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Review of Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church, Part Six

Do you think of yourself as a leader?

-Pastor Chris Jackson
from Chapter 13: A Leader Who Lost His Cutting Edge
Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church: Opening the Door to Healing

Continued from Part Five of my review series.

I need to find a way to accelerate this review process or it’ll take as many blog posts to finish as Jackson’s book has chapters. Okay, here goes.

According to Pastor Jackson, we are all leaders in the sense that anyone with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will “rise to the top,” so to speak. That said, rising to the top in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships, as he says, is easier said than done. It’s possible for anyone to lose their “spiritual edge,” as Jackson puts it, including Pastors.

The cure for “spiritual dullness” (and I can relate) is to remember that “the Christian journey is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” True enough. Any of us can temporarily pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but for the long haul, we need the faithfulness of God to see us through.

Like most Christians, Jackson says we need to believe in God, but he also says we must experience Him. This goes back to advice I’ve been given in the past about not focusing so much on Judaism or Christianity, but pursuing the presence of God. Jews do that through prayer and the mitzvot and there are Christian equivalents, though Christianity considers itself more of a “relationship” than a “doing” religion.

Jackson asks a telling question:

When was the last time you took the day off of work just to be with Jesus?

If this Pastor had a Jewish appreciation of the Shabbat, he wouldn’t have to ask that question, at least not in that way. He might ask instead, “When was the last time you truly observed Shabbos?” With Easter behind us and now in the midst of the Week of Unleavened Bread, special days of Holiness should be on everyone’s mind, and hopefully, in everyone’s experience.

End of Chapter questions included “Have you lost the edge in any area of your life” and “Are you convinced that you can get it back?”

Good questions.

Moving on to Chapter 14: Mimicking God, Jackson spoke of a small-group meeting he had recently attended where the meeting began:

He opened his Bible to Ephesians 5:1 and read, “Be imitators of God.” After that, he closed his Bible, looked everyone in the room in the eye and said three words: “Now…let’s wrestle.”

Jackson continued, “Some truths must be wrestled with.” I agree, and in fact, I believe that many more truths must be wrestled with than most religious people are willing to engage, particularly in the Church.

While Jackson describes Ephesians 5:1 as a “wrestling verse,” he states that wrestling ends in verse 2: “and walk in love.”

The word “walk” is a great word with a profound meaning. In the Bible it means ” to regulate one’s lifestyle.”

WalkingAgain, Judaism anticipated his response with the concept and application of halachah. Jackson’s “halachah,” if you will, is summarized with the word love. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s out of this love for God and our neighbor (see Matthew 22:36-40) that we must respond behaviorally. Walking in love isn’t metaphorical, feel-good language, it’s a call to action.

I’m convinced that the primary search of mankind is not for doctrine, religious truth or strategies for successful living; it is for love. It is for acceptance. It is for belonging…

Then why are these things so difficult to find in religious community?

When people in the world see Christians who bear one another’s burdens, who are quick to forgive, who fail to judge and criticize, who are quick to repent and ask forgiveness and who reach out with accepting arms of love, they will feel like they’ve come home. They will realize that they have truly encountered Jesus in our churches.

While I can see his point that living out the teachings of the Master is the best way to communicate the truth of his faithfulness, Jackson seems to have moved from attempting to heal the wounded Christian who is estranged from the Church, to matters of what Christians call “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20). What’s the connection?

Or is Jackson speaking to the person who not only left the church but left the faith?

The Lord not only wants to heal you from your hurtful experiences in church, but He wants to make you one of his saints.

I’m never really sure what being a “saint” means in this context. Is it equivalent to the Jewish concept of a tzadik, a holy, righteous person who is close to God?

From here, Jackson encourages his readers to consider how children relate to God with that innocent faith that never questions anything. We should be more transparent than performance-oriented, don’t worry so much about “coloring inside the lines” (rules), and instead, becoming “prayer warriors”. We should also consider ourselves God’s “favorite,” as if the world were created only for our sakes individually (and that last part is actually a very Jewish concept).

The chapter seemed to focus on how much God loves each of us as a way of healing our hurts and getting us to reunite with church. By realizing that we are loved by God, we should reflect that love, both to people outside the Church and to other Christians.

Jackson continues with this theme in Chapter 15: Becoming Someone’s Angel. I’ve sometimes said that we should be the answer to someone’s prayer. Instead of waiting for God to intervene supernaturally in some situation, if we see a need and we have the ability to fill it, we should fill it. I think Jackson would agree with this.

Jackson seems filled with his own boundless enthusiasm for the work of the Church, so much so that he said:

I believe the United States is due for a third Great Awakening and that the other nations of the earth can also be transformed by a visitation from Him.

Church splitI believe no such thing, and in fact, based on the ethical and moral nosedive that many churches and all of secular western culture is in right now, I believe that in the end, except for a small remnant, the nations in general and most churches in particular, will turn against Jewish people, Judaism, and national Israel. The churches may call that “a Great Awakening” but based on how I read the Bible, it will actually be rebellion against God.

Like many American Christians, Jackson sees America as the central nation in God’s field of vision. But the Bible says that the centrality of Israel is the lynchpin in God’s redemptive plan for the rest of the world. If Jackson doesn’t see this as well, he’s in for a big surprise when the Messiah returns.

Jackson does rightly say that “most answered prayers come in the form of other people,” but he misses the big, big picture.

He did go on to say something to which I can relate:

One Sunday morning I was so discouraged that I didn’t think I could cut it as a pastor. I didn’t even want to be in church.

I used to have quite a number of Sunday mornings in church where I felt exactly like that, not that I had to worry about being a Pastor, of course. My answer was to stop going to church. My Sundays seem more productive and liberating now.

