I attended two Passover Seders last week.  One I led for a large group of New Mexican church-going Christians.  The other was in the Reinvent Puzzle Pieces Word Redo Restart Innovate 3d Illustratiohome of my Jewish kid brother and our religiously, ethnically diverse gathering of family and friends.  The first one was designed to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus.  The second one was designed to raise issues of societal injustice.  Both relevant emphases for a Seder.

Even with their different focus and attendees, I was reminded of the meta message of a Seder.  Any religion worth its salt must re-invent itself from time to time.

The Passover Seder as we know it now didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.  Jewish as he was, he wouldn’t have eaten charoses mixed with horseradish sandwiched between 2 pieces of matzah.  He wouldn’t have invited the youngest disciple to chant 4 questions.   He definitely wouldn’t have hidden an afikomen.

Here’s what he would have done:  recited blessings over a paschal lamb.  Blessed matzah and wine.  Sung hymns.  Most of which is noted in the various accounts of the Last Supper or Seder.

Why the difference?  When Jesus was alive, the Temple still stood.  That meant that the Jewish form of worship was sacrifice-centric.  Leviticus 23 gives ancient instructions on how to observe these holy days.

Less than 40 years later after Jesus died and was resurrected, that whole system of sacrifices was gone, destroyed along with the Temple.  Judaism had to reinvent itself—in a hurry.  And it was the Pharisees to whom that task fell.

Of the 4 parties that existed at Jesus’ time—Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes—only the Pharisees survived much beyond the fall of Jerusalem.  Sadducees, whose members were tasked with Temple duties, disappeared—their services no longer needed.  Zealots, with their penchant for stirring up trouble, are credited by historians for hastening the destruction of the holy city.  Their remains were scattered among the charred rubble of Jerusalem. Essenes, who didn’t believe much in reproduction, simply died out.  That left the Pharisees.  It was their creative intellectual, theological and ethical genius from which Rabbinic Judaism sprang. Rabbinic Judaism provided the template from which today’s many Judaisms have flowered.

The Pharisaical emphasis on right action rather than right belief, and their ability to thrive under oppressive circumstances served them well on many accounts.  Especially when it came to their biggest project yet–reinventing Judaism in the face of a world that no longer existed, and a religious system that could no longer function.  Once the sacrificial system was gone, they figured out how Judaism might live on.  They reinvented religion—while holding the core of it in place—one God, and a people dedicated to the service of that God.

Judaism is famous for reinventing itself over the millennia.  But they are not the only ones.

At many critical junctures, Christianity has had to do the same. When Jesus didn’t return right away—Christianity had to take a new path without a living leader. When Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the dominant religion of the Empire–it again reinvented itself.  And once again at the behest of Martin Luther’s demand for transparency and accountability. Each church split has signaled a kind of reinvention.

We’re not done reinventing ourselves, either.  Twisted experiences from the Crusades and frontier America have caused most churches to drop coercive evangelism. We have re-invented the way we read scripture. Most Protestant denominations now welcome divorced people, female leadership and women clergy.  We haven’t worried about wearing mixed fibers for a long time.

Even as our structures and hermeneutics have changed, so have our ecclesiologies. We have already begun moving away from a clergy- and cathedral-centric expression of faith. Trained laity, house churches, experimental missional and other “weird” faith communities are taking root.

While our central tenets remain the same—and people of good faith will disagree about which tenets belong in this list, but here’s mine—God is love; Jesus Christ is God incarnate; The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; We are Kingdom people—the way we live those out has changed radically. Rather than see these changes as a weakening of the faith or unholy compromises with culture, perhaps its time to see them as part of the natural evolution of a religion that has staying power.

After all, reinventing religion is the very process by which Christianity arose. As I demonstrate in The Jew Named Jesus, Jesus was a Jew through and through. That means the religion of Jesus was Judaism. The religion about Jesus, however, is Christianity. It will be interesting to see how this process of reinvention continues to evolve as we meet the realities of a changing world, expanded knowledge, and unfolding opportunities.

 

 

This week we celebrate the miracle around which Christian life revolves: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It makes me wonder if we jewish jesusare truly ready to embrace a Jewish Jesus.

Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly. In too many sermons, commentaries, and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion, and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:

“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”

Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counseled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, I suggest it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice, and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.

Think about it. If Jesus was fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from? If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets, and kings that preceded and surrounded him. Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing, and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.

More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile. Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.

If we were to truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus, it would take a renewed scholarship among preachers, prayers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. It would take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. Not easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help, many of which I note in my book The Jew Named Jesus. It’s worth the effort. We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized.

This historic reconciliation points out an underlying truth: it hasn’t always been good between Christians and Jews. A long history of Christian teaching of “contempt of the Jews” made positive interfaith relations all but impossible for centuries. After hitting a theological bottom in the Holocaust, though, the church has intentionally hammered out new theologies and reached for new understandings that allow for love, acceptance, and embrace of Jews.   In response, Jews have done the hard work of forgiving and rapprochement too.

