Tag Archives: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Lent To Us

Several weeks ago, PW invited me to preach at the noon Ash Wednesday service at Emmanuel. My first thought, which I kept to myself, was, “Yikes! There’s no way I can be ponderous enough to write and then give an Ash Wednesday sermon.” So, of course, what I said out loud was, “Okay!”

Every time I worked on my remarks, in the days leading up to today, I kept hearing the voice of a man I interviewed recently for a letter I wrote for work. So here’s what I ended up with.

Well, here we are, perched at the beginning of the 40-day journey of Lent. You know, legend has it that explorers used to write “There Be Dragons,” or they’d draw dragons onto areas of maps to represent uncharted territory. I’ll confess that the view of Lent from Ash Wednesday often feels to me like looking at a map where an X marks “You Are Here” and I’m looking down a road that is dotted with signs that say “There Be Dragons.”

Oh sure, the festive welcome of Easter awaits us at the end of Lent, with all its flowers and Alleluias and new beginnings. But it seems so far away, and February lasts so   dang    long for the shortest month of the year, and There Be Dragons! And We Are Here.

Each of us has our reasons for coming through the door today, and if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling to unload a freight car’s worth of baggage you have accumulated with regard to Lent. Maybe the stuff you might give up for Lent has been tumbling around in your head, like lottery ping pong balls in their little see-through chamber. Chocolate? Facebook? Swearing? Maybe you’re debating whether to get the ashes, whether to rub them off before you leave the building, or whether to disregard Jesus’ strongly worded admonition and wear them all day, as a visible sign of your spiritual commitment. But, if you do that, then you risk having them misunderstood or judged… Aaauugh!

See if you can put all that down for a bit, and since We Are Here (and There Be Dragons!), let’s be travelling companions through Lent. I know this is likely the only time this peculiar and unique group of friends and strangers will be together. But, as we’ve already heard, and we’ll be repeatedly reminded, we all share a common beginning and ending: dust. So, really, we’re family!

I know that for our purposes today “Lent” refers to the time of fasting and reflection that precedes Easter. But, I love word play, and I love to tango with heresy, so I want to point out another meaning of Lent: it’s the past tense Lend — the act of giving something away that must be returned, eventually. Specifically, I’m thinking about life, about how our lives are Lent to us. None of us can keep what the poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.” Sooner or later, we all have to slide through that Return slot.

Later on, when we get to the Ash part of Ash Wednesday, listen for Pam’s voice repeating, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as she marks people’s foreheads with ashes. If you don’t get the ashes, that’s fine, but, please, listen for the words. Let them be a chant or a mantra for Lent; let them remind you of your borrowed time. This life of yours, the body you’re in, it’s all fleeting.

At the beginning of our Lent journey, You Are Here, I Am Here, We Are Here, and surely There Will Be Dragons! With our borrowed lives, in our Lent bodies, with our unknown Return dates, consider: What is it you need over the next 40 days to break out of patterns that have become prisons? What do you need in order to arrive at Easter feeling more alive than ever, with a feeling that your life has marked some Xs where once there were dragons?

I interviewed a 65-year-old man recently named Richard. Ten years ago he went into the hospital with a kidney stone, acquired sepsis, and to save his life, doctors had to amputate his arms below the elbows and his legs below the knees. Richard’s one of these guys who is always tinkering – you know the type. And he has made a very full life for himself. He continuously tweaks his prostheses so they work better, so he can do more things on his own. He figured out how to paint and play guitar and even shovel snow.

Richard sometimes visits new amputees in the hospital. He’ll walk into their rooms and jump up and down on his prosthetic legs, to show them that their lives aren’t over just because their legs are gone. He made videos to demonstrate how quickly he could attach his arms and legs, without help, to show others new ways to be independent.

Richard told me, “I have a great life! I am the kind of man, when I see a door open, I go through it. I know that my family will support me. I have a great family, and I know not everybody has that. So when a door opens, I go through it, for myself, for my family, and for the people who can’t go through, for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t have the support, or they’re too scared. Whatever. I go through for them, too.” Richard’s one of those guys who matter-of-factly ventures out into the “There Be Dragons” part of the map and marks it with a new X: Now, We Are Here.

A couple of years ago, Richard’s wife Carole saw a TV news story about a local hospital’s new hand transplant program. Carole called the hospital to see if Richard might be a candidate. Last April, after more than a year of tests and screenings, Richard was put on the list of potential hand transplant recipients.

Last October, a local man about 20 years younger than Richard suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Like Richard, Steven was a tinkerer, one of those guys who fixed his friends’ cars and did all his own home repairs. Still, when doctors asked Steven’s wife Jodi about organ transplants, and asked if she’d also be willing to donate his arms and hands, she was startled. But she took a night to think about it and concluded, “Steven’s talents were in his hands. Why let them go to waste?” Jodi went to a There Be Dragons place and marked an X. And now, We Are Here.

