PHOTO: Bishop Robert Stearns shares insights in the Old City of Jaffa (Tel Aviv).

“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the Lord your God.”

– Amos 9:14-15

On August 22, 2004 at 8:30 AM at Christ Church in Montclair, NJ, I was prophesied over by a trusted member of our congregation. At the age of 23, I was told that I would pray at the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem. After receiving this word, I thought that this experience would happen in my latter years. I had no idea that 14 years later at the age of 37, I would have the opportunity to do just that.

On Wednesday, January 30th, 2019, I embarked on a journey that would forever change how I viewed the world, my faith and my generation. With 35 other pastors and leaders from around the country and the world, our group left from NYC for a 10 hour trip to the nation of Israel. Hosted by Eagles’ Wings and under the esteemed leadership of Bishop Robert Stearns, this journey served to educate and equip pastors about the land of Israel, the Jewish people and the Jewish-Christian relationship.

Each experience over the course of the nine days left an indelible mark on my life. I had three major takeaways from this life-changing trip:

  • A GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF JESUS’ HUMANITY
  • A GREATER INSIGHT INTO THE ROOTS OF MY FAITH
  • A GREATER GRASP OF THE STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
PHOTO: Our group of pastors meeting with Mayor Ron Huldai at the City Hall of Tel Aviv upon our arrival to Israel. Bishop Robert Stearns and Eagles’ Wings hosted this trip.
  • A GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF JESUS’ HUMANITY

Our group had the privilege of being hosted by the best and the brightest, unveiling our eyes to the truth of Scripture all around us. Our tour guide, Aviad Amitai, presented a nation rich with the living memory of generations of faithful stewards. In the span of 24 hours, we met two of the most influential rabbis in the world — Rabbi Malcolm Hoenlein and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. The Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, graciously reserved time to meet with us. The Honorable David Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, hosted us at the US Embassy, now located in the heart of Jerusalem. Our visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Independence Hall, the birthplace of the state of Israel, further prompted conversations regarding the US relationship to the State of Israel and how we can champion its cause, using our respective platforms of influence.

With the experience of Israel’s history and modernity, I was confronted with a greater understanding of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was and is a Jew. He is not a Christian. We happen to call those who follow Jesus Christians, but in our American, Westernized presentations, we tend to forget that Jesus was a Jewish carpenter. It was deeply satisfying to witness firsthand the areas where Jesus walked, talked and shared eternal truths. This understanding of Jesus’ humanity helped me to connect with his genealogy, his background and the man that he grew up to become. This insight has illuminated the Scriptures in a whole new way!

  • A GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF THE ROOTS OF MY FAITH

Each site we visited in Israel uniquely presented the roots of my Christian faith in ways I did not expect. While one site highlighted the the depth of the Gospel, another site offered warnings of how faith can be perverted for evil means. We visited historical and impactful sights of interest — Old Jaffa, Masada National Park, the Sea of Galilee, Ein Gedi, Mount Zion, Mount Tabor, Mount of Beatitudes, Caesarea National Park, the City of David, the Temple Mount, the Garden Tomb, Bethlehem, the traditional site of the Nativity, among others.

I personally had the privilege of being baptized in the Jordan River. I was baptized at the age of 13 and felt that I could not leave Israel without reaffirming what I confessed in my teen years. This was surely an experience I will never forget! I also had the privilege of sharing a devotional near the traditional Upper Room site after Rory Comtois led us in a time of rich worship. Our visit to Yad Veshem, the world’s leading Holocaust Museum and Remembrance Center, was a gripping presentation of the evil of humanity (anti-semitism, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi system) — while presenting the resilience of humanity (the courage of Jewish people and those who supported their cause). One of the greatest highlights was meeting with Rena Quint, a Holocaust survivor. Her story was eye-opening and served as a stark reminder of our responsibility to stand up against discrimination and racism at all costs. These reminders presented the critical responsibility each of us have to serve as reconcilers and bridge builders in our world today.

PHOTO: Being baptized in the Jordan River by Pastor Rusty Nelson and Bishop Robert Stearns. Yes, the birds happened to be in the background! Credit: Pastor Joshua Finley
  • A GREATER GRASP OF THE STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE

One of the most pivotal moments during our time in Israel was in the lower level of our hotel. We had the opportunity to converse with David Nekrutman, the executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. This conversation exhibited the layers of opportunities and challenges in bridging the Jewish-Evangelical (Christian) relations. One of the points Mr. Nekrutman stated that spoke volumes to me was this: “I know that Christian/Evangelical theology states that Jesus is the only way to the Father and for those that do not subscribe to this belief are at risk of going to hell. But, as a Jew, can you love me like Jesus would?” Mind-blown. As a Christian, I want the world to know, accept and experience the joy of relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With that said, the world will know us by our love and the Christ-like love we exhibit.

PHOTO: On the streets of Jerusalem.

After this conversation, I voiced to Bishop Robert Stearns that this experience did not necessarily challenge my faith, but broadened it. I had a greater grasp of the story of the Jewish people. Their care of the sacred text allows me to experience the fullness of God’s Word. Their guarding of the festivals and traditions provides insight into the words of Jesus and the eternal feast to come. This journey did not only serve to deepen my identity as a Christ follower but to have a greater appreciation of the traditions, customs and values of my Jewish brothers and sisters. For this and so much more, I am eternally grateful.

If you have the opportunity to travel to Israel, I have one word for you: GO! The experience, especially with Eagles’ Wings and their team, will offer an immerse experience that will open your heart, mind and spirit to the work of our Heavenly Father. I’m thankful to Bishop Robert Stearns, Pastor Rusty Nelson, Pastor Adam Mesa, our tour guides, and the pastors (who are now my brothers) who journeyed with me on this journey. I’ve said it since I’ve returned home and it bears repeating here: “This was my first time to Israel, but God willing, it won’t be my last!” — RF

PHOTO: Group photo at Masada National Park with the Israeli flag.

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