Thursday, September 1, 2016

42614:: From There to Here

My mom liked to say that I have been in church since the first Sunday after I was born. Since I was born on a Monday, I supposed that actually might have been true. One of my very earliest memories is lying in a church pew during a service, my mother letting me play with twisting the wedding ring on her finger to keep me occupied and quiet. Church is where we went on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any time in between. I accepted that as reality because it was my reality.

I remember receiving my very first Bible after I “walked down the aisle” at the age of 10. I was so proud to be entrusted with it that I promptly began to read it from beginning to end. Most of us know how that was destined to end as soon as I hit Leviticus, but I do recall getting at least as far as Exodus 20 because one of the first things that confused me was:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. — Exodus 20:8-11
So, I asked Mom why we didn’t go to church on the seventh day as (to my 10-year-old mind) the Bible clearly implied we should. Her answer that “we go to church on Sunday because that’s the day that Jesus rose from the tomb” appeased me for many years because, after all, my mother would never lie to me, therefore it must be true. As it turns out, most Sunday Christians do believe that is the reason why they attend church on Sunday. Years later, when I learned the real reason why, I wondered if there might be other things that weren't as I had believed. (But even that explanation did not explain away why it was okay for us to call the Sunday "Sabbath", but not observe it as a day of rest.)

As I entered my teen years, most of my extracurricular activities revolved around church and youth group. But I was also starting to experience a sort of "disconnect", where the things I was hearing and learning did not match up with everything I was seeing and experiencing. There were also times when we went to church that I remember resentment and rebellion stewing in my heart as I would defiantly sit ramrod-straight in the pew the entire evening, thinking, “You can make my body be here, but you can't control my mind to make me pay attention.”

In the '70s at the tail-end of the Jesus People movement, small inconsistencies began to pop up here and there as I sought to reconcile the faith that I had been raised in with my own observations and reasoning. But I was easily intimidated into keeping my “radical and rebellious” thoughts to myself, and so I put such questions as: “What does Santa Claus and the Easter bunny have to do with Jesus?” and “If we lie to our children about these things, how can they trust that we are telling them the truth about Jesus?” on the back burner.

It was in the '80s when I heard for the first time a presentation by Jews for Jesus on Christ in the Passover.  It was a completely new revelation for me. Something stirred in me to want a better understanding of the Old Testament because this was the first clue that I had that everything I had ever believed from the New Testament had a deeper, richer, more symbolic and prophetic meaning than I had previously known. And this, after having attended a denominational college for two years, with the requisite Bible classes!

Fast forward a few years later to having my own children... and we started homeschooling, I thought it would be a great idea to do a unit study about Christmas to learn about how the holiday is celebrated in different parts of the world. It was certainly fun to bake traditional sweets from the Scandinavian and Mediterranean countries as we learned about Santa Lucia and Père Noël, but the real eye-opener for me was learning about Hanukkah and the history (and legends) behind what I had always naïvely supposed to simply be a Jewish substitute for Christmas. I still remember thinking (and saying out loud to anyone who would listen), “I don't understand why the Christian church doesn't celebrate this instead of what Christmas has turned into. Hanukkah is about standing up for what is right and true in the face of tyranny and persecution… isn't that what we are called to do as Christ-followers?” From that point on, we began to incorporate Hanukkah every year into our other family traditions.

For our family, Christmas was all about Christ. We did not go overboard into debt to buy gifts, we read the Nativity story aloud as a family, we did the advent wreath and prepared our hearts for His coming... ours was no pagan celebration of the sun. We really did celebrate Christ's birth, down to the "birthday cake for Jesus." We knew that the date was symbolic, that Christ was not really born in December, but we didn't think it mattered. We thought that as long as we were “keeping Christ in Christmas," God knew the intentions of our heart and honored us for honoring Him. After all, we reasoned that if He could redeem us, then surely He could redeem a pagan holiday.

So, we added Hanukkah to our winter tradition and exchanged our gifts on Saint Nicholas Day and kept Christmas about Christ by attending church and having a special family dinner, and I patted myself on the back that I had one up on those people who got sucked into the commercialism and seasonal insanity that we call “the most wonderful time of the year.”

