Monday, April 14, 2014

Fresh Bread

            Yeshua’s Fresh Bread is the name of an amazing ministry here in Israel. As a person who has been eager to find ways to minister to and serve the Jewish community, which is not always an easy task, my involvement with Yeshua’s Fresh Bread may be one of the sweetest things the Lord has ever done for me. Part of me feels I’m only really going to know the full value of this ministry in my heart some time down the road.

            If you can imagine a couple of dozen elderly people pulling bags on wheels into the industrial area of the city, you’re beginning to get the picture. A group of 30 or so seniors gather on the same day every week and take the elevator to the upper-floor or a warehouse. They wait outside for a little while, and when the doors open, they’re welcomed by a number of smiling faces (speaking all sorts of languages) and find the tables set.

            The director of the ministry has told me many times that we try to give these guests a five-star meal. The ministry is of limited means—the setting is simple and the cutlery is plastic—but we try to serve the guests a three or four course meal. The volunteers serve in any way they are able, from pouring coffee to prayer. It’s an opportunity for anyone to demonstrate the love of Yeshua, Jesus, to some of the most vulnerable people in Israeli society.

            And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

            The guests are mostly seniors, and mostly Russian speaking. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and histories, but for the most part they are Jewish immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union—one of the places where it has been the hardest, historically, to be a Jew.

            Some of them are Holocaust survivors. Some of them are Red Army veterans. But they all have difficulty getting by in Israel, where the cost of living is extremely high and there often is not enough government support even for the Holocaust survivors.

            I’ve learned (and forgotten) a few words of Russian to try and get by, but a smile and the international language of hand gestures is usually enough. Some of the volunteers are Russian speakers themselves, and have been able to form some good relationships with the guests. Though the director of the ministry doesn’t speak Russian, it’s his love for the guests that shines through in terms that cannot be misinterpreted, and he too has built some wonderful relationships with the guests.

            After the meal the guests are able to take home some bread, which is received by the donation of the excess of a local bakery. Sometimes the limit is however much the guests can stuff in their bags, and sometimes is nothing at all. God supplies!

            There is also a number of new and used donated clothing for the guests to search through, and sometimes some other things to give away, like other foodstuffs or quilts or whatnot. The material ministry is important and helps to support people who sincerely need it, but it’s the spirit behind all of this which is the most striking. The volunteers come from all over, and sometimes it’s not clear who will make it to help or if there will be enough help, but God provides. Though sometimes the bread table is bare and other times there’s more than we can put on it, God has blessed the ministry. The conversations are good, and if you can just smile and nod, that is good to.

            Behind all of the outward signs is the inward truth of supernatural love, which is so wonderfully addictive. There is nothing intrinsic to the human heart which impels us to love a stranger. When we are moved to compassion for someone we don’t know, and perhaps can’t even speak with, and delight in their company and just doing the smallest task for them, there is something of the love of the Messiah in us. And the hope and ardent prayer is, always, that that spark of holy love would change lives.

            Associated with this ministry is another ministry across the city in the open market where another group of volunteers (often a very similar group to the soup kitchen!) distributes groceries to many of the same guests. This ministry is much simpler—packing two burgeoning bags of food into bags on wheels for people in need, but is also reaches many more. Hundreds of bags of groceries go through the door on the day it is open, and I’m often working like a madman in the back trying to pack enough of the bags to keep up!

            More than just coming and leaving, the guests are served tea or coffee and offered prayer. Through both of these ministries many people have come to faith. What a beautiful miracle! Many of those from the Soviet Union were raised in an environment of government enforced atheism, so having any faith is new territory. More than that, many Jewish people have had their hearts hardened to the Messiah, but…

            I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26)

            Paul wrote a long time ago. It is so amazing to see his words come alive. Despite all the hard history, the persecution, the atheism, and the false teachings, the Messiah is the victor. Bonhoeffer said that when the Lord asks us to follow, the only response is yes, simply because he is the Lord. Hallelujah!

God, for a fuller harvest!




