Friday, February 4, 2011

My trip to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

I just arrived last night from a driving journey to Washington, D.C. and back for the purpose of attending the National Prayer Breakfast. The event was held at the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Ave N.W. Remember that is the hotel where President Regan was shot by John Hinkely. Needless to say the security was intense. Yet, when I sat down I found the atmosphere almost jovial. There were diplomats, heads of state, and elected officials from the Congress, clergy and people of faith from all the religions. Yes, there was outside across the street a very small demonstration by a group condemning religion. What else is new in Washington?
Putting aside the remarks of the President for a moment, there were some really inspiring and entertaining speakers. One of the miners in the Chilean mine accident, Jose Enriquez, spoke of the travails of faith and the spiritual challenges the miners faced inside the mine. With a translator Enriquez told us that when they opened a hole to the miners and sent down food and water, they also sent down a small bible with that person’s name inscribed on the cover to each miner. When the capsules were ready to take each person to the surface, Enriquez insisted that the individuals get on their knees and make a prayer. His point was that religion and spirituality played a paramount role towards enabling the miners to survive this crisis.
Emmy award winning vocalist Alison Krauss stunned the entire audience with her amazing voice. I had never listened to her before but she had a voice that inspired everyone. Then Hollywood film producer Randall Wallace, a man born in small town poverty of Tennessee and then Virginia told his story of the ups and downs of his life and the humility he learned from his grandparents and parents in the rural south. His career as a film producer also took him to the wealth he aspired and back to having nothing. At that point he wrote a script which he ultimately produced called Braveheart. He was a good old fashioned story teller. Very effective.
Elected officials spoke about their prayer breakfast traditions they have in the Congress. Many of these groups usually meet once a week. The speakers from the US Senate or the House of Representatives all lauded these experiences as the most meaningful of their week. Yes it was nice to see the bipartisan participation in the program as well as in the audience. They read from Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
Then the president spoke. Most news reports televised his comments on Egypt. Of course that is to be expected. But I really liked what he had to say through the rest of his remarks. He spoke about his own prayer life and how he as a community organizer in Chicago without religious affiliation worked with clergy. It was there that he became a Christian. He also spoke about the need to balance in his spiritual life the foundation of his core values with the need to respect others with completely opposing political views. He spoke about his wife and thanked her for tolerated him. (That is universal with most men with any brains!) Then he spoke of his praying on his older daughter who is of age now that she is going to her first school dances. He spoke of “Boys” and the length of her party dresses. Boy did that resonate with everyone!
Finally Captain Mark Kelly, the astronaut and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from Tucson, Arizona spoke and delivered the benediction. He discussed his transformation of spirit and discussed how he the astronaut and science guy used to see the world and human events as completely arbitrary. Now he has a different understanding about destiny and the power of the human spirit. He took me by surprise when he concluded his remarks by saying that he would read the benediction from the prayer that his wife’s Rabbi recited over her hospital bed. That was truly a blessing moment. Her Rabbi is Stephanie Aron. I do not know her but it makes us all proud to see a rabbi being an effective comfort to her congregant.

After it was all done, I took a cab over to the Dirksen office building and met up with our Congressman Joe Wilson. His staff and I walked over to the Capital building where Joe and I discussed the situation in Cairo. I will save this for another blog. For now I will say that one can feel the change in the American Foreign Policy establishment towards Middle East policy. Change is coming. I do not know what it is but it is happening behind the scenes.
I am glad I went. More to report to you over the weekend.
We shall talk on Sunday.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The sudanese children in Cairo

Dear Friends,
We are all watching the news of the crowds of Egypt’s uprising or, some say, revolution. I came across a poem that I wrote five years ago when the Egyptian government was dealing with thousands of Sudanese refugees living in the parks and square of Cairo. Eventually the Egyptian authorities put them, despite their appeal for mercy, onto buses and shipped them back to the Sudan. Many of them were refugees and fearful for their lives.  So this situation in Egypt reminded me of Sudanese people’s aspirations for freedom. I would like to share this poem because the bottom line is that people’s lives are on the line. The voice of the people, be it Egyptian, Sudanese, Tunisian, Iranian and any other people’s cry for democracy and basic human rights, must be heard. I pray that God’s will to provide a peaceful resolution to this crisis will inspire the people in the streets and those in the government and the military as well.

Sudanese Children in Cairo
Black fists
Outstretched arms
Bare chests
Mother’s breasts
Children’s hearts
Old men’s bones
Defy life’s illusions
And the drumbeaters
Flying in desert winds
Sweeping and twisting limbs
And the stickmen who beat
The breath out of black skin.

