When the World Is Out of Tune

This has been a month of terrible and disturbing news. Islamic State fanatics have executed U.S. journalists and British aid workers, sending out grisly videos of these killings as well as of their mass shootings of helpless people lying face down in ditches. The visuals are horrifying. I can’t stop thinking about the Holocaust and other despicable acts of barbarism.

I realize that these heinous ways of torturing and killing each other have been going on since the dawn of what we call humanity. Is it any less humane to drop a nuclear bomb on a city? Somehow it doesn’t seem so awful because we don’t have to watch a video of the terrible, unthinkable act of a human killing another human by hand. Just like the truckload of turkeys on their way to be massacred and eaten, it’s all quite acceptable as long as we don’t have to watch the reality of it.

I’ve heard people ask how God could allow such evil brutality to exist. They often point to the story of the crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) as proof of God’s own cruel nature in requiring a blood sacrifice. Or they cite God’s lack of compassion for our frailty by expecting us to embrace painful circumstances and man/woman up to them because Yeshua was able to; their point being that Yeshua would be able to endure the cross if he was God incarnate or God’s son because he knew he was going right back to heaven afterward. Big deal, right? He had nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, unlike the rest of us worrying about the great unknown.

George MacDonald has a good answer regarding whether Yeshua truly suffered or not:

“Let no one think that … [his sufferings] were less because He was more. The more delicate the nature, the more alive to all that is lovely and true, lawful and right, the more does it feel the antagonism of pain, the inroad of death upon life; the more dreadful is that breach of the harmony of things whose sound is torture.”

(From George MacDonald: An Anthology • 365 Readings, compiled by C.S. Lewis, p. 17)

This is not like the torture of hearing someone sing or play out of tune, or the torture of a jackhammer going outside your window. When the world is out of tune, when evil has a field day, when blood is spilled in rivers on the ground, when innocent people are brutally murdered, we feel the same wrenching heartache that the gentle soul of Yeshua felt watching our unending hatred toward anyone not like us. This hatred was what motivated his killers, and it is a hatred that runs deep in our so-called humanity.

Because of what these Islamic State monsters have done, I confess with much sadness that I see hatred growing in my own heart for followers of Islam. Would I grab a gun or push the red button if they had killed my friend or family member over there? I’d be sorely tempted. What do I do with this hatred? If I pretend it’s not there, it festers. If I act on it, it explodes.

Here it is, Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the days of awe prior to Yom Kippur, which will then finish the traditional 40 days of repentance. If I repent of my hatred, will it stay away? If I allow my hatred to remain unchecked and unchallenged, will I become like the very enemies I abhor?

It may seem like a stretch to bring up the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah in Genesis 22, the story of Abraham when he was told by God to sacrifice his only son. I have read many fascinating commentaries on this story of a father doing the unthinkable (here’s a thought-provoking one: http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/68264477.html). Many of them refer to Abraham’s unwavering faith that if Isaac indeed lost his life, God would bring him back to life.

This sounds just like the argument that Yeshua had it easy on the cross because he knew he was going to be okay in the end. I don’t believe Abraham had an easy time, any more than Yeshua did. I think when he raised the knife to kill his beloved son, he was feeling the same horror we feel when we see the terrifying videos of innocent people being slaughtered, the same horror Yeshua felt when he was cruelly tortured and killed.

The story of Isaac’s eleventh-hour rescue on the altar is called the Akeida. I think the Akeida has much to tell us about our natural fears as well as our natural hatred. I always wondered why such a disturbing story would be the centerpiece of a positive celebration like Rosh Hashanah, with all the shofar-blowing, apples and honey, and wishes for a joyous New Year. We are deathly afraid of fear. I know I am. Gut-wrenching cold terror is not something I seek—ever.

But if it’s true that God’s ways are not our ways, that what makes sense to us naturally has no bearing on what is really going on, that God’s thinking is our thinking turned on its head, then everything we fear is actually something to be desired.

Is death to be desired? Like Gandalf says in The Return of the King, “and then you see it . . . white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Like Pippin, I would say, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

Is horror to be desired? I venture to say (quaking in my boots, of course), perhaps we should be more like those intrepid soldiers on the front lines instead of hiding at home waiting for someone else to die for us. Perhaps each of us is quite capable of facing down an ISIS terrorist like each victim in the videos, just as Yeshua coolly faced down his murderers.

