Tag Archives: missionaries

Enmity Between Neighbors

Bentzi Gopshtain and members of his anti-assimilation organization Lehava protested at the entry to Immanuel Church, located adjacent to Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, which was opened to the public this week at the peak of the Jerusalem Light Festival.

Gopshtain told Arutz Sheva that the opening of the church to the wider public was meant to lead Jews astray and into the trap of the missionaries, as he termed it.

-by Benny Tocker, June 3, 2016
“Jerusalem Light Festival hijacked by missionaries?”
Arutz Sheva

Given the rather disquieting historical relationship between Christians and Jews, I can appreciate that there are Jewish organizations who seek to minimize the threat of Jewish assimilation and conversion to a religion they see as false.

Gopshtain and Lehava activists protest missionary event – Photo: Arutz Sheva

But are Jewish people so gullible that if they accidentally walk into a church that they’ll suddenly abandon all of their beliefs and their heritage?

Of course, to the best of my understanding, the majority of Jews in Israel are secular and have no affiliation to religious Judaism, but even still, why is it a foregone conclusion that if a Jew, secular or otherwise, is exposed to the inside of the church or speak to missionaries for a few minutes that they’ll automatically convert to Christianity?

There is another side to the story. One person commented below the news article:

I’m a religious Jew who has gone to the festival year after year. There is ALWAYS a light show on the side of the church because it IS part of the festival. Been there. Seen that. I don’t walk inside the church; nor have I ever seen anyone unintentionally walk inside the church. Is Gopshtain simply uninformed or is it intentional?

I have no idea. I have no yardstick by which to measure Gopshtain.

One possible explanation is that according to multiple sources including Rabbi Naftali Brewer at The Jewish Chronicle, it is forbidden for a Jew to go into a church for any reason whatsoever:

Your rabbi is correct. The rabbinic consensus, based on the Talmud (Avodah Zara 17a,) is that it is forbidden to enter a church, even if just to admire the architecture or artwork. This body of opinion spans the generations and comprises leading medieval Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis such as Maimonides, Rashba (Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet), Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Asevilli) and Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel), as well as contemporary halachists including Rabbis Moshe Feinstien, Ovadia Yosef and Eliezer Waldenberg.

But again, not all Jews are religious, so even though it is Rabbinically forbidden, secular Jews may not acknowledge that authority over their lives.

I should say that the same site also gave the opinion of Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain who states in part:

A key question is: why are you going into a church? Entering does not mean worshipping. It could be for a variety of other valid reasons: to admire the architecture, to attend the funeral of a non-Jewish friend or to learn about Christianity for the sake of dialogue.

There is a small possibility that a Jew may be so impressed by what he finds that he decides to convert – but such instances are extraordinarily rare. It also displays an insecurity about Jewish loyalties that is very unattractive. Why are we so afraid?

So I see two issues here.

The first is whether or not the church in question was trying to trick gullible Jews into entering their house of worship so they could fall into the clutches of missionaries?

The second is whether or not the majority of Jewish people are so vulnerable to conversion and assimilation that one visit to a church would put them at significant risk?

missionaries in israel
Image: yadlachim.org

I can only imagine that churches operating in Israel would be well aware of how Jews feel about being proselytized. While, again to the best of my knowledge, it’s not actually illegal for Christians to proselytize in the Holy Land, I believe it is highly discouraged by the authorities, both civil and religious.

If some Christian groups are engaged in “bait and switch” tactics all for the sake of “saving Jewish souls,” then in my opinion, they are violating the integrity of their calling. If you believe you should share the “good news of Jesus Christ” to Jewish people, be honest about what you’re doing and why.

If some Jewish groups are “stretching the truth,” or downright being disingenuous about the tactics and intent of Christian groups in their midst, then, for whatever reason, they’re painting a false portrait of those groups, depicting them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

I am well aware of the Church’s historical hostile and dishonest behavior toward Jewish communities, but it doesn’t mean that each and every Christian on the planet is de facto the vicious enemy of the Jewish people.

Maybe there should be a little balance exercised here.

In Defense of the Church

I know after today’s morning meditation, it probably seems like I’m becoming really “anti-Church,” but I want to correct that perception. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, February 16th after returning home from services. Actually, I started to mentally compose this blog post while in church, realizing that my last several missives were particularly critical of normative Christianity. After I’ve said all that, can I really be supportive of the Church?

I reminded myself earlier that, in spite of the Church’s imperfections, God is in church. I know He was there today (as I write this). Here’s one of the reasons I know:

Pastor Bill and his wife Joan: We visited Millie in her Life Care Center in Florida where she is receiving treatments for the neuropathy in her hands and feet brought on by the chemo/radiation cancer treatments — this condition is reversible, but it takes a long time — thanks for your prayers for Millie.

