Category Archives: Judaism and Other Religions

My experiences with Judaism and other world religions.

Christchurch: We Are All Perpetrator and Victim

I woke up this morning, as many of you did, to news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 49 Muslims were murdered while in prayer at two different Christchurch mosques by a gunman. Christchurch is known for being a peaceful, tolerant town within a nation known for peace and safety. Once I learned that, I immediately thought back to the massacre in Squirrel Hill. There are so many similarities.

A Christchurch, NZ Mosque

Yet I admit, when I heard the news, the usual things began to happen. At first I was numb. Then as I looked harder at the news, I was shocked. Then I began to slip into numbness again. After all, it’s just one more incident in a long succession of ideologically and racially motivated acts of mass terror. What more is there to think and say? It will happen again and again. So, in my instinctual way of handling things, because all this is just too horrific to comprehend, I began to check out.

Checking back in for a bit, I noticed this “incident” was followed by the usual obligatory responses. Outrage. Condemnation. Calls for thoughts and prayers. Gun control debates are coming. My Bishop issued yet another pastoral letter. (I wonder how she can find something new to say each time. Eventually, I’m waiting for her to say, “Click on the link to my last letter.”)

That’s when I came to again.

Maybe it’s time to admit that none of our responses are working. Not a one. No one is healed. No one is protected. More violence is almost guaranteed.

No hearts are truly changed by our public outrages, our pious thoughts and prayers, and our endless debates on mental health, safety and security. All these things are blood-soaked band-aids.

I think we must step back and own what’s happening in a whole new way.

In the face of all this violence, perhaps it’s time for us to humbly and soulfully confess something fundamentally true: each of us is both perpetrator and victim.

It is not enough to simply stand in solidarity with the victims. It’s a good first step, especially when the victims are of a different ideology, religion, or race than we are. But that’s still too easy, and we can get awfully self-righteous while doing something that began as compassion. I know I have.

The harder, perhaps more necessary step, in addition to identifying with the victims, is to name ourselves as the culprits. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we all have done our share in creating the climate that leads to the kind of carnage we have witnessed in Christchurch. If we want healing, this is something we must recognize and change within our basic attitudinal stance towards our neighbors.

It’s the I vs. you, us vs. them, dualistic way of seeing our neighbors in contrast to ourselves. On the one hand, thinking like this is inevitable. In the necessary growth work of self-realization, differentiating ourselves from others is part of the process. It’s the reason why teenage children push away from their parents; it’s their first step towards developing an adult identity away from home.

As we work, play, raise families and make a name and a life for ourselves, the nature of the game is Survivor, and competition to stay on our islands is an unavoidable dynamic. We compete for life, liberty, and happiness. We want to win. We want success. And as we strive for it, we develop this us vs. them way of seeing. From fighting fellow drivers in traffic, arguing a political point, griping about the idiots and despots, and competing for that job we want, it truly is a tribal warfare life we’re told we must live if we want to succeed in the world. It’s pervasive, and for most people, it never stops.

The next, often hidden, necessary step in human maturity is to see the world, not in terms of rules, boxes, groups, classes, good/bad, winners/losers, saved/damned, black/white, red/blue… but in terms of we, as in the interconnectedness and vital necessity of all people and all things.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? As a Christian, it means that I see and recognize Christ in all people. To break that down some more, it means that I endeavor to see that every person is made in God’s image, that each one is very good (because God said we are), and that Christ is at work in each of us to transform us into God’s likeness, no matter our religion or beliefs.

Everyone. Me. You. The homeless woman walking down the street. The family crossing the southern border in the cover of night. The co-worker I can’t bring myself to like. A child born in a meth house. Everyone in my neighborhood. Everyone in Christchurch. The white nationalists. The Muslims in prayer. All are in God’s image, all are created very good by God, being transformed by Christ into God’s likeness, in God’s time and way.

That kind of solidarity gives us the freedom to love the perpetrator and the victim because each of us, in our own way, are perpetrators and victims of our world’s violence. We have all contributed to the kind of us vs. them tribalism that feeds the violence in our world. We have suffered from it to varying degrees. And we all have the choice to opt out of the game when we’re mature enough to do it.

So do we simply stop calling out evil and injustice? Of course, not.

That said, if that’s all we do, or even half of what we do, then we’re simply exhaling negativity into the air, ironically enough becoming the kind of badness we hate to see in other people.

