Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Eleven Days in Israel: Reflections and Observations

Old City Jerusalem
For the first 20 years of my life, Israel was but a biblical reference, a land of ancient history, of equal importance to Christians and Jews for events recorded long-ago by scribes and scholars in the books that now constitute the Holy Bible – the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I knew little of Israel’s modern history or the circumstances of its founding in 1948. I was only eight years old during the Six-Day War in 1967 and only slightly more attentive to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It would be another decade before I contemplated the historic causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not until the 1980’s did these events become significant to me, when I developed an interest in this fascinating land of stark contrasts, of beaches and deserts, crowded cities and wide-open spaces, the secular and the religious, peace and conflict.

A small country the size of New Jersey that sits along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a land of antiquity and modernity, beauty and creativity, pulsating energy and nervous tension. There is a rich vibrancy to life here, where every square inch is seemingly embroiled in history, politics, religion and philosophy. Is it any wonder the world is disproportionately attentive to Israel?

Andrea and I arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on a Friday in late March. For the next eleven days, our lives were transformed. We felt a little like the fictional Yael in A Damaged Mirror: “The wonder of it touched everything around her, casting a golden glow over even the most mundane events. Nothing seemed impossible, and nothing seemed entirely real.”

We rented a car and drove to Haifa, catching our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast ocean of brilliant blue stretched to the horizon. That evening, we drove across town to the University of Haifa, where daughter Hannah resides this semester. The university’s campus sits along a ridge high atop Carmel Mountain, with panoramic views of the urban landscape and its surroundings. A diverse city with a healthy mix of Jews, Arabs, and Druze, Haifa felt to us a little like San Francisco, with its steep hills and winding roads bordering a vast ocean. It was a quiet, peaceful place that took advantage of its natural beauty.

View of Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens
For the next eleven days, we traveled through northern Israel and spent time in Israel’s three major cities – Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem – each with distinct characters and histories. We explored the rugged beauty of the northern coast, the rock formations at Rosh ha-Nikra near the Lebanese border, and the ancient Crusader cities and fortresses of Akko and Caesarea. We visited major Christian sites near the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee and took a jeep tour of the Golan Heights, where we rode along the River Jordan, stopped for lunch at an Israeli winery, and gazed at the mountains of Syria and Lebanon in the distance. And we walked around the mystical city of Tzfat, with its narrow alleyways, steep inclines, artist colonies, and historic architecture.

Tzfat (Sefad)
Tradition, culture, and history are everywhere in Israel, with three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – deeply imbedded into the Israeli landscape. While wandering the streets of Tzfat, and in portions of Haifa and Jerusalem, we saw Hasidic men and boys dressed in black as Orthodox women pushed baby carriages, often followed minutes later by women dressed in hijab, or traditional Muslim garb. In Jerusalem, we stood and prayed at the Western Wall, where I inserted a written prayer for peace into a crevice of the Wall, between rocks dating back more than 2,000 years. I wandered into the sheltered portion beneath the Temple Mount and observed a group of deeply religious, ultra-Orthodox men davening as they rocked their bodies back and forth with copies of Torah in hand, a touching display of spiritual conviction.

On Good Friday, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and observed emotional scenes of Christian pilgrims paying their respects to the crucified Christ. I watched silently as a group of women succumbed to their knees and bowed in prayer, their faces touching the Stone of the Anointing, where tradition holds Jesus was prepared for burial. This particular Friday was also the first day of Pesach (Passover), a national holiday in Israel celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. As we walked outside, we were met with the Muslim call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Oh, the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, so vibrant and full of life; it is here one feels at the center of the world and of history.

Stone of the Anointing in Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Israel is a land of many paradoxes; an ancient land in a modern country, a land of friendly people, of peace and tranquility, in a region filled with conflict; a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy in a Jewish state. Although everyday life here is not much different from life in the United States or Europe, reminders of Israel’s uniqueness abound in the occasional military checkpoints, which we passed after driving through portions of the West Bank on our way to Jerusalem from the Golan Heights and, three days later, Masada and the Dead Sea. Security is visible but not overbearing, and I was struck by how young were the IDF soldiers we observed gathered at bus stops or patrolling the streets of the Old City with Uzis and M16’s slung over their shoulders.