More than 40 medical personnel worked for 12 hours to give Steven’s arms (below the elbow) to Richard. It will be at least a year before Richard has full sensation in his arms, before he’ll have full use of them. He won’t be shoveling any snow this winter, so it’s just as well that we haven’t had much. But he’s started to playing some piano and he can’t wait to feel his grandsons’ faces, to feel his wife’s hand in his. When Richard met Steven’s widow, Jodi, he told her it was okay if she wanted touch his new hands. She hesitated. She hadn’t been sure if she even wanted to look at them. She was afraid she might not recognize them.

While they sat and held hands and cried together, Richard said, “I told her how sorry I was about her husband and I just kept thanking her. I said we gotta keep going forward. I’m a living example that there’s always a way to go through the next door, even after you lose someone you love.” So now, We Are Here.

Today I want to suggest that our guideposts for the next 40 days can be the noun forms of the traditional Lent activities of giving alms, praying, and fasting. Specifically, they’re what I’ll call the three Cs of Lent: compassion, connection, and clarity.

Jodi, Steven, Richard, and their families are ordinary and stunning examples of compassion, connection, and clarity. They are also profound reminders of the message of Easter: when death meets love, love always wins. EVERY TIME. Love. Always. Wins. One of my favorite modern prophets the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Every little deed counts, every word has power…[E]veryone [can] do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.”

My hope for you, for all the members of our Dust Family, is that we spend the rest of the lives we’ve been Lent finding ways to go forward, through whatever unlikely doors might open, even, and maybe especially, when There Be Dragons. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we launch ourselves off the X that marks wherever we are now, and fill the next 40 days with so much compassion, connection, and clarity, that it will become a habit with us. Compassion. Connection. Clarity. Yeah, ‘cause THAT’s how the Dust Family rolls!

And when we return to the dust from whence we came, the world will be more redeemed, the map will have lots fewer dragons on it, and it will be spangled with X marks we have left behind:

We Are Here.

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Beginning the Days of Awe – edited and reposted from last year

Last summer, I was in a local Jewish bookstore looking for some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s books to give to a friend as a present. I found both the Kushner books I was looking for, as well as a copy of “Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe.”

Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe

As I continue to knit together my own travelogue of faith, I often go back to my bright red Days of Awe prayer book and flip through it. I always have some sense of internal shifting or unlocking as a result of the overall sensory experience of this book: the brilliant hue of its cover, the firm newness of the binding, the rubby onion-skin thinness of the pages, the unreadable (to me) Hebrew passages throughout, the stunning variety of the prayers and meditations, and the refreshing lack of a gendered God, which I find so tiresome and irritating in many Christian liturgies.

Tonight the Emmanuel Episcopal Church community is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with our fellow seekers at 15 Newbury Street, Boston Jewish Spirit, to mark the beginning of the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days.

I sheepishly confess that I knew what the High Holy Days were long before I knew that they were also called the Days of Awe. At an almost cellular level, the idea of a period of time being called Days of Awe still takes my breath away. That little word, awe, is so small and so mighty — just three letters for what is maybe the foundation for everything ineffable in human life. Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy, from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” said this great thing about awe:

At the moment you are most in awe of all you don’t understand, you’re closer to understanding it all than at any other time.

I love being part of a progressive Christian community that is engaged with a progressive Jewish community. Sharing each other’s meals, ceremonies, rituals, art, music, and chores has given my faith, skepticism, questions, awe, and prayers a texture and a depth that simply weren’t there before.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Last year for my first conscious, intentional passage through the Days of Awe, I immersed myself in the writings, interviews, and speeches of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What an extraordinary poet, agitator, visionary, and prophet Rabbi Heschel was. There are so many quotations of Rabbi Heschel’s that stagger me with awe. We’ll go out today with this one about prayer, which has been on my mind a lot since PW and I spent a lively afternoon discussing what would be her final sermon before her summer vacation last year. During that discussion, I got all worked up (as I often do when I ponder the ancient texts) and blurted, “Prayer is NOT a transaction! Prayer is a POSTURE!” Then, lo and behold, when I originally sat down to write this post, I stumbled across this loveliness, from Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Heschel in 1972, two weeks before Heschel died. Stern asked Rabbi Heschel what the role of prayer is if God doesn’t intervene in human life:

First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and [humans]. God needs our help.

L’shanah Tovah.

You say quotato and I say quotata

It’s time to empty my pockets of some quotes-of-the-day I’ve collected over the past few whiles. Some of these are sparkly gems, so they may not be new to you. At least one is a horrible warning. I present them in no particular order.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

“My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky He’s referring to his faith in Jesus Christ here, but the sentence before this is not nearly as rhythmically hypnotic as this one. Plus, since the word “hosanna” is rooted in a Hebrew word that is a cry for help, I’ll jump on the opportunity to divorce it from being so Christocentric. Dostoevsky said a lot of other cool things, such as, “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.”

Dorothy Parker's brain was so fertile, plants grew out of her head.

Wouldn’t Dorothy Parker have been a master of the Facebook status? There are way too many Dorothy Parker quotations to choose from, on just about any given topic. She once said this in a book review: “This is a not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Imagine what fun she would have had with this last election cycle.

This week, I’ve continued to come back to another bit of Parkerian brilliance, mostly as an antidote to hearing my kids complain of boredom. “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

My cousin Rich has a football blog that is a must-read if you love the game, and especially if you bet on it. Trust me, he knows more about football than you do. If you hate football because of its fans, then you should still read his blog, if only for his hilarious dismantling of the people who are outraged by his objectivity when he turns it on whatever team is the object of their blind loyalty. I’m quoting several sentences from one of his posts this past week, where he took on some outraged Nebraska Cornhusker fans who filled his email box with rabid, irrational invective.

“To 4everRed, thanks for reading, but if this is an example of your Nebraska education, your parents should apply for a refund. So much cursing & name-calling & so little of it goes together. Watch a Robert DeNiro movie, maybe you’ll learn how to hurl a decent insult that doesn’t make your intended victim laugh out loud at just how stupid it is. It was difficult to understand what it was you wanted me to do.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was all that AND a bag of chips

Thinking about the diatribes that my cousin Rich receives from football zealots made me think of a quotation I saw earlier this week by another highly quotable guy, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What, I’ve been talking about Rabbi Heschel all this time and you STILL haven’t checked out one of his books from your local library?? Sheesh. And by Sheesh I really mean My Bad, since my copy of his classic, “God in Search of Man” is way overdue, which I realize is keeping everyone else in the library-using universe from checking it out. I say sorry (but I need to hang onto it for a few more days).

Anyway, Rabbi Heschel has a ton of great quotations in that book alone, two of which appear on the same page: “Faith in its zeal tends to become bigotry.” and “Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”

Speaking of hypocrisy and heresy, I hit on a new description of hypocrisy at Heretic School (aka Early Morning Bible Study aka Early Morning BS) on Tuesday: hating the sinner and loving the sin. Yes, I have the nerve to quote myself as a quotable quoter. That’s one of the perks you get when you step off the edge of sanity into the blogging world.

On Wednesday I had one of those frequent (for me) serendipitous Internet discoveries, where I started out looking for one thing and found another. Here’s something from the blog of Kurt Sutter, the writer for the TV show “Sons of Anarchy.” I’ve never seen the show, but his recent post “I Have it All, I Hate it All” has this verbal laser beam, which may be known to those of you who are familiar with 12 Step Programs: “Expectations are future resentments.”

Here’s a line that I had to read several times because I couldn’t believe the person really wrote it. This is from an Amazon book review of a memoir about a guy’s near death experience: “His descriptions of heaven seem authentic.”

I am not making this up, Internetians. Go and read it for yourself, and continue reading the review to enjoy one of those lovely spell-check-passing typos that, when your name is affixed to them, can make you look ridiculous. Of course, if you’ve already written, “His descriptions of heaven seem authentic,” perhaps you’re not worried about looking ridiculous. Either that or you’re used to it.

If I were really feeling my oats, I’d connect all the dots between these quotata. Alas, it’s late afternoon on a Friday, the sun has finally emerged after a couple of days of rain, and I have miles of leaves to rake before I sleep. When I do sleep I hope to dream of having a dinner party where Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rabbi Heschel, my cousin Rich, and Dorothy Parker are all at my table. That would be some wild conversation. See you next week!

Living in twilight

I recently carved out an “office” for myself below a window in a corner of our unfinished basement. My desktop is one of those hollow-core doors like we had in our house when I was a kid. You know, the kind of door that’s impossible to slam. Even when you hold onto the doorknob and close it as forcefully as you can, the best sound you can get is a kind of muffled thud, more of a semi-loud pfft than a bang. The kind of door that’s much better as an expansive desk than as a futile expression of juvenile pique.

For my “wallpaper” to cover up the dreary concrete, I’ve unfurled a 6′ x 6′ painting by an old friend of mine that’s been rolled up since I moved into the first house I ever owned, back in 1992. It’s been that long since I had enough wall space to display it. I took a photo of the top third of the painting, which doesn’t do justice to the layers of greens, blues, oranges, and reds, but gives you a tiny hint of the painting’s sprawl.

