Sunday, April 20, 2008

Wisdom From Old Traditions

I've just returned from celebrating the Passover Seder with some family friends. Having married into a Jewish family, and also having grown up in a heavily Jewish area, I am as familiar with the ceremonies and celebrations of Judaism as I am with my own faith. It was comforting, beautiful and spiritual to participate in the Seder as I remember it from my childhood, and to see the different traditions this new family has developed.

It was also comforting to have to deal with my 5 year old son's rambunctious behavior during the prayers and readings. Praise God! It's not the Church he hates...it's sitting still!

I had an interesting conversation with the host during the evening. As he humbly reminds me whenever we talk, he's not a rabbi, but he's certainly studied the Talmud and is a great source of information on tradition and theology.

I've been turning over the question of sacrifices in my head since I read it in my book on Stewardship, and can't quite put my finger on why it bothers me so much. An anonymous commenter wrote in my previous post on the subject that my current efforts to help the poor by living simply and increasing my prayer time ARE like the ancient offerings I find so inspiring simply because they have no visible effect. It requires faith to do them and believe that some good will come.

That's, I think, the crux of my problem. I wouldn't say I have little faith. In fact, I've always felt I had an abundance of it. I've always felt sure of God's presence in my life and believed the truth of His existence. I don't need miracles or proofs...If I found out tomorrow that absolutely everything in the Bible was wrong, that Jesus never existed, that humans were seeded on earth by aliens from another galaxy, I would still know that God was real. I have my doubts like anyone, but they are always allayed by the simple faith that He exists. Period.

But faith is just the first step. All my life, I've felt completely in accord with James when he talks about the need for action to complete ones faith:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
-- James 2:14-17

This is the classic "Show don't Tell" that every aspiring writer must take to heart. If I claim to be a Christian, I must BE a Christian. I can't simply talk about Christ's love. I have to SHOW it with everything I do, in all my thoughts, words and deeds.

This is why I can't find peace with the limitations I'm operating under right now. The most I can do for the poor is pray for them, and doing that without also giving money to charity feels like I'm telling the poor "I wish good things for you" and then walking away and leaving them in need.

My Jewish friend had a perspective that's somewhat helpful as I struggle with my situation. I asked him about the destruction of the Temple, and how the resulting loss of the priesthood has prohibited the Jews from offering sacrifices. "Do you feel that your faith lost anything when the sacrifices went from material things to solely spiritual ones? That in some ways, prayers cannot replace the very real act of taking something and burning it?"

He said suffering was never really the point of the sacrifices. It wasn't so much that God wanted His people to feel the absence of the first fruits, or the bull, or the lamb. The laws on what to sacrifice and when were meant to serve as reminders of God's presence and blessings. Keeping Kosher, for instance, is not about doing without certain foods. It is a lifestyle that keeps God at the forefront of our thoughts, and also a way for an observant Jew to set himself apart from the society he lives in, as another visible reminder that God is what is most important to him.

So that has really resonated with me. These things I am doing may not really have any impact on the poor, but they still DO impact the world. They are visible reminders, to me and to those who know me, that God is present among us. They are witness to my faith and the importance of God in my life.

If I can do them cheerfully, consistently and lovingly, they may be the best ways to evangelize others. They are an opportunity for me to share my knowledge and help others think about the poor in their lives. I can't do much right now, but others can...if they are so inclined. Taking the poor with me through my actions also brings them into the lives of those I associate with, and if that inspires someone to give then I HAVE helped the poor (indirectly.)

Instead of focusing on what I'm not doing, I should think about what I am doing. The Jewish people did not abandon their faith when the Temple was destroyed and their entire way of relating to God had to change. They found ways to live apart in witness to God and preserved the intent of their laws.

Their example can serve as an inspiration to me, and a reminder of why I'm doing this.

Picture credit: TRAVIS SPRADLING/The Advocate

1 comment:

Jennifer F. said...

and also a way for an observant Jew to set himself apart from the society he lives in, as another visible reminder that God is what is most important to him.

It's so inspiring to hear you say this. Given my background, I think it's so important for Christians to live their faith with a consciousness towards setting themselves apart from the world. I feel like a lot of people are so worried about seeming "holier than thou" that they're hesitant to do anything that might make them stand out from secular society. But, as I once wrote here, I think that that can be a powerful witness to the world.

These things I am doing may not really have any impact on the poor, but they still DO impact the world. They are visible reminders, to me and to those who know me, that God is present among us. They are witness to my faith and the importance of God in my life.

Yes! I couldn't agree more.

I just love your blog. Keep up the good work.