I don’t know what the faith foundation was for each person who was murdered by ISIS this month, but I pray that each one found the strength to embrace the unknown, to let go of the known, to face the end with the dignity of a true human being, rising above the bestial evil around them. That is how I will remember them and honor their lives and their sacrifice. And I pray this enduring, transcendent vision will stand in stark contrast to our natural view of these horrors, especially for their families. May God bless the families of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning, and the countless other victims of this evil group.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” There are many ways to die, from the unthinkable to the painless, and it is a portal we must all pass through. Does it ultimately matter how we take leave of our tiny lives here to go on to the next step of our journey? No one owns our souls no matter how they may treat our bodies, and therein lies the hidden victory.

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The Bass Player in George MacDonald’s Band

Verdine White, the bass player in Earth, Wind & Fire, holds it down and lights a fire under the groove like no one else can. Whenever I hear a gorgeous bass sound like that, whether it’s from a cello, a djembe, a baritone sax, a roll of thunder, or a human voice, the air around me is instantly alive and in tune.

Where would even the most beautiful melody be without the bass for its dancing partner? Where would our most beautiful moments be without the tension and challenge of the toughest times? We would be sorry creatures indeed if all we heard were the melodies, if an easy life were all we experienced. As usual, George MacDonald says it best:

“Sometimes it seems pure natural to trust,
And trust right largely, grandly, infinitely,
Daring the splendor of the giver’s part;
At other times, the whole earth is but dust,
The sky is dust, yea, dust the human heart;
Then thou art nowhere, there is no room for thee
In the great dust-heap of eternity.

“But why should it be possible to mistrust—
Nor possible only, but its opposite hard?
Why should not man believe because he must—
By sight’s compulsion? Why should he be scarred
With conflict? worn with doubting fine and long?
No man is fit for heaven’s musician throng
Who has not tuned an instrument all shook and jarred.”

(From Diary of an Old Soul, August 29-30 entries)

I’m the last person to welcome tragedy or setbacks of any kind. Yet when shock, sorrow, or grief thwart our ability to embrace the goodness of life, the lowest tones cry out from the cavernous deep of our souls. Without those lows to ground us, to temper and sweeten the highs, our life would be a tinny, foolish child-melody without substance.

This week’s Torah portion, true to form, has something to say about facing calamity and terror. In Deuteronomy 18:16, Moses reminds the people that when they had the chance to see God face to face, they were too terrified, literally to death, saying “I can no longer hear the voice of Hashem, my God, and this great fire I can no longer see, so that I shall not die.” Who among us doesn’t run for the hills when confronted with something so unfathomable, so overwhelming, that we fear the experience could kill us?

We would spend our entire lives running in fear if it were not for the one who has given it all in order to stand as our protector and guide, the one holding up the bass notes from the deep. As it says in the Haftorah (Isaiah 52:7 and 52:9):

“How pleasant are the footsteps of the herald upon the mountains announcing peace, heralding good tidings, announcing salvation, saying unto Zion, ‘Your God has reigned!’” and “Burst out, sing glad song in unison, O ruins of Jerusalem, for Hashem will have comforted His people; He will have redeemed Jerusalem.”

So, shall we listen to the herald on the mountaintop and tune up?

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Dying to Live

I watch my children’s age group, the 20- and 30-somethings, sorting through just what kind of life is worth living—in what or whom should they invest their energy and trust?

Our generation, the baby boomer 60s children, blew the “ought to” right out of the water, for good reason at the time. Now I see our own children struggle to make sense of a shattered moral code, an anything-goes culture that has careened out of control like a runaway train from the utopia and collective conscience we believed in. What “ought” they do? What “should” they commit to?

Hippie culture is still alive, new age and holistic solutions abound and mainstream themselves, while a return to the land and an ache for a simple life close to nature wafts by us all with a tantalizing fragrance just out of reach. It is especially evasive to our young people.

How can they give up their reliance on their iPhones and iPads and TVs and Youtube and Facebook? How can they hope to function free of the culture that both numbs and comforts them so effectively? My heart hurts to see the yearning in their eyes for something real despite their hard-nosed certainty that such a thing is not reliable. They are surrounded by ephemeral things, by critical data that is both stored and owned by a Cloud, as capricious and unpredictable as the wind. How, then, can they trust in another apparition, whether it be love, honor, truth, or God?

