special report: bethlehem (church of the nativity)
Dear Internet Family and Fiends,
God bless you! We pray that you are having a wonderful fall and are well and blessed! By the grace and mercy of God we’ve been having an awesome year! We all feel that we are blessed way beyond what we deserve!
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being one of the speakers at a youth conference in Spain. From there, I had planned to carry the cross through Madeira, Azores, and the Canary Islands, just off the coast of northern Africa. Just days before leaving, however, I felt that God wanted me to wait on this trip and go, instead, to Israel and Palestine. I felt that I was to begin in Jerusalem and carry the cross to Bethlehem. I felt that I was to carry the cross as close to the Church of the Nativity and then lean it up against the building there and fast and pray for peace.
From the beginning, everything seemed to say, “no”. There was no practical way that I could get into Israel. Though my passport is only a few years old, it is quite full of visa stamps — and many of those are from Arabic nations, including Iran and Iraq. It would probably be an understatement to say that Israel and these nations are not friendly toward one another! From Madrid, I had a ticket to fly El Al, Israel Airlines. However, at the check-in counter, I was re-routed to a special security area. From there I was taken from one office to another.
I was eventually interviewed and screened not once, but twelve different times! What an incredible privilege! Over and over again, (with many airline officials) I was able to share the message of the cross and describe God’s call and mission for me to take it into all the world! Finally, just a few minutes before the plane was scheduled to leave, the chief of security said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Wheeler, but your bags aren’t going to make it to Tel Aviv today.” I asked when they would arrive. He replied, “Your bags aren’t going to make it today, because you aren’t going today. Unfortunately, you will not be allowed to fly with our airline.”
Before leaving his office, I asked him if he thought I would be allowed into Israel if I tried to fly another airline. In a kind, but firm voice he replied, “Mr. Wheeler, it would be a miracle. What makes you think that the security of our nation would be less thorough than the security of our airline? Of course you are welcome to try!” I truly believe that God has no “closed doors”! I would rather miss God’s will trying to obey Him than to do nothing! So, with only God’s grace and what I believed to be His call, I bought a ticket on another airline for early the next morning.
The next morning I, once again, found myself at the Madrid airport, but airline security was not nearly as strict for this airline, and after a prayerful six hours I found myself standing in line for customs in Tel Aviv, Israel. I wish I could say that I stood there with all the faith and confidence in the world. To tell the truth, though, I was nervous and sweating. I kept praying, “Which line, Lord?” I was praying that God would put me in the line with the kindest customs’ official who had had the best day of their life — in other words, a nice person in a good enough mood to let me into Israel!
I only got more nervous as I watched the line slowly crawl forward. Due to heightened security it was taking nearly fifteen minutes of questioning for each person before they were allowed to pass through. Some were even being refused entry! I finally made it to the front of the line, and found myself face-to-face with one of the kindest young ladies I think I’ve ever met. She asked for my passport and said, “I see that you travel quite frequently to places like…” I quickly interrupted and said, ” England, Iceland, Greenland….” — trying to mention all the nations in my passport I thought she might approve of. She continued with a smile, “Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and here’s one from Iran!!”
If I had known it before, I was now facing the fact that the only way I was going to be allowed to enter Israel was the grace of God. I prayed under my breath, then quickly interrupted, “Yes, ma’am! And I even hope to visit Afghanistan, as well!” “What was your purpose of travel to these places?” she asked. “Don’t you know that these are our enemies?” “Enemies can become friends if we reach them first with love!” I said. “You see, ma’am, I am a simple pilgrim. My purpose here is the same as it was in each of the nations represented by a visa stamp in my passport. I believe that I have a wonderful ‘peace plan’! It is a message of Good News of God’s love for all people everywhere.” With God’s help, I quickly explained how I felt God had called me to carry the cross and how I felt that He wanted the cross in Bethlehem at this time.
She paused and said, “But if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport you would not be allowed into places like Afghanistan.” My heart sunk! I sincerely felt God had called me to carry the cross into Bethlehem. And now I was being turned away. But just as suddenly, it leaped as she asked if I would rather have my Israeli visa stamp in my passport, or on a separate sheet of paper so that I could take the cross into these other nations as well! She told me that I was welcome in Israel, and that she wished me the best on my journey!
