Friday, November 16, 2018

Suffering and Transformation


                  When I have quiet time or am engaged in some activity that doesn’t require my whole attention, like  washing windows or doing the dinner dishes or scrubbing the bathroom shower, my mind wanders to thoughts about how to live in this world of conflict and division and violence and suffering and disrespect.   Sometimes it is hard to hold a spacious mind and heart and pull back far enough to glimpse the Big Picture - - to actually see if there is meaning in what I experience as a kind of insult or assault on my sensibilities with each day’s headlines or news reports.  I wonder if we are on some irreparable path of destruction from which we will not recover or are we on a long and tortuous path to some kind of wholeness, the end point of which we cannot yet see.

As if in dialogue with my inner musings, the daily meditation that I receive in my morning email from Richard Rohr (Center for Contemplation and Action) gave me some more verbal tools for the inner wrestling:

Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (see Luke 11:29; Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead us  into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.   Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. The separate and sufficient self has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is (but does not recognize yet): the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use whatever words you want. It is who we fundamentally are in God and who God is dwelling in us. Once we are transplanted to this solid place, we are largely indestructible! But then we must learn to rest there, and not just make occasional forays into momentary union. That is the work of our whole lifetime.

Whew!!  Maybe that thought expands the picture too much and too quickly!  Just getting my head around the notion that we may be in the “belly of the beast” - or in the “refiner’s fire” (to use a different metaphor from Malachi 3:2), part of a grand process of cleansing and redemption that will take us to a deeper level of “humanity aware of its divinity” is a bit mind altering to say the least.

I went with a friend to see a one woman performance titled “ETTY” last night.  An hour long glimpse into the life and thought and spirit of Etty Hillesum, taken from her diaries while awaiting her fate as a Jewish woman during WWII in Holland in 1941.  

       This is how Etty describes the indestructible nature of the True Self in the midst of all the horrors of the Westerbork transit camp, a staging ground for the deportation of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust:

This morning, while I stood at the tub with a colleague, I said with great emotion something like this: “The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering doesn’t really matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.” [1]

Another mind bending take on the transformational possibilities of immense suffering. 

Each week as I return home from Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday and then from Sunday morning worship, I feel gratitude for the communities in which I find grounding and strength for living through the coming week and healing for my spirit of the spiritual wounds encountered in the prior week.   The morning meditations from Richard Rohr are another resource for each day.  Buddhist reflections on simplicity and loving kindness from Christina Feldman are an ongoing source of inspiration. 

I am  seeing that my hunger for community and for spiritual strength and wisdom are part of a transformational process that is going on in me in response to the daily unfolding of events in the headlines.  Maybe my ego is truly undergoing a gradual process of “dismantling” as I recognize “the teacher” veiled in the grubbiness of the social and political milieu. 

Now, if I could only stand back far enough to be able to see and know whether the vast social, political, ecological, economic and spiritual suffering on this planet is indeed working a collective transformational process that “destabilizes the imperial ego”  of systems and politicians in the service of the human spirit.  I am impatient for some reassurance that this is so.  But maybe witnessing and acknowledging  my own process will have to be enough for now.

Vicky Hanjian

[1] Etty Hillesum, Letter (June 29, 1943). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 287-288  cited in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center For Action and Contemplation, October 21, 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018

Getting, Doing, Being

Although I wrote about this experience some years ago, I believe it bears repeating. While I was Chaplain at a college in Maryland, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the graduation speaker.  The Swiss psychiatrist had recently published her book "On Death and Dying," based on near death experiences with her patients. I was moved by her speech and impressed by the wisdom I found in her book. One idea stood out above all the rest. According to Kubler-Ross, the dying value the opportunity to talk about their death with someone who is able to listen.

As my father lay dying after a long illness, I mentioned this to my mother. She responded with, "don't look at me. You're the minister in the family." Since my siblings were not present and I didn't think any of them would relish the task, I took a deep breath and decided I would do the deed.

          I went into my father's room where he lay quietly on the bed. After a few minutes of meaningless conversation I said something like, "Dad, it seems like you are OK with dying, if that's what happens, as well as  with pulling through this illness alive." There was silence. I may have been holding my breath. Then he said the wisest and most value laden statement I ever heard him make. He said, "I've always believed it doesn't matter what you get or what you do. What matters is who you are. If that's what you believe, there's nothing more you have to get or do and you can die anytime having fulfilled your purpose." Then there was the kicker. "And I've tried to teach my children this. What do you think?"

At that point I realized I was the one who needed him to talk with me about death, not the other way around. He had it together. I was still learning.

The reason I'm recalling this experience is because of the implicit values. We live in a time where we need to re-examine the fundamental values that guide our behavior and communicate who we are. Is life about getting and doing, or about being? For many of us, that means looking again at the life of Jesus and the values of the Christian faith, where my father was schooled.

