28 Days: Trying to Get Used to Church

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Boy, you miss one day of church and you certainly hear about it.

I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I was surprised to find that people actually noticed I wasn’t in church last week. It caught me a bit off guard.

Today (as I write this), we had a guest speaker who delivered the “sermon,” the combined adult Sunday school class teaching and, if I’d have stayed, more teaching during and after a pot luck lunch (I knew nothing about this which is what I get for missing a week of church): James W. Rickard. I guess he does the taxes for a lot of the Pastors across the Northwest. Since my wife is so good managing finances, nothing he said came as a huge shock (credit card debt is bad) but I stayed for the “Sunday school” portion of his talk, just to see what he’d say.

This meant that Pastor didn’t give his sermon on Acts this week and of course, we didn’t meet in Charlie’s class to discuss Pastor’s sermon. And I had my brand new, ESV Study Bible with me and everything (because the battery in my Kindle Fire went toes up…replacement Kindle Fire will be shipped out soon).

Doug, the Music Director, who is over-the-top cheery and expressive at 9:30 in the morning, pointed out that the Christmas decorations are up in the church (I honestly hadn’t noticed until that moment) and one of the hymns he lead us in this morning (again, as I write this) was “Joy to the World.” Yes, I sang my first Christmas Carole in many, many years in church this morning. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, I haven’t gotten to the point where I have to tell anyone at church that I don’t celebrate Christmas, so we’ll see how that goes.

I don’t really have a focus for today’s “morning meditation” slash “report on church.” I was just thinking though that it didn’t feel quite so strange this time. Almost exactly in between the end of service and the beginning of Jim Rickard’s class, my wife phoned me. She thought I was home and wanted me to look at the shopping list she’d left behind. I mentioned that I was in church (and listening to my voice say that out loud was an interesting experience). She quickly apologized and told me to have fun.

Did I have fun?

Not exactly.

I did sign up to participate in the church’s “challenge” to read the Bible through in one year or less (not like I haven’t done that before). That’s actually not much of a chore since I read the traditional Torah and haftarah readings each week, plus the traditional Psalm, a portion of the Gospel, and several of the Proverbs each Shabbat. I’ll just add a little more each day.

Why am I telling you all this and why should you care?

Consider this.

I bought a brand new Bible. I signed up for a church “activity.” People at church noticed that I had been absent last week. I can feel myself becoming more committed, bit by bit to going to this church. So far, my offerings when they pass around the plate (it still blows my mind that giving money is actually part of the religious service) have been cash, but I guess I should start making more formal arrangements if I’m going to continue attending. Am I starting to get used to the “church culture?”

Well, maybe a little bit. I’m choosing to redefine Christmas as a cultural event and a church tradition to make it easier to absorb when I attend services this month (though now that I think about it, I’m surprised Rickard didn’t mention Christmas and credit card debt in his teachings this morning…they seem like a natural fit).

kosher-foodsBut I still can’t get away from how much more integrated Judaism is (or can be) in terms of a relationship with God, as the Aish Ask the Rabbi column testifies in answering the question, “Why Keep Kosher?”

It is good that you are grappling with this and trying to acquire your Judaism as your own.

The ultimate answer to your question is “because God said so.” Beyond this, however, there are practical, observable benefits to keeping kosher today:

1) Spirituality: The Torah teaches that non-kosher food has a negative effect on a Jewish soul. The soul is like an antenna that picks up waves of spiritual energy. Eating non-kosher food damages the capacity of the soul to “connect spiritually.”

2) Self Growth: If you can be disciplined in what and when you eat, it follows that you can be disciplined in other areas of life as well. Kashrut requires that one must wait between milk and meat, and we may not eat certain animals or combinations of foods. (Even when you’re hungry!) All of this instills self-discipline, and enables us to elevate our spiritual side, by making conscious choices over animal urges.

3) Health Reasons: With its extra supervision, kosher food is perceived as being healthier and cleaner. After slaughter, animals are checked for abscesses in their lungs or other health problems. Blood – a medium for the growth of bacteria – is drained. Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters and crabs have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (a neurotic skin affliction). Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body. And of course, pigs can carry trichinosis.

4) Moral Lessons: We are taught not to be cruel – even to animals. A mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same day, and we “don’t boil a kid (goat) in its mother’s milk.” We must not remove the limb of an animal while it is still alive (a common practice, prior to refrigeration). When we slaughter an animal, it must be done with the least possible pain. And we are reminded not to be vicious, by the prohibition to eat vicious birds of prey.