For every negative, there must be double or even triple the positive. If we don’t or can’t do that hard work, then we continue to deepen our collective human addiction to all things negative, gloomy, dark and problematic. As they say in the news room, “If if bleeds, it leads.” In an oddly perverse way, we just love bad news.

For me, unconditional, gracious, bridge-building, self-and-other-identifying love is the only remedy to our world’s violence. It sounds so simple and naive to even type those words, but it’s true. Love for the victims. Love for the perpetrators. Seeing God and ourselves just as clearly in the victim as in the perpetrator.

We are all both monster and saint, innocent and guilty, Pilate and Jesus, heavenly and hellish, all wrapped up in a tragically beautiful, divine creation called you and me.

With the most sonorous YES I can sing— just as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and ever shall be to the end, that everyone and everything in creation is all inherently, intrinsically, collectively good, because it is in God, and God is in it. And in some mysterious way I can’t quite comprehend but know to be true, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cultural Quakes, Judaism and Other Religions, Race and Culture, Spiritual Growth and Practice

A Gentile Goes to a Passover Seder

For almost two years now, I have spent my Thursday mornings at a local synagogue, joining them for Torah study. It’s been a wonderfully rich experience for me to study the Bible with my Jewish older cousins of the faith. Their wisdom steeped in centuries of ancient tradition has given me a whole other perspective from which to understand scriptures our two religions both revere as God’s Word to be read, trusted, and lived out. Just as important to me have been the new friendships I’ve made with my Jewish neighbors. I’ve come to admire their dedication to be faithful Jews within the framework of a religion that contains so much beauty, mystery, and meaning.

So a few weeks ago as I was walking out of Torah study, one of my classmates asked, “Chris, do you have someplace to go for the holidays?” He was asking about Passover. I loved the way he asked that. I’m a non-Jew– a Christian, a Gentile. Of course I’m homeless for the holidays! When I replied that I had no plans, he and his wife invited me to their Seder. I happily agreed.

IMG_0189

The Seder plate, place settings, and the cup of Elijah

As a Christian, I have been somewhat familiar with the Passover Seder. After all, our sacrament of Eucharist (The Lord’s Table), derives from the Seder celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. There are the scriptures from Exodus which lay out the requirement for Israel to observe the Festival of Passover with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, lamb, and a recollection of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Several years ago at a previous church, we put together and held a Seder meal, based on a Haggadah (the Seder ritual book) and experiences of members who have Jewish family members.

But I knew this would be different. This was the real deal- the Seder meal of a Jewish family, something which they have inherited and practiced over their lifetimes down through the lifetimes of countless generations. I was really looking forward to a treat like this.

My son Jacob and I ended up going together. I wasn’t sure how Jacob would do. He’s 8-years-old and has Down syndrome. There would be a lot of people, commotion, and food and rituals he didn’t know over a long, late night. For my son, that could very well have been a recipe for disaster.
The evening came and we arrived at my friends’ home to the rich smells of food cooking and the mirth of a house full of family and guests. Hor d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation filled our first hour. Lots of last-minute cooking preparations were brewing in the kitchen with women rushing here and there to take food out of the oven and fill platters. Kids were hanging out together munching on vegetables, matzo, and various dips.
About an hour later, folks started to gather around several tables pushed together to accommodate about 25 people for the Seder. Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, platters and bowls with matzo, maror, charoset, and salt water were all meticulously arranged and set. Copies of the Haggadah were stacked on each end of the tables. Like typical families, there were intense negotiations around who would sit where and who was serving what. Once settled, the Passover candles were lit, and we began reading through the Haggadah.

Reading through the Seder Haggadah was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Christian. It was highly scripted. Certain things are done and said at prescripted times. And yet, as with any family gathering, the kids got the giggles, sometimes we got confused about who was reading what, and the occasional, “Hey, you’re not supposed to drink your wine right then!” Yet the whole thing rolled along with a force and intentionality that had the weight of centuries behind us. It was the perfect blend of unmovable tradition with family dynamic eccentricities.

IMG_0187

Jacob at the Seder

It took about an hour to work our way through the Haggadah leading up to the meal. Jacob was doing amazingly well. Other than a soda, he hadn’t had a bite to eat. I couldn’t convince him to try any matza, and I didn’t even bother getting him to try bitter herbs or charoset! By this point we were well beyond our regular dinner time and even creeping past his bed time. I felt a melt-down on its way when finally we were served a very traditional hard-boiled egg which we were encouraged to eat with salt water. Jacob ate some of that. Then came the matzo ball soup. I wasn’t sure Jacob would eat it, and he wasn’t either, but by this time, rubbing his belly and beginning to cry, I think he would have tried just about anything. Jacob devoured the soup!

