Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Conversion: 3 Steps from 3 Traditions

This blog has discussed emptying oneself of one way of being in order to make room for a new way of becoming, and it has spoken of the binary spiritual conversion healing and life change require.  How does one approach remaking oneself from the inside out?  Here is wisdom from three different traditions for finding that kind of life change. 

The Twelve Step tradition speaks of “rock bottom” as the point at which an addict becomes open to life change because his life has become unbearable.  No one wants to hit rock bottom, or to see it come to that for a friend or loved one, but that’s what it takes for someone deep in denial.  The Big Book’s chapter titled “We Agnostics” encourages: 

Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.  At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to affect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him.  Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach.  That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. 

Spiritual conversion doesn’t require hitting rock bottom, but it does require relinquishing something comfortable in pursuit of something unknown.  The first step, then, is openness to a new way of being.

In the Christian tradition, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination: 

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.    (Mere Christianity)

When I realize God’s imagination for me is infinitely better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know what’s best.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will liberate me from bondage to self and create awesome possibilities.  So the next step is trusting God’s imagination.  

The Reform Jewish prayer book recalls what Abram had to leave behind in order follow God’s call.  Abram left his homeland, his friends, all he had accumulated over a lifetime, and all that was familiar–for what?  He did not have the answer, but he had trust.  “Radical Leaving” is what the prayer book calls Abram’s courageous step, and Rabbi Norman Hirsh’s poem “Becoming” describes how we encounter it:

Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny

By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.

We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.    (Mishkan T’filah)

The third step is the radical one.  We open our clenched fists and release our old ways of being as we stretch our hands into the unknown for the new ways of becoming.  We have to experience our own personal exodus before we see the promised land.

Join the conversation.  What is your personal exodus story?

 Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Engine Conversion: No Hybrids in Heaven

How do we respond to the gift of salvation?  We respond by living in a completely new way.  I’m not talking about a conversion from one faith tradition to another but rather a transformation of inner motives and values that drive all of our actions.  

Although we wish it not to be so, the motive conversion is binary.  It is like a car engine.  It either runs on gasoline or on an electric cell.  We are driven either by the grace of God or by earthly stuff.   We are running on recovery fuel or relapse fuel.  We can’t be motivated by both at the same time.  Many of us want to be hybrids, running mainly on gasoline but occasionally going electric to get better mileage.  Or we want the outward manifestations of change without doing the inner work.  Slightly better is not what God pines for.  He’s not in it for the outward appearance, either.  He wants our whole hearts without restraint as a reciprocal response to what he gives us of himself.  If we seek true healing and life change, we need nothing less than a spiritual conversion. 

Scripture testifies to the disconcerting truth that we cannot orient ourselves around both grace and worldly things, and that if we orient ourselves to worldly things we can expect conflict to result.

1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4) 

When pondering grace versus worldly things as fuel, those of us among the 5% of Earth’s population who reside in North America—consuming 25% of Earth’s energy and eating enough extra calories every day to feed an additional 80 million people—can’t escape confronting our abundance.  While 925 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide, the leading health risk to the poor in the United States is obesity.  It is indeed the  land of plenty. 

How we respond internally to the abundance around us informs what we do externally with our resources.  Both matter.  “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)  Are we humbled by the abundance of opportunity and reward, wondering what on earth could be expected of us that would in any way measure to the abundance before us?  Or have we grown so accustomed to worldly things that we feel entitled to them and, in fact, want more?  Our response reflects what fuels our souls.

Join the conversation.  What did you watch on TV last night, and what fuelled that choice? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Salvation: 3 Perspectives from 3 Traditions

 

Someone in a desperate battle to escape his brokenness might reasonably look to scripture to visualize healing with God’s help.  The concept of salvation and the scriptural basis for it, however, evoke markedly different reference points across different traditions.  

Jews recall God’s acts to save his chosen people—parting the Red Sea, sparing Nineveh, and preserving Noah’s passengers.  There is a rich diversity of views about redemption within the Jewish tradition.  Orthodox Jews believe in the promise that a human messiah will unite the people of Israel and rule in peace.  The most Orthodox Jews adhere to the most literal interpretation, wherein the messianic era will lead to supernatural events culminating in bodily resurrections of the dead (leading traditional Jews to shun cremation, embalming and organ donation).  At the other end of the spectrum, Reform Jews believe it is each individual Jew’s responsibility to live as if the coming of the messianic age rests on her own shoulders, giving rise to the social justice imperative.  People are saved when they turn to God and do as he commands in faith.  Reform Jews have altered traditional prayers to refer to “redemption” rather than “redeemer.” 

Christians look at salvation on the individual level and put Jesus front and center.  Despite Christians’ universal focus on Jesus Christ as savior, Christians diverge on the interpretation of salvation.  Some view it as eternal life after death—which can be understood as bodily life or life of the soul—paid for with Jesus’ blood.  Others view salvation as pertaining to life here and now, before death.  For those, salvation is about relationship, specifically the new way to relate to God (new covenant) and to each other (Kingdom of God on earth) that Jesus taught through his words and living example. Still others view salvation as the daily life we receive from God. 

Both Testaments teem with references to salvation, giving seekers encouragement and hope.  Here are a couple from both Old and New Testaments:

5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.  15 My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Psalm 25:5,15) 

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Much of the bible was written in times when external enemies posed very present threats, so salvation carries an unmistakable socio-political connotation.  In parallel, the external enemy stands as a metaphor for the enemy within.  For those who are broken, the bible’s words of salvation speak just as powerfully about deliverance from our very selves—from elements of our personalities that lead us to seek self-satisfaction over God’s will, dragging us down and away from him and the life we desire. 