            I would love to share pictures of these ministries, but unfortunately that isn’t possible, so I hope my descriptions are enough. What I can show you is that I have been up to many other things as well--so I'll try to include some pictures of my adventures until I head home in June!

The remains of Herod the Great's magnificent fortress, Herodian. The hill it is built on wasn't tall enough for him, so he had it built up by slave labour.

The magnificent view from Herodian.

From Emmaus--possibly the same Emmaus which Jesus traveled two with the two disciples.



In the caves under Emmaus! These caves were used by rebels at war with the Romans during the Bar Kokha revolt, 132 AD.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Come!



            It’s been too long since I’ve shared an update. Things have really been a whirlwind for me! Not only has there been adjusting to life in a new country, but I’m also now in the most robust and demanding academic program I’ve ever been involved in. I study and prepare for papers (which people who know me will know is unusual!), I cook something for my roommates to unwind, and I’m exhausted. It hasn’t always been easy to find the energy for these things.

            Nor has it always been easy to have the energy to keep up with everyone at home. I really feel a world apart. It’s difficult as a pastor to leave a congregation and suddenly be so far from everyone’s lives after working so hard to become a part of them. Back in Canada I felt very engaged, and I could count on being able to preach most Sundays. It was not always easy, but I always loved it. Now I’m a student again, and that transition is very difficult.

We take field trips almost every weekend. I took this photo at the Sea of Galilee.

             But here’s the crux: there is so much joy. My greatest joy is that I am finally studying the Bible. I am just falling in love with the scriptures. It’s been an embarrassment in my ministry that I’ve been so biblically illiterate, but that’s the way things are these days. Ministry programs do not teach students to love Jesus or the Bible, and denominations don’t require their pastors to know anything about God’s Word. But it’s there. It’s always there, friends, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. What a blessing, that of all places, God decided to teach about his Word in Israel, with Jewish teachers who love Jesus immensely and at great cost.

            Who am I? I can’t believe God’s love. I’ve been reading mostly the Torah (Moses’ first five books of the Old Testament). What a wonderful story of redemption—with all the grit, hardship, and struggling it takes for a good story. God’s law is so righteous, and people who say otherwise simply don’t understand it. Jesus taught the law, and he is the only one to teach it better than Moses. The Patriarchs had such immense faith! And Moses’ heart, so clearly revealed in Deuteronomy, is plainly an inspiration for me. Moses said:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
The Word is not locked away in heaven. It came for us. Keep it in your heart and cherish it. After such suffering, unfaithfulness, and struggle, Moses is still an encourager, and his heart is still full of God’s love for this wayward and stubborn Israel. The Word is very near to you. You are beloved. You can do it.

            In between all of these things, all the adjusting and inspiration and hard work, I’ve been blessed in another entirely unexpected away. I fell in love with a young woman just before leaving Canada, who has the gentlest and prettiest heart. I can hardly see what God is doing with me here in Israel, but so much of it must be preparation. How has he done so many marvellous things for me at once? I’ve struggled with bitterness for years and years, and I am being besieged by joy. Morning is coming.

            I’ve always wondered if I was to minister alone, and I was at peace with that prospect. My Father has decided otherwise and I can hardly believe it. She is very beautiful.

            Every Saturday morning (Jews celebrate the Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday), I attend a local Messianic congregation. The worship there is just lovely. There is a body of Jewish believers in Jesus from all over the world, many of them Russian speakers, who have a place for me in their community. They let me worship and celebrate with them. They are so in love with scripture—reading scripture isn’t a chore for a Jewish believer, it is the heart of worship. They have been the caretakers of the Word of God for 3 500 years, and they are passionately in love with it. They preach it joyfully, they sing it joyfully, and they read it with awe and trembling.
           
    This is the heart of the church. Richard Wurmbrand wrote:
The task to which those Jews are called who have been converted to belief in Jesus, is to give the world life out of spiritual death. The Scriptures declare that the purpose of saving the Gentiles—who have given what they could—was to make the Jews jealous for their God. The Jews have been called, and specially equipped by God, to give a real inner meaning to the Christian Church. Don't look at the church as she is, but as she will be when the Jews whom she expects will have become Christians, and will give her an unequalled beauty. Then she will be one and burning with love.
Jewish believers are bringing the church such beauty. In a time when the church seems so lacking in conviction and energy in many places, God is raising up his first love to the delight of the world. Life from the dead.

