Regarding our last 7 months in Israel… there is quite a lot to say and we hope you take the time to read this to the end.
I’ll open with this scripture and then through stories I’ll explain how it sums up what we see playing out in our own lives, the lives we encounter in Israel and Israel as a nation.
“And Jesus grew in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and man”. Luke 2:52
Since it’s Christmas time, we were wondering if you could remember what it was like when you believed in Santa Claus, or if you ever believed?
If you did believe, what happened once you found out he wasn’t real? That all the gifts under the tree and in your stocking were planted by your parents, and that it was really your mom or dad who ate the treats you left out for Santa…
Were you disappointed when your parents told you the truth? Or, maybe it was that one kid at school who spoiled it for you and seemed to take pleasure in spreading the rumor that there was no such thing as Santa. Wasn’t it usually the same kid who told you about the facts of life before your parents got around to it?
Becky and her siblings were raised with the knowledge that the traditional story about Santa and his reindeer, and all the fun up at the North Pole was fiction.
Her parents didn’t read “The Night Before Christmas” to them as if it were a true story, and they didn’t write letters to Santa or go to the Department Store to sit on his lap.
On the other hand, I had a more traditional childhood in that regard… in other words, my parents lied to me. My siblings and I were fully immersed in the whole Christmas mythology that gradually developed over the last 150 years and sort got tangled up with the real Christmas story.
The Greek philosopher Plato would call this kind of deception a noble lie… a pious fiction.
Leading up to Christmas Eve there were already presents under our Christmas tree but they were clearly marked “From Mom and Dad” or “Grandma & Grandpa” and our stockings that hung by the fireplace were empty when we went off to bed that night.
Early Christmas morning we sprang out of bed and bolted to the Christmas Tree where we began our careful inventory of the presents that seemed to spill out from the tree like the foam from our fizzies.
Yup, there were a lot more presents on Christmas morning… and the new ones were all marked “From Santa”… they definitely weren’t there the night before.
After our inventory and several trips into our Mom & Dads bedroom, we sat there in our pajamas wiggling and squirming… impatiently waiting for mom and dad to stagger into the living room so we could tear into our presents.
To us, it was obvious that Santa paid us a visit while we slept. There were a lot more gifts, our stockings were stuffed with candy and toys… plus, and this was the real clincher… the milk and cookies we left out for Santa were half eaten and the carrots for his reindeer were gone.
It may have been fiction but it was a magical fiction.
Speaking of fiction… just kidding…
Both Becky and I grew up in Pentecostal churches where a lot of stuff went on that didn’t happen when I was a Presbyterian or a Baptist. In most Assemblies of God churches, things like speaking in tongues, prophecy and faith healing were dogma.
There’s a section in Demos Shakarian’s book “The Happiest People on Earth” that describes the healing of Oca Tatham, Becky’s grandpa, who’d had an eye injury and was miraculously healed at a Full Gospel Businessmen’s meeting.
I know and believe God still heals today. However, over time, the particular theological grid that is usually associated with the Charismatics and Pentecostals leads to the inevitable collision between what you’ve been taught to believe the scriptures promised to us… the things we prayed for and fully expected from God versus the oftentimes sobering reality of what actually happened or didn’t happen.
We witnessed this collision first hand this summer.
As you know, our flat mate Yonit Boyer had been battling stage 4 breast cancer and we helped care for her last summer before she left for the US to be with her kids.
We got word last week that Yonit died.
Yonit’s fight for life was the most valiant I’ve ever witnessed first hand. Some people would look at her and say she was in denial, that she just wasn’t accepting the reality of her diagnosis. Even as the disease was clearly and obviously progressing she refused to accept it.
After we arrived in Israel last May, some friends of ours invited us to sublet from their regular tenants the townhouse adjacent to their own and to share it with Yonit.
Our flat is located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon HaNetziv or East Talpiot. We’ve lived in East Jerusalem “settlements” since 2016. These are the neighborhoods that the world considers “occupied and illegal”.
Our row of houses was the first so-called settlement after the 6-day war in 1967. Across the street from our flat is a long narrow ravine populated by a pack of wild Jackals who howl at the moon every night and keep the population of feral cats thinned out.
Beyond the ravine is the dingy Arab village of Sur Baher. Amid the piles of garbage and filthy buildings is a mosque with a towering minaret from which we hear the mu’addhin sing the call to prayer throughout the day.
Sharing a flat with someone fighting stage 4 cancer doesn’t exactly epitomize a light and casual atmosphere, but somehow the intensity of it fit with what it’s like to live in Israel… there’s nothing light and casual about it, both involve an unrelenting siege. It fit perfectly into our sense of purpose because comforting his people is a clear mandate of ours.
Becky and I have recently lost both sets of our parents… even as I type those words, it still seems surreal. Watching the people you’re close to losing their lives to disease forces you to wrestle with the tension that comes with standing in faith… of hearing “prophetic words” about being healed and how sickness and disease have been defeated, and how we’re just holding on to the promises…
You know how it is… you try and stand… to truly believe or try to believe that God will heal. And you know what… some ARE healed… but most aren’t and all you are left with are questions and a broken heart.
This isn’t a rant about healing. I’ve seen people instantly healed… crazy healing. I believe in it. Becky, for instance, had a bad knee… she couldn’t squat down without her knee giving out. A team from Bethel Church came to Jerusalem in 16 and they prayed a simple prayer over Becky’s knee and boom… immediately she could squat down with no pain, and she still can 2 years later.
This is about when sickness and suffering don’t get healed leaving you with more questions than answers. Because when it comes to praying for relief from pain, suffering, and disease… not getting what you’ve desperately prayed for can be very discouraging and when it’s about life or death it can be absolutely crushing.
We’ve all been heartbroken by tragedy. We’ve heard the stories of women, for example, who were not able to have children only to miraculously… seemingly in answer to many prayers… finally, conceive but then miscarry over and over.
Or they managed to carry their baby to term only to tragically lose them during delivery because the umbilical cord somehow got wrapped around the baby’s neck.
Or the father standing at the graveside of his 5 kids drowned by their distraught mother who was suffering from postpartum depression… muttering the platitude some Pastor gave him about The Lord giving and The Lord taking away.
So much sorrow…
People who’ve prayed, who’ve clung to promises… are left sobbing on the floor.
This sort of thing was problematic for me for many years. I loved the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, but his Father… and the Holy Spirit seemed completely arbitrary… even capricious when it came to prayers being answered or making their presence felt in your life.
Why did that person get touched by God and not me? Why was that person healed but not the other one? You’re left wondering whether or not you had enough faith or maybe there was some secret sin standing in the way… there was someone you needed to forgive or some demonic force you haven’t rebuked correctly… some scriptural promise you’re not quite holding onto in the right way.
The point is, the thought enters your mind that you’re just not doing it right or, in an even more nefarious scenario called limited atonement… you’re not one of the people God randomly selected to save before he created anything or anyone… so why should he heal you?
This sort of thing torments a lot of people. This summer, it tormented Yonit.
We’d sit and talk theology together… and although she’d heard bad things about the book “The Shack” I persuaded her to watch the movie with Becky and me. It provided some comfort and encouragement to her but it collided with some of her core beliefs.
Yonit was full of faith, and she fought for her life every day. But sometimes we’d come downstairs early in the morning and she’d be sitting in the kitchen in pain so severe, I’m told, that if it was any more intense she’d pass out.
