Tag Archives: prayers

God Was In Church Today

ChurchI went back to church today after a three-week absence. I’ll admit that I was avoiding Christmas. I’m OK with people in the general public wishing me a “Merry Christmas” but knowing the additional meaning those two words carry in Christianity, I thought it best to keep a low profile. No one mentioned my not being around and they probably just assumed I was spending the holidays out-of-town with relatives.

God reminded me that He is still in church today. No, I didn’t have a vision or hear a loud, booming voice or anything like that. Three things happened.

The first was a missionary to Ireland (I never heard of such a thing before) who was diagnosed with cancer back in August while serving on his mission, was in our church with his wife today (they attended our church until leaving for Ireland on their mission in 2005). He still walks with a limp and a cane, but the tumor was removed from the bone in his leg and the radiation treatments are done, so he’s finally beginning to heal and go into physical therapy.

I was surprised how young Dean (the missionary) was. Not a grey hair in his head. For some reason, I expected him to be older. He also was very gracious about having cancer. He said it opened up opportunities while in Ireland once word got around. People approached him with their own physical or medical difficulties or crises in relation to faith and their spiritual lives. Sure, maybe between him, his wife, and God, Dean had a lot of hurt and angry things to say, but you’d never know it by listening to him in church this Sunday.

The second thing that happened was Pastor Dave leading prayer. No, that’s not unusual of course, but he’s going in for some surgery tomorrow (three people in church are all having surgery on Monday). Dave is also a young guy, in his 40s but he looks younger to me (I guess that doesn’t hurt when you’re the youth Pastor). I didn’t write down the prayer and I don’t remember the words, but the “feeling” of graciousness is what sticks with me. I know that some people in Hebrew Roots and related movements have left “the Church” because of some harm (real or perceived) they endured at the hands of Christians, but even though I don’t always agree with the standard theology and doctrine, I will never criticize the people I worshiped with today for a lack of compassion and love of God and each other.

The third thing that happened was during the music. Pastor Bill (who is an older gentleman) sometimes leads the singing when the usual people who are more “officially” musical are unavailable. There are hymn books, but most people use the projection of the lyrics on the screen at the front of the room. At one point early in the first hymn, Pastor Bill stopped the singing. There was a lyric about surrendering everything to Jesus. He pointed out that it doesn’t mean just “Sundays” or just a few things, but everything. I wonder how many of us really, really have surrendered everything? I know I have a long way to go in working through my imperfections as a human being who purports to be a disciple of Messiah.

God was in church today.

Be the ChurchTrue, I felt a few disturbing tremors in Pastor Randy’s sermon, reminding me that he still reads my blog (though I could be reading too much between the lines of his message) and doesn’t always agree with my opinions, but his grasp of history related to scripture always opens up new worlds in the Bible for me. It’s also true that when I got to the Sunday school class, it was uncharacteristically dark, with no indication that the teacher or anyone else had set the room up for us. Since we have a “guest missionary” with us today, and since plans change at church quickly sometimes, I figured we weren’t having class after all, so I turned around and headed on home. I was disappointed, but things happen.

Pastor Randy’s been out-of-town for a few weeks for a family reunion, and I just found out that he’s going to be gone in relation to his doctorate program for most of January, so I guess our conversations are on an extended hiatus. Another disappointment.

But God was in church today, so that makes up for those few things that didn’t quite work out.

I’ve been struggling with church for a while now and being out for three weeks only made it that much more difficult to go back today. But instead of focusing on the differences I experience between my viewpoint and the “official story” of doctrine and dogma, I need to look at what we all have in common and what I am learning about God, the Bible, and myself.

God was in church today. Maybe He’ll be there next Sunday, too.

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Tisha B’Av: Teaching Yourself to Care

Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt”l, said a similar thing based on a statement on today’s daf. “In Niddah 66 we find that when a woman went to Rav Yochanan requesting help about a problem that was particular to women he suggested that she ask other women to daven for her. On the surface, this seems strange. We know that our sages say that when one has a sick person in his home he should go to a chacham and request that he daven for the sufferer. Yet here we find an exception to the rule. Instead of the chacham alone davening, he sends her to other women to petition that they daven for her. Although the gemara cites that she is like a metzorah who should tell the many to daven for her, it seems odd that he said specifically to tell other women to daven for her.

“We learn an important principle from this story. That the only one who can really pray properly for a person suffering is the one who can truly empathize with the problem. We see that it is better for one who is ill with a certain sickness to request those who have suffered from it to daven for his recovery. Only those who have suffered from the disease truly empathize and their prayers will be more effective than those who have not.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“True Empathy”
Niddah 66

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

James 5:13-16 (ESV)

It seems in this case, that James, the brother of the Master, and the later Rabbinic sages agree with each other. We indeed should pray for each other and if ill or suffering, we are directed to request prayer from the righteous. For a religious Jew, that means seeking out a chacham or tzaddik, since the prayer of a holy person “has great power as it is working.”

But is it true that our prayers or more effective when “intoned wholeheartedly,” to quote another part of the “story off the daf?” I believe this is true. Haven’t there been times when you attempted to pray for another only out of duty and not because you really cared? Maybe a person asked you to pray for a situation that you didn’t believe was terribly serious. Maybe you even said you’d pray for them and then completely neglected the matter. How would such lackluster prayers or no prayers at all help anyone?

Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a day of tremendous grief among the Jewish people; a day that marks many terrible tragedies for the Jews, including the failure of the generation of Israelites who left slavery in Egypt to enter into Eretz Yisrael and take possession of the Land. It is also the date on which the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into exile for nearly 2,000 years.

Our Sages explain that the people, who lived at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans learned Torah, did misvot and performed acts of kindness. Why was the Temple destroyed? Because of sin’ at hinam–baseless hatred. Jealousy and selfishness created differences in people. ”Why does he drive such a nice car and I pray that mine will start every time that I put the key in the ignition?”–”I work so hard and do everything with impeccable honesty, so how come his business is flying and mine can’t show a profit?” Questions like these are at the root of baseless hatred. They doubt the correctness of G-d’s “distribution system”. You might even go so far as to say that they reveal a lack of Faith!

-Rabbi Raymond Beyda
“You Gotta Believe”
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
Torah.org

It may surprise many Christians to realize that the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews wasn’t due to a lack of piety or religious observance. The religious practice of the Jews in Israel in those days was above reproach.

But…

But, according to midrash, the sin of baseless hatred of one Jew for another was very great and indicated a lack of faith among the people. How can even impeccable acts of piety and holiness be truly effective if faith is diminished by hatred? How can prayers be effective and invoke a response from God if our trust in Him is small?

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? –Matthew 17:14-17 (ESV)

I don’t say all this to “bash” the ancient or modern Jewish people but to illustrate that we Christians can suffer from the same lack of faith, devotion, and intension as Jesus is describing. We can all suffer from a lack of empathy for our fellow human being.

But what about empathy and true intension in prayer? According to Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, the person who will offer up the most sincere prayers to God for our suffering is the one who has suffered similarly. A woman who labors under difficulties that are unique to women, according to this principle, should seek out other women to pray for her.

Let’s apply this to the Jews and Tisha B’Av. Although the many horrors that the Jews have suffered was technically observed yesterday, because yesterday was also the Shabbat, the fast was not observed. Today is when religious Jews all over the world will allow themselves to fast, to pray, to grieve over their long history of trials and anguish.

And so it has been for thousands of years –the mazal–luck– of the Jewish people has been bad on that night– the night of Tisha B’Ab. The first and the second Temple were destroyed by gentile armies –on Tisha B’Ab. The city of Bitar was raped and pillaged and hundreds of thousands of our gentle brethren were slaughtered on Tisha B’Ab. The Jews were expelled from Spain and England–on the night of Tisha B’Ab. The terrible history of the destruction of Judaism in Europe at the hands of the Nazis y”s, began with the political upheaval of World War I, which, not coincidentally, began on the night of Tisha B’Ab in 1914.

-Rabbi Beyda

Why do we mourn on Tisha B’av? Why not come to terms with the fact that the Holy Temple is gone, accept G-d’s judgment, and make the best of Jewish life without a Temple? Isn’t it an essential Jewish value that we should accept G-d’s decrees? Well, yes, that is true for all of G-d’s decrees — except the destruction of the Temple. For nearly 2000 years, Jews have sat on the floor, weeping through the stirring descriptions of Jerusalem’s destruction and the tragedies faced throughout their history in exile. Every day they have prayed for a rebuilt Jerusalem. These demonstrate an intense national longing to reunite with G-d’s Presence, in a way that could only be felt in the Temple in Jerusalem. When lovers are separated, their bond is shown in their yearning to return to each other. That thirst to reconnect with G-d is the true essence of Tisha B’av.

-Rabbi Modechai Dixler
“Shabbos Mourning”
ProjectGenesis.org

In my previous commentary on Tisha B’Av, I suggested that Christians should also mourn the loss of the Temple because in a way, it’s our loss, too. The Jews will see the Temple rebuilt only when the Messiah rebuilds it. For a Christian, that means the Temple will be rebuilt upon the return of Jesus Christ (I know many Christians believe what Jesus will build is a “spiritual” Temple and not the physical structure, but I have no problem believing that the Throne of the Messiah will one day exist upon the Temple Mount in Jerusalem).

