Friday, May 31, 2019

It CAN Happen Here (or Reclaiming the Rainbow Connection)

I belong to a church that practices “extravagant welcome.”  Each week the pastor extends a welcome to all who enter the sanctuary, regardless of age, gender orientation, race, or level of religious commitment.  It is a joy to be part of a church community that strives to be the people of God.

Last week the church choir was rehearsing in the parish hall when two strangers came into the building.  They were curious about the church and asked to see the sanctuary.  In the spirit of welcoming, one of the choir members invited the men in and escorted them into the sanctuary, telling them a bit about the history of the church.  There were questions about the rainbow flag that adorns the front door of the building.  And then there were comments about what the flag means and how a truly Christian Church should not be displaying that flag.

The choir member, taken aback, tried to continue the conversation about the life of the church community when other comments and questions began to surface: “Isn’t this the church that has a close relationship with the synagogue?”  “Christian churches should keep their people in the church.   Why do they associate with Jews?”

It is hard to know whether the graceless questions and comments were simply two people expressing opinions and views or whether there was something deeper and darker behind the unexpected visit.  Given the social and political climate in which we live, the incident evoked anxiety and a sense of threat in both the Christian and the Jewish congregations.   
“Surely this can’t be happening here!”

Another small congregation wrestles with the decision about whether to fly the rainbow flag, to publicly identify themselves as a “welcoming congregation.”  The process of concerted discernment  has been activated by their denomination’s recent decisions to refuse ordination to “practicing” homosexuals, to prohibit their clergy from performing same sex marriages.

One sentiment says “No” to flying the flag because it represents a “political” stance  and "politics and church don’t mix."   Another sentiment says “Yes”.  Flying the rainbow flag tells the world something about who we are as a committed Christian community.  Still other voices say “We will leave the church if the flag is displayed” even though the congregation loves its gay members who are fully included in the administration of life of the church.

       Meanwhile conversations about security in church and synagogue dominate dinner hour and parking lot conversations.  An unease, not quite fear yet, has crept in to our community life - - security cameras?  Doors locked during services? Police presence during religious events?   Our small community is a microcosm of  the anxiety and conflict that creeps about like a dense fog in the broader world.  We can no longer live with the illusion that “It can’t happen here.”

Did the two strangers truly represent an implied threat? Or were they simply socially inept?  We may never know.  The tragedy is that their inquiries immediately sparked anxiety and concern and the need to take some kind of protective and defensive action.

While the smaller of the two Christian congregations wrestles with whether the rainbow flag is a political symbol that transgresses their sensibilities about the overlap between politics and religion, I am moved to understand better for myself how it is a symbol for a certain spiritual, theological and biblical morality.

We do have, after all, a rich story of the blessing and promise that came with the sign of the rainbow after 40 days and 40 nights of a deluge that swamped all of creation because of the great disappointment it had become to the Author of Life.  We have the image of a great diversity of  life, crowded into an ark, living in close proximity into an uncertain future in the confined space of a floating vessel -not unlike an image of this small planet we all inhabit.

At the end of the deluge, the Author  makes a lasting promise to the humans in the ark:  “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of that covenant between me and the earth…every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  The covenant?  “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…”

         At the end of the crisis, a symbol of life and hope and perpetuity is given.  This holy blessing came upon an incredibly diverse (if snarky and unskilled) bit of human and animal life that would eventually repopulate the earth.  That is the theological notion.  The ancient myth is worth revisiting.  The covenant between God and humankind is a radically inclusive and  extravagant welcome to all of God’s brilliant and diverse humanity.

Viewed from this mythic perspective, the Rainbow Flag may be a spiritual  symbol of a divine moral imperative - it gets to the heart of  what a Christian or Jewish community is about as we strive together to fulfill the calling we jointly inherit - the call to be holy as God is holy.

