You Can't Afford NOT to Go

I hear it all the time.

Next March, the lovely Robin and I will be taking our fifth trip to the Holy Land, to which some friends and family often react with longing and regret and words such as, "I wish I could afford a trip like that."

But that's not how we have made those trips--even though I am as cheap as they come (my last name is Hostetler, after all).

Robin and I were still in our twenties when we determined that time was a-wasting, and we wanted to see Israel as early as possible in our ministry, because we knew it would enrich our teaching and living for many years to come. So we actually took out a loan to make that first trip, in 1987. Today, I can't even tell you how much it was for or how long it took us to repay it, because neither of those things was important once we had experienced that first life-changing trip. To this day, I consider it the best money I ever borrowed, and the best money I ever spent (slightly beating out the money I've spent on Krispy Kremes and better by far than college tuition).

We also wanted to take our kids with us to Israel, though we couldn't really "afford" it. But we scraped and saved and planned and prepared, and they traveled there with us in 2001. Looking back, I honestly can't imagine having foregone that blessing for any amount of money (and in the company, not only of our children, but--as pictured in the photo above--our niece Elissa and Robin's dad, Dick). In fact, I'm already making plans to take my children again--with their spouses--as well as (in ten years or so) my grandchildren.

That's not to say we haven't postponed trips or rearranged plans for money reasons; we have done so many times. And we take advantage of every possible way to cut expenses and make trips more affordable. For example, since our Holy Land fare always includes breakfast and dinner each day, we've been known to pocket foods from the ample breakfast buffets instead of spending money on lunch while touring; we also buy souvenirs very strategically, and since we remove our phones' SMS cards before leaving the country, we use them as cameras and wireless devices when wifi is free--thus saving on both space and expense).

My point is, we are NOT travel spendthrifts. But we have long prioritized life-changing and mind-expanding experiences over many other expenses, and nothing fits that bill like a trip to the land of the Bible. We plan and prepare far in advance. We register early to take advantage of discounts. We scrimp and save in every possible way. And we share the money-saving tips and techniques we've developed with our fellow travelers.

Really, a trip to the Holy Land is a trip you can't afford NOT to make. And you couldn't travel with better people than us. Okay, than with the lovely Robin, but I come as part of the package.

See the full-color brochure for our trip here, and email me here if you have any questions.

221B Baker Street

Though I have featured my family's 1995 visit to 221B Baker Street in London on this blog before (as one of my "Pinch Me Places"), the above is also one of my favorite travel pictures of all time. I should have affected a more Sherlockian expression, but it was nonetheless amazing to wear a deerstalker cap and "smoke" a calabash pipe in the great detective's sitting room (although the calabash was never mentioned in any of the Conan Doyle stories; it was popularized onstage and onscreen. Holmes's pipes in the stories were a clay, a briar, and a cherrywood pipe).

Will We Be Safe in the Land of the Bible?

Since the lovely Robin and I are planning another trip to the land of the Bible next March (you should come, too; see the full-color brochure here) we are often asked if it's really safe to go there.

I understand people’s qualms about safety in Israel. Having made four trips to Israel in 1987, 2000, 2005, and 2010, Robin and I have an insiders’ perspective that first-time travelers can’t possibly have. Most Americans’ images of Israel and the Mideast are colored by our U.S. newspapers and newscasts; unfortunately, that image is grossly misstated by our news media. The modern state of Israel is not the war zone our news media portray it to be; in fact, in many ways (including statistically), it is far safer than American cities and streets (in fact, we have often been asked by Israelis and Palestinians, when they learn that we are from the U.S., to “tell everyone it is safe,” and (on the other hand) “is it safe to live in America?” You see, their impressions of the U.S. come from TV, just as ours do. They think “Law & Order” and “CSI” and CNN International present a realistic image of the USA, so they think we all carry guns and there are murders on the street every night on American streets. So the mis-portrayals go both ways).

I can say without qualification that I have never felt unsafe at any time in any of my four visits to Israel. In fact, our 1987 trip occurred during the “First Intifada,” or Palestinian uprising, that made American newscasts almost nightly. Yet our ten days in Israel were completely free from concern (once we got over our misunderstanding of the situation).

Here are a few things I've learned over the years that explain why I never worry about traveling in the land of Jesus, the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles:

1. Nobody does security better than Israel. Obviously, we’ve gone through Israeli customs four times, and we’ve seen firsthand the care taken by Israel’s security forces. It can be a little off-putting at first, but they are far more thorough and unapologetic about ensuring travelers’ safety than their American counterparts.

