Transforming Love

Transforming Love


x-zacchaeus-chief-tax-collector  The story of Zacchaeus only appears in the gospel of Luke.  We have no independent confirmation of the character of the little tax collector other than Clement of Alexandria writing in about 190 A.D. that Zacchaeus’ was also named Matthias, and he was chosen as the Apostle to replace Judas in the Book of Acts.  This story is unlikely since Matthias was counted as among those who had followed Jesus since he had been baptized by John.  In another later church work the Apostolic Constitutions dated about 380 A.D. Zacchaeus the Publican was recorded as having served as the first Bishop of Caesarea.  The implication of all of these traditions is that the transformation of Zacchaeus in this story resulted in the tax collector becoming a follower of Jesus.


x-salt-balsam-gum   In assessing the authenticity of the story, several details in the account are very accurate.  First, the Chief Tax Collector of Jericho would have been very rich.  A thriving industry in Balsam Gum, the famous balm in Gilead, had its headquarters in Jericho.  Also the very lucrative trade in Dead Sea Salt, so valuable that Roman Soldiers were often paid in salt (remember euphemism worth your salt), was also headquartered in Jericho.  With all of these very expensive trade goods passing through Jericho, the collection of taxes would have been enough to make a person wealthy.  Because the tax collectors were taking a cut of the tolls they were gathering on behalf of the Romans, most of their fellow countrymen considered them to be traitors, collaborators with the enemy – prompting the comment in verse 7 : “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”


x-sycamore-fig-trees         If you have ever visited the City of Jericho, you will recognize another important confirming detail in the story – there are sycamore fig trees all over the City.  The sycamore fig is also symbolic in this narrative, because it is known as the “resurrection tree.”  This species of tree which often lives on the edge of the desert will hibernate if it is covered over by sand dunes.  Centuries later, if the tree is uncovered and water gets to the root system, the sycamore fig will come back to life.  So when Jesus first encounters Zacchaeus, the little tax collector is sitting in a resurrection tree.


x-zacchaeus-was-curious-about-jesus          As we examine the process of the transformation of Zacchaeus, we first note curiosity.  We don’t know what reports the little tax collector had heard about Jesus, but maybe we can assume he had heard marvelous stories about healings and a message about God’s love that included social outcastes like himself.  This Rabbi Jesus reputedly had dinner with publicans and prostitutes, and one of his closest followers was even a tax collector from Capernaum named Matthew.  So Zacchaeus was curious.  He wanted to get a look at this unusual Rabbi for himself.



The Limbic Reward System lights up when curiosity is piqued.

The process of transformation often begins with curiosity.  How might my life be different?  Can faith make a difference in my life? Is there really any hope for me?  What if God touched my life?  Curiosity makes change possible. Curiosity stimulates portions of the brain that create new circuitry especially associated with learning and memory.  When we are curious, our brains are receptive to forming new neural pathways for new behaviors and attitudes.  This is your brain without curiosity, this is your brain on curiosity!  Feeding our curiosity opens our minds to the possibility of transformation.


x-motivationSo, Zacchaeus was curious, but he had a problem.  He was vertically challenged.  Given the crowds that surrounded Jesus as he was passing through the streets, there was no way a short person was going to be able to get a glimpse of the Rabbi.  Zacchaeus figured the route Jesus was taking, and ran ahead using side streets.  Climbing a tree, the little tax collector waited to get a glimpse of Jesus.

The story does not tell us how Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ name.  Perhaps noting that this fellow had climbed a tree in order to get a look at him, Jesus asked one of his companions or a member of the crowd, “What is the name of the man who has climbed the tree?”  Jesus recognized motivation, and acknowledged Zacchaeus’ curiosity by inviting himself to the tax collector’s house for the mid-day meal.



x-the-spiritual-gift-of-hospitality   So the second step in the process of transformation was challenging Zacchaeus to open his home in hospitality.  Pushing this congregation to embrace radical hospitality was a step in the transformation of this congregation from a club atmosphere to a community of faith where everyone was welcomed.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.  And not just welcome, you are invited to the sharing table where everyone sits down to eat together.  In many churches small groups of friends, hot foot it out the door together to visit the restaurants after worship.  Here we invite everyone to stay and fill a plate and visit with everyone. For this is the Sharing Table of Jesus.

Zacchaeus was honored to be asked to provide hospitality.  As an outcaste “good people” would not have visited his home, much less sat and shared a meal at his table.


x-half-my-possessions-i-share-with-the-poor         We do not know what all transpired at the home of the tax collector that day, what stories were shared, what questions were asked.  The gospel, however, reports that Zacchaeus’ transformation was made whole, when he stood up and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He offered to make restitution for any cheating he had done, and he gave away half his wealth to the poor.  So the transformation of Zacchaeus was not just a change of heart and a decision to follow Jesus, it was a change of behavior in making amends for wrongs he had committed and a generous gift of sharing his wealth with the poor.  Jesus confirmed the change of heart and behavior he observed in the tax collector, when he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”


x-bound-by-his-wealth          And I want to lift up Zacchaeus in contrast to the example of the Rich Young Ruler.  The Rich Young Man came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asked him if he was faithful to the Law of Moses.  And the young man replied, “All these laws I have kept since I was a child.”  And Jesus recognizing that his great wealth was the impediment that stood between him and God said, “One thing you lack, go sell what you have and share with the poor and come follow me.”  Of course the Rich Young Ruler went away sorrowfully, because he wasn’t about to do anything as foolish as to part with any of his wealth.  Zacchaeus was transformed, liberated, by his willingness to offer hospitality and share his wealth with the poor, while the Rich Young Ruler remained spiritually bound to his money.


x-use-some-of-our-money-to-feed-the-poor    Zacchaeus didn’t have to give everything away, he just had to unburden himself of a share of his wealth that was holding him back from being liberated to love other people.  He was finally able to come to the Sharing Table, when he was able use some of his money to invite the poor to come and eat with him.


x-we-have-to-really-want-to-change           How many of us are willing to allow the transforming love of Jesus to change our behavior?  Maybe it is like the question, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?”  Answer, just one, so long as the light bulb really wants to change. And truth to be told, most of us really don’t like change.  Change is hard.  Change is difficult, especially when we are talking about changing ourselves!


x-one-thing-we-could-do-differently           Maybe a quotation from Stephen Covey’s, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is a place to begin. “What one thing could we do (we aren’t doing now) that if we did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in our personal lives?” No one is asking us to give all of our money away.  No one is asking us to change our lives completely.  No one is asking us to get divorced, change jobs move to Alaska or Hawaii.  Just what is one thing we could change, that if we did that on a regular basis, would make a positive difference in our lives?  Daily physical exercise?  Thirty minutes of prayer a day?  Starting the day with a list of thanksgivings?  A regular program of savings?  Going back to school?  Tithing?  Or making a concerted effort to reach out to others, especially people who might need our help in friendship and love?


x-baby-steps-curiosityWhatever change we are willing to make start with baby steps – small changes. And then like Zacchaeus let’s add some curiosity to our lives and who knows the love of Christ might transform us!



Ask Boldly, Live Justly

Ask Boldly, Live Justly


x-wouldnt-pray-for-themselvesWhen I was pastoring in Monee, Illinois many very saintly ladies there, who were powerful prayers, would tell me that they did not pray for themselves, because praying for yourself is selfish. They were more than willing to pray for other people, for world peace, for their congregation and their friends, but when they were invited to ask other people to pray for something for them, they wouldn’t do it. And I have found that those wonderful pious ladies in Monee were not alone. The greatest challenge at the Sharing Table is encouraging people to offer up a need they would like other people to pray for them. We don’t like to publicly share our neediness. We are strong independent pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, why would we pray for ourselves or ask other people to pray for us. That just seems like weakness. Paradoxically, however, turning to God for help, and asking others to join with us as prayer partners in seeking blessing in our lives is a sign of strength. That may have something to do with our parable this morning.


x-the-tenacious-widowBut allow me to use some insights from Dr. Amy Jill Levine to recast the Parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Amy Jill points out that Jesus did not offer this story as a commentary on prayer, it was Luke who provided that context. Dr. Levine also points out that if we think of this story as a meek, mild, weak oppressed widow who passively makes her request again and again, even though it seems to fall on deaf ears, then we have missed the context that Jesus set in telling the story.

