I do not like Tom Shrader. Not in the least. I just don’t care for him. I’m not sure what his problem is, but I’m confident he has one. I am sure of what I think, and what I think is that I don’t like Tom. Am I being clear? If this seems strong, relax, the word on the street is he doesn’t like me either.
Let me give you some background. For years Tom was the Senior Pastor of the vibrant and thriving East Valley Bible Church (now called Redemption). Part of the reason I don’t like him was that his church’s theology is a little different than ours. Yeah, they’re believers in Christ, and sure, they’re going to end up in heaven, but they’re of a different tribe. People have told me all about Tom and his church and I am positive I don’t like him.
The above sentences and paragraphs have truth in them, but they aren’t true. In fact, they’re far from the truth.
Here’s the truth: I didn’t like Tom until I had a chance to meet him. Sadly, for years I wasn’t interested in meeting him; I was ok to just dislike him. Once I met him, I simply couldn’t continue to dislike him. Understand this: as soon as I met him, I liked him. He has become a dear friend of mine and I light up whenever he and I get to be in the same room together. I can’t believe the friendship I almost missed out on because of my stupid prejudice. It’s easy to dislike someone you’ve never bothered to meet. But let’s turn it up… it’s even easier to hate someone you’ve never met (for the record, I never hated Tom!). You can create whatever warped story about them you choose. But after you get to know someone, you see them in a whole different light. You see them as a person. The sad truth is that many times people are not even close to who and what you were told they were, they are so much better. When it’s all said and done it makes you wonder what your problem was.
So Lisa and I spent this past week in Israel/Palestine (I/P) with a group of leaders from Central. Our goal was to spend time with people in the land of l/P and get to know them. Let me be more specific. Our goal was to spend time with lots of different kinds of people who live in the land of I/P (there are lots of different people there!). We spent time with Israeli’s and we spent time with Palestinians. We were with Muslims, we were with Christians, and we were with Jews. We were with those who believe in God (with various understandings) and we were with people who would never identify themselves as having any faith in any kind of God. Yeah, we pretty much covered the spectrum.
But I want to tell you about one of the remarkable people we met this week. Her name is Roni. Roni is an elderly Israeli woman who lives with her family just outside and north of the Gaza Strip in Southern Israel. This is the same Gaza strip you constantly hear about in the news. Out of desperation, the Palestinians often launch primitive rockets at cities in Israel. Roni’s city is the closest one to Gaza. Her house has been hit and set on fire and her cars have been destroyed by these very rockets.
It’s fair to say that Roni lives in fear. What is remarkable is that Roni refuses to live in hate.
In such situations, fear and hate make perfect sense. These twin emotions dance together in harmony and their relationship is predictable. Choose one, and you usually get the other for free.
In Roni’s case, the fear is truly understandable (we sat there ourselves a little on edge that the alarm sirens might go off while we were visiting with her). But what she does with her fear is what is so remarkable. She uses it to motivate her to learn to know and love those who are very different than her. She has committed herself to love the Palestinian people and find ways to serve them. A number of them have become her dear friends. Really!
For reasons I can’t take the time to explain here, the Palestinians in Gaza need to sometimes be taken to places inside Israel for medical care. This is daunting for them. When this happens they are forced to enter into their enemy’s territory. Their fear can be overwhelming.
And this is one of the places where Roni shines. She arranges to meet them at the border and she then drives them wherever they need to go in Israel. She serves them. She blesses them. She sacrifices for them. Understand, she is a Jew and they are Muslims. Hate is supposed to happen, not this.
After these interactions, no one stays the same. Roni has become close friends with these Palestinians because she is willing to suffer for them. She is willing to suffer with them!
What you have to understand is when rockets get shot out of Gaza, Israel responds with their own military might. They have quite an impressive degree of it and it is very high tech. During the Israeli/Palestinian conflict last summer, Gaza got lit up.
But while Roni was safely hidden away in her bomb shelter, she couldn’t help but think of one of her dear friends on the other side of the barrier wall. She was in Gaza and she didn’t have a bomb shelter. While this was going on, she got a text from her friend, asking Roni if she was ok. Her friend was frightened for her. At this Roni broke down and began to weep.
So what did she do? She came out of her shelter and she went outside and sat under an olive tree in her backyard and prayed for her friend. She prayed for peace. Why? Because that’s what friends do. They identify with each other’s differences. They commit themselves to care when it would be easier not to. They suffer for each other!
Let me close by asking this simple question: Is there anyone who is different from you that you are in the process of becoming friends with? Anyone you are learning to love? Anyone different than you whom you are suffering for? If not, do you have any idea what you are missing?