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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Messy Ways of God and Man

This is a sermon for Shabbat Vayera, presented, November 11, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. In the sermon, I call for us to reconsider our hard and fast categories, especially as applied to other people. The text under discussion is Genesis 20.

If the Bible is not a book that surprises you, you either are not reading it at all, not paying attention, reading it superficially, or simply reading your own views into it.

The Bible just may be the world’s most surprising book. Just when you thought you had God down, just when you thought you had everything buttoned down and figured out, you will read something which causes all but the dead to rise up and say, “What?”

Today’s passage is one that surprises us. Let’s pause for a while to notice how and why.

The first surprise is that Abraham fudges on the identity of his wife so as not to tempt the people of the land to take her and knock him off. I remember being on a plane about 25 years ago, and having a conversation with an Orthodox Jew who suggested that Abraham was merely being ingenious here.

But you can see from the context, that what Abraham did was politically savvy but spiritually wrong, because Torah records Abimelech’s righteous rebuke.

The second surprise is the moral compass of the pagan king, Abimelech. He is appalled when God tells him who Sarah really is and reacts in all the right ways to the information he is given. This should remind us of the Book of Jonah, where it is the pagans who get things right, and the prophet who gets things wrong.

The third surprise is that even though Abraham is a trifle smarmy in this account, God still considers him a prophet. As a prophet, he has authority in prayer, which, when offered, brings healing to Abimelech’s household.

What shall we make of this?

First, we need to reconsider the sharp lines we often draw between God’s good people and “the world.” These lines make for tidy thinking but have little to do with reality. Here in our story, we see the “believer,” the “good guy” doing the bad things, and the “unbeliever”—the outsider, responding rightly to God.

All kinds of people have their pet ingroups and outgroups. People in the ingroup are viewed as always behaving properly, as having wise things to say, as being people in the know who are worthy of imitation. The outgroup people are categorically yahoos. They don’t know how to act, think, or talk.

That’s the kind of rhetoric we have been hearing on the political scene for years. George W. Bush has been represented as being an illiterate, fascistic idiot, barely able to speak, think, read, write, or dress himself. On the other side of the spectrum, the leadership of the Democratic Party has been represented to us as a bunch of pot-smoking, baby-aborting, marriage destroying, mindless peaceniks prepared to give in to Islamic Fundamentalism if the other side smiles nicely for the camera.

This kind of categorical thinking about religion, politics, and people, is wrong. One way we know it’s wrong is that life is not like that—good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell the bad guys from the good guys.

Religious people, who ought to know better, are often the worst offenders in this area. They, really “we,” have well-defined boundaries as to who is in, who is out, who speaks nothing but the truth, and who speaks nothing but lies. So Zionists are always right, Palestinians, always wrong. Conservative theologians always right, Liberals always wrong. For such people, Evngenlical Protestants are all saved,
Catholics, seldom, Christians are in always better than Jews, or. conversely, Jews are always better than Christians. Christians know the truth about God, and people who don’t believe in Yeshua know nothing about God. Hooray for our crowd, and to hell with everyone else.

But the truth is, as in today’s Torah reading, sometimes you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys without a score card, and our score cards are not usually the same as God’s.

That’s why I like this statement by Christian writer Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
She’s got it right, doesn’t she? No, wait a minute, she can’t have it right: she’s a Liberal Christian. O well, you see how it goes.

Last week, Ted Haggard, a prominent, respectable and powerful evangelical leader, Pastor of a 14,000 member church, and President of the thirty-million member National Association of Evangelicals [NAE], was ousted from both positions when it came to light that he had been using the services of a gay escort, on a monthly basis, for about three years.

He has resigned from his position with the NAE, and been removed from his position as Pastor. He now faces a three to five year process of hard-nosed “Church discipline,” involving deconstructing his large ego, probably narcissistic as is often the case with public figures, being raked over the coals in a take no prisoners manner, but also receiving prayer and support. It will be hard.

