Archive for July, 2015

Cast Off

I have no mother.  My mother lives in the northern suburbs of New Jersey in a lush one bedroom condo with an expansive loft.  It’s a strange thing that both those statements are true.  And yet they are.  They are both true.  I should clarify that they are both true at my mother’s behest.  That is to say that she has chosen to maintain her residence in her lush one bedroom condo with the expansive loft in suburban New Jersey; and she has concurrently decided that I am no longer her son.  She abandoned me; cast me off; expelled me from the clan; sat shiva for me.  For those readers who did not come into this world through the Abrahamic bloodline, shiva is a sort of week long wake in which the bereaved receives scads of guests paying their respect for the dead, arriving with a glutenous array of fruit cakes and bagels and cream cheese and lox and knishes and kugel and danish, roaming a house with covered mirrors that no one should need pay heed to their appearance on such a somber occasion even though they are all dressed in their bargain designer dresses from T.J. Maxx and suits and ties from the Men’s Warehouse.  I am not aware of such a cavalcade actually taking place in my honor.  My sense is that, in my mom’s case, it was more of a personal letting go.  She’s not prone to overzealous displays of emotion, leading me to further believe that she did not tear her clothes apart in the vein of Neil Diamond’s father in The Jazz Singer.  If you haven’t seen it, let it go.  It’s a laughably awful film.  But I digress.

So, yeah, I am motherless.  I struggle to really describe what a unfathomably confusing scenario I am experiencing as a result of my expulsion.  The very fact that there is a woman currently walking the world whose womb I emerged from who is not my mother.  If I come across detached, I suppose that is because, to some extent, I am.  I don’t miss her.  I wish I did.  I really do.  I long to be crushed by this decision she has made, pining for her presence, aching for her touch, tortured by the fact that I might never again find refuge in the warmth of her loving arms.  That would be wonderful.  That’s, I imagine, how I should feel.  Well, I suppose there is never really a way in which an individual SHOULD feel.  There is simply how a person DOES feel.  And how I feel is that the absence of my mother in my life is something of a relief.  This is not because she is a bad person.  She’s not.  It’s simply because her presence in my life has long been difficult, and at times agonizing, for me.  I’m quite sure that this has as much to do with me as it does about her.  What I have always wished to give her is a complete and total acceptance of who she chooses to be in this world and love her for exactly that without expectation that she need change to garner my care and affection.  I am sad to say that I have continually failed in this endeavor, and I regret the shortcomings that have stood in the way of being that kind of son for her.  We are radically different human beings and, much as we have tried, it appears nearly impossible for us to share space in a manner that is nurturing and joyful- often we can’t even pull of cordial and congenial.

So, I suppose, in a manner of speaking, this was a long time coming.  At least, a long time coming for her.  Hard as I find our relationship, I would never have ceased being her son.  When I say it was a long time coming, what I mean to make clear is that I have spent four decades as the progeny of this woman feeling, somewhere down deep in my heart, ultimately expendable.  Through all the years of trying and failing to please her and be the boy she wanted me to be so she could be proud of me and provide me the kind of unconditional love my soul was screaming out for, I always harbored the thought that, given the right circumstances, she’d toss me out like trash.  I didn’t consciously believe that this was truly possible; but my subconscious feared it continually.  And because the more I engaged, the more I seemed to jar her, I made a decision a long while back that my best mode of operation was to exercise quite a bit of caution and maintain a fair amount of distance in the relationship.  This, of course, resonated to her as my being aloof and detached, which served to upset her further.  And so it went.  Two people joined in the most intimate way in which two people can be joined interacting in a way mirroring those old westerns where the two old gunslingers have their six-shooters pointed directly at each other with no clear path to take that would fail to end in carnage.  So mom finally decided to place her gun gently back into its holster, walk right past me without a care, push the two swinging doors to the tavern open, and amble off into the wild blue yonder.

