I’m a Christian and I’m also a pastor. In fact, I’m the son of pastors who were also the children of pastors. Practically everyone in my family has participated in Christian ministry.
So as you might expect, I’m more than familiar with those hallowed names of the Christian faith: Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul … all of them. But equally hallowed to my faith are the names inscribed centuries earlier; like so many other Christians, on Sunday mornings I’m also immersed in the stories of the towering figures of the Hebrew Bible.
There is Abraham, and his wife Sarah, who had more than just a nursery, but a nation in her womb. Joseph, who sat beside Pharaoh in Egypt and saved civilization during the famine. Moses, who stood at the lip of the Red Sea, parted it with his staff, and led two and a half million Jews on their trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land. David, who danced and sang and played his music to the sheep in the field, slayed the giant Goliath, and ruled as king of Israel. Esther, who saved her people through an act of great bravery.
These people, and so many more, are the foundation of our faith. All that we Christians believe is wrapped up in their personal biographies. But if we’re not careful it is too easy to hear those names and recall those stories, but become emotionally, mentally, and spiritually detached from them. We say we believe them, and we do, but they don’t feel real to us.
But if we have the privilege of traveling to Israel, all of this turns around. When we land, and get off the plane, and claim our luggage, and breathe that air, and hear that language – something changes within us as Christians. We begin to have a conversation between our soul and that soil. And it is a conversation that will continue throughout our lives.
Years ago, I was searching for some tangible way to engage the Israel that I had experienced. One Sunday night I came home after a long day of ministry. I couldn’t sleep, and turned on the television at 3:00 am, and there was a rabbi, who turned out to be Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, of blessed memory, of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship).
He was sitting with a Holocaust survivor. It was cold and he was shivering along with her as he brought her aid to give her some kind of comfort and hope. I was deeply moved in a way I can’t fully explain. It was then that I began in some way to be part of God’s conversation with Israel.
This conversation touches me at the simplest point of my faith. It doesn’t make me dwell on end times, or what’s going to happen in our future. And it isn’t the final book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, that makes me want to engage in this conversation. It’s the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and what God says to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you.”
In the purest way, those words compelled me, my family, and our congregation to a conversation that we felt we could prophetically be a part of. And when I say “prophetic,” I don’t mean this in the kind of dark, apocalyptic terms we often hear when people decry and disparage Christian support for Israel. The point that they miss is that, for a Christian, there is nothing more prophetic than to provide aid to Jewish people who are in the deepest need, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and to help Jews from around the world to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel). There is no agenda other than this.
It’s amazing to me how the state of Israel, this smallest piece of property, has become the center of attention, the obsession of nations, a magnet for controversy. We all know, especially in this contentious season, how easy it is for people to get lost in conversations and arguments about politics.
But, while Christians may participate in politics like anyone else, that’s not really where it is for most Christians who are involved in this prophetic conversation about Israel. We don’t get lost in the political arguments about this government or that government, whether that’s the government of our own nation or the government of the nation of Israel. At the end of the day, we don’t think in terms of presidents or prime ministers.
Our interest is in blessing the Jewish people, those people whose stories and histories and promises are the foundation of our own faith. Our interest is in saving Jewish lives, like the life of that old woman on television who I saw the Rabbi reaching out to with such compassion many years ago. And we will keep working to save those lives long into the future.
Bishop Paul Francis Lanier founded Hope Community Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1990 with his wife, Debbie. Bishop Lanier’s education reflects the ecumenical flavor of this ministry, culminating in his receiving the Doctorate of Ministry from Erskine Theological Seminary. He is an author, composer, and recording artist. Bishop also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.