There is a Future

Yesterday morning, I visited Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka to have coffee with my new friend, Rabbi Norman Cohen, who has been the leader of the Bet Shalom congregation since its founding. I’ve mentioned Rabbi Cohen in posts before; we met last month for the first time when we were co-panelists on a program about pilgrimage in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, and I’ve benefitted from several writings of his that he has kindly sent me. I was delighted he was able to take time for some conversation and to give me a “cook’s tour” of Bet Shalom.

As I expected, our conversation gave me much food for thought and doubtless you’ll hear something about that in a future post. But today I share the thing from my visit yesterday that touched my heart most deeply.

In the sanctuary of the Temple, Rabbi Cohen showed me the congregation’s Torah Scrolls. In addition to the three scrolls in the Torah ark, there is one hanging in a protective case on the wall backed by a mirror.

On the few occasions when I’ve stood in front of the Torah ark, I feel something that is hard to describe. Part of it is the scrolls themselves, and the vision of all the times I’ve heard young men and women recite their Torah portion at their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Part of it also is the evocation of the Old Testament ark of the covenant and so the sense of the coming together of the past and the present. However those two fit together, there is the presence of the holy there that I respond to.

But yesterday, there was also this other scroll, the one in the protective case. And its story is this:

During World War II, the Nazis destroyed synagogues throughout Czechoslovakia. Many Torah scrolls from those synagogues were destroyed. Others were collected and kept in the basement of a synagogue in Prague. According to Michael Heppner, Research Director for the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, the scrolls “came from the large Prague Jewish community, and from many smaller communities that were scattered.” The legend is that the Nazis kept them there, intending to create a museum to the extinct race of Jews after World War II.

In the 1960s, the scrolls were brought to London, where they were sorted, catalogued and restored. Many were then distributed to Jewish congregations around the world by the Memorial Scrolls Trust, established for that purpose.

One of those Torah scrolls was sent to Bet Shalom where it is on “permanent loan.” Seeing the scroll alone was powerfully moving to me. More so was what Rabbi Cohen shared about something he often does. When a young member of the community is celebrating e.g. their Bar Mitzvah, he stands with them in front of the scroll. He reminds them of the scroll’s origin and tells them that if the scroll could have spoken while it was discarded in a basement in Prague, it would have said, “There is no future for the Jewish people.”

Then with the young person standing looking at his own image in the mirror along with the scroll, he adds, “And if this Torah scroll could speak today, what do you think it would say? It would say, ‘There is a future.’ In you there is a future.” A powerful message and I am grateful to Rabbi Cohen for sharing it with me.


Our Children, Our Hope For the Future

It may be that I’m exposed to a particularly extraordinary group of young people, but I am sometimes awed by the level of spiritual development and faith commitment I see in young men and women under the age of 20 (sometime referred to as “kids”). My own 18 year old daughter is far more intentional about her faith than I was at her age and she recently asked for some recommendations for books that would help her work through some issues relating to her Catholicism. My friend Mark’s eighth grader writes blog posts exploring various religious topics with a level of insight that makes his blog one I check regularly.

More recently, my friend Joel’s ten year old daughter was the children’s prayer leader for her church’s “All-In” stewardship campaign. For five weeks, she has been composing prayers for the children relating to the campaign focus for that week. (For example, one week the focus was Generosity Explosion; another it was Leadership Expedition.)

With Natalie’s permission, I share some excerpts from her prayers. You might want to pray them yourself. Or you might just, like me, find in them evidence of the hope for our future that are our children.

…Lord, I pray that you would make us people who bring comfort to those in hard times, who bring food and clean water to the people who are hungry and thirsty, who bring hope to the depressed, who bring the good news to the burdened, who bring forgiveness, and who bring joy to all people.

