Making a Choice

NecklacesI haven’t posted here in quite a while, but I have something to post later in the week that won’t make sense unless I jump ahead in my story. I will keep telling the story of how I got here. But for today, I’m going to share the statement I read at Shabbat services in June 2017 on the day I became Jewish:

When my husband and I started dating, I was a practicing Methodist.

Before we married, we agreed that any kids we had would be raised Jewish and that we would find a congregation where I would be comfortable, too. We’d find somewhere I could come with my Jewish family and feel familiar enough. At the time, the kid part felt like the big decision. The part about me seemed ancillary. It would be an opportunity to learn, but not something that would change my direction. I would continue to go off to church on Sundays, too.

As it turned out, the part about finding a synagogue community where I was comfortable wasn’t ancillary at all. It was the first baby step on the road that brought me here today.

Fifteen years ago, Joel and I stood together under a huppa. We’d chosen a Jewish wedding after reading a book that described Jewish wedding traditions. As I read about them, our plans to have a co-officiated ceremony fell away. There was a richness and truth to the symbolism of the huppa and the broken glass that spoke to me even though I’d never been to a Jewish wedding.

We joined our first synagogue together shortly after we got married. It was a tiny Reform congregation in northern California where no one thought twice about an interfaith family, and where I could start to learn Jewish prayers by ear. The prayer books didn’t have much transliteration, so I spent those years reading the cantor’s lips, imperfectly learning the sounds of Jewish prayer, and learning how to stop being self-conscious about the fact that I was a beginner.

While we were there, we had stillborn twin boys. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the mourners’ Kaddish became the language of my grief, the people showing up for us became my community too in a very concrete way, and the Mi Sheberach became the language of my prayers for healing.

Six months later, my sister called to say her best friend knew a pregnant teenager in Kansas who was looking for a home for the baby she was expecting. Four months after that, we brought our daughter home, and I learned the word beschert. We had a baby naming, and the same congregation that had cried with us now lined up to hold the baby.

That year was when Judaism began to be part of me. Not just something I watched, but something I practiced pieces of. In the years that have passed since the drama of that year, there have been many other far more subtle turning points, when what I was and what I am shifted slightly.

Since then, we have moved cross-country three times. We have belonged to this synagogue (twice) and a Reconstructionist congregation in southern California in between. I have become increasingly involved in our congregations every step of the way. For me, one of the primary expressions of a life of faith is, was, and will be a commitment to finding ways to serve. Even at times when I felt my own difference or like an outsider, I have been welcomed. And there has always been a satisfying, meaningful, and sometimes even surprising answer to the question, “How can I help?”

The first time I joined a synagogue choir—at the urging of people who’d heard me sing at a congregational retreat—it didn’t occur to me until I opened my new binder that most of the songs would be in Hebrew—and then a beat later, I realized I knew the phonetics of Hebrew well enough to be OK.

The last time I joined a church was in 2011. It was the Congregational church where our southern California congregation had worshiped before it had its own building. The two congregations still had a relationship, and I pretty much only saw the minister when he was at the synagogue for an event.

The day I joined that church, they handed me a lapel pin shaped like a red comma and said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”

Never put a period where God has put a comma.

The sentiment stuck with me, and it struck me when I started to think about what I wanted to say tonight.

For a long time, I thought the words, “I will not become Jewish” were a full sentence. I was a Christian with a Jewish family. I would participate in Jewish family life and even in synagogue life, but the traditions I grew up with were part of me. They were an intrinsic part of my childhood and young adulthood—a part that I valued.

But it wasn’t the full sentence after all.

“I will not become Jewish” turned out to be the start of a paragraph that read, “I will not become Jewish until I have spent 15 years counting time in seders, High Holiday services, and Shabbats. I will not become Jewish until Mourner’s Kaddish is the prayer I reach for when a death moves me, and Mi Sheberach the prayer I use to ask for healing of myself or others. I will not become Jewish until words like tsuris and mitzvah and mazel tov roll off my tongue with ease. And, most importantly, I will not become Jewish until I can no longer imagine myself setting aside these things.”

