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A date with God

We're in a crowded Jerusalem street. Lines of traffic. Pedestrians, all ages, all types. And - nobody's moving. No pushing, no shouting, no horns blasting. On the pavement, old and young stand respectfully, almost to attention. Car and truck drivers have left their vehicles even across busy intersections and quietly wait in the roadway. Overhead, sirens wail.

Today is Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Day. When Jews remember the six million murdered systematically by the Nazi regime.

It's an emotional moment. We're onlookers, aware that possibly everyone around us is recalling family and friends who were killed, processed by the evil genius of Hitler. While just a few of the older men and women have tattooed numbers still legible on their arms, showing they had been in one of the notorious death camps and, by a miracle, had survived.

Everywhere there are people with stories to tell. Perhaps stories suppressed for a variety of reasons.

Often the best stories can never be told. We write (hopefully amusing, definitely true) accounts of life in the Jerusalem old folks' home where we work, but we can't betray the confidences of those who live with us. People here are all too easily identifiable.

But yesterday...

This story has (for us at least) God's fingerprints all over it.

It's visa time. Not Visa with a 'V', that bit of so-useful plastic we dislike and depend on, but visa with a 'v' that keeps our stay in the Promised land legal if not kosher.

We go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Queen Shlomzion Street. (The Queen of Sheba, they tell us.) A grubby building near the Russian Compound.

Six months back we did the recommended thing: arrived at 6.00am, fought our way into the rib-crushing hell-hole of the darkened downstairs lobby with a million other undersirable aliens, stampeded up countless flights of stairs when the inner doors opened, battled for forms and queue numbers...

You get the idea. All that suffering ensures being finished the same morning.

This time, no thanks. We were both emphatically convinced it was worth arriving late, avoiding the fight, and hoping we'd be through before the bureaucrats departed for the day.

What with a leisurely breakfast, missing an 18 bus and - finally - hitting the inevitable traffic jam, we didn't plod those endless stairs until gone 8.30am.

We'll draw a veil over the initial form-filling and queue-number-getting. And we'll say absolutely nothing about the grottiest cafeteria this side of Cairo with proportionately low, low, low prices.

'Twas just a routine visa-renewing session minus the opening riots, with the faintest prospect (looking at the little numbers we'd scored; 67 and 68) that we'd be out before beddy-byes time.

So we hunted for two spare seats in the large and crowded waiting hall.

The usual motley assortment of folk from every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue. Plus a gathering of what are colloquially labelled 'black hats' - black-clad Orthodox Jews with their side curls, beards and tzitzit. From America, studying and working in Jerusalem. There were just two empty seats against a side wall, out of direct sight of the who's-next indicator. Next to a black hat.

Surprisingly, he wanted to talk.

'Why are you in Israel? Aren't you afraid of the situation?'

We gave our usual - and true - answer that the traffic scared us; 'the situation' was something we left to God. And we were here to say thank-you for the Bible. Without it, we'd still be a bunch of idol-worshipping heathens.

'But you add your New Testament to our Tanach.'

Of course we do, as Christians, we said. But the New Testament is a Jewish book. There's even the possibility it was first written in Hebrew. Not only were all the first disciples Jews, but Jesus was an Orthodox, Torah-keeping rabbi of his day.

Heads swivelled abruptly in our direction at the mention of the name of Jesus. Our black-clad questioner abruptly rose to check the indicator, then equally abruptly resumed his seat and the conversation.

'But Jesus' (he actually used the name himself) 'started a new religion, although Judaism was given to us by God.'

Yes and no, was our response. The Jews were God's chosen people; we weren't. Gentiles could convert, endure circumcision, laboriously learn all the micro-mechanism of keeping Torah in real life - or stay outside, be good, and hope for the best.

Jesus, through what happened to him at Passover (the Orthodox man nodded to show he understood) made it possible for Gentiles to have direct access to God.

Again he checked his number.

'I'm next,' he said. 'Sixty-five.' He started to gather up his papers. Then, unaccountably, there was a little chime from the indicator as the number jumped from 64 to 77 and stayed there.

He smiled and sat down again.

'Perhaps it's a sign, two sevens. But it gives us a while to talk more. Tell me, what do Christians mean by the phrase "born again"?'

That's the biggie. An answer to that takes time. And while that odd 77 glowed on the indicator we explained as best we could the personal meaning of the atonement and the revelation of salvation.

Again the indicator chimed. Sixty-five appeared. Our new acquaintance bade us 'l'hitriot' and walked rapidly to one of the booths. Some of the other Orthodox around us had been trying to follow our conversation and now returned to reading their prayer books.

The waiting room has two exits. One beside the booths where visas are given or denied. The other exit beside where we sat.

The man we had talked with came back to us. He ignored the shocked stares of the Orthodox Jews, stuck out his hand, and thanked us warmly for the discussion. And was gone.

There was just time for us to exchange one of those husband-and-wifely significant glances you cultivate over almost four-and-a-half decades of marriage, then our number came up. Less than a couple of minutes later we were skipping away hand in hand like the kids we really are with new visa stamps in our passports.

Once again God had demonstrated that He is unsurpassed at organising the coming together of right time, right place and the right person.

And off we went to the Old City to buy a pizza.

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