There are a multitude of reasons that most probably contributed to her exit from my life.  There have been many times in the past in which I utterly failed my mother; times I hurt her… deeply; times I was selfish and self-serving, causing her wounds that I don’t suspect have ever healed.  But, in truth, none of these things are actually what led to her discarding her first born.  They were all reasons that led her to hold resentment toward me and maintain a cold, unapproachable exterior.  But none of them would of led us here.  There is one reason, and only one reason that I no longer have a mother.  The reason is that, to her understanding, I have abandoned my Judaism.  Both her parents were Holocaust survivors, and her belief that I have retreated from the fold, for her, means that I have disgraced the memory of her mother and father, not to mention all of the uncles and aunts and cousins and such that she never got a chance to know because they were slaughtered by the Nazis.  What is truly ironic is that the straw that really broke the camel’s back for my mother was the act of my falling deeply in love.  And the object of my affection is man.  A Jewish man.  At least he was a man.  And while my seventeen year marriage to my beautiful bride is still strong as iron, my love for this man is so abhorrent to my mother that she felt she had no choice but to relinquish the role.

I have not committed adultery.  Let’s be clear about that.  My love for this man is not physical, it is entirely spiritual.  Yes, it is interesting that my mother would come to the conclusion that I have abandoned my Judaism by falling in love with a Jewish man.  But that is the conclusion she has reached.  And it is sad.  I’d love her to meet and know this man.  I am supremely confident that she would love him.  Everyone who meets his does.  He is gentle and kind and humble and meek and wise and charitable and strong.  I would be more than willing to illiterate his shortfalls, except that he has none… none.  Not one.  He is perfect.  And when I say perfect, I don’t mean simply perfect for me.  He is perfect.  He has never, not one once, made a mistake or harmed anyone or held a grudge or spoke with malice.  He accepts everyone for exactly who they are and has never once turned away anyone seeking his love.  And His love is constant and complete and overwhelmingly glorious.  In fact, while He’s never met my mother personally, he loves her wholly for precisely who she is.  He loves her in the exact way that I have always longed to love her.  I wish she knew that.  I lament that there is a love available to her unlike anything she has ever experienced and has entirely closed herself off to receiving it.  So, to sum up, I am in love with Him, He is in love with her, and she has nothing but scorn for either one of us.  I don’t know.  Maybe scorn is too harsh.  It certainly resonates to me like scorn.  Maybe it’s confusion; or fear.  Either way, it’s not positive.

What’s really ironic is that I had absolutely zero interest in this love affair.  None.  Nada. Zilch.  In fact, of all the people in the universe possible to fall in love with, He was, literally, probably, the very last name on the list.  I didn’t want to talk about Him.  I didn’t want to hear about Him.  I didn’t want to hear others talk about Him.  And I most assuredly had no interest in talking to Him myself.  He was simply not my kind of guy.  I didn’t hate Him or anything.  There was no malice in my heart.  I guess if I’m being completely honest I just found Him sort of… cheesy.  I was quite sure I was a little too cool to associate with someone like Him; and a little too cool to associate with those who had already fallen in love with him.  I mean, the ones who knew Him casually didn’t bug me too much; His acquaintances were mostly alright.  But the ones who were really taken with Him; the ones who totally thought He was all that.  They were… well, they were… I thought they were kind of crazy.

And then came the fall.  My fall.  It was as painful as it was unexpected.  A supersonic depression.  Unprecedented in the long and winding journey of my many pathologies.  Triggered by nothing that I was aware of.  It came on like a mid-winter deep freeze.  And it held on for dear life.  Day after dreadful day it stuck like a tenacious barnacle.  Crying jags multiple times a day brought on by who knows what.  Hours of laying in bed, corpse-like, staring helplessly at the ceiling.  A crippling isolation slowly eliminating nearly all contact with friends and loved ones.  Nearly three months passed as each 24-hour cycle brought me closer and closer to the assumption that this was not, in fact, a season of depression, but my new reality which could be ceased only by bringing an end to that very reality.

