Journey of the heart: Tour through Israel leaves Craig pastor with ‘great hope’
“I was overwhelmed with the great hope of the transformational work of God.”
— Len Browning, lead pastor at The Journey at First Baptist
In the heart of Jerusalem stands a ruin from a distant past.
It may not look like much to the curious tourist. The stones in the ancient wall are worn, and a few weeds sprout in the cracks between them.
But if you know the Bible like Len Browning does, you know the significance of this place.
It’s a reminder of the Jewish temple destroyed nearly two millennia ago. The temple housed the Holy of Holies, which is believed to be the place where God himself dwelled.
Seeing the Wailing Wall touched Len in a way he didn’t expect.
“There was a profound, overwhelming sense of God in that place,” said Len, lead pastor at The Journey at First Baptist in Craig. “It was indescribable. … It was significantly more than I had anticipated.”
He was among 15 other pastors and their wives who embarked on a weeklong sojourn in Israel in early February. The tour was designed to familiarize them with the Holy Land, yet what Len took away from the journey cannot be summarized in any itinerary.
He was more than a tourist. He was a pilgrim, walking amid the ruins where his faith was born.
“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” — Genesis 6:5
Before Len embarked on the tour, he spent a few days in New York City, intending to just poke around like tourists do.
Instead, he found himself confronted with reminders of the worst in human nature.
He saw Ground Zero, a gaping void in the city skyline marking a scene of carnage and loss during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He saw Ellis Island and thought of the cruelty and indifference that made up the darker side of the Americans experience.
He was “overwhelmed with the sense of the depravity of man,” he said. “… It was just an overwhelming sense of what we’re capable of as human beings.”
But this was only half of the story. The next step of his journey would reaffirm for him the need and the basis of his faith.
“But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” — Jonah 1:3
Len’s travels took him to regions of the Holy Land that framed some of the most well known stories in the Old and New Testaments.
As he saw the sights, details of the Bible began to make sense.
He saw En Gedi, where David is believed to have fled from Saul. The story goes that David had the chance to kill Saul here, but he cut off part of Saul’s robe instead as a reminder to the enraged king that his life had been spared.
Len said he understands now why David would chose En Gedi as his hiding place. It’s an oasis in a barren desert, riddled with caves where a man on the lam could find refuge.
Len also meandered through the coastal town of Joppa, the starting point of Jonah’s disastrous sea voyage.
Once, Len wasn’t much different than the wayward prophet. He too had run from God, he said.
He converted to Christianity when he was about 10 years old, but by the time he was a teenager his life was on the fast track to nowhere.
“I was overwhelmed with the state of my life and knew if I didn’t change something I was going to be in prison or in jail or dead,” he said.
When he was 16, his girlfriend Cheryle — now his wife of 35 years— was pregnant with their first child.
The knowledge that he would be responsible for an innocent life forced him to a turning point.
“It was a point of my life where I was either going to live out my faith or continue running away, and I chose to truly commit my life to Christ,” he said.
Shortly afterward, he was baptized. He repeated the symbolic act last month at the banks of the Jordan River.
“I saw it as a baptism in a commitment to what God’s asking me to do,” he said.
In remembering his transformation years ago, Len recalled the words of Timothy Keller, pastor of a New York City church Len visited before departing for Israel.
“‘I realized I was weaker and more sinful than I ever believed,’” he said, “‘and more loved and accepted than I ever dared hoped.’”
“Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea. … And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” — Mark 1:16-17
Evening is falling over the Sea of Galilee.
Here, from a boat suspended on the waters, Len watches the sun slip toward the horizon.
A Messianic Jew — a man from another culture but who shares his faith — is in the boat with him.
Eventually, they begin to sing.
“That was really profound,” Len said.
It’s only one of many moments that stand beyond time in Len’s memory.
He shared communion in the garden tomb area where it is believed Jesus was buried.
He looked down at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus is said to have taken the disciples after the Last Supper.
Something happened to Len between the time he left New York and gave Israel a parting glance.
During his travels, “I was overwhelmed with the great hope of the transformational work of God,” he said.
Len’s journey began in darkness, with reminders of human nature’s worst potential.
But his story didn’t end with bitter resignation or despair. His destination was back there, in the distant past, where even the dead centuries cannot silence a faith that, for Len, is always alive.