Me and my friend Willa at Caesarea-by-the-Sea
2. We travel with Educational Opportunities, who have never had any traveler compromised or wounded outside of the normal risks of travel (falls, motion sickness, etc.). Our tour company has not only operated tours in Israel for four decades, but they have people (usually retired pastors) on the ground at our destination to greet us, make sure everything goes smoothly, and keep up to date on any wrinkles or warnings that occur day-to-day. In other words, if there is ever any concern or flare-up in our path, these people are there to make sure we go nowhere near danger.

4. One of the unique things about Educational Opportunities is that they typically employ Israeli guides and Palestinian bus drivers. One of the first things you’ll notice is that these folks aren’t enemies; they joke and carry on with each other like old friends. More importantly, having both Israeli and Palestinian on board our bus (which ONLY our groups are allowed to board) means they basically know everybody, Israeli, Christian, Palestinian, you name it, and there is nowhere they aren’t welcomed.

"Zacchaeus's Sycamore" in Jericho, in the West Bank
5. This is true throughout Israeli society; you’ll be surprised at seeing how normal everything is. Israelis and Palestinians do business together, day in and day out, and are not at war with each other. It is (as in the U.S.) only an infinitesimal fraction of people who want to harm someone, and those people have been almost completely isolated since the construction of the controversial (but effective) wall, separating Israeli areas from those under Palestinian control. Even so, everyone--Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, etc.--wants and needs tourists. Their lives depend on tourists coming and spending money. Even in the distorted picture presented on newscasts, you won’t hear of tourists being targeted, because (as you will hear repeatedly when you are there), “we love Americans!” And they love American dollars!

6. Because we are traveling with a tour company, if something should happen to break out while we are there (it never has), they will never let us anywhere near it. While Israel is a small country, imagining that because there is civil war in Syria we would be in danger is a little like thinking that Philadelphia residents were at risk from the Boston bombings.

Our 2010 group walking the traditional Palm Sunday route down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
7. Unlike, say, if you were going to see a Broadway show in NYC, when we are traveling in Israel, we are seldom without our own personal security officers. Our guides and drivers accompany us wherever we go (and every Israeli citizen is a military reservist, by the way). Our Educational Opportunities staff hosts are right there in the hotel with us; they greet us anytime we come or go. And when we venture out on our own, we always check first with our EO staff, who advise us if and when any particular caution is in order. For instance, on our last several trips we’ve wanted to spend as much time in the Old City of Jerusalem as possible, so after dinner on our evenings in Jerusalem (if nothing else was scheduled) we would walk from our hotel to the Damascus Gate (about ten minutes) and then spend an hour or two in the Old City (where our hosts and guides assured us that we would be safe). We’ve walked the whole circuit around the Old City atop the walls. We’ve walked straight across the radius of the Old City to the Kotel (Western Wall), which is a unique sight at night. And, while (as in any similar place around the world) we make sure our wallets are protected from pickpockets, we have never worried about our safety.

As I said earlier, after four previous trips, I can say with complete confidence that, while I have been trepidatious on numerous trips to places in North and South America, Africa, and Europe, I have felt confident, safe, and secure on our trips to Israel.

Big Bob's Flooring Outlet

It's obviously been a few years since I've been this far south on Colerain Avenue in Cincinnati. I had no idea there was a "Big Bob's Flooring Outlet" (or, if you prefer, "Big Bob's Carpets," as the building and sign below the billboard says) there. It is located at 6960 Colerain Avenue.

The Dee Felice Cafe

Tonight for date night, the lovely Robin accompanied me to the Dee Felice Cafe on Main Street in Covington, Kentucky (just across the river from Cincinnati).

The jazz venue and Cajun-cuisine eatery was opened in 1984 by jazz drummer and band leader Dee Felice. 

The place continues to feature "the best live jazz in the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati area" (according to their website). We enjoyed the piano stylings of Mike Darrah (above), from "Still Crazy After All These Years" to "Tenderly."

Robin ordered the filet which was cooked to her liking, and I had the Pasta Francesco (shrimp and artichoke hearts in white wine and lobster butter with linguine). 

Like the old couple we are, we shared dessert, the specialty of the house, a boule-de-neige (chocolate ball covered with a fluffy cream icing). 

After dinner, we still had plenty of time to stroll through the fascinating scenes of Covington's Mainstrasse Village, a unique and entertaining place to walk, eat, and enjoy. 