In the wake of all this, there was one thing I came to know for sure.  And that one thing was, perhaps, the scariest part of it all.  For fourteen years I had been a sober man, knee-deep as a servant in A.A. with, what I understood to be, a powerful and fulfilling relationship with the creator of the universe.  But wading like a lost child in this morass of misery it became unerringly clear that God, or at least what I understood as God, was wanting.  I could not connect.  Prayer, meditation, useless.  Every way I knew to access the power of my God was leading me nowhere.  My spirituality, or I should say my notion of  spirituality was, somehow, too vast.  It felt like standing in the middle of a thousand football fields.  This open-source, new-agey, citizen of the universe, all paths lead to God concoction had been enough to save me from the depravity and danger of alcoholism and drug addiction; to get me back on my feet, upright, leading a life that, while it may have fallen short of virtuous, was, at the very least, decent.  And I’ll always be grateful for that.  But in that terrible black place, it fell short.  It left me alone searching desperately for something to cling on to.

I was raised Jewish and had always had a feeling of pride about that, but it was triggered more by Judaism as a people rather than Judaism as a religion.  I felt very much like a part of the Jews as a people, but I had never really found God through the lens of traditional Judaism.  I had become a Buddhist for a while, and that was mildly interesting and somewhat mind-expanding but it didn’t really take.  I read Anthony De Mello and Maryann Williamson and Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra.  Where to turn?  What to do?  I had no pull toward atheism and had no interest in getting lost in the vast vague expanse of agnosticism.  I still believed.  But my problem was not belief.  I was not belief-less.  I was powerless.  I needed power.  A real power.  Far greater than me.  A power that was tangible.  A power that was overt and clear.  A power that I could feel coursing through my being.  And then, one fine day, I found myself sitting in my garage talking to Mike.

Mike is in his early sixties.  I knew him through the program.  In fact I was his sponsor.  Mike is one of the most kind-hearted individuals it has ever been my pleasure to come across.  Under “salt of the earth” in the encyclopedia there ought to be a picture of Mike.  Mike was also a Christian.  I knew this.  But he mostly kept it to himself and never tried selling any of that stuff to me.  But as Mike stared at me in that garage, drawn face, glassy eyes, speaking in one and two word sentences, borderline comatose, he began to talk about Jesus.  It didn’t last very long.  With the first spark of gumption I had felt in months, I whipped a look of ire in his direction and proclaimed, “Mike, don’t!  Not with me.  I’m not having that.”  He responded boldly.  “Okay, I hear you.  Tell you what? Let me ask you one question.  You answer it and then, if you want, I’ll shut up.”  Whatever energy I had left had pretty much been used in my previous outburst.  “Fine,” I relented.  “Just tell me who you think He is,” Mike said.  I took a beat and then gave him the same answer I had long given to anyone inquiring about Jesus.  “Great teacher… great prophet… good guy… probably made a heck of a cabinet… what are you lookin’ for here, man?  Son of God?!  Resurrected from the dead?!  That’s Willy Wonka stuff.”  “It’s interesting, Michael,” he responded, “You know Jesus being God is not so much something that was said about Him.  It was something He said.  In fact He said it a lot.  Now, if that’s crap… how could He be a great anything?”  Mind you, this did not serve to make me believe, but it was just enough to make my mind go “Hmmm….”  “He’s right,” I thought, “He claimed that He was God.  Millions and millions of people have devoted their lives to Him based on that claim.  If that’s not true, He’s a nightmare.  He’s worse than Hitler.  He’s the worst person to ever walk the earth.  He’s the devil himself.”  I didn’t know what to make of this.  The idea of “great teacher, great prophet, etc.” had literally fallen off the table.  It no longer made any sense.  I had been claiming that with such ease all these years and it makes no sense.  What else was I wrong about?