Melodies flutter in the dim folds of my memory - A young girl sings “Somewhere over the rainbow”… yearning.      A loveable green frog  sings of “the rainbow connection”…   A political symbol? - - perhaps inevitably… but first a symbol of hope, of love and hospitality in the face of diversity - - a symbol of the call to holiness - - wholeness.   

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, May 24, 2019

Off The Beaten Path

For the last several days, my husband and I and dear friends have been visiting  the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, driving the astoundingly beautiful coastal roads that have led us through forests, along ridges, through mountain passes, along rivers and given us breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean where it crashes against the shores of Cape Breton. The next few days will take us to Prince Edward Island before heading south toward Maine and then eventually  home again. 

We have been traveling in unfamiliar territory on roads we have never seen before, sleeping in strange places and eating in untried cafes and restaurants.  Traveling “off season” has often left us wondering when we would find the next place to eat since most of the businesses are still closed.

As we have driven through forests of Jack Pine and birch rising steeply on either side of the road, covering miles and miles without seeing another car or human being (or gas station), I have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflections on “The Practice of Getting Lost” in her book  An Altar In The World. 

Taylor writes about how we humans get into stable patterns that help us to move through our daily lives in an orderly way -patterns that become automatic and almost unconscious.  She compares this to the way cows follow well trod paths day in and day out without having to think about where they are going or what they are doing.   She writes “I am convinced that this is normal human behavior, which means that something extra is needed to override it.  Why override it? Because once you leave the cow path, the unpredictable territory is full of life. True, you cannot always see where you are putting your feet.   This means you can no longer stay unconscious. You can no longer count on the beaten down red dirt path making all of your choices for you.  Leaving it, you  agree to make your own choices for a spell.  You agree to become aware of each step you take, tuning all of your senses to exactly where  you are and exactly what you are doing.

             This has been our experience, traveling along hairpin turns high above the ocean, not being able to see whether other vehicles are approaching  on the road ahead, keeping conscious watch for obstacles in the road where the signs indicate the danger of falling rocks.  With senses heightened by the unfamiliarity of the road ahead, we have noticed incredible beauty  that we might not be consciously aware of  on our normal cow paths.   The play of light on the ocean; the softness of the mist shrouding the trees;  ribbons of water falling from hidden places in the rocky cliffs.

While traveling with a fairly dependable GPS device, it is hard to get REALLY lost, and yet the experience of traveling through an unfamiliar wilderness landscape does lead to reflection on the need to leave behind familiar patterns, however temporarily.  On those occasions when the device “can’t find us” we do get to have the experience of being lost.  All of a sudden, it is just us in the car in the wilderness, unable to even sense direction because of the fog and the lack of an appearance by the sun.

         Being of a theological mindset, I find myself connected in a new way to my “faith ancestors” - - Abram and Sarai being called out to “a land I will show you” - perhaps not really knowing where they were going, but answering the call with a willingness to get lost;  then Jacob running into strange territory to escape his brother’s anger and running straight into holy space;  Moses and his band of wanderers finding their way through wilderness to a place of promise;  all willing to be “lost” - - and on their way finding new ways of being conscious.

On our travels, we were largely without the benefit of TV and the nightly news. Some of the hotel televisions required a degree in electronic technology in order to figure out which of the three remotes controlled which aspect of the TV!  (We fondly remembered when all we had to do was turn on the TV and choose a channel out of the 5 or 6 that were available!) So we pretty much gave up our predictable 6 o’ clock evening news pattern.  When we finally reconnected with the “outside world” I realized just how fully we had over-ridden the “predictability of the cow path.” 

We had spent time after time sitting at the dinner table in small out of the way restaurants and diners enjoying the company of wait staff and local people as well as others traveling the off the beaten path.  Places with unlikely names like “The Yello Cello” and “The Farmer’s Daughter” and “Proud To be Hookers” (a rug hooking co-op).  We discovered gentleness, kindness, generosity, trust, interest, hospitality, grace and delightful humor in strangers wherever we landed. 