Jackson then told a story that I think illustrates some of my points well. He mentioned how he had visited a church friend, and older woman who was laid up with an injury, to pray with her. As they were praying, he heard a noise from the bathroom and discovered another woman cleaning the toilet. As it turns out, this other church friend had been coming over pretty much every day cooking and cleaning, as well as praying with the injured woman and keeping her company.

I suddenly felt a little sheepish and realized that this young lady’s cooking, cleaning and other practical help was far more a demonstration of the heart of God than any quick prayer.

I completely agree. I think it’s examples like this young woman, this living, breathing answer to prayer, that trump all of the “religious arguments” we have in the blogosphere, from the pulpit, or anywhere else. Churches and synagogues that preach this sort of message and follow it up with continued action are better than all of the theological and doctrinal pontifications we stack up against each other.

Then in Chapter 16: Ten Times Better, Jackson says:

One of the most significant problems with Christians–with me–is that we so frequently surrender the image of God in us. Rather than living in our glory as the Creator’s image-bearers, we live from our lover, natural selves.

And living like that, Jackson wonders if non-believers ask:

Is that what it means to be a Christian?

alone at churchI’m sure many people who surf into our blogs and read the comments sections ask that same question about Christians, Messianics, and Hebrew Roots people as well.

Jackson makes another good point:

…a major reason that people are leaving the Church today by the thousands is that there is frequently no real discernible difference between Christians and the world.

So many churches, in an attempt to “fit in” with the current culture, “adjust” their Biblical morals and ethics to fit the larger, politically correct and progressive mindset of the world around us. How can the Church be imitators of God if it’s too busy taking its cues from CNN and MSNBC?

For the Church as well as the individual believer, how we live out our faith is a matter of choice. Who are we trying to please, people or God?

None of this is why I left church, but I can agree with a lot of what Jackson is saying. True, he’s speaking from his own Hashkafah, but it’s not as if I can’t relate at all with his worldview, at least the broad strokes of it.

It goes back to what I said before. Don’t seek Judaism and don’t seek Christianity, but seek an experience with God. I might add, then walk on the path He sets before you, even if it leads to some pretty uncomfortable places.

I still don’t think that means back into church, or at least not the church I left. My problem is that I can only see a few steps ahead at a time, so beyond that, I proceed forward trusting that God won’t lead me over a cliff.

Moving on to Chapter 17: Christianity Doesn’t Make Sense Without It, Jackson says:

The Christian religion is a lifelong quest to know our loving Creator and become more and more like Him.

In that, it is indistinguishable from my understanding of Judaism, although exactly how that task is accomplished can look quite a bit different between the two religions. For instance, Jackson asked:

How can I know God more? How can I be more like Him? How can I prosper financially and thus bless my family?

That last question seems distinctly Christian. In Pirkei Avot 4:1, we learn:

Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot

That doesn’t preclude ambition and achievement, only that we need not constantly feel that we must have more just because somebody else has or become some television commercial says so. I sincerely hope Pastor Jackson doesn’t subscribe to any form of Prosperity Theology, which seems like a total scam.

Jackson wants to “experience the abundant life” he says Jesus promised him? Really? Does that really mean financial abundance? Is that what the Master meant in John 10:10?

Gateway to EdenJackson goes on to compare Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1 and says “John 1:1 details the real beginning of the story.”

I’m sure from his point of view, that probably seems true, but most Christians read the Bible from the Gospels or from Paul backward rather than from Genesis forward. That unfortunately leads to the false conclusion that “the Church” is the center of God’s plan rather than Israel. And focusing on John 1:1, Jackson says:

If any project, process or expedition gets too far away from its original design, it is destined to fail.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, that describes the Christian Church and the divergent path it has taken across history since the days when the Apostle Paul was sent to be an emissary of the Messiah to the Gentiles.

Jackson goes on to state how Matthew 28:19 “set the course of the Church throughout the ages” based on good, solid principles.”

He compares this with:

Jesus said of the Pharisees that they searched the Scriptures in pursuit of life, but they couldn’t find it. They could not find true life because their religion had become divorced from mission.

In other words, he presents a traditionally Christian discounting of the Pharisees and by extension, all of post-Biblical Judaism. From Jackson’s point of view, 100% of the Church’s mission is evangelizing:

On days when I share my faith with an unsaved person, I’m on top of the world.

And…

I exist to manifest the glory of God.

What about the young woman who was manifesting the glory of God by cooking for a disabled woman and cleaning her toilet?

…and I think I blessed the people who were in attendance. Of course, they were just like me…

I think this is the book’s central message about community, whether Jackson intended it to be or not. Particularly in the church, but most likely in any other human community, we thrive if we are in a group made up of people just like us.

But I’m not just like them.

Life makes no sense…until we return to the sanctuary of God. Christianity makes no sense…until we return to the place of mission.

Up to JerusalemAssuming Jackson isn’t being metaphorical, it seems he’s replaced the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with the Great Commission. This isn’t far-fetched from the Church’s point of view if he believes that the body of Christ is the Temple and that we are all stones that together make up the Temple. He won’t be able to see that we can metaphorically and spiritually be a “temple” and yet there can also be a Heavenly Temple as well as a future Temple on Earth in the coming Messianic Age.

These chapters continue to convince me that, as I said above, I’m not like them.

And further, as I quoted Boaz Michael saying in my previous blog post:

Most religious arguments involve bitter clashes over “what we believe” (theology) and “what we do” (praxis). If we do not share the same hashkafah informing our theology and praxis, this type of debate will be pointless and irresolvable.

And…

For example, many Christians operate under the hashkafah which assumes that the authority of the New Testament has replaced the authority of the Old Testament. This paradigm holds it as self-evident that any conditions established in the Old Testament remain operative only if restated in the New Testament. So long as that paradigm remains firmly in place, there is no point in arguing…

I made it through five chapters today. Only six more to go.

I’ll continue my review in a bit.

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Review of Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church, Part Five

“They didn’t want to talk about it.”

“They said there’s really no point in meeting to discuss it.”

“I guess it’s best if we just move on.”

-Pastor Chris Jackson
from Chapter 9: Your Pastor
Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church: Opening the Door to Healing (Kindle Edition)

Continued from Part Four of this review.

Pastor Jackson attributes the above quoted statements to “hurting church members who failed in their attempts to discuss their grievances with the church’s leadership.” Jackson further states that people typically don’t experience conflict with other church members but “with the leadership of the church.”

I suppose that’s what happened to me. My relationship with the church’s head Pastor reached a tipping point when, in a sermon, he discounted the foundations of my understanding of the Bible, calling it a “misuse of the Law.” He also laid that at the feet of more normative Judaism as well as Seventh Day Adventists, so it wasn’t solely aimed at me.

As far as airing my grievances, I did that. I made the mistake of doing so on my blog instead of phoning or meeting with the Pastor, and that just made a difficult situation even worse. I left the church not because I had been kicked out, and not because I was so offended, I left in a huff, but because I was incompatible with church and particularly with the church leadership. I don’t think anyone was sorry to see me go.

The next highlight I have in this chapter is Jackson citing the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in which the fox says of Aslan:

“He’s everything we hoped he would be.”

Jackson continues:

Unfortunately, the opposite of this sentiment is sometimes true in church.

We all have expectations of those around us. If people were truly unpredictable, our lives would be chaos. We couldn’t make plans with anyone. We have to have some sort of grasp of how our families and friends and the leaders and people in our houses of worship will react under certain circumstances.

I think a Pastor and church leadership have a certain expectation of what a person believes and stands for if they voluntarily attend their church week after week. If we choose a church or other sort of congregation, we probably do so because we expect that the leaders and members of the church think, believe, teach, and act in a certain way. It would be tough to drop a Messianic Gentile like me in the midst of a Fundamentalist Baptist church in Southwestern Idaho.

Oops.

But since this is a chapter on Pastors, let me be quick to say that none of my leaving church was the leadership’s fault. They were behaving and teaching as was expected by the vast majority of the people attending that church. I was the square peg vainly attempting to fit into a round hole, or conversely, trying to convince the round pegs to at least consider the benefits of thinking and studying like square pegs.

Ah, this next point is important:

What do good spiritual leaders look like? Spiritual leaders are very important for our spiritual growth and maturity so it’s important for us to know what to look for in one. I’m very selective and protective about the people I let speak to my wife…

wolf in sheep's clothingWhat I’m about to say wasn’t exactly Jackson’s point, but it relates. One of a Pastor’s jobs is to protect the flock from wolves. In spite of the fact that Randy spent nearly two years meeting with me individually and attempting to convince me of the correctness of his “sound doctrine,” in the end, I was a rogue wolf in the fold.

After a number of discussions with a young man in the Sunday school class we attended, I suggested he borrow my audio CDs of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series What About the New Covenant. He did. He listened to them. He seemed at least confused if not shocked. He asked to keep them a while longer so he could listen to the lessons again.

And when the Pastor found out about it, he was pretty unhappy with me. Based on our reading and discussing Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians together, Pastor came to the realization that he disagreed with Lancaster on just about everything. So my lending one of his flock CDs containing Lancaster’s teachings (even though Pastor had never listened to those sermons) exposed that particular “sheep” to “danger.”

As much as I disagree with his opinions on Lancaster, Pastor’s doing his job. He’s protecting the flock.

Jackson, in describing the ideal Pastor says, “First of all, he loves you.” Yes, the Pastor loves his flock and out of that love (just as Jackson loves his wife), he’s protective and will defend them.

Jackson’s point in mentioning this love is that it’s healing. A hurting believer having the Pastor notice and love them will help heal that hurt. But going back to what I said earlier, the basic theology and doctrine of Pastor and church goer must be what the other expects and desires.

Jackson also describes the ideal Pastor as transparent. He must be approachable and human rather than someone who dwells on high in an ivory tower dispensing holy decrees. Yes, Pastor was approachable and probably as transparent as a human being can be and still have healthy boundaries. I wouldn’t say he was nonjudgmental, as Jackson would have us believe of ideal Pastors. Not that he beat people over the head with his Bible, but he definitely had a firm sense of right and wrong doctrine, and he stuck to his guns.

An ideal Pastor, according to Jackson, “sees the greatness in you.” I think Pastor saw potential in me, but doing anything about it was contingent upon being convinced of his “sound doctrine” so that I’d be safe within the fold. So although Jackson says the ideal Pastor is not controlling, it’s tough to exercise your role as protective shepherd without maintaining control of who has access to them and under what conditions.

This next statement I thought was a bit over the top:

When he speaks, it is as if God Himself was speaking to you.

I think Jackson means the ideal Pastor is “Christ-like” in his love, compassion, and understanding of the people in his flock, not that he’s all-seeing, all-knowing, and commands one hundred percent of everyone’s respect and obedience.

That said:

…there is no human leader who can fully provide all that we need as growing disciples of Jesus. We need Him.

“Him,” in this context, is God.

