Way back when I first began the formal process of becoming a pastor, the church committee responsible for helping people become pastors, recommended that I get a “spiritual director.” Among the many pieces of paper that the candidacy committee gave me, included both a definition of what a “spiritual director” is and who I might approach to be my “spiritual director”.
I remember three things about the church’s recommendation:
- A spiritual director walks with, guides, encourages and challenges people to deepen their relationship with the divine.
- A spiritual director is someone whose wisdom is derived from their own deep relationship with the divine together coupled with formal theological education.
- The spiritual director is someone in whom the candidate for the ministry of Word and Sacrament can place their trust.
Although, I was blessed to know several people that that I trusted who might be able to walk with me, guide, me encourage me, there was only one person who I could trust to challenge me; I mean really challenge me. The problem was, I wasn’t actually sure if Henry’s theological education was quite what the church had in mind. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore that particular detail as I proceeded to invite Henry to serve as my “spiritual director”.
I had met Henry years earlier when we both were working for a package tour operator. Henry was responsible for graphic design and we worked together to produce some pretty snazzy travel brochures. At the time, I thought Henry was a little odd. He was older than everyone in the office. Henry came from Brooklyn and looked very much like the stereo-typical Jewish rabbi. I’m talking full black beard, black clothes, and a yarmulke. Turned out, Henry looked like a typical Jewish rabbi because he was a Jewish rabbi. Henry was working as a graphic designer to put food on the table for his family while he took a long-deserved break from serving as the director of a Jewish Yeshiva. Henry and I became fast friends.
Ours was a strange sort of friendship. Most of our conversations comprised of a series of questions without answers. I’d ask Henry a question, to which Henry would respond with an even deeper question, which would inspire and even deeper question with which I would be compelled to respond; it was kinda like dancing with ideas. Years later Henry would teach me that our dancing was actually an ancient form of the Jewish art of pilpul used by Talmudic scholars to get to the very heart of the sacred mysteries. It took me years to realize that Henry had become my spiritual director long before I ever asked him to formerly take on the role.
It turned out that Henry had studied at one of the best rabbinical schools in New York and was an accredited to be a “spiritual director”. Somehow, despite the urging of the church to select from their list of suggestions, I managed to get my candidacy committee to approve Henry as my spiritual director. To this day, I think the committee members over-looked the fact that Henry is Jewish, only because Henry offered to serve as my spiritual director without me having to pay him the going rate, which back then would have cost me way more than I could afford. As it turned out, Henry’s direction was priceless. So, many of the treasures that Henry shared with me continue to shape and direct me to this very day.
But being directed by Rabbi Henry was no walk in the park; despite the fact that walking in the park was how our formal sessions always began. All along the seawall of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, come rain or shine, Rabbi Henry and I would walk as our questions took us deeper and deeper into relationship with the Divine. Those walks could be fascinating just as surely as they could be frustrating as Rabbi Henry pushed me off balance at every turn. While I was busy studying the religions of the world at the University of British Columbia my mind was being challenged to see the concept of the divine from all sorts of perspectives and I was slowly but surely becoming more aware that the God that I thought I knew pretty well, was so much bigger than I could even begin to imagine. Meanwhile, Rabbi Henry was challenging me to become more deeply intimate with the very God who I was learning was beyond my ability to comprehend. Over and over again, following my descriptions of what I believed to be really deep spiritual moments, Henry would with a question or two render them as superficial and push me to wonder if I’d ever be able to see God as anything more than the descriptions of God that I’d read or heard about.
After months of hearing Rabbi Henry ask me to tell him why I loved God so much and failing to be able to answer his questions, I began to wonder if I actually knew anything at all about God. When I confessed my doubts to Henry, all my Rabbi said was, “Good, now we’re getting somewhere?” To which I responded, “Show me where we are going.”
“Back to the beginning, back to the beginning.”
“The beginning of what?” I demanded.
“The beginning of LOVE, my dear, the beginning of LOVE.”
Thus, began our journey together down into the deepest, darkest hole, I have ever been into. There were times when I truly believed that I would never emerge from the darkness. Rabbi Henry did not lead me through the darkness as much as he pushed me into it. “Tell me about your love for God.”
The darkness thickened and took on the ability to press in on me as I struggled to escape its grasp. I understood so little about LOVE. Over and over again, there was this earworm; you know a song that you just can’t get out of your heard.
“I don’t know how to love him.
Should I bring him down,
should I scream and shout,
Should I speak of love, let my feelings out?
I never thought I’d come to this, what’s it all about.
Yet, if he said he loved me,
I’d be lost, I’d be frightened
I couldn’t cope, just couldn’t cope
I’d turn my head, I’d back away,
I wouldn’t want to know
He scares me so, I want him so, I love him so.
If you veer off the pathway that is the seawall in Stanly Park, you can find yourself in the midst of a very dark, damp, rain forest. The air is heavy in there with moisture. Even though you are still in the middle of the city, the noise is muffled by centuries of growth and your own breathing sounds louder and louder as you penetrate the trails that meander along the forest floor. Above the towering treetops you catch glimpses the promise of light beyond the forest. It was deep inside this moist, darkness that I was reborn; a long, slow, difficult birth set in motion by a rabbi’s question.