Getting off the path, journeying through mountainous wilderness,  traveling miles and miles  through largely unpopulated and wild ocean landscapes, feeling the remoteness and isolation that comes with fog and rain and wind in strange places all sharpened our senses and our receptivity to the beauty of so many diverse human beings when we reached “civilization” again.

        I came home wishing that this were the predominant experience of human beings wandering, running, walking, swimming, sailing their way through so many wildernesses to come to my country.  Wishing that warmth and hospitality, kindness and generosity and safety would be what they meet when they finally cross our borders.   As a country, will we find our way to being the kind of land that listens to the ancient challenge: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in prison and you visited me…”?   

 Our well beaten paths are so limiting.  Wandering in the wilderness, getting lost,  is life and consciousness  expanding.    Jelaluddin Rumi asks the provocative question: Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, May 17, 2019

Letting the Light Come In

            One of the most special moments of the Jewish week is Havdalah time. It is a simple gathering, celebrated most often in the home, marked by wine, sweet spices, and a gracefully braided candle of many wicks. The word means to distinguish, as in to separate. I prefer to think of Havdalah, however, as marking a bridge between Shabbos time and weekday time. More importantly, it is a bridge between the Sabbath that has just ended and the envisioned day that is all Shabbos, yom she’kulo Shabbos. I came to a new insight recently through the help of the Slonimer Rebbe and, even more, the help of all of the Thursday morning coffee shop Torah seekers with whom I learn. I found myself reframing a Havdallah custom of my own that I have followed for so many years. Even as I look ahead to Shabbos, I find myself also looking ahead to the bittersweet moment of Havdallah, waiting to bring in real time new insight into the embrace of the prayerfully familiar.

It is customary to do something upon saying a blessing, to at least symbolically join action with intention. At Havdallah, we sip the wine that marks the joy of Shabbos, joy that we hope will one day fill the earth and touch every heart, each one free to rejoice in their portion, free and unafraid. We smell the sweet spices and imagine the sweetness of Shabbos infusing the world all around, sweetness gently opening every heart, tenderness revealed from deep within. As in lighting the Shabbos candles with which this day apart begins, perhaps it would be enough, dayenu, simply to behold the light of the braided Havdalah candle, simply to take in the flame and its meaning, a flame that is fuller for its rising from many wicks interwoven, many flames become as one. In order to do something beyond the act of seeing, beyond beholding, there is a custom to extend one’s hands with the palms up, then to turn the fingers down and to see the light illumine one’s fingernails.

I have never been satisfied with that custom, never having found similarly deep meaning in examining my fingernails as in the customs associated with the other items. The candle itself is filled with meaning, the interweaving of wicks reminding of the greater light to be raised up when the many are joined as one. Indeed, we realize in making Havdallah that only by so joining together shall we get to the day that is all Shabbos. Working together remains the great challenge, our separation from each other a barrier that can block out the light. So too, the depth of pain in the world all around us and in our own lives or the lives of those close to us can become a barrier to seeing the light as it rises from the many wicks of the Havdallah candle.

          At some point, no longer remembering when or how it came to be, I simply held up my hands as though, God forbid, to block the light of the Havdalah candle. And then I opened my fingers, just a little at first, and then wider and wider, allowing the light to come though, then turning my hands down and allowing the dark and light of life shadows to dance upon the palms of my hands. That remains my custom each week, at that moment of transition and bridging, pausing to behold the light of Shabbos, allowing it to shine through all of the barriers that beset us, in the world and in our own lives. It is a moment when light truly shines through brokenness because we allow it to. It is a moment in which rays of hope point, nevertheless for all that besets us, toward the day that is all Shabbos, time of Mashi’ach/Messiah, time of swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks.