John MacArthur
Rev. John MacArthur

And so Jackson urges his readers to realize that Pastors are also human, what he calls “tools of destiny,” and he wants us to know that someday, some of us may be in church leadership, which will further help us understand the responsibilities faced by our Pastors. Jackson also said that, given this, he urges reconciliation with church leaders when there’s a problem, and outlines the steps for his readers. Ultimately, it’s a call to forgive leaders who may have hurt us. Just for giggles, I included a photo of John MacArthur because to me, he exemplifies the sort of Pastor who generates a lot of “hurt” among people. But that’s just my opinion. What do you do when a well-known and influential Pastor has the ability to potentially hurt thousands?

The only end of chapter question I have highlighted is:

Are you looking for them (church leaders) to provide something that can only come from Jesus?

At this stage in the game, I don’t think I’m looking for a church Pastor to provide anything at all. How can they when my presence in almost any church (at least if I opened my mouth) would be a monkey wrench in the machinery?

In Chapter 11: The Cup of Misunderstanding (sounds like a little-known additional cup at a Passover seder), Jackson speaks of this metaphorical cup containing something that tastes bitter, tastes like injustice, and “those who drink it must do so alone.” He also says that this cup is usually received by “innocent people,” and is particularly harsh when “delivered to you by a brother or sister in Christ.”

Jackson compares being misunderstood and judged by someone in the church to the pain of betrayal suffered by Christ at the crucifixion.

I felt the comparison was a bit much. After all, human misunderstandings aren’t confined to the church, they happen in every human corporate venue, from the family to the workplace.

Jackson says this pain is intensified if the person you are trying to reconcile with makes it abundantly clear they have no intention of mending fences.

Someone once said, “You must embrace the cross if you would carry it with dignity.” The same is true of this cup.

I think what Jackson is saying is that being misunderstood, judged, and cut loose requires the Christian to be “Christ-like,” to bear the burden and the pain as Jesus did on the cross. Sounds pretty dramatic, but then, human conflict can elicit a lot of drama.

One of the end of chapter questions is:

Do you have a friend who can stand with you in your struggle?

In spite of my friend’s concerns about me and the issues Jackson addresses in his book, I don’t know that I’m really struggling, at least in relation to community or my lack thereof.

Jackson asks: “Are you passing the test? As you do, you’ll begin to look more like Him.” If the test is forgiving the Pastor, first of all, I doubt he thinks he needs my forgiveness. Nevertheless, I have forgiven him. After all, he’s only doing what he believes is right, and within his church’s context, it is the right thing to do.

In Chapter 12: Death by Religion, Jackson discusses watching an infomercial for Chuck Norris’s Total Gym product. The bottom line is that in spite of the seemingly fantastic claims made in the marketing of this all-in-one piece of exercise equipment, Jackson says if used as indicated, and if you eat a proper diet, the claims are all true.

Please forgive this sacrilegious comment, but I’ve noticed that in some ways, the Church is a lot like that infomercial–we’re touting a product that really works.

And by that he means:

A life devoted to His service is the only way to ensure our eternal salvation and to experience the life we were created to live.

norris and brinkleyBut while a very fit Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley sell their product on TV, Jackson says, by comparison, those Christians promoting a better life through Jesus are more like “a flabby, middle-aged guy who thinks he looks good in spandex.”

In other words, many believers promoting a better life through Christ don’t look or act like they’re participating in that life. They look like they’re participating in a marathon dining session at McDonald’s.

We’re selling relationship, but what they see is religion…and religion is killing our sales pitch.

I’ve mentioned this artificial split between these concepts in a previous blog post. It’s really the traditional Christian rant against their misconception of Judaism:

Religion breeds death because it is limited to man’s ability to comply with its codes and regulations.

If Jackson had my understanding of the New Covenant, he’d (hopefully) understand why his opinion is completely out of the ball park.

But I don’t have time or space to go into all that again in this rather lengthy series of book reviews.

Religion is easier to control than a relationship.

You may have noticed that Jackson has shifted his emphasis from the individual’s relationship with other Christians in church or their relationship with the Pastor and church leadership, and is now focusing on the person’s relationship with Christ.

…after all, we’re all under grace and God doesn’t get ticked if we skip a day of devotions.

I’m not sure what God does or doesn’t think about an individual being hit and miss on living a life of holiness, not that any one of us is perfect at it.

Jackson then proceeds to bash the Pharisees, even though (he probably doesn’t see this) Jesus lived a life consistent with the basic tenets of Pharisaism, and as a matter of fact, so did Paul.

In describing “religious systems,” he says they operate like “spiritual frat houses”. They have their secret handshakes, inside jokes, matching jackets, and the like. Yes, I’ve experienced cliques in church. People who were ‘in’ and people who were ‘out’, though to be fair, I didn’t experience them at the last church I attended (at least for the most part).

However, Jackson could have been describing how some people experience certain individuals and congregations involved in the Hebrew Roots and the Messianic Jewish movements.

I’ve mentioned before Derek Leman’s blog post Gentiles Who Feel Left Out which addresses this matter. If you feel you are “in”, then being in contributes to your sense of identity, according to Jackson. You may, again, as Jackson says, experience a sense of being among the elite by being in.

This next point is important:

Spiritual fraternities do not welcome different opinions or viewpoints.

I’ve experienced that in spades, but I think that a lot of religious communities are like this, based on a mutually accepted sense of “rightness” of their doctrine. Anything that contradicts their doctrine is automatically wrong. These congregations state, using Jackson’s words:

We want your input and opinions–as long as they agree with ours.

This goes back to what I said before about expectations within the group. Jackson also says such “frat houses” are full of cliques, difficult to fit into (again, I know what that’s like), and Jackson says the only way to combat this is to “make sure that our hearts are free from religion.”