Mike asked if I would read a book.  I clarified that it was not the Bible and relented.  I relented for two basic reasons.  One, to shut Mike up, because I knew he would ask if I read it.  Two, it occurred to me that it couldn’t possible hurt me to know a little more about Jesus.  I mean, why not?  I knew very little and I like knowing things.  So I opened the book.  It was quite thin and unimposing.  The writer had an easy style and I enjoyed the early chapters in which he spoke of his childhood and his alcoholic father.  I identified.  I kind of liked the guy.  He had been an academic and a staunch atheist.  He had spent years arguing heartily with Christian colleagues and finally decided to depart the halls of academia, travel the world and write the ultimate book disproving the claims of Christianity.  According to him, he ended up instead proving it to himself and becoming one of the world’s top Christian apologists.  Meanwhile, I’m just reading along and enjoying his prose.  Then I came to a chapter called “Lord, Liar, Lunatic.”  Many Christians know of this paradigm which was originally posited by C.S. Lewis but I certainly had no knowledge of it.  So I kept reading.

It posited that there are basically three things in terms of Jesus that no one, not atheists, academics or anyone with even a shred of legitimacy are arguing.  One, that there was a dude named Jesus.  Two, that He claimed divinity.  Three, that they killed Him on a cross for it.  So far, I was on board.  he further posited that, based on this truth, there are really only three options available.  Either one, He was lying.  Two, He believed what He was saying, but was out of His mind.  Or, three, He was exactly who He said He was.  I simply could not think of a fourth option.  So I read on.  Heck, it was kind of like a game.  Over the next six to seven pages, He absolutely convinced me that, based on the evidence, no sane claim could possibly be made that he was a liar or a lunatic.  What’s more amazing is that I did not, in any way, see what was coming.  I was brushing my teeth with my right hand and holding the book in my left flipping pages with my thumb.  I turned the page and was caught unawares by the following sentence: “You do realize that there is only one option left.”  I dropped the book.

If you had asked at the time, I would have told you that this was the worst day of my life.  I was horrified.  I was angry.  I had been tricked.  And I didn’t know what to do.  Because the truth that Jesus Christ was exactly who He said He was didn’t strike me in the brain as a piece of information.  It blew through my heart like cannon-fire.  It was real.  It was true.  And I didn’t want.  And I couldn’t shake it.  And, Lord knows, I tried.  I really did.  For almost two weeks.  Sitting in my bed, hunched over, talking to myself: “C’mon, Michael.  It was nuts five days ago.  You can get back there.  Just concentrate.”  Nothing.  I was saddled with a piece of truth stuck to me like crazy glue and I couldn’t wrangle free of it no matter how much of my own will and fortitude I applied.

Finally, another Christian friend of mine, Derek, to whom I had confided my conundrum asked, “Have you tried praying to Jesus?”  “No,” I shot back with a fervor that surprised me.  “Okay, he said.  I’m just sayin’, you might try it.  It could help.”  So the next morning, I went down to the garage with my cell phone, brought up the internet and scrolled through looking for a prayer to Jesus that didn’t make me want to throw up on my shoes.  I couldn’t find one.  I hated them all.  So I picked one randomly.  And it just so happened to be what is often referred to as the sinner’s prayer or the salvation prayer.  I got on my knees, took a breath, and said the prayer honestly and earnestly:

“Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”

 

What happened next is, quite honestly, nearly impossible to explain or do any kind of reasonable justice to.  My head began to swim.  I was dizzy and lightheaded.  My right arm went numb.  And my internal temperature felt like it shot up twenty degrees.  I was quite sure that I either having a heart attack or dying.  I laid myself back, flat on the rug covering the garage floor.  And then, in a moment, I felt something resplendent.  It started at the top of my head and traveled slowly, all the way down my body to the tips of my toes.  It was a kind of mix of a caribbean warmth and cool autumnal breeze woven together like DNA strands traveling down my body inch by inch and it held me frozen in a state of absolute ecstasy.  And then… and I know this is a tough one to fathom… I felt arms around me.  Real arms.  I felt two arms wrapped around me from my back ensconcing my stomach in a firm loving grip.  I actually moved my arms, once I regained mobility in my previously frozen limbs to search for said arms, but I found none.  And yet even as my hands felt nothing, I continued to feel those arms holding me in their warm embrace.  And then… for a second… for a nanosecond… or whatever portion of a second is shorter than a nanosecond, I glimpsed a place.  It wasn’t the garage.  It was another place.  A perfect place.  A holy place.  It was the Kingdom.  There was not a doubt in my mind the Lord, as He held me tight in His arms granted me the shortest of glimpses into the place where I was now bound to live out my eternal life.  I don’t know how long this all took.  It may have been ten minutes.  It may have been ten seconds.  For all I know, I may have lain on that garage floor for two hours.  What I do now is that I slowly rose to my feet and everything had changed.  I was a new creature.  My insides were somehow made of a new material.  My heart had rearranged itself into an entirely new organ.  I didn’t have the words yet to identify it, but The Holy Spirit was now indwelling within me and I had become a begotten son of the sovereign Lord of all.

