Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Jewish-Christian struggle

A few weeks ago I had the huge privilege of spending Shabbat with a group of Christians training for ministry and studying to further their own journeys. I was invited by the awesome Rev. Ray Gaston and supported by the Council of Christians and Jews to begin the students thinking about and engaging with not only Jewish-Christian relations but living Judaism as a faith which they will live alongside.
It was a heartwarming, open hearted space and I was glad the students felt able to question us and engage in Shabbat along with us. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, as Jewish-Christian engagement almost always is. Of course we probed differences and struggles, but the quality of disagreement was a good one.
After sharing our shabbat worship with the group (or forcing it on them!) we were invited to join the group for their worship. Evening and morning prayers were brief and touching, and I was impressed at the abilities of these brand new ordinands who have only been studying part time for a few months. On Saturday afternoon, a longer prayer service took me somewhat by surprise.
 I have hesitated to write about it as I don't wish to cause offence or upset to those who led it with great dignity and skill. However the feelings with which I left the chapel struck me as a clear sign of areas of work that still exist for both Jews and Christians in our engagement, with one another, and many others, and I hope this is taken in that spirit!
I am always keen that folk don't feel the need to change their worship because I am present, however those wiser than I have suggested no harm would be done if we always consider how 'the other' might feel or hear things were they sitting in our services. That afternoon I was not offended, just fascinated to find myself straddling gulfs I had not expected to.
The students prepared a moving 'service of Reconciliation' and from the outset highlighted how it was appropriate to explore reconciliation when studying Jewish-Christian relations; that there was still work to do there, and around the world. So I felt a little surprised to hear a sermon that described our reconciliation with God - through Jesus Christ. On the one hand this is a sermon that makes perfect sense in a Church service, and I am uncomfortable with others changing for me. However our understanding of 'reconciliation' was clearly different in this context. Mine has much more to do with learning to share our world, and coming together after centuries of pain and misunderstanding, not to mention persecution. A service meant to be about reconciliation therefore might perhaps try to avoid addressing that main point (the role of Jesus) which has divided us. That is not to say there isn't space for dialogue over this important issue, and a greater understanding on both sides about the others position, but in the context of joining the other for prayer and being invited to do so, it was rather uncomfortable, in that it excluded me from such reconciliation.
There were also incredibly moving elements to the service; a beautiful and evocative dance by a young pentacostal woman, something I had never  experienced before in a worship context (although again the music was entirely about surrender to Jesus Christ, not reconciliation). The students also created a beautiful prayer space in which we were encouraged to think about places around the world in need of reconciliation, and having heard just before Shabbat about the desecration of a Crimean Reform synagogue, I appreciated this space greatly and it was held with great thought and dignity.
For the closing song, we all stood for a rendition of Chris Tomlin - Our God - I hadn't heard this one before. Many hymns hold fond memories of my childhood and school assemblies (Lord of the Dance aside!)This particular hymn, however, left me feeling that as a Jew, I am perhaps regarded with pity having not found the God of the song. If you listen, I wonder if your ears will hear what mine did (and if your own faith will change your hearing of it). While I suspect the congregation assumed that their God (of whom they sang) was my God, the water into wine part quickly established for me that it wasn't really my God they were singing about. And even if it were the same God, the triumphalism in the words 'Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other' still struck a difficult chord for me as a Jew, and as a person engaged with Dharmic as well as Abrahamic faiths.
I also have to be honest - we too have liturgies (such as the Aleinu) that can seem triumphalist, even in some of the edited down Progressive versions, and down right anti-Christian in some older versions of it. But I also know many Jews struggle with texts like these, and change them, or, in the UK in particular, fail to engage with their real meaning at all because they are said in Hebrew.  This hymn was a recently composed piece, and is part of a musical approach that I suspect draws many people in. Reflecting a few days later, I find myself wondering if these trainee clergy struggle with their liturgy as I know I and my colleagues continue to struggle with and even change our own? Were they more conscious of what they were singing when doing so next to me? Will that experience affect their service choices in the future?
I  have attended Christian worship for many years in different contexts, from curiosity to friendship to dialogue. I have not had this experience before. Is liturgy changing? Have I been lucky in the services I have attended? Was I being over sensitive because 'A service of reconcilitation' meant something to me that it did not mean to those leading it?
I genuinely bear no ill will and came away from the weekend feeling positive about the content, the connections, and the conversations. Yet this remains a tricky part of Jewish-Christian relations, indeed of human relations; can we exist in our own faith, without it needing to be better than yours, stronger than yours, higher than any other?

18 comments:

  1. Dear R. Debbie
    A few short comments.
    The primary problem is one of language. Jews and Christians do not share the same vocabulary, they may share words but not meaning.

