Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yom HaShoah: My Day of Remembrance

Today is Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance - the time in which the world remembers the milions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. It also marks the beginning of the National Days of Remembrance here in the U.S., highlighted by a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda later this week and the reading of the names at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington.

I was honored to be accepted as one of the many men and women who had asked to be a part of the reading of the names, and so immediately after church this morning I headed into the city to join the ranks of those offering up the names of the victims. Those who were already there were gathered in the Hall of Remembrance, a six-sided domed room that serves as a memorial for the Holocaust victims. Because I was so early, I had an opportunity to sit and to listen and to think as I awaited my turn at the lectern.

As the voices of the readers ahead of me echoed off the concrete walls and around the dome, I sat and stared at the panels hanging in the room which were adorned with just a few words: Treblinka; Auschwitz; Bergen-Belsen; Buchenwald; Ohrdruf. Simple words, yes, but words that symbolize mankind's history of horrible acts committed against itself; words that symbolize the lengths to which one group will go to eliminate another out of hatred; words that symbolize the taking of children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from sisters.

But then this is what this day is about - words. Hearing a number - six million Jews killed - or seeing pictures is tragic enough, but to read a person's name gives it much more personal significance, much more meaning, much more direct impact. As my turn approached, I wanted to ensure that the few names I was about to read would have an impact, that they would resonate not just off the walls and throughout the dome, but into the hearts of those taking a tour of the museum and pausing to listen to us. I wanted to do my part to make sure that there was one more memory they would take with them, that what they had seen was real and that there were names attached to those men, women and children whose faces they had seen in the exhibits.

And as I finally stood before the microphone, I tried my best to achieve that goal - to not rush my list, but to read each name and give it time to echo and sink in with the others in the room before moving on to the next. Baur. Beer. Beck. Berkstadter. I heard the names coming back to me seconds after I said them, names that I wanted to read perfectly to honor their memory the best way that I could - with my voice.

Had people raised their voices six decades ago, perhaps this could have been prevented. But time cannot be changed, and all we can do now is to ensure that history is not forgotten and most definitely not repeated. As I lit a candle before departing, this was my prayer - and my hope that we would never again see a need to read names such as these.

I think the only way I know to end this post is with the Jewish Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. As you read this and listen to the setting of the Kaddish by Maurice Ravel below, say a prayer for these six million, the men, women and children whose voices were silenced and yet who speak to us still...

Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

A Six-Year-Old's Deep Theological Questions

My oldest daughter has been in a phase lately where incidents in everyday life prompt her to ask questions about God and faith which, for a six-year-old, strike me as very deep indeed. As we were getting ready for church this morning, she again asked me about prayer - except this time, it was for herself, since she has been ill for the past two days.

MB: "Daddy, is it okay to pray for myself to get better?"

Me: "Sure it is. People pray for themselves all the time."

MB: "So it's okay to ask Miss C. [the children's priest at our church] to pray for me when she asks today?"

Me: "Sure."

MB: "What do people pray for?"

Me: "Well, they pray to get better if they've been sick, or they pray for a job if they don't have one, or they pray for a good friend or a member of their family. They pray for anything."

MB: "Did you pray to God when you went to Applebees and got sick [with food poisoning]?"

Me: [holding back laughter] "Oh, yes, I sure did."

This episode is a lesson on two fronts - one, children always ask great questions, and two, they never forget anything. Applebees was four years ago!!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anne Lamott at Borders: A Gathering of Imperfect Birds

I'll start off by being direct: I have never known what to make of Anne Lamott.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine (who is a priest in the Episcopal Church and godmother to our youngest daughter) and I were wandering through the bookshop at Washington National Cathedral when she picked up a copy of Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and said, "You should really read Anne Lamott. She's great." This friend had never steered me wrong before - despite our spirited political discussions, which we approach from opposite ends of the spectrum - and so I cracked open the book. One paragraph into the first page, the thought "What the hell?!?" flashed through my mind, for there in stark black-and-white I was greeted with, "Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration."

My friend - the friend who had never steered me wrong - had put in my hands a book by a Bush-basher!

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, however, I purchased it, along with a few others, and took them home for a read. It was a struggle for me, however; I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried, get past her political musings. I was angry with Ms. Lamott, that much was certain. And I wasn't going to be very forgiving.

It was then I found the other Anne Lamott: the single mother, the recovering alcoholic and drug addict, the woman who in the midst of one of her darkest moments felt the presence of Jesus as he knelt by her in the corner. The self-professed flawed Christian who said, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." THIS was the Anne Lamott to whom I could relate, the woman you wanted to hug and tell that everything would be alright, and that people loved her as much as Jesus loved her.

This was the Anne Lamott that I went to see this past Thursday evening at Borders, where she was promoting her newest book, Imperfect Birds. It goes without saying that I was in the demographical minority in the crowd, with lots of women and perhaps 10 men, but it didn't detract from the event by any means. Surprisingly, it started with her doing part of the signing, and she wandered throw the rows of people chatting, signing, humorously chastising those who hadn't purchased her book, and genuinely seeming to enjoy being in the midst of a crowd like ours on an otherwise stormy evening.

And then she got to where a friend of mine and I were seated - what to say to her? Do I say anything?

Of course I say something - and I tell her the story of the first time I saw page one of Plan B. I tell her about the anger and frustration I felt at seeing her political views, and then of how I just wanted to give her a big hug and pull everyone together after getting to the faith side of her life. She paused for a moment - oh, geez, here it comes! - and then said with a smile, "Thank you for telling me that. And I do have some friends who are Republicans!"

With credit to Stewie Griffin, "Victory is mine!" I had won her over! Quickly, though, I figured that that ego-filled thought was wrong; I hadn't won her over, nor had she won me over. It became clear during the Q and A session that we were both victims of something else - for as she said, even among Democrats and Republicans and all of their differences, there is one common factor we all share: faith.

She spoke of her son and grandson, of the difficulties she has experienced in her life, of the rejection that she has received from some Christians (being told once, "If this is your view of Christianity, then I wonder how you'll feel one day when you are burning?"), of writing and solitude and friends and Sunday school ("I teach young children in Sunday school because, well, no one else really wants to do it."). And she read excerpts from her new book, the title of which was taken from a quote by Rumi: "Each has to enter the nest made by other imperfect birds."

And on this evening, this is what we all were: imperfect birds, flawed Christians, scarred humans, who were all sharing the same nest with a woman who as she says "gets it." It was a warm, funny, lively conversation, the kind you would have sitting around your living room on a Friday evening with a group of friends.

At the end of the night, Anne Lamott had a new fan - one who is still slightly disturbed by her political views, although much more forgiving because my own views have moderated in recent years. This is a woman I could see sitting around in a group with my wife and clergy friends and others for a long discussion over wine or drinks (which in itself is flawed since Anne is a recovering alchoholic and addict, albeit one who talks about how great it felt to be high).

What a conversation it would be!