Shana Tova

Because my daughter attends a Jewish preschool, I am a little more in tune with the Jewish calendar than the average Christian.  This morning, when my daughter asked if she were going to school today, I told her, “No – it’s Rosh Hashanah.”

“But I didn’t get to hear the rabbi play the shofar!” she wailed.

After some questioning, it became clear that the rabbi had come to demonstrate the shofar at last Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, but Hannah had decided that that did not count, because she was supposed to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you want to go to the synagogue?” I ventured.  I knew that they would be having services today, but I also knew I was gambling on the shofar blowing – that could just as well have happened last night, since the day begins at sundown.

But no, she was not interested in that, either.  Like the mercurial four year old that she is, she changed tacks, “But I thought that I would hear the shofar all the way over here, in my house!”

The shofar sounds to signify the commemoration of the creation of the world – Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the world’s birthday – so it is the New Year in the most literal, non-arbitrary way imaginable.  My daughter’s desire to hear the shofar even in our kitchen gave me a wonderful opening to talk about the New New Year – the sounding of the shofar that Jews and Christians alike look forward to – the shofar that signifies the re-birth of the world, when the Messiah arrives (Judaism) / returns (Christianity.)

“When Jesus comes back, the shofar will be heard by every person everywhere!”

“Even in [San] Francisco?… Even in Alaska?… Even in the desert?…” she asked, naming the farthest away places she could think of.

“Yes… yes… yes!” I answered, “The shofar will be heard everywhere, and when we hear it, we will know that Jesus has returned to make the world new, and it will be a new creation, a new birthday for the world and for everyone!”

It was a beautiful sunny day today, just the perfect temperature for a walk to the park to push Hannah on the swings.  It was my first day since getting the shingles that I have felt well – well enough to drive and to spend the whole day with my little girl, well enough to jog beside her bike.  I was so thankful for the sun and the clouds and the leaves and everything.  I was overflowing – it felt like the world’s birthday, and I was filled with praise for the Creator and all creation.

And yet… today was also the day of the funeral for a woman at our church whose life was taken by cancer.  A woman younger than my mother.  A woman who herself was a wife and mother.  This new year will be a year without her in it, without my father in it, without so many in it that have died all over the world since last Rosh Hashanah.  As thankful as I am for all that is, I continue to long for that which is not yet – for the day when the shofar will sound in every kitchen and every prison cell and every graveyard and everywhere – the day when our tears will be wiped away, and the world is made new.  And so, even as my Jewish friends did today in worship, I too hold the two in tension: a celebration of life and creation and all that is – Shana Tova! – and a desire for the round of years to come to – not so much an end as a new beginning.  As a Christian, that hope for me is summed up in the prayer recorded by John of Patmos: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

So I invite my Christian friends to join me in a Rosh Hashanah tradition – eating apples with honey as an embodied prayer for a sweet new year – for the sweetest possible new year of all.

Shana Tova! / Happy New Year  -and-   Maranatha / Our Lord Come

Seeking and finding

Like many children her age, my daughter is experimenting with language, and can find any number of comical (for grownups) uses for common words and figures of speech.  One she has been using the past month or so has been, “I been looking all over for…” which is only incrementally different from her use of “I always wanted…”  They are generally both used for things which she had in fact given absolutely no prior thought to – things that revealed themselves to be the very thing she wanted only in the moment of discovery.

This reminded me of some insights from a post I wrote a few years ago on my friend Will Grady‘s Advent blog:

These days, one of my prayer aids is a book of collected prayers of the Northumbria Community.  Every morning, I am called upon to answer the question “who is it that you seek?” With the words, “[I] seek the Lord our God.”  I am then asked whether I seek God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, all my strength – and to each of these four questions, it is suggested that I answer, “Amen.  Lord have mercy.”

I am grateful that they do not suggest that I say, “Yes.”  I wish it were true, by the help of the Holy Spirit, that I was undivided in my seeking after God, that I could say that I was all in, body, mind, and soul.  But “O to Grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!”  I do well not to forget it – to forget neither the wish to be whole-heartedly God’s, nor my reliance on God’s mercy as a divided person.  I am glad that this prayer book of mine requires that I face this reality squarely every morning.