       We were talking about values in my religion class the other day. One of the first mentioned was humility. Reference was made to the parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the tax collector. It ends, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." Also mentioned was the passage in Philippians where we are encouraged to "do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." I couldn't help but think about our current political situation as I read that passage.

Another value mentioned was forgiveness. We had seen the film "The Power of Forgiveness" the week before. In several different scenarios from cold blooded murder to the terror of 9/11 and the holocaust, the film explores the possibility and potential consequences of acts of forgiveness. The film makes clear that the act of forgiveness is often more helpful to the one forgiving than to the forgiven. Carrying bitterness and hate around for weeks or years is not healthy. And sometimes the one most in need of forgiveness is one's self!  Jesus said forgive seventy times seven. He even forgave those who crucified him.

A third value we discussed was inclusion. Jesus was inclusive! No one was turned away! He touched and healed those the culture had rejected. He stopped the stoning of sinners. He spoke with the despised Samaritans. He welcomed into his presence all those the religious authorities of the day discarded. His disciples represented the common people, not celebrities. 

If one reads the story of the eunuch and Philip in the book of Acts, one finds the model for Christian inclusion of others rejected by institutional barriers and religious requirements. The eunuch who would never be allowed in the temple because he wasn't "whole," is baptized at his request, into the inclusive community following Jesus. Once again, our present political situation stood in stark contrast to the inclusiveness of the Scriptures.

Finally, the class discussed the big three Christian values: faith, hope and love. 

The students I see are not optimistic about the changing climate. To a person they do not believe the human community will act to prevent climate catastrophe. When I ask if they are depressed or in despair, many admit they are. But one student said she was hopeful. That's different from being optimistic. Hope is one of the most significant values the tradition provides for our time, where the demons of greed, war, famine and extinction continually rear their ugly heads. 

The second of the big three, faith, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," is essential, if hope is to have life. And love underlies them both. 

Values are useless unless they are integrated into human lives and into the societies people inhabit. We encourage individuals to learn values from early childhood. Those who do we soon identify as persons of integrity. But we aren't as adept at cultivating and adapting those values into our social and cultural institutions. 


Wake up America! It doesn't matter what we get or what we do. It's who we are!

Carl Kline

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Rabbis' Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of LIfe Synagogue in pittsburgh


A Rabbi’s Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

Dear Chavraya,
With heavy hearts we hold each other, reaching out and encircling with love. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not the Shabbos hope for a world of peace. I only heard toward the end of Shabbos, from someone knocking on the door, of the horrific shooting today at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We joyfully celebrated a Bas Mitzvah this morning, oblivious to the terror that engulfed others of our extended Jewish family. We are joined with them in pain and sorrow, sending with so many others our grief filled prayers that might somehow offer comfort, if simply to know that we are one.

 
          At the start of this evening's long-planned Jewish Arts program, we made Havdallah together, a large circle taking in the sweetness, the bitter-sweetness now, even more so than the usual touch of melancholy as Shabbos leaves. Havdallah marks the transition from Shabbos peace, its wholeness and sweetness, to the days of the week. Today that wholeness was shattered and with Havdallah we seek transition from the violence and hate of this world, of this country, of this time. The hope of Shabbos for a better time, its yearning for the day that is all Shabbos, is forever intact, inspiring and urging us to go out from Shabbos and help to bring that time. As this week begins, we go out as mourners determined to say with our deeds a great amen to the blessing held in the memory of each precious life that was taken today.

      Near the end of Shabbos my office phone rang. I didn't answer because it was still Shabbos. Then immediately my cell phone rang and I knew I needed to get it. It was the minister of Bethel AME calling with condolences and to offer a prayer. It was three years ago that we gathered in his church to mourn with the African American community in response to the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. As we have reached out and stood with the African American community, as we have reached out and stood with immigrants, as we have reached out and stood with all of those who are hunted and hounded and hated in this country today, they now reach out and stand with us. Racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and all other hatreds are part of the same web of hate that poisons our country, a hatred that we have known as Jews throughout our history and to which we continue to respond proudly as Jews. 

Many text messages and emails have been coming in tonight from the interfaith community of which we are so much a part. There was a police car parked outside tonight during our program. Though its presence did not make me feel less vulnerable, when I went out to thank the officers, I was touched by their offer of condolence. Similarly, just now as I write, a call came from a police liaison officer to remind us of their presence and partnership.

As we come together as Jews, joined from one holy community to another, we are encircled by the love of all of those who now reach out to us. We hold their love as part of one circle of light, together becoming the wine, the spices, the light of Havdallah. Going into this week of sadness, knowing that so many of our people in Pittsburgh will begin to sit shiva in the coming days, we will strive nevertheless to infuse the days ahead with the essence of Shabbos. 
              We will be its gentle joy, its sweetness, its light, a light that shines brighter because we are joined together with so many good people, joined as the many wicks of the braided Havdallah candle. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not its hope for the world.    In spite of all, Shavua tov, a week that is good because we fill it with goodness,


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein