Friday, January 22, 2021

Imagine the Wilderness

The Gospel of Mark begins in this way:

 The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
    Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who will prepare thy way;
    the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he whose mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
 In those days Jesus Came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
(Mk 1:1-11, RSV).

When we hear the word “wilderness” some of us may think about the pristine wilderness--an uncorrupted place we can go to on retreat. The wilderness is our own Walden Pond. It is a place set apart where we can go when we want to get away from it all. Others of us may have just the opposite image. We associate the wilderness with a wild and untamed place of danger. Both images have deep roots in our national mythology and storytelling. 

In the Bible the wilderness is a place where miracles happen. In the Hebrew Bible, refugees wander in the wilderness for forty years. When they are hungry manna falls from heaven. When they are thirsty water gushes forth from a rock. In the wilderness the refugees are led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Miracles happen in the wilderness. It is a place where people come to a new experience of the presence of God in their lives.

Witness the opening verses of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Ps.46:1-3, RSV). Clearly the people are in some kind of wilderness. The foundations of the earth are shaking. Everything is busting loose. But rather than asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to people reaffirm their confidence in God, who is in their midst, “We will not fear, thought the earth should change.”

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is baptized in the wilderness. He did not go to the temple in Jerusalem. He did not ask a temple priest to baptize him. He went to the wilderness, and there he met a wild man named John who was wearing a coat made of camel’s hair and who ate locusts and wild honey. It is a wild scene, but it was not a riot. This is no picture of mob violence. Jesus is not encouraging people to storm the city of Jerusalem. He is not calling on his followers to attack the priests or march on the temple. He is in the wilderness.

It strikes me that Mark tells the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way because he wants to put us on notice. If we are going to follow this Jesus, if we plan to walk with this messiah, if we are going to be his disciples, we are going to have to leave the comfort and safety of our familiar routines and surroundings. Change is in the air; and the followers of Jesus are called to become agents of change. That is what it means to follow Jesus into the wilderness.

We have just come from our Christmas celebration. We read the Christmas story. We heard the good news of the gospel: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us) (Mt: 1:23, RSV). This good news is more than an agreeable possibility, a pleasing thought. But cold reason is not easily seduced. If we are going to go into the wilderness, we want to choose the time and the place. Prudence--good judgment, common sense, a careful regard for one’s self-interest--this is how the dictionary defines prudence. Before you go into the wilderness be sure you are wearing clean underwear. Be practical.

I do not think that Mark is encouraging us to throw caution to the wind. But he does raise an important question for us when he tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness. How do we define the wilderness today? What is the wilderness that we face? How do we experience the presence of God? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?

 As I reflect on the meaning of the wilderness, I am thinking of the 370,000 plus people in this country who have died of Covid-19, and the families and loved ones who have been left behind, and who need to find a new way to live. I heard a story just this morning of a man who had a shoeshine business. He said since the outbreak of covid-19 his business has dried up. He has no customers. He is in the wilderness. He said that his new home as four wheels, for as long as he is able to keep his car. He is going to be evicted from his apartment, and he no place else to go. 

I think of people who are unemployed and underemployed going to food pantries and bread lines in this the richest country in the history of the world. We cannot afford to house our fellow citizens? We can’t give people a well-paying job? We can spend billions of dollars on the Defense Reauthorization Act, but we cannot help out people living in this country in their time of need? Where is the church in this wilderness? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?

In the service of baptism we make promises. We promise to resist oppression. We promise to seek justice, love mercy, and walk with compassion for others. We can renew our baptism every morning when we wash our face or step into the shower. How will I live in the power of the Holy Spirit today?   

Mark tells us that Jesus went to the Jordan River. He did not dip his toe into the water. He did not wade in the water. He went into the water. Thinking of this scene, my mind turns to the contrasting image of the disciples who locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. I wonder how long they would have stayed there if Jesus had not come and stood among them.

