Place These Words Upon Your Heart

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen gave the sermon this year at the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service in Minnetonka.  Although I was out of town and unable to attend (we had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Appleton with my daughter, her boyfriend and his family), he was kind enough to send me a copy, which he also posted on Facebook.

There are many wonderful thoughts in Rabbi Cohen’s sermon about gratitude, welcoming the stranger and interfaith dialogue.  He concluded his sermon with a Hasidic tale I had not heard before:

A disciple asks the rebbe: ‘Why does Torah tell us to “place these words upon your hearts”? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rebbe answers: ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.’

Makes you pause a bit – at least it made me pause.  And it presents the best prayer I could wish for us given the state of our world today: May our hearts break open so the Word of God may fall in.

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One thought on “Place These Words Upon Your Heart

  1. Each year Thanksgiving reflections of gratitude spill out from and overflow love’s fountain – the source of all affections. God’s Love joins hearts, one to the other, in a grace filled illumination blind to gender, race or creed. Though this Thanksgiving, the wound in my heart continued to deepen, I could not escape reflections about Susan’s recent post sharing Rabbi Cohen’s and her discussion of his lecture ‘Jews and Christians: Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships.’

    Conversations promising, often atrophying amongst languished interests and other pursuits . . . .

    “In his lecture, he talked about the history of Christian-Jewish relationships, the improvement in dialogue between the two and the need to make further progress in that dialogue. He believes that much dialogue has “consisted only of cautious attempts to find common ground, to determine and emphasize the things we share,” risking an unintended syncretism and a failure on the part of both Christians and Jews to develop greater understanding of the “distinctive flavors” of the other’s faith.”

    The “cautious attempts” mentioned are similar to previous Roman Catholic declarations of ‘Doctrines of Justification’ with Anglican, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox faiths – declarations celebrating the bold print while often obscuring the fine. . .

    Reality of Faith in One God that too often continues to separate more than reconcile speaks to Rabbi Cohen’s sharing the “Hasidic tale” of “closed hearts” – often the closed hearts, from a Christian perspective, of the learned theologians and ‘scribes’ tasked to reconcile ‘holy words’, who often seem bound to beliefs professed as doctrine from the ‘Four Evangelists” that time, discernment, discussion and council has transformed.

    ‘ “. . . So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” ’

    “One thing on which we all agreed is that these sorts of conversations are important and that we need to find ways to bring them to larger audiences” – larger audiences of willing and open hearts though hearts often cloistered by belief and shepherd.

    I spent most of Saturday evening extremely distraught that this life of mine may end with God’s Kingdom on Earth possibly more fractured than ever. After many years, the third night of life loomed of not being at peace with God before sleep arrived. . .

    Before sleep, delusion may have arrived in a spirited conversation with my dearest Perpetua. Her Christian faith introduced and shared many years earlier was recalled – a faith beginning to flourish around the Mediterranean and in her native Carthage, contemporary with the preaching and writings of Origen, ‘The First (Christian) Scripture Scholar’ who had risen to prominence and revised the Catechetical School in Alexandria in c203, the year of Felicitas, Perpetua and their companions martyrdom. (Origen is believed to have been born in c182 a year after Perpetua) – a faith formed amongst the words of a middle-aged Tertullian (believed to be 40 – 45 when Perpetua converted to Christianity) – a faith steeped in the grace of reconciliation as professed in Tertullian’s ‘On Penance’ and ‘exomologesis’ (confession) and the grace of the Eucharistic sacrifice as consecrated and offered at the turn of the third century in Carthage and later wonderfully expressed in word by Cyprian (of Carthage) who was born at, or near the year, of Perpetua’s conversion at the beginning of the century.

    Her faith, a faith of “gratitude (to an all loving God), welcoming the stranger (of any gender, race, creed, free or slave) and of (during the onset of) interfaith dialogue” discerning Judaic traditions, Greek traditions and beliefs, with emerging Christianity, hers a faith so rich in promise and inclusion.

    A faith of ‘promise and inclusion’ before Arian and Nicene Christian beliefs were to collide, differing beliefs influential in the calling of the first Council of Nicaea in c325, influential in the intervention of the Roman Emperor (couched in both secular and religious motives), and tumultuous years of evolving doctrinal pronouncements that similarly continue to divide and separate faiths (possibly similar to some Judaic discussions and beliefs that may have been or may remain regarding the divinity of Jesus?).