Do Haggard’s peccadilloes reveal him to no longer be a good guy, but simply a bad guy who was finally exposed as such? Are all conservative religious leaders in the end simply hypocrites? For many people, used to hard-boundaried categorical thinking, the answer to either or to both questions must be, “Yes.”

But reality is different. God’s people do bad things and those we think of as not being God’s people at all, at times do good things, great things, holy things. If you’re trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys by who’s wearing the white hat, don’t waste your time. All hats are shades of grey.

There are many lessons we need to learn here. First, we need to learn to not pile on or desert someone who falls from grace, which often means that he or she disappoints us by failing to measure up to our image of them. They are not bad people, at least not usually. Rather, they are more likely good people having a bad time, going through a time of weakness, stress, and compromise. They can pull out it, but not if we throw rocks at them or turn our backs instead of standing by them and giving them a helping hand.

Second, we need to learn not to idolize people, putting them on pedestals. If we idolize people we worship a lie. People are not perfect, not even close. When we treat them as icons of perfection, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and we set them up for a fall. It’s a dangerous thing to be Ted Haggard with 14,000 people thinking of you as an Anointed Apostle of God. It’s so easy to fall from such great heights.

Third, we need to realize that everyone is a work in process. Sometimes the people we admire will disappoint us. This doesn’t meant they stopped being admirable. It does mean that even giants stumble. The flip side of this is that people we have written off are also works in progress. Often it is just such people who will end up astounding us with their righteousness, goodness, self-sacrifice and holiness.

I don’t like Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House. My impression is that she is strident and smug, which is how I view Barbara Boxer, whom I also dislike. But I need to be prepared to believe and see that Nancy Pelosi and even Barbara Boxer may prove a beneficial and memorable moral voice in our nation. They just might do that. And the Democrats may just do better than the Republicans. At times, the most righteous things we can do is wait and see.

Abraham only expected unrighteousness from pagans. He was wrong. Some of us may expect nothing but disaster from Democrats. Or we may think that now that the Democrats are in power in the House and Senate, we just got rid of the dodos. We may be wrong in this too.

We need to seek and be prepared to find the grace, truth, and the goodness of God manifest in unexpected places. And we need to make sure that wherever we are, we make our light shine. Feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the grieving, be forbearing with one another, love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you, become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, instead of simply standing off to the side saying, “Ain’t it awful.”

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. But don’t be surprised if you find them in unexpected places.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Book Review - Anne Lamott - Plan B

Anne Lamott is a San Francisco Bay Area native down to the cellular level not only in her preferences, but in her political and social views. She is unabashedly a lefty, the daughter of lefties, and she want everyone to know it from page one of this volume, where she serves notice of her identity by beginning with a diatribe against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. She is saying, "Look, Sweetheart, this is who I am, so let's get this straight. If you can't take it, then back up, close the front cover, and get the hell out of my book!" I am one of the people who stayed, and glad I did.

Unlike her earlier "Traveling Mercies" which began with a sequential biography of her journey towards God, or perhaps His journey towards her, this book is a non-chronological collection of essays gently demonstrating the fragile yet invincible grace of God evident in the friendships, conflicts, disasters, and tangles of the human condition--her own, that of her teenage son Sam, those of her friends and family, those of her church, and the people she encounters as a lusty, narcissistic, radicalized leftist, mellowing with age, experience, and grace.

Lamott places a poem before Chapter One that subtly but unerringly foreshadows the theme of this collection of twenty-four portraits of life and grace. By Lisel Mueller, it is titled "Monet Refuses the Operation," and chronicles and contrasts the painter's view of reality with that view defended by more "rational," less artistic people. Of course, Lamott is Monet as well, and his words might as well be hers as he says, "The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches, becomes water, lilies on water, above and below water, becomes lilac and mauve and yellow and white and cerulean lamps, small fists passing sunlight so quickly to one another . . ."" The point is, the world is not simply what it seems, and as with Emily Dickinson' poem, "All the earth is crammed with heaven and every bush aflame with God, but only those who see take off their shoes." Lamott sees. She sees the pain, the sorrow and the darkness, but she also sees the burning bush, and invites us to draw near and to take off our shoes and join her there.

