Wisdom on the Journey

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This morning our Scripture readings are drawn from John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles as we continue in this Easter Season.  These stories speak of events that occurred after the Resurrection of Jesus, stories that help expand  our understanding about the early followers of Christ.  In John’s Gospel, we are told of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as they are out fishing once again, likely having returned to the work they had known before they began their travels with him.  The story in Acts is of the conversion of Saul, later called Paul and the important moment in his life that leads to his many years of travel to share the story of Christ with people far beyond where Jesus himself journeyed as well as to his important outreach to the Gentiles.   Let us pray,   Everloving God, you accompany us on the paths of our lives and sometimes, you inspire and yes, challenge us to reimagine how we might best live in relationship with you and as followers of Christ.  Help us to be open to the signs, to the sound of your voice, and to the times when you beckon us forward in faith and hope.  Amen.

            Most of us are very familiar with our story from Acts today  of Paul’s conversion.  It is always interesting to consider the stories of people who changed the direction of their lives for some reason or who began to ask new and important questions about long held beliefs because of what they encounter on the journey. What is it that leads people to new ways of thinking and, at times, to new ways of living? Sometimes, we encounter a powerful experience or a person who challenges what we’ve always believed.  Some of us decide to weave that into the fabric of our lives and expand our ways of considering this issue. For others, sometimes those moments only serve to solidify the beliefs we have long embraced.  What makes the difference in someone’s heart or mind?  What finally wakes any of us to new ways of thinking? 

            Just last week, Rabbi Harold Kushner died at the age of 88.  His own experiences with suffering as he watched his son, Aaron, deal with a debilitating illness and a difficult death at the age of 14,  led him to write the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which became a bestseller.  I imagine many of you have read it at some point or considered what that title meant in your own life.  As writer from NPR, wrote in a tribute to him, “Rabbi Harold Kushner never strayed from answering life’s most vexing questions about loss, goodness and God, and by doing so, brought comfort to people across the world.” Over time, he published 14 books which continued to explore questions of God, spirituality, suffering and our view of the world and ourselves.

After watching his son struggle with an incurable and degenerative condition that aged his body rapidly, he found himself struggling with the ultimate questions of life.  He was a trained Rabbi who spent years leading a Congregation outside of Boston and yet his own experience led him as one writer said, “to look to the Bible to boldly confront issues of suffering, fairness and the role of an omnipotent God — a task that many have ventured to explain but very few have answered as effectively and gracefully as him.” (NPR) He wondered,  “I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but I can only assume that some natural laws which we don’t understand are at work. I cannot believe that God ‘sends’ illness to a specific person for a specific reason.” Kushner continued, “‘What did I do to deserve this?’ is an understandable outcry from a sick and suffering person, but it is really the wrong question. Being sick or being healthy is not a matter of what God decides that we deserve. The better question is, ‘If this has happened to me, what do I do now, and who is there to help me do it?’”

I know people who have truly struggled with some of the ideas that Rabbi Kushner set forth in his books, while for others, his words found deep resonance. Through his own lens as a Rabbi, he worked to authentically and honestly explore deep and important questions that troubled him, knowing that others might find his writing helpful as well. He wrote, “God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness,”  Kushner’s work, clearly informed by a Jewish theology, spoke to readers of all  religions. His other writings also grappled with many of life’s most difficult questions about goodness, failure and purpose.

After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Kushner’s meditation on Psalm 23 became a best-seller, offering guidance on how to find faith and courage in the midst of unbearable tragedy. “Much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us. But we can always control how we respond to what happens to us,” he wrote. “If we cannot choose to be lucky, to be talented, to be loved, we can choose to be grateful, to be content with who we are and what we have, and to act accordingly.”

In an interview  in 2010, Kushner admitted he felt conflicted that When Bad Things Happen to Good People continued to draw new readers. “I feel just a little bit conflicted about the fact that it continues to resonate, because it means there are more people confronting new problems of suffering,” he said. “There’s always a fresh supply of grieving people asking, ‘Where was God when I needed him most?’”

He was once asked whether his relationship with God has evolved with age, and Kushner, who was 74 at the time, said no. “My sense is, God and I came to an accommodation with each other a couple of decades ago, where he’s gotten used to the things I’m not capable of, and I’ve come to terms with things he’s not capable of,” he said. “And we still care very much about each other.”  (NPR, Julianna Kim, April 29, 2023) Essentially, Kushner’s books offered his belief to readers that bad things happen to good people because God is endowed with unlimited love and justice but exercises only finite power to prevent evil.  For those who believe that God’s power is without limits, this is a difficult idea to embrace.  For him, this was the answer to the universal question of how a loving God could allow or would allow such suffering.  He explained, “It becomes much easier to take God seriously as the source of moral values if we don’t hold Him responsible for all the unfair things that happen in the world.”

Another of his titles, “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” was called a “useful spiritual survival manual” as it spoke to the questions many encounter in their lives when, despite having realized many of life’s goals, they are still seeking meaning and purpose.  “Drawing on the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, it suggests that people need to feel that their lives make a difference to the world,” he wrote. “We are not afraid of dying so much as of not having lived.” 

            Over time, in his writings and in interviews, he shared wonderful thoughts that spoke to people’s lived experiences.  He said,  “Forgiveness is a favor we do for ourselves, not a favor we do to the other party,” and, “If we hold our friends to a standard of perfection, or if they do that to us, we will end up far lonelier than we want to be.”

“People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or good boyfriends get them as a result of praying,” he wrote. “But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.”

            When we consider the story of Paul and his conversion which led him to spend the rest of his life teaching and preaching about Jesus, we understand that he also grappled with life’s essential questions.  He sought to bring deeper meaning through faith to the many communities he visited in his travels as he too put into writing his best understanding of the Gospel of love and peace that Jesus had preached.  I certainly believe that life brings us many important questions and there are not always easy answers.  Perhaps our challenge is to live with the questions, or as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves” …while being open to a faith that informs these questions which we hope may ultimately  lead us to deeper wisdom, deeper meaning and greater hope.

(NYT Obituary, April 28, 2023, Sam Roberts)


NPR Tribute, April 29, 2023, Julianna Kim.

NYT Obit, April 28, 2023, Sam Roberts

(Among Rabbi Kushner’s other books are “How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness” (1997), “Living a Life That Matters” (2001) and “The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm” (2003).)