Biblical widows who are mentioned in the scriptures were strong people. They were survivors who had often absorbed the worst life could throw at them, and they were still standing. Rather than a weak simpering victims, think of the widow in the story more like Ruth and Naomi. Here were two women who knew what they needed, and went about putting people and events in motion including exploiting the sexual weaknesses of men to make sure their needs were taken care of, and the future of their family line was secured. Or think of another era of advocacy and speaking up — Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers.


x-like-a-pitbul   Amy Jill points out that the widow in Jesus’ story far from passively begging for her voice to be heard, she speaks to the judge in the imperative. “Hey you, judge give me what I want.” And what does this widow want? If we examine the language closely she is not meekly asking for justice, she wants a judgement against her opponent that will exact vengeance. As Amy Jill Levine points out this widow is more in the mold of the Biblical widow Judith who chopped off her opponent’s head. Since we can suspect that Jesus was not in favor of revenge or chopping off your opponents’ heads, what was Jesus doing telling this parable about a widow who behaved like a pit bull?


x-pray-but-do-something-about-it   I suspect Jesus was creating an over the top illustration that says, “Pray, but also do something about it!” Because the truth is once we name our prayer request out loud, we are more likely to go to work on it. And if we name our prayer request out loud in front of others, then we are inviting other people to hold us accountable and offer to help us. When we keep our prayer requests all to ourselves, and never voice them, because we might be selfish, we are missing out on the tremendous power of prayer partnerships. Mutual aid and accountability are powerful aids to prayer.


x-rodent-damage   A couple of weeks ago I had an experience that illustrates the need to be proactive in prayer. I had our older black Toyota in for service, when the Service Consultant called me back into the mechanic’s area that is normally off limits to customers. He wanted to show me, some rodent damage they had discovered in my engine. It seems some rat or squirrel had gotten up under the hood of the car and had eaten a hole in the engine cover, and then proceeded to chew on the wiring harness that leads to really powerful battery array on the Prius. (As Jesus said, beware of possessions where moth and rust consume, and squirrels break in and eat the inside of your engine.) The car was still drivable, but potentially if moisture got in to the chewed wires, it could short out important systems on the car including the main battery pack. The service consultant told me that this is not unusual – who knew? – said they see two or three of these a week, and the damage is usually covered under the comprehensive package on insurance.


x-persistence-determination   So I called Alfa, and they said it was covered, but I would have to get an estimate from the Toyota Dealer and then their adjustor would have to look at it. The car was drivable, so I didn’t want to leave the car there for days and days, waiting for an adjustor to find time to see it, and then days and days more, while the dealer worked on ordering the parts. So I started a telephone dance between the adjustor and the dealership trying to get them to agree on a date, when I could bring the car in and they would get the estimate written, the adjustor sign-off so the parts could be ordered. I had to keep playing telephone tag, and not unlike the persistent widow, I finally arranged for an appointment and made sure the adjustor knew he had to show up the same day, so we could get the show on the road. Pray but be proactive. And once I had everyone’s attention, and they knew I wasn’t just going to roll over and let them do their thing on their own terms, I finally got the car fixed without having to rent a car for days on end.


x-hold-us-accountable  This persistent widow can be a good illustration for us all. Pray, and get moving on whatever it is we need to get done. Now sometimes, when we have done all we can do, we have to have faith and trust God for the rest. But we can be willing to claim our prayer requests publicly and so open ourselves to prayer and help from others, who can also hold us accountable.


x-trust-god-be-proactive       This morning I also want to suggest two applications for this story for the United Church of Huntsville. Trust that God will be with you in the interim process, but be proactive in your search. An interim period offers an opportunity for a congregation to adjust to a different style of leadership from what they have experienced for the past 16 years. That’s a good thing. But interim periods that drag on needlessly, because we are not pursuing the search proactively can stall a congregation’s forward momentum. So, trust God, trust the process and be proactive in your search.



A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

Second application I want to suggest is about stewardship. We are coming down the homestretch of our Stewardship Drive – “Make a Surprising Investment.” We want to enter this interim period with a healthy budget, paying back the money we have borrowed from the funds and making sure we have a little extra to pay for moving expenses and other expenses surrounding the search and call process. In the past, when we have asked for money, we have been like the meek and mild oppressed widow envisioned by Luke who says, “Please, please, please, give us some money, any spare change you might happen to have.” And we know what kind of results we have gotten from those kinds of weak simpering appeals.

One of my failures as your Pastor is that I have not been good about asking for money. And what we really need is something more like the tenacious widow Amy Jill Levine sees Jesus presenting in this Parable. “Come on y’all we need some real money, if this congregation is going to a move ahead. God is not going to deposit twenty-thousand dollars in the church’s checking account. If we are going to balance the budget and give our search committees some real resources to work with, we have to put the money in the church’s checking account. We have to become proactive stewards. People who work together in the bright light of accountability rather than in secret, to insure the financial viability of this congregation.


x-god-listens-when-we-pray    So let’s pray, and let’s also do something about it. We don’t need to be like Judith chopping off heads, but we do need to be like Ruth and Naomi willing to set in motion people and events that will insure that the future of this congregation is secured. God listens when we pray, and God also acts, when we act. Take a risk. Let our prayer requests be made known and then act and hold ourselves accountable for our prayers.

A Study Guide for: “God Was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know” by Lawrence Kushner

god-was-in-this-placeGod Was in this Place, & I, i Did Not Know

A Study Guide

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NIV

Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it[c] stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”


Jacob’s Dream at Bethel the Message

Genesis 28:10-12 Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

13-15 Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”

16-17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”


Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NRSV


Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”




Page 12: “God is in the self, but the self is not God.” For this reason these pages are really, in a larger sense, about one’s own self and the Self of the Universe.


How do you suppose that God is part of your “self?” How are ourselves not God? Do you think the Universe has a Self?


Page 14:   . . . the question is itself the answer. . . . You already have what you are looking for. . .

. . . the ultimate question one can ask. . . is not “What is the meaning of life?” or even “Why am I here?” but simply “Who?” . . . And the question “Who?” is a request for either a name or a personal pronoun. The answer, in other words, must be personal. It must be a self.


Do you think God is personal or impersonal?   Again does the Universe have a Self?


Page 15: Only when the words of the text are holy or, like a love letter, are read with a diligence of attention bordering on reverence, can midrash occur.


A diligence of attention bordering on reverence, are there any books or texts that captivate your complete attention?




Page 25: 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.


What are the outer limits of your attention span? Have you ever been aware of something happening, after you took a second look? How long do we have to be able to look in order to see what is happening around us? Have you ever had a moment in which you thought you might just be in God’s presence?


Page 26: Wake Up! Most of the time the lights are on but no one is home. . . . We find what we seek. And we seek who we are.


When asked who he was, the Buddha said, “I am awake.” What are the moments in your life, when you are most awake? Are there ways of expanding our consciousness so we are able to seek beyond our usual boundaries? Who is seeking?


Oblivious to Miracles


Page 26 – 27: The story of Reuven and Shimon asks us what miracles are we missing? Can you think of any spiritual practices that can help us open ourselves to perceiving the miracles in everyday life?


“If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.” In retrospect can you imagine places in your life, when God has been present and you did not know?


Page 28: Spirituality is that dimension of living in which we are aware of God’s presence. . . Jewish spirituality is about the immediacy of God’s presence everywhere. It is about patience and paying attention, about seeing and feeling, and hearing things that only a moment abo were inaccessible.


