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Praying and the Pain of Thorns

Most of us expect prayer to inspire and comfort us. The grandeur of the synagogue, its architectural beauty and music, the peacefulness of the setting – all of these convey the sense that Jewish prayer is about feeling peace. We expect that participating in a service will touch us uniquely and deeply. So when we do not feel that peace, we feel let down.

But if Jewish life is about struggle, we should be suspicious of the assumption that prayer is entirely about peace or comfort. If prayer were designed only to provide comfort, would it contribute to our struggle? Probably not. If prayer were designed only to move and to touch us, if comfort and joy were its only goals, Jewish prayer would actually undermine the difficult effort involved in Jewish spirituality.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Prayer – Jewish Spirituality and the Struggle to Become” (pp 164-5)
God Was Not In The Fire

This is probably very mysterious to most Christians. Why shouldn’t prayer be about “comfort and joy” instead of struggle? Who wants to struggle with God and with themselves when they are hurt or sick or scared? We want peace when we’re in trouble and praying to God, and we want peace now!

And sometimes, God delivers.

And a lot of times, He doesn’t, at least in the immediate sense of providing instantaneous, overwhelming peace.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

Does any of this mean that Paul never contended with God as Jacob contended with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32)? Here’s the answer.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

Imagine the conversation (repeat three times):

Paul: Ouch, God! This hurts! Can you please take it away now?

God: No.

Paul: Why not? It’s not like I deserve this. Look at all the good I’ve done in the name of the Moshiach. Half the time, I can’t concentrate because of the pain. Think about how much better I could serve you if I didn’t have this distraction.

God: I’m thinking about how big an ego you’ve got and how much more you’d serve it if you didn’t have to put up with the messenger of Satan I’ve allowed to be jammed into your side.

Paul: That’s not fair.

God: Job said that same thing to me and you know how I answered him.

Paul: I guess I’m stuck for an answer, but it still hurts.

God: It’s not about living without the struggle, it’s about learning to live with it. If you can do that, your message to the disciples among the Goyim will be all the more powerful. You must remember my servant Jacob, as the Goyim will remember my servant Paul.

I have some friends in the Puget Sound area named Joe and Heidi. They’re about my age. They enjoy hiking and photography and they love God. They both have cancer and spend almost all of the time that they’re not climbing over mountains and valleys, in lengthy sessions of treatment and testing. The tumors never seem to abate and the news I hear is often more bad than good. Their faith is virtually without parallel, but at times, so is their suffering and sorrow. They ask for prayer frequently and I pray for them constantly. But what do I pray? What am I supposed to pray? Jesus, tell me how I’m supposed to pray!

The answer probably seems obvious to you. “Pray for their healing,” you say. “Pray that God will give them both a complete and perfect cure,” you say. “Pray that they experience total comfort and joy and peace.”

Is there something wrong with my prayers? I pray for all that, but it doesn’t happen. God is supposed to give us what we need and even what we want if we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, right? Why isn’t it working?

If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. John 14:14 (NASB)

In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. –John 16:23 (NASB)

It’s not working out the way he promised. Instead of being given what I ask for in the name of Christ, I feel like I’ve wrestled with an angel all night long. It’s not easy, it’s exhausting. I’m worn out and no closer to experiencing “comfort and joy,” let alone “contentment,” than I was when I started praying. As far as I can tell, Joe and Heidi are no closer to be cured of cancer now than when I started praying, and it’s not only me. A lot of believers are praying for them all the time. God, where are You when we need You?

That is why Jewish prayer tries to evoke not only peace and comfort, but wrestling and angst as well. Despite our desire to feel beauty and the comfort that often accompanies it, it may be precisely when we feel somewhat disconcerted and not entirely at ease that Jewish prayer may be accomplishing its most central goal. Indeed, that ideal for prayer is communicated by the very word that Jews use for the act of praying.

The Hebrew term for the verb “to pray” is “le-hitpalel,” which means “to judge oneself,” or even “to struggle with oneself.”

-Gordis (pg 165)

Now that is what I experience when I pray!

Rabbi Gordis goes on to explain that prayer is not sending out “Santa’s wish list” up to God so that His miracles can be delivered to us in flashy wrapping paper and tied in a pretty ribbons. Jewish Prayer is not a “Catechism” of devotional statements about what we believe, but a struggle with God and with ourselves, with faith and trust hanging in the balance, along with human lives.

Adon Olam or “Master of the Universe” is a classic Jewish prayer that encapsulates faith, trust, and struggle. The beginning of this 11th century poem speaks of a Jew’s absolute trust in the God of his Fathers, but as Gordis teaches:

…suddenly, after line six, the tone changes. Beginning with the seventh line, the focus shifts. The poet moves away from broad theological claims about God’s grandeur, focusing instead on the speaker’s intimate feelings about God. No longer is God endless and majestic; now, the poet speaks of “my God…a Rock in my travail at the time of distress.” Gone are the claims that “even after all things have come to an end, God alone, awesome, will remain King”; in their stead we hear “to His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake.” Just as the Mishnah we examined above abruptly switched its emphasis from keva to kavvanah from one line to the next, this text suddenly focuses not on what we believe about God, but on how we feel about God.

-Gordis (pg 173)

The struggle in our spiritual journey of discovery of both God and who we are in God, is contained, not only in Adon Olam, but in the contents of the siddur; in all Jewish prayer. Contrary to what most Christians believe, Jewish prayer contains both spontaneous and liturgical elements that create the structure in which a Jew prays, as well as allowing a Jew’s prayers to fly up free, returning to God as a spark returns to the flame. It also provides the arena in which we wrestle with God and our own spiritual struggle as we progress along the rough and rocky path that leads from earth into heaven.

How can there be misery and suffering in a world created by a perfect and loving God? That unanswered question has resulted in many falling away from the faith and many more never coming near a God they see as horrible and destructive. And yet, the current condition of our world is not God’s fault but man’s. God allowed us to play in our world as a child living in a tinderbox might play with matches. God could have protected us the way any responsible parent would have kept matches out of the reach of a four-year old, but we were meant to be the caretakers of this world, and as such, we were given autonomy over it (Genesis 1:28). We are responsible for our own messes and if the concept of Tikkun Olam has any meaning, we are responsible for preparing the world for the arrival of the Moshiach, who will help us repair the world we damaged so completely, including the world of our lives.

Yes, God answers prayer and sometimes people are miraculously healed, both for His glory and because of His kindness, but prayer isn’t like putting a coin in a vending machine, pressing a few buttons, and expecting a delicious soft drink to come popping out to quench our thirst. Each prayer is a fresh encounter with God where He challenges us to become a little more holy than we were before, often by facing those things about ourselves and our world that are most ugly and repellent. We meet both the best and the worst in ourselves, and in the midst of that battle, we encounter our desperation and our fears. We also encounter the miracle of meeting God on neutral ground, neither heaven or earth, and occasionally find the miracles of joy and comfort. We also encounter the thorn.

Prayer isn’t just a gift where we get what we want. It’s also a place where we share our joys and sorrows with God, and where we begin to realize that even if the conditions of our lives never really change, we come to know that God is always with us, no matter where we go, or what is happening to us.

If God entered the Egyptian exile with Jacob (Genesis 46:4) and even entered the death camps with six million Jews, He also goes into chemotherapy with those who have cancer, lives with the tumors, and climbs along the mountain trails, sharing our struggles, our tears, and even our joy.

Invitation to a Point of Peace

From the time you begin to breathe, a war rages within.

From the time you attain citizenship of this world, you must struggle with your own frailties to stand upright, as a human being was meant to stand.

From the time you yearn to reach higher, you must engage the animal that comes dressed within this meat and bones, to carry it up with you. You must play its own game on its own turf, speak to it in its own language, meditate upon those matters that can inspire it, bear with it until you can bring it to the side of peace.

You must descend to a place of chaos and madness to redeem yourself from there.

And so this battle plays out not only in the spiritual arena of meditation and prayer, but also in the very human world of eating your meal, of raising a family, of worldly pursuits, infiltrating that world so as to conquer it, to rip away its veil and reveal the G-dly sparks it contains, as Jacob dressed in the clothes of Esau, wrestling with his angel on the cold, sodden earth of a night to which he does not belong.

Yet at all times and in every situation you retain access to a point of perfect oneness within, a place where there is no opposition to fight, no choices that could be made, no existence at all, nothing other than “the Creator of all things to whom I am bound as one.”

It is not the battle that defines you, nor the role in which you must invest yourself, nor the opponent with whom you fight. You are none of these. You are that point of peace within.

And so, even your battle is in peace.

—based on the Rebbe’s discourse on the verse “He has rescued my soul in peace,” 5739

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“War and Peace”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The struggle with chaos and madness is very much how I see “the human condition” and particularly my own role in humanity, both in the world outside and the one inside of me. Over the past several days, I’ve engaged in a series of “battles” in this “meditation” venue with the various “religious wars” that spike during the month of December. It’s not pleasant to confront other people who have the same basic viewpoint on life and God as you do and to realize that you and they are still light years apart. It’s also dismaying to see people who claim to be speaking for God or at least of God, and to read words, not of encouragement, but of disdain and criticism disguised as “truth”.

But let me change the subject.

Some part of me likes science, particularly astronomy and physics. Alas, I don’t have a brain that likes math, and so a career in these fields was never an option for me, but I still like following news on these subjects. You probably have heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and particularly of its use in the recent search for the Higgs Boson particle (sometimes referred to as the “God” particle) which current science says must exist in order for anything to have mass. I found the following quote from the New Scientist article very interesting.

If our ideas about the Higgs boson turn out to be correct, then everything we see is a kind of window dressing based on an underlying fabric of reality in which we shouldn’t exist. The particles that make us up – which bind together to form protons, neutrons, nuclei and ultimately atoms – have mass. Without the Higgs, these particles would be massless, like photons.

Let’s take a closer look at part of that quote:

…then everything we see is a kind of window dressing based on an underlying fabric of reality in which we shouldn’t exist.

A reality in which we shouldn’t exist. Interesting. Now take a moment to notice your physical existence. Look in the mirror. Yep, you’re still there. Snap your fingers. Do a few jumping jacks. Still feel like you exist? Good. But if we discover that Higgs isn’t real, then we shouldn’t exist at all, at least if how we currently conceptualize the universe is in any way accurate.

Go back and revisit the quote from Rabbi Freeman and then re-read the New Scientist quote again. Existence, both physically and spiritually seems so complicated, confusing, and messy. There are all of these details we keep running up against that don’t quite fit together in our puzzle when we try to build what we think Creation looks and acts like. It’s like the Biosphere2 experiment in Arizona where people tried to create a completely self-contained biosphere, isolated from our actual environment, that would be totally self-sustaining. In essense, we tried to build a little Earth inside of a bubble that would work just like the big Earth that God created.

God holds the worldIt failed miserably. In fact, back in the early 1990s, Bioshpere2 was involved in a huge scandal where the project managers secretly bled out CO2 from inside the dome because the “natural processes” inside weren’t getting rid of the stuff (kind of like how climate scientists today describe the global warming process). We just don’t know enough about how Earth’s biosphere works to be able to recreate it in an enclosed environment. We just don’t know enough about long-term weather and climate patterns and systems to be able to accurately predict whether or not it will rain next week or next month or next year, let alone how to make effective and beneficial changes in Earth’s climate over the next several decades. We don’t know why things have mass and what really happened in the first few thousandths of a millisecond after the Big Bang when physics were really haywire.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue the answers. God gave us a universe that runs by a system of rules and laws (which we don’t always understand) and I think that system is observable and understandable in the long haul, at least for the most part.


What if we allow ourselves to turn all that stuff off just once and awhile. I think it’s why God sanctified the Seventh Day back in Genesis 2 and I think it’s why the Jewish people (and arguably the rest of the world) should observe the Shabbat. It’s a time when we can turn it all off, all the machines, all of the head-scratching puzzles, all of the mysteries and mazes, and just accept God’s invitation to join Him and to be at a point of peace.

The friendly looking guy offering his hand to you in the photo at the top of today’s “meditation” is a friend of mine who, in spite of the amazing challenges he and his wife face, continues to pursue God’s peace. His name is Joe Hendricks and both he and his wife Heidi are actively undergoing cancer treatment. God has given both of them the personalities and the spirits to be encouraging and to approach life with a zeal for living when people like you or I would want to just hide under our beds and curl up into a ball. Peace isn’t just emotional state.

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:11-13

Peace is a way of life, like pursuing the Spirit, like pursuing God. We find what we look for and we are looking all our lives.

To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. –Philippians 4:20


Out of Balance

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen recalls the healing work she did with a Holocaust survivor, whose response to the enormity of the spiritual pain he lived with was to close off feelings toward people and to be “cautious with this heart.” Dr. Remen relates that he joined her on retreat after he was diagnosed with cancer. Initially he was belligerent to strangers, but through inner stillness exercises and introspection he had a transformational experience. One day, while meditating, he sensed a deep pinkish light emanating from his chest. He felt enclosed by a beautiful rose. Troubled by the experience, he took a walk on the beach and began a silent dialogue with G-d. He asked the Creator whether it is all right to love strangers. G-d’s answer jolted him: “You make strangers, I don’t.” In that instant, the Holocaust survivor’s feelings of interpersonal distance began to melt. Strangers were no longer strangers. It was all right to love a stranger.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Tif’eret: Growing a Wise Heart” (pp 154-156)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

I’ve been feeling off balance lately. Most of it has to do with how I choose to react to what I see, hear, and read about in the world around me, both in real life, and via the Internet. I’m not encouraged by what I see, but if you’ve been reading my “meditations” for the past week or so, you already know that. I found I needed to write this “extra meditation” to try and re-establish a bit of balance and to reduce my desire to wad up the whole world of religion like a piece of tissue paper contaminated with dripping bile, and toss it in the nearest toilet.

For Christians, this is a time of year (ideally) when they re-attach to the true meaning of loving and giving, by expressing the will of God with their lives in the community around them. If God was willing to send His “only begotten son” to suffer and die for us so that we could be reconciled to the Father, then why shouldn’t a Christian “pass it on”, so to speak, and offer grace, kindness, and mercy to the next fellow, regardless of who they happen to be? After all, Jesus died for us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5;10). Must we only show goodness to those people who look, act, and believe like we do? Why even “tax collectors” and “pagans” do that (Matthew 5:42-48). Nevertheless, the religious community, or some portions of it, confirm the belief in the secular world that we are all bigoted haters and want to force the whole world to be exactly like we are.

“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.”

That’s part of the oath people used to take when swearing to tell the truth in court. They don’t make you say it anymore because someone was offended with God and we wouldn’t want to God to offend someone, would we (this is sarcasm)?

On the other hand, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be so dedicated to what we think of as “truth” that we automatically condemn, revile, disdain, and hate those people who apparently (perhaps by putting up a Christmas tree) don’t have “the truth”. After all, they must be evil and wrong and we have to stop them by telling them how lousy their cherished faith is, don’t we (that’s more sarcasm)?

OK, I’m still out of balance. Quickly, someone toss me one of those poles used by tightrope walkers, or better yet, another story from Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 147):

Once upon a time a king had two close friends who rebelled against his kingdom. The king seemed to have no choice but to execute the law – the death penalty. But he could not bring himself to kill his friends. Instead, he erected a tightrope over the courtyard at a precarious height. Each prisoner was allowed to walk across the tightrope to freedom. The chances were slim, yet miraculously the first prisoner succeeded. The second prisoner called out to his friend for advice, and the freed man obliged. He called back, “Whenever I felt myself beginning to list to one side I didn’t wait until my weight was there but immediately compensated.

This Hassidic tale invokes many portions of the Bible, including how God sent His Son so that we might all have a chance to conquer the death penalty by “walking the straight and narrow”. Notice though, that in order to navigate the rope, you couldn’t be an extremist. If you went too far to the left or to the right, you would be killed. In fact, when you even thought you were starting to slip to one side, to survive, you had to immediately shift your weight in the opposite direction.

Also, notice that the freed man went out of his way to help his friend rather than taking his salvation and running away. Notice that even though the king (God) had every right to execute the rebels, because they were his friends and he had compassion, he tempered his justice with mercy. Justice was not thrown away, but he gave the rebels a chance, probably more of one than they deserved. Justice was balanced with mercy and grace.

We don’t do balance (or mercy and grace) very well in religion and yet, it’s all over our history. Moses Maimonidies (Rambam), as quoted in Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 146) “counseled his disciples to take the middle path.” I know I talked on this exact same topic last week, but plenty of people still aren’t getting it (especially the majority who don’t read my blog, though they may not agree with me, even if they chose to read these “meditations”). It is one thing to say that you disagree with someone based on your convictions and your understanding of the Bible, but it’s another to condemn them and to believe God will destroy them. Some compare a Christian who celebrates Christmas to a husband to cheats on his wife (and there are plenty of marital metaphors in the Bible), but that metaphor breaks down at some point. A husband and wife are both human; both equals, while God is not human and we can not aspire to ever be His equal. A husband may come close to really understanding everything his wife is about, but we have absolutely no clue exactly what God is all about.

In the end, even if God chooses to condemn others and even if we were “right”, should we have treated those others negatively and with such extremist attitudes and even pride, or should we have balanced our approach to them as God did for us, tempering justice with mercy? Many religious people want to dump the justice onto others but covet the mercy all for themselves, not passing it along. Doing this, are we really God’s children?