Faith: A Series of Personal Essays on Faith & Religious Belief
Author: Rabbi Bloom, Matthew Palmer, Rebecca Edwards
Essay by Rabbi Bloom
I began to define my faith in God and in humanity from reading Genesis 2:9, when God addressed Adam in the Garden of Eden after he had disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. God said quite simply, “Where are you?” This question is what religion is all about, because it is the question that God asks all human beings. Religion is the response to God’s question for all human kind.
I began to be more interested in this question when I discovered that Judaism allows for and nurtures in us the instinct not only to obey Divine Law or the Torah from Sinai, but also to look inward at ourselves. God wants us to question and challenge by learning and penetrating the sacred texts, beginning with the Torah and including the entire Bible. For me, study became the primary vehicle to find out the answer to the question, “Where are you?”
For when I open the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Talmud and I see what the sages have written going back over two thousand years, I know that I am not only reading their words, but I am in a great dialogue with the Eternal One who delights when I peruse, probe and penetrate the multiple meanings of Biblical and Rabbinic texts. This is where my faith in God and in tradition originated. This is the basis from which I enter into the holy of holies of God’s scriptures. It is this journey that comprises the historic covenant relationship that my people have with God.
I also respond to the question, “Where are you?” through the pages of communal and private worship. Judaism is a faith that emerges out of the communal moment of God’s theophany at Sinai where God brought the sacred and beloved law to the Jewish people. It is a covenant relationship which means both God and Israel have responsibilities to uphold their promises to each other. Communal worship services are critical for me not only to lead my congregation in prayer, but also for me to renew myself and my relationship with the Divine.
Even as a rabbi, it is easy to become distracted by the many tasks and demands put upon my daily schedule in helping others. So it is critical to stay centered on maintaining an active spiritual life where private and communal prayer revive and keep me going in the right direction. I see prayer as the platform from which I can speak to God with my own personal questions and concerns. I believe that prayer is not only reading from the prayer book, but it also means singing and meditating and simply sitting in silence. Prayer provides a variety of avenues to reach out and tell God where I am in this world and hope God is listening to me.
My tradition says, “Pray as if everything depended upon God; Act as if everything depended upon you.” This is one of my favorite teachings in Judaism, because it recognizes that human beings need to call upon their inner strength to meet the challenges of life as well as know when to call upon God for strength and guidance. We need both our own conviction and faith in God’s hearing us to live in this world. This proverb also reminds us that we are obligated to care for each other and take action when we see injustice.
Finally, my faith comes from a deep abiding trust in the history of the Jewish people to transcend the many challenges often stemming from misunderstanding and sometimes hatred, which has followed us throughout history. I refer most recently to the Holocaust and to the state of Israel, which represent two ends of the spectrum of Jewish faith. With faith comes hope, and that too has sustained me in difficult times as well as my people throughout Jewish history. When God says, “Where are you?” I feel like I belong to a historic continuum of shared experiences and solidarity with generations in the past who sustained and preserved their Jewish religiosity and passed it down to me. It is a privilege to be a Jew and a great responsibility to pass down the teachings and practices to the next generation.
Thirty years after ordination as a Rabbi has taught me that questioning my faith and questioning the ways of God does not mean doubting God. In fact the beauty of Judaism is that the dialogue with God is ongoing and only strengthens faith. We see this throughout the Torah with Abraham, Moses and even Job who challenged God as he contended with the suffering that God used to test his faith.
I do not have the answers to the questions of life, but I call upon my faith and belief that with God’s presence in my life, I can respond to the needs of my congregation, the Jewish people and fulfill the sacred word of scripture that God gave us long ago.
“Where are you?” I am still working on an answer!
Rabbi Bloom has 27 years of rabbinic experience having served in synagogures across the country—from Florida to California to the Midwest and Deep South, and now here in Hilton Head. Prior to his appointment at Congregation Beth Yam, he was the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shalom in Naples, Florida for 2 years.
Journey with Jesus
Essay By Matthew Palmer
It was a Sunday morning in the summer of 1981. I was seven years old and in a Sunday school class with Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary was an awesome, older grandma type whom I loved a lot. Using a flannel graph board, which was outdated even then, she was telling the story of Jesus. She began talking about heaven and hell and our need to respond to what Jesus did for us on the cross. I remember her eyes lighting up as she talked about the beauty and wonder of heaven. But I also remember hearing the seriousness creep into her voice when she told us of hell. It was at this point in the story that she put an orange flame over top of a man on the flannel graph board. I knew with all my seven-year-old heart what that meant. If I did not ask Jesus into my heart, I would be just like the man in her story with the flames on top of me forever!
Without hesitation, I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. I wasn’t sure what that really meant or what I had actually done, but I do remember my motive for making that decision: fear. Aunt Mary had literally scared the hell out of me!
Later that year, I was baptized. I continued to grow in my faith in a Christian family with my mom and dad always taking my two older sisters and me to church, children’s programs and youth group. I also continued to be taught the stories and the truth of the Bible at home.
So as far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed going to church and looking for ways to love and serve others. Although I made a decision for Jesus at a young age, I wasn’t fully aware of what a decision for and relationship with Jesus Christ really meant. And while the story I heard of God at age seven was true, it didn’t quite seem to be my story. Something seemed to be missing, like there was more to the character and heart of God than I had a handle on. I began to understand that the Christian life, real life, was not just a one-time decision I had made in the past, but a continual journey and relationship with God through Jesus.
