Paths (Part 43: Israel-The Wild, Wild East)

Divorce from V was the first of two great emotional blows that shook me to my core and drove me into the arms of God. The second was the death of my mother years later. I have never been one to successfully endure chronic pain however, I do pretty well with acute pain. If given a choice I would usually choose an intense and sharp pain which is shortly over, to something long and drawn out, though at a lower magnitude. Because of this I intuitively knew I didn’t want to seek diversions to distract me from the utter pain and sorrow I was feeling in losing V. I didn’t want to hide from this sorrow, or avoid it by entertaining myself, or eating myself into an emotional stupor; nor did I want to find excuses to avoid the utter failure I felt. I didn’t want the healing to be drawn out because I failed to put ointment on my wounds, or neglected to go to the true healer of my soul.

I closed the door to my house, literally and figuratively after V moved out and I cried and prayed, and didn’t allow myself any deceptive or false outlet for my grief, but sought out the only One who I believed could truly heal me, my Lord Jesus Christ. Eventually I did seek some outlet: went to a few movies, watched the world cup, and found some measure of distraction because I couldn’t endure day after day in prayer and grief. But for the most part I endured, prayed and eventually began to heal from the loss of my wife. I accepted her decision, I accepted my responsibility, I mourned the loss of her, prayed for her future joy and hoped for her happiness, and moved on with my life.

Perhaps too soon I connected with someone online and we went out on a date. When I told her how recently my wife and I had parted and that the divorce wasn’t yet finalized, but would be soon, she became understandably angry with me and ended any further contact. I completely understood, was a little disappointed, but was also grateful to her because on our date she had taken me to a Messianic Jewish service which I really enjoyed. I felt enlivened by the faith I felt there and I loved the connection I felt to the historically early believers, through worshipping with Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, or Yeshua Ha Mashiach as he is known in the Hebrew tongue. It felt very authentic to me and I was deeply drawn by the history, culture and music of the Jewish people. I began to attend this congregation after my divorce.

After the divorce I needed a fresh start, something to give my life a new direction, and I wanted to find something to serve others. The messianic congregation I attended supported several ministries operating in Israel, so I applied to volunteer with two of these: Holy Land Ministries, which ran homeless shelters for men and women in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, and Hands of Mercy which provided material, emotional and spiritual support to victims of terrorist attacks, located in Jerusalem. In September 2004 I flew to Israel for a three month stint serving with these ministries.

The women’s shelter and main office of Holy Land Ministries was located in a four-story building in a busy urban neighborhood not far from the Mediterranean coast; while the men’s shelter was in a different neighborhood several blocks away. I lived with the men in that shelter and walked or rode a bike to the office and women’s shelter to work during the day. Each morning began with a Bible study on the rooftop patio of the women’s shelter. The sunshine and the light breeze off the sea created a relaxed ambiance and studying God’s word together with the other volunteers and residents of the shelter provided a good start to each day.

The Bible studies were led by an immigrant pastor named Michel. He and his wife, Ingrid had moved to Israel many years earlier and fell in love with the country and never left. Well, Ingrid fell in love with the country while Michel mostly tolerated it; but he loved Ingrid so he stayed. He soon became one of my closest friends because of his honesty, empathy and his caring for others; but not only because of these virtues, but also because his faith was so authentic, and he lived his spiritual struggle so openly, not pretending to be a model Christian, nor putting any effort into a façade of any kind. I had known so many Christians who tried so hard to be what they believed they should be and pretended to be what they weren’t, and Michel had no tolerance for that in himself or in others. I found this incredibly refreshing and enjoyable; and on top of that he was very funny and liked to have a good time. He had a complex relationship between worldly life and the spiritual life—he would mostly rather be pursuing the latest fashions in his favorite city, London, or enjoying the pleasures of Singapore, or cultivating rare plants that he had harvested on one of his many adventures to Asia, but he lived year after year in Israel, “in exile in the desert” as he put it. But this was done out of love, love for Ingrid as I mentioned, but also love for those in need whom he met and helped through this ministry. He had a tremendous heart for the downtrodden, the outcast, and those marginalized by society.

