Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Horror and Humility

[I was invited to speak at a community worship service in Nashville last night. The goal was to bring the community together after the devastating flood that took so many lives and caused over a billion dollars in damages. This is what I said:]

There is only one religious response to the tragedy of the Nashville flood, and that is humility.

Some among us will opt for anger, decrying and even denying the god who assigned shores to the sea (Proverbs 8:29), and yet who seemed indifferent to the banks of the Cumberland.

Some will see in this horror the wrath of a god fashioned in their image that is only too willing to strike down the innocent with the presumed guilty in the name of whatever hatred fuels the heart of these so-called believers.

And some will see in their personal escape from damage and death, the blessing of a god also constructed in their image that blesses them while sweeping away their neighbors’ homes, livelihoods, and even lives.

To the first I offer encouragement: let your anger burn hot, so hot that it sears away your simplistic faith and its denial of the wildness of life, and the impermanence of all who live it. I envy your opportunity to grow.

To the second I offer compassion, for your god and your lives are haunted by fear, and your hearts are stripped of love, and you are forced to live in an arid world defined by condemnation and hate. I pity your inability to love.

To the third I offer contempt, despising your narcissism–drenched god that allows you to imagine you are somehow blessed while your neighbors are cursed. I despise your smugness.

You fools, haters, and drunkards numbed by cheap grace, are like the friends of Job offering dark counsel without knowledge (Job 38:2). And like those ancient friends, your advice is to be ignored.

There is only one religious response to the tragedy of the Nashville flood, and that is humility.

Humility reminds us that we are in the dark as to why things happens—good things and bad things—all things arising from unknowing and dissolving into unknowing, and

Humility is the art of standing naked in the maddening whirlwind that is the Divine. Humility is the truth that arises when we admit we do not know and cannot know what will befall us or why. Humility leaves us, like our brother Job, surrendered to the dust of our own existence and yet in dialogue with God, the true God, the wild God of the wild universe who cannot be reduced to our image, who cannot be restricted to our likes and dislikes, whose mouth cannot be stuffed with our own prejudice, who offers us no surety, safety, or security, but only the capacity to live and love in their absence.

And when we dare to be humbled, when we dare to be broken as individuals, families, and as a community, then and only then can we find that love.

The flooding of the Cumberland isn’t a gift, but we may choose to be gifted by it. The terrible loss of life and property is not a blessing, but we may choose to make it an opportunity for grace and goodness by allowing our brokenness and grief to lead us from passion to compassion.

If we allow ourselves to feel the pain of loss; if we allow ourselves to share the pain of our neighbors; if we do not rush to excuse or condemn or praise; if, like Job, we have the courage to sit in the ruin of our lives and open our hearts so wide as to be capable of accepting—without blessing or cursing—the good and the bad; if we can do this we can love, and through love we can heal, and through healing we can build a community made stronger by tragedy, and washed clean of fear, prejudice, and hate.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol haolam, v’imru amen: Blessed is source of peace who offers us a path to peace, and blessed are we made poor by suffering who may yet be made rich through love. We call upon the One manifest as each and all, that we may find the courage to make peace in our selves, in our families, in our community, and in all the world. And let us say amen.


Derek said...

Well said. I hope it was well received last night.

Phil said...

But perhaps a "religious" response (as opposed to a humane and maybe even "spiritual" one) to natural disaster is not the best? Nobody's gonna bail us out but us, when the water's lapping at our door.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Rav Todot, many thanks. I literally stood up in
front of my computer and gave your words a standing ovulation uh ovation (ahh Norm Crosby strikes again).

In all seriousness, you spoke the truth that folks needed to hear. Whether they received it or not
or will act on it or not remains to be seen. But your
words honored Rabbi Tarfon's statement in Pirke Avot 2:21, "v'lo ata ben horin l'hibatel mimena,' not to shirk one's responsibility to the work of moving toward personal and community godliness.

This post and those like it are so much better than the sarcasm that often finds its way into your stuff.
And then I've always been up front about that bias of mine.

Kol tuv,

Patti said...

I loved this writing! Truth be told I love your sarcasm as well.

This essay is like a voice in the wind, shouting the obvious to those of us who chose deafness. Thanks for loving us enough to keep shouting.

Rabbi Rami said...

I know my sense of humor isn't for everyone. But I enjoy writing that way. It is a good counterpoint to the other writing that I do both in books and in magazines. The problem (if it is a problem) is that they present two very different personae, and people want to know which is the real me. They're both me, of course. Anyway, thanks for the comments.