This last weekend, the Soulation speaking team (read: Dale and me) flew to Atlanta for the Young Messianic Jewish Association's (YMJA) Annual Youth Leaders Retreat. We had already been prepped with the request to call Jesus by his Jewish name, "Yeshua" and to do "what we do best" which in this case was train the leaders to answer their teens' heart and mind questions.
Followers of Yeshua, not Followers of Christ
The Yeshua bit was, as we've come to realize, a way to love our Jewish brothers and sisters better. The phrase "Christ-killer" has been a weapon used to destroy Jews for centuries, so any way we could indicate our belief that Jesus was in fact, a Jew, and that many Jewish people did follow him (his entire band of disciples for instance) is a way to honor the Messianics we know.
We arrived late Friday evening and after fighting Atlanta traffic found ourselves wandering around the synagogue unable to find the way in. It looked a bit different from most churches we had attended. Then our contact found us, and smilingly ushered us inside.
Where are we?
At first I thought Beth Hallel Congregation looked fairly normal, until I saw an elderly man with glasses on, one glass covered with blue star of David stickers. A bit unnerving, like a retired Judeo-pirate. Later I discovered he was the congregation's cantor, a man honored with giving the closing blessing. By then, the star on his glasses was not as stunning to me as his voice, raised in chanting prayer to God.
I didn't really realize I was anxious until I started feeling tangible relief that so many women had dress slacks on. They weren't all wearing skirts and some of the men weren't even wearing their yamikas. Maybe it would even be okay if I accidentally said, "Jesus." I relaxed a bit as our contact continued to help me understand the meaning of the service.
Believers in Yeshua
As we rose to sing, I felt their love for Israel soar. One song used the word Yeshua. As the believers around me rang it out, they began to raise their hands. That's when my eyes filled. To hear so many Jewish people, many with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's blood in their veins claiming they had found their Messiah, undid my composure. My heart rose with joy with them, but I could not sing my throat was so tight.
There is something about Messianic Jewish people that makes me feel I have come home.
Perhaps it is due to a dear friend, Ellen, who mentored me from my early teens, a New York Jew who found Yeshua. Perhaps it is because of my love for the Jewish Scriptures (the "Old" Testament) and how these stories have built my understanding of who God is. Perhaps it is my love for genealogy. Perhaps it is my love for apologetics. When Messianic Jews claim that their God has a specific name, God of Israel, a God with a specific history with a specific people group, all the "well when you say God and I say Krishna we actually mean the same thing" stuff disappears. This is a God who will not be confused with Allah, the Jehovah Witnesses Jehovah, the Mormon's one-time physical God, the Buddha, Krishna or Kali, Brahmin, Zeus, or the Goddess.
Perhaps I feel at home among Messianic believers because they know that God's determined choosing of the Jewish people is regardless of their qualification, their willingness, even their obedience. Perhaps it is because of the Jewish music that moves me more than any praise song chorus or hymn can. Perhaps it is because the Messianic Jewish people are, to use one of their own comparisons, sort of like an island of misfits, a motley crew of different sorts of people, with so much variety and yet such freedom for each other. Perhaps it is because every time I meet with Messianic Jews, I am loved, very well by them. They remind me why I follow Yeshua.
Beauty in Dance
Saturday morning we began our program in earnest. But, before I was even able to start speaking, we sang. I watched their praise band sing and the women join in a circle up front and dance. It was a movement of both grace and unity, no one spotlighting dancer, no leader, no followers, all moving in unison in a circle. This was a dance without sexual undertones, this was dance young and old could join. And as they danced they were a visible manifestation to me of a people who continue to worship even as they know pain.
Dale and I began to weep. Good grief, I thought, this is no way to professionally begin a talk, all drippy mascarad and wet nosed. But the, well, I have no other world but beauty and pursuit of God felt so deeply precious to me, like a true sacrifice. For, as I came to know much more this weekend, Messianic believers pay a high price for following Yeshua.
Jews don't want the Messianics for they have accepted the one Jew who the Christians have used to persecute, even torture and kill the Jews for centuries. Accepting Yeshua as Messiah is the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate capitulation to the Christ-ians, the final disregard for the Jewish distinctive pain and practice.
And Christians, I'm afraid, do not accept Messianic believers either. If we express interest in Jewish feasts or meaningful rites (like how Lord's Supper can have a bit more pizazz if you bring in a "Jews for Jesus" guy to explain the Passover). Often we like Jews because we want to know more about God, not because we want to know more about his people. And Messianic Jews pick up on this. They know how many are attracted to their movements to get at something "old and ancient." They can see those who have come more to play dress up, than to identify and own the Jewish identity and burden and suffering. Jewish Messianics regularly experience the way Christians want to know about Israel because it is a key to understanding the end times, sort of like a missing puzzle piece. But rejoicing over the completed escatological picture that you have so cleverly put together is completely different from rejoicing over the intrinsic meaning and value of that puzzle piece. It's worth celebrating, as much as the lost sheep, the woman's lost coin, the father's lost son.
A Place to Dance
My Messianic sisters taught me how to dance this weekend. Not right way. After our first talk on "Developing a Strong Believing Worldview" we long break where we spent 3 hours talking back and forth, sharing questions and puzzles we both had. I found these Messianic believers so good at being patient with sustained dialog, there was a steadiness to learn for each other. I felt listened to and thereby loved. I learned why there is so much misunderstanding of the Messianic Jews and I discovered more beautiful puzzle pieces: why the Messianics do not focus on ethnicity, but on following Yeshua, how there can be such little hierarchy of Jews over Gentiles. Then it was time for supper and then our evening talk. During the singing portion, and against my better judgment I accepted Mara's invitation to dance with the women.
I lept into the weaving and circling group of women, attempting to keep up, to raise my hands to sway and glide and in the process getting all my footwork messed up. One woman broke from her place in the circle, came over to help me. She took my hand, another counted the steps for me. When the dance was over a more seasoned Messianic Jew named Rachel took me outside to show me the steps. And by the last day, I could dance. It looked much like this (but without any fancy costumes!)
I have not worshiped God like that in years.
Sunday came and the women met separately from the men because Dale and I had prepared separate talks for each group. To date this was the most open gender talk I've experienced. Their open confession and the beginning of healing flooded the room. I felt I was taking their hands and counting the steps with them into another dance. This one of identity and owning the bodies God had given them. And then during the last time of singing women who had not yet danced stepped forward and joined the circle.
I danced among them.
I felt healing surrounding us.
At the end of our sessions we gathered to pray for the leaders. Then, unexpectedly the youth leaders circled us and laid their hands on Dale and I. They prayed for us, for Soulation to flourish, for us to become more appropriately human, for us to love the many spiritual babies God has given us. I was weeping all over Dale's jacket by the time they finished blessing us.
This weekend has left me so spiritually full that though my body is exhausted from travel my soul is rejoicing. Something is happening on earth, something larger even than President Barack Obama's inauguration, something I'm so thankful to know about it, to have experienced.
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. (Song of Solomon 2:11-13)