I imagine my Jewish future will look much like my present. I will study Hebrew a little bit this summer so I don’t lose what I’ve learned in the past year and look forward to B’nai Binah class starting up again in the fall. I’ll go to school board meetings and organize the book fair. I’ll organize rides and visits if anyone needs help. I’ll come to Shabbat services—especially on nights when I’ve forgotten how to breathe.

I am extraordinarily lucky that the people who love me the most have said clearly and repeatedly that this is my decision and that they love me no matter what I choose. I also owe much gratitude to everyone along the way who has befriended me, taught me, and accepted me. In ways large and small, you have helped bring me to this day.

Over 15 years, Judaism has become part of who I am. Today, I become part of Judaism. Today, I can say for the first time, I am a Jew.

Away and away

Away and away

For the first seven years after college, I lived the nomadic life of a young journalist, moving from newspaper to newspaper.

Right after college, I spent a year working for a small daily newspaper in a Southern Minnesota town about an hour from where I grew up. I covered cops and courts and tiny rural school districts that had merged with other tiny school districts in towns whose populations had dropped so low that they couldn’t support their own schools. During that year, I occasionally popped in on the one Presbyterian church in town.

I’d had little journalism in college—one class, plus a semester in Washington, D.C., that was mostly devoted to listening to famous reporters talk about their jobs. I was well aware that I was winging it. So one day, after I’d been reporting for a few months, I went into the managing editor’s office. “I feel like I’m doing OK, but I’m sure there are things I could be doing better,” I said. “What should I be working on?”

Her response: “If I don’t call you in here to yell at you, you’re doing fine.”

That one terrible answer sealed it. I had to get out of there. My graduate school applications went into the mail, and a few months later I was in journalism school at Northwestern University. I started in the summer, with the basic copy editing class they usually allowed people with real-world experience to skip. I was mildly offended that I had to take it, but they were right, I needed it.

During graduate school, I admired the churches ringing the campus but rarely set foot in one. The program was only a year long—nine months in Evanston followed by three months in Washington, D.C. I was just passing through not trying to make a life there.

 

After graduate school, I was determined to go west. Two college summers working in Yellowstone National Park had given me a taste for the wilds. I’d applied to spend the summer working in a national park during my freshman year of college under threat of a boring, cashless summer back home. I put in my application and got an offer to work at the gift shop at Old Faithful Lodge.

That June, I made the thousand-mile drive in a 12-year-old dark blue Lincoln Town Car with a white top—a mid-70s model designed to win any highway altercations. After three days of driving, punctuated by my first nights ever alone in a hotel room, I sat in a café in Gardiner, Montana, on the edge of the park, looking at the snow-capped mountains just across the park boundary and feeling as small as I’ve ever felt. I called home to check in—trying to sound braver than I felt.

The next morning, I reported for training, fighting back tears of loneliness, looking around for someone to attach toold-faithful, and noting which of the people around me were also headed for Old Faithful. I slowly became more focused on learning the ropes and less focused on how far off the edge of the map I was.

Once the training ended, I drove the hour to Old Faithful, found my dorm, and was alarmed to see I was assigned to a room with the biggest smart-ass from the training. But it turned out to be good luck. She and the cousin she was with were outgoing and friendly, and I wound up having the time of my life. I hiked, I socialized, and I danced on the chairs in an employee pub where dancing on the floor made the juke box skip. I cheerfully yelled at Japanese tourists who yelled back over the counter as though volume could overcome our language gaps, trying to answer the questions I thought they were asking. I was part of a group—playing an important part since I was the one with a car big enough to transport a pack to Quake Lake for pizza or captain a middle of the night trip to the Bozeman airport for a friend’s emergency trip home. Mostly, I learned I could strike out on my own and be just fine.

