Tag Archives: futility

61 Days: Stars

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (ESV)

The Voyager 1 spacecraft’s 35th anniversary is proving to be unexpectedly exciting, as scientists gathered this week to examine new hints that the spacecraft is on the verge of leaving our solar system.

Voyager 1 is now more than 11 billion miles away from Earth. It blasted off in September 1977, on a mission to Jupiter and Saturn. But it also carried a Golden Record filled with music and the sounds of our planet, in case it encountered intelligent life as it moved out toward the stars.

Scientists have been eagerly waiting for Voyager 1 to become the first human-made object to leave the solar system. And in recent weeks, the spacecraft has sent back intriguing signs that it might be getting close, to the delight of researchers who have been working on it for decades.

-Nell Greenfieldboyce
“After 35 Years, Voyager Nears Edge of Solar System” (Sept. 5, 2012)
NPR.org

Most weekday mornings, I get up early enough to leave home by five, pick up my son who lives nearby, and then go to the gym to workout together. This time of year especially, it’s still dark when I open the garage door. Usually, I step outside for a minute and look up at the sky. The front of my house faces south, so if the sky is clear, I can see a fair number of stars, including the constellation Orion.

I don’t know why I look for it, except I can remember different times in my life, different “eras” in decades gone by, when I would look up at the night sky and recognize that constellation. I suppose it gives me some sense of continuity across my personal history.

It also reminds me of how incredibly small I am.

I intellectually understand how far away the planets and stars are, (I once, very briefly, considered a career in Astronomy) from millions of miles to untold light years, but to actually, experientially grasp the distances, even for a moment, is a staggering feat. I know we have robots on the surface of Mars, and Mars is relatively close to Earth, but if I had to walk such a distance; if I have to travel across the emptiness of interplanetary space, how lonely and isolated I would feel. Imagine yourself somehow traveling with Voyager 1 as it prepares to exit the official confines of our solar system and, setting aside the fiction of Star Trek or Star Wars for a moment, try to comprehend just how far away you would be from everything you know and love…

…except God.

I was thinking all these thoughts this morning as I lay awake in bed around 3 o’clock. I don’t know what brought it to mind. I had a bit of a headache, which is unusual for me, particularly in the morning. Perhaps it was something I had dreamed that disturbed me in some way.

My blog and blog comments periodically come to the attention of a few Internet trolls and, in their self-importance, they find it necessary to be disagreeable (only excusing their rudeness and hostility by calling it “debating” or even some form of “loving”). It’s certainly unsettling to be treated badly by those who also claim the cause of Christ (such as being openly maligned by name on their blogs without so much as a “by your leave”) and I won’t pretend it doesn’t bother me, but then, I stop and realize that it doesn’t really matter.

Oh, of course people matter. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t care about others and their well-being, but what I realize is that there are a few unhappy, or grumpy, or insecure people out there who have to try to suck joy out of the lives of others in a quixotic quest for significance in the blogosphere. It’s their behavior that inspired my Days series where I have been examining the idea of abandoning this blog and perhaps all Internet social media by the end of the calendar year.

So far (and I haven’t made a final decision yet), I’m deciding against giving up. First of all, my trollish critics are few in number, even though they can occasionally make a loud “noise” (like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal). Secondly, far more people have been encouraging of me, both publicly and “backchannel,” than these two or three “curmudgeons” have been discouraging of me (though they aren’t curmudgeons in terms of years, merely in attitude).

I had thought about making this particular “meditation” today’s morning meditation, but passed it off as random thoughts of the night, deciding that Re-entry was a more worthy topic. But since the trolls have been active today, I decided I’d write this to clear my head of them and to realize that, in our human smallness, what happens from day-to-day in a small collection of blogs among a minority expression of Christianity doesn’t really matter. It’s certainly not worth my peace of mind.

As I said, I’m currently leaning toward continuing this “morning meditation” blog past January 1st, but I also think I’ll institute a tighter set of controls for comments. There haven’t been any really rude comments here for a while, but I anticipate they may return. In the past, in the interests of being fair, I’ve allowed a significant amount of abuse (in the guise of “debate” or being “loving”) in the comments people have posted on my blog, but that is likely to change. Free speech doesn’t mean “free to abuse” and a blog owner is more of a “benign dictator” than a moderator of democratic speech.