Does that sound crazy?  Delusional?  Stark-raving mad?  If it does, I don’t blame you.  I was just there.  I wouldn’t believe me.  In fact, I suspect I might be scared of me.  That doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  As I exited that garage, I exited as a disciple of Jesus Christ; a follower of the messiah.  And I knew that the rest of my time on this planet would be, for all intents and purposes, one laser-pointed mission to serve Him to the best of my ability and help bring the glory of the gospel to the world.  And, as it turns out, my primary spiritual gift has turned out to be evangelism.  And the number of people that I have been on my knees with as they gave their lives to the Lord and the number of people I have had the unique honor to baptize makes my mind reel.  I take no credit for this.  It is something beyond me.  Something far bigger than I can understand flowing through me; using me as a conduit to show those in need the truth of God.

And so, four years later, here I stand as a Christian.  My Masters in Evangelism & Leadership from Wheaton College all but complete.  On staff as a pastor at a local burgeoning evangelistic church.  Two cross earrings in my ears, a cross hanging around my neck, a cross and a variety of biblical scriptures tattooed up and down and my arms and completely sold out for the gospel.  And it’s wonderful.  My insides have been created anew and I am teeming with purpose.  I know who I am, what I am here for and where I am bound.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s been easy.

Yes, the yoke is easy and the burden is light.  This man I am in love with said that.  He also said to pick up your cross and walk.  So I am not free from sin.  No one is.  I am not free from dishonesty, selfishness, anxiety, fear, impulsiveness, impatience, arrogance, pride, envy, vanity, or any form of temporary idolatry.  And I have no mother.

I didn’t tell her straight off.  First, I didn’t want to do it over the phone and she lives 800 miles away.  I figured I’d tell her the next time I saw her (which, as it turns out, is never).  Second, I was scared.  I knew her reaction was not going to be positive.  I guess I knew there was a chance that her reaction would be exactly what it has been.  But, deep down, I didn’t think she’d take it this far.  At least I hoped she wouldn’t.  Then came a sort of perfect storm of activity.  A big part of my ministry has been the creation and performance of spoken-word poetry which, as it turns out, I am quite proficient at.  My current church at the time asked me to write a piece on how we compare ourselves to others.  They wanted me to perform it live on Sunday at the location that I attended and they wanted to professionally tape it to be played on video at the other twelve locations.  The video came out quite well.  Without my knowledge it got posted to YouTube.  Then, someone I know (although I don’t know who) liked it and posted it to Facebook.  I was not aware of this either.  And there it was.

For all the world to see.  My mother.  My sister.  My uncles and aunts.  My cousins.  As the Yiddish say, the whole mishpucha.  Unfortunately, it was digested by all of them as if I had chosen this very public social networking platform on which to stage my Christian “coming out” party.  I’m not ashamed of this in any way.  It just wasn’t exactly how I planned to break the news.  I very quickly received a few scathing FB messages from somewhat fringe members of my family whose opinions hold little weight with me, but it still stung a little.  Shortly thereafter, I received a text from my mother that read, “I put a stop payment on a check that I sent [for my birthday]… in respect for my mother and father and my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins I never met only because they were Jewish… always thought you had a strong respect for your heritage.”  This was followed, shortly thereafter, by my mother telling my wife [her primary form of communicating with me] that I was not her son any more.  That she would not talk to me, see me, I was not welcome in her home and that she would not step in my home unless I had vacated the premises.  So that was that.  I have reached out to her a handful of times with no response.  Other than that, I haven’t communicated with my mom or seen her for about three years now.

