Learning from the wider family...

One of the things that I hope to share and encourage with my congregation this year is something I have learned from the wider Judeo-Christian family: arguing/wrestling with a text and God. I really value and respect this tradition in Judaism and ache for those of us in the Christian part of the family to reclaim it - especially as an antidote to fundamentalism and a tool for faith.

I am not fully sure I understand when we lost this ability to really wrestle with God (and scripture) as an essential component of faith. I suspect that it took root in the United States in the late 19th century when conservative Protestants began working on what eventually took form in 1910-15 as The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth and the creation of the Moody Bible Institute a short time later dedicated to the innerancy of scripture. What is clear in 2008, however, is that for most of popular Christianity what gets talked about as "faithful" is often either lifeless/mindless ideology about the scriptures or a spirituality I call "sloppy agape" (that saccharine sweet, "precious moments" pastel kind of living that avoids all the pain of real life like the plague.)

Peter Rollins (of the Ikon Community) writes in The Fidelity of Betrayal: It is all too common for Christians to attempt to do justice to the scriptural narrative by listening to it, learning from it and attempting to extract a way of viewing the world from it. But the narrative itself is asking us to approach it in a much more radical way. It is inviting us to wrestle with it, disagree with it, contend with it and contest it - not as an ind in itself, but as a means of approaching its life-transforming truth, a truth that dwells within and yet beyond the words. And, so, in our desire to remain absolutely, totally and resolutely faithful to the Word of God, we come face to face with the idea that we must be prepared to wrestle with, question and even betray the words... if we hope to be embraced by the truth that is affirmed there.

This story from the life of the Baal Shem Tov, father of Hasidic thought, says it best: Some students of the Baal Shem Tov came to him one day with a question. "Every year we travel here to learn from you. Nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?" The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?"
"Yes!" The hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them." "Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds." The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "If he has an answer, he is a fake."

I LOVE that kind of spirituality - honest, humble and humorous - a way of being faithful with the real human condition that is tender, encouraging and deep all at the same time. Much like Ernst Kurtz has noted in his Spirituality of Imperfection, our lives are a blessed blending of both the holy and the human. Curiously, contemporary Christian piety often depicts humility as the result of humiliation - and while there is a connection between learning from our mistakes and wisdom - perhaps the better and more helpful insight has to do with hummus (the earth) and becoming grounded : Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:"Bishvili nivra ha'olam. For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:" Ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes."

To that end, Psalm 131 and Micah 6:8 come to mind:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet and calm
Like a child upon its mother's breast my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD, from this time and evermore.


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