For the past few years, ever since returning from Africa, I have been praying about where the Lord would have me go next. For years, my prayer has been, “Lord, send me to the overlooked places. Send me where others do not want to go. Send me to those who have been forgotten.” I’ve never been very interested in big fancy churches and superstar Christians, but my heart beats wildly for the seemingly empty places on the map. Outer Mongolia. The eastern stretches of Russia. The deserts of Kerio Valley in Kenya. The backwaters. Places behind locked walls. Inaccessible places. Cuba. North Korea. Tibet. And so, perhaps it took a while to see what was right under my nose, so obvious that I missed it.
Obvious, I say, because always I’ve known deep in my heart that I would go here someday. My early interest in Israel began around 2000, when I became fascinated with the original languages of the Bible. I was drawn to Hebrew more than Greek, and I felt that if I could really get the message of the Old Testament from a Jewish mindset, I would understand the New one much better. I delved into all things Judaic, signed up for various Messianic newsletters and sent my questions to various “Ask the Rabbi” websites. I often watched the live camera on the Wailing Wall so that I could join my prayers with those who were standing there. (There were always a few lone men standing before the wall through the watches of the night. God bless them).
In those days, (God forgive me) the only impression that I had of the Palestinian people is that they seemed to be a highly dysfunctional and demonized culture. During this time, the 2nd Intifada was raging, and I wept over every Jewish person who was killed in terrorist attacks. Some of these beautiful victims were so deeply imprinted on my heart that I remember their names and faces to this day. Where could these people go to be safe?! Was there no place on earth for them where they could simply live in peace? I could scarcely talk about it without getting teary-eyed. My friend used to joke with me: “One day you will move to Jerusalem and marry a Rabbi! I hope he lets me pull at his beard!”
I still remember a vivid dream from those days, in which I was dancing up and down the stone streets of the Old City in wild worship. I loved every stone my foot touched upon, for perhaps the feet of my Dearest Dear had also walked over them. I loved every stone in the walls, the very air of the city. My heart felt like it would burst: Yerushalayim!
And another memory: a solemn moment in a church service where I stood as one who promised before God to be a “watchman on the walls of Jerusalem.” As I have begun to prepare for this trip, that memory has resurfaced in my consciousness many times. God remembers….and I am held by the words of my mouth (gratefully so). I was a watchman then, and I remain one to this day as He continues to refine my vision and shows me how to pray for the true peace of Jerusalem.
One night after our little prayer meeting, I wrote in my journal: “The Lord spoke the word “Bethlehem” to me tonight. He said it so tenderly, with such love and depth, that it almost took my breath away, pierced my heart. He said it to me as though it was my name. My identity. He called me Bethlehem: House of Bread, the place of His birthing. Oh, how He loves little Bethlehem! How dear it is to Him! It is only now, all these years later that I look back on that moment with even greater wonder….for Bethlehem is where I am going! The real Bethlehem! And yes, how dear it is to Him! How He still loves that little city.
Looking back on it, it seems strange that during this time I never once sought out any information from Palestinian people. In this part of the world that fascinated me so much, I had a curious lack of interest concerning a major population within it. Because I was content to let others (who were not Palestinian themselves, but seemed to know what they were talking about) frame my understanding of the situation, I thought I knew what was going on. There was no reason to look any deeper. And anyway, who was there to listen to? Anyone who would take up for the Palestinians must have a serious lack of understanding and was probably anti-Semitic. Why would I want to listen to a biased person like that? The Jews had enough troubles as it was and they needed my support.
It was a few years later that I came across a book called “Blood Brothers” by Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian. (If you have not read this book, I heartily recommend it. You can get a used copy on Amazon for only a few dollars—an investment that can possibly change your life in a very good way). Until this time, I was aware that there were ancient Christian churches and monastaries in the Holy Land, but I never actually put the pieces together in my mind. It simply never dawned on me that these Christians were Palestinians, and that they also had an ancient history in the land. To tell it bluntly, I was shocked by the simple story that Brother Chacour relayed. It was a history I had never heard. With surprisingly little bitterness and a lot of grace, he shared about the injustices that his family and village and so many others experienced. I hadn’t known there had been whole Christian villages amongst the Palestinians, that Jew and Muslim and Christian had lived together there more or less peacefully for over a thousand years, and that their roots went deep into the land. I had not known that many of these natives of the land had welcomed the European Jews graciously and how some had been murdered and how hundreds of thousands of them lost their beloved homes and villages and farmland and dignity and way of life. I had no idea about the daily difficulties and humiliations that that they had experienced and continued to experience in their homeland. Nor had I considered that these Palestinian Christians had encountered racism from their Christian brothers and sisters in the West, when they were sometimes rejected or made to feel less welcomed and loved, simply because they were not Jewish….because they were apparently born in the wrong time and place with the wrong racial lineage.
