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Once in a while, He seems to be peeking through the latticework of our world, filling the day with light.

But then there are times He hides His face behind a thick wall, and we are confused.

We cry out to Him, loudly, for He must be far away.

He is not far away. For the latticework is His holy hand, and the walls themselves are sustained by His word.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hiding Behind His Hand”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

In Torah-study the person is devoted to the subject that he wishes to understand and comes to understand. In davening the devotion is directed to what surpasses understanding. In learning Torah the Jew feels like a pupil with his master; in davening – like a child with his father.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tamuz 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

I have to keep reminding myself that there is something bigger than humanity. If I ever stop, my faith in just about everything would completely collapse, especially in human beings. It seems like every time I turn about (virtually), someone else is saying that all religious people everywhere are fanatics. I have to keep reminding myself that, for some people, all they know about a life of faith is from those people and groups who only pretend to honor the God of the Bible. I have to remind myself that the only “Christians” some folks are aware of are those who use their religion as an excuse to spew out their vile, personal hate.

No wonder other religious people as well as agnostics and atheists hate Christians.

But it makes me wonder.

If all Christians everywhere are judged by the behaviors of a few, fringe fanatics, doesn’t that make the people doing the judging prejudiced and bigoted?

I know that even the best among the body of faith take heat for evangelizing to the “unsaved”. From the Christian’s point of view, he or she is fulfilling the mandate from Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and sincerely trying to keep another living human being from “eternal damnation” (I put these terms in quotes because they are very “Christian-centric” and not easily understood outside the church).

I know that although we are not of the world, we are supposed to be in it (John 15:19, Romans 12:2), if only to live the lives we are created for, to do our part in repairing the world, and to prepare our environment for the Master’s return (“and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I anticipate that he will come”…from the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith).

But most of the rest of the world still thinks I’m a schmuck.

Trying to convince them that not all people of faith are “the enemy” seems hopeless. The secular “haters” outnumber me by quite a bit, and as I’ve said before, I guess I should have expected this. I guess it’s especially difficult to take when people who I like and otherwise get along with continually bombard me with “religion is evil” messages day in and day out.

Judaism’s answer, according to Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe is:

The first thing needed to fix this world is that Jews should love each other and be united.

And this can begin even without a planning committee and without funding.

It can begin with you.

That can work for the church too, but this strategy often involves defining yourself by who or what you oppose. How can you oppose the world and not expect it (and them) to oppose you? Doesn’t that make it difficult to have conversations? Does that mean the church becomes a self-contained box and only talks inside of itself? How do you spread the Gospel of Christ that way, or do you only “spread” it inside the church?

All that said, maybe the only way to survive with faith intact is to withdraw periodically. I think that’s what prayer is like sometimes. It’s what Shabbat would be like for Christians if Shabbat were permitted to the non-Jew.

It’s almost a shame that my primary template for understanding Christianity is traditional Judaism, because the vast majority of Jews are completely opposed to everything I stand for. Somehow, I manage to fit a square peg into a round hole, but perhaps only in my own imagination.

Alone in silenceI’ve always thought that Christian hymns like just you and me, Jesus were terribly self-centered and driven by the desire to contain the King of the World within a single, human relationship, but I also see the appeal. It’s easy, when you don’t feel as if human beings are friendly, approachable, or even trustworthy, to want to withdraw from humanity all and only trust the Divine.

Of course, that strategy presupposes you have the ability to trust God, but then, that’s one of the interesting things about people who oppose religion. Sometimes people like them and people like me have a thing or two in common.

But I learned long ago that you have to trust someone. If God can’t be trusted, then life is hopeless.

Rabbi Freeman’s solution goes something like this:

Do kindness beyond reason.

Defy terror with beauty.

Combat darkness with infinite light.

I could spread light throughout the world from today until the day I die and most people would continually refactor and redefine the light as darkness, just in order to keep fitting me into how they define religion. In the end, I have to hide some tiny spark of His infinite light  deep inside of me and somehow manage keep it kindled. The horrible alternative is to surrender to terror and a perpetual descent into the abyss, watching both people and God dwindle in the increasing distance between us.

As opposed to people, God is supposed to be the ultimate inclusionist. I certainly hope so.

Disconnect Reconnect Disconnect

Normally, I start out a “meditation” with some sort of meaningful or inspirational quote, usually from Chabad.org, but I’ve got other things on my mind. Most of you know that I recently attended the First Fruits of Zion 2012 Shavuot Conference, hosted by Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. After five wonderful, exhausting days, I’m back home in Idaho. I’m really tired, even after sleeping all night, but I need to start writing about all this.