When my own two children later walked away from the inconsistencies and lack of love that they had experienced with organized church in the late '90s, I began to examine my paradigm of “faith” and the whole church culture from a different perspective. Later, after reading a book by Dr. Michael L. Brown, Revolution in the Church: Challenging the Religious System with a Call for Radical Change, followed by his series on Answering Jewish Questions about Jesus, I was encouraged to read a book called Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna (of the Barna Research Group) and “lightning struck my brain” (to steal a phrase from the movie Hook).

In retrospect, I will admit that it’s probably dangerous to ask questions if you are not willing to make a change in your life when you realize you have been wrong about something, but these were the things that were puzzling me:
  • If we say we believe the whole word of God is true, why do we not live like we believe it?
  • How do we excuse observing all of the “Ten Commandments” except #4, yet turn around and say “you can’t pick and choose”?
  • If scripture in the Old Testament is “no longer valid," how can I be sure that scripture in the New Testament is still valid?
Those only led to more questions as I sounded out others as to what their thoughts were on these matters...
  • Who is “Israel” when scripture says these commands are for Israel and they will be blessed by keeping them? Is it symbolic?  Does it include me if I’m not Jewish?
  • Where in the Bible does it say that Jesus changed the Sabbath to Sunday? (Spoiler alert! Nowhere! So then, who gave the Roman Catholic church the “authority” to change Sabbath to Sunday?)
  •  Does observing God’s commandments mean that we are being legalistic or obedient?
  • What does “Under the Law” really mean?
  • What exactly did Jesus nail to the Cross?
  • Is there really anything wrong with co-opting pagan holidays and making them “Christian” in order to make people feel comfortable about joining the church?
  • Is there anything wrong with going to church on Sunday?
I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and things looked a lot different than they had always seemed. I was beginning to understand some of the “whys," but it still took me several more years to get a handle on the “Yes, but how?” aspect of what I had been learning.

So, I began to read the Bible more consistently doing word, contextual, and topical studies. In the process, I found out that “Israel” is often used as a metaphor for those who are true worshipers of God... and over the years the truth of what I have been learning has chipped away at the layers of “harmless traditions” that had kept me from understanding how He really wants me to worship Him.

Besides “Israel” being used as a metaphor, I still have heard many people insist that the Torah is just for the Jews. However, the more I studied and searched, the more verses I found that did not support that thought. This was another case of having to decide if I could justify picking and choosing which scriptures I was going to believe.

“The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.” – Exodus 12:49
“You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.” – Leviticus 24:22
If we think we should ignore those “laws” or instructions that we have always heard were “for the Jews," we ought to stop and consider that Israel was called out and set apart by God to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6), to show the world what “right living” according to the instructions of our Creator truly looks like. If we want to claim the verses in Romans 11 that say we have been “grafted in” apply to us, and if we believe that in Christ there is no longer any separation between Jew and Greek/Gentile, shouldn't we at least have an understanding of what kind of light God expects us to be? He has intentionally established guidelines that, if followed, will clearly set us apart from others in all areas of our life (calendar, food, dress, finances, how we treat others, etc.) with the end result that it will lead the world to Himself. And interestingly enough, when God calls His people to “be holy” in Leviticus 11:44-45 and 1 Peter 1:16, the word “holy” literally means “set apart.”

This is a good goal for us to have. In fact, I think it should be the very reason for our existence. So, instead of attempting to explain away “inconvenient” commandments, I want to understand the underlying principle behind them as best as I can and embrace them as beneficial for me to follow. I have always been taught that Jesus came to earth teaching and walking in the commandments of His Father. But the notion that Jesus nailed God's commandments to the cross is in direct contradiction to scripture. Jesus plainly said that his doctrine was not His own, nor did He come to institute “a new thing” that was contrary to God's perfect and unchanging words. Jesus came as our perfect example, and my conclusion is that if I am going to claim that I am one of His followers, then I should walk in His footsteps. We know Jesus kept all of His Father's instructions perfectly, but it was not so we don’t have to, but that we might have an example of what it looks like to properly interpret the Word and walk in it.

