Study Guide for Eyes Remade for Wonder
Page 9: Awareness – There is an old Hasidic story recounted by Martin Buber, of the disciples who gathered to learn from their rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. . .
One evening as the students left the room, one apologized to the others for monopolizing so much of the Baal Shem’s attention. Throughout the entire audience the master had spoken to him personally. His friend told him not to talk such nonsense. They had all entered the room together and, from the very beginning, the master had spoken only to him. . . A fourth and a fifth made the same claim. . . Only then did they realize what had happened and all fell silent.
So it is with us when we read scripture. The biblical text speaks intimately and demands an intensely personal response. . . Because the words of the poem speak only to me, I am not free to comment dispassionately on them, for I am in them. They are me.
Have you ever had a passage of scripture, a passage from literature, or a poem speak personally to you? What was the passage or the poem? What did you hear it say to you?
Page 10: There is a similar intensity of attention when Moses encounters at the (burning) bush. .
Look more closely at the process of combustion. How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it was actually being consumed? . . This then would mean that Moses would have had to closely watch the “amazing sight” for several minutes before he could possibly know there ever was a miracle to watch! (The producers of television commercials, who have a lot invested in knowing the span of human visual attention, see to agree that one minute is our outer limit.)
The “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.
How long is your average attention span? We seem to live in an attention deficit culture. What do you suspect we might be missing? Do you find yourself at all motivated to try to increase your span of attention? Have you ever focused long enough to perceive the miracles around you?
Page 11: The beginning of knowing about God is simply paying attention, being fully present where you are, or waking up. We realize that we have been asleep. We do not see what is happening all around us. For most of us, most of the time the lights are on but nobody’s home.
We find what we seek. And we seek who we are.
According to Buddhist legend, when the Buddha began preaching people asked him (much like people asked Jesus), “who are you?” (And much like Jesus some people were asking, “who do you think you are?) The Buddha’s simple response was: “I am awake.”
Do you feel like you are fully awake? I what ways do you think you might be missing what is going on around you? In what ways do you think you might be missing God? Jesus said, “seek and you will find.” What are you seeking? What are you finding?
Page 12: Each miracle requires at least one person to experience the miracle, even if, like Jacob, only in retrospect.
Do you think it is true that in order for a miracle to be a miracle it has to be experienced? Do you think people who don’t believe in the possibility of miracle can experience miracle? What is the most recent miracle you have experienced? Like Jacob, have you ever experienced a miracle in retrospect?
Page 14: Universal consciousness is too much to handle and would burn out the circuitry (of our brains). . . We must therefore create an elaborate system of filters, lenses, and blinders to screen out extraneous images, leaving us with a very small field of vision. What we call consciousness is all that remains visible in this tiny patch of the light of our attention. We can aim it at anything we like, but only a very few things at a time. How we will focus and direct the beam is up to us.
Have you ever had the experience of feeling like your consciousness had been expanded? Are you ever aware of consciously choosing how you will focus your awareness? Are you ever aware of any of the filters or lenses through which you are focusing your awareness? In your normal everyday living what do you tend to “filter out” of your conscious field of vision? What do you have to do in order to focus upon God?
Page 16: God, the Holy One of Being, is more that everywhere; God is the Ground of the World’s Being, the very Place of Being itself. And to be awake and present “in this place” is to encounter God. . .
You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. Find a point an inch or so behind your sternum where your heart beats. That is where the “makom,” the place, is. Right here all along and we did not know it because we were fast asleep, here in this very “makom.”
Where is the place you are most aware of God? How do you “wake up” or open yourself to God’s presence?
Entrances to Holiness is a shortened version of a longer chapter by the same name in Kushner’s book Honey from the Rock. So we have been provided with pages 48 – 56 of Honey from the Rock, and these questions come from that material.
Page 48: Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places. There is no place on earth without the Presence. . . nothing is beneath being a gateway to the Most High.
What is the most unusual time or place, when you have encountered the divine? Are there any external circumstances that make you more open to experiencing the divine? Are there any personal preparations that help you to become more open to experiencing the divine?
Page 49: Once there was a man who could enter higher worlds merely by drawing a circle in the earth and standing within it. “I can do nothing very well except draw circles and stand in them,” he would say. “But the circles are as perfect as are humanly possible and I can station myself within them without distraction.” And so the Holy One would come out of hiding. Such a man was Honi, the circle drawer. In a wilderness. Through a bush. From a circle. Nothing is beneath the dignity of being selected as an entrance.
Honi the Circle Drawer was a First Century miracle worker, who performed miracles by drawing circles on the ground and then entering them to pray. He was credited with ending a drought by entering a circle telling God he would not leave the circle until it rained. At first it began raining only within the circle. When Honi told God that was not good enough, the rain came down everywhere breaking the drought. There was a parallel story about Jesus drawing a circle in the dust, and writing something in the circle, when an adulterous woman was brought to him and the mob asked his opinion about what should be done to the woman. “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” was Jesus’ response. Perhaps Jesus was able to create an entrance to Holiness in that circle. Have you ever found an odd place or object that became an entrance to Holiness? Can you imagine a way of creating an entrance to Holiness in your own life? Could a labyrinth represent an entrance to Holiness?
Page 51: The children work/playing in four or five groups, when the mist outside turned imperceptibly into snowflakes. “Look! It’s snowing outside!” one shouted. “Winter is here!” No need for daily prayer here. Or for the proper blessing on seeing nature’s wonders for the first time . . .
There are places children go that grown-ups can only observe from afar.
What are some of the entrances to holiness that seem to be open to children that appear to be closed to grown-ups? Can you imagine being able to go back to some of the gateways of holiness you knew in childhood?
Page 52: It was one of those beautiful sunset evenings. The long shadows of the trees gently blowing in the evening breeze. And just as I made the last dot I became aware that someone was in the room. I looked up expecting to find Karen or one of the kids (who are very good at sneaking up on you). But no one was there. Just a presence. And the fading shadows.
Have you ever experienced a presence, when no one was there? What role do you think light plays in our experience of the divine?
Page 53: But how is it that some things and places seem to be holy while others seem hopelessly profane? . . . This comes about not because of anything intrinsic to the things or the places but rather because of because of people and memories.
Because of people, for they try to hoard spiritual power like any other kind of power. Unaware, alas, that such power can only be shared but never possessed.
And because of memories, some things and places carry within them more memories of ascent than others. They are easily opened so that even one who is unsuspecting might accidentally slip through them to higher worlds.
Have you ever been surprised to discover some place or event you assumed as profane turned out to be filled with spiritual power? What memories are most powerful in helping you to access the divine? How do you feel about Kushner’s statement: “power can only be shared but never possessed.”
Page 56: The stones of the wall are smooth from the centuries of hands who have caressed them. The visitors have left more than their tangible traces – the stones and their paper petitions. They have left a residue that is immeasurable and invisible.
Have you ever visited a “holy” place, where people have prayed and made pilgrimage for years and years? Did you feel anything special in that place?
We now return to Eyes Remade for Wonder.
Page 24: That is how I learned about redemption. . . you can’t have one until you relinquish the other.
In Kabalistic thought this is called entering the ayin (crossing the threshold or entering luminal space in the words of Robert Moore), or Holy Nothingness. In order for something to change from what it is into whatever it hopes to become there must be a moment when it has stopped being what it was yet before it has become what it hopes to become. For a split second it is literally nothing. . .
(Rites of passage are a way of symbolically initiating people into a new phase of their life. The ritual of passage is a container to hold them in that in between time, when they are for instance in the adolescent rite of passage no longer children but not yet adults.)
Indeed, it has always seemed to me that the miracle was not that the waters parted for the Israelites but that they all walked into the midst of the sea, drowned, and were reborn free men and women on the other side. You want to be reborn. . . Then you have to let go of the old you. You must be willing to walk into the midst of the sea on dry ground and risk it all. But you say, “What if I don’t come out the other side?” And I say there were probably a lot of Jews who were also afraid to step into the midst of the sea. They chose instead to bank on old but sure slave lives. We never heard from them again. But the ones who entered the water, hungry for rebirth were rewarded. Not with the Promised Land but with the strange honor of being able to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Theirs was the ultimate act of faith and they were rewarded with the ultimate gift: rebirth in the wilderness.
How does Kushner influence your view of redemption? Have you ever had a transforming experience in which you experienced nothingness as you passed from one state of being into another? What are the rituals we use to signify when people make a rite of passage? How do you feel about Kushner’s image of the gift of rebirth in the wilderness? Can you think of times when you have been challenged to let go of the old you in order to embrace a new you?