Leave it to the Twelve Step tradition to sum it up best: 

I tried my way.  My way didn’t work. 
I tried God’s way.  His way works. 

“I tried God’s way” is surrender.  “His way works” is salvation.

 Join the conversation.  What saved you form bondage to self?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Being Redeemed

Have you ever been desperate for God to deliver you from distress?  I have been in that place.  I filled sleepless nights trying to visualize what my life would look like on the other side of being saved.  I pondered what, exactly, being redeemed would mean so I could aspire to and pray for it.  It sounds silly now, but I dissected Mirriam-Webster’s definition of “redeem.”  It gave 15 different meanings, each one of which would have been a healing miracle in my life. 

A fuller picture came in a sermon by parish priest and SMU Professor of Old Testament William Power.  He told a colleague’s boyhood story.  It had the ring of a modern parable, but I learned years later it was a true story about a real colleague.  It takes place in the 1960’s when S&H Green Stamps were popular.  For those too young to remember, Green Stamps were loyalty rewards that retailers like grocery stores gave to shoppers and that shoppers could exchange for merchandise at Green Stamp stores.  

The boy enjoyed errands to the Green Stamp store because while his mother shopped he inspected the toy aisles.  On one such occasion, the boy was greeted by a forlorn stuffed tiger, sitting alone on a shelf.  He was overcome with compassion for the tiger, just sitting there with no one to play with or to love him.  He couldn’t just abandon the tiger in the lonely prison of the Green Stamp store.  The boy implored his mother, “We have to save him!”

His mother gently explained she brought only enough stamps for her one item, but she reassured him that they had an abundance of stamps and could buy the tiger next time.  The boy promised the tiger he would come back and free him.  He couldn’t get the tiger out of his mind.  After what seemed an eternity, the mother was true to her word and they returned to the store with enough stamps.  Overjoyed to be reunited with the tiger, the boy exclaimed, “He’s mine!  He’s mine!  I’ll never let him go!”  Thereupon, the tiger was redeemed. 

After that, did the boy just abandon the tiger on any street corner to fend for himself?  No!  It was his tiger to care for and to love.  

That’s how God loves us.  God pines for us.  He waits for us.  Infinitely compassionate to our suffering, God yearns to extricate us from the nets in which we tangle ourselves and those that snare us by others’ wrongdoing.  Once ransomed from our distress, is he happy to let us go it alone?  No, he wants our hearts, even when we have the awareness of a stuffed toy.  He can’t stop loving us and wants us to accept his love and to respond reciprocally.  When we open ourselves to the action of this love, we find ourselves changed for the better, re-formed and restored.  God alone can expiate us, and his love affirms to us that we are worthwhile.  This is what being redeemed means to  me.  

Join the conversation.  What does being redeemed mean to you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiving an Abuser: One Woman’s Story

Beliefnet member Pastorsrus shared her story of hope and healing in response to my post on Struggling for Forgiveness, and I’m reposting it to offer encouragement to anyone struggling to forgive an abuser.  It is a powerful testimony of God reaching us where we are and using all the crumbs of a bad situation for good.    

I was terribly abused as a child and teenager.  My abusers included my parents, and forgiveness was something I found very difficult to address until God called me into following Jesus and living His way of life.  One day, I was reading scripture and had a spiritual “aha” moment when I saw Jesus telling His followers that if they (we) didn’t forgive those that hurt them, God would not forgive them.  That sent me to my knees because I sincerely then as I do now want to follow Jesus and live the way He wants me to.  I told God that I knew it was impossible for me to forgive my mother on my own power and strength alone and that I would need His help in doing so.  There’s biblical precedent for that.  Jesus asked a desperate dad if he believe He could heal his son.  The dad was honest and pleaded, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  I did the same thing with forgiveness.  I went on with my life, knowing that God heard my prayer and that He would help whenever He saw fit to. 

Months later, I was recovering from a nearly fatal illness when my mother had a stroke and had to be hospitalized.  It took a while for me to get there, and the 40 mile drive was agonizing because I was dreading seeing her knowing how she would verbally rip me to shreds as was her habit.  I took a deep breath outside her room and forced myself inside.   I was astonished to find that she didn’t know who I was and that her personality was changed so much that she was emotionally unrecognizable.  The stroke robbed her of her memory and changed her anger and bitterness into gentleness and childlikeness.  The thing was that my anger just melted away because I simply couldn’t be angry at the woman lying in the bed in front of me.

When I got back home, I realized God literally changed me from the inside out by engineering the circumstances regarding my mother.  Instead of anger, I was able to feel compassion for her as she appeared in that hospital room.   I learned that I could indeed leave negative thoughts and emotions behind and replace them with spiritually healthy ones.  My blessing is that because of my changed attitude, I was able to pray my mother home to God at the end of her physical life.  Although not a believer, she was indeed His creation, and it was a joy as well as closure for me to be able to do so

Pastorsrus’ website, www.encouragingwordsministries.org, offers healing teachings that can help those who have been abused to break free emotionally and spiritually from who or what hurt them. 

Join the conversation.  What was your spiritual “aha” moment that made something previously impossible become possible?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.