After my year in graduate school, I wanted to go back to the part of the country where the mountains made me feel reassuringly small, hiking trails were plentiful, and nature felt so close. But I ultimately overshot by 900 miles. The resumes and clips I’d sent out across the West, resulted in a job at the daily newspaper in a small, poor logging and fishing town on the Oregon Coast, where the newspaper’s managing editor was willing to take a chance on a reporter from 2,000 miles away. He’d called Northwestern when he was looking for a new reporter, and one of my professors who knew I wanted to go west had sent him my way.

 

So once again, I arrived somewhere where I didn’t know anyone and tried to find my place.

In rural Oregon, I once again struggled with how to be a newspaper reporter in the kind of town where I’d run into the sheriff at church or the school board president at the gym—most memorably on a night when I almost fell off the Stairmaster laughing while reading “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” I did not want to explain that I was hooting at her reference to the only known country music song title to use the subjunctive case correctly—and in a very off-color way. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Fitting into small-town Oregon was tough. How do you find a place to belong when it’s your job to be an observer, the town is too small to compartmentalize being a reporter and just being a person, and you’re too far from home to pop in on friends or relatives for some comfort and familiarity?

Once again, I felt like I had walked off the edge of the map but this time I wasn’t rescued by a band of merry co-conspirators. The culture was unfamiliar. The town was small and isolated. And many of the residents were angry at the economic and government forces that had killed off the logging and fishing jobs. The bumper stickers said it best: “I love spotted owl…boiled” and “Welcome to Oregon. Now go home.” I could understand the anger on an objective level—people who had grown up believing they could make a decent living in the forests or mills or on the ocean found themselves in a world with few options for them.

I hadn’t seen the good times. And I wasn’t cut out for the bad times. When anyone asked me where I worked, I cringed. People were more than happy to tell me how bad the paper was. The ones who read bylines started as soon as they figured out why my name sounded familiar. And the revolving cast of reporters who’d come from elsewhere and couldn’t wait to leave didn’t help the situation. Most of us were never going to stay long enough to truly understand the place.

True to their expectations, I was desperate to leave almost from the moment I arrived. Life that rural was not for me. I looked for a church instinctively—as a way to maybe get to know a few people while I sent out resumes and hoped for my next job offer.

I was looking for an answer, too. I was having my first experience with the kind of anger you’re not sure you’ll ever get over and an attendant crisis of faith. I’d been victimized and I hated the perpetrator. I wanted the person to rot in hell. Except I didn’t. I hated feeling that way. I was a Christian. I was supposed to be forgiving. I wanted to be forgiving. I hated how it felt to be so angry, but I couldn’t find my way through to any sliver of light. Not through thinking, not through prayer, not through grace. I’d stand at the communion rail praying for forgiveness for my inability to forgive, but even that didn’t feel like it moved me an inch forward.

I was banging my head against the same mental door over and over, trying to find the doorway to the next room, where I was sure I’d find the magic wand of forgiveness—one that would evaporate my anger and let me be the benevolent person I wanted to be instead of the small, stuck one I was.

 

As I tried to get settled in, one of the first churches I tried was Presbyterian, but I left mid-sermon as the pastor preached that we had a duty to try to convert our Jewish friends to Christianity because no matter how good they were as people, they couldn’t get into heaven without accepting Jesus into their hearts. By then, I’d met some Jews. The sermon wasn’t about theoretical people I had never encountered, it involved graduate school friends and acquaintances. Actual people who did not need to be fixed in accordance with this pastor’s narrow view of God. I wasn’t interested in a church that thought it offered the only path. I hadn’t grown up with this kind of sermon, and I certainly wasn’t going to embrace that kind of church as an adult.

