Some female priests of the Church of England are reportedly advocating that liturgical texts ought to be changed to sometimes refer to God as “She,” instead of “He,” on the basis that God has no gender, and to consistently refer to God as “He,” as has been traditional in Christianity, conveys the idea that maleness is somehow more divine, and that women are therefore lower on the spiritual ladder. Continue reading God: She, He, Or Gender Fluid?
A Pew Research Center study just came out finding a decline in the percentage of Americans who say they follow an established religion, and an increase in the percentages who claim to be either atheist or agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
I doubt that I’m the only one who spotted a tone of triumphalism in the resulting media headlines, such as: “Study: More Americans than ever spurning religion” (CBS); and “The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God” (New York Times). Continue reading God’s Q & A
Speaking of unnecessary yet needed things, Leonard Cohen (now an octogenarian) has just released a new album, titled Popular Problems. At a press availability in London (parts of which can be heard on BBC Radio 6), he was asked among other things about religion, and specifically how close he feels to his Jewish roots, and how that might manifest itself in his writing and his music. He answered:
Well, I grew up in a very conservative, observant family, so it’s not something that I ever felt any distance from, so it’s not something I have to publicize or display, but it is essential to my own survival. Those values that my family gave me—Torah values—are the ones that inform my life. So I never strayed very far from those influences.
It might actually surprise many to hear him speak in this way and also so directly on this, although perhaps it is uncommon for him to get asked the question so directly. Continue reading Leonard Cohen on Being Jewish
In 1949, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Earth Is the Lord’s on the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe; i.e. on a culture that had then been all but wiped out. It was the first book he had published in America, having himself escaped from Europe to there during the war.
In writing about the joy that was to be found in the culture of the Hasidim for pure ideas, for endless study and restudy of the Talmud, he says this: Continue reading Heschel on the Need for the Unnecessary
Once again, scientists have directed their telescopes and most advanced instruments upward, have spent long months studying the data and spending their grant money, and emerged to deliver their important conclusion: The sky is blue.
The story this time is in the UK’s Daily Mail: “Natural wonders increase our tendency to believe in God and the supernatural.” Doctor Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California announced their findings based on studying the reactions of human subjects to awe-inspiring natural sights, and have concluded that such sights increase the tendency of people to believe in God or the supernatural. Amazing. Continue reading Natural Wonders and Belief in God: Important New Research
Mariano Rivera, born in Panama City, Panama, is the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball. No serious person will argue that point, I think. He has arrived at this status as a result of being a reliever—mainly the closer—for the New York Yankees, for nearly twenty years now.
Being a New York Yankee fan by birth (born in the Bronx even if I grew up largely on distant shores) those few times that Rivera blew a big save naturally loom unnaturally large in my memory, but taken as a whole his achievements defy explanation or even praise. What can you say about someone who is so beyond-the-norm of excellence?
2013 is to be his final year of pitching for the Yankees, at the age of 43, if the amazingly-stellar year that he’s having so far (30 saves, 1.83 ERA) does not compel him by acclamation to return for yet another year. There is much being said and written about his career and his character. He is clearly one of the most loved and respected players in baseball, by both friends and opponents, and by both players and fans. Continue reading Mariano Rivera and a Gift from God
Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were held captive in a house in Cleveland for about a decade. A man named Ariel Castro faces trial for their kidnapping and abuse and also for aggravated murder in the death of a baby which one of the women conceived during that time. I think it’s reasonable to say that most of us can only imagine in our worst nightmares what these women experienced during that decade of captivity. Most of us would also maintain that we’d rather die than face such an ordeal. Today, a video was released which features these three brave women thanking the public for the help and support that they’ve received since being freed.
Aside from being a compelling story on its own merits, it is also interesting to see how their message is being summarized in much of the media, for those who do not stop to watch the full three and a half minute video. In a portrayal that I’ve found typical today, TIME.com has this:
In an inspiring, yet heartwrenching statement, Michelle Knight, who went missing in 2002 at age 21, said:
“I may have been through hell and back but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and with my head held high and my feet firmly on the ground … I will not let the situation define who I am. I will define the situation.”
What’s interesting to me is what is left out by means of those three dots in the middle (and the same words were left out by USA Today and the BBC and others). Read just as it is there, it seems that Michelle Knight is crediting a personal sense of pride and self-regard for her strength and her survival. But there’s a little bit more to it than that, if you listen to her full statement (embedded at the bottom of this post). Here is the bulk of it, as transcribed by yours truly:
I just want everyone to know I’m doing just fine. I may have been through hell and back, but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face, and with my head held high, and my feet firmly on the ground, walking hand in hand with my best friend.
I will not let the situation define who I am. I will define the situation. I don’t want to be consumed by hatred. With that being said, we need to take a leap of faith and know that God is in control. We have been hurt by people but we need to rely on God as being the judge.
God has a plan for all of us. The plan that He gave me was to help others that have been in the same situation I have been in. To know that there’s someone out there to lean on and to talk to.
I’m in control of my own destiny, with the guidance of God.
The following is one of those passages from Abraham Joshua Heschel—extraordinarily common in his writing—that is fascinating when considered as philosophy, penetrating when heard as theology, and quite moving and beautiful when simply read as poetry.