Blogging is inherently lonely. I know it might not seem that way, since in theory, I’m talking to anyone who has Internet access, but the reality of blogging is that I’m sitting at a computer keyboard alone and writing to myself. Ultimately, when I post this online, it’s available to anyone and everyone, but from my point of view, it’s like being a man who is stranded on a small, desert island, writing a note, putting it in a bottle, and then throwing it into the ocean. The tide takes it out and I’ll probably never see it again or know what happens to it. Will the cork work loose and pop out, letting water in and sinking my bottle? Will just enough water get in and ruin the message so that even if someone finds the bottle, they’ll never be able to read the note inside? Or will the bottle just float and float, carried here and there by nameless, unknown currents, bobbing around the seas, lost to time and man forever and ever?

Who knows, but that’s how I feel. Even if someone responds to a blog post, they are far away and faceless, an identity I can communicate with but never really know. An almost anonymous cardboard cut out, but never a living, breathing flesh-and-blood human being.

Until now.

There’s a long story about everything that happened up to the point when I entered Beth Immanuel for the first time last Thursday afternoon, but I won’t tell that tale right now. Jeremiah, my ride from the motel to the conference on the first day, dropped me off and then was called away. I walked into the congregation building (which is a very beautiful and richly textured synagogue) and didn’t get two steps inside before someone said (I can’t remember the exact wording), “You’re Jim Pyles. I love your blog.” (Hi, Michele)

Needless to say, I was stunned.

I really didn’t expect to get any attention relative to this blog. I figured that I’d meet one or two people I know through Facebook but otherwise I’d be pretty much anonymous. That never happened.

Please don’t think I’m saying this to blow my own horn, but probably fifteen people or so came up to me during the conference, recognizing me on sight, and saying something complementary about my blog. Daniel Lancaster publicly introduced all of the staff of FFOZ the first evening of the conference, asking each person to stand up when their name was called. I didn’t think much of it until he called my name.


It probably didn’t help that I agreed be a presenter at Tikkun Leil Shavuos Saturday night (Sunday morning at about 2, actually).

Why am I telling you all this? It’s what happens when someone finds the bottle, reads the message, and comes to rescue you with a boat. It’s what happens when you get on the boat and you realize that a lot of people read the message and because of that, they feel like they know you and they want to get to know you better. It’s when you feel disconnected and alone on a desert island and then the island fills up with people who all know your name and story and all of them want you to know them, too. They tell you their stories and somehow your story and their stories interact, weave, and blend into each other to create a different, larger story about people who come from radically different places and yet all have something in common. To use a “star trek-ism”, it’s infinite diversity coming together to form an infinite combination.

Disconnection becomes connection.

And then it’s over.

Anyone who’s been to a conference like this knows that you are put through a whirlwind of events, worship services, presentations, meals, discussions, and fellowship. Suddenly, you’re back in your motel room asleep and then the next thing you know, it’s another morning and you’re praying shacharit with the congregation again. What seems like a days long stream of activities compresses into a few minutes, and once they blur by, you’re on a plane in the middle of the night, fighting the urge to try to sleep in an extremely uncomfortable seat while wedged between two people, flying back home.

I actually started to feel this loneliness the evening of the first full day of the conference. Some “vision” of the end presented itself to me during one of the presentations and I felt compelled to write notes for this particular blog post. I can’t find the notes but I still feel the separation and disconnection. I suppose that’s to be expected. After one of these events when you make or re-make so many connections so quickly, you almost always feel a sense of profound loss when it’s over. I remember thinking at one point that I could happily settle down into the community at Beth Immanuel and spend the rest of my life in worship there.

Of course, that will never happen for more reasons than I have time to recount in this missive.

Since I didn’t have a car, Jeremiah Detwiler picked me up from the airport (thanks for all your help, Jeremiah), and during the first night, I met a fellow named Dave who was staying at the same motel, so he agreed to ferry me back and forth (thanks, Dave). Dave and I met in the motel lobby on Friday morning after breakfast and drove back to Beth Immanuel. We got there a little early and sat in the sanctuary. After a few minutes, I heard the faint sound of Hebrew prayers and followed it into the library (the library by the way, is to die for). In a small room above the library, a group of men had gathered together for shacharit before the public ceremonies began.

I remember standing directly under the room and being filled with…something, an emotion, just listening to the prayers, and I found myself floating on the surface of the rhythm of the words, letting myself be carried off to sea. I’m terrible at languages and on my best day in life, I’ll never be able to learn Hebrew, but for some reason I can’t explain, Hebrew prayer just calls to me. However, it would have been too embarrassing to actually try to participate in the prayers with them, and since I’m not Jewish, I’ve promised myself I won’t put on a tallit again for that, and more reasons than I have time to recount here. But I couldn’t help myself when I followed the sound of the prayers from the sanctuary to the library and then I just stood in awe and wonder and longing, and I listened.