International travel helps broaden one’s perspective, for it helps you see the world through different lenses. While traveling through Italy two years ago, and again in Israel last month, it becomes apparent that the United States is just another country; a respected country, and an important one, but not the center of the universe that most Americans imagine. In talking with our tour guides – Oded in the Golan Heights and Gil for two days in Jerusalem – we were surprised at the lack of indebtedness and trust Israelis (or at least these two particular Israelis) express for the United States. The Iranian nuclear negotiations were particularly on the minds of Israelis when we were there, and we heard much talk from Oded and Gil of how the United States and Europe do not sufficiently appreciate the risks posed by a nuclear Iran, which they viewed as a far greater threat to Israel than ISIS and other strands of Islamic extremism.

“ISIS does not have the tools to threaten us,” explained Gil, a former sniper for the IDF who is now among the most sought after tour guides in Israel, having led tours in the past for the King of Jordan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Gil and Oded expressed little concern over ISIS and the complex alignment of conflicting interests in the Middle East. To them, Iran was the only force with which Israel was concerned, because Iran is the only country at present that poses a legitimate threat. When I pointed out that the United States had a multitude of interests, long-term and short-term, military and diplomatic, that were far broader than those of Israel, they acknowledged my point and appreciated my challenge to their more narrowly-focused lenses. But their perspectives were understandably shaped by a sense of immediate history and existential fear that does not easily dissipate, and assurances of U.S. support do not satisfy them, whether such assurances come from an American visitor or a U.S. Secretary of State.

Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery - Jerusalem
I must confess I was less prepared for Gil’s and Oded’s skepticism of American resolve and whether the United States could be relied upon to watch Israel’s back. Having never remembered a time when the United States was not strongly allied with Israel – at least in domestic U.S. politics, to be perceived as anything less than a die-hard supporter of Israel is a good way to lose an election – it was interesting to hear these two Israelis, one a secular Jew from the Golan Heights, the other an observant Jew from Jerusalem, express lingering resentment over official U.S. neutrality in the region during Israel’s early years, and the State Department’s policy tilt in favor of the surrounding Arab countries and American oil interests. They reminded us that the French were more reliable allies than America until after the Six Day War in 1967, and that American military and financial support only developed when Israel was finally perceived as a useful ally in the Cold War in the early 1970’s. It explains in part Israel’s fierce independence on matters of security.

Tel Aviv coastline as viewed from Jaffa
On the Palestinian conflict, the Israeli elections (Benjamin Netanyahu had just won re-election a few days before our arrival), and the Orthodox-secular divide in Israeli society, it was apparent that neither Gil nor Oded nor Israelis generally are of one mind on these topics. In reading the English editions of Haaretz while in Tel Aviv, I was impressed by the vibrancy of the country’s political discourse, and at how sharp-edged were the published opinion pieces in criticizing the current Israeli government over its willingness to alienate the U.S. administration, its refusal to pursue a two-state solution and to meaningfully modify the policy of expanded settlements in the West Bank. Oded had described Israel as divided between “secular Ashkenazi elites from Tel Aviv” on the one hand, and a combination of Sephardic, religious, and Russian Jews on the other. When I told the owner of a Jerusalem restaurant at dinner one evening that we were eventually heading to Tel Aviv, he joked, “Yes, when I wish to leave the country, I head to Tel Aviv.”

“We must think differently, look at things in a different way,” said Yitzhak Rabin. “Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” In north Tel Aviv, we visited the Israeli Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which had an impressive multi-media exhibit documenting modern Israeli history and highlighting the life and death of the late Israeli Prime Minister. I was inspired and saddened by this exhibit, for rarely in history does one find a leader with the vision and intelligence of Yitzhak Rabin. A military hero, the first Israeli Prime Minister to have been born in Israel, a man of toughness and tenderness, Rabin understood that, for Israel to thrive as a Jewish state and a democracy, it must find a peaceful solution – a two-state solution – to the conflict. He understood as well, that to achieve peace requires a willingness to negotiate with your enemies, not your friends; and that a “diplomatic peace is not yet the real peace,” but “an essential step in the peace process leading towards a real peace.”

Rabin knew that for Israel to remain a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people, a place of refuge for the Jewish diaspora, it was essential that it not annex over 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To do so would risk making Israel a bi-national state deprived of its Jewish character – essentially the end of Zionism – or it would violate Israel’s democratic traditions and require the permanent oppression of an entire people based on ethnicity and nationality. Rabin rightly refused to accept either option. I am afraid that, ever since his assassination in 1995 at the hands of an ultra-Orthodox extremist, Israel has not had a leader of Rabin’s stature, respect, and backbone. I do not know how or when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end, but as long as Hamas controls Gaza and Netanyahu remains Prime Minister of Israel, a peaceful solution appears impossible.

