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messianic jews
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.
seek and you shall find
Seek And You Shall Find (Darren’s Testimony)

I grew up without any religious education, and was agnostic. I never went to church growing up, and only knew as much about Christianity as I was able to pick up from culture and the media…ie, not much! When I was younger, I had some sort of vague belief in God, but I knew nothing of Christianity or any other faiths. As I got older, I started to adopt an atheistic attitude, mostly because my friends at the time were atheists, not due to any particular reason or life circumstance.

Something missing?

As I neared completion of my degree in Information Systems & Human Behavior (that is, computer science) at university, I started to feel that something was missing in my life. By all accounts I had things pretty good. I generally didn’t have to worry about money, I was doing well in school, and had a loving family. Yet, I felt depressed. I decided to make a list of things I wanted to try, in order to find out what that “missing part” of my life was. One of the items on the list was to investigate religion (and God) for the first time. I figured it was worth a shot and wouldn’t cost me anything. It’d be at least a good learning opportunity.

So I decided to investigate various religions to see whether any of them were credible. I can’t recall all of the faiths that I looked at, but I definitely spent some time with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism and Christianity. I wanted a faith that was true. Something that made me feel good but was not grounded in reality was not worth considering.

First steps

As far as I can recall, the first religion I looked at was Buddhism. I had a positive impression of Buddhism, probably from the positive way Buddhism is usually portrayed in the media. I never heard Buddhism being criticized. It seemed to be the most “socially acceptable” religion. (Social acceptance is hardly the best test for truth! But such was my thinking at the time.)

Seek and you shall findBuddhism is atheistic; at least, the question of God’s existence is said to be peripheral to Buddhist faith. Some Buddhists believe God exists, but many don’t. To me, any religion that is atheistic is not a religion at all, it is merely a philosophy, invented by humankind and therefore no better or worse than any other philosophy (at least in terms of potential for error). If a religion differs within itself so widely on the most central topic of faith (whether or not God exists) it’s difficult to even call it one faith at all. How could Buddha have been so misunderstood that his followers could not agree on the most basic question of whether God exists or not, and whether that matters? (I would say yes God does exist, and yes it does matter…but we haven’t quite come to that point yet!)

I read about the various leaders of religions; for example, Muhammad of Islam, Joseph Smith of Mormonism and Jesus of Christianity. I was somewhat surprised by what I discovered. All claimed to have the right answer, the “only way”, but Jesus was the only one who claimed to BE the only way: he claimed to BE God! Why follow mere men, who would be filled with error, instead of God himself, in whom there would be no error? The gospel story really spoke to me in a way that the stories of Islam and Mormonism (and others) didn’t. If any of these stories were true, I wanted Christianity to be true, but the question was whether it really was true or not, so I figured I’d spend more time investigating it.

The person of Jesus Christ struck me as being authentic, in a way that the others didn’t. And I knew that it was quite impossible for ALL of these faiths to be true. (Clearly I’m not a “postmodernist”.) If I accepted Jesus, I could not accept the rest.

What’s this “Christianity”?

I needed to carefully investigate the Christian faith before accepting it. I had some Christian friends at the time, but I didn’t tell any of them that I was reading about Christianity because if I decided that Christianity wasn’t true, I didn’t want to have to tell them that their religion is a fairytale!

I was still wary of the church, so I bought myself a copy of the Bible (from…hey, it’s a book, that’s where you buy books right?) and started to read it for myself. Not knowing much about the Bible, I started reading at the beginning like any other book I’d read. I wondered when Jesus came into the story, and after flipping around a bit I figured out the difference between the Old and New Testaments.  (Roughly speaking the Old Testament is before Jesus, the New Testament is about Jesus and the early church.)

That’s nice, but is it true?
If this book were true (that is, historically accurate) it certainly would be the “greatest story ever told”.
I continued reading over the next few weeks, and although pretty skeptical about the miracle stories, I was still interested enough to continue. (I also knew that if God exists, miracles are at least possible; though I had never had much confidence in them being actual before.) Over the course of three months I read most of the New Testament and a large portion of the Old Testament. During that time I started to question the historical reliability of the Bible. If this book were true (that is, historically accurate) it certainly would be the “greatest story ever told”. But if it weren’t, it’d be no better than J.R.R Tolkien or Douglas Adams: fine fiction, but in no sense “holy”, nor “history”.