          The weekly Torah portion, Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23), is set amidst so much pain, so far from that time of wholeness. As the saga of Yosef and his brothers unfolds, a family is torn apart. Thrown into a pit by his brothers, Yosef is drawn out by a passing caravan of merchants and is brought down into Egypt and sold as a slave. The eldest brother, Reuven, had planned to rescue Yosef and return him to his grief-stricken father. Judah had sought to save Yosef with less magnanimity, suggesting that the brothers themselves sell him as a slave, thus to derive some profit rather than to kill him. After the incident at the pit and the beginning of Yosef’s cruel journey, there is an interlude in the saga that will soon be resumed. Yehuda goes off to find a wife. That mysterious telling begins with the words, va’y’hi ba’et ha’hi/and it came to pass at that time… (Gen. 38:1).

The words are relatively straightforward, referring to that span of time in which Yehuda takes leave of his brothers and goes off on his own journey. The rabbis are drawn to that simple phrase, however, looking beyond the obvious and asking, “what came to pass at that time?” And so they fill in the blanks and suggest what was happening at that time: the tribes were engaging with the sale of Yosef, and Yosef was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, and Ya’akov was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, and Yehudah was engaged with seeking a wife, and the Holy Blessed One was engaged – creating the light of the Messiah/boreh oro shel melech ha’mashi’ach -- va’y’hi ba’et ha’hi/and it came to pass at that time… (B’reishit Rabbah 85:1).

In the strange unfolding of Yehudah’s tormented journey, he does find a wife, and the light of the Messiah is imperceptibly sown. Of three sons with his wife, the first two die, followed then by the death of his wife. Each son had been married to Tamar, to whom he had promised his third son in due time, a promise reneged upon, fearing lest the younger one should die as well. Going off again, seeking comfort this time, Yehudah has an affair with a prostitute, who, unbeknownst to him, is in fact his twice-widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar.
Discerning glimmerings of light beyond, through choreography meant to insure an enduring bond to the family, albeit through the father, Tamar gives birth to twin sons. One is named Peretz, meaning “breach,” and the other is named “Zerach,” meaning “ray of light.” Through the breach, light will shine. It is the light of the Messiah that God was preparing, for with Peretz, as enumerated at the end of the Book of Ruth, begins the line of David, from which will come the Mashi’ach. Through the cracks of a family’s shattering shines the light of redemption.

      From the midrash that imagines what came to pass at that time, the Slonimer Rebbe draws from its themes of national and collective redemption to help us each see the light that shines through the struggles of our own lives. He teaches that before there can be new blossoming there needs to be furrows into which seed can be sown. Looking to the painful context in which we here encounter Yosef and his family, the Slonimer himself wrestles, as we do, and suggests that the cracks in the life of this family are the very furrows in which the light of the Mashi’ach might be sown and then blossom. Interweaving the brokenness of people and the brokenness of the world, each reflected in the other, the Slonimer teaches that the broken and scattered heart will not be scorned/lev nish’bar v’nidcheh… lo tivzeh, for this is the foundation of renewed blossoming/she’ze’hu ha’yisod l’tzmi’cha m’chudeshet. Of another rebbe, it is what Leonard Cohen (his memory be a blessing) teaches: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in….”

May we behold in every season the light of the Havdalah candle and of every gentle flame that beckons, and through all the barriers that beset us may we open up our fingers and let the light come in.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, May 10, 2019

Be angry but do not sin...

