The rock critic and journalist Neal Karlen tells this story.* He grew up a devout and passionate Jew, but along the path of young adulthood, he lost his faith – completely – and lost himself, too. At age 40 he hit a kind of spiritual bottom. He didn’t like who he had become, and found himself midway on life’s journey in a dark wood, to borrow from Dante, the right road lost.
During that difficult time he met on an airplane a rabbi from the Lubavitcher sect – someone on the extreme fringes of faith. As they talked, Karlen sensed with the instincts of a desperate man that this was someone who could help him. Like Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, Karlen decided in his darkest hour to ask if the rabbi would help him. The rabbi agreed.
The first thing the rabbi suggested was that Karlen lighten up and stop taking himself so seriously. “People often come to me in despair,” the rabbi explained. “They tell me ‘My life has no meaning, my family counts for nothing, I’m a terrible human being’ and some such.” And I say, “Why stop there? Why not stick around and at least come up with a full list? You’re also boring, unpleasant, a terrible friend, your jokes aren’t funny….”
“That get’s them laughing, too,” he said “which usually gives people enough critical distance to see that the world & its woes do not revolve around them. Even in their present state, when they feel so broken and insignificant, God needs their good deeds, done in their particular way, with all their faults and shortcomings.”
That was the end of their first meeting. The rabbi sent Karlen home with two instructions:
- read the Torah allotted for the week
- and next week bring your tefillin, the armband phylacteries used in prayer
The rabbi knew that salvation lies not in proper belief
- or how we feel
- or what we think we know about God
- but rather in life practices.
- In what Rowan Williams has called “the shape of our lives and the habits of our hearts.”
Karlen and the rabbi met weekly, studied the Torah together, and talked. Karlen occasionally joined the rabbi’s family for meals, allowing the warmth of their affection to wash over him. Slowly, through the daily practice of his tradition and his friendship with an eccentric rabbi, Karlen’s life, and eventually his faith, came back to him. Or, better, it emerged for him in a new way.
Out of the ashes of a life that had died, he had emerged anew. He was born again.
- It didn’t happen all at once.
- There were no flashes of brilliance.
- And no shortcuts.
One day the rabbi encouraged him to do the very thing he had been dreading most: obey the 4th commandment. “Go home,” the rabbi told him. “Find a way to honor your father.” And Karlen did.
After they had been meeting for about a year, the rabbi spoke to Karlen about the ancient, mystical paths of Judaism. We begin all aspects of life, the rabbi said, with animated emotions such as love, fear, anger, compassion.
- These are the emotions that move us, filling our lives with drama.
- Every good story elicits them.
- Every human relationship starts off with them.
- As does our relationship with God.
- They are the emotions of energy and passion
But if we are to mature in life and in love, we must go deeper, to other emotions not nearly as obviously exciting as the first.
- These next emotions, perseverance, discipline, and humility, are what determines how well we will love when the zing of passion is gone.
- With these we practice shifting our focus
- away from ourselves (how we feel and what we want)
- to concern for others and what is best for them.
Finally, he said, there are the deepest emotions of all that unite us to God.
- The first of these is gratitude, which enables us to acknowledge, in the midst of everything (good, bad, ugly), that our lives are a gift from God.
- Finally, there is self-sacrifice, the willingness to die so that others might live
- the way parents die a little each day to whatever dreams they might once have had to give life to the children now in their care
- it’s the way so many people who have touched our lives, have done for us, without regard for themselves, in an other-directed way
I tell you about Neal Karlen and his wonderful rabbi because I think the rabbi taught well.
- When Jesus spoke of our need to be born anew and born of the Spirit, he was talking about the painstaking spiritual transformation that Karlen experienced, gradually over time
- I believe this transformational process is at the core of our faith – that the spiritual life is a kind of birth, a birth that follows death, dying to one way of being and rising to another.
To be born anew, born of the Spirit, is to be touched by the power of the living God and moved by God to a new, transformed life.
- for some that experience is dramatic
- for most of us, it is like Neal Karlen’s, a gradual, incremental process that takes time
But for all of us, for spiritual transformation to take root, we need to bring a certain intentionality to our lives. Those habits of the heart or deeper emotions as Karlen’s rabbi put it help us
- live when the juiced up feelings are gone
- to love when we don’t feel loving
- to cultivate gratitude and self-giving, even when we don’t feel like it
Now, make no mistake. The transformation itself isn’t something WE do. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. But your intentionality is part of the habits of the heart that help you be open to the spiritual dying and rising that characterizes the Spirit’s work.
Centuries ago Martin Luther called this: “a daily dying to self so that Christ might enter in.” It isn’t easy. But remember what the good rabbi said:
- first, lighten up.
- 2nd, the practice of faith is more important than our feelings about faith.
- 3rd, the spiritual life is not meant to be lived alone. Find yourself a teacher, a spiritual director, a guide, or a group of people with whom you can explore the questions of your heart.
Remember the Good News of that other rabbi, Jesus:
- God does not condemn but longs to show us a way, companioning with us in all that happens
- In this way, God is all about transformation
- freeing us to love
- to give
- and to serve
- in our own imperfect and glorious ways
Here’s the Best News: that work has already begun in you.
Neal Karlen, Shanda: the Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.