And how can we, their parents, recapture the fervor of our beliefs? How can we hope to extricate it from the long march of self-serving we have held in order to provide a fake and unreliable utopia for these dissatisfied young grownups?

Reading this week’s Torah portion, the first section of Deuteronomy, brought home to me how aggravating it was to Moses that Israel turned away from what God provided—everything needed for a true paradise, a complete deliverance from slavery and hopelessness. And he knew that Israel would go on in that direction, as it surely has and as have we.

The original pure and beautiful thing was twisted into a tangled, impossible mess of history and habit. Ditto for our 60s ideals. There can be no shared paradise, no utopia, no true community until we humans no longer try to define and control it. Up the ladder, the closer and closer to God we get, the deeper becomes the temptation to define and control even the most sacred of things. 

So what’s the answer? The impossible. God will have to turn everything upside down, and one day, we’ll see and understand how right that is.

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Hypochondria and Fear of Death: WWWD (What Would Woody Do?)

“I am not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” said Woody Allen. Just last year, he also wrote a very funny piece for the New York Times about hypochondria. It’s so easy to make fun of hypochondria, and his description of the thought process behind it is spot on:

       “What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.

       “The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life-threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.”

The panic we feel at the onset of strange symptoms is natural, of course, because we are given no assurance of safety in this massive, whirling world of unpredictable calamities. If someone else could get cancer from drinking the water, why couldn’t I? If someone else’s child could be lost to SIDS, why not my child? What guarantee are we given that the terrible news unfolding every day won’t have our names or the name of someone we love on the front cover tomorrow?

I think we can agree that hypochondria is another name for fear of death. Whether we approach the topic of death with crippling fear or foolish bravado, they are just two sides of the same coin. If we refuse to ever leave the ground in any kind of flying contraption or we’re always looking for the next chance to skydive, true fearlessness is far from most of us. I think even the most seasoned airline passenger clenches up (at least inwardly) when turbulence goes from sporadic to unrelenting. And it’s a rare person who smiles in the face of troubling reports from the hospital lab.

What would Woody do? “Talk about a story of it,” as our son would demand at the tender age of two. Our appetite for anecdote and memoir from others who have faced what we’re facing soars whenever we come too close to any kind of loss, real or threatened. We seek comfort in finding out what to expect, in knowing that we are not alone in this. Our desperate fear is really not of death but of the unknown. Most of us fear pain, but we fear helplessness and nothingness even more.

As a child, I used to lay awake at night paralyzed by the thought that one day, my loved ones and I would simply cease to be. My mother tried to comfort me by saying, “You have many, many years before you have to think about that.” But it didn’t matter how many long years I could afford to put off the thought; the reality remained. We were all going to die. It was unthinkable.

A person of faith has one trump card in all of this—the presence of God. The idea that an eternal soul dwells within us, that there is a life to come beyond what we can imagine here, that there is a purpose to each ounce of suffering even though we can’t understand it now . . . all of this is comforting, but only on a cerebral level at best. When we are bleeding or doubled over in pain, we just want to be rescued so we can go back to our regular lives.

Those of us who have lived beyond childhood have a long history of rescues, many of which we don’t realize we had—near misses and collision courses with disaster that were diverted before we ever saw them coming. We are not likely to remember even the rescues we did see, because we just wanted to get back to our regular lives. We remember instead the trauma, the terror, the deepening sadness of the times when we had a prolonged wait to get back to our regular lives.

But when we’re steeped in our regular lives, we are discontent. We want more meaning, more results, more rewards, more love, more power, more money, more stuff. Then along comes a tragedy or a setback and all we want is a return to our regular lives. Sometimes we even make promises: “If I can just get through this and live, I’ll never complain again about my marriage/job/appearance/finances/friends/etc.” Most of us renege on those promises as soon as we are safely restored to our less-than-perfect lives.

What is it we really want? We chafe at a safe existence because we want more excitement, then we cry out in desperation when our regular lives are threatened. We worry over every little lump and soreness, then as soon as we are healthy again, we kvetch about how we “could have done this” or “could have had that.”

In the Haftorah today, I read about Jeremiah’s complaint when God called him to be a prophet (hardly a boring career): “Ah Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak for I am a youth.” Reminds me of Moses in Exodus 4, when he says, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” They didn’t want to step up to a life of meaning, to their calling, if they could get away with just living their regular lives.