It is obvious to me that she wants not only to sensitize us to how God moves amidst the ordinary, but also to comfort the wounded hearts of readers bruised by life, and longing for the soothing touch of God, whether they realize it or not. Lamott succeeds in this without being preachy, superficial, or simplistic.

She never loses sight of life's ugliness, instead finding the grace of God shining brightest in the darkest places. "Without all the shades and shadows, you'd miss the beauty of the veil. The shadow is always there, and if you don't remember it, when it falls on you and your life again, you're plunged into darkness. Shadows make the light show" (162).

This book is mellower than "Traveling Mercies," written five years later. Here we see a Lamott coming to terms with her life, finally content, but still radical, still disturbed by life's injustices, still struggling. But she is coming to terms with life as it is, and herself as she is, feeling just a little bit safer in the arms of God. She knows better than before the strength of the everlasting arms.

This is not a tightly organized book, but a collection of snapshots of life as she finds it. Some people will be impatient with the gentleness of the book. She paints miniatures, not murals. Nevertheless, upon her small canvases, she paints with great artistry and sensitivity.

Prepare to be changed in how you relate to older relatives, to the sick, to the downtrodden, to social justice issues, to undesirable tasks. As for me, I was more than once moved almost to tears by her integrity and intensity of relationship with her son. Her transparency enabled me to look more deeply at my own parenting. Of such glimpses, tears are born.

Anne Lamott teaches all of us here about how to live with ourselves, with God, and with each other. Who can afford to miss the lesson?

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Book Review - Anne Lamott - Traveling Mercies

Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

When not traveling on book tours, or out of town doing public speaking or teaching writer’s workshops, Anne Lamott can be found in her native Marin County, California, probably hanging out with her son Sam, who is a little boy in this book. Anne is a single mom, and never was married to Sam’s dad, who is one in a succession of lovers she has had in her quest to fill the gap left by her now deceased Dad, whom she loved as much as sunshine, air, and life itself. Anne embodies a unique blend of sorrowful sensitivity, sharp observation, unashamed candor, unmarred eloquence, and spiritual sweetness and vulnerability. Her humor delights and astonishes, as does her wisdom, often expressed in brief epigrams worth becoming the armataure around which you just might restructure aspects of your life. I love the woman and trust her because above all, she is unafraid to be real.

However, this fearlessness did not come naturally, and Anne has had a very messy life. In Traveling Mercies she pulls the bandages off her wounds that we might see. In her “Overture,” titled “Lily Pads,” she retraces her fragile journey into the arms of God, telling us how she was dragged kicking, screaming and crawling, into the Kingdom by pierced hands, and how her wounds are now healing. What follows is twenty-four chapters divided into seven sections: Mountain, Valley, Sky; Church, People, Steeple; Tribe; Kids, Some Sick; Body and Soul; “Fambly”; Shore and Ground. She reveals glimpses, sparks, glimmers of God’s glory in the mundane relationships and neurotic struggles of her life, teaching us about forgiveness, grace, and hope. Never preachy, she is always vigilant to preserve life’s mixed quality, light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, joy, wet with tears of sorrow. You won’t find a plastic Jesus on the dashboard of her car, or anywhere in this book.

Lamott’s candor, humor, faith and groundedness are everywhere apparent, as in this quotation: “God: I wish you could have some permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for. ‘It would be such skin off your nose?’ I demand of God. I never get an answer. But in the meantime I have learned that most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people” (168).

