Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Weekend with Messianic Jews

I got to dance.

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.

Coming Home

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.

The Price

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)


Jennifer said...

You know, Jonalyn, I cannot for the life of me figure out why Christians have a hard time accepting Messianic Jews. I think it is wonderful that they have the courage to risk rejection from their fellow Jews to follow Yeshua, the one and only Messiah.

Speaking of Yeshua, I love that name. It is so beautiful!

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Angela said...

I was friends with a Messianic Jewish woman several years ago. I was eager to learn more from her and more about her faith. However, the closer I got to her, the more pressure I felt from her to "convert" to Judaism. Sort of what the Gentile believers must have felt like in Acts 15 when the Jewish believers were putting pressure on them to be circumcised. Now, obviously, I know that not all Messianic Jewish believers feel this way, and should NOT be lumped into all one category. However, if there is any hesitation between the two groups uniting, it might be partly because of some similar experiences such as these. My relationship with this woman grew to be very stressful, when all our conversations revolved around the Sabbath, feasts, rituals, etc. Obviously, she did not celebrate Christmas, and she was very vocal that true Christians shouldn't either. Eventually, we finally grew apart when she realized that I wasn't going to become Jewish and fulfill the Law of Moses! It was very sad, because I truly loved her, and she was sort of a mother figure to me. I enjoyed learning from her. She taught me so much. I was involved in the Passover Feasts that she led at her church. I also was a part of her Messianic dance ministry. But I just felt too much pressure from her to live the way she did. And I confess that it has left me a little hesitant to get involved with any other Messianic groups.

I truly hope none of this comes across as offensive. I certainly don't intend for it to be. Just offering an explanation as to why some underlying tension may exist between the two groups. Probably lots of misunderstandings, fears, prejudices, etc.

Bb said...

I love reading of Dale and Jonalyn's time with Messianics!
It reconfirms my belief that God is doing a mighty work in these last days.... To understand our Jewish roots is like putting the missing pieces into place. Praise God for allowing us to understand His Truth on another level, and to bring us out of the deception of the last 2000 years.
You go.... Jonalyn & Dale!!!
Love you,

himmiefan said...

Question here - what is the deception of the last 2000 years?

Anyway, I'm glad you all had such a great time. The anti-semitism that's been going on in the church is just plain idiotic. I'm very fortunate to come from a church culture (Methodist) that didn't have that. By the way, it was politics that killed Christ, not the Jews...

I do have one area of concern, though. A couple of years ago, I picked up in Barnes and Noble a Messianic magazine. In that magazine was an article on how bad it was that Christianity included so much from Gentile culture (Easter being based on a pagan celebration, etc.). Now, first, God made me Scots Irish (amongst others things), and I see no problems with people from non-Jewish cultures taking things from their cultures and using them to worship the one true God.

Okay, rant over.

Philip said...

This brings me back to studying under an Orthodox Jew in college. Because of him, I really looked into the Messianic Jew movement. He was so enlightening about the Scriptures, Old and New, even though he did not believe in the New Testament. He use to say, "How can you say you want to be like Jesus when you don't even know his heritage and identity as a Jew? If you want to understand Jesus better, you need to understand the religion and culture he was in and followed." To him, it was a huge mystery why Christians neglected their own heritage.

This also reminds me of a radio broadcast I heard today. Someone called in asking about Jews and Christians, and who is considered to be Israel now. The host said that there is either Jew nor Greek in Christ and that any Christian is also Jewish in the sense of being in a covenant with God. While I see his point, I very much so disagree. As you said, Jonalyn, there is a "price" that no Christian can really fathom in a way. Being Jew means much more than having a covenant with God.

Good post! And emotional, Savannah and I both were excited when we saw the title! We've always wanted to go to a synagogue, and have toyed with the idea of converting.

Angela said...

I would like to add, however, that I truly and sincerely praise God that you and Dale had this experience. I apologize for being a "Debbie Downer." I hope I didn't eclipse the discussion with my negative experience. Your experience sounds like it was wonderful. As it should be. Blessings!

Jonalyn Fincher said...

I think most people experience Messianics in different ways. I'm glad you mentioned your experience Angela (I don't see it as a Debbie Downer, I'm actually grateful for it). I think the thing that most surprised me about the Messianics I've met is that they offer so much freedom.

There has been no teasing or pressure to abide by any kosher, feasts, festival rules. They've explained, when I ask, why some practice some of these laws and have been almost scrupulous with explaining the freedom Jesus brings to them and us all.

I do think it's easy when any rules are involved to begin to lay them down as FOR ALL PEOPLE. That's what is what's really struck me as admirable about the Messianics I've known.

I think a good question to ask ourselves and then take this to Jesus is: "Why do we practice the traditions/holidays/religious rites that we do?" That is worth pondering :)

Jonalyn Fincher said...

I think the deception of the last 2000 years that Barb was talking about is the Christian tendency to take Jesus out of his Jewish context and make him into our personal Jesus, be it anglo or Italian or black or asian. We tend to forget that Jesus came first to the Jew and then to the Greek and we also tend to forget that God set up a covenant with Israel that he still intends to keep. See for instance: Genesis 17:7, Isaiah 55:3 and Jeremiah 31: 31-37.

Hope this helps and is also what Barb meant!

