Discovering what God intended for your life

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm persuaded that people are born to do certain things. This is a biblical concept, too. With grit, perseverance and constancy, men and women can discover a purpose for which God created them. Some find this; others, apparently, do not. Joseph Tissawak found his.

Joseph was our family's "tutor" in our recent journey to the Holy Land that ended a week ago. Joseph was born, in my estimation, to be a guide. He's been doing it since childhood, growing up between stations five and six of the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. He recalls giving his first informal tour at age 9 to obviously lost pilgrims. Discovering a knack for guiding, he pursued and earned degrees in hotel management, guiding and tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

He moves through the Galilee and Judea as easily and knowledgeably as I walk through my house. Tissawak's passion for his work is plain, but it is not without cost. "Every day is kind of a war here," the 39-year-old married father of three small boys confessed.

He is a minority within a minority. As a Palestinian, Joseph is vastly outnumbered by Israeli Jews, who constitute 75 percent of the population. As Christian, he is in a tiny subgroup within the Palestinian family, who are overwhelmingly Muslim.

What is striking about Tissawak is partly his skill. He is encyclopedic in detail yet clear. He tailors his delivery for groups as disparate as 50 Italian youths or a senior citizen couple from Massachusetts. His ease with everyone is a testament to a decade working at a Franciscan home for pilgrims in his hometown.

Mainly what impresses me about this Catholic Palestinian are his refusal to play the victim and the energy he brings to cutting through red tape -- of which there can be a great deal in security-conscious Israel. Tissawak lives in a place where being Christian is akin to being double-jointed. In other words, there simply aren't many followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he wears a distinctive gold cross on top of his shirt and never takes it off, even to bathe. (Life would be easier for Joseph in certain situations if he would occasionally hide his religious convictions.)

Ask Joseph about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and he has an opinion, certainly. But he is fatigued by politics, preferring to discuss what tradition and/or archaeological evidence have to say about the footsteps of Jesus. He does have convictions. He will take you, for example, to the Wailing Wall area but will not approach it himself. Tissawak is a Palestinian, after all, and entering an active Jewish prayer location seems inappropriate to him.

Push him on politics, as yours truly did, and he will reluctantly confide that no one deep down wants peace in the Holy Land. Everyone talks a good game, he says, but the divisions are too deep, the enmity is too strong and the concessions necessary to have a cessation of conflict are too high a price to pay. As a young man, Tissawak prayed for peace. Now, as middle age beckons, he prays for the Second Coming.

This column, as you no doubt have gleaned by now, reads as one long letter of reference for our guide. But he is not perfect. Joseph can be a trifle impatient if you ask him to repeat something. (He's not so much annoyed as disappointed.) He has so much to tell a pilgrim that going over the same ground again seems a waste. He can forget that a sacred site he's seen a thousand times is usually brand new to a wide-eyed tourist.

That's a small grievance, though. If you are planning a Holy Land adventure, you can hardly do better. If I went again to Israel, I'd insist on Joseph Tissawak to take me through.

Salaam, Joseph, Abu John. I pray for your peace and ask God to guide your steps as you so ably guide the steps of others.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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