Are there spiritual practices that can help us become more spiritual? When are you most aware of God’s presence?


Being Present


You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. Feel it now in the moisture on your tongue. Sense the effortless filling and emptying of your lungs, the involuntary blinking of your eyes. Just 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 should we seek God? Are there in fact some places, where it is easier to sense God’s presence than others? What places do you experience as holy?


. . . the most powerful moments of teaching occur when the teacher has enough self-control to remain silent.


Are there times in your life, when you have learned from silence? Have you ever experienced a mentor or teacher, who knew when to be silent?




Page 37: The students who gathered in Kotzk were slapped in the face. They understood the injury as a necessary step toward apprehending the truth. And each day the truth had to be “found anew, as if it had never been known.” In this search, their constant and greatest adversary was none other than their own egos. “The true worship of God. . . . is not in finding the truth, but rather in . . . total abandonment of self.”

In some Buddhist schools of meditation the Master strikes the student as a way of “waking them up.” Do you think the Kotsk school was at all similar in the slapping of the students. Have you ever experienced a reminder that jolted you awake to the interference of your own ego?


Pages 39 – 40: Kotzk deliberately misreads the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses recalls his experience at Sinai and says, “I stood between God and you.” Says Menachem Mendl, that it is you I, “your ego that stands between you and God. Normally not even an iron barrier can separate Israel from God, but self-love, egotism will drive them apart.”


In others words, there is only room enough in this world for one ego, yours or God’s. You pick. Paraphrasing the words of the Talmud, “The Holy One says of anyone who is conceited, there is only room in this world for one ego, yours or Mine.”


Do you think God has an ego? If ourselves are part of God, but ourselves are not God, then how is our ego part of God? Or is it? Can you draw a Venn Diagram?


Page 44: I’m God; you’re not.” God can only be God when you are not.

Do you think it is possible to be an atheist without confusing God with self?


Egotism and Idolatry


Page 46: Ego is not thinking you’re talented or a good person. That is only self-confidence, or, in extreme cases, ordinary conceit. Ego is arrogance. It is thinking that you are better than someone else. It is making yourself big in the presence, and at the expense, of someone else. A hermit cannot be arrogant. An ego needs someone else, another person, one you believe to be inferior to you, in front of whom you can preen, raise your shin, and stretch your beautiful neck.


The ultimate fantasy is not just judging yourself to be better than others but trying to make yourself so important that you imagine you can do whatever you please and still live forever. The entire Hebrew Bible can be understood as a chronicle of humanity’s incessantly foiled attempts to do whatever they want, live forever, and thereby to be God. In this way both ego and idol attempt to displace God.


Somehow egotism is always in the comparing. We compare ourselves to others either individually or collectively, rather than simply accepting the life God has given us as a gift. When do you find yourself most tempted to make judgements about other people? Are there spiritual practices that can pull us back from egotism?


Redundant Personal Pronoun


Page 47 – 48: This simple “extra I” (which the school of Kotzk identifies was ego or conceit) leads Pinhas Horowitz, the author of a Hasidic commentary on the Torah, Panim Yafot, to an important insight. “It is only possible for a person to attain that high rung of being able to say, ‘Surely God is in this place,’ when he or she has utterly eradicated all trace of ego from his or her personality, from his or her sense of self, and from his or her being. The phrase, ‘I, i did not know,’ must mean, ‘my I – I did not know’”


“The beginning of true piety is not so easy,” whispered the Kotzker. “You must subdue your ego and call yourself a liar. It could make you lonely and a little crazy. A crazy man about God. You understand me?”


“Yes, I think so. God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.”


Religious life demands constant vigilance against the schemes of our egos (the little i’s) to supplant the Divine.


How do you read the use of the I and the little i? Does this remind you at all of Rabbi Rami, in Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent?


Page 68 Perennial Wisdom: When you answer the question “Where did I come from? With “I am alien,” you are prevented from realizing the greater you, the organic you, the you that is the universe manifest as you in this moment and in this place. When you answer the question with “I belong,” you quickly move beyond the isolated egoic “I” to the “I” of universe then to the “I” of God, the eternal Spirit that is all the objects we perceive around and within us.




Page 51: Martin Buber teaches that humility, in classical Hasidism, is built around the notion that each person is unique and therefore, precious. . .

Humility commences with the realization that no one is inferior or superior to anyone else. This fundamental egalitarianism then matures into a willingness to give of oneself to another. Until, finally, true humility generates a love for all creatures.


Humility welcomes everyone regardless of their circumstances or their identity, because each person is a unique expression of the creativity of God. What kinds of people, however, are the hardest for you to accept? How do you understand humility? Are there any spiritual practices that encourage humility?




Pages 60 – 61 In the center of 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 you German soldier trains the sights of his rifle at the woman’s head, about to shoot. (The end of the rifle barrel is no farther away from her head than the reader’s eyes are from this printed page.) In the background there are clouds and the gently waving, autumn grass of this unnamed Polish field.


If there is a God, where was that God when this photograph was taken? God was there. See, we have a photograph. There is God, over there in the ditch, in the mother’s terrified eyes, even in the psychosis of the Nazi soldier. There is God, an ashen reality, now almost two generations later, more mysterious and 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 horrors 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 God never has. God did not die in the Holocaust, only the Deuteronomic idea of a God who, through suspending laws of nature, rewards and punishes people. . . .

This is simply not how the world works. And all theology after the Holocaust must begin with this acknowledgement. . . . What is evil and where does it come from?


Can you see God in the ovens of Auschwitz? Can you see God is the face of a soldier about execute innocent victims? Can you see God in a drone circling a compound about to fire a missile? Is God only where things are “nice,” or can God be found in evil and ugliness?


Bad and Evil


Page 61 – 62 First of all many things are bad that are not evil. This is a very important but often overlooked distinction. “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.” . . . So “bad” can mean either “unfortunate,” as in “no one is to blame,” or it can also mean “evil,” as in “someone has caused this bad thing to happen.”


This double meaning of “bad” probably reflects a time when human beings believed that they were powerless in the face of whatever befell them and that everything that happened was caused by God. . . .


Therefore the question “Why is there evil in the world?” means “Why are human beings evil?” or “What is the origin of human cruelty?” Sometimes people suffer because of some evil they themselves or others did or did not do, and sometimes they suffer through no one’s fault, although the range of accidents tends to diminish sharply with maturity and responsibility.


Do you think we can always sort out the difference between bad and evil? Can you identify any situations in your life that have been purely evil? Can something be evil that is the result of stupidity? Where does stupidity end and evil begin?


Page 64: And it God is everywhere, God is also in the perverse things we plan and carry out. . . . “God is present even in our sins.” And rejecting our sins only postpones the ultimate task of healing and self-reunification. Such an acceptance of all of ourselves is another way of finding God.


What are your sins you find most difficult to accept? Do you ever find yourself reviewing your past life, and finding a kind of humorous acceptance of the some of the dumb things you have done? If you were given an opportunity for a do-over, what in your life, knowing what you know now, would you try to do over? How do you imagine your life would be different?


Page 65: The Baal Shem Tov taught that God is actually hidden within all evil and suffering, but that God only hides when people do not realize that God is there.


Can you imagine any times, when God may have been hiding in a situation of misery or suffering?


Page 66: Why would anyone ever choose evil at all? Why would a human being ever do anything cruel? That is the question. According to Jewish legend, the pain of being human being (and thus for many, the resultant evil that people do) inn two primal psychological “tearings.” Something is separated, rejected, and made “other.” And the memory of the tearing, the wound, is too painful to endure. (And indeed, when theses “tearings,” as they so often do, shape the parent child relationship itself, the result . . . is the psychopathology of child abuse. From parent to child one generation after another. A contemporary definition of original sin.) And the social institutions and political and political states that people fashion naturally resemble their creators.