But Lord, most importantly, let us bring people to you. Let us be your messengers here on Earth, and help us to see that you heal hurt through us, and love others through us. I pray that we will be like Jesus, and all will see the Fruits of the Spirit in our lives. Lord, please let others see us, and draw to you…
(focus: Community, Connection, and Spiritual Invasion)

…Let us develop hearts for serving, so that we may want to serve you, not feel like we have to. Help us to understand that serving others is like serving you Lord, and let us have a passion for serving….Let our leadership shine like stars, showing everyone that we serve the Kingdom of Heaven and we like it. Thank you for everyone here today, and help them see that they are wanted and needed here, and their gifts will be fully appreciated if they choose to use them to serve you. Help us to see we are all leaders and we get to influence people in your name. Thank you God for Jesus. Amen.
(focus: Leadership Expedition)

Heavenly Father, Thank you for providing us with everything we need. Help us to learn to give up things that we want, and to give to you instead. Give us courage to hold out our hands and say, “No, I’ll serve the Lord instead.” Let us see that you give us everything, and we can’t out-give you. Fill us with joy, so that we may be examples, showing everyone that you are with us…Help us give more and more, knowing it all ends up in Your hands. I pray that our giving will move people to know you. Let us be Your hands here on earth. Thank you God for Jesus. Amen.
(focus: Generosity Explosion)

Thanks for Natalie for allowing me to share her prayers. And thanks to her and to all of the other wonderful young people I encounter.

Age of Integrity and Wisdom

Wednesday evening, I offered the reflection at a Taize prayer service at Summerwood of Chanhassen, an senior living facility run by Presbyterian Homes and Services. The service was amazingly well attended for a summer evening.

My theme was Age of Integrity and Wisdom, borrowing Erikson’s description of the state of life of those aged 65 and older as the “age of integrity” or the “age of wisdom.” In my reflection, I talked about the fact that part of this stage of integrity and wisdom is the ability to look back over one’s life in gratitude – examining how one has grown through everything one has experienced and realizing where God was in places we may not have noticed God’s presence before. I also talked about some of the functions and benefits of the look-back process.

You can listen to a recording of the reflection here. (The podcast runs for 9:54.) The readings that were part of our service, which I reference during my talk are here.

Reflecting on Hope

Last night was one of our monthly Taize prayer services at St. Hubert’s. I always love these services. Particularly during busy times, they are a wonderful way to come rest with God for a while.

In addition to song, periods of silence and readings, one of us offers a reflection at each service. Last night, the reflection was delivered by Lynn Arnal, our faith formation supervisor. Her theme was hope and she spoke in her reflection both of the importance of hope in our lives and or our role in spreading hope to others.

Lynn selected some wonderful readings for our service. I include two of them here you may wish to reflect on today.

“To that hope we now turn. Faith stories that provide a “home” for people of Christian traditions offer stunning and startling promises. They are the ingredients of hope. God’s gracious and mysterious love for the world and for each of us cannot be extinguished. So speaks the resurrection. That love assumes bodily form. So speaks the incarnation. God’s power and presence, seeking the healing and liberation of all, is breathed into us. We are empowered to be body of Christ on Earth, to move toward living as we are called to live.” (Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda)

“The hope offered in the Gospel is “an anchor for the soul,” the source of one’s innermost cohesion regardless of tempestuous life circumstances. It is worth some reflection, then, to ponder how hope does its work. In a profound sense, a hope fulfilled retroactively charges the past with a significance it could not otherwise have and the anticipation of fulfilled hope is an ongoing participation in that significance.” (David P. Hoover)

In the Morning You Will See the Glory of the Lord

“Are we there yet?” “Is it time yet?”

As we do each year, we spend four weeks preparing ourselves for Christmas. We wait in joyful hope, we actively prepare to welcome (anew) the Christ into our hearts and homes. We pray, we tell the stories of our ancestors, we take stock, we recommit ourselves.

And now, our time of waiting in joyful hope is almost at an end. The preparations have been made and, ready or not, the time is almost here. In the words of Exodus, “In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord.”

As we wrap the last of the Christmas presents, send off those last cards, pack for holiday visits, and prepare the feast we will share with family and friends, let us continue to rejoice that our God comes and to reflect on how we may bring the good news of God’s presence and love to others.