Happily, I quickly found a better fit—a little United Methodist church where most of the women over 50 were named Helen and the pastor was not concerned with who’s in and who’s out. People were friendly and frankly happy to see a young adult. But getting involved in the workings of the church meant going to meetings—the last thing I wanted to do on nights off. I was already covering a city council, a school district, a port authority, a (yawn) water district, and (my favorite) a sanitary district board that had raised fighting with the water district to an art form. My 20s were slipping by as I sat through endless discussions of community policing, school budgets, and whether the water district was over billing the sanitary district, as calculated by a sanitary board member who spent an afternoon counting how many times a storage tank or something filled and emptied. The fact that this counted as an entertaining discussion was a testament to the depths of my boredom.

 

For volunteering commitments, I needed action, not talking. So I started teaching Sunday school to 4- to 6-year-olds, who, mercifully, did not have an opinion on the newspaper. It was my first introduction to what happens when young kids meet the concept of God. One day, the curriculum said to have them draw pictures of God, but to explain that God doesn’t have to look like a person. I dutifully explained that they could draw God as a tree or a flower or a rainbow—that he didn’t have to be an old man. The children blinked at me. Then every one of them drew a man with a white beard wearing a long robe. Five-year-olds are not that kind of abstract.

When Father’s Day rolled around and we started talking about dads, one of my students—one of a clutch of hardscrabble siblings—popped out with, “My dad’s in jail.”

“Oh,” I said. Before I could engage my brain, the reporter question popped out, “What did he do?”

I don’t know which one of us looked more horrified by my idiocy.

“Nothing!” he said.

As my human brain engaged—the one that knows better—I managed to recover with, “It’s OK. God loves people who are in trouble too.”

 

As I slogged through my days, enjoying the parts of reporting that let me ask questions of regular people, loving the writing, barely tolerating the meetings, trying not to drown in my loneliness, and being way too focused on when Max and Luna would finally kiss on “One Life to Live,” I kept wrestling with my anger.

One weekend afternoon, I went for a walk on the beach. Worn down by loneliness, sadness, and anger, I lifted my hands up to the sky, “Here, God, take this. It’s too much for me.” It was an out-of-character gesture—a desperate attempt to lift the weight of the world off my shoulders. After, I felt a little better, but not wonderful. Just slightly less heavy. Like I’d subtracted one of the smaller continents from my load.

One Saturday night, after I had been struggling for the better part of a year, I went to see the “Muppet Christmas Carol” movie. The combination of the impending holidays and the movie’s theme—sillified as it was, that story of how things were, are, and could be always affects me—had me right there wrestling with my inability to forgive even as I stopped by the grocery store on the way back to my apartment.

I stopped to peruse the herb teas. As my eyes settled on the Lipton’s Gentle Orange, Silent Night started to play over the store’s speakers. And I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of reassurance that my anger was OK, that I was free to struggle, that the promise of the baby Jesus—whose birth the song is about—was that I could be patient with myself. It wasn’t encouraging me to hate, but instead was giving me permission to keep working on it—to not worry that any given moment would be the freeze frame against which I’d be forever judged.

I’d been wrongheadedly looking for a magic wand that would change everything in an instant when what I really needed was patience with myself. I needed to give myself time to get where I wanted to be. It was the message I needed, in a language I understood, at a time when I’d exhausted my own ability to figure things out.

Afterward, I could remember the thoughts, but could never quite call up the feeling again. It was different from other memories. I couldn’t run my finger over it and re-experience the reassurance. It came and then was gone. But I was never stuck in the same way again. I’d been freed from the desire to find a magic answer and set on the path toward the more genuine, time-consuming one. It wasn’t a loud flash or a voice or anything that looked dramatic, just a comforting epiphany at an Albertsons supermarket on a drippy Oregon winter night. A moment of grace that allowed me to stop worrying about what I couldn’t muster and start moving toward compassion.

Who Comes to the Table?

After high school, as my own faith grew into something I claimed rather than simply inherited, I increasingly embraced Methodism’s world view.