I can actually see Pastor Bill and Joan doing this. Pastor Bill is an older gentleman with a penchant for the old, traditional hymns. I can see him expressing compassion, warmth, and gentle humor as he was making this visit, offering care to the sick as Jesus has taught us.

I took the above quote from the Prayer Bulletin that’s included in the general Sunday bulletin handed out at the door when anyone enters for services. The bulletin contains all kinds of information. If you’ve ever visited a church on Sunday, you know what I’m talking about, but for me, the prayer bulletin is the most “Christ-like” piece of paper I anticipate. It tells me that the church cares, not just the entity of the local church, but the church that is made up of hundreds of individual believing human beings, each doing their best to walk with God and to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

Yes, as I’ve said before, the theology and doctrine needs some work, perhaps a lot of work in my humble opinion, but if I’m in a church where the people pray for one another, and where Pastors, members, and attendees visit the sick, donate food to the hungry, and ask God to help the needy (and who among us doesn’t need God?), then they obviously correctly understand some of the most important lessons the Bible teaches us.

Today (as I write this) we had a guest speaker, a young missionary to the Congo which this church sent out four years ago, and who is now back on furlough to give his report. He’s a farmer from the small town of Notus, Idaho, and yet he’s also a dynamic speaker (a little too dynamic sometimes) who has a passion for his work with the Congolese people. He had to hold himself back to an hour since he’s used to preaching anywhere between three to eight hours during any given service in the Congo.

CongoA lot of what Sparky (yes, that was the young missionary’s name) had to say reminded me of the message Conrad Mbewe presented during John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, how although about ninety percent of the people in the Congo are considered “Christian,” it’s a strange and bizarre form of Christianity that blends Christian beliefs with indigenous religion and superstition, combined with other Christian groups’ teachings of health and prosperity theology. It’s really mixed up stuff, driven by demonology and magic fetish objects.

Sparky’s message came from a number of Biblical sources and essentially said “Don’t be afraid.” The Congolese Christians are always afraid. They’re afraid of Satan, of demons, of magic, of curses, of all kinds of things. Sparky tries to counter that in his mission as he did in his message, by saying we are not given a spirit of fear but of love and courage when we become believers.

While Sparky was teaching, I thought of my own so-called “mission” into the Christian Church. Although I see the Church, and particularly people like Sparky as doing a tremendous amount of good, there’s still something missing that, when restored, will take the Church the final mile that leads to the return of the Messiah King. As I mentioned, that’s why I’m here, why I write, and why I strive to move forward and to not give up on the Church.

There’s a lot of good in the Church. It’s easy for me and those like me to just toss the Church aside because our theologies clash in the extreme in certain areas, but that’s not all the Church is. The Church is praying for people. The Church is visiting the sick. The Church is teaching courageous faith in God that never gives up and that is never defeated. The Church feeds the hungry. The Church shows compassion. The Church loves.

And even though the Church has flaws and labors under a lot of misunderstanding, God has not abandoned the Church and on any given Sunday, you will find God in Church.

From a Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots perspective, it’s easy to miss seeing God in Church, but that’s because we are looking at the Church’s imperfections and not her beauty. This is the same reason Christians often miss the fact that God (again, in my humble opinion) is also in the synagogue on any given Shabbat, any time a minyan is davening, whenever the Torah scroll is removed from the ark.

God hasn’t given up on the Jewish people either, even though, at this time, they resist or do not recognize the face of Messiah, he who has come and he who will come again in power and glory as King.

first-baptist-churchIt’s for the sake of both those worlds and the hope that when Messiah returns, he will find faith among people, that I must remind myself the Church, even as she exists today, still contains God within her walls. God is with His people, Jews and Gentiles. God is waiting. God is patient. God has a plan. He has a plan in the Congo with Sparky. He has a plan for Jewish people in Virginia. He has a plan for Baptists in Idaho. We each have a different role to play in that plan. We are all unique in that plan. The plan requires tremendous diversity of roles and people but all to an identical goal…the goal of bringing glory to God and the coming of King Messiah.

Once again, God reminded me that I’m only one small part of the plan, but that I do have my role to play.

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work.

-Ethics of the Fathers 2:21

I don’t have to do everything. I don’t have to change everything. From my point of view, it may be that I don’t see me changing anything. But if I’m faithful to play out my role, God will do the changing.

The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and the End of the First Day

Conrad-MbeweConrab [sic] Mbewe is a man who wears many hats and who fulfills many different responsibilities, but above all else he is a preacher of God’s Word. MacArthur introduced him by explaining that he wished to have Mbewe at the event because the charismatic movement has done devastating damage in Africa and he wanted an insider’s perspective. Mbewe titled his message “The African Import of Charismatic Chaos.” Here are some brief notes.