Every morning, that is, except for those mornings when I blow off my prayers, saying I’ll make up for it later in the day.  Which usually I then fail to do.

How often, when I encounter the living God, do I persuade myself (without the excuse of a preschooler’s grasp of English) that I have “been looking all over” for God?  The truth is too often that I am rolling along as if God were not on my mind at all, and then – oh, look! There’s God! I been looking all over for this!

I pray that, in the days ahead, I truly would be looking all over for God, every hour of the day.

Embodying worship

The first evening my family and I were back in town after a planned adoption fell through, my husband sat down at the piano and began to play “The Lily of the Valley.” My daughter and I sang along, “… in sorrow he’s my comfort, in trouble he’s my stay, he tells me every care on him to roll.  He’s the Lily of the Valley, the bright and Morning Star, he’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul…”  And then Hannah rose up from the sofa and began to spin and leap in a ballet-inspired improvisational dance.  She stopped and reached out to me – “Come on, Mama – dance with me!”  And I did.

Though it may have looked to an outside observer like an act of defiance in the face of a great grief, we  were not doing anything particularly unusual for us.  We were finding comfort in our nightly ritual – something we had missed doing those nights we were away from our piano – we were engaging in our favorite form of family worship.  My husband playing at least three songs from one of our hymn books (“The Lily of the Valley” is a wonderful upbeat number – 2062 in The Faith We Sing, for my United Methodist friends – and my not yet 5 year old has all the words memorized), me singing, and my daughter singing or dancing or both.  And very often, she entices me to dance along with her.

After a summer of checking out from the blogosphere, I am starting to catch up on what I missed.  And one of the many interesting posts that I found on Glocal Christianity is a brief observation on dance – its importance in the Hebrew scriptures, and its near total absence from worship today – at least from the worship that white Christians engage in.

I remember how excited my daughter was that I got to sing in the choir at church, and how she wished that she could go too.  “You sing together?”  “Yes, we do!”  “And dance together?”  “Well… mostly just Mommy dances.”  And by “dance” I meant “sway to the music, but mostly keep my feet in place, or maybe march softly in place, but certainly not spin off in any direction.”  I am unusually demonstrative in worship for a white United Methodist, which (if you’ve been to one of our services) does not amount to much.

In 2 Samuel, the story is told of how David dances in celebration before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem.  His wife, a princess, looks out on him dancing among the people, totally abandoning himself to his love of the Lord, ” … and she despised him in her heart.”

Now, I know that I am likely doing a bit of eisegesis here (reading a meaning into the story that I put there myself), but this sounds like a class issue to me.  Certainly in the history of American Christianity, Methodists were once upon a time people who could be counted on to call out during worship, or to stand up or clap or move spontaneously, but sometime around the late 1800s, Methodists began to identify themselves as aspiring middle class type people, and such outward expressions of faith became unseemly.  Letting oneself be overcome by – anything – is peasant-ish.  People of a certain class are expected to control themselves, and if they cannot, can themselves expect to be mocked, even despised.

It seems that, for white Americans anyway, moving with abandon is something that is only permissible under the influence of alcohol or other drugs – or in the bedroom – or within the tight constraints of an athletic competition.  Or on a stage, far removed from other rigidly still observers.  And I wonder how much of that is fear of our bodies and their wildness, together with the reactionary urge to assert that we have complete control over our bodies.

As I sit here writing this, I am (I hope) recovering from an outbreak of the shingles, and I am all too aware that my body is out of control in more than one respect.

It is a frightening prospect to move through this world with wild abandon.  Certainly we do not wish to abandon ourselves to just anything.  But abandoning my body to the love of God, swaying and whirling and kicking and reaching as I sing songs of praise and trust and desire, that has become the most easy and comforting feeling that I know.  I am glad that my daughter knows that feeling, too, and I hope that she continues to feel it as she grows out of the untamed world that she inhabits as a preschooler.

I cannot believe how blessed my family is to have the opportunity to abandon our bodies almost every evening in praise to our Maker.  I pray for each of you who reads this that you too might know – or come to know – how you can best love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul — and all your body.  Amen.