Along the way, God has had a way of allowing life’s situations, circumstances and opportunities to shape and refocus me. And now, looking back over my life, I see many contributors to the shaping and forming of my views of God and the Christian life. Reading scripture, seminary, and the writings and teachings of various authors, pastors and teachers have helped me to gain a deeper knowledge of God. Loss of friends and family, trips to the poor in Africa and personal struggles have helped me catch a glimpse of the heart of God.
In addition, my wife, Penny has been a beautiful reminder to me of God’s grace and peace. Her wisdom and faith have allowed me to see God’s faithfulness in my life. Also, my sons Rivers and Wells are constant reminders to me of God’s undeserved love and unconditional acceptance.
The gospel of Christ is a story of grace—a message of hope—and a promise of redemption. Those aspects of God and His plan for you and me are not confined to a decision we may make at an early age, but are gifts of a daily understanding and awareness of His love for us. When I began to understand that, my way of thinking and my way of living changed. When I fully surrendered my life to Christ, my desire to live with attentiveness to God, loving Jesus and serving others really began to grow. God began moving me from a heart of judgment to a heart of compassion. The words from scripture in John 3:30 became a great reminder: “He (Jesus) must increase, and I must decrease.” and also Galatians 2:20: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now lives in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” These words led me to want to extend the same grace, love and mercy that God extends to me. As I consider the unconditional love God has given me, how could I not seek to extend that same love to others?
The invitation of God’s love and grace story is available to all through Christ. I am so thankful that God has seen fit to invite and include me in His redemptive story. I am excited about the next phase of my life with God, family and ministry. I have found this journey with Jesus to be a great and wonderful adventure, full of excitement, hurt, joy, pain, confusion, understanding, confidence, peace and fulfillment…that can’t be found with anyone else.
Matthew Palmer and his wife Penny moved to the area from North Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 2001. They have two sons, Rivers (7) and Wells (5). Matthew serves as the senior pastor of Grace Community Church on Hilton Head Island.?
The Way: An Essay on Spirituality
Essay By Becca Edwards
Religion allows us to connect with a being higher than ourselves and guides us along a spiritual path—whether it is “the way” to God, Mohammed, or the Buddha, or through the teachings of prophets like John Smith or Jesus Christ—just to name a few. Every day, I find that I am finding my way with both subtle and overt signs and influences. Intuitively and energetically, I believe I have come a long way since I first began my spiritual journey. And I also believe I have many, many miles to go. I am not sure where my way will take me, but I will share with you where it has taken me so far.
Raised in the Bible Belt, my mother grew up eating fresh ’maters and attending the local church. Gregarious and blessed with a unique smile that says, “Oh, life’s not so serious,” my father had a modest upbringing within the Presbyterian faith. Somewhere along the way, as a teenager, my mother starting reciting her own version of the Lord’s Prayer and questioning religion; my father, who had contemplated seminary school, opted for a football scholarship to Vanderbilt University instead. Growing up, we did not attend one particular church regularly, so without a definitive religious influence, I was left to find my own way.
I have been to churches, temples, synagogues, ashrams and mosques. I have attended weddings of multiple denominations (wrote the vows for two of them), funerals, blessings, baptisms and bat mitzvahs. I’ve ridden a 40-year-old sacred elephant through the ancient temple of Tiruvannamalai in India, undergone a religious bathing ceremony in Morocco, belted out religious rock in a Unitarian church in rural Virginia, and taken communion at local churches. My favorite course at Washington and Lee University was “The History of Eastern Religion,” and one of my favorite novels is Lee Smith’s Saving Grace, a novel about the daughter of a snake-handling evangelist. In short, I have explored several denominations.
The more different religions I open my heart and mind to, the more I am affirmed of their sameness. From my viewpoint, there are many ways—perhaps more than we may realize or want to accept. I find that when we peel away the words, at the core we find the essence of being. The Hindus speak of bhakti, ahisma and santosha. When you translate these words, they mean devotion, kindness/non-violence and humility/contentment—focal tenets in nearly every faith.
I admit to a time when I lost my way. Maybe I let life get in my way. Or maybe part of the way is straying from it. When I was in my early 30s, I found myself living from a place of fear and anger due to an intense health journey that challenged the life of my third child and my belief system. Yet, when we are lost is often when we are found, and my affinity toward the Buddhist tradition was strengthened during this time.
According to the renowned Buddhist teacher and author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, “Buddhism is a way of finding peace within oneself… it helps us to find the happiness and contentment we seek. Buddhists develop inner peace, kindness and wisdom through their daily practice… They try not to harm others and to live peacefully and gently, working towards the ultimate goal of pure and lasting happiness for all living beings.”
Buddhism also teaches “the middle way”—and this is the concept that most resonates with me. The middle way involves a very conscious existence in which we practice temperance in thoughts and behavior in an effort to achieve equanimity. This approach has been compared to Aristotle’s philosophical construct “the golden mean”—or the space between two extremes, in which one is excessive and the other is deficient.
Just as there is no one way for me, there is no one way to which I try to walk the middle way. I meditate every day. Every day, I recite my life mantra (Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in this world”). I give thanks to my God; I try to be kind to myself and spread kindness. Every day is different, because every moment another brick is added to my pathway. Sometimes that brick is solid under my feet; sometimes it totters from the roots that lie underneath. But I know I need to keep walking. I must continue on my way.
Becca Edwards is a holistic health coach, yoga and Barre instructor, birth doula, writer/blogger and owner of b.e.well and b.e.creative (www.bewellandcreative.com).