All of this brings us to the point where we can ask the question: Can we truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus? In good Jewish fashion, I assert that even the question is a good one.

It leads to all kinds of other interesting questions. If Judaism and Christianity could hammer out a new relationship, is the same possible for Christianity and Islam? If we could, should we?

The truth is, the work has begun. And it’s been initiated by Muslims. In 2007, 138 Muslim clerics and scholars representing every branch of Islam sent a beautifully worded and carefully researched letter to Christian leaders. This letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” stated that as the two largest world religions, the peace of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.It used as its reference point the Hebrew Bible teachings of love of God and neighbor, saying they were common to both Islam and Christianity.

We have the opportunity to turn a new page.   To restore and revamp our understandings of Jesus and Judaism. And to open our hearts to new understandings of our Muslim neighbors. What a great start to the Easter season this would be.

They’re risky moves for sure. Especially in an age of nationalism, terrorism, and blame-game politics. But isn’t that when the resurrection is needed most?

 

Flying the Coop

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  April 4, 2017 — 8 Comments

fly the coopAs we approach Easter Sunday, I have some rather personal good news to share with you.  Rebekah Simon-Peter Coaching and Consulting Inc. is flying the coop!  Let me explain.

Ten years ago, after having served 3 United Methodist congregations, I completed my call to local church ministry.  With God’s help and my husband’s affirmation, I launched BridgeWorks on January 1, 2007.  As the name suggests, this extension ministry was designed to be a national teaching ministry that built bridges of understanding and shaped larger conversations in the church.

I started by offering creation care workshops, and helped people make the connection between science and scripture.  My books, Green Church:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice! and 7 Simple Steps to Green Your Church, came out in 2010.  At the same time, I developed workshops along the theme of Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.  In 2013, my book The Jew Named Jesus:  Discover the Man and His Message came out.  I traveled all over the Rocky Mountain west and points beyond, leading workshops and retreats, giving keynotes, and sitting on panels.  People were hungry to learn more.

I sensed another hunger too.  The desire for the church to thrive once again, to find its way.

Since 2011 I have been intensively developing a program called Creating a Culture of Renewal.  It’s a 3-year process that’s designed to interrupt church decline and increase church vitality.  Based in emotional intelligence, it’s coupled with the power of vision.  And it works!  I have since written 3 workbooks that support the process.   More travel, more workshops and retreats, my blog carried on Ministry Matters, and now weekly webinars and coaching.

In January 2016, I changed the name of my enterprise to Rebekah Simon-Peter Coaching and Consulting Inc.  My work now focuses on transforming church leaders and the congregations they serve.

At a time when church life is somewhat tenuous, it’s an honor to be thriving. It says to me that these conversations matter.  People care about connecting larger ideas with daily faith.  People care about getting along.  Mostly people care about the Kingdom, about Jesus and his love.  They don’t want to see his message die out.

For most of the last 10 years, my office has been a spare bedroom in our home.    Soon after the talented and hard-working Ann Miller came on board, we expanded to two spare bedrooms.  When my husband Jerry got laid off one year ago, he got creative.  He started his own ministry venture, Hope Investments, and the dining room table became his office.  Overflow got stored in the garage and a spare bathroom.  There’s not much of the house left!  We are bulging at the seams.

Later this month, we’ll be moving to a suite of new offices in downtown Casper.  Details forthcoming.  I couldn’t be more excited.  At the same time, we continue to train new faculty to co-lead Culture of Renewal groups.  We’re spreading from 12-person cohorts in Wyoming to New Mexico to North Carolina to New England to Iowa! I’m also working on some new leadership books.  It’s really fun to be part of something that is growing and gaining steam.

I am filled with thanks to God, for sure.  Nothing happens without Divine Guidance.  But I’m equally thankful for you. I know that without you I wouldn’t be able to live out my calling.  So, thanks for reading my books, hosting and attending workshops, joining groups, launching cohorts, trying something new!  Most of all, thanks for engaging in new conversations with us.  It has been a grand adventure so far.

We’ve come this far together.  Would you go the next step with us?  We’d love your feedback on the Infographic we are developing.  We want it to tell the story of Creating a Culture of Renewal at a glance.  We’re in the first stages of design.  Tell us what you like about it and what you don’t.

Happy Easter!  Happy Spring!  And here’s to renewal–at every level.

EQ of the Heart

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  March 27, 2017 — 1 Comment

When I teach emotional intelligence or EQ, I empower people to communicate in ways that bring out the best in those who frustrate heartthem the most.   But studies show that emotional intelligence goes much deeper than what we say or don’t say.  It’s more fundamental than how we hold our bodies or what we telegraph with our faces.  It turns out that EQ is coded into our cells and hardwired into our bodies.  Our hearts are at the center of this.

This is good news for churches.  It gives us yet one more way to help people connect the life of faith with faith in life.  And to expand the loving, peaceable Kingdom of God!