But upon reflection, I wonder how can we mourn with empathy what we don’t understand? How can Christians or anyone but a Jew, actually “feel” the loss of the Temple, the loss of connection to God that the missing Temple represents? On Tisha B’Av, many, many Jews travel to the Kotel, what some call the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, the last remnant of Herod’s Temple that Jews are allowed to access (since they are forbidden to ascend to the top of the Temple Mount and pray), and pour our their tears, their prayers, and their hearts to God, begging for the coming of the Moshiach and for God’s grace and mercy to rain upon His people Israel.

How can we Christians even begin to understand what Tisha B’Av means? How can we pray for the Jews? How can we mourn along side of them?

I don’t know.

I do know that some Christians do (though not as many as I’d wish). I know some believers have turned their hearts to God and to the Jewish people, they have turned to the east to face Jerusalem…and they have cried bitter tears as they see the grief of the Jews and they have allowed their hearts to melt and bleed.

Today is Sunday, and most Christians will be headed off to church this morning. They will pray in their sanctuaries and in their Bible classes. They will pray in their homes and with their families. I only ask that some of you reading this morning’s meditation allow a double meaning to your prayers and petitions to God as His Holy Spirit calls to you.

I would not have you weep any less for that charming, good and handsome Christian. I only ask this: that as the great cold surrounds my bones, you allow a double meaning for your mourning veil. And when you let fall your tears for him, some few will be… for me.

from the play Cyrano de Bergerac
by Edmond Rostand

The love of Cyrano’s life, the beautiful Roxane, was in love with another, the handsome cadet Christian de Neuvillette. Cyrano, although incredibly accomplished, felt no woman could ever love him because of his ugliness. Toward the end of the play, de Neuvillette has died and Roxane is in mourning. Cyrano asks not that she cease her tears for the “charming, good and handsome Christian,” but only that he might consider that, at his own death, some portion of her sorrow could also be for him.

The irony is at the play’s end, Roxane confesses her love for Cyrano as he is dying in her arms. How many of us, like Cyrano, deny ourselves our heart’s desires believing they are unattainable when in fact, they are at our very fingertips.

Perhaps our sincerity and devotion in prayer is like that. We have only but to look in the right direction, to open ourselves to God and to see the Jewish people with new eyes. Maybe we only need to exchange our heart of stone for one of flesh. And then, as Jews weep and fast and immerse themselves in pools of sorrow, some few of us can shed our tears with them.

Any human being can climb higher than this world. But it’s not a flash from above that will take you there.

Every day, from the time you open your eyes until the time you close them, teach your eyes to see the world as it is seen from above.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Practice Makes Perfect”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Struggling with the World, Part 2

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of evil, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks. It is to identify the cluster of beliefs that supports a person’s will to persist in the face of tragedy and suffering. If the world I live in requires that I become overly vigilant because of the threat of danger striking at any moment, then how can I sustain commitment to a way fo life predicated on God’s covenantal love and justice?

How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s relational partners?

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 8: “Rabbinic Responses to Suffering”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Note: If you haven’t read Part 1 of this “meditation” already, please do so before proceeding here.

An atheist can dismiss such questions by dismissing God. The presence of tragedy, suffering, and evil can be accepted as conditions of a natural world filled with imperfect human beings. It can also be a world that, while imperfect, is struggling to develop toward a higher moral and ethical reality as indeed, progressivism strongly believes. Human beings then, establish and revise the foundations of our own morality, sometimes radically, as time advances and the concepts of rightness, mercy, and justice continue to evolve in societal consciousness.

The covenantal Jew on the other hand, perpetually wrestles with God as did Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32) before his confrontation with the (supposedly) murderous Esau. But it’s in that battle that a Jew struggles not only with God but with himself.

A covenantal religious consciousness is always vulnerable to self-doubt and to feelings of rejection and guilt. When suffering and tragedy have struck without any explanation once, twice, and repeatedly, individuals in the community no longer know what kind of world they are living in. Like Job, they may ask: “Why do You hide Your face and treat me like an enemy?” (Job 13:24)

-Hartman

But in Rabbi Hartman’s viewpoint, a Jew is not simply a conduit for the cosmic forces of an Almighty Being to use to manipulate the course of history or even personal events.

The acceptance of that responsibility therefore need not entail that paralyzing sense of guilt alleged in Paul’s criticism of the law. Nor does mitzvah demand unconditional obedience without rational discernment, since the halakhah expects from Jews not just a dedicated will to serve God but also a reflective, sensitive, and critical moral disposition.