Mark says that John baptized with the water of repentance, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism signaled the end of one way of life; Jesus’ baptism marked that beginning of a new way of life. The poet W. H. Auden said that we live in the “Kingdom of Anxiety.” We are perpetually and forever worried about what is going to happen next. What is going to happen to us? What is going to happen to me?

When I see this image of Jesus going into the river Jordan, in my mind I contrast that image with the memory of people in Flint, Michigan, who were told that the drinking water was safe for them and for their children. The phrase that comes to mind is “water apartheid,” Ched Myers book coined this phrase in his book, Watershed Discipleship. Myers is a good theologian and a good writer with important things to say. If you are looking for a book to read, get a copy of Watershed Discipleship. If we don’t practice watershed discipleship, water will become the new dividing line between the have-gots and the have-nots, and we will have created a wilderness.

The poet Wendell Berry says in his poem: "What We Need Is Here," “We pray not for new earth and heaven, but to be quiet in heart and in eye clear. What we need is here.” Mark is telling us that what we need is here. He is also reminding us that there are others who are here with us. When Jesus was baptized people from the country side and people from the city were there that day. I can imagine that some people Mark is talking about probably carried others who were on stretchers. There in the wilderness a new community, a new society, began to take shape on the banks of the Jordan River. And it was a very good day. Today is a very good day for us as well, this is the promise of Jesus the Christ. 


Rev. David Hansen

Friday, January 15, 2021

An Exhausting Week


An exhausting week.   On Tuesday, January 5, 2021 Rafael Warnock and John Osoff won the GA senate run-off elections thus changing the balance in the senate in DC in history making ways.  The ability to celebrate this potentially transformative election was torn away when, on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the capitol building was stormed and breached by a mob with the intent of overthrowing the senate as it came to voting to accept the electoral college results, state by state.  Sedition, insurrection, 2nd impeachment, all have entered our daily vocabulary as the news keeps unfolding.  There is actual, real time footage of an American president inciting the crowds to march on the capitol.  The result was violence and destruction and chaos and death   People keep  saying “This isn’t us.  This isn’t America” But what if this IS us for all the world to see?

Many years ago I attended a lecture by Marian Woodman, noted Jungian psychologist.  I recall so clearly her take on the "shadow" in the human psyche.  Her wisdom was that until the shadow parts of us that we deny and prefer to keep out of view are brought into the light, eventually embraced and loved and reconciled into the light, that shadow is always in danger of emerging on its own and is capable of "running the show."

 As a nation we have never come to terms with our shadow and now it is running the show in the form of white supremacy, violence, and anarchy. The January 6th assault on the capitol  was just a snapshot of what lies beneath - and not very far beneath the surface.  News analysis reveals that we have not seen the last of it as plans are uncovered for “protests” at state houses across the country.

January 6th is traditionally observed as Epiphany in Christianity.  As has been recognized often in the press, the third definition of “epiphany” in the dictionary is: “showing, appearance, manifestation” in the sense of suddenly seeing or understanding something in a new or very clear way.

For so many of us, January 6 was truly an epiphany - a day on which the dark underbelly, the ugly racism and white supremacy at the heart of this country, the utter violence and disrespect for the orderly transfer of power, was manifested in a very clear way.  Unlike Christian tradition's observance that celebrates the lovely story of The Wise seeking the newborn manifestation of the Divine in humanity enjoyed by religious communities around the world with great music, prayers, drama and a sense of light and renewal, this particular epiphany evokes sadness, horror, confusion, doubt, and outrage...darkness revealed.

We are in the midst of it. It will not go away.  If the year 2020 was an apocalyptic year in which economic and racial inequities were revealed and laid bare by the Corona virus pandemic, 2021 has begun with an epiphany of biblical proportions as we, in one rather spectacularly dark event, suddenly see more - - understand more, in a clearer way.  

