Saturday, December 31, 2016

It All Begins With Light

Tonight I light the 8th night of Hanukkah candles. I was planning on staying in the New Testament this year, focusing on the stories of Jesus and the 2,000 years of Christian tradition, good and bad, that his followers have developed.

But the Menorah, its nine slots for candles, and the box of 45 candles beckoned me.

The light mesmerizes. Even as a private ritual, the lighting of the lights and the utterance of "Blessed are you Lord God, king of the universe..." opens the heart to so much. How many blessing can I murmer that start with the simple phrase, a profession of faith?

Christianity has its own candles this time of year, but they are unfamiliar to me. We're down home church people, not given to liturgy or the lighting of candles. So, of course, I was curious.

The first night of advent, I sat in a Catholic church. The first of the candles of advent stood waiting in its giant stand. The candle of hope.

It's not too hard to imagine the shadows of oppression the hung over the land of Israel when the prophecies ceased. The world held its breath in expectation that something had to change, that a savior must come . . . and soon.

The second candle of advent (that wonderful word that carries with it the anticipation) is the candle of love. For me, I know, it's a good reminder that, even as I prepare to give as generously as I can to the people I love, there is something about Christmas season that makes it hard to love all the time. The kids are brats, the lines at the store are too long, other drivers on the road are erratic and impatient. And yet, we are called to love. Jesus, when he came, did not love us only when we sat still and behaved. He love us. No. Matter. What.

Week 3 is the shepherds' candles, the candle of joy. We look for joy in the light in our children's eyes as they hang their traditional ornaments on the tree, in the face of a friend when we sip tea and prayer for each other's children. But are we seeing joy . . . or simply a moment of happiness? When the shepherds left their flocks, it was a real life changer, not just a short-term distration.

Next comes the candle of peace, also called the angels' candle. "Glory to God in the highest. Peace on Earth. Good will among men." At that moment in time, it was more than a wish. It was the truth. Glory, peace, and good will had made their entrance.

And at last, after a month of anticiaption, the Christ candle. There is so much to say about what this white candle and the light it brings in the midst of the other means.

I have all year to unpack the meaning hidden in the center light. I know it won't be enough time.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

50 Days Later

50 days after the first day of Passover come Shavuot. The day, better know to me as Pentecost, commemorates the handing down of the law from Mount Sinai 50 days after the Exodus. But it's not just about the law. There's a lot wrapped up in this little day. Here are some other things it's known as:

The Feast of Weeks
The harvest of wheat in Israel (Festival of Reaping)
The conclusion of the counting of the Omer
The Day of First Fruits (interestingly, this the second observance of firstfruits during the year)
Atzeret (holding back)

In Bible times, the remembrance of this day involved cutting stalks of the first ripening grain and delivering it to the temple (in a basket made of gold or silver, on the back of an oxen with gilded horns. It was a huge procession into the city with parades and music and celebration.

Today's observance has less fanfare. Some groups stay up all night studying the Torah. Others just read through the book of Ruth (a famous story of the wheat harvest). And everyone eats dairy. Cheese blintzes, cheesecake, cheese raviolis, cheesy pancakes... you get the picture.

Pentecost was a big deal to the Jews in Jesus' day, and so was a big deal to those of them who became Christians on that day.

I've done so well all year celebrating each of the feasts, but I didn't get my heart into this one. For one thing, we've got a lot going on at our house these days and I don't have a lot of brain waves left over for this project/experience. Also, as I've celebrated each feast, I've pulled in friends who were willing to participate with me. For some reason, I thought this one was a hard sell, so I "celebrated" on my own. I wish I hadn't. I should have taken the time to acknowledge the importance of God giving his law, of the way he provides through our crops each year, and of how the Spirit descended to earth on the same day as the law once had done the same. There's liberty in that.

I did read the book of Ruth and was struck by how what seems to be such a sweet story of loyalty and love has such an undercurrent of suffering and uncertainty.

I did spend time in my garden which, while not offering any first fruits yet (except strawberries and blueberries), is a good place for me to acknowledge the importance of the life cycle of the year.

I did not stay up all night studying the Torah, though I kind of wish I had. It's the kind of thing that sounds hard and uncomfortable, but I know it would pay rewards that I cannot anticipate. If one of you would like to do this with me one night, I'd be more likely to make it through with some company.

I did not fix a bunch of cheese desserts, though that sounds amazing.

I'm disappointed in myself on this one, like I cheated myself out of the experience of the last true holiday in my Jewish year. There's a minor fast in August commemorating the destruction of the two temples, but by then my head will be deep in plans and dreams for next year, my New Testament year.

In past years, the disappointment would have come because I somehow failed. I set a goal and I did not work hard enough to achieve. Shame on me.

That's not the me of today. Today's disappointment comes from knowing I missed something good and profound. I looked at this feast from the outside and it looked like too much trouble for the payoff. But this one wasn't supposed to be about me. It was supposed to be about God.

Acknowledging his goodness.
Remembering the rescue from slavery.
Seeing the law as a gift for its time and the Spirit as the true gift for all time.
Thanking him for feeding us, for bringing food up from the dirt.
And cheese.

Photo credit: maiptitfleur via StoolsFair / CC BY-NC-ND

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Passover (Part 3 of 3)

The first thing you may notice is that there are no photos to go with this post. That's because the Jewish family we spent the Passover Seder with does not use cell phones (or any other electronic devices) on the Sabbath. They also don't drive, do certain kinds of work, or walk beyond the distance their faith tradition limits them to.

It was my first exposure to a family that lives by Jewish laws of kosher and Sabbath. What strikes me looking back on the experience, though, is that this was not an evening of what was not allowed, but an evening to remember, discuss, and celebrate. Removing the distractions of phones, electronics, and other devices served to heighten the focus of the night--a night of freedom.

The invitation to the evening came from Laura, who clearly exhibits a gift of hospitality. We were not the only first-timers at this Seder meal, though I'm fairly certain we were the only non-Jews. 24 of us gathered in a circle in the living room for the pre-meal discussion. We started with the lighting of candles in honor or memory of someone, then a round of introductions with the question, "What makes you feel free?" Answers included sailing, hiking, eating, being at the ocean, and even visiting a prison.

Rabbi David, who came to the family business of spiritual leadership after an early career as a chef (this would become clear later), was at ease with his small and temporary congregation. The main events of the night were laid out by the Haggadah (the 13 steps of the Seder which must take place in order), but he was not bound by the words on the page. Rather, he encouraged any and all to ask questions, to comment, to share what this experience reminded them of in the bigger questions of freedom and slavery.

Their family celebrated a few traditions I'd not seen before:

  • sitting on pillows on the ground (a Yemeni tradition)
  • bringing out a plate of vegetables and dips after the first dipping of bitter herbs into salt water (brilliant idea, byt the way, to stave off hunger as it takes a very long time to get to the meal portion of the night)
  • instead of eating a small corner of the afikoman (matzah), Rabbi David asked us to take at least half a sheet of matzah and to eat it in silence, imagining what it would be like to be in slavery and only have this dry, flat bread to eat
  • During the singing of the Dayenu (the story of how if God had only done this one thing or that one thing, it would have been enough), we were given green onions to whack each other with. Another Yemeni tradition that broke up the evening, especially for the kids. Everyone was eager willing to take a swipe at friends and neighbors.
  • The four children. I have seen this section of the Hagaddah before but skipped it in writing the one we use at home because I did not understand it. Turns out, a lot of people don't understand it. In this section of the Seder, we were asked to consider the four children: the simple, the wise, the wicked, and the one who doesn't know how to ask questions. I listened to the discussion and am still as clueless as before what purpose this part of the evening serves.
Through it all, Rabbi David led the discussion and the Hebrew chants (I was no good at these, but most everyone in the room know how to read them and knew the tunes). He was tuned into the history of each section and was able to explain Hebrew meanings off the top of his head. I think this lent a less formal atmosphere as he was able to go off script and return to the script at will. When we've done Seders at our place, we are tied to the text because we don't have a big picture of what each piece means and where it came from.