This takes away the motivation for a covenantal Jew to say that “God told me to do it” when facing a moral decision or in responding to personal disaster. The Torah is not a static set of rules carved in stone but rather a moral imperative written on the living and beating heart of every Jew. Each situation must be examined and evaluated not only against the yardstick of tradition and the mitzvah, but as potentially a wholly new phenomenon that may require a completely unique and unanticipated response, framed within the organic, evolving Jewish moral and historical tapestry.

Returning to Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on Judaism and its response encountering the demands of a progressive culture, the Rebbe felt that modernity didn’t present a set of obstacles but only “challenges. Challenges chiding you to show your stuff. Show that stuff and do what a Jew has to do, and those challenges themselves lift you on their shoulders, carrying you high.”

To continue:

Every talk, every letter, every teaching of the Rebbe must be understood in that context: We are not prisoners within an ominous world; we are the agents of its Master. We are not here to placate the world, but to repair it; not to reform ourselves to its tastes, but to reform it to the tastes of its Creator; not to conserve Judaism, but to be an organic part of its flourishing growth; not to reconstruct it, but to use it to reconstruct our world. Because ours is not a Torah of the past, but one that beckons to us from a magnificent future.

The Rebbe’s response to the challenges of a world and its developing, progressive morality is to move one giant step backward and to take a “metaview” of that world. Human advancement and even human history is transitory. Modern liberal progressive thought acknowledges that morality is not a fixed entity and adapts across time and the needs of the human spirit. While the Rebbe no doubt had a more established sense of moral and ethical standards, he also understood that the world is not ownerless or that, human beings are not the only “landlords” of reality. The world has a Master and we are His agents.

The world of human events wasn’t something to be avoided, but to be encountered and wrestled with. Rabbi Freeman characterises the Rebbe’s response by saying that “he grabbed it by its horns and harnessed it to plow his field.” For the Rebbe, each Jew stands in this place:

When you stand in a place of enlightenment, the Rebbe so often taught, you may have boundless, infinite light—but you do not have G‑d Himself. In the void of light where this world was made; in the darkness of Jewish exile, where we must choose life from the depths and create our own light to find it; in a society that forces us to wake up, take the reins of our own lives and challenge everything—there we touch G‑d at the very core.

A Jew may be surrounded by darkness but he stands in a place of light and it is from that light, regardless of how hopeless the circumstance, he must proceed, carrying with him not only the strength of the traditions of the past, but the infinite hope of a future from which the Moshiach will emerge and where God will rescue His people. Atheism, progressivism, secular humanism are conditions to be wrestled with, to be “grabbed by its horns and harnessed,” but they are not defining, either of a Jew nor the world that is ultimately owned by God.

My understanding of all of this is that Judaism may wrestle with itself, with the demands of society, and ultimately with God, but it is the Jewish identity that remains the one constant that enables them as a people, to move forward, to survive not only challenges, but horrors, and that will see them finally standing at the foot of the throne of God, receiving His promises of life and peace.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been seeing a few elements that can be adapted to Christianity and those promises we expect to be fulfilled by our Master at the end of this age. But we must also learn to establish an identity that can engage our environment without fear or despair. Our “liability” as such, is that we Christians are commanded to not only encounter our neighbor and love him, but to attempt to convince him to adopt our faith and our worldview (which is something no Jew must face). In that, we present ourselves as agents of the world’s greatest benefactor while being perceived by many in the secular world as humanity’s greatest enemy.

We are ridiculed and reviled by atheists and humanists and in response, we struggle with our own doubts, retreat into concrete bunkers of inflexible dogma, or attack the inhabitants of an unbelieving world, thereby abandoning our evangelical imperative. But we can neither ignore the world nor hate it. We are commanded to live in it and to live with faith in God. Like the covenantal Jew, we must be anchored to our legacy who, for us, are the Apostles and disciples of ancient times, and also look to the hope of the future when Jesus returns.

In the meantime, like the Rebbe, we need to seize the world around us and live in it, though we are not of it. We must treat each person we encounter with love, respect, and dignity. Our values do not require that they respond in kind, only that we are consistent in imitating the example of our teacher and Master by being involved and by being a light.

We are not trapped between a hostile and violent army and a vast and unconquerable sea. We can move forward. The sea will part. But first, we have to get our feet wet.

Don’t be afraid.

Addendum: Just found an article at Commentary Magazine on liberal intolerance of religious folks (in this case, Jews) called Liberal Prejudice Against the Orthodox Crosses a Line. I can see we have a long way to go.