Tag Archives: loss

On the Passing of My Father

On April 19th, just a day short of his eighty-fifth birthday, my Dad died of complications related to cancer. It was sudden, so sudden that I found myself calling 911 and then administering CPR on his cold and pale body until the paramedics arrived.

They resuscitated him, but he never regained consciousness. We made the decision not to use extraordinary means to extend his life and let him pass.

Almost exactly two years before the day of his death, I wrote A Psalm for My Dad in response to his being hospitalized for a serious illness. My Mom told me that after he recovered, he printed out what I’d written and kept it with him. I found it on the end table next to his favorite chair after he died.

I have nothing profound to report, no theological cleverness nor doctrinal commentary to make. I’m just writing here to process my thoughts and feelings. The family interned his ashes last Saturday, but I don’t think I really said good-bye until just now. Actually, I’ve been writing a number of short fiction stories and added a few Facebook commentaries which, taken together, sum up my good-bye to Dad.

Click the link to the “psalm” to read more.

Good-bye, Dad. I miss you.

© James Pyles

Past and Future Holy

There is a graphic example of this at the beginning of the book of Job. In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores (Job 1-2). The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children? It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick (Guide for the Perplexed 3:27).

-Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
“Eternity and Mortality”
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

Once I would have believed that but now I’m not so sure. I think that when you are sick, you can and in fact, you must consider, ponder, and meditate upon the Spirit and the ultimate truth, because in the process of dying, you are preparing to meet that truth.

Let me explain.

Last night, as you read this, I renewed my relationship with an old friend. I don’t have his permission to discuss the details here, so I must be deliberately vague. But he’s sick. He’s quite ill. We haven’t spoken in several years, even though he lives very close to me. When I heard that he was ill, I asked a mutual friend if he would like to visit this person with me. Our mutual friend lives in another state but was in town visiting relatives.

So for several hours on Sunday afternoon and going into Sunday night, our mutual friend, me, my friend who is ill and his wife sat in their living room and visited. We talked about many things including what we have been doing with our lives, where we’re living and working, and what else we’ve been doing, and movies we’ve seen, and trivia and science and families.

And we talked about doctors and illness and exams and families and trying to make plans when you know the future won’t be traveling as far ahead of you as you once thought it might.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but occasionally, God lets you see how He plays “connect the dots.”

My daughter “coincidentally” ran into the ill gentleman’s wife and one of his daughters in the same store in two separate events on the same day. That’s when my daughter found out that my friend was ill. Then my daughter told my wife. Then my wife and daughter told me. Then my wife said that maybe some other old friends and I should visit this friend. So I contacted a couple of old friends. Only one replied and he lives in another state. But the other state friend was coming into town to spend Thanksgiving with is family who lives locally, so I asked him to let me know when we could get together.

And so he called me on Sunday in the early afternoon and we made plans.

And we got together and drove over to our friend’s place.

And that’s when we got to talking about all kinds of things, especially the stuff no one likes to talk about but that will happen to each and every one of us.

I wonder if that’s why we don’t talk about getting sick and about dying?

Because it will happen to every one of us.

Whether we want it to or not.

Whether we’re rich or poor or black or white or any other color or where we live or anything else about us.

And whether or not we believe in God, we’re all still going to die.

And then we’ll know.

I can’t say this from personal experience (yet), but when you know you’re going to die, not in some distant, hypothetical future, but in a more or less predictable time frame, and you have a relationship with God, assuming the relationship with God survives the terminal news, you start thinking about Him a lot.

I wonder if He starts thinking about you more, too?

That’s probably a stupid question since God is infinite and so are His thoughts, but as I was sitting there talking and listening, I was thinking about God and I was wondering if He was thinking a lot more about my friend, too.

I hope so.

PrayerI know that I want and probably need a lot of attention from God. Just read my blog for a few days and you’ll figure out why. But I’m not so self-absorbed that I don’t realize there are a lot of other people who need God’s attention much more than I do. I know God’s resources are limitless, but if they weren’t and if each of us only got so much from God, then I’d ask God to take some of mine and give it to my friend. He needs more attention right now. So does his wife. So does the rest of his family.

