A week ago, after the wedding I wrote about briefly in this post, PW and I were walking from the Lindsey Chapel to the vesting room so she could hang up her vestments before heading over to the wedding reception a few blocks away. The Emmanuel Church complex is huge, and the Chapel and the vesting room are separated by Emmanuel’s enormous sanctuary. In other words, they’re almost as far apart as you can get and still be in the building.Leaving the small, brightly lit chapel for the darkness of the cavernous sanctuary on our way to the vesting room was like entering a cave without a head lamp. The first thing my eyes found as a reference point was one of the two shiny gold Stars of David on the Boston Jewish Spirit’s Ark. When BJS isn’t using the Ark for their services, it sits in the front left corner of the Emmanuel Church sanctuary. Since I have very little impulse control when it comes to the game of “Hey, that reminds me of a song!” I blurted out some alterations to the beginning lines of Thomas Talley’s Christmas carol “Behold That Star”: “Behold that Sta-arrrr! Behold that Star of David! Behold that Sta-arrr! It is the Ark of BJS!” When I finished laughing at myself, I was immediately struck by the profundity of the scene: two Church Ladies navigating their way through a pitch-black sanctuary by moving toward the glimmering stars on the front of the Ark of the resident synogogue.
The next morning, BJS’s Rabbi Howard Berman preached at Emmanuel’s service, as he does once a month. He gave a thoughtful reflection on Thanksgiving, and there were two tiny words he said that I will never forget, especially on the heels of having used the Stars of David as navigational reference points just the night before. At some point in his sermon, Rabbi Berman began a sentence with the words, “Our God…”
As soon as Rabbi Berman said these words, my eyes flashed over to the Ark in the corner, and I felt like I was witnessing a peeling back of thousands of years of Christian arrogance and exclusivity. A Jewish rabbi saying the words “Our God,” from the pulpit of a Christian church, preaching to a mostly Christian congregation, against the backdrop of a sculpture of Jesus and his friends at table for what Christians call The Last Supper.
When Rabbi Berman said “Our God,” I heard a reference to the God we share. I didn’t hear him contrasting a Jewish God to a Christian God. I thought of how often I’ve heard sickening references comparing “the Old Testament God of Vengeance” to “the New Testament God of Love.” If you’ve spent any time in Christian churches, or Bible Studies, I bet you’ve heard it, too. Shoot, if you’re a Christian, maybe the OT God of Vengeance vs. the NT God of Love is one of the lenses through which you read or hear scripture, maybe without even realizing it. Given my own experience in churches and Bible studies, I can assure you that you’re not alone. I wish there were some way to destroy this construct, since in my experience it doesn’t do anyone any favors.
PW told me once that someone asked Rabbi Berman how he feels about preaching, either to BJS or to Emmanuel, while standing in front of images of Jesus and the disciples at table. She reports that he says, “I look up there and I see a bunch of people doing what good Jews do: eating together.” When asked how he feels about standing in front of images of Mary, he says, “I look up there and I see a good Jewish mother.”
As I’ve reflected this year on my improbable, and occasionally hilarious, journey into Church Lady-hood, I’m persuaded that there’s no coincidence to the fact that I never imagined myself ever saying the words “I’m an Episcopalian” until I found myself at a church that has a Rabbi-in-residence, and shares its communal space with a synagogue. If being a Christian and an Episcopalian looks like THIS, count me in!
I felt compelled to write about all this after I read my friend Heather’s essay Friday morning on the Free Range blog that she and her husband Martin started last year. My comment on her website was that I wanted to make everyone I know read her essay. Now, I know I can’t make you read it. But I’m telling you that you’ll be richer beyond measure if you do. Just to give you a hint of what you’ll miss if you DON’T read it, Heather compares practicing a religion with wrestling with a new language:
Having become reasonably fluent in Christianity, I’m trying to learn at least something about the other languages around me. As I learn more about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, I don’t become less fluent in my own language; rather, I understand it more profoundly. I understand its distinctiveness and thus its limitations. I understand something of its fraught interactions with other religions and have learned the uneasy need for…humility. I try not to speak slowly and loudly in my own language when speaking to non-native speakers and hope they will do the same for me. In my limited experience, I’ve found hospitality, not hostility, whenever we try, in our different tongues, to speak with each other.
I finished all of the above on Friday night, just after sundown, which is the beginning of the Jewish sabbath. It was one of those clear, crisp, perfect New England fall evenings. The moon was almost full, Jupiter was doing its autumnal bragging, and there were quite a few stars visible as my dog and I made our way around the neighborhood for her evening walk.
As I surveyed the sky, and thought about the two gold stars on the BJS Ark, it occurred to me the stars are always in the sky, it’s just that during the day they are eclipsed by the closest star to us, “our local hero” as The Weepies’s song calls the Sun in the video posted below. That same eclipsing effect can happen with religion, or any guiding ideology.
When we Christians become too focused on what we think of as our own story, we can lose sight of other stars that help us understand ourselves better, that are always there to help us find our way to being instruments of justice, peace, and love in the world. I count my lucky stars that I belong to a church that has an Ark in it. As I learned last week, when the lights are out in the sanctuary, the most visible objects are the gold stars on the BJS Ark. I find my way by following them.