Brian and I have just returned from leading our 10th tour of Israel, and we both say it was the best yet. You’d think it would be boring by now, seeing the same old things time after time. How could it be the best yet? I’ve been asked this more than once the past few days, and have actually thought a lot about how to answer.
Perhaps it’s in our philosophical approach to life—refusing to live the jaded, cynical life so many in our culture have fallen prey to, (been there, done that) but instead delighting to live in the freshness of experiencing everything we possibly can to its fullness. Israel is not a tourist destination to us, so that we can mark individual sites off a checklist, but a pilgrimage, a spiritual encounter, a fulfillment of the longing to understand the world we live in, and to comprehend some of the mysteries of the Kingdom that God created to restore all things back to their original goodness.
We have been to Israel so many times now that we’re beginning to understand a tiny bit of the complexities of living in the Middle East. We have good friends among the Jewish people. I started and finished two books during this trip, primarily in airports and on airplanes, both about the Holocaust, a subject that I have read extensively about, and will continue to do so. It is impossible for me to fathom how this horrendous event has shaped the collective consciousness of the Jewish people. Much of the intense passion to once again have a land of their own, and to keep that land, was forged in the fires of the ovens of Auschwitz. It is impossible for me to know what it’s like to know that, in modern times, there have been and still are people who diabolically want to destroy you and your family simply because of your ethnicity. One morning, having breakfast in our hotel, I watched a young family at another table—a beautiful young woman, her husband, and four little children. The boy was perhaps eight years old, and had three lively little sisters, all with beautiful long dark hair. They were Jewish. I watched them and felt tears well up in my eyes when I realized there were many young families just like them who perished in European death camps 65 years ago.
And I’ve become more aware in the last couple of years of the sad plight of Arab Christians living in the Middle East. Many people think that all Arabs are Muslim, which is absolutely not true. There has always been a historic Arab church in the Middle East—predominantly Orthodox—Greeks, Syrians, Armenian, and Coptic Egyptians. The nation of Lebanon has always had a majority population of Christians—more people identifying themselves as Christian than Muslim or Jew. Always, that is, until the last decade or so, when increasingly hostile persecution has forced them to flee the land in huge numbers.
On this trip, we met many Arab Christians and interacted with them. We met a couple who pastor a church in Northern Israel, near the Lebanese border, whose church is comprised of Lebanese refugees. We met pastors from Bethlehem, where the previously majority Christian population has also been driven away. Previously the Muslims and Christians there lived together peaceably, but no longer. We met and talked to Christian business people, some selling souvenirs to tourists, and one man who had just opened a coffee shop—the best coffee we had in Israel! We met a Christian family in another Palestinean controlled city whose previously prosperous business has suffered incredibly, simply because they are Christians. These Arab Christians desperately need the help of their brothers and sisters around the world. They need encouragement, love, and support. We would very much like to return to Israel soon, not leading a tour, but instead a trip spent ministering to Arab Christians.
And, of course, we were very aware of the heart-breaking events going on in Gaza. Jewish Israelis expressed sadness about the war—but still say it had to be done. When we were in Israel in 2006, we visited Gaza, something very few Americans can say they’ve done! We had to send photocopies of our passports two weeks ahead of time to get government clearance, and even then, knew we could be turned away when we tried to go in. It is against the law for Israeli citizens to visit Gaza, and it is impossible for most of the inhabitants of Gaza to ever leave. It IS a prison, a maximum security prison, and entering into Gaza is no less daunting than entering a maximum security prison in America.
While we were there, we met and had lunch with a Muslim man who we love and pray for frequently. He is a highly educated professional, who is no longer working in the field he was trained in, but instead has started an NGO dedicated to teaching peace to the Muslim people. He loves peace, and he is a seeker of truth, but has only seen in his life a fleeting glimpse of Christianity. Our prayer is that he will come to find Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Since the war in Gaza began, his Christian friends in Israel have had minimal contact, and the last time they spoke with him, he was hiding in his house with his wife and four children. They were very afraid. Since then, cell phones have been disabled, as well as internet. We know nothing about their well-being, and I am continuing to pray for this dear family.
When we were in Gaza in 2006, more than anything, it was a sense of hopelessness that prevailed. Families living there had no hope for a better life, struggling with massive unemployment, the most crowded living conditions on Earth, and constant fear of violence. Their captivity and separation from the rest of the world breeds further unrest and violence, just like the prisons of our country. The plight of the Palestinians is as sad a situation as I know. And the only answer for them is the Kingdom of God coming to Earth in a greater way.
And so, on this trip to Israel, I felt a kinship, a brotherhood, with the people of that land—the Jews, the Arab Christians, and the Palestineans. I love and pray for them all. And I see, more clearly than ever, that the only hope for the Middle East is the Kingdom of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ.
I’m going to try to get some pictures up from our trip…..bear with me!