Then the meal proper was served. It was the largest family meal I have ever seen. Like any traditional family meal, every dish was a revered family recipe highly anticipated for Passover. There were four different meats, several traditional Jewish vegetable dishes, salads, plenty of wine, and deserts.

Following the meal there are traditionally many other prayers, including two more cups of wine, but this family typically doesn’t get around to that. No matter. Their obligation to keep the Passover- eating matza, maror, and offering the pesach- were kept and fulfilled. We remembered God’s faithfulness and God’s power to save his people time and again.

It was very late when Jacob I left. My friends’ house was still filled with family and guests eating desert and enjoying each others’ company. But the feelings from the deep impression that Seder made on my mind and heart still linger. It was a rich evening in every respect, and long into the night I kept thinking about how my son and I were swept up into a tradition that dates back to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.

Much has changed with the Seder through the centuries, especially after the destruction of the Temple right before the turn of the first century C.E. Even as I try to imagine Jesus and his disciples having their Seder the night before he was crucified, I know that the ritual Jews follow today is substantially different from what first century Jews practiced. Some of the prayers and practices, the liturgy, and even the foods are different. One major difference is that Jews today rarely if ever use lamb for their Seder, even though the Bible commands it. With the exception of a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate, the absence of lamb is out of respect for the absence of the pascal sacrifices which discontinued after the destruction of the Temple.

Still, I sensed the emergence of a long, long tradition of prayer, questions, telling the story, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, psalms and songs, the strains of which stretch back through the millennia. The effort alone, based on the biblical obligation to keep the Passover festival and to keep it holy, which has been kept sacred through Israel’s long, long history, carried through times of peace, persecution, homecoming and exile, even the horrific devastation of the Holocaust- the holy commitment to keep the Passover has remained unchanged. The power of it surged to yet another incarnation with an annual Seder meal within one more Jewish home, a perpetual meal in which Jacob and I shared a taste, on that first night of Passover.

One last thought: at the great banquet table of God at the end of time, I would like to think that in addition to our celebration and singing, there would be plenty of wine, charoset, potato kugel, brisket, and my friend Joyce’s sweet potato tzimmes on the table. Short of that, their Seder was most definitely a slice of heaven.

6 Comments

Filed under Judaism and Other Religions

How Does God Really See Us?

An Unlikely Encounter
Last year I received an unexpected phone call from a man I hadn’t heard from in several years. He just called me out of the blue. Of all people it was Rabbi Martin Siegel. He’s the most fascinating rabbi I have ever encountered and one of the most lovingly ecumenical people I’m privileged to know, too.
Rabbi SiegelSeveral years before that I had heard Rabbi Siegel give a lecture on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I would have thought that the teachings of Jesus are a rather taboo subject for a rabbi. But this rabbi found tremendous wisdom in Jesus’ teachings and wanted to show us Christians the underlying Jewish meaning of Jesus’ words in order to plumb down to the real powerful depth of what Jesus was saying. I later asked Rabbi Siegel why he was doing this. His simple answer: “I hope you’ll be a better disciple of Jesus.” Wow… (On a side note, Rabbi Siegel said that he very much respects Jesus as a teacher. “Talk about him as Lord and Savior, well… that’s above my pay grade.” Very nice.)

Several years later in the summer of last year, Rabbi called me. He wanted to check on how I was doing and to invite me on a retreat he was leading. I told him I was interested, but I would want to get together with him to get caught up and learn more about the retreat.

That began a new relationship I never would have expected. The day we got together changed everything. I began to study with him every week. And here’s the key. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to learn. I wanted to safely explore my own faith and questions with a man who could help me from his unique perspective. I wanted to grow closer to God and I knew this rabbi could help me. (And he did.)

How was a rabbi, a Jew, able to sway this Gentile Christian? It’s because he loved me. He was sincerely interested in me and in my wellbeing. He exuded patience, grace, and passion. Basically, he was and continues to be an embodiment of God’s grace and wisdom.

God Encounter
Jesus looks called woman in the eyeI share this story because I wonder why more people don’t feel the same way about their Creator? For most people, God seems to be a mere afterthought rather than Someone in the forefront of their minds and hearts. We might turn to God if we need something- if we’re desperate enough!- or we invoke God’s name as an OMG (or far worse yet, OMFG, which I will not elaborate on!) But in terms of a desire to be around God, to walk with God, to listen and learn from God… I don’t hear too many people talk like that, even many fellow Christians.