It’s possible that each brush with death, each encounter with tragedy, each real or imagined health scare, is like that moment by the burning bush. We have an opportunity to experience a faith that transcends our puny existence, to meet God in the midst of something that will certainly turn our lives upside down. Most of us are going to turn tail and run, no matter how much we believe that we love God and trust Him.

The good news is, one day we really will face death or tragedy, or both. And this time, there will be no running back to our regular lives to hide. When we open our hands and let go of all our stuff, all our attachments, we will finally be free to embrace what God has called us to without any more fear. It is unthinkable and unfathomable now, but I suspect it will be unbearably beautiful.

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Beauty and Ugliness: Perception Is Not the Whole Picture

Look in the mirror. On a good day, we might check out a few different angles and think, ‘Not bad,’ give the glass an encouraging smile, and walk away satisfied. But on a bad day, no amount of repair can disguise the bad skin or stubborn wrinkles, let alone the desperate expression that hovers behind our eyes like a neon sign: Defective! Imperfect! We can’t get away from that mirror fast enough.

And the sad thing is, for most of us, this encounter with the mirror then rules the rest of our day, more than we realize.

So here’s the question: Is it possible for us to set aside both our self-satisfaction and our self-loathing to embrace the larger picture of God’s intent for us within our true appearance? And what is our true appearance? A poet friend aptly described an “appointed” appearance, wondering if perhaps the man in the moon would bemoan his less-than-full glow even though the whole Earth certainly relies on his appointed phases. He doesn’t have the luxury of jazzing himself up to hold onto that brilliant glow. Instead he must endure the bad days when he is barely a sliver, or even worse, invisible.

How many times have I confided in a friend when I’ve felt especially ugly and hear her insist that I look “just fine”—even a friend I trust to tell the truth? Conversely, how many times have I pranced into a room believing that I look fabulous, only to receive the identical level of interest and attention as on any other day?

It’s easy for someone else to say, “Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s inside that counts.” Of course, I know that intellectually, and my eye automatically forgives and accepts imperfections of all kinds in others. Just not in myself.

Is this really just about perceptions? I think it’s way deeper than that. Beauty and ugliness extend to behavior as well. Take the ups and downs of love relationships, for instance. A beloved spouse, the one we delight in and admire above all others, can behave in a petty, impatient or inconsiderate way. We face grave disappointment and the fear that this could become the new reality. We’re not sure we can handle that, and yet at the same time, we can discover the transcendent beauty of the commitment to weather it through. Those moments of ugliness can only be conquered and transformed by that devotion, that sacrifice of our preferences for the sake of another.

Just as the eyes forgive imperfections and adjust to accept them, the heart can forgive disappointments and adjust to stick it out. I can’t imagine anything more important to God than for us each to get this major truth at some point in our lives, and not just understand it but live it. The imperfect becomes lovable. Can we extend that mercy to ourselves, too?

The Haftorah for this week ends with the famous verse in Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” It would be the height of humility (and a blessed relief) to be at peace with my bad hair/bad face/bad body days in favor of the bigger picture of how much God loves me and uses me to preserve His goodness. A look in God’s mirror every morning would cure the self-loathing blues and temper the self-satisfaction smugness, if I would but look there.

Then maybe, like the man in the moon, I could realize how my appearance is used day by day in the unfolding of the magnificent tapestry of love that is the real purpose of our lives.

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A Truckload of Turkeys and Time to Repent

On the bus back home from Iowa, we rode for an alarmingly long time beside an open truck packed with live turkeys on their way to be slaughtered. In the tight cages, their bodies were pressed together. They squinted at the passing traffic against the cruel 70 mph wind as their feathers whipped around. Some looked confused, others terrified, but most of them looked resigned to it. A few had already either passed out or died from the stress.

Of course, it’s anthropomorphizing to compare this to the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity, but bear with me. I’m an animal lover but I’m not a vegetarian, though I’ve tried more than once to make the break from meat. I’m fond of mammals, and it never bothered me too much to eat fowl or fish. I always buy free-range chicken and cage-free eggs anyway, and lately, I have been consoling myself with purchasing only kosher chicken and turkey. At least they would die in a humane way, right?