Speaking of which, the other main thing I noticed was how Rabbi David was comfortable not knowing an answer. In fact, at times he probably did know the answer, but resisted explaining in order to let us sit in our questions. He later expressed the beauty of the design of Passover as a chance to ask questions, but not necessarily answer them. It piques our curiosity and keeps us coming back again and again. I think I have a lot to learn from this attitude. If I can resist the urge to explain, I can give people around me the opportunity to explore their own ideas instead of being spoon (or force) fed mine.

The meal was, I must say, one the most amazing meals I've ever eaten, all prepared by Rabbi David and his wife because the rest of us did not keep "kosher for Passover" kitchens. It was a generous and amazing spread. (They did have someone to help with serving and dishes) Here are a few of the dishes we ate: Matzah Ball Soup, Garlic Soup, Salmon with Pesto and Edible Flowers, Saffron Cod, roasted root vegetables, roasted asparagus, several salads, matzahs, fresh fruit, chocolate hazelnut flourless cake, macaroons, and matzah roca. There was more--much more--but I didn't have room to taste everything and my eyes glazed over well before I finished what was on my plate. I think they had plenty of leftovers for their second night Seder the following evening. 

The food and wine lubricated conversation around the table as we got to know each other. We listened as families with different levels of involvement and observance talked about what had brought them to this point. I soaked it all in. The children were dismissed to run wild downstairs while the adults sat around the tables and finished the Hagaddah with some singing and the promise to meet next year in Jerusalem.

I didn't want to leave.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Passover (Part 2 of 3)

Thank heavens for the folks at Renovatus who hosted a Passover Seder dinner and offered an open invite. We reserved our spots, thankful for the opportunity.

 The outdoor setting was beautiful--the thunderstorm ill-timed. We found our spots around tables set with the seder plate and breathed in the sweet air before the rains would come. We don't really get thunderstorms around here, so weren't too worried one would actually materialize.

Just in case, Kevin, the host, suggested we get started and not dally too long. We opened our Hagaddah (that's the booklet that lays out the script for the evening) and read the opening blessing.

And the sky cracked open.

A great bolt of lightning struck with a crack, leaving the air charged and the hair on our arms and legs standing straight up. Everyone grabbed seder plates and ran for shelter.

I guess that's a good reason to keep your shoes on for Passover!

The group of 20 or more made short work of arranging tables inside. We worked through the Hagaddah, sampling matzah and bits of lamb, doing each of the steps of the evening with acknowledgement and explanation of how the Old Testament traditions pointed to New Testament truths. If you've never experienced a Seder meal with a group of Christians, you really should. After my first experiene, communion was never the same again.

On this night, though, I left feeling like I had gone through the actions of the Seder meal, but it didn't get to my heart like it often does. Had it become old hat? Just another tradition that lost its meaning from too much repetition?

I anticipated (and dreaded) going to a second Seder meal in the same week. I've avoided writing about this first Seder because I have so much to say about the second, I am overwhelmed.

Still, there is a value in keeping traditions. Even when they don't reach us at a heart level, they remind us of who we are and where we come from. It was a blessing to share the evening with old friends, strangers, and (especially) one of my girls.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Passover (Part 1 of 3)

When I started this year of celebrating the feasts prescribed by God in the Torah, the only feast I'd ever experienced before was Passover. I attended my first Seder in the early 90s and it changed the way I experience the Lord's Supper forever. To eat the full meal and recognize how the symbols of communion are threads tied into the tapestry of God's plan thousands of years before Jesus was born is to taste the richness of His mercy.

