Saturday, December 17, 2011

Called to the Torah

We were all very Jewish last weekend.

Invited to attend the bar mitzvah of one of our son’s best friends, we got to witness this boy become a “son of the commandments” and take his place in the Jewish community as a man, we experienced the beauty and majesty of ancient traditions.

Not that this was my first time in a synagogue. I’ve been to Shabbat services and bar and bat mitzvahs. But each time I enter a sanctuary, it’s like I’m there for the first time again – speechless, enthralled, absorbed in the pathos of Jewish history. And the music, the chants, the reverence for the Torah scrolls, and the God who holds a special place in His heart for His people. I (who almost never cry) am reduced to tears nearly every time.

We entered the service with quiet timidity, the boys in their yarmulkes, and found our seats in the pew with about 20 other students and parents from our son’s school. Most all of us from the school community are not Jewish and this was an education for many. Despite the very long service, many of the students followed along in the worship manual and the Bibles as the scriptures were read, in both Hebrew and English.

As his friend read and chanted his Torah and Haftarah portions surrounded by supportive clergy and family and enshrouded in his tallit prayer shawl, we marveled at his proficiency in Hebrew and the inflection of the chant melodies.

I’m always amazed at the multigenerational the family involvement; everyone plays a part. Lifting out the Torah scrolls from the ark, carrying the scrolls, holding them open for reading, leading a hymn singing praises, or offering prayers.

The Cantor’s rich baritone carried out into the space guiding our voices in worship. The beautiful melodies and liturgy illustrates the drama through time and how God has done mighty things.

Sometimes it’s hard to get my mind around the history with all its suffering, persevering, and flourishing, and then suffering, persevering and flourishing again. From subtle discriminatory comments to global massacres, our Jewish brothers and sisters have put one foot in front of the other through the Diaspora, the Middle Ages, pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust, even the Protestant South (oops, did I write that or did I just think it?) To know they have practiced many of these faith traditions, whether freely or in secret under cover, for over 4,000 years, boggles my mind.

Exploring the Jewish roots of my faith always expands my worldview. It reminds me that God is moving through time and space, and in this Advent season we are all awaiting a universal Shalom from One who can heal this broken world.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Pardon the goofy title. Advent is an adventure though -- it is so counter-culture. It’s all about pushing back the tidal wave of societal pressure to rush, to do, to buy… and instead carve out a way to just BE. It doesn’t fit with our lifestyle here in the West. Advent is about waiting, being quiet, longing for the Light.

Even without the frenzied “Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas!” headlines on the evening news, throughout the rest of the year we still live by “to-do” lists half a mile long, multi-tasking, and crazy busyness. And before the last Thanksgiving dinner dish is washed and dried, the Christmas decorations are coming out. This year, in some neighborhoods near my home where apparently there is a contest to see whose house will win the most bedecked award, there appeared gargantuan inflatables and enough string lights to gratify the power company – and they were up around November 22nd. I had to look away when I drove by. Did Jesus really want this when He came down to earth as a babe of humble beginnings?

History and ritual play a part in our family’s celebrations of the seasons of the Christian year, or “sacred time” as a friend of mine has coined it. As believers have done since the sixth century, we try to lie low during at least the first part of December (despite having two birthdays occurring during the holidays – great family planning, huh?) and focus on the quiet preparatory aspects of the season. The liturgical year begins with Advent, and as we move through each of the year’s spiritual seasons, we participate in the drama that illustrates the story of our faith.

Many nights at dinner time, one of the children lights an Advent candle and says “Come Lord Jesus into our midst”. Much like the Jewish lighting of Shabbos candles to usher in the Sabbath each week, we invite God’s spirit to join us (and help keep peace with three boys) for our evening meal.

Also, among the many Christmas stories we read this month, we also revisit the Advent portion of a children’s book on keeping the seasons of the church year – mainly with my youngest son as the others feel too old. It’s a delightful, well-illustrated book called Come Worship with Me: A Journey through the Church Year.

It’s a story of a little mouse who narrates for the reader telling about his sacramental experiences at his church and what it means for his faith.

Finally, a new tradition we’re beginning this year is the daily lighting of the Cradle to Cross wreath created by Ann Voskamp’s son Caleb. We’re moving the figurine of Mary on the donkey forward a step each day and light candles in the holder that correspond with the days.

I listen to Early Music (meaning music from early times up to the Renaissance – 16th century) in the car and often in the evenings by the fire. It takes me out of his century, this decade, this culture just for a bit and reminds me to see the world in the larger scope of history. I feel like I connect with people of ages past who lived in harsher circumstances yet struggled to find ways to live with meaning. Then I can return to the present with a greater sense of His presence.

All of these rituals allow us to use our senses to experience our faith and see God's promises through time season in and season out, walking through the cycles. These little things help us keep the pace of Advent, which is far slower than the secular Christmas holiday. We women especially fall in to a mad rat race, becoming burdened with the myriad tasks of baking, shopping, cleaning, shuttling, dressing, partying, decorating, entertaining, more shopping, volunteering in the classroom or church or the community, giving and more giving... It’s a production we mount for an entire month. Too much for a lot of us.  
Let’s slow down and listen and be, so we can rediscover the light in the darkness.

Linking up with Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces for the Advent writing project she’s hosting at The High Calling and with Laura Bogess at The Wellspring.