Ben's trip to israel, SOME THOUGHTS UPON RETURNING ...
So, I had the opportunity to go to Israel from February 27-March 7 with CUFI (Christians United for Israel). During this time, I took on a personal challenge. I challenged myself to come up with my top 10 lasting takeaways from the trip. Realizing that I have many more right now, but as time and distance fade my memory, which things do I believe will really last? I wanted to share them with you as it truly was an experience of a lifetime.
So, here goes...
1. Humans long for the Divine
Jerusalem is the geographic spiritual center of our world. There is a profound collision of faith for Muslims, Jews and Christians and the many subsets that come from each root.
We went to the Western wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem twice in our trip. This is the space closest to the “Holy of Holies” from the Old Testament. People chanted. People wailed. People rejoiced. People danced. There were letters of prayers stuffed into every crevice of the wall.
On the other side of the wall on the Temple Mount were two Mosques where people gathered. People chanted. People prayed.
As we went all over Israel, there were spontaneous songs and prayers from many different groups, different languages and different ages. People dressed differently, spoke differently, worshiped differently, but each shared a longing for God.
This was tremendously beautiful and sad to me at the same time. I longed for each to see Jesus as their longing fulfilled. It was beautiful to hope that these longings might be turned towards revelations of Christ in the future.
2. The sacred is connected to ritual
The Jewish people have many rituals. Growing up as a Christian in the states the word “ritual” was tied to to stodgy words like ‘old’, ‘dead’, ‘boring’ and ‘enslaved to tradition’. That perspective has been changing for me over time, but being in Israel was very significant to me in this regard.
Our faith tradition is in its infancy. Our faith is not, but our brand is. The independent evangelical movement carries with it much freedom, which is a gift we enjoy very much. At the same time, I have been reminded to not lose sight of rooting practices that come from habit, discipline and building on the timeless faithfulness of God that has come before us and will go beyond us.
When we went to a Sabbath meal (Shabbat) in a rabbi’s home, it was so evident the power of ritual. As I got to talk with many pastors from different Christian churches, learning some of their traditions, I realized the incredible import of building rhythm into our homes and our generations. The Scripture and the celebration of timeless truth throughout the generation must be continually known and brought into habit.
We did not create God. Our faith is an ancient one and to lose sight of the roots is to ignore future fruits.
3. Peace takes work
Before leaving for Israel, I preached on ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’. Going to Israel with that backdrop was a great gift to me. The word shalom is everywhere in Jewish culture. The pursuit of peace of a people that have lived so long at war was profound.
One dear Jewish woman we talked to said, “in Jewish custom we are taught to not chase anything. Except peace. Peace is the only thing we are called to chase after”.
Peace is hard work. In Israel now and in history, it has been an agonizing struggle filled with massive oppression and frequent war. The struggle for peace has been a painful one, but one they live for each day.
As a Christian, this was very powerful. As we pastors came from several different backgrounds, it was not lost on me as we talked about the desperate search for peace that we are in in our own country and congregations.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they pick up the family business of co-creating with God his kingdom shalom in this world. This peace-creating is and always will be great work.
4. Racism is a compilation of our deepest evils
We toured a holocaust museum in Jerusalem. We talked about history constantly. We had 9 different brilliant speakers and experts sharing with us. We learned of the many different terror groups threatening life in Israel and other places. We went to the Syrian border and understood more the plight and pain of what is happening there. We went to the Palestinian wall in Judea and wrestled with painful and difficult questions. We talked amongst ourselves of racism in America and were honest of our own questions and evils.
One thing I am convinced of, most of us have very little idea of what it means to be truly hated because of our beliefs or ethnic background. Yes, people are annoyed and angry at Christians sometimes. Yes, people make overcharged irrational statements about different demographics we fall into.
But as I listened and watched and hurt for others this week, I was reminded again. Truly, there are so many people in this world deeply hated and looked down upon simply because of factors completely outside of their control.
I genuinely believe this does not happen because we all woke up and decided to mistreat each other. It is the compilation of our desire to defend our own team, protect our small idols, take what advantages we can and to remain ignorant of the systems we don’t know are out there and thus become a party to.
Dear God, we have so much to learn here. May it start with me.
5. Our faith is small
One of the things we said the most while over there was “I can’t believe Israel is so small”. It is the size of NJ with only a little more people than the city of Philadelphia.
In Magdela, where they have recently excavated the small town where Mary the Magdelene was from, they unearthed a local synagogue. Jesus toured the synagogues teaching around the Galilee and would have most likely been there teaching. The synagogue area for teaching was smaller than my sons preschool classroom. When Jesus went around teaching, much of this was done in very small and intimate settings. In small homes. In small synagogues. In a small country.
The sea of Galilee is a medium sized lake, that the Benjamin Franklin Bridge could almost span. Most of the Jordan River was less than 20 feet wide. Track athletes could jump over it. Downtown Jerusalem, ‘Old City’, when Jesus lived was much smaller than the footprint of the Philadelphia airport.
Where Jesus had the last supper, to where he went to prayer in Gethsamanee to where he was tried, convicted, to where he was hung on the cross to where he was buried, it was all within a few hundred yards.
Being at these places, and placing my feet and hands where they took place was so intimate. It was so real.
The events that have changed the shape of my life happened in a few acres.
6. Our faith is monumental
When we went to different sites throughout Israel, we crossed paths with so many Christians on a similar pilgrimage to walk with Jesus where he walked. We heard groups people singing worship songs we knew in different languages. We worshiped and lifted Christ amongst our own group of Presbyterians, Methodists, and NonDenoms.