No, I won’t immediately flip over into draconian mode and if I think someone has crossed the line, I’ll serve fair warning first, but beyond that, I feel perfectly content to remove specific comments if they cross the line I set for proper decorum. And on occasion, I will close comments on a specific blog post if things get too heated (I’ve done both in the past). Repeat offenders who are not willing to “take a hint,” or those to engage in severe personal attacks or who use obscenities will be immediately banned.

Consider this my version of putting a wall around the roof of my home so that the safety of my “guests,” (and my own safety) who I consider anyone visiting my blog, (and most visitors don’t post comments) can be ensured.

But as I also said, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I can still pull the plug on life support and consign “morning meditations” to a peaceful, dignified demise. Better that than allowing the trolls to abuse what started out as such a peaceful and uplifting vision to begin each day.

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and meditate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

There are those who insist in living in darkness and they are not satisfied unless they pull others down into their realm with them. I prefer to soar and glide in the heights, letting the light illuminate my mind, my emotions, and my spirit, like the light of the sun gracefully reflects off of the wings of a dove.

The best response to harsh people is how Buddha responded; with a smile, accepting what was good and uplifting around him and not accepting anything else. I can’t even aspire to be Buddha, let alone Jesus, but I am supposed to emulate my Master so far as it depends on me by “living peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18)

Infinite darknessAngry and dissatisfied people are not helpful and are not healthy, for themselves or anyone exposed to them, even over the Internet. To repeat a lesson I continually need to learn…

Today I shall…

…try to improve my response to other people so that I only accept and give gifts of kindness, and not of anger.

Everything that we fuss and feud and argue about won’t really matter in the end. Jesus isn’t going to judge us on who won this blogosphere argument or that, no matter how important we may think they are at the time. They don’t really matter. They aren’t significant. Most of what we do isn’t significant. Staring up at the stars at five o’ clock on a clear autumn morning in Idaho, I realize that against all that vastness, against the stars, the space between me and them, and whatever is beyond, I’m not significant at all…

…except to God.

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 (ESV)

The Empty Room

The author of the Likutei Yehudah, zt”l, recounted an inspiring Torah he heard from his grandfather, the illustrious Chidushei Harim, zt”l, “Every person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes. In the merit of this singular aspect we are afforded life and vitality from the Source of all life. But what we naturally believe gives God pleasure is often not the correct attribute. With our limited understanding, how can we possibly know what is truly important on high?

“Tzaddikim expand on their positive attributes by working to give God pleasure in their every endeavor. In this manner they are compared to fertile ground which harbors growth. But the actions of the wicked are compared to barren land. Since they only obey their base nature, their actions do not bear positive fruit. Like desolate land, the deeds of the wicked are inconsequential on high.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash on the verse, ‘Whoever offers a todah offering honors Me.’ …This teaches that one who brings a todah sacrifice honors God both in this world and the next.

“The special aspect of a todah offering is that one must bring forty breads along with it, unlike other sacrifices. Ten of the breads brought are chametz, which alludes to the negative aspects of a person. Nevertheless, the majority of these breads are matzah. The forty breads correspond to the forty days of formation of the human fetus. This teaches that feeling and expressing appreciation to God—for both the good and the bad—is the main way to rectify every Jew.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Importance of Appreciation”
Bechoros 21

When I read this “story off the Daf”, I immediately thought of Jesus and his parable of the sower (see Mark 4:1-20) when contrasting “they are compared to fertile ground which harbors growth” to “like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop”, but I wonder if the similarity is only superficial? Chidushei Harim is describing relative impact of the deeds of the righteous and the wicked in the Heavenly realm, while Jesus is specifically discussing how different people receive the Word and respond in both the short and long run. I suppose you can say there’s a relationship, but if it even exists, it’s extremely tenuous. Also, the Daf is specifically directed to Jewish people, while the teachings of Jesus can be applied to both Jewish and Gentile disciples (even though at the time he was delivering his parable, Jesus was speaking to an exclusively Jewish audience).

Yesterday’s “meditation” was called Living Out Loud which is (I hope) an encouragement to persevere in the faith against the pressures of a secular world that seems to want us to completely disappear. Today’s “mediation” is the “anti” of yesterday’s.

Let me explain.