And yet, I could probably speak to Jackson for less than an hour and elicit a very protective and “religious” (as he defines it) response from him, just by disagreeing with how he interprets the Bible’s message of the good news. Actually, all he’d have to do is read my reviews of his book.

Only two of the end of chapter questions seemed relevant:

Are you managing a religion or living in a relationship?

Has your religious experience become a duty or a delight?

passover-artConvincing Jackson of the beauty of the mitzvot, particularly with Passover and the family seder coming up in a few days, all the preparations, all of the ceremony, and the retelling of the Exodus, would be a lost cause if I were to make the attempt. I suspect all he’d see is “religion,” missing how the seder brings a Jewish family closer to God.

Of course, I wonder how he’s managing the “relationship” of the upcoming Easter Sunday service at his church, which usually involves a multi-media presentation and tons and tons of preparation and ceremony?

So far, having reviewed about half of Jackson’s book in a fair amount detail, I have two preliminary conclusions. The first is that I don’t think he’s speaking to my situation. The second is that my opinion of my being incompatible with “church” is being re-enforced. I find it impossible to review his book as related to my current status of being apart from “community” without being critical of his theology and doctrine.

I just can’t seem to put our obvious differences aside and simply listen to what he has to say on a human level. This is my fault. I have a friend who tells me I need to be more patient and to speak out less.

Probably true.

One last story.

I had coffee with my friend last Sunday. On the drive home, he mentioned that his congregation had a guest speaker from Africa on the previous Shabbat. Among other things, this speaker talked about lions and how they hunt only the sick, the weak, the old, and those who wander off and are alone.

Not-so-subtle point received, my friend. *grin*

19 Days: Church in the Short Run

symmes_chapel_churchI have seen so much good come out of the church I am in. Depending on how far you want to stretch the idiom, I have seen “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

Have people left? Yes. Have people gotten hurt? Yes. Welcome to communal life…

Several families come here now that used to be part of tiny Hebrew Roots congregations. No one has found that they had to compromise their level of observance to go to church here. We don’t even really stand out all that much. Anything we wanted to do – starting chavurot, starting Torah study groups, keeping Sabbath and dietary laws, whatever – we could do and still come here and live under the umbrella of Christianity. Sunday worship? Of course. Come on, Shacharis is every morning. It’s not like you can take a day off.

-Pastor Jacob Fronczak
“Why I Go to Church”
Hope Abbey

I decided that I needed to review Jacob’s blog post, almost a year old now, to help bolster my own commitment (which, if you read yesterday’s extra meditation, you know is flagging). It helped, but only a little. Jacob was already well-integrated into his church and into the church culture in general as he developed a “Hebraic awareness” (for lack of a better term). I still feel like a fish out of water, desperately searching for a pond, a tide pool, or even a wee bucket of the wet stuff to hop into for the sake of survival.

After originally reading Jacob’s blog post, I responded with one of my own called Why I Don’t Go To Church. Obviously, a few things have changed since I wrote it. Of course, when I wrote my blog post last January, one of my primary concerns about returning to the church was “supersessionism.”

I admit to living with a certain amount of apprehension that if I ever started attending a church again, someone, a Pastor or Bible Teacher or just one of the parishioners, would spout off something about the church replacing Jews. Then I’d feel my blood pressure rise along with my temper, and I’d either just walk out, or I tell that person what I thought of their ill-considered “theology” (and then walk out or be thrown out).

Not that it would really be their fault. After all, the church has been teaching supersessionism as Biblical “fact” ever since the days of the early Gentile “church fathers.” That still doesn’t make it right nor does it mean I have to tolerate a way of understanding the New Testament that requires Judaism and every living, breathing Jew (including my wife and three children) to be deleted from religious, spiritual, and historical significance, not to mention permanently removing them from God’s love and, in at least a historical sense, removing the Jews from their very lives.

But none of that has happened. I haven’t encountered a single statement denigrating Judaism or Jewish people. I think some people are a little fuzzy on whether or not there’ll be a third Temple, and one gentleman made some statements regarding the specific clothing worn by Orthodox Jews and praying at the Kotel as “putting God in a box,” but by and large, active anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attitudes never appeared.

Jacob mentioned some of the concerns people have had that have resulted in them leaving the church.

I understand that a lot of Hebrew Roots people have had bad experiences in church. I have had a lot of bad experiences in church. Yet I had most of them before I became a Hebrew Roots person. When you get into a community with other living breathing people you will eventually encounter conflict and you will have to learn to deal with it.

Have people left? Yes. Have people gotten hurt? Yes. Welcome to communal life…

I had some unpleasant experiences in the first church I attended as a Christian, but that was some time ago. There were also a lot of really nice folks who attended that church at that time. However, that church isn’t the church I attend now, so my past experiences really don’t apply. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about the “bad stuff” that’s happened to some people in some churches, but it really depends on the people and the churches involved and after all, as Jacob says, communal life isn’t always a bowl of cherries.

mens-service-jewish-synagogueThat goes for synagogue life, and life in just about any group of religious people or just people in general. Your religious tradition or whatever variant movement you are attached to probably won’t see much of a difference. The fellow I had coffee with last Sunday afternoon and his wife have been “burned” by “the church” before, but they’ve been attending a church in our community for the past four years with apparently good results. The people at their church seem to be everything I’d ever want in and expect out of Christians as far as generosity, kindness, and “tzedakah.” The church community can be very good.

More recently, I’ve been vocal about the good the church does in the environment around us and in the entire world. It’s not so much the church that’s at issue, it’s just being “me” in church and trying to get used to the church venue and context.