I don’t have a lot to give that’s really valuable in a practical sense. I’m not a good handyman. I’m a lousy plumber and a worse carpenter. I barely know a car’s battery from its distributor cap, and electrical wiring is a complete mystery.

But I do have time. And I do have attention. And I can listen. I can talk, too. I can even read out loud.

And I can pray. I can visit. I can have a discussion with another person. So I have a few things to give.

I’ve been pondering about church and church attendance and community and having conversations with like-minded Christians.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but maybe He works just like He worked on Sunday afternoon, re-creating an old friendship and building a new one.

Good morning God. I gratefully thank you, living and existing King, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness. Thank you for making all things holy, including this past Sunday afternoon and past and future friendships.

The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of God who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” (Deut. 33: 27) of God.

Tisha B’Av: Longing for Goodness and Righteousness

Jewish in Jerusalemlast night i decided to take a walk around 1am. on my way back a sweet old lady approached me asking if i knew where a certain hotel was. i must note that since leaving my house i was filled with this expansive sense of love and suddenly the situation struck me as very odd that an elderly woman was roaming the streets looking for a place to stay for the night. i told her i did not know where the hotel was but i knew of a hostel nearby. we walked there but there was no room. then we tried another hotel, long story, it turned out the rooms there were $200/night, more than the woman had. at this point the woman began looking at stairwells and considering just sitting somewhere for the remaining night hours. the situation was heartbraking. i even offered to let her stay in my room on a mattress, but she did not want to impose. at this point we were in the ultra-orthodox jewish neighborhood of jerusalem, and i thought, perhaps someone knows of somewhere she could rest for the night, perhaps in a syngagogue or house of study. without really thinking i told her to wait and ran after one of the ultra-orthodox men walking the streets. i explained the situation and asked if he knew of a place she could rest, he said no..no..i began to give up..then he said…

“Tzedakah miracle in Ir HaKodesh, week of Shabbos Chazon 5772”
Rucho Shel Mashiach blog

I actually posted a link to this blog article on Facebook a few days ago, but I really wanted to write about what it means to me (you can click the link above to read the whole story, but I’m going to finish the quote in just a little bit).

I was thinking about Christian perceptions of Jews and Judaism. At its worst, Christianity thinks of Judaism as a dead, works-based religion that has no spirit or soul, no connection to the living God, and that religious Jews only do good deeds because they’re “under the Law” and out of fear of breaking their commandments.

But then I realized that atheists think about Christianity in pretty much the same way.

I’ve been criticized several times over the past week or so by atheists who say that I need to have the “excuse” of God to do anything good for another person. They ask why I can’t just do good deeds because it’s the right thing to do? After all, that’s what (supposedly) all atheists and progressive humanists do.

My, my, my but how we judge each other. Hopefully the “Tzedakah miracle” story will help change some Christian minds about how Jews see helping other people. I’m not sure what to do about helping atheists see that we Christians can actually do good as well, and how we experience Jesus as a powerful motivator and example of what it is to be charitable.

I was also thinking about Tisha B’Av which begins on Saturday at sundown. It’s the solemn commemoration of the destruction of both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples, as well as many other tragic events that have occurred in Jewish history. Jews typically fast on this occasion, which is the culmination of a three-week period of mourning, and refrain from various pleasurable activities.

Of course, for Christians and everyone else, it’s just another day.

I sometimes wonder why Christians don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple. I know, that probably sounds silly. Most Christians believe that the Temple was destroyed as a natural result of the coming of Jesus and that now, each individual Christian is a “temple” for the Holy Spirit. The physical becomes “spiritualized” a great deal in Christianity.

But among other things, the rebuilding of the Temple in Holy Jerusalem is part of what the Messiah is supposed to do (see Jeremiah 33:18). Here’s a little bit more about what the Messiah will do when he comes.

The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing us back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).

