How to Be: Thoughts about Guns and the Value of Life

I made a mistake yesterday.  While waiting to catch my flight home from a board meeting, I joined a debate about gun control on a friend’s Facebook thread. I don’t typically participate in such debates via social media.  Our emboldened rhetoric behind the anonymity of the computer screen is, I believe, problematic. But I was a bored traveler, feeling, I admit, a tad self-righteous.

I did not know the people I was debating.  They were friends of my friend on Facebook.  I tried to choose my words wisely, tried to speak with respect.  But the debate was more about winning than it was about listening—each of us determined to have the last word.  I finally withdrew from the thread, not because I didn’t have more to say, but because the debate itself felt soul-sucking.  The weight of our gun-addicted culture became more than I could bear.

On the drive home from the airport, I tuned in to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.  Tippett was interviewing Rabbi Arnold Eisen on the life and legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a spiritual leader whom I greatly admire.  Towards the end of the interview Tippett read Heschel’s words aloud: 

In his essay, “Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation. We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being. We have forgotten the meaning of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ But that is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem, biblically speaking, is how to be and how not to be.”

Heschel’s words about life—the wonder, radical amazement, and mystery of sheer being—felt like balm for my wounds.  After listening to people defend our right to bear arms and our need for guns, I needed to hear from someone who valued life in this extraordinary way.  Heschel’s words also left me pondering, though. How should I be?  How should I not be?  Even as I asked myself these questions, I knew the answers.  I should be peace, I should be love, I should be for life, not against it, and be for all that honors the grandeur of God’s creation.  Fighting for peace in a Facebook debate where one side seeks to verbally conquer the other is counter-productive and hypocritical.  We are not going to heal our addiction to violence with more verbal violence.  So I will put this mistake behind me.  I will live more responsibly today.

 

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The Artist and the Art: A Theological Relationship

Stephanie Baugh

Stephanie Baugh “Wanderlust”

Sometimes, when I feel creatively dry, I venture over to our college’s art gallery in search of inspiration. Yesterday morning I made this excursion with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Essential Writings tucked under my arm.

Upon entering the gallery I paused first to scan through the binder that held the resumes and statements of the artists. The statement of my friend and colleague, Stephanie Baugh, caught my attention immediately. She wrote:

I am interested in the felt experience of small and quiet aspects of life. I am curious about how we can lay meaning and import over activities that are often seen as mundane or merely practical. I regularly spend time in reflection about my experiences or about states of mind in which I find myself. I give these reflective thoughts form as artworks. The process of creating the artworks extends my examination of the conditions of my consciousness and how I encounter the world.”

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Stephanie Baugh “Philosophy”

I resonated with Stephanie’s desire to pay attention to “the small and quiet aspects of life” as well as the meaning she finds as she creates. I have often said that I don’t know what I know until I write it out. There seems to be, then, something extraordinary about the act of creating—how through it we come to know ourselves and our world in a more profound and intimate way. There’s something mystical about this act of creation. Something wholly “other” as we surrender to the muse and follow wherever she leads. And apparently where she leads is often to a new version of ourselves.

Stephanie concludes:

“It is not only that I am making art; the art is also making me.”

In the introduction of the book tucked underneath my arm, I have underlined and tabbed a particularly interesting passage. Here Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter writes:

“Like his Hasidic forbears, my father turned religious assumptions upside down. It is not just that we are in search of God, but that God is in search of us, in need of us. We are objects of divine concern.”

The idea that God is in need of us is somewhat startling, but also intriguing. How might God need us? If God does need us, what would God not be able to do or be without us?

Because these questions arose in an art gallery I began to contemplate God’s role as a creator and maker. God’s art clearly includes us. We are an element of God’s beautiful creation. If what Stephanie and Heschel say is true—“I make the art, and the art makes me” and “God needs us”—then does our art, our acts of creation, somehow make God? Are we so entwined—Creator and created, art and artist, that we influence and inspire and even evolve each other? Do we feed off each other’s creations?

Walking slowly around the gallery I imagined God in that space as well. What might God create after pausing to gaze at  “Balance”?

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Stephanie Baugh “Balance”

Where might the muse lead God after contemplating the aspects of “Present.”

Stephanie Baugh

Stephanie Baugh “Present”

I left the gallery abuzz with ideas and energy—my brain playing with all the new questions in my mind. The sun warmed my body as I walked across campus brightening the trees, the grass, the white cement of the sidewalk beneath my feet. Everything in that sunshine was more beautiful. It was as if God had been inspired, even as God was inspiring.

 

 

 

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heschel’s Words

shapeimage_2I am grateful for my husband who puts words like these in my hands when I am writing a sermon. How does one adequately speak of God? Ask Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”

And this:

“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”[1]

 My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?

 

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.