Mbewe decided to provide a brief overview of the charismatic movement in Africa. It is a movement he has observed for over thirty years and one that is of great concern to him. This is not something he has learned about by reading books, but something he comes across literally every day. He warned that some of what he would say would be somewhat foreign to a Western mindset, but he felt it necessary to speak from his African background.

-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: Conrad Mbewe,” October 17, 2013

Note: This was written before my meeting with my Pastor last night. More on this as developments occur.

I’ve been trying to figure out the logic of why certain presenters were scheduled and why their presentations were ordered as they were. I’m sure it was purposeful, but I don’t know enough about MacArthur and how he conceives of things to understand what the first day of the three-day Strange Fire conference was supposed to communicate beyond the obvious message that the Charismatic movement is undesirable and even dangerous.

Conrad Mbewe was the last of the speakers for the first day of the conference and he illustrated something for me that I’ve heard before. I used to think that when missionaries were sent to “the foreign field,” they transmitted a more or less generic message about Christianity to the unsaved in the various places on our planet. Now I realize that there is a sort of struggle between denominations and movements in Christianity to possess the minds and hearts of the people in all these nations and regions of the Earth. According to Mbewe, the Pentecostals pretty much “own” most of Africa.

As an African, there is a whole world in his mind that this invariably floods into. The word “breakthrough” is really saying to the common African man that if you are struggling in your marriage or struggling to conceive or struggling to maintain a job (and so on), it is because between you and God there are other layers that need to be dealt with. One of those layers is that of angels and demons and the other is that of your ancestral spirits. Until those layers are broken through, you will not get what you want. This is what the charismatic movement has taken on when dressed in African attire. The language that has already been there for centuries in Africa is given a thin veneer of Bible verses. You can understand, then, that if men and women are running in throngs to the witch doctor, they will rush in throngs to these so-called churches because it boasts the same power they are looking for.

I suspect that throughout the history of the Church, missionaries have encountered circumstances where what they preached, rather than replacing local beliefs and customs, have been integrated into existing beliefs, so that a sort of fusion occurs, as described above. The Pentecostal presentation of the power of the Spirit has been fused with local beliefs of ancestral spirits and witch doctors (or witch doctor substitutes), at least as far as what I can tell from this summary.

He proposes, “What’s to stop someone like me from coming up with irrational ideas because I’ve been empowered to do so?” He has counseled many, many people who are caught in these scandals—sexual scandals about spiritual husbands and wives, where a messenger from God, a pastor, steps in to be sexual partner with someone because of the authority that they have from God. These people keep God’s Word closed.

charismatic-prayerIf these events are indeed taking place, then serious abuse is occurring. The question is, should all Charismatics everywhere carry the blame, or only the people in those specific locations who are authoring this confusion? We have Mbewe’s commentary on what he’s witnessed in his area of the world. This is MacArthur’s building a case against Pentecostalism one brick at a time.

In no way do I defend the heinous practices Mbewe describes, and I can certainly support returning to scripture as a guide for right living. It very much seems, based on Mbewe’s report, that what many African people believe is “Christianity,” is a highly skewed and twisted version that has been heavily abused, to the detriment of many people. Unfortunately, that’s also a description of most of the history of Christianity, pre and post-reformation.

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

John 17:17 (NASB)

He went to John 17:17 and said the charismatic chaos we see would never have been the case if this verse had been taken seriously.

As much as MacArthur and his peers, including Mbewe, tout the sufficiency and even primacy of scripture, I was a little surprised to see that Mbewe used only a single verse from John to support his presentation. It’s also true that all incarnations of Christianity (and most other religions) lay exclusive claim to “truth,” so isolating John 17:17 and serving it up can actually serve both sides of this debate.

His final remarks expresed [sic] his relief to see the Reformed movement growing on the African continent, though it is still in its infancy there. He exhorted us all: We have got to pray and get back to the Bible! Today we are not saying enough that this book is sufficient. It is sufficient!

This isn’t just a conference designed to expose the flaws and dangers MacArthur and others believe the Charismatic movement represents, but one that markets and promotes the Reformed movement as a replacement. The simple message I’m getting from the conference so far is that, “The Charismatic movement is wrong and I’m/We’re (MacArthur/Reformed movement) right.”

Challies wrote a separate summary of the first day of the conference which outlines the presenters and their messages, as well as the overarching message of that day. How Challies ended his summary told me how it was all impacting him, which showed he that he wasn’t entirely expecting to agree with everything being warmed up over this strange fire:

Until the day of the event, and really until the end of MacArthur’s opening address, I was unsure of whether or not I would give a lot of attention to the event. But I am glad I chose to blog about it as it really does seem to be making a big splash in the Evangelical world and especially among the Reformed crowd that tends to read this site. Like you, I am very interested to know what will come today and tomorrow.

What remains to be seen, and what may take quite a long time to see, is whether this event will call Christians to work to find greater agreement on the issue of the miraculous gifts, or whether it will polarize the camps even further. It is fast becoming my prayer that one way or another the Lord will see fit to use this event to bring greater maturity and greater unity to his church.