Scripture tells us that we are wonderfully and fearfully made.  A sense of wonder and awe is woven into our very beings.  Science is now revealing that the heart is at the center of this wonder and awe.

HeartMath Institute has been studying the heart and its rhythms for decades.  It turns out that the rhythm the heart beats is directly correlated to positive or negative feelings.  Negative feelings like frustration, anxiety, irritation and anger are correlated with ragged or jagged rhythms.  They lead to illness, emotional upset and other unsettled ways of being. Positive feelings like peace, contentment, compassion and joy are correlated with smooth, ordered, coherent rhythms.  The more coherent the heart rhythms, the more coherent the messages that are sent to the brain, the nervous systems and every other cell in the body. Coherent heart rhythms lead to clear thinking, unexpected problem solving and improved health.

A heart full of love and compassion, joy and peace has measurable impacts beyond that. Our hearts have a large electromagnetic field around them.  We can radiate distinct energies to the people, and pets, around us.  They pick up on these vibrations, which in turn, affects their heart’s coherence.

There is even evidence that our own individual coherence can impact the electromagnetic fields of the earth.  That our love can encircle the globe and create a peace that others can tap into. The bottom line is this:  It all starts within our own hearts.  Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said the Kingdom of God is within.

Loving God, neighbor and especially our own selves makes a difference.  And it’s never been more important.  This love impacts our spiritual well-being, our physical health, our key relationships.  It also impacts our neighborhoods, our societies, and the creation itself.  It contributes to a positive resiliency in the collective consciousness of the world.  It creates coherence in times of chaos.

This is affirmation for people of faith.  Here’s what it means:  The prayers we pray, the love we radiate, and the intentions we form have a real and lasting impact.  The actions we take that are grounded in love and compassion multiply.  The kindness we show to one another creates a measurable good.  Let us not grow weary in well-doing, church.  Let us craft bold visions of compassion and care that make manifest the love in our hearts.  The Kingdom is near indeed.

The God Whisperer

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  March 6, 2017 — 1 Comment

Of all the roles a pastor plays—teacher, preacher, prophet, counselor, visionary, fundraiser, custodian, PR person, administrator, godspeaking2cheerleader, event planner—my favorite is God Whisperer.

You remember the Horse Whisperer movie. An unusual horse trainer, played by Robert Redford, was gifted at calming a spooked and traumatized horse. He gently got inside the animal’s head and heart and helped it become whole again. Since then, we’ve been introduced to dog whisperers, ghost whisperers and even whisperers of the walking dead. None of that is as exciting as being a God Whisperer, though.

As God Whisperers, our role is a bit different. We are called to develop sensitivity to the way God works and communicate that to others. I don’t want to sound arrogant here—like pastors are the only ones who can or do. That’s not the case at all. But since we are called to function that way, we might as well be ready!

I don’t know if it’s my Jewish background that lends itself so nicely to God wrestling, and trying to interpret what God is up to. Or if it’s my (nominal) background in the martial arts. But I remember thinking as a pastor, “I can’t believe I get paid to work on my relationship with God! Does it get any better than that?” God wrestling and God whispering have always been my passions.

At the heart of God Whispering is a strong and vital connection to one’s own spirit and spirituality. We can’t teach what we don’t know. We can’t lead others where we haven’t gone. We can’t whisper what we haven’t heard.

But sometimes we get so busy working for God that we neglect paying attention to God. That doesn’t cut it for God Whisperers. As Chief congregational God Whisperers, it’s our responsibility to stay as tuned in to our own souls as possible. Like any relationship, the one we have with God needs time, attention, an openness to intimacy and surprise. We have to be willing to let go of control, say we don’t know, and let the other take the lead. Only after that can we help others develop their own connection with God.

Our people can tell when we’re out of touch with the Divine.   Worship is uninspired, dry. Church life is same old-same old. Preaching and teaching covers well-trod ground. Even administration can get wonky. If we’re going through the motions, guess who else will be?

When we are in sync with the movement of God, though, we give off a different vibe. We find courage to be grounded in chaotic times. We have the humility to be both pastoral and prophetic. We have the confidence to question, and to lead in new directions. We are able to distinguish the voice of God from competing voices

Let these 3 questions help you deepen your own quest.

  1. What is something new you’ve learned about God?
  2. What is something new you have learned about yourself in relationship to God?
  3. What can you share authentically about #1 and #2 with your people?

You might think these are impertinent questions. But if God is infinite and we, in our physical bodies, are finite, then there is always something new to learn about God. Not only that, the deeper we go in our walk with God, the more we listen for the whispers of God, the more we learn about ourselves. Our people too are eager to learn something new. Yes, they want to be loved, accepted, understood and appreciated AS THEY ARE. But I think they want more than that. Being authentic with your people keeps you humble, keeps them interested, and fine tunes the ability to whisper God’s message to others.

What’s God whispering to you these days? I’d love to hear about it. So would your people. Do tell!