The prayers ended and I quickly returned to my seat in the sanctuary, but those precious moments when I was listening to the men praying are one of the highlights of my entire experience at the conference. I really do miss the prayers and while they resonate in some mysterious way with my soul, they also remind me that I can only be who I am and that there is a world I will always orbit but never truly arrive upon. My bird has no legs, so I must forever be suspended alone in flight.

And so I’m disconnected again, but it’s even worse than that.

It’s not simply that I’m restored to my previous state. If that’s all it was, I would eventually return to my “normal life” and that would be the end of it. After all, there’s always next year and I can attend the 2013 conference if I want to.

But it’s not just that.

I brought something back with me from the conference. Yes, I brought books back, and materials back, and memories back, but that’s not what changed things for me, not really. I also brought back questions about purpose, identity, and mission. I’m wondering about goals, and process, and destination. In the days ahead, I’m going to write about what I brought back, some of which is vast in scope and some that touches on just a few tiny details.

In many ways, blogging is futile. While I know now that I’ve touched a lot of people just by writing, I also realize that in a much grander scope, it doesn’t really matter. I can only touch people who choose to read this blog and even then, only those people who choose to be touched. And as a said before, there are severe limitations to the (dis)connections I can make in a virtual universe when, after all, both God and man exist and talk in the real one.

It’s like something really strange happened to the man rescued from the desert island and to all the people who welcomed him on their boat. Instead of going away from the island and letting himself go back to their land with them, the man ate with those people, and talked with those people, and shared experiences with those people for four or five days, and at the end of that time, he got off the boat and went back to the island. The people turned their boat around and went back where they came from. And again, they are isolated from him and he is isolated from them. From disconnection to connection to disconnection.

But he carried away their notes with him and he’s reading them. And he can’t just send out messages in a bottle anymore. And he doesn’t know what to do instead. So he reads. And he thinks. And he prays. And he waits.

And he still writes messages and sends them off upon the currents of the sea every morning as the sun rises because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Maybe one day, God will reach onto the surface of the deep and find one of those messages and read it.

And maybe one day, God will be the one to come to the island and talk to the man.

And then, He’ll tell the man how to leave the island without a boat, even if he has to walk.

And he’ll go to a place where he’ll find someone new to talk to.

I want to thank Dave, and Jeremiah, and Michele, and Karen, and Jim, and Mel, and Jacob, and Jacob, and Michael, and Bill, and Cliff, and lots and lots and lots of other people for talking to me and spending time with me and sharing your lives with me. If I didn’t mention your name, it’s because my memory leaks and sometimes certain details go away. It’s nothing personal, my brain is just getting older.

I also want to thank the leaders and congregation at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship for hosting the conference and for allowing me to participate in your community. I also want to thank everyone at First Fruits of Zion for creating and producing an absolutely amazing conference that not only informed but illuminated human beings. I now have a lot of new mysteries to experience and anguish over (but in a good way). I want to thank Aaron who I’ve never met before and Daniel who I have, as well as Toby, even though he thought I was a different person at first, and Shayna who kept the entire event under control. I want to thank Nick and Jordan who I never met before and who are two of the most amazing young people it has ever been my privilege to encounter, and Jacob who is an amazing young person who I have (virtually) encountered before.

Most of all, I want to thank Boaz Michael who I have met before but who I never got to know so well as I did over the past five days or so. It’s fairly common to encounter Boaz’s thoughts but I am blessed to have experienced his heart, and his passion, and his desire to please God and to serve not only the Jewish community, but the body of all believers in the Jewish Messiah, no matter who they are or where they may be found.

I’m sitting in a chair in front of a computer on a desert island on a Tuesday afternoon as I write this. I have no idea what’s going to happen next as I listen to the waves softly washing up to the sandy shore and hear the wind rustle the palm fronds above my head. But as I experience the loss of connection and settle back into my solitary niche, I proceed hopefully.

Why Am I Alone?

embedded by Embedded Video

I can’t get this woman out of my head. I’ve seen this video embedded at a lot of different online venues yesterday, but I was busy and didn’t take the time to actually view it until this morning. As it turns out, my “lack of time” is part of what makes this Episcopal Priest’s plea so poignant.