I finally admitted to a close Christian friend that I had been reading the Bible, and had questions about its reliability. She gave me a book called The Case for Christ by Yale law school graduate and former Chicago Times legal editor Lee Strobel, which examines hard questions about the reliability of the Bible. I learned to my surprise that yes, there are good reasons for believing that the Bible is reliable in what it records! My later reading has only confirmed this. The New Testament is the most scrutinized literature in the history of the world, and its reliability is unparalleled compared to all other documents from its time!

Now I really began to struggle! In a way, I wanted this amazing message to be true. But in another way, I really didn’t. As unhappy as I was with my life, becoming a follower of Jesus would mean I’d have to make some changes and give up some of the sin that, frankly, I enjoyed. After about four months of daily reading and study I had come to something like an intellectual acceptance, but not an acceptance in my heart. It’s one thing to make a mental assent and say “Yes, I believe that this is likely to be true”, but it’s quite another to make the more real life altering decision to change my life course and admit that for the first 20 years of my life that I had been wrong!

Expression of a deep inner need

In early January of 2003 I decided that I’d attend an on-campus “church” service. I figured this would be like going to church but not quite as weird, and I should at least see what church is like. The service wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be, although there was a lot of singing which I didn’t enjoy at the time. (I wasn’t quite sure that I agreed with what they were singing about!) But when the speaker gave his short message something that he said resonated with me. He talked about having a “wow moment” with God, an experience where God speaks to you personally. I realized that was what was stopping me from accepting Christ.

I had already rationally accepted Christian belief, but even then I knew that there was more to faith than simple intellectual ascent. I had never had a personal experience of God. So that same night, I prayed for God to personally come to me in some way. I didn’t know what, if anything, to expect.

January 14 2003, 3am

The next night I was up late and I picked up my Bible to read a bit. My Bible included some extra commentary and stories, and the story that I read involved a lonely farmer:

seek and you shall findOne raw winter night a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass.

Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid.

The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Saltine cracker crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety.

At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born.

(As told by Paul Harvey)

When I read this story this time, it was different than when I read it before. I felt emotion welling up inside of me, and by the time I’d read the last sentence, I was crying. Not tears of pain, but tears of profound joy.

I’m not someone who cries easily! But here I was, alone in my room at 3am, crying! I didn’t know what was going on, until I remembered my prayer from the previous night. “This is crazy!” I thought. “Is God really speaking to me this way?” But I kept on crying and couldn’t stop. It must’ve gone on for 20 minutes. During that time, I finally relented, and made a decision that would change my life. I said “Yes” to God.

I prayed, though I didn’t really know what to pray for. As best as I can remember, I prayed for forgiveness for my many sins, thanked God for coming near, and asked Him to never leave. And He still hasn’t to this day, despite all my missteps and failings along the way.

When I woke up the next day, I stared out my window for a long time, and wondered what would happen in my life. I have sometimes struggled with questions about my faith since then, but I haven’t doubted that something powerful has happened. Not everyone will have an experience like this, and my decision wasn’t based only on this emotional experience. This event just helped make my faith sufficient to overcome my fear.

I follow God: I follow Jesus

Upon further reflection, God chose to speak to me in exactly the way that I needed, at the perfect time. God may not always work on our timetable, but His timing is always perfect. And His promises to us always come true. One of those promises is that if you seek Him, you will find Him (Matthew 7:7-8).

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Matthew 7:7-8

It is today my humble prayer that you will know God via His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and thereby know the intense and life-changing love that God has waiting for you. My road to faith, and since, has not always been easy. But I have never been sorry that I asked God to come near, and He did. In fact, God came nearer than anyone ever expected. He came to us in person, in Jesus.

Sparrow photo by Hedera Baltica via Flickr, cc, Forest photo by Justin Kern (with modification) via Flickr, cc