Author’s note: I started writing this on very little sleep, which means that my internal filter, normally thinner than most bloggers, is approaching full transparency. I’m sure when I wake up tomorrow, things will look better, but right now, my “culture clash” with church life is experiencing a power surge.
Pop! That’s the sound of my balloon popping. I suppose I could have titled this “WHAM!” and said it was the sound of my crash dummy hitting a steel wall at 60 mph, but that might be a bit much. Let me explain.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Pastor Randy (he’s back from Brazil…yay!) was preaching on Acts 11 today, specifically on verses 19-30, and saying what a great guy (v 24) Barnabas and outlining all of Barnabas’ good qualities and why he was a terrific choice to send to Antioch. Of course, as Pastor rightly says, no one is perfect. Pastor mentioned the above-quoted verses from Galatians 2 and said something like (I can’t quote him word for word, so this is an approximation):
Paul criticized Peter because Peter had slipped back into some practices of Judaism and pulled Barnabas down with him…
Like I said, it’s not an exact quote but it gets the point across. Galatians 2 is coming up on the list of things Pastor and I will be talking about during our upcoming Wednesday night discussions. You see, I don’t think Peter’s problem was that he “slipped back into Judaism.” I think he was intimidated by “certain men” sent from James who weren’t on board with Jewish/Gentile table fellowship and he made the mistake of backing off. Maybe he started listening to the old and mistaken halachah that said “Gentiles were unclean,” but it’s not like Peter “came out of” Judaism and then slipped back into it, as if Judaism and being a disciple of the Jewish Messiah are mutually exclusive terms.
I flashed back to last week’s hollow man experience, and even though I subsequently regained some balance, my experiences during today’s service and in Sunday school afterward reminded me of the gulf of culture between me and normative Protestant Christianity.
It’s the feeling I get when one of the Pastors leads the congregation in an “old-time” hymn that “everyone knows,” except I don’t know it. It’s the feeling I get when people in Sunday school start using “Christian-isms” in their speech, and even if I understand what they’re talking about, it still sounds like a foreign language. Ironically, the person I’m thinking of used the “Christian-ism” term “baby Christians” when describing how more mature members of the faith can erect barriers at a number of different levels that inhibit very new Christians. Without realizing it, she was exhibiting the very behavior she knew put off “baby Christians.”. While I suppose I’m not a new believer, I’m fairly new to normative Christian culture. This re-entry thing has lots of trapdoors.
Another way I felt pretty strange today was noticing how, in our discussion about the events of Acts 11, modern Christian missionary concepts were dropped with complete anachronistic abandon into the synagogue (“church”) at Syrian Antioch. I don’t think that the Jewish Hellenists who fled Jerusalem after Stephen’s death were witnessing to the Greek-speaking Gentile pagans on the street. In fact, I don’t think that full on idol worshiping Gentiles were even “witnessed to” by Jewish disciples until Paul’s encounter recorded in Acts 14:8-18. The world of religious Judaism would have been exceptionally difficult to describe to pagan Gentiles. It’s far more likely that God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogues were the first non-Jewish audience (outside of the Samaritans) of “Jewish evangelists.”
But I kept my mouth shut. As I’ve already said, I didn’t sleep well last night and got up at 4 a.m., so I was (and still am) pretty tired. It was wiser for me to be silent than to open my mouth and inject everything that was going through my head into the middle of the Sunday school class conversation. It’s not like anyone was saying anything wrong, but the perspective from which they were looking at the Acts 11 material was completely off to one side of how I see it. It’s not that I must have my way, but it just seemed like the story of the ancient Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah had been stripped of its religious and cultural Jewish context and had been remade out of wholly Gentile Christian cloth…from the twenty-first century.
In presenting Acts 11:27-30 the study notes for today’s Sunday school lesson read:
How did this church respond, and what is there about Christians that gives them such joy in giving away what the world worships?
Paul and Barnabas were charged with taking a donation to the Jewish population in Judea when a famine is prophesied as relief for the suffering. The donations were given with abundance and joy but is this a “Christian” quality and one that had never been seen before in Israel?
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
I suppose I could have mentioned that tzedakah was Jewish value long before there were such people as “Christians,” but it didn’t seem worth it to drop a bomb in the middle of the room. I figured this was just another indicator of the cultural and perceptual rift between me and the rest of the class.
Then I thought of another one. As I listen to people talk, in the foyer before services, in the sanctuary before (sometimes during) and after services, in the hallways between services and Sunday school, during and after Sunday school, I realize that these people have known each other for quite a while. I can’t believe they’ve developed these relationship seeing each other just once or twice a week at church. They probably associate with each other outside of church, go to lunch, go to barbecues at each other’s homes, and that sort of thing.
I remember when my wife and I were invited to a Christian’s home a few years back. My wife said it was OK if I went but she wasn’t interested. She doesn’t invite her Jewish friends to our house. She sometimes is involved in social activities at the synagogues here in town, but she doesn’t feel comfortable in primarily “Christian” environments and she doesn’t feel comfortable taking me to primarily “Jewish” environments. I kind of doubt I’ll be inviting people from church over to our home for a Sunday dinner any time soon.
This is quite an interesting effect of a “bilateral” life. It doesn’t affect anything else in what you would consider normal, family life, but my family life, defined as it is, will never intersect with my religious life.
If I can separate my experience from my emotions for a minute, this could actually be a useful study of the impact of the propositions put forth in Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David. One thing I am hoping Boaz will do eventually is to collect the stories of people who have actually followed his pattern of returning to churches to find out the real results in people’s lives and in the church environment.
I’m atypical in that my wife and I are not only intermarried, but I’m a believer and she isn’t (in the Messianic world, there are many intermarried Jewish/Gentile Christian couples, but they share faith in Jesus as Messiah). I know I’m only one voice, but if Boaz can bring together enough voices, we can all see the outcome of returning to the church for those folks like me who think so differently about God, the Bible, Messiah, and everything.
My day at church wasn’t a complete loss, though. I usually don’t care much about the music at church. It’s more something I tolerate than enjoy, but occasionally a little gem will be sprinkled in among the usual fare.
Don’t seek Judaism and don’t seek Christianity. Seek hope in God.