Isaiah 40:1-5; Micah 6:8
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 27, 2015
I have a confession to make. Several years ago, when we had Marcus Borg here for an extraordinary weekend of learning, he was not my first choice. He was actually my third choice. My first two choices were actually either Dr. Rachel Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, and My Grandfather’s Blessings, or Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of numerous books, best known for When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It did not work out for either of them to come that year, and Marcus Borg was superb, and was perfect for that special weekend. And I am especially glad that we were able to be with him because he is gone now and will be greatly missed.
What I have always liked about Harold Kushner is his compassion and willingness to walk with people in the tough times and to deal honestly with the realities of life. As a hospital chaplain, he was one of my mentors, though I never met him. He just published a new book which I read this past week and highly recommend, called Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. He first talks about some of the lessons that he has learned along the way. This year he turned 80, and he is now a retired rabbi and putting his energies into writing. He talks about how religious life has changed over the past decade, and he describes the people in his congregation who taught him about those changes.
Those encounters taught me the first rule of religious life in the twenty-first century and what made it different from religious life in previous times. The agenda for religion today will be set not by yesterday’s answers but by today’s questions. I still believe there is great wisdom in yesterday’s answers. Human nature has not changed that much. But my rabbinic education, splendid as it was, saw congregants as passive consumers of ancient and eternal truths. To be religious was to obey, not necessarily to understand, and certainly not to question. That perspective did not prepare me for a world in which the meaning of words like “commitment,” the structure of the family, issues of religious identity in an open society, and the respective roles of men and women were in flux. Those changes set in motion major changes in the way Jews and Christians alike responded to their respective religious traditions. Sociologists have identified the salient difference between working-class and middle-class people as a function of how much control someone has over his or her life; Working-class people, as well as women in premodern times, were accustomed to following orders, deferring to authority.
By contrast, middle-class and upper-class people understand that it is not their obedience but their judgment that people look to them for. They feel they have not only the right but the obligation to question the way things have always been done. Citing a verse from Leviticus to justify the exclusion of gays or pointing to a thousand years of precedent to undergird priestly celibacy is no longer a persuasive argument. My job as a rabbi was neither simply to perform nor to inform, but to transform. Sometimes that meant trying to change the behavior of a congregant to embrace time-tested values, and sometimes it meant changing the observance, peeling away its ancient outer shell so that the message at its core could more easily emerge.
But perhaps the most interesting members of my congregation are the people who challenge me, not as a kind of game (“let’s see if we can stump the rabbi”) but out of a genuine willingness to learn. They have found that religion as it has been presented to them throughout their lives is unworthy of either their intellectual respect or their emotional attachment.
Their implicit deal with me is that they will take their religion more seriously if I can show them not how old and time-tested it is but where it can answer their most profound questions, questions about relationships, about life’s unfairness, about right and wrong, about revenge and forgiveness, and about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Nobody at school told me that this would be my challenge, but hardly a day has passed since then without my confronting it. That was the flaw in my rabbinic education. When I was ordained a rabbi at age twenty-five, they told me I was ready to go forth and teach. The truth was, I was at best ready to go forth and learn.
I agree with Kushner. We live at a time when life’s questions are a crucial part of our journey of faith. My parents used to tell me to do things because “I told you so,” and an answer I often received in my church experience, when younger, to my questions was “because God made it that way.” Those answers no longer work (if they ever did).
Faith can no longer be solely about looking backward to tradition and earlier tenets of faith, nor can it be focused solely on future expectations of what will happen to us in the life after this one. In order for faith to be real, it must be relevant, thoughtful, and helpful to the realities of our life today and this week.
Kushner then goes on to talk about God and who God is. The chapter is entitled, “God Is Not a Man Who Lives in the Sky.” He writes:
We have a soap dish in our bathroom at home that reproduces the scene from Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel, the moment when God reaches out to touch Adam and bring him to life. It portrays God as a muscular man with gray hair and a long white beard. It’s great art but bad theology. I believe that we lose more than we gain when we give people a visual image of God to hold on to. It makes God real and accessible to them at the cost of giving them misleading theological information about God’s nature.
Rabbi Kushner then talks about the Ten Commandments, and especially the one that says we are not to make an image of God, and describes his visit to a classroom of 11-year-olds, who he asks:
“Why do you think we have that commandment? Is it because the picture wouldn’t turn out nice enough and God’s feelings would be hurt?
I don’t think so. I think it’s because God is not a person like us, who lives in the sky. God is real, but God is real in a very different way than you and I are real. If we have a picture of God as a man, does that mean that God is a man and not a woman, and that men are more similar to God than women are? If God in your picture is old, should you worry that God might not understand the problems that you face as a young person? If God in your picture has white skin, should a child with black or brown skin, or an Asian child, feel that he or she is less close to God than white-skinned, blue-eyed children?”