I’m reminded of the political polarization that has taken place in our nation, especially during the current Presidential administration. I’m also reminded of a prize-fight. I remember being very young and visiting my grandfather at his house in Omaha. I remember him watching professional boxing matches on a small, black and white television while smoking his pipe. I was more focused on visiting grandpa and my aunts and uncle than really watching the boxing, but it still left an impression.

boxing-matchYou have two sides battling it out, although the battle is actually happening in the blogosphere (it’s not happening in the conference because only one “boxer” is doing the swinging).

But is seeking truth and the Word and Will of God supposed to be combat? I suppose “spiritual warfare” sounds pretty dramatic and even heroic, but I don’t think MacArthur has that terminology in mind. If this were a legal case in court, then both parties would have a chance to present their evidence before a judge. There’s no way to truly burn away the dross and produce a pure product without all of the elements being present. A legal court has been called a crucible of fact. MacArthur is attempting to construct a crucible of truth.

But all of his critics, the “defendants,” are stuck outside the courthouse, looking in through the windows, with the Internet as their only means of response. Do the Charismatics ever get their “day in court?”

Transmissions from Church: The Missionaries

acts_isaac_maryAfter some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Acts 15:36-41 (NASB)

I’m debating about whether or not to make “Transmissions from Church” a series, basically my “voice” about my experiences in Church worship and Bible study. I’ll make up my mind by the by, I suppose.

The above-quoted scripture was the basis for Pastor’s sermon last Sunday and the teaching in Sunday school. It’s always very interesting to me to see how Pastor can take a few verses that don’t seem to communicate a great deal theologically, and speak on them for ninety minutes.

But the sermon isn’t the first thing that happened in church last Sunday. The first thing that happened “officially” at the start of the announcements was an update about a missionary family that’s been serving in Papua New Guinea (PNG). What got my attention the most was the interaction the missionary had with one of the local Pastors, a man with only an elementary school education who on one Sunday, baptized twenty-two people. This Pastor lived and served in the mountains, a two-day walk from the nearest town. More than anything, he asked and even begged for more missionaries and more Pastors to speak the word of Christ to those people in the remotest parts of PNG who had never heard of Jesus.

I believe the Pastor’s name was David Livingston Tila. He was a man of great Spirit but his valiant heart was weak and he died not to long ago at too young an age.

I sometimes live in a very sheltered world in terms of my faith, and especially in terms of my theology and doctrine. I have a very narrow focus as far as what the Bible is trying to say, the identity of the Messiah, and how what God is trying to pass along to us may best be comprehended when viewed through a Jewish lens.

I was reminded recently that one of the primary functions of a disciple is to memorize the teachings of his Master and then pass those teachings along to the next generation, usually when that disciple has started to make his own disciples.

That’s also what missionaries do. They pass along the teachings of Jesus Christ to people who have never heard of Jesus before.

acts_messiah_ferret_visit_05Who are the missionaries? Except for A.C.T.S. for Messiah, the vast, vast majority of them are traditionally Christian Pastors and teachers, sent out by traditionally Christian churches and other organizations.

Within my own small set of connections across the blogosphere and occasionally in person, we debate about how movements such as Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism see things like the “message of salvation,” the identity of the Jewish Messiah, and what life will be like when the Son of David once again rules in Jerusalem.

I promise you that on a planetary scale, most people are not learning those things in the way Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism teaches them. They are learning those things the way the Church (big “C”) teaches them.

If you’re involved in Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism, that should make you feel kind of small.

Well, maybe not. I know that First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) manages to get around, not only in the United States, but in the Middle East and South Africa (and probably other places I don’t know about). The most recent eye-opening announcement from FFOZ is that they will soon be going to Hong Kong. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I know I didn’t.

My opinion is that stuff like this happens when Messianic Judaism approaches the Christian Church with an olive branch and an offer to partner on the mutual imperative (since we all serve one Messiah, and One God) to tell the world of the Messiah and make disciples of all nations.

But we have a long way to go.

Going back to last Sunday’s sermon, Pastor said that “the Church” in Antioch commended Paul and Sirus on their trip back to the churches in Galatia (no, there was no such thing as a “church” yet as we think of it in modern times). In Sunday school, it was noted that at one point Paul referred to himself as a “Father” to some of his disciples, and also that Peter called Mark his “son.” While everyone felt this expressed the love that Paul and Peter had for the “churches” and “Christians” they made, I reflected (silently) that it is common for a Rabbi to be considered the father of his disciples.

churchesA few weeks back, I wrote a blog post called The Christianization of Acts 15. I haven’t been to church again since I wrote that blog post until last Sunday. I had a legitimate reason on one Sunday, but on the other, I was just tired and I needed a break. I was even a little nervous about going back, but it all worked out. I even saw someone I hadn’t visited with in a long time. He was only there for that Sunday and I would have missed him if I hadn’t decided to go to services.

