Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Simchat Torah

Voices lifted in song, they take turns clutching the Torah scrolls to their chests as they dance through the aisles of the synagogue. Spinning, hopping on one foot and then the other. Eyes closed. Spinning, spinning.

A year ago, I spent my first Shabbat with the congregation Tikvat Yisrael in Richmond on Simchat Torah, the most joyful day of the Jewish liturgical calendar, and now my favorite Jewish holiday. I arrived a few minutes late to the 10 o'clock service (pretty early for a college-girl) and was a bit bewildered by the scene unfolding around me. It only took a moment, however, for me to be utterly captivated.

Simchat Torah comes on the heals of Sukkot, the festival in which Jews remember God's provision for them in the desert (see previous post). Of course, the pinnacle of their time in the desert was the meeting at Mt. Sinai, where God imparted His covenant and His Word. The tradition surrounding Simchat Torah, or "the Joy of the Torah," gives voice to a topic I've written about a lot recently: God's revelation. For Jews, and especially for our Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, the revelation of God is always cause for celebration and joy.

As I took everything in, one of the ushers approached me to explain that this celebration was part of the centuries old tradition of thanking God for the gift of His Word. He went on to say that because the Greek word Logos from John 1:1 can be translated Torah in Hebrew, the holiday takes on a special significance for Jews who embrace Jesus as Messiah. And then he said something I'll never forget. With a joy that penetrated to the depths of my heart, this dear man exclaimed, "Yeshua has become our Torah! The Torah dwells among us!"

As the Torah scrolls danced by my pew, those around me lovingly touched the scrolls and then kissed their hands (a practice that is not reserved solely for this holiday, but that occurs every Shabbat). I followed suit, completely swept up in the worship of the God who speaks powerfully to His people, the God who would lower Himself to dwell among us. As they danced we sang:

Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Yeshua!
Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Hu ba!

translation: "Behold the Torah! Behold Jesus! Behold the Torah! Behold He comes!"

Both the tradtion and the song are beautiful reminders that God has fulfilled His promise in Jeremiah 31:33 where He speaks through the prophet: "'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel at that time' declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." The word "law" here is the word Torah in Hebrew. So when Jesus proclaims that He has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He is saying that He is the one who will enact the New Covenant in which the law will be on the hearts of God's people. In Jewish understanding, as I have noted before, the lev, or "heart" is the seat of action and emotion. The implication, of course, is that if God's law is written on your lev, then everything you do will be influenced by Him. Messianic Jews recognize that the Torah is written on their leviym (hearts) in the person of Yeshua!

In non-Messianic synagogues, the words that are sung obviously do not revel in the provision of Jesus. Rather, the worshipers pray Ana Adonai, hoshia na, which translates "Oh Lord, save us." What's interesting about this prayer relates again to the Hebrew: the volative verb hoshia stems from the root yeshua, meaning "salvation." This is the Jewish name for Jesus. So even as they celebrate God's gift of the Torah removed from the One who has fullfilled it, non-Messianic Jews affirm their need for God's saving grace.

This year, Tikvat celebrated Simchat Torah on Wednesday, the actual day that culminates Sukkot. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I arrived at Tikvat this past Saturday morning, expecting to sing Hineh ha Torah. I had been thrilled to find that Homecoming weekend coincided with the day I thought my Messianic friends would celebrate the holiday that marks my first anniversary of worshiping with them. Nevertheless, my time with them was sweet as the scrolls were taken from the ark and danced around the room, and as we praised the God who has become our Torah.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:1, 14

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Today is the last day of the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, and that means my favorite Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, is on the horizon. As I've waited for Wednesday, and more importantly, as I wait to celebrate Wednesday's significance at Tikvat Yisrael in Richmond this Saturday, it dawned on me that Sukkot has a special significance to me this year.

The Jewish festival of booths, as it is often translated, is a week for celebrating God's provision in the desert. Jewish families build a "booth" or a small hut in the backyard to resemble the temporary homes inhabited by the Israelites as they were lead by God's Spirit in the pillar of cloud. The family then eats all of its meals picnic-style in the booth for the duration of the festival. Children are encouraged to line the sukkah with pictures, and sometimes the family even sleeps in it. As Lauren Winner has remarked, "It is while sitting in the sukkah that you learn lessons about dependence on God, that even the walls of your brick house are flimsy."

As I thought about Sukkot and lessons of dependence, I recalled my Jewish studies professor telling us that one rabbi called the first sukkah "clouds of glory." I am really struck by that language as I continue to apply the principle of the pillar of cloud day-to-day. The walls of our lives may seem oh-so-flimsy in times of transition or uncertainty, and the desert is cruel. But we can trust in the God who always provides, who continues to speak to us about where we're headed and the plans that He has for us. As we anticipate Simchat Torah (literally, "the joy of the Word," which I'll discuss when I return from Richmond), let us give thanks to the God who provides and who speaks!

"After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night."
Exodus 13:19-21

Note: I love what A.W. Tozer has said about the observance of special days in Jewish culture: "By innumerable distinctions God taught Israel the difference between holy and unholy. there were holy days, holy vessels, holy garments. There were washings, sacrifices, offerings of many kinds. By these means, Israel learned that God is holy. It was this that He was teaching them, not the holiness of things or places. The holiness of Yahweh was the lesson they must learn." So as we reflect on these "holy" days, we must also remember that it is a Holy God we are worshiping, not a day or a ritual.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

God With Us: Futher Thoughts

My friend Sarah and I had a good heart-to-heart last night, and (without even thinking about my post from yesterday) I found myself expressing how difficult it is for me to live in God's presence. I believe that He has a plan for my life beyond my comprehension, and I believe that He will prove Himself mighty on my behalf, but let me just be frank: I rarely dwell on His presence with me in the ho-hum and the hustle-bustle. So it seems that my post from yesterday, though I believe it all intellectually, was meant to convict me practically.

In thinking about my unbelief, I was near tears this morning as I listened to a lesser-known Caedmon's call song, "Rest Upon Us" on the way to work. I thought I'd share the lyrics. Notice the three-fold nature of God's revelation (in keeping with the three ways He "makes Himself small") mentioned in the chorus:

my soul is weary and my cup is dry
I am so in need of you
though my righteousness is rags
your mercies are new

so Lord, come down to me,
so my heart can see,
how encompassing your grace can be

Holy Spirit, rest upon us,
Breath of God, touch my soul,
come unfailing love of Jesus,
rest upon us, rest upon us,

my mind is heavy and my days are long,
I lift my eyes up in the night,
my heart it weighs me down,
but your burden is light,

so Lord, come walk with me
until my heart believes
all the bounties that your grace can bring

Holy Spirit, rest upon us,
Breath of God, touch my soul,
come unfailing love of Jesus,
rest upon us, rest upon us,

I will wait for you
I will wait for you
you rest upon us
come rest upon us

Resting today in the assurance of God's presence!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

God With Us

You probably know that Immanuel, one of the names designated in the Tanak (Old Testament) for the messianic figure, means "God with us." The name Immanuel didn't lead Jews to look for God incarnate but rather for the assurance of God's presence; still, it's not difficult to see how that prophetic name for the coming Messiah reached its fulfillment in the person of Jesus, the God-man. And this notion is far more than just a name to sing songs about in December; God really is with us!

As Lauren Winner has said in her memoir Girl Meets God, "Here is the thing about God: He is so big and so perfect that we can't really understand Him. We can't possess Him or apprehend Him. But God so wants to be in a relationship with us that He makes Himself smaller than He really is. Smaller and more humble [in His still] infinite and perfect and beautiful self, so that we may be able to get to Him, if even just a little bit."

First, God made Himself small for us by giving His Word. The Israelites were able to "get to Him" because He spoke to them through the vehicle of human language, first audibly, then through judges and prophets, then in t
he written canon of Hebrew Scripture. And today we Christians have not only the Tanak, but also the New Testament to guide us in our understanding of God. And this Book is no less a miracle and no less an Incarnation than the Son; in fact, the Apostle John tells us (John 1) that they are inextricably linked. What a paradox we live in that we can know God intimately even as we wait to know Him fully (1 Corinthians 13:12)!

Next, He made Himself small by coming to us in a manger: the "fullness of God in helpless babe" as Keith and Kristyn Getty put it in their modern hymn, "In Christ Alone." And this is the doctrine that is so unbelievable to Jews: how could a Holy God who has instructed us to believe that he is ONE, duplicate Himself in the form of a human being? And surely, the doctrine of the Trinity is an impossible one to conceptualize fully, as I talked about in a recent post titled "HaShem." But we Evangelicals believe that regardless of our ability to completely understand God's nature, He is above all, three in one. And so Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedience to death--even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). This is the Gospel, and it would not be possible without the God-man. If God were not an incarnational God, we would be stuck making sacrifices once a year to get close to Him.

Finally, He made Himself small by giving us the Holy Spirit. And this is no small thing. To have the Spirit of a Holy God residing within our hearts is a mighty thing, indeed! There are many who want to de-emphasize this revelation, and others still who want to overemphasize it. It's important for us to remember the significance of God's promise to His people in Jeremiah 31:31-33:
"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'" I'll write more about the nature of God's covenant with His people in a coming post, but for now lets suffice to say that this promise was fulfilled at Pentacost when the Spirit came to dwell in the hearts of the believers. We can stand on the promise that the Spirit will guide us in all truth (John 16:13), will intercede for us on behalf of God the Father (Romans 8:27), and will impart perfect peace (Romans 8:6).