Happy Christmas Eve!

Bearers and Receivers of Light

I’ve mentioned before the sermons of Rev. Marianne Edgar Budde, rector of St. John’s Episcopal parish in Minneapolis. This past weekend, she completed a four-part sermon series, From Darkness to Light, presented during the four Sundays of Advent.

There is much to reflect on in Rev. Budde’s sermons and as I have re-read her sermon series in these last days of Advent, I have come back several times to a portion of the third sermon in the darkness and light series. Quoting two passages in Isaiah – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” – she asks how it is that we see the light. From where does the light come when the darkness seems so complete that hope is lost?

Rev. Budde gave one answer to that question, a beautiful one, saying:

No doubt there are countless ways, but here is one way: we hold the light for each other. By the grace of God, someone in the midst of every darkness is given the power to see light, or to trust in light, when all is dark. And that person holds it, carries it, keeps it alive until others see it, too, and together, they begin the long walk out of darkness.

Each of us, at times, is light bearer or light receiver. We have all had times when others “have held light for [us] when all was dark, who assured [us], or assure [us] now, that things will get better.” And each of us “have in the past or are now keeping the light alive for someone else.” Those actions – given and received may be quite small. As Rev. Budde observed, “what keeps most of us going in our darkest hours are the bearers of light closer in, the words of kindness spoken by a friend or stranger; a prayer offered when we are in pain; a phone call reaching through the shrouds of grief to remind us that we’re not alone; a courageous local leader taking a stand for justice.”

The truth she asks us to hold onto is a simple one:

[I]n the darkness of your life, there has been, and is now, light shining, held by others who love you, believe in you, and want only what is best for you. And in the darkness of another person’s life, you might be the light, or the one entrusted with the light that they need to see by. That’s how the light of God works in and through us. There are other ways that the light shines, to be sure, but this way is one that involves you and me directly.

We each, she concludes must accept both the blessing and responsibility that is our life – to hold onto the confidence that there is always light for us, even in the darkest times, remaining always open to receiving that light, and to look always for opportunities to be the bearer of light to others.

Note: you can find transcripts of Rev. Budde’s sermons here.

The Promise He Made to Our Fathers

There is a Leonard Cohen song titled Everybody Knows, that paints a bleak picture of human existence and human relationship. Everybody knows, we are told, that the dice are loaded, that the deck is stacked, that the fight is fixed, that the good guys lost, that the war is over, that the rich stay rich, etc. “That’s [just] how it goes. Everybody knows.” That’s just the way it is. The song is one of defeat, of hopelessness.

We hear a diametrically opposite song in today’s Gospel – Mary’s Magnificat. In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the future when peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people.

Mary isn’t blind to the suffering and injustice of the world in which she lived. She saw the way things were. But she knew that the ways things were was not the way things had to be, was not the way they would always be. Mary was confident in God. Confident that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the difficulties. Confident that God would fulfill the “promise he made to our fathers,” that God would lift up the lowly and set free the oppressed.

Mary’s Magnificat is a rousing message of hope. And that message is one the world needs, because it is so easy to fall into the defeat and hopelessness expressed in the Cohen song (which I sometimes refer to as the anti-Magnificat). The message that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the suffering, is one we ourselves need to believe. And it is the message that we, as Christians, need to convey to the world.

Actively Waiting in Joyful Hope – Advent Retreat in Daily Living – Week 4

This week was the final session of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas. (St. Hubert’s final session will be Monday evening.) As I’ve explained before, in a Retreat in Daily Living, participants commit themselves to a prayer each day and go about their daily lives as usual, coming together weekly for input and sharing.

This week our theme was Actively Waiting in Joyful Hope. Since law school exams are in session, we got moved from our normal room to one not conducive to small group discussion. So we began our session with a full group discussion of the participants’ experience of prayer during the final week. What came out of that discussion was gratitude for the ability to slow down during this busy season, a recognition of the value of ritual in focusing our minds and the sense of Advent as a creative time. I then spoke briefly about the gift we give in response to God’s gift to us of the Incarnation – the “joyful hope” we bring to the world, sharing some thoughts about what it means for us as Christians to gift the world with hope.