Page 40: If a group of people can have a psyche and think of itself as an organic being, then surely a people should also be able to dream. A series of motifs and archetypes should keep reappearing and seem to each individual dreamer, as Jung suggested, to emanate from a transcendent source. God would be present in those dreams, even as God speaks to an is within the people themselves. . .
And this is how it goes. In each generation there are encounters with the Holy Ancient One of Old. Visioned and recorded almost unconsciously. And some encounters, by reason of their terror or subtlety, simply go unrecorded. Fragments remembered the next morning at breakfast. Slid through the cracks. Finding their way to the dream memory of the people. And then it happens that one of the people writes, sings, legislates, scolds, or simply remembers. Perhaps with some awareness of destiny, or maybe just to earn a living. No. matter. Each is organically part of us, an instrument of the Word. And their collective bringing-to-our-attention is the great dream.
Scripture, then, might be understood as what has been saved for us of our collective memory. . .
We may ignore the dream or we may appropriate it for ourselves, and so make it our own. It is our choice alone.
Scripture is the result of the attempt to bring to the life light of consciousness the latent un-resolvable dialectic of conconsciousness. . . . Or, as it is told that Abraham Joshua Heschel taught about all holy stories, “An occasion when the heart surprises the mind.”
Do you think humanity shares a kind of collective unconscious? What do you think might be evidence of a common unconscious mind? Do you think “sacred stories” of many cultures share any common origins? Do you think there are any “modern” sacred stories? When do you experience moments when your heart surprises your mind?
Scripture and Other Dreams pages 47
Consider the possibility of going to a movie with friends or finding a DVD of a film you have found to be particularly haunting and then considering applying to the film Kushner’s Ten classic entrances to the dream. Ten ways of considering our own conscious spiritual creation.
Page 59: The story is told of Rabbi Levi Ytzak of Berditchev that once on Kol Nidre, the holiest night of the year when all sins are confessed, the tailor, one of the most devout members of the community was absent. Concerned, the rabbi left the synagogue and went to the tailor’s home. To his surprise he found the tailor looking at a piece of paper before him on the table.
“What’s the matter?” asked Levi Yitzhak.
“Oh everything’s fine,” replied the tailor. “As I was getting ready to attend the service I made a list with two columns. At the top of one I wrote my name and at the top of the other I wrote, ‘God of all the Universe.’ Then one by one, I began to list my sins. ‘Cheated Goldman out of a pair of trousers.’ And in God’s column, I noted God’s omission: ‘Little girl died of diphtheria.’ Then the next sin, ‘Lost my temper with my children,’ and in God’s column, ‘I heard there was a famine in another country.’” And so it went. The tailor showed the Rabbi the completed list. “And for every sin I had committed during the past year, God had done one too. So I said to God, ‘Look, we each have the same number of sins. If you let me off, I’ll let you off!”
But the story doesn’t end there. When the rabbi looked at the paper his face grew red and he scolded his friend: “You fool! You had Him and you let Him go!”
Here is a kind of relationship with God unique to Jewish tradition. Jews don’t just get angry with God. They call God to account. . .
What do you think of the idea of the tailor matching sins with God? Do you think humans can call God to accountability? Should God be held responsible for great evil like the Holocaust? What do you think of the idea of bargaining with God? Do you think being able to express anger towards God is a form of intimacy with the divine?
Page 60: But there’s another curve ball. If you believe, as I do, that “it’s all God,” then how do we argue with what we’re made of? That destabilizes us, makes us very uncomfortable. It means we have to talk to ourselves. We no longer have the luxury of putting all the nasty decisions and deeds on some distant omniscient, omnipotent God, and freeing ourselves to bask in moral security. God says, in effect, “And whom do you think you are talking to? Hold up a mirror. When you’re done with that conversation, come back to Me. . . ”
What do you think Kushner means when he writes, ‘its all God?’” Do you think the creator of the Universe bears any responsibility what has been created? What do you think of the idea that we humans have become co-creators with the divine? Who do we think we are talking to?
Page 62: Nothing is intrinsically evil. If something were, then God who is the Source of All Being could not be present everywhere in creation. If something were intrinsically evil, it would have to derive its reality from a force independent from God.
Do you agree with Kushner that nothing is intrinsically evil? Does Kushner’s explanation here help you understand why many people ascribe the existence of evil to the devil?
Page 62: Even our ineluctable urge to do evil is not evil, but only misdirected. Indeed, without it, as the legend goes, no hen would lay an egg, no house would be built, no one would go to work. There would be no babies. Psychological energy is mischievous. Let to itself, without direction, it would destroy the world. With direction and struggle, the same energy is a powerful force for healing and life. In the words of the sages, “The greater the person, the greater his or her propensity for doing evil.”
How do you feel about Kushner’s point that: “even our urge to do evil is not evil only misdirected?” Consider Kushner’s sentence, “Psychological energy is mischievous.” How would you feel if that read: “Spiritual energy is mischievous?” Kushner chooses another interesting turn of phrase: “With direction and struggle, the same energy is a powerful force for healing and life.” In Islam jihad translates as “struggle.” Do you think Islam is trying the address the same issue Kushner is lifting up here?
Page 62: We call this urge “the yeast in the dough,” for like yeast it is ubiquitous, essential, even indispensible.
How is Kushner’s yeast in dough similar or different from the yeast Jesus talks about in Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
Page 62: This libidinous fermenting agent has as its principal weapon the art of disguise. No one in human history has ever set out to do something evil. Instead they believed what they were doing was right and proper. Our desire to label things as “good” or “bad,” while of great value, is easily distorted. Most of the terrible things human beings do to one another, they do by telling themselves they are actually fighting against some external evil. But in truth more often than not they have only taken the evil into themselves and have become its agents.
Do you believe that no one in human history has ever set out to do something evil? Do you think most people believe they are trying to do good, even when they are doing evil? Have you ever had an awareness that you had become an agent of something evil?
Page 63: When services ended, the wealthy man woke up, not realizing that all he had heard was the Torah reading about how god wanted twelve loaves of chalah. He thought that God had come to him in his sleep and had asked him personally to bring twelve loaves of chalah to God.
Upon returning to the synagogue, (the rich man) decided the only proper place for his holy gift was alongside the Torah scrolls in the ark.
No sooner had he gone than the poorest Jew in town, the synagogue janitor, entered the sanctuary. All alone, he spoke to God. “O Lord, I am so poor. My family is starving; we have nothing to eat. Unless you perform a miracle for us, we will surely perish.” Then as was his custom, he walked around the room to tidy it up. When he ascended the bimah and opened the ark, there before him were twelve loaves of chalah! “A miracle!” exclaimed the poor man. “I had no idea You worked so quickly! Blessed are You, O God, who answers our prayers.” Then he ran home to share the bread with his family.
Minutes later the rich man returned to the sanctuary, curious to know whether or not God ate the chalah. Slowly he ascended the bimah, opened the ark, and saw that the chalot were gone. “Oh my God!” he shouted. “You really ate my chalot! I thought You were teasing. This is wonderful. You can be sure that I’ll bring another twelve loaves – with raisins in them too!
The chalah exchange became a weekly ritual. . . Then, one day, the rabbi, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, watched the rich man place the dozen loaves in the ark and the poor man redeem them.
The rabbi called the two men together and told them what they had been doing.
They both feared that now God no longer would be present in their lives.
Then the rabbi asked them to look at their hands. “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And your hands,” said the rabbi to the poor man, “also are the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich. So you see, God can still be present in your lives. . . .Your hands are the hands of God.”
In what ways were the rich man and the poor man blessed? Were they better off not knowing what was happening or better off knowing? Do you think the dynamics changed after they knew what as happening? Have you ever been the hands of God in giving? Can you think of a time when you have been the hands of God in receiving?
Page 66: The wilderness is not just a desert. . . . It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself with regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.
In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. . . .
Now you might say that the promise of such spiritual awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. . . . “It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” And indeed, that is your choice.
For you what is the wilderness? What do you have to do to find the wilderness? What is your greatest challenge trying to stay in the wilderness?
Page 67: Let’s go right to the core of the question about evil. . .
There is a wall-size photograph in Yad Va-shem. . .
In the center of the mural, at least as large as the viewer, there are three people: a mother, holding her infant child to her bosom, faces the trench. Just behind her, at point blank range, a young German soldier trains the sights of his rifle at the woman’s head, about to shoot. (The end of the rifle barrel is no further away from her head than the reader’s eyes are from this printed page.) . . .
If there is a God, where was that God when this photograph was taken? God was there. See, we have a photograph, over there in the ditch, in the mother’s terrified eyes, even in the psychosis of the Nazis soldier. There is God, an ashen reality, now almost two generations later, more mysterious and more holy than ever. The question is not where was God, but why do human beings do such things? Blaming God not only absolves us but increases the likelihood that we will allow such a horror to happen again.
