Monday, April 20, 2015

Pastor to the People: Edwin L. Ehlers (1929 - 2015)

Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received . . . but only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage. – St. Francis of Assisi
Time passes quickly and life turns in unexpected directions. After Andrea and I returned from a wonderful 12-day trip to Israel last week, I naturally called my parents to tell them about it. My dad was particularly interested in where we went and what we saw, comparing our experience to his Israel trip in the 1980’s. We talked for nearly thirty minutes, and I could sense the joy and gratitude in my dad’s voice as we spoke of the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, the peaceful splendor of the Sea of Galilee, the rugged beauty of the Golan Heights, and the magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea from Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. My dad was fascinated with Israel, its geography and rich history, its many archaeological sites, and its significance to Christians and Jews alike. He was delighted that we had such a nice experience and spent quality time with my daughter Hannah. At the end of our conversation, my dad said, “We love you.”  

As it turned out, these were my father’s final words to me. The next day, he collapsed while retrieving the mail, struck by a brain aneurysm. He never regained consciousness and died five days later. He was 85 years old.

Over 300 people came to my dad’s funeral and memorial services – one in North Carolina, where my dad and mom have spent the past 20 years of their life, and one in New Jersey, where it all began. The number of people who had been touched by my father’s kindness and sense of service, his compassion for people and exceptional listening skills, was heartfelt and inspiring. That my dad was truly beloved by so many people from all walks of life was evident in the countless stories I heard throughout the week – stories about how my dad changed people’s lives, or did little things to show his support for people in times of need. At St. James Lutheran Church in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where my dad served as pastor for ten years after graduating seminary, several people told me about how Dad steered them straight during their troubled teen years and guided them through other difficult times in their lives. They remembered with fondness his role in their confirmations, or marriages, or the baptisms of their children.

A Lutheran minister who rose to the top of his profession when he was elected Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, he was respected and admired not only for his leadership and administrative skills, but also because he genuinely liked people, was interested in the stories and lives of others, and was a true pastor in the best sense of that word. As Bishop, he was a pastor’s pastor, constantly advising and guiding other pastors as they confronted the many challenges of parish ministry and the social and political upheavals of the early 1970’s – racial tensions, drugs and poverty, rising divorce rates, and the declining influence of religion and faith in American life.

Growing up, I took it for granted that my dad counseled and consoled others – all the time it seemed then. He visited people in the hospital, prayed with them, advised them, assisted with their concerns, comforted them in times of crises. He was a psychologist, theologian, teacher, youth director, business manager, public speaker, inspirational leader, and he did it all without ever losing his sense of humanity or humility. He was a pastor, a friend, a father, a husband, and a kind and decent human being. As far as pastors go, for over sixty years he was one of the best there ever was.

I have often noted that some people are visionaries and leaders – they give powerful speeches or sermons and ably lead and inspire through their charisma and eloquence. Others are organized managers and able administrators. It is true in many professions, from law and politics to education and religion. In the case of an ordained Lutheran minister, there are many good pastors and many good preachers, but few who can do both well. My father was the rare exception. A good public speaker with a strong, clear voice, he preached with clarity and a principled relevance that related the Gospel to the world at large. He made religion and faith relevant to people’s everyday lives.

But he saw his primary role as that of a servant, as someone who was there for those in need. He guided, prodded, advised, and listened -- always listened -- and embraced everyone he met with God’s grace and unconditional love. He balanced compassion and mercy with personal responsibility and never lost sight of the broader world and of society’s obligation to improve the lot of the poor and weak. His vision of social and economic justice was deeply rooted in his Christian faith and he had little tolerance for “Christians” who lacked compassion for others.

My dad was special in part because he was genuinely interested in people. He loved conversation, especially with young people. Whenever I introduced my father to one of my friends or, in later years, one of their children, he would spend the next several minutes asking them about themselves. What are you studying? What are you interested in? How is that going? He made people feel welcome and important.

“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good,” wrote Abigail Van Buren. My dad was unimpressed with big shots and fancy titles. He related well to the common man; he understood their struggles, listened to their needs, and offered whatever solace and help he could. He did not have sophisticated tastes in food, art, music, or literature. In later years, he was somewhat set in his ways and had little interest in new experiences for himself. But he took great pleasure in the new experiences of his children and grandchildren, and he allowed all of us to spread our wings and fly.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” wrote Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie. I have lost a father but I retain many good memories, decades of counsel and advice, words of encouragement and understanding. He was my biggest fan in life. When I began writing this blog, and after I published collections of my essays in book form, he contacted just about everyone he knew and encouraged them to read and pay attention to what I wrote. At his funeral in North Carolina last week, I was surprised by how many people approached me, asked if I was "the author," and said they had read my books, often because my dad had sent them a copy. He was always printing copies of my essays, which he hand-delivered to whomever he thought would benefit from my “wisdom.” “I want you to read this” was his common refrain.

