Friday, March 29, 2013

Bringing the Great and Awesome Day of God

There is an almost tangible excitement in the air as we approach Passover. Even in the fitful coming of spring, there is something in the turning of seasons, a sense of nature’s own awareness of change within itself that sings of liberation and renewal. We become attuned to the way of change, to the turning in time that is happening around us. The very first instructions concerning Passover in the Torah are immediately preceded by the commandment concerning Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each new month, that we are to mark time by sighting the crescent of the new moon (Ex. 12:1-2). Passover occurs at the full moon, a time of hope fulfilled, every month reminding us of the journey from hidden to revealed. 

Change in the natural realm happens independently of us, as long as we humans don’t destroy the delicate mechanisms upon which all life depends. Of the human quest for freedom, we ourselves are the actors, the ones upon whom change depends. That is the spiritual and even political message that underlies all the drudgery of cleaning for Passover. The chametz, all the leavened products that we strive to rid ourselves of represents all that we seek to change, all the ways of oppression, of oppressing and being oppressed, in our own lives and in the world. The process of removing chametz is meant to remind that change doesn’t just happen, that freedom doesn’t just arrive. Preparing for Passover is hard work, all the little details, perhaps seeming insignificant in themselves, are the stepping-stones to the great and awesome day.

It starts small, right at home, in the details of our lives. That is the message of the Sabbath just before Passover, Shabbat HaGadol/the great Sabbath. Rising to a crescendo of hope, in the prophetic reading for that Sabbath the prophet Malachi sings: Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God; that he may turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents (Malachi 3:23-24)…. It starts in the small worlds of our own lives, making peace and wholeness there before it can happen in the great world beyond. The great and awesome day of God of which Malachi tells is not only the source from which comes the name Shabbat HaGadol. More importantly, the vision of that day, made real in our own homes, is the source of its own fulfillment. The very words are meant to remind that the goal of Passover is to bring that great and awesome day which Elijah will announce, the day of swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, the day of the Messiah, of peace. It won’t just happen, we need to prepare the way and make it happen. That is why it begins at home.

It is hard work to prepare for Passover, great meaning hidden among the details. That is the metaphor in the nature of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav. It is one of those portions that seems opaque on the surface, filled with details of the offerings to be made in the sanctuary. We look more closely, at the names and nuance in reference to the offerings, all meant to restore wholeness, to bring people close again to each other and to God, to turn the hearts of one to another. There we find the peace offering, the sh’lamim. More than shalom, the word suggests shalem/wholeness, completeness. There is an entire teaching in the interplay of grammatical forms. There can only be peace when there is wholeness, when the circle of human belonging is complete, shalem

From such a hint hidden there among the details, the rabbis create a treatise of teachings on peace. There in a midrash on this at first opaque Torah portion, the rabbis offer practical guidance toward bringing the “great and awesome day of God,” the ultimate Shabbat HaGadol. That it is up to us to bring that day is brought home in a teaching on the unique nature of the commandment, the mitzvah, to pursue peace: Chiskiya said, “Great is peace, for it is written concerning all mitzvot, if you see, if you encounter, if it happens; that is, if the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah comes to you, you need to do it, and if not, you don’t need to do it. But in regard to peace, it is written (Psalm 34:15), Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu/seek peace and pursue it – meaning, seek it in your own place, and pursue it in another.

Shabbat HaGadol, as it comes in the midst of preparing for Passover, calls us to be rodfei shalom/pursuers of peace. We are the crucial link, called to do our part in bringing the great and awesome day. In the verses following the commandment to mark Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, that we are to look to the cycle of the moon for inspiration and hope, the rabbis deduce two Passovers. The first is Pesach Mitzrayim/the Passover of Egypt, the actual Exodus, observed once for all time, only by those who actually came out of Egypt. The second is Pesach L’dorot/the Passover of the Generations, our Passover, as observed every year since the first year after the Exodus. The rabbis speak of a third Passover, Pesach L’atid/the Passover of the Future. That is the Passover that has never happened, not yet. It is the ultimate redemption, the flowering of peace and freedom for all. Pesach L’atid and Shabbat HaGadol refer to the same time, and so too the Day that is all Sabbath/Yom She’kulo Shabbos.

