Tag Archives: Pastor

God Was In Church Today

ChurchI went back to church today after a three-week absence. I’ll admit that I was avoiding Christmas. I’m OK with people in the general public wishing me a “Merry Christmas” but knowing the additional meaning those two words carry in Christianity, I thought it best to keep a low profile. No one mentioned my not being around and they probably just assumed I was spending the holidays out-of-town with relatives.

God reminded me that He is still in church today. No, I didn’t have a vision or hear a loud, booming voice or anything like that. Three things happened.

The first was a missionary to Ireland (I never heard of such a thing before) who was diagnosed with cancer back in August while serving on his mission, was in our church with his wife today (they attended our church until leaving for Ireland on their mission in 2005). He still walks with a limp and a cane, but the tumor was removed from the bone in his leg and the radiation treatments are done, so he’s finally beginning to heal and go into physical therapy.

I was surprised how young Dean (the missionary) was. Not a grey hair in his head. For some reason, I expected him to be older. He also was very gracious about having cancer. He said it opened up opportunities while in Ireland once word got around. People approached him with their own physical or medical difficulties or crises in relation to faith and their spiritual lives. Sure, maybe between him, his wife, and God, Dean had a lot of hurt and angry things to say, but you’d never know it by listening to him in church this Sunday.

The second thing that happened was Pastor Dave leading prayer. No, that’s not unusual of course, but he’s going in for some surgery tomorrow (three people in church are all having surgery on Monday). Dave is also a young guy, in his 40s but he looks younger to me (I guess that doesn’t hurt when you’re the youth Pastor). I didn’t write down the prayer and I don’t remember the words, but the “feeling” of graciousness is what sticks with me. I know that some people in Hebrew Roots and related movements have left “the Church” because of some harm (real or perceived) they endured at the hands of Christians, but even though I don’t always agree with the standard theology and doctrine, I will never criticize the people I worshiped with today for a lack of compassion and love of God and each other.

The third thing that happened was during the music. Pastor Bill (who is an older gentleman) sometimes leads the singing when the usual people who are more “officially” musical are unavailable. There are hymn books, but most people use the projection of the lyrics on the screen at the front of the room. At one point early in the first hymn, Pastor Bill stopped the singing. There was a lyric about surrendering everything to Jesus. He pointed out that it doesn’t mean just “Sundays” or just a few things, but everything. I wonder how many of us really, really have surrendered everything? I know I have a long way to go in working through my imperfections as a human being who purports to be a disciple of Messiah.

God was in church today.

Be the ChurchTrue, I felt a few disturbing tremors in Pastor Randy’s sermon, reminding me that he still reads my blog (though I could be reading too much between the lines of his message) and doesn’t always agree with my opinions, but his grasp of history related to scripture always opens up new worlds in the Bible for me. It’s also true that when I got to the Sunday school class, it was uncharacteristically dark, with no indication that the teacher or anyone else had set the room up for us. Since we have a “guest missionary” with us today, and since plans change at church quickly sometimes, I figured we weren’t having class after all, so I turned around and headed on home. I was disappointed, but things happen.

Pastor Randy’s been out-of-town for a few weeks for a family reunion, and I just found out that he’s going to be gone in relation to his doctorate program for most of January, so I guess our conversations are on an extended hiatus. Another disappointment.

But God was in church today, so that makes up for those few things that didn’t quite work out.

I’ve been struggling with church for a while now and being out for three weeks only made it that much more difficult to go back today. But instead of focusing on the differences I experience between my viewpoint and the “official story” of doctrine and dogma, I need to look at what we all have in common and what I am learning about God, the Bible, and myself.

God was in church today. Maybe He’ll be there next Sunday, too.

Straightening the Road of the King

what-is-the-churchWhat is the “church?” Who belongs to the church? How is the church related to Judaism or is the church related to Judaism in the current age? These are the questions my Pastor and I discussed last Wednesday night. Sometimes, when we talk of these puzzling subjects, I have a difficult time conceptualizing my thoughts and feelings and articulating them while I’m with him in his office. So I ponder, and think, and occasionally, I draw (you’ll see what I mean as you scroll down while reading).

I think I’ve come up with a “vision” of Pastor’s understanding of the evolution of the church from its beginnings in Judaism as well as my own “vision.” I apologize to Pastor and to you in advance for any misunderstanding I have of his point of view. He recently pointed out to me how I didn’t have a correct understanding of his view of the “end times” (which I blogged about) and sometime soon, I’ll need to post a retraction (he told me he doesn’t find a retraction or correction necessary, but I find it necessary if I intend to be honest in my transactions with him and everyone else).

First things first. There are some areas we necessarily agree upon. God made a covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob involving promises relating to the Land of Israel, making their descendants very numerous, promises that they would be a blessing to all nations (through Messiah), and that circumcision would be the physical sign between God and the specific, biological descendants of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would be the inheritors of these covenant promises.

The patriarchs came from Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel came from the patriarchs. Moses led the twelve tribes out of slavery in Egypt and God redeemed them as His special people, as per the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. God then added to His promises at Sinai and gave the Torah, the teaching and instruction for righteous living to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This also functions as the national constitution of Israel, and has multiple other purposes.

At this point in history, Gentiles can only join Israel as gerim, which isn’t exactly conversion. The idea is that a Gentile would do what the Israelites would do in terms of the mitzvot, but the Gentiles would never become Israelites in their generation. More like resident aliens. No one can convert to a tribe or a family clan. Only after the third generation, would the ger’s children have intermarried into tribal Israel and ultimately assimilate into the Israelites. This was the only path for a Gentile to join the covenant people of God.

