Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Interfaith Reflections: A Note to My Daughters

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people.
--1 Corinthians 12:4
Dear Jennifer and Hannah,

It seems like only yesterday that you were two young girls finding your way in the world, wishing to be entertained by the theatrical escapades of Charlie Horse and Kermit the Frog (Executive Producer: Dad), while discovering the beauty, wonder, and dangers of the world around you. Through the years, I have watched you grow and develop into kind, caring, compassionate, and well-adjusted young women. While your lives remain in their early stages, your accomplishments many and futures bright, you will almost certainly confront many challenges and dilemmas along the way. I will climb mountains and jump through fire whenever you need me, though I know that time, distance and mortality may make it impossible for me to always be there for you. So, as we give thanks for another year of life’s blessings, I wanted to express my hope that, as you wade through the many obstacles and decisions of life, you seek God’s presence and take seriously your individual faith journeys.

I am a preacher’s kid, so it is no surprise that religion was a major force in my life, personally and intellectually, for as long as I can remember. I attended church and Sunday school every week, was baptized and confirmed, memorized the Christian creeds, actively participated in Lutheran youth groups, and took comfort in the expressions of love and acceptance I found in the church community. Your grandfather’s professional standing in the Lutheran church, including eight years as Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, and your grandmother’s devout Christian faith, has naturally affected my worldview. My ethical and moral values, my politics, and my interest in other faith traditions have been influenced in some way by the centrality of religion in my family’s life during those formative years.

It was not until my early twenties, when I attended law school, that I began to seriously consider and challenge my own beliefs and assumptions about matters of faith, religion, God, and the cosmos. When I married your Mom at the age of 28, I was content with the notion of two equally valid faith traditions peacefully coexisting in a state of mutual respect. Not until the two of you came into this world was I forced to confront the importance of faith in my life and the lives of my children.

By then, my feelings toward Christianity had grown complicated. I remained connected to my Lutheran heritage, proud of my involvement with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Washington, D.C., and of the extensive advocacy and worldwide relief efforts of the Lutheran church on behalf of developing nations and the world’s poorest citizens. I was proud also of the example set by your grandfather as a socially conscience and politically aware Lutheran minister, one who practiced his faith in the world and all its messiness, providing counsel and comfort to pastors and parishioners, young and old alike. And I have always been amazed by your grandmother’s lifelong devotion and commitment to the church and to helping others. And yet, despite these positive experiences and influences, I personally struggled over the literal meaning of the traditional Christian creeds and doctrines. I began to question many of Christianity’s fundamental tenets and could no longer reconcile my head with my heart. And I refused to accept the belief of some Christians that the saving grace of God was denied to people of other faith traditions whom I loved and respected.

Theologically, I felt very much at home with liberal Judaism and its emphasis on living an ethical life, doing good deeds, and working for justice, principles shared by the mainline Protestant experience of my past, particularly the progressive Christianity as practiced by Luther Place when we lived in Washington. I also was fond of Judaism’s emphasis on education and intellectual inquiry, its openness to questions in a non-judgmental way. I continued to have a great affinity for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and because Christianity is rooted in Judaism – Jesus was born a Jew, lived his life as a Jew, and died a Jew – I felt it did not compromise my integrity to participate actively in your Jewish education and upbringing, something that would not be true of your mom had she been asked to raise you as Christians.

For me, it was not particularly important to which faith tradition you were exposed. What was most important to me was that you be allowed to develop a rich heritage and a religious identity, to have a rock upon which to stand when life’s waters sometimes overflow. Any ambivalence I had about raising you as Jews stemmed mostly from a concern that non-orthodox American Judaism encompasses such a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious elements, and includes not only the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, but many secular, humanist, and New Age philosophies that have little connection or relevance to Judaism or religion. I have encountered many American Jews with little sense of spirituality and much skepticism about God and faith. That one could be theologically agnostic, or even an atheist, and yet maintain a strong Jewish identity is a notion at odds with my Christian experience, where one’s belief system is the defining element of one’s religion; in the Christian tradition, without God and faith, religion lacks purpose and meaning. I have spoken with many rabbis who share my concern, and I have been pleased to see a renewed sense of spirituality in American Judaism over the past few decades. Because while I always want you to have a strong sense of who you are, including a Jewish identity and pride in Jewish culture and history, I also desire that you maintain faith in God, a higher force that you can turn to in times of distress. Achieving an internal peace with God is something I wish for everyone, but something I desperately desire for you.

