I had a very interesting lunch this week. I had been asked to speak at a local Jewish Temple. The Rabbi hosts a weekly lunch meeting designed to inform and explore key issues of faith and culture. The Rabbi is a friend who is interested in our leadership institute here at Belmont and so he asked me to join the group for an hour or so of friendly dialogue. Imagine the scene… Jon the Baptist taking questions from 35 Jewish congregants. For over an hour we spoke about matters of faith. We talked about the common ground between our faith traditions and the places where the divide is rather large. My friend the Rabbi did a nice job in creating a safe and rational conversation. And yes he asked the $64,000 question… “Do you as a Christian think that Jews are going to heaven?” At the end of the day the group thanked me for my candor and carefully nuanced responses. (I also discovered that delicious food is not exclusive to Baptist life!)
Face to face conversations are important. It’s always different when we talk to people instead of choosing to talk about people. My discovery through the years is that being in the same room, sharing the same space, and insisting on civil and respectful dialogue is critically important to healing wounds, mending fences, and finding ways to co-exist. Whenever we can personalize our thoughts and opinions with real flesh and blood it becomes so much harder to stereotype, condemn, and misunderstand. Having the opportunity to speak, to listen, and to think with each other creates an atmosphere where the distances are spanned and the misunderstandings are clarified. The problem is that such conversations are rare. In fact, there must be an intentionality to such gatherings or they will not happen at all.
One of the questions that I was asked was this, “How old were you before you met and spoke with a member of the Jewish faith?” I responded by saying that “I had met Jesus at an early age and I was pretty sure He was a Jew.” But after the polite giggle subsided among the audience members, I had to answer the question with a real response. Growing up in the very sheltered world of the Bible Belt, I was probably a teenager before I first met someone who was non-Christian. In those days, I was worried about talking to Methodists and Presbyterians! Jewish people were not even on the radar. It’s just human nature for us to gather around the stack pole of common belief, faith, and experience. It is also a very sheltered and limited perspective on life. We need to recognize the diversity all around us and rather than fear those whose societal, spiritual, and cultural DNA is so different from that of our own, we need to discover ways to learn, to grow, and to befriend.
It has taken over half a century for me to develop a strong enough relationship with a Jewish rabbi for him to call me a friend. That’s not because of a lack of willingness on his part… it’s because of a lack of intentionality on mine.