A New Year, New Challenges

I’m getting ready for the new year, and with it, a new experience. Tomorrow I head off to Spokane to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church. And by speak, I mean give a sermon (two actually, or rather, one sermon, given twice–at the 9:30 service and then again at 11). So, there are two elements here:

  1. Giving a sermon.
  2. Speaking at a church.

Individually, these are two things I do with some regularity. I speak at churches from time to time on a variety of subjects, from marriage equality to various aspects of Judaism. And I give sermons in a variety of Jewish contexts. But somehow, giving a sermon at a church service feels different.

Part of the difference comes from a statistic I encountered at some point during rabbinical school: ministers spend an average of 8 hours a week preparing sermons. Now, I’ll be honest: when you tell rabbis this statistic, they look at you like you’re crazy. Maybe you’ve misplaced a decimal? Most of us spend a couple of hours a week preparing our sermons, but Jewish congregations just don’t put enough emphasis on the sermon to justify that kind of time expenditure.

In any case, this feels like something new to me. And with a new year coming round tonight, it feels like a propitious way to begin 2011.

Oh, and, of course, may the new year be a wonderful year for all of us.

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Rebekah and God: A Torah Study

I don’t usually include Torah study or sermon type things in this blog, but thought I would give it a go today, mainly because I wrote this for a different purpose and wanted to reuse it. So, in a departure from my normal style and subjects, here is a bit of Torah commentary:

In the Torah portion, Chayei Sara, which Jews all around the world will read this weekend,  Abraham sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac (Gen: 24). The servant goes and as he comes into the city, says to God, “I will go to the well, and ask for water to drink. The woman who not only offers me water, but also water for my camels, she will be the wife for my master’s son.” Immediately thereafter, Rebekah comes down to the well, She is not only of Abraham’s family, but when the servant asks for water to drink, she offers for him and his camels.

The question I ask is this: why does Abraham’s servant use the offer of water for the camels as the sign? Surely he might have asked God to indicate the girl in another way, for example, by her clothing. Or, he might have asked God to give a sign in which she approached him, rather than he asking her for water. Why does he ask for a sign in which he must first ask the question?

The servant, whom the ancient rabbis tell us is Eleazar, a servant of Abraham mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, has set up a system that ensures that Isaac’s wife will be a woman who will serve help build the family. When he asks for water, she is concerned not just with his needs, but also with those of his animals. If she will do this for a stranger, how much the more so will she be concerned with the welfare of his master’s son’s household? She responds to the need which she perceives, not just what is asked of her.

In a later, Torah portion, when Isaac is getting ready to distribute blessings, Rebekah acts to deceive Isaac and to get the blessing for Jacob instead of Esau. She organizes the family for the good of the Jewish people. She acts, without needing God to tell her to act. She sees the necessary action, and she takes it. In this way, she is exactly what Isaac needs as a wife: not a someone who communes with God, but someone who sees what needs to be done, and does it.

Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse

It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve blogged. When I’ve taken a bit of a break, it always feels like I need to have something relevant to say when I begin again. Which means I wait longer to write. Which means whatever I say has to have even more meaning. Well, I’m breaking that cycle. I’m blogging, whether I have anything profound to say or not.

For me, writing is a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to use. The more I do it, the more enjoyable it is. I hear people talk about exercise in a similar way, though that’s never been my experience of it (though I do hold out hope that one of these days I’ll discover that I love exercise, and I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years). Writing, for me, is not simply about self-expression, rather, it is about figuring out what it is I need to express. This is not as solipsistic as it may sound. . .I write a blog with a keen awareness that there is an audience for which I am writing, and I do hope to entertain that audience. But at the end of things, writing, for me,  is about the process, and about the discovery.

Writing is a giant Rorscharch test. I start with an idea of where I’m going, but as I write I figure out where I’m going. I figure out what is on my mind. The good news (for you all, and I suppose for me, too) is that there is usually something on my mind. Eventually, I tend to have a point. Usually, that point has some relationship to where I started. Rarely is it what I expected.