All glory to God! Jesus did it all! By the grace of God I was now in Israel — in spite of my passport!! It had nothing to do with my ability or talent! There had been no possible way, nowhere to go and nothing to do except to trust in God’s great mercy! But through God’s great mercy, there was now a way! I was now on my way to fulfilling His mission for the cross to get to Bethlehem!!
After I collected my cross and cleared customs I was met by my good friends, Nate Gustafson and Gene Little. Nate had flown to Tel Aviv ahead of me. He traveled with me last year to the Arab Gulf States and is a great friend. Gene and his wife, Mary Lois are some of the most gracious and generous people you will ever meet. They run the End Time Handmaiden’s House of Peace in Jerusalem. Earlier, Sister Gwen Shaw of the End Time Handmaidens had graciously invited us to stay there at this wonderful house. They not only housed us there, but they generously fed us and introduced us to many wonderful new friends living there in Israel. They both gave so much of their time and energy. I have to say this about them, too — they are not ashamed of the cross! Though it could have cost them much, there was never any hesitation to be identified with Jesus and the cross! They have to have some of the biggest hearts I believe I have ever met. They are true friends of the cross!!!
The next morning, with God’s help, Nate and I assembled the cross and I began the walking with the cross in Jerusalem at the “Garden Tomb”. This is one of the sites that is said to have been the place where Jesus was buried and resurrected. How glorious and how awesome to begin in this wonderful place! Though no one is certain that this is the actual site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, it serves as a glorious and peaceful reminder that Jesus lives! Not only does He live, He wants to be involved with our lives and has promised to be with us even to the ends of the earth! What a wonderful reminder that we were not alone! The One who had called us on this mission was with us! Though we didn’t know what was before us, we knew Who was with us!!
We carried the cross through the Arab part of Jerusalem and on up the Mount of Olives to the place where Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven. From there we carried the cross down to the Garden of Gethsemane through the Eastern Gate down the “Via Dolorosa”. All along the way, people were open, welcoming and curious! We were greeted with smiles and waves, love and encouragement! We didn’t receive one negative word or even an angry glance! People would welcome us into their shops or homes for coffee and tea, or a snack; then we would have an opportunity to share about Jesus and the cross. Though the streets were full of merchants and street life, it was my first visit to Israel and Palestine where I didn’t see one tourist. Never once did we feel unsafe. Yet, isn’t the safest place in the world in the center of God’s will?!! We left the cross just inside the Jaffa Gate at Christ Church.
Early the next morning Nate and I began carrying the cross the remaining nine miles to the city of Bethlehem. As we walked a cool drizzle began to fall. Each step closer to this special city brought greater anticipation, expectation, and a WHOLE LOT of nervousness! Would we be allowed to pass through the checkpoints? What kind of reception would we receive? Just a few miles outside of Jerusalem we could see the helium balloon that the Israelis used to suspend a camera over the city. Soon, we could even see smoke and hear the periodic outbursts of gunfire.
After a few short miles we arrived at the military roadblock. The news was discouraging. No one was allowed to pass. I fervently prayed for great favor and tried as diligently as I knew how to persuade them to permit us to go on into the city. They said it was impossible. No one was allowed to pass this checkpoint. I asked how the reporters were able to visit the city. Was there another way into the city? The commander in charge said that there was possibly another way, but we would have to walk another fifteen miles and come in over the backside of the city … but there was no guarantee. Well, you never know until you try! Surely, God wouldn’t bring us this far to have us get stopped this close to the goal!
We spent the remainder of the afternoon retracing our initial steps, then taking the back road that the commander had told us about. We were hurrying so that we could make it before nightfall. Along the way we to pass through three military checkpoints, but we had no problem! Soon, we were greeted by carloads of people. They had heard that we were coming and were excited to see the cross, but they said they had they had been turned back at the next checkpoint. Next, we met people from four different news services who wanted to do an interview – they, too had been turned back! They said there was no way in. We continued forward, but to our surprise we were met at the checkpoint with excitement! “Thanks for coming!” they said. They welcomed us as we shared with them and prayed for them. They even allowed us to take pictures with them!