How could God allow such a thing? Why didn’t God do anything? To ask such questions assumes that God occasionally intervenes in human affairs without human agency. Yet countless events remind us that God does not work like that. Indeed, while it contradicts literal readings of some sacred texts, we suspect that God never has. . . .
How do respond to Kushner’s assertion that God is in the picture? Why do you think Kushner referred to the “psychosis of the Nazis soldier?” What does it mean, if God is really in everything and everyone? Do you think God ever acts outside of human agency?
Page 68: What is evil and where does it come from?
First of all, many things are bad that are not evil. . . . “Bad” means “unfortunate,” “painful,” and even “horrible,” but it does not mean that someone is necessarily responsible for what has happened. A freak accident, for which no one is to blame, for instance, is “bad” but it is not “evil.” Other times “bad” means “unethical,” “wicked,” and “evil.”. . .
This double meaning of “bad” probably reflects a time when human beings believed they were powerless in the face of whatever befell them and that everything that happened was caused by God. . .
Do you think it is common for people to ascribe all that happens to God? Do you agree with Kushner that the word “bad” tends to have a double meaning? For the purpose of trying to discuss “evil,” can you propose a definition of “evil?”
Page 70: Once you acknowledge that bad things happen and that people do evil things, there are only two options: Satan and God. In one universe, people maintain their “selves,” their sanity, and God by giving evil its independence. Such wickedness, they reason, could not possibly have anything to do with God. . .
In the second world, God is somehow part of the evil, present even in its depths. This is the meaning of our assertion that “God is One.” A Oneness at the core of all being toward whom everything – yes, everything, even evil – ultimately converges. The source of all reality. If God is the source of all being and human evil is real, then God therefore must be in it also. The evil does not derive its being from some extra-Divine source.
Of the two worlds described by Kushner, which are you most comfortable with? If the devil is the source of evil, who is more powerful, the devil or God? If there is no devil and everything is God, then is God good?
Page 71: In the words of Rabbi Tsaddok Hakohen. . . “God is present even in our sins.” And rejecting our sins only postpones the ultimate task of healing and self-unification. Accepting ourselves is another way of finding God.
How do you feel about the assertion: “God is present even in our sins?” What might it mean to embrace our sins as a way of seeking healing and self-unification? Why do you think accepting ourselves is a step in finding God?
Page 72: Why would anyone ever choose evil at all? Why would a human being ever do anything cruel? . . . the pain of being a human being, and for many the evil they do, originate in two primal, psycho-spiritual “tearings.” Something is separated, rejected, and made “other.”. . .
In the first tearing, a part of ourselves is rejected and identified as “enemy,” The second tearing involves every human being’s traumatic separation from his or her parents, the process of individuation and of becoming autonomous. Both are lifelong, unending struggles. In one, we tear off a part of ourselves to maintain our own sense of goodness, and in the other, we experience ourselves has having been torn away from our own good. . .
How do you describe “the pain of being a human being?” What do you think of the two psycho-spiritual “tearings” described by Kushner? Do you think these “tearings”are an adequate explanation of human evil? How did you experience separating out from your parents? Internal family systems therapy claims that as the result of pain, shame, guilt, and other negative feeling experiences in childhood, we split off parts of our personalities and send them into exile. Do you think this concept of exiled parts of the personality is a good model for Kushner’s “first tearing?” What parts of your own personality do you think are in exile?
Page 74: The unnamed night wrestler of Genesis 32 represents a dimension of ourselves that has been rejected and labeled as “evil other.” It comes back to injure and name us during the night. And since it is still a part of ourselves we cannot bear to acknowledge, when we sense it in someone else, we are all the more frightened and angry. And often, failing to find it in someone else, we project it onto them anyway, for this deludes and comforts us into feeling that we have utterly torn it away. Hating something in someone else is easier than self-reproach.
Once we realize that what we detest in another person only wants to be accepted, taken back, and loved, do we begin to diminish our own capacity for evil. By embracing what was never really other, we neutralize the evil. We heal and redeem it and in so doing we heal ourselves and God.
Have you ever discovered something of yourself in someone you did not like? How did that discovery affect the relationship? Do you ever find yourself “projecting” your own feelings on to other people or situations? How does that usually work out? How do you respond to the idea of embrace what you don’t like in someone else in order to heal yourself? What do you think of the idea of healing God?
Page 75: One final image may be helpful in understanding how what has been torn away can be redeemed. Early Hasidim developed a doctrine called “strange thoughts,” of “lascivious thoughts during prayer.” According to this teaching, one sure sign that we have attained a high level in prayer is that invariably we will be assailed by embarrassingly wicked thoughts. Our first inclination is to reject them at once, but, as everyone knows, this only gives them even greater power over our prayers. We must, counsels the Baal Shem, realize that such thoughts are in reality only rejected parts of ourselves that sense this time of great closeness to God and come out of our unconscious, yearning for redemption. . . .
. . . When a strange or evil thought arises in a person’s mind while he is engaged in prayer, it is coming to that person to be repaired and elevated.
The goal, as the Hasidim say, is to “. . . find the root of love in evil so as to sweeten the evil and turn it into love.”
Do you ever wicked thoughts coming into your consciousness, when you are praying or meditating? Are you able to embrace these thoughts as rejected parts of yourself? Would you agree such thoughts are part of our unconscious yearning for redemption? Does the doctrine of “strange thoughts” in any way suggest new approaches to your prayer life?
Page 76: The second form of tearing that is responsible for human evil comes from parents and children separating from one another. The price a human being pays for growing into an autonomous adult is the pain of leaving home. I am now convinced the Eden story intuits this.
For you what was the most difficult part of separating out from your parents? For you what has been the hardest part of becoming an adult? If you had your adolescence to do over, what if anything would you do differently?
Page 76: “This will never work,” reasons God. “Better they should know some sin, estrangement, and guilt but at least become autonomous human beings rather than remain these insipid, goody-two-shoes infants. But I can’t just make them autonomous. If I did, their autonomy, their individuation, their independence would be a sham. They must earn it themselves. They must want it badly enough to pay a price. I’ll let them make their own children, but they must first earn their autonomy.”
Kushner in a sense is creating Midrash, an expansion upon the Biblical story. What do you think of this Midrash? How do you think this attempt to understand the problem of human autonomy squares with the actual scientific facts of evolution? Do you think this Midrash in any ways helps to understand the problem of free will? Do you think we have free will?
Page 77: The necessary price for becoming an autonomous adult is the unending pain of separation. Do you think this observation is true? If you how do you experience separation in your own life? Do you think it is possible to become separated from yourself?
Page 77 – 79: We go down into ourselves with a flashlight – looking for the evil we have intended or done — not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.
. . . And during times of holiness, communion and light our personal and collective perversions creep out of the cellar, begging to be healed, freed and redeemed. . . .
The conclusion of true teshuva, returning to our Source in Heaven, is not self-rejection or remorse but the healing that comes in telling ourselves the truth about our real intentions and, finally, self-acceptance. Not satisfaction or complacency; it does not mean that we are now proud of who we were or what we did, but it does mean that we have taken what we did back into ourselves, acknowledged it as part of ourselves. We have found its original motive, realized how it became disfigured, perhaps beyond recognition, made real apologies, done our best to repair the injury, but we no longer try to reject who we have been and therefore who we are, for even that is an expression of the Holy One of Being.
We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again, that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long banished children finally take home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves.
For you what is the difference between feeling regret for things you have done in the past and cherishing those actions as “long banished children finally taken home again?” What part of your personality most resists healing? Have you ever taken a light into the cellar to find out what is there?
Page 82: Most of us believe in free will. Most of us however also have known moments when we felt as if we were permitted to survey our lives from such a high vantage point that our freedom was revealed to be illusory. The closer we are to what is happening, the more we believe we are in complete control. The farther away we get, the more we are willing to acknowledge the participation of something greater. We realize that we were part of something much larger than our daily decisions.
Everything is organically, seamlessly joined to everything else. We have been players in a divine scheme, neither marionettes or zombies but waves in an ocean, dancers in a ballet, colors on a canvas, words in a story. Discrete and probably autonomous, but never entirely independent. Of course, it is preposterous. Of course, it makes no rational sense. But for just a moment, it is as if we encounter our destiny. Everything is within God.
Do you believe in free will? Do you think there are any limits on free will? How much is our lives wrapped up in the lives of others? Do you think God has a place or a role in the way your life plays out?
Page 83: . . . The only thing within our power, and our power alone, may be whether or not we do what we do with arrogance or reverence. Other than that, life goes on as before. . .
