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.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Jews, Christians and Muslims: Can We Trust Each Other?

We have three competing monotheistic revelations in the world.  Each community trusts the revelation they possess to be the historical truth received from God.  And within each community there are different interpretations, all vying with each other to accurately articulate the revelatory truth at the heart of the tradition. This we know.

Some, inside and outside these different religions, want to emphasize what unites rather than what divides the respective believers.  Others are sure their religion is right and all the rest are wrong.  Still others say we will not know who is right until we come face to face with God, assuming there is a God, so, they argue, let’s try and get along for now.

But the goal is not to get along.  The goal is not to assert you are right and the other guy is wrong.  After all, there are theological and ethical areas where caring Jews, Christians and Muslims can agree.  Good!   Where we can work together, let us do so.  But,  there are places where we are compelled to disagree.  That’s fine as well.  We must learn to disagree, to argue respectfully without holding a grudge, to learn to ask what does the other person believe and why do they believe it?  Ultimately, the goal is to listen, engage, and when necessary, respectfully disagree. 

The reason this is so hard to do is it requires trust, trust that you really want to get to know and listen to me and are not out to convert me.  And, at the same time, you need to trust that I am not out to get you. Establishing such trust between people of different religions is not easy.  It takes, time, effort and commitment on both sides.  It is easier to disagree, distrust and dismiss the other side rather than think they have something of value to teach me. 

Invest the time to get to know and listen to someone of a different religion.  You will find that your own faith will become deeper, clearer and wiser.  I know this, because it happened to me.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Open and Closed Religious Borders

These days, people feel free to leave their birth religions to investigate, explore or join another religion.  Some have left religion all together and decided to be agnostic or atheist. Some have grown up without any religion.  Some people mix one religion with another.  There are “dones and “nones”, people who are done with the Church, synagogue or mosque and others who claim to have no religion at all.  Intermarriage between religious believers is rampant.  This wild west religious migration is happening right in front of our eyes.  The world is getting smaller.  We are learning what other people believe.  Religious borders and boundaries are open!

In my own life, I left my religion and community, explored and joined Lutheran Christianity for many years, and finally returned to the Jewish community and tradition.  This has been my religious journey.

I felt free to run away.  And by the way, running away is not always bad.  For some it is the only way to remain sane. There are so many different stories.   Sometimes, like me,  you just need to leave your religious tradition, come to feel completely empty and lost and even join another religion before you wake up. I ran away from the craziness of my family.  I ran and ran as far as I could get. I returned to Judaism when I could no longer run away from my own soul. 

We need to think about how we look at the world’s religions.  We need to avoid two extremes, religious absolutism and religious relativism. No religion has the absolute truth. Religions contain a glimpse of certain truths.  At the same time, it’s wrong to say that every religion is as good as another. Some religious interpretations endorse hatred and violence. Some religions should be avoided.  We need to listen to what others believe with wisdom and discernment. 

Members of each religion should be loyal to and defend their own tradition. That’s fine.  But, at the same time, believers need to be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their own religious tradition. Religions are, after all, tentative, diverse, and disputatious.  Religions have much to learn from each other. And, remember, God is not a member of any religion.  God is God!

So, I am not upset by all the religious exploration and migration going on.  In its disruptive and sometimes ignorant manner, it demonstrates the importance and vitality of religious questions.  Neither science or secularity will do away with these questions.  Mistakes will be made, there will be regrets, and forgiveness necessary for doing the best you could with what you knew.  People will leave and sometimes return to their traditions.  Such is our life together.  Such is my life. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Three Buddhist Insights

When I took students to India a few years ago, we listened to a Buddhist monk tell us what he thought were three basic insights from Buddhism:  You cannot change the past, you cannot control the future, you are alive this day.  He concluded, “Do what you can do to change the world this day.”

Sometimes, the smallest thing you do or say today can change the world.  A Lutheran pastor told me a startling story about what happened one Sunday morning.  He was walking around between services as he usually does, unconsciously shaking hands with people, greeting them, saying “good morning” or “how are you?”  He did this week in and week out with thinking too much about it.  It was his calling, routine and his job. This Sunday morning seemed no different that it had been every week. 

A few days later he received an unsigned note in the mail.  It read, “Pastor, a few days ago I decided that life was not worth living.  No one seemed to care whether I was alive or not.  I thought, I will go to Church one more time and then kill myself.  But that morning you stopped and talked to me.  You asked how I was and wished me a good day and fine week.  Thank you.  You saved my life.  You showed me that someone cared about me.   I will be going to see a therapist this week and hope to feel better.  But, you changed my world and I am grateful."

Such is life.  The smallest unconscious things you do and say this very day can change the world.  The past is the past.  The future will be the future.  Be alive today and do what you can do. If you want to know who or what God is about, God resides precisely in the doing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Living in the Real World

Every day we face the collision between the way things work and the way they ought to work.  Drivers who don’t know how to drive, health insurance with terrible customer service, airlines whose only concern is making more money, politicians acting irrationally, doctors and nurses who don’t have time to call you back, professional baseball players making millions of dollars and hitting 229., and you have your own list.  Whether it’s driving, serving food, being a politician, a doctor, a professor, a farmer, a police officer, a spouse and even God.  Is anything working the way it should?  The culture and the world seem to be declining, becoming more and more rude, crude and lewd.

Are our expectations too idealistic?  Are they unrealistic?  Are they completely unreal?  What gives?

I suppose we could say we are expecting too much of people.  It’s true human beings can be ambiguous, inconsistent, unreliable and unpredictable.  And they are subject to stress, lack of sleep, over multitasking, illness, marital and familial problems, and all sorts of distractions.  Such is the nature of human nature and American contemporary culture.  Our expectations and standards may indeed be too high and entitled.

But where is the line?  Where is the line between making excuses for people and expecting excellence?  When are we asking too much and when are we not asking enough?

To be sure, excellence is the goal.  It is unreal to expect excellence all the time.  But it is possible some of the time.  Every day I experience some people driving very well, some students working hard and caring about learning, some politicians speaking and doing the truth, some administrators sensitively doing right by their employees, some people acting with integrity and character.   As human beings, we do have the capacity to act in an excellent way.  We also have the capacity to act less than excellent.  We have different abilities, moral dispositions and moods which come into play in a variety of ways every day, affected by a myriad of controllable and uncontrollable factors.    But we can do what we can do.

Each day we run after the ideal, appreciate the real, and try to avoid the unreal.  These three are usually mixed together in complicated measure.  It can be exasperating.  Such is life.  But, don’t be pessimistic or optimistic about everything.  Face the realness of life with your refusal to give up or give in

Finally, despite the craziness of life, see the world for the mysterious inconsistent chaotic mixture it is and be grateful that you are here one more day to experience its crazy colorful collage.  Be thankful.  Be as excellent as you can be.  And that is what’s real!