“Mashiach: The Messiah”
Judaism 101

Although plainly depicted in prophecy, almost all of the information in the quote above isn’t generally known and accepted in the church.

But assuming it is true, then perhaps we Christians should mourn the Temple. Perhaps we should long to see it rebuilt because that would mean the Messiah, the Christ has returned.

But what does this have to do with charity? More than you might think.

Jews long for the coming of the Messiah so that their exile will end and that Israel will be restored to great glory and God will be revered by all of the earth (and just because the modern state of Israel exists today, doesn’t mean the exile has ended yet). Christians want Jesus to come back because he will rule and reign over the earth and everyone will honor Christ and Christianity and know God through him.

Similar goals but radically different applications.

Except for a few things like charity.

Both the Jewish and Christian requirements to do charity are rooted in the same source: the Law of Moses. The Torah of Moses and the Gospels of Jesus both go to great efforts to encourage and support a lifestyle of giving and generosity among their devotees. Although in Christianity, there is no direct connection between doing good and bringing back Jesus, in Judaism, every act of tikkun olam or “repairing the world” is thought, at least by some, to hasten the return of Messiah (the mechanics behind this concept are complex, so I won’t delve into them here).

I don’t know if it’s true or not that doing charity brings the Messiah closer to returning, but it couldn’t hurt.

And it couldn’t hurt to help someone out when they’re in need. Does there have to be a reason or does your reason or mine really matter? After all, regardless of motivation (interesting article, by the way), if you give a hungry person some food, they’ll still be fed.

Interestingly enough though, charity doesn’t always have a straightforward result, as we see in the conclusion of the “Tzedakah miracle” story (and as far as I can tell, this isn’t “just a story,” it’s real life):

without really thinking i told her to wait and ran after one of the ultra-orthodox men walking the streets. i explained the situation and asked if he knew of a place she could rest, he said no..no..i began to give up..then he said, that he has money, if that could help. as if to reject it i said no, the only room is $200, but thank you. he preceded as if i had said $5, pulled $150 out of his wallet and handed it to the woman while quoting from the talmud that the temple was destroyed because of a lack of love between people. together we giddily walked to the luxury hotel, only to find out that there were no rooms available! the man then said to the woman that it is not right to ask for charity back after it has been given, so the money is now hers. we considered several other hotels and the man walked off. as soon as he walked off the woman took my hand and we walked into an alleyway. she was beaming with excitement, she said, i will go to the local hospital and sit there for the night, now i have money for the whole week, i can stay somewhere nice while i find an apartment, maybe even save it for shabbos. in other words, hashem orchestrated a miracle..nothing could have turned out better. when i told a friend about this he said i had met the souls of abraham and sarah roaming the streets of jerusalem. now i know why i felt compelled to take a walk, sometimes we are but vehicles for the miracles that are scheduled to take place..

The old woman never found a very comfortable place to spend the night, but instead of spending all of her new-found “wealth” in a single evening, she now had enough money to live on for a week. True, her situation was not permanently solved, but just think of how many people all across our planet live extremely uncertain lives. Even if we give them charity, we can’t solve all of their problems forever. But then, giving them enough to eat even for one more day makes life better for them.

But what about the Temple? Is there a hidden blessing in its destruction and the long, long wait for the coming of the Jewish Messiah King? I don’t know except perhaps that it gives us time and something to shoot for. It reminds us that the Temple is no longer with us because of lack of love between people (at least according to the Talmud). The world needs a lot of fixing. No doubt about that. It’s probably the one thing we can all agree on, regardless of our politics, our religion (or lack thereof), our social standing, or anything else. The world’s a mess.

Tisha b'Av at the Kotel 2011There are a lot of missing bits and pieces to the world that need to be replaced and repaired. It’s like our existence is a half-built jigsaw puzzle and we’re the puzzle makers. We have to cooperate to make the picture whole. For those of us who believe, Jesus will come and his job will be to do the final “fixing.” For religious Jews, the Messiah will come and do pretty much the same thing. But you and I are here now. People are still hungry and homeless. We can’t solve their problems, but we can make their lives just a little bit better for an hour, or a day, maybe even for a week if God so wills it.