You can a podcast of my talk here. (The podcast runs for 18:58.) A copy of this week’s prayer materials is here. I hope some of you will pray along with us durign these remaining days of Advent.

Francois Nguyen Van Thuan and the “Defects” of Jesus

I recently read that the Diocese of Rome has formally opened the sainthood process for Cardinal Francois Nguyen Van Thuan. In 1975, Van Thuan, then a bishop, was imprisoned by the Vietnamese government. He remained in prison for 13 years before being released to house arrest and ultimately, being expelled from Vietnam.

Van Thuan’s was not a name I knew until about ten years ago when a friend gave me a copy of his book, Testimony of Hope: The Spiritual Exercises of John Paul II. Each year, Pope John Paul II chose a preacher to give a course of Spiritual Exericises for himself and the Roman Curia. Van Than was his selection in 2000 and the book is the complete text of those exercises.

One of his early talks addressed how he answered a question frequently put to him when he was in prison. People always asked him the reason for his hope in Jesus Christ. He described the necessity of finding a way to explain his faith in a way that could be understood by his interlocutors. His explanation (which he admitted might sound heretical to the Roman Curia) was this: “I left everything to follow Jesus, because I love the defects of Jesus.”

Van Thuan lists five defects of Jesus and his evidence for each:

First, Jesus had a terrible memory. Citing as evidence Jesus promise to the thief crucified with Him that he will be in paradise, his pardon of the sinful woman who anointed his feet and the parable of the prodigal sun, Van Thuan concludes, “Jesus does not have a memory like mine. He not only pardons, and pardons every person, he even forgets that he has pardoned.”

Second, Jesus didn’t know math, as evidenced by the parable of the lost sheep, in which a shephard leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go off and search for the one who becomes lost. “For Jesus, one is equal to ninety-nine – and perhaps more! Who could ever accept this? But his mercy reaches from generation to generation.”

Third, Jesus doesn’t know logic. Van Thuan’s evidence for this defect is the story of the woman who loses one of her ten silver pieces and who, upon finding it calls all her friends to celebrate with her. The celebration, he reasons, must have cost more than the one silver piece, perhaps even more than ten silver pieces. This, Van Thuan suggests is completely illogical, except to the strange logic of Jesus’ heart.

Fourth, Jesus is a risk-taker, a man with a publicity campaign that to human eyes is “doomed to failure.” A promise of trials and persecutions for those who follow him. No guarantee of food or lodging, only a share of his own way of life. “Jesus the risk-taker for the love of the Father and of humanity, is a paradox from beginning to end, even for us who have become used to hearing it.”

Finally, Jesus doesn’t understand finance or economics, as evidenced by the story of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Von Thuan points out that “[i]f Jesus were named the administrator of a community or the director of a business, the instutitons would surely fail and go bankrupt. How can anyone pay someone who began working at 5:00 P.M. the very same wages paid ot thep erson who has been working since early morning? Yet Jesus does.

You gotta love the defects of Jesus!

Advent Retreat in Daily Living – Gift Giving

This week was the final gathering of the four week Advent Retreat in Daily Living I gave at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our theme for this week was Gift Giving. As we start to get ready to move from an Advent spirit to a Christmas one, the question is what gift will we bring to the world? What is the Christmas gift I am offering to the world (and by so doing, offering to God).

After the participants spent some time sharing their prayer experiences of the past week, I talked about the particular gift we as Christians are called to bring to the world, that is, to be beacons of hope in troubled times. Although we all bring individual gifts and talents to the world, we collectively share in the bringing of this gift. In my talk, I spoke about what hope means in Christian terms (which is something very different from optimism and simply looking on the bright side) and what it means for us as Christians to be beacons of hope.

You can find the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 20:50). The prayer material for this final week of the retreat, which I reference during the talk, can be found here.