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An open letter to Holy Land pilgrims

I am writing this a few hours after returning home from the regular Sabbath meeting at my home congregation. As is usual, we are blessed at this time of year as the holiday of Succot (Tabernacles) draws near with larger than average numbers of tourists and visitors. It’s a joy and a blessing to have these people come and enrich our meetings with their presence. But occasionally, there are issues that come up and I would like to address a few of those issues.

Allow me to start by telling a short story.

Our congregation, like most others in Jerusalem, has signs posted declaring that it is forbidden to take pictures inside the meeting. There are very important reasons for this rule, and most visitors respect it and don’t take pictures. But there are almost always one or two people who think that this rule might apply to other people, but certainly not to them.

This morning, there was one such individual taking pictures and an elder politely (I would even say meekly) asked her to stop. She responded by actually saying; “I spent a lot of money to come on this trip and I’ll take pictures of whatever I want.”
Putting aside the gut wrenchingly severe spiritual and emotional immaturity that such a statement reveals about the person who made it, it also speaks to a MINDSET and an attitude that a lot of Christian pilgrims who come to visit the Holy Land bring with them. It can easily lead to circumstances that are unpleasant and certainly do not glorify our Lord or bring credit to his Name.

So Brothers and Sisters, if you’re on your way to Jerusalem for the upcoming Succot holiday, or if you’re even thinking about a trip to the Holy Land one of these days, please allow me to explain a few things which will hopefully make your visit more of a blessing to you and everyone else. Because coming to Israel might feel like a vacation to you, but if that’s all it is than I will tell you very frankly that you shouldn’t come here. It would be much better for you to go somewhere else if all you want is a relaxing, interesting or even educational vacation.

For starters, our congregations are not tourist attractions, they are the House of God. It is perfectly acceptable to visit the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo or the City of David wearing flip flops, ripped jeans and a New York Yankees T-shirt. But it’s really not appropriate to come to a congregational meeting dressed like that.

A simple rule is that you shouldn’t come to church in Jerusalem dressed less formally than you would come to church back home. By doing so, you show a lack of respect for us but much worse you show a lack of respect for the Lord.

Along the same lines, we and our families and children are not displays at a museum, much less animals at the zoo for you to pet, touch, feed and take pictures of so you can post them on Facebook with a caption like “Israeli Jewish Believer children in their natural habitat” or something.

Israel is a country where being a Believer can get a person fired from their job or mercilessly teased and harassed by their schoolmates. It has happened many times that a picture innocently taken and posted by a tourist has led a local Israeli believer into this kind of trouble and sometimes much worse.

So don’t do that.

Just don’t.

Next, I beg your pardon but I’m going to talk a little bit about money. Local Israeli congregations are a really great place to bring your offerings and collections. The New Testament has a lot to say about that and I’ll let you read it for yourself.
But it’s no secret that tens of millions of dollars are donated to Israel every year by Christians around the world and a very tiny percentage of that money ends up helping local Israeli Believers or otherwise assisting in the work of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in this country. A much larger percentage even goes to groups and individuals who actually harm local Believers in different ways and/or which are explicitly opposed to the Gospel.

So please brothers and sisters, I beg of you, use a little wisdom in this area. Everyone in Israel knows about Genesis 12:3 and more than a few are ready to take advantage of your zeal to be obedient to what that verse says to take as much money from you as they possibly can, but use it for things that have absolutely nothing to do with the work of the Kingdom of God.

I’ve never seen proof of it but there are even rumors that organized crime networks will dress some of their foot soldiers in the clothes traditionally worn by Orthodox Jews and send them into the streets of Jerusalem during the High Holidays to ask for “charity” money from tourists. Even if those rumors aren’t true (and I hope I didn’t just give some crime boss in Tel Aviv an idea he never thought of before) it certainly is true that giving cash to people who beg for money in the streets, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem, is at best a VERY inefficient and unwise way to bless Israel.
Local Israeli Believer congregations, trusted Christian ministries with humanitarian aid works established in the country and even trusted secular organizations like Magen David Adom are all good places to give your tithes and offerings. If you give to anyone else, there’s an excellent chance that your money is going to something that doesn’t advance the Kingdom.

Finally, and most importantly, remember who you are and where you are. You are a representative, an AMBASSADOR, of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and you’re in a country which, for the most part, does not recognize Him as their King or their God.
Everything you do or say here, good or bad, nice or mean, patient or impatient, gracious or ungracious, will be noticed. Everything you do or say here will be taken as a reflection of the Kingdom of which you are an ambassador.

So be a good ambassador. Cover yourself and the rest of the people in the group you’re coming with in prayer. Start doing that now, before you even get on the airplane which will bring you here. Spend as much time as possible in the Word before you come so you’ll be reminded of the many things that are so important to remember when you come to the Holy Land.

There are many other things I’d like to say, but this blog is already too long.

So welcome to Israel, my home, and the Land of the Bible. May you be blessed by your visit, and may you be a blessing.

Aaron is a member of Jerusalem Assembly, House of Redemption.

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