Page 67: 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 her parents, the process of individuation and 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 as having been torn away for our own good. . . . And important elements of each are expressed in Jacob’s own life story. Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, is made into an enemy. And Jacob must leave his parents, never to see them again.


Often when reject a part of our shadow side, we project it onto others. Can you think of a time when you have projected your own feelings onto others? In the story of Jacob, his twin becomes the enemy. Have you seen families in which people have become rivals and them enemies? What kind of “pay-back” does Rebecca collect for her favoritism of Jacob? How easy or difficult was your separating out from your parents? In what ways has your separating out from your parents continued even into later adulthood?


Pages 67 – 68: In order to understand the first tearing and the process that makes Esau an enemy, we must consider the legends surrounding Amalek, the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people. . .


This is not the simple “good guy/bad guy” scenario it first appears to be. The rabbis go on to teach that the wicked Amalek is descended from a woman named Timna. And while Timna was once in love with Jacob, he wouldn’t give her the time of day. Thus spurned, she became instead a concubine of Jacob’s nephew, Eliphaz. . .


This messy family arrangement also means, or course, that Timna’s father-in-law was Jacob’s twin, Esau. And rabbinic tradition is quick to note that not only was Esau himself rejected, but that he once shared a womb with Jacob. Nothing more than the thinness of a membrane separated Esau, the great-grandfather of Amalek from Jacob. . . .


Jacob rejects Timna, Jacob rejects Esau. They would have loved to be, or once were part of him. Now they are “other.” Now they are enemy. Being torn away, that is the source3 of the pain we feel and probably of the pain we, in turn, inflict on others. All humanity is a closed organic system. Pain put into the system sooner or later comes back to us. Generation after generation. What goes around, comes around.


Have you observed multigenerational conflicts in families or groups around you? To what extent might the Jacob/Esau tearing be describing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? Or given the tremendous amount of miscegenation that occurred in America, could this also be a description of a black and white tearing in America?


The Unnamed Wrestler


Page 69 – 71: We now understand why the struggle between Jacob and Esau assumes such significance. That night, over two decades later, when Jacob is left alone on the other side of the Jabok, he wrestles with another being. Was it his conscience, an angel, the patron of Esau, a divine being, or perhaps a once-rejected side of himself? The text does say, “You have wrestled with beings divine and human. . . “


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.


Early Hasidism develop a doctrine called “strange thoughts,” or “lascivious thoughts” during prayer. According to this teaching, one sure sign that we have attained a high level in prayer is that invariable 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 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. . . .


Hannah Rachel of Ludomir, whose eyes restlessly search the horizon for someone else, carefully explained to Jacob that he must learn how, as the Hasidim say it, to “find the root of love in evil so as to sweeten evil and turn it into love.


Welcoming home rejected parts of ourselves may be embarrassing. What parts of our own self do you find most embarrassing and want to hide? In what ways do nick names sometimes represent our renaming by a rejected part of ourselves? What parts of ourselves do we most want to heal and redeem? Have you ever encountered lascivious thoughts in prayer? Do you think it is possible to find the love in evil? How will that turn evil into love?


The Set-up in the Garden


Page 71 – 72: 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 autonomous adult is the pain of leaving home. I am now convinced the Eden story intuits this.


If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, then why put it right there, out in the middle of the garden where Adam and Eve could reach it? Why didn’t God just hide the fruit somewhere deep in the forest? And then, equally puzzling, after putting the tree in the middle of the garden, why did God specifically tell Adam and Eve to be sure not to eat the fruit? . . .


Maybe God realized that Adam and Eve weren’t clever enough on their own to figure out how to sin. After universes of infantile obedience, they remained tediously, predictable, and incorrigibly infantile.


“Yes, Daddy, yes Mommy, whatever you want.”

“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 first they must earn their autonomy.


I suspect it was for this reason, out of desperation, that God resorted to a “setup” that has come to be known as the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Eating the first fruit was not a sin but a necessary, prearranged passage toward human maturity. We have read it all wrong: God was not angry; God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.


How do you feel about this version of the story of “estrangement from God” and our separation out from parents? What is your most vivid memory of disobeying your parents? What forms of “sin” do you think God is most forgiving? What has been the price you have paid from becoming an autonomous adult? If human beings have a hard time separating out from parents, do you suppose parents ever have a hard time separating out from their children?


God Has Been Here All Along


Page 77 – 78: Jacob wondered now if God hadn’t been a player all along. Perhaps that was the real meaning of the dream: not so much that the deal between himself and God was still on, not even that God would bring him safely back to this place, but that God was still present throughout the whole fiasco. . .


Thinking this way about what he had done still made him feel ashamed but not devastated. He could at least imagine trying, as Hasidism would say, “to raise and sweeten” the evil devisings of his heart. To let them be a part of God’s plan without hurting others at the same time. He could not imagine trying to take the pain he now realized was deep inside him and instead of hurting others to simply cry instead. He could even imagine how, perhaps in some safe future place, he might again someday be able to discern God’s presence and the outline of some kind of plan. But he also knew, deep in his gut, that most of time such retrospective consolation would be concealed from him.


Do you ever have the sense in looking out over your life, you can sense of hand of God in your life? Do you think that ever in retrospect you will ever understand fully your purpose in having life your life? Where do you think God might be working out a purpose in your life now?


Sweetening the Evil in Yourself


Page 78 – 80: 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.


We lose our temper because we want things to be better right away. We gaze with lustful eyes because we have forgotten how to love the ones we want to love. We hoard material possessions because we imagine they will help us live more fully. . . .


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 taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves. . .


This time Jacob tells the truth! Now, over two decades later, he manages to unify both sides of his personality. And the minute he tells the truth about his identity to the nameless night wrestler, his other side, his twin brother, (God?), he is transformed into Israel. Now he is the being who has struggled with beings human and divine and survived. He rises to his destiny.

In many religious traditions during periods of confession or repentance, people literally beat themselves with chains or flails. In many Protestant traditions people beat themselves over the head over and over again. How do you think Kushner thinks we ought to handle our sins. What has been your most important spiritual wrestling?




Self-Reflection – Three Selves


Page 84: “In order to be aware of yourself,” explained the Maggid, “a part of you must be looking at the rest of you. You have deliberately broken off a piece of your consciousness, set it a few inches over your shoulder, and you depend on this little piece of knowing to inform the remainder of our consciousness that it is you.”


Have you ever experienced yourself observing yourself? How is the observer different and the same as yourself?


Page 85: .. . . . But you must understand that there are three stages of self.” . . . “The first stage is simply earning a living. Preoccupied with mouths to feed, needing sleep, and, if they are lucky, finding some leisure to sit down and rest, they do not have time to ponder whether or not they have selves or the designs of the Holy One of Being. For them it is enough to attend the house of prayer in the morning and the evening, give a little to charity, observe the Sabbath. . . .


“Then there are the ones who are driven to ask questions.” . . . “These are the ones who know that they have selves. Afflicted with the ancient questions of who they are and who God is, they sit with their feet in cold water so that can stay awake a few more hours and read just another page or two of Talmud, driven by the hope that the answer will be on the next page, condemned by self-reflection to be aware they themselves are the ones who are searching.”


“Some, the third kind,” he glanced at the first beams of sunlight now turning the night sky into dawn, “are no longer aware of their selves. They are very close to God.”


“Then what is the difference between them and the first group of people who were preoccupied with earning their living?” Asked Jacob.


“Not much. Maybe only that they have gone on the journey and returned to precisely the same place from which they began,” shrugged the master.


What kind of person do you think you are? Do you really think there is not much difference between the first kind of person and the third kind of person? How important is the journey?


Washing the Dishes


Page 86:   The great insight of religion is not that we can find God in everyday life; it is that finding God returns us to everyday life. Forgetting one’s self, making the self as nothing, give us life beyond thinking and theology, beyond the incessant self-reflecting that renders us voyeurs of our own lives.


Have you ever felt like a “voyeur” of your own life? Have you ever experienced forgetting yourself long enough to be in the here and now?


