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Faith on a Desert Island

© Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Every time I see something about being a Christian in community, or a Jew in community, or especially a non-Jew in (Messianic) Jewish community, I start thinking about those of us who, for one reason or another, aren’t in community.

Many years ago, I listened to a “Messianic Jewish luminary” denigrate Gentiles who were isolated from community, and he had a point. A lot of non-Jews who have left the traditional Church for one reason or another, possess rather “fringy” theologies, and often are considered “religious nuts”. These are the kinds of people who believe faith can cure any ill, and who wouldn’t take their kid to a doctor even if he were having a heart attack. People who think taking an aspirin is a mortal sin.

But there are plenty of reasons to be disenfranchised or unaffiliated besides being mentally ill or having cult leanings.

For anyone with a “Messianic” perspective, it may be a matter of not having an appropriate venue within driving distance. In my case, it’s a little more complicated, being a Gentile believer married to a (non-Messianic) Jew.

But the most common reason we experience is that we’ve been burned, not just by the Church, but by Messianic Judaism as well.

Not to overstate the point, but Gentiles in Messianic Jewish space have traditionally been a problem, and some of us, who don’t want to be a problem, solve it by simply not showing up.

So what happens then?

Over the past few months, I’ve been satisfying my more “creative writing” desires by becoming involved in “flash fiction challenges” of various sorts. The idea is that someone posts a photo online and authors use it as an inspiration to write a very short story, anything between about 100 and 250 words. We then share our work with one another and comment.

In response to one of those challenges, I wrote The Listener.

As I finished writing it and was editing, I realized the message I was communicating was literally true of me. Various difficulties in my personal life, as well as just plain “busyness,” had resulted in my leaving the vast majority of my “religious practice” behind.

The result, among other things, was a massive piling up of anxiety and hopelessness. If God lets little kids starve all over the world, why should He care if my grandchildren are having problems? What’s the use of praying? God either knows they’re hurting and will have compassion or He won’t.

As many pundits have previously warned me, it’s hard maintaining faith outside of community, and there’s the rub.

Technically, all I should need is God, but in the history of Judaism and Christianity, at least relative to the Bible, faith has always been communal. Okay, Paul spent plenty of time alone, but he always came back (at least until he was shipped off to Rome).

I’m alone because my attending Church or anything “church-like” (such as a Messianic community) hurts my wife.

I’m alone because I’ve been burned, and more than once.

I’m alone because even if there were an appropriate community, and even if my wife didn’t mind, I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut, and 100% of the time, opening my mouth eventually ends up with me offending someone.

The religious blogosphere has been pretty peaceful lately, and I suspect that’s because the trolls and nudniks have moved on to something else, but real life is a wild west show.

We may wander away from each other, but while we can keep God at a distance, He’s always close enough to touch. He doesn’t fail. He doesn’t burn you.

Sure, He’s also incredibly hard to understand and, if you have trust issues, it’s still hard to believe everything will work out in the end, especially when kids all over the world are starved, beaten, raped, burned, and otherwise assaulted and abused on a daily basis.

I’ve got to get back. Not sure how, since a lot of my praxis is based on time I no longer have.

I feel more connected when I read/study the Bible. I feel more connected when I pray. I feel more connected when I take a deep breath and reach out to His Presence.

I feel more connected when I write here.

A lot of “religious people” can and probably will be critical of me. Fortunately, God isn’t a person. He’s always ready to welcome the prodigal son home.

Day Zero

divide-by-zeroThat fall, Pastor S. from a church in another county came to our church to share in a morning service how they felt led to the mission field and were going to go to another country. S. shared his testimony followed by his wife L. L’s testimony paralleled my life closely, baptized at an early age, regular in church and youth activities but still felt empty. However in her early 20s she realized that she had not admitted that she personally was a sinner and that Christ’s death was for her. At that moment, God opened my eyes and I realized why I had been feeling guilty as my own pastor was preaching. I know the facts about Christ, his birth, life and death but had never applied them personally to myself. I had never admitted I personally was a sinner destined to hell without the shed blood of Jesus and had not believed in the reason for his death on the cross. My sin.

-Testimony found in last Sunday’s church bulletin.

There’s more to the writer’s testimony but I decided to quote just the portion specific to this blog post and of course, I took out any information that might identify the parties involved. This is Day Zero, the last few hours of the last day. At midnight tonight, time runs out in my countdown.

Yesterday, I went to church. It was interesting.