And the strangest part is that, as previously mentioned, it’s because she thinks I’ve denounced my Judaism.  I’m not saying that I don’t understand, based on the thinking of our modern world, why she has reached such a conclusion.  And yet the absurdity of the notion is boundless.  First, I’m still a Jew.  I was born a Jew.  It’s a bloodline.  There’s no way to un-Jew myself even if I wanted to… and I don’t.  Second, I’ve never felt more Jewish in my life.  I’m far more connected to our history and the truths of The Old Testament than I ever was previously.  Third, and I know we must all be aware of this, Jesus was JEWISH!  Joseph and Mary were Jewish.  Andrew and Bartholomew and both Jameses and John and Judas and Jude and Matthew and Peter and Phillip and Simon and Thomas and Paul were all Jews.  The gospel was initially brought exclusively to the Jews.  What could possible be more Jewish than believing in Yeshua, the Jewish meshiach?  How, over the course of two thousand years did we go from saying, “What do ya mean non-Jews can believe in Jesus;” to saying, “What do you mean Jews can believe in Jesus?”  People are born Jewish.  No one is born Christian.  Christianity is a choice.  Jesus is a choice.  I was born a Jew and I believe in Jesus.  Simple pimple.

There are a variety of truths related in the holy Scriptures called “Antinomies.”  An antinomy is sort of like a paradox on steroids.  It basically refers to two statements that can’t possible both be true, but are.  For example, Mary gave birth to Jesus.  Mary was a virgin.  Those statements, according to our earthly understanding can’t both be true.  And yet they are.

Jesus was God’s son.  Jesus was God.

God is three persons.  God is one.

Jesus suffered and died.  Jesus conquered and won.

Jesus is David’s heir.  Jesus is David’s predecessor.

Those are some others.

And so, in this twisty and winding and unendingly fascinating spiritual journey of mine, it seems I’ve come across my very own antinomy.

My mother lives in the northern suburbs of New Jersey in a lush one bedroom condo with an expansive loft.  I have no mother.

I miss having a mother.  That’s not exactly the same thing as saying, “I miss my mother.”  As stated earlier, I don’t.  But her decision has consequences and reverberations.  For my wife.  For my children.  For my sister.  For the whole family, really.  And for those reasons, I have made various attempts to repair this.  They have led nowhere.  She is steadfast, rigid, unmovable.  And, while I’ll keep praying for healing, I strongly suspect that this is not going to change.  I think the chances are quite excellent that the next time I see my mother will be just before they lower her into the ground (unless I go first, of course.)  That makes me very sad.  I wish I could change things.  I wish I had that power.  I don’t.  I’m powerless.  That’s what is so painful about the whole thing.  I’m powerless to ease this burden.

But God is good.  That is not in question.  I know and trust that He has this situation well in hand and will take perfect care of all the parties involved and effected.  I should also mentioned that about six months back, I baptized my father.  He is also Jewish.  While my mother’s reaction to my conversion was disgust, Dad’s was attraction.  Over the course of about two years he read and thought and searched and prayed and called me one day to tell me that he had given his life to Christ and that he wanted to fly up from Florida and have me baptize him.  And there we were, standing in the warm water of the baptismal during Sunday morning worship in front of seven  or eight hundred people.  I had one hand behind his neck and the other at his lower back.  And I asked him, “Do you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God?”  He responded, “Yes I do.”  I went on, “Then in accordance with the words in Romans 10:9, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  I tipped his body back until he was fully immersed in the water and then raised him back up, cleansed, free of sin, re-born.  It was one of the most intense, powerful, joyful experiences of my life.

I came to Christ.  One parent abandoned me.  One parent followed me.  There’s a certain kind of equanimity in that.  God knows what He’s doing.  He’s in charge and in complete control.

Maybe I’ll get my mom back after all.  Maybe I won’t.

Either way, thy will be done, not my own.

 

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