I still feel purposeless, useless, and aimless at church. I don’t look forward to simply attending the service and then sitting in Sunday school for an hour before going back home. It’s not that I am concerned about “not getting fed,” which seems to be a complaint I’ve heard from other Christians about other churches over the years, it’s about lack of connectedness. I’ve gone back to church to try to fulfill a Biblical (Hebrews 10:25) or Christian expectation for community, it would be nice to actually have some “community.”

In his defense of the church, Jacob wrote:

God forbid that I should disparage the Internet as a means of communication; the irony would be a bit sickening. But realistically, all the activity out here is nothing – nothing! – compared to what is going on in real churches, with real people talking face to face. Real, honest dialogue with other people who bear God’s image and are trying just as hard as we are to understand and interpret the Bible.

The Internet is an amazing way to communicate information. However it is of extremely limited value in building relationships, real relationships with trust and accountability and blood and tears and the things that make us human. And it is in the context of these relationships that people change, minds change, spiritual growth happens.

Apparently, that is yet to come and the potential for that sort of relationship and dialogue is just about the only thing that’s keeping me where I am for the moment. I keep expecting someone to kick me out because I don’t celebrate Christmas (and fortunately, no one has asked what I’m doing for Christmas yet) or because I’m not doing something besides occupying space (make a suggestion…I’ll probably do it). I also keep wondering what will happen if they don’t.

Maybe, as my friend says, in a year, things will be different, perhaps even dramatically different and in a positive way. I hope so. In the short run, it’s hard to look forward to church each Sunday. It isn’t bad. But it could be a lot better.

Spilled Out

The rabbinic approach to prayer, rather than pointing to the collectivization of Jewish religious consciousness, encourages individuals within the community to discover the personal dimension of Judaic spirituality within the communal life of the halakhah. In prayer and the Shema, the rabbis sought to allow the personal to be present in the framework of halakhic practice by joining individual initiative to structure, discipline, and order. They insisted that habit not triumph in the life of prayer, and they constantly admonished the community that prayer must not be a gesture that one repeats unthinkingly. They insist that one must not pray today just because one prayed yesterday. Personal supplication must be brought within the fixed framework of the petitional benedictions of the Amidah. One must even strive to bring novel elements into daily petitional prayer.

-Rabbi David Hartman
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism
Chapter 7: “Individual and Community Prayer”

Actually, there are days when I’d do almost anything if I could just flip my brain, heart, and soul into automatic pilot and be able to belong to the “collectivization of…religious consciousness” and turn what some religious Jews refer to as tefillat nedavah (voluntary prayer) into “structure, discipline, and order.” Sometimes my relationship with God, or at least the thoughts and feelings associated with that relationship, is too chaotic and scrambled to be of much use to either me or Him.

But as Rabbi Hartman describes it, there is a greater responsibility and intention (kavvanah) in Jewish prayer than most Christians tend to understand. There are exceptions, such as Pastor Jacob Fronczak’s love of liturgy, but I think you have to be wired a certain way as a non-Jew in order to love liturgical prayer. For me though, on those days (or weeks) when it is just too much for me to summon up the necessary energy and passion to take aim at God through my “prayer antenna” so what I want to say to God will reach Him, a structured set of benedictions would do quite nicely.

I don’t know where we learn to pray. I guess it’s different for everyone. For Rabbi Hartman, it came from listening to his mother pray during the synagogue service when he was a child.

I could hear her asking God to ensure that her adult sons would find good brides and that her husband would be able to support his family with dignity. Her prayers gave expression to her personal yearnings as a wife and mother. Her language was in no way inhibited or stunted. As I listened to her prayers, I did not sense that she felt unworthy to approach God with “petty” personal needs. She would have been astonished if someone had told her that the significance of prayer is to manifest an Akedah consciousness and asked how she dared feel so relaxed and easy before God. My mother, a deeply traditional Jew, prayed in the manner of generations of Jewish mothers. She continued a tradition that she received from her own family.

I’m compelled to think of the prayer of Hannah when reading about how Rabbi Hartman heard his mother’s prayers:

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad. –1 Samuel 1:12-18 (ESV)

It’s funny. In the moments when I was typing the previous quote from Rabbi Hartman’s book, I also couldn’t help but think of my wife. As a child, she would never have heard her mother pray as a Jew because her mother had long since abandoned any vestige of cultural, let alone religious Judaism. I can only feel compassion for my wife as I picture her first entering into the Jewish community in middle age, determined to reclaim what God intended for her from the first breath she took after birth, but could never live out until decades later.

The only prayer I can remember from my childhood is the one that begins, Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” While I don’t doubt that it’s comfortable for most Christians to keep formalized and liturgical prayer down to a bare minimum, I think they rob themselves and their children of something special when they dismiss it altogether. There’s a fabric of tradition, history, community, and belonging in those prayers. I’ve never been part of a purely Christian congregation that has employed a traditional prayer structure (although it could be argued that the small, “One Law” group with whom I once “fellowshipped” and continue to remember with affection, were more Christian than anything else), but in relation to Jewish prayer, the attraction for me to be part of that dynamic is substantial.

But more often than not, I find that serious time in prayer eludes me. I don’t know if it’s because I previously declared I would forego worship practices that even appear to be Jewish (with some rare and recent exceptions) or it it’s something more endemic to my soul, but lately, God seems to be rather “standoffish,” or perhaps it’s me. I used to think that a “crisis of faith” would be singular and rather brief since, by definition, a crisis is a dramatic event or set of events that occur very quickly and result in non-trivial change, but now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to believe, maybe just in my case, that this “crisis of faith” is an evolutionary process that is leading me to some newer (and hopefully higher) realization of who I am in God.

In commenting on Maimonides, Hartman states:

I believe, however, that Maimonides’ understanding of prayer as avodah she-be-lev is an invitation to individuals to discover their own personal and individual mode of worship within a system in which common practice and community are so heavily emphasized.

She-be-lev or service of the heart is the individual operating of personal worship and devotion to God within the larger community of Judaism. It’s the unique part of space and time where a man davening during morning prayers with a minyan can still be an individual Jew with an individual heart and soul given up like an incense offering to God.

Traditional Jewish prayer is like a container holding a liquid. The container defines the shape of the liquid but not its characteristics, substance, and behavior. The liquid can freeze, boil, or steam within the container and still be held and kept “safe.” Without the container though, all it can do is spill into a puddle on the counter top and dribble onto the floor, becoming fodder for the mop and destined for the drain and sewer.

When I try to pray or even think about how to get back to, let alone closer to God, I’m poured all over the ground. It would be nice if I could consider myself Paul’s proverbial “drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), but I know in fact, that I’m just making a mess.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. –2 Corinthians 4:7-10 (ESV)

Does anyone out there have a sponge to soak me up with and a handy jar to squeeze me into?

Laughing with God

Deeper than the wisdom to create is the wisdom to repair.

And so, G-d built failure into His world, so that He could give Man His deepest wisdom. To repair.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Repair”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Chabad.org

How is repair deeper than creation?

-Posted by Avi

If you have unlimited resources–like G-d does–it’s much easier to throw out the broken pieces and start all over again than to keep them and get them to work.

That’s what Torah is–the ability to sustain the world while repairing it.

-Posted by Rabbi Freeman in response to Avi

God did that once. Destroy the world because it was easier than fixing it.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” –Genesis 6:5-7 (ESV)

Fortunately afterwards, God has told us that, even though it’s easier to destroy and start creation all over again, He will take another path from now on.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” –Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17 (ESV)

And while the sign of God’s covenant with Noah has been appropriated for everything from rainbow ponies to the LGBT movement, it remains for me the promise that even though it is easier to destroy and recreate than to maintain, God has promised to continue to “sustain the world while repairing it.”

But what about individual human beings? Can and will God sustain us while we’re “under repair?”

Recently, I’ve commented about the seeming randomness of the purpose of individual lives as well as how faith can wane and leave each of us feeling isolated and alienated from God. While God may wait for us to return to Him, will He wait forever?

I guess since the human lifespan is finite, the literal answer must be, “No.”

On the other hand:

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:6-14 (ESV)

We rely on God’s mercy outweighing His judgment for if it didn’t, then how could anyone survive, even for an instant?

But that doesn’t really answer the question. It’s not as if sin doesn’t have it’s effect.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. –Isaiah 59:1-2 (ESV)

If God doesn’t seem to be paying attention to us, it’s because we have shut the door between us, not Him.

On the other hand, does arguing with God cause a separation? We have seen times when confronting God has actually been beneficial, such as when Abraham interceded for Sodom, when Jacob wrestled with God, and when Moses pleaded for Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf.

And yet, when God told Abraham to sacrifice the life of Isaac, Abraham didn’t say a word.

So I’m at a loss. How do you know when it is appropriate to contend with God and when you should remain silent and accept what He has said as final?

I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows. I only know that a relationship between a human being and an infinite and Almighty God either requires the human to be completely terrified all of the time and to say and do nothing, or the human must have the freedom to interact and even challenge God at times for there to be a relationship at all.

We are awfully casual with God at times. I suppose we rely on not only His mercy, but on His desire to have intimacy with us. To be intimate requires the ability to not only converse, but to argue, debate, struggle, and even yell. But God isn’t a human being, so how we relate to Him can’t really be the same as how we relate to our spouse or other loved ones.

Yes, I know that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware and that people are worth more to Him than sparrows. I also know anything we ask in Christ’s name will be done for us (though not anything asked frivolously or against the will of God), so we have these as indications of God’s great love for us.

But exactly where is the line that you cannot cross without permanent and irreversible consequences?

Maybe these are questions that should be left unasked or at least unanswered.

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post describing God as a teacher, a “bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding,” as opposed to a harsh and punitive judge who elicits only fear from us. Maybe we only receive from God that which we look for, or to put it another way:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. –Galatians 6:6-10 (ESV)

We can choose to fear God and obey Him out of that fear, and perhaps that’s where we all start out, or we can choose to see God as our great teacher who shows us the lessons for good. I suppose like in a yeshiva setting, we sometimes learn by debating our teacher, but only as a mechanism by which we burn away the inconsistencies and “dross” from our understanding.

In the end, we never doubt that what He says and does is for ultimate benefit. And we never doubt that even in our hottest anger or our darkest fears, that He always loves us. And He has taught us that we should always sustain the world while repairing it. That includes repairing who we are as individuals and repairing our relationship with God, sustaining it and not destroying it…and not destroying us.

Imagine a father tutoring his child, as any tutor will teach a student.

The child does well, and the father returns a smile of approval, as any good tutor would do.

Then the father laughs, slapping his child affectionately on the back, and they both laugh together, as only a father and child could do, the father saying in his laugh, “I always have this pride, this delight in you, that you are my child. Now is just my opportunity to show it.”

Above, our Father awaits His opportunity to laugh with us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Father as Tutor”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Imagine a God and teacher who so loves us that we can also laugh with Him.

Loving God

Burning BushWhen God appeared to our Teacher Moses, and commanded him to address the people and to bring them the message, Moses replied that he might first be asked to prove the existence of God in the Universe, and that only after doing so he would be able to announce to them that God had sent him. For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation, and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them, and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself…

Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs “to be” and “to exist.” …This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “the existing Being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

from The Guide for the Perplexed
by Moses Maimonides
translated by M. Friedlander (1903)

This blog continues my series based on the JLI course book for Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review the previous blog, A Knock on the Door, and then return here and keep reading.

I don’t doubt the actual existence of God and haven’t for quite some time. Too much has happened to me that can’t be explained any other way but that God, the God of the Bible, must exist and be active in the world. It’s comprehending God and particularly, what He wants from a relationship with me that has me “perplexed”. Understanding God is no small matter and I don’t believe it’s possible for any human being to comprehend God, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying to grasp Him on some miniscule scale.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog saying, in part, that God is the only being who truly stands alone and without peer. God is a unique and radical One and there is no other like Him.

G-d replied that His name is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” That is to say: the Being Whose existence depends on nothing but Himself…. “I exist because I exist, not because of another existence. Unlike other beings, My existence and power is not dependent on anything.”

This name does not apply to any other being. They cannot say, “I exist because I exist.” They are only able to say…”I exist because another being exists,” that is, the First Cause upon which all beings depend.

But G-d depends on Himself, not on any other cause….Therefore, His existence is a true existence because He does not need any other being.

Rabbi Yosef Albo
Sefer Ha’ikarim 2:27

This, as much as anything, is what makes God so incomprehensible. As people, we like to think we’re self-sufficient and independent, but even on a human scale, we must admit that our existence is dependent on our parents. On a cosmic scale, all that lives and all that exists depends on God for our very being and purpose. That is a daunting and humbling thought, and if you are a secular humanist, you will reject the concept out of hand. People don’t like to think that we aren’t in control our lives. In fact, we do control what we do with our lives, we just don’t determine why we were created in the first place, and we often don’t have a clue as to which “destiny” or purpose we are best suited. That is up to God, not a blind and random meeting between your father’s and mother’s genetic material, and not by any other set of arbitrary probabilities.

We are dependent on so much. Only God is alone.

Rabbi Albo also wrote, in Sefer Ha’ikarim 2:30:

It is impossible for anyone outside of G-d to grasp His essence. Like the answer given by the wise man upon being asked if he knows the essence of G-d – “If I knew Him I would be Him.” In other words, there is no one who can grasp G-d’s essence except God….The ultimate we can grasp about G-d is that we cannot grasp Him. As the wise man said, “The ultimate knowing of You is knowing that I cannot know You.”

Woman prayingAdmitting all of that, where does that leave humans in relation to God? We can’t know Him, at least not in the sense of His most complete essence. And yet, we are commanded to “love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus taught these very words (Matthew 22:37) so I feel confident that they apply to Jews and to everyone else. We are also taught to fear God (Deuteronomy 6:13) with (my interpretation) a fearful awesomeness. But how do we connect to God when He is so infinite and we are so…not?

An article written by Rabbi Aaron Moss is included in the JLI course material for Toward a Meaningful Life and is crafted in the form of an “Ask the Rabbi” column:

Question: Rabbi, I am uninspired, I used to pray to G-d and study Torah, but I’ve lost the spark. I feel flat and empty and I haven’t done anything spiritual in ages. What should I do to find my soul again?

I won’t attempt to replicate the Rabbi’s rather lengthy answer, but at the core, he says that if you wait for a feeling to inspire you to start praying, studying and rekindling your relationship with God, you’ll wait forever. It’s like an out-of-shape person saying that they can’t go to the gym to get back in shape until they start getting more strength and stamina. They are too out-of-shape to be able to work out in order to get back into shape. I’m sure you can see the “Catch-22” involved here.

Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, relates an encounter he had with a fellow after a speaking engagement. The man told Covey that he hadn’t loved his wife for many years and no matter what he tried, he couldn’t resurrect his emotional connection with her. He pleaded with Covey to give him some advice or insight as to how he could start loving his wife again.

Covey’s only answer was, “Just love her”.

If you wait for a feeling before you start treating someone as if you love them, you’ll be waiting forever. This is as true of a relationship with God as with a spouse. To love God, don’t wait for a feeling. Start praying. Start reading the Bible. Start allowing God to just be with you. By the by, you will start “feeling” the love returning.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his article Each of Us Has a Personal Relationship with God says in part:

I also believe that God supervises the smallest details and every single individual….Thus, God has a plan for each and every human being and every single creature. But I cannot know what His plan is for me. Every now and then I ask Him (and sometimes receive an answer…). What am I supposed to do now according to the plan? Have I done what You wanted me to do, or have I erred and misunderstood you?

SproutI’m sure I’ve asked those questions of God before. Rabbi Steinsaltz goes on:

That is why prayer, no matter the form, is so important. Prayer is always a conversation with God. It is the way we relate feelings, fears or aspirations, or make requests…Human beings have the right (perhaps also the duty) to converse with God, to ask things from Him and also to complain to Him…

Probably the capstone of today’s missive was written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his article When People Lose Faith in God, They Lose Faith in Humanity Also:

We are small but capable of greatness, selfish but often selfless, dust of the earth but also the image of god. When I have faith in God I find that I recover my faith in humanity as well.

Expressing faith through prayer and study, even when the heart seems empty is like coaxing a small, tender shoot to begin to bud in the desert. With persistence, care, and patience, it can grow into a forest.

“But words and music can never
touch the beauty that I’ve seen
looking into you
and that’s true”

-Jackson Browne
from his song “Looking Into You”

This series of blogs based on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life will conclude on Sunday’s “morning meditation” when I look at whether or not its reasonable or fair to apply a series of lessons written specifically for a Jewish audience to Christians and the world at large.

Later today, I’ll post my commentary for this week’s Torah Portion, Re’eh: When Did We Feed You?