isolation

The Return of the Pesky Challenge

Every other Sunday, a friend of mine and I have coffee together and talk about whatever. Some of what we discuss is religion (his beliefs are close but not exactly the same as mine), but we talk about everything else under the sun, too. So, as he reminded me, we can’t strictly define our conversations as “fellowship” in the Christian (or Messianic) sense.

And that concerns him.

Many of you know that after a two-year experiment in attending a local church, I found it necessary to leave church again. For sometime now, I’ve pondered joining some sort of virtual religious community via the Internet, but I know that virtual relationships can’t take the place of face-to-face connection and communication with human beings. It’s just not fellowship in the truly realized sense of a community of faith.

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, my wife (who is Jewish, not Messianic, and who does have community) asked if I missed having a congregation to go to (and I am pleased that she seems to be making attending services at Chabad on Shabbat a regular thing). I have no idea what brought that comment up, but I played it off like it wasn’t an issue. Most of the time it’s not, at least consciously, and I relegate the idea to some dark closet in the back of my mind. But then Sunday before last, my friend challenged me over coffee.

He really, really thinks I should be in religious community. He isn’t the only one. I receive emails occasionally from people who believe I should not set aside fellowship indefinitely. In principle, I agree, but as a matter of practicality, I have nowhere to turn for two basic reasons:

  1. I have no idea how to go “church shopping” and the very idea of randomly visiting churches in my area hoping to get lucky and find a theological match is not even slightly attractive.
  2. The effect of my going to church has on my wife.

infinite_pathsI sometimes receive what I feel are mixed signals from her. I know that she believes I should be in community too, but she’s already embarrassed by having a Christian husband, and my being in Christian community only makes it worse. I used to struggle within myself every Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for church while she was staying at home and being uncomfortable with the thought of my going (not that she’d say anything about it, of course).

And the one time I went to Easter services just about crushed her. I could see it on her face, in her eyes, as I walked out the door. I guess it would do that to any Jewish wife of a Christian husband.

I’m not doing that to her again.

Which led me to download a book (it was a special deal from Amazon so I got it for free) called Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church by Chris Jackson. Jackson is a Pastor who uses his book as a forum to talk about how damaging church experience can be to some people (including him), and damaging to the degree that people don’t (necessarily) leave the faith, but they do leave their churches in droves.

I can relate.

But I don’t relate to most of the reasons these people are leaving. I wasn’t kicked out, scorned, called a “sinner” or “demonic” or anything like that. The Pastor, who I had become friends with and who knew exactly what my doctrinal position on the Bible was (and is), directly contradicted everything I believe and called a Messianic faith a “misuse of the Law“.

He had to have known how I’d feel listening to his sermon.

(I should note at this point that I have no ill feelings for the Pastor, leadership, or members of the church I used to attend. I met many genuinely kind and caring people, all of whom were serving God and other people in their walk of faith with Christ. But in the end, I was an elephant in a roomful of gazelles. I was never going to fit in.)

I’m only about a quarter of the way through Pastor Jackson’s book, but it’s an easy read. At the end of each chapter there are study questions, so I guess the book can be used in small groups of people who have all felt alienated by their local churches (or “the Church” with a big “C”).

I guess I’m looking to see how others have responded to this situation and I’m finding that (of course) I’m not a typical Christian. It’s not just a matter of being burned by some snobby clique at one local church (although that also happened to me back when I first came to faith). If that were the case, I could just go to another church, since the theological dissonance between me and other Christians would be slight (if it existed at all since I’d be blissfully ignorant of everything I know now).

But standing on the foundation of the Jewish Bible and declaring myself a Messianic Gentile (in two parts), means that my theology and doctrine differs significantly from the vast majority of people you’ll find in most churches on any Sunday morning.

chris jackson
Pastor Chris Jackson

However, for lack of any other course of action for the reasons I specified above, I’m going to work my way through Pastor Jackson’s book and see if there’s anything he presents that I can somehow adapt. Jackson seems sincere, reasonably transparent, friendly, and approachable. But knowing myself as I do and getting a sense of who he is in his writing and on his blog, I suspect he’d drop me like a hot rock if we ever entered into conversation and I told him exactly what I believe about the New Covenant, the Bible in general, God’s promises to Israel, and the specific sort of “connectedness” we Gentiles have to all that through Messiah (Christ).

