Tag Archives: abyss

Diminishing

Man alone in a caveThe one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John 3:29-30 (ESV)

Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope; yet I will argue my ways to his face.

Job 13:15 (ESV)

I suppose this is a continuation of my previous meditation which, as I write this, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention (but it’s not exactly uplifting, so I imagine most people don’t know what to say about it).

I’m not experiencing a crisis of faith so much as a crisis of environment (if there is such a thing). I suppose I should consider this “normal” since it was predicted by the Master.

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. –Matthew 10:21-23 (ESV)

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” –Luke 12:49-53 (ESV)

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. –Luke 21:12 (ESV)

In other words, I should expect to be a minority in society and even in my own family. Well, that’s pretty much true. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t take a shot at my faith on the world wide web and while my home life isn’t actively hostile, as I’ve mentioned before, there are certain conversations that just never take place for the sake of peace.

It’s interesting because I obviously can’t discuss Christianity in my home, but even bringing up conversations about Judaism can get a tad dicey. No, I never comment negatively about Jews and Judaism, but even being too “enthusiastic” about Jewish learning and concepts can elicit a “you’re a Jewish wannabe” comment or (at its worst) “you’re just a Goy, Daddy.” (that last comment admittedly was just a joke my daughter was making, but I have to admit, it did stab at me for a second or two).

But like the Master said, I should expect all this. Not sure about the following, though.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

broken-crossI’m not sure because these tests are getting kind of old but beyond that, James, the brother of the Master, addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Last time I looked, as a “Goy,” I’m not a member of any of those tribes, so is the audience of this message confined to the Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah? Hopefully not.

Someone recently suggested on Facebook that I should “renounce idolatry” and convert to Judaism. I know the Jewish gentleman in question was very sincere and I don’t doubt that he meant to be helpful, but it’s not an option. Not that I haven’t toyed with the idea from time to time, but that door is ultimately closed to me. It would mean renouncing my faith in my Lord, which I cannot do. But while millions experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7) I continually face the daily wrestling match of faith (Genesis 32:22-32).

It’s easy to get one of two messages from Christianity. The first message seems to be the most prevalent in the modern church and it goes something like, “You’re saved, Jesus is great, no worries from here on in, the heck with the rest of the world as long as you have Jesus.” That’s pretty simplified and perhaps a tad cynical, but just listen to some of the stuff coming out of those megachurches and you’ll understand what I mean.

The second message is one that I think is more historical and perhaps some older Christians still relate to it. That message is sort of like, “You’re a sinner, you’re scum, if it wasn’t for Jesus, you’d be sliding down the gutter on your way to eternal damnation, the world isn’t worth anything, it’s just a slime pit, anyone not saved will fry in their own fat and grease.” OK, that one seems “over the top” as well, but sometimes Christianity is a study in extremes.

Returning to the source, the Bible says, “Hey, I never said it was a picnic. Quit whining and get back to work.”

There’s got to be a better way than this.

The weak link in any system, organization, philosophy, or religion is the people involved. Humanity is the weakest link because no matter how beautiful the system is, human frailty will inevitably screw up its implementation. This is why atheists and secular humanists have plenty of ammunition with which to shoot down people of faith. Of course, it doesn’t help that we Christians are supposed to have a higher standard than generic society, so any time we mess up in public, it gets the maximum amount of press coverage. It also doesn’t help that in its evangelical zeal, some churches use a big, nasty hammer to deliver the message of Christ’s love and salvation. The hammer has bruised and bloodied a lot of folks. Now they want to hit back.

The rest of us get painted (or tainted) by the same brush, whether we had anything to do with swinging the hammer or not. Worse, the author of our faith gets painted with that brush, and he had absolutely nothing to do with what we’ve done with his teachings over the past 2,000 years.

But all that is irrelevant, too. That is, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change anything. The teachings about division in families, division in society, and generally being the tail and not the head apply as much today as they did the instant Jesus uttered them back in the late second Temple period in Roman-occupied Judea.

Oh, and about Christianity being a sect of Judaism, you might want to pay attention to how non-Messianic Jews hear this message:

One conclusion I would come to after understanding these issues is that the claim that Christianity has Jewish roots is false. Christianity has Jewish characters involved in the foundation of it, but aside from that it has virtually nothing in common with Judaism.

