Back Tae Torah part 4: A Strange Revival
It was October 2011, on a day just before the feast of tabernacles, and I was building a Sukkoth; cobbled from old Karrimor tent rods and some giant weeds, plants and flowers hastily yanked from the back garden outside our wee flat in Edinburgh.
I’ll never forget my wife Fiona’s face peering out from the bedroom window: her bonny face scrunched up with surprise and concern, mouthing: ‘what the heck are you doing?’ through the glass.
Freezing mid-hoist, in the middle of attaching a troublesome weed to one of the tent rods, I looked back at her and out tumbles: ‘erm… gettin’ back tae Torah’. Oddly, my answer, which seemed in my mind to have a ‘Spock-like’ logic to it, did nothing to reduce her concern.
Fumbling with words, red-faced, trying to explain why you are attempting to do the ‘commandments’ stuff is a very modern problem for anyone who attempts such tomfoolery.
Constantine and the Christian split personality
In the past, especially in the first three centuries, such a practices would not have been rejected. Indeed, they were the habit of most at the time. But then that nice fellow Constantine passed an edict that any newly-minted Christians joining in Jewish feast days and attending synagogues would incur serious punishment.
And so the long tortuous split personality of the ‘Christian mind’ was born. Even throughout the centuries after, well beyond the Scottish Reformation, we still had a great reverence for the Ten Commandments. In that massive rebellion against ‘catholic Canon law’, the giving of the Bible back into the hands of the farm boy, elevating the unique laws of the OT, is precisely what then opened eyes to the ‘law’ of forgiveness by the blood of Jesus alone. Without now the need to perform the additional laws of priest and Pope.
Moses is in our Scottish DNA. His legacy seeped into the bedrock of our culture, liberating it from the druidic laws that kept us bound in chains of fear to them and their gods. And that deep affinity with this liberating ‘law of Torah’ (the instruction manual for life) can be traced right up until the 19th century. Not today, of course, if you are a cool hip post-congregational saint like me. Well, we don’t do ‘commandments’ do we?
Mushrooming cultic codes
Well, we do follow commandments: every day in fact. Laws of nature and biology, government, family, civic society, health & safety, laws of the road and the supermarket, and any number of unwritten cultural and festival laws such as Christmas and birthdays.
Evangelicalism and the new Christian movements that have mushroomed since have mountains of written and unwritten cultic codes, which many of us obey without even knowing it. So we do ‘observe’ commandments as Christians: lots of them, all the time. Just not the few, bizarrely, that our Creator asks of us.
It seems strange that when we do our tax returns or follow some able doctor’s advice, we see that as ‘concrete and specific’ but when it comes to His instructions we treat these as mysticism, story, narrative, and abstract.
“Thou shalt love everyone.” Yo!’ “Thou shalt not eat the bacon butty” No! Not so much!
I mean who cares? When politics, economics and the ‘planet’ (whatever that is) are going to pot and my neighbour is in dire need, it’s the weightier matters like mercy and justice that Jesus cares about, right?
Ignore all those old quaint commandments, primitive ways and forgotten feasts. Laws, which for some reason poor Jesus stuck in His old Yahwist paradigm performed (fulfilled) to the max. Every jot and tittle. Perhaps He was simply unaware of our more ‘evolved’, ‘progressive’ revelation and incarnational missiology.
His Dad’s instructions, which he endlessly talked about in the Gospel accounts, have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Kaput, game-over, replaced, outta-here. Don’t ya know. Well that’s what we’ve all been told, haven’t we?
In 2011, I hit a kind of crossroads in my walk of faith. I knew I was way off trail. I guess it was something akin to Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) being accosted by the ‘real’ Jesus. He was taken to what the ancient Hebrews called the ‘time of testing’. When they were way off Yahweh’s ‘trail’ of righteousness (tzedekah: the trail of walking out Yahweh’s instructions) and refused all of His calls to repent (shub: return to the trail) they would eventually, mercifully, be brought by God to the ‘test’ a ‘crossroads’ where one is asked to choose left or right. Right leads us back to His trail; left takes us way off into enemy territory, to exile, and eventually to the place of no return. I couldn’t go back to the evangelicalism of the 1970s or even to the Jesus I encountered on my estate - whom I lost a long time ago.