Why I Can't Stop Going to the Holy Land

Next March (with the lovely Robin and others) I will be taking my fifth trip to Israel. I can't wait.

I honestly look forward to every trip as if it's my first. It's a trip I honestly believe every follower of Jesus should take. And even more so, every pastor--as early as possible in their ministry. My first Holy Land trip was in 1987, when Robin and I borrowed money to make the trip, believing that initial investment would pay rich dividends in our years of ministry to follow--and it did.

But (as I am sometimes asked) why keep going back? What could possibly make it worth repeated visits? Doesn't it get boring? Isn't it same ol' same ol'?

Fair questions. And not all that hard to answer, though there is no way to adequately describe the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural blessing I derive from every visit to the land of Jesus, the apostles, prophets, and patriarchs. But I will try.

1. The sites and sights of the land of the Bible revive me spiritually. Never fails. This is partly due to the way the lovely Robin and I approach our trips, as prayer-and-Scripture pilgrimages.We don't go as tourists, we travel as pilgrims. We pray in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall (and insert tiny folded prayers into the cracks in the wall, like many, many others). We read Scripture aloud in the very places where they were written and the places they describe, such as standing in the city gates of the Old City and reading Psalm 122:2 ("Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem") or stopping at the caves of En Gedi and reading of David sparing Saul's life there (1 Samuel 24). We meditate silently on the Beatitudes at the site of the Sermon on the Mount. We sing and pray while floating on the Sea of Galilee.

2. It energizes and informs my Bible reading and study. Words cannot describe what happens to a person's Bible reading, studying, and preaching once you have sailed the Sea of Galilee, and been baptized in the Jordan. Or taken an early morning journey starting at the Gihon Spring, in the City of David, and traversing the actual tunnel of Hezekiah (dug underneath the Ophel in Jerusalem about 701 B.C.) and ending up at the Pool of Siloam. Or the side trip Robin and I and a half dozen good friends took our last morning in Jerusalem, when we took a cab to the village of Bethany, and walked the Palm Sunday route Jesus took from the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb to the Temple Mount (see photo above). The topography and scenery of that three-mile walk will stay with me forever, and springs to my mind, of course, every time I read of Bethany or Palm Sunday or Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in my Bible. You can hardly take a step in Israel without touching something of Biblical significance. And it lasts long beyond the time in Israel; Robin highlights and dates in her Bible places she's been, so memories constantly inform her reading.

3. I learn something new every single time I go. In fact, after my last journey (the fourth, remember), I listed twenty new things I learned on that trip (see here). I could easily have listed twenty more. Every time. And on our next trip (see the full-color brochure here) we'll be visiting some places I've never seen, such as the Valley of Elah (above, where David triumphed over Goliath), Emmaus, Jacob's Well, the Herodion, and more. And even beyond those new experiences, if the pattern holds true, I'll learn still more at every place we visit.

4. I love the people we travel with. Time after time, we've started and enjoyed and deepened some of our most valued friendships with people we may never have known (or known so well) otherwise by traveling with them through the land of Jesus. And there is a special bond we share forever after, a delightful fellowship of co-pilgrims.

5. I love the people of Israel. Israelis and Palestinians. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and others. I laugh every time someone says, "You from America? I have a cousin in Cleveland!"

6. Beyond the "facts" and details I learn on each trip is a less quantifiable but more valuable kind of learning I derive from each trip. Every time I absorb more of the culture, topography, spirit, and truth of the place. It opens my mind's eye to more and deeper ways of approaching and understanding God, the Bible, Jesus, and myself. It is hard to describe, but anyone who has been there knows--and especially those who have been more than once. It is a place like no other, with application to my life like no other.

These are just six of the reasons I can't stop making trips to Israel. They are much more than informative; they are  transformative. They have made me a better reader, student, preacher and teacher of Scripture--and person. They have been worth many, many times the money I've spent on them. And I gain so much from every trip that I immediately make the next trip a high priority.

Shane's Deli, Wheaton, Illinois

My sweet sister Mariruth drove to Wheaton this morning, all the way from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to spend a couple hours with me (yes, with ME! Is that so hard to believe?).

We headed into the center of Wheaton and ended up at Shane's Deli (formerly The Cock Robin)...mainly because there was a parking slot available in their lot, and all the others on the street appeared taken.

We chose a table outside on this lovely day. Couldn't have asked for better company, and the food was pretty good, too.