My sermons work in roughly the same manner. I almost never write out my sermons fully, but work from outline. Sometimes the outlines are fairly detailed, including points and sub-points I want to make, texts I want to quote, specific wording I want to use. More often, my outlines look a bit different, a bit more like this:

“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14)

  • Says God
  • Says Popeye
  • Popeye =? God

And from there I’m off and running. When I give the sermon, I’ll probably wind up discussing mysticism, the Divine within each of us (as represented by Popeye), and asking what spinach represents (prayer? confidence?). The exact nature of the sermon will be based partly on what seems to be most interesting to those listening, partly on what I discover I have to say at that moment. This could be a 5 minute sermon or a twenty minute sermon (depending on the time I have to work with. . .I usually know in advance how long I will speak). For me, this moment of discovering what I have to say, and sometimes even the struggle to make sure I have something worthwhile to say, is a large part of the joy of giving a sermon. Ideally, by the end, I’ve come back around to where I started.

In this blog post, I started with a title, “Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse.” I assumed I would be writing about trying to mount a horse with a literary bent. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all. It turns out, I had something to say about why I write.

God’s Mouthpiece

I spoke yesterday on a panel about creating GLBT-friendly religious communities. It’s a subject I care about and speak about with some regularity (a few times a year). In general, the audiences for such talks tend to be very supportive, and this was no exception. That’s not the point I want to make today, howerver.

During the Q&A part of the panel, someone asked a question, which sparked a response in me. And suddenly, I found myself answering the question eloquently, and speaking passionately about the use of language as an act of inclusion or exclusion in everyday situations. That we ought not to be making Pride Month the time of the year when we focus on issues of inclusion, but rather, by the simple use of inclusive language, making clear that we are welcoming throughout the year.

There are times that I forget that I have something to say. There are times when I wonder how it is that I can come up with a weekly sermon when I’ve done that in the past. Then there are times like yesterday, when something just comes out, and it is the right message at the right moment. For me, those are times when I am serving the Holy most directly. When I let the words flow through me, and the words are good, and true, and right.

Yesterday was a good day.

A New Hope

I am overflowing this morning. I am filled with a sense of gratitude and wonder. I am filled by a sense of hope. I am filled by a sense of patriotism which I have not felt in a long time.

The election of Barrack Obama yesterday is not does not simply signify a move away from Republican policies and attitudes (though it does signify that as well), but marks a new era for America. Not because Barrack is an African-American, but because he, like another president, almost 50 years ago, represents a bright new face on the scene, a new attitude and a new vision. 

Barrack Obama truly seems to be coming from a less partisan place. He is not of the Democratic Party establishment as Hilary would have been. He has spent only 4 years in congress. He brings with him less baggage, more hope. 

I am filled this morning with the hope that our country will begin to heal from the vicious bifurcation we have suffered at the hands of our political leaders over the past decades. I am filled with a hope that we have elected president a person who will lead us past the petty differences that divide us, and help us to see the deep connections which bind us together as one country, one people.

I am filled with a new sense of possibility, that perhaps the age of American relevance is not quite at an end. I begin to hope that this economic downturn perhaps will not be seen as the beginning of the fall of the American Empire, but maybe even the start of a new golden age of peace and sustainability (note: I did not say “peace and prosperity”). I am filled this morning with the hope that we will be able to move forward as a country rather than endlessly running around in circles. 

This morning, I believe that a new age may be dawning for us. We will have a president who is a pleaure to listen to, whether or not we agree with his ideas. Once again, rhetoric, in the best possible sense, will be a part of public discourse. 

This morning feels like it belongs to a different world than did yesterday morning, and it feels like a better world.

Shabbat Sermons & Eva and David Go on a Date

Two completely separate (I think) topics this morning. The first has to do with the sermons I give on Friday evenings. The second, that Eva and I had an actual date!

