FOR EVERYTHING YOU ARE

I have been alone, but haven’t felt lonely

You have been single, but with a family

Now we are together, now my life is full

For everything you are, I am ever grateful

 

I am grateful, too, for all of your support

When I go through trials, you give me comfort

Your voice is always, “Yes;” you won’t allow me doubt

You assure me everything will all work out

 

I give thanks to God for everything that is you

In an uncertain world, you and your love is true

I just wanted you to know the way I feel

My love for you and faithfulness to you are real

You make my world complete through all you are and all you do

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Religious Blog

Who Is My Neighbor?

Amos 7:7-17                                       Luke 10:25-37                                     Psalm 82

I think we all know that we need to love the neighbor.  The question is very real, though, as to just how our neighbor is.  That was the question of the expert in Jewish law.

The question of the expert in Jewish law is valid.  When Jesus asks him what he reads in the Jewish law, the expert refers to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  For this talk, the passage from Leviticus is our special interest.  The expert in the law had real grounds for asking who the neighbor is.  Leviticus seems to say that only the people of Israel are the neighbor.  That is, the neighbor is the same tribe that you live in.  Let’s look at the Leviticus passage.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:17-18).

See the wording.  The first line says not to hate your own kin, your relatives.  The next line says not to take revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people.  Then it says to love your neighbor as yourself.  So the context in which the command to love your neighbor appears is one of family and tribe.  The expert in the law knows this, and legitimately asks just who the neighbor is.

Jesus frames His answer in stark terms.  In His answer, Jesus shows that the neighbor is everyone.  He shows this in His story by making Orthodox Jews look uncompassionate and by making a member of a hated foreign tribe—the Samaritans—the example of love for the neighbor. In Jesus’ story, a man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the nation of Israel.  He is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A Jewish priest not only passes the man by, but he crosses the street to avoid him.  Then a Levite, from the priestly tribe in Israel, does the same thing—he crosses the street to avoid the beaten and robbed man.  What is striking in this story, and ironic, is that the priest and Levite cross the street because of their Jewish religion.  According to Jewish law, contact with a dead body rendered the individual ritually unclean.  Leviticus 22:4-7 dictates that coming in contact with a corpse renders a person unclean, and a priest cannot perform rites and sacraments in the Temple while unclean.  In fact, a priest cannot even eat the food in the Temple, which they lived on, while ritually unclean.  They would remain unclean until sunset and after they had washed in water.  So to prevent ritual uncleanness, the priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid contact with what they took to be a dead man.  So the leaders of the Jewish religion avoid the beaten and robbed man.  But a foreigner, from a heretical tribe, who were hated by the Jews, shows compassion and becomes the example of love for the neighbor.  By the end of the story, it is not the religion of the Jews that is the example of love for the neighbor, it is not even the status of a foreigner that is the example of love for the neighbor, but it is the capacity of compassion, which everyone can possess.

This is a uniquely religious message.  I think that most people show compassion to their friends and family.  This is a kind of self-love.  One’s friends and family belong to them.  They are extensions of self.  They exchange love for each other and they care for each other’s welfare.  But what about other people whom one has no special connection to?

Ethics philosophers have written much about this.  They talk about care for “near and distant” neighbors.  Who deserves our care most?  Is it our friends and family first?  Is it the people of our city?  Is it our Province?  Do we take care of our Country first?  Those would be considered near neighbors.  They are close to us.

But what are we to do with distant neighbors?  That is, people with whom we have no special connection.  Strangers.  People of different countries.  People we don’t know.

I would like to tell two stories about these issues.  One story is about me a long time ago at Urbana University.  The other is about an experience Carol and I had in Chicago, not even a week ago.

I was very rule-oriented when I was young.  I had principles I followed.  I had strict interpretations of Christianity and ethics.  One of my principles was that I treated everyone equally.  I had no room for particular recipients of good.  I showed good-will to everyone equally.  At least that is what I tried to do.  Well after I had been at Urbana University for a year, at the start of the next new semester a Swedenborgian student enrolled.  One of the Swedenborgian professors who knew her and her family, asked me to take her under my wing, and show her the ropes in order to make her feel at home at this new school, new place.  Well, due to my philosophy, I said that I would treat Debbie the way I treated everyone else at the University.  I had no room in my ethics to give Debbie special attention.  Kind of heartless; but that was how I saw things back then.  Distant neighbors deserved the same kindness as near neighbors.  The professor and everyone else didn’t get my ethics.  And, of course, now I would do things much differently.

