Frost Illustrated - Gerald W. Deas
A few years ago, I took care of a beautiful, elderly, blind, African American woman who was cared for by a gentle, sweet, elderly, white lady. No one could deny that this relationship was truly a spiritual one. In fact, I was so moved by their love and concern toward each other that I wrote a poem entitled "Two Gentle Ladies," which reads as follows:
Two Gentle Ladies
I knew two gentle ladies for years
One white, the other black
They sat and talked about their dreams
Oh Lord! How they loved one another
I was always impressed with the "up" feeling that these women had. I often looked forward to going on a house call to see them. The actually made me feel spiritually better. Both of these lovely ladies have gone up yonder to be with their Lord. It seems that during the season between Thanksgiving and New Years, many folks experience a stage of depression. This usually is manifested by a person's withdrawing from friends and relatives. Occasionally, they also might feel suicidal. During this holiday season, some folks manifest an "up" feeling and begin to show great respect for one another in the streets, stores, public transportation and at work. There seems to be a real sense of cosmic, good energy that defies disrespect and unconcern.
The Christ-Mass reminds us of the love that we must share with each other and with those throughout the world. This belief is expressed beautifully in a book entitled God In Our Relationships. This book is about the spirituality between people and is from the teachings of Martin Buber as written about by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross. The book is published by Jewish Lights Publishing. In this book, the philosophy of the I-IT relationship to the I-Thou relationship is explored and demonstrates how one should relate to others in a positive manner
For those who might feel depression during this season, I propose that you heed the following suggestions:
- Take time for quiet reflection and meditate on the importance of all life on this planet.
- Be a carrier of good news and not the blues.
- See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Leave that to the monkeys.
- Make sure that when someone leaves your presence, they feel better.
- During a conversation with friends or enemies, just touch their arm or hand. A touch goes a long way.
- Give a donation to that person on the street whom you have passed so often. The Salvation Army needs all they can get to help others.
- Volunteer some of your time to a church or other institution such as hospital or nursing homes.
- Make amends with those persons in your family with whom you have disagreed.
- Call someone on the phone whom you haven't spoken to in a long time and tell him or her how much you miss his or her presence.
- Give a lot, but save some for yourself.
- Remember, love cannot be bought or stolen. I can only be given away.
- Have a Blessed Season, because there is a Reason that you have been give space on this planet.
The Huffington Post
Recently, blogger Andrew Sullivan put up a post called "The Scientific View of Man." He ended it with an aside, saying, "If I could disbelieve in God, I would," and two days later, one of his readers wrote back: "Funny, I'm the exact opposite; if I could believe in God, I would."
But what does that phrase mean, "believe in God"? I've most often heard it framed in terms of existence: People will often say to me, "I don't believe God exists," or "I have seen no evidence for God," or "I often question whether there is a God."
But here's the thing: Either God exists, or God doesn't. And we have absolutely no control over that fact. And so because there's nothing we can do about whether there is a God, I've never found that question to be a particularly interesting one to ask. After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give: "Yes, I do," "No, I don't" or "I'm not sure."
But there's an even deeper reason why that question is the wrong one to ask. In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, "Do you believe in God?" are the ones who hope the answer is "yes," while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say "no" or "I'm not sure." When you're asking a question with an expected answer—and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be—there's no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks "Do you believe in God?" it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.
In fact, Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote a piece here asking "Why Are Atheists So Angry?" and while he made some accurate statements, I think he missed the main reason why atheists have problems with religion -- they feel like they are being viewed as "less than" and are being judged in a harsh and negative light.
So because asking "Do you believe in God?" prompts primarily close-ended questions, and is often experienced as a condemnation, I instead prefer to ask two other questions that I have found to be more valuable to explore:
1. How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?
Regardless of whatever particular worldview we hold, we have a responsibility to find ways to improve ourselves, our society and our world. Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about the specifics of how we do that, and our personal outlook will obviously affect our ultimate decisions, but most people I have met are striving to create a more just and more kind world.
So by focusing the discussion around how people act more than on what they believe, we can now have a more productive dialogue. Yes, we may all be coming at this question from different ways, but now the arguments stop being attacks and counter-attacks about who is right, and instead, become an exploration about the ways we need to work together to create the kind of world we hope for.
In many ways, author (and atheist) Sam Harris got it right in his book, The Moral Landscape, when he argued that human and societal well-being are directly related to the state of the world and our own mental state, and that "morality" is about how we improve those two states. And so by emphasizing the myriad ways we can explore how to bring more justice and more kindness into this world, we can also recognize and accept the different belief systems that can all ultimately lead to the same end.
2. When have we felt moments of deep connection?
Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were two of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, and both of them pushed us to recognize that our greatest source of joy and wonder are our relationships -- Buber focusing on our interpersonal relationships and Heschel emphasizing our relationship with all of creation.