It occurs to me that part of what allows us as people of faith to carry on and to stand firmly on the foundation of our principles against the adversity of the world around us is that we are not alone. We always have a safe haven to return to for support and encouragement, be it our church, our synagogue, or some group of like-minded folks who hold the same religious values as we do. It’s a lot harder to face the world around us and express who we are and what we believe if we have to always do it alone. Even with a supportive community, it’s still possible to feel isolated most of the time.

I’m over six months into my “experiment” and I find myself in a rather odd developmental circumstance. I realized that as I was driving to the gym on Sunday morning, I was eying the parking lot of a church I pass along the way and wondering what it would be like to turn in and spend Sunday morning worshiping. I was really surprised at this. Part of the reason I left my previous congregation was to make myself available, should my wife decide to invite me to share her faith life. Carrying the mantle “Messianic” isn’t exactly compatible with entering a traditional Jewish synagogue. But, if I were to even occasionally worship at a church, how damaging would that be to my goal of sharing a faith life with my family?

I have to admit, my wife hasn’t been to shul or participated in any classes or activities at our local synagogues in quite some time. She’s been pretty busy with other pursuits and probably won’t have space in her schedule until after the (Christian/secular) holidays. Still, after six months, I’m beginning to wonder if my goal to share a life of faith with her is even remotely realistic. I don’t think it was a mistake to leave my former congregation because, as supportive and warm as that environment was, it also limited me in terms or other, more personal options. Still, perhaps my journey will lead me in a direction that will never again include a sense of community. How much “spiritual horsepower” do I have in me and how long will it take for my supply to run empty?

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:13

Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but I’m not Paul, not by a long shot. Sure, he faced extraordinary hardships and trials with little or no help and managed to endure to the end of his days, but how many of us could do the same? I know I couldn’t. I have a tough enough time with the challenges operating within the confines of my very ordinary life and frankly, I can feel myself running down. I keep thinking about where I could go to recharge my batteries. No options present themselves as viable. I doubt my wife would object if I chose to visit a church, but there are just tons of problems involved in even a semi-formal re-entry into Christianity, not the least of which would be the upcoming Christmas holidays. Also, getting back to my original issue, one of the goals of my experiment was to be able to worship with my wife. Going to any faith community is hollow if I have to go alone. Going to a church or other house of worship by myself means admitting that I’ll never share a faith life with my wife. Is that what’s going to happen?

I keep turning the options over and over in my mind but nothing new comes up. No fresh path presents itself. The soil is shallow, the land is desolate, there are thorns growing everywhere. I am maintaining my faith, but almost everywhere I go (virtually), it is thrown back in my face. The world has no desire to hear truth. It only wants to hear the socially and politically correct “doctrine” of the “church of secular humanism”, and the message that human beings continually evolve on their own, to become more progressively perfect.

Today’s Daf says that each “person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes”, but I find myself wondering what that is for me. I am beginning to see why some religious hermits find the idea of living in a cave or in some other isolated area appealing.

But being in isolation doesn’t serve God.

God never said that a life of faith would be comfortable or even safe. I’m not being persecuted, and my life and safety isn’t at risk, but I am a “stranger in a strange land”, sometimes even in my own home. I’m certainly an oddball everywhere else I go, including in all of my online “personas”. Yesterday, I talked about living a life of faith “out loud” and today I’m wondering if in my own case, it is even worth it? Maybe I should spend more time in quiet and solitary study and prayer and less time shooting off my big mouth on the Internet and in real life.

But when you experience that which you do not yet understand, there is surprise and there is wonder. For that moment, you are swept away and lifted out of your little world. You taste firsthand that, yes, there is truly a reality that exists beyond my own mind and heart.

This is the path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world. It is a path that takes an open mind, one ready for truths beyond itself. As the people declared at Sinai, “We will do, and then we will understand.”

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

“We will do, and then we will understand” sounds like a call to continue a life of faith without having to know the “why” of it. But when Rabbi Freeman says, “This is the path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world”, he isn’t saying anything that can be applied to a Gentile who, by definition, has no part in the Torah. In confronting my Jewish studies and trying to express who I am and what I believe, I find myself in a room with four blank walls but no door, alone in muffled silence, crying out in a voice that is speaking in vain.

