“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” So begins Vonnegut’s absurdist 1969 classic. Centering on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
I received an email just a little while ago (as I write this) that reminded me of what was most important about the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot conference which I recently attended. I plan to post a lot of material about the various conference presentations over the course of the next few weeks and my personal observations about them, but the man on the other side of the email said something that touched me in a personal and painful way. What he said doesn’t make for a great quote, but it does transcend the world we live in and connect to the spirits of man and God.
I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five when I talked with Lisa about her grandfather.
Let me back up a step.
I have what you might call “limited social needs.” I can only take so much of a room full of people over the course of a day before I am “done.” I like my space and I like quiet. I know this makes me sound terrifically anti-social and even a little misanthropic, but it’s just me having my “social needs cup” filled to the brim, and then to overflowing, and then to spilling all over the joint. It gets to be a mess.
So when everyone else was downstairs eating, drinking, and socializing late into the evening, I walked back up to the “sanctuary” (probably not the right word) to be alone.
But I wasn’t alone. Lisa was there. She was on the phone talking to her grandfather, who is in his nineties, for the billionth time that day.
Lisa’s grandfather suffers from dementia. He experiences a lot of different points in the past but almost never the present. He’s a man who has become unstuck in time. During a single phone call, he can be fighting in the Pacific during World War II. He can be walking down a road in the snowy woods when he’s five. He can be buying a pack of cigarettes at a local bar and remembering that he can’t let his wife know he smokes. He can look at a picture of his wife with fond love and remembrance and blissfully, gratefully not remember that she was taken from him many years ago. Because that sorrow would be too much to bear.
He’s lived a good life.
And he’s become unstuck in time as he wanders with each step along that life.
Lisa told me her children wouldn’t consider her a patient person, but she’s very patient with her grandfather. Most people wouldn’t be. Most people wouldn’t be patient listening to a man who is unstuck in time shifting up and down the corridors of his life, second by second, as he appears here and there, and he reorients himself to being a young adult one second and a small child the next.
And who is he talking to when he’s five years old and his granddaughter Lisa, who has children in their late teens herself, is on the other end of the phone?
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I listened to her tell me about her grandfather. When Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time, the reader of Vonnegut’s story discovers a grand adventure with measures of sorrow and tragedy, but one that ultimately ends in victory.
But Lisa’s grandfather isn’t on an adventure. He’s old and, in those moments when he comes to himself in the present, he is terrified that he no longer has control of his mind.
Let me tell you another story. It’s about miracles and it’s also about one miracle that hasn’t happened.
But let me back up a step…let me take one really giant step backward.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.
–Romans 9:2-3 (NRSV)
Do you realize the depth of what Paul’s saying? He’s declaring to the readers of his letter to Rome and by inference to us, that he would deliberately surrender his salvation; his relationship to Messiah and to God and everything that means, for the sake of his people, the Jewish people; for the sake of an unbelieving Israel who absolutely needs to know their King.
One evening at the conference, Boaz Michael made a suggestion. He wanted us to talk about miracles. He asked people in the room to share their experiences with the Spirit of God.
Many people had such experiences. I was shocked at how many people raised their hands and wanted to share. I was astonished by the passion, the holiness, the sorrow, the glory, the love of God for all of those people.
A woman named Karen came home because her mother was dying. Her mother was in the last stages of life. She was bedridden. She was ready to die at home.
Karen was sleeping in the room with her mother. She woke up surprised to see her mother standing beside her bed. At first she tried to get her mother back into bed but then she realized her mother was wearing a party dress. But…why? Her mother came up to her and touched Karen’s shoulder…and it was the exact feeling she remembered as a child on all those occasions when her mother took Karen in her arms and embraced her. It had been such a very long time since she had felt her mother’s loving arms around her.
The vision passed. Maybe it was a dream. But the next day after receiving a few phone calls from siblings, she realized it was real. Each of them had seen the same vision of mother in her party dress at the exact same moment.
And then Karen’s mother went to her party to dance with the bridegroom.
Let me tell you my story. I have no miracles. But “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Like Paul, there is someone I would give up everything, even my relationship with my Master, even the grace and salvation of God, so that she could love Him and know Him.
If only my wife could know Moshiach and love Him. I would turn my back and walk into the distance and the darkness, like the foolish virgins who did not keep their lamps filled with oil while waiting for the bridegroom.
If I could have one miracle from God, that would be it.
Why am I telling you all these things? What possible difference does it make to touch the lives of a few people who have been happy and sad and whose fingers have grasped the hem of the garment of God?
Because each of these people are precious in the sight of God and in my sight as well. There are some people out there who have spoken unkind things about these wonderful people and the time we spent together last week. I’ve been spending time exchanging emails with some of the people I met at the Shavuot conference. I’ve also been reading the comments of some of the critics of these people and their displeasure about why we came together. I even know someone who is a critic who was invited to come and to share but who declined the invitation.
More’s the pity. I wish he’d have come. I wish I could have met him.
I’m heartbroken that anyone could be angry at people like Lisa and Karen (though I frequently experience my critics’ anger towards me). No, these angry people don’t even know Lisa or Karen (though they may think they know me) and so it’s not personal.
Except it is.
Because God loves Lisa…and Karen…and amazingly, even me. And God loves each and every person who criticizes us and who is angry, maybe not at us, but at the people who attended the Shavuot event because of their issues with First Fruits of Zion or Boaz Michael, or whoever, or whatever.
I’m heartbroken because of a man who has become unstuck in time. I’m heartbroken because of a woman who held her daughter one last time before she wore her party dress to attend the banquet of the King. I’m heartbroken that my own miracle has yet to come (if it ever comes). I’m barely holding back my tears as I write this, because the things that some of the people of God need to understand, they don’t understand. And out of that ignorance, they criticize, berate, disdain, and sometimes even hate.
Jeffty is Five is a short story written by Harlan Ellison which I first read in 1978. I also heard Ellison read the story aloud at a Science Fiction conference a year or so later. It’s the story about a little five-year old boy named Jeffty and his five-year old friend. Jeffty’s friend grows up. Jeffty never does. He stays five. He’s stuck in time. Time moves all around him, going forward and taking everyone and everything else with it…except Jeffty.
Jeffty never notices and his friend stays his friend. The fact that Jeffty never grows up slowly erodes the minds and feelings of his parents but Jeffty has a friend who protects him. Jeffty stays in a world where there is no such thing as television, and where the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, and the Shadow still save the day in weekly radio programs, not just in his imagination…when Jeffty turns on a radio, those programs are brand new and real.
Eventually, Jeffty is neglected by his friend, now a very busy adult, for a few minutes and the present intersects with Jeffty and his world. And the present wears him down. His soul becomes sick. He “unsticks” in time but there is too much of him that needs the world that isn’t the past but the world that should have been…and Jeffty dies.
That story broke my heart too, but it’s fiction. Jeffty couldn’t live when his world encountered what you and I call “the real world.” But the world of God and the human world intersect all the time, and in experiencing the world of harshness intersecting with one of holiness, I’m heartbroken.
If only you’d come into the world I lived in last week. If only you’d pray with us, sing with us, listen to Torah with us. If only you’d eat with us, drink wine with us, sing songs with us…
…then maybe you’d understand. Then maybe you could let your heart be broken too by a man who has become unstuck in time and a woman in a party dress. Maybe you could stop being critical and start being human. Maybe you’d realize that we’re human too. Because if we don’t each become heartbroken, then it’s God’s heart we are breaking. What sacrifice would be too great for us to make for the sake of God and for each other?
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
–Psalm 51:16-17 (NRSV)
There are a lot of other stories I experienced at the conference that are woven from the sincere fabric of the lives and spirits of many other people I met last week. I’ll write about this in more detail in a few days, but a wise and kind man named Carl Kinbar told a story about building the House of God. One of the most essential materials required to build God’s House is a broken and contrite heart, not just broken for God, but for each other.
It is only when we bleed and when we cry for the sake of not only our families and our friends, but for strangers and even “enemies,” that the sacrifices we offer up to God are accepted. Only then will we be able to build His house using living, crying, bleeding stones.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
–Psalm 34:18 (NRSV)