Thursday, January 17, 2008

42 ... plus 2

It's now official, I've marked another birthday milestone. I could say I'm "Thirty-four ... teen" or count my age in hexadecimal to sound younger (but telling someone you are 3C years old really makes you a geek). I'm thinking 42 + 2. Why? Because 42 is the answer to "life, the universe and everything!" If you didn't know that, you haven't read Douglass Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series.

The premise of the whole Hitchhikers series is that Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Earthling Arthur Dent is rescued from his home in England by an intergalatic hitchhiker named Ford Prefect (a little piece of British humor ... the Ford Prefect was a car marketed by Ford in the UK). The series is classic British humor set in a theater of the absurd, yet in the midst of all the silliness, Adams actually made some incisive commentary on the human condition.

42 becomes the answer to "life, the universe and everything" when a group of humans asks the supercomputer named "Deep Thought" the question: "What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?" Deep Thought takes millions of years to work on this question and, when he finally discloses the answer to the descendants of the original questioners (after warning them they wouldn't like the answer), he announces, "The answer to life ... the universe ... and everything is ..... forty-two!" Needless to say, this causes great consternation among those who are now responsible for announcing this great discovery. Those hearing this answer are sure it is wrong, but Deep Thought assures them he has done all the calculations correctly. Deep Thought tells them there is nothing wrong with the answer, the problem is they do not know the question!

BTW, if you want to know for sure, here's the answer to the same question according to Google.

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for asking the right questions. I care less about answers these days. Answers are cheap and everyone claims to have one (even if they don't understand the question themselves).

In the movie Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a young Orthodox rabbi, says he has no easy answers about evil in light of the attacks of 9/11. He says the following in response to the question: Have people asked you where God was on Sept. 11? How do you answer that?

... Yes, since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ...

There is a part of me that wants to yell back at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps or go back through all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?' How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"

I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart -- probably a bad use of terms. We're all looking for that.

I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ...

I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...

I think that's the point. We won't have the answers, we aren't meant to have it all worked out. We're meant to live with the ambiguity of the questions and perhaps some plausible options ... perhaps. Living with questions takes more faith than living with answers.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

"May your rest this day be in peace...

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God." So says our liturgy of commendation for the dying in the Episcopal Church. There is something so simple and yet profound about this blessing.

I read this last Saturday as I waited for the inevitable phone call. My Aunt Pat was admitted to the hospice hospital in San Diego the day before. She was in her final hours after an almost 8 year battle with multiple myeloma. Her kidneys were failing and, having seen this with my father-in-law, I knew her passing would be relatively painless. Of all the ways we can exit this life, kidney failure makes my "top ten" list of how I'd like to go - painless and peaceful.
"Depart O Christian soul out of this world ..."
Aunt Pat was an interesting woman. She was my dad's older (and only) sister being 7 years his senior. She took my dad in when he could no longer live with his parents. She really was more of a mother to my dad than his biological mom. Before my dad went to live with her, she lived in Maine and, when her first marriage ended, she lived in New York City. Eventually she returned to San Diego and remained there for the rest of her life.
"In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you ..."
I remember going to her house in San Diego (we lived about 20 minutes away). She and her husband had a pool in their backyard. I learned to swim in that pool. We moved to Northern California when I was 7, but we would return for Christmas each year and visit her. They always had an open house on Christmas Eve.
"In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you..."
When she was a teen, my aunt joined the Episcopal Church. When her children were at home, she was very active and faithfully attended. When I was 3 1/2, I served as the flower girl at her daughter's wedding at All Souls Episcopal in San Diego. We were Lutheran and I was amazed at the pageantry of the Episcopal Church. My aunt's two sons were altar boys and wore vestments. The thing I remember most is how my cousins and the priest all came out together and dropped to one knee in front of the altar ... and rose together ... I'd never witnessed precision genuflecting before. I was hooked. My mom loves to tell how I picked up the genuflect like a pro ... and used it everywhere ... in the parking lot ... the frozen food section at Safeway ... the Tiny Tots preschool program ... and ... yes ... even at the Lutheran Church (which raised a few eyebrows in my day). I trace my Anglican tendencies to my cousin Cathy's wedding - the seeds were sown.
"In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you."
She worked for the City of San Diego and was a feminist at heart. She liked to dance. My dad told me about when he and my mom went out dancing with Pat and Freeman one night. Dad was jitterbugging with her and they both reached out for each other and just missed the hand grab ... and both ended up on their keasters in the middle of the dance floor! And they both cracked up laughing.

I remember her telling me about the day she received her diagnosis of cancer. It was on her 70th birthday. The doctor gave her the news and then said, "You are the same person you were yesterday before you received this diagnosis. We'll treat it. Go live your life." And she did. She beat all the estimates her doctors had about living with multiple myeloma. Her kidneys had failed once shortly after her diagnosis - toxins from the cancer itself. She had dialysis and miraculously her kidney function returned after a few months (the doctors said there was only a slim chance of this happening). But this type of cancer has no cure and it took its toll, but she lived as fully as she could for as long as she could.
"May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God."
It's my prayer for you Aunt Pat ... until we see each other again.