Jonalyn Fincher said...

p.s. I agree that it is valuable to hold onto Jesus and also the festivals from your own ethnic culture. I think what bothers Messianics is that Christians tend to think God likes or expects us to celebrate Christmas when there is no Scripture endorsing this like there is the Festival of Booths or Passover or even Hannakuh (its called the Festival of Lights and even Jesus celebrated it).

This does not mean we should not practice Christmas or Easter, but I do think it means we ought to be charitable toward those who do not want to practice these holidays. And hopefully we will have grace toward those who dogmatically and legalistically push Messianic practices onto us.

"It is for freedom that Messiah has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1

Jonalyn Fincher said...

Philip- nice points. I agree that Israel has not been replaced by the church. While Yeshua has removed distinctions as far as our access to God (neither Jew, Greek, male, female, etc), there still exist very real differences between Jews and Gentiles just as there are differences STILL between males and females. They are not, as many would argue, differences in authority or specialness (for instance, I believe men and women's differences mean they both ought to be serving in every church office), but differences that God still honors and wants his body to notice and honor. I think God loves it when we see the distinct way he rooted himself in history as a Jews and bound himself in the earth to the Jewish people. And I believed we honor God by noticing how God chose the Jews as a means to bless the earth.

himmiefan said...

Hi Jonalyn. Thanks for answering my question. Yes, the church has taken Christ out of his Jewish context, sometimes on purpose, but probably because we've got so many other spiritual things to think about that we just plain forget. Now, I did hear a speaker once discuss some of those sayings of Christ that are confusing, at least for me. The speaker showed how each referred to something in the Jewish culture that his audience automatically identified with - and we would too if we just knew the context. Very interesting.

As for the religious practice aspect, I think it's human nature to want everyone to be like us and we're automatically suspicious of those who aren't. Like you said, we need to show grace to those who do things differently.

As for Jesus coming first to the Jews, well, because of the covenant, the Jews were the ones who knew about the true God. That's not to say that they're any better than we are (and I know you're not saying this). The Bible also uplifts Gentiles so that we're all equals.

himmiefan said...

You know, I think I've just hit on something. I think I've always been a little defensive because I've thought (assumed) that the Messianics looked down on me for being a Gentile.

Good heavens. First I'm blogging about Michelle Obama's J. Crew clothes (love them!), now this.

Anonymous said...

Shalom Jonalyn! It was great to read your reflections and emotions on the weekend here in Hotlanta! It was very special to see you and Dale absorb the richness that a contextual knowledge of Messiah's culture affords to match the contextual understanding of the Judeo-Christian foundations you already have. In other words, I enjoyed watching you enjoy the very things that make the Messianic perspective so illuminating and freeing to me.
I didn't get a chance to tell You and Dale "Thank you" for all that you shared with us this past weekend. So, thank you! the conversation we had on Saturday afternoon was the most enjoyable discussion I have had in a very long time. I love sharing with others the understanding of who Messiah is, based on scripture, and how that is reflected in the variant lifestyles God calls us to lead as they are anchored in scripture. By "sharing", I mean sharing my heart and hearing the heart of others.
Your "worldview" on the truths of God felt, to me, a perfect fit with my holistic approach to scripture. It added a lot to the way I view conversing with my youth. Loved the PEAR! Esp. Rreframing!
Anyway, totally loved getting to know you both and goof around with you between stellar conversations!
God Bless you both and your ministry!
Marc Vidito

Roger Sharp said...

What fun!

I got to worship with a Messianic Congregation while in Seminary. It was part of our Worship Class. They had Davidic dancing during the music portion. They began the worship time with a shofar call (ram's horn). The sermon was from Hebrews which led us back to the OT....I really enjoyed the service!

Roger Sharp
Confident Christianity

David McKay said...

Interested in this quote:

You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. Anne Lamott

It sounds good, but the Scriptures clearly tell us in both Old and New Testaments to love what God loves and hate what he hates.

Jonalyn Fincher said...

Hello David!

Thanks for chiming in.

I believe you're referencing the passage "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated." If so, my follow-up question is:
- Perhaps this passage is talking about God's choosing of the Jewish people, and his not choosing of Esau's family... not God's actual hatred of any person or people group.
-Do you believe God really hates people?
- Are we ever specifically instructed to hate others in Scripture?

I've found that most people use God as an excuse to distance themselves from people they find difficult to love... I think that's the main point of the Lamott quote. :)

David McKay said...

Hi Jonalyn
I was not thinking specifically of Malachi chapter 1 or Romans 9.

I was thinking of the many passages in the Psalms where we are told God hates evil people.

Or the passage in Proverbs chapter 6 where we are told what God hates. After being told God hates a proud look and a lying tongue, the climax is "and he who sows discord among brethren."

I was also thinking of our Lord Jesus' comments that things people highly prize are detestable to God. I think the implication is that we should love the things God loves and hate the things God hates.

People say that God hates sin but loves the sinner, but the Bible tells us God hates the sinner, too.

Paradoxically, the Bible also tells us God loves us so much he sent Jesus to die for us.

How can we make sense of this?

I think Don Carson does a grand job in his little book "The difficult doctrine of the love of God."

However, I also think there is truth in the comment you cited.

For example, if I hate my Christian sister because she rubs me the wrong way, I must change my ways because God loves her. And God says that if I think I love him but hate her, I'm fooling myself.

Thank you for responding to my comment.