Unfortunately, we have gotten used to picking and choosing as we attempt to justify a lifestyle that, if you really examine it, in many instances is contrary to what God has outlined for us in His Word. People ignore the fourth commandment, claiming that “Jesus is their Sabbath rest” or “we can worship any day of the week."  Or many attempt to explain away the dietary instructions found in Leviticus 11 by arguing that we now have refrigeration and can safely consume that which God clearly says is unclean, and even goes so far as to call “an abomination.” I don't think we should assume that we know better than God; we are called to hear and obey, not edit His instructions.

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” - Titus 1:9
“For I give you sound doctrine, forsake ye not my Torah (instructions).” - Proverbs 4:2
Over several years as I began to learn more about Passover and the other Feasts of the Lord and the Messianic symbolism and fulfillment of them, and then compared those to our traditions of celebrating Easter and Christmas, I discovered that once I know the truth of a thing, I cannot un-know it. And that is how it has evolved for me over several years.  As I want to learn more about the heart of a thing, I have gradually become convinced that just because we have honorable intentions, if we are in opposition to what God has actually asked us to do, then we have a dilemma. Do we continue to do things “as we have always done them," or do we find out if God has a better plan? I think you can guess the answer to that one.

The problem comes when we do not read all of the Bible; people often think that much of what is in the “front of the book” does not apply to the “New Testament church.” So, when God says,

“be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.' You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.” - Deuteronomy 12: 30
we just gloss right over that and make excuses like, “Well, He is talking to Israel. I'm not Jewish. That doesn't apply to me... So what if Christmas was originally a pagan celebration? I’m celebrating Christ’s birth, not participating in Saturnalia orgies", or “so what if Easter bunnies don't really lay chocolate eggs, it's just fun for the children and I don’t want them to feel they are missing out.”

As I read and learned more about the Hebrew roots of my Christian faith, I began to explore what it meant to follow what I had always considered to be the “Jewish traditions," and found that there was a profound difference between “traditions” and living a life “set apart” according to God’s instructions or standards. But, I think the nail in the coffin of any further objections I could come up with came with reading the verses:

“Look, today I am giving you the choice between a blessing and a curse!” - Deuteronomy 11:26
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” - Deuteronomy 30:11.
Seriously! Who in their right mind would choose a curse instead of a blessing? Especially when God specifically says that His commandments are not too difficult - or “impossible” - as we have often been told.

And the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119 (the one that I always put off reading when I got around to reading my daily Psalms) is chock-full of admonitions as to just how beneficial it is to live a life according to God’s instructions. How could I argue against that?

After a couple of years of spiritual inertia which resulted from having my paradigm so shifted that I had no idea how to proceed, I prayed, asking God to give me discernment and a hunger for Truth. I began to seek out Messianic teachers wherever I could find them. It didn’t take me long to discover that some had a little bit of truth mixed with a lot of error and pride, but others along the way continued to steer me towards understanding “the whole Truth.” (I would hope that I am not so arrogant that I ever think I have it all figured out, and I am certainly not so blind as to say that I have not made some mistakes in judgement along the way.) Therefore, I continue to pray that God will give me discernment and reveal His Truth to me, and give me a heart that is willing to trust Him and follow Him, despite the potential consequences of having friends or family disagree with or even ridicule me.

Just as Israel had to literally come out of Egypt, so I needed to recognize that much of how I was living my life was still figuratively in Egypt. “Coming out of Egypt” means much more than learning about the feast days, or putting the ka-bosh on pagan holiday celebrations. It means ending my desire for the things that the world desires.

If we are going to avoid the mistakes the Israelites made in the desert, we are going to have to start getting into the right mindset about what our Father wants for us, and avoiding those things in the world that would spoil us and lure us into a false sense of “luxurious” living, while in reality we are in bondage!

