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As soon as he arrived in Israel in January, the Rev. Dan Page was reminded that this was not just a land in the Bible, but sadly one of the world today.
"The date we arrived was the day terrorists drove a truck into all those Israeli soldiers less than a mile from our hotel," said the pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Stow.
"I know about terrorism, but was not prepared for all the military presence," said Page. "But I was never afraid."
Page has been pastor at Cornerstone Community Church, between Stow Road and Route 91, since 2001. He arrived in Israel on Jan. 8 as part of a tour group of 30 people from around the country led by Michael Card, a Christian musician who leads such tours every January. Page said Card chose that month because the Holy Land is less crowded with tourists than in the spring, summer and fall.
"And it's brutal hot in the summer, well over 100 degrees," he said.
To give a fuller perspective, said Page, besides the "Gentile believer" Card, group leaders included a "Jewish believer" named David Jones and a Palestinian tour bus owner and driver named Kamal.
"We got it from all sides," said Page.
Page said that Card is a "scholar" of "the Gospels and the Life of Christ" who shows the lyrics of his songs to "church elders" to ensure accuracy.
"His songs come from the scriptures," said Page. "He's very committed to scriptural integrity in the songs he writes."
The 10-day tour was not just rushing around from site to site, but a kind of immersion experience, with members of the tour given information about the sites beforehand and Card talking to them about the historical, cultural and biblical contexts of the sites.
"His deal is to slow down," said Page. "Instead of presenting the sites as an appetizer, he presents them as a main meal."
Days were arranged around themes connected to the life of Christ, with sites including Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist; the fortress of Masada; Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947; the Temple Mount, Western Wall and Southern Wall Temple Mount; and sites associated with events leading up to the crucifixion, including the Mount of Olives, the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Bible has it Christ went to pray with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre containing what is believed to be the tomb Christ's body was placed in.
And although not an official part of the tour, the groups opted to delay their return by a day for a trip to the still living city of Jericho.
Page said that one of the things that struck him was looking out from a hill overlooking Jerusalem and "seeing how small [Christ's] ministry footprint was."
"That's what blew me away, how small his world was," said Page.
Page said this extended to the Sea of Galilee, the size of which was colorfully characterized by the tour group's oldest member, an 80-year-old man.
"He said, 'Sea of Galilee? Lake Superior could spit and it would be bigger than that,'" said Page.
But Page was certainly not underwhelmed by the experience.
"What makes the Holy Land the Holy Land is where God touched down on Earth 2,000 years ago," said Page.
His feelings are made clear by his use of the word "overwhelming" in describing his feelings during the trip.
Take being in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ was arrested, for example.
"Just to engage in the reality of that was overwhelming," said Page.
Or the trip to Jericho, where the Old Testament says the Israelites brought down the walls with trumpet sounds.
"To be in Jericho, one of the oldest cities on the planet, was pretty overwhelming," said Page.
Or visiting the site believed to have been Calvary, where Christ was crucified, and the tomb.
"To see this is where he died, this is where he was laid was overwhelming," said Page.
Another site that made a special impact on him was the Mount of Beatitude, the hill where it is believed Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
"It was where he called Peter and James to follow him," said Page. "[Peter] became quite the spokesperson for Christ."
And then there was the route along which Christ, after being tortured, is said to have carried his cross to the crucifixion site.
"It was uphill all the way," said Page.
Page acknowledges that the precise location of where many events took place is open to debate.
"There are only a couple of undisputed sites because people weren't putting up markers," said Page, adding that no one disputes, for example, the location of the Jerusalem gate that Jesus entered on a donkey.
"Now that gate is blocked off," he said.
But the generally accepted locations of events in the Bible are chosen based on clues given and in many cases are at least very probably close.
Page said his trip brought a "deeper awareness" that Christ was not really trying to found a new religion, but was "an observant Jew ministering to observant Jews." Page also said that the concerns of those in power, the Romans and King Herod, were not simply about Christ's religious teachings, but were also about the more secular impact of some of those teachings. Herod, in other words, was not pleased to hear Christ referred to as the "King of the Jews."
"It was a combination of political and religious turmoil that he brought to the equation and that's what got him killed," said Page.
Page said he has noticed that since returning from his trip he has experienced a kind of "sensory memory."
"Reading the Bible is just freaky now," he said. "I read about a place and, 'Oh, I was there. It was Tuesday.'"
Page said this may be a symptom of something deeper. He did not need make that trip to believe in God. That belief was firmly planted more than 30 years ago, he said. But it has brought something to it.
"Being over there didn't make God more real, but it does heighten my experience of God," he said, adding, "Being in that land brings a vibrant color to the scriptures."
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