Rituals of the Mind


Page 87 – 88: So why have religion at all? Why not just live and enjoy life? Because sooner or later we all lose that childlike ability to simply live each moment without reflection. We ask ourselves the great question. Overwhelmed by the mystery of existence, we are embarrassed to hear ourselves whisper, “Who?” The question comes in many disguises and according to many timetables. For some, it takes shape only over decades. For others, the world is shattered in an instant. But sooner or later the question comes to every human being.


When or where has life’s question come to you? How is it different to ask “Who?”, rather than “What?” Is it every important to ask “Where?” or “When?”


Page 88 – 89: Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created, and gently provide us with the instruments of return. They are ancient techniques for sending us back to everyday life with a childlike sense of wonder.


What religious rituals do you find most comforting? Most challenging? Are there any rituals that help you to focus in the here and now? Do you have any non-religious rituals in your day?


Speaker of the Self


Page 89 – 91: . . . when you talk to yourself, who’s talking and who’s listening?


. . . the fact that we can hold these interior conversations with our “selves” means that we are fragmented, alienated, broken. If we were whole, then there could be no conversation, because there would be no one else “in there” to talk to. . . .


Too much concentration can be worse than none at all. . . The goal seems to be how to do something with all your heart without forgetting the sanctity of what you’re doing. . .


Similarly, my teenage daughter (the one who became a Rabbi) once explained to me, “You cannot dance if yo9u are worried about what you look like on the dance floor. 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 are dancing is if, once the music has stopped, you didn’t realize you were dancing.”

Who is talking, and who is listening? Can you identify these different selves? Have you ever really been able to dance? I have often said, it is almost impossible to worship and lead worship at the same time. Every time I actually experience worship, I make mistakes in leading it. Have you ever lost yourself in prayer or worship?


Face to Face


Page 94 -95: We cannot see our own faces without a mirror, and even then the image is reversed. And we cannot know the presence of God until God has departed. . . . In order to be present in God’s presence, all our awareness must be there. Especially and including that part of consciousness that normally tells the rest of consciousness that we are present. But, of course, this means that some of our awareness is not there. . .


. . . What God says to Moses at Horeb, “I will let you see anchorai, my back,” the Hebrew is not, as frequently misunderstood anthropomorphic. The word achorai also has a temporal sense. What God says means, “Moses, you cannot know Me at the time when I am present. That would only mean that some part of your brain was hiding behind a rock trying to observe what was going on. No Moses, you can only see achorai – what it’s like must after I have been there.


Have you ever had the sense of somehow knowing God was present after the event? Is life review in old age an opportunity to discover God’s presence in our lives in hindsight? Do you now begin to understand this book title: Surely God Was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know.


And Empty Throne


Pages 97 – 98: One of my Bat Mitzvah students, upon hearing that the letters of the tetragrammaton were all vowels, and therefore were pronounced like breathing and screaming, suggested that the first sound a newborn infant makes as it brings itself into being might be the Name of God.


Have you ever been present for the first breath or cry of an infant? Have you ever been present for the last breath of someone you loved? How are those two breaths similar? How are they different? Think back, can you hear God’s name in those breaths?


Only Nothing Is Guaranteed


Page 98 – 100: . . . only Nothing can embrace all being, infinite possibility, and, therefore, the presence of God. For this reason, one who expects nothing has no guarantees, just openness to every possibility. . .


What enormous courage to enter the Nothing of limitless possibility and no guarantees. To let go of the old tangible self, the ego idol, definition, boundary and enter the Nothing. All on the gamble that what you sense within might come to fruition through your courage. To simply entrust yourself to your source. Something akin to exhaling. And about that far away.


. . . Again and again we trade infinite wonder for a handful of statue; we barter the limitless Nothing for the short-term bird in the hand. And when the deal is done, we have become what we serve: things rather than children of light.


. . . . But Nothing is always there, right where you are. You don’t need to be anywhere or possess anything you don’t even need to put forth your hand. When we say that God is everywhere, we do not mean some invisible, ubiquitous “thing” but another perpetually coexistent mode of being that can be summoned with even casual spiritual discipline. God’s presence is a function of our perception. When we realize that every something – our books, our homes, our fears, our friendships, our selves – rest in Nothing, we have entered the Presence.


In prayer or meditation have your ever experienced “Nothing?” What do you think of the idea of God as “No thing?” Thinking of God as “No Thing” do you think you have entered the presence?




Page 109 – 111: . . .Fear must never be an excuse. You can be weak, you can be confused, you can even be in prison, but you cannot be afraid. The political forces that seek your acquiescence are counting on you to be afraid. Your fear is their most powerful weapon. And when you refuse to be afraid, they fall from the ladder, they cease to exist. . .


. . . He is afraid precisely because he is running away, not just from his brother, Esau, but from his parents and everything he has been. And, as Nachmani’s interpretation of the ladder suggests, Jacob is also running away from history. He does not take responsibility for his life or his world or to enter either as an active participant. . . .


“But I didn’t realize that this moment was history. I thought it was just another ordinary moment. I didn’t realize that One other than me was also watching, waiting, hoping, peering through the lattice. I didn’t think I could have any impact, that what I did or did not do mattered.”


“Well realize it now: What people do matters. . . They trusted where God had put them and in what God put before them. They chose to step forward into their destiny.”


What are some of your struggles with fear? What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Have you ever had the sense that you were in an important historical moment? Do you think what you do matters? Has God ever called you to step forward into destiny?


Hands of God


Pages 121 – 122: Often the window through which you can alter history is as ordinary as a stranger coming to your door and asking for food or money. Other times a tank appears on the street, and you must decide whether or not you will stand in its path. But whether as easy as giving a few dollars or as terrifying as putting your life in jeopardy, something is laid before you. There are many ways to avoid action. We blame others, we say the problem is too big or too complicated, we close our eyes we tell lies. But finally we are free only to step into this moment or back away from it. No matter what we do or do not do, we have made our decision. . . .


.. . For, while God does not have hands, we do. Our hands are God’s. And when people behave as if their hands were the hands of God, then God “acts” in history.


Do you think you have ever been the hands of God? Do you think churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or other religious organizations are ever behaving like the hands of God? What do you think are the most important reasons religious organizations so often fail in the mission to serve as the hands and feet of God.


Environment as Resolution


Page 124 – : Our newly emerging understanding of the environment provides us with a new metaphor for the synthesis of mythic and linear conceptions of history. The environment embodies both. We are all living manifestations of an organism called the environment. And this organism seems to move through daily, weekly, monthly, annual cycles. . . And yet, for all of our knowledge of nature’s rhythms, we sense an urgency in our present condition. We correctly understand that we can inflict irreversible ecological damage. . . In the environment the mythic cycles of nature coexist with the irreversibility of linear time. We must act in ways that will ensure that the ever-renewing web of nature will continue to spin. . .


Do you think human beings have the will to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment? How important do you think environmental damage will figure into the long course of history?


Page 126: “Because you and I and all human beings are created in one image, we are, each of us, versions of God. We are to God as the DNA molecule is to us. So, in addition to seeing the beginning and the end, I also saw myself. All was within me. I stood there with my arms and legs stretched out like the rays of the sun and watched all being pass before me. It was all in my hands. I could do with creation whatever I pleased!”


Do you think we are able to do with creation whatever we please? What are the consequences, when we do with creation whatever we please? As humans do you think we should think of ourselves as having dominion over the earth, or should we think of ourselves as stewards of the earth?


De Leon


            Page 130 – 131: I once asked Daniel Matt, who was tutoring me in Zohar, why, in the Zohar’s sefirotic diagram purporting to describe the infrastructure of creation with ten spheres arranged in a male-female, yin-yang balance, mothering was understood as tern and judgmental while fathering was tender and forgiving. They seemed to reverse human experience. He thought for a moment and surmised with a smile that the Baal HaZohar, the author of the Zohar, must have had one helluva mother. It occurs to me now that his wife may have written much of the book. What we do know is that all Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, had access to the feminine dimension of themselves and of God. For them, God was potentially both male and female. I now suspect that, in some sense, all were women, every last one of them, drawing freely not only from both sides of consciousness but also from gender.