I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post called How to Read the Bible if You’re Not Jewish, highlighting the focus of scripture on national Israel and the Jewish people and not so much the rest of the world (that is, the goyim).

The uncomfortable truth of the Bible in general and my faith in particular is that I continue to find myself where I left off at the end of this missive. Both church and synagogue (and I would be fine with Jewish community if it could be with my wife) of any variety are out-of-bounds for me and as concerned as some people are for me because of that, I simply see no viable option.

I’m sorry to keep revisiting old ground. It’s not like I’m the only person without community. Both Gentiles and Jews find themselves in this situation as part of the consequence of being Messianic. I’ll keep reading Pastor Jackson’s book and post my thoughts about it here in the coming days, but this is as much in God’s hands as it is mine. I’m still trying to decide of He’s painting me into a corner or if I’m the one doing it.

Here’s the link to Part One of my book review.

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17 thoughts on “The Return of the Pesky Challenge”

  1. I’m sure you will see this, James, but I address “Gentiles Who Feel Left Out” today on my blog.

    The light of a person’s faith sometimes grows dim. Faintly burning wicks are all around us, people let down by religious groups, whose questions aren’t answered, who feel left out, and others who fear the love of Messiah cannot be real for them. Some in Messianic Judaism have given non-Jews a cold shoulder instead of a friendly hand of welcome. Some have been pushed out after a long involvement and find themselves like lepers, outside the gates and unwanted. http://www.derekleman.com/2015/03/25/gentiles-who-feel-left-out/

  2. James, I’m in a very similar situation. The difference is I don’t have many options to go “church shopping.” Living in rural Minnesota, I attend the only non-Lutheran, non-Catholic church within in a 30 mile radius. I considered a different church, but travelling 30-45 miles to fellowship in a community that still doesn’t really fit seemed like lighting the wick of a candle destined to burn out eventually.

    Last summer, I had a realization, as did the pastor of the church I attend that I didn’t fit in. The end result was a stern sermon pointed directly at myself and a small handful of others. This resulted in some significant hurt feelings, a couple of families leaving the church completely, and a long road to forgiveness recovery, of which I am still travelling and trying to find my way. While I don’t believe the sermon was the right approach, nor do I theologically agree, I can at least respect the pastor for doing what he felt was right to protect his church.

    The pastor and I have begun to mend a bit, but of course, the relationship is very strained. I have a long ways to go to truly forgive. Part of the barrier, I believe, is that I sit in sermons looking for what is wrong instead of looking for the jewel that I can learn from.

    Despite these feelings, I have chosen to stay. I wrote a letter to the elder board and pastor seeking forgiveness if any of my actions or opinions had created a division or confusion among the congregation. I don’t believe I created any division or confusion, but it was the fear of that happening which caused the pastor and elder board to take a hard stance. In seeking forgiveness, I did explain that my theological understanding is different, but I wanted to focus on the common ground in order to be part of community.

    In essence, I work to build relationships and share the common ground that we all believe in the same true God with hopes that when the Messiah comes all things will become clear. Anyone that has gotten to know me at the church knows that I have different theology ideas that I refuse to even share because I’m confident most of the church attenders could not understand and probably label me “unsaved.”

    Like you, I don’t fit into a typical community. Honestly, I really wouldn’t even fit into a typical Messianic community because of some fundamental differences I have there too. For me, this is where I believe God has me for now. I feel at peace with the decision, even though I am uncomfortable at times on Sundays. I still attend Sunday school and give my two cents, but being careful to be respectful and not argumentative. I believe this is a time in my life that I am supposed to learn humility, let my ego and pride fade, and develop a love for people in the same way God would.