I came to the conviction that I should weigh everything I heard and thought I knew against what the scriptures actually said (or didn't say!), and it has been disconcerting to find that everywhere I turned I found another tradition (Christian and Jewish!) melting away before me as I have tried to examine what God says about a matter. And yet, I am also very grateful to many teachers and scholars for helping me understand the difference between a Greek mindset and a Hebrew mindset; how the rabbis and even some of the “Church Fathers” originally had good intentions with their traditions and doctrines to keep people from falling into disobedience, and what impact that has on our foundational understanding of scripture. Many teachers have had input while I have been on this journey of understanding and obedience. Even some of those who have mixed truth with error have been instrumental in helping me understand the significance of certain doctrines and traditions, and in being able to discern that just because something is indeed simply a tradition does not in and of itself make it heresy. It's how a thing lines up with God's instructions to us as His set-apart witnesses (light) to the world that makes a thing worth following or leaving behind. The bottom line should be: Are we representing Him as He wants to be represented? Because it should never be about what we are accustomed to or “comfortable with” in our faith walk. If it is, then we are putting our traditions above God’s commands… the same thing that Jesus Himself criticized the religious leaders of His time for! If we honestly want to claim that we are “crucified with Christ… [and] the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” as it says in Galatians 2:20, then we need to give up wanting to do things our way.

I cannot help but look at things differently than I ever have before. Yet, I am sorry that some have erroneously assumed that I have fallen into the “trap of legalism” and that I am somehow trying to earn my salvation… something I had been freely given long before I had my eyes opened to the truth in 1 John 5:3-5:

…this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
So, one thing I have decided to change is to observe a day of rest on the seventh day to the best of my understanding. This does not mean I cannot attend church on Sunday. A “day of rest” is not the same as “worship” which, incidentally, we should do every day!

I am trying to learn the difference between tradition and truth in celebrating the Feasts of the Lord (erroneously called by many “Jewish holidays”), and how I can celebrate those in a way that honors God and helps me understand more about Christ.

I am choosing to believe that God had a good reason for telling me what foods I should eat and those I should avoid, if for no other reason than to trust Him to know what is best for me… and to realize that the often used excuse of “Peter's vision” was a complete misinterpretation of scripture, so we have no valid reason to believe that the God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” somehow decided, “Oops, forget it… I changed my mind.”  (Ironically, and happily for me, I also “just happen” to be allergic to pork and shellfish, so this is an easy one for me.)

I really am finding that obedience is not as “impossible” as I have been told it would be all these years. It really is quite easy when I adjust my mindset to wanting to live a life pleasing to my Creator.  Actually, I have to work harder at not worrying about what other people may think of me than anything. Happily, He also had an answer for that, not once, but three times:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Matthew 16:24 - Mark 8:34 - Luke 9:23

So, thank you for hanging in there with me this far. I have wanted to share these things with my friends and family so you might have an understanding of what my walk of faith has been like these past years, but wanted to make sure that I did it in such a way that I could lay out my thoughts without getting distracted by bunny trails.

I have even debated if I should still call myself a “Christian," since culturally, the term itself has lost so much of its meaning and seems to have become a broadly defined label that says very little about what a person actually believes or how they live, except to imply that they are not Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.

Have I lost my faith in Christ as my savior? Do I think that I have it all figured out? Do I think that if I don't “do” things perfectly or “just so” I will lose my salvation? No way!

What I do think is that I have misunderstood different scriptures over the years, and because of that I have had some incorrect notions of what a life lived for Christ should look like. I no longer think that there needs to be a tension between works and faith; I think they go hand in hand, and I believe God has the right to tell us how we should live and treat others and worship Him. Anything less from us is false worship.  And when we fail to live as God has called us, well, He calls that “missing the mark” that He has set for us. He has clearly shown us what it looks like to “hit the mark” and He sent Christ to show us that it can be done, so that is how I want to make adjustments and live my life.

If I have represented anything in this testimony that you believe is in error, I would ask you please to come to me and tell me where you think I am off base. I will consider everything against scripture and make changes as needed or give more specifics to clarify if I have not expressed myself well. With the recent release of the independent documentary The Way, I felt that this was a good time for me to put my thoughts down on paper and, if you are interested, I will be happy to loan you a copy of the documentary to see for yourself what other people are experiencing on this walk.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope that you will not take anything that I have said here as criticism against you or where you are in your walk with Christ. It was only my intention to tell you where I am, not where you “should be.” Only God is qualified to do that.