Are you aware of having both a masculine and a feminine side to your own nature? Do you think mysticism is more a part of the feminine side of our natures? Do you think it is possible to have both a feminine and a masculine spirituality?


Page 132 – 133: . . . Suppose one of the I’s doesn’t refer to your ego or another mode of consciousness; suppose it refers to God. Suppose one of the I’s, the first one, is actually another Name for God. What I’m saying is that we know God has many names. The list is probably endless.


“But perhaps there was a Name for God that until last night neither you nor anyone else had ever known before. Suppose one of God’s Names is: ‘I, Anochi. Now the verse reads, ‘Surely God was in this place, but by the Name, I Anochi, i did not know.’ Do you understand me?” The author of the Zohar’s eyes were wide open, “God’s Name is I, Anochi!”


“Oh, God! Whispered Jacob. “That means that God and I both call ourselves by the same name. And (the logic was simple) if God’s Name is I (Anochi), then God must also have a Self.” His mind felt like it suddenly had turned itself inside out.


How important is it to think of God having a “self?” Is that what scripture might mean, when in Genesis it says we are created in the divine image? If God has a self, is it possible to know God personally? Is this perhaps the goal of mysticism?


Pages 134 – 135 Assuming the waves could speak, what should they say to the ocean? Perhaps the most meaningful noise they could make would be the rhythmic, relentless whisper they make as they rise and fall, come in and out of being. Surely that is a worthy prayer. . . .


You might say that we have only two options: We can recite the words, acknowledge that we are all waves of the same sea, made of the same stuff, creatures of the same Creator, or we can be too busy to make the words, recite the prayer, offer the service.


We can on occasion, to select another analogy, choose to be aware of the barely audible noise made by the involuntary emptying and filling of our lungs, this noise by which we live. Or we can ignore and take it for granted. The only casualty is our own awareness, our sense of life.


Prayers run in two directions, for the ocean also speaks to the waves. But since the waves are already part of the ocean, there sound is, in some sense, the sound of their source speaking to them. They are the mouth of the ocean, and their prayer is the way the sea has of speaking to itself.


Have you ever had the sense of hearing other than yourself, when you have stopped to listen in prayer? Do you ever sensed God’s presence in worship in the organized liturgy? What is your favorite part of worship?


I am and Do Not Covet         


Page 139 – 141: As the first utterance begins with “I,” so the last commandment concludes with “your neighbor,” thereby completing the spectrum from me to you, one to another, I to thou. . . .Nevertheless, according to at least Rabbi Yakum, “One who violates the tenth commandment violates them all,” even the first!


The first utterance and the last commandment may be joined to one another because they are simply difference 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.


“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. . . or anything that is your neighbor’s. How is it possible to command someone concerning a mental state which has not external manifestations? . . . “You shall not covet,” is not so much a command as the Divine assurance of a reward. . . .


If you are content with your portion, you will want nothing and will lack nothing. You will be like the One who spoke, “I am.” It does not mean that you will not, or ought not change and grow; it means only at this moment, in this place you are all that you can be. . . . Right now we can only be who we are. We are simply all that we can be. . . . 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 must begin with self-acceptance; change begins with not trying to change.


Do you see how spiritual growth and change is a sort of paradox? Do you see the relationship between self-acceptance and not coveting? Do you see how letting go of desire (Buddhism) is the beginning of change? How do you think it works out accepting that I am overweight before I can lose weight?


Self-Acceptance and Change


Page 141 – 142: You cannot become someone other than who you are until you know who you are. And you cannot know who you are until you accept who you are right now and in this place. For the time is now, and not some other time; and the place is here, and not somewhere else. And you are who are, not anyone else. . .

It is a paradox. Change begins by not trying to change. And what you imagine you must do in order to change yourself is often the very force that keeps you as you precisely the way you are. How else can you explain the years and decades of your own foiled plans for growth and broken resolutions. . .   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 be.


Can see any ways in which your attempts at self-improvement have actually blocked possibilities for growth? When Kushner talks about being “still” here and now, what do you imagine he is suggesting? Have you ever experienced “self-discovery” in prayer or meditation?


Page 143: God’s “I am” has the psychotheological force not of dissolving individual selves but of reminding us that we never were independent in the first place. . .


The layers of pretense and self-delusion fall away, leaving now instead the innermost essence that knows its origin and destiny. This at last is a self that knows its place among other selves, perhaps not “I am,” but “i am.” This “i” is the dynamic force behind personal change. Who are we? Really? Not the public personae, nor the images, nor the professions, nor the apologies. Not the past, for that can only produce pride or guilt. Not the future, for that can only produce hope or fear. The first utterance is in the present. All that is said is the personal pronoun in the first person singular form: “Anochi, I.”


How does this passage help you understand the difference between “I” and “i.” Can you see how learning to be in the present helps us to find ourselves? Have you ever tried to live in the past? How does that work? Have you tried living in the future? How does that work?




Page 149: 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 and said, “Of course/”

“And is yourself 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?”

She smiled, “I get what you mean.”




The essence of spirituality is a return to the self, a redirection of vision of the one who asks the question, an almost serendipitous discovery that what is sought is, and has always been, right here all along. “It,” in other words, is never somewhere else. Could this stubborn insistence that God has no body whatsoever be another way of keeping this primary and holy truth alive? If God has no body, then God is nowhere. And I need go nowhere.


Can you prove you have a self? If something as important as our “self” cannot be seen, or heard, or touched or tasted, is it possible there are other intangible realities? Is it possible that the prohibition against creating images of God is pointing us in the direction of intangible reality?


Page 150: Spirituality is always in reference to two “I”s, two selves. The “i” of the person and the “I” of the Universe. It is religion in a personal mode, religion from the point of view of the “i” of yourself and from the point of view of the ”I” of the Universe. Spirituality is not about someone else or even about yourself in some cool, self-reflective, objective manner; nor is it about the past or the future. It is personal and immediate. Spirituality is the presence of God. And only rarely – once in a generation or even less — is the presence of God accompanied by a heavenly chorus or light beaming out of the recipient’s facial apertures. Most of the time that presence is very quiet, so quiet it can 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 Universe; we are part of it. And to be aware of this is to give our lives ultimate meaning and purpose. To realize that we are servants, through everything that we do, with or without our consent, is to be able to do anything; it is our empowerment and fulfillment. Spirituality is a dimension of living where we are aware of God’s presence. It is being concerned with how what we do affects God and how what God does affects us.


Once again in this passage we have the I and the i. The I waits to be made tangible by the hands of the i. Are you ready for such responsibility? Is this how you understand spirituality? Much that passes today for “spirituality” is about “feeling good.” Do you think there is an intersection between God’s presence and “feeling good?” Do you ever find the expectation that God’s presence will be accompanied by “special affects” or miraculous manifestations a distraction?


The Modes of Devekut


Page 152 – 153. . . . three forms of devekut that precisely correspond to . . . three kinds of religious personalities. . . . first come personality then comes theology. , , Aristotelian devekut. . . cognitive devekut. In this form of union, during the act of cognition the knower and the known become one. This is a description of the experience of the loss of self by a personality who is cerebral, rational, linear, left-brain dominant. Someone we today might call a head person.


A second mode of devekut is the devekut of behavior. In this experience, one seeks to . . . help God through specific actions. . . If one becomes a servant of God, then his or her deed is also God’s action. By repairing things here, we repair them above. A personality drawn to such cleaving to God is action-oriented, a doer, an achiever, a fixer, someone who wants to repair the world. If the first personality is a head person, the second would be a hands person.