After the Babylonian exile and a lot of history passed by, tribal and clan affiliations were all but lost. The Jewish religious authorities instituted what we understand as the ritual of conversion. Now, if a Gentile wants to join national Israel and the Jewish people, they must undergo a process supervised by Jewish religious authorities (in modern Orthodox Judaism, it is a group of three Rabbis who form a Beit Din). The men are circumcised and both men and women are “mikvahed” as the final act of conversion. They go down into the water as a Gentile and come up as a Jew. There is no multi-generational “delay” and the individual Gentile who desires to be Jewish can become Jewish and thereafter, they and all of their descendants are considered Jews.

stream1Then Jesus comes. At this point, there are born Jews and there are Jewish converts or proselytes to Judaism. Jesus doesn’t speak against the ritual of the proselytes and does not overturn this institution, even though it is not directly found in the Torah. Remember, Jesus wasn’t adverse to opposing Jewish traditions and he did overturn or object to other halachah of the scribes and Pharisees on occasion (Matthew 15:1-14 for example). We also see that Paul encountered Jewish proselytes (Acts 13:43 for instance) and he too never said a cross word about the Jewish converts or the practice of converting Gentiles to Judaism (though in Galatians, he spoke strongly against Gentiles converting to Judaism as the only way to be justified before God). Both Jesus and Paul were very direct about expressing their thoughts and feelings and if either one had a problem with the Jewish conversion process, they would have said so…but they never did.

But something new happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

I wonder if the Jewish apostles truly understood the implications of Messiah’s words. Did they believe he wanted them to make converts of the Gentiles, “mikvahing” them into Judaism? All of the other streams of Judaism accepted Gentile converts, why should “the Way” be any different?

But it was and is.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Acts 10:44-48 (NASB)

stream2Here we see our answer. Gentile believers, like the Jewish believers, received the Holy Spirit and were baptized by water without being circumcised and converting to Judaism! This was revolutionary. This was astounding. This had never, ever happened before. It was without compare. Paul perceived this vision clearly in his subsequent work with Gentiles, but it wasn’t until the matter was brought before the council of apostles and elders of the Way in Jerusalem that a formal, legal status was granted to the Gentiles entering into a wholly Jewish religious stream (see my Return to Jerusalem series for a detailed analysis of this process).

But it’s at Acts 2 that Pastor and I disagree. He believes that Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church” and that sometime remarkable happened. Something remarkable did happen, but we don’t agree on exactly what it is. To the best of my ability to relate (and again, I apologize in advance if I mess any of this up), Pastor believes that an entirely new entity, “the Church” emerged from a Jewish religious stream and although it is made up of both Jewish and Gentile members, the members all form a single, uniform body of Messiah. At this point, the Torah is “fulfilled” and is no longer a set of commandments or obligations for the Jewish Christians. Jewish and Gentile Christians share a single set of obligations under the grace of Jesus Christ.

This effectively separates the Jewish members in the Church from larger Israel and the Jewish people. Pastor says that all Jews share in the covenant promises of God, particularly possession of the Land of Israel in perpetuity, but that only the Jewish Christians are saved.

My point of view is different.

I see the creation of the Body of Messiah (I’m not going to call it “the Church” in order to distinguish Pastor’s perspective from mine) as the natural and logical extension of everything that happened in Biblical and historical Judaism before it. The entire stream of history and prophesy for Israel pointed inevitably to the Jewish Messiah, so when Jesus came, it was the pinnacle, the focal point, the historical hinge upon which everything in Judaism was aimed at and upon which it turned.

But while it was revolutionary for Gentiles to be allowed to enter a stream of Judaism without converting to Judaism and being considered Jewish, their admittance wasn’t the end of the Jewish stream that accepted Jesus as Messiah as a Judaism, nor was it replaced by another religion or religious entity. It was a Judaism that had Gentiles admitted as equal members in relation to salvation and access to God, but it didn’t turn “the Way” or “Messianic Judaism” into “the Church.”

That happened unfortunately, after the Jewish/Gentile schism in the movement (and there’s a lot of history available to describe the details, so I won’t replicate it here) and in my opinion, the “Gentile Church” was born when the Gentile Church leadership agreed that it was no longer a Judaism and that Jews were not welcome unless they converted to Christianity!

If Pastor is right, then we have to consider the Jews in the Church as irrevocably separated from their Jewish brothers and sisters and perhaps even national Israel, since they no longer can identify with Israel, the Torah, and the connection the Torah provides a Jew with his nation and his God. If I’m right, then we have to consider the Body of Believers in Messiah as a Jewish stream, albeit a somewhat unique one because of such a large Gentile membership, that runs parallel to all other Jewish religious streams pointing toward the future and the eventual return of the King. We also have to admit that the Torah is not canceled and that Messianic Jews share an equal obligation to the mitzvot as all other Jewish people.

stream3Again, I sincerely apologize to my Pastor and to everyone reading this if I got his perspective on these matters wrong, in even the slightest detail. It is not my intention to misrepresent anyone, but it is my intention to draw a distinction between our two viewpoints.

Does it matter who is right? Is my purpose in the church, let alone the reason for my existence, simply to be right? As I’ve discovered (or re-discovered) recently, the answer is yes and no. No, it doesn’t matter if I personally am right. The world doesn’t depend on my one, small opinion. Statistics vary, but recent research indicates that there are anywhere between one and three-quarter million blogs to perhaps up to 164 million blogs in existence, and even the people compiling these numbers admit the list is incomplete. The number of individual blog posts goes into the billions and billions. Compared to all that, my one little blog can hardly matter, even in the human realm, let alone God’s. Any religious blogger who thinks they’re “all that and a bag of chips” can only make me laugh.

