Michael Eldred is a 2020 MJTI graduate of our Jewish Studies Program. Recently, we had the opportunity to meet virtually with him and discuss his time at MJTI, learning during a pandemic, and his plans for the future.
MJTI: Thank you so much for meeting with me, and congratulations on your graduation! So to start, how did you come to study at MJTI?
M.E.: When I got engaged to my wife, Jamie, I had this sense that I wanted to go into ministry. And at first, I kind of wondered if that was a good idea just because Jamie had been under the pastor’s roof for most of her life… and so I had [to ask], “Do you really want to continue to be in a minister’s house?”
When I told her (because we were engaged at that point, and I thought, you know, I should really [share] this fire and see what she thought) she was very excited. Very, very excited… so that put me on track into ministry and pastoral ministry specifically.
I ended up in Lutheran Brethren, which is an offshoot of the Lutheran Church. It’s an evangelical offshoot. Probably the closest thing that most people would be familiar with would be the Missouri Synod Lutherans. That’s a little more well-known, and they’re very close in a lot of ways. So I can’t explain how I ended up in Lutheran Brethren, other than… it was just a very comfortable place to be. And so [I] began my seminary work there—I figured, you know, bloom where you’re planted.
My very first classes with the seminary introduced me to Hebrew study, just beginner basic Hebrew study, but something about that lit a fire in my belly that I cannot explain. I was so excited.
I thought, this is definitely the right place to be, but then I found out that my seminary didn’t really offer much after that. It was like I got all excited about this one aspect of my seminary work and it just fell flat because that was all they offered.
So what do I do now? The one thing that excited me about seminary suddenly wasn’t there anymore. So I talked to my professor at the time and said—and I put it in the strangest words—”I can’t explain this. I want to learn Hebrew, as much as possible as a boy growing up in Nazareth would learn Hebrew.” It was as crazy as it sounds, but that’s what I wanted to do. And he didn’t flinch or anything, just said that we don’t have any in-depth Hebrew studies through our seminary (it’s a small seminary). So he encouraged me to look around, and told me not to wait too long because the little Hebrew that I had attained was going to be lost if I did so.
To make this story a little shorter, I started a search, and that search ended up connecting me locally with Rabbi Paul Saal, who is the Dean of Students for MJTI. So I visited his congregation and engaged in conversation with him—and suddenly that excitement was lit again, and I knew that I was on the right track.
I would say when I first started, even though I was a non-Jew, I was very excited about my studies, and I probably began like a lot of seminary students, with a great deal of naive excitement and enthusiasm. My initial transition from a seminary education to MJTI’s materials, methods, and mode was a bit jarring at first because it was completely different. The seminary I was part of was more traditional—read the book, regurgitate the book sort of thing. But unlike other seminary students, rather than lose the excitement and enthusiasm, it was transformed into awe and wonder to really digest the material and really get into the method and mode of it—and you learn how much more meaningful and lasting that type of learning is. That transformation was facilitated by some amazing professors, and the works of some Jewish authors like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Daniel Boyarin, and of course, Dr. Mark Kinzer.
I just fell in love with MJTI’s method of study, where the students and teachers engage one another in… friendly sparring matches, talking back and forth about the reading material and the concepts. I had never encountered anything like it, and it really changed the way I look at learning.
MJTI: How has MJTI shaped you spiritually?
M. E.: So even getting up in the morning… I’m imagining Hashem is there, waiting for me to wake up. I wake up and I realize, I am in the presence of the King—modeh ani lefanekha, melech chai v’kayem. I have another day of breath. It’s a different way of thinking, that thankful aspect… and dates like the Ninth of Av do not go unnoticed, nor any of the other Jewish holidays. My favorite is probably Sukkot (for my kids, probably Hanukkah).
[It’s incredible] to have that context, to read in John where Jesus went up to Jerusalem for “the Feast of Dedication,” and recognizing what that means. Also, that spiritual aspect of just connecting to Messiah as a person, because I think in Christian culture, one of the things that we are sorely lacking is we have this aloof and distant Messiah who isn’t really grounded in the stuff of earth.
That makes it challenging because we are people who are tied to this earth. When we realize that Messiah has a connection with us—yes he had flesh and blood, that’s a big deal, but he also had an ethnicity—what a message is that today, to have a Messiah who understands racism, who understands being cast aside because of your parentage? The Roman struggle and the Jewish struggle is a real story that we can connect with today in terms of how people are treated, especially the marginalized.
Another part of that, too, is Mussar. In fact, that was my last class with MJTI. I heard it at Rabbi Paul’s synagogue, and having a practical way of internalizing the character and ethics that we find in Scripture is another thing that’s sorely lacking within Christian church context. So I asked Rabbi Paul—because I try to bring things into my church that help my own congregation—if there is a book out there, like Mussar for Christians? And he said not that he’s aware of, so maybe I should write it. So I started writing and I’m about 200 pages in. It’s called Mussar for Christians: Internalizing the Ethics and Character of Messiah. That’s something I’m working towards. It’s not done yet, but I’m working towards it. Even if it only goes as far as my church, it’ll make an impact there.
Additionally, many people find it strange that I have one foot in a synagogue and one foot in a church. But our young children (one just turned nine and the other just turned seven) are growing up in both communities. They see more than we realize. So it’s not strange to them when we go to synagogue. They know what we’re doing there, they know why we’re there. And on occasion, whenever I have aliyah for the Besorah reading and I get to do the cantillation for that—they get to hear Dad speaking, even cantillating Hebrew. Meanwhile, back at the church, they hear me preaching from the pulpit when I have opportunity to preach as a lay pastor. They see the continuity between them, that I am not one thing in one place and another thing in another place… and that continuity is huge.
[My kids] are learning to be solid in their Gentile Christian identity while recognizing the paramount importance of Jewish context, the cultural origins and even eschatological hope that Mark Kinzer talks about.
MJTI: While you were studying at MJTI, did you face any obstacles to your education, and how did MJTI work with you to overcome those obstacles?
M.E.: I would say there were two big obstacles I encountered. First was financial. MJTI helped connect me with financial resources to be able to make [my studies] possible. And that was a big deal because I came out of my master’s program without owing any money. I paid for the thing all along, both with scholarships and payments for each class. It’s such a relief coming out of a master’s degree and not thinking “Now I have to pay back all these loans.” It’s such a huge deal. So that was the first big challenge.
And I would say the second big challenge, which I encountered very late—in my last classes—was the pandemic.
First of all, if I were going to attempt to construct an educational model that was immune to a pandemic, then MJTI would be the model.
That being said, it’s possible to create learning environments that are free from contracting a virus, but it’s not possible to immunize the lives of teachers and students from the impact of a pandemic… so when the grocery bill doubles, it’s more difficult to sacrifice a portion of my income for education, no matter how noble it is, right?
Another aspect is that in addition to being an IT specialist, as well as being an elder and a lay pastor at my church, it partly fell on my shoulders to figure out how to maintain our church community during this unprecedented time in our history. So in many ways, [the pandemic] was distracting to my educational experience.
However, as I began to really think in terms of what I had learned at MJTI, in many ways [the pandemic] also brought the really important life issues into sharp focus during my studies… and so in some ways the pandemic helped to highlight aspects of my learning that I perhaps may not have looked at quite so closely.
In general, I found that the pandemic has been a magnifying glass: for those who are already prone to fear and baseless hatred, their fear and hate have only intensified, and for those in the faith community who make the effort to work towards peace and unity, they’ve had a lot of challenges, but they’ve also had a lot of rewarding opportunities to show the light of Messiah.
Looking at MJTI, I am just so very thankful that I was a part of it—I am still part of a community which has been so diligent at accentuating the kind of peace that Aaron manifested in his ministry as high priest. I think that’s such a big deal, being peacemakers.
This article was written by Emily Klein, MJTI Content Coordinator. For the second part of this article, click here.
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