There is an expression, “third times a charm” but for me I needed to double that number. On my sixth attempt visiting Jerusalem I was finally able to spend time there without an injury or an illness. My previous five visits all ended prematurely and with convalescence required. For my first visit, I got a case of food poisoning and spent several days in bed and on the toilet, and lost fifteen pounds. My second visit gave me a mild concussion when I hit the crown of my head up into a steel doorjamb accidentally, while exiting a low doorway onto the rooftop of the Petra Hotel in the Old City; this also required several days’ bedrest and nausea. On my third attempt, I missed one of the bottom steps of an outdoor staircase while watching a cat, and twisted my ankle badly, probably breaking it, since I still have daily pain or discomfort even now, almost twelve years later. My fourth go at Jerusalem was another head injury, and my fifth effort garnered influenza. But my sixth time was the charm; I managed to enter and exit the city limits, and enjoy my entire stay there, without a single mishap.
I don’t believe this is normal; so have no fear in traveling to Jerusalem if that is in your future plans. I should think it is very unlikely you will meet with the same string of misfortunes as I did. However, despite these misfortunes, all of my visits to the holy city also yielded rewards and joys. My food poisoning trip was while serving with Hands of Mercy, helping victims of terrorist attacks and their families. Ye’shi, the director, worked almost singlehandedly to provide enormous support both materially and emotionally for folks that had suffered through these traumas. Nearly every penny that was donated went to help these victims, to the degree that Ye’shi himself made his home in a donated office, and slept in a sleeping bag under the stairwell, so as to save more money to give to those who needed it.
The Petra Hotel is located just inside the Jaffa Gate, across from the Tower of David and provides cheap accommodation to a very eclectic, international clientele. For even cheaper rates you can sleep on the roof, on mattresses scattered about under the stars. One night we ended up on the roof searching for a couple mattresses for the night. Most were already taken, but we managed to find two available on our second pass around the roof, and we bunked down for the night. In the morning, I awoke to see the sun peeking over the Mt. of Olives, and casting its warm, golden glow onto the ancient stone blocks of David’s Tower, just across the road. It was a gloriously peaceful and beautiful way to start the day, in this most beautiful, and glorious of cities.
Later that day I must have eaten something not so peaceful, and I ended the day with a less glorious view of the inside of a toilet. Eventually, I was evacuated from the city and returned to the shelter in Jaffa, but not before I had evacuated every square inch of my stomach and bowels, including, it seemed, things I must have eaten years earlier.
Depleted but not beaten, I recovered my strength in Jaffa, and enjoyed continuing to serve the men and women of the shelters, as well as the homeless population of Tel Aviv with our soup kitchen, which we set up on the beach every Saturday afternoon. Tanya, who had started this ministry, and was dedicating her life to serving her fellow Israelis, had begun with this soup kitchen years earlier. At the time, she just made sandwiches using her own money and handed them out to anyone who needed one, but in time the ministry grew, feeding more and more people, and then finally including the shelters as well.
The team of volunteers at Holy Land Ministries: Tanya, the founder, Michel, the pastor and his wife Ingrid, and including so many other dedicated and loving individuals from around the world, became family—encouraging each other, arguing at times, misunderstanding at other times, but for the most part caring for one another and working together to serve. To serve together with others was one of the great joys in my life and to do it in such a place as Israel, in the geographic heart and soul of my faith, was a true blessing. Before leaving to return to the US I made tentative plans to return to Israel again, perhaps several times, and to do so for longer than just three months if possible. Upon leaving Holy Land Ministries I rented a car and traveled to several locations I hadn’t spent much time yet: at the Dead Sea and in particular Masada, and again up in the Galilee region, and also in the Golan Heights overlooking Syria.
My understanding of religion, based on my experiences in various churches up to this point in my life, had been that church is the place one goes for good teaching (hopefully) about Christ and the gospel, but if I wanted an actual experience of God then I needed to look someplace else, either in my own personal prayer life, or out in nature. Actual experience of God, genuine relationship with Christ, I had never really experienced in a church, and I don’t mean a good feeling, or an emotional event, because church did seem pretty good at manipulating emotions. What I hadn’t found there though, was the depth of experience that the scriptures allude to in the verse, “be still and know that I am God”. It would be quite a few years before I found the Orthodox Church in which this door was finally opened to me.
In the meantime, I sought out quiet places in nature to pray and develop relationship with God as best I could. The Negev desert was an excellent environment for this, as was the Dead Sea, and on the Masada mesa; but the place that I found the greatest and deepest peace in my entire time in Israel was in the gardens overlooking the Sea of Galilee on the grounds of the Church of the Beatitudes. As I sat here and read my Bible, my whole being was gradually washed over by an overwhelming and total wave of peace; and this was not just a small wave, but was one of great size and duration.
I didn’t consider it at the time, but as I looked back on that experience several years later, I felt as though I was being shown a foretaste of the spiritual life to come, the one that is available even in this life through the fullness of church life offered by Orthodox Christianity. And the particular location this experience occurred was significant to me because it was both in a garden, which was my natural place to seek relationship with God, and also on the grounds of a church, which is the place the body of Christ meets together to foster relationship with God. Though I didn’t really understand this corporate aspect of our faith at the time, or see a great deal of spiritual value in church participation, I think this was an opening for me, and a glimpse of what was to come in my future. I felt as though God was meeting me where I was, literally and figuratively alone in a garden, and at the same time showing me a glimpse of what additionally could be added to the spiritual life I was then living, this being a fuller and richer spiritual life supported and fulfilled in communion with other believers, and enriched by the wisdom and tradition of the eternal church.
(to be continued)