As in the way of our preparing for Passover each year, so too in our preparing for the Sabbath each week, it is not for these holy days that come with the turning of days and weeks and seasons for which we are really preparing. In all of the hard work of getting ready, we are really preparing for Shabbat HaGadol and Pesach L’atid, the Great Sabbath and the Passover of the future. If we prepare with enough intention and commitment, realizing in the process to carry our preparation beyond the walls of our own homes and into the world beyond, then every Sabbath can become Shabbat HaGadol and every Passover, Pesach L’atid. If we can remove the chametz, the leavening agents that become the rising of arrogance and strife, of violence and oppression, of all that divides people from each other, then as surely as the seasons turn, we shall bring that great and awesome day of God.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Art of Living Movement

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar leads
America to Stand-Up to Violence with One Billion Acts Of

His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, world’s leading voice for non-violence,
launches “Non-Violence:  No Higher Calling” movement

Bold U.S. campaign seeks to generate one billion acts of non-violence;
5-city U.S. tour to cover San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, N.Y. and Atlanta

Given all the violence we have witnessed in America, I want to share with you a movement that inspires me--a bold plan to counteract America’s 100 million acts of violence every year.  Not with legislation, rhetoric, or more sedatives and tranquilizers...but with the most powerful force on the planet:  the love and conscience of an awakened people.

This month, the Art of Living is launching a national movement lead by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of AOL. He is an internationally acclaimed humanitarian, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the recipient, this month, of this year’s Ghandi-MLK-Ikeda award for Nonviolence bestowed by Morehouse College. For over 30 years, his mission of uniting the world into a violence-free, stress-free global family inspired the lives of over 300 million people who participated in Art of Living programs, in over 151 countries. Sri Sri has been a strong supporter of the anti-corruption movement in India, a voice for women’s empowerment throughout the world, and an advocate for countless other humanitarian causes.

Starting March 25, through April 3, Sri Sri will be visiting the US during his five-city tour through San Diego, L.A., Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The New York event will launch March 30th in the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in midtown Manhattan at 2pm.  We invite you to join us at the event and to commit to your own act of non-violence. ( ) With our commitments, we will make the voice of non-violence louder than violence. Together we will reach 1 billion acts of non-violence.

"Often violence comes with noise. Non-violence happens in silence. People
who are violent make  loud noise; they make it  known.  People who are
non-violent are quiet. But the time has come for people who are non-violent
to make noise so that the violence will quiet down. The message of
non-violence has to come loud and clear so that it can be heard from a
young age.
A sense of shame has to be connected with anger and violence. The reason
for violence in young people is a sense of pride in anger and violence, not
a sense of shame. People feel proud that they are violent or angry. They
think it is prestigious or a status symbol to be aggressive. Aggression is
not thought to be a quality to be ashamed of. This promotes aggression and
violence in the whole society, and when aggression and violence are
promoted, human values diminish. Some movies and modern music glorify
frustration, anger and revenge and make these a role model for children."

 -- Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Nonviolence: No Higher Calling seeks to make the voice of nonviolence loud; for every action of violence we commit to 100 actions of nonviolence.  We start now, together.  Commit today to an action of nonviolence at

Ilona Noskova, Guest Blogger

Monday, March 18, 2013

Loving Wells

Lunch was over.  Bread was baking in the oven.  I was ready to sit down to relax for an hour.  The phone rang.  A member of one of the small congregations on the island calling.  The church music committee had met the day before and the meeting ended in a blow-up.  Would I be willing to meet with the church leadership to see how to bring things back to a “higher level” of relating?

My mind immediately went to the first paragraph in the foreword of a book I just bought titled THE SACRED ART OF LOVINGKINDNESS: Preparing to Practice by one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Rami Shapiro.  The foreword by Marcia Ford begins this way: “Lovingkindness is one of those topics I love to read about.  It’s such a lofty quality.  I’ll finish reading a book about it, and I’ll sigh, wishing I could be like some celebrated Buddhist leader whose very name is synonymous with lovingkindness.  Who wouldn’t want that?  The problem is, I haven’t put much of what I’ve read into practice. Oh, I’ve exercised my version of lovingkindness for a day or two at a stretch, but soon enough, I revert to my baser nature and wish that all manner of evil would befall the unbelievably rude guy who cut in front of me at the post office.

I recently realized that I clearly needed to take action if I was ever going to integrate this noble quality into my very ordinary life.  So I did what I usually do when action is required: I read yet another book.”  

I had to laugh.  Marcia Ford’s experience so parallels my own that I could have written that paragraph myself.

The same small congregation with the conflagrating music committee has been working at a commitment to live in right relations with one another.  It was the featured article in their last newsletter.   My heart went out to them.  How difficult it is to live out the intention to be in right relations.  I am to preach in this congregation on Sunday.   I had taken the newsletter article for my preaching theme.  

Little did I know…
How do I help anyone else when I am still, after all these years, so inept at the practice of lovingkindness?  How do I dare to say a word when I do not consistently practice what I preach?   I find myself in a state of chagrin with Aldous Huxley who quipped  “ It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find that one has no more to offer [by way of advice] than this: Try to be a little kinder.”

