Pop!

balloon-poppingAuthor’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?”

Galatians 2:11-14

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.”

tape-over-mouthBut 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.”

Mark 12:41-44

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.

149 days.

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12 thoughts on “Pop!”

  1. Yes, I think more stories about those who have followed Boaz’s example should be amassed. I would love to hear more stories like his, because I have oodles of stories that are not nearly as encouraging. It’s hard to not jump to conclusions…and even harder to know exactly what conclusions to indeed jump to! :-/

  2. One of the most persistent things I’m learning is how much we can project our own cultural ideas into our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. More and more I’m realising how much “church” tradition has moved the goal posts so our objectives are far different to those of the early believers.

    I was interested in what you said in referecne to “witnessing” – something that used to be a major aspect of church life (in theory if not in practice), yet another “church” way of doing things?

    Tim

  3. The Church desperately needs people like you, James. You are being a teacher and a blessing. May your investment there grow and quickly return to you in ways that bless you as well.

    I have not braved a return to the local church as you have. I felt hollow when I was there before, years ago. No need to repeat that experiment. But I have been blessed by teaching classes for the local churches while I remain firmly attached to our messianic synagogue.

    Perhaps we should start a Tent Builders Guide to Churchisms and Christianese as well.

  4. Hmmm … “It’s not like anyone was saying anything wrong …” It sounds to me that several folks were indeed saying things that were exceedingly wrong. Now, one can be charitable and kind to recognize that these comments arise from profound ignorance rather than malice. But when one is irritable because one is not blind, I can well understand the temptation to drop an incendiary comment or three into the conversation. I suggest that doing so could be worthwhile, for two reasons. One is that some of these folks might wake up and recognize that they insult the ancient and continuing existence of the people whom G-d chose, for which He has no regret nor change of heart; that they do not understand the very scriptures that they claim to uphold; that they draw false inferences from their ignorance of cultural context; and that they assume blithely too many notions that are simply wrong (or maybe not-so-simply wrong). A second possibility that could result from even the gentlest presentation of such inconveniently shocking information, over a period of time, is that you could become a “personna non grata” and might be asked to take your odd views elsewhere. That could resolve one of the sorrows you have reported in this blog, though of course it carries its own sorrows and disadvantages. Of course both possibilities could occur simultaneously, with some happily gaining heretofore unheard of insights and others becoming antagonistically offended so as to demand your departure. You’re probably right to constrain such discussions to pastoral consultations, whereby you may expect slightly greater maturity and the tolerance that should accompany it. That way, if you gain an ally you will be freer to share more broadly; and if you find you are irreconcilably divergent you can depart quietly.

  5. @PL: It’s all in the relationship. I’ve only been in there for about six months, so dropping a bomb in the middle of the room will be received differently now than if I had a more solid connection with the people involved. When I mentioned that they said nothing wrong, I meant that their intent wasn’t negative, but their perspective was more consistent with what you’d expect in Protestant Christianity. I’ve also known this group to be greatly supportive of Israel and the Jewish people. They just don’t seem to realize that you cannot reasonably compare modern church missionary concepts back into a completely different time, place, and culture.

    I’m also aware that Pastor Randy reads these blog posts, so part of this is a chronicle that I share with him on my experiences in “returning to Christianity,” at least in a formal sense. I can appreciate these experiences in that they confront my beliefs and force me to challenge my thinking, but on the other hand, a salmon swimming upstream has nothing on me sometimes.

    @Alison: Maybe you should share your “oodles of stories” so that everyone can benefit. I don’t doubt there are many who are on the cusp of returning to church who wonder if they really should or not.

    @Tim: Experiential dissonance is expected when two cultures encounter each other and I agree, church is a culture and in fact, different churches (denominations) each have their own. I’m definitely someone who has existed as a believer outside of church culture.

    @Karen: I don’t know if I’m a benefit to the church in any sense at this point but it’s impossible to say what will happen unless you take the plunge. It’s like trying to find out what being “Immersed” is like. You can’t find out unless you jump into the swimming pool and get wet.

  6. James, I appreciate the transparency. In a small way, I feel much the same as I am now a fish out of water when I walk in the very churches I used to preach in. I love my Messiah more, have a far deeper understanding of Scripture and a closer relationship, but nobody in ‘churchianity’ understands. The context of the whole story is Hebrew culture.

    What happened was a radical paradigm shift in how I view the scriptures, my connection to Messiah and His people, and what is means to ‘walk as He walked.’ Now, the very platitudes I once ignorantly spewed are a foreign language that I can’t even relate to. And, I don’t want to.

    I love and minister to those who do not understand. And, I choose carefully when to drop the incendiary bomb… My goal is always to speak truth in love, even when it may not be received as such.