But they would still die. And I would eat them. Over and over. Feed them to my family. And how did I become so inured to this? Because I don’t see the process or participate in it myself. I have the luxury of all the dirty work being done by others so that I can grab my sterilized packs of squeaky-clean, bloodless meat and poultry at the store. Watching these live turkeys barreling down the highway toward their unsavory demise convicted me, heart and soul. Could I lift the ax and chop off one of their heads so I could have a nice dinner? Watch the blood run out, watch the decapitated body go limp, then pull the feathers and cut up all the parts? Not a chance. Even if I were starving.

I suppose if I had grown up on a farm and participated in the slaughter of livestock, I might feel differently. But I don’t think so. As I watched the hapless birds pass by my window, I had that sinking feeling I always get when I witness cruelty of any kind. We were not meant to do these things to other creatures. We were not meant to do these things to each other. It’s all wrong.

Anyone could say, hey, God meant for us to eat meat. Look at the daily sacrifice. Yeah, but when we were first created, we ate the produce of the ground and it was ours for the picking. Anyone could say, hey, those people are trying to take our way of life from us. Look at the wars in the Bible, sanctioned by God. Yup, but in the beginning, there was no destruction, only boundless creativity. Something went wrong. Dead wrong.

What is wrong with us that we turned our backs on paradise, that we keep opting for violent, impatient solutions to our problems rather than giving ourselves to each other, rather than trusting God to lead the way? We suffer and we suffer from our poor choices, and then we complain that it’s not fair. Look at the incessant grousing by the children of Israel in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 20:3). They were continually rescued miraculously from their enemies, from starvation, from thirst, from plagues, and they were still kvetching every time they had a need that wasn’t met quickly enough.

Hungry? Go kill something. Feeling disenfranchised? Go herd a bunch of people you despise into cages and kill them off. Or—even scarier because we all think it’s perfectly okay—feeling unimportant? Do your best to be better than everyone else, no matter who you hurt along the way. This is so woven into our bones that it’s no small wonder the majority of us are either anxious or depressed, arrogant or devastated, striving or resigned. It’s all wrong. Dead wrong.

And it’s time to repent if we ever want to get it right.


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As You Were: Haftarah for Parashat Korach Meets George MacDonald

In case you haven’t read my previous blogs, George MacDonald (1824–1905) is my favorite author, poet, and spiritual teacher. More often than I can say, the Torah portion the whole Jewish world is reading each week matches up in some central way to at least one of George MacDonald’s poems for that exact same week from the 365 poems in Diary of an Old Soul.

It happened again this week. This portion is one of the most disturbing so far, at least to me, when the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his entire family alive for their rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Then the portion goes on to tell of a horrifying plague for the rest of the rebels, one that is curtailed by Aaron’s efforts on their behalf. Then, to make sure everyone knows that Aaron is God’s choice for leading the people in worship, Aaron’s staff is the only one that buds and produces ripe almonds.

Lots of shock and awe in this portion. I always wonder what the Haftarah will choose for its focus, and this week, I was stunned to see that it followed the same pattern as George MacDonald’s choices for this week in June.

In 1 Samuel 11:14–12:22, Samuel confronts Israel with its lack of faith in Hashem, warning them about their mistake in demanding a king like the other nations, when Hashem himself was their king and the reason why they were set apart from other nations.

At the same time, I read all week in George MacDonald’s visionary poetry about our failings and unrequitable yearning for purity and righteousness, our “low selves” and how trapped we are by being who we are. Pretty depressing stuff in both places.

And yet, there it is, like a beacon at the end of Samuel’s condemnation:

Samuel said to the people, “Fear not, you have done all this evil—but do not turn away from following Hashem, rather serve Hashem with all your heart. Do not turn away for [that would be to] pursue futilities that cannot avail and cannot rescue, for they are futile. For Hashem shall not forsake His people for the sake of His great Name for Hashem has sworn to make you for a people unto Him.”
(1 Samuel 12:20–22)

And there it is again, shining up from a set of MacDonald’s poems about our failure:

But now the Spirit and I are one in this—
My hunger now is after righteousness
My spirit hopes in God to set me free
From the low self loathed of the higher me.
Great elder brother of my second birth,
Dear o’er all names but one, in heaven or earth,
Teach me all day to love eternally.
Diary of an Old Soul, June 20 entry)

After all that slavery to ourselves, all that failure and rebellion, God lets us know that He accepts us as we are, because, as MacDonald points out, “To thee, the reconciler, the one real, In whom alone the would be and the is are met.” (Diary of an Old Soul, June 18th entry). What a relief to know that we are not forgotten or forsaken.

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