So - - I read another book…and another…and another.  There is a discipline of cultivation that feeds the intention to live a life of lovingkindness.  While I believe that we all have the capacity for it, it doesn’t come automatically.  Like a precious seed, it needs to be cultivated.  I need to keep returning again and again to the various wells of spiritual tradition to nurture the easily parched beginnings into stable growth.  The wells of Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Islamic tradition, the traditions of indigenous peoples, all offer the sweet clear water of guidance for living in lovingkindness.  At the deepest bottom of each well is the universally acclaimed truth that we are all one - - members of one another - - created in the same image and likeness - - drawing our humanity from the same source of all being whether we believe that source to be a divine creator or we believe we have our origins in the stars.  

Sufi  master and poet, Hafiz, wrote:

God has a root in each act and creature
that He draws His mysterious
Divine life from.
The Beloved with his own hands is tending,
Raising like a precious child,
Himself in

A little support for my intention to live in lovingkindness.  It may only serve today.   But the wells are there and I can return and drink and live another day, and another and another.  Maybe that is the best I can do – practice lovingkindness, one day at a time.
Vicky Hanjian

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Armed School Sentinels

In some ways, I just wish the subject would go away. I'm not a gun owner. I don't ever expect to be one. The first time I shot a gun was as a kid. It was a BB gun, and the local grain elevator was a great spot to shoot birds. They were mostly sparrows and seemed like a dime a dozen to me. I remember how I felt hitting them, until the police arrived and told me I couldn't do that.

The feeling was different as an adolescent, the first time I killed a water bird. There wasn't any interest in taking another, ever.

So excuse my lack of experience when it comes to a fascination with guns and what they can accomplish. And pardon my ignorance when it comes to understanding what drives so many to want them.

The latest statistics I heard on the news were that 5,305 applications for conceal and carry permits were received in South Dakota in the month of February. That's 603 more than January of 2013 and 3,534 more than in February of 2012. Even several years ago, South Dakota was first in the U.S. in permits per capita. Imagine what it must be now. Somehow, it doesn't make me feel safer.

This news came the same day I read about two guys in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Associated Press reported they both accidentally shot themselves. The one guy was working on his handgun and shot himself in the hand. The other was putting his pistol in the holster and shot himself in the foot. Embarrassing! I hope they aren't applying for the job of South Dakota school sentinels.

That was another piece of gun news the same day, "school sentinels." The title conjures up this picture of a sentry on a battlement or a minuteman ready to take on the British. Our state legislature passed the school sentinel legislation with our former Brookings Mayor voting for it. Although most school boards, school administrations and teachers don't want guns in the schools, they can now have them, in the hands of "appropriately trained" persons. 

I'm not sure about kids today, but my friends and I would have known quickly which teacher had a gun in school, where it was kept and what it looked like. We would have managed to check it out, under lock and key or not. I'm not going to say how we would have done it, but as kids we saw and figured things out adults didn't think we could.

There are a couple of justifications for school sentinels and other "good guys with guns" that need to be exposed. They are constantly put forward by the National Rifle Association and their political supporters as reasons for having "good guys" with guns to protect us from "bad guys" with guns. Neither rationale stands up to scrutiny.

Perhaps you heard of the celebrated military sniper who was shot and killed at a gun range in Texas. Ironically, Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and sniper with 150 alleged "insurgent" kills, was unable to protect himself or a friend from an assailant, even at a range loaded with guns, and with other "good guys" with guns. Funny, you would have thought his killer would have been taken out, or at least shot right there, after he did the initial damage. No such luck. He left without a scratch.

Or how about the argument that guns offer protection for one's person and property? Before the NRA killed the research by convincing Congress to pull the funding, the Centers for Disease Control did some investigation of gun violence in the U.S. back in 1996. This is what they found, in the words of Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who was Director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we're talking about a risk of not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks."

I'm not sure who he is, but a quotation attributed to Jef Johnson says it best for me. Forget about putting armed sentinels in every school, or guns in every home. Jef suggests, "Put a teacher in every gun store." And I'd give them a yardstick and an evil eye like Mr. Gruey used to give us kids in my sixth grade class.

Basically, guns are about power. With a gun, there's no forgiveness. There's no chance for the despair of suicide to turn into hope or for doubt to turn into faith. There's no way love can be salvaged from hate or calm from rage. It's not likely an enemy will be made a friend, or sins be redeemed, or evil transformed into good. There's finality in the power of guns. 