And so, as Tozer has said "God hides nothing. His very work from the beginning is a revelation--a casting aside of veil after veil, a showing unto men truth after truth." God, by His very nature is a God of revelation. He is incarnational in His approach to us, wanting us to get a taste of Him in this life so that we may feast on Him in the life that is to come. We may not have Him here with us in the flesh any longer, but we do have the assurance of God's presence through His Word and His Spirit. He is Immanuel.

For more on this concept, look for a post in the coming weeks about my favorite Jewish holiday and some pretty profound Messianic traditions!

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Art* Music* Justice*

I've been so excited about Sara Groves, Sandra McCracken, and Derek Webb's Art* Music* Justice Tour, and particularly the upcoming show in Brentwood, that I thought I'd put in a quick plug for the tour. All three of these artists (along with a few others who are joining them on the road) have a heart for issues of social justice and have thus put together this tour to benefit International Justice Mission and Food for the Hungry. It's stopping in several cities over the next month or so--check it out! You can buy tickets for the show at Christ Community on Tuesday, October 21 here.

For more information on International Justice Mission, a ministry that's close to my heart, visit or see the sidebar of my blog for the link. To learn more about Food for the Hungry, visit

Look for a post about the event after October 21st!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Outside the Camp: Light Amidst Darkness

Last night, as I caught up with my mom in one of those really priceless hour-long chats, we found our way to one of my favorite topics: how to be light to a dark world.

As I told my mom about my frustrations with the cultural Christianity here in Nashville, and as she shared some of my sister's recent struggles at church, I was reminded of a quote I just love from Shane Claiborne's book, The Irresistible Revolution. While Claiborne and I come from quite different theological understandings, I do appreciate what he has to say about being light.

"Do not let your eyes adjust to the darkness, but neither fall asleep in the light."

That is the difficulty of the Christian faith, isn't it? It seems our natural inclination is to do one of two things: either we cease to notice the darkness we're in, slowly assimilating just like the Israelites did again and again, or we let our Christian environments strip us of all boldness and fervor. Most of us are either letting our eyes adjust to the darkness or we are falling asleep in the light!

I love my life in Nashville. I love having Christian bosses I can talk about theology with. I love living with a sweet Christian family. I love having an abundance of godly people around me who will encourage and admonish and pray for me. All these people in my life who truly "get it" are such a blessing from the Lord!

But some days, I start to wonder, how am I supposed to be missional here? When everyone I interact with day to day is either firmly rooted in Christ, or just considers himself a Christian thanks to church attendance, it's pretty difficult to even find the darkness! It makes me miss my college-girl years terribly, and I'm reminded of the dramatic way in which God revealed His call on my life to go into the darkness...

It was November of my senior year of high school, and I was in the midst of college applications, standardized tests, and campus visits. My youth pastors, Matt and Brandon, were taking a small group of high schoolers to a Passion event in Peoria. It was a fun night of worship and fellowship, culminating in getting to hang out with Chris Tomlin and his band. But the most meaningful part of that night was Louie Giglio's talk on Hebrews 13:12-13:

"And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore."

Giglio spoke passionately about the tendency of Christians to hide out in little pockets of light, refusing to go into a dark world. He shared his passion for Boston, the city he believes to be the darkest in the nation. (Having visited there twice since, I tend to agree with him.) He pleaded with us to go into the darkness, to "go outside the camp" as Jesus did. I was dumbfounded. I had been wrestling with whether to choose a Christian or a secular school, and the Lord had cut to the heart of the matter, convicting me with such force that I knew immediately the path I was called to take.

It was those verses that motivated me to initiate spiritual conversations on an almost daily basis my first semester at Richmond. It was those verses that challenged me to pray that God would send me into a dark sorority during recruitment second semester. And it was those verses that sustained me through my college years at times when my Christian community seemed like more of a scattered remnant than a cohesive family.

This is just another way I'm called to wait for now. This cloud is in a holding pattern, and I'm waiting, albeit not-so-patiently, for the Lord to reveal where it is He wants me to venture "outside the camp." It occurs to me, too, that I'm waiting to see this city awake from her slumber!

I'll close with more wisdom from Claiborne:

"That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Christians blaze through this dark world and set it on fire with their love. It is contagious and spreads like wildfire. We are people who shine, who burn up the darkness of this old world with the light that dwells within us. And perhaps the world will ask what in the world passed through here."

Friday, October 3, 2008


One of the most beautiful things to me in studying Jewish culture and the Hebrew language has been learning the earliest names for God. Because I believe the meanings of these names are foundational to our understanding of God's nature, I'd like to share what I've learned with you. Most of this information comes from my Jewish studies professor, Dr. Frank Eakin, at the University of Richmond. He likely would not agree with much of what I've applied to these facts because of our differences in faith and theology, but I am indebted to this wise man, nevertheless!

The old Shakespearean "a rose by any other name" adage, would not have made sense in a Hebrew context. The Hebrew/Jewish people were pretty infatuated with names. I was just pointing this out in some youth curriculum I wrote for a friend's church. I shared with these students that, in Bible times, parents often waited to name their child until his or her personality was clear! In some cases, God would tell the family what to name a child (Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus all spring to mind). And so we see that names were of critical importance and had great meaning.

This principle is clear, too, in stories of spiritual transformation: Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Jacob (which means "trickster") became Israel (meaning, "one who struggles with God") after he wrestled with God in the night. And this name, Israel, was passed on to the Hebrew people when God enacted His covenant with them, the implication being that although they would continue to struggle with Him, He would uphold His covenant faithfulness.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Hebrew names for God are rich in meaning. The first name for God used in Hebrew scripture is found in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The word used is elohim, which is a plural word derived from other Near Eastern cultures and generally meaning "gods." Surprisingly, in the Tanak, it is used singularly. Here it is linked to the singular verb bara, meaning "he created." Bara is seldom used in scripture and is only attributed to God, so we know that the word elohim is being used singularly to speak of ONE God. Scholars have noted that the name probably refers to the "muchness of God." I love that! He is one, but He is much. Much, much more than we can ever comprehend, much in the sense that He is worthy of our praise. The fascinating thing is that, when we think about this name through the lens of Jesus, we can see that "the muchness of God" also refers to the Trinity. So right there, in the very first words of the Biblical text, we know that Jesus is one with the Father and the Spirit. (This idea is further affirmed in God's saying, "Let us..." throughout the story of creation. Either He is schizophrenic, or He is talking to Someone.)

The next crucial name in the Biblical narrative is found in Exodus 3:14, when God tells Moses "I AM who I AM...this is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Further significance of the name "I AM" is found in the Exodus account of God's covenant with the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19-20). In Near Eastern culture, there were two types of covenant: 1.) a parity covenant, or one between two equals, and 2.) a suzerainty covenant, or one initiated by a king or army on behalf of a lesser power. The suzerain would enact a covenant based on the premise that the lesser power would uphold certain conditions. But at Sinai, God turns the Hebrew covenant understanding upside down: He promises to uphold His covenant with them regardless of adherence to the Law (we call this attribute God's chesed, or, "covenant fidelity"). It is in this spirit that He calls Himself "I AM," YHWH in Hebrew.

Scholars are unsure how the name for "I AM" was pronounced, but they have established that it sounded something like Yahweh (Jehovah was a mistranslation by early Germanic scholars). The reason for this uncertainty is that the Israelites were not allowed to say God's covenant name. Even the High Priest was only permitted to utter the sacred name once a year--on Yom Kippur, or, the Day of Atonement, which occurs next Thursday--in the Most Holy Place! Instead, the Israelites referred to God as HaShem, or "The Name." In other cases, they used the more general title adonai, meaning "my Lord."

comes from the Hebrew verb, yihiy, or "I will be." (A more accurate translation of Exodus 3:14 would be "I Will Be as I Will Be."") So God is literally telling His people that, at the crux of His nature, He is completely reliable, completely faithful, the same forever. Above all, He is consistent, even when His people are utterly inconsistent.

Whenever you see the word LORD (written in all caps) in the Old testament, the author is using the sacred name, YHWH. (In other words, you could translate "the LORD, God" to mean "YHWH, God.") I noted this fact in the Bible study I recently wrote and asked students why they thought the New Testament writers no longer used this construction. I directed them to Matthew 27:51 and Hebrew 1:1-9 for help. When Jesus died on the cross, the temple veil was torn in two, a literal reminder that all who are in Christ now have access to God.

Because there is no more Most Holy Place, and because the temple was destroyed by Roman soldiers in 70 A.D., the Jews no longer have a place to say HaShem. As they observe these High Holy Days and as they approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a degree of uncertainty about the individual's standing with God. There is no longer a place to make the sin offering, and so the Jews wait in hope that they have achieved right standing with God through their works and repentance and not through blood atonement, as God has always required. But because of the work done on the Cross, atonement is finished once and for all. We need not be afraid to utter His name!

"Those who know your name will trust in you, for you LORD have never forsaken those who seek you." --Psalm 9:10