The book is aptly titled. She is sharing with us the some of the mercies she’s found traveling the bumpy, potholed pathways of life in the raw. If you are looking for pat answers, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for mercy and a little light in the midst of your darkness, find it here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Children of Abraham by Faith

This is a sermon on Parashat Lech Lecha, presented Shabbat, November 4, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. It calls us to examine just what we mean when we refer to ourselves as "children of Abraham by faith."

1 Now ADONAI said to Avram, "Get yourself out of your country, away from your kinsmen and away from your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and I will make your name great; and you are to be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but I will curse anyone who curses you; and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed."
4 So Avram went, as ADONAI had said to him, and Lot went with him. Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Avram took his wife Sarai, his brother's son Lot, and all their possessions which they had accumulated, as well as the people they had acquired in Haran; then they set out for the land of Kena'an and entered the land of Kena'an.

It is our habit to call ourselves “children of Abraham.” Not only Jews do this, Christians and Muslims do as well. And in the Christian and Messianic Jewish tradition, when we call ourselves children of Abraham, we usually focus on having the same kind of faith as Abraham.

In the shadow of the Reformation, we tend to take pride that we believe in faith, not works. We don’t all know exactly what that means, but we take pride in it nonetheless. My concern in this drash is that we tend to feel, if not say, that we believe in faith instead of actions. Most of us would protest that this is not true. But how about this? Do we not tend to believe in faith instead of obedience? I would say that on the level of comfortable assumptions, and my observation of how nice people like us operate, this is exactly what too many of us believe, too much of the time.

And if I’m right, then this preference for something we call “faith” over obedience indicts us for not having faith at all. Certainly not Abraham’s kind of faith.
Just look at today’s parasha and notice here, and in all the parshiot about Abraham, how Torah describes Abraham’s characteristic response to the commands of God. One thing’s for sure: he doesn’t just say, “I believe you God!.” No, something else happens, more often than not.

That something is clear from the very time Avram is presented in the Bible as the subject of a verb. We find this at the beginning of verse four: “vayelech Avram--So Abram went.” God has spoken, and the very next thing we read of Avram is that he does what God said.

This is the faith of Abraham—it is obedient action expressing trust. That’s what Abraham’s faith was, and is—nothing less, nothing more, and nothing else. And if we are going to call ourselves children of Abraham who share in Abraham’s faith then we too should be people who lives are characterized not by words of agreement with God, but rather deeds of agreement with God, what is also called obedience.

Abraham is the icon of faith because, more often than not, he displayed reflexive obedience. It’s like what happens when you go to the doctor’s office and he hits your knee cap with that little rubber hammer, and, if your body is not ready for the scrap yard, in immediate response to the stimulus of the hammer, your lower leg reflexively moves forward. And if we are truly children of Abraham by faith, we too will obey as a reflexive habit of life.

I don’t think it an accident that time and again, the Torah records Abraham’s obedience in immediate proximity to his hearing the word of the Lord. In the next chapter, chapter 13, we read that God tells him, “Get up and walk through the length and breadth of the land, because I will give it to you." In the very next verse, the text says this: “Avram moved his tent and came to live by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hevron. There he built an altar to ADONAI” (Gen 13:16-17).

Here again, the word of the Lord comes, and Abraham obeys—this is what it means to be a person of faith. It means to hear the word of the Lord obediently and respectfully.

This reflexive obedience characterizes Abram/Abraham throughout Torah. It is strikingly evident in the account of the binding of Isaac, toward the end of Abraham’s life. In this account, we read, “1 After these things, God tested Avraham. He said to him, "Avraham!" and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ 2 He said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitz'chak; and go to the land of Moriyah. There you are to offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will point out to you.’” The very next verse says this, “Vayashkem Avraham baboker--Avraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with Yitz'chak his son. He cut the wood for the burnt offering, departed and went toward the place God had told him about.” Here, as a very old man, as before when he was just embarking on his journey of faith, we see Abraham obeying immediately, reflexively, characteristically.