The biblical story of Wise seeking the source of greater light is set in the context of an oppressive regime seeking to hold and protect power, intent on removing the threat to power posed by an infant born in a barn.  Instead of cooperating with the oppressive regime, the Wise disregard the order to inform the king of the whereabouts of the infant and return home by a different route.

As tyrants are wont to do when they fear the loss of power, the king becomes enraged  and orders that all children 2 years of age and under be slaughtered.  Echoes of the beginnings of the Exodus story shimmer in the story in the gospels. In the sacred texts, power-full kings and pharaohs tend to react this way.  Herod and Pharaoh are cut from the same cloth and history repeats itself.

A few words from the January 7 statement from the leadership of The United Church of Christ illuminate and guide the way forward:

“Our faith calls us to acts of love, kindness and compassion. Our faith reminds us that the power of God aligns with the poor and the abandoned, the weak and the hungry, the oppressed and the marginalized. We call on all people of faith and goodwill to use what we saw on January 6, 2021, as a call to justice and a reminder of what happens when evil goes unchallenged.”
In the end the darkness is revealed and can be understood in a clearer way.
“Our faithful response to this most recent act of white terrorism and insurrection will be to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the oppressed, welcome the stranger, love the neighbor, and fill the whole world with the love of our blessed redeemer, Jesus. And, as we continue to do so, we will walk in the courage to denounce and dismantle theologies and systems of oppression and hatred, replacing them with theologies of freedom, peace, justice and love.”


Oppressive power is thwarted by nonviolent noncooperation through compassionate acts of justice seeking, lovingkindness, hospitality, and generosity.

May the darkness of this particular epiphany lead us into the light.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, January 8, 2021

Seamless Garment

 This is no time to be a mink! If you thought it was tough being a human amid this pandemic, be thankful you're not a mink. Denmark, the largest supplier of mink furs to the fashion world, has just killed all of their 15,000,000 to 17,000,000 mink. The animals got the Covid-19 virus from humans, proceeded to mutate it, and give it back to their keepers. At last count, there were 214 Danish people infected with the mutated form, enough that Denmark has placed restrictions on seven municipalities and Great Britain has banned entry to their country from Denmark.


There are 5.5 million people living in Denmark. Three times that many mink have been placed on the sacrificial altar to protect the human beings in that country; perhaps in the end, to protect all the human beings on the planet who could otherwise be faced with a new mutated virus and no effective vaccine.

Denmark is not alone in "culling" their mink. ("Culling" is the term being used, defined as "selectively slaughtered," even though there is no "selecting," since it's mass slaughter).  Spain, the Dutch and the U.S. are in the same game. Spain "culled" ninety thousand over the summer and the Dutch gassed to death 10,000 mother mink and 50,000 mink pups. Eight thousand mink were killed on a Utah farm in August and 2,000 in Wisconsin. Unlike in other countries, culling of all the animals on a farm is not being required in the U.S. and the federal government is leaving regulations to the states.

Like I say, it's not a good time to be a mink! Or even a cat, as they have tested positive for the virus.


I'm still interested in my relationship to pangolins. Pangolins are that interesting anteater like creature found mostly in Asia that may have been the origin of the Covid-19 virus, competing with bats in the minds of some.  There's an amazing article on pangolins and their relationship to the virus in the August  "Annals of Science" by David Quamman. He describes the traffic in pangolin scales, skin and meat. At one point in China, some 150,000 pangolins went to the knife monthly, their meat eaten, their scales used for medicinals and the leather used in making cowboy boots (including for Lyndon Johnson). Quamman describes watching three diners in Vietnam eat a $750 pangolin meal, beginning with the creature rolled up in a sack, beaten with a bat … the rest of the description you'll have to read yourself.

    In 2016, international trade in wild pangolins was made illegal. Still, thousands of pounds flowed from sub Saharan Africa to China and Vietnam. In 2019, an estimated 195,000 pangolins were trafficked to China for their scales alone. In 2020, the Chinese government stopped the use of the scales in traditional medicine and increased protection for native pangolins.