The third form of devekut is the devekut of prayer. Concerned with reuniting the soul with its root, the focus of this third personality is neither cerebral nor behavioral but emotional. Such a soul is drawn to closing his eyes, losing herself in song, sitting in silence. I would call such a one a heart person. And thus for each type of religious personality (or different aspects of the same person) becoming one with God finds its unique expression.


We don’t want just to read about what God wants. We don’t want someone else telling us what God wants either. We don’t even want God telling us what God wants. We want our eyes to be God’s eyes so that we can see the world the way God sees it. . . Devekut: being one with God. At last the “little i, Anochi” and the Great I, Anochi, or All creation” are one.


Of the three types of devekut described by Kushner, which is most like you? Can you think of different times when you have experienced all of the types of devekut? Can you imagine or have experienced any other modes of devekut in union with God?


Hands of God, Eyes of Father


Page 166 – 167: Not long ago, while giving some lectures in a faraway city, my hosts lodged me at a nearby inn situated in the middle of a restored antique village. . . I stopped in front of one after another, (building) remembering my father, sad that we could not share the sight. And then it came to me. Since he no longer had physical eyes, I would have to look at each building with special care and twice as long, for from now on I would have to see the world for both of us.


Perhaps it is the same way with human beings and God. God’s eyes are not our eyes. God’s ears are now our ears. And God’s hands are ours. It is up to us, what God will see and hear, up to us, what God will do. Look at the world, you are seeing with God’s eyes. Look at your hands, they are the hands of God.


Have you ever experienced serving as an extension of a parent or grandparent’s life? Have you ever felt close to a friend or relative who is now dead? How far apart do you feel are the past members of the community and the present members of the community? If you were the hands of God, what would you be doing?


Eye of the Text


Page 181: It is not Jacob who says, “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” It is you who are reaching these words. You are the sacred text itself. The holy text is not about you. You are not even “in” it. You are it.


Do you get it?





Bloom Where You Are Planted

Bloom Where You Are Planted


x-ready-to-give-up            The Jewish captives in Babylon were suffering major depression, and rightly so. Their nation had been dismembered. They had lived through a terrible awful siege and destruction of the City of Jerusalem. Thousands of friends and family members had been killed. And now they were slaves in a foreign land. The depths of their despair is captured in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,     our tormentors demanded songs of joy;     they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

SLIDE 4: MAKE A SURPRISING INVESTMENT             Many of the Jews in captivity were ready to give up. So, the prophet Jeremiah who had been allowed to x-make-a-surprising-investmentstay in Israel, when most of the rest of the nobility and talent of Judah had been deported to Babylon wrote to the captives and advised them to make a “Surprising Investment:”

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”


x-put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other         Jeremiah was fully aware of the pain and despair of the community to whom he was writing. He did not discount their grief and anguish, but he did see beyond their present depression advising them to act to keep hope alive for the future. Put one foot in front of another. Plant gardens, build homes, have children, because the future of the Israel depends upon your getting on with your lives in difficult circumstances — bloom where you are planted.


x-bloom-wherever-you-are-planted           And bloom they did. The Jews prospered under the Persians. The Babylonian Talmud became the standard of Jewish scholarship. The Netzer Clan, the family of Jesus, did not return to Israel and settle in Nazareth until about 120 years before the birth of Jesus. His family thrived in Babylon for over 400 years before returning to Israel. By blessing their persecutors, the Jews established themselves in Persian society which allowed the survival of Jewish culture, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. Without the Jews who stayed behind in Babylon Jewish culture would have been greatly diminished.


x-do-not-give-up            God is maybe speaking to some of us this morning through Jeremiah. When we wake up in the morning and everything hurts. When we prepare for another day of work already exhausted. When the only light we can see in the long dark tunnel of life is the head lamp of the oncoming train and we want to throw up our hands in despair, God just might be speaking to us through the prophet Jeremiah. And what is God saying?

Do not give up. Hope is alive and well, as long as we put one foot in front of the other. We may not feel like we are making any progress, but by putting one foot in front of the other doing the simple things like planting gardens, making homes, having children, getting an education, going to work, making dinner, singing songs of faith, finding time to care for family and friends, we are preserving life and hope. God is in the little things, and where God dwells there is always hope.


x-remain-centered-in-worship         The Jews in Babylon wrote heart rending laments. They felt bereft, because their beloved Temple had been completely and utterly destroyed. The Temple had been the center of their faith, but following Jeremiah’s advice, they did not give up. They invented an entirely new focus of Jewish life, that remains the center of worship, prayer and study in Judaism down to this day – the Synagogue. God may be speaking to us through Jeremiah reminding us even when we are tempted to give into depression and despair, remain centered in the worship and fellowship life of the congregation.


x-covenant-to-pray-with-and-for-each-other-2    Here at United Church we nurture our individual and corporate faith by praying with and for each other. That is our covenant, and while we may not be able to attend every week, we can always call in, email, text, and Facebook our prayer requests. Know that when we share our needs there are good spiritual friends who lift us up in prayer. Also at United Church we study together and share fellowship not only Sundays and after worship but during the week at Bible Study and the Sharing Table. A while back Molly Baskette wrote a devotional entitled “Showing Up.”

SLIDE 10: SHOWING UP             I can’t tell you how often people are absent from church for a while, then come back, x-showing-upand when they pass through the receiving line at church say sheepishly, “Sorry I haven’t been here – I’ve been bad.” They seem to expect disapproval or punishment.             In 16 years of ministry, I still haven’t quite figured out what to say. I usually opt for the non-judgmental, compassionate cadence, “Of course not! We’re not about guilt here! We’ll be here whenever you need us!” But while this is true, there are a couple of problems with this response.

SLIDE 11: IF YOU WANT TO GET WET, YOU HAVE TO GET INTO THE WATER             Maybe they need to be x-if-you-want-to-get-wetneeded, and missed. Maybe they need to know there’s something at stake in them not coming. That, if they are formal members, the promises they made to us mattered. And even if they are not formal members, they matter — that we notice when they are gone, and we are diminished by their absence.             Maybe they need to hear that if they do come more often, their life might just get better.  I say might, because churches are flawed institutions, and mine among them. But if you want to get wet, you have to get into the water. If you want grace, peace, hope, comfort, growth, you have to get into, or near, the people and places that have them.

SLIDE 12: WHEN WE PASS THROUGH THE PORTAL             What I want to say to people when they come before me and hang their heads is, “listen – you get x-when-we-pass-through-the-portalout of it what you put into it.” I can’t say it, because it doesn’t sound very pastoral, but really it’s just a logic statement. You can’t win if you don’t play.             And God, though She rarely tells us this to our faces, needs us in church too. Some of us can only get the grace She wants to give us when we pass through that portal, into a sweet, slightly dusty, hardworking, authentic faith community. It’s not that grace is unavailable elsewhere; it’s just that — we’re tuned to the right frequency when we’re there together in worship.   So if you want a blessing, come to church. Ninety percent of grace is showing up.


x-prayer-worship-help         Like the Jews in Babylon we may feel like spiritually displaced persons. We may not like our jobs. Maybe we are suffering major stress in our employment or in our family life. We may have hoped for better circumstances. Our health may not be good.   We may struggle with mental health issues — ADHD, anxiety, depression, bi-polar, PTSD, and all manner of addictions, food, drugs, alcohol. But no matter what issues may plague us God is still with us as we cultivate our spiritual lives. Remember, the Prayer Wheel from three weeks ago, was developed by a psychiatrist, who found that using prayer and meditation helped many of his patients relieve stress and get better.   Even if we aren’t sure we believe in prayer, praying helps. A friend of mine was told by one of his kids, that he should pray for someone he didn’t like, and he didn’t even have to mean it, the prayer would change his attitude toward that individual, and it did. Whether we believe in it or not prayer works. Just because we don’t believe in miracles doesn’t mean that miracles don’t happen. And one of the places miracles can happen is in worship.


x-make-a-surprising-investment-2  So make a surprising investment. Put one foot in front of another and come to church, and bloom where you are planted.

