Fathom Mag

Bridges will change the landscape of the church.

It’ll take work to cross the chasms that divide us.

Published on:
September 20, 2021
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5 min.
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The 4.1-mile Sunshine Skyway Bridge spans part of Lower Tampa Bay, linking the central Florida Gulf Coast cities of Bradenton and St. Petersburg. The long approach to the bridge slingshots vehicles directly into a steep climb to the top of the cable-stayed structure before they descend again, the highway skimming over the water to the other shore. Without the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a half-hour trip across the bay would become a two-hour ordeal. Bridges traverse impossible chasms. They make connection possible. 

I’ve lived suspended in midair between Jewish and Christian communities. Where better to learn to build a bridge? 

As a Jewish follower of Jesus living and worshipping in majority-Gentile settings, I am often the only Jewish person many of my fellow church members have ever known.

Living in the Chasm

As a Jewish follower of Jesus living and worshipping in majority-Gentile settings, I am often the only Jewish person many of my fellow church members have ever known. And I’ve heard from some Bible-reading Christians a remarkable array of thoughtless anti-Semitic sentiments. Only slightly less uncomfortable, but certainly more well-meaning, are the awkward attempts at ally-ship rooted in variations on statements like “My accountant—or doctor or best friend in seventh grade was Jewish.” To survive in the church, I grew thick skin. New layers and calluses developed as I raised rebuttals to ideas like the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan and the “prophetic timetable” obsession thriving in some circles that links the modern state of Israel’s existence with Christ’s return.

My husband has Jewish roots as well, and early in our marriage, the two of us would wonder, “Where are the people who can help these misinformed brothers and sisters better understand the Jewish foundations of their faith—and teach them how to better relate to their Jewish accountant as well?” We should have known that asking a question like that often meant God would invite us to be part of the answer to our own prayer. We would be part of the construction team building the bridge we longed to see. Our place and our prayers started a long enrollment in the school of bridge-building. 

The Hard Work of Building Bridges

Bill and I found ourselves teaching and writing about some of the topics that were keeping the Jew-Gentile chasm uncrossable. As we utilized our tools, I began to understand why building bridges can be such painstaking work. It takes time to chisel away at deeply-held prejudices. It takes persistence to dig through the swamp of poor theology to find solid ground on which to sink a foundational pier or two. And diplomatic efforts are required to create a measure of cooperation from communities on both sides of a chasm.

We’ve encountered pain and mistrust of our Jewish friends, especially toward those who bear the name “Christian.” We understand that pain—history is filled with the horrors of terrible things done to my people in the name of Christ. I carry that trauma in the marrow of my bones too. Members of the Jewish community have spat the word “traitor” at me because of my faith in Jesus. When I hear someone try to describe me as a “convert” it feels like a gut punch. Jesus the Jewish Messiah didn’t cancel my Jewishness, instead, he brought it to life. I live with the awareness that in Hitler’s Germany, my profession of faith in Jesus would not have saved me from concentration camp ovens. My bloodline would have sent me to a likely death. “Conversion” feels like the wrong word altogether. 

We’ve found hostility on the other side of the divide, too. My early years as a follower of Jesus were spent in fundamentalist and charismatic circles, and efforts at interfaith dialogue were characterized by many as weak, humanist efforts because there was no evangelism or altar call on the agenda. 

Dialogue may create a structure, but love is the way we can cross the bridge.

In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate the way interfaith efforts serve to humanize the other. Over the years, interfaith events have given me a chance to gain some essential bridge-building tools including learning more information, growing in empathy, and finding a place to ask questions and listen instead of being ready with rapid-fire evangelistic answers.   

But true bridge-building requires more than a good set of tools. 

How We Cross the Bridge

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted that dialogue (or, in this usage, dialogic) is not enough to build a bridge: “Dialogic is not to be identified with love. But love without dialogic, without real outgoing to the other, reaching to the other, the love remaining with itself—this is called Lucifer.”

After the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre that took eleven lives in 2018, my husband and I attended an interfaith memorial service at a local synagogue. As I sat in the crowded room, praying familiar Hebrew prayers, and offering my amens to the words of consolation and support showed by the Christian clergy, I was reminded that weeping with those who weep creates a span across a chasm in a way that dialogue alone cannot. Dialogue may create a structure, but love is the way we can cross the bridge.  

Buber observed that “love remaining with itself” is the selfishness that is a character trait of the enemy of our souls. This selfishness is at the root of the temptation to remain cloistered with those who are just like us, comfortable and isolated on our side of the chasm. Certainly, we all long to experience the comfort of being among people who know our name and are always glad we came, but we live in the tension that the ministry of reconciliation exists in the space between two worlds. 

I am home and not at home in the church. I am home and not at home among the Jewish community. It can be lonely and a little scary traveling back and forth on a bridge that’s always under construction, feeling like an exile, and learning to live like a pilgrim. My heart is always longing for home. It’s love that will help me find it. 

The Expert Bridge Builder

Jesus indeed changed the landscape.

Before Jesus stepped into public ministry, John the Baptizer readied his hearers for him by quoting a Messianic promise found in Isaiah: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.” The promise is a description of a changed landscape, where chasms will disappear. 

Jesus indeed changed the landscape. During his earthly ministry, he built bridges, paving them with his self-giving love to those living outside the community through sin or disease or brokenness, then walked back over them again to confront the cloistered clutch of religious elites living on the other side of the chasm. He said of his ministry, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He wasn’t looking for a home on one side or the other, but instead, he was creating a new community of bridge-builders among his followers. 

Today, we find ourselves living in a time when the canyons dividing us seem bottomless, and the temptation to bunker on the shore with those of like minds promises security and stability. It’s scary and sometimes lonely stepping into an abyss in order to build on faith across the chasm. But every time I reach the apex point of the Sunshine Skyway and catch a glimpse of the breathtaking views of both shores, I am reminded that I can see home most clearly from there.  

Michelle Van Loon
Michelle Van Loon is the author of five books, including her most recent works, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality, Born To Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity, and Moments and Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. She blogs at michellevanloon.com and theperennialgen.com.

Cover image by Chris Briggs.

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