 Perhaps this pandemic will teach us something. Are we related to mink and pangolins? Does keeping animals penned up in close quarters in huge warehouses, like mink, invite disease and suffering? Will trade and profit from wild animals and their parts, like pangolins, endanger us all? Is there an interrelatedness between humans and other creatures that we prefer to ignore, thinking ourselves independent?     

Some of the great Christian saints recognized the glory of God in all of the creatures. Saint Bonaventure, a follower of Saint Francis, wrote about his mentor: that in even the smallest of creatures, Francis saw a reflection of God. The more we find fraternity with the environment, the more we are connected with the Creator. And when we lose even one species, we lose something of the glory of God.

Saint Kateri Tekawitha of the Iroquois nation, is referred to as a "child of nature." She often went into the woods, into the silence away from human noise and activity in the village, to talk to God. She understood the importance of nature to spirituality, of creatures in the natural world and their relationship to us.

And then there is Saint Benedict. His principles are found in the Rule of Saint Benedict. He recommends humility, commitment to improving your local neighborhood and frugality.  He writes, “Frugality should be the rule on all occasions.” If you take more than your fair share and then waste it, that throws off the balance of both the soul and the environment. Like Francis, Bonaventure, and Kateri, Benedict appreciated the beauty of the earth and the way it reflected the beauty and glory of the Creator, and he took every care to preserve and improve it.

It's possible that humility is the highest value in most religious traditions, including for Benedict. It's quite possible the original sin in the book of Genesis is hubris, human pride, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Perhaps the pandemic and the threat of climate catastrophe will help us reign in our egotism and self promotion, and instead cultivate interdependence and relationship with all the creatures. There is no separation. We have been gifted with a seamless garment. Let's mend the tears and wear it with thanksgiving.

Carl Kline

Friday, January 1, 2021

Drawing Near

 Va-yiggash…it is an interesting Hebrew word that appears near the climax of the Joseph stories in the Book of Genesis.  It occurs in Genesis 44:18: Then Judah went up…the first words of the part of the story where Joseph eventually reveals his identity to the brothers who had left him for dead in a pit so many years before.   Va-yiggash can also be interpreted to mean draw near or approach.
    When I heard a teaching last week that was focused on va-yiggash, my mind wandered into the lavish Egyptian court where the brothers, who found themselves in Egypt due to famine in Canaan, are confronted by Joseph, who knows exactly who they are, even though they don’t recognize him.  The meeting is fraught with the family’s tragic and painful history - a father who favors one son over the others; a young upstart who annoys both his father and his brothers with his dreams; irritable brothers who decide to deal with the young Joseph in their own way; the presumed death of Joseph; lies, grief and deception and on and on.

    A crisis in Canaan - a famine - no pasturage for the flocks - not enough food to keep Jacob and his sons and their families alive - a long journey down into Egypt to see if food can be obtained there.  So much of the well being and the future of the sons of Jacob depend upon a successful completion of their mission. Both Joseph and his brothers carry within them the family secrets, the memory of what transpired between the brothers and Joseph when they were all much younger.  They have “issues” - - they have “history.”   The tense drama shifts into high gear when “…Judah went up…” when Judah drew near…when Judah approached Joseph - one more step in the unfolding of the story toward forgiveness, compassion and restored relationship in the long fractured family.  The successful conclusion of this part of the great story depends upon Judah’s willingness to go up to Joseph,  to approach, to draw near.
    As 2021 begins, I find myself reflecting on what the story may say to us on the first day of a New Year as we anticipate the inauguration of a new administration in less than three weeks and as we contemplate and wonder whether and how things will  be different.  At this moment, the fractured nature of our collective life in this country seems to determine so much.  We cannot agree on the necessity of simple things like wearing face masks and maintaining a safe distance from one another.  Like lemmings, thousands, maybe millions, flocked to airports to travel over the holidays in spite of danger of surge upon surge as the virus continues to spread.  Congress moves at turtle speed in its attempts to get economic relief to the country, unable to agree on the shape of possible legislation. Federal policies have led to the rapid production of a vaccines, but have not supported the process of getting the vaccines, literally, into the arms of people in the numbers that were anticipated by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, even though there are not food shortages, long lines at emergency food distribution centers attest to the fact that too many Americans are hungry, are having to make the choice between paying rent and putting adequate food on the table.