Mariruth had a tuna salad sandwich, I think, and I had the grilled Atomic Turkey Panini.

We talked and laughed and caught up in the shade while watching the traffic come and go on this beautiful day. But don't ask to use the restroom.

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The Bone Boxes of Wheaton College

My friend Lin Johnson alerted me to the archaeological display on the fifth floor of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, which contains a couple fine examples of ossuaries, or "bone boxes," from the Second Temple period in Israel.

As the author of the novel, The Bone Box, I have a lively interest in these artifacts, so I made my way to the fifth floor today to see them (and to scout out the location of one of my classrooms for tomorrow's teaching).

They're good ones. And they are just a part of an extensive and absorbing display.

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Richard Owen Roberts Booksellers

I love to visit unique local bookstores when I'm traveling, and I came across a great one yesterday. It is located just around the corner from the Billy Graham Center on the Wheaton College campus.

I walked there in the morning, but the store hours are somewhat limited: 1:30-5:30 p.m. most weekdays. So I came back in the afternoon, and was amply rewarded.

The store is a rich warren of shelves and tables and boxes, stuffed with old and rare (and some new) books. The woman behind the counter made a point to tell me that if I didn't see what I was looking for, the bulk of their inventory is kept behind the scenes.

I loved it. So fun to browse the shelves. I saw an ancient three-volume set of Matthew Henry's commentary:

And a fifty-eight volume set of Dumas's works, above a thirty-two volume Balzac set (below).

And those were just the beginning. Row after row of carefully shelved and alphabetized books. Even one in the "ethics" section by Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler:

I wish now that I had pulled it off the shelf to see what they were asking for it. The prices were not bargain-basement level at all. After looking through all the shelves, I asked the woman for a book for which I've been looking for nearly thirty years, Safed the Sage by William Barton. She looked it up in her computer files, disappeared for a few moments, and then produced the thin paperback volume. It cost me fifteen dollars, but I was glad to get it. Plus, I now have a souvenir (the best kind) of Richard Owen Roberts Booksellers in Wheaton, Illinois.

The Wade Center, Wheaton, IL

If a breakfast companion had not tipped me off this morning, I may have forgotten about The Wade Center on the Wheaton College campus, which I visited this morning. Named for the founder of the ServiceMaster Company, whose generosity established the center, it is the fulfillment of Dr. Clyde S. Kilby's vision. Kilby was a professor of English literature at Wheaton and a correspondent of C. S. Lewis.

The center's current holdings of twelve thousand volumes and more than sixty-five thousand pages of manuscripts and letters relating to the lives and writings of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Owen Barfield began with fifteen letters from C. S. Lewis to Kilby and a handful of Lewis books.

On exhibit today is the desk (above) on which Tolkein wrote, edited, and illustrated The Hobbit (as well as some work on The Lord of the Rings). Under the glass atop the desk is a letter, beautifully calligraphed by Tolkein himself, explaining the provenance of the desk and the use it saw over the years. He wrote the letter on the occasion of his donating the desk to a British charity.

C. S. Lewis's desk (above), which he used at Magdalen College and also at his home, "The Kilns," is also on display, as well as--be still my heart--the actual wardrobe made famous in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It took all my will power not to climb inside in the hope of entering Narnia.

The Wade Center also includes the Kilby Reading room, where I browsed the extensive collection of works by and about "The Seven," the authors to whom the center is devoted.

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Wheaton College

I arrived this afternoon on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, a northwestern suburb of Chicago.

Living and working as I do so close to the beautiful campus of Miami University (of Ohio)--from which also my daughter and many loved ones have graduated--it's hard to impress me. But I am reminded (I've been here before) that Wheaton's campus is a lovely one.

The grounds are well kept and the buildings venerable.

I am here through Saturday for the 2013 Write-to-Publish Conference, one of the best in the world.

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A Chinese Lantern Anniversary Dinner

This evening the lovely Robin and I enjoyed a low-key thirty-sixth anniversary dinner at the Chinese Lantern, a favorite eatery of ours, in Hamilton. She had the (excellent) Happy Family meal and I had the (excellenter) Confucian Chicken. It couldn't have been better, all around--unless it were free.

Even the fortune cookies were dead on. Can you guess which belonged to whom? Not a trick question.

Bahamas Lighthouse

I took the above photo from the balcony of our Norwegian Cruise Lines cabin on a 2007 cruise I took with the lovely Robin to the Bahamas. Taken just as our ship was arriving.