Finally, after nine long hours we passed the final checkpoint! By the grace and mercy of God, we did it! We entered Bethlehem from the top of a hill on the backside of the city. The city was under martial law and curfew. People were required to stay in their homes for four days, then when their portion of the city’s curfew was lifted they could come out for shopping for three hours. The part of Bethlehem that we entered had just had their curfew lifted. I only wish you could have seen their faces! It was truly glorious! You would have thought we won the Superbowl! We received a hero’s welcome! Amazing!
After a few blocks, however, we had already left behind the celebration and were entering another area of the city that was under curfew. It reminded me of a “ghost town”. Blown up buildings, cars, and broken glass. It broke my heart to think that the Prince of Peace had been born not far from here, yet here there was war. Oh, how God’s heart must break!
As we rounded another corner, however, a reporter saw us and ran to get an interview. It must have been a slow day, though, because within minutes we were surrounded by the world press! It was as if we had made the game winning shot in the NBA finals! We were interviewed by NBC, ABC, CNN, BBC, Fox, USA Today, Newsweek, Associated Press and Reuters! Unbelievable! And they all wanted to know “Why the cross?” With only God’s grace, the story of the God’s great love for all people everywhere soon went around the world! I do want to say this – we were welcomed and honored by everyone that interviewed us! No one was mean or angry and none of the reports distorted anything we said! Some networks even re-played the interview! We had a wonderful time of witness with these people over the next few days!
With God’s help, we were able to carry the cross all the way to the front line of the fighting. We had the incredible privilege of living and sleeping underneath the cross for four days! I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome and amazing it was to look from the streets of Bethlehem and see the cross, then the razor wire, and the beautiful stars. Glorious! We were welcomed by Israelis, Palestinians, and even the world press! Around the cross were Muslims, Jews, Christians, and even atheists! We had such liberty to share Jesus’ message of hope and true peace! It was incredible! People came to the cross night and day! Though we tried to fast, it was impossible since so many were bringing us food and drink! Though there was gunfire and bombs each night in the streets, there was such a sense of peace and safety around the cross! There is peace at the foot of the cross! It was truly awesome!!
Early one morning, an elderly man named, Yussef brought us hot milk. It was extremely dangerous for him to be out past curfew. I told Yussef that he didn’t need to bring us anything — he could possibly be shot. He looked deep into my eyes and replied, “It is only my duty. The cross is worth my life.” As I left, he embraced me and said, “I know that you have to go, but we hate to see you leave. The cross brought us peace.” He pointed to the cross and said, “Look!” And it was true! In the midst of a war zone in a city under martial law, Palestinian children were skipping rope and chasing one another. Old men were sitting and visiting. Israeli soldiers were giving food and supplies to Palestinian women. As I picked up the cross and put it on my shoulder to walk away I was humbled and honored because there was a standing ovation from Israelis, Palestinians, and the world press! Truly, at the foot of the cross is where the best of God meets the worst of mankind … and peace can be made!
As I left, part of me remained there. But with me, I take their smiles, tears, tragedies, hurts and joys with me for all the days of my life.
Years ago, I read, “I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the Church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write His title in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what He died for, and that is what He died about…that is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen ought to be about.” Those words were never truer than on this trip! What a privilege!!
Wow! We truly believe our world is open and people are hungry to know Jesus! We pray that as we have shared some of these stories that you are blessed and encouraged to see that in spite of what the headlines and evening news might tell us, God is doing something even greater! In the book of Isaiah the angels say, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”. What an incredible time to be alive! What a thrill and honor to follow Jesus! What a privilege to be a small part of what He is doing in our world today! You truly go with us!! You are such a part of this!
You may never know till we stand together before God, how grateful we are for you and your friendship!! We just wish we could express adequately put into words our appreciation in this letter. We are truly humbled, honored, and amazed that God would bless us with your love, example, and friendship. We truly thank God for His faithfulness!! We pray that you are doing well and are truly honored to be part of the family of God together with you! We want you to know – this is your story, too!!!
God Bless You!!