Back From Israel

“Who is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” – Psalm 8:4

I read this verse just days ago as it came up in my daily reading through the Bible, and I know that God placed me there to mark the conclusion of His most recent work in my life. We are part of a generation that is looking for miracles…evidence that God is really here and active in our lives. We look for deliverance from death, prophetic words, damaged limbs grown straight again…big, irrefutable, miraculous signs of God moving in a faithless world. I want to describe a miracle for you; actually a miracle inside a miracle.

It began in November 2014 and concluded February 23, 2015. My wife attended a meeting and made a new friend, a woman who had traveled to Israel dozens of times over the last two decades. Asking Peggy if she ever had an interest in visiting Israel, she told her of a pastor’s familiarization tour. “But we’re not pastors,” was Peg’s reply, but her new friend nevertheless said she would look into it. About this same time, I had been corresponding by email with my sister, Inge, and she was telling me about our older brother Paul’s health; something to do with an infection, the exact nature of which was confusing. We hadn’t been back to New York since my mother passed away in 2003.

Peggy says that the first miracle in our story is that her husband agreed to the trip. I don’t travel well and usually find myself too busy to attempt it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see a reason to say no, and an Israel tour is right in my ministry wheelhouse since I operate a Biblical worldview exhibition. The next surprise is that the tour organizers made an exception for a non-pastor to participate, and that we quickly finalized our participation on December 23rd, a pretty great Christmas present for my wife. The goal of the tour organizers in bringing pastors to Israel is for those pastors to encourage their congregation members to organize their own tour to support the tourism industry in Israel, but also to draw the hearts of American Christians to the foundational importance of Israel in God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. Touring Israel gave me a passion for that cause, and that has become the bigger miraculous vision in the story, but one that I will relate another time. The miracle inside the miracle is my focus for now.

America Israel Travel gave us a choice between departure from either Los Angeles or New York, and leaving from New York would afford an opportunity to visit “home” for the first time in a decade. This fact became an undercurrent of turmoil for me because I was not interested in visiting my family and made my appeal to Peggy. “It would be so much faster and easier to fly into JFK Airport instead of driving.” “There will be nothing to do or see in New York because of the cold and snow.” Also the elephant in the room was that my brother Paul was sick, and I don’t handle hospitals and infirmities well at all. However, I couldn’t deny that a trip to JFK Airport made a drive to upstate New York both convenient and socially mandatory. We made arrangements to stay with Paul’s partner, Lottie, during our visit. We proceeded planning our pilgrimage to the land that God loves. We purposed to drive cross country so we would have our car to visit upstate New York after our tour departing JFK on February 14 and returning February 24…or so I thought.

I should mention that the tour was wonderful because Israel is more than just a location of holy sites and ancient history. Israel is an idea. It is a place of environmental renewal, technological progress, a pioneering attitude, and the resolved optimism of a people who are both distant from God and committed to perform His will on the world stage. I returned from the tour invigorated to share this vision of Israel with fellow believers who need a spark of confidence in God’s working through His people in modern times. Israel is a miraculous work of God more important than the manifestations the American Church so fervently desires. But as the end of our tour approached, I realized that my mental schedule was off by a day. We would arrive back in New York on February 23rd rather than the 24th. It was a minor inconvenience. I emailed Lottie that we would be at her home on the 23rd and assumed that would be all right.

Never have so many travel arrangements operated this smoothly. Regardless of weather and complexity in connections, our flight back to JFK was just as precisely on time as the flight to Israel. Even our baggage pickup and Air Train ride to find our car in long term parking went without a hitch. As we drove out of the city, I called Lottie to let her know our timing. She seemed distracted, telling me that she was visiting Paul at the hospital and would know his status better after the visit and hoped to return home in time for our arrival. I decided therefore to slow our arrival by taking the scenic route upstate on Route 9. Then getting a little lost on the way slowed our arrival even more. We arrived around 5pm to find that Lottie wasn’t home, called her, and met sometime before 6pm to get settled and head to the hospital, actually the Ferncliff nursing home, to visit Paul.

By this time, we had a sense that my brother’s illness was serious, perhaps even terminal. Lottie told us she planned to bring Paul home because they had made a mutual commitment, each to care for the other rather than dying in a nursing home. There was talk of hospice and Lottie’s worry that she would be unable to care for a man on her own. It was with these thoughts whirling around in my head that we drove to Ferncliff, a nursing home that was putting Paul out because funding had run out for his care. So I was both prepared and unprepared for my brother’s condition. He was almost unrecognizable as the handsome man he once was, propped sideways in his bed, gripping the railing and gasping for air. Lottie tried to calm him, encouraged Paul to relax, told him I was there, and urged him to say hi. Between labored breaths, Paul said, “Hello Bill,” in an eerily normal voice. These were the only words he spoke during our visit, and he seemed generally unresponsive. After a while, Lottie began to pack some things in preparation for Paul’s departure from the facility and asked Peggy to say a prayer. She probably didn’t know that my wife doesn’t say “little prayers”, but was about to embark on an entire conversation. Peggy stood at Paul’s right hand and I prayed in agreement at his left. She spoke to Paul from her heart encouraging him that this wasn’t about religion but to trust in God and seek His peace. They were the kind of words that I imagined Paul could receive, since he never was a religious man in my experience. Then Peggy sang. She started with that old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul”, and added a verse of “Amazing Grace.” As she sang, Paul relaxed, let go of the bed rail, and gripped my wife’s hand firmly but gently. His breathing became slow and steady, and we wondered if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. Lottie told him we would visit again tomorrow and we left for her house.

We decided to get dinner, but before we could leave, Lottie received a call that my brother had stopped breathing. It had happened within minutes of our leaving him. In retrospect, I wonder if his spirit had departed while we were there and just his body continued for a while. There is more that I could say about our time that evening and the next day visiting with Lottie and her daughter and my sister. There were many precious moments. We were internally assured that our presence had been a blessing as Lottie referred to my wife as the angel who had ministered to her man during his final moments. But the truly miraculous aspect of this was God’s timing. He had not brought us to that place just as the conclusion of our vacation. He had not brought us merely on the right day, in spite of my confusion about the appointed day. God had brought us to Paul’s side on the very hour that we needed to be there, and I am still pondering the lesson in all this He has for me and for my brother’s other loved ones. Is God performing miracles today? Does God work in the everyday aspects of our lives? Clearly it is so, and God’s goodness and love for His people are evident in all He does.