“What is dearest name you have for this God that you love so much?”
Huh…what do you mean?
“In the throes of passion for this LOVER of yours, what name do you call out?”
Huh…throes of passion?
What do you mean?
“Do you have a particular term of endearment for God?”
I don’t get it?
As the darkness engulfed me, I felt panic rising.
Rabbi Henry persisted.
“Whirling Dervishes twirl in ecstasy.
Mystics write poetry.
Gnostics revel in orgies.
Singers hit notes.
What passion does God stir in you?”
I don’t know.
“I don’t know is an answer.” Henry seemed pleased, while I fought the desire to weep.
I don’t know. What kind of answer is this? I asked.
“The best kind of answer, my dear, the kind of answer that leads to so many more questions.”
As we left the forest, Henry insisted that we needed to go back to the beginning. At this point I had absolutely no idea where the beginning was.
“Rabbi,” Nicodemus said, “we know you’re a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders you do, unless by the power of God.”
Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer: “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.”
Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!”
Jesus replied: “The truth of the matter is, no one can enter God’s kindom without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. So, don’t be surprised when I tell you that you must be born from above. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Shortly after our walk in the forest, Rabbi Henry introduced me to El Shaddai. El Shaddai is the Hebrew name of God that appears in the Book of Genesis. Our English translations of Genesis, translate El Shaddai as “God Almighty”. The Hebrew term El Shaddai is actually one of the earliest known Jewish names for God and each time it appears in the book of Genesis it is within the context of fertility. That’s because El Shaddia actually means, “She Who Has Breasts.”
It seems that the Ancient Hebrews imagined the Creator of All that Is as El Shaddai, the Breasted ONE. After he introduced me to El Shaddai, Rabbi Henry introduced me to Elohim, the very first name for God that appears in the Book of Genesis; Elohim, which is translated in our English bibles as “Lord” but in Ancient Hebrew is actually the feminine plural for majesty. Then my rabbi introduced me to El Shekinah – She Who Dwells Among Us an ancient Hebrew name for Spirit of God.
My spiritual director knew me better than I knew myself. It would take me a few more years to discover why it was so much easy for me to discover my passion for El Shaddia , Elohim, or El Shekinah that it was for me to know God Almighty, or the LORD, as my LOVER.
But in those first few flushes of what would become a passionate affair with the Creator of All that IS, it was another Ancient Hebrew word that Henry revealed to me that moved me farther along in my journey. “Rechem” is the word that is translated in our English bible as “mercy”. But the word rechem that we hear as mercy is actually derived from the Ancient Hebrew for “womb”. In the contexts in which Rechem appears in Geneses a more accurate translation is “womb-like love” or as some translators put it compassionate love, or motherly love.
We cannot go back into our mothers’ womb to be born again; or can we? When I look back upon the darkness of that long ago rain forest, I can feel the embrace of Rechem, the womb-like love of the Divine Source of all that is. The journey out of the darkness of rechem like all new birth was painful as images of a sky-god that had been crafted into an idol were crushed in me. Re-birth after re-birth has taught me to deepen my questions to discover my passion.
Earlier, this week, we began a Lenten sessions on spirituality and during the course of our first session, I asked Rabbi Henry’s question, the same question that I would ask of each of you know. “What is your affectionate name for God?” “What term of endearment do you use when you whisper sweet nothings in the ear of this God that you love?”
It may not come as a surprise to you that the name El Shaddia has a special place in my passionate relationship with the Source of our Being. Jesus, suggested that Abba, might be a way of being more intimate with our Creator; Daddy is so much more endearing than Father. Ruach is the ancient Hebrew feminine name for breath, wind or spirit. Sophia is another word for the Divine it means Wisdom. The name Jesus is another term of endearment for the Divine. In the darkness of your deepest longings how to address the ONE you desire. What is your most intimate, endearing term of affection for the Divine LOVE that inspires passion in you? For whom do you twirl, pirouette, wax poetic, or sing sweetly for? Unless we are prepared to venture into the darkness of the womb, we cannot be reborn. Unless, we are prepared to have the idols we worship as god to be crushed in us, the darkness may overcome us. The Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be is so much more than we can begin to imagine and yet the Ruach blows where she will.
The Spirit cannot be housed in any idol we create, no matter how appealing our images of God may be, they pale in comparison to the ONE who is Beyond our grasp the ONE who is LOVE, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF, the ONE who inspires such passions in us that we are reborn, to be so much more than we could have dreamed possible.
If you find yourself, where I have been so many times, wondering, questioning, doubting, do not be afraid to go into the darkness and gestate. In the womb-like love of our Creator re-birth happens over and over and over again. Whether it’s El Shaddai, the Breasted ONE, El Shekinah, God the all powerful, God Beyond Knowing, God the MYSTERY that Allures, Jesus who walks with us, and talks with us, along life’s narrow ways, LOVER of us ALL, God Almighty, the ONE who IS, Was, and EVER more shall be, LOVE, Beloved, and LOVE itself, all our terms of endearment pale in comparison to the reality that is BEYOND words.
May the ONE who continues to beckon us with the steadfast dedication of a lover, continue inspire passion in you. NOW and ALWAYS, Amen.
Listen to the sermon here