Arab East Jerusalem as viewed from Old City
On matters of security, Israelis are of one mind, for the security issues in Israel are substantial. When one sees first-hand how little physical distance exists between the western borders of the West Bank and the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, a narrow strip of land that contains a great portion of Israel’s population, infrastructure, and technological capability, it is easy to understand why preventing the Palestinians from obtaining any offensive military capability in the West Bank is an issue for which there is no compromise. But there are many other issues for which compromise is possible, and the continued expansion of West Bank settlements by the current Israeli government is a roadblock to any attempt at peace.

It is a shame that the Palestinians have not had a leader of high-stature who could build a non-violent movement for Palestinian statehood; for it is clear that most Israelis want peace and that the region is fatigued from the endless conflict. Polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, as do a majority of Palestinians according to a Hebrew University study in 2013, and many Israelis perceive and are discomfited by the injustices and inequalities of the Israeli occupation. But when your life and the lives of your family are at stake, it is understandable that theories of justice and idealistic visions of peace take a back seat to immediate security.

The closer one looks at and studies the region and its history, the less black-and-white the issues become. Driving through the West Bank on our way from the Golan Heights, we observed Palestinian slums unlike any I have seen – rundown shacks with no electricity or running water, one after another forming small enclaves of despair. Although the Israelis must accept responsibility for the gross inequalities and injustices as long as they are the “occupying” power, the Palestinian Authority is also to blame (Hamas in Gaza is another matter still) for its long-standing corruption and failures to accept past negotiated solutions.

Politics and history were naturally on my mind in Israel, but there is so much more about this place that it is easy to forget at times that any conflict exists or has ever existed. Israelis go about their daily business much like the rest of us, more concerned with the economy and the stock market, their children’s schooling, and issues of work-life balance.

Old Jaffa
Saturday in Tel Aviv allowed us to rest and relax on the beach and soak in the sun and fresh ocean air. We walked around Old Jaffa that evening, watched an outdoor display of Israeli-couples dancing to various waltzes, stepped inside St. Peter’s Church, which was built in 1654 and was once visited by Napoleon, and ate at one of the many seafood restaurants along the center city coastline. The next day, following our tour of the Rabin Center, we ate lunch at a Tel Aviv mall and then walked around Carmel Market, experiencing a slice of everyday Israeli life.

And we loved the food. Israeli breakfasts in particular are quite impressive, with salads, fruits and nuts, several types of eggs and fish, and breads (except during Pesach). The food in Israel is fresh and locally produced, with plenty of vegetables, fish from the Mediterranean, and standard Middle Eastern fare everywhere you go. And the service was almost always friendly and helpful.

Although I was warned that Israeli drivers are “crazy” and aggressive, I found driving in Israel far less stressful than my many travels along the I-95 corridor in the United States (or God forbid, the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia). Roads are well maintained – again, unlike in the United States, where potholes and poor construction frequently abound. I sensed that Israel prioritizes the quality of its public infrastructure and accommodations, something we Americans could learn from. The public restrooms in Israel were impressively clean and equipped everywhere we went, even in Old City Jerusalem on a crowded Friday. Compared to New York’s Penn Station, or most public restrooms in densely-populated American cities, Israel had its act together.

The River Jordan in the Golan Heights
Eleven days was not enough time to have seen and done everything we desired, but it was enough to discover that Israel is an intoxicating country. To have touched the Sea of Galilee, stood next to the River Jordan, prayed at the Western Wall, and inhaled the salty air by the Dead Sea, are experiences I will remember for a lifetime. To have walked the narrow alleyways of Tzfat and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; to have driven and walked through and around this fascinating country, in which every inch of ground is full of history and tradition, was exhilarating. Yes, I will return to this land and its people. I will continue to contemplate its future, study its past, and hope for peace. I will watch with interest as Israel continues to balance the competing demands of its Zionist ideals, democratic traditions, and growing influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life. Will Israel make room for a more modern, liberal expression of Judaism in this country of history and tradition? Can it find a way to accommodate the desire for peace with the need for security? Can it remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts?

Israel will forever be a land worth protecting and preserving. And it will remain a living symbol of the hope for peace among nations, and tranquility between the world’s religions, peoples, and cultures. Shalom, my friends. Shalom.

Near the Western Wall, Old City Jerusalem

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”)
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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. 

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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.”

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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.”

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“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)