“The supreme issue is today not the halacha for the Jew or the Church for the Christian,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “but the premise underlying both religions, namely, whether there is a pathos, a divine reality concerned with the destiny of man which mysteriously impinges upon history; the supreme issue is whether we are alive or dead to the challenge and the expectation of the living God.” It is, in many ways, what binds us together as human beings. I hope you someday take the time to study and read some of Heschel’s writings, as he offers gentle wisdom and a deep understanding of the essence of faith. “The crisis engulfs all of us,” he writes. “The misery and fear of alienation from God make Jew and Christian cry together.”

Although I cannot tell you what to believe or how to find God in your life, I can at least share with you what I believe. It seems we rarely discuss such things any more, but I think it important from time to time to consider and contemplate the mystery that is faith and creation, and to strive for deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s relationship to humankind.

For as long as I can remember, I have believed that God exists and is very much a part of our world. Although my concept of God has evolved over time, I understand now that God is a mystery, impossible to comprehend. But if you look carefully at the world around you and listen to the whispering silence of a gentle autumn breeze, if you watch a flock of geese fly in formation as they migrate south for winter; if you examine the stars on a clear night and consider the vastness of the universe, you will discover that God is everywhere. That there exists a little bit of God in everyone, waiting to be recognized, and that God provides guidance to those who sincerely seek God’s wisdom, seems more apparent now than ever. God is our conscience and our soul; God is nature. And though God may not actively intervene in our lives – God cannot do good things for us or prevent harm to us – God suffers with us when we are in pain and communicates with us through the people who inspire us and the people who need our time and attention, from a child in need of a parent’s love to the homeless beggar on the streets of our cities. When we ignore the suffering of others, we ignore God.

I believe that God listens to our prayers and attempts to provide answers, but we must look, listen, and search for those answers in the world around us. I believe in a compassionate and understanding God, a God of love who expects us (commands us in the Jewish tradition) to live an ethical and just life, to treat others with kindness and concern, to treat all of God’s creations – the grass, the trees, our lakes and rivers, the animal world, and most especially each other – with respect and love. “What is faith,” asked Mohandas Gandhi, “if it is not translated into action?”

Bishop Desmond Tutu, who helped guide South Africa in the 1980’s away from the racially-oppressive system of apartheid and through a process of racial reconciliation, reminded us that our humanity is bound up in each other, “for we can only be human together.” It is a simple, but important principle that applies to our everyday lives, our politics, our religious practices, and our respect for those from whom we differ. “All things are bound together,” said Chief Oren Lyons of the Onandaga Nation. “[A]ll things connect. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls also the children of the earth."

Life is beautiful and wonderful, full of joy and laughter, love and kindness. But it also involves no shortage of heartache. Sadly, you already have experienced tragedy and pain in life through the loss of your friends Hannah and Natan at such young ages. And you will face more loss as life goes on. This is a certainty. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” As you confront life’s challenges, I hope you find inspiration in the words of Dr. King and never lose your sense of idealism, justice, and compassion for others. And when you feel overwhelmed by life’s controversies, when your spirit is challenged, think of Anne Frank, a young girl of great courage and character who maintained her ideals during a time that for most of us would have been the depth of darkness. In her diary, shortly before her death, Anne Frank wrote:
It’s really a wonder that I haven’s dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. . . . I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
Although today’s world is not as immediately perilous as the world in which Anne Frank lived, our world nevertheless presents sad news and insecurity every day. If you remain true to yourselves, live your lives with integrity, and remain caring and loving persons, you will always have the respect of others and the love of many. Believe in yourselves, believe in God, feel God’s presence and see it in each other and in all of humanity, and you will find meaning and purpose in your lives. “The real and the spiritual are one,” wrote Heschel, “like body and soul in a living [person]. It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.” Be open to a sense of spirit in your lives; open your heart to God and trust that you can do anything to which you commit your heart and mind. Then, your only limitations will be of your own making.

With love always,


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