            Today I was at one of the services with the Messianic congregation. I would love to share pictures or names of the people involved there, but they are not welcome by everyone here in Israel, and often those details can be very dangerous for them. Today the preacher was an Arab believer from Nazareth. He spoke on the body of Christ.

            So many people choose sides and say many hard and ugly things about Jews or Palestinians, and so many people here do the very same thing. But today there was a miracle, and a sign of a wonderful hope: Christ unites. Jesus conquers. This is not just a thing we say in order to glorify or own work and efforts—Jesus truly transforms hearts, and there is hope for peace in Israel not because of protests and advocacy and high-profile peace talks, but because those who have bowed to Messiah love eachother.

            The pastor of the congregation rose up and shared some things after the Nazarene pastor was finished blessing us. He said, “we have had too much ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Now it is time for ‘us.’” The Jewish congregation answered in powerful ‘amens,’ and the Jewish pastor invited the Arab speaker back up, and together they blessed the elements of communion.

            There are many impassioned things said in Canada about the struggle here. Do any of those fiery words produce beautiful things like this? One day I hope we will be done gratifying our personal political convictions and proving our righteousness and we will join in what Jesus the Messiah is already doing here. Praise God.

            We closed in prayer, and one by one a number of Jewish believers in the congregation prayed for the Arab believers suffering across the Muslim world.

            A friend I’ve met here recently had her father come and visit. She said that a very long time ago, her father had received the promise from God that one day he would be in Israel. When he visited Israel, the Lord told him, the seasons would change, and that change would signify that God is changing the spiritual season in Israel. Things are about to change—Messiah is claiming his people.

            It had been many years, and he finally came, just in time for an unprecedented snow storm.



            Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray psalm 122. Good things are coming, friends, and I am so richly blessed to be here. Thank you for your love and support. Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!

            As one of the songs we sang today beautifully translates, based on Revelation 22:17:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
And let them that hear say, “Come!”
Whoever is thirsty, let him come;
And whoever wishes, let him take
The free gift of the water of life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Faithfulness.



Almost exactly one year later I was on a plane again and ready to live in Israel. There was really no way for me to understand what was happening. If you can believe me, despite an entire year of anticipation, and all of the time I spent repeating the wonderful stories God had made for me during my last trip here, in those final weeks before my departure, I could hardly think of the Holy Land. Israel seemed like a world away. The whole things seemed so absurd—like a dream, or like a commitment that was still years away.

But I only had a few weeks.

And those weeks were consumed by heartfelt goodbyes to the people in the church I pastor and love. I had to thank them for allowing me to grow with them. I tried to tell them they had rubbed off on me in such a way that I know I am better able to serve the Lord because of them. I believe I would not even be able to travel to Israel were it not for my time, one and a half years, as a pastor. Something’s changed about me. I can’t always put my finger on it—and sometimes the richest blessings are better left undescribed, and better left to be demonstrated in love.

I preached each of those last three Sundays before I was to leave. During my last weekend with my church, I took time to pack up my truck with all of my things and depart. It’s frustrating, sometimes, how much more perspective I seem to have leaving a place. I will miss it there very much.

I also had to say goodbye to friends and family, as well as a lovely young woman I was surprised by just three weeks before my departure. Sometimes, spiritually—and in all other senses—everything happens at once. God caught me at a point where I was willing and ready to let go, and found me prepared to give me gifts worth holding on to.

All this to say, I didn’t think about Israel until I was standing on it. On the flight to Israel I sat next to a keyboard player for a Christian progressive rock band which was going to be playing the next night in Tel Aviv. We spoke a little tentatively at first and exchanged pleasantries, but when we both realized that we are Christians leading very strange lives respectively, the conversation picked up!