Buber taught that the most spiritual moments occur when we are truly in relationship with others. His great book describing his theology is usually translated as I and Thou, but a better description would be "you and me." As he claims, our most powerful and most memorable moments occur when we truly feel "there" with and for another person. As Rabbi Dennis Ross explains in God in Our Relationships, "I-Thou is doing, speaking, listening and touching. Not in the I or the Thou, I-Thou is essentially the '-,' the dash that connects two people" (Ross, 53).
Heschel's theology is often called "radical amazement"—a deep sense of incomprehensibility at the wonder of sheer existence. As he argues, "We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe ... Standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight" (Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 25).
What both Buber and Heschel have in common is that we cannot put into words our most important and most life-changing encounters. Indeed, the more we try to analyze and explain them, the less power they have. Not only that, we cannot ever expect or plan to experience these moments that elevate our soul—we can only be open to them and hope we are aware enough to feel them and appreciate them when they arise.
These two questions, I have found, resonate with people much more deeply and create much more interesting, much more respectful and much more valuable conversations than asking "Do you believe in God?" These questions prompt people to ask together, "How should I be treating myself and those around me?" "How can we be more open to the varied experiences of life?" Rather than thinking that those who believe in God are "better" than those who don't, each of us can examine how we can be more just and kind, and how we can create a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and with our world.
And what do I believe? For me, I find God when I am grappling with those questions -- and especially when I am learning new ways to try to answer them. And while I certainly can't prove this, I believe that when we are seeking to bring more justice, kindness and connection into this world, we are also bringing just a little more of God into this world, as well.
National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter newsletter
I work as a rabbi, yet social work touches everything I do. One highlight of my work week occurs 3:00 P.M each Friday at the Jewish Health Care Center in Worcester, where I lead a weekly Sabbath service for residents, with the help of some of very devoted teens from the congregation.
I haven't led a weekly "nursing home" since I was in seminary thirty years ago. I was younger then and I simply couldn't appreciate the nuance and importance of singing and reading those few Hebrew prayers, or the significance of a few words of greeting from a rabbi. And I couldn’t have been as touched by the way the presence and participation of my teen helpers brings a sparkle to the eyes and words of many of our residents. I didn’t have enough life experience back then; I wasn’t well attuned to the people around me, so the impact just didn’t register. But now I see exactly what I was missing.
I reach the third floor of the Heath Care Center, the East wing, a few minutes before 3:00 p.m. Sometimes, I arrive as the BINGO game is ending, as cards, pennies and chips are gathered and put away. It’s at least a year now since one of the Healthcare Center staff threw a $10 bill into the pot and walked off, leaving it for the residents to enjoy the excitement of a real prize. I joke with the residents and staff, "The next time that happens, give me a call and I’ll be sure to get here early."
Once the BINGO play is over and people are reseated for the service, my teen assistants help me pass out the prayer booklets, each of us making sure to extend a personal Sabbath greeting to each of the dozen or so participants and staff.
We open the service with song and suddenly, a transformation takes place. People, who sat mutely and stiffly, staring silently into the distance, suddenly start to sing. It is remarkable that those who do not have the capacity to recall the simple details of their morning, recollect the melody and Hebrew of an Oseh shalom or a Bayom hahu, a tune or words learned decades ago. Thinking back to last December, the holiday of Hanukah and the legend of the oil that lasted eight days, I wonder about another miracle of the light lasting longer than the time expected, of the prayers that can endure for eight decades or longer in the heart of a human being.
The thirty-minute service includes some English readings, a prayer for healing, a reflection on the weekly Scripture reading, a memorial prayer, a few closing songs, and a blessing over the Sabbath wine and challah bread. When I started doing the service, I recited the brief version of the wine blessing – just the blessing over the wine – until one of the residents complained that her husband did the whole prayer over their Sabbath dinner all those years and that she expected me to do the same! So now I do it all, whether she is there or not. One time, I forgot to recite the prayer for healing – people were very, very upset with me!
As the service comes to a close, the staff distributes wine and challah, and my helpers and I extend a personal greeting to each resident as we prepare to take leave. Again, it is the personal touch that speaks volumes. On occasion, when I need to travel and cannot attend the service, my teen helpers have risen to the occasion; the two of them have become quite comfortable leading the service on their own.
After the service, I might chat with worshippers and then call upon a few people privately in their rooms. Then I am off to make my own Sabbath preparations. And as the evening approaches and progresses the, sweetness of the moment with teens and elders in conversation, song and prayer abides with me as a calming oasis of time.
Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, LCSW, serves at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, MA and as director of Concerned Clergy for Choice for Family Planning Advocates of New York State in Albany, NY.. His most recent book, God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber, is released by Jewish Lights Publishing.
From the Publisher
"By interweaving his own life experience with quotations and insights derived from Martin Buber's I and Thou and his Tales of the Hasidim, Rabbi Ross has accomplished the remarkable feat of making Buber’s wisdom accessible in the everyday to men and women in every walk of life."
—Maurice Friedman, author, Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber