Stories and songs for a sabbath rest...

There are two old stories from the Jewish tradition that I have held close to my heart for most of my professional life. The first comes from the modern oral tradition - I can't recall where I first heard it - but it has always rung true. It tells a tale about an earnest young rabbi who is on fire with a sense of God's justice. 

Throughout his years in seminary he was a firebrand and organizer saying, "It is clear that my work is to advance the Holy One's loving kindness for the poor and forgotten." To that, he worked vigorously around the clock to engage the other rabbinical students in demonstrations and other activist activities. But after five years it was clear that his impact had been small. "Well, then, I think that my justice work should be focused upon my congregation," he concluded. And after graduation, he dedicated himself to organizing, agitating and educating his synagogue in the ways of radical social justice.


But as many of us have learned, change comes slowly - and is often incomplete. So after ten years the rabbi observed, "Perhaps I was too rash in my conclusions. I think I should be focusing upon my own family if I want to advance the cause of healing and justice in the world." So while he continued to serve his congregation, he turned his attention on training his children in the ways of the prophets and the law with an eye towards social transformation. And over time his family grew and prospered - they were good and faithful children - but none of them shared the flame for activism that burned in their father's heart. 


By this time the young rabbi was nearing sixty years of age. As his friends prepared to honor his long years of service, one asked the rabbi about his zeal for justice. "What has changed in your life and what have you learned?" To which the sage said with a sad smile, "Mostly I learned to walk humbly with my God as the prophet Micah teaches.  You see, as I look back on my work in seminary, in the synagogue and my family I realize how presumptuous I was for so many years. How could I ever expect to change the world - or my congregation or family - when I couldn't even change myself?"


Such is the wisdom of the second half of life, yes? We have made a difference and we have touched lives, but in a much more humble way than we ever first imagined. And that is as it should be.  Jesus (under the influence of Matthew's gospel) spoke of his own ministry through the lens of the prophetic poet Isaiah: 



 Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
   my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,

   and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

   nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 

He will not break a bruised reed
   or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.  

And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

In the book that has become an unofficial guide for the start of my sabbatical, Falling Upwards, Richard Rohr has written that those who have entered the second half of life with a measure of wisdom have learned that "the closer you get to the Light, the more of your shadow you see."  Seeing what we fear and sometimes hate about ourselves is always revealing - it is humiliating, too - and that is the point because very few of us embrace humility without a lot of kicking, screaming and resistance. 

But if we are faithful, in time we embrace tiny portions of our shadow into our
self-understanding - and a measure of humility grows. Rohr writes:

Soulful people are the necessary salt, yeast and light needed to grow grown ups (in the world.) Notice that in Matthew 5: 13-16 Jesus does not demand that we be the whole meal - the full loaf or the illuminated city itself - but we are to be the quiet undertow and overglow that makes all of these happen... in the second half of life, you can actually bless others in what they feel they must do, allow them to do what they must do and challenge them if they are hurting themselves or others...

... but you no longer need to try to squeeze them into your own limited mold of how the world should work. Because, of course, you've experienced the shallowness of your own vision and wisdom and refuse to advance unneeded judgment upon others. This connection to non-dualistic thinking and living does not appear all at once. "More calm and contemplative seeing does not appear suddenly, but grows almost unconsciously over many years of conflict, confusion, healing, broadening, loving and forgiving reality."

It emerges gradually as we learn to incorporated the negative - the shadow - and learn from what we used to exclude, or, as Jesus put it, "forgive the enemies" from both within and without. You no longer need to divide the field of every moment between up and down, totally right or totally wrong, with me or against me. It just is. This calm allows you to confront what must be confronted with even greater clarity and incisiveness... (Because) your small and petty self is (mostly) out of the way, and if God wants to use you, which God always does, God's chances are far better now!

The second story comes from my favorite book by Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, his collection of tales from the Hasidic masters. It comes from the soul of Israel of Rizhin, the Rizhiner as he was called by tradition.

A young Hasid of the great Maggid of Mezeritch married the daughter of a fierce Mitnagged, who forced him to choose between his family and his rebbe. The young son-in-law swore that he would not return to the Mezeritch. But after a few months, or perhaps years, he could not resist the impulse to join his companions and their Master. When he returned home his angry father-in-law marched him to the local rabbi for a judgment. The rabbi consulted the Shulkhan Arukh and issued this verdict: since the young man had broken his promise, he was to give his wife a divorce at once. Overnight the young man found himself on the street. He had no means of his own, no relations. Inconsolable, refusing all nourishment, the young Hasid fell sic. And with no one to care for him, he died shortly after.

Well, said the Rizhiner as he told this story, when the Messiah will come, the young Hasid will file a complaint against his father-in-law and the local rabbi, both guilty of his premature death. The first will say: I obeyed the rabbi. And the rabbi will say: I obeyed the Shulkhan Arukh. And the Messiah will say: The father-in-law is right, the rabbi is right and the Law is right. Then he will kiss the young plaintiff and say: But I, what do I have to do with them? I have come for those who are not right!

Two parts of this story speak to me. First is the passion of the young Hasid who ached to dance and revel in the ecstasy of holy worship using all of his senses. That encouraged me as a young clergy person and has continued to inform my commitment to incarnational spirituality as expressed in Jesus. As Fr. Rohr has written recently: To much of Christianity has been shaped by Plato and not Jesus.

The second part of the story, integrally related to the tragedy and suffering, is
the kiss the Messiah gives to the prematurely dead Hasid. "But I, what do I have to do with them? I have come for those who are not right!" I hear the words of Jesus and prophets of Israel here.  In Matthew 9:13 Jesus tells those who are puzzled and offended by his emerging ministry:  Go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: I the Lord your God desire mercy not sacrifice. It is a quote from Hosea 6:6 that opens the door for radical compassion. The other quote from Jesus in Matthew that resonates here is Matthew 25: 31-46 where the end of time is noted. Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that our lives will be evaluated according to compassion - what we did unto the least of these our sisters and brothers we did unto God - nothing more but certainly nothing less.

Today, Tuesday, I would ordinarily be studying and writing my reflections for Sunday morning, but this week we're doing a "faith journey interview" so I have time for other work. Mostly I am blocking out the elements of our various Holy Week liturgies: where people should stand, how many microphones are needed, etc. Still, I knew that this posting was eager to get written when I woke up this morning - mostly because before I went to bed I spent some time thinking about the songs I want to share in worship during the three weeks after Easter. This will be our final "let's get ready for sabbatical" worship - only 44 days until we leave - and three very telling songs kept rising to the surface:

+ "Peace Piece" by Bill Evans. This may be the most sublime meditation in music I have ever heard. We played it recently for the funeral of one of the congregation's matriarch and it has been soul food ever since.

+ "Deep Within" by David Haas. We played this two weeks in a row before Lent began: first as an instrumental and then with lyrics, harmonies and improvisation. I know I want to go into this song again before we depart for NYC.

+ "All Blues" by Miles Davis with words by Oscar Brown, Jr.  I love the slow groove the bass sets up in this song, but I also cherish the words that were added to this classic song. They speak of struggle and salvation, the universality of the blues across color lines - and to my mind across the divides of gender and class, too.

These tunes - and these stories - speak a world of wisdom to me about the deeper significance of my sabbatical. And while I know many are likely bored to tears reading yet more reflection on our magical mystery tour, oh well...

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