Over the next few days my roommates arrived, and for them I am remarkably grateful. We are all entirely different, with different histories, and different faith lives, but we’ve all met for very similar purposes. In the most basic sense, we’re here to study. In a more meaningful sense, we’re here to give and receive among a people very close to God’s heart. Sometimes the depth of blessings like the one we are experiencing together is lost in the mundane of day-to-day life—but in prayer, together, our eyes open. We realize we come here each with a brokenness, and each with a passion. Together in this space these things mix, and in quiet and prayerful times we can marvel at how God has filled our lives with goodness.

I would love to say more about them, but that may not be appropriate giving the sensitivity of our situation. Find me in person sometime and ask about it.

I found G--- again. He is the one who invited me to return to Israel. It was a heart wrenching experience—I met him as he was on his way out of a building and I was on my way in. I eagerly greeted him, and he didn’t recognize me—even after I gave my name.

I made the very silly mistake of forgetting how eccentric he is!

In good time he recalled, and although we repeated some of the conversations we had last year, he is a real energetic sort and we hit it off all over again. There is a real comradery that comes from the fact that we may be two of the only Mennonites in the Holy Land with a heart for Israel. 

In Canada, surrounded by Mennonites, I sometimes felt very isolated for loving the Jews. In Israel, surrounded by strangers save one, I suddenly felt very much understood. God is good.

But if you spend time with G---, you’re going to have misadventures. So they began!

One day G--- approached me and eagerly declared that he had found a bike for me! That was sort of a relief, since we lads in the apartment had been praying for bikes. Getting around on foot can become a little exhausting. Two days later, G--- found me again, and told me it was time to get the bike ready. I gratefully followed him.

G--- resolved that this bike could be too easily stolen, so he hid it at the bottom of a back stairwell in the college I’m attending. That was odd, but I sort of recalled he’s vaguely paranoid, and shrugged it off. That was when I beheld the bike—

Or what there was of it. The seat and one wheel were detached. A pedal was missing. The lines for the brakes and gears seemed to be almost entirely destroyed, and the gears themselves were twisted in places. It was a wreck. Even if it weren’t, it was too small for me by half.

But G--- was very insistent, so I carried it out of his hiding place for him and I managed to stuff it into the back of his absurdly small little ’76 hatchback. G--- wanted to bring the bike to a shop to be fixed.

So began a miniature adventure of winding around the Israeli streets in this tiny old car with its engine screaming. At one point we were driving against traffic. At another we had entirely pulled onto the sidewalk. It was chaos.

Eventually we arrived at the bike shop. I resolved not to be embarrassed because the situation was just so absurd—so I grabbed the bike in one hand, a wheel and a shredded seat in the other, and marched into the shop, head held high.

What proceeded was a 15 minute argument between G--- and a shop employee. The employee was making any declaration he could (even in Hebrew, it was clear to me) that the bike was a lost caused. G--- was likewise making mad declarations that it is completely salvageable and that the employee just lacks ambition.

It was no good… obviously. So we left. But as soon as we walked out the door, G--- ordered me to leave the bike next to the shop. I tried to object but realized it was going to be useless, so I left it there and we hustled back to his little car.





G--- later invited me to join him on an outreach. I was so thrilled. Friends, I had been wondering for years how a man in my situation and with my heart can serve the Jews. Suddenly an opportunity was right before me. I felt so utterly fulfilled—as though suddenly I was becoming the man I need to be; or, perhaps, the man God intends.

There was nothing spectacular about it in a certain sense. G--- and I had more small misadventures getting there. First he wanted to stop at my building, but the prospect of parking just across the street was unheard of to him. He insisted he must park closer. So when a car was pulling up to my building’s parking gate, G--- slammed his little hatchback into gear and pulled up right behind it, and zipped in through the gate.

I immediately demanded, “now how are we going to get out!?” G--- wasn’t sure.

I told him I didn’t have a parking spot, but that was not going to deter him. He found a corner covered in barriers specifically placed to prevent anyone from parking on said corner, but since G---‘s car is so unbelievably small, he could saddle up to the barriers and just squeeze it in. The way he talked about it, it was obvious he is supposed to park there.