Heaven has assigned a role to each of us. It’s the only one we’re going to get. Sometimes we don’t lie our part. We want someone else’s lines, costume, entrance. . .
. . .That’s the only part we have for you. You want it or not?
If we say, “O.K., I’ll take the part. I choose to play it with all my strength,” then . . . it won’t matter. We wouldn’t take (any other) job even if they coaxed us because we’ll be having too much fun being who we are. But if, on the other hand, we sulk or stubbornly try to seize some other actor’s part by pretending we’re someone else, then we just wind up being a second-rate actor in a “B” movie of our life story.
Do you think it is true that there is a script for our lives? What part do you think you have been given to play? Is there another part you wish you had been given? How do you feel about the statement? ”
The only thing within our power, and our power alone, may be whether or not we do what we do with arrogance or reverence.”
Page 92: Sometimes stories can be true without ever having happened. The story of the garden of Eden, for instance, obviously never happened the way it is told. . . .
But the story is true. In metaphorical language, to be sure, the legend describes a drama that occurs in the lifetime of very human being. We are not guilty because Adam and Eve were; but we are guilty in precisely the same way. The story is true not because it happened, but because it happens generation after generation.
In what way do you think Kushner is claiming the Story of the Garden of Eden is true? Kushner discounts the doctrine of original sin. How important is original sin in your understanding of life? What do you think it means the story is true generation after generation?
Page 100: . . .If light is awareness, then creation stories, beginning with light, are man telling about himself. Ink blots from some long ago present. Mirrors in which we might see back through the adolescent sophistication of which we are so proud.
Once we tried to pluck out our eyes in the vain attempt at objectivity. Then we learned that some subjectivity is inescapable. As Heisenberg discovered: to observe is to participate. We change what we look at simply by looking at it. So we left our eyes in our heads. Now we are being coaxed to look at one’s eyes themselves. For the thinker is thinking about himself.
Our drive to find the light hidden long ago can only lead us back to an awareness of ourselves.
What do you think is meant by the sentence? “As Heisenberg discovered: to observe is to participate. We change what we look at simply by looking at it.” How do you think this observation impacts spirituality? Do you see any convergence between science and spirituality?
Page 101: If we had remained in Eden we would have been as one with the universe. But we never could have been conscious of our unity. So we left seeking that unity and consciousness. Leaving the garden is a metaphor for forgetting that we are one with the universe. Holy awareness is the only way to return.
What do you think it means to “leave Eden?” Do you ever feel a sense of conscious unity with the universe? What are some of the consequences of forgetting that we are one with the Universe? What do you think Holy awareness looks like?
Page 102: God is to the world as our unconscious is to our everyday lives—quietly, invisibly, secretly guiding our steps; feeding us our lines; moving us into position; unifying everything we do. We are chastened to realize that what we thought was an accident was, in truth, the hand of God. Most of the time we are simply unaware. Awareness takes too much effort, and besides, it’s more fun to pretend we are running the show. But every now and then we understand, for just a moment, that God has all along been involved in everything.
If God is in everything, does this deny free will? Do you like to think you are running the show? If you ever had a moment, when we became aware of God in the midst of the unfolding of your life? What do you think God was up to?
Page 112: To make room for the other letters, the Lord of Hosts had to step back and remove Godself – in the way a father must restrain himself so that his little child will have room to grow. This is tsimtsum, self-withdrawal. Making yourself small so another can grow.
Even so that you too can grow. Deeds of giving: deeds of making yourself less: deeds of making another more: such deeds are tsadaka. And one who does them, a righteous one, is a tsaddik. “The righteous shall inherit the earth.”
What are some ways you can think of where you have made yourself less in order to allow others to grow? How important do you think deeds of giving are to the spiritual life?
Page 112: No one can be tsaddik alone. There must be at least nine others. We are able to rise to the rung of tsadaka only by binding ourselves with others who also could never make it alone. This then is a congregation, tsibur. Tsadaka, deeds of giving, are the reason for a congregation.
Do you agree that a congregation of others is essential in the spiritual life? If it is important to the spiritual to bind ourselves to at least nine others, then why do you think life in community so hard?
Page 114: . . . Rabbi Isaac Luria observed that in his world like ours things seemed to be wrong. . . . “How could God allow such terrible things to happen? . . . Perhaps it is because God needs our help.” He explained his answer with a mystical story.
When first setting out to make the world, God planned to pour a Holy Light into everything in order to make it real. God prepared vessels to contain the Holy Light. But something went wrong. The light was so bright that the vessels burst, shattering into millions of pieces like dishes dropped on the floor. . . .
Our world is a mess because it is filled with broken fragments. When people fight and hurt one another, they allow the world to remain shattered. The same can be said of people who have pantries willed with food and let others starve. According to Luria, we live in a cosmic heap of broken pieces, and God cannot repair it alone.
That is why God created us and gave us freedom of choice. We are free to do whatever we please with our world. We can allow things to remain broken, or, as Luria urged, we can try to repair the mess. Luria’s Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world” is tikkum olam.
How do you relate to the concept of “repairing the world?” If the Holy Light broke the vessels, then do you think the vessels were defective? Was God incompetent creating a mess and then not able to repair it? Do you believe the world can be repaired? What do you think are some of the principle reasons the world is still a mess?
Page 116: The Hebrew word for angel is malach. Which also means messenger: one who is sent. . . .
. . . people chosen to be messengers of the Most High rarely even know that they are God’s messengers. Unsuspecting and unaware. Consumed by their own plans and itineraries. Busy at work on their own schemes. God is already sending them somewhere else.
I do not know how many times in one’s life one is a messenger. But for everyone it is at least once. One to whom it is given to know that his or her errand is completed is blessed and rare. . .
Remember only that you are not always going where you are going for the reasons you think you are.
There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that unknown to either of you there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other or he or she had changed you. By some word or deed or just created by your presence, the errand had been completed. Then perhaps you were a little bewildered or humbled and grateful. And then it was over.
Do you think you have been a messenger? Have you ever been aware of serving as a messenger? Do you think God works through us even when we are unaware? Have you ever had a chance encounter and then looking back you realized God was somehow in the encounter?
Page 117: Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
Have you ever sensed you were carrying the pieces to someone else’s puzzle? Do you think there are others who may be carrying pieces to your puzzle?
Page 126: . . . If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that people, without hesitation, will humiliate, wound, even butcher a person whom society has identified is not like them. It is almost as if people seem to have a need to exclude others in order to make themselves feel secure. We Jews know all about that.
To make matters worse, virtually everyone has some cause to feel insecure in his or her sexual identity. And someone who is homosexual threatens our own, often tenuous, self-definitions.
Do you think Kushner’s observations about sexuality and insecurity are true? What do you think is the driving instinct in human nature to exclude others? Can you think of exclusive practices that target other groups besides homosexuals?
Page 131: . . . we should try to fashion a Jewish (faith) community in which everyone is welcome and respected without regard to his or her sexual preference?
Do you think Kushner’s vision is possible? Now that homosexuality has become a political issue, do you think it is possible to discuss the issues non-politically? What do you think of Pope Francis’ statement: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can’t marginalize these people.”
Page 133: “Stranger on the Bus” You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you. Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice, even risk. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.
You do not exercise your freedom by doing what you want. Self-indulgence is not an exercise of freedom. But when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free. Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.
If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything. We can blame nothing on anyone else. The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt compelled to act? Do you think there are some tasks from which we simply cannot walk away? When was the last time you experienced a task that “had your name on it?”
Pages 135-136: . . . the present can change the past. Teshuva, the act of returning to whom you meant to be, can change who we were. It cannot change what we did, but it can change the meaning of what we did. In so doing, it can change the future. Don’t make teshuva because it will make some pain go away. Make teshuva because it will send you back to who you were, change it into who you meant to be, and in so doing change you into whom you might still become.
Obviously, we cannot undo the past. What is done is done. But what we do now about what we did them, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning. By our present actions, we can effectively reach back through the otherwise impermeable membrane that seals the past and thus reshape it.
Have you ever experienced changing the meaning of the past by taking action in the present?
Zara Renander in her book Labyrinths: Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace talks about Labyrinths as a place were normal boundaries are “permeable.” “A labyrinth is a place of connection, a place where the boundaries between realities are permeable: The living and the dead are close. In this walk the old man was not alone; he walked with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and in the communion of the saints. He must have attended countless Veterans Day parades and ceremonies in his long life yet it took the quiet intimacy, the heart space and prayer on the labyrinth for his tears to flow allowing him to lay down his grief.” Can you see how a Labyrinth might be a special place for teshuva?