And I was reminded that the Church is still in charge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter what the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements may think about that. As I write this, it is quite possible that Pastor David’s plea for Pastors and missionaries to be sent to the remote areas of PNG is being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, and that men and women living in these areas, who have little education and who live very hard lives, are being taught about Jesus for the very first time. You and I can walk down any street in America and we can ask anyone we meet if they know who Jesus was and what a Christian is. Even if they are atheists, they’ll be able to give us an answer.

In PNG and many places on Earth like it, Pastors and missionaries are talking to people who have no idea who Jesus is but are more than eager to learn.

Pastor David baptized twenty-two people on a single Sunday. They worship in a church with no walls and they use wooden boards to sit on. Their biggest need until recently, was building materials so they could make a roof to keep out the rain.

In Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas, men who were friends and who had served God together for years, came to sharp disagreement, a violent argument, over whether or not Barnabas’s nephew John Mark should accompany them. The argument had an explosive ending when Paul chose Silas to go with him in his return trip to Galatia and Barnabas left with Mark for Cyprus.

Who was right and who was wrong? The “Church” in Antioch commended Paul and Silas, not Barnabas and Mark. Paul was always the point man for the mission to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, the function of any good disciple. Barnabas was in the background, supporting and encouraging Paul in his trials. Here, he supported Mark and the result was a splitting with Paul.

But something about that situation must have worked out. We learn later that Paul amended his opinion of Mark and considered him a valuable co-worker, helpful, and a comfort (Col. 4:10-11, 2 Tim 4:11, Philemon 1:24). Mark became Peter’s disciple and Peter (1 Peter 5:13) called Mark his “son.” And as Peter’s disciple, it was Mark’s responsibility to memorize everything Peter said about the teachings of Jesus (since Peter had been Messiah’s disciple), and he wrote everything down, which is where we get the Gospel of Mark.

We see that even situational arguments that seemingly end in disaster can have a good end, in part perhaps because of the situational arguments and other disasters.

broken-crossHow too is the body of Messiah currently carved up like a turkey on Thanksgiving, dark meat and light, giblets and gravy, drumsticks and wings, so many parts. On the one hand, we’re arguing and disagreeing on what we think the Bible is telling us and emphasizing why we’re right and the other folks are wrong (regardless of who “we” are and who the “other folks” are). On the other hand, we can see from Acts 15:36-41 and from the other scriptures I mined from my “church experience” last Sunday, that things didn’t turn out so bad for Mark down the road. Sure, he was accused of deserting Paul (in Acts 13:13) but for reasons we do not know, was able to restore himself in the community of “the Way” and specifically with Paul.

In the end for us, I don’t doubt that those problems we now have with each other, that we view as insurmountable barriers, will be smoothed down (or violently torn down) in Messiah’s reign, and every knee will bow to the King.

Some of those knees currently belong to people who live in the most remote areas of Papua New Guinea, who were brought to Christ as disciples by the now deceased Pastor David Livingston Tila, who are hungry to hear any Word of the Lord from whoever is willing to come as missionary or Pastor. The Master said, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Matthew 9:37). That’s because too many workers are still arguing with each other over theologies and doctrines instead of actually working.

Ki Tisa: The Doors of the Temple

moses-and-the-tabletsFraming the epic events of this week’s sedra are two objects—the two sets of tablets, the first given before, the second after, the sin of the golden calf. Of the first, we read:

The tablets were the work of G‑d; the writing was the writing of G‑d, engraved on the tablets.

These were perhaps the holiest objects in history: from beginning to end, the work of G‑d. Yet within hours they lay shattered, broken by Moses when he saw the calf and the Israelites dancing around it.

The second tablets, brought down by Moses on the tenth of Tishri, were the result of his prolonged plea to G‑d to forgive the people. This is the historic event that lies behind Yom Kippur (the tenth of Tishri), the day marked in perpetuity as a time of favor, forgiveness and reconciliation between G‑d and the Jewish people. The second tablets were different in one respect. They were not wholly the work of G‑d:

Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.

Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by G‑d, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of G‑d and Moses, did.

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“Two Types of Religious Encounter”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tisa

I don’t know if this seems so mysterious to me, even if I hadn’t read the rest of Rabbi Sacks’ article. I’ve always imagined that many of the acts of God were really committed through a “partnership” between Him and humanity. Certainly (in my opinion) the Bible is less of a document dictated by God into the ears of its passive writers and more of God stirring the spirit within each of the authors, allowing those people to pour out their witness, their drive, their passion onto the rest of us. God didn’t tell Paul word for word what to put in his letters, nor do I suspect that He personally crafted the Psalms or the Proverbs. Humanity must have a stake in what is holy or we can’t be part of it at all.

