Jewish background

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In Old Testament Black and White (Joanne’s Testimony)

I didn’t know much about Christianity as a kid.

Why should I? I was Jewish, Bat Mitzvahed at 13, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. Though my high school wasn’t closed for Jewish holidays, a quarter of the students were absent for the High Holy Days. My father was raised as an orthodox Jew; my maternal grandfather was a former cantor; my great aunt still kept kosher.

My Jewish roots ran deep.

I do remember my first church service, however. I was nine or so, and we were visiting my aunt and her family. I recall the pastor saying something disparaging about Jews during his sermon. I ran out. I still don’t remember what he said, but I did not enter a church again for ten years.

messianic jewsThe next one was Catholic. I was in college, dating a Catholic who brought me to Mass. I remember looking up at the front of the church, seeing the crucifix, and feeling more uncomfortable than I ever had before. I kept my eyes down for the rest of the service. That cross haunted me for quite a while.

I had other minor “encounters” with Christianity, but it wasn’t until I was married and living in the Midwest twelve years later that that cross grabbed my attention again.

My husband was nominally Jewish and we both followed our faith for a while. We soon stopped attending synagogue, however, neither of the local ones being to our liking. We still celebrated the major holidays, but nothing more.

I was working as a freelance writer for the local daily paper, and the religion editor had taken a liking to me, so I was writing for him. One day, he called and asked if I would cover a Christian women’s conference the following Saturday. I agreed skeptically, assuming it would be a bunch of fake, mushy women screaming “Hallelujah” and praising God for their wonderful lives.

I felt a camaraderie among the women there, and a peace I simply couldn’t explain.
Was I ever wrong.

The moment I walked into the arena, I felt a camaraderie among the women there, and a peace I simply couldn’t explain. The speakers, who I normally would have dismissed as hokey, resonated with me, and I felt myself filled with the same camaraderie and peace as those around me. I didn’t want to leave.

Unfortunately, I had no choice – I had a deadline to meet! And, as I left the building to walk the three blocks to the newspaper office, I felt that peace leave me just as suddenly as it arrived.

A myriad of questions ran through my mind.

  • What did those women have that I didn’t?
  • Could I find that kind of peace in Judaism if I was more devout, or was this a Christian phenomenon?

I decided I needed to start this quest of mine with my own faith. I found my English copy of the Hebrew Bible and read the entire Old Testament from beginning to end in two weeks. I also typed out about 20 pages of notes.

messianic jewsThat fortnight brought several things to light, including my lack of obedience to God’s laws, and the emphasis throughout the Old Testament on vengeance and justice.

I knew what I had to do next. I began reading the New Testament. And there, it seemed, were answers to all my questions, comfort from all my fears. I finished the NT in another week, and added another dozen pages of notes to my collection.

Yet, I had some serious misgivings. I saw Jesus as a wonderful man, someone to emulate, but as God? As Messiah? My Jewish background and teachings were digging at me – “God is One,” “Christ was a Jew-hater,” and other mantras reverberated in my mind. I MIGHT be able to accept Jesus as Lord, but Savior?

Still, I started attending a bible-believing church, and began reading the bible through again. I got many new revelations on the Old Testament the second time through, but none as monumental as the one I received about 5 months after the women’s conference, from Isaiah.

But he was wounded because of our sins,
Crushed because of our iniquities.
He bore the chastisement that made us whole,
And by his bruises we were healed.
Isaiah 53:5 JPS

There it was, in black and while – in the Hebrew Scriptures: Christ’s death on the cross as payment for my sins. At this point, I had no choice. I embraced the cross, and have never turned back.

Cross photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr, cc.
An Encounter with God

What happened? How could this gentile Jesus manage to get a hold in my life? Truly it was a miracle, that’s for sure. Back to my story at the Sister’s of Maria Del Mar, where I was learning about “Death, Dying, and Beyond” with Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Dr. Schroeder, Maria, (Kubler Ross) and I were the three class dynamite sticks. We connected and worked together extremely well. Maybe it was just about being the greatest extroverts, but what energy! As the class connected and formed its personality I remember feeling totally connected and energized. The energy was wonderful, except for the fact that Marvin, the doctor, followed me every moment out of class trying to tell me more about this Jesus.