Can you imagine any other rituals, when we can reach back into the past in order to transform the meaning of the past?
Page 143: But still there is a greater hay than “behold.” And this is the hay of “heenayni, Here I am.” (“Here am I” is the classic response in scripture of those who have been called by God.)
While everyone can say, “I am present,” only a very few can say “Heenayni, Here am I.” For to answer heenayni means that you no longer belong only to yourself. To answer heenayni means that you give the hay of your being over to the One who calls. That is why hay is the letter most often linked with God’s Name.
Heenayni means fully awake and fully present, much like the Buddha’s answer to the people you asked him, “who do you think you are anyway?”
He said, “I am awake.” Or perhaps he was a person who had said, “here am I,” to the Universe. Do you think you are fully awake to the Universe? Have you ever found yourself saying, “here am I,” to the One?
Page 144: The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are yod, hay, vav, and hay. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yaveh.” But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.
This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.
How important do you think breathing is in prayer? If God is in our very breath, what does it mean to you to focus on your breathing? The name of God is often translated I am what I am. But the pronouns are unclear, and the tenses of the verbs in Hebrew are future and conditional. Thus one possible translation of God’s name is “I will become what you will do.” How does that translation impact your image of God?
Page 148: As the first utterance begins with ‘I,” so the last commandment concludes with “your neighbor,” thereby completing the spectrum from me to you, from one to another, from I to Thou. . . .
The first utterance and the last commandment may be joined to one another because they are simply different sides of the same truth. They are each the cause of the other. Something like this is suggested by Rabbi Michal of Zolotchov, who intuits that “not to covet” is not a commandment but a reward.
If you are content with your portion, you will want nothing and you will lack nothing. . . It does not mean that you will not . . . change and grow; it means only that at this moment, in this place you are all that you can be. . . Through fulfilling the prohibition against coveting, we have at the same time “heard” the first utterance (of the first commandment) in a new way. To utter the “I am” is to want nothing else, and strange though it sounds, to want nothing else is the necessary prerequisite for all genuine growth. . . . Growth begins with self-acceptance; change begins with not trying to change. . . .
. . . Thus the goal of all therapy is self-discovery, not the discovery of another self but one’s true self. Beneath all the layers of wanting to be different . . . . is a self. This self is a living dynamic force within everyone. And if you could remain still long enough here, now, in this very place, you would discover who you are. And by discovering who you are, you would at last be free to discover who you yet also might become.
What do you think of Rabbi Zolotchov’s assertion that “not to covet” is not a commandment but a reward? Growth begins with self-acceptance, do you think that is true? Do you think you could remain still long enough to discover who you are?
Page 152-153: One of my high school students once asked me if I could prove there was a God. Instead I asked her if she had a self. She thought for a moment sn said, “Of course.”
“And is your self important to you?”
“Very,” she replied.
And where would you be,” I pushed, “without your self?”
“In big trouble.”
“Can you prove you have one?”
Can you prove you have a self? How do you think your self and God are related?
Page 153: The essence of spirituality is a return to the self, a re-direction of vision of the one who asks the question, and almost serendipitous discovery that what is sought is, and always has been, right here all along. . . .
Spirituality is always in reference to two “I”s, the “i” of the person and the “I” of the Universe. . . . Spirituality is personal immediacy and the immediacy of ‘God’s presence. Most of the time it is very quiet, so quiet that it could be drowned out by the slightest noise or lost to the slightest distraction. Indeed God’s presence already permeates all creation. We name it when we are born with our first cry and whisper it as we die with our last breath. It wants only to be made tangible through our hands.
We are agents, instruments of God’s presence we are not at odds with the Self of the purpose. . .
Do you think Kushner has captured something of the idea people are trying to express, when they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious?” If God’s presence is all around us, then why do you think so many people have trouble connecting with God? What do you think Kushner is trying to convey when he speaks of the two “I”s, the “i” of the person and the “I” of the Universe?
Page 154-155: Here might lie the meaning of God’s strange reply to Moses (when Moses asks to see God) at Sinai: “After I pass, I shall remove my hand and you can see My back. (Exodus 33:32) On a literal, anthropomorphic level, it is obviously nonsense; but if we consider it as Moses’ discovery that immediacy cannot be self-reflective, that consciousness cannot turn back upon itself, then a new understanding emerges. Especially if we remember that the Hebrew word anorai, “My back,” also has a temporal sense. “The best you can hope for,” God tells Moses, “is to see what it is like just after I have been there.” Is this not the fate of any religious person – to perpetually stand awestruck! Contemplating the One who can only be met in the present but comprehended in the past tense. We cannot know God in the future. And, as we have seen, immediacy is out of the question. But, “When I remove my hand you will be able to see my back.”
Have you ever had an experience, but you only understood what had happened in hindsight? Think about any times, when you believe you have had a mystical experience. Did you know you were having a mystical experience, while it was happening or after it was over? If we lose ourselves in a mystical experience, then can we self-reflect on the experience, while it is happening?
Page 159: The Bible’s image for the resolution of all paradox is the coming of the Messiah. The final transformation of consciousness itself. The Baal Shem Tov explained it this way: “The coming of the Messiah does not depend upon anything supernatural, but rather upon human growth and self-transformation. . . . The world will only be transformed . . . . when people realize that the Messiah is not someone wholly other than themselves.”
The more we become aware, the more we realize that we are in everything and everything is in us. The One we call the Holy One, and the ones the Holy One calls us, are the same beings, seen from different sides. . . .
. . . . Protoplasm and consciousness aware of their common source.
Christians claim that in Jesus the word became flesh and he was the Messiah. Do you think Jesus represents a God that is wholly other than ourselves? If God is in us, and we are in God then what is the difference? What do you think Kushner’s statement means: “protoplasm and consciousness aware of their common source?”
Page 165: My daughter once told me that the way to know I was dancing was to dance with so much of me that I stopped worrying about what I looked like on the dance floor. I told her that if she looked the way I did when I danced, she’d worry too. But she only said that in order to really dance, you must give yourself to the music. “Let it tell you what to do; quit being so self-conscious. The only way you will ever know you have danced, Daddy, is if, once the music has stopped you realize you didn’t know you were dancing.”
The analogy of dancing can be applied to prayer and worship. The only way you will really know you have worshipped is when you stop and realize you didn’t know you were worshipping. Have you ever had the experience of losing yourself in worship? Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the experience of prayer, you forgot you were praying? What other kinds of experiences do people have, when they lose themselves in the experience?
Page 167: . . . three forms of devekut. . . .cognitive devekut. In this form of union, during the act of cognition the knower and the known become one. A second mode of devekut. . . theurgic. I would call it the devekut of behavior. In this experience, the Jew seeks to literally affect God through specific actions. . . . A personality drawn to such devekut is action oriented, content either with study nor with meditation. This person is a doer, an achiever, a fixer, someone who wants to repair the world. Seekers of the last form of devekut are primarily concerned with the re-uniting of the soul with its root. They draw heavily on the imagery of transformation, ascent and return. I would call it the devekut of prayer. The focus of this third personality is neither cerebral or behavioral, but emotional. Such a soul is drawn to closing his eyes, loosing herself in song, sitting in silence.
Which form of devekut are you most drawn to? Can you think of any other forms of devekut than the three outlined by Kushner? How much do you think personality type affects what kind of devekut attracts you? How do you understand people who do not seem to be attracted to any aspect of spirituality?
Page 168: Devekut is when the one who asks and the one who hears become the same. We realize to our embarrassment that we have been who we were all along and that it was only linguistic convention that tricked us into thinking we were someone else. We cannot make God do what we want, but in thinking, doing, and praying what God wants, we become one with God and with ourselves. I will be who we are, I even I.
What do you think it means that we cannot make God do what we want? For you what would be the point of thinking, doing, and praying what God wants? Why do you think so many people spend so much time alienated from God?
Page 175: The other day I saw a new one (bumper sticker). It said: “I’d rather be here now.” That strikes me as wise and terribly religious. What we seek is not somewhere else. It (whatever “it” be) is right here and right now. . . . Now that may not be the end, but it is surely and inescapably the beginning. But how, once you find it, to stay there, even for a moment or so, is not easy.
Right here, right now, awareness in the present moment. What helps you most in finding yourself here and now? When you are here and now how do you see things differently? What difference if any does gratitude make in trying to find yourself here and now?
Page 178: Being at One with the Holy One of Being is not about becoming the same as God but about forgetting the boundaries of self. . .
There are many ways we reach for the Holy One(ness). We can attain self-transcendence through our mind in study, through our heart in prayer, or with our hands in sacred deed. . . through voluntarily setting God’s will above our own, we literally lose our selves and become One with the One whom we serve. It rarely lasts for more than a moment.