Messianic Judaism has been useful in pointing out the value of Torah and establishing it as a high priority item within Christianity, however the logical conclusion of seeing Torah for what it is, is to realize that it does not work within Christianity. Torah stands in direct contrast to Christianity on many levels, some of which are mentioned above. Therefore one is forced to decide between Torah and Christianity.

Torah has obvious legitimacy, and is undeniably G-d’s revelation to man as witnessed by millions of people at mount Sinai, whereas Christianity must be an invention of man. It can be a convincing invention, but an invention nonetheless.

Anything which stands in such stark contrast to the Torah, and which teaches that the Torah is something to be set free from, rather than obeyed, is certainly not of G-d. The Holy One, blessed be He, does not issue laws, commandments, judgments, and teachings, only to nullify everything He has taught us at another point in history, especially when He declares that it is for us and our decendents forever.

“How Judaism and Christianity Compare on Fundamental Issues”
from the blog: Kibbitzing Corner

As I mentioned above, Job said, “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope.” We are in the hands of God. I am in the hands of God. It seems, as John suggested, that for God to be magnified, people need to get really small. At least that’s how I’m seeing it. I know that Christianity’s many critics, including Judaism, would like to see Christians get smaller and smaller and eventually vanish from existence. Christ said that when such events occur, we should persevere, but he didn’t say we had to survive. Plenty of Christians (and Jews as well) have suffered and even died to preserve who they were as people of faith and to not abandon God.

According to the Rebbe, God never intended humans (or at least Jews) to cease to exist or to be rendered insignificant because of their faith:

The ego is not to be destroyed. It, too, is a creation of G-d,
and all that He made, He made for His glory.

Only this: that the ego must know that it is a creation, and that all He made, He made for His glory.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Ego Preservation”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Dylan Thomas once wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and while he was talking about old age and inevitable death, catastrophic failure isn’t limited to biological systems. The human spirit can be oppressed from without and within until it finally extinguishes, its light goes out, and all that is left is a human being living in darkness, ironically unaware of its fate.

In writing this meditation and searching for some spark or glimmer of hope in the endless abyss, I came upon an unusual source, the 1957 science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man (adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson). At the end of the film, the character Scott Carey, (played by Grant Williams) having defeated a gigantic (to him) spider in order to obtain food, and now despairingly lost; trapped in the basement of his own home, continues to shrink in size, approaching the threshold of the microscopic. In his final moments, alone and without hope of ever regaining his former life, he comes to a realization about who he is ultimately.

I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Jesus spoke of the humble, the meek, the persecuted. While I can hardly claim to have greatly suffered, should I allow myself to simply shrink below the world of significance, worth, and ultimately humanity because, like Carey, I am alone and outside the realm of “normal” society? Should I, as a person of faith, vanish from the landscape of my family because that faith is perceived as alien, prejudiced, and even idolatrous?

Mathematically, the concept of zero exists but can a human being become zero and yet be alive? Borrowing inspiration from the fictional Scott Carey, if I still mean something to God, then I am not zero. Though devalued by secular humanity, I am not wholly without worth. If God notices even the smallest sparrow as it falls from an infinite sky, won’t he notice me too as I shrink into shadows and dust?

In the darkness of my abyss, is the tiny light I see in the distance a dying spark, or a foretaste of the universe exploding with light?

Pausing Before Engaging God

So we’ve determined that meditation is not just a nice thing, but crucial for every human being with functional grey matter. It’s something that was always considered core to the tefillah experience, at least by those who were into that experience. For some, it meant the mind’s contemplation of the vast beauty of G-d’s creation that their eyes beheld, gazing upon the stars and the wonders of nature. For others, it was the reverie of the worlds of the angels, who stand in constant praise and song. Still others focused upon G-d’s compassion and love for His creatures, and all His kindnesses to us.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

So now you’re asking: If meditation is so vital to Jewish observance, and if it is such an embedded tradition, why don’t I see it happening anywhere?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series
Chabad.org

Good question, and one that can probably be applied to Christians as well. The answer is that some do meditate before prayer but most don’t. I think I know why.