      There was an article in the IDEAS section of Sunday's Boston Globe ( May 5, 2019) this week about anger addiction.  The writer described one man’s personality change as he was increasingly engaged in listening  to  radio programs of the Rush Limbaugh genre.  Frank Senko went from being a loveable, genial, ”hippie before there were hippies” type guy to being “irritable, cranky and irascible” - engaging in the habit of spending three hour “lunches” with Rush Limbaugh. His daughter shared: A man who’d made his children read for an hour before bedtime, who always told them that higher education was the most worthwhile thing they could do, became suspicious of universities as liberal incubators. A man who used to stop people on the street when he heard an accent he didn’t recognize to say hello now didn’t like immigrants or Hispanic people. A man who’d welcomed his children’s gay friends into his home “didn’t want it in his face” anymore.
      For some time now -at least since the 2016 election, I have been monitoring my own responses to the level of anger I hear on the news, regardless of the station.  Irritability, adrenalin, and fatigue all seem to be the way my body responds to the ongoing expressions of anger and outrage that are a consistent part of our daily lives if we  are regularly part of “the listening public.”
Regardless of the source of the insult - Limbaugh or the White House or the commentary and spin - - indulging in anger seems infectious -perhaps even an addicted response that can change our personalities and our outlook on life.
        “He became a person we hated being around and we didn’t know. It was like that movie [Invasion of the Body Snatchers]: ‘What happened to Dad?’” said Frank Senko’s daughter. “It was a really horrible period of time for us . . . It was a nightmare, both my brothers blocked him, I blocked him.” Senko’s stomach clenched every time she thought of visiting. Her dad was angry all the time. And Senko knew exactly what was to blame: The steady drip-feed of outrage he listened to every day.
         As I listen to the folks I encounter in the course of a week, I hear the stress, the irritability, the impatience.  I see the aggression and rudeness that come with anger in everyday social interactions, in the way people drive, in the insensitivity to and impatience with the needs of others.
Anger’s ubiquity, its stickiness, indicates that we get something out of it. Frank Senko’s anger had become a habitual response to perceived threats and cues, a repeated behavior for a specific reward that led him to abandon the values he’d taught his own children and isolate himself to simmer in the vitriol coming over the airwaves. Senko had another way to describe her dad’s behavior: “He was addicted.”
       So -I am pondering the question of the right place of anger as a legitimate human emotion.  I feel as though it has become distorted and abused in some way.    Ephesians 4: 25-27 reads this way (NRSV): So then, putting away falsehood, let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger and do not make room for the devil.
         Many years ago, I was taught that anger is an appropriate and healthy response to injustice, that it is energy that can be used to create change where change is needed.  Anger arising out of compassion and empathy may be the fuel that is necessary to engage in truth telling - the energy required  to encounter falsehood.  There are many things about which anger is the emotion we feel in order to energize ourselves to act in the service of  justice.
         So what is the difference between the “Limbaugh” anger that seems to catch so many people in its addictive net and the kind of  anger that becomes the energy for creative change?  I wonder if part of the difference is that the kind of rage response that seems to hold so many people in its grip these days is one that only empowers and feeds on itself to permit an individual to feel larger, somehow - - more powerful- - simply by virtue of the effect that their rage has on other people around them. It is destructive anger which accomplishes little more than its own self perpetuation.  On the other hand, the anger of which Ephesians speaks is one that is directed toward rectifying wrongs and restoring relationships -an anger that does not permit falsehood but rather desires truth.   The anger in Ephesians is to be limited - not to survive the setting sun - and is not to be the source of discord and separation (making room for the “devil”) but rather the instrument of  building up a whole community in truth and love.

       Frank Senko’s story had a happy ending to what his daughter described as his anger addiction:     But there is hope. You can quit anger. Senko’s dad did, before his death at the age of 93 in 2016 — with a little help. After his radio broke, he stopped listening to the talk shows; he and Senko’s mother started eating lunch together again. He stopped watching Fox News when they got a new TV and his wife programmed the remote with all her channels. And while he spent a week in the hospital recovering from kidney stones, his family quietly unsubscribed him from the right-wing emails he’d been getting.
“He became happy. And adorable. And we became friends again. And he and my mother got along really great,” said Senko. “The last couple years of his life, he was himself again, and we had him back.”
          Unlimited and unthinking exposure to the destructive, sensationalist anger that emanates from the Rush Limbaugh and Fox News types of media is not good for us - pure and simple.  It affects our personalities and our responses to life around us.  Better, perhaps, to take control of the dial or the remote and fill our senses with reasoned consideration of the issues that come in moderated voice tones that do not activate the adrenalin and the rage response but rather may generate in us the response to act with compassionate anger in behalf of sanity and justice, truth telling and reconciliation.   From time to time we may need to ask ourselves  “What the heck am I listening to?  And why?”

