Thursday, December 14, 2017

Passion and Work: A Dialogue

A couple of months ago, Doug Pointer, from The School of Success, posted this on his Facebook page: “He said to me “You want me to tell you what my passion is and go work in it? How am I supposed to do that? I just do what they tell me and earn the money.“ How sad is that?” In reading this, I had a very strong and visceral response, “Is it sad?” Could it be enough that this person has a job, it pays him an adequate salary, and his soul is not being crushed or devoured, is it ok to just “have a job” or does it have to be your passion for one to truly be happy and fulfilled?"

Doug and I know each other through Career Prospectors. He and I have had a few conversations about the role of passion in work and career, so this was my response:
OK diving into the rapids here! Do you like what you do? Are you skilled and experienced such that you have options and choices about your career? Is the work sucking your soul out of you? If it is, then what are your options? What skills do you possess that solve employers' problems? How important is it to you that you love your job and find meaning in it? Do you want a job that demands less ie go to work and do what I am told but pays the bills, provides enough, hence leaving you with energy and time to put into other priorities? Where does work fall in the midst of your priorities? How much of your energy and time are you willing to commit to having a career, not just a job, a calling, your passion? What may have to be sacrificed in service to that career?
Doug’s Response: “What are the answers to your own questions?" 

Writing the answers to these questions was a great exercise! So I am sharing my answers and I invite others to share their own. How important is passion in your work? 

1. Do you like what you do? 

Yes! I love both of my part-time jobs. I do love teaching and I have the variety of teaching junior high and college students. 

2) Are you skilled and experienced such that you have options and choices about your career?

Yes, to a certain degree. My skills in teaching, public speaking, facilitation, event planning, community outreach along with some tech skills like website design and maintenance, social media are very transferable. The challenge is that because I gained my experience in places not expected by most employers (ie congregations) and my expertise is religion and ethics which are not as common outside the nonprofit sector where I have spent my career. This means I have to do more work to demonstrate those transferable skills to an employer and it also means I have to learn the language I need to communicate that. 

3) Is the work sucking your soul out of you? If it is, then what are your options?

The work is not but the lack of consistent work and income is. The financial anxiety caused by lack of income, no credit, no savings, is the equivalent of a daily encounter with a hungry wooly mammoth. Options: secure the illusive job that pays enough with health benefits; my spouse gets granted her Social Security disability, we get the back payments and a regular monthly disability check; winning the lottery; death of a long lost relative who leaves one of us a fortune (ok the last two are highly unlikely).

4) What skills do you possess that solve employers' problems?

  • Training - every organization needs training for people - whether it is skills training, diversity training, professional development. I have experience in all kinds of training/teaching from traditional higher education to a variety of software and application classes professionally and as a volunteer to leadership development with youth, young adults and adults in academia and congregations.
  • Public Speaking and Community Engagement - while many dread the thought of public speaking I love it so I would be an excellent spokesperson, community liaison because my public speaking with my love of networking would make me an exceptional person to take the message or the organization into the larger community.
  • Ethics - really every organization needs to be thinking and cultivating a culture of ethics that moves beyond what is legal, especially in today's world where much of our current public discourse is ultimately about ethics. Ethics are not just intuited out of the ether - to have an ethical organization, there needs to be an ethical culture at every level of an organization. I can speak both to high level ethics - ie human rights, common good - I can also speak to specifics. Ethics can be taught, an ethical imagination can be cultivated. People can be led through a process of ethical dilemmas and decision making. So even what may seem the most irrelevant to a secular organization - my Masters in Theological Studies - gives me expertise in ethics and social theory which brings knowledge of a range of topics needed by every organization.

5) How important is it to you that you love your job and find meaning in it? 

This used to be top of my list, particularly in terms of the kinds of jobs and industries. Now ethics and integrity are important and using my skills, putting my gifts to work brings joy even if the particularly organization or topic is not my passion. I learned I love teaching Google Docs just like I love teaching ethics. 

Now I want to use my skills (because what else do I have to offer) in an ethical organization (ie not willing to sell my soul to a defense contractor) that will pay me enough to support myself and my family. Supporting my family, having health insurance and financial stability - and maybe if I am lucky, a chance to retire is a more urgent priority than the job/organization match my greatest passion and quest for meaning. I would rather have a well paying job in an ethical corporation then a poor paying job in a non-profit committed to multifaith engagement and dialogue.

6) Do you want a job that demands less, ie go to work and do what I am told but pays the bills, provides sufficient income and benefits, but not your passion, does not necessarily invoke “I love my job” but you the time and energy to put into other priorities? 

I would say “yes,” since I have realized that what I want is a complete life - not just a job or a career. My father used to say “you work so you can live; you don’t live so you can work.” I see more truth in this now then I did before. Time is precious and I have spent a great deal of it working for organizations, doing work that I love, being underpaid, under appreciated, and left me at the end with nothing financially. My career is one part of and critical to support a complete life.

7) Where does work fall in the midst of your priorities? How much of your energy and time are you willing to commit to having a career, not just a job, a calling, your passion? What may have to be sacrificed in service to that career?

Work for survival reasons is a top priority for me since the lack of enough work puts me and those I love in constant jeopardy. I am more willing than other times to put time into a career as my daughter is about to turn 18. I would be willing to give more to building a career as long as that did not become unbalanced with other important things like family, cooking, reading, Shabbat and Jewish practice and a Jewish home, time for myself, rest, and my cats.

I will close this with some words from a blog post I wrote as we were getting ready to move to Richmond: We Are Called Unto Life:
What I have learned is that I want a life, a full life, a complete life. I want it filled with people and community. I feel like over time I made myself smaller, shrank my world down and now I want to burst forth and explore the world. I think this year of struggle and tears helped me to see what the holy has been trying to say all along. One of my favorite quotes about vocation is from Herbert Alphonso, SJ and he writes, "Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about---quite apart from what I would like it to be about---or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.... Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear." It is about my whole life, not my job, but my life.
So what does it mean to you to have a full, complete life? 
Where does work fit into that?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Hannah's Prayer: Seeking Work

Inspired by the sermon my Rabbi preached on Rosh Hashanah morning, I wrote this prayer. I had asked if there was a Jewish prayer for job seekers and apparently there is not and her sermon finally gave me the inspiration needed. The story of Hannah from the book of Samuel is the haftarah for the Rosh Hashanah morning service.

Hannah's Prayer: Seeking Work

"And she was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to the Lord, and wept." (Samuel 1:10)

"And Hannah wept. Feelings of loneliness consumed her, and she began questioning her self-worth. “What is wrong with me?”, she asked. “Am I not good enough?”, she pondered. Struggling with infertility, Hannah fell into the deep abyss of depression. Filled with sadness, anger, and frustration, she did what no one had done before. She made an impassioned plea to God, not simply praying for a child, but praying that one day she might feel whole again." (a modern midrash)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha'olam, Borei

I come to you, like Hannah, filled with sorrow, rage, and despair. 
For too long now, I have been out of work, not found work, not had enough work
My hope is faltering
I wonder "What is wrong with me?"; I wonder if I will ever work again; I wonder why and who is to blame.
I blame myself.
I come to you Adonai, as Hannah did, to pour my heart out to you, to beg you to hear my plea, to hear my pain, my fear, my anger, my frustration.
I long to use my gifts, skills, and experience; I long to be able to support myself and my family
I long for work - Hannah saw having a child, a son, her work, her unique contribution to the world.
I too long for work, to make my contribution to the world. 
God hear me, hear my plea.
Who will hear me like Eli heard Hannah? 
May I be able to pour out my anger, my sorrow, to free the way of obstacles. 
May my cry be heard, may my life become fruitful and of service. 
I promise to use my gifts, my resources to help heal this world, to be the co-creator you invite us to be. I promise, as Hannah promised her child to you, that my work will be in service to you and to the world. 


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sometimes Dreams Die

Sometimes dreams die and when they do a part of you dies too. Maybe you remember the exact moment the dream died.  You know exactly where you were. Exactly what you were doing.  Maybe you felt yourself die a little that day. You will get over it, you tried to convince yourself. You will be sad, but you will move on.

Months have passed, years have passed and there has been no re-birth. You have tried to fill the dream with something else, tried to fill the large gaping hole in your soul. Maybe you have worked on a new dream, maybe you have cried, and worked to forgive yourself, forgive yourself for killing it, even if you did not mean to.  Sometimes you may not even know at the time the dream died, maybe you thought there would be time for it later.

There is no funeral for dreams.  No yahrzeit candle is lit or yahrzeit anniversary observed.  No grave to visit because the dead part, it is still with you. It is a part of you.  It is like a limb that doesn't work anymore, or cells that die. They are still there, they are still part of you and they are dead. You are walking around, you look alive, there are even moments when you feel alive. Then it hits you again, you see so clearly how part of you is just dead.

People say that "it is never too late." That is a lie. Dreams do die and it is too late. Parts of yourself can die while you still walk around. You cry out to G-d. You pray for healing; for an end to the grief. To accept what has happened and move forward.

Sometimes dreams die and sometimes when that happens, part of you dies too. Sometimes you never fully recover; you never completely move on.

What is the mourner's prayer for a dream, a part of self that has died?

If someone you know shares with you a dream that has died, a part of them has died, know they are sharing a very deep and holy place with you. Please don't try to fix it. Please just hold them. Please don't run away. Please don't tell them there will be a new dream. Just be there. Just know that all they can do is carry this. It may not make sense to you. If you love them, just stay there, just be there. Just let them know that you honor this dream, this part of you that has died. Grieve with them even if you don't understand.  Know they must trust you deeply to share this with you.

It will not be easy to just be there. You will want to fix it. You will want to fill the space with false hope. You will want to fill it with words. None of that will work. The person will shrink away. Maybe you won't notice but they will. They will know that this deep, painful, holy place is not safe with you. It hurts you say, yes it does. Do not be like's Job's friends who after sitting in silence with him told him all things he should do to fix it.

Do be like Job's friends who sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights in silence and saw how deep the pain was. Cry with them. Hold them. Remind them they are loved.  Remind them they are important. Remind them they are not alone.

Comfort them.

Friday, March 17, 2017

When We Rise: The Stories of Some Who Paved the Way

My wife and I just finished watching the four night series When We Rise based on the book by Cleve Jones. Cleve Jones moved to San Francisco in the early 1970's.  He worked to help elect Harvey Milk to the San Francisco City Council.  Watching this series, particularly the first two episodes, was to watch events that I witnessed only through television.  I was eleven when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated.  Here I share my memories and my story and the ways the work and lives of people such as Cleve Jones and Roma Guy shaped my life.  The stories portrayed in this series were among the many that have and continue to pave the way, to show us and inspire us to make our world more just, more inclusive, more whole.

I was recently asked by my niece for a class she is taking when I first became aware of homosexuality and my memory is driving through the Castro with my grandparents and seeing two men with their arms around each other, their hands in each other's back pockets.  In the series, When We Rise, as they show the assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, I remember exactly where I was that day.  I was visiting my grandparents who lived in the Forest Hill District of San Francisco.  I remember standing in front of the television and seeing Diann Feinstein announce the death of the two men and the arrest of Dan White.  I remember seeing her barely containing the tears as she announced the death of the two men.  I also had no idea until much later, how unique my experience has been.  For me, certainly raised with strong moral prohibitions on homosexuality from my family, from the Roman Catholic church, it was coupled with a strong "live and let live."  I lived on the Peninsula in Belmont, CA and  San Francisco was "The City."  My father was raised in San Francisco, third generation, the grandson of a Portuguese immigrant married to an Irish woman.

At the time, this kind of shooting was not yet a regular part of our news cycle.  It was shocking that Dan White could just walk into City Hall and shoot the Mayor and a City Council member and walk back out.  I remember Dan White's trial and the Twinkie defense.  Even my Republican, Roman Catholic father was outraged.

My high school years were in the midst of the AIDS crisis.  Every night there was a report - from the days when they had no idea what it was, how it was transmitted, to finally understanding what it was and that it was not just about gay men or HIV drug users but about all of us.  I remember the decision to close the bath houses.  I remember my father's disgust at promiscuous and anonymous sex that many gay men engaged in.  I saw gay pride on television.  Years before I would come out or even know someone personally who was LGBTQ, I thought well why do they have to have a parade and tell everyone, after all I don't shout about my heterosexuality (yes you can all chuckle here).

It was not until I went off to college, choosing to leave California first for Milwaukee, WI and then for Washington, DC, to find out that my experience of live and let live was not universal.  My roommate freshman year was from St. Louis, MO, when we talked on the phone, she asked me "Are there really all those gays out there?"  The question surprised me.  Well yes there are gay people in San Francisco, but certainly not in my safe middle/upper middle class neighborhood on the Peninsula.  In my second semester at Marquette I was taking an education class and part of the class was tutoring a student in reading.  If I remember correctly she was in seventh grade but her reading level was somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade.  Part of the assignment was to go and observe our students in the classroom. So I went to her public school to observe her in math class and I believe an English class.  While I was waiting, I sat in the Faculty room at the school.  The night before the movie An Early Frost had been on television. The movie is about a young man who has never come out to his family and now needs to come out because he is dying due to complications of AIDS.  Two of the teachers in the room were talking about the show.  One of them said they could never accept their son if he was gay. She would reject him.  Now here I am, sitting in the room, not knowing these people, 18 years old and I am thinking "how could you think that?"  How could you reject your child, your son, the child you carried for nine months in your body, you nurtured and loved and cared about and then reject him because he was gay?"  This went against everything I believed.  Truly I was not in San Francisco any more.

It was not until I went to Georgetown in 1986 that I actually came to know gay and lesbian people personally.  I lived on the same floor and became friends with the man who was President of the Gay and Lesbian group at Georgetown.  I had a close friend whose coming out journey I accompanied who later would point out to me, that he did not think I would have a relationship with a man until I explored how female identified I was/am.  It sort of took me aback.  A close female friend came out as bi and introduced me to the brand new book, Bi Any Other Name by Lorraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu.  I finally came out in the early 1990's as bi.  I didn't tell my family.  I did tell my friends. I was out in some ways and not out in many others.  Bi people were not, and too often are still not, very welcome in the LGBTQ community.  For some, bi was a step on the way to finally accepting that one was lesbian or gay.  People who identified as bi were seen as too afraid to come out all the way.  When Donna and I started dating in 1994, she received a great deal of grief from lesbian friends with "Been there, done that" being the most common response.  Now that I was dating a woman, coming out was more important.  I joined a coming out support group at Whitman Walker Clinic.  It helped to have a place to talk about coming out, about what dreams I felt I was losing, and learning to really accept this new piece of my identity.

I always knew I would not be rejected by my parents - I didn't think they would meet the news with excitement and joy but I had the privilege (and it is still a privilege) to know that I would not be rejected.  I have to say I went through my own version of being a radically out person, wearing buttons and t-shirts that proudly proclaimed to the world that I was part of the LGB community (T was not yet part of the alphabet).  I was working at the Washington National Cathedral in the worship department when we held a service in celebration of the 1993 March on Washington.  I saw the final full display of the The Names  Project Quilt on the Mall.  Walking among those panels, each one roughly the size of a coffin (a detail not mentioned in the miniseries) is a holy and sobering experience.  These were young people that died, some were children, some were in their young adult years. The love poured into each quilt is evident.

In 1996, Donna and I had our commitment service. At the time, there was no state that we could get legally married, a couple where we might get a domestic partnership and it was the year that President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  At our service, Dr. Mary Hunt, preached that "the President did not believe in marriage for women such as us."  I thought I would see marriage equality in my lifetime although I thought it would take a lot longer.

As the mini-series unfolded it reminded me of where I was and what I was doing.  Donna and I decided not to join the throngs at San Francisco City Hall when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses.  We wanted to be legally married on the same date as our commitment service. The state would not dictate to us our anniversary.  We did finally legally marry on June 22, 2008.  We were among the 10,000 or so couples who got married between the time that the CA Supreme Court knocked down the proposition banning gay marriage and the passage of Prop. 8 which amended the California Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.  Marriage equality opponents wanted to stop the weddings taking place during that window in 2008 - they failed.  They wanted the marriages nullified when Prop. 8 passed - they failed again.  Of course the day after we got legally married we moved to Williamsburg, VA where our marriage and our relationship had absolutely no legal status except that we had carefully protected our relationship with our daughter. Our only legal relationship was as Mollie's parents.  We celebrated with joy when DOMA was finally defeated and California couples could marry and then again when finally in every single state and territory in the United States our marriage was equal to all others.

I am so grateful to the many people who made all of this possible. I did not put my life on the line, I did not get beaten up or stabbed, I did not lose my family. I do know that their kicking that closet door off its hinges made it possible for me and so many others to come out. I know their example helped me be willing to be publicly out, and publicly out as a queer person of faith. I do not believe that I would have the family that I have today if it were not for these people who believed that they were here to do great work, important work.  So thank you Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Diane Jones, Ken Jones, Cecilia Chung. With the exception of Cleve Jones, I did not know your names and your work until this series.  Thank you for your work that made my life as a queer person, as a woman, as a mother, much better.  Thank you for reminding us that there are not separate fights but only one fight for justice and inclusivity. One fight to ensure that every single human being truly has those inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Thank you for reminding us that what unites the fights for the lives of men, women, trans, queer, gay, lesbian, poor, black, hispanic, asian, is really one fight for the worth and dignity of every single human being - without exception.

Most of all I thank you on behalf of my amazing daughter Mollie who grew up secure that our legal rights as parents were protected with both of our names on her birth certificate. She was able to witness our legal marriage in 2008. She has marched in San Francisco Pride, she has friends who are queer. This past summer as Mollie participated in the wedding of her godfather, the man who had been the President of the Gay and Lesbian group at Georgetown so many years ago, to an equally amazing man; our daughter was surrounded by a queer family of adults who took such great joy in who she was becoming and she, in turn, was reminded of her own belonging in and to that community by birth regardless of who she chooses to love or how she identifies. So, Cleve Jones (and all those activist role models), thank you for reminding her that the work is not done, that her "...generation has its own epic confrontations it must face."

Monday, January 9, 2017

New Years: 5777 and 2017

Like many people in the Western world I grew up only following the Gregorian calendar with its start date of Jan. 1.  As I have been exploring Judaism, however, I have begun to follow its calendar and its New Year began in October.  I did some web searching and there are approximately 40 different
calendars in use in the world today - many are tied to religions like Judaism and Islam. Each calendar uses either solar, lunar or a combination of the two to measure time.

Before the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays I was talking about the fact that while 2016 had been pretty hard and awful, not really sad about seeing it go, 5777, the current year in the Jewish calendar, on a personal level was going much better.

The past years of 2015 and 2016 have been very challenging for me and my family.  In 2015 I lost my Dad, I did not have full time employment, we lacked medical care for about half the year, we moved, and overall the year was just filled with challenge, heart break, anxiety and frustration.  My Facebook post from Dec. 31, 2015 "Spending New Year's Eve in our traditional way, watching New Year's Rockin Eve, hanging out at home, just being a family. I am so very ready to say goodbye to 2015. It was a very long and very difficult year. I am holding onto to a tentative hope that 2016 will be better. After all I have hoped for financial stability, a full time job and the ability to provide for my family for the last 3 years and each year in many ways has been worse than the last - so 2016 please break the trend and help my family and I find the stability we need to thrive. Here is hoping that 2016 brings abundance, love and blessing to all of us!" I would love to say that 2016 manifested a full time job and financial security but alas it did not.  

5777 began on a much better note.  By Rosh Hashanah, I had two new part-time jobs, that I love, as an Adjunct Instructor at Bryant & Stratton and teaching the 8th grade at Or Ami.  I was able to leave Food Lion.  In addition, I had two job phone interviews and one of them is turning into an in-person interview in January.  As I look at this threshold of 2017, about a little over a  quarter of the way through 5777, I have the possibility of a full time job and bringing financial stability to my family.  It was during the start of 5777 that I realized that I wanted to make Or Ami and Judaism my spiritual home.  This has meant closing some chapters of my life and it also means I stop sitting in liminal space between Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. There is peace and joy that comes with that.  In just making public my decision to convert I feel a freedom and excitement that has been long in coming. 

Taking joy in my work with all its challenge and opportunity has meant that I smiled each time someone asked me how I liked teaching.  Each time I entered the classroom to teach, there was absolutely a feeling that I knew what I was doing and what I didn't know I wanted to learn and I did. I am excited about starting a new semester in just another ten days or so.  

So here is to hoping that the rest of 5777 grows in sweetness and that 2017 manifests some long awaited dreams.  It is comforting to know that with following two calendars, there are two opportunities to reflect on a year just passed and a year about to begin.  

Happy Gregorian New Year and may there be blessings for all of us, 

whatever calendars we follow!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Light Endured: A Hanukkah Reflection

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees defeat of the Greek army. After they cleaned up the mess, tossed out the idols, they found one cask of oil, enough for one day but it would take many more days to make more oil.  They went ahead and lit the Menorah with the single cask and miraculously the Menorah was still burning the next day and would burn such for 8 days. It was enough time to gather and bless more oil.

The story is about faith - lighting the candle not knowing if they could keep it lit, and it is about trust - somehow knowing that things would work out.  As I think about this story, I think about a triumphant, tired, mourning people, because even when there is "victory" in war there is also loss, bloodshed, injury and death.  It must have been hard to realize that there was only one day of oil. They lit the candle anyway.  They would have left expecting to come back to the light out and days before more would be available.

This is not the first story of the Israelites endurance and waiting in the dark.  There was slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon; thousands of years of religiously encouraged persecution by Christians of all kinds; and the Holocaust, an attempt to wipe all Jews and Judaism away.  The Hanukkah story is a story of endurance and the Jewish people are all too familiar with endurance.

Each night the Israelites expected the Menorah lights to be out and yet they were still lit the next day. I imagine that each day there was deep gratitude that the oil lasted and the Menorah stayed lit. Did they breathe a little easier?  Were they in wonder about how it could happen?

Did they then become anxious about what to do if the light went out?  What would happen then? This feeling is familiar to so many of us.  A parent worried about a sick child or a child about an ill parent; those with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, invisible illness; the people in Aleppo, Yemen, and too many other places to list, who live not knowing when the next bomb will fall, when and where the next drone strike will happen. What will happen to me, to my family, to those I love?  Can I hold on until there is more? More questions than answers  - how long, why, must I?  Questions asked into the darkness and answered with silence.

Hanukkah reminds us that yes endurance is possible.  It is possible that there is more in the jar than we know, there is more strength than we knew we had. Lighting the candles, singing the blessings, knowing that you do so with Jews around the world, and as Jews have done for generations, as we remember together that the oil and light endured. The lights reminds all us to hold on to hope, to endure, to remember.

I believe that individually and collectively we need this reminder more than ever.  For those of us who live here in the United States, many of us are fearful of what a Trump presidency means for us, for immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people to name just a few.  Hate is already rising, been given permission to run amok.

Maybe what we need most is to stop worrying about whether or not we will have strength, light, love tomorrow and just sit with the knowledge that we made it through today.  We had enough for today and that will have to be good enough.  Tomorrow we may have more, we may have less, we may even have nothing, we don't know, no one knows.  So the Hanukkah lights remind us to take one day at a time, to add one candle each night, to see how many days we have already made it, and to keep hope and faith that somehow a way will be found for tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Jewish Family Story: Joseph, Mary and Jesus

I preached this sermon on Sunday Dec. 25, 2016, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock.

Reading:  Vanderbilt Professor bring first century context to Christmas Story 

While the Christmas season provides increased opportunities to hear the story of Jesus’ birth, few contemporary versions consider how first-century Gospel readers would have understood the message, according to a Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar.

“I believe that the more we know about the New Testament in its historical period, the more profound the text becomes,” said Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011). “Today’s readers often hear a personal message from the Scriptures, and those personal messages can be enhanced by hearing what the Gospels’ first audiences would have heard: political messages, laugh-out-loud stories and strong connections to the Jewish Scriptures.”

Jesus’ birth and the writing of the Gospels both occurred in the Roman Empire. Levine said that the New Testament writers ask their readers a political question: will they worship the Roman Emperor, who was regarded as divine but who ruled by military force and economic exploitation, or will they be loyal to a Jewish messiah who proclaims that the one who wants to be first must be a servant of all?

Levine said that the Star of Bethlehem, which in the Christmas story leads the Magi to Jesus, is one aspect of the nativity story that has been misunderstood through the years. “The first-century view of astronomy is quite different from ours,” she said. “People back then had no idea of how large or how hot stars are. A star perched directly over a house would incinerate the house, and the entire continent around it. Instead, stars were thought both to be relatively small and to be living beings, like angels.”

Levine, University Professor of New Testament Studies and professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, noted that Matthew injects humor into the story by describing the Magi. “Although people today think of the Magi as wise men, Matthew’s readers may not have thought this,” she said. “To ask about the one born ‘king of the Jews’ in Jerusalem, where King Herod is on the throne, is not a politically astute question. One first-century source, Philo of Alexandria, describes a figure from the Book of Numbers, Balaam, as a Magus (singular of Magi), and Balaam has a donkey who is smarter than he.”

Levine believes that part of the problem with the Christmas story is that it tends to get abstracted from the rest of the New Testament.

“It is read at Christmas and then put away with the holiday decorations until next year,” she said. “People in the first century didn’t read the Gospels in snippets. They sat through an entire reading just as we sit through a movie, and they would remember earlier scenes. For example, when Jesus says, at the Last Supper, ‘This is my body, which is given for you,’ listeners would remember that the baby was placed in a manger, that is, a feeding trough. The symbolism of Jesus as food for his followers would be clear to them.”

Levine encourages people to read all sacred scripture with respect.  “We study it with respect, not only for those who believe the words are divinely inspired, but also with respect for the authors and the audiences who first heard them.” She said that the Bible is meant to be read, to evoke strong emotions and to speak to readers today.

More insights into the first-century context of the Christmas story can be found in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which covers all the books of the New Testament. The book’s co-editor is Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis University.

Media Inquiries: 
Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

A Jewish Family Story:  Joseph, Mary and Jesus


Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah! This year Christmas and Hanukkah overlap with the first night of Hanukkah last night so I thought it would only be right to talk today on Jesus and his family as Israelites, as Jewish people.

Biblical scholarship from the Jesus Seminar that includes Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, books such as The Jewish Jesus by Peter Schafer and Paul the Jew, an edited collection of essays, has focused on understanding Christian Scriptures with a focus on their Jewish origins.  All too often in the history of Christianity and our own UU history, Christian Scriptures have been viewed either as a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures or that the Christian texts supersede the Jewish ones.  Unitarian minister and theologian, Theodore Parker, was noted for his anti-Semitism and his negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

On a personal level, I have been attending Congregation Or Ami, a Reform Jewish congregation in Richmond for the last year and a half.  I have taken an Introduction to Judaism Class and an Introduction to Hebrew.  In addition, one of my teaching jobs is the 8th grade class at Or Ami.

As I have been exploring Judaism, a desire I have had for awhile, I have come to some important decisions. The first is that I have withdrawn as a candidate for UU Ministry and the second is that I have decided to convert to Judaism and will formally begin the process in the new year.  So for this talk it is only appropriate to look at the Christmas stories through the eyes of Judaism.

On the last class of Religious School before Winter Break, I gave the 8th grade a quick summary of the two Nativity stories from Matthew and Luke.  Far too often the two stories get meshed together so we have angels, shepherds and wise men all in one story but in reality, just like Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 with the two stories of Creation, the Nativity stories are each unique written by and for particular communities.  The communities of Matthew and Luke were very different and hence we have stories reflecting the perspectives of the community.

We also have to consider the historical time and context.  The gospels were written after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Pharisees, one of the sects within Judaism, is ascending and creating the Rabbinic Judaism we know today.  There is a quest to redefine Judaism in the wake of the oppression of the Roman Empire, the Destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora of the Jewish people.  When we talk about the communities of the Gospels, they are not yet Christian, they are Jesus followers.  So these early communities were diverse and they were in the midst of a fight between the more Israelite communities around Jerusalem and the more Gentile, Greek and Roman communities that were further out.

These differences come to light in the two Nativity stories. Matthew’s community is Jewish, so in the story, the connections to Jewish history are key.  Matthew begins by tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and most importantly, to King David.  First, the listeners would have been familiar with genealogies as they appear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, which were less concerned about the actual family relations but rather in making important theological points such as King David is the seventh son of Jesse, seven in Hebrew means “sanctified or one set apart.”  Matthew too is making a theological point, that Jesus is in fact the promised Messiah, that he fulfills what the prophets had said.  Matthew in the story, constantly quotes the prophets, such as this quote from Chapter 1 verses 22-23:  “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23)

In Matthew’s story there are no shepherds, no angels singing.  Joseph is important in Matthew’s story as a receiver of dreams, just like Jacob’s favorite son Joseph (and the story of Joseph was the Torah portion for this week).  Matthew has Joseph receive the dream that his family is in danger and to flee to Egypt and when it is safe to return (remembering that Joseph also goes to Egypt where he saves his family from starvation).  Over and over throughout the text, the listener or reader is reminded of earlier stories, of important Israelite leaders and historical moments.  

Now let us turn to the Nativity story in Luke, Luke’s community is a Gentile community, steeped in Hellenistic thought and culture (the very culture that the Maccabees revolted against).  Luke’s story begins with the announcement by an angel to Zechariah, a priest, and his wife of Elizabeth, who is barren, will have a son, John the Baptist, even though both are advanced in age.  Again to the listeners of the story, they would remember Abraham and Sarah and how Sarah also bore a son in her advanced years.  This is also where Mary is visited by an angel.  Here the Nativity narrative is filled with many more details.  There is announcement both to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary, the birth of John before Jesus, a census, the travel to Nazareth, the shepherds, no wise people and Angels singing.  For Luke’s community the story begins with many recognizing the importance Jesus has already, years before his public ministry. Joseph plays a greatly reduced role in this narrative, he receives no dreams, he does not rescue his family from Herod.  He is simply Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father. From the beginning we are told in Luke that Jesus is God’s son.  Mary is the key parent in Luke’s narrative.  Luke gives her the beautiful prayer of the Magnificat beginning with “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  It is Mary who ponders the events of Jesus’ birth and childhood in her heart.  In contrast, Matthew puts Joseph as the central parent, we hear nothing from Mary.  It is Joseph, not Mary who receives the prophesies. In the story of the actual birth there is no census or travel or being turned away at the inn, Matthew ends the birth story with “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)  After this Matthew moves right onto the Magis and the flight to Egypt.  For Luke the birth is announced to shepherds by angels who come to see the child in the manger. Luke then goes into presenting Jesus at the temple on the eighth day for circumcision, where again two prophets praise God upon seeing the baby.  Luke does not give his genealogy until after Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. Luke prioritizes the uniqueness and newness of Jesus, the universality of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus, which would have been something the full members would be familiar with from their own Baptism.  For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment, the answer to the hopes for deliverance, for the fulfillment of the prophecies where once again Israel would be independent and free from oppressive foreign forces.

Both stories stress important elements of Jewish history and practice: the importance of names - Jesus’ name is known before his birth and commanded by G-d; Jesus is the descendent of David, there is listening and obedience to God’s commands whether in dreams or in visitations by angels. Throughout both narratives, despite making different choices about what to include both Matthew and Luke are communicating to their communities by referencing the stories that would have been so familiar to the community.

In our modern age, it is difficult for us to imagine the memorization of text that was so common in the ancient world.  While few could read, many could recite texts from memory and tell the stories.  As Amy-Jill Levine tells us in our reading, the listeners would not just hear part of this story, or a selected reading, edited and divided into a three year lectionary.  The stories of Torah and the Prophets would be familiar, so much so that Matthew and Luke do not have to make the connections explicit.  Matthew does not have to say in the text, hey look Jesus’ father is Joseph and just like Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, who was a great dreamer, Joseph listens and heeds his dreams.  No for the listeners that connection was obvious.

One of my favorite Biblical scholars is John Dominic Crossan.  Crossan tells us in Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”  Too often in our modern world there is a division into camps, the stories must be literally true or inerrant, without error, or the stories are not factually true so therefore they are not important at all.  If I were to offer one critique of my experience of Unitarian Universalism is that all too often the stories of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are read and interpreted as literally true, or that their purpose is to convey facts or history as we understand them today.  This “literal” reading of the text then meets the UU emphasis on reason and rationality, which is a good thing, but then the text is dismissed, seen of being without value, or that it is a nice story, good to pull out a couple of times a year and then for the rest of the year it is put away, much like Amy-Jill Levine states in our reading today.  Much like Evangelical Christians who insist on the literal reading of the text, who will not engage in the possibility that the stories can be filled with Truth, with a capital T, without being literally true, much is missed. When we focus on did it happen, how did it happen, can we even know if it happened that way; we end up missing one, the message of the story which has nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred and two, the beautiful complexity which the authors used to weave their story.

The story of the birth of Jesus, is the story of the birth of a Jewish child, to Jewish parents, who was raised and steeped within both the culture and practices of Judaism.  When time is not taken to hear the stories under the story, we miss so much of what the writers were saying. So this year, this Christmas, this Hanukkah, let us listen for the stories beneath the story.  Let us look at Scripture, yes with reason, but also with creativity and imagination and seek to understand what these stories have to tell us today, what light they can shed in the darkness of our time, what hope they offer.  Let us make them living texts, ones who are both unchanging in the telling and whose meaning changes as the times and world changes.  

The stories of this Jewish family were written to give hope to a people struggling under an oppressive Roman Empire.  They were to give hope to a people who had lost so much.  They gave a way to understand their situation and to hold on to hope even in the darkest of days.  Matthew’s story in particular, reminds us how even children are not spared the cruelty that we humans are capable of inflicting on one another.  As we look in the faces of the families fleeing from Syria, from Yemen and from so many other places filled with war and killing, let us see this Jewish family, on only the words of a dream, fleeing danger and death.  We can imagine Joseph maybe wondering if he was just a little crazy to uproot and move his wife and young son to take a long journey to Egypt, how scared Mary must have been and the trust she had in Joseph to protect her and their child, and for a young child, leaving all the familiar things behind but held safely in the arms of his parents as they ran.

So I invite us in this celebration of Christmas and the celebration of Hanukkah, to look at these texts anew.   I invite us to worry less about whether a lamp of oil burned eight nights instead of one or if Jesus was really conceived by the Holy Spirit, or if Matthew’s version is more accurate than Luke’s version, and reflect instead on what these stories may tell us about today, about our world, about our own lives.  I invite us to peel back what we have been told, or what we think we know of these stories, and hear them anew.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a Joyous and Hope-filled New Year!