Years ago, we started celebrating Passover in our own home, inviting different folks to join us around the table and work through the script of the Hagaddah, the booklet to sets the order for the evening.

I know about Passover. This one would be easy.

Or so I thought.

I've had in mind (hanging over my head) that in this year of learning, it wouldn't be enough for me to read books and articles. I needed to interact with modern-day Jews on some level. I thought that would involve dropping in at a local synagogue for a Sabbath day service, but I had no idea how to do that. Can you just walk in the door? Do men and women sit together or apart? Is there some kind of ritual cleansing or class you have to pass to be welcomed?

Passover, I thought, would be the perfect time to face my fear and find an event to attend. I pictured buying a ticket for a Seder meal from a local community center or church group. That would be close enough, right? When I started looking around for which groups were offering Seders, I ran across an event called "An Inspirational Women's Passover Experience."

Just for women? That solved one of my issues. At least I'd know where to sit. And attending a lecture on Passover would allow me to sit back, listen and observe. I can do that. And the fact the event happened the week before Passover meant we could celebrate the holiday like normal, around our own table.

I conscripted my friend Joanne to go with me. She turned out to be the perfect choice. Joanne is not shy, which was great because this event was not a lecture.

A handful of women greeted us at the door and pointed us downstairs to a fellowship hall. Joanne was brave enough to ask if we could see the sanctuary, a large auditorium with pews, very similar to many churches I've visited, except behind the pulpit were displayed 5 copies of the Torah. The congregations 6th copy was unrolled on the podium where a young boy was practicing to do his first reading in front of the congregation. Each of these massive scrolls holds the words of the 5 books of Moses, meticulously hand scripted in tiny Hebrew characters.

Before we even reached the hall, we had met Kathy, and Dana, and Barbara, and Rachel, each one open, friendly, and inviting. The hall was filled with big round tables, the kind big enough to seat 10. I looked for a spot to sit where my back wouldn't be to the speaker.

I still thought there was going to be a speaker.

Rabbi Eve took on the role of facilitator, giving a few words to think about and then directing us to discuss our experiences around our table. Even on the first question, it was obvious we weren't going to be able to pretend to fit in. Our ignorance didn't phase the ladies around our table. They took great pleasure in explaining to us, throughout the evening, the significance of their family traditions, the meaning of words we didn't understand, the reason behind certain rules regarding Passover. One woman, who had grown up in Israel on a Kibbutz, added another layer of explanation as she was able to describe, "in America it is this way, but in Israel, we do it like this."

And the dessert... oh, the dessert! Three decadent Passover approved tasty bites. My favorite was the mini pavlova with blueberry compote. Yum!

After the event, we were again surrounded by a sea of friendly women wanting to know where we had learned about the event, where we lived, whether we would come again. One of the last people we talked to was Laura. She talked about some of the difficulties of Passover, the extra work, the burden of preparation. Then she offered to include us in her family's Passover Seder if we were interested. We'd have to check our schedules. I wanted to go, but I didn't want to. It was a step into the unknown with people I didn't know. That is a scary place to be. I'd get back to her.

I wish I could unpack everything I saw, heard, and thought, but there's too much. Here are a few of the impressions I left with that night.

  1. People are people are people. Each person we encounter comes with a unique history, a story, a memory that makes them who they are.
  2. A Jewish congregation feels a lot like a church family. This is a group with shared history and values. They are (for the most part) happy to be together. They are also happy to see new faces.
  3. It is nice to be welcomed, but can be overwhelming to be TOO welcomed. As a guest, I was happy people talked to me, but for EVERYONE to talk to me was like getting hit with a fire hose.
  4. We can thank our mothers and grandmothers for passing down family stories, recipes, and quirks.
  5. A lot of these women are practicing religion because it is their cultural tradition and their racial heritage.
  6. Some of the questions we asked ourselves felt empty, self-reliant. "How do you sanctify yourself?" "How will you be reborn in the new year?" "How will you sustain yourself?" They left me feeling exhausted. If it's up to me, I can never do it.
  7. The rules are not as set in stone as I thought. At our table, there was a lot of comparison of how things are done in different homes. I think I was expecting uniformity, but found a shared core with different manifestations.

