Excerpts – the Sabbath

“There is no equivalent for the word “thing” in biblical Hebrew… an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood.

It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy (qadosh).” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

For where shall the likeness of God be found [in creation]? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God [the earth is his footstool]. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.

Six days a week we try to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

The real and the spiritual are one, like body and soul in a living man. It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Are You Answered?

About three hundred widows were sitting in scattered rows on a tarp. A sharp Telugu pitch began to whine through the crackling amplifier. With heads bowed and eyes closed, the women were asked to raise their hands if…

“You lost your husband to alcohol consumption?”

“Your husband was murdered?”

“You lost your husband to suicide?”

Widows in rural India are one of the most abused and neglected demographics in the world. They are considered a curse, stripped of their social utility at the moment of their husband’s passing. Historically, they were often tied to their husband’s corpse and burned alive at his cremation. We were there conducting a questionnaire, documenting a sorrow too deep for words.

“You were rejected both by your parents and your husband’s family?”

“You are unable to feed your children?”

It felt like that their hands were raised reaching towards Heaven for a reply. As if we had gathered there purposefully to lodge a formal complaint against our Maker, or perhaps to render a verdict against the God who doesn’t answer.

Excerpts – Siddhartha

“I believe that amongst all the Samanas, probably not even one will attain Nirvana. We find consolations, we learn tricks with which we deceive ourselves, but the essential thing – the way – we do not find.”

“It was just the divine art and intention that there should be yellow and blue, there sky and wood – and here Siddhartha. Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.”

“And what are you now, Siddhartha?”
“I do not know; I know as little as you. I am on the way.”
“You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths. The rich and distinguished Siddhartha will become a rower; Siddhartha the learned Brahmin will become a ferryman.”

“I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence…Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time?”

“Never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner… No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people – eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and the dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin…
Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

They all become part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal… All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another… He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying…

He now felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect. There was the blind love of a mother for her child, the blind foolish pride of a fond father for his only son, the blind eager strivings of a young vain woman for ornament and the admiration of men. All these little simple, foolish, but tremendously strong, vital, passionate urges and desires no longer seemed trivial to Siddhartha. For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. He saw life, vitality, the indestructible Brahman in all their desires and needs. These people were worthy of love and admiration in their blind loyalty, in their blind strength and tenacity.

“To be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect…”
“But…he [the Buddha] forbade us to bind ourselves to earthly love…”
“And here we find ourselves within the maze of meanings, within the conflict of words, for I will not deny that my words about love are in apparent contradiction to the teachings of Gotama. That is just why I distrust words so much, for I know that this contradiction is an illusion. I know that I am at one with Gotama… his deeds and life are more important to me than his talk, the gesture of his hand is more important to me than his opinions. Not in speech or thought do I regard him as a great man, but in his deeds and life.”

…nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.

Christy’s Assurances

I remember the anticipation swelling in my chest as I accelerated down the aisle. “These are the words,” I thought, “the words that will let Jesus into my heart!” I remember Christy, the kind-hearted black woman, vivid with rosy cheeks and big, purple lips that turned her whole face into a smile.

 

During the final altar call of Vacation Bible School, after a week of morning altar calls, she pulled me aside wondering why on each day had I gone up to ask Jesus into my heart. I was relieved that someone had noticed. In all of my boyish frustration I told her, somewhat apprehensively, that “I must be saying it wrong.”

 

She asked me if I wanted to be saved. I replied that I did “with all my heart.” “Then you are saved!” she said, as if that was that. Seeing I was not convinced, she explained, “You just have to want salvation for it to be yours.” “Like make-believe?” I asked, suspiciously. “Yes,” she said with so much wisdom, “It’s just like make-believe at first.”

 

I am told my faith was strong then, and that my boyish prayers were fierce, as if I understood like Luther that the veracity of my belief would be determined by the sincerity with which I believed. But as I grew older my imagination became less convincing, and I started to question Christy’s assurances. Eventually I began looking again for whatever that little boy was trying to find at the altar.

 

I searched through the Pentecostal experience and wore Reformed theology like clothing. I went into the woods with my tent and my dog and I yelled back at thunderstorms. I read every book evangelicals read, and then I read the ones we didn’t read. I lived and worked with missionaries across the planet and checked at the local homeless shelter, but I couldn’t find God in my world, or Jesus in my heart.

 

I struggled so hard to find Him truly until all that was left was the sincerity of a child-like longing, and the determination of a belief from which my boyish prayers might be answered.

Called out

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas:

 

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free…

But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Chasing the day

The Song of Songs is a story about a lover dedicated to the pursuit of her mysteriously elusive beloved. With the desire of love and longing she calls after the fleeting presence, “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my lover, and be like a gazelle on the rugged hills…” “Until that day,” she says to him, “run free.” Like a used lover asking to be lead on, she is content just to chase after him, pursuing the shadowy presence of God not to possess him, but as one who is possessed by longing for the time when “the day breaks and the shadows flee.”

God set his children free, but not before commissioning them to longing so that their longing would lead them home. Like love weary wanderers are prone to do, we often stop to deify the expressions of our longing. Rather than reckoning with the terrifyingly true God of reality veiled in thundering clouds, we get together to construct towers and golden calves and systematic theologies. Rather than being drawn into the saving Mystery, we worship the gods that we can wrap our minds around and run our fingers through.