We talked deeply of what he is doing all over our country, in our churches and in the neighborhoods we belonged to. We talked often about Christians coming to Israel, joining together throughout the globe against poverty, racism, and atrocities against each other. We saw the places where people died for their faith and walk in the footsteps of those before us who have declared a Christ who lives.
7. I love pastors
I was one of the kids on this trip. Amongst many older senior pastors, professors, nonprofit leaders and a three star army general, I was one of the youngest and least experienced.
One of the other young guys who went with me said, “I feel like a house cat among lions”. Yes. That.
There were many things that we could have spent our time debating and nuancing as pastors, and truly we pastors have the reputation of just doing that at times.
However, my experience with these people was very similar to my experience with other pastors I have known in Chicagoland, Collingswood area and other. They are very dear people who have given their lives to serve Christ and care for other people. Their deep devotion to Jesus, honest reflection of themselves, and great need of God’s help in their time and ministry was life giving to me. We prayed together. We worshipped together. We shared together. We read Scripture together. Much of that was outside of schedule and planning. It was simply what we wanted to do as we reacted to being together.
I know that there are bad apples in every profession and rotten parts in each of our hearts, but I loved being among such a group of people that were on a similar pilgrimage as I was. We love Him and wanted to walk where he walked. We wanted to know how to best love and understand the very difficult conflicts happening in the middle east. We wanted to encourage each other. The tomb is still empty and Jesus lives among us, all over the globe.
8. Words from the Rabbi
We met in a rabbi’s home and celebrated a Shabbat dinner at the beginning of their Sabbath. I am still digesting his words. Instead of me interpreting them for you, I simply want to pass them along as I can remember them.
Before the time of the meal where he offered a Proverbs 31 blessing over his wife:
“Now is the time of the meal where I HAVE to bless my wife. That probably sounds bad to say it that way.
It just so happens that I also WANT to bless my wife.
Jewish tradition is a little bit different than American tradition [he grew up in New York]. In America, we say that what we chose to do is of more lasting value that what we are obligated to do. Living out our desires is more important than living out one’s calling. In Jewish tradition, we say it’s our honor to live out what we are supposed to do. It is more important and more lasting than just what we temporarily want.
It is of highest importance that I am obligated to bless my wife.”
9. It is so important to learn and travel when we are able to
I almost didn't go on this trip because it materialized so fast. I am so glad that I did. I am reminded again of the importance of learning, of deepening our knowledge and experience bank. It is so vital to hear from people we agree with and get to know the story of those we might not.
We tend to make so many conclusions when we know little about things.
Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds ignorance. Both produce arrogance. All of them are the enemy of the learner.
I am so grateful for the many who help make this trip possible for me and hope to be able to return the favor that you can go, grow and learn from trips and classes in the future. Faith is seasoned and deepened and best applied while learning. .
10. Faith is past down through generations
We went to a church dedicated to grandparents. Cool, right? No, it didn't smell like Grammy’s cookies and we did not have to talk loudly so older people could hear.
It was a church honoring the passing of God to the generations. After our group had spent time in there worshiping our timeless God, we left. Two of us younger pastors snuck back in because we heard another group in there singing. They were from a different background than us but we knew some of the same songs. We spent time with them (and got scolded by our guide later for taking too long). We were able to again realize how large and old our connection to Christ really is.
Isreal is filled with timelessness. Everywhere you turn there is a respect for truth that began long before any of us and is going to outlive each.
Praise God for my grandparents and so many others that have led a legacy of God to future generations. May those of us who are earlier on in the journey age with faithfulness that we could give the same fidelity at our moment in the relay.
This is an interview with Ben Willey about the book, The Road Back to You. The church staff has been reading this book together and pastor Ben shares how it has been helpful to him, especially as a window into his own motivations and also in his family relationships.
You can find this book on Amazon, or you can check out your local library.
We'll be adding weekly audio interviews from the staff, so stay tuned for more.
If God's primary desire for each of his children was to free them from all suffering than he does a pretty lousy job. The Christian is often left with questions unanswered, seasons not completed and struggles not yet solved.
Our fairy tales have the "happily ever after" once the struggle has concluded.
Yet, It always surprises me both how much God allows suffering and how much he is found within it.
The God of light and dark, suffering and hope, cross and empty tomb meets us in both mountain and valley.
It is only as we know him in each that he becomes "our life" (Colossians 3:4).
Over these past few years, Easter has become more and more precious to me. I have come to see that while this is the most important holy day of the year, it is also the most important truth that I have on every other day, too. Simply put, Easter means that Jesus is not dead anymore.
Jesus is real.
Jesus is available.
Jesus is present.
Jesus is forgiving.
Jesus gives hope.
Jesus does not change.
Or grow tired of you.
Or forget your birthday.
Or move on to better people.
He does not freak out when you fall apart.
He does not move when you have.
He is not scared of wars or their rumors.
He does not hate the world even when we think he should.
Jesus is alive today. He is alive because death, hate, addiction, racism, abuse, war, oppression, and indifference at them all were not enough to kill him for long.
This is why today is Easter anew. He is still risen indeed.
The Collingswood Campus introduced a new class on Wednesday nights this winter called... Winter Wednesdays (creative, right?). Listen to Pastor Ben as he talks about the experience, joy and hope of the gospel, which they have been able to present and unpack with a lot of people from their local community. This video was shared in the service at Mt. Laurel this past week, but it's worth revisiting so you can rejoice in what God is doing through the Collingswood campus and pray for the continuing conversations that will happen as a result of the relationships created from this class.