That was last week. This week brought more Passover excitement, which I will write about in my next post.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Celebrating Purim

First, as always, a quick history of Purim.

This holiday, while described and established in the Bible, was not one of the festivals commanded by God as part of handing down of the law. Instead, it was established by the Jews in exile after Queen Esther took bold steps to save her people from the wicked plans of Haman.

The fact that this is not a feast established by God but by people probably explains a lot about the drunkenness and silliness that go into the holiday. That doesn't mean it's not a great reminder about some spiritual truths.

Some that stood out for me:

1. There's always a chance I am where I am so God can use me.

2. Being used can be very scary.

3. If I don't step up, God has other plans in place that don't involve me. But not stepping up can also bring some pretty horrible consequences.

Now to the party. It had been a long time since the last feast, Hanukkah. So long, in fact, that I didn't know if I could awaken the excitement in myself to finish this project. Once I started reading about Purim, though, I was all in.

There are several aspects of celebrating Purim. Costumes, the telling of the Esther story, giving to the poor, sharing food with friends, and special dessert cookie. I was all in.

For the guest list, I took the size of our home into consideration. It's a small place. 8-10 is the ideal guest list. It would have to be for ladies only, just for the sake of space. Problem was, I had about 50 "best friends" I wanted to invite. For this holiday, I wanted to have a mix of people who don't usually spend time together. The fact that Purim fell on the same night as youth group also played a factor.

We needed a theme (Royalty) and a menu (Mediterranean) and some activities. Rather than making my guests act out the play, I opted for a short video version of the Esther story. I provided noise makers so we could blow them at the sound of Haman's name, may it be blotted from the earth. (I loved the suggestion that we should take the noisemakers to church next time we study Esther. Wouldn't that be something!)

Throw in a couple of silly games and a bunch of balloons and we were good to go!

Purim wasn't so much about learning deep spiritual truth. It was more of a chance to celebrate life, to laugh at the dying winter, and to make connections with new people. I wish I could have invited every woman I know (guys, too, but you have to draw the line somewhere).

Next up is Passover and then Shavuot (Pentecost) and then my year of Jewish Feasts will come to a close. I'm already finding myself waxing nostalgic, though I've still got some months to go. I've shared this year so far with a lot of people (the social aspects of every feast have surprised me. God used the calendar to build community). If you've wanted to join in on one of the festivals and haven't had a chance, contact me about Passover (at the end of April) and Shavuot (at the beginning of June).

Saturday, January 02, 2016

New Beginnings

As we ring in a new year, I turn the page in my Bible to start the book of Exodus. I am excited to leave the partiarchs behind and to see how God establishes covenant not only with one family, but with the nation that came from them. How appropriate that the reading in Exodus starts as the new year begins.

Only it doesn't always happen that way. Becuase the Jews use a lunar calendar, the Torah readings float to different dates (not in their year--in their year they stay the same, but relative to the western world, they shift). Next year, they won't reach Exodus until the middle of January. By then, I hope to be well into the New Testament.

I have no deep or astounding insights to share this week. Honestly, once we packed away the Menorah, we also packed our car and headed out on a 4,000 mile road trip to pick up kids from college and to spend Christmas with family. My Jewish year did not demand my attention and I did not offer it.

Now begins a long spell between holidays. I will try to post the Torah portion and my reflections each week as I am able. Otherwise, I look forward to Purim, Pesach, and Pentecost.

This Week's Torah Portion:
Exodus 1:1-6:1
Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23
Luke 5:12-39