Hence Moses and God at Sinai with the tablets.

Hence Liu Zhenying, also known as Brother Yun, in China.

My mother had never learned to read or write, but she became the first preacher in our village. She led a small church in our house. Although my mum couldn’t remember much of God’s Word, she always exhorted us to focus on Jesus. As we cried out to him, Jesus helped us in his great mercy. As I look back on those early days, I’m amazed at how God used my mother despite her illiteracy and ignorance. The direction of her heart was totally surrendered to Jesus. Some of today’s great house church leaders in China first met the Lord through my mother’s ministry.

At first, I didn’t really know who Jesus was, but I’d seen him heal my father and liberate our family. I confidently committed myself to the God who had healed my father and saved us. During that time I frequently asked my mother who Jesus truly was. She told me, “Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for us, taking our sins and sicknesses. He recorded all his teachings in the Bible.”

I asked if there were any words of Jesus left that I could read for myself. She replied, “No. All his words are gone. There is nothing left of his teaching.” This was during the Cultural Revolution when Bibles could not be found.

-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway)
Chapter 2: A Hunger Fulfilled, pg 26
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

brother-yunIt seems as if God leaves “gaps” in his plan for humanity that only human beings can fill. There would be no stone tablets without Moses, and there would not have been many of “today’s great house church leaders in China” without Brother Yun’s mother. Brother Yun first came to faith at the age of 16 in 1974. As mentioned above, this was during the Communist “Cultural Revolution” and Christianity was illegal in China. If a person were found to be a Christian and particularly to possess a Bible (they were almost non-existent in China in the 1970s), the Bible would be burned and the person imprisoned and tortured, the Government demanding that the Christian renounce his faith. Often prisoners died under torture or through some other means while in captivity. Nevertheless there were courageous souls in China, including in impoverished Henan Province, who knowing next to nothing of who Jesus is and anything that was written in the Bible, still believed, and prayed, and had faith.

I’ve only just started this book, but as I tore into the opening pages, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the early churches that Paul had started and nurtured. In one sense, having visits from Paul and reading his letters for support, the former pagan believers and God-fearers turned disciples seem much better off than 16-year-old Liu Zhenying and his family. His mother had come to faith as a young woman thanks to Christian missionaries, but this was before the Communists came to power. The Christian missionaries…all Christian missionaries had either been put in prison or forced out of China by 1950, so whatever faith and learning Brother Yun’s mother possessed, atrophied and finally died…or almost.

Still the “early church” in the first century may not have experienced too much more of an advantage than the church in China in the mid-1970s. If there was a Jewish synagogue in the community that welcomed or at least tolerated the Gentile disciples of “the Way,” they could sit and hear the Torah and the Prophets being read and taught, daven the traditional prayers, and share some fellowship with the Jewish community. If not, such as with Lydia and the devout women in Philippi (see Acts 16:11-15), the Gentile believers would have to meet together without such support or encouragement and carry on as best they could. Full knowledge of the scriptures would probably not be available, and worship of God would be a matter of what could be remembered from the synagogue. But worship would be much more about the faith and endurance each of the worshipers could summon by the grace and Spirit of God.

God and man in partnership, meeting somewhere in between life, death, and infinity, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to earth one day at a time.

The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of divine-human encounter. They called them it’aruta de-l’eyla and it’aruta de-l’tata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G‑d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human, all too human.

-Rabbi Sacks

On 1 September 1901, a large ship docked in Shanghai Port. A young single lady from Norway walked off the gangplank onto Chinese soil for the first time. Marie Morsen was one of a new wave of missionaries who, inspired by the martyrdoms of the previous year, had dedicated themselves to full-time missionary service in China.

Monsen stayed in China for more than thirty years. For a time she lived in my county, Nanyang, where she encouraged and trained a small group of Chinese believers that had sprung up.

Marie Monsen was different from most other missionaries. She didn’t seem to be too concerned with making a good impression on the Chinese church leaders. She often told them, “You are all hypocrites! You confess Jesus Christ with your lips while your hearts are not fully committed to him! Repent before it is too late to escape God’s judgment!” She brought fire from the altar of God.

-Yun/Hattaway, pg 19

christian-devotionI’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog lately talking about Jewish identity, Torah obligation, healing the rift between the different shredded bits of flesh that, if put back together, would become the body of Christ, but sometimes it’s just good to “get back to basics.” What if you didn’t know what you know? What if you had never even seen the Bible? What if you only knew just little bits and pieces about who Jesus is and what he’s supposed to mean in your life…and yet you still possessed a dynamic, consuming, passionate faith that could lead you anywhere God called you to go?

