Sunday, July 30, 2017

Does Geography Matter?

We have moved and are settled in a new apartment. It is very nice.  During our lives, we move in and move out many times.  We keep hoping each move will make us happier, change our perspective, give us a different view of the world, and alter our very personalities.  Moving to a new place is exciting and stress producing.  But we keep on looking for that place, that promised land, where we will feel safe and at home.  Some of us find it easier than others.  But the quest goes on and on.  We never do arrive.

This is a constant theme in the Bible as well.  Having been promised a land, the Jewish people spend most of their time getting to the land, losing the land and trying to regain it.  Eventually they are kicked out of the land completely, go into a long wandering persecuted diaspora, and finally return to the promised land.  And today, in the place that was supposed to be safe and home, they find themselves surrounded by angry people who would prefer they not be there.  So it goes and goes and goes.

There is a truth to be had in all that Jewish wandering.  You will quest for the ideal cave to keep you safe and warm.  This is what we do.  We search for the perfect place, the perfect spouse, the perfect job and the perfect friends. 

But, wherever you live, life, with all its imperfections, keeps on happening.   And there are always things about which to complain. The morning paper was not delivered today.  There is no toilet paper holder.  The towel in the second bathroom is awkwardly hung.  The neighbors seem nosy.  One faucet is not working well. 

Life is a messy business with precious little perfection.  As our culture becomes efficient at fixing things, we expect everything to be easily and quickly fixed.  We expect doctors to fix all our ailments only to be disappointed to discover they too are imperfect.  More and more we expect more and more and are easily disappointed and discontented.  We live in the richest country in the world and it seems we are constantly complaining.  Our president promises to make us great again, richer, more prosperous, give us cheaper material things, and the list goes on and on.

So, what’s the deal?  Geography does matter.  Keep wandering and searching for that place.  But the deal is that life is and has always been ambiguous and imperfect.  If, wherever you live right now, you are happy fifty percent of the time. That’s pretty good.  Have a nice day and enjoy the moment.

P.S. The Blog is on break until September. Stay sane out there.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Can Christians Question God?

For as long as I have been teaching, I have encouraged my Christian students to embrace questioning the elusive and confusing mystery that is God. 

In Jewish tradition, questioning the justice and methodology of God is part of being faithful to the covenants God has made with the Jewish people.  If you believe in the promises, you hold on to your doubts and you raise your questions.

I remember a day when I asked a Lutheran seminary professor, why Christians were so reluctant to confront God concerning his unfulfilled promises.  He explained, whereas Jews were born into a tribe and could never stop being Jewish, Christians, through too many questions and doubts, could lose their faith.  He feared Christians could stop being Christian.  Christians, he asserted, who had been saved by the “amazing grace” of God could never feel as free as Jews to question their merciful God without feeling they were betraying the deity as well as their faith.

I suppose the real question is why are we asking questions or make accusations?  If we are not going to get an answer, what is the point of asking questions?  Jews, Christians and Muslims trust they have received promises from God.  When these promises are not fulfilled, questions and accusations are an honest attempt to exhort God to act like God.  Questioning and accusing God is not against faith.  It is an essential part of faith. 

And, by the way, questioning is quite biblical.  Of the 150 psalms in the bible, over a third are laments and complaints questioning the justice of God.  Jesus’ last words on the cross were a question rooted in those psalms and directed at God.  And the Lord’s prayer is a prayer full of imperatives exhorting God to act like God.

If you trust in the promises of God and they are not happening, the faithful act is not to close your eyes and believe blindly.  Blind faith is stupid faith.  I do not believe God gave us a mind and then wants us to turn it off when it comes to our religion.   

More than anything else prayers and liturgy give us a time and place to stand naked before God, to be honest and speak without pretense.  It’s true, we may not receive a response.  But, at least, we can say, we trusted in the promises and spoke the truth.

Can Christians question God?  As an honest expression of their faith, yes!  And, questioning God needs to be part of Christian, Jewish and Muslim public worship.  We need to train people to understand that faith and questions are not opposites.  Most people going about their daily lives may not have questions.  That’s fine.  But when craziness or absurd suffering happens to them and they experience the silence of God, they need to know about the intimate relation between questions and faith. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Four Differences about Judaism

Judaism differs from Christianity and Islam in at least four ways.  Judaism is a tribal religion.  Judaism does not seek converts.  Judaism teaches what you do is more important that what you believe. And Judaism encourages questions and questioning God.

Tribal Religion:  There are two ways to be Jewish:  either your mother is Jewish or you can convert into the religion of Judaism. (Reform Jews allow for a person to be Jewish if his or her father is Jewish and the person was brought up to be Jewish)

Not Seeking Converts:  Jews are taught not to seek converts and to discourage someone from converting.  The tradition teaches: a person desiring to convert should be sent away three times.  And the conversion process is lengthy, arduous and requires you to observe Jewish rituals. 

What You Do:  While many Jews have faith in God, faith is not a requirement for being Jewish.  There are many secular Jews who are proud of being Jewish.  There are many ways to be Jewish.  Honoring the rituals of the tradition and caring for the stranger are more important that believing.  In other words, Jewish tradition teaches God is more concerned about what you do then whether you believe.