    An ancient story of famine in Canaan, of a dysfunctional family coming to terms with its history, of one brother drawing near, approaching another may carry a bit of wisdom for us today.  Without Judah’s painful willingness to place himself in the rather awesome presence of Joseph, the second most powerful person in Egypt, the movement of the story would get stuck.  So much depends on Judah’s willingness to draw near, to approach Joseph in behalf of his family.  Equally critical is Joseph’s willingness to engage with the brothers who left him to die in a pit so many years earlier.

   As a New Year begins and as a new administration prepares to assume its leadership role, perhaps va-yiggash might provide a guiding light for the future.  Perhaps a new president will be able to approach and draw near to adversaries in a more enlightened way.  Perhaps members of the House and Senate will be able to draw near and approach one another across that infamous aisle - perhaps to  communicate more readily in the service of the unfolding of the greater story.  Perhaps in communities across the country human beings of diverse racial, economic, and political affinities might draw near, might approach one another with the intent of creating a more harmonious future for one another and for the world.
    As the grand cycle of the Joseph stories reaches its conclusion at the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph offers compassion and forgiveness to his brothers as he reveals his identity to them.  Reconciliation is made possible.  The story can continue.   So much depends on the willingness to approach, to draw near to the other.
    The Joseph story begins with dreams that eventually determine a particular future for the ancient tribes of Israel.  It is never a smooth story and a happy ending is elusive, but the drama keeps unfolding.  May the dreamer in each of us persist in visioning a world that sustains humankind in harmony, justice, equity, peace, and, perhaps, eventually, in joy.  May we draw near, may we approach one another with openness, and curiosity, and interest in the service of creating a story that moves toward wholeness for all humankind.  Let the New Year begin!

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, December 25, 2020

Having, Doing, Being

 Because I believe public confession is good for the soul, I confess I have an addiction. I'm addicted to books. The shelves and bookcases in our home are full. You will also find piles on the floor. Periodically, I will look over some of the titles trying to discern if I can't get rid of them. Inevitably, what happens is, I discover books I'd forgotten I had, that need to get back in line to be read and digested. Downsizing books is a slow process, especially when you end up with two more for every one you relinquish. Reading them all would take at least another lifetime, maybe two. And just think how many new books there would be I would want to read!

I blame the addiction on our consumer society. We are bombarded with advertisements constantly. Even watching the "news" on television, we receive half news and half ads, and sometimes the "news" is actually an ad for the entity being described. But in my case, TV is not at fault. It's businesses like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It's Brookings Books and the Brookings Library book sales.

Once in a while, there's even an AAUW sale. At the last one, on my third appearance and carting off a pile of reading material, the clerk suggested they would make me the poster boy for the next sale (which I took as a complement).

We're all tempted to have things, often more than we need. For me it's books. For others it might be fishing tackle or barbie dolls or clothes or cars. But in our heart of hearts we have to admit, the pleasure we derive from things is temporary. We are encouraged to trade in the wired phone for a flip top, the flip top for a smart phone; and they just keep getting smarter and smarter as the dumb ones are discarded.

We're also educated by our society not just to have but to produce. It's all in the doing! We all want to do something with our life. Maybe it's to make a lot of money. Maybe we would prefer fame with the fortune. Maybe it's simply to raise a family you can feed and shelter and enjoy. So we buckle down and work hard and keep our eyes on the prize.