We can grieve and feel sorrow over our losses. We can complain about what’s wrong with the world and complain about the politics and religions of those people who are different from us. Or we can let events like Tisha B’Av remind us that we have lost but we also have something to look forward to. Tisha B’Av also reminds us that we can get over ourselves, get over being cranky, and try to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

I said this ago a few days ago, but it bears repeating. “Do good. Seek peace. Keep swimming.” Give life. I don’t care why you do it. Just do it.

May the inherent righteousness and goodness of all our souls be revealed in full and hasten our full redemption, and may we merit to see the third temple speedily in our days, as one people with one heart.

Rucho Shel Mashiach

Edit: I should note that Tisha B’Av actually starts tonight at sundown, but because it’s also Erev Shabbat, the fast doesn’t begin until after Shabbat has ended. I apologize for the error I made above.

If That’s Not Love

An elderly woman and her little grandson, whose face was sprinkled with bright freckles, spent the day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a resident artist who was decorating them with tiger paws..

“You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line said to the little boy. Embarrassed, the little guy dropped his head. His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek. “Freckles are beautiful!” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face, and softly whispered…


-Rabbi Label Lam
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak

Elsewhere in Rabbi Lam’s commentary, he discusses the power of words. When we speak we have the power to heal or to harm, to educate or mislead, to raise one person to the highest achievements possible in his nation, and reduce another to abject defeat and despair. Even as I write this, two men are using the power of words to try to convince our nation which one of them should be our President and the leader of the free world for the next four years. Words have great power.

The writings of James, the brother of the Master, also tell us just how powerful words can be.

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. –James 3:5-10 (ESV)

Rabbi Lam tells us that the “entire world was created by G-d with words! We say every day in our liturgy, “Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came to be!” So it is said elsewhere:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:1-5, 14 (ESV)

We human beings wield a terrible power; we have the ability to speak. With that ability, we can create or destroy, much in the same manner that God creates or destroys with words. One misspoken word and we can destroy a child’s dreams or break a lover’s heart. We can crush a grandmother’s love or reduce a young girl’s spirit to ashes.

Not that we’d mean to, but mistakes happen. One slip of the tongue is all it takes. This is how we are not like God. We can make mistakes and He can’t…

…or can He?

We know that G‑d is the most perfect Being, and that everything exists solely because of Him. Furthermore, He knows everything through His knowledge of Himself, so of course He does not make mistakes.

At the same time, our rabbis shake it up and tell us that there are things which G‑d “regrets” having created, such as the evil inclination.

One way to reconcile these viewpoints is to understand that of course G‑d knew what He was doing when He created these negative things, but He knew that they were necessary in order for humanity to attain the greater good He had in mind. So, while He created these things, He does not “like” them, and we are supposed to view them as temporary.

-Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
“Does G-d Ever Make Mistakes?”

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize God, to make Him seem human. We do this in order to relate to Him better because how can you imagine an infinite, unimaginable being?

You can’t.

So you make Him seem a little more like you in order to talk to Him. I think that’s why some Christians pray directly to Jesus instead of God the Father (even though Jesus said to direct prayers only to God). Because Jesus lived as a human being and walked among his people. He’s easier to relate to, to talk to, to express ourselves in words to.

And he’s supposed to understand mistakes.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. –Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)

Well, yes he was tempted, but no he didn’t sin. So he never made a mistake. And God never makes a mistakes, though He has His “regrets.”

We have our regrets, too. We make mistakes. Lots of them. We hurt people. We use words carelessly. Then we don’t like to admit mistakes because we’re embarrassed. And we hurt people again. We’re irresponsible. We don’t say we’re sorry. We don’t apologize. We don’t ask for forgiveness. We don’t say, “I forgive you.”

God doesn’t make mistakes but we do. Jesus didn’t make mistakes but we do, all of the time.