I was well-acquainted with Jewish suffering, holding a deep wail of grief for them inside my heart. It had been there since I was a child. But I had never acquainted myself with Palestinian suffering, or Palestinian strength of spirit, or Palestinian grace or wisdom, or beauty, or kindness. I had seen the heart of Jesus for the Jewish people. But I had never seen Him, or heard His Voice for the Palestinian people—until now. And I repented, so to speak, in dust and ashes.
Saul, Saul, why do you hate Me?
Who are You, Lord?
I am Jesus in your Palestinian brothers and sisters. I am suffering in the midst of them. And a great part of their suffering is your blindness and indifference towards them. Even more than the suffering of their daily lives, they are wounded by the indifference of the Church, their own family.
Ah, but it is not just their wound. It is ours too, for when one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. We suffer, even if we cannot identify the source of the suffering, even if we are not aware of where our weakness is coming from. We know there is sickness in the Body, but we are blind to all of the causes. Like ignorant doctors from the Dark Ages, we bleed the Body, thinking that if we remove the “bad blood” perhaps we will be healed–and we do it in an unsanitary environment that is not purified by faith, hope and love. I’m convinced that one cause of our illness is simply this: we’ve held back our heart from a portion of the Body that is in deep pain. We’ve not washed our own wounds. And we ALL are the worse-off for it. And the Lord is weeping. I hear it.
Who will love the Palestinians—really love them? This is a valid question that needs to be asked. I believe it is one of the challenges of God to the global Church today. Will you not love your own brothers and sisters? Will you re-discover that God’s justice is without partiality and that He hates a false balance? Will you not “pick a side”—but will you allow your heart to be enlarged to love both peoples? If you cannot imagine your heart being enlarged in that way, will you ask Him to work a miracle within you? He will do it—and with great joy!
Of course, I have made an appeal—deliberately speaking of Christians to an audience of (presumably) mostly Christians. We all know that most Palestinians are Muslim, and this is where the whole thing becomes an issue for many people. “We can love another Christian,” they say,” but we cannot love a Muslim.” And to that, all I can ask is who is the Jesus that you know? Have we allowed perfect fear to cast out love? Because the One I know “so loved the world….that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We may acknowledge that truth “on paper” but do we know it in our heart? Do we feel the truth of it in our heart, how much He loves the Muslim people? And if we don’t feel the truth of it, why not?
The Palestinan people are not going to magically disappear off the face of the earth, (though a huge percentage of them have already left and live as refugees and expats throughout the Middle East and around the world). Nevertheless, many remain in the Holy Land by God’s own design– to teach us a lesson, I am convinced (among other reasons). There is something powerful in the heart of this struggle that God will give to us (and now I speak primarily to the American church), if we are willing to stop and listen to His heartbeat. And it will come to us from the people we least expected it from. God has a habit of using the “weak and foolish things” to shame the wise, and I can’t help but feel strongly that He has laid up a massive blessing for ALL of us (Israelis included) in the wisdom and grace that He has formed in His suffering Palestinian church.
In their story, I can’t help but hear a strange echo of some of the ways the Jews themselves have suffered and in some places continue to suffer. (I hope that statement does not offend anyone and I say it in the highest acknowledgment for what our Jewish brothers and sisters have endured in many different contexts throughout their history). Yet at center lie these questions: Why are we so dehumanized? Where are our protectors? Doesn’t the world see what is happening? Don’t they care?
These of course, are all the questions familiar to those whose identity has been formed in a context of oppression and pain, rather than power and privilege.
It is easy to simply point the finger at Israel, or Hamas, or the surrounding Arab nations, or Islam, or fundamentalists of every stripe, or some idea of Bible prophecy….and to be sure there is blame to go around in all parties. I am not here to assign blame to anyone. God alone sees the full picture of what is going on and He will bring every hidden thing to light. But I want to talk to Christians, since you are my closest community. I want us to prayerfully look at any part of the blame that may fall on our shoulders for not being willing to look at this situation beyond what we may see “on the surface” and especially for any hard heartedness we may have either towards the Palestinian people or the Jewish people. What might we unwittingly be empowering that is actually contrary to the heart of God? What might we be agreeing with that gives free reign for evil spirits to have their day? What monsters might we be feeding? These are questions I am still asking Him, as I open my heart for Him to search it out.