    It is often I find myself thinking of the tune “We’re a couple of misfits…” from the cartoon movie Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

  3. While your fellowship with a like-minded believing friend is not congregational or communal fellowship, and therefore it does not include the degree of challenge that comes of interacting with a larger, more diverse, group, it *is* nonetheless fellowship and it should not be denigrated as if that sort of fellowship were somehow invalid. On the other hand, your fellowship with your wife seems to suffer (and increase her sense of embarrassment) if you attempt to increase your Christian profile. However, it seems also unlikely that she would accept from you any conversion to Judaism that retained affiliation with or respect for Rav Yeshua (since she has no experience with actual ‘Hasidic halakhically-observant MJs who would be fully comfortable in a ‘Habad or haredi environment); hence her sense of embarrassment would not be relieved even if you did embrace Judaism “legitimately”. Somehow it seems to me that I’m missing some piece of this puzzle that might resolve such tensions. Here in Jerusalem I could suggest an additional option or two that might resolve your quest for a combination of personal MJ fellowship, communal Jewish fellowship (religious and social), and intra-familial fellowship; but such a suggestion opens up a rather large selection of additional challenges.

  4. @Derek: Yes, I just finished reading your blog post and commenting on it. The model you present only sort of fits my circumstances. Assuming you read my blog post, the “problem” is only somewhat solved by finding a good congregational fit. I don’t know how many people can truly grasp what it is to be intermarried to a Jewish person who has a traditional Jewish view of Christianity. While my wife wasn’t raised in a Jewish home, her association with Jewish community over the years, particularly the Chabad, has given her something of a distrust of Christianity. While she still maintains contact with one or two Christian friends from “the old days,” she’s dropped a ton of others. I’ve described the impact of my attending a church has had on her. Heck, just the fact that I am a believer inhibits her from inviting Jewish friends to her home and she’s point-blank told me that she doesn’t want me involved in any classes or other activities at either of the two synagogues in town.

    No, it’s not a matter of finding the right church or even of joining her in Jewish community. I suspect there is no blanket solution since my situation is unlike most of the intermarried couples in the Messianic movement. Sure, there are intermarried Jews who attend the Chabad and our local combined Reform/Conservative congregation, but none of the Goys are Christians.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t even be revisiting this topic if not for the recent conversation I had with the friend I mentioned in the body of this blog post.

    Terry said:

    Like you, I don’t fit into a typical community. Honestly, I really wouldn’t even fit into a typical Messianic community because of some fundamental differences I have there too.

    Like I just mentioned to Derek above, fitting in is only part of the problem. I can only imagine that somewhere in the Treasure Valley there is at least one church that has taught a HaYesod class or that has members going through a Torah Club study, that is, Christians who are more open to a particular Messianic view of the Bible, but I’d have no idea how to find one except by visiting each and every one of what are probably hundreds of churches in the area. And again, even if I found one, it’s not just a matter of fitting in. It’s a matter of keeping peace in the home. No, my wife wouldn’t say a word about me going to church, but then, she wouldn’t have to. I’ve been married to the woman for over thirty years. I’ve learned a few things about her.

    @PL: I don’t think you’re missing anything. I don’t want to jump to the end of the story, but I suspect that by the time I finish reading Pastor Jackson’s book (more on that tomorrow morning), I won’t discover any new options. I think you’ve encapsulated the situation quite well. In the end, it’s less important for me to have fellowship than it is for her to increase her involvement in Jewish community. I’m glad she seems to have taken up regular attendance of Shabbat services, learning Hebrew, and being involved in a class of Jewish women. I’ve said before that I think one of the primary roles of the “Messianic Gentile” is to support and encourage Jewish Torah observance. If my minimizing my “Christian profile” is the only way I can do that, so be it.

  5. Yep. That is what attracted me to this blog. I feel like a ‘misfit’, too. Because I have publicly and on FB shared much of the Jewish attraction I have, I know I am shunned and withdrawn from by those in the church. I know what ‘they’ believe. I use to be one of them, and just as dogmatic and ‘thought I knew it all’. But then I had a son…my suffering tzadik. Do you know what it is like to search for G-d like a deer panting for the waterbrook? Miracles of miracles-the internet! Now I could go to Torah study from my living room, and wow, first I was amazed at how similar the teaching, but then thought to myself, ‘silly, you have the same Bible.’ Then slowly, the more I absorbed, I began to understand the difference. I told my daughter if preachers wanted to copy the first of Acts, they would all attend synagogue on the Sabbath and then take what they have learned to their congregation on Sunday. That is how I think it was suppose to be. Israel, as a light unto the gentiles, given HaShem’s revelation are the teachers, the Kingdom of Priests. May Isaiah 2:1-4 come quickly. For now, I have the various internet blogs (this one) assemblies and websites for my soul food. Thank you, for writing your blog, James.