When I got up this morning at around 4 a.m., I was pretty tired, but I knew I needed to get out of bed if I intended to make it to the gym when it opened at 5. My brain is never really “on” when I first wake up, so I had a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and read the “funny papers” online as a slow and casual method of getting my thoughts to engage. I was still telling myself to “wake up” as I drove to the gym.

Forty-five minutes of sweating later, my mind and body were definitely awake. I was conscious enough to “engage” God in prayer, but time is limited. I also had to publish the day’s “morning meditation”, post it on twitter, Facebook, and Google+, eat breakfast, say “hello” to my wife who was also in a state of not really being awake as she got ready for work, shower, get dressed, make lunch, and various other routine morning tasks. Somewhere before 7 a.m., I have time to read from the Bible and to pray, but meditation, as you can see from Rabbi Freeman’s description, is time consuming.

More accurately, it’s time consuming because you have to take your recently reawakened brain and put it in a calm and contemplative place. That’s a little dangerous for me, since I’m libel to start feeling sleepy again.

Don’t worry. I get Rabbi Freeman’s point.

If you ever hire an architect to design a synagogue, you will need to inform him of the two-door rule: The worshipper must first enter into a vestibule that precedes the sanctuary before walking through the doors of the sanctuary itself, as verse in Proverbs goes, “Fortunate is the man who listens to me to watch by my doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of my entrances.” (Talmud Berachot 8a. Tur, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, Levush 90:2. Magen Avraham ibid. Shulchan Aruch Harav 90:19.)

The first door, explains Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch in his “Booklet on Tefillah,” (Kuntres Hatefillah, siman 11) is the door in from the street. You first need to leave the confusion of the world outside and empty your mind of all worldly concerns, power down your cellphone, spend a few moments to gain calm and focus. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would say (Avot 1:17), “All my life, I grew up among the sages and I did not find anything better for a person than quietness.”

Not, however, to get stuck in the hallway. Despite the common misconception, that’s not the goal of meditation. It’s not a path to placid bliss, transcendentally oblivious to the temporal world. Serenity is not a goal in itself. Calmness and stillness provide a healthy frame of mind from which to begin meditating, praying, struggling to grow and change—to enter door #2. But not to simply bathe and soak in. As Adin Steinsaltz once put it bluntly: serenity is death, life is struggle.

You prepare yourself in the hallway, then you enter the Sanctuary of God. Life is struggle. Apparently, so is prayer. Maybe that means, that prayer is also life. It makes sense, since I struggle with both.

But life is busy. I’ve mentioned before that all of the details Rabbi Freeman presents as relevant to preparing to enter your day are numerous, and most folks who have a regular job and who live with a family might not be able to incorporate everything he suggests.

Getting back to my original metaphor, here I sit at the bottom of the abyss, attempting to practice being still, (I’m not doing a very good job) and contemplating that ladder God has put down in the hole with me. The problem is, getting my mind to be still enough to do a good job at contemplation. Whenever I try to shut out the bedlam of life around me, the bedlam of life inside me takes over. Where do I go from here?

When the soul awakens, it descends like a fire from heaven.

In a moment of surprise, we discover something so powerful, so beyond our persona, we cannot believe it is a part of us.

In truth, we are a part of it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Fire From Heaven”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

There’s only one more part of Rabbi Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer, which I’ll present tomorrow. But what then…what then?

Two Worlds

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the book:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

Steinberg’s classic is set at the beginning of the Talmudic age in Palestine during the Roman occupation, some fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The book’s protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah was born a Jew but raised by a Jewish father who disdained the traditional beliefs and who pursued pagan philosophies instead. Nicholaus was Elisha’s Greek tutor when he was a child but the tutor was dismissed when Abuyah died (Elisha’s mother died in childbirth). Abuyah’s brother then took charge of Elisha, providing him with a Jewish education rooted in Torah and tradition.

Elisha eventually abandons his Greek education and as a disciple of the sage Joshua, he not only becomes a Rabbi in his own right, but a member of the Sanhedrin as well.

Yet a series of personal and political conflicts throws Elisha into a crisis of faith and pulls his heart between the Jewish and Greek worlds. A chance meeting with his old tutor Nicholaus many years later in a bookstore in Caesarea, provides the stage for a confrontation between the spiritually tortured Elisha and his former teacher. But rather than support Elisha’s pursuit of “truth” by guiding him back into Greek beliefs, Nicholaus pushes Elisha toward the only path that seems sensible and right for a Jew; the path of Moses.

In some ways, I can relate to both Elisha and Nicholaus. Like Nicholaus, as a non-Jew, I can see great beauty, wisdom, and meaning in the fabric of Jewish ritual, learning, and understanding. Like Elisha, I feel as if I’m struggling to stand between two worlds; the Christian world which is the source of my faith, and the Jewish world which provides clarity and purpose to that faith. I too know what it’s like to be self-tormented, searching the path looking for divine sparks and not letting myself be satisfied with what I already possess.

Elisha’s anguish, and my own, reflects that of Job’s in our shared search for meaning and God, expressed here in Elisha’s own words:

“‘Wherefore,’ he demanded, ‘hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’
“I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is a stark inner compulsion, dire necessary. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven by a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way.”

Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
Will you chase after dry chaff? –Job 13:24-25

For the past year, I have also been enduring a crisis of faith and like Elisha, seeking answers in unusual places..well, “unusual” relative to modern Christianity which doesn’t typically see a great deal of validity in seeking the Christ within the pages of Talmud and Kabbalah. Yet I have seen the Messiah in the Chasidic writings and found his fingerprints on the pages of the Zohar. How can I relent, when Jewish sages from Hillel to Maimonides teach wisdom that so clearly points to the Master?

In his desperation, Elisha desires to seek out those who his Jewish disciples and peers would categorically reject as pagans and heretics:

“Two courses are before me. I wish first of all to make contact with the Christians and the Gnostics here in Caesarea.”

“What good will that do you?” Nicholaus inquired, wary now.

“It is not impossible that they can teach me some principle to give me direction.”

While a Christian might read these words and rejoice that a Jew is seeking out the grace and salvation of Jesus, for Elisha, this could very well turn out to be a disaster. It is not so much that he sees in Christianity what Judaism lacks, but that he has not allowed his faith to rest on the foundation of his fathers, and for that matter, on the rock of Torah, which the Jewish Messiah continually taught and lived when he walked among men.

Ironically, Elisha’s quest threatened to cost him the very thing he already possessed in Judaism:

“A man has happiness if he possesses three things – those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”

AbyssIn a sense, I am prepared to do what Elisha has done and leave my group and to some degree, the truth they follow, in order to seek out what I believe is right for me. Like Elisha, I’m taking a risk of falling completely away from my current expression of faith in order to seek out a greater closeness with God. Like Elisha, I am convinced in the existence of God but am uncertain as to how He may be understood and approached.

Unlike Elisha, I was not born into a people and a tradition built on the holy mount in Jerusalem and forged by the Shechinah at Sinai.

Here’s the danger:

“But look here,” Nicholaus cried, discerning a possibility he had not envisaged before. “Suppose the results of your experiment are not consistent with the Jewish religion?”

Elisha’s voice was strained, as though his throat had tightened, but he did not falter.

“I have considered that possibility, too. I hope it may never become an actuality. Yet, should that be my destiny, I am prepared to assume it.”

Here is what I face:

“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” –Luke 12:8-9

Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. –2 Timothy 2:11-13

I don’t say this is a great danger to me, but the challenge exists. Nicholaus called Elisha’s effort an “experiment” but for me, what I am doing is taking a journey and I expect that I will be traveling all of my life. I walk the path before me and risk losing my way. I travel in darkness while seeking the light. I pray that God travels with me and shows me who He is and who I am in Him. May my footsteps follow His as I climb a holy mountain.

As a Driven Leaf is a cautionary tale; it’s Steinberg’s warning that a Jew cannot live in two worlds without the danger of falling away from everything that gives meaning to being a Jew. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss gazes also into you.” Yet like Elisha, I am driven by forces I do not always understand and cannot control, to seek out God in the places where He may be found, even in the darkness of the abyss.

That’s why I write. That’s why I’m here. I am the leaf driven before the wind. Where will I finally alight and take rest?

Only time and God can answer me.