I walked in the side door and immediately ran into Pastor Randy. He smiled and greeted me. In a very friendly way, he asked where I’d been the last couple of weeks (he wouldn’t be the only one). He also surprised me. The day I met him and we had our rather lengthy chat in his office, I had volunteered to do some work for the church that is within my skill set. He hadn’t brought it up again, but yesterday, he said he talked with the deacons and they’d like me to proceed. He’ll email me later this week to set up a meeting and tell me what he has in mind. I’ll keep the nature of the work to myself for now, but in the moment that Pastor brought it up, I knew I was committed to the church. Actually, I knew that before I walked in the door that morning.

I also saw Charlie, who teaches my Sunday school class. He said he’d been thinking about me and wondering where I was. I saw Dick and Virgil and a number of other people whose names I still can’t remember (I’m getting better at it, though). People were friendly, but the friendliness was a different quality. I can’t explain it in so many words, but I felt more welcome somehow. As my wife says, maybe what’s different was my attitude.

Church was still church. There was a brief DVD presentation made by missionaries in the Congo. They baptized 18 people in the first month they were there. They make bricks for their worship structure out of clay that has to be dried in the sun. After the first Sunday service, a storm blew the thatch roof off of the structure and they had a “church work day” to put it back up. Services are spoken in French and then translated into one of the indigenous languages. It’s a different world, and yet, we’re all human beings on a journey to encounter God in our lives.

Pastor spoke on Acts 8:9-25. I’d recently covered the same material in D. Thomas Lancaster’s Torah Club Vol. 6, Chronicles of the Apostles, and Pastor Randy’s treatment of Philip’s encounter with Simon in Samaria seemed very different from Torah Club. The immediate impression I got was that the church was trying a little too hard to apply a modern Christian sense of evangelism to people and events that are 2000 years distant. Ancient Judaism likely didn’t concern itself with how converting someone of Simon Magus’s statue would be a big accomplishment.

But he said something else that made more sense.

Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed…Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.

Acts 8:14, 17-21 (ESV)

simon-the-magicianWhen Simon first hears the Good News from Philip, it seems like he too comes to faith in the Jewish Messiah King and is willing to reconcile his life to the will of the God of Israel. In other words, it seems like he has converted to Christianity. But his subsequent response to seeing the giving of the Holy Spirit indicates that he completely misunderstands what he is observing and what his faith in God is supposed to really mean. Pastor Randy says there is a faith that doesn’t save. And he said more than that.

He ran off a litany of verses from the New Testament, all “convicting Christians of their sin.” Verses such as 2 Cor. 13:5, Gal. 5:19-21, Eph 5:5-6, 1 Jn 3:6-10. Here’s another one.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:5-11 (ESV)

One of the objections I hear about “going to church” from believers who are not church-goers is that the church gives a whitewashed, “feel good” message, that doesn’t communicate the reality of the Bible, sin, and salvation. That may be true in other churches but it wasn’t in the one I attended last Sunday. It was anything but “whitewashed, feel-good.” The quote I opened this “meditation” with is part of that message. The message is that just because you believe, you may not have a terrifically realistic grip on the consequences of your belief. If you call yourself a Christian or a believer, but still can violate the Word of God with no feelings of guilt, anguish, or remorse, what you have may not even be what is called “faith.” Believing isn’t enough.

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

James 2:19 (ESV)

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Think about the author of the text I quoted from at the top of this blog post. If he hadn’t experienced God’s message about his life, at the end of all things, he might have been one who the Master declared that “I never knew you…depart from me!” How horrible that a person might live that long and believe they are truly in the service of God through Jesus Christ only to be told to their face that they have been woefully mistaken about what faith means. Even performing great signs and wonders isn’t meaningful. Simon in Samaria was a magician who was called “great,” and yet his magic meant nothing to God.

hourglassIn the days of the Torah the great magician Balaam was commissioned by Balak, a King, to curse the Children of Israel. Balaam spoke with God and an angel of the Lord appeared to Balaam, but he was no servant of the God of Israel (see Torah Portion Balak). Yes, what you do matters (James 2:14-24), but behavior, purpose, and intent all go hand in hand. Everyone has times of doubt when we wonder if God will ever come near, including me, but there comes a time that we can’t simply wait on God to tell us what we need to know, we must pursue God with all of our strength, our will, and our resources. If He is our goal, then we have only one avenue to reach it; Jesus Christ and a true and saving faith in the promises of the Messiah.

There’s much more to do once faith is affirmed or reaffirmed, but sometimes you need to touch home plate to make sure your foundation is solid. It’s like I went to church and God asked me, “Do you know what you’re doing here?” “Do you know what you want?” “Are you sure you want this?” The answer is either “yes” or “no.”

My time is up. The clock is running to zero. Before the last hours, minutes, and seconds ticked down and the hourglass emptied, I said, “yes.”