He goes on to say that we lose something very special in our faith journey when we picture God a certain way. He then describes in this chapter the focus of prayer and God’s role in healing:
You may remember that there was an experiment in 2006 to see whether prayer would help sick people heal faster. A large cohort of postoperative patients, matched for severity of illness and discomfort, was divided into three equal parts. One group was prayed for by people who believed in the power of prayer to invoke God’s healing grace, and the people were informed that they were being prayed for.
A second group was similarly prayed for but not told about it. And a third group was not prayed for at all. The result: there was no discernible difference in the speed or quality of their recovery.
CNN interviewed me shortly after the results were announced and asked, “Doesn’t that prove that prayer is an ineffective waste of time and effort?” I told the interviewer, “It doesn’t prove a thing. It isn’t God’s job to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctors’ job. God’s job is to make sick people brave, and in my experience, that’s something God does really well.”
Prayer, as I understand it, is not a matter of begging or bargaining. It is the act of inviting God into our lives so that, with God’s help, we will be strong enough to resist temptation and resilient enough not to be destroyed by life’s unfairness.
The truth is, life is unfair, and we would do well to come to terms with that fact. Boorish people are blessed with athletic or musical skills that qualify them to earn more money in a year than many of us will earn in our lifetime. Saintly people are struck down by disease before they can use their gifts to help others. The task of religion is not to teach us to bow our heads and accept God’s inscrutable will. It is to help us find the resources to live meaningfully and to go on believing, even in a world where people often don’t get what they deserve.
This compassionate rabbi then concludes this chapter by responding to those who believe in eternal torment in Hell for anyone who disagrees with them. He writes:
The God I believe in is not so insecure that He holds it against people who doubt His existence, nor is He so eager to punish that He condemns people to Hell for errors of heart, mind, or faith.
Some years ago, I participated in an interfaith panel on Larry King’s television program. The evangelical pastor on the panel told me that he respected me as an honest and caring person, but because I did not believe what he believed, I would not be saved but would be sent to Hell after I died. I responded, “You mean I get to spend eternity with Einstein, Gandhi, and Freud, and not with you?”
I am going to use that the next time a fundamentalist Christian tells me that I am going to Hell for not believing what he or she believes about God or anything else.
Finally, I would like to share Rabbi Kushner’s reflections on the fact that “God Does Not Send the Problem”:
God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away when we find the right words and rituals with which to beseech Him. Rather, God sends us strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.
When our son, our first child, was one year old, he stopped growing and stopped gaining weight. When he was three, his problem was diagnosed as progeria, the rapid-aging syndrome. He lived until the day after his fourteenth birthday, bravely, with a sense of humor and the capacity to inspire love in anyone who could look beyond appearances and get to know him.
Had I believed for an hour that God had chosen our son for this ordeal for whatever reason- to punish me for some long-forgotten offense, to inspire others with our example of fortitude- I would have left the rabbinate and never opened a prayer book or entered a synagogue again rather than pay homage to that God. Instead I was able to see God not as the source of our anguish but as the source of our ability to cope with it, to love and to comfort and to enjoy and ultimately to grieve for a very special child.
But whatever miracle God wrought for us, giving us the grace and strength to raise and love a child with a disfiguring, incurable disease, He worked an even greater miracle for Aaron. The miracle we prayed for was that modern medicine would come up with a cure for progeria. That did not happen. The miracle we got was a son who dealt bravely with an unfixable situation. We never saw him as a burden, as other families might have seen a child with severe medical issues. We felt blessed to have him as part of our family, and I give Aaron the credit for making that happen.
Rarely evincing self-pity, Aaron was bright, funny, feisty, kind, and brave. People who only knew him at a distance tended to react with pity (the Afrikaans translation of When Bad Things Happen to Good People changed the title to My Unfortunate Child.) But people who knew him better saw his strengths more clearly than his limitations. Incredibly, more than a few envied him. After he died, a number of families named their own sons Aaron, to honor him and perhaps in the hope that their child would show some of the qualities that made Aaron so special.
It is touching that this event, which happened to Rabbi Kushner and his wife 50 years ago, still influences who he is in such a powerful way today. It has changed his view of what religion is. He writes that “religion is what you do, not what you believe,” and certainly that is true of this church family!
Belief exists inside a person. As such, it has the power and the tendency to separate a person from his neighbors who believe differently. But authentic religion connects people rather than separates them into the elect and the misguided, the saved and those who walk in darkness. The primary function of religion, as every congregational clergyman of any denomination has discovered for himself or herself, is to bring people together rather than to separate them, thereby increasing their joy and diluting their sorrows. For that to happen, one’s theology has to escape from the prison of the self and translate into sacred deeds shared with others, deeds sanctified by having the fingerprints of God all over them.
This church family continues to amaze me by your ability to come together, to care for each other and to join together in ways that truly make a positive difference in our lives and in our world.And I am so glad that this wise and compassionate rabbi is still sharing his thoughts with us.
May we- as individuals and as a church family- continue to be enabled to share in sacred deeds, deeds that are truly sanctified by having the fingerprints of God all over them!