My grandparents were East European Jewish immigrants. One fled persecution in Russia and the other escaped the growing Nazi threat in Austria. They came to this country for religious freedom. They witnessed atrocities that most Americans cannot imagine and the emotional baggage that came with them did not disappear.
It has been my experience that Jews fall into one of two categories. They either believe in talking about the Holocaust because it should never be forgotten or they NEVER want to talk about it. My family is part of the “we never talk about the bad and the horrible” category.
My paternal grandparents came from West Texas. One Baptist and one Methodist, and as you can imagine it was quite scandalous when they married. My grandmother’s family played cards which was strictly forbidden in my grandfather’s family.
So my Methodist father married my Jewish mother and they had three kids, whom they moved across the country. We lived in a variety of states but within communities that were all dominantly Christian, and in many cases Catholic. Out of respect for both religions my parents neither went to church nor temple. We were told as children when asked about faith to NEVER tell anybody that we were Jewish. Keep it secret.
For years I obeyed this command and my life, as a result, was simple. I made friends, went to school and things moved along like most childhoods. Sometimes little hiccups would happen. I would mention a gift I had gotten for Hanukkah and a friend might ask me what that was, or I might mention that my mother was Jewish and a playmate might ask what a Jew was. Simple, innocent questions asked by young, innocent children. In high school things took a serious turn and this is when I first began to understand Christians.
I was in ninth grade standing outside of the band room talking with friends when the question of baptism came up. I had long since shed my inhibitions about my religious heritage and felt quite proud of it – especially after learning about the Holocaust. I shared that I had never been baptized because my mother was Jewish. The young man standing next to me, with blond tousled hair and small town good looks, turned to me and said, “You’re damned to hell. You’ll burn for that,” and returned to his conversation as if he had stated the most obvious fact of all. I was silent.
This passing conversation would occur again and again and turn into more overt slights and judgements. The parents of boys I dated would discourage them from dating me – I was a non-believer, a sinner, a bad influence (which in many cases was ironic considering their son’s own lustful longings). Girls were discouraged to be friends with me because I would tempt them away from being believers. I had one set of parents tell my boyfriend at the time, a good natured young man whom my parents liked very much, that when we died he would go to heaven and I would burn for eternity.
None of these “Christians” took the time to know me, to talk with me, to share their own beliefs or even offer to take me to church. l was dismissed, labeled a “sinner” and quickly cast aside. The message was clear, “The church does not WANT you! You are NOT welcome.”
I grew to view Christians as hypocrites – quick to pass judgement and label people as sinners without owning their own sins. If this was what Jesus stood for then I had no need of him in my life. Who would want to join a club where it was obvious none of the members wanted you. And yet, I longed for a spiritual connection. I yearned for that relationship, and would pray alone in my room asking God for guidance. By the time I was twenty I had attended over a half dozen churches – not once welcomed.
The first real Christian I met was Sister Dorothy. She was a Catholic nun who served Western Michigan University where I attended classes. Western is a mid-size liberal arts campus sitting close to the shores of Lake Michigan. She didn’t wear a traditional nun’s habit but did wear a large wood cross around her neck as if proclaiming that she was the sole property of Christ. Sister Dorothy was wonderful. She was funny, kind and generous. She would bring us snacks, talk with us about our classes and was a warm figure always close. She NEVER asked me for my religious heritage. She NEVER asked to what church I belonged. She didn’t judge me. She loved me and you felt it from the moment you met her.
After college, and one class short of a minor in world religion, I started attending The First United Methodist Church in Brighton, Michigan. People looked me in the eye at that church. They shook my hand. They welcomed me even though I was a 25 year old single female coming to church alone. One Sunday rolled into several Sundays and then suddenly I started volunteering. I felt like an impostor and feared that soon the truth of my background would be found out and they wouldn’t allow me to attend. Feeling the need to “out” myself I met with the pastor one on one. I fought back tears as I explained to him my Jewish mother, my mixed heritage – I knew he was going to tell me that I could never return until I had been properly baptized. I held my breath. And then the most amazing thing happened, he smiled, and he said this to me, “Every person has to walk their own spiritual journey and I can only meet you where you are at. Come when you want to come. Volunteer when you feel the calling and when you are ready for more I am here. Until then, you are welcome at our church.”
I moved to Texas and met David. I was still a non-believer, still unbaptized, and still a sinner. Then the second most amazing thing happened – he fell in love with me anyway. Unlike the parents of my boyfriends before, my in-laws loved me too. They didn’t discourage David from dating me because I was a non-believer, instead they encouraged me on my faith journey – they respected my religious heritage and background. They embraced me as a child of God, inherently good and already forgiven of my sins.
David and I were married in my first church home in Brighton Michigan in 2000. Five years later David and I would be baptized – TOGETHER – for David a recommitment, for me a first commitment.
Up to this point this story has probably seemed like a happy tale of redemption and the testimony of God’s love but it isn’t. It is a story about the pain, desolation and sinfulness of judgement. Because when I look at this story I see hundreds of missed opportunities of discipleship. I see people so buried underneath their “Christian” beliefs that they no longer see the children of God but instead see categories of people – the believers and the non-believers, the sinners and the saved, the right and the wrong, the accepted and the abomination.
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5
Everyday I see Christians building fortresses – concentric circles of believers in an effort to never have their children or themselves interact with non-believers — with sinners – in case the non-believing might wear off. As if their faith is so fragile that it couldn’t withstand the questions or challenges of a non-believer.
I’m sure many of you are saying, “but I do love everybody, even non-believers.” How many of your children are friends with children who are non-believers? When was the last time you invited a non-believer over to your house? When was the last time you told your children they could date anybody, unless of course they weren’t Christian? It is easy to play disciple to those who already believe – to those who are already baptized – but God doesn’t ask us to do that.
“When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Mark 2:17
Judgement, my friends, is a slippery rock to hatred and too many Christians like to throw stones from the fortress of judgement.
This is my challenge; seek out a new friend, a non-believer – don’t judge them, don’t change them, don’t invite them out of pity, or out of a desire to show them the “right” way to live. Instead I ask that you love them. Love this non-believer as the child of God that they are and see the powerful transformation that can happen in the lives of people when all you do is share the love God has given you.
“Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners.” Matthew 9:10