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Jesus, Baptists and Jews -- Oy Vey!

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Some of my all-time favorite people are Jewish: The Marx Brothers. Mel Brooks. Even my Lord and Savior is a Jew.

And then, there's our local rabbi (sort of), Seth Oppenheimer. He is not ordained yet, so he's always quick to interject a "student-rabbi" correction whenever I introduce him as Rabbi Seth.

The very first time I heard Seth singing lines from Kinky Friedman's "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore", I knew we were going to be friends -- and good friends we are. We get together regularly at the local tavern (along with the occasional priest and several friends) to talk about faith and everything else under the sun. Sometimes he even shows up at University Baptist Church, where I pastor.

I don't know if our friendship has helped make him a better Jew, but I do know it has helped me become a better Christian.

I've been reading the two-volume book series "Mount and Mountain" -- conversations between two friends somewhat like Seth and me. Two Tennessee clergymen, Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rev. Michael Smith, examine together the Ten Commandments (volume 1) and the Sermon on the Mount (volume 2).

Rami and Mike bring into this dialogue their scholarship (each has a Ph.D. and is involved in higher education), varying interpretations from within their respective traditions, their own opinions and, of course, their trust and respect for each other. It is the latter that is most important, I think.

Both Mike and I come from the rich Baptist tradition of our Christian faith -- specifically being Baptist in the deep south. It is from this tradition that we learned to respect others, to listen to alternative and opposing viewpoints and -- above-and-beyond all doctrine and all professed beliefs -- to seek to hold Jesus Christ (whom Baptists have historically proclaimed to be the ultimate revelation of God to humanity) as our fundamental center guiding our actions as His disciples. Jesus seemed pretty good at following the Golden Rule, and it only seems natural that if we claim His name, we should strive to treat others the way we would want others to treat us.

At the same time, within our Baptist heritage in the deep south there arose a movement which focused less on the radically inclusive nature of Jesus and more on clearly defining and enforcing doctrinal statements; preferring not to serve others, but rather to erect walls separating and protecting "Christians" from people with different life-experiences and with alternative or opposing viewpoints. From that stream came the now infamous 1980 statement from then-Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith: "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."

Almost 30 years later a fellow Baptist pastor asked to meet with me; he was concerned I had been deceived regarding the status of Jews in the eyes of God. Judaism, the pastor stated, promoted the worship a false god -- a god which in no way even resembled the God of Jesus and God as revealed in the Christian Bible. That last statement still gets me -- after all, the overwhelming majority of the Christian Bible is, ironically, Jewish.

Both the concerns of a ministerial colleague and the 1980 quote from an SBC President are examples of why books like the "Mount and Mountain" series are so important. For understanding. For humility. For seeking to know the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the Apostle Paul, and for seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who himself worshiped in the Jewish Temple.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro do not agree on everything. Nor do they water down their beliefs or their traditions. But they do listen to each other, and each are willing to acknowledge that God as revealed in the Bible is far bigger than any of our limited human understandings of God.

In examining the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, Mike and Rami push, probe and challenge each other. They discuss everything from poverty, wealth, "inerrancy" and interpretation, to suffering, suicide, the nature of God and what God requires of us. Oh, and in the first book, there's that little problem of deciding upon which of the many varied listings and numberings of the Ten Commandments they will use as their guide.

Reading the "Mount and Mountain" books are informative and enjoyable experiences. They remind me that I am not alone in treasuring my friendship with a rabbi -- and in sensing his deep love for God that guides his interpretations and his daily actions. As a Christian, I am not threatened by Seth Oppenheimer, but encouraged and strengthened in my faith in God.

Mike Smith rightly points out that his and Rami's friendship may help them to hear some things that they'd rather not hear; I know that's true in my friendship with Seth. I agree with Mike when he writes, "Perhaps friendship should become the prerequisite to interfaith conversation."

True friendship requires a lot of hard work, not to mention trust and respect. Sometimes it's just easier to fall back on easy-to-spout doctrinal judgments rather than to invest in learning and understanding others.

Or, if I may quote Rabbi Rami: "This is America, and here ignorance trumps scholarship almost everytime..."

And to that I add, if I may quote my Jewish friends, oy vey!

I can think of nothing better right now than to spend a couple of hours with my friend soaking in some Jewish wisdom. Just let me grab my Mel Brooks "Young Frankenstein" DVD...