I was attracted to Israel and the men in women in the shelters for many reasons. I had already come to a deep appreciation of Jewish culture; the music especially, but also the language and the customs, so living in Israel felt like home in certain ways, though my heritage is Irish and English. Beyond this though I admired the fact that no other people have endured so much hardship and persecution throughout history and yet endured and even thrived against these odds. In a sense, they are the world’s underdog that has come to outperform most of the world. I liked their toughness. The men and women in the shelters also had come from persecution, most from the former Soviet Union, and were beginning their own journeys to overcome, persevere and hopefully thrive. It was difficult in a new country for most of them because either they didn’t have skills or the skills they had couldn’t be used in their new home due to bureaucracy. One of the men in the shelter had been a top surgeon in Moscow, but here he couldn’t find work, ended up homeless, his wife left him and now he was despondent and wasting away on the street hoping to find new meaning for his life. Another lady had been a concert pianist in Belgrade, but couldn’t find a way to make a living here, had suffered panic and anxiety attacks and became destitute. Many of the younger women had been brought into the country illegally or persuaded to come for good jobs, had their passports taken so they were afraid to go to the authorities, and then were trapped and even imprisoned for the sex trade in Tel Aviv. But they had all managed to find their way to our shelters and were trying to find new paths for their lives now, and to make new beginnings. I appreciated their courage and admired their grit.

Israel isn’t a place for wimps. It is a difficult place, the epitome of a melting pot, at the confluence of so many cultures, so many histories, and even at the nexus of continents. The native Israeli is known as a ‘sabra’ which is the Hebrew term for the prickly pear, because they are prickly on the outside, but sweet on the inside. One friend I met in Israel had a different description of people like me, who live in the United States, she said we live on ‘planet easy’. By comparison I had to agree with her.

But Israel is also a place for reverence and holiness. I found closeness to God walking the ancient streets of Jerusalem, treading the paths alongside the Sea of Galilee, hiking amongst the rocky crags and across the arid sands of the Negev desert in the south. At the southernmost tip of Israel is the town of Eilat, where the Negev meets the Red Sea. It is a place of stark natural beauty: barren but colorful mountain ranges, deep gorges, brilliant sunlight shimmering against bright stone, or heavy shadows darkening the depths of tight river valleys, or wadis, submerged far below. The arid wind blew gently in the fall, when I was there, but the sun was still penetrating—baking the earth and scorching the stone. In the shade of a cliff or a small tree, animals took shelter. At En Netafim, a year-round spring just a few kilometers from the Israeli-Egyptian border, a small family of gazelle satisfied their thirst and kept a wary eye on me as I sat nearby.

Everyone in this harsh climate seeks desperately for water, the gazelles at this spring are not alone in this desire. I hadn’t packed enough water with me on my hike, but in a unique and immediate answer to prayer as I was hiking along the silent trail to Uvda, two jeeps suddenly came into view, and when they arrived, they stopped beside me and one of the men inside reached out and handed two liter bottles of water to me, and then they drove off as suddenly as they had appeared. It wasn’t a mirage, but it sure seemed like it, until I opened the first bottle and tasted the genuine and wholly real water inside. And I thanked my God to whom I had just prayed moments before.

The next day I drove along the border between Israel and Egypt. I pulled off the road and got out of the car and walked up to the barbed wire fence which separated the two countries and looked down into the Sinai. It was an isolated place and I thought I was alone until I glanced along the fence to my left, and down the slope I saw an observation tower on the Egyptian side with two guards watching me. I watched them as well for a few moments and then turned to walk back to my car. One of them called out to me so I turned and looked their way again wondering what this was about. He kept yelling to me so I started walking down the hill towards their tower. As I got close enough to see his face, he gestured as if to drink water. I understood and ran up to my car and grabbed a large bottle of water and then walked back down to the tower. When I made it back down the hill he had climbed down from the tower and was waiting for me on the other side of the fence. I handed him the bottle of water through the barbed wire and then we reached through the fence and shook each other’s hand. In very broken English he asked me my religion and when I told him I am a Christian he made a gesture of an open book and then motioned to the sky. He did this several times until I finally gathered he wanted me to pray for rain. I asked him if this is what he meant and it was. So I promised him I would pray for rain for Egypt and for Israel.

When I turned to walk back up the hill I noticed several Israeli border police had pulled in next to my car and they were watching me intently. I was fairly certain I wasn’t supposed to hand things over this border fence, and my actions might have caused some suspicion, but as I returned to my car, none of them said anything to me, they just watched me silently until I started my car and drove away. Farther up the highway I came to a checkpoint where I was stopped and prevented from driving any further. The Israeli guard asked me if I had a gun with me, which I didn’t. He told me without a gun he couldn’t allow me to continue on this road because it was too dangerous. If I had a gun I could continue but without one I would have to turn around. I asked him what specifically was at issue and he explained this highway had lately been a favorite target for terrorist activity coming through the barbed-wire border fence. In several cases they had caught Egyptian border guards helping terrorists through the fence; once through they were hiding alongside the highway and ambushing vehicles and killing the occupants. They didn’t want anyone traveling further if they didn’t have a weapon to defend themselves.

(to be continued)


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