It happens every now and then, usually a couple of years apart and so I guess it’s due round about now. My thoughts are turning to the eastern Mediterranean and I’m poised on planning another solo trip to Israel.
You will see from the cloud tag on the right of this page what subjects I tend to write about most in this blog and so you will see how much Israel features in my thinking. I have been out there many times since my virgin visit in back in the 80’s. I think I have actually lost count now of the number of trips in total but certainly into double figures. I’ve had many reasons for going. A number of them have been work-related where I have been responsible for the radio broadcaster I work for taking a number of our shows and presenters out there to broadcast live back to the UK. Some of my visits have been with friends and family where I have acted as their unofficial tour guide (and loved every minute of it). Other trips I have made alone neither to work or research but just to be. I guess that’s where I’m at right now.
One word I have never used and will never use of my visits is ‘pilgrimage’, yet that the number one reason Christians do visit the country. They go to experience the place they read about in the Bible. Depending on what expression of Christianity they practice, they go to pay homage to saints and people of the past or they just want to see the places they have read about and imagined in their church services or private devotions. I never have. When I visit, for me I’m less concerned about Israel’s ancient past than about its present and future. Even from my very first visit staying with Jewish friends and so not part of a tour party (for me the very est way to experience the country for the first time), I remember saying to them as they toured me round this church site or that, that I didn’t want to ‘do the churches’ but would rather meet ordinary Israelis, something I think perplexed them a little – I had after all made my conversion to Christianity while sharing a house with one of my hosts at University and so what’s not to like about churches in the Holy Land? I guess my thoughts concerning the place and my experience of it the first time were rooted in the fact that I was first inexplicably drawn to the Jewish people and their brand new country when I was around 10 years old. I had never heard of the Holocaust or Jewish people and never really understood that baby Jesus meek and mild, who I did know about, was one of them. From that time on I read any book I could on the country, whether fact or fiction, and in me grew a burning desire to be there. At high school I even stayed after History class one day to talk to my teacher, Mr Chisholm, and I persuaded him to change the class syllabus we were due to study for our ‘O’ Level exams to include the Arab/Israeli Conflict as part of our course components and to drop some dull study of US socio-economic politics. I’ve never fessed that up to any of my class mates (in case any of them struggled as a result). The school teachers I think were also puzzled by my interest and I guess I must have been talked about among them, but one other thing from High School I do remember was my Art Teacher, a Jewish Lady called Mrs Rubin, who had recently returned from Israel and brought back for me a full set of Israeli currency coins. Little did she ever know about how much I treasured them and would hold on to them at night in bed wishing myself away.
Yes, of course I was young and naive back then and still for many years, even to this day to a degree, I still haven’t fathomed out why I am drawn to that place. Yes, my perceptions are more complex now and in many ways conflicting, but one thing I have always known is that when you have a calling to something or somewhere – you can’t argue with it or even reason it out and you certainly can’t sanitize it so that it is comfortable and respectable enough for you and others to accept. Just mention the name ‘Israel’ and it will divide people either pro or against quite vehemently. I am not deaf or blind to the political, moral and religious arguments on many sides, nor to those that uncomfortably co-exist in my own heart. Yet none of any of this has managed to smother the watchman in me that is always following events in the Middle East as a whole and the desire in me that rises from time to time that makes me restless and longing to be in Jerusalem again. I’m feeling that restlessness again now.
When I visit Israel on my own, I usually stay in the Old City in one of the Christian guest houses, not because I want Christian company or activity, but the Church is one of the biggest land-owners in the country and there are many guest houses and hospices they own within the walls of the Old City that are cheap, well looked after and right in the throng of the ancient citadel. I’m not a recluse there – it’s nice to exchange pleasantries with other visitors over morning and evening meals and especially to listen to what first timers make of their visit. But Jerusalem is the only place I have visited on Earth that makes me just want to go hushed and quiet in my soul when I get near as the bus upland from Tel Aviv turns the final winding curve in the road and the city is laid out on the hills before you. When I visit the city, I’m there usually just a few short days just to be and to think but never to reason. In times like that it is very hard not to find yourself wanting to pray for all that has been there, all that still is and all that yet will be. One thing I always make a point of doing when in Jerusalem is to go down to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and pray. There is something about praying there that is like no other. I don’t believe God hears you any better there or that your prayers are more likely to be answered there. Ancient History beyond my understanding oozes from the very stone walls as if it were their life blood. At the risk of sounding a tad squiffy at this point, on my last visit to the sanctuary to pray, I had the most unusual encounter. As I stretched out my hand to the wall to pray, I just felt a presence around me, something I can’t describe, and from the Wall I felt a strange energy or force like electricity whenever I took my hand away from the wall, the feeling subsided only to return when my hand was raised again. Not only my hand and my arm, but my whole body was trembling. Make of that what you wish. I’ve prayed there on all of my 10+ visits but never encountered anything like that before. More strange too that I’m not the only one in my family to have encountered something like this. My Mum has also visited Israel on 2 or 3 occasions, only once with me, and on her last (without me) she too encountered something strange while praying at the wall. Neither of us shared our experiences with each other until fairly recently, but she also felt a strange power that she also described as ‘like electricity’ when she was drawn – compelled as she describes – to touch the wall with her forehead and pray and in that prayer, she was given a vision for the city and its people that she still holds in her heart today. Well, either a couple of strange encounters or else the Jerusalem Electricity Company needs to urgently check its wiring. I can only speak for what happened to me. No. I’m not going back to seek the same experience again. Each time I go is a whole new experience. Just being there makes me very hushed and still inside.
I guess anyone reading this or even just a casual observer of world events must surely puzzle over why this tiny strip of a country, only 12 miles wide at its narrowest, commands such a disproportionate measure of the world’s media and political focus. This is set only to increase in the coming times.
This year, Israel turns 65 years old since the modern state was founded in 1948. The country marks the day of its rebirth by celebrations both home and abroad and I was among the group of guests invited to a celebration Reception by Israel’s Ambassador to the UK at London’s prestigious Guildhall. I can’t put my finger on just why, but I came away from the event knowing that I need to be in Jerusalem again.