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, May 3, 2019

Truth be told....

When I was growing up, lying was a punishable offense in our home. In order to avoid detection of some of my inappropriate deeds, I began to learn all the subtleties of lying. For one thing, you could leave some things out of the story when confronted by mom or dad. It's called lying by omission. Another option was to add some extraneous detail that would moderate the lie and make it more acceptable. Or you could exaggerate the situation to make the lie seem necessary. Or you could try and project an image of a concerned and caring son, who wouldn't deliberately do a bad thing, only do it in ignorance or believing it was the right thing to do. This approach could sometimes mean the difference between punishment and mercy.

       Some of the ways of lying I learned from my sister. A good example was one night when my parents were out and our grandmother was watching us. We were at an age where siblings fight. The object of our fight that night is long forgotten but the result I remember well. My sister was older and stronger than I was. At some point in our struggle, she threw me on the glass top of our coffee table and broke it. When my parents came home and saw the destruction, my sister told them I broke it. Yes, technically, it was my body that did the damage. She left out the rest of the context and as the younger and rowdier sibling I was punished for the damage. It's called lying by blaming!

On another occasion, I was anxious to join a ball game with kids in the neighborhood in the empty lot next to our home. This was an after dinner routine that was often a highlight of my day. As i was about to go out the door, my dad asked me to empty the wastepaper basket into the furnace in the basement. I grabbed the basket, did the deed and ran out to play ball. A few minutes later my dad called me into the house and asked me if I had emptied he waste basket in the furnace. I said "yes." He then led me downstairs to show me the pieces of paper that didn't make it into the furnace,  scattered on the basement floor. This was an instance of what my father considered a partial truth and it meant missing a ball game that night and a spanking besides. Partial truths sometimes substitute for an outright lie.

As a kid, I thought my mother had mysterious powers for detecting lies. For one thing, you didn't want to look her in the eye. When she wanted to know the answer to a question and you were lying, you knew her next response would be, "look at me!" It was hard to know what she read in your face but she always saw the fib there. The other drawback to not being straight with mother was she seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. She always seemed to know more about what I was doing than I did.

Pinocchio came out as a Disney movie before i was born. It must have influenced the childhood refrain one heard on the playground. "Liar, liar / pants on fire / nose as long as a telephone wire." Even in the childish circles of my upbringing, lies were recognized and called out.

Truth be told, I believe I learned in our home and larger community that lying was wrong. One lie can lead to another and another and before you know it, a person doesn't know the difference between a lie and the truth. Some people lie knowing it's wrong but believing they have valid reasons for doing so. You may encourage someone on their death bed with words of healing, knowing full well they will never get better. But even in such circumstances, it may be faulty reasoning. Perhaps the ill one is waiting for someone to acknowledge their approaching death and talk with them about it.

Our Senator Thune made a passionate speech on the floor of Congress during the impeachment trial of President Clinton. It was clear Clinton lied under oath about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky. Thune said, "The President genuinely believes that he is telling the truth. We are left with one of two equally miserable realities: either the President chooses contempt and complete disregard for the truth, or his conscience is so diminished as to leave him unable to discern the truth from his lies. Both conclusions are ruinous to a constitutional republic whose leaders must command the trust of those they lead."

         It was an excellent speech! Senator Thune mentioned the word "trust" on several occasions. "Lying to the American people is a betrayal of trust." "It is a matter of trust." The Senator rendered his decision in favor of impeachment after "much study, much thought, and much prayer."

As of April 1, 2019, President Trump has made 9,451 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post. My parents would be appalled, even though they were dyed in the wool, conservative Christians.  From, I'll release my income taxes to "never;" from I don't know anything about a payment to Stormy Daniels to, yes I did, and all the others; there is no trust! 

Are you praying about grounds for impeachment Senator? Lots of your fellow Americans are!

Carl Kline