To give credit where it’s due, I clicked a link at Derek Leman’s blog, which took me to the actual embedded video on Scot McKnight’s blog. If you frequent either of those places, you’ve probably already seen the video. If not, and if you haven’t already watched it here or someplace else on the web, please do so before continuing to read my blog post. The video is less than ten minutes long and it is so worth it.

Reading the various comments on Derek’s and McKnight’s blogs, I was taken aback at some of the criticism expressed by a number of the commentators. Granted, the Episcopal church isn’t my cup of tea either, but there’s a lot more going on here than just how we view one version of Christianity versus another. Also, as was pointed out repeatedly, most of the approaches this Priest felt had failed in bringing in and retaining people to a religious and spiritual experience have to do with “programs”. It’s as if, because her methods and her techniques weren’t successful, it meant that people didn’t care about the cause of Christ.

I mentioned on McKnight’s blog that…

I have sort of the opposite problem. I’m sure she and I would disagree about a good many things, but I would *love* to sit down with her (or someone) and talk about Jesus. I just can’t find a person or a place (face-to-face as opposed to online) where I’ll fit in. It’s not a matter of the details, but the honesty and passion this Priest has for what she’s doing and who she is as a person of faith is exactly what I’m looking for.

To me, her specific religious “bent” or her reliance on programs and methods are all secondary to what she’s really saying and particularly, what she’s really feeling. I’ve felt that way too, sort of. No, I’m not an ordained minister of any kind and I haven’t been “called to lead” (although I did a bit of teaching for several years at a small congregation), but I do feel frustrated and isolated, as if no one understands the drive I have to do what I’m doing. She has a drive and a need as well, and she keeps hitting a brick wall. You can only take a good run at a brick wall and smash into it so many times before the pain and lack of forward progress makes you do what she said: “So we cancelled it all…”

In a way, I “cancelled it all” too, but my reasons were very different. I “cancelled” my former way of leading a religious life, not because I wasn’t happy and not because I wasn’t making a kind of progress, but because of where my progress lead me. It’s really a lot more complicated than that, and to find out more, read Why I Don’t Go To Church. I left, not because I hit a wall exactly, but because I realized, in order to avoid hitting a wall, I had to change course.

And so I did.

And then I hit a wall anyway. I recognized the possibility that I might hit that wall, but I was banking on managing to avoid it. I didn’t. So I’m sitting at the base of the wall, as I imagine this Episcopal Priest is doing, taking stock of my options and looking for a way around, over, or under the wall. I’ll need to change my course again, but that’s what life is all about: change. Change is always painful, even when it’s beneficial.

I’m not sure what this Priest’s answer is. I’m not particularly sure of what my answer is. I do know that I’m not inclined to criticize her for her religion or her approach to her need to teach, even if I disagree with them. I do know she’s someone I would really love to talk to about Jesus, not because we would agree with each other, but because, in spite of our extremely different backgrounds, we are at the same place on the trail. We have the same experience. We’re asking the same questions. We’re looking for the same answers. And that tells me something I hadn’t let myself realize before.

It tells me that, in the mess of all of our different religious traditions, and all of the subsets of our religion, and all of the splinters and fragments and offshoots we inhabit because we are so unalike in how we conceptualize God and the Bible and faith, we are all the same. I spend a lot of time focused on how different I am from everybody else around me and what an oddball I must look like to all the other Christians, but today I found someone in a video who helped me realize that we are all the same, too. We travel different paths and occupy divergent trails, but all of those trails intersect between the question and the answer of “who is God” and “who am I”. When we take off our pretenses and our masks and our religious self-delusions and are brutally honest with ourselves and with everyone else, we are all alike when we ask, “why isn’t this working for me?” “Why isn’t this working for everyone else around me?” “What’s wrong and how can I fix it?” “Can I even fix it at all?”

We are all alike when, even in the presence of God, we cry out, “Why do I feel so alone?” That’s why I want to meet her. To tell her she’s not alone. And I want to meet her so I won’t feel alone, too.

But there is hope, even in emptiness, as Rabbi Tzvi Freeman cites from the teachings of the Rebbe:

The beginning of all paths and the starting point of every climb is to open yourself to receive from Above.

How do you receive from Above?
By being empty.
For a vessel that is full cannot receive anything.

A person that is full of self-concern, of “what will become of me?” of “where life is taking me?”—such a person leaves no room for life to enter.

But a simple, open spirit is filled with joy from Above.

Addendum, Friday afternoon: I realized I had no idea who the Priest in the video is and decided to try and find the original source or at least something a little closer to that source. I discovered that the Priest is Rev. LeeAnne Watkins of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. I traced the video as far back as February 16, 2012 as posted at the Episcopal Story Project. If I find out any more, I’ll update my information here.