What’s up with that? Two things: religion has certainly mucked up and overly-complicated how people approach God. But I also believe there is another, much darker reason. We project onto God our own distorted views of ourselves, parental figures, and religious authority figures.

So God becomes this fussy, distant, cranky, capricious, judgmental god who blesses us when we’re good little boys and girls but punishes us when we’re bad. Or, we image God as a cosmic Santa Claus who mysteriously gives us the stuff we want if we ask him and if we’re good- well, sometimes. But be on your guard. This same cosmic Santa Clause never fails to leave us coal and switches if we get on his naughty list. Either way, this fickle god is someone to be afraid of, a god we can never understand or hardly approach except when we’re truly needy.

I believe the way to look at God in a more biblically realistic way is to first look at how God really sees us. That’s where we begin. If we know what we mean to God, we would have more confidence to look back at God to see who he really is- as much of God as we could humanly comprehend, anyway. Then we could encounter God less encumbered by the distortions and falsities we have created to imagine God.

An Important Series of Messages
How Does God Really See Us?Starting this Sunday, I’m sharing one of the most important series of messages I have ever given. I’m calling the series “How Does God Really See Us?” No, I could ever fully answer that question, but I’ve found at least five biblical ways in which God regards us, his human creation. I’ve seen them biblically and have experienced them myself:

  1. God’s Special Creation
  2. Forgiven and Redeemed
  3. God’s Beloved
  4. Chosen and Called for God’s Purpose
  5. God’s Friends

These messages really tell a story of how God creates us in his image, forgives and redeems us when we fall, all through his Son Jesus, loves us as his precious children, purposes our lives to to be included within God’s divine plan of worldwide redemption, and ultimately calls us his friends.

Why are these messages so important? Because if we don’t get this right, we can never fully experience God for who God is. We would otherwise be forever distanced from God by our own limited, negative perceptions.

If you live near me in the greater Annapolis area, I hope you’ll come and experience these messages. I would to see you. And more importantly, I would love for you to encounter my master and friend Jesus who has made all the difference in my life. That’s not mere religion. It’s a relationship with a living God, something that blows apart religion. Come see what it’s all about!

1 Comment

Filed under Judaism and Other Religions, Spiritual Growth and Practice

A Christmas Card from Muslims

‘Tis the season for sending and receiving Christmas and holiday cards from family and friends. I’m always grateful for those who remember my family and me with a card. But this year, I opened one of the most unusual and touching Christmas cards I have ever gotten. It’s from the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, MD. A few of my other clergy colleagues reported getting this same card.
Islamic Christmas CardHere’s the front of the card.
The inside of the card reads:

The Quran has only one chapter named after a woman; Chapter 19 is titled “Mary”, or as it is translated in Arabic– Maryam. The Quran tells us that the infant Jesus, (or Isa as it is translated in Arabic), spoke from Mary’s arms:

“…He said: Surely I am a servant of God; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet; And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity so long as I live; And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed; And peace on me on the day I was born, and on the day I die, and on the day I am raised to life.” Quran 19:30-33

While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought into the world.”

The Islamic Education Center

How unusual is that? I think it was a beautiful expression.

Undoubtedly, some cynics would spin this as some kind of devious underhanded ploy. But for what? To convert me? I hardly think one card will do that. To place Islam in a more positive light? What’s wrong with that? Islamic extremism has colored Islam so negatively in the eyes of many. Outreaches like this would only help reclaim Islam from the bad publicity of extremism. Are they trying to draw me into conversation? Well, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps if we had more open-ended conversations, there would be fewer misunderstandings and tensions between our two communities.

I’m taking this card for what I believe it is. It’s a neighborly, thoughtful way of reaching out and honoring another faith community’s most sacred times of the year. I got to learn some more about Islam and receive a wonderful blessing from an Islamic community.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to acknowledge and thank them. Potomac is not right around the corner from me, but if they invite me to some conversation and ecumenical dialogue, I would be very open to that. Perhaps if more of this kind of thing happens, the heavenly pronouncement of

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

at the birth of Jesus would become more of a reality. My Muslim neighbors rightly pointed out that Jesus came to bring the peace and love of God.

Shouldn’t Christ’s living body, his Church, be the preeminent, living example of the same?

2 Comments

Filed under Christmas and Holidays, Cultural Trends, Judaism and Other Religions