So far, that’s what I’m finding in Brother Yun’s book. Maybe that’s what was taking place in the lives of many of the former pagan Gentiles who had come to faith but who, unlike the God-fearing Gentiles, had never spent much time in a synagogue, never seen a Torah scroll, and who had only bits and pieces of information about the foreign “Messiah” who died, not just for the Jews, but for the Greeks, the Romans, and everyone else in the world.

Brother Yun’s story also reminded me of another prisoner.

“[A]fter all of these pressures, after all of the nails they have pressed against my hands and feet, they are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ.”

Pastor Saeed Abedini
from a letter he wrote as a prisoner in Iran

People are put in prison for their faith and we believers on the blogosphere argue about theological minutiae. Men and women are beaten and tortured just because they’re Christians, and you and I complain at each other about whether or not a Gentile Christian should wear a kippah or pray with a siddur. What we consider “problems” and what we “whine” about on our blogs is nothing. There are real men and women of faith out there who know what it is to encounter God who really don’t care if they get a Shabbat rest as long as they are called to serve the Lord.

I’m not saying that many of the topics of our various debates are not worth the zeros and ones they’re printed with on the web, but I am saying that we tend to take those topics (and ourselves) way too seriously. Rabbi Sacks says:

An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not in and of itself change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.

temple-prayersEven if God chooses to “awaken us from above,” it probably wouldn’t last. I suspect that’s why we don’t see grand and astonishing miracles performed right before our amazed eyes. Miracles wouldn’t matter. In a day or a week, we’d be complaining about the same old stuff again. Only when we are open to being “awakened from below,” when we become willing partners with God, even a God we know almost nothing about, will we see miracles that will make a difference within us and more…miracles that will make a difference in the world. Am I being too dramatic?

About a week and a half ago, a friend of mine gave me Brother Yun’s book as a gift. In the western countries, we tend to take our faith for granted. We don’t have to fight for it. We’re not persecuted. Going to church isn’t a crime punishable by being sentenced to prison. Having a Bible and reading it in public won’t get us dragged off of the streets by the police and tortured in some government office.

God could accomplish everything He wants to do all by Himself. He needs nothing from us. But if He did it that way, we would have no ownership of Him, His plan, and His purpose in our lives. He acts only for our own sake, not for His. But we too must act, for a passive faith in a vain one. It is said that Messiah will build every part of the next Temple in Holy Jerusalem and construct it…all but the doors. It is said that one who puts up the doors of a house, even if he has built no other part of it, becomes owner of the house. We are expected to pull our weight, to take our part, to help repair our broken world. We are also expected to participate and be involved in what God is building, in raising David’s fallen sukkah.

We will put the doors on the Temple, and then it will be a house of prayer for all the peoples. If we didn’t, it would be God’s house, but we would be strangers in it. We are not called to be strangers, but sons and daughters of the Most High.

Everything can be done with joy. Even remorse can be with joy.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

21 Days: An Island Within an Island

waiting-in-the-antechamberAnother church report. I have to admit, this morning (as I write this), I dreaded going to church. I was afraid of what I’d find when I got there. Well, not during services since they’re rather predictable, but Sunday school. But first things first. The sermon was on Acts 8:1-8.

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

And so begins the great persecution of the church and the spreading of the Good News outside of Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and eventually to the rest of the world. Pastor used these verses as a platform to encourage his audience (the people in church listening to the sermon) to preach the Good News ourselves in our environment. Since he had previously been a missionary and is the son of missionaries, he also suggested we shouldn’t consider a foreign mission trip outside of the realm of possibility for us.

I found out something interesting, at least I think I did. Pastor made it a point to say that there wasn’t a priority necessarily for the Good News to first be preached in Jerusalem, then in Judea, then in Samaria, and then in the diaspora, but rather those who were scattered preached the Gospel wherever they went. I guess a lot of Christians look at this passage and figure that you are first to preach the Gospel in your own community, which somehow translates into having no desire to go to foreign places and do God’s work there. Pastor emphasized that there are many spiritual problems in the U.S. and a great need for the Word to be spread here, but we have lots and lots of churches. There are places where there is no access to the Word of God whatsoever and those are the places that need evangelists and missionaries.

Listening to Pastor, I realized that I didn’t know how some Christians looked at the Bible at all and what they thought it was supposed to be telling them. I had no idea that this part of Acts could be interpreted relative to whether or not it encourages Christians to do missionary work.

Of course, I also encountered a significant bias toward missionary work in foreign lands, both in terms of preaching the Word and helping with physical needs, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just the emphasis of the Pastor and of the church (they use a significant portion of their resources to support missionaries).