On the other hand, it’s vitally important to examine the question “who is the Church” and especially “what is the Church”. If “the Church” turns out to be a terribly misguided Judaism that has wildly deviated from its original course, then we require an exceptionally radical “course correction.” No, I’m not suggesting a revolution in the Church as such, where we strip away 100% of church culture as it has evolved over the past twenty centuries, but I am suggesting some form of change.

This is exactly the sort of process described by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael in his book Tent of David. The answer to the question of who and what “the Church” is has profound implications if we believe that the modern Messianic Jewish opinion is correct and that “the Church” was never intended to be a totally unique religious unit, disconnected forever from Israel, the Torah, and the Jewish people.

In my opinion, everything God did across human history was ultimately additive, no replacements or substitutions accepted. Abraham and God make a covenant, and as part of the conditions of that covenant, Isaac is added, then Jacob is added, then Jacob’s children are added as the patriarchs, and then their descendants, the Children of Israel are added, and they are made into a nation and the Torah is added, and possessing the Land of Israel is added, and all of the prophesies by all of the prophets pointing to the Messiah and the Kingdom of Heaven are added, and the birth of Messiah is added, and the death and resurrection of Messiah are added, and the Jewish religious stream that is identified by faith in Messiah is added, which includes the Gentiles entering this Jewish stream being recipients of the blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham…all in one, nice, neat, straight line across history as drawn on the canvas of time by God.

What we have now in the 21st century is something of a mess, but that’s what happens when God gives us a gift and then lets us play with it for 2,000 years. We’ve bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated it, but not beyond repair. Repair is what I think Messianic Judaism is all about. It’s tikkun olam or repairing the world with a Messianic twist. It’s a voice in the wilderness calling out to the synagogue and the church saying, “It’s time to take a fresh look at all this so we can clean the place up and get ready for the King’s return.”

The roadOne nice, neat, straight line from Abraham to Moshiach. Any bends in the road, any wrinkles in the asphalt, any potholes, any mudslides, any detours, have nothing to do with God and His intent. We’re the ones with the jack hammers and sledge hammers pounding away at that line, making it crooked and not straight. But we’re the ones who were charged with caring for the road, just as Adam was charged with caring for the Garden (and look how that one turned out).

I’m not in charge with being “right” but God did say that I’m supposed to take care of my little section of the road upon which the King will walk as he returns. I can’t fix it all, but I have to do something. He’s coming soon. I can’t just lie down on the job and call it good. He’s coming soon. I’ve got to do my best, with the help and by the will and grace of God, to make and keep my little piece of the road of the King straight.

For more about the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in the Body of Messiah, see Derek Leman’s short article, Citizens, Not Natives.

Wednesday Night in My Pastor’s Office

iron-sharpens-iron-hotWhat then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God…”

Romans 3:9-11 (NASB)

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin.

Ecclesiastes 7:20

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

…be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”
Aish.com

Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)

Last night I met with Pastor Randy for the first time in several weeks. He has been away in Southern California as part of his Ph.D program and just returned late last week. Prior to our meeting, he sent me two PDFs as email attachments, one was a chart he had drawn as a graphic representation all the covenants, and the other was a text description of the covenants. I have to admit, I was intimidated. He was responding to something I had blogged earlier in the week. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In response and to prepare for the meeting, I sent him a link to my blog post Abraham, Jews, and Christians, since I suspected we’d be discussing the differences between how Jews and Christians are connected by covenant to God and specifically why I believe that the Torah, the conditions pertaining to the Sinai covenant, still apply to the Jewish people today.

AbrahamI hadn’t slept well the night before, so I was running on three hours rest and as much chutzpah as I could summon. All I wanted to do was to go to bed (our meeting was scheduled for 6:30 p.m., so as you can imagine, I must have been really tired), but I wanted to have this meeting, too. Armed with my hardcopy printouts and my Bible, I went to church.

Actually, it was a blast. I had a great time. When we started talking, I forgot completely about being tired. Pastor gifted me with Thomas Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, which I’ll start as soon as I finish the Septuagint book. I suspect Schreiner’s book is going to be a “challenge” to me, but that’s almost always a good way to learn. During our conversation, he suggested half a dozen other books for me, which I’m not going to reference here, so I suspect my reading list has been reserved for the next few months.

We actually agreed on most of the details of the covenant connection Christians have through Abraham and why that results in the Gentile church “bypassing” the Sinai covenant, but following a series of links from Abraham, to the New Covenant, to the “Last Supper,” to Paul’s commentary on Abraham in Galatians 3:16. The only link we Christians have through the Abrahamic covenant is stated in Genesis 12:1-3 which is the Messianic blessing on all the peoples of the earth. This was stated before the portion of the covenant requiring circumcision (which links the rest of the Abrahamic covenant directly through Isaac, through Jacob, and then to Jacob’s sons, the Patriarchs, and then the twelve tribes of Israel, and ultimately the Jewish people).

Where we disagreed was familiar territory: the duration of the Sinai covenant. Pastor believes that it should have ended at the cross with a “transitionary period” lasting until the close of the Biblical canon. My opinion is that it extends much further, well past our current age and through the Messianic Era, finally terminating at what we could consider “the end of time” as we understand it.

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 (NASB)

temple-prayersAs long as there’s a Temple in Jerusalem or the promise that it will be rebuilt (which we have in the promise of Messiah’s return), then the Torah cannot pass away from existence and neither can Israel and the Jewish people (Jeremiah 31:35-36, Matthew 5:17-19). The best one can say is that certain portions (the Laws pertaining to the Temple, the Priesthood, the Sanhedrin, and certain other ordinances regarding the Land of Israel itself) go into abeyance, a state of being temporarily set aside. When Hebrews 8:13 talks about the “Old Covenant” passing away, it describes the process of currently passing away, not having already passed away. I just happen to think that “passing away” process doesn’t end until the coming of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10).

We also agreed on one thing that will make a lot of Christians a little nervous. We agreed that the New Covenant isn’t yet a “done deal.” In other words, not all the work was finished “on the cross.”

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

Pastor used another term, but the way I see it, God’s finger is still in the process of writing the Law within us and on our hearts. If He had already finished it with the first coming of Messiah, we would all “Know the Lord” and we don’t yet. The moving finger has not yet “writ” and thus has yet to move on. Link the still writing finger of Jeremiah 31 with the slowly passing away of the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8:13 and I think you’ll see the Torah as it currently exists will be with us for quite some time.

We still went ’round a bit on the purpose and reason for the Law and finally agreed that how it is applied is largely situational (which I mentioned a few days ago). Pastor again tried to tell me that the Torah was given to show the Israelites that it was too hard for anyone to obey His Law and that they needed Messiah. I pointed to Deuteronomy 30, and he replied, Romans 4. I pointed out that one part of the Bible doesn’t cancel another and that only certain parts of Torah have been temporarily set aside as I mentioned above. I also referred back to Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 to illustrate that the Israelites didn’t experience Torah as a burden or a hardship but instead, their foremost joy.

Reading_TorahHe says the Torah does not provide salvation. I know that and I agree. It never did. When Israel violated the conditions of Torah they were ultimately exiled. And they were ultimately called back to God and restored to their Land. Why? Because of God’s love and grace. He never let them go. In that, we Christians are no different, though the nations are not corporately linked to God as is Israel. When we are disobedient, we are not abandoned but instead disciplined. When we become humbled and cry out, God brings us back, even as He has Israel. The Torah doesn’t save. It works as a specific set of conditions indicating the Jewish people are set aside for God, and the conditions apply to them alone on top of the obligations Torah applies to we Gentile believers.

Like I said in the quotes above, no one is righteous, no not even one. The Torah doesn’t confer righteousness, only our faith and God’s grace does that.

I don’t think he’s convinced, but I did the best I could to illuminate my end of the conversation. Part of the problem is Pastor’s perception of “Rabbinic Judaism,” but right then, I was only trying to show that during New Testament times, Torah continued to apply and the Torah moves forward across history. I didn’t want to even comment about the post-Biblical Rabbinic period until I created a bridge that started at Sinai and moved past the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascendance, with the Torah moving across that bridge and forward, spanning the history of the Jewish people. Jesus didn’t just observe the Law because he was born on the “wrong side of the cross,” he did so because that’s the obligation and the joy for all Jews under covenant. His death didn’t change that.

Boaz Michael puts things is proper perspective, I think:

This may sound counterintuitive to many, but the gospel—the story of Jesus’ first coming, his earthly life, his death and resurrection—is not the fulfillment or even the climax of Israel’s story. It does not complete or resolve the narrative that begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. It does not fulfill God’s promises to David in the books of the early prophets. It does not fulfill the promises of the later prophets concerning Israel’s final destiny. It does not even fulfill the Torah itself, in which God promises certain things to his people Israel after their return from exile.

The completion or resolution of Israel’s story does not and will not occur until she is redeemed from her exile, planted firmly in the land God has promised to her, and returned to a state of loving obedience to the Torah under the leadership of the Son of David, Yeshua the Messiah.

I mentioned the example of 19th century Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein who came to faith in Yeshua past the age of sixty; a person who was wholly Jewish before and after coming to Messianic faith who found that Torah was illuminated, expanded, and possessed of great joy by the Messiah. When Messiah “fulfills” the Torah, it doesn’t end, but it is shown to be truly perfect in Moshiach! Observance goes on for the Jewish believers, but it is Torah observance with much greater meaning, something that as a Gentile Christian, I can hardly even imagine.

Pastor surprised me a bit. My opinion has been that the population of Jews in Messiah dwindled more or less steadily past the Biblical period and finally extinguished completely sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries CE, and then finding a slow resurgence in the past several centuries.

Pastor contradicted me and said he believes that across the past two-thousand years, there has always been a remnant of Messianic Jews. I’d love to believe that but I need to see some evidence. He pointed me to a book called Our Jewish Friends by Louis Goldberg, which I’ll certainly have to read to see the validity of such a claim and how it could possibly be substantiated. Does Goldberg mean Jewish converts to Christianity? To me that’s not the same thing as people who live fully Jewish lives realized in Messiah. Now that would be a thrill to discover.

first-baptist-churchIn many ways, last night’s talk was one of our most productive conversations, at least for me. We won’t be able to meet again for another couple of weeks, but I’m looking forward to it. I mentioned to Pastor that the following day’s “meditation” would be called On Being a Good Christian and was based on his sermon from last Sunday. That led to my angst on ever being able to officially join a local church and the dilemma of “denominationalism” for me. We know that Paul frowned on such divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) but he told me (surprising me again) that we can’t anachronistically apply Paul to our modern church.

We agreed that at the heart of all disciples in Messiah, we must all contain a set of core beliefs, without which, we cannot call ourselves “Christians” (which in this case, would include “Messianics”). Beyond that, denominations provide additional dimensions based on social, cultural, and sometimes even ethnic similarities. I had a brief epiphany and said that denominations were not unlike the evolution of the different streams of ancient and modern Judaism including the addition of elements of culture and tradition. I don’t think Pastor expected that comparison and hopefully it will be food for thought in subsequent conversations.

But since I opened the door, our next conversation in two weeks will be on the differences in Christian denominations. I actually need this since my grasp on the topic is extremely weak. I don’t know if I’m learning to be a better Christian, but I hope I’m growing and learning to be a better child of God.