    Ultimately, you are exactly right when you say, “Don’t seek Judaism and don’t seek Christianity. Seek hope in God.” In my view, both are in the ditch in their own way… The middle of the road is the narrow way. The Living Torah and the written Torah. Everything else must be very carefully examined.

    Blessings to you, brother. May you find peace in Messiah as you stand in the gap.

  7. Thanks, Pete. But there’s got to be away for all the fragmented bits and pieces of the body of Messiah to communicate with one another. I may not be the one to figure it out or to live it out, but I still feel like I need to try, at least for now.

  8. James – in order for the pieces of body of Messiah to communicate with one another, there has to be a compelling reason for that to happen that is stronger than the compelling reasons that exist now, which depend upon it *not* happening. Leaders have lifetimes, identities, their very significance, connection to other people, and livelihoods based upon their worldview. It’s an extraordinarily rare leader who gives all that up for the sake of pursuing a re-ordered vision of a Messianic Jewish canonical narrative that restores Israel (the land, people and scriptures) to their Biblical purpose.

    Holding onto the old world view satisfies too many basic human needs for most leaders. They are able to make a social contribution and to grow just as they are. In this case, the good is the enemy of the great. People who wish to help the church at the grassroots level will be doing it one person at a time, probably at the congregant level. If we want to influence church leadership, we need to reach them early, before they have so much invested that they are highly resistant to change. (IMO)

  9. There’s a lot in what you say Karen. On the other hand, the Pastor at the church I attend is about my age (and I’m no spring chicken) and he’s at least willing to listen and engage me in conversation. We all exist in our little silos, including Messianic Judaism, but we need to engage on a meta-level that exists outside of all of those containers. That’s where we can find the Messiah and that’s where he’ll be upon his return.

    While the Messianic Jewish canonical narrative is necessary to restore Israel to her Biblical purpose, we are all subjects to the will of the King and I suspect he won’t have a lot of tolerance for how we’ve been artificially subdividing his Kingdom. God is One. Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Messiah may have different albeit overlapping callings, but we still together comprise the One body of Messiah and form One Kingdom made up of Israel and the nations.

  10. That’s very encouraging that he will listen to you. I have been told by pastors that the Church has existed just fine, in fact flourished, on a supercessionist theology and there is no reason to change it. It seems that 1800 years of tradition adds weight to theology.

    I agree that if we see that there is a rupture in the body, we should try to fix it. I don’t think our “failure” to fix it will be held against us – we didn’t make the breach 1800 years ago. On the other hand, most who hold to the other point of views, don’t see it as ruptured at all – they see it just fine (although there is that little rift between Catholic and Protestant back in the 16th c that still persists). They see US as the problem. I think it is MJ who uniquely sees the pain in Body of Messiah, most of all with ourselves. Our tiny little movement – how ironic that we cannot bring ourselves together and yet we are tackling supercessionism in the Mother Church. Such is the stuff of G-d sized miracles and Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

    You’ve chosen to take a very high road. If no one plants seeds nothing has a chance to grow. Like the prayer, “Please let me win the lottery” to be answered someone has to buy a ticket. You may very well be the whisper that rocks a pastors world. The rock thrown into the pond that sends ripples out to every edge. I pray it is so.

    At the end of the day, it will take a miracle of revelation to Church leadership, so much so that they will give it all for the sake of the Kingdom and walk away to something better. May we all be that person, that leader.

  11. You may very well be the whisper that rocks a pastors world…

    I’ll probably never know if anything I write here will be the “whisper” that will change someone’s world or even call them into accepting Messiah. As far as my conversations with Pastor Randy are concerned, it’s up to him and God whether I prove to be any sort of positive influence at all. The only thing I know how to do is to be me.

  12. @ Karen: Enjoying your comments.

    Know this, there are MANY pastor’s worlds being rocked from all directions right now with the truth of the Hebraic roots of the faith. I personally know many men in pulpits who are struggling with things that they are ‘suddenly seeing’ in the scriptures. Pray for them. “Aslan is on te move!”

    As you well state, many have livelihoods based on their worldview. May our Father give them the strength and conviction to follow His leading toward fullness of truth.

    A great division is fast approaching as the camps of Light and darkness polarize.

    @James: “Thanks, Pete. But there’s got to be away for all the fragmented bits and pieces of the body of Messiah to communicate with one another. I may not be the one to figure it out or to live it out, but I still feel like I need to try, at least for now.”

    I think He, by His Ruach, is speaking to many factions and parts of the Body right now. Major stuff is happening. Be encouraged and speak to the interesting cross-section of audience you have. I appreciate your work. We are all trying to figure it out, and as He leads, He will accomplish the work.

    Shalom!

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