My adult fafood-23453_1280ith began to take form one Sunday morning in the late 1980s when I went to Catholic mass with a friend from my Lutheran college and her dad. When it came time for communion, we all stayed in our seats. I already knew she and I weren’t allowed to go up. She was Lutheran like her mom, so both of us were Protestants. Catholic communion is only open to Catholics. But I was perplexed by why her dad remained seated. So later, I asked her. She responded that he wasn’t allowed because he’d divorced and remarried.

I was taken aback. For Christians, communion is a powerful symbol of God’s forgiveness. For most Protestants, it is one of only two sacraments—the other being baptism. In the Christian Bible, the first communion takes place the night before the Romans take Jesus away to kill him. He breaks bread and offers wine, saying to his disciples that the bread and wine represent his body and blood—the things he is allowing to be sacrificed to atone for his follwers’ sins. He instructs them to, “do this in remembrance of me.”

Different denominations interpret this moment differently, and I have a different relationship to it than when I was 19, but regardless, it remains a powerful ritual, all the more so in denominations like Methodism with few formal rituals.

In some churches, communion is limited to certain people, say, those who have been baptized or belong to that particular denomination. Or it can be closed to those who behave a certain way or fit a certain mold. Are you divorced? Sorry. Are you gay? This table isn’t for you.

But the churches that speak to my soul don’t take this approach. They don’t make the clergy gatekeepers between the congregants and God. And they don’t require you to be whole in some fundamental way that they have defined. They say “all are welcome at this table.” They understand that the people there have experienced life in all its complexity, and they say, “you are welcome here.” In a Christian context, this is what I most fundamentally believe. Jesus meant for all to come to this table. The grace it promises is there for the taking. And the bread and wine should be available to those who want to turn toward grace, not just those who have already turned toward it.

Before I went to Mass that day, I hadn’t thought much about the broad invitation Methodist ministers would extend before offering communion. After it, that kind of open communion became something I specifically looked for in a church, because it reflects what I most fundamentally did—and still do—believe about God. We are all loved; we are all welcome.

That viewpoint–that the tent should be open, the table set for all–has informed many of my subsequent choices about religious practice.

My Faith–The Beginning, Pt. 2

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My family was Presbyterian until the summer between my sixth- and seventh-grade years. My grade-school ears soaked up the Presbyterian message that God would forgive my sins. That we were all unworthy of that grace, but that God had sent Jesus to die in our place and we should be grateful, because we couldn’t ever be good enough to deserve that grace.

I listened hard. I couldn’t be perfect, but I at least wanted to try. I was a good girl. Approval is our drug—the harder to get, the better. But I also heard the message that God forgives us for not being perfect. Really heard it.

I believed. I loved how I felt in church. I was a shy bookworm whose best friends had a troubling habit of moving away at the end of the school year. I don’t know quite when I started to internalize it all, but at church I felt seen, understood, and reassured. God could see my inner rooms, and I was OK.

Sometime around fourth grade, I decided I’d better incorporate the Presbyterians’ weekly prayer of confession into my nightly bedtime prayers, just to be safe. That turned into a habit that continues to this day. After “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord to watch me while I sleep,” then the Lord’s Prayer, which is a prayer of praise and request for provisions and forgiveness, I still try to stumble my way through asking forgiveness for both what I’ve done and what I haven’t done before I fall into sleep. I hadn’t given it much thought until a few years ago, when a Methodist friend who grew up in an evangelical church mentioned having been put off by the “we’re not worthy”-ness of a similar prayer at a church she was visiting. I still say the prayer largely out of habit even though as an adult I think specificity about where I’m falling short is preferable to regular half-asleep confessions of unspecified wrongs.