Blessings on my Pastor for his patience, his intelligence, his passion, and his friendship.

 

 

Where Does Faith Go When It Is Lost?

strange-landWhat happens when one day a rabbi discovers that he has lost his faith? Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher asked himself that question – which turned into to a fascinating study.

Seven rabbis agreed to “talk about it” – three Conservative community rabbis in the United States, and four strictly Orthodox rabbis who live in Israel and have a double identity: Secretly atheists, and rabbis and believers openly.

-Tali Farkash
“Atheists in closet: Rabbis who lost God”
Published 07.28.13, 11:13, ynetnews.com

Over a year ago, I published a blog post on a very similar topic called When We’re Left Behind. It was based on an article written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty for NPR.org called “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”.

How crushing would it be to love your Pastor or Rabbi, having attended his (or her) congregation for years and growing close to him (or her) as a model of faith, and then to discover that this “Holy person” has no faith in God at all and in fact is an atheist? What would that do you your faith (or mine)?

I don’t want to recycle something I’ve written before, but this brings up some new questions about the nature of religion (as opposed to faith) and how we live it out in our lives. While I certainly can’t deny the social role of church for Christians, we lack (in most cases) the connection to our religious community based on ethnicity, culture, and sometimes race. It is true there are churches that have such a basis, such as African-American churches and Korean churches, but for the most part, the Church as a social entity is just a group of people who (in theory) share the same theology and doctrine about God but who otherwise come from a wide spectrum of social, economic, educational, and employment backgrounds (this probably isn’t true in an absolute sense, but I’ll use it as a general principle for the sake of this essay).

Jewish synagogue life is a different thing because what is being shared is a lot of cultural, ethnic, traditional, religious, and even national and DNA components. It goes back to the difference between “What is a Jew?” and “What is a Christian?” You can’t just say people who have different religions. Being Jewish is enormously more complicated and in some ways, elusive in definition.

So I can see a Rabbi who becomes an atheist having a tougher time in leaving his/her community than a Pastor in the same situation (not that it wouldn’t be really hard on the Pastor as well). From a Rabbi’s point of view, if you are leading a shul in a small community, leaving the synagogue would be leaving behind your entire social, friendship, and possibly family circles. Your entire life, or most of it, probably flows through synagogue life. I suppose something similar could be said of a Pastor as well, but perhaps not quite to the same depth.

How about extending the topic beyond Rabbis and Pastors? My wife says that at our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, the Friday night service is aimed at more secular Jews who connect socially and through traditions, while the Saturday Shabbat service is more for “religious Jews.” The missus even says that some of the synagogue members wish that the current Rabbi would retire/move on (he’s still in his 40s, so is nowhere near retirement age) because he’s “too religious.”

At the opposite religious extreme are the Ultra-Orthodox or the Haredim, who seem to take the slightest infraction of the mitzvot, even among those Jewish people who are not Haredi, so, so seriously, to the point of being abusive and assaultive. It seems like something has gone horribly wrong in certain corners religious Judaism where, on the one extreme, God is all but ignored, and on the other, God is exceptionally tightfisted and punitive, and adherents experience no problem in actually attacking other human beings.

I don’t know if you get that exactly in Christianity, although to be sure, we have churches that are so extremely liberal that God seems like an afterthought and Biblical standards are as fluid as quicksand. We also have churches and groups so hyper-conservative that they too don’t care who they hurt or what damage they do to other human beings, even desecrating the funerals of military men and women for the sake of their distorted theology and need to push their weight around. I’d call that going horribly wrong, too.

It’s enough to make me lose my faith in religious people.

Waiting to danceBut what makes a person lose their faith in God? Of some of the folks and groups I’ve just mentioned, they probably didn’t have faith as such to begin with. Their religious venues are more a tradition-based, cultural, and social outlet, as opposed to a gathering where an encounter with God is sought. At the opposite extreme, it may not be God that anyone is looking for, but the need to impose internal punitive, restrictive, and ultra-conservative standards on the entire environment of human beings. As far as I can tell, God’s chosen method of operation isn’t to either ignore His standards or massively exaggerate them and then force them on others without so much as a by your leave.

I know my Pastor will disagree with me, but I believe we have a choice. I believe we have lots of choices in life, the first or at least the most important being whether or not we are going to have a relationship with God. After that, other choices follow. I believe God is like a Father or teacher (sometimes the roles overlap). Certainly if we act foolishly, we should fear Him, but fear isn’t the primary foundation upon which our relationship is built. Neither is hate. Neither is casualness and pandering to social agendas.

Once we have faith in God, and more importantly, trust, how can we lose that? Some folks say you can’t unless you never had it in the first place:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-30 (NASB)

That creates a problem because here we see people, Pastors and Rabbis, who have lost their faith (although Jews, because they are born into covenant, are accountable whether they have faith or not). Did they have it in the first place or did something else happen? What if they actually have faith somewhere at their core, faith in God that is, but lost something else instead? What if they lost their faith in religious people or the mechanics of religion?

I don’t think I could lose faith in God but there are days I’d throw religion and religious people out the window, slam it shut, lock it, and never look out again. A life in community, whether in person or online, can be really frustrating at times. We have all of these high ideals about love, companionship, worship, and holiness, but our real lives are so messy by comparison. We don’t always treat each other well, even when we intend to.

Some people are cranky by their nature or because they have adopted a victim stance and out of that, are perpetually defensive (I know bloggers who write out of that position pretty much all the time). Some people are generally OK until you hit one of their “hot button topics,” and then watch out (I wonder if that’s how I’m going to be next week in Sunday school?). Being in community with religious people is like walking through a mine field or living in an alcoholic family. You never know when the peace will be shattered by an abrupt and devastating explosion.