Questions:  Jewish tradition encourages questioning of the scriptures, debating traditional interpretations, and most importantly, questioning the methodology of God. Questioning is a discipline at the heart of Jewish tradition and a covenantal obligation.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Nevertheless, I Persist

Here is the human dilemma.  We appear.  We are here.  Then, we disappear.  Is there any meaning to any of this?  Other than a few relatives and friends, does it matter that we exist for the time we are here?  How can our brains cope with all the suffering and evil we encounter in a lifetime?  Is there a God or is that something we made up and then conveniently forgot we did so?  If there is a God, is there any way we can understand how he, she, it operates in the world?  Given the absurdities of life, how should we live during the relatively brief time we are here?  Is there anything like an afterlife or do we just disappear, poof!?  As much as we try not to think about them, religious questions will not go away.

These questions persist because we have not been able to definitively answer them.  Each religion has its responses to the questions.  Over the years they each have developed sophisticated rationales and defenses created to deflect objections or doubts.  They assert what they assert with certainty but with precious little proof. 

But here is the thing, this is nothing new.  Religions have always been tentative vectors, glimpses, faith statements, creeds, hymns, prayers, hopes against hope, imaginations, mysteries, dim paradoxical visions along with questionable assertions and extrapolations.

Yet I remain a religious person because I trust there is something more going on than meets the eye.  I am aware that I could be wrong.  But, nevertheless, I persist.  I am haunted by these questions.  They will not let go of me, nor I of them.

We are all caught having to determine where we stand despite the fact there is no solid ground.  The stoics were right.  To live the way we have to live requires courage, self-control, equanimity and wisdom.  Keep working on those four, don’t give up on the religious questions, persist nevertheless.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Man with the Feather Pillow

The Man and the Feather Pillow

There is a story in Jewish tradition about a man who loved to gossip.  He constantly spread rumors and salacious details about his neighbors. He enjoyed knowing secrets and sharing them.  In the process, he hurt many people.  One day, for whatever reason, he felt guilty for what he had done.  He went to his Rabbi and asked the Rabbi what he could to rectify his gossiping.  The Rabbi said, “Go and get a feather pillow.”  The man went and found a feather pillow.  Then the Rabbi said, “Go to the tallest building you can find, rip open the pillow and let the feathers fly.”  The man did so. He returned to Rabbi who told him, “Now go and retrieve every feather.”  The rabbi explained, “This is how hard it will be to repair all the gossip you have shared.”

I have a friend who loves to gossip.  And even though I try not to gossip, I seem to be quite open to hearing what he knows.  All of us potentially play our roles.

In Jewish tradition, gossip is considered an act of robbery.  You are robbing another person of their reputation.  When you gossip you are not just sharing information with someone else.  You are hurting three people.  You hurt the person you are gossiping about; you hurt yourself by becoming a gossip; you hurt the person to whom you are gossiping by making them an accomplice to gossip.

In Judaism talking about another person behind his or her back is only permitted if the discussion centers on how to help someone in trouble.  While some gossiping can be harmless and frivolous, many times, intentionally or not, it ends up causing injury.

What makes gossip so attractive?  We feel powerful and important to have information unavailable to anyone else.  And we love the attention we get when we share what we know.  We especially enjoy gossiping about the wealthy and powerful in our communities because it convinces us that they are just as human as we are. 
And one more thing:  You know when you tell someone something juicy and you say, “Don’t tell anyone.”  Do not assume that what you say will be kept in confidence.  People forget where they heard what they heard. And they may also enjoy spreading the news to their own confidants.

Here is the truth.  We have the capacity to help and hurt each other every day.  So, the next time you feel like gossiping or someone is sharing gossip with you, think of the man and the feather pillow.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

True Believers

True believers know they are right.  There is something seductive about being certain.  Religion and politics seem to breed people who are certain.  From generation to generation, that has been the case.

I understand the seduction of certainty.  I was part of it in the 1960’s.  We knew we were right and they were wrong.  It was a kind of self-righteous arrogance to which we are all susceptible.  I have met Jews, Christians and Muslims convinced their version of their religion, theology or politics is the only one.  And there are always people on the extreme right or the left who know they know and who know you do not know.  They are not interested in having a conversation.  They want to inform or convert you.

But, when true believers become violent it is usually due to idealism, desperation and wanting power.  They picture what they think is the original intent of God or their own tradition, and decide there is no way to implement that original ideal except through violence. These true believers are usually intelligent well-off idealists; they are keenly aware of the injustices of history, and are determined to establish justice through violence and terrorism.

If you have a chance, read the small wise book by Eric Hoffer, entitled, The True Believer.  Hoffer explains what “True Believers” are all about from Nazis to Communists.  His words, written many years ago, are applicable to ISIS as well.

 And, remember for your own religious or political sanity, Whitehead’s quote, “Seek simplicity but distrust it.”

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do What You Need to Do

Some years ago, during a time of some depression, I watched the movie, Shawshank Redemption.  I loved the film but more importantly was the great saying, “Get busy livin or get busy dyin.”  The older I get the more I realize, life is short and unpredictable.  If there is something you need and want to do get to it.

By the way, it’s ok and sometimes right to be afraid, just don’t let the fear run your life.  The most often repeated command in the Biblical text is, “Do not be afraid.”  Feel your fear and resistance to do what you know you need to do, but do not let it control your decision to act.  Have a sane day.