Believing in What's-His-Name

"The reason you believe in what's-his-name," my father said in his familiar German accent, "is that you want to avoid persecution."

I looked at him without saying a word. For four hundred years our family had lived in the German region of Westphalia, but the tragedy of the Holocaust disrupted, shall we say, our historical continuity. Put starkly, my father lost everything. He was born in Hamburg from whose port he was destined to narrowly escape from the S.S. and seek refuge in Sweden. From there he sailed for Canada. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Canadian Army, and shipped out back to Europe to serve his adopted country in the Intelligence Corps. He was most likely the only Jew to have interrogated Nazi officers during the war.

Suggesting I believed in Jesus as a paranoid escape from my Jewishness seemed to him a logical (although mistaken) conclusion. It was pointless to suggest to him that the Montreal of the 1960’s was a far cry from the Vienna or Berlin of the 1930's. Frankly, I was conscious of and did not deny my Jewishness. In my hometown was the oldest established Jewish community in Canada, a thriving center of Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) as richly depicted in the film "Lies My Father Told Me." If there's any maxim that rings true it's the expression, "Jewish people are just like everyone else, only more so."

I simply chose not to draw attention to my ethnic origin, which was not an untypical response among Jewish youth. It's true that Lobsang Rampa, Ram Dass, and others of an eastern mystical bent had more spiritual appeal to me than Moses, Maimonides, or Martin Buber. Yet I would never have equated this preference as denouncing my background.

Travel is the great antidote for the idealist, the restless, and the unemployed. Feeling disgusted with my life, I rattled out of Montreal in my rustic Canadian Bell van. Perhaps somewhere in the middle of nowhere I would find the inner peace that I presumed cities robbed from their inhabitants. After a month, I concluded that life is essentially the same no matter where you went. Unalterably you meet up with yourself. As I stared at the vast purple horizon of Alberta, I supposed I would feel a sense of magnanimity. Instead I felt swallowed up by my own insignificance and the gnawing reminder that the meaning of life eluded me once again. Disgruntled, I went back East.

Dabbling in philosophy or hitchhiking across the universe raised no eyebrows among my peers. But when I decided to get a "real job," many of my friends looked horrified, as if the thought had never occurred to them. Hired as a bilingual order desk clerk ("Hello/Bon Jour"), I quickly proved my incompetence in both languages. Two Yiddish words surmise this experience: "My boss was a gonif ("crook") and I was a nebesh ("a hapless bumbler"). It was a terrible mismatch, sort of like featuring Woody Allen as master builder on "This Old House."

For example, late one evening as I was preparing to leave, the phone jangled. An unusual Southern drawl sounded in my ear. I caught something about a 2.5 ton automated punch press.

"D'yawl want that shipped t'Mountreaaal or t'Torawnto?"

How would I know? I heard myself mumble, "Toronto," and then I quickly hung up. To this day, I can visualize an 18-wheeler—direct from Tuscaloosa—lumbering into the wrong receiving dock with this odious machine.

Just before I got fired, an interesting thing happened. The office manager, a kind Dutchman named Nick, began talking to me and my friend about someone he called "the Jewish Messiah." In that bizarre work environment, here was a person of character and integrity. But I had my own system of belief, which amounted to little more than refried Hinduism.

My next job, believe it or not, was as another order processor. Here I met Tony, an African American. Unlike soft-spoken Nick, Tony boldly asserted his beliefs.

"Well, just what do you believe? How do you think you can get to heaven?" Tony asked pointedly after we ate dinner at his house.

I leaned back in the chair, dumbfounded by Tony's intensity. Talk about chutzpah. But I liked him, so I attempted an answer.

"I think you can if you're good enough. You know, love people, don't hurt anybody, work out your own karma...I mean that's all you can do."

Tony rolled his eyes, obviously unimpressed with my sophistry. Even as we talked, I had to admit that my own "good deeds" were pretty lean. If that much.

"Don't you see? None of us on our own can ever cut it with God. Know what I'm saying? That's why we need Jesus. He did for us something that no one else has ever done. Or could do. Or wants to do. Ask me what that is."

I looked at him quizzically, straining to understand.

"The fact is," Tony said, looking me straight in the eyes, "he died for you. For me. Why? You know why. Our sins. He gave up his life for us, took the punishment we deserve. And then he did something else—he arose from the dead! Meaning: he’s still alive. And if you trust in him, taking him for who he says he is, then you get eternal life."

He leaned forward for emphasis. “I like to ask people, ‘When is Independence Day?’ I like the blank look they give me like I’m nuts. Then I tell them, ‘Independence Day is any day you want it to be! Like how ‘bout today?”

As we talked far into the night, I began to sense an unseen presence. One concept that particularly struck me was the universality in the dismal verse: "All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Psalm 14:3 NIV). I grew uneasy; what Tony was saying made sense. Too much sense. Is the Jesus of the goyim really the Jewish Messiah?

My friend gave me a book to read, which I devoured when I got home. By the time I arrived at the fourth chapter, the author recommended accepting Jesus as personal savior. As if compelled, I did something I never would have dreamed of doing: I slid to my knees and prayed. I asked Yeshua (the Jewish way to say Jesus) to come into my life and cleanse me of all iniquity. That short simple utterance marked the turning point of my life.

Strange as it may sound, after I committed my life to Jesus, I began to affirm my own Jewish identity. From my perspective, I was merely coming to terms with two complementary identities. But what would my family and friends say?

Walking casually into my parent's house wearing a "Jesus is Lord" button was not exactly what you'd call the subtle approach. In fact, it's a good example of what not to do. Once the hysteria subsided, however, my parents calmly concluded that I ought to pay a visit to the local Rabbi. I consented. All things considered, the encounter went reasonably well. (This was before the days of anti-missionary training for rabbis.) I'll never forget walking into his office and being confronted by a mountain of books. He motioned for me to sit down.

"Your parents are upset about your, ah, belief in Jesus."

He paused. I sat there quietly, with a strong impression that I shouldn't say too much, but listen closely. I was treated to a rather lengthy explanation of Reform Judaism. And then the Rabbi proceeded to make two amazing statements.

"I seriously considered the claims of Christ myself when I was serving as a chaplain in Korea. But being a rabbi, Jesus just wasn't an option for me." He also offered this theological understanding of God: "I believe in a transcendent being of some kind who set the world into motion and allowed mankind to determine its own destiny."

In light of my newfound relationship with the God of Israel, this phrase rang rather hollow. Finally, we got up, shook hands, and I left his study with mixed emotions. Here was the man responsible for the spiritual well-being of my family.

I boarded the Metro and sank into the seat, staring through the window into the dark tunnel. Little did I anticipate these confounding responses to my belief. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a guy standing in the aisle, leaning on his guitar case. He startled me because in that instant I saw my old, former self—a morose, droopy-eyed rolling stone with no direction home.

How odd. In the tranquility of western Canada, I had only found inner emptiness and a sense of angst. But now as the Metro skimmed under the streets of Montreal, I felt more alive than I had felt in years. It was the purifying and invigorating presence of Israel's Messiah within me. For the first time in my life, I was convinced I had a future. And I finally grasped what the word shalom was supposed to mean.

Post script: That was nearly 30 years ago. Through all sorts of excruciating events, twists, and turns in this thing called life, the Messiah has always remained faithful. When I nearly lost my shirt, my mind, and my way, he proved true.

Excursis on Jewish indentity.
Excursis on why my people tend not to believe in Jesus.