Once, while in rabbinical school, I was told that Christian ministers spend an average of 8 hours a week working on their Sunday sermons. At the time, I was astounded (I was, at the time, working in a congregation that I served weekly and did prepare a weekly sermon). After all, my sermons tended to be outlines rather than written out, and usually took me between thirty minutes and an hour. Until very recently, I remained astounded by the length of time Christian clergy spent on sermons, and have assumed that maybe they spend so much longer on sermons because it is more of the centerpiece of the service, whereas in Judaism the sermon is a little teaching that gets crammed into the liturgy.

In the last week or two, however, my view has been changing. I realize that while I still only spend half an hour or so working on a sermon, in the sense of putting pen to paper, there is a huge amount of time that gets devoted before that point. I think about what I will say while I shower in the morning or while driving to work. I play with language while I’m walking down the street. I try out ideas as I’m falling asleep at night. All that time begins to add up. I don’t think it comes anywhere near 8 hours, but I begin to see how one could spend eight hours a week working on a sermon (especially if one worked from a finished script, as opposed to notes).

I like working on sermons because it’s an opportunity for me to find new meaning in the text I’m working with (most often the Torah). I like it because it’s an opportunity to figure out what I’m thinking. And I like working on sermons because it’s a challenge to find something to say that is adequately meaningful that I feel like I’m not wasting the time of my congregation by saying it.

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Eva and I may have figured out how to go on dates. Yesterday, we went to see a first-run movie for the first time in longer than I remember. It’s certainly been more than a year. We saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

We didn’t go see a movie the way normal people do. No. We went the way business owners do: an IT company rented the theater for a 9AM showing, took about 10 minutes to tell us about their products, promised to call us to set up a time tell us more about their products, and showed us Indiana Jones. Woohoo!

The movie was very good. Not in an art film kind of way, but in an Indiana Jones kind of way. Fast moving action, plot twists, and, of course, the hat and whip. What more could you ask for?

And we had breakfast together, which is pretty much a rarity also. But it means we had a meal and a movie. We call that a date.

…For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt.

Last week, the Torah portion included a verse that I consider to be among the most central in Judaism.

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9.

This quote serves as a reminder that it is all too easy to forget what it feels like to be an oppressed minority when we are not in that minority. It reminds us that we must be ever mindful of how it feels to be a minority, and that we must not simply look after ourselves.

For almost two millenia, Jews had no problem remembering the feelings of the outsider. We were, after all, outsiders in every land in which we lived. Following the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land by Rome in A.D. 70, we have wandered among nations where we were a minority, and most often an oppressed minority.

In Roman time we were a tolerated minority, but one considered foreign, and not welcome. When we lived in Arab lands during the 7th to 12th Centuries, we were a “protected minority,” with a more or less secure status. There were laws which safeguarded our freedoms, but also significant restrictions. In Medieval Europe we were truly an oppressed minority through most of the Middle Ages, with rights significantly curtailed and few protections.

In 21st Century America, however, it’s a different story. We remain a minority, but certainly not an oppressed one. While it is not true that all Jews are well off, on the whole, Jews are probably somewhat better off than most Americans. We probably do enjoy somewhat greater political influence than our numbers would suggest (I’m having trouble finding an accurate list of the number of Jews in the Senate, but all the lists seem to include more than 10, which is 10% of the senate, as opposed to the percentage of Jews in America, which is 1.3%). What I want to point out is that we are now an entrenched part of the establishment, rather than the stranger.

For the first time in 2000 years, we now need to concentrate on understanding what it feels like to be the outsider. At the same time, we are now in a position to actually help the stranger. Because we now have influence and power, we must strive to remember the feelings of the stranger, and work to help the stranger.  When we were powerless, being mindful of the feelings of other oppressed strangers was relatively easy, and not particularly useful. We could empathize, but weren’t in a position to help them particularly. Now, we must consciously remember how it felt to be the outsider. How we felt about it when immigration quotas limited the number of Jews who could enter the U.S. We must remember how hard it was for Jews to assimilate into the U.S. when we first arrived, and we must help others.

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” For 2000 years, the Torah taught this, but it had little to teach, because we were the stranger. Now that we are not strangers, this teaching becomes far more important, and one we must seek to live out.