The spring of my sixth grade year, the high school kids came home from a retreat. One by one they got up in front of the congregation to report on having been born again on the trip. It was the beginning of the 1980s, and fear of the kind of groupthink that led kids to join cults was in the air. As the kids all explained how they’d experienced Jesus in a new way on the retreat, my parents were concerned. This was not their style, and they were nonplussed by the idea of kids being peer pressured into claiming conversion experiences. Everyone in the same weekend. Really?

So by the time I hit seventh grade, we’d become Methodists—exchanging an imposing sanctuary ringed with tall stained glass windows for a contemporary, two-sanctuary church that met in a five-year-old building the Methodists shared with Congregationalists and Baptists. The sanctuary had the design sensibility of the mid-70s. Instead of stiff-backed pews, our new sanctuary had removable chairs and moveable platforms that allowed for mixing up the sanctuary layout every now and then.

Instead of being above the congregation, the Methodists’ organ was right down next to the platform with the pulpit, which gave an up-close view as the accounting professor who served as the organist played with a swaying verve that my musical teenage self envied. A grownup—a dad of kids about my age, no less(!)—was just plain enjoying the music he was making. I was an awkward young teenager in a restrained culture, and that kind of unapologetic public enthusiasm made an impression.

Also, the words from the pulpit were generally reassuring. Overall, the Methodists were much less focused on our unworthiness and much more focused on how happy we were to be loved and forgiven.

It wasn’t a giant shift in theology. Neither place tried to keep us in line with tales of the fiery pits of hell. We weren’t threatened with expulsion from the community. And we weren’t encouraged to feel like a private, closed-off club in sole possession of Truth with a capital T, aligned against the forces of evil outside the church walls. But the church change was a significant shift in tone—like one day we were hanging out with cats and the next we’d thrown in with the dogs. Both make fine companions, but one is way more obviously enthusiastic and way less worried.

My 12-year-old self was incensed that we weren’t sticking with the cats. I was unhappy about being uprooted from a church I liked, and I wasn’t about to change my ways. So I protested.

The Lord’s Prayer is said in one form or another in the vast majority of Christian churches. Versions of it appear in two of the Gospels—the four books of the Christian Bible that describe Jesus’ life and ministry. The prayer includes a line that different churches translate differently. Our Presbyterian congregation said it as, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In some cases, it is prayed as, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” For years, when the Methodists recited “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I murmured “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” under my breath, just to make sure everyone knew I was unhappy about the church switch.

By “for years,” I mean until I was almost 40 and hadn’t thought about why I was mumbling in many, many years. And by “everyone knew I was unhappy,” I mean I actually told my parents about my little protest when I was 44. And we all had a good laugh over what a pathetic rebel I was.

During junior high and high school, my Wednesday nights were a progression of church choir practice, dinner at church, then confirmation class or youth group. I was an alto, but my friends were sopranos and tenors so I’d sit between those two sections and sing whichever part my voice could reach.

Most Sunday mornings involved church. Despite my initial resistance to changing churches, I made friends who went to different junior high schools than I did, which helped me through a period when I was socially adrift at school. I’d had best friends move away at the ends of fourth and sixth grade. I was too shy to blithely shift social groups, and the friends I made at church made junior high a titch less miserable.

Finding comfort in two religions

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Last Friday, I stood at the back of a fishing boat and sang two songs into the wake.

We had just had a memorial service for a family member—the second in a month.  Both cousins, on my husband’s side.

The three children on the boat were doing laps around the deck, and I had positioned myself in the one place where no other adult eyes could reach.

The family sadness.  The world’s violence and pain and fear. The weight of this chaotic summer was on me, and I reached for comfort in two languages of prayer.

The songs I sing for comfort reflect the duality of my experience. One is Jewish, primarily in Hebrew; the other Christian. And yet, both have the power to soothe me.

Here they are (with links):

The Mi Shebeirach healing prayer sung by Debbie Friedman

Balm in Gilead sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock

So now, your turn. Where do you find comfort?

My Faith—the Beginning, Pt. 1

I grew up in a homogeneous culture in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota.