Weapons are not a creative power. They're of their very nature a destructive power. And a society that ignores the deeper needs of the human heart and the human being in favor of an armed camp, is morally and spiritually bankrupt.

Carl Kline

Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Wing of Every Snowflake

The light was palpable. The Vermont hills were bathed in all the shades of winter’s light, surrounding, enveloping, breathtaking, breathgiving. From hilltop to valley, through field and forest, we followed the cross-county ski trails, a thread of light unfolding around us and within us, a tapestry of light, threads of morning, noon, and night. The azure sky so vast and deep, opening into the heavens. Myriads of twinkling stars at night, but the moon was shrouded in gauzy haze. Of time and change, telling of transition, not of our own a single mood to hold, steely light of snow on the wind, opaque. We awakened to the snow and skied in its falling. We felt like little figurines in a snow globe amidst the swirling flakes, all turned upside down, renewed and pure.

There is an ethereal light that shines as a gift all around, its kindling not of our own intent or making. It was there from the beginning, the light of creation in its birthing, light that was there before the light that was created on the fourth day. It is that light which the Holy Blessed One put aside and stored for the righteous in the future to come. It is a light that shines with a vision of the future. It is the light of the future, illuminating the path to its own fulfillment. Beyond human ability to create that light, it is yet for us to raise it up and allow it to shine out from the place it is stored. 

Instructions are given at the beginning of the Torah portion T’tzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) for the lighting of the menorah in the desert sanctuary and the Temples later to come. Instructions are given to Aaron, and so it comes to be for each one of us, to take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for lighting, to raise up light continually/l’ha’alot ner tamid. It is not for us to kindle, l’hadlik, the word usually used for lighting, as with a match, but to raise up pre-existing light that comes of a prior source. In the way of its description, the light of the menorah comes to represent the or ha’ganuz, that stored up light waiting for the future that is for us to create. Of that light raised upon the menorah of life, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, it was not a material light/lo haya or gashmi, rather there shined through it the light of God.
Of that light, there is also meant to shine the light of God’s comfort, so hard to find sometimes amidst the darkness. Returning from Vermont, I attended a shiva service of mourning so filled with darkness, as palpable as the light had been, for a young man of nineteen whose family I had known when teaching in a Jewish day school. A freshman in college, he had died in his sleep. Ages and times reversed, his grandfather led the prayers, his mother’s voice so strong in saying the words of the mourner’s Kaddish, words to ward off the darkness. And of the stored light, even of the young man’s soul, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches in the same teaching of the menorah’s light Isaiah’s words that we say upon the ending of shiva: your sun will set no more, neither will your moon be withdrawn, for God will be your enduring light.

And then we came to Purim in the offing beyond Shabbos. It is a day of masks and merry-making, the hidden and revealed, a celebration of salvation in ancient Persia, perhaps catharsis meant in the telling, the Jews in the end slaughtering those who would have slaughtered them. It is the story told in the Scroll of Esther, called the Megillah, violence and vision, pain and pageantry, too much for God, Whose name does not appear in the scroll at all. So quickly come the transitions in all the moods and shimmering hues of life and light, so hard to navigate, every season and mood as a snowflake upon the hand, none to hold for long. One of my favorite lines in the Megillah is near the end, a line we repeat at the close of the Sabbath every week as we look to the time of stored up light revealed, la’yehudim hayta orah v’simcha v’sason vikar/there was light for the Jews, and joy, and cheer and honor. It is the reverse of the annihilation that was meant to be. There is a teaching; those who walk in darkness saw great light. So may it be for all who mourn; and for all who struggle to transcend the violence that is part of the Purim story, part of the world in which we live.

Purim is meant to be a time of turning reality on its head, so the masks and costumes and strong drink, of turning upside down what is and seems to have always been. As we did to our enemies what they had planned to do to us, the goal should not be to reverse and do the same, but to transcend and reverse an entire way of response, to truly turn reality on its head. That is the secret message, the deeper message of Purim, to change the way of our own response, even to those who would do us harm. We are told in the Book of Proverbs that the Torah is light, its practical expression, its raising up, in our hands, in our deeds of goodness, ner mitzvah v’Torah or/the commandment is a candle and the Torah is light. Of the light that shines at the end of the Megillah, the rabbis say, orah zu Torah, she’b’z’chut ha’Torah nitzlu/this light is Torah, for through the merit of Torah we are saved. It is not through arms and the doing of violence in kind that we shall be saved, but through the raising up of light to dispel the darkness. The light that shines at the end of the Purim story bids us look beyond the darkness of the Purim story itself. It is the light that was stored up at the very beginning that is for us to raise up now, finally turning reality so fully on its head that we find a new way of being in the world. It is the palpable light that is heaven’s kiss upon the earth, touching every hilltop and valley, carried on the wing of every snowflake, infusing all with gentleness. It is the light of the human soul, God’s candle in the world.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, March 3, 2013


There was a film at  church last night that got me thinking about gifts. The film was "The Way." Martin Sheen is the main character and the film is directed by his oldest son, Emilio Estevez. In short, in the film, Sheen's character loses his son to a hiking expedition on the "Way of St. James" (also known as the Camino de Santiago). This is a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles that ends in Spain at a cathedral where St. James is said to be buried. 