We inhabit the dominant ideologies of the day that promise to conduct the saintly procession into the highest heaven. “Everything happens for a reason,” they say, “there are no accidents, and we know why.” The preachers and the teachers, their philosophies and ten-step solutions, those who speak for God and those who laugh at God, these are the merchants we meet on the road, and they will only stand in our way.

God is an intentional mystery so that we, like lovers lost, will spend a lifetime captivated. There will come a breaking day when the shadows flee upon the horizon, but it is not that day. We are still a people commissioned to our longing, being lead on by “a poor reflection as in a mirror” until that day when “we shall see face to face.” Today we “know in part,” and so we search, drawn by the hope of a lover after her beloved wherever the shadows lead, chasing the day when we “shall know fully, even as [we are] fully known.”

Thank You

My dog is dead. My little kangaroo. When I say Joey was the best dog ever, you have to understand that there were a host of people who owned dogs of their own that agreed with me. Joey was what every dog strives to be: the one that waits impatiently for your return – greets you at the door every time – will always win you over, and never lose in a fight to see which of us is going to get up first to end the snuggling.

I hadn’t spoken to my big brother in awhile. A lot has happened since the last time I’d heard his voice, it sounded different. These past weeks I thought I might be losing him too. He stated the facts my mom had already told me, Joey’s dieing, he was attacked by a coyote, they said the surgery would cost thousands of dollars and, even then, he probably wouldn’t survive. “I know” I said, still no more accepting of it, and now unable to hide my tears from my tough older brother, but he didn’t sound so tough anymore: “He was such a good dog. You know I’ve been going through a lot right now, and I really can’t take this. Joey has really helped me out, you know? He’s always been there.”

I always had to brace myself when, while I was lying on the couch next to the door, someone would call Joey in from outside. He would instantly stop whatever he was going about at in the yard, tear into the house with bundling speed, and jump straight on top of me, my body absorbing the impact of all that unrestrained momentum.

The night before last (a day before any of this had happened), my mother said something on the phone that seemed trivial at the time. I was only half listening and half scouring over the box score of the D-backs game. My mom has been through a lot lately, and she must have been saying something about Joey, how he loves us so unconditionally or how he helps us bear the days we can’t. I knew what she was saying without having to hear her say it. Anyone who has become a part of Joey’s life knows deep down somewhere in some pathetic corner of their soul is the recognition that they are truly, unconditionally loved, if only by a dog. “You know dog is god spelled backwards?” she said, “Hahaha, I know it’s silly, but it’s true!”

“Yes, that’s a nice little coincidence,” I replied..

He loved us better than we knew how to love each other. I had a blessed childhood, but still I never failed to recognize that some things about our family were harder than how things appeared to be in other people’s families. My parents found the Lord and then each other not long after their horrifying childhoods. Our family had problems, ones that we could never really hide from view, not that we ever tried very hard.

When we became Joey’s people he brought a way of loving into our house that was foreign to us. Certainly families who fight passionately also love passionately, but there were too many times when that love was hidden by fear. Joey was completely unafraid. When someone needed to feel love but was too stubborn to let anyone in, Joey would come pattering boldly down the hall, his little toenails clicking on the tile,  scratching at the door until we let him in so that he could jump on the bed and burrow his way into an embrace.

My mom put me on speakerphone, I heard the vet as she explained the wounds my dog had sustained, his organs had been pierced, the puncture in his lungs, internal bleeding. “We gave him medication and he doesn’t feel any pain right now, he’s very peaceful,” she said. I know that was supposed to help, but it was exactly what I’d heard when we were putting Havilah to sleep, and her words only began to make clear to me the reality of a world without my dog in it.

I got Joey for my 13th birthday. We drove down to the poor side of town and gave forty bucks to some Mexican guy with a phony smile. On the drive home we took inventory of the cigarette burn on Joey’s neck and the way his ears were rotting away at the tips. He loved car rides, so that made him pleased to be with strangers. I thought that I was rescuing him.

“I’ll do it, I need to be the one who does it,” David said with the calm, determined resolve of someone who had seen death before. My mom was hysterical while the fatal overdose was being applied. So was I, unable to sufficiently muffle my cries at four in the morning in a house full of sleeping students in the midst of finals. “Oh Jesus, Oh Father” my mom kept repeating through her ferocious tears. I could tell she wasn’t mad at God and I knew she wasn’t ready to ask Him for comfort yet. It sounded like she was thanking Him.

Thank you, Father, for his wet tongue and his warm little body and for all the times he let me squeeze him too tightly. Thank you for loving us better than we knew how to love each other – for teaching our family about a love that keeps no record of wrongs – for burrowing that love into an embrace in each of us. Thank you for rescuing us.

Joey was just going out one last time for the night before he would have heard my mother calling his name and come bounding through that open door, jumping straight into my little brother’s bed to curl up for the night. Now that he’s gone, Father, I trust that my family doesn’t need him anymore, that you’ve taught us how to show love to each other like that dog showed love to us.

Thank you, Father, for sending me a creature that I could love so fully without ever having to fear that he would not love me back more. I so desperately needed that. Teach me now to love You in this way.