  6. In some ways Cynthia, anyone involved in the Messianic movement is a “misfit”. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that we tend not to fit into anyone’s pre-conceived mold in mainstream religious contexts.

  7. @James, I don’t see where people have to agree on doctrine or anything else to have fellowship, but it matters whether a person needs others to see things in mostly the same manner in order to have a relationship that they don’t find threatening to their own belief system.

    I have often had people suggest I go shopping for a different fellowship, a different brand or whatever. However, all religion seems to have a fatal flaw, and I can understand the position of atheists and agnostics. I feel, at this point in my life, I could only be in a place where honesty and challenges are not only accepted, but encouraged. I suspect the author of the book you are reading feels free to criticize certain religious groups, but the thing he is in now is off limits. I bet he is emergent, and they love to criticize their spiritual past but fail to examine their current choice, and converts are always the most virulent in their defense of their new religious choice. The mostly Japanese church I was a part of was unusual, and I suspect due to Asian cultural traditions of harmony rather than doctrine, in that they never said one negative thing to me about any of my beliefs or practices. However, I need more than a place that will tolerate me, but one that values what I have to offer and will assist me in my pursuit of my divine destiny, rather than confusing it with theirs.

  8. @Chaya: I agree that a person can find fellowship among others who don’t believe the exact same thing, but there’s usually a line in the sand that, once you cross it, results in a verbal knife fight or worse, everyone goes silent and stops having anything to do with you.

    Pastor Jackson seems relatively transparent. I’ve read further ahead in the book and he seems Ok with revealing, at least in general terms, mistakes he’s made and been called on. Unless I have reason to believe otherwise, I’m prepared to take him at his word. Not all Pastors are out to “get” people or to line their own pockets. Some are simply human and sometimes make human mistakes.

  9. Our lack of specific religious identity is what lead us to your blog, and keeps us here, James. It isn’t that we can’t find some food in most religious places, if we look hard enough, and hold a firm grip on our beliefs while treading through the muck to find the scattered pearl, but that we are all a bit sick of having to work so hard to tip-toe around everyone else’s convictions when we simply want to be able to air our own beliefs and convictions as well, and then discuss the difference amicably.

    Most of us seem not to be threatened by people disagreeing with us, while the majority of the Believers, Christian, MJ, or Jewish, are terrified that we might shake their feeble grasp on what they do believe. I have only various Christians about me, all with different Christological identities and viewpoints, yet, so long as I don’t raise anything too threatening as a topic of conversation, I can get some fellowship, but it’s only a piece here, and a piece there, and thus somewhat unsatisfying.

    It is difficult and lonely to be reading a book by one Rabbi or other, and not be able to even discuss where I DIS-agree, because the conversation would be un-understandable to those around me. I am no scholar, except in comparison with those that are still studying their ABC’s in religious thought, and thus, I have to be careful not to confuse and scare people, while being careful to keep listening to those that know so much more than I.

    Perhaps we are where we are and who we are, stuck out on a lone branch due to our specific blend of circumstances, envying the closer community we see on other branches of the religious tree. For myself, despite the loneliness, and the difficulties in finding a stimulating exchange of information, I would rather be seeking what I can of G-d without a community if to have the community I must also adopt their thoughts and ideas. The Ruach haKodesh remains my teacher and counselor, and with the people here, some interchange of differing viewpoints without any pressure to conform.

    All I could wish for would be a Shul on the internet, and the ability to have group Skype meetings to talk together about these things, and perhaps, one day, one will be created. I have found that I make some relationship with those I interact with on the internet, first by written debate, and then by Skype, learning to care for and pray for people I have never met, and though I don’t get the human contact, I find that I can form friendships of a kind anyway, and enjoy the interaction. It is not a local, fleshly, warm community, but for those of us so stranded outside of mainstream locales, it can be better than nothing. It is certainly a great gift, and a comfort to know that I am not completely isolated from other people who are also seeking a deeper understanding of G-d, and of how to act in that understanding.

  10. @James and @Questor: To have a person who you can be completely honest with and bounce thoughts off of is a real blessing. I also feel that I have somewhat pieced myself out, and even wrote an article about it. You’ve heard of an old movie, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman?” I’ve felt like the incredibly bifurcated woman, in sharing different aspects of my life with different people and shutting off the rest. @Merrill, exactly, but some people at least feel at home here somewhere. Maybe ignorance was bliss?

    That Chabad and other parts of the Jewish community would encourage a person to develop new prejudices doesn’t sound good to me. It seems that if a person wants to be accepted in a group, that is required, or at least to not openly disagree. It is a good thing your kids are grown, as they likely wouldn’t be accepted into Jewish Day schools and would be shunned by the Orthodox Jewish community. I read an article about a secular Jewish woman who decided to become religious, while her husband supported her, but remained secular. Even though she kept a kosher kitchen, no one from the synagogue would eat at her home, as if her non-frum husband might sneak a bit of bacon into the coffee? Her children were shunned or treated as second class, and she wondered why they didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism when they grew up?

    I’ve done some reading by authors in the home church movement, and they point out that the role of the pastor (the one present today in the US is far from anything biblical) as the source of so much hurt and pain. Seriously, if you want to happily attend a church, smile and keep your mouth shut, especially if you are female. I wonder if female pastors are less controlling? I wonder if part of the problem is religious people, especially leaders, aren’t aware of their own limitations and they present a certain picture that makes us have unreasonable expectations. But when I was in the hospital, I thought about how I wished it would have occurred while I was still in the church, as there would have been a whole lot of extra help and support available.

    If it is not too personal, could I ask what religious choices your children have made and how you and your wife interact with this? Can you discuss these things with them?

  11. @Merrill — I don’t know why, but your Youtube link didn’t take me to any folksong, but rather to a more general page showing a variety of video suggestions from which to select, which included a music “tab” that opened a page of Hebrew selections. But none of this gave me any clue about the particular folksong to which you were trying to refer.

    @James — Perhaps you’ll be addressing this in your next essay, but so far what has not been explored in this discussion is the question of what purposes may be or ought to be served by “fellow-ship”, beyond the trite notion of a random group of “fellows” who are “all in the same boat”. I suspect that the darshan who wrote Heb.10:25 about “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (as KJV puts it), in order to encourage one another, had something more in mind. We might consider this specific circumstance as well as the general doctrine that had been developed from it to invoke some measure of guilt over not being a regular participant in some organized religious community.

  12. @Merrill — OBTW, further searching within Youtube for the specific code number cited in your link did yield the “Wayfaring Stranger” result you must have intended.

  13. @Merrill — I forgot to include the variation of your link that did work: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwVLpsgAe8E].

  14. Questor, I am only just beginning to become acquainted with this Rabbi’s teachings and plan to attend his conference in Atlanta this weekend, but there is a shul available, and if there is one, then surely there are more out there in cyberspace. Here’s the link to Rabbi Itzhak Shapira’s shul: http://www.shuvu.tv/index.php/about-shuvu

  15. @Questor: Your comment reminds me of the times when I used to meet with two other guys to discuss things that would get us thrown out of church. We were all from really different backgrounds and that worked for awhile, but a combination of our differences and life stresses in one of the fellow’s lives eventually ended our coffee meetings.

    @Chaya: My children haven’t chosen to be observant. Two keep a sort of Leviticus 11 “kosher” and they all self-identify as Jewish, but that’s about it. My wife, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t speak of their decisions at all. I think she’d like them to become more observant and to attend shul, but she won’t interfere anymore than she would tell me not to go to church.

    @PL: I think my friend (and others) are concerned that the longer I go without regularly attending religious community, the greater the risk I’ll leave the faith.

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