So why are we here? It’s not like we’re going to get any better. Well, maybe we’ll get somewhat better, but perfection is beyond our capacity. The church tells us that if we just confess our sins to Jesus and ask for forgiveness, we are covered in Christ’s blood, so we appear as pure as the driven snow to God.

But that does nothing to get rid of remorse.

The progressive humanist society around us says that if we become atheists and surrender our archaic belief in God, then we’ll have nothing to feel guilty about. But does that mean surrendering accountability and a conscience? Isn’t that just replacing one system of laws and judgments for another, but with human fallibility being the final arbiter of right and wrong?

I suppose one of the reasons my faith is sustainable is that my pursuit of a Holy God gives me an ideal to shoot for that isn’t based on humanity’s foibles, errors, and selfishness. All men fail. All men make mistakes. There is no “Messiah” apart from God.

God gave us the ability to use words and shows us how to be perfectly creative with them, whereas mankind mixes up creativity and destruction. It’s the destruction where I find despair. But even in our imperfection, God finds hope.

We are the finishing tools for His handiwork.

He applies His breath, our souls, to the harsh earth , softening it to absorb the rains of blessing from heaven; to the coarse surfaces of human life to polish them, so they can receive light from above and shine.

That friction that wears us down, those sparks that fly—it is all a byproduct of His handiwork.

And if you should ask, how could it be that a mundane world presents resistance to the infinitely powerful breath of G‑d?

In truth, it cannot. But He condenses that breath into a soul, He tightly focuses her power, until the harshness of this world can seem real to her, and then she will struggle, and in that struggle she will make the world shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

And struggle we do. An imperfect vessel vainly attempting to contain and utilize the power of a perfect soul. And yet we fail to use even a simple set of words such as “I love you” correctly.

King Solomon had acknowledged that “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue!” The famous British poet Rudyard Kipling expressed it this way, “Words are the most intoxicating drug known to man!” Isn’t it so!? Lives rise and fall on a single word! People get courage to carry on or so discouraged to end it all, based on the slight turn of a phrase. It makes a world of difference if the message says, “I love you!” or “I hate you!”

-Rabbi Lam

Even when you know inside that someone loves you, a single word spoken in anger or disdain can be ultimately annihilating. The apology comes too late. The memory of a thousand, thousand prior failures springs unbidden from the abyss. A lifetime of verbal slaps is re-experienced in a moment.

If we are to make mistakes, then we need to make a lot fewer of them. For every word of anger, we need to speak ten of love and compassion. It’s not as hard as we imagine. All we have to do is this.

His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek. “Freckles are beautiful!” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face, and softly whispered…


If that’s not love…

Try to speak words of love before it’s too late.

How Have We Failed?

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

“On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse,” she tells her phone in one recording. “How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.”

-by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
“From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”

Our teacher the Baal Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.

Hayom Yom: Iyar 9, 24th day of the omer
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory

Yesterday I wrote When We’re Left Behind to describe my initial reactions to reading the news story I quoted above. After some thoughts and reflection, it hasn’t gotten much better. I still don’t like being called a “sheep,” “blind,” and thought of as not knowing the “truth.” MacBain’s story is supposed to be the first in a series of news articles on losing faith. I wonder if NPR would consider writing a series on the other side of the coin about people who have struggled, endured, and persevered over their crisis of faith.

Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt it.

The Baal Shem Tov considers everything we see and hear and probably every experience we have as a lesson in how we are to behave in the service of God. I guess that’s what I was trying to convey yesterday when I said we should love and not condemn people like Teresa MacBain. I admire her husband, who has managed to retain his faith in the face of his wife’s atheism. The NPR article spent almost no time exploring how all of this affects him. And I kind of know how he feels.

No, my wife isn’t an atheist, but she isn’t a Christian either. She’s Jewish, and I very much support her in her pursuit of her faith and her identity. But as time has passed, I have come to realize that we represent two different worlds. I used to think there was significant overlap between those two realms, but now I’m not so sure.

No, I’m sure. There’s not much overlap at all.

That brings up an interesting question, both for the MacBains and for me. How do you live with someone who is utterly different from you at the very foundation of your being?

OK, men and women are different, I get that. Every person who’s been married for more than a week or so realizes that living together as a married couple is a challenge. Every couple who has been together for five, ten, twenty, thirty years or more (our 30th wedding anniversary was just last month) knows just how much of a struggle it is at times to make the sorts of adjustments required between two people as they develop and (hopefully) grow.

One of the things I’ve noticed about most of the people of faith I associate with is that, if they’re married, their spouses have the same fundamental understanding of God and religion as they do. That is, if the husband’s a Christian, chances are, so is the wife, and vice versa. Teresa and Ray MacBain have just entered the dubious club of intermarried couples.


So what does Ray MacBain do now? Does he go to church and leave his wife at home every Sunday? Does he go to the same church were his wife was a minister? If so, how does he deal with the inevitable gossip and tongue-wagging over his Teresa’s decision to leave the faith and her “coming out” as an atheist?

I haven’t listened to the audio interview (like most people, I can read a great deal faster than people can talk). I have briefly scanned some of the comments under the NPR story and saw the typical war of words between self-righteous atheists and self-righteous Christians. Does bashing each other really help? If an atheist wants the freedom of choice, why can’t I have that same right as a person of faith?

Here’s one of the more illuminating comments I read:

It bothers me to no end to see the intolerance and arrogance of my atheist friends who look down upon the faithful as if they’re second class muggles… just as it bothers me to watch the intolerance of the “faithful” Christian towards other beliefs or non-beliefs.

What I see are the human flaws of conceit and arrogance – people who think they know what’s “right” or what’s “best” for others, and have no room in their worldview for people with different viewpoints.

I sympathize with Teresa’s plight – I struggle with my faith. It saddens me that people seem more concerned with sticking it to their fellow human being than trying to find the best path to walk for themselves.

Alas, “intolerance and arrogance” are very human traits and not limited just to the religious or the irreligious.

As annoying as it is to be called a “sheep,” I guess it shouldn’t really surprise me. There’s nothing about being an atheist or an agnostic that should cause me to expect them to be good, bad, or indifferent. There’s not inherit moral code to not believing in God, so when someone says they’re an atheist, there’s no way I can know what exactly they’re going to say or do.

However,  I do have some sort of idea of what to expect from someone who says they are a disciple of Jesus. We are expected to take the higher moral road just because of who we are. That’s why it’s especially disappointing to see Christians making snarky comments to atheists (and I’m not immune) in an NPR online news story. If your life is supposed to be an example of how you have been changed by God, how is acting like a regular, “run-of-the-mill” human being accomplishing that?

Is that “God thing” working for you yet?

That’s what I see coming out of this news story, out of the comments, and out of the buzz about Christians vs. Atheists on the web. It’s not my faith in God I’m worried about, it’s my faith in people. On somewhat rare occasion, I meet a Christian who really deserves to be called by the name of the Master. I meet a person who is truly helpful, compassionate, charitable, kind, and loving to everyone they meet, not just the people they know and like. What really scares me is that the sort of person I’m describing is rare in religious circles. It’s even more scary that they might be more common among the atheists.

I know Christians reading what I just wrote are saying, “It doesn’t matter if an atheist is nicer than a Christian. The atheists are still going to hell.” Oh. It doesn’t matter?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” –Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)

Sure looks like it matters to me. More importantly, it sure looks like it matters to God.

I’m going to stop short of blaming “the church” for failing Teresa MacBain. We each negotiate our own relationship with God, so Teresa is just as responsible for her’s as I am for mine. However, if she had any lingering doubts about her decision, the various “bad attitude comments” from Christians in response to her “outing” herself probably sealed the deal.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, and most other religious people tend to be pretty judgmental, relative to the world around us. On the one hand, we do have a specific set or standards we feel we’re upholding, as opposed to an “anything goes” sort of world view. On the other hand, we tend to substitute judgment for compassion and “legalism” (yes, even Christians) for grace. Jesus was hammered verbally for hanging out with the low-lives of his day: prostitutes and tax-collectors (collaborators with the occupying Roman army). We’re kind of like the folks who judged Jesus. We judge and accuse and complain when a Christian hangs out with and is accepting of “low lives” such as gays, for example (a really big sin in the eyes of most Christians…much bigger than wife beating, bank robbery, and surfing porn on the web). We demand that Christians only hang out with other Christians and the split second someone tells us they have doubts about their faith, they are dead to us.

Man, do I make Christians sound bad. Almost like the way some atheists talk about us.

But if all of us were really practicing grace, and I think we can do this without compromising our principles and blending in to the moral structure of the secular world around us, I doubt if too many people would have a lot to complain about when Christianity was mentioned.

The church hasn’t failed Teresa MacBain, but a Christian fails every time he or she doesn’t show compassion for someone in pain, including someone who has struggled and even lost their faith. It is said the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. I believe that. Teresa MacBain may never come back to faith in God and discipleship in Jesus, but if she wants to, and if she came to you about it, would you extend your hand in welcome or show her back out the door, not wanting to be tainted by a “low life?”

What are you supposed to learn from this experience about your conduct in the service of God today?


Learning Acceptance

Yeshua’s sacrifice is continually before the Father. He is the lamb continually on the altar before the throne. He is the “the Lamb of God” whose atoning sacrifice for sin is continually before the Father. Thus the writer of Hebrews states: “Nor was it that He would offer Himself often. … Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:25-26)

“The Daily Continual Burnt Offering”
from the Commentary on Torah Portion Tetzaveh
First Fruits of Zion

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.Hebrews 9:24-26 (ESV)

I must confess that I’m not entirely sure how to compare the continual burnt offering we see described in Exodus 29:38-42 with this passage from Hebrews 9. It is, in some sense, almost comforting to think of Jesus has my continue “sacrifice” for my continually struggling life of faith, with all its rises and declines, but the writer of Hebrews is clear that Jesus was only sacrificed once, not continually. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed something in the Bible that seems incredibly obvious to others.

I mentioned yesterday that I feel as if I’m waiting in a minefield for God’s next move, since I’m afraid to make that move on my own. OK, I’m being overly dramatic, but this blog is about how I am processing my own faith experience on a day-by-day basis, so what you read is what I’m going through more or less continually, like a sacrifice on the fire. I’m waiting with God and waiting for God but sometimes I just get tired of waiting. God’s timing is long and even infinite, but certainly he knows we short-lived mortals tend to live by the clock and not by a millennium-long calendar. So I’m waiting and waiting, but I’m also thinking and processing and experiencing.

I’m reminded of how nothing is perfect and that I’m shifting from Plan A to Plan B. It occurs to me as I recall my conversation with my wife, that I’ve been holding her responsible for something that has nothing to do with her: my faith. At least in Christianity, each person negotiates their own relationship with God. I suspect the same is true in Judaism but I can only speak from my own point of view. I’ve also been blaming synagogues, and churches, and congregations for not being what I want or need them to be, but that’s not their responsibility, either. God doesn’t become different from who He is because of me, so why should the world of religion. I can see I’ve been unreasonable.

So now that I’ve taken these failed assumptions apart, I need to put the pieces of my puzzle back together in order to see if it makes any sort of map by which I can navigate my course. I think there’s a map in here somewhere, but I’m not very encouraged as to where the trail seems to be leading.

It would be too difficult to pull together all of the different conversations I’ve had on my blog, on other people’s blogs, in various emails, and elsewhere on the web, that make up the pieces of the map, but as it stands now…right now, I need to be who I am all by myself as a person of faith and let that be the primary focus. Who my wife is, or my children, or who anyone else is in their faith and their identity cannot be the lens that colors my perception of who I’m supposed to be. I’m an intermarried Christian man, but my faith has to stand alone or it doesn’t stand at all.

So if I re-enter a Christian religious context, it won’t be a Christian man expressing his faith in relation to a Jewish woman expressing her faith elsewhere, it will be as a religious Christian man in relation to God and God alone. But what does that mean in a practical, “one step at a time” sense?