The theme continued in Sunday school. A couple who were visiting the class had spent decades as missionaries in the Congo. Interestingly, the wife had grown up there (her parents were also missionaries) and her husband had spent the last 25 years or so with her in the Congo. They told us that whatever we do or don’t see on the news isn’t like what is actually happening. Another fellow, who had just returned from Turkey (not as a missionary..his job just takes him there) said he had met a “war photographer” on the return flight who showed him his work. The photographer said that 95% of this photos would never make it into the media because Americans don’t want to know what’s really happening in the world (I tend to believe that’s the perception of a censored and biased press, but he’s probably right). There’s a lot of persecution of Christian missionaries in Muslim countries that the Western press never, ever talks about, even though there’s amble information and evidence, such as the photos in that war photographer’s camera.

walking-alone-on-frozen-lake1I was listening to all of this as an outside observer. I really didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation and at those moments when I was tempted, I wrote in my notes “bite your tongue.” I know that missionaries living and working in the “foreign mission field” really do live in a different world from mine, but just being in that class felt like a different world too. I was sitting in class reflecting on my experience of being at church and realized that people were starting to get used to me being around. I knew that when I realized that fewer people were greeting me. A few people said “hi” but it wasn’t with the same frequency and intensity. I guess they’re probably saying, “the ball is in your court.” In other words, what am I going to do to become a member of this community?

I have no idea.

As I was going out the door to go to church, my wife said, “Have fun.” I wasn’t anticipating having fun and when she asked me why I was going, I blurted out something about a sense of obligation…that I had a responsibility to be “in community.” I go to church because I feel obligated to go, not because I get a lot of “pizzazz” out of it. I suppose I shouldn’t expect a lot of pizzazz. I managed to get through singing the Christmas hymns and listened to Pastor’s sermon which often is the highlight of my church experience. What’s “fun” or “pizzazz” got to do with it?

Charlie, the leader of the class I attend, announced that he would be leaving class at the end of December. I guess he doesn’t feel well, but I’d have to be able to read between the lines to understand more. He asked for people to volunteer to take over leading the class and if no one did, the class would disband. So one of my very tenuous holds in church, this class, is probably going “bye-bye.” There are a number of other adult classes being offered so I suppose I could attend one of them, but do I want to and what would be the point?

A Russian congregation had been using the church building for their services on Sunday afternoons but Charlie mentioned that they had disbanded last week. There are about thirty or so Russian-type congregations in the Boise area and I used to know some of the folks involved (they occasionally attended the One Law group where I used to worship). Charlie mentioned that whatever bond had held the Russians together (and they had been persecuted for their faith in their own land) had dissolved and it made me realize that “bonding” to the people at this church is a real struggle. In listening to different people in the class talk, I found out that many of these people had known each other for decades, sometimes back into childhood, and that many had an unbroken Christian faith also going back that far.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve found it difficult to “bond” with religious people in general…my being a “Johnny-come-lately” as far as my faith. In some ways, sitting there in that Sunday school class, I felt like I had just become a Christian and outside of that knowledge, was completely disconnected from whatever else it means to be a Christian. I also discovered that those people feel disconnected and isolated too, but in this case, it’s because of “rampant sin in the world” that the world “dresses up” sin to look acceptable, and the world wants the rest of us to accept it, too (they were probably talking about recent changes in the laws in some states allowing gay marriages).

A life of faith is isolating and in visiting this church it’s like I’m an island visiting a somewhat larger island. While I feel I’ve reasonably resolved my personal uncertainty about remaining online, at least here in the blogosphere, remaining at church past my deadline is still a big, fat question mark. The people and groups in the church who feel alienated from the larger culture have each other in their community, but I’m a stranger in their very strange land. You can’t get to know people at church between the service, the singing, the prayers, the sermon, the Sunday school class discussion, but I don’t know how to form connections to take it to a more meaningful level.

alone-at-churchIt wouldn’t be any different in other church and it wouldn’t be any different in a synagogue or other social setting. When my wife and I first started a church experience many years ago, we already knew some of the other families attending, so we had a way “in.” I don’t know how to do that here and I don’t know that I should. On the other hand, I’m afraid of simply giving up too soon, especially if (and I know this will sound “churchy”) God has some sort of plan for me to continue here.

I feel like a person who has been handed an anonymous note telling him to enter a room and introduce himself to the stranger he discovers inside. There’s no context, no reason, no apparent purpose to the encounter and only a minimal and mysterious set of instructions that act as guide.

Will there be church after the next three weeks? I don’t know. If there is, then I can’t imagine what I’ll be doing there. If it’s where God wants me to be, then I guess I’ll go to services, go to Sunday school, and remain a tiny island visiting a larger island for about three hours every Sunday. I’ll follow the instructions on the note, enter the room, introduce myself to the person I find inside, and then we can both wonder what we’re supposed to do next.

Reality Check: After writing all of the above, I had coffee on Sunday afternoon with a friend who has been at his current church for four years. He’s been a believer for most of his life (we’re about the same age) and he’s been through many different churches and movements over the course of a life of faith. He told me it will take at least a year for me to feel any sort of integration into church at all. A year?