If I ever lost my faith, it wouldn’t be in God, it would be in human beings.

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

There are times when I think it’s the ocean that’s dirty and only a few drops are clean.

Until you can see the good within a person, you are incapable of helping him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Helping”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

desert-islandAnd sometimes that’s an amazingly difficult thing to do. Reading quotes from Gandhi and Rabbi Freeman present a very pleasant picture, but life in the trenches of religion is anything but, at least for those folks who are struggling with faith (and don’t we all at some point).

I know why a Rabbi and Pastor (or probably just ordinary people) would stay in their religious communities after they’d lost faith in God…because of the continued social rewards. Most people who lose faith in people but not God would just leave the community and either try to find another or bail on community life entirely. But what if community life fails you but you still find God is present within the synagogue or church? What do you do then? Are you even aware that it’s God who’s holding you there? Maybe what feels like losing faith in God is just a protracted silence? God doesn’t always talk. But we’re supposed to have faith in the desert too.

I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I just know that this religious life that is supposed to bring us closer to God isn’t pain-free, and it seems for some folks that the pain increases exponentially as we strive to approach Holiness. Maybe that’s why most religious people hit a comfortable plateau and just stay there, neither being too hot or too cold in their spirituality, but only lukewarm. Maybe that’s why some people quit completely, because being numb is better than being set on fire and writhing in the flames.

Where are the Gandhis and the Freemans with their soothing, supportive words? Where is the so called “community of faith?” Where is God?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…

-William Shakespeare
“Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)”

57 Days: The Lord has Promised Good to Me

Peace of mind is essential for obtaining many virtues. Its absence leads to all types of shortcomings. When you have peace of mind, you can use your mind constructively. Lack of peace of mind breeds anger and resentment.

The quality of one’s prayers and blessings is dependent on the mastery of one’s thoughts. Above all else, one’s ability to study Torah properly is based on having peace of mind.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #628, Peace of Mind is Essential for Growth”
Aish.com

Every Sunday, my daughter has to be at work at 5 a.m. That means I need to wake up at four and get ready to drive her so she can be at work on time. After that, when I get back home, I can get in bed again if I want to.

And that’s just what I did. But church services start at 9:30, so I set the alarm for 6:30. Makes sense to me. Gives me time to wake up leisurely, read, study, check my blog, have breakfast, and figure out if I have any semi-dress clothes that will fit. Haven’t had to “dress up” in quite a while, but fortunately I know how to use an iron and I don’t clean up half bad.

Both my wife and daughter were already at work when I was ready to leave for church, so there was no one around to wish me luck.

Made it there about ten to fifteen minutes early, which is early enough (I figured) to find a parking spot, but not too early that I’d have to conspicuously hang around a bunch of people I don’t know. Found the men’s bathroom, which is an important task in attending any public social event. About four people greeted me and shook my hand before I even got to the entrance of the sanctuary. Saw Pastor Randy who also cleans up pretty good. He was encouraging as was everyone else I met. He sent around the teacher for the class my son and daughter-in-law attends at the church. B.J. just wanted to say “hi” because he knew I was David’s Dad.

Because I told Pastor Randy that my wife is Jewish, other people seemed to know. One woman introduced herself (I didn’t hear her name because of all the background noise hundreds of people make when they’re talking all at once) and told me she was a Jewish believer. More than a few people, including the Jewish woman, said they hoped my wife would come to church with me soon.

Which is kind of what I was dreading, and that will sound odd to most Christians, but let me explain.

My wife wouldn’t receive the kindness of Christian contact and an invitation to come to church as a particularly positive thing. While she’s been to church in the past, her Jewish identity as it currently exists, does not accommodate going to church or attending Christian functions, even though she also doesn’t attend many Jewish functions. I just hope no one tries to contact her independently (I haven’t written my address and phone number down on anything at church, but I’m not that hard to find, either). I tried to explain this to Pastor Randy yesterday, but I’m not sure how he received it.

OK, one issue to be concerned about, but hopefully I’m making it a bigger deal than it really is.

Everyone was very friendly. Lot’s of handshakes and “glad your here.” I know that the “corporate greet your neighbors” handshaking is a normal thing in churches, but I’m still shy enough for it to make me a tad nervous.

The order of service and music was about what I expected. In fact, I was surprised that I remembered the tunes so readily. Nothing mysterious or too difficult. Words were on the screen at the front of the sanctuary.

One Pastor read the text from Acts 7 and then Pastor Randy gave the lesson from that chapter (they’re going through the book of Acts right now, pretty much dissecting it, but the series is slightly ahead of where I am in my Torah Club study on Acts, so I couldn’t leverage Lancaster while listening to the sermon). The bulletin contained a sheet for taking notes about Stephen’s defense to the Sanhedrin, which I used. I was interested in how Pastor Randy would frame Stephen relative not just to the Sanhedrin, but to the rest of the Jewish people, and the nation of Israel as a whole.

He very much acknowledged that Stephen was a Jew, just as his “fathers and brothers” were (Acts 7:2). I won’t go through my notes on what Pastor preached about, but it didn’t reflect the traditional Christian view of Stephen rejecting the Temple, Law, or the customs of the Jewish people in favor of the grace of Jesus Christ. Stephen was portrayed as “convicting” the Sanhedrin of going against the Torah of Moses and being faithless to God, which is more consistent with how I’d read these verses. The sermon was worded to be more accessible to a Christian audience and there were a few times that I thought the message might have been “toned down” a bit for the sake of the people listening (but I can’t be really sure, of course).