The question arises concerning us: are we people such as Isaiah speaks of, “The kind of person on whom I look with favor is one with a poor and humble spirit, who trembles at my word.” And will this trembling be evident in immediate obedient action?

I like the way Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf puts it:

By definition, you cannot freely choose to be commanded. . . If there is a God, there cannot be a fully autonomous human being. . . . How you know God’s will for you, and whether you’re able to do God’s will are difficult question, but they are secondary to the belief that, if you know, when you know, however you know God’s will, there is no choice about performing it. There is only obedience or sin.

I would only add this to what Rabbi Wolf said so well: “When you know, however you know God’s will, there is no choice about performing it. There is only the obedience of faith or sin.

If we have Abraham’s kind of faith, then we will obey. And if we don’t obey God as a habit of life, let’s not deceive ourselves: we don’t have the faith of Abraham.
We would do well to take to heart these words from the beginning of Hebrews 11:8: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance.” If we are children of Abraham, then we will obey too whenever and wherever we are convinced that God has spoken.

A Book Review - Anne Lamott, Blue Shoe

It is good for a cerebral type like me to read some fiction once in a while. Here I review a novel I just finished, purchased on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple of Book Stores, the Strand, in New York City. You fiction mavens out there might enjoy this review. Any others, why not just skip this one?

Anne Lamott. Blue Shoe. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.

The S.F. Bay area’s Anne Lamott is well known through her fiction (Joe Jones, Crooked Little Heart, All New People, etc.) and non-fiction (Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith). Both loved and distrusted for her outspoken faith and hilarious candor about messy issues like politics and sexual mores, Lamott is unflinching in reminding us that life is a bundle of contradictions for people like her, like me, like all of us, on the way but not there yet. A Guggenheim fellowship recipient, she has been a Mademoiselle book reviewer and a California restaurant critic. She has taught at UC Davis and teaches writing workshops across the U.S.

In Blue Shoe, Lamott allows us to eavesdrop and peek in on the tensions, struggles, and alliances made and broken by three generations of the family of Mattie Ryder, a forty something, perfect size 12, divorced mother of two young children, struggling to support her househool and to just make it through the night amidst the discouragements of life. Her narcissistic Liberal activist mother. Isa, looms over the narrative as does the shadow of her dead father, Alfred. Mattie’s is very much a typical Marin County family: well educated, artsy, hedonistic, liberal, free-living. The blue shoe named in the title is a vending machine trinket Mattie treats like a good luck charm. Tracing its origins connects Mattie and her brother Al to secrets that will wound before they heal.

Despite Mattie’s (and Lamott’s) transparent Christian faith, there are no plaster saints in this book, but only gritty, real people. Lamott is a disciplined author, and knows it is best to show rather than tell. Like a sea shell left on the shore by a receding wave, the theme of this book emerges from the experience of its characters rather than being placarded anywhere. The theme explicitly emerges in Chapter Ten, where Mattie tells her brother, “Yesterday I had an epiphany. I realized that all I have to do is to tell the truth, and let go of the results” (223). Her theme could be expressed in this wry version of a familiar New Testament text: “The truth shall set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

This is my first Lamott novel, so I can’t compare it to others she has written. She succeeds here in opening her theme up to us like the leaves of an avocado, inviting all to slowly savor the subtle flavors and fragrances arising from her narrative. The pace is slow moving, and this too is a credit to Lamott’s artistry, because real life is not a quickly dispatched explanation, but a slow process of experience and discovery sorted out from the random tangle of the everyday.

I recommend Blue Shoe to anyone prepared to see life and relationships in full color rather than black and white. Lamott calls us to openness to new information, and to willingness to seek out and face unexpected or uncomfortable truths. The rich web of relationships clustered around Mattie Ryder is transformed as a result. If our experience would reflect theirs, we will need courage, curiosity, and perhaps a lucky blue shoe of our own.