In the fifties we were told with all the time saving inventions and appliances increasingly available; with a strong and growing economy; with women joining the work force; bread winners could work half time and enjoy a life of leisure the rest of the time. Something happened! Now both husband and wife are often bread winners working overtime, just to keep bread on the table. There is so much to do and so little time to do it.

The reality is, fortunes disappear. Sometimes overnight. Watching the ups and downs of the famous makes one wonder if celebrity life is all it's cracked up to be. Neither fame or fortune appear sustainable. Even family life changes. The kids move on. Doing seems as transient as having.

A friend of mine was a teacher his whole life. In retirement he once questioned in my presence what he had done with his life. He wondered if he had made a difference, even for one student. I assured him, I believed he had made an enormous difference. I knew him as a person of high integrity for his profession and enormous care for the persons in his classes. It occurred to me then, and stays with me now, that whatever we do is not always a lasting and satisfying assurance toward the end of our life. Our work, what we do, also seems transitory.

Paul Tillich, a renowned theologian of the last century, wrote about God as "the ground of being." Instead of existing somewhere in the heavens, God came down to earth. For Tillich, we are "grounded" in God. Our little being is grounded in Big Being. The challenge is to know who we are and whose we are. That discovery is not something temporary or prone to disappear. That discovery is permanent and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, in our culture, people seldom have time to discover who, or whose, they are. Having and doing don't leave much space for being. If we constructed a society and culture where the last comes first, where knowing who we are is primary, then the other two, doing and having, would fall into place. Answer the question of who am I, and you'll know what to do and what you need to do it.

Focusing on being who you are would also making dying easier. Since your focus is on being who you are, with nothing you need to do or get, letting go of life would be a whole lot easier.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who wrote Letters and Papers from Prison. Imprisoned for joining an assassination attempt on the life of Hitler, Bonhoeffer included a poem in his papers titled "Who Am I." It is worth reading in its entirety but the last lines are instructive. "Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine."

Carl Kline

Friday, December 18, 2020

To Build Connection in the Places of Our Common Vulnerability


As I said goodbye to a visitor, a question was left with me, and so it has lingered. In a voice both perplexed and pained, I was asked, “Why is there such a negative view of Esau in our tradition, so much more negative than the Torah itself would suggest?” Esau, of course, is the brother of Ya’akov, the one from whom Ya’akov wrests both the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. Long through the shimmerings of time and history, Esau, as Edom, comes to be associated with Rome, fierce oppressor of Jacob’s descendants. As in regard to so much strife in Torah, particularly in B’reishit, beginning with Cain’s killing of Abel as the first murder, much of the interpersonal strife and violence we encounter plays out in the family context, among those who are siblings. The first murder is fratricide, as every killing of one human by another has been ever since. The allusion becomes clear, all humanity are siblings, all children of a common Creator in whose image we are created, whose tears dampen the soil wherever we live in conflict with each other on this earth.
        A parent struggling to be lovingly present for each of his children, whether in fact blind near the end of his days or only willfully so, we are told of Isaac’s horror upon realizing that he has blessed his

younger son with the blessing meant for the elder. Having returned from the hunt and having prepared a meal for his father, Esau weeps and cries out, the Torah telling of a broken soul, When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly loud and bitter cry, and then he said to his father: “Bless me also, O my father!”
(Gen. 27:34). Of bitter tears and the cry of a wounded heart, we have already encountered the same pain in the father’s generation, the divide then between Isaac and his brother Yishma’el.

As migrants cast out and wandering in the desert, the water carried by Hagar and her son is spent. The forlorn mother places her son in the shade of some desert brush. We are told that God heard the voice of the child and that an angel called out to his mother, saying, Do not be afraid, for God has already heard the voice of the child, there where he is/ba’asher hu sham (Gen. 21:17). Drawing on midrash, on the words there where he is, Rashi teaches that a person is to be judged by the deeds they do in the moment, v’lo l’fi mah she’hu atid la’asot/and not according to what they may do in the future. The place of that moment was and remains a place of human vulnerability, and therefore a place that offers the greatest potential for human connection. It is a place that reminds of the times when we are each in greatest need of human connection, times when we are parched in body and soul, times when we each thirst for love and compassion and can recognize such need in the other.

Holding up a mirror in which to see ourselves, the Torah now brings us to the Torah portion called Vayetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3), along with Yaakov, to encounter Lavan, uncle of Jacob. Having already witnessed human vulnerability, we are reminded of our own as we come to see it in those we meet in the turning of Torah. Yaakov has fled his brother’s anger, arriving in Charan, there among his mother’s family falling in love at first encounter with Rachel. He agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in order to marry Rachel. In the familiar story, on the wedding night Lavan presents the undoubtedly well-veiled bride, who in the morning Yaakov discovers is the elder sister, Leah. Yaakov confronts Lavan and says, What have you done to me…? Why have you deceived me…? Responding to the one who has also deceived, Lavan’s words drip with irony, It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder

We wonder how Lavan’s words touch Yaakov, whether they do in the moment of his own vulnerability, when he is the one deceived. The uncle’s words become a mirror in which Yaakov can see himself if he is willing to look, to gaze and reflect in all of his pain and vulnerability. Lavan’s words can also become a mirror for us if we are willing to look, to bravely accept an opportunity in which to gaze at aspects of ourselves that we may prefer not to see.

Through the years, Yaakov has grown abundantly, with his two wives, both Leah and Rachel, and with their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, becoming the father of eleven children, rich in herds and flocks. Twenty years having passed, he now seeks to return home to his family in Canaan. Well aware of Lavan’s jealousy and that of Lavan’s sons, Yaakov sets out a plan, coordinated with his wives in defiance of their father, to secretly flee. When the time comes and the great procession makes its way into the unknown, distance is put between them and the sure to follow retinue of Lavan. Eventually the distance is bridged, if not the hearts of fleer and pursuer, an encounter that is hard to imagine, wondering who would speak first and what to say to the other.

The Torah sets the stage for us, telling us of human vulnerability as the place of the encounter, a place beyond time and space, a place carried in each of our hearts. We are simply told, And Yaakov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramean in that he did not tell him, because he fled (Gen. 31:20). That is exactly what Lavan says just a few verses later, you have robbed my heart…; and you did not permit me to kiss my sons and daughters…! As with Yishma’el earlier, and then with Esav, the Torah brings us to a place of human encounter, holding before us emotions that we can understand because they are our own. In the context of Jewish law, beginning in the Talmud ((Tractate Chulin 94a), Jacob is wrong to deceive Lavan, however much we may understand his actions. 

    Such deception is called g'neivat da'at/stealing of mind, accomplished when outer actions and spoken words belie inner feeling and intent. We are meant to ask, to wonder, what else might he have done; how differently might he have responded to the situation; how might he have directly engaged with Lavan to open the possibility of understanding and a different way of departure?

As we consider why such a negative view of Esau has developed in the tradition, so too with Lavan. We can surely draw negative inferences about both of them from the Torah text, but not at all to the extent of evil later ascribed to them. There is surely as much fault to find with Yaakov and others of our ancestors. My visitor’s question lingers, so why such a negative view as it plays out through time? Perhaps it emerges from our own vulnerability and pain, from our own experience as a people. That we might learn to break such destructive dynamics, Torah challenges us to think of our own lives and their contexts, of our own experiences with people. We are meant to ask what we might do to help foster reconciliation and the possibility of wholeness in all the varied ways of our own relationships with people as they occur in the living of our lives. The challenge for us then becomes how to avoid weaving new enmities and enemies from what are often scant threads of conflict as encountered in the texts of our lives.