Sudanese children sleep
Faces buried in the mud
Holding birthday candles
A doll
A baby’s blanket
And a suitcase.
As wild dogs howl amidst the cries and screams
Echoing in a Cairo park.

Slabs of human flesh
Heaped onto buses
Perspiration indistinguishable
From a plague of heartbreak
Infecting the breathing corpses
Transported to camps
As angels on high immune
To the black exhaust
Rising to the sky
From the exile below
While the righteous wait
Sheltered in armbands
And ID cards
Who shut their eyes
As the storm passes.

Silent tears lost I the desert
Anger executed
And death is the last rite
Wearing a headdress
Of royalty in the tribe
From the land of their fathers
Whose flute sings freedom’s
Song in a city park’s
Grave to the living dead
That tells tales of martyrdom
And God alone cried above the moonlight.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Messiah

Today I had the opportunity to deliver a lecture at a church service on the Jewish ideas of the Messiah. The church, Chapel without Walls, conducts its weekly service in our sanctuary on Sunday  mornings. It is an intimate congregation that usually attracts 35-40 people. Today there were about 100 people. How ironic that my friend Rev. John Miler would introduce me as a guest speaker to my own pulpit! We all got a laugh out of that observation. The experience was a positive one because when Christians and Jews speak about the Messiah we are really talking about apples and oranges. Yet my sense is that because both Jews and Christians were sitting together inside a synagogue sanctuary in a church service was a sign of the importance of learning and sharing ideas between the religions. We need to do more of it.
For mainstream Christian theology the Messiah represents an internal process of redemption and salvation usually connected to believing in Jesus of Nazereth as the Messiah, the son of God as a precondition to entering Heaven. For Jews the concept is very different. We see the Messiah as a human being performing acts of heroism which unite a people and return the Jewish people to their homeland. In fact the five criterion of the Messiah in conventional Jewish theology are, defeat the enemies of the Jewish people, establish the Temple service in Jerusalem, bring together the Jewish people back to the land of Israel and, finally, usher in an era of peace for the Jewish people and the world.
The Messiah ideas have changed from the times of the Bible to the period of late antiquity and then into the Middle Ages. Jews followed the law-halachah- and the belief that not only were the Scriptures holy but also the rabbinic literature of the Talmud as well. The Jewish people have had to defend their beliefs over history, particularly with the Catholic Church in Spain and other nations. Jews also had to contend with a history of false Messiahs going back to the times of the Romans when Rabbi Akiva  declared Bar Cochbah, the Jewish general who defied the Roman army in 136CE, as the Messiah. Sabbatai Tzvi called himself the Messiah in the 17th century in Europe. Most of the Jewish communities believed him until the Turkish authorities arrested him and he converted to Islam before his death.
The period of the Enlightenment in the 18th century ushered in a new era of thinking about the Jews. The messiah ideas reflected themselves not in a person but or in a return to the land of Israel. Instead it was to integrate Jews into the mainstream of European life. But by the time of the latter part of the 19th century arrived, the Messiah ideas grew into the movement to settle Jews into the land of Israel. Theodore Herzl led that movement and the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Zionism took on a kind of Messianic movement in Jewish life. In America the reform movement took the opposite view. In the 19 century the reform rabbinate come up with their platform which said that the Reform Judaism would no longer accept a belief in the Messiah nor in a return to the land of Palestine. Of course that all changed by the middle part of the 20th century when Reform Judaism changed its tune and embraced the call to resettle Jews in Palestine. In those early days of Reform Judaism the movement was trying to embrace American culture and acculturate German Jews into the mainstream of American culture.
Today we see resurgence in the Messiah ideas with the HABAD Hasidism one side and progressive Judaism on the other side of the theological spectrum. The reform movement now advocates social justice and in that way we do not need a personal messiah but we can bring about an era when social justice and learning combine to repair the world and heal it. Part of that thinking comes from Jewish mysticism in the 17th century. How powerful ideas are and how they reappear centuries later in places we would never imagine!
The upshot of today’s lecture is that Judaism has many different ideas about the Messiah. It is an act of communal not individual redemption. This is consistent with Judaism’s focus on the history and promise of the Jewish people. Communal revelation and salvation define our religious underpinnings. Yet history has certainly influenced the creative instincts of Jewish communities to defend the traditional ideas of the Messiah as well as to create new adaptations of the Messiah as the times required.
Finally, today was a wonderful opportunity for all of us who attended the service to discuss the teachings of our respective religion’s teachings on the Messiah.  Different religions learning together the similarities and differences of our respective faiths goes a long way to show how religion is a force for unity and good in our country. We need to do more of it and not less.