From Israel to Charleston

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A couple of years ago I spent an amazing ten days in Israel and Jordan. I met incredible people and saw places that made both history and the Bible come alive.

The person who fascinated me the most was our guide. We spent nearly the entire time traversing Israel with an interesting fellow. I have thought about him much in the past few days.

Our guide was a retired gentleman. I am not sure what his job was before retiring, it appears to have been secretive. He was both knowledgeable and curious. When he discovered I was a pastor, he asked me to bring my Bible along and read pertinent passages about the places we visited (even though he is a secular Jew).

At the border with Syria he told the story of his involvement in the Yom Kippur War. He was working his job when his unit was called up. Within twenty-four hours he was on the battlefield in a tank! He shared his fear that if they lost the battle everyone he loved would die. He told about helping stop the slaughter of a large group of P.O.W.s. Eventually, he became quiet and said that he had shared all he could muster.

What I remember most distinctly was our visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli holocaust museum. Silently making our way through the corridors, I was filled with reverence and pain. I completely lost track of time. Nothing else seemed important. As you get ready to leave the museum and head out on the grounds, there is a book that you can sign or leave comments. I desperately wanted to place my name there. But I had to wait a long time on the people in front of me. It was an older gentlemen, pushing a much older woman in a wheelchair. From the brief conversation I overheard, it was clear that this was his mother, who had come from America for her great-grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. The man mentioned to a security guard the she was a holocaust survivor. When it was her turn at the book, she stood. She began to write. It took her a long time. I waited patiently. She began to cry. Finally, she could write no more and collapsed into her wheelchair. Her son pushed her outside.

I approached the book, ready to write my name. But my eyes were attracted to the tear-stained page on which the woman had written. It simply said, “I miss you.” And then below it had name after name after name of relatives lost in the holocaust. I tried to write my name, but my weeping made it almost impossible.

As I shared this experience with our guide, he told me about his wife. She lost much of her family in the holocaust. He said that a couple of years ago he found a great deal on a car. She refused to let him buy it. Because it was a Volkswagen.

Whenever I hear Israel mentioned on the news, or read about Israeli politics online, I think about these things. Not because I am somehow now determined to side with Israel on everything. But because it helps me understand. It puts me, just a little bit, in the shoes of a Jew. It reminds me that behind words and rhetoric there are experiences and suffering and pain.

As I think about controversies here in the United States, I wonder if much of what we are lacking is a sense of understanding the story of others. It is one thing to know something about the holocaust, it is quite something else to visit a holocaust museum with people who barely survived it. Too often we speak in abstraction about right and wrong. To hear other’s stories makes it real. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will change our stance, but we will now be thinking about what our position truly means or does to others.

I am thinking today about the “rebel” flag. There may be lots of reasonable reasons to keep it up. I am for freedom of speech.

But can you imagine flying a Nazi flag in front of my friends from Israel?

Walk a little bit in another person’s shoes. Try to imagine what it is like to see a flag flying that represented a cause that held your great-grandparents in slavery.  Attempt to see that flag planted in the middle of the night in your front yard.  Visualize it being carried by men in white hoods as they parade through the streets of the very town where I grew up, just a few years ago.  I understand it may represent a lot of different things to you, but can we think about what it represents to them.

Perhaps our most under-utilized spiritual gift is our imagination. With our imagination we can attempt to see things from other perspectives. With our imaginations we can struggle with what it would be like to be a descendant of a concentration camp survivor. With our imaginations we might gain a little appreciation for what it is like to be black in the southern United States. I know we can never truly walk in other’s shoes. But I think it is time that we used the imagination God gave us to hear some stories and feel some pain.

The beauty of the incarnation is that it is the ultimate act of imagination.  God does not have to wonder what it is like for us.  He became us.  He walked in our shoes.  And He calls us to imagine with Him what life is like for others.

Whether the flag stays up or comes down is ultimately, perhaps, not the biggest deal. But before you decide, have you talked with some black people about it? Have you tried to see it from their view? Is this just all an abstraction, a game of logic?  Or can we think in terms of real people?  Are we willing to imagine?

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