My "office" "wallpaper"

This morning I came down to here to do some reading, writing, and looking at my newly freed painting. I set Pandora to my “Weepies Radio” station and what song started playing? “Twilight.” That spurred me to go looking for a photo of twilight. Do you know how hard it is to find a vampire-free photo of twilight? After scrolling through countless images of bloodsucking heart-throbs from the “Twilight” movies, I finally found a stunning photo that now graces the header of this website.

Only after finding the photo did I see the painting as a depiction of living in twilight. Up until this morning, I always saw the painting as an image of what it’s like to move through the world with ideas and colors filling one’s head to the point of bursting. Now I look at it and see both twilight and the volcano of the creative mind. I love that about art, how it can be different without changing, how it can be Both/And.

I’ve been working on a committee that’s planning celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Emmanuel Church. In one of our meetings, PW read a quotation she found by a former rector, the Rev. Al Kershaw:

“Art and love alone are capable of opening up to us the eternal that stands behind them.”

Of course, we finite, volcano-headed humans have lots of different understandings of or names for whatever “the eternal” is. As I continue to reflect on what I mean by calling myself a pantheist, I find myself returning repeatedly to this infinite and ineffable mystery of “the eternal.”

In my reading this morning, I came across an essay written in 1953 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel entitled “The Moment at Sinai.” The essay concludes with this expansive last line that is another way of describing “the eternal”:

“Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.”

I think my friend’s painting is a nod to that, with its spatters of paint that go right off all four edges of the canvas. When The Weepies sing, “We are always living in twilight,” I hear them illuminating, rather than nailing down, the unbounded mystery of “the eternal.”

Living in twilight, constantly exploring that space between sunset and sunrise, and between sunrise and sunset, can be exhausting. It can also be exhilarating, provided you’ve brought along enough of the right kinds of companions and snacks. The light is luscious and tricky in twilight, and both characteristics are fleeting. No sooner have you glimpsed the “Oh my!” of a given gloaming, than it is overcome by either limiting darkness or boasty Mister Sun.

For me, it’s precisely this fleetingness of twilight that hints at the mysterious and ineffable eternal that Kershaw and Heschel were writing about. Iris DeMent‘s broad Midwestern vowels illuminate the ineffable eternal that she sings about in “Let the Mystery Be.”

So maybe I’m not a pantheist after all. Maybe I’m a twilight-ist. A mystery-ist. An eternal-ist. Whatever my theological orientation is, I have yet to find a word for it. Maybe I’m better off living in the delicious, difficult, fleeting, and eternal twilight of letting the mystery be.

Beginning the Days of Awe

Earlier this summer, I was in a local Jewish bookstore looking for some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s books to give to a friend as a present. I found both the Kushner books I was looking for, as well as a copy of “Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe.”

Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe

As I’ve been knitting together my own travelogue of faith these past few months, I keep picking up my bright red Days of Awe prayer book and flipping through it. I always have some sense of internal shifting or unlocking as a result of the overall sensory experience of this book: the brilliant hue of its cover, the firm newness of the binding, the rubby onion-skin thinness of the pages, the unreadable (to me) Hebrew passages throughout, the stunning variety of the prayers and meditations, and the refreshing lack of a gendered God, which I find so tiresome and irritating in many Christian liturgies.

Wednesday night the Emmanuel Episcopal Church community has been invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with our fellow seekers at 15 Newbury Street, Boston Jewish Spirit, to mark the beginning of the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days.

I sheepishly confess that I knew what the High Holy Days were long before I knew that they were also called the Days of Awe. At an almost cellular level, the idea of a period of time being called Days of Awe takes my breath away. That little word, awe, is so small and so mighty — just three letters for what is maybe the foundation for everything ineffable in human life. Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy, from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” said this great thing about awe:

At the moment you are most in awe of all you don’t understand, you’re closer to understanding it all than at any other time.

I love being part of a progressive Christian community that is engaged with a progressive Jewish community. Sharing each other’s meals, ceremonies, rituals, art, music, and chores has given my faith, skepticism, questions, awe, and prayers a texture and a depth that simply weren’t there before.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

To begin my first conscious, intentional passage through the Days of Awe, I’ve been immersing myself in the writings, interviews, and speeches of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What an extraordinary poet, agitator, visionary, and prophet Rabbi Heschel was. There are so many quotations of Rabbi Heschel’s that stagger me with awe. We’ll go out today with this one about prayer, which has been on my mind a lot since PW and I spent a lively afternoon discussing what would be her final sermon before her summer vacation. During that discussion, I got all worked up (as I often do when I ponder the ancient texts) and blurted, “Prayer is NOT a transaction! Prayer is a POSTURE!” Then, lo and behold, today I stumbled across this loveliness, from Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Heschel in 1972, two weeks before Heschel died. Stern asked Rabbi Heschel what the role of prayer is if God doesn’t intervene in human life:

First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and [humans]. God needs our help.

L’shanah Tovah.