He encouraged me to continue writing and reading. Whenever we spoke, he asked what I was working on, what books I was reading. A while back he sent me a handwritten note that attached an announcement from The Christian Century, the liberal mainline Protestant journal of opinion, which invited essays on the topic of mentors. “I think that you could do an excellent job in writing about John Steinbruck as one of your mentors,” he wrote. “You have already written about him and perhaps some of your experiences with John could fit into this essay. It also might be an opportunity to ‘get in’ with The Century for other possible articles. Hope you will give it a shot. Love, Dad.” That was just like him. Every so often, I received similar notes of interest or encouragement, articles he thought I would find insightful, or reflections that might provide a topic for a future essay.

Every Christmas, my dad composed a letter that he sent to friends and family. He would start with a short statement – a sermon really, for he was a pastor after all – about the meaning of the Advent and Christmas seasons, his concerns for the world’s inevitable troubles, and his wish for peace and a more just world. But he almost always included a wish for the reader, as he did in his 2012 Christmas letter: “Please know that our prayer for each of you is that God’s light and love will continue to sustain and strengthen you [now] and throughout the years ahead.” It was his genuine wish for everyone, that we would all be sustained and strengthened by the light and love of God. For my dad, this was the essence of his faith and his concern for humankind. All else was commentary.

At the funeral in North Carolina last week, my oldest daughter Jennifer told those present that my dad, her grandfather, “was an intrinsic part of the way I see the world . . . an extremely positive presence in my life that was always there.” It would have warmed his heart to hear this, because he was so proud of Jen and her sister, Hannah. At the service in New Jersey, Jen read a beautiful note written by Hannah from Israel that perhaps sums up best what made my Dad so special:
Grandpa, I don’t know people any more loving and righteous and humble and kind than you and grandma. You both have always been my prime example of love in all its forms— in your undying love for each other, for family, for God, and for all of God’s children. You taught me love, beautiful love, complex and painful, whole and holy.   
And I know that what I am feeling now, so terribly far away, is the price of that love—the love that shapes, that cushions, that steadies me as I face the injustices of the world; the love that gives me the courage not to turn away. I know that the loss we all feel is a result of this love, but this knowledge makes it no less painful, no less difficult, and no less real. 
I hope with all of my heart that you spend happy hour drinking gin and eating pretzels, deep in conversation with Jesus in Heaven. I hope your laugh continues echoing somewhere other than our minds, deep and bellowing and genuinely joyous. But either way your love and wisdom and justice-pursuing lives on in us. With every breath we take, when we hug each other, when we cry at parting, when we are kind to each other and to strangers and provide a hand to those in need, when we look at the world and feel gratitude flood our veins, your spirit stirs within us. You have left an irremovable mark on the Earth and on countless lives—a mark shaped by goodness and God. 
I don't want to leave the impression that my father was a saint -- he would not have stood for it. He had too good a sense of humor for sainthood. And he was far from perfect. He enjoyed his martinis and beer, swore like a sailor when he was stuck in traffic or accidentally bumped his head, and for many years ignored his doctor's (and my mom's) repeated instructions to give up salt and pretzels. He was an imperfect man. No one knew that better than Dad. He was human in every sense of that word. But because he so recognized that fact, and never tried to be someone he was not, he understood people better than they understood themselves. And that was his ultimate gift to us all. 

I will miss my Dad. We all will miss him. The world will miss him. But memories of him will remain with us for the rest of our lives as his spirit, his humor, his guidance and counsel, lives on in each of us.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Done Too Soon

They have sweated beneath the same sun,
Looked up in wonder at the same moon,
And wept when it was all done,
For being done too soon.
--Neil Diamond

Andrea took me to Neil Diamond’s concert in Philadelphia last weekend. It was the sixth Diamond concert I have seen in my lifetime. No performer so captivates my spirit and touches my senses. At 74 years old, Diamond still puts on a great show, and the familiarity of his songs and voice still resonates with my musical soul. I have explained in a previous post the origins of my admiration of Diamond and his music (“Young Child with Dreams: The Enduring Power of Music”) and, while he has lost some of his youthful cool and dramatic flair, his connection with the audience remains authentic and real.