The Melchisidek Ministry
I’ve always loved the fact that the Levitical High Priest of ancient Israel wore a breastplate embellished with 12 stones, one for each tribe of Israel. Every day, as he performed his duties, he carried an awareness that he was representing God to the people, and the people to God, carrying them all equally over his heart. Part of the message was to remind him that as a priest, he served every tribe without partiality.
As the book of Hebrews so eloquently teaches, there is a change of priesthood in the new covenant; from Levitical to Melchisidek. Jesus Christ is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisidek” and has called us to be a kingdom of priests after His order, partaking in His ministry, “not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life” (Hebrews 7:16). Whereas Levi served in a limited priestly capacity for the nation of Israel, by the repeated shedding of the blood of bulls and goats, Melchisidek serves in an unlimited priestly for the whole world, by the once and for all shed blood of the Lamb. It is to this priestly ministry that we are called–and upon our spiritual breastplate are set the “stones” of every tongue and tribe and nation. We are to carry them all over our heart, without prejudice or partiality, as a debtor to all humanity for the sake of Christ….not primarily to look down our noses at them for their transgressions, but to undergird them, to intercede for them, to lay down our lives for them. If we truly are functioning in our calling, as a “nation of kings and priests” there is no room for any view that would hinder, limit, or distort the wide scope of this ministry, including prideful nationalistic, ethnic, or religious mindsets. For the true priestly ministry “…can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also touched by weakness” (Hebrews 5:2).
Here is where the ethics of the Bible, those things that are repeatedly laid out in both testaments, come into play. No matter who we are or where we are coming from, some things are universal: mercy, justice, caring for the weak and oppressed. These values of God’s heart can never be trumped by an interpretation of prophecy. In fact, all prophecy is essentially for the purpose of these qualities (Christ) to be formed in our hearts. All prophecy related to the fulfillment of Israel (and every other nation) are held in a setting of justice and mercy. It’s all throughout the Bible: the idea that God’s people should receive special privileges to oppress without consequence, or even to be indifferent to oppression is offensive to Him. Quite the opposite—if one claims any special privileges or “in” because of their calling, it is to a greater responsibility and expression of righteousness. Because of this, judgment begins with “God’s House” before it begins in the world. We are held to a higher standard. Yet, we can find numerous examples in ancient Israel and in the history of the church where this principle was flouted, where privilege was assumed and abused, to the shame of God’s people. “And for this reason, His Name is blasphemed among the nations.”
Ask a young boy who was sexually molested by a Catholic priest abusing his position, whether he wants to go anywhere near a church. Ask the native peoples of the Americas who were cheated and murdered by those who named the name of Christ if they are interested in Christianity. Ask the Jews whose enormous suffering in Christian Europe is deeply engrained in their soul if they are interested in hearing more about this Yeshua HaMashiach. Ask the Palestinian Christians if they want to listen to a “gospel” that makes them second class citizens, that justifies and enforces their suffering, that builds up the middle wall of partition and declares to them that they are still “called Gentiles in the flesh, the uncircumcision, without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:11-12). Because, that is exactly what they are “hearing” from much of the church in the West. And in that context, how is the gospel ever to be rightly presented to a Palestinian Muslim?
I know that some may be protesting in their heart against what I just said. I understand. And certainly, there are many grand theological issues to consider here, far beyond the scope of this blog post and my current understanding. If I could sum up my main point from everything I have said thus far, it is primarily this: Whatever you believe about the nation of Israel, please also be willing to look afresh with an open heart and mind at the plight of the Palestinians too. The expression of our love towards those who live in Israel/Palestine does not have to be either/or, but “both and more.”
It is my conviction that the flow of His purpose in the Church is log-jammed around this issue and the only thing that will release the Spirit of healing over this situation is enlargement of heart and compassion for all involved. Then we will see the great move of the Holy Spirit that we have all longed and prayed for. And until then, we will all keep circling around the mountain while the noose of destruction tightens around all of our necks.
As I said earlier, I can’t help but believe that this entire situation is a divine “set up” from God to teach us all some very important lessons. He is bringing us to a crisis point. But these lessons and the wisdom gained from them will certainly come only to the humble and will no doubt offend our pride and pre-conceived notions (grace, grace, Lord!!). But if the struggle here has been great, how exceedingly lovely will be the restoration of this place! Shall there not be a procession of the nations, holding hands, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, loving its King with oneness of heart and mind, loving each other as themselves?
For as Paul says in Romans 11, “If their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
Bethlehem Bible College
And this brings me to why I originally sat down to begin this blog post: to try to explain to my friends why I am going to the West Bank to serve with a Palestinian Christian ministry, Bethlehem Bible College.
In brief, it began with Gaza in the summer of 2014, when, by the Spirit, I experienced a deep sense of identification with the people who lived there. I felt a depth of agony for their suffering that was…unusual. In my heart, I could feel bombs raining down upon me. I could feel the abject hopelessness and choking despair of the Gazans more than I had ever felt the pain of any war situation in my life.
What He did in my heart over the next few months is too much to explain here, but suffice it to say that this issue came to the forefront of my thinking and has remained there ever since that time. I spent much of my free time seeking greater understanding for Israel/Palestine, seeking the thoughts of His heart.
Months passed and the day came when found myself staring at the volunteer application form of Bethlehem Bible College’s website. Really, Lord? Shall I do this? To seriously consider this thought made my heart pound. I downloaded the form and began to fill it out, but almost immediately I had to stop because I was so overcome with emotion and the presence of God. As confirmation to my inner man, I felt Him drop two mantles upon me (within me) and I felt them as blazing light and joy. The first was love—the stirring of deep love for both Jewish and Palestinian people. The fear that somehow I would be forced to take sides, or that my heart would grow cold for one group, or that I would accidentally work against His purpose, or that I would only become one more polarizing force in a polarized region was dissolved—and in its place was the simple knowledge that if I would keep myself in the love of God, He would keep my heart warm and alive for both peoples. I knew in that moment that if it would serve His purposes in any way, I would gladly lay down my life for either or both of them— and it would be an honor.
The second “mantle” felt exquisite: Humility. As He wrapped me up in this, I felt myself shrinking until I was aware that I was no larger than a speck on the floor. And this smallness felt wonderful! My mind was refreshed by the truth that “smallness” is actually the place of limitlessness, whereas “bigness” is limiting and awkward. I knew that he was sending me there, not so I could impress upon the region my preconceived ideas born of my privileged American background and theology, but to learn from two peoples who have born and continue to bear deep suffering within their cultures. In this, He has promised to teach me more of His heart and ways. I don’t know what all He has in store, but it is my desire to simply be a tool in His Hand for whatever He would like to accomplish with me.
I was drawn to BBC because of the heart I perceive within the people of this institution to stand for the testimony and purpose of Christ with love and humility. From this particular furnace of affliction, this refining pot, I am convinced that some of God’s most beautiful saints are being formed….Just as they are formed in every situation of suffering, where forgiveness and grace are worked into the fiber of our hearts and thoughts.
There is great beauty blooming, and more yet shall bloom in the Holy Land. That is when the true meaning of the phrase, “the desert shall bloom as a rose,” shall come into view–
–and whole earth shall be filled and refreshed with the sweet fragrance.
On a practical level, I will be helping BBC with all things related to English, such as the English portion of their website, English articles, and teaching English through the college. I will also have opportunity for a variety of other ministry opportunities in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. My purpose in a nutshell is this: to encourage my Christian brothers and sisters, to show the light of His love to the Muslim and Jewish people and to learn the lessons He has prepared for me.
In closing, I’ve been quite transparent in this writing, and if I err in anything I have said may God forgive me and adjust my thinking. I am helpless (as we all are) apart from His wisdom and understanding to break through my own preconceived notions or any distorted vision that I may have. I trust Him to continue to shed light in these matters. All I can do is cast all my hope upon Him, not only for myself, but all of us–that He would lead us into all truth and bring forth within His people the fullness of the pure expression and manifestation of Christ.
So be it, dear Father. I thank You even now for the great wisdom and kindness that resides in Your heart and Your desire for all nations; Your own dear Jewish people and Your own dear Palestinian people– and all others peoples. I thank You that You hold every answer, that You Yourself are the only true solution to this bleeding wound in the heart of the world. Unite and bring together all whom You have called to work as healers, reconcilers and peacemakers in this situation. Let Your grace and wisdom and anointing rest upon each of them. In the Precious Name of Jesus, Yeshua, Isa….do I ask these things….with gratitude because I know Your answer is above and beyond all we can ask or imagine.
If any would like to financially sow into this endeavor, I would be very grateful, as I am walking away from my “regular job” to take this step of faith.
I’ve created a crowdfunding site where folks can give towards this endeavor if they would like to: Blessing Bethlehem: All prayer, thoughts of goodwill, and support are greatly appreciated. God bless you, beloved ones.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they prosper who love you! May peace be within your walls and prosperity within your palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I will now say, Peace be within you! For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek, inquire for, and require your good” (Psalm 122:6-9).