Surprising Investment

Surprising Investment


   x-the-disciple-scroll         Our guide in Israel on several occasions has been Alan Rabbinowitz. Those of you who traveled with Beth and I to Egypt and Israel will remember that Alan was our guide for the Israel portion of our tour. A couple of years ago Alan completed the novel he had been working on for a number of years entitled the Disciple Scroll. The novel is about the Old Testament character of Baruch who served as the scribe for the prophet Jeremiah. The reason Alan chose Baruch as the main character of his book is because he is one of the only characters from the Hebrews scriptures for whom we have direct archaeological evidence.


   x-seal-of-baruch         In 1975 a seal bearing the mark of Baruch son of Neriah was found when the “burnt house” was excavated in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Burnt House was a home and incense factory dating back to the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.   Then in 1996 when part of the Old City of David was being excavated a second seal belonging to Baruch was found. And so Baruch Son of Neriah became the most archaeologically attested figure of the Hebrew scriptures, who appears in our scripture this morning.


  x-jeremiah          Jeremiah was an irritating prophet. Like some other preachers he told people what they did not want to hear — the reason prophets often end up dead. And when he became an irritating thorn in the side to King Zedekiah, the King made life difficult for Jeremiah.   The King had the prophet beaten with rods and put in the stocks, where he was subjected to ridicule and abuse. When he still kept preaching the doom of Jerusalem, he was thrown into an unused cistern where he sank into 4 feet of mud and ooze at the bottom up to his neck. The King hoped that Jeremiah would die in the muck, so he could claim he was innocent of shedding the prophet’s blood. Even in those days governments used double speak to deceive.

            Poor Jeremiah despaired of his life, until Baruch, disguised as a Cushite, pulled him out of the cistern. We can only imagine what he must have looked like, ragged, half starved, covered head to toe with the stinking slime from the bottom of the cistern. Zedekiah was so startled to see him alive, he relented and kept Jeremiah as a prisoner in the courtyard of the palace guard.   And then God told the prophet to make an unusual gesture of hope.


x-jeremiah-purchases-a-field        God told Jeremiah to purchased a field from his cousin on a hillside outside of Jerusalem, where the Babylonian army was encamped. Who would be stupid enough in the middle of a siege of the City to make such a purchase? But sure enough Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel son of his uncle Shallum, came to him and proposed that the prophet buy that piece of real estate that was being occupied by the Babylonian army. So, Jeremiah agreed to the sale and gave the deed to Baruch for safe keeping prophesying, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”


x-surprising-investment       In our own context what would an unusual gesture of hope look like? In a time when the demise of the mainline church is regularly forecast, and naysayers are prophesying the death of progressive congregations, I believe it is time to offer a gesture of hope. We can invest in the future of our congregation. We have begun our 2017 stewardship drive with the theme “Surprising Investment.”   We can dedicate our material resources, our time and our talents to helping this congregation thrive. And despite some expressions of doom and gloom, because our pastor is retiring, and the sky is falling, and the church is dying, let me remind you that in 2015 this congregation turned a corner. I and reading from the Annual Report from last year:


x-accomplishmentsThe year 2015 has led us into a new future. We have finished important portions of our renovation campaign including the reconstruction of the flat roof and the resurfacing of the Parking Lot. (And please note we are still making important upgrades in our sanctuary and our sound system.) We have lived out the implications of our Open and Affirming Statement. We finished construction and dedication of our Healing Steps Labyrinth, and together with our neighbor St. Stephen’s we are working together on programs of healing including the blessing of the animals today at 4 p.m. on the labyrinth.

During 2015 we received 17 new people into membership, bringing the membership to 201. Since the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, we have performed four wedding ceremonies for same sex couples.

We have turned a corner on worship attendance increasing average Sunday Morning worship attendance by almost 10% as well as reaching out to welcome new people into the life of our congregation. Our congregation has made a break through.


x-congregations-accomplishments         The Pastor didn’t do all those things, those were your accomplishments – victories and successes of this church. You all have been responsible for the growth and forward momentum of this congregation. And there is no reason why we cannot continue to move ahead, if during this interim period we are all willing to make a surprising investment.

We already have an interim search committee in place and a permanent search committee in place, who have begun work on their missions. And if you want my thoughts on how the rest of us can make this “Surprising Investment,” let me read from my Dear Friends for September:


x-balance-the-budget            Over the next four months we have opportunities to express our appreciation for one another. I hope I will be able to find adequate words and gestures to tell you how much I love you. I am not looking for a big celebratory leave taking. Your celebration of the 40th anniversary of my ordination was an event I still treasure. Also rather than a retirement gift, allow me to suggest that we all give a gift to United Church by balancing our budget and paying back what we borrowed from the other funds by the end of the year. A wonderful gift for me would be leaving behind a financially strong congregation for whomever is my successor. As part of that effort we have organized a mystery dinner as a fund raiser. That Dinner “Bullets and Bar B Q” is only a few weeks away. Let’s sell tickets and encourage people to volunteer and turn out for the event. The dinner is an important opportunity to help balance the budget.


x-communicating-sharing-our-identityIn case I have your attention allow me to suggest two other projects that would represent a “Surprising Investment” in the life and identity of this congregation. As a result of our congregational coaching we have discovered the importance of our identity as an Open and Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Christ, where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here! As we welcome new people into our fellowship we need to be able to communicate our heritage with them. What do I mean by communicating our heritage? Understanding that our commitment to “God Is Still Speaking” is almost 400 years old. John Robinson the Pastor of the Pilgrim Congregation exhorted his people to be prepared for God to reveal new truth to them as they journeyed to the New World. Our understanding of the scriptures is not frozen in some kind of fundamentalist time warp, but we are free to re-interpret the Bible so our faith can speak meaningfully in our modern context.


x-congregationalAnother important piece of our heritage, we are congregational. We are a bottom up fellowship, rather than a top down organization. Everyone has an equal voice in the congregational meeting. We don’t tell people what they should think or how they ought to behave. And that brings me to another part of our heritage. In contrast to many other churches we are not a shame culture. We do not bring people in front of the congregation and publicly shame them. We believe in the sacred independence of each person’s conscience. We are not required to agree with one another, and we staunchly defend the right of individuals to disagree with each other, because we are not required to march to the beat of the same drummer.


x-diversity-is-following-way-of-jesusIs diversity in a faith community easy? No! Becoming a truly diverse faith community that embraces different ethnic groups, different sexual orientations, different socio-economic classes, different beliefs is a real challenge, a challenge worthy of following the way of Jesus. Matt Youngkin has proposed placing story boards at the entrances to our church to help communicate our United Church of Christ identity to visitors and new members.


Now one more project. The United Church of Huntsville was truly privileged to have as its founding Pastor the Rev. Ray Berry and his wife Shirley. They were a talented and blessed Pastoral couple. They lived the way of x-celebrating-ray-shirley-berryJesus. When Ray received a phone call from his old roommate and friend Andrew Young, to come to Selma, Ray went and was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. When Ray and Shirley left Huntsville they ministered in South Dakota on the Lakota Sioux Reservation. That is why we still send our offerings for the Sock and Glove Tree to the Lakota Association of the United Church of Christ. I have no doubt that if Ray Berry were alive and well today, he would be standing with the Lakota People at Standing Rock.


Anyway Ray and Shirley were real honest to God followers of the way of Jesus, and I would like to see their x-making-a-surprising-investmentministry celebrated as part of the heritage of the United Church of Huntsville. Shirley Berry gave a quilt made by the Lakota Women to the United Church of Huntsville, and I am wondering if someone would make a cabinet, where the quilt could be on display along with a tribute to the ministry of Ray and Shirley Berry. Part of our identity at United Church was formed by the mission and service of the Berry’s.

Join me then as we approach this interim time in the life of United Church by making a surprising investment in the future.