About halfway through the concert, Diamond reminded us that 43 years have passed since he produced Hot August Night, a live recording from 1972 of a memorable performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. I bought a copy of Hot August Night when I was 13 years old, and I have been a fan ever since. It is hard to believe that nearly four-fifths of my life has passed in that time, 39 years since I first saw Diamond perform in concert in 1976 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, a venue that no longer exists. I have gone from a young teenager awkwardly trying to be cool (I failed miserably) to a middle-aged man, father and husband, trying to make sense of a life that has moved too quickly and keeps passing too swiftly.

I sometimes have difficulty processing the passage of time. I take such pleasure in walking and writing, talking with friends about life and joy, hopes and fears. I love books, fresh air, and the smell of grass on a warm spring day. I envy those who seemingly glide through life with such conviction and certainty, for I am ever searching, seeking, longing for answers that continue to elude my grasp. I listen to the world, observe it, and take in its abundant natural beauty, its blunt harshness, the diversity of its people, and the many expressions of humanity and faith, longing and desire that this lonely planet, a speck of dust in the vast universe, has to offer. And yet, so often I obsessively try to stay abreast of the news, finish the next book, write the next essay, that I miss the beauty and reality of life around me.

“The past isn’t fixed and frozen in place,” writes Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and weekly columnist for On Being. “Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds.” The regrets of our past – the selfish moments and unkind gestures – may lead us to acts of kindness and generosity in the present. Knowing this leads to humility, a much under-valued commodity in today’s overly aggressive, hyper-competitive, self-promoting culture. And it allows us to better hope for the future, to lessen the impact of lost time and the disappearance of youth.
Do you have hope for the future? someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end. Yes, and even for the past, he replied, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was, something we can accept, mistakes made by the selves we had to be, not able to be, perhaps, what we wished, or what looking back half the time it seems we could so easily have been, or ought. – David Ray (“Thanks, Robert Frost”)
*     *     *     *    

Two weeks ago, the world lost a compassionate servant of humanity, the Rev. John Steinbruck, whose vision of shalom and justice was matched only by his passionate articulation of radical Christian love. I first met Steinbruck in 1986, when he was the senior pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church, a congregation with a social conscious located on the periphery of what was then Washington, DC’s red light district. Steinbruck practiced biblical hospitality and believed the church to be a place of refuge, where everyone was welcome, from Washington power brokers to homeless drug addicts.

Starting in the early 1970’s, under Steinbruck’s leadership, Luther Place opened its doors each night to hundreds of homeless women, providing sanctuary for the oppressed and rest for the tired, weary, worn souls of the District’s streets. “I don’t need five years of seminary,” Steinbruck often said, “to know that when someone knocks on the door, you open it.” (See “The Saint in the City: The Life, Faith and Theology of John Steinbruck” and “John Steinbruck and the Challenge of Peace”). Steinbruck also was uniquely attuned to the Jewish roots of Christianity and the common ground that existed between these two faith traditions, which was particularly important to me then as a Lutheran in an interfaith relationship raising Jewish children. Steinbruck regularly reminded his congregants of the harms committed historically by Christian anti-Semitism and he involved Luther Place in vigils outside of the Soviet embassy in Washington protesting the plight of Soviet Jewry. By doing so, he made Luther Place a safe and welcoming sanctuary for me and so many others.

I will miss our talks and correspondence; the world will miss his compassion and visionary leadership. If there is a Heaven, you can bet John Steinbruck is there shaking things up. 

*     *     *     *

On Tuesday night, March 17th, we joined a small gathering of friends at the home of Ben Cowen and Mia Luehrmann to remember the life of a very special young man, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen, who died five years ago when he was tragically struck by a drunk driver while skateboarding after school a block from his house. The universe was disturbed the day the world lost Natan, and I have yet to fully come to terms with what happened. There are some things that are too numbing for words. But at this dinner, at which those attending engaged in a short ceremony and exchanged reflections and memories, there were more happy memories than sad ones, and it was uplifting and inspiring to observe the courage and bravery of Natan’s family – his loving parents Ben and Mia, and wonderful son Aron (Natan’s older brother) – accept the sadness, embrace the support, and carry on with grace and courage.

Natan was only 13 years old when he died. An exceptionally smart, sweet, energetic soul with a zest for life that surpassed most mortal humans, he was destined for greatness (“Natan Luehrmann-Cowen: Finding Meaning in Great Loss”).The loving unity displayed by Natan’s family the other night gives witness to the truth that pain is an essential part of a meaningful, vibrant life. However much it hurts, it is a direct outgrowth of love and joy and hope. “Wholeness does not mean perfection,” writes Parker Palmer, “It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”

*     *     *     *

On Wednesday night, Andrea lost her dear friend Terry Lazin (pictured above on the right). She was a kind, energetic woman of grace and charm. Andrea and Terry met in 1974 at Temple University Law School, where they became fast friends. Though they journeyed separately through life and, with the passage of time occasionally lost contact, they remained lifelong friends, easily picking up where they left off whenever they re-connected. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Terry last summer when Andrea and I visited her in Arizona, where Terry settled after a career in New York and Chicago. She fought a heroic battle with cancer, but you would never know she was sick or struggling, for her focus was always on others, her friends, her family, and her three friendly, docile dogs. Even after her cancer diagnosis, she formed an animal rescue foundation dedicated to preventing the abuse, neglect, and euthanasia of homeless cats and dogs (Lazin Animal Foundation). She was an immensely talented person, full of life, a positive energy force that the world will greatly miss.

I am sad that the world lost Terry, sad for Andrea and for those who were close to Terry and touched by her life along the way. But I am glad that Terry and Andrea re-connected these past few years and grateful that we experienced Terry's graceful presence in her final months. Andrea gave a beautiful tribute to Terry on a Facebook post after learning of Terry’s passing. In discussing Terry’s unbelievable perseverance in the face of years of cancer treatments, surgery, and medical setbacks, Andrea wrote that Terry always “talked about the cancer as a gift that focused her on the importance of loving the people and circumstances in her life. She implored all of us to not wait to fulfill the promises we make to ourselves to do ‘in the future’ because you can never be guaranteed a future. . . . Sleep well my heroic, beautiful, extraordinary, loving friend. You left a wonderful legacy in this world and unforgettable footprints on my heart.”

*     *     *     *

“Every hour I stand closer to death than I did the hour before,” writes Parker Palmer. “All of us draw closer all the time, but rarely with the awareness that comes when the simple fact of old age – or serious accident or illness – reminds us of where we stand.” The cycle of life and the mystery of death affect us all. I would like to believe that we are on this earth to appreciate and embellish its beauty, to share the gifts we bring, to laugh, to cry, to love. John Steinbruck, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen, and Terry Lazin each in their own way touched the face of God and made the world a better place. I have been inspired by their lives, grateful for their gifts, and blessed to have been given the chance to experience life in all its dimensions.

Before saying good bye and sending us on our way following his final encore last Sunday night, Neil Diamond remarked on the occasional harshness of life and cold reality of the world outside, and he asked that we make an effort to be kind to one another. It was a touching ending to an enjoyable evening and served to remind us that, however comforting it is to seek shelter in the cocoon of our individual lives, we have “all sweated beneath the same sun and looked up in wonder at the same moon.” When the end of our lives draw near, it will be the friendships we have made, the kindnesses we have bestowed, the lessons we have taught and learned from each other, that will remain behind; tiny footprints of memory in the lives we have touched along the way.
You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done . . . you are fierce with reality. – Florida Scott-Maxwell (The Measure of My Days)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Between Two Worlds: Charting a Path Within the Secular and the Religious

Hannah in Israel with International School students, University of Haifa 
The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. – A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1999
Two weeks ago, my daughter Hannah left for Israel to begin her spring semester abroad at the University of Haifa. A Jewish Studies major who has thoughts of one day becoming a Reform Rabbi, Hannah is on a journey for which I am at once proud, envious, and concerned. She is a passionate young woman who cares deeply about the future of liberal Judaism and a woman’s place in it. She dreams of a peaceful and secure Israel that abides by the moral and ethical principles of its founding and of the values she holds most dear as a Jew. And she cares about human rights, peace, and the future of the planet. She is a courageous young woman for whom I hope her ideals will one day become reality.

And yet, I am under no illusions as to how difficult and perilous a journey she is on. For the next three-and-a-half months, Hannah is likely to gain an advanced education in the complexity and challenges of pursuing a life that walks a middle path between the secular and the religious that is modern day Israel. More than any country on earth, Israel is a mixture of extremes trying to fit within a coherent whole. Broadly speaking, approximately half of Israel’s Jewish population is either Orthodox (20%) or traditional with Orthodox sympathies (30%), while the other half is mostly secular, largely indifferent to Judaism as a religious tradition and, in some cases, dismissive of religious practice and belief (Haaretz op-ed, December 8, 2013).

Jews praying at Western Wall in Jerusalem
It is perhaps not surprising that Hannah in Israel has begun to question how she fits into this widely divergent picture. As she told me on the phone after visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, she at times feels out of place in Israel, as if she is on a countercultural journey with an uncertain future. She loves Israel and its people, but she worries for Israel’s long-term security and future as a Jewish and democratic state, which she contends is being jeopardized by the policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. And she sees first-hand the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life, with few alternatives.