The Torah is meant to be a context in which to wrestle with life and its encounters, and so we are meant to wrestle here, as indeed Jacob will soon do. As we encounter people at their most vulnerable, however much they may seem to us to be “other,” we are able to see ourselves reflected in their pain. The negative portrayal of the other emerges, perhaps, through our own inability to look at what is most difficult to behold in our selves. Torah offers a context in which to wrestle, a place in which to ask hard questions of our selves and of each other as we seek to understand the Esaus and Lavans whom we encounter along the way of our lives. We come to ask how and why we create enemies, why we foster images of the other that allow us to continue seeing them as an enemy.

While my visitor’s question still lingers, in considering the negative images ascribed to others, may we bravely seek to build connection in the places of our common vulnerability. From the place of shared human pain, may we come to know the heart that would be shattered if that which was most precious to it was stolen, and in protecting from such sorrow may know shared human joy. So the rabbis asked, who is a hero of heroes/aizehu gibor she’b’giborim? And they answered, one who makes of their enemy their friend (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23).
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 11, 2020

2020 Vision?


Sitting here, looking out of the kitchen window, it is easy to settle into the illusion of a perfect and peaceful world.  In an orderly way, the November rains and winds have come.  The leaves have drifted down and heaped themselves into rake-defying corners around the cabin.  The skeletal trees offer a bony kind of beauty as ethereal branches lift toward the sky and lichens become more luminescent on oak bark.  No sun today, just November gray, soft, undemanding, comfortable.  But back in the reality of my kitchen, the ubiquitous masks rest on the kitchen table next to my wallet and keys - reminding me of the passage of a year like no other.   When the year began, I wondered how 2020 might be come a metaphor for clearer vision as we entered deepest winter, little realizing on January 1 that by the end of the month 2020 would become an apocalyptic year.  From the Greek, apocalypse means “uncovering” or disclosure or revelation of great knowledge.  

As the year unfolded television and phone screens around the world allowed us to witness the murder of George Floyd.  We watched as nonviolent protests in the nation's capitol were met with military presence and tear gas.  The daily report of positive Covid tests and then the mounting numbers of Covid deaths became a morning ritual on the daily news.  The statistics for illness and deaths among people of color and among the poor alarmingly surpassed the statistics for the general population.

We watched as the callous lack of concern and compassion, the ignorance and refusal to recognize the deadliness of the virus, the disdain for and rejection of the simplest, effective methods for protection paved the way for astronomical numbers of infections and deaths. 

White supremacy, food insecurity, economic instability, threatened elections, Black Lives Matter, poverty, homelessness, gross inequities in our health care delivery system,  job losses,  a stalled, contentious and uncooperative Congress - all have kept the country on edge as the pandemic has re-ordered our lives. 

2020 has been an apocalyptic year.  The veil is drawn back.  The revelations are undeniable. We can see much more clearly now, the inequities in our health care delivery systems.  We can see much more clearly now, how deeply white supremacy is ingrained in our culture. We can see more clearly the nature of police brutality towards people of color. We can see more clearly the results of our toxic political environment.  We can see more clearly the gross inequities in our health care system. This is the apocalypse we live with now - - the revelation - -  the disclosure - - the drawing back of the veil.  Clearer vision is deeply painful.  But through the centuries the notion of apocalypse has brought with it notions of hope for a new creation subverting and replacing the old.  So - here we stand, on the threshold of 2021 and now I am wondering how we will live into the coming year responsibly, given what we now see more clearly.      

May we anticipate a saner, more hospitable, more compassionate, more generous, less violent expression of our collective humanity as we prepare once again as the holiday season unfolds.  The light of the Hanukkah candles signify hope in a deeply suffering world.  

The Advent candles invite the contemplation of renewed peace and joy in the count-down to the Christmas celebrations as Christians prepare to welcome  the most truly Human One into our lives once again.  May the loving and compassionate wisdom of the Holy One invade our lives on the breath of a New Born, sweet and captivating.   May the blessings of complete healing, joyful reconciliation, peace of mind, adequate income, food in the fridge, outrageous laughter, meaningful work, and loving relationships be abundant for all in the coming year. 

Vicky Hanjian