There she was… shaking her head… wondering aloud if she had enough faith… if there wasn’t something else she could do to get God to heal her. She seemed to be literally clinging to scriptures and prophetic words like they were life preservers and she was adrift in the middle of a dark ocean or like the Lion on The Wizard of Oz… mumbling to himself “I do believe… I do believe… I do believe…”
Like a lot of people, Yonit believed that God had a blueprint for her life and had thoroughly planned out every detail. When you look at life and God that way, and then the people you care about face disease or tragedy, you conclude that although God may not have caused it, He at least allowed it, so He must have some purpose in it and you’ve just got to figure out what it is.
What kind of pedagogy is that? What picture of God does that presuppose?
Pastor Greg Boyd calls it the Al Capone view of God.
This past summer, just like Yonit, Esther Moore was fighting for her life against breast cancer. Esther is the 26-year-old daughter of the directors of one of the premier ministries in Israel. Esther passed away last summer.
During her battle, we followed the regular WhatsApp prayer alerts and updates sent out by Esther’s parents. Along with literally thousands of people from around the world, we prayed and believed God for her complete healing.
If you’re in Jerusalem and you want to receive prayer from people who know how to pray, that’s the place to go and those are the people you want praying for you.
The regular and sometimes daily updates they sent out could easily be transcribed into a booklet. They included prayers, scriptures, songs and prophetic words from serious intercessors… people from around the world who walk in real spiritual authority… people who have seen God move, heal and deliver in all sorts of crazy circumstances. Those updates provided a lot of encouragement for Yonit who, more or less claimed them for herself.
Yonit’s and Esther’s battles were heroic and we saw Yonit fight every day. She was more vigilant with her diet, her thoughts, her speech and her theology than anyone fighting disease I’ve ever seen.
She meticulously prepared her strict organic diet with the precision of a chemist and then she’d pray and sing and blow her shofar.
When you live in Jerusalem you see a lot of people blow the shofar. Yonit blew hers better than anyone we’d ever heard including the men down at the Western Wall.
That a sustained series of blasts like that came from a 5’6 85-pound woman beset with cancer was amazing… shocking actually.
Right up to the day she died, Yonit believed God told her she would be completely healed… and that she still had work to do.
People who’ve lived and served in Israel for decades and have seen miracle after miracle… true veterans… have really struggled with the death of Esther Moore.
We understand this.
You know how people think… Esther was the brand new mother of a special needs child, the young, beautiful and godly daughter of two of the most faithful people you’d ever meet.
Parents who personified serving… intercession… worship… people who have laid down their lives for others… for God, and for decades they’ve been watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem …
You want to talk about storing up treasure in heaven…
And what’s the point of storing up all that treasure anyway if you can’t cash some of it in to get your daughter healed?
Yeah… if anyone had the faith or deserved healing it was this community…
If God didn’t come through for them, so the thought goes… what chance does anyone have? And we’re back to God being arbitrary and capricious.
Then there are the people who think, well… if healing is something that belongs to us… if it’s something that Jesus already gave us the title deed to… then all we need to do is file our claim in the courts of heaven…
Or… if healing was all about spiritual warfare… binding and loosing… something to be fought for… a battle to be won… the reward for persistent faith… if that’s how it works… then certainly Yonit and Esther would both have been healed.
And what a blow it would have been to the devil, people’s faith would increase and what a great testimony it would be…
But Esther died… and so did Yonit.
The late Messianic Jew Art Katz was not well liked in Israel. He once said that to name this country “Israel” was presumptuous because the name “Israel” described a character that wasn’t true of the modern state because it was secular and still in unbelief.
I disagree with Art, in fact, there have been times when I’d like to punch Art Katz in the nose. Did you know that when you name your kids you actually might be prophesying over them? Unwittingly maybe, but when we name our kids we sometimes declare in advance the character that they’ll grow into.
When the state of Israel was resurrected in 1948 as the national homeland for the Jewish people, their founding fathers chose the ancient name “Israel” for their new country, and when they did, they stepped into their rich prophetic history. They declared over themselves and to the world what sort of character would be forged into them… what sort of people they would become.
From day 1 after her resurrection, Israel has struggled with difficult circumstances. There is no other country on earth that is constantly harassed, beset and beleaguered like Israel. She struggles and overcomes repeatedly… and the character that her founding fathers prophesied over her is gradually taking shape.
Aren’t these the dynamics we all encounter in life?
We’ve met people here who’ve lost their entire families in the Holocaust and we understand how they lose their faith through horrific circumstances. Maybe you’ve struggled with this yourself. We sure have.
These things are like birth, and no one can go through it for you.
Theodore Austin Sparks called this process “The School of Christ”. Circumstances like these I’ve mentioned are like a hammer and anvil… where the deep and sometimes tragic dealings of life forge character into our lives and there’s just no way around it.
In the passage I quoted above it says that Jesus grew… that he increased in wisdom, stature, and favor. Let’s pause on that… this is the Son of God we’re talking about… He grew… He increased in wisdom… isn’t that just mind-boggling?
The Greek word used to describe that kind of growth is “Prokopto”. It’s a word that pictures a Blacksmith standing at an anvil gripping a piece of red-hot iron taken straight out of a furnace and then lengthening and shaping it by pounding on it with a hammer.
If this is how Jesus grew… it’s how we all grow.
Becky and I love getting out into the streets and mixing it up with the locals. This year we’ve been out more than ever… really getting to know these people. We’ve not only encountered their unbelief and atheism, but we’ve also encountered the heartbreaking stories behind it.
The fancy theological word for this subject is “Theodicy” and it’s the reason a lot of people abandon their faith or refuse to believe in the first place.
Some Jewish people who claim to be atheists are really just using that word because their faith had no answer to the pain in life. We like to ask people to tell us about the God they don’t believe in… which usually leads to some great conversations.
We’ve been living part-time in Israel since 2016 and we still feel like rookies. But I want to share something with you that we’ve observed and is one of the key take-away’s after living in the city that the prophets referred to as a furnace.
Here it is, straight from Jude 3 paraphrased…
Don’t give up… Fiercely contend for what you believe in. Agonize over it… that’s literally the Greek word, and it means to struggle like you’re engaged in an intense athletic contest or in a battle for your life.
Wholeheartedly practice earnest, believing prayer and never, ever let go of hope.
Then… at the same time… and just as wholeheartedly…
You’ve got to let go of outcomes…
Holding these things in tension seems like a contradiction but it’s not, it’s what it looks like to participate in and introduce the life from one kingdom into another.
Yeshua/Jesus taught this by example.
“During the days of Jesus’ earthly life, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud crying and tears to the One who could save Him from death, and he was heard…” Hebrews 5:7
I love this picture of Jesus…
With loud crying and tears, Jesus contended for another outcome… and it says he was heard…
But he still died…
As Jesus hung on that cross, gasping for breath he cried out, and with some of his last words, he expressed feelings that we’re all familiar with… “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Who hasn’t felt that?
The Son of God Almighty felt forsaken…
Psalm 22:24 assures us that he wasn’t forsaken… but the point is he FELT forsaken…
No other so-called religion goes here… that a “god” would go along with this is unthinkable…
But the real God joined himself to us and entered into our despair…
The prophet Isaiah 53:3-5 describes the Messiah as a man of sorrows… acquainted with grief… pierced and crushed.
I don’t know about you, but I draw immense comfort from the reality that my Lord went through these things.
I find further comfort in Hebrews 11 where the author reminds us that we’re in very good company… That Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and the prophets… that all of these people died believing what God had promised to them…
But they did not receive what was promised…
That’s right… they did not receive what was promised.
They all came to a similar conclusion that CS Lewis did thousands of years later. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world”.
The author of Hebrews 11 says it this way, “We’re foreigners and nomads on earth… looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland”.
Since we’re surrounded by such an amazing crowd of witnesses who know first hand what this life of faith is all about…
Let’s strip off every weight that slows us down…
And let’s run with endurance the race God has set before us.