Barring some unforeseen event, I am probably going to keep exploring who and what I am becoming in my life of faith. Would going back to a church at this point make sense? I don’t know. If my wife doesn’t understand why I would want to be a Christian, or even if she doesn’t understand why I would want a spiritual life at all, I’m not sure the church would understand very much about me, either. As each day, week, and month progresses, as far as our “identities” go, we continue to spiral away from each other, spinning in wildly different directions. I suppose I have to face that and not let it drive me from searching for the person who God wants me to be.

So what if? So what if I just did this alone? I mean, I’m continually reducing my choices down from many to few, and being alone in a life of faith is one choice that has always been in front of me. It doesn’t make sense in terms of the Christian and Jewish templates which both describe social and corporate gatherings and worship, but maybe this is the equivalent of being stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a Bible to read. Just me, the book, and God.

I’ve been criticized before about my incessant complaining regarding lack of fellowship, so maybe it’s time to stop complaining and just to accept the facts about my existence. I’m not dying or in chronic pain. I haven’t stepped on one of those metaphorical landmines I wrote about yesterday and blown a leg off. According to the classic five stages of grief, the final stage, after denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, is acceptance. I don’t know if what I’ve been experiencing can rightly be called “grief” or if I’ve experienced some sort of loss in order to justify a sense of grief, but what if I just skip ahead to “acceptance” and be done with it?

Supposedly, in the world of grieving, “acceptance” isn’t the same thing as being “OK” with the loss. It’s just accepting the reality of the situation. I hate waiting and I’d much rather “cut to the chase,” so to speak. None of the worlds I’ve been exploring are really “home.” I’m not Jewish so I don’t actually belong to a Jewish world. Although I call myself a Christian, I really don’t belong in church singing “Onward Christian Soldier” or jumping up and down in response to the “worship team’s” pep rally presentation as if I were a hyperactive jack rabbit (I was in a church that did that on exactly one occasion and couldn’t get out of there fast enough).

I’m not saying that I’m walling myself off, and when or if God decides to offer me an opportunity to share who I am with others, I will go ahead and jump in, but in the meantime, I can’t wait on pins and needles. I’ve been kvetching about this far too long, and I’m sure you’re getting just as tired of it as I am.

Dr. Michael Schiffman recently said on his blog:

People who are always upset, will always be upset. It’s just a matter of time before they are upset over the next “issue.” We are supposed to live our lives in tranquility, not in a state of constant crisis. Sha’ul wrote in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If we are always looking for an argument, always wearing our emotions on our sleeves, we are not living peaceably. It’s an issue of maturity.

Anyone who’s been reading my “meditations” for more than a few days knows that I don’t exist in some otherworldly sense tranquility, and I’ve said more than once that I wear my heart on my sleeve here on this blog. I guess I always will as long as I continue to need to write and allow a venue such as this one to exist. But that doesn’t mean I have to exist suspended between one decision and the next or between one heartbeat and the next. I need to remove myself from suspension and begin to move.

So, until “my ship comes in,” if it ever comes in, I’ll be the guy on the deserted island with a Bible reading and praying and walking with God. Jesus will be the offering continually being burned before the throne of God for me, and for who knows how many others like me. Or, his offering of himself is over and done with as far as me and everyone else like me is concerned. But I’m also done. I’m done scanning the horizon with my telescope every hour on the hour for some sign of “rescue.” A “ship” may come today, tomorrow, or never, but I can’t get on with my life as long as I think something is still on hold. I’m done waiting. I can’t make anything change and in fact, those things that continue to change around me, I have no control over. I might as well face the fact that things are as they are and proceed as best I can by letting go of some of the things that drive me.

The sound of the wind through the trees is my companion and the rising and setting of the Sun mark the passing of my days. I’ll read, and study, and pray, and live, and time will pass. Whatever comes will come. But I’m not going to try and make it turn into something anymore.

There are no plans. There are only nights and days. Let God do as He will.