Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]

Parting the Veil

edited abstract dark by Jim Lukach on flickrThe light on the ceiling of our bedroom is slanted in a parody of the open doorway, letting in the blue glow of a nightlight from the hall. This nightly and usually innocuous shape hides something in the darkness tonight; I see it creeping in the light box, plotting something against me, about to attack.

Nightmares, night paralysis, and obsessive fears are not new to me. They have been part of my life since I was three and my mom took me to a psychologist because I wouldn’t leave her side, not even to go to the bathroom at home.

When I was eight and still unwilling to let my mom leave me alone in my room at bedtime, my mom, in an act of desperation, performed a sort of exorcism on the closet door that held the faces of dark monsters and demons in the grains of wood.

In order to fend off those terrors of demons and monsters in my late teens and twenties, I took comfort in a less mysterious Christianity. I went to grad school, I studied theology, I became skeptical of great religious emotion. I thought I could plaster away my sensitivities and obsessive thoughts behind a wall of intellectual belief. And it worked for a while.

But my pretense of intellectual faith and skepticism of religious experience didn’t last. [Read more…]

The Crazy Sex Lady at the Solitary Banquet

bacon by cookbookman17 on flickr“The crazy sex ladies are coming to school today,” said my oldest. “We’re missing it.”

“Good,” I said. I was driving the kids to the middle school an hour into their first period class. A glitch in the family routine over the past twenty-four hours prevented any of the three alarm clocks in the house from going off. We all overslept that morning, which must have been a mercy of God, because I’d been wondering what to do about the crazy sex ladies for a long time.

I went through training over the summer to become a crazy sex lady, to teach abstinence in public school.

It seemed, at first, like a good fit for me. But something became clear to me after going through the training (though I couldn’t quite pinpoint the problem at the time): attempting to instill an elevated concept of sexual purity without a corresponding concept of grace is just as dangerous as teaching that “anything goes.” [Read more…]

Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]

Against “Amazing Grace”

hymnalIn a world in which it seems that just about everything seems to be complained about online—bitch, bitch, bitch, moan, moan, moan—ad infinitum, here’s a little beef I’d like to proffer, that I don’t recall having seen anywhere yet:

I despise “Amazing Grace.”

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the notion of grace itself, God’s unmerited favor given in the gift of his son to save us from our sins—the distinctive Christian soteriology. It is not, therefore, the theological concept I doubt—though as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I’m probably a bigger fan of the book of James than a lot of my Protestant brethren.

I don’t even have an issue with the hymn’s composer, John Newton, that poor former British slave trader, who was haunted by the dehumanizing work he had pursued, though not enough to leave it for decades. It was good for him to repent, and write against slavery. I am glad he found forgiveness, despite the horror he perpetuated. (I believe that forgiveness can, indeed, be received. Even for horrendous evils.)

It’s the hymn that’s the problem. [Read more…]