5) Tradition: One of the keys to making a Jewish home “Jewish” is the observance of keeping kosher. When we keep kosher in the home, our attachment to Judaism and the sacrifices that we make become ingrained on our children’s minds forever. And with food so often the focus of social events, keeping kosher provides a built-in hedge against assimilation. For many, the bridge between past and future is the spiritual aroma of a kosher kitchen.

Ultimately, we cannot fathom the full depth of “Why keep kosher.” For as the saying goes, there is more to keeping kosher than meets the palate…

christian-coffee-cultureHere you have the Rabbi responding to a query delivered by a young Jewish fellow who had just left home and was struggling with how or if to create a Jewish home for himself. For Jews, being Jewish isn’t just something you do on one day a week, it’s what defines you in every aspect of your life, including eating. Technically, being Christian should also define you in every aspect of your life, but because being a Christian is a religious identity and does not also define a nation, a people group, and arguably, an ethnicity (that last one is complicated), it’s easier to compartmentalize the Christian part of a person’s life from everything else.

Actually, it was Rickard who said that Christians must not compartmentalize their (our) lives but that we must be Christians in every aspect of what we say, do, and think. Of course, Rickard was raised in a Christian home, “confessed Christ” when he was eight years old (I can only assume he reaffirmed his commitment as he got older and understood the adult ramifications of a Christian faith and life), was married as a Christian, established a Christian marriage, raised Christian children, and has Christian grandchildren. Sure, his focus in teaching was being Christian in terms of managing finances, but that covers a great deal of just plain living.

Although not nearly as formally defined as it is in Judaism, Protestantism does have its cultural and traditional aspects (and as I mentioned before, Christmas is a major cultural tradition in the church) and since I’m trying to make this commitment, I suppose I’d better “hunker down” and get comfortable (or as comfortable as I can be) with the idea.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with calling a voluntary financial gift to the Pastoral staff a “love offering.”

Yeah, I’m rambling. I guess as with everything else, the story is to be continued.

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8 thoughts on “28 Days: Trying to Get Used to Church”

  1. I suppose you might just have to resign yourself to the useage of jargon-ish oxymorons like “love offering”, when what is meant is “voluntary contribution”. It’s probably no worse than the term “voluntary income tax”. I’m curious about where your wife was when she called you, not realizing that you were in church rather than at home. Since you’ve previously cited her supportiveness toward your “church-community re-immersion” endeavor, I presume she simply forgot to correlate the time of day with your likely whereabouts. Adjusting to the “Christmas” environment may be frought with many challenges, since I presume you previously left it behind deliberately in consideration of its many intrinsic endemic errors. Are you expecting to refrain from mentioning that 25Dec is not the date of Yeshua’s birth (which was actually during Sukkot, probably the first day)? Will you avoid the subject of its correlation with the winter solstice and Sol Invictus, or the pagan origins of yule logs and tanenbaums? Maybe you’ll be spared having to explain how the Santa Claus myth originated from an apocryphal story about a Catholic priest Nicholas who was also one of the anti-semitic contributors to the Nicene council? I do not envy your position as the possible bearer of knowledge that could blow apart the foundations of a beloved and characteristic Christian cultural fixture (which probably would not endear you to the community). And, like it or not, refraining from embracing and celebrating such a foreign cultural season does require you to compartmentalize your home life and your community involvement, at the very least. You may have less difficulty with the celebration of Hanukah beginning next week. Some Christians have embraced it as a holiday that Rav Yeshua himself observed, even likely as the season in which he made his declaration about being the “light of the world”.

  2. My wife was shopping for groceries and forgot the list at home. She knew I was at church (she saw me ironing my dress shirt earlier that morning) but forgot where I was and what time it was. No big deal.

    The family and I gave up Christmas for the typical One Law “paganoia” reasons (to borrow Toby Janicki’s term) but eventually just stayed away from the celebration because my wife and kids are Jewish. I’ve gone from viewing Christmas as a horrible, pagan practice, to seeing it as just another tradition of the church that was adopted into secular society. Some Christians choose this time of year to behave in a particularly generous and giving manner, so I can’t exactly complain about that part of it.

    Culturally, my family tends toward the traditional Biblical festivals and at this time of year, Chanukah, though of course, it’s a minor holiday.

