Sunday, October 28, 2012

Messianic Judiasm Review

The next religious institution my Room Mate and I visited on our Steeple Chase was a Messianic Jewish church. The basic concept of this type of church is that Christianity should be much more Jewish than is common and the Torah (the laws of the Old Testament) should be respected - they were never abolished. So, they basically try to create a Jewish synagogue, with the exception that Jesus is acknowledged as the Messiah.

We could only find one Messianic church in our city, so we picked a day to go. Best Friend wanted to go with us, so we were three.

I didn't have too much apprehension about going to this church because I had already been schooled in Messianic thinking for some time from books I had read and from Messianic friends. I had also attended a 10-week video course called "The Jewish Roots of Christianity" by HaYesod. But I was still curious to attend for myself, to see what it looked and felt like.

We arrived right at 9 AM to a 3-building complex (they have their own day school) and entered through the main doors where we were warmly greeted. We confessed that this was our first time and was there anything we should or shouldn't do in order not to stick out like sore thumbs. We were assured that everything would be fine, and they explained a little bit about what would happen during the service.

We entered a large, modern sanctuary with a high vaulted ceiling in the middle. We made our way about half way up and sat on the edge. Soon after, a flamboyant woman came and introduced herself, asked if she could sit with us, then then sat down in between us! That was weird. Oh well, she was nice. The sanctuary was about one-third full at the start, maybe around 150 people, and grew to about 250 over the first hour. All ages were represented, mainly white. A few men were wearing yamakas and some men and women were wearing prayer shawls.

There was lots of music. A lively band kept things moving. The band included an electric violin, which gave it a "Jewish" feel. Words were displayed on two screens at the front so it was easy to sing along. There was also a lot of prayers and scripture reading, which were displayed on the screens as well.

One of the interesting things about the singing, scriptures, and prayers was that sometimes they were in English and sometimes in Hebrew, a balance of both. The Hebrew pronunciation was always spelled out in English which was fairly easy to read or sing along with.

Another cool thing was dancing. Much of the music had a Jewish feel to it, as I mentioned, and the young ladies would go to the front corner of the sanctuary and form a dance circle. It was really fun to watch, and was not suggestive in any way. Once in a while an older man or woman would join them. It added to the sense of life and joy which permeated the whole service.

A high point of the service was when they brought the Torah scroll out of its shrine at the front and paraded it around the sanctuary. In-Between-Lady explained to us that "the Torah is the foundation of all scripture." As the Torah passed by we touched it with our Bible (or something else, like a scarf), and then kissed our Bible. This was a way to show reverence to the Torah.

At another point in the service all the congregation was invited to come stand under a makeshift tent in the front, symbolizing the tabernacle, and the Pastor prayed a blessing over us.

The sermon was thoughtful and had a lot of scripture teaching; but it was long... 45 minutes, bringing the whole service to a conclusion at 11:30.  With the total length of the service at 2 1/2 hours I and Room Mate each got up once to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs, and I stood in back for awhile.

After the service In-Between-Lady talked our ears off for about 15 minutes until I finally said I had to leave to get ready for work. (It wasn't true, but I was literally starving, not having eaten anything yet that day!)

Upon reflection, I would recommend this church to any Christian who wanted to consider taking the Torah seriously in their life; or to any Jew who wanted a church that felt familiar, and yet was open to looking at the Jesus-as-Messiah proposition. It appeared to be a good, solid, well-run, joyful and alive church.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Buddhist Review

The fifth religious institution my Room Mate and I went to on our steeple chase was Buddhist.

There is a Japanese Lady at work who does the laundry. She is very sweet and often gives me food. Can't argue with that! She is also a Buddhist. Not knowing that I and Room Mate were on this steeple chase she began giving me Buddhist literature - magazines, newspapers, etc. At one point she mentioned they have a meeting on Wednesday nights where newcomers were welcome. I talked to Room Mate and we agreed it would be worth the experience, even though I had nerves about attending something so UN-Christian. This would be the farthest from mainstream that we had ventured on our steeple chase.

Surprisingly, my Best Friend caught wind of our steeple chase and decided he wanted to get in on the action. Best Friend is a life-long evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, and I did not think he would be interested in this venture. He is an evangelist at heart and maybe this was a way for him to get an inside look at another religion so he would be better able to witness to them in the future?

Japanese Lady told us all to meet at the K-Mart parking lot and then we would carpool from there. Room Mate was the first of the three of us to arrive and while he was waiting for us he was accosted (in a very friendly way) by Japanese Lady's friend who had also come (Other Woman). She told him how excited she was about us coming because they need more men in the group. She told him how much Buddhism had meant to her and her life.

Best Friend and I arrived and we got in our cars and drove down the boulevard for about a mile before pulling into a plaza, like a strip mall. Certainly wasn't the ornate temple I was expecting. We walked in to what was like a storefront and inside it was a plain space with white walls and red carpeting. A small entrance way opened up into a long rectangular room with folding chairs in rows to about half way back. At the front on the stage there was something encased like a shrine.

We were some of the first people there, and it seemed to be very disorganized. There were some technical issues with a video or something. There was one guy who seemed to be in charge (Guy in Charge) who had a wife who was actively bustling about as well. Eventually things began and the three of us were allowed to tell why we were there. Then we did some short readings out of meditation books. They let us do some of the readings.

Each of us had a Buddhist mentor sit next to us to help us through things. I had Japanese Lady. Best Friend had Guy in Charge. And Room Mate had a lovely young woman. (sly)

Then we got down to the main event.... chanting. The guru who started this branch of Buddhism several hundred years ago taught that by chanting the Chinese name of the Lotus Sutra (Nam Myoho Renge Kyo) a person's spirit could become aligned with the universe and good things would happen. He had also selected two chapters from the Lotus Sutra that he deemed worthy of being chanted as well. (He believed that the Lotus Sutra was the highest expression of Buddhist wisdom and enlightenment ever.)

We started for about 5-10 minutes chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" over and over and over and over again. Guy in Charge's wife was leading the chanting and was seated on the stage with her back to us, facing the shrine thing. At first it felt awkward to be repeating these syllables over and over. However, the group found its rhythm and began accenting the first syllable, "Nam," with a higher tone and more volume, so it became somewhat sing-songy.

Then we switched gears and chanted the two special chapters from the Lotus Sutra. Everyone had books to read from, and there were English syllables written under each Chinese word. We chanted page after page of these chinese words which said who knows what. Most people there did not understand Chinese either, but that didn't seem to matter. Just by chanting the words the vibrations will go out into the universe and good will result.

After we were done chanting there was some interaction with us newcomers. Best Friend made some joke about this is what it feels like to be evangelized, since Guy in Charge had been very involved in helping him through this experience. Then there was a bunch of talk about a video. Apparently, the problem with the video system that was being discussed in the beginning was that the DVD itself was missing, and now there was further discussion about where it could be. The DVD was to give us an introduction to this particular branch of Buddhism. Since the DVD could not be found we all relocated to the back end of the rectangular room and sat in a circle of chairs facing each other. By this time a few more people had come and all told there might have been about 15-20 of us. There was quite a mixture of races and ages.

The conversation was a mixture of us rookies asking questions, and the regulars telling about how much this chanting practice had improved their lives. Best Friend said, "So let me get this straight... there's no God?" He was assured this was correct, and that as adults we are responsible for our own lives.

It was a lively discussion, and at different times various regulars monopolized the conversation and there was a struggle for group control. (Odd for Buddhists?) Guy in Charge generally had the final word about what we were doing, although he sat next to a guy who knew a lot of the details of the history of this sect, and deferred to him several times to explain one or another of our questions in greater detail than any of us wanted, or understood. The overall theme, whatever the question or confusion, was, "Just try it." Try chanting every day and you will see the good things start to happen. Verify it for yourself. One lady was honest enough to say that she had been following this path for a year and was still waiting to see the good stuff come.

Then the meeting broke up and we newcomers were accosted (in a friendly way) by various people thanking us for coming, asking if we would be coming again, piling us up with literature. Me and Room Mate stepped into the small book store for a minute and looked around.

Outside on the sidewalk Other Woman started talking to me about how great this all was, and how much it had helped her. She had been a Hindu, but had difficulties with the caste system. She liked the fact that Buddhism held everyone in the same regard. She also said that I had a "Buddha spirit." I always knew I was holy, but having the Buddha spirit?? woo hoo

After several minutes of Japanese Lady and Other Woman doing their best to get us to promise to come again we all got in our cars and left. In the car we discussed how surprised we were that they were so evangelistic in their approach. Best Friend said, "When they said there was no God, I knew right then they were on the wrong path." (By the way, about a month later he gave me a Christian pamphlet to give to Japanese Lady. I couldn't bring myself to do it, as it was loaded with scripture and would only hold weight with someone who already believed the Bible was the Word of God.)

I'm glad I went. It was an interesting experience. But the whole notion of chanting syllables that you don't understand in order to align yourself with the universe strikes me as just plain wacky!