    Reconciliation is a good example. For Christians reconciliation can only be through Jesus, any thing else is at best a shadow.

    You are right to have questions about the song "Our God". It is based on Christian scripture and is triumphalist in intent "Our God, but not yours" is the overwhelming message sent and received.

    What you have been exposed to in B'ham is the Liberal Evangelical church. A much warmer - even cuddly - version of its more aggressive younger brother the Conservative Evangelical. Nevertheless the message is the same, we are right you are wrong.

    Talk soon.
    David Chapman

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  2. Quite right Debbie.
    That 'Our God' song sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it, and in fact there are large chunks I refuse to sing along with at all because it gets me so cross. Our God? As opposed to whose, exactly?
    This is the God of all creation, that is within everything and beyond everything, of all faiths and none, and we all could do with being a bit less sure of ourselves, and that we can comprehend all of his purposes.
    Found your teaching at Queen's really inspiring, by the way.

    Alison Thomas

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  3. Unsurprisingly, givent he two churches I am members of, I didn't know this hymn so I googled it. Do you think they chose it (trying to put a best face on it) because it doesn't mention Jesus and thought you would share their vision of God? Insensitive triumphalism or sheer ignorance - whichever, they should have known better.

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  5. Many thanks for all your messages here and in emails, FB and twitter- this has begun a conversation which can only ever be a good thing. I don't necessarily feel they should have known better, but that encounter leads to learning, and that hopefully this might be a small dimension of that.
    Judaism certainly has it's own triumphalist pieces (if from a different context) and we would all benefit from greater reflection and self knowledge. This does not need to mean change

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    1. ...but thoughtful engagement with our lived faiths

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    2. I was also present at this service, having experienced a rewarding and fascinating study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations over the weekend. I appreciate Rabbi Debbie's comments, and confess that I felt uncomfortable during the service knowing she was present; I was aware that the content of both the sermon and the final hymn showed a Christian perspective that proclaimed Christianity to be the only true path to God. I shared my views with some others and now regret that I did not also express this to Rabbi Debbie. I am aware that this service was planned prior to the teaching and perhaps for this reason did not engage with the issues that had been discussed. I came away from the weekend ashamed of past treatment of Jews and Judaism by Christians, determined to try to avoid the same pitfalls. I respect the Jewish covenantal relationship with God and their continued attempts to grapple with the meaning of the Scriptures in each generation. I feel we have much to learn from each other and hope for greater mutual understanding and true reconciliation in the future.

      Sue Hale

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    3. Thank you for taking the time to write Sue!

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  8. For the reality of the CCJ see here.
    http://hurryupharriet.wordpress.com/in-the-beginning-there-was-the-council-of-christians-and-jews-how-it-all-came-about/

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  9. I remain a Christian, but this is my problem with Christianity. I do not like the triumphalist language used by many Christians either. I wonder what Jesus the Jew who submitted to Roman domination and did not challenge it with force or try to control people, would make of it.

    Not all Christians go along with this triumphalist approach, I have been pleased to discover. Perhaps reconciliation can only be found in Jesus, but then that would be because it involves submitting to the Way of God, the Way of Peace, which Jesus embodied.

    God loves everyone equally however they choose to worship him/her, but it's not the words and the doctrine that matter. How we express our devotion to God by the way we live is the thing that matters most to God. If we have the same compassion for others as we need for ourselves then we shall all be reconciled to each other. Those who follow Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the Christ of the Church endorsed by Roman Emperors of old and the rulers of today, we strive to do this.

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  10. Thank you as ever, Karin, for your reflections. In love and gratitude

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  11. hi Debbie, I came looking for this after you mentioned it at the weekend you spent with us as curates, doing it sounds, something very similar. your question " do these trainee clergy struggle with their liturgy?" I can only answer for me, and some of my colleagues, but overwhelmingly often the answer is yes! Whether its about gender exclusivity or the kind of insensitivity or naivity you describe here, we have to challenge things I think. Listening to conversations this weekend i was struck by how naively people can approach these issues, for the most part I don't think it's deliberate narrow mindedness but a lack of self awareness and realisation of our own paucity of understanding. Conversations are So important, and I for one want to learn, not to be defensive. I learnt a tremendous amount at the weekend from you and Rabbi N , not *just* about your faith & practice but spiritually, insights and understanding that were enabled by you both. thank you for that and for this reflection.

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  12. oops I thought that would use my google+ name, not my old blogger one!.. its Angi!

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    1. Angi thank you for writing- I've only just found this! Apologies! Dialogue for me almost always teaches me as much about myself as it does about the other, as we struggle to express our selves to those we meet and find the words that work best, as well as challenge that which we take for granted. It is always a privilege, even when it is a challenge. Hope to see you again.

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