  3. Setting aside the emotional over-reaction of “horrible, pagan practice”, doesn’t the simple “mistaken-ness” call out to you demanding corrective instruction? Thankfully, the past half century in the USA has seen more of generosity and giving (despite commercialism) and less of anti-Jewish triumphalism, with Hanukah and even Kwanza being tolerated in a generalized holiday seasonal mix. Of course, Hanukah has suffered cultural pressure from the majority culture, to become more than a minor holiday yet less than the militant rededication to Jewish observance that it might be otherwise.

  4. I don’t think most churches are going to give up Christmas anytime soon, even though most people realize that the likely birth date of Jesus is nowhere near December 25th. Whatever it started out being, Christmas has become a Christian tradition. Except for Easter, it’s the single “biggest deal” on the Christian holiday calendar. Whatever I may or may not think about Christmas isn’t particularly relevant outside of my family and a limited collection of friends and associates. My beliefs, in this instance, aren’t going to override the tremendous emotional attachment most Christians have for Christmas, including those who are in the church I attend.

    I haven’t celebrated Christmas in many years and am not about to start now. However, I’m hardly going to attempt to induce anyone who wants to celebrate Christmas to stop.

  5. I think practitioners of Messianic Judaism can use Christmas to volunteer and help the poor. Seems good to me.

    I can see the beauty of Christmas as a lovely tradition, but I cannot know the Immanuel/Sukkot connection and pretend to un-know it by keeping Christmas. It’s like reading a source text from a scholar for ideas on your own thesis, yet you find that the writer states it so perfectly that any attempt on your behalf would dumb it down; and so you rewrite it in your own words while you begrudge having to. Christians are wonderful people, but I just don’t feel the connection to the day as I once did.

    No. Christmas is not pagan per se. But it is an opportunity to do good deeds.

    You are a brave man, James. Maybe G-d will give you an identity that he holds you to in the World to Come for braving in the now the shapelessness of church. If that is what you seek.

    But something puzzles me: you say your wife is not religious, and yet she objects to you doing something she herself does not do. That seems rather odd. If I gave up illustration tomorrow, I would not fault my brother for playing around with my drafting table. Does she see Judaism solely as a secular identity?

  6. I said she wasn’t particularly observant these days, which is not the same as saying she’s not religious. She’s also never said outright that she objected to any of my “Jewish” practices, but I can’t see how she’d feel comfortable in exploring her identity as a Jew while I, an obvious non-Jew, was usurping some of that identity.

    Occasionally, she’ll read something on Chabad.org that she’ll pass along to me, so she apparently has an interest in religious topics. Perhaps when she retires, she’ll have more time to return to worship and classes. Right now, she’s working about 60+ hours a week so even when she does have time off, she’s exhausted.

    As far as Christmas or for that matter, Sukkot, relative to the birth of the Messiah, I don’t recall that we were directed to observe Messiah’s birthday and certainly, if God wanted us to know the date, we’d know.

  7. It’s true that the celebration of birthdays was not a Jewish cultural practice when Yeshua was born, so of course, we have no instructions to create such a celebration. However, we do have sufficient information to identify the date on the Jewish calendar (with a possible one-day margin of uncertainty), from the 6-month differential between the pregnancies of Miriam and Elisheva, Zacharyah’s Temple service during the Avyatar mishmar at the time when Yohanan needed to be named, the correlated timing of the need to return to Beit-Lechem to pay taxes at the census, and the description of events at that location and time (including the timing of when and why shepherds would be out at night with their sheep). The greater uncertainty seems to attach to identifying the exact year, particularly with respect to the Common-Era calendar.

    I’d also suggest that a non-Jew’s exploring of Torah learning by means of observance is quite a different matter from “usurping” Jewish identity. While non-Jews were exempted in Acts 15 from any requirement to observe the entirety of Torah, what should we have expected them to do as they followed the prescription of Acts 15:21 to learn Torah in synagogue (as taught by Pharisees, no doubt) each Shabbat? Some sort of partial but growing Torah observance would seem the most logical result. This sort of activity on your part shouldn’t affect your wife’s potential for Torah obedience as a Jew, except perhaps to facilitate it. Your own personal study of such matters might well clarify the applicabilities of various aspects, whether to Jews or non-Jews or both.

    However, I am not offering this observation to dissuade you from your current course, which may have other benefits.

  8. On a personal level, I don’t experience any sort of drive to celebrate Messiah’s birthday. There just seems like so many other areas of a life of faith that call to me.

    As Boaz Michael periodically reminds me, the weightier matters of Torah are already being taught in the Christian church. Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, these are mitzvot that minister to the soul of the giver and receiver and do the will of our Master. Rest assured that I also observe Pesach, Sukkot, and will be playing deidel with my grandson during Chanukah.

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