The first time I went on a pastor’s familiarization tour, Masada was not included. In this pilgrimage I led, Masada was included but a flash flood spoiled our plans. The Israeli tour guide said they will try again the next day. We were all so glad the electric cable car system was restored to working order. I heard so much of the last stand of the Jewish resistance, I wanted to see it myself. The fortress does look formidable and impenetrable and unreachable on the top of a steep and bare hill. The Romans surrounded and besieged them till the resistance force took their own lives. The guide said the Israeli armed forces now pledged their loyalty at the site.
Walking Israel by Martin Fletcher is a good read for those who want to peer into the soul of modern Israel. There are those whose interest in Israel is only in its role as a time clock to the end-times. They are not interested in its people, their identity and their culture. This book can help fill that gap. I picked this book up in one of those 3 for $10 sales in the atrium of some shopping mall in October 2015 and am surprised that I actually finished it by 30th December. I enjoyed reading it. Martin Fletcher, a foreign correspondent for NBC news for 35 years worked in Israel for decades. Good storytelling, reporting and interviews peppers the book and opens up the soul of the ordinary Israeli to the reader. Sometimes the author discloses his charming self and we feel connected and sympathetic towards his viewpoints. I learned a lot reading the book, but here are seven interesting things:
- There are 7.4 million Israelis, and 20% of them are Arabs (book published in 2010). The Arabs’ birth rate is higher than the Jews’, and this was a worry for the politicians. Only the Orthodox Jews’ birth rate matched theirs. The projection was that by 2050 about half of all Jews in Israel will be orthodox.
- Sephardic Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East have now lifted themselves up from the lower rungs of society to having high ranking representatives in politics, army and industry. This highlighted how education, equal opportunities and meritocracy have helped the country.
- The Israelis with Arab descent are pragmatic. They cling to the security, job opportunities, good education and social security. But scratch deeper and they showed sympathy with their Arab neighbours. Furthermore, many bore a latent resentment because the land that was once theirs, had been seized in war by the Jewish Israelis.
- A culture of total defence has been deeply embedded in Israel. Everyone openly expressed support for the armed forces and the need for “national service” and both regulars and reservist know that by the time they reached 50 they would have been mobilized for two major military operations, and would know of friends who have died through war. Nevertheless, lurking in the Israeli psyche was still the desire to escape military service. However, during a war everyone chipped in, including ordinary citizens who would deliver free food and other resources needed by the army.
- The night scene in Tel Aviv was notorious. Living in a country that stepped in and out of wars so often, Israelis do not know if they would will see the light of day. So young people lived life with a vengeance and tasted life to the full. Thus the wild partying in the club scene. Forget about the pious Jew, the typical young male and female Israeli were wild animals in these night spots.
- The early holocaust survivors had no platform to grieve or talk about their suffering because in the early years they were too engaged in nation-building and defending themselves. A lot of pent up pain needed airing, but people were not willing to listen with patience. “Get over the past and move on” was the mantra, but that approach had not helped the victims of the Third Reich.
- The kibbutz almost died because of modernity, economics and a straitjacket refusal to change. Through reforms the modern kibbutz are quite different from the earlier models, with more autonomy given to individual families in finances and other areas.
(Martin Fletcher, Walking Israel, 2010, St Martin’s Press, New York)
I was looking at some old photos of the holy land trip I led in December of 2013. It was unforgettable. It was unexpectedly cold. One of the coldest in the recent history of Israel. It snowed heavily in Jerusalem. And here in Caesarea by the Sea I faced the forebodings of a freeze. I worried that the itinerary would be curtailed.
The news of Israel’s invasion of the state of Palestine has caused many to take the sides of either one.
Most Muslims side the State of Palestine and decry Israel’s invasion of its territory to clear out terrorists. They believe the reckless and senseless killing included civilians who are innocent.
Most Christians support Israel because they find that reports of rocket fire from the forces of Hamas in Gaza are credible. Many others give support to Israel because they are God’s chosen people.
We have to remember that God is God over both peoples – the Israelites and Palestinians. In the Old Testament, God’s righteousness and justice is applied to both the nations that did not believe in Him, as well as the nation of Israel that believed in Yahweh God. Israel was not spared for breaking covenant with God, even though they are God’s chosen people. God knows all things unlike the news media and their biases.
If there is a side to stand with in this crisis, it is God’s side we need to stand with. To stand with Him in pain and sorrow as He sees His creation and His people living in enmity and suffering the consequences on such a devastating scale. We stand with Him in sorrow and intercession for all the losses of both sides and pray for the peace of Jerusalem and of Gaza.
This is the godly posture to have.
There are three levels at which we can experience the Holy Land. One is as a tourist. Second is as a student. Third is as a pilgrim.
The tourist wants to experience new places, food, culture, weather and see new things and get his or her money’s worth throughout the tour. The person does not want to be taken for a “ride”. The person wants everything on the itinerary to be delivered as stated on the brochure. He or she will usually take a lot of photos and will complain or extol the tour depending on what he or she has experienced. He or she will look for opportunities to shop and buy souvenirs at every window of time. The tourist is satisfied when the tour delivers as promised and he or she has experienced many pleasant new sights, food, and places.
The student wants as much information about the places and historical events and biblical background as possible. Thus before the trip the person would have read a book, or watched many YouTube clips on the holy land, or googled some of the places mentioned in the itinerary. The person would stick close to the Israeli guide and ask questions to learn more. On returning he usually continues his or her research on the Bible and internet. The student is satisfied when he or she has learned a lot of new things.
The pilgrim looks forward to the trip as if it was a journey of faith. He or she longs to call to remembrance some of the Bible events and characters associated with various places and respond to them by listening to what the living God of today wants to say to them about their life situation. So during the boat ride at the lake of Galilee he or she is not just snapping shots of the feeding of seagulls, but is also meditating about Jesus sleeping in the boat, or walking on water, or feeling the panic of the disciples as water entered the boat. The pilgrim re-experiences what happened to the disciples. He or she interacts with the resurrected Lord who is in the boat there and then. At the Garden of Gethsemane, the pilgrim brings an issue he or she is struggling with, and prays, Lord not my will, but Yours be done, and wait in silence to experience the response of God to their prayer. Even in meals and conversation with others, or through the meditative talks, or holy communion, or baptism, and renewal of marriage vows the pilgrim is aware of the Lord’s action in his or her heart.The pilgrim is satisfied when he or she has experienced God through the places, and the evocation of past events and characters. It is a now encounter with the God of Israel facilitated through the holy land tour.
We have elements of all three whenever we go to the holy land but it is hoped that more and more it would be the pilgrimage that is more dominant and it is the task of the pastor leading the tour to facilitate this.
This was the first time I led a tour of 47 folks to the holy land to follow the footsteps of Jesus. The first time I went on a familiarization tour with Omega Tours my eyes were a quarter opened. My eyes were opened wider this second visit to Israel, and I heard more and learned more. However, as a pastor/leader, I now feel on hindsight that there were a few places where I could have done more to facilitate this encounter/interaction with God. The next time it will definitely be better.
On Monday I am off to the Love Singapore Pastors Prayer Summit in Malacca. When I return I hope to continue blogging about this incredible trip where we experienced the God of Israel at work in our trip, which was beset by a freak cold storm.