I found it totally annoying, interesting perhaps that his Father had carried in the money to start the nation of Israel back in the ‘40’s, but I simply couldn’t connect with this Jesus guy. Days went by, Marvin followed me about like a puppy, telling me about how Jewish Jesus was, how the history of the church began with all Jews, how the temple curtain was torn top to bottom at the time of Jesus’ death, etc. etc. etc. He just went on and on until I felt my head would burst. Actually I remember telling Marvin it was like having cymbals clashed on each side of my head, the noise was getting so painful!

It was now Thursday, the week was typical of the ‘ooey gooey’ encounter work of the ‘70’s, and going well, but I couldn’t take a minute more of the Jesus stuff. I had come to get my head together, and this was interfering with my head. I asked Marvin for the keys to his room, so I could sit quietly by the window (he had an ocean front room) and ‘get the noise out of my head’. I pulled the desk chair over to the window and watched several waves come in and took a deep breath. Ahhhh, enough! Oh no, what was that! Right on the horizon was a huge cross – with someone hanging on it! Good heavens, I blinked and it wouldn’t go away. I scanned the room – was there a crucifix on the wall that I had transposed in my vision? No, no crucifix. How strange, especially to be able to see someone on that cross so far away.

I was pondering this and remembering the angel that had shown up at my bedside several months earlier and taken my hand to bring me up and show me heaven, when an audible (honest, it was deep and resonant and loud) voice spoke to me: “Gay, don’t you understand? I sent that little girl to you so that you could understand the pain it cost me to send my Son to die for you and your SIN”. “Sin”? I hate that word, I had even asked the Rabbi what sin was and he gave me an answer that made no sense. My heart was so hard I had no clue what sin was. Well, this voice, it had to be God, I was totally alone in the room, simply answered my mental question by ticker taping every sin I had ever committed in front of my spiritual eyes from the left to the right, one at a time! I was 38 years old; I remember the first He showed me was stealing 3 trading cards from another little girl at the age of 3.The last I believe, was the box of paper clips I had brought home from Kaiser just before I had the bunionectomy on my right foot. (That is what allowed me to quit my 4 jobs and take this time to figure out how I was going to continue working to support me and the kids.) But I remember also the lying, exaggerating, promiscuity, drugs and excessive alcohol being in that picture show as well, it was staggering.

I found myself sobbing on the floor with no memory of how I got there. Thoughts flew through my head; “Oh, that is sin, I had no idea, He knew my name, He has been watching me, He does know how much Jessica (my daughter who died at 5 from liver cancer) suffered, He does know how many hairs I have on my head like Marvin told me!”

It was literally mind blowing to know that someone knew and had kept track. God did care about me, He knew how painful that death was, He had experienced one also. It was just overwhelming to think God cared about me and knew me intimately. My tears and nose made a puddle on the floor.

The door opened and it was Marvin, coming to check on me – what timing! I lept up and threw myself in his arms, sobbing: “I don’t know what hit me, but I think it was your Jesus!” I am sure he was delighted, and I must have babbled on like a maniac, but I know he was thrilled. I remember that shortly thereafter Marvin took me into Santa Cruz to a Christian Book Store and bought me a bible, and we came back and sat on the beach at the Convent for my first “Bible Study”.

He plopped the bible open to Matthew Chapter 13, the parable of the seeds. It was exactly what I needed to hear. For years, I couldn’t understand why it took God so long to make a connection, why did I have to go through Jessica’s death with no comfort?

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears let him hear.”

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” “He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“You will be ever hearing but never understanding
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts
And turn, and I would heal them.”

“Stop!” I said to Marvin Schroeder. I simply couldn’t absorb any more! I was understanding; I was walking down through that garden seeing the seeds grow before my eyes. I understood that if God had planted his seed in my heart any earlier, it wouldn’t have taken root; I had to come to the very end of myself! The Bible’s words hit me in three dimensional power, it was so alive. Truly alive!

To make a long story short; I didn’t put the bible down for four years! I poured through it cover to cover many times, I admit, looking for loopholes, but there were none. The God of the Jews was the God of the Gentiles, the same one who really cares about us. It was right that the New Testament was bound to the Old Testament.

to be continued…