    Words of comfort recalled as a child from the first time I ventured outside my home alone, “It’s alright, don’t be afraid.” – and eventually a dawning spiritual awareness of youthful eyes and expressions encountered and noticed during my third grade summer:

    “However not everyone was included. Two of the most unpopular boys in the neighborhood were brothers and they lived in a garage apartment across the alley from ours. The older of the two was only a month younger than me. He was tall, slight of build and the only one who wore a pair of glasses, glasses with very thick lens. His appearance to some resembled that of Ichabod Crane, from the Disney short movie The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and when you looked directly at him the lenses distorted his appearance and probably contributed to his difficulty in being accepted. He was quiet, shy and not very athletic. He seemed to lack confidence and was seldom chosen to play baseball or other sports. By association, his younger brother often received the same treatment. The mortician’s son was also younger, often watched from a distance and was stigmatized by his father’s profession.

    Though I noticed the disappointment in their eyes and frowns on their faces when my friends were excluded, I remained silent and followed the lead of the older children.

    Most of my friends had different personalities, yet at times, similar interests. Certain activities brought many of them together while excluding others. Faces were telling, as there were many smiles and sad expressions displayed when decisions were made on what to play next and whom to include. Being included was everyone’s wish. ‘Why was that not always possible? I wondered. It should be.’ “

    Also recalled, her calming presence experienced when I sought refuge in the church of my childhood (The Blessed Sacrament) when I perceived myself as an ‘outsider’ upon first entering the Assumption Hall as a fourth grader; a calming presence that helped nurture a relationship with Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, that began to manifested itself the following summer:

    ‘My fourth grade summer was memorable. Some of my friends continued to be excluded and were often treated like the defective and unwanted toys sent to the Island of Misfit Toys in the Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas television special. Many of them were not deemed good enough to play with the rest of us. Sad expressions and puzzled looks often formed on the faces of those not included.

    “We don’t want them to play,” some of my friends often stated emphatically.

    Things were a little different that summer and the way we played together began to change.

    During sports or athletic games, I offered to take the kids no one else wanted as part of my team. We were assured to loose, most often got trounced and victory celebrations were never experienced by our side, though everyone participated. However, it was not long before we had reason to celebrate. Activities requiring strategy began to produce a different kind of trouncing, with the ‘Misfit Kids’ and me doing our share.

    Though we did not have access to the play sets and toys the other kids had available, we had what nature provided and we made the most of it. Our forts and fortifications were not of the molded plastic variety or limited by the number of pieces their play sets contained. We had endless sources of sticks, stones and sand to create elaborate forts and battlements. While the other group was assembling their plastic toy pieces and searching for a level place to ensure they would not fall over once the pieces were connected together, we were claiming the most strategic locations and building elaborate defenses.

    With the help of my lanky, bespectacled friend from across the alley, I devised our strategy and the other members of our little group were excited to follow our instructions. All those years of planning, drawing and building with my red plastic bricks had paid off. At home, I had spent years building representations of the play sets my friends had and eventually was rewarded. Together we out thought and out maneuvered the other kids. I was also a ruthless, persuasive enforcer of realism, seeing that our make believe battles played out as realistically as the motion pictures that inspired many of our re-enactments. “It never happened that way in the movie!” I often had to remind them as a last resort. Who could argue with the movies? Everything we saw on the screen was real, wasn’t it?

    Soon, the most popular kids wanted to be on our side. To do so, they were required to allow one of the ‘Misfit Kids’ to take their place in the other group. Before long, the children who did not always feel wanted or accepted found themselves gaining more confidence, they had value too.’

    Her presence in word last evening returned focus and thought once again to acceptance, inclusion and love expressed and shared not necessarily in places of worship with names above the door, rather in ‘our daily’ places where God’s invitations to acknowledge, accept and nurture relationships, both fleeting and lasting, with all of His children. Where, from a Christian perspective, we are encouraged daily, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” to transcend the ‘Bread and Cup’ of the Eucharist and pour out completely for another our precious Gift of Unconditional Love and Gift of the Holy Spirit received at birth.

    Assured of His promise, “and whoever loses their life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew: 10-39). Our faith promises salvation, our works may well determine the place prepared for us. . .

    Our conversation concluded with her recalling the response I received to my lament, “If only you were here Lord!” expressed during the homily (on March 23, 2014, the third Sunday of lent) taken from the Samaritan woman at the well Gospel reading. Clearly and with a touch of sarcasm I heard, ‘You were there.”

    I believe she is correct, I was there, in our heart(s) we were all there – all were there, all called to be accepting and inclusive of all of God’s children, all called to help build up the Kingdom of God, all to give account at the end of (our) days – a personal account given where robes and mitered hats of ecclesiastical authority will not shield from moments when “our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.”

    “And it presents the best prayer I could wish for us given the state of our world today: May our hearts break open so the Word of God may fall in.”

    “If only You were here Lord!”

    – “You were there.”

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