No sooner had he pulled the brake when a man came walking across the parking lot yelling at us in Hebrew. G--- started yelling back and apparently told him that he was parking there because his spot was taken. Then he pointed at a certain spot and pretended it was his. Somehow, in an exchange I couldn’t understand, the angry man told G--- to park at spot 60.

“See? That’s your spot!” G--- told me, satisfied.

There’s more I could say, but I’m not sure I’d stop! Eventually G---, one of my room-mates and I made it to the location in the city where we were planning to distribute materials.

The Jews have not been inoculated to the gospel the way Westerners have. If one were to try to distribute Christian materials in Canada, you’d have few takers and probably receive a fair bit of aggression. In Israel, things are very different. The gospel is new and unheard of, and people are spiritually very hungry. Atheism dominates most Israelis, and many others have turned to Buddhism and Hinduism. The need is very great, and there is a hole in their spirits which will only be satisfied by the Messiah.

We were joined by some Korean believers for the evening. They were so full of joy, and though they spoke little English, they made a real effort to get to know my roommate and me. G--- had told me that he was once teaching the Koreans the ins and outs of witnessing in Israel. Sometimes the ‘religious’ will show up, and things can get very ugly. They have a whole network designed to prevent outreach—they would prefer the secular Israelis remain atheists than believe Yeshua Jesus is the Messiah from God.

So, as G--- warned me, “C---, they’re not pacifists!”

But when he was giving the same information to these Koreans some months earlier, they interrupted him and declared “we are willing to die for Jesus.”

Yeshua said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” It is exactly what we are not willing to give up which will prevent us from following the Messiah. I need to give myself up to God’s hands. I cannot count anything too dear to sacrifice for Yeshua Jesus, because he did not count anything too dear to sacrifice for me.

One can't be a disciple by degrees. God have mercy on me.

So too my loved ones need to learn to give me up. It is better I trust God here in tenuous situations than trust myself in the safety of home. The lure of comfort and safety will destroy me and create in me a man I would be deeply ashamed of. I want nothing but to be a son of the Most High.

Before we knew it, we were handing out wonderful little Hebrew booklets introducing people to Yeshua. Almost everyone took one, and they were so gracious, with a lot of thank-yous in Hebrew and English (I was wearing an English t-shirt, which probably made me more of a curiosity!)

But imagine, then, a young Korean girl running up to an Israeli and offering the booklet, speaking perfect Hebrew. The Koreans were a hit!

I remember approaching two older men, who looked gruff and unhappy. One seemed particularly perturbed. In cowardice I took a step to pass by them, and my heart just froze. In me resonated a voice which said, in deep horrible and beautiful conviction, “I want him too.”

I offered him a book and he took it with a smile.

God purge the cowardice out of me. Make me bolder than I could ever imagine.

There was a religious man there who knew what we were doing, and he objected loudly. G--- answered him. 

“We don’t need people like you here. Israel is doing fine” the man screamed at us.

“Israel needs God” G--- firmly replied.

When G--- is ‘at work,’ he has unbelievable energy and clarity. He loves these people so dearly; he can’t allow anyone to walk by without giving them a chance to know the One who loves them.

Suddenly it was over. We prayed and departed. G--- had to stop at a washroom on the way home, so he pulled into a gas station, parked in the most inconvenient spot possible, ran up to a window to ask where the door is, and ran inside.

Yesterday morning I was worshipping with Messianic believers. They were singing their hearts out: kadosh kadosh kadosh, atah. Holy holy holy, you are.

Beside me a group of Russian Jewish girls gathered and began to dance in a circle, singing for Yeshua.

I once begged God that the daughters of Israel would run into the desert again, like Miriam and the women did when God delivered them from Pharaoh. I want so desperately for the adoration of Israel’s daughters to heal the wound in Yeshua Jesus’ heart—the Jews' refusal.


There it was before me. The balm for the wounds of the Son of God, in delicate little figures singing and twirling.