Common to all men who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Who would pour his most precious hopes into an abyss? […]
The passage of hours, almost unnoticeable, but leaving behind the feeling of loss or omission, is either an invitation to despair or a ladder to eternity. This little time in our hands melts away ere it can be formed. Before our eyes man and maid, spring and splendor, slide into oblivion. However, there are hours that perish and hours that join the everlasting. Prayer is a crucible in which time is cast in the likeness of the eternal. Man hands over his time to God in the secrecy of single words. When anointed by prayer, his thoughts and deeds do not sink into nothingness, but merge into the endless knowledge of an all-embracing God.
Those lines are from his book Man’s Quest For God.
Perhaps it’s something to do with aging, but I happen to be increasingly preoccupied with questions of time. Not so much the lack of it (which is very obvious and about which I can do nothing) but the nature of it, and in particular the difference between our time and God’s. It doesn’t matter that this is unknowable; if we ceased wondering about things which are unknowable I suppose that we would be very bored and very boring indeed. But you wonder—and I know that all humans, atheist, agnostic and devout, wonder this—why most seconds, minutes and moments just tick away like a great impersonal and unstoppable clock, and why there are other moments in our lives which may be incredibly brief on the clock but the duration and weight of which seem almost boundless to our experience. These moments can come in a wide variety of contexts, but I think they are often those moments in which we involuntarily shed tears, or at least are very deeply moved by something inexpressible. I think that we are certain, in such a moment, that what is happening matters a great deal, and that it will not simply pass on into the void but will somehow be remembered, and not only by ourselves. Are we wrong, or are we in such moments receiving a tiny glimpse of the eternal? Continue reading Time, Prayer and God: Heschel
There’s a single vignette from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in a piece by Corey Kilgannon of the NY Times about a 68 year-old musician named Kenny Vance, who lived on Beach 137th Street in the Rockaway section of Queens, New York. He’d gradually built his home into a veritable museum of his decades in music, intersecting with the careers of many others. He’d had no serious problem in previous storms—never even getting water in his basement. Then Sandy came along and pulverized everything in a matter of hours. Kenny Vance (who was traveling at sea when the storm hit) lost prized musical instruments, photographs, and many irreplaceable original recordings and master tapes. In fact, he lost his entire house and everything in it but a few scraps and shreds he’s managed to dig out of the sand.
Reading the story, I think it’s fair to say that he never saw it coming. And why would he? We build up our homes and collect our memories, our souvenirs and our treasured possessions, and they look safe in our cabinets and on our shelves. We don’t do it with the thought that one day they will be turned to ruin or swept out in the surf. In the case of a lot of us, the grim reaper that claims our possessions will be rather less dramatic, but maybe even more depressing: it will be the garbage truck that takes away the accumulations of our lifetime from the curbside where our next-of-kin deposited them. Not a cheerful thought, but at least we don’t expect to be there to see it, as opposed to when you lose it all in a disaster.
The whole thing brought to my mind some verses from a psalm recently encountered in a Bible study. The very first part is quite famous; the succeeding lines are heard less often. It’s Psalm 146, verses 3 and 4:
Put not your trust in princes,
nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth;
in that very day his thoughts perish.
That last statement is one to pause on because of its surpassing finality and grimness: “in that very day his thoughts perish.” It’s bad enough to think about dying without being reminded that your thoughts will perish too. Every plan and dream, every intention, every cherished belief and affection: gone. It’s merely echoed by the fate of our possessions, which likely had such meaning for us in life, yet are destined for their own destruction. So, the psalmist says, don’t put your trust in a man, “in whom there is no salvation,” but in God, “who made heaven and earth … who keeps faith forever,” and in whom there presumably then is salvation.
Salvation is not the easiest word to define. Different religious orthodoxies have different thoughts on it. But perhaps at least this much could be said about salvation: you know what it is when you need it. Continue reading Washed away but holding on
This evening, at a Thanksgiving Eve service at our little chapel in the wildwood, we heard a beautiful performance of a piece called Dank sei Dirr, Herr, sung by a mezzo-soprano accompanied by only piano. I was not familiar with the tune, but it was credited to Siegfried Ochs (1858-1929) in the service guide, and a little checking suggests that this is the widely-accepted accreditation these days, although it used to be believed that Handel had composed it.
Anyway, I was quite struck by it, both the beauty of the performance and the composition, and also its moving aptness in a Thanksgiving service. I’m embedding a version via YouTube at the bottom of this post, a grand performance with a singer named Gundula Hintz. The lyric is in German (which I’ll put below the video) but the translation is as follows:
Thanks be to Thee,
Lord God of Hosts:
Thou broughtest forth Your people
with Your mighty hand
Israel safe through the sea.
Lord, like a shepherd
Thou hast led us;
Lord, Thy hand protected us
in Thy goodness tenderly as in ages past.
The words sound reminiscent of any number of songs of praise and psalms from the Bible, but I don’t know a precise source, if there is one. The last few verses of Psalm 77 could be one.
Yet, the message is beautifully historic and specific and at the same time up-to-the-minute, relevant and universal. You might paraphrase it: Thank You, Lord God, for protecting Your people in the past, and thank You for protecting Your people now, every moment of every hour.
Some of us might just add a prayer that we indeed count among God’s people. Continue reading Thanksgiving