Of course, to live a meaningfully Jewish life in the United States is far more challenging than in the Holy Land. Even secular Israeli Jews with no synagogue affiliation awaken each morning in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew, and celebrate the major Jewish holidays. American Jews by contrast live in a predominantly Christian country in which Jews are only 2% of the population. Given the increasing secularization of American society, the pull of assimilation and pluralism, and the individual freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it is no wonder that many worry about the survival and long-term prospects of American Jewish life. Unlike in Israel, however, Reform Judaism remains the largest Jewish movement in the United States. When combined with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, “liberal” Judaism (i.e., Judaism that does not rigidly adhere to halakhah, or traditional Jewish law) makes up the vast majority of American Jewish expression and practice.

Hannah’s journey in Israel is made more complex by the powers ceded by Israeli civil society to the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls what marriages are recognized by the state (only those performed by Orthodox rabbis), and the validity of Jewish conversions, which are recognized in Israel only if performed by the “right” kind of rabbi. Female rabbis are not recognized in the Orthodox movements and women are segregated to the back sections of the synagogue. And because the more liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) are considered inauthentic by most Orthodox rabbis, Israel has for many years been all-or-nothing in terms of religious expression and practice. 

As one who struggles at times with my own faith in a secular age, I know that Hannah is on a fascinating journey at once vibrant and exciting, scary and confusing. By seeking to express her faith tradition in meaningful ways, consistent with her Jewish values and the secular ideals of feminism, equality, environmentalism, and universalism, Hannah is walking what can at times be a lonely path. But it is a walk which offers opportunities for deeply personal connections with others hungry for spiritual nourishment in the context of an abiding and enduring faith tradition.

For much of the past half-century, the Holocaust and the founding of Israel represented for many American Jews essential components of Jewish identity. But as important as these historic events are to Jewish history and Jewish experience, they are wholly divorced from Judaism as a religion. “Judaism is bigger than this,” writes Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and author of Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (Schocken Books, 2009). Judaism is a covenant with God and a value-based way of life and ethics. Although the Jewish faith has survived four thousand years of exile, oppression, and persecution, Judaism has more to offer the world than stories of victimization and survival. And while bagels and lox and Jewish comedy have enhanced the American landscape, Judaism is so much more than culture and ethnicity. “Everyone has enemies. . . . Everyone has ethnicity,” writes Sacks. “Judaism is the sustained attempt to make real in life the transformative power of hope. And the world, in the twenty-first century, needs hope.”

As a Reform Jew, Hannah has endorsed a movement that is attempting to persuade secular and non-religious Jews that the pursuit of faith is a lifelong quest, an ongoing journey of questioning and commitment. Liberal Judaism allows Jews to embrace and find meaning in elements of Jewish tradition that does not require rigid adherence to the many prescriptions of halakhah that are no longer relevant to most American and secular Israeli Jews.

Hannah is learning that the search for identity is intricately connected to the search for meaning and purpose. When taken seriously, it can become a guidepost to one's life, but of necessity requires emotional and intellectual struggle. It requires that one engage with the world in all its conflict, ambiguity, and messiness; that one look inward, to meaningful rituals, to tradition, and to God. It also requires that one look outward – to the wider world, to art, literature, music, politics, justice, and the human condition.

Young women conducting religious ceremony at Western Wall
As Hannah and other young American Jews are discovering, there are many ways in which to meaningfully commit to a Jewish life and express a meaningful Jewish identity. Whether she someday becomes a Rabbi or decides to walk a different path, Hannah can become an agent of hope and of Jewish renewal; she can partner with others, with God, and with people of all faiths in making the world a better, more peaceful and compassionate place.

While Orthodox Judaism does not offer a practical or meaningful path for Hannah and most of her contemporaries, neither does a complete embrace of secular Judaism offer a compelling and attractive alternative. To reject any semblance of Judaism’s essential connection to monotheism and a belief in God, to any sense of the spiritual and faith-side of Judaism, risks ignoring or forgetting Judaism’s place in the global project of humankind. If Judaism has an essential task, it is to perform tikkun olam, to heal and repair an imperfect world, to affirm life, seek justice, and create a world in which the divine presence dwells among us all. In walking this path, Hannah can add her voice to the symphony of voices that seek a meaningful life, a meaningful faith, traditions worth retaining, and new traditions worth creating. And she can help shape the future of Judaism for generations to come. It is an exciting journey, and a scary one, and I hope I am around a long time to see where it takes her.

Walking path in Haifa, Israel