The primary obstacle to becoming one is self-awareness, self-consciousness, talking to oneself. Ad for this reason, high awareness involves stopping, ignoring, forgetting the conversation we routinely carry on in our heads between different parts of our personalities. Such amnesia is another word for self-unificaiton.
How do you silence the internal voices that fill up the silence? How would you describe the boundaries of your self? Zara Renander describes Labyrinths as places where boundaries become permeable. Do you think walking a Labyrinth could help you in forgetting the boundaries of the self?
Page 194: Consciousness alters the physical universe. The Newtonian everyday, cause and effect, deterministic, material world, which has room only for billiard balls and the laws that predict how they move, is violated by the Holy One of Being who speaks “Let there be” as well as ordinary physicists who, by observing their experiments alter the results. It is a “word” that does not cause but rather is synchronous with its creation: “And there was.” At least in the beginning thought, world, and consciousness are the same as thing, world, and creation. Materialism and idealism dissolve into one another. The work of the first day is not just “light,” but the “and God spoke” that occurs at the same moment. And it is this consciousness and its creation that together give birth to day and night. Underlying the endurance of this world is the One who says, “Let there be Light,” since beneath this world a consciousness-like-light glistens and ultimately, consciousness and matter are one.
Re-read this paragraph which is not quite science or poetry or philosophy. Would you agree that consciousness alters the physical universe? What do you think is the relationship between consciousness and matter? Do you think materialism and idealism can be reconciled? Have you ever caught a glimpse of the light of consciousness?
Page 195: Matter is no longer matter but patterns of energy. Radiation, light, is perhaps itself only a transient form of consciousness. In such a way, the consciousness of “let there be” can actually translate into “and there was.” Consciousness fashions cosmos.
Would you agree with Kushner’s assertion that consciousness fashions cosmos? Do you think it is possible for human consciousness to connect with universal consciousness?
Page 195: “The Universe is not a black box containing floating bits of junk left over from the big bang explosion; it is a consciousness saturated solution. Mind is not simply located in the human skull; animal, vegetable and mineral forms are all alive.” Is this process called consciousness somehow fundamentally the same as what we also call light?
Is the Universe described in Kushner’s quotation different from the universe you experience? If everything is “alive” and consciousness is “real,” how would that influence your spiritual practices?
Page 197-198: This finds an analogue in recent cosmological theory. We understand that in the very early universe, above the temperature threshold of 4,000 degrees Kelvin, energy itself was not, as it is now contained in the masses of atomic particles, but in the form of radiation. There were then at least two distinct eras. The first era was dominated by radiation, pulsing, electromagnetic waves of energy everywhere. “The roar of light.” But as the winter chill of our present cosmos set in, the second era began. This one is dominated by gross matter. Material substance containing trapped light. We feel it in our bones. There is even a tradition in the Lurianic Kabbala that tells of holy sparks or nitzotzot imprisoned in everything and yearning to be set free through the agency of human intention and deed.
Picture them for a moment. Transitory bits of light. Sparks. Present now and then they are gone. Left over from the creation event. Caught inside everything and everyone. A light-like consciousness. Echoing the beginning. Hovering just above at 3 degrees Kelvin. Somewhere between spirit and matter. Hidden in galaxies and trees and you and me. Shimmering. Like sunlight on water that will not be still. Set before us.
Sparks of creation trapped inside all of us. Do you ever catch a hint of any of the sparks within you? Can you imagine any spiritual practices that connect with or release the sparks of creation? Do you think Kushner has in any way envisioned a convergence of science and spirituality?
Page 198: There is a legend of a second kind of Light. Saturday evening after the withdrawal of the primordial Light (of consciousness) and the setting of the sun, Adam was left in utter darkness. It was then that he rubbed stones together and initiated fire: humanity’s response to its own darkness and exile, its way of making it through the night. Fire is manmade consciousness humanity’s attempt to endure unredeemed creation. . .
Controlling it (fire) is not only evidence of human uniqueness but also symbolizes organized religion. When the “light” was withdrawn, when we were left alone with the immediate awareness of the Holy One, we were able to make do with religion. This was a kind of stop-gap measure until the final reunification. . .
It is as if the primary act of creation is to simply become conscious, and that through becoming conscious we – like God – create ourselves. The first and most important creation that human beings and the One of Being can give birth to is awareness. Eyes open, remade for wonder. Eyes that see. Ears that hear. Hands that feel. Breathless for a moment, we behold the dawn. The first light. And idea dawns. And what was nothing comes into being: Let there be Light.
How do you think our human ability to control fire change human life? What do you think Kushner means by the phrase “humanity’s response to its own darkness and exile?” How do you make it through the night? Kushner describes “religion” as a stop gap, a way to make do since the Light has been withdrawn. How do you relate to that notion? For you what is the dawn?
Page 199: Humanity, one might say, is the organ of consciousness in the universe. We are the result of consciousness’s desire to become aware of itself. As Jung observed, “If the Creator were conscious of himself, he wouldn’t have needed us.” Being speaks of and listens to itself through humanity. . . Human awareness is as empirical and incontrovertible a fact as gravity or photosynthesis. Our amazement, our tears, our intuitions, and our silences are part of being. And for us to call the cosmos insensate would be like our eyes surveying our body and calling it blind.
Do you think human is the organ of consciousness in the universe? Do you think there may be other organs of consciousness in the universe? If human consciousness is so important, why do you think we are mortal? What are the vehicles for passing on human consciousness?
Page 200: . . . Our next shape and our final share will be as beings of pure light, of pure consciousness. To be3come aware of the work of creation – go back through light that we see, to light that is more than we can see, to the soft pulsing echo of creation, to the nothing point of the origin/Genesis of all being. Then, we become nothing.
Can you imagine beings of pure consciousness? How important is it to be embodied? Do you see a convergence with Hindu and Buddhist thought in the image of the “nothing point of the being?”
TWO BY FOUR
The Pharisee in our Parable this morning is a good example of a bad example. He is such a bad example we might be tempted to overlook our own tendencies to indulge in the same behavior. And so I have to constantly remind myself of another parable: “why can you see the speck of saw dust in your friend’s eye, but you cannot see the two by four sticking out of your own eye?” And so I hope with an appropriate degree of humility I am embarking upon a meditation about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
SCUM OF THE EARTH
To grasp how radical Jesus’ teaching was in this parable we first need to understand that the Pharisees were considered to be some of the most faithful Jews in the First Century. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries for instance would have considered him to be a very liberal Pharisee. Most Jews in the First Century considered Tax Collectors to be like the scum of the earth. They were working for the Romans. The zealots considered them to be traitors and often assassinated Tax Collectors.
The whole method of tax collection encouraged extortion and corruption. In fact it was called tax farming. Tax Collectors were sold the right to collect tolls and taxes in given areas. They had to pay for their office out of their collections. But then everything they accumulated over and above what they had paid for their office was theirs to keep. You can image how making taxes into an entrepreneurial activity would lead to dishonesty and how unpopular these officials became.
NOT OPEN TO GOD’S GRACE
So when Jesus compared a Pharisee and a Tax Collector, he was making a radical point with his audience. The problem with the Pharisee is not that he kept the law, but his self-righteousness prevented him from being open to God’s grace. He was so convinced of his own goodness, he could not see his own short comings. He was not open to God’s grace.
RICH YOUNG RULER
The second story in our passage actually has a similar theme. A rich young man came to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered, “Keep the commandments.”
The young man replied self-confidently, “All these I have observed from my youth.”
So Jesus looked upon him lovingly and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But the young man went away sadly because he had great possessions.
MY WEALTH IS A SIGN OF GOD’S BLESSING
Many commentators have noted how casually the young man claimed to have followed all of the commandments. And somehow I think his sense of righteousness was tied up with his wealth. In First Century Judaism people often believed that personal wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. We still have people today who assume that their good fortune is the result of their own hard work and God’s blessing for their goodness following all of the middle class norms, while people who have less must of necessity by lazy and shiftless and obviously less righteous before God. Jesus, however, didn’t see it that way. For Jesus, wealth was the opportunity and obligation to share. Sharing is a sign of God’s grace – our ability to give in response to God’s gifts to us.
OPEN TO GOD’S GRACE – AWE AND WONDER
The key is learning to be open to God’s grace, and that begins when we experience awe and wonder in our lives. We look up in the sky and we find ourselves lost in the stars. Or we encounter the magnificent beauty of a forest or a canyon and for a moment we are lost in our simple appreciation of creation. Sometimes it happens when we witness the birth of a child, or when a loved one draws a last breath. Those moments of awe and wonder are the beginnings of our awareness of grace. We exist. We have been given life. We might just as well have never have been. But God says the party would not have been complete without us. And so we are here. We are a part of the magnificent whole that is the Universe, we are experiencing a gift that is altogether unearned, and the only appropriate response beyond our immediate sense of awe and wonder is gratitude.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer we ever say is ‘thank you,’ that will be sufficient.” Speaking of prayers of thanksgiving I am reminded of a true story from a Bible School many years ago. It was in the 4 year old class, and the teacher at the close of the day got the children in a circle and asked them to think of something for which they could thank God.
The first little girl prayed, “I thank God for the flowers.”
The second little girl prayed, “I thank God for my Mommy.”
Finally going around the circle it came to one little boy who prayed fervently, “I thank God I didn’t pee in my pants today.” As I get older I find that prayer more significant.
BASIC THANKS FOR BASIC THINGS
Basic thanks for basic things like this prayer of thanksgiving:
O God, we thank you for this earth, our home; for the wide sky and the blessed sun, for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills and the never-resting winds, for trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses by which we hear the songs of birds, and see the splendor of the summer fields, and taste of the autumn fruits, and rejoice in the feel of the snow, and smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty; and save our souls from being so blind that we pass unseeing when even the common thorn bush is aflame with your glory, O God our Creator thank you.
Gratitude is humble. Gratitude understands that all we have even our very lives has come to us as a gift – grace. Humility always comes before God open handed. In order to receive our hands have to be open. Clenched fists are not open to grace. Clenched fists are the symbol of anger and holding on unwilling to give unwilling to gift.
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
And that reminds me of the story of John D. Rockefeller. He was the very first person to reach the status of billionaire. He was a man who knew how to set goals and follow through. At the age of 23, he had become a millionaire, by the age of 50 a billionaire. Every decision, attitude, and relationship was tailored to create his personal power and wealth. But three years later at the age of 53 he became ill. His entire body became racked with pain and he lost all the hair on his head. In complete agony, the world’s only billionaire could buy anything he wanted, but he could only digest milk and crackers. An associate wrote, “He could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him.” His personal, highly skilled physicians predicted he would die within a year. That year passed slowly in great pain. As he approached death he awoke one morning with the vague remembrances of a dream. He could barely recall the dream but knew it had something to do with not being able to take any of his successes with him into the next world. The man who could control the business world suddenly realized he was not in in control of his own life. He was left with a choice. He called his attorneys, accountants, and managers and announced that he wanted to channel his assets to hospitals, research, and mission work.
On that day John D. Rockefeller established his foundation. This new direction eventually led to the discovery of penicillin, cures for tuberculosis and diphtheria. The list of discoveries resulting from his choice is enormous.
HEALED BY GOD’S GRACE
But perhaps the most amazing part of Rockefeller’s story is that the moment he began to give back a portion of all that he had earned, his body’s chemistry was altered so significantly that he got better. It looked as if he would die at 53 but he lived to be 98. Rockefeller learned gratitude and gave back from his wealth. Doing so made him whole. He became open to God’s grace. It is one thing to be healed it is another to be made whole.
GIFT OF TIME
Start each morning with “thank you” on your lips. We have been given another day. We have been given the gift of time – time that cannot be purchased or earned only received as grace. So allow me to close with a poem by the French poet and priest Michelle Quoist:
I went out, Lord.
People were coming and going,
Walking and running.
Everything was rushing:
Cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time.
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time.
To gain time.
Good-bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back. I can’t wait. I haven’t time.
I must end this letter–I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.
You understand, Lord,
They simply haven’t the time.
The child is playing,
He hasn’t time right now…Later on…
The schoolboy has his homework to do,
He hasn’t time…Later on…
The student has his courses,
And so much work…Later on…
The young married man has his new house;
He has to fix it up…He hasn’t time…Later on…
The grandparents have their grandchildren.
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are ill, they have their treatments,
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are dying, they have no…
Too late!…They have no more time!
And so all people run after time, Lord.
They pass through life running–
Hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic,
And they never get there. They haven’t time.
In spite of all their efforts
They’re still short of time,
Of a great deal of time.
Lord, you must have made a mistake in your calculations,
There is a big mistake somewhere.
The hours are too short.
Our lives are too short.
You who are beyond time, Lord,
You smile to see us fighting it.
And you know what you are doing.
You make no mistakes in your distribution of time to us.
You give each one time to do what you want him to do.
But we must not lose time,
For it is a gift that you give us,
But a perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.
Lord, I have time,
I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim,
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water
You may make a rich wine
Such as you made once in Cana of Galilee.
I am not asking you tonight, Lord,
For time to do this and then that,
But for your grace to do,
In the time that you give me,
What you want me to do.
When the Babylonians finally breached the wall and sacked Jerusalem it was a mess. If you ever visit Jerusalem there is an attraction in the Jewish Quarter just off of the major square called “Burnt House.” This is an excavation going down at least twenty feet below the present street level. The archaeologists have unearthed arrows and spear points from the battle that took place, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. There is a level of charcoal there indicating where the City was torched.
: JEREMIAH SURVIVED
It is amazing given the record of destruction that Jeremiah survived the sack of Jerusalem. Not only did he stay alive but the Babylonian King honored him for being a seer. When much of the population of Judah was carted off into slavery, Jeremiah was allowed to stay in Judah with a small community of survivors. Needless to say after Jeremiah’s prophecies were proved correct, his stock went way up. People started bragging on him calling him a true prophet.
BUILD HOUSES, PLANT GARDENS, MARRY
Meanwhile in Babylon false prophets were telling the slaves not to settle in, because they would be going home soon. So some of the captive Jews began writing to Jeremiah asking him to tell them more about his prophetic vision that they would one day return to the land of Israel. Jeremiah wrote back that while vineyards would once again be bought and sold in the land of Judah, the time of return was still a ways in the future, and the exiles should be prepared for a long wait and make the best of their new situation.
Jeremiah 29: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
BUILD A NEW TEMPLE AND SACRIFICE ANIMALS
The Jews in Babylon made themselves useful. They prospered, and in their foreign home they re-invented Judaism organized around a new institution called the synagogue. In Babylon Judaism changed from a religion primarily organized around a cult of animal sacrifice in a temple to a faith nurtured in a house of prayer and the study of scripture. There are some ultra-orthodox Jews today who want to knock down the Dome of the Rock, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and re-institute the animal sacrifices. Can you imagine slaughtering cows, sheep, goats and pigeons on a flaming altar on the Temple Mount? Our PETA members would certainly object as well as most of the Muslims of the world.
JEWS DID WELL IN BABYLON
The Jews did so well in Babylon many of them stayed behind, and never returned to Israel. They became high ranking officials in the Persian Empire, one of them, Esther, even became Queen. The Jews who remained behind in Babylon also developed superior methods of Biblical interpretation, so that the Babylonian Talmud is considered to be superior to the Jerusalem Talmud. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people dismembered again in 70 A.D. Babylon became the center of scholarship for the Jewish Diaspora.
BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED
Jeremiah’s advice to bloom where you are planted was not only applicable to the Jewish exiles of his day, his advice also sustained the Jewish people during the nearly 2,000 years of Diaspora after the destruction and dismemberment of Israel at the end of the First Century.
Bloom where you are planted can also be excellent spiritual counsel for many of us. We might be we in a job we aren’t particularly happy with. Maybe our relationships are a little rocky right now. Maybe Alabama was the last place we envisioned living. And certainly with all of the dysfunction in Alabama government we might not expect much good will happen in the next few years. Sometimes I can’t believe that the “know nothing” party has really returned.
A FUTURE AND A HOPE
God says to us even in the midst of mess and despair, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” A future and a hope right here and now, where we are planted. But if God has such wonderful hopes and plans for our future, why can’t we see them?
Verses 12 and 13 give us a clue about opening ourselves to see and understand Gods hopes and plans for our future: Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart. The first step is prayer. God cannot give us a vision, guidance, hope unless we are willing to open ourselves to God in prayer. It’s a little bit like the guy who complained that God never did anything for him. “God,” he complained, “why can’t you ever let me win the lottery?”
God finally answered back, “give me a break at least buy a ticket.” If we want God’s guidance, if we want God to give us a vision of how to bloom, where we are planted, then we have to at least buy a ticket. And the ticket is prayer.
FRENETIC UNGUIDED BUSYNESS
We Christians talk a lot about prayer, but if my suspicion drawn from my own life is true, we don’t pray very much. There are so many other things we consider to be so much more important. We are busy doing. But when our doing is not informed by prayer, we often find that our frenetic unguided busyness brings more harm than good. Our lack of prayer is a kind of arrogant adolescent fantasy that we can really do it all by ourselves, because we are so wise. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous quotation about his father:
When I was sixteen, my old man was the stupidest most ignorant creature, who had ever walked the face of the earth. And by the time I was twenty-five I was surprised by how much he had learned in such as short time.
GOD HAS LEARNED A GREAT DEAL IN A SHORT TIME
Some of us never seem to realize how much God has learned in such a short time, and so we never develop a prayer life. If we really believed in God, who wouldn’t take time to pray? Of course it takes practice listening before we can discern the voice of the divine. God is never as plain as the nose on our face.
We have to learn deep listening, if we want divine guidance, and sometimes we have to be willing to share what is happening in our prayer lives with others, so God can speak to us through good spiritual friends. Often when our egos get in the way, God whispers into the ear of a spiritual friend, so we might still be able to hear, when we are blocking God’s voice. God promises that when we pray, we will always be heard, but God cannot promise that we are always listening.
SEEK ME WITH ALL YOUR HEART
Verse 13 contains another important piece of advice for those of us who want to find divine guidance: “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart.” We must be whole hearted in our desire for divine guidance. Half-hearted won’t do. And judging by most of our prayer lives, our faith is pretty half-hearted.
GOD DOES NOT DEPEND UPON OUR FAITHFULNESS
Fortunately, God does not depend upon our faithfulness. As Matt Lany wrote in a recent still speaking devotional we can depend upon God’s faithfulness.
Even though we live by faith, we also view faithfulness as a tall order. When we think of faithfulness we think of someone who is firm in his commitments, someone who is steadfast in her position, someone who is reliable and unfailingly consistent. In other words, when we think of someone who is faithful, we think of someone other than ourselves. Few people, in their right minds, believe they are shining, towering examples of faithfulness. After all, we don’t sing: Great is MY faithfulness!
The Bible agrees. The Bible is not a book to turn to if you want to find faithful human beings. Turn to the Bible if you want to find a God who is faithful to us despite our consistently wavering faith in God. Jesus said having faith the size of a mustard seed would be a huge accomplishment but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the human capacity for faithfulness.
SACRED MASCULINE ENERGY
At the Sharing Table we were discussing Zara Renander’s book Labyrinths: Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace and one of the questions was what are the sacred masculine and feminine energies in your life? My sacred masculine energy comes from my father. He survived a whole series of life accidents and continued to be purposeful throughout his life. He was wounded during the War and was mustered out of the army, when he had planned to make a career in the military. He went back to school and began a career in education. He was working with some colleagues on a research project, and he was wounded in a hunting accident – shot in the face. His colleagues went ahead and published without him. Due to the hunting accident he lost the sight in one eye, and he was unable to keep up with the reading in his field. So, unable to excel academically Dad turned his attention to mentoring students and other faculty members. When he was the chairman of the faculty athletic committee the University of Omaha won the national small college championship in football and wrestling. From his example I learned that if we are alive we have a purpose – bloom where you are planted.
BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED
We all have many purposes. If we have faith even the size of a grain of mustard seed, God can empower us to be instruments of God’s love and peace. Pray, listen, seek God with all of your heart you will bloom where you are planted.
Free to Grieve
A WORLD FULL OF CHANGE
All change involves some loss. And all losses need to be grieved. We live in a world full of change. Our culture seems to transform around us at the speed of light much faster than many of us are able to keep up. Phyllis Tickle a church historian has claimed that the smart phones many of us carry around with us will be as revolutionary for our culture as the invention of the printing press was at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Of course for many of us, who don’t have a teenager available to us any more, smart phones are one step too far into technology, and so we cling to our dumb phones. We find ourselves being left behind by a culture that appears increasingly alien. All change involves some loss. And all losses need to be grieved.
FREE TO GRIEVE
So when I looked at the scripture this morning about the Israelites mourning the loss of Jerusalem, I realized that many of us may be able to identify with this Psalm. We need to be free to grieve what feels like loss. For only when we are able to mourn what we feel like we have lost in the midst of overwhelming change are we free to move on into the future.
ALL CHANGE INVOLVES STRESS
First, we need to recognize that all change good as well as bad involves some stress. Why, because our brains like for everything around us to stay the same. New elements in our environment require us to learn and change the pathways in our brains and learning requires effort.
ROAD BLOCK IS STRESSFUL
As an example, we are driving down a familiar street, and we come to a construction site and need to change our path. By scanning around the area we should be able to find a detour and follow it to get where we want to go. Inherently, this situation shouldn’t cause any stress but our brains quickly offer a number of concerns that cause us to see the situation differently. Since we’ve taken the normal route before, we haven’t worried, because we knew the familiar path would take us where we want to go. When we run into a roadblock, suddenly information we trusted has broken down. Where does the detour lead? How long will it take? Is it dangerous? What we don’t know tends to scare us, and change creates a lot of stress.
CHANGE IS HARD
Right now beyond not wanting to spend the money I am delaying replacing my little netbook, because I don’t look forward to the change. If I buy a new lap top, it will come with a new operating system, and I don’t want to have to learn Windows 8. Then there is the hassle of trying to install my old software on a new system and the uncertainty of whether or not the old programs will run on the new computer. It’s a hassle. Change is hard. All change involves some loss. And all losses need to be grieved.
THE TRAIN PULLS OUT OF THE STATION AND WE ARE LEFT BEHIND
The alternative to learning the detour is remaining stuck unable to move forward. The alternative to buying the new computer is not getting my work done. And that is the problem we all face, when we resist change. Yes, we can dig our heels in and refuse to adapt to new conditions, but the consequence is we become increasingly irrelevant and unable to function in the new circumstances that are transforming the world all around us. We are simply left behind.
Of course we all know how adaptable churches are.
Q: How many church members does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change? Change??? My grandmother paid for that light bulb!
IF WE DON’T ADAPT WE DIE!
Truth is if we don’t adapt, we die! The history of evolution is strewn with the fossils of creatures that could not or would not adapt in response to changes in their environment. So, how do we learn to grieve, adapt and move on?
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
First, we need to learn to accept change is inevitable. Change happens, get over it. When we decide to reject all change, we are demonstrating our arrogance, and we need to be reminded that God is God and we are not. Change happens get over it.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO FREAK OUT
Second, when confronted with change, we can allow ourselves 15 to 30 minutes to freak out. When we hit the detour, pull over to the side of the road and have a tantrum, but then figure out what we’re going to do about it. Where is the road forward? Don’t sit stuck in the traffic of life just because we need to take a different path. Find the way forward!
SUITABLE RITUAL FOR GRIEVING
Third, when change is significant and not necessarily for the good, we can set aside a suitable time, place and ritual for grieving. When a loved one dies we have a memorial service. When a ship needs to be replaced, we decommission it. When people move or retire, we have a going away party. Having time and ritual for sadness in the face of loss can help us pick up and move on into the future.
The key in being free to grieve is being able to move on into the future.
So many people get caught up in nostalgia. Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson. You find the present tense and the past perfect.
Nostalgia is so seductive. Oh, I liked it better back then. We want to get away from our problems in the present by trying to get back to a time we remember as having been so much better. Sort of like our Peanuts cartoon.
WE’D ALL BE RUNNING IN THE SAME DIRECTION
Charlie: “What if everyone was like you? What if we all ran away from our problems? Huh? What then? What if everyone in the whole world suddenly decided to run away from his problems?”
Linus: “Well, at least we’d all be running in the same direction!”
ADAPT OR DIE
But we cannot live back then. We have to live in the present moment. And that doesn’t mean adopting everything that is new and fashionable. But it also means we cannot cling to the past. We adapt or die. We move ahead into the future or we cease to exist.
THE POWER OF MEMORY
At the same time we cannot live in the past, I want to acknowledge the power of memory. In Psalm 137 the poet said, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” And for over two-thousand years Jews would end the Passover Feast with “next year in Jerusalem.” And then against all odds, when almost half of the Jews of the world had been wiped out, Israel was born, and the next year was in Jerusalem. The power of remembering in the present can contribute to miracles.
REMEMBERING IN THE LORD’S SUPPER
In the same way today, when we gather in a circle and we remember the love and sacrifice of Jesus, breaking the bread and sharing the cup in the present moment, great power can be recalled from the past into the present so that miracles can begin to happen.
“Merciful God, as sisters and brothers in faith, we recall anew those words and acts of Jesus Christ. Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blest and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take eat: This is my body.’ Jesus took a cup and after giving thanks, gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ We remember Christ’s promise not to drink of the fruit of the vine again until the heavenly banquet at the close of history, and we boldly say what we believe: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”