But where to start? Start like a child, I thought; with the ABC’s – kindergarten before the big school, Old Testament before New Testament. So, I began with the Ten Commandments and the basic diet and health & safety instructions.
My first ‘Sabbath’, hanging out with Him for a whole day, was rather strange. There are, contrary to fans of Judaism, very few specific instructions about what to do on Sabbath, apart from not working on your usual paid job. But the overall effect was surprisingly immediate. It wasn’t just what I did but why I did it; ‘the attitude change’ I experienced just by simply doing what the Father says to do and the sense of pleasing Him like a kid pleasing His dad. Not coming up with some grand scheme to impress Him or your locality, but just what He said to do: tidying your bedroom or doing the dishes.
Mission burn-out: rooted in avoiding biblical rhythms?
Millions of us every week pray the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in churches everywhere. In the old Hebrew way of thinking: praying for His will to come simply means: praying for the laws of His kingdom to be enacted, done, practiced: shimples. So, for all intense purposes, I’ve been praying for His laws to be done for 3 decades, without actually doing them. Once the penny dropped about this – I suddenly wondered if this is why I and many of my brothers and sisters in post-modern mission have suffered from so much burn out: it may be because, we have been struggling to the point of exhaustion to follow an un-followable Jesus. Yeshua did not teach abstractly – He taught them concretely, He got them to do stuff, His father’s stuff, then helped them to learn after doing them first. Even the parables were given in the context of walking the instructions out in situ.
But we, who have been taught to follow the abstract codes, gnostic ideals and innovative praxis of late-modern Christianity, never seem to come to the point of being able to assess in any measurable way whether or not we were actually managing to get anywhere or not, with this whole following Jesus thing. That’s the real cruelty of Gnosticism – especially Christian Gnosticism. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, it whispers helpfully about how it can get us to where our Father in heaven wants us to go. Not by following His simple concrete instructions (the first sin was breaking a simple ‘food law’ - interestingly) but by following abstract ‘experience’ that promises: emergence, evolution, revival, renewal, ascension. Leading us away from the protection of His old ways - to circle the desert of the new.
For myself, walking out these instructions in my own backyard led to what I can describe as contentment, which started to grow in bucket-loads over the first few weeks. Not in 35 years as a Christian have I ever really felt this kind of peace. It doesn’t need any technology or creativity, it just seems to grow as you start walking.
In some way, I think I began to understand that for a young loon who grew up on benefits, housing estates and care homes - who was taught to follow Jesus by walking after the dangling carrot of ‘transformation’ of self and city - working, creating, sweating my butt off, I was realizing that I’d fallen for the wrong story. I started in covenant with Jesus, but I had sold out because I guess I wanted to fit in with the prevailing Christian group of the day. My long hair too was lopped off, and chained in the Philistine’s wheelhouse of ‘perpetual innovation’. I was getting nowhere – just old. But I began to see also that it wasn’t too late, that I can still do something about it’. I can return to Yawheh and his Messiah and fight by His side once again.
When September arrived a few months later, and the Feast of Tabernacles was about to start, I simply did what I’d learned to do with every other commandment over those months. I read the code book, the Ikea instructions of life, the Father’s house rules. And doing my best to ignore both what Jews and Christians say about it, I found myself with another insanely sparse set of instructions, this time for building a tabernacle hut, in which I was commanded to eat, party and chill out with the Messiah for 7 days. Man these commandments are so hard (not!). So I got cracking and built the thing, according to the simple blueprint, with whatever I had to hand. And as I sat under its shelter and looked at the stars through the weeds above me, I had that long-lost sense of awareness that I’d felt as a young boy, running over estate walls, after the Messiah. That same old irrepressible grin and immense pleasure were back again.
Fiona, after recovering from her shock, joined in. She helped to fasten the last few branches and brought out some tucker. After the last branch was affixed, we opened an old bottle of our favourite whisky, and as our backyard turned ochre and orange, and the neighbours went in for the night, we raised a wee toast to our Messiah, Yeshua. All the while sitting under oor buddleia-festooned ‘canopy of covenant’ from ancient Sinai, on a windy, starry, Edinburgh night.
Join in the discussion on Facebook