The Pastor made good use of his knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, gently suggesting that the NIV translation may not be entirely accurate. He spent a lot of time on the Abrahamic covenant, a favorite topic of mine lately. He also backtracked into Acts 6 and illuminated “trust and obey” to all of us. How do we know we trust God? How do we know our faith is genuine? Because if it is, we obey God. But what do we obey?

This is the $64,000 question from my point of view, since traditional Christianity usually says that works is dead and all we have to do is believe, while in Judaism, performing the mitzvot has center stage in a Jew’s life. The answer from the Pastor was, “good works.” Our faith is genuine if it produces “good fruit” (he didn’t actually say “good fruit,” but I thought I’d insert it here).

Pastor leveraged the Akediah (he didn’t say “Akediah,” but with his knowledge of Hebrew and having lived fifteen years in Israel, he must have been thinking it) to show us how faith, trust, and obedience are married concepts for someone who is truly righteous (he might have said, “for a tzaddik”). In going back to the original command God gave Abraham to leave Haran (Genesis 12:1), Pastor took the principle of obedience a step further in telling a story about some early Christian missionaries in India.

These missionaries were continually debating how they were to start out on their task, anticipating what might happen if they took this step or that. Finally, one of the missionaries said something like the following:

A Christian doesn’t have the right to demand to know where he is going. He must walk by faith.

Given everything I’ve been going through in anticipating “church,” he might as well have been talking to me.

Even as I wrote down the quote, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much of last week’s Torah portion had been inserted into Pastor’s message on Acts 7. He also included portions of Genesis 45 and Genesis 50, as he followed Stephen’s defense, which included references to the Patriarchs and the people of Israel.

Overall, the message was not only one of hope for Christians, that God is faithful and gracious even while we may have troubles in our lives, but that God has always been faithful and gracious to Israel and the Jewish people, even in the midst of their trials and suffering. God remains the constant for both Christians and Jews, and Abraham is the father for both the Christians and the Jews (and Pastor was careful to say that the Abrahamic covenant does not make the Christian “Jewish”).

After the sermon and closing song and prayers ended, it was time for Sunday school. I had chosen a particular class to attend, and Pastor Randy let Charlie, the teacher, know I was coming. Several handshakes later (I don’t mean to belittle this and actually, everyone was very friendly, but it will take me awhile to get used to so much human attention compressed into such a small space and time), I found where I could get a cup of coffee before class. The coffee ran out just as I was about to get a cup, so I didn’t have that delay before finding my classroom.

Consequently, I was the first to arrive. People trickled in and introduced themselves. The teacher and class members were mostly my age or older (I think one couple was a bit younger).  The first person to come in after me was an older gentleman named Dick. We got to talking and at one point he said something like, “It can be hard to find a church that gives you what you need,” and went on to say how fortunate they were to have a Pastor who preached the whole Word, including the Old Testament. He pretty much summed things up for me.

Class wasn’t as organized as I would have expected. I was glad it wasn’t heavily scripted, because that tends to stifle individual or creative response, but I saw that people struggled to respond when Charlie threw a question out among us.

I really, really had intended to be quiet, and just to listen and observe. That didn’t last very long and all of my old “reflexes” in addressing classroom questions and answers, built up over the years in my previous congregational experience, immediately took over.

In fact, I realized at one point, that instead of answering a question, I expanded on it and turned the question back to the rest of the class.

Oops.

I tried to tone it down after that, but I may have come close to crossing the line when I suggested that no matter how much God has chastised Israel, He has always brought them back, and will continue to fulfill His promises to them by bringing them back (not by restoring only a tiny remnant, but by redeeming Israel) to Him.

After class was over, I apologized to the everyone and particularly to Charlie for my being such a chatterbox. Not many of the other class members talked much, although during one of my monologues, I entered a dialog with one of the other fellows. Everyone was gracious about it and I hope I didn’t offend anyone. I didn’t think I’d get this “interactive” for weeks, but the wheels kept spinning in my head and once I opened my mouth, words started zipping out.

I was kind of interesting that all of the other students there were married couples except for one woman whose husband was on some sort of business trip in Turkey. I can see it’s going to be awkward to be going “stag” to church every Sunday.

Oh, both in the service and during Sunday school, I liked how the Jews weren’t blamed for rejecting Jesus or being bad examples, and in fact, the teachings emphasized how we Christians were expected to live up to the teachings of our Master.

At one point, Charlie, in discussing how Jesus dealt with faith or its lack as recorded in Mark 9 and 10, said, “If Jesus attended this church, what issues would he have to address here?” A little later he asked, “What would Jesus have to say to me” (about my failings)?

The experience wasn’t perfect, but then I expected that I’d feel out of place in an unfamiliar social environment. It was very “Christian” in all the ways I thought it would be, except that Judaism was treated much better relative to the Jewish Messiah and the Gentile disciples than I had imagined. The music lacked a certain punch, but that’s not really an issue for me compared to the other matters I’ve discussed, although they did introduce a bit of an “experiment” by having band sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun (originally recorded by the Animals in 1964). It totally rocked.

Yes, I’ll go back next week for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m curious as to how far I can enter Christian fellowship and how much I will be able to integrate and still keep the core of who I am as one of the world’s most unusual Christians. At this point, my only real reservation, as I said before, is how far some of the folks in the church will try to press me to bring my wife to services. I don’t think that part would go over well at all.

Guess I’ll see how it all works out week by week, day by day, by God’s grace.

The Lord has promised good to me…
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be…
as long as life endures.

-John Newton (1725-1807)
Amazing Grace

 

57 Days: Life is Burning with God’s Desire

Woman in fireFirst contact is a term describing the first meeting of two cultures previously unaware of one another. One notable example of first contact is that between the Spanish and the Arawak (and ultimately all of the Americas) in 1492.

Such contact is sometimes described later by one or both groups as a “discovery”, particularly by the more technologically developed society. In addition it is generally the more technologically complex society that is able to travel to a new geographic region to discover and make contact with the generally more isolated, less technologically developed society, leading to this frame of reference. However, some object to the application of such a word to human beings, which is why “first contact” is generally preferred. The use of the term “discovery” tends to occur more in reference to geography than cultures…

-quoted from “First contact (anthropology)”
Wikipedia.org

It’s both unfair and inaccurate to say that my meeting Saturday morning with Pastor Randy was a “first contact” situation, both because I have previous history in the Christian church and because having lived for fifteen years in Israel, Pastor Randy was more than familiar with anything I had to say about Jews and Judaism. That’s a severe abbreviation of why my nearly two-hour conversation with him wasn’t a “first contact,” and there are a great many reasons why our talk was both informative and illuminating, at least on my side of the equation.

I’m glad I went.

I had a feeling I would be. Not knowing what to expect as I walked into the church’s front door, I am comforted by what actually happened, though it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.

If I had to sum up my response to my conversation with the Pastor, I’d have to say that I feel “understood” in terms of my concerns regarding my “cultural” re-entry into the church, as well as my personal and family issues associated with being intermarried.

But Pastor Randy also put on the spot a few times, although very gently, and I actually appreciate that he did, since who doesn’t want to be challenged in their (my?) faith community? For instance, something I think I’ve been missing in terms of “hearing” God is that I study the Bible a lot but don’t just read it enough. Does that sound confusing? It did to me, but then I thought about it for awhile and it started to make sense. I tend to read the Bible for the purpose of either studying something or doing research for a blog post, but I never really just immerse myself in scripture for its own sake, and to hear what God is trying to say to me. Maybe I can’t do that anymore without writing about it, but it certainly seems like it could be true. I used to do that; I used to just read the Bible, but somewhere along the way, I set that particular behavior aside, replacing it with studying to achieve some pre-set goal or lesson plan. I suppose it’s the difference between riding a bicycle to commute to and from work, or to lose an extra ten (or twenty, or more) pounds, as opposed to riding a bike along the greenbelt for the pure pleasure of taking in the glory of God’s autumn “artwork.”

I also realized, although Pastor Randy may not have intended to communicate this, that my talking to God “Tevye-like” in a continuing dialog, may have put my relationship with God in an unbalanced state, so to speak. I gave up more formal prayer when I gave up other traditionally “Jewish” religious practices, and I think now that I may have put my siddur away needlessly. No, a Baptist Pastor didn’t actually suggest that I pray from a siddur, but he did say that formal prayer is something that Christians could take as a benefit from Judaism. We don’t get a lot of practice appreciating the immense and august majesty and awe associated with anticipating our twice daily approach to the throne of the King.

I can’t recall everything that was said during our conversation, nor would it be beneficial to try to recount every detail here. I did come away with some realizations, information, and decisions. Here are a few of them.

I volunteered to do something for the church. I won’t say what it is right now, but the church’s need came up in conversation and it seemed to “fit” my interests and skill sets.

I seriously renewed my desire to visit Israel, not in just some dim “someday” future, but in less than a year as a potential goal.

I will be going to church and Sunday school tomorrow (this morning, as you read my “meditation”). No one was more surprised by this revelation than I.

I specifically asked about the level of supersessionism at this church, and according to the Pastor, on a scale of zero to one-hundred, it is set at a firm zero.

Given everything that I’ve just written and all that I recall about my conversation with Pastor Randy and its results, how much of all this did can I reasonably believe God arranged to happen?

Not only the pirouettes of a leaf as it falls off a tree, the quivering of a blade of grass in the wind, each and every detail of existence brought into being, given life and directed every moment from Above

—but beyond that:

Every nuance is an essential component of a grand and G-dly scheme, the gestalt of all those vital minutiae.

Every moment burns with the pulse of G-d’s desire.

Meditate on this. And then think:
How much more so the details of my daily life.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Every Detail”
Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
on the central teaching of the Baal Shem Tov
Chabad.org

Will You cause a driven leaf to tremble?

Job 13:25 (NASB)

While I sometimes feel as if I am a “driven leaf” trembling before the awesome winds of God’s will, in fact, I also believe that the nuance of “every moment burns with the pulse of G-d’s desire.” I suppose that’s a lot of meaning and expectation to pack into a meeting with one Pastor that lasted just under two hours, but that’s how I’m choosing to interpret it. This “morning meditation” is being written on Saturday and published early Sunday morning so further revelations are unrealized but soon to be experienced.

When my wife came home later in the day, she asked about how my meeting went, which in and of itself, surprised me. I wasn’t sure how “covert” she wanted me to keep this side of my life. I told her some of the things I’ve written above and others that I haven’t. She was a little surprised that there were a couple of people tangentially involved in the church that she knows. I think she’s more comfortable about me attending a church than any sort of “quasi-Jewish worship venue” as I had in the past. I definitely think she’s more comfortable in my attending a church than either of the local synagogues.

At this point, it’s like a new (or renewed) swimmer looking at a swimming pool and considering a return to swimming after an absence of many years. The first question is, where should I dive in; the deep end, the shallow end, or somewhere in the middle? Should I just jump off the side, use the high dive, or slowly walk down the stairs? Who knows? Not being sure of the best course, I’ve selected a likely point of entry and will “get my feet wet” tomorrow (today, as you read this). I’ll make adjustments as I experience the water. I think there’s a wise, though forgetful “sage” who has a relevant piece of advice for this occasion.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.

-Dory (Ellen DeGeneres)
Finding Nemo (2003)