our three sites for the day. The first, Mamshit, was a Nabatean trading town developed in the first century. Walking up the hill from the park entrance we entered the reconstructed marketplace. It is remarkable how the style of close shops is similar to the Old City in Jerusalem. At one time (and in cooler months) people would come into the park and recreate the experience, but nothing like that was going on today. There are two wealthy Nabatean homes which have been partially reconstructed, but the highlight of the visit are two churches at the top of the hill. The eastern church is perhaps the oldest Israel.

From Mamshit we took a long drive (longer than it should have been, a wrong turn made for a long detour through modern Arad. There are two parts to this hike, a lower city excavated to the Canaanite period and an Israelite upper citadel excavated and restored to the eighth or ninth century. I take my group through the Canaanite section first, but many groups skip it entirely in order to get to the “good stuff” more quickly. I want my group to see the differences and similarities between Canaanite culture and Israelite. One example is the Arad House, a reconstructed Canaanite house. At Tamar there is a partially reconstructed Israelite four-room house. The contrast between the two is one of the indicators of when Israelite culture enters The Negev. 

But the real highlight of Arad is the Citidel. There is a massive Solomonic gate and a number of smaller rooms, but the main thing to see here is a Israelite high place. It is similar to the Solomon’s temple, but much smaller. There is an altar for sacrifice, a holy place and a Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies is a Canaanite standing stone, which may indicate the site allowed for both the worship of the Lord and the local Baal. In 2 Kings 18:4 Hezekiah removed all the high places, perhaps shutting down this particular Temple. Josiah will do the same thing in 2 Kings 23. 

From Arad we drove to Masada, a highlight of any Israel trip. Masada was king Herod’s monumental fortress on the top of a flat mountain some 1500 feet above the Dead Sea. To get to the top we ride a cable car (which claims to hold 80 people, but that cannot refer to 80 Americans!) We spent most of our time on the north end of the mountain, where we had several really good conversations about what “really happened” here and how Josephus knew (or did not know) the speech of Eliazer. Several students walked down the 180 steps to the rooms on the front of the mountain and others walked down the Snake Trail in nearly 100 degree heat. (Snake refers to the shape of the trail not the presence of snakes.) 

I took a group of less adventurous (sane) people over to the synagogue where a rabbi was working on scrolls. Several people talked with him and he wrote Thier names in Hebrew on a little business card (for a small tip, no pressure). This was a very fun encounter and the people who did not come with me missed out. Most people were already gathered at the bottom of the mountain when I took the cable car down (eating most of the ice cream the shop had to offer). We drove to a restaurant and had an early, overpriced dinner near the Dead Sea, the drove back to Tamar.

 One of the advantages of staying here is there is very little to do. In addition, the group blew through all of the data the park has for the internet (so I will have to upload pictures later). So we end up sitting around and talk about what we have seen and done on this trip. Alan the caretaker of Tamar remembered I love Bedouin Chai and bought a box for me, so I brewed a cup and sat around with a few people in the Souk talking about almost everything (seriously, the location of Sodom, what happened at En-Gedi,  Bedouin life, and quite a bit of conspiracy theories, oddly enough). 

Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran and a swim in the Dead Sea. Only two more sleeps in the trip!

Not too much to report today. Every tour has a necessary travel day, in this case we left Petra about 8:30 and drove to the Arava Border crossing to return to Israel. The drive was uneventful, except for a short bathroom break at a new shop with very clean restrooms. The passage through the Jordanian was quick and easy (you pay the money they let you through), but the Israeli side involved a lengthy bag inspection, about 75% of our group had to open their bags and the search was quick thorough. Our 11:00 AM appointment with the bus driver slipped by and it was more than two hours to get everyone through. It might be frustrating but I appreciate the extreme care for safte and security, as well as the generally friendly people digging through our filthy clothes to check out water bottles filled with Sea of Galilee water. 

The only event on the agenda was a swim in the Red Sea at a place called Coral Beach. This is on the national parks pass, so entrance was paid for, but snorkeling gear cost about $10 to rent. About half the group snorkeled, the rest waded into the water in the one or two open swim areas. Several sat in the shade and read a book (my favors option at th beach). Although the day was hot, there was a steady breeze. This made for a very pleasant day at the beach. 

From the beach we drove north to Tamar, an archaeology site set up with campers for overnight stays. It is a very rustic site (especially compared to the fancy hotels we have been staying at), but few tours stay this far in the desert on a real archeological site. The down side is that it was about 115 degrees today. That will drop considerably tomorrow, but we really felt the heat when we arrived at 6:00 pm. Even by nine it was still quite warm.

Tamar has a meeting area (called the Souk) were we gathered to talk about our trip. After a few comments along the lines of “wow, now I know why those Israelites complained so much), we got into an interesting discussion about the cultural differences between Israel and Jordan,  it also Islam (as we experienced it in Jordan) and Christianity in America. I hope to keep is discussion going on the last few nights of the trip.

Tomorrow we will hit a few of the desert sites, Mamshit, Arad, and Masada. Our internet is slow here, so I will add some photographs later. 

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