After four years at a small Lutheran college and one year at a small newspaper, I went off to journalism school in Chicago. One day, a professor asked my urban reporting class whether our high schools were integrated. A friend who grew up in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, 25 miles from me, quipped, “Yes! They let the Norwegians and the Germans sit next to each other.”

Religious diversity in those parts meant a mix of Catholics and Lutherans. A really diverse crowd would include some non-Lutheran Protestants—meaning Methodists like me. I knew a few kids who didn’t go to any church, but most of us spent Sunday mornings dressed up and squirming in the pews, waiting for the moment when the children’s sermon would start and we could get up. Once we were summoned, we’d go up front to sit on the floor for a few minutes of ministerial storytelling. Immediately after that, we’d be sent off to Sunday school, where at least they had crayons.

I believe there was only one Jewish family in my high school when I went there. I have missed my past two high school reunions because they were scheduled during Rosh Hashanah—a detail I haven’t even bothered to complain about because as far as I know it affects  precisely two members of my high school class: me and my high school sweetheart–the two Methodists who have Jewish families. This year, if I fly home the morning after the reunion, I’ll make it home just in time for Rosh Hashanah dinner.

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In my earliest religious memory, I am roaming my house singing “I’m No Kin to the Monkey,” which I learned at friends’ Baptist vacation Bible school. Despite an ear bending from my horrified uncle, my parents took the long view. Mainline Protestants have no quibble with science on this point, and my parents grasped something my uncle did not: I had no idea what the song was really about. In fact, I was singing it for several fine non-scientific reasons. Namely: a) It was about monkeys; b) it was catchy; c) it was about monkeys; d) it said teachers who said I was kin to the monkey belonged in a zoo(!); and e) it was about monkeys. Seriously. What more could a 6-year-old ask for?

My mother grew up Presbyterian, and my father grew up Methodist, both mainline Protestant denominations, but with some important theological and tonal differences.

The idea that life is a test that determines whether you get into heaven permeates Christian preaching and worship. Is the path to salvation a narrow ladder spanning a crevasse or a wide thoroughfare with the doors at the end flung wide? The answer given by any particular denomination informs everything about how Christianity is practiced within the walls of its churches. It determines whether congregants are scolded or exhorted, and whether hell is something concrete to fear or is largely ignored in favor of a vision of a forgiving God. The former tends toward heavy use of shame and fear, the latter can fail to grapple with the real evil that exists in the world.

What are the terms of God’s forgiveness of human sin? Christians give widely different answers to that question, but the question itself remains the basis for conversation about faith. Whether you are a southern Baptist or the most liberal of Protestants, you recognize this as being what the religious conversation is about. Not that you talk about it all the time in worship. If forgiveness is there for the taking and offered to all—not just Christians and not exclusively through Jesus—you’ll certainly talk about grace a lot, but you don’t need to talk about being fallen every week. Whether spoken or unspoken, “who does God forgive” and “are any strings attached” are the central questions of Christianity. How any one Christian answers points them in the direction of a particular form of practice.

This is a fundamental difference from Judaism. Obviously Jesus is not part of the Jewish discussion about sin and forgiveness. But the very question that Christianity swirls around is Judaism’s main theme once a year—during the High Holidays. Traditionally, Jews spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year—assessing their sins and apologizing to people they’ve wronged. Eight days later, Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—arrives. This is a day of fasting to atone to God for sins against God. The services between Kol Nidre, the haunting evening service at the start of the holy day, and the break fast at sundown the next day are focused on sin in a way that most Jewish services are not.

The terms of the larger discussion, the day-in, day-out understanding of the meaning of faith, are built on different rocks. Even though Jewish and Christian scriptures overlap and the teachings sometimes share a sensibility, the terms of the discussion about what religion means are different in such fundamental ways that a person who thinks they know what it is to be religious from a Christian standpoint can be startled as they learn to worship Jewishly.