When Sheen's character goes to pick up his son's body, he decides to have him cremated and to make the pilgrimage for him. As he travels the "way," he distributes his son's ashes along the path. 

The symbol for the pilgrimage is a shell. I have one hanging on a leather cord in my office, stamped Camino de Santiago on the back. I believe it's silver-plate, with the cross of St. James on the front. It was a gift, from a friend in Germany, who lives near the way. 

Watching the film and seeing the shell like mine in an early scene, took my breath away. You see, I told my friend when I took the gift, I wouldn't wear it till I had made the pilgrimage, walked those many miles with my own two feet. That's why it hangs in my office around a pin and not around my neck. At my age and with bones that sometimes ache when I wake in the morning, not from walking but just from normal everyday living, I'm not sure this pilgrimage on my bucket list will actually happen. I may need someone to do it for me, with my ashes.

Some people are amazing when it comes to selecting gifts. First of all, they know the person they are gifting. They actually think about that person, what they like, what they are like, and they go for it. Often they're willing to risk. If their gift brings tears, or laughter, or joy, or stunned silence, they'll risk it. Because it's not just a thing they're giving. Whatever the gift is, there's soul, there's spirit or love in it. 

Homemade things usually have soul. Christmas at our house always brings some homemade gifts from friends that we've come to expect and treasure: homemade candy, homemade bread and jam, homemade caramels, homemade cinnamon candy, and homemade cards. The personal touch always seems to give it a special quality, a bit of spirit.

I wish I were better at gift giving. Probably I don't spend enough time meditating on the person I'm gifting. Although come to think of it,  I've had lots of practice with the humorous kind. Family have come to expect it of me. So when my brother unwrapped the Christmas gift that had leftover tea bags in it, everybody laughed, including my brother (at least he smiled). Or when I would don my santa mask and play the santa role for friends and family, everyone knew they were going to get something wild pulled from a box of discarded auction remnants from out in the shed.

Thinking of auctions, I always wonder about those old photographs you find. Somebodies grandfather, sitting stiffly for the photographer, dressed in Sunday best and wearing his most dignified expression. Or the children, looking nervously uncomfortable or a bit robotic, so you know a parent is standing just to the side of the camera ready to pounce should they blink. Who knows who these people are? Were the photographs given as gifts and now are long forgotten, unknown to the living?

Another gift giving I'm moderately good at is my annual book give away. It all started when I left my office in campus ministry. There were way too many books, collected over many years, to take home. So we filled three banquet tables with books and put them in the lounge with signs that said "please help yourself, they'e free." Everyone did. They were all gone in four days.

Now the book give away happens every year just before Christmas. The reason I say I'm good at it is, I often suggest certain books for certain people. They are actually in my mind when their book goes on the table. This once a year event of gifting others allows me to gift myself the rest of the time and the book piles don't get overwhelming. I can't think of another gift with as much soul as a good book.

Sometimes, as I work at a local antique store, I'm aware that a purchase becomes a gift. The buyer, appreciating the quality and history of an item, realizes there is more to the item being purchased than appears on the surface. And often that  realization comes in a memory of what grandmother had on her dining room table, or grandfather had out in the barn. The purchase becomes a gift, with the spirit of those who went before attached by memory to the material in ones' hand.

"When you makest presents, let them be of such things as will last long; to the end they may be in some sort immortal, and may frequently refresh the memory of the receiver." So says the 17th. century English divine, Thomas Fuller. 

Of course, there are other kinds of gifts than those we purchase or even hold in our hands. Children are often born with certain gifts that begin to be revealed as they grow and mature. There was the film of the 5th. grader playing varsity basketball on the news last evening. He's small, but good. He seems to have a special gift.

And then in so many ways we've all been given unexpected and often undeserved gifts. In Christian theology it's called "grace." It's all those everyday experiences where we're surprised by beauty, or joy, or love. We see the snow falling gently on an all white world or see the bright red of a cardinal against the snow or watch our child making a snow angel. Small gifts with lots of soul.

Carl Kline