The Ba’al Shem Tov once told his disciples a story about a beautiful bird that flew into the king’s garden and perched on the high branch of a tree. Every day the bird sang its song, and the melody so captivated the king that he vowed to capture it and bring it inside the castle to sing for him alone. The king drew his servants together and instructed them to create a human ladder via which he would reach the treetop. They did as he ordered, and all went well, until he reached out to snatch the bird. At that moment, the man at the bottom became tired and moved away. The human ladder collapsed.

What does this story tell us? On one level it is a parable that might point to the folly of trying to capture for one man’s personal pleasure the bounty that was meant for us all to enjoy. But we are told that the Ba’al Shem Tov had a deeper lesson in mind. He wanted us to understand that G-d’s love can descend to earth only when we support each other – the strong helping the weak and the weak aspiring to strength. When even one person gives in to weakness – to greed or cruelty – the entire structure collapses. Thus the universe is dependent upon each of our efforts.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“The Ten Sefirot” (pp 51-2)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

I’m writing this on Monday for the “meditation” on Tuesday, so maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow morning feeling differently. Maybe not. On the other hand, I’d hate to think that by walking away from hope, I’ll cause someone else to fall. Or is that arrogant presumption on my part?

Difficult Ascent

AscentAs impossible as it sounds, as absurd as it may seem: The mandate of darkness is to become light; the mandate of a busy, messy world is to find oneness. We have proof: for the greater the darkness becomes, the greater the confusion of life, the deeper our souls reach inward to discover their own light.

How could it be that darkness leads us to find a deeper light? That confusion leads us to find a deeper truth?

Only because the very act of existence is set to know its own author. That is the cosmic drama, its theme and its plot: That otherness should come to know oneness.

And we are the players in that drama.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“The Mandate of Darkness”
Chabad.org

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

-William Shakespeare
“As You Like It”
Act 2, scene 7

I’m still trying to drag my thoughts and feelings out of Tisha b’Av and the time of mourning. I don’t know why I can’t shake this off. After all, life moves on. Tisha b’Av comes every year and it goes every year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is going to arrive in less than two months and there will be ample opportunity to fast, pray, reflect on my short comings, make amends to those I have hurt, and attempt to pull myself up out of the mud and up to the heavens.

What am I waiting for?

Why do things sometimes seem like this?

If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things – do not all go to one place?” –Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 (NASB)

Rabbi Freeman says that the purpose of living in a deep darkness is to find a deeper light and the verses from Ecclesiastes say that a soul should be satisfied with the good things. If not, life itself is futile. Yet I continue to feel somewhat like this fellow:

How long, O LORD?
Will You hide Yourself forever?
Will Your wrath burn like fire?
Remember what my span of life is;
For what vanity You have created all the sons of men!
What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? –Psalm 89:46-48 (NASB)

Christians cry out to Jesus to return and Jews bare their souls in anguish to God and ask how long until the Moshiach comes? As people of faith, we know that life is not lived in vain, but how long until the King reigns in full, O’ God, how long? How many people have been born, lived, and died waiting for you?

I quoted the following parable about two weeks ago in another of my blog posts:

A father answers the questions of his child and they are happy together, in joyful dialogue.

Then the child asks a question, and the father must think deeply—not just for the answer, but to reach to the essence of this answer so he may bring it to the world of his child. For a long while, the father is quiet.

And so, the child becomes anxious and begins to cry. “Father, where are you? Why do you no longer talk to me? Why have you deserted me for your own thoughts?”

And then the father begins to speak, but this time it is the deepest core of his mind that flows into the mind and heart of the child. Such a flow that with this the child, too, may become a father.

The child is us. The time of silence is now.

When the spirit of Man is dark, when the flow gates of Above seem all but sealed, prepare for liberation.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory
“A Time of Silence”
Chabad.org

As difficult as it can be sometimes, a good portion of the nature of faith is to wait. I believe that while we are waiting, we aren’t supposed to be passive and inactive. We still have a life. The very first prayer an observant Jew says upon awakening is:

“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”
Modeh Ani

Even if life doesn’t make any sense, and even if life seems cruel, unjust, and merciless, we are here by the will of God. If we believe He guides our steps, then even our existence isn’t a random event. Our purpose then, is not to surrender to futility, but to discover the reason we were created and then to live that reason out every day that we draw breath.

However, some days are better than others. We ask for mercy, God, when we seem only shallow characters reciting our lines in a badly written play. We know our lives must mean more than that. Struggling to ascend from the dark abyss, when will we find the deeper light?

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.