Fast-forward 40 years.  Carol and I are schlepping our big suitcases down a sidewalk of downtown Chicago.  We were trying to get to the subway, to catch a train to the airport.  In Chicago, almost all the doors are revolving doors.  We tried to get into an office building because they had an elevator down to the subway and we didn’t fancy lugging our heavy suitcases down a flight of stairs.  Well the particular office building we were going into had one of those revolving doors.  I stumbled and lurched in the revolving door, trying to get me and my suitcase around in the narrow partition of the revolving door.  A security guard in the office building saw my difficulty.  I managed to get through, but he saw what a struggle it was.  Carol was still outside.  He told her to hold on a minute, and he opened another door—a regular door—with his keys, and got her into the building through a secure door which he opened for her.  Then he used his key to access the elevator for us.  We didn’t know that the elevators weren’t for the general public!  This was amazing for us.  He didn’t know us.  It was obvious that we didn’t have business in the building.  We were clearly tourists from distant parts.  Yet this security guard went out of his way to help us get into the building.  He was being a real neighbor to us.  Distant neighbors.

We got into the elevator and down to the subway turnstile.  The attendant there helped us use the handicap doorway to get our luggage through to the train.  Then we looked at the tracks and saw a long stairway down to the train tracks.  We weren’t ready for this.  Well as it happened, a Latino man and his daughter were going down to the tracks, too.  And the man stopped Carol, took up her suitcase and carried it down the stairs for her.  He didn’t know us, would never see us again, and he helped us, anyway.  And Carol wanted me to add that he and his daughter earned a hug from her for this.

The security guard and the Latino man were good neighbors to us.  I wasn’t much of a good neighbor to Debbie at Urbana University.  Situations to be good neighbors present themselves to us all the time.  We help our friends and families without a second thought.  But when we help someone who isn’t friend or family, it is entirely that they will become friends.  There is a man in my condo complex whom I have seen in the halls.  I say, “Hi,” and sometimes get a, “Hi,” back.  But recently someone had jammed some paper in the door lock into the complex to keep the door unlocked.  The guy I had met in the hallways was picking at the paper with a key, trying to get it out of the door.  I went back to my car and got out a dart I kept there for when Carol and I used to play darts.  The dart worked well, and the man got out all the paper.  That one moment bonded us a bit.  We now have a closer connection that we had before.

The neighbor is everyone, everywhere we can do good to.  Do you know who the closest neighbor is?  It is God.  God is the greatest neighbor.  Whenever we do good, we are doing good for God.  Jesus said, “When you have done it to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  With God as our spiritual parent, we are all children of God.  So from a spiritual perspective, everyone is a near neighbor.  Care for distant neighbors doesn’t prohibit us from care for near neighbors, too.  Our friends and family are natural neighbors.  God and the people around us are spiritual neighbors.  Let’s keep our eyes open for the privilege of doing good whenever it presents itself to us, to everyone to whom we can do good.

 

TIME AND REFLECTION ON LIFE CHOICES

He did alright for himself

That’s how I see my friend, now

He made a living out of music

Married and raised a family

 

A benefit of age is perspective

I knew him before it all

He was a waiter and I a doctoral student

We played in a band together

 

He got a job teaching music at a ma and pop store

Pretty much the town’s only music store

I set my sights on a university professorship

I wondered then if that’s all he planned to do in life

 

He taught and gigged the past thirty-three years

Married, now the father of grown adults

A house, a family, a musician

He did alright for himself

 

I got the Ph.D., but the professorship never came through

Ordained a Swedenborgian minister a decade ago

A long-term relationship, travels together and moments

In retrospect—the gift of age—we both did alright for ourselves

CALENDAR AND SOUL

And the calendar marks another

Year, month, day, hour, minute, second

Calendar and clock

Time and the soul’s time

Long ago, a crushed career, crushed future, crushed life, carved time in my soul

Giving my soul relations

Before and after, what I am now, since

Pain

And moments at church camp, church, with pastors, watching the sun, stars, synergy at interfaith

seminars

Mark states in my soul, relations

To the material world

Calendars and clocks

Year, month, day, hour, minute, second

To meaning, moment

Revealing and retreating, manifesting and hiding

Holiness

And Blessed time with a beloved

Grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild

Friend, colleague, fellows, congregation

Leaving lasting moods measuring remaining

Movements of the soul

Community

Meeting the world, a world of people

Success, triumph, embarrassment, achievement and failure

Summa Cum Laude, Harvard, Ph.D. articles published, a book, professor, pastor, money, poverty

Personal achievement, recognized success, successes

Status

Time marking—soul and calendar

Year, month, day, hour, minute, second

Pain, holiness, community, status

Measuring, containing, marking time

Age and state

Time and the soul

Another year today

And all that has made me

Moments that Make Us Who We Are

I remember that electric slow dance
As I do our trips together
Moments I remember that make us who we are:
Your anger when I left you while I explored Chichen-Itza
The mystic glowing lake we paddled on together that Puerto Rico night
All those airplanes landing in the midnight sky over Miami as we drove home from Key West
Looking up at the base and down from the cliff at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump
Family, and the luxury resort at Saint Lucia
These are moments that make us who we are
Family dinners on holidays
My growing intelligence as I talk with you
The splash cymbal in the Blind Faith song our finger punctuates, listening to my iPod on the road
Sunday lunches out after I preach
Talk late at night
These are moments that make us what we are

Death and the Harvest Cycle and Family

Family and the land

And death and the harvest cycle

Farms ad family farms and neighbors

Dinner and grandparents and daughters and their sons

And friends, beloved ones

And love and connections and community

And communities and the land

And death and the harvest cycle

 

Hand-hewn beams of a hundred-year-old barn

Abandoned, unused, left-over straw

A graveyard, a tombstone, names of the deceased and living

Winter, fields harvested, mud and corn stubble

Lunch and new connections

And family and meeting parents

A hundred-year-old church

Now a theatre and art gallery

 

An abandoned farm house

A new condo and a senior manor

Change and death and new beginnings

Meeting new people and new family

Renewing old connections—teachers, family friends

And the land and family farms

And the harvest cycle and death and family

Craving Transcendence

I believe that humanity needs transcendence.  We need moments that take us out, above, the tensions, pressures, stresses, and hum-drum complacencies of daily life.  There is a scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations that illustrates this.  A certain clerk at the office of an unscrupulous, callous lawyer is described as appearing like a mailbox.  His mouth is set so stiffly, it appears like the steel slot that you slide letters into.  But as he walks out of the office, and heads to his domestic life, his innocent home life, his face relaxes, takes on lively expressions, and his innocence emerges.  At home, the clerk finds a kind of transcendence.  His humanity retreats in the hostile environment of the law office, and re-emerges in the safe home in which he lives.  In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne meets Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, in the woods, far, far from the pressures of the intense Puritan village in which they live.  And perhaps the most clear literary example of transcendence is in the medieval romance Tristan.  In this work, the lovers Tristan and Isolde meet in the forest in a special “Love Grotto” which is a kind of cave that resembles a medieval cathedral.  Their bower of love, away from the life of the castle court, is a protected, transcendental place in which their love can be freely—carefreely–expressed.

We all need a place like the safe domesticity of the clerk at the law office, the woodland refuge of Hester and Dimmesdale, or the Love Grotto of Tristan and Isolde.  A place or an environment in which we feel safe, and more than safe, uplifted spiritually.  For ages, humanity has found transcendence in relationship with God.  A connection with God was found to be ecstatic, uplifting, calming, peaceful, enlightening.  The roots of many religions teach that God is somehow above the created world, and that connection with God would lift a person out of the pressures of worldly life, transform one’s emotions and thoughts, elevate one’s soul.  “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).  Religious transcendence is found in prayer, worship, meditation, devotional reading, and charitable works.

I have seen efforts to find transcendence without God.  This is because many today are renouncing belief.  Without God, and with a craving for transcendence, where can people find that place apart from the world, above the world, better than complacency?  I see in TV and cinema episodes that look like transcendental places.  One common transcendental space is in the experience of love.  Lovers create a kind of bubble which is known only to the couple.  Finding someone who treasures you above others, as lovers find, makes a person feel special.  At least to the beloved, you are more important than other people.  In strong love relationships, the beloved is treasured above anything else, everything else.  That feeling of being special to one other human, lends the feeling of transcendence, creates a space that we don’t find in the world.  Often the world can feel harsh and unloving.  In the movie The Big Chill, the friends lament their eventual return to the tough world they view from the treasured solace of their friendship.    These reflections suggest two other options for semi-transcendence: family and friendship.  Friendship is like love, but not as intense.  Indeed, lovers often are best friends, but best friends are most often not called lovers.  And families seem to hold the widest array of love relationships.  Parents love their children sometimes even more than their partner, and they also have that mutual love that couples know with their partner.  So family life is another powerful place of transcendence.  It is a place where the stresses of the world can be let go, and where each family member is special just for who they are.  Robert Frost calls family, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (The Death of the Hired Man).  Other means of semi-transcendence can be art (the rapture of music), nature, sports (especially the communal experience of a live game), or, unfortunately, drugs.

My feeling is that these attempts to satisfy the universal craving for transcendence are not sufficient.  I think that they will lead to frustration.  Seeking something that lifts one out of the human situation can’t be found by other human creations.  I have felt the kinds of semi-transcendences that I listed briefly above.  And in my better moments, I have felt religious transcendence.  I have experienced the semi-transcendental episodes in cinema, for instance, and for me, they don’t fulfill my own craving.  It feels really good, indeed.  It does create a space outside the pressures of the world.  But it doesn’t uplift.  It doesn’t bring peace.  And so with other efforts to get away from it all, but not all the way to heaven.  Granted, as a believer, I have expectations grounded in religious experiences.  But as a human, I do feel love, friendship, family, art’s rapture, the enjoyment of sports, the quiet of nature (which, arguably, is God’s creation, and at least, not a human creation), and have experienced drugged relief.  My experience of spirituality feels higher than the other forms of transcendence.  In fact, my experience of love, friendship, family, art, and nature is enhanced by my spirituality.  I think the craving for transcendence can be relieved only by a transcendental Reality.  I don’t think that the craving for transcendence will ever be forgotten or sloughed off.  Humans will always want a place apart.  But I don’t think that humanity will find that place apart without God.  I see endless frustration, maybe unconscious frustration even, when finite forms are used to fulfill what is essentially an infinite urge.