Saturday, September 17, 2011

Do You Hear Me Now?

My Dad often told—and retold—tales of growing up
during the Great Depression.
My father was a great raconteur. He could spin a tale better than Garrison Keillor. I feel quite certain that he taught me how to be a storyteller, and that's what I am today, although I choose to write my stories down.
   I grew up listening to his stories about how he rode his horse, Joe, to school, how he was so small in first grade that he played Baby Jesus in the Nativity play, and the best way to raise a baby calf when it's momma wouldn't give milk. But his most memorable tales were, of course, about his tour of duty in the Pacific during World War II.
   Over the years, we heard a lot of the same stories told again and again. At times, I admit, I tuned him out, already knowing the punchline of the joke or the resolution of the drama. But often, if I'd really pay attention, the story would take on new meaning. The saga of a near-miss in battle was really a story about trusting one's instincts. The well-worn tale of why Dad remained a Sergeant, was the story of a man accepting his strengths. I wish I'd listened closer now because I'm sure there were a lot of points I missed. Sometimes it just takes a while for the real meaning to sink in.
  I recently attended a Kabbalah class with my friend, David. No, I'm not converting to Judaism, and I know nothing about Kabbalah. (Nor am I jumping in on the next hip spiritual craze just because Madonna thinks it's cool.) But David invited me to attend, and after doing a little research, Kabbalah sounded intriguing and definitely worth learning more about. Before the class, David warned me that the Rabbi tended to repeat himself a lot. "Sometimes it just feels like he says the same things over and over," he explained. (He neglected to explain that it isn't kosher for a woman to shake the Rabbi's hand...oh well.)
   That morning there were about a dozen people attending Kaballah and Coffee in a very informal classroom. The Rabbi produced H&H bagels—a miracle right up there with the Red Sea parting since the class is held in Atlanta and the nearest H&H is at 94th and Columbus in the Upper West Side. I was a little nervous because it was my first time there, but I knew I wouldn't be called upon—and there was no need to know Hebrew. Like my Buddhist group, everyone's there because we want to learn how to be better people.
   We read the text out loud and it was obtuse, but the Rabbi translated it for us into terms we could grasp. The gist of this lesson was that we think the soul as a higher order than the body, but what Kaballah teaches us is that without the body, the soul could not do its work on Earth. Therefore the body is really of a greater, or at least of equal importance to the soul. Just as food is as important as a human being, because without food, we could not live. And the Rabbi made this point several different ways, using various analogies. A wick can't exist without the oil, although the light emanates from the wick, etc. I saw what David meant about the Rabbi's teaching technique, and it reminded me of a sermon I heard recently at a Baptist church in Knoxville.
   It was Pentecost and the preacher explained the meaning of this feast day. (Catholics call it a feast day, I don't think Baptists do.) He said this was the day the Holy Spirit came down among the apostles, who were hiding out after Jesus died on the cross as a criminal. They were scared they'd be next, but the Holy Spirit came down, kicked their buts and said, "Get out there and preach!" And they did. But the problem was these guys could only speak Aramaic or Greek, and a lot of people didn't understand those languages. So the story goes that the Holy Spirit allowed those who heard them to hear the words in their own native tongue. (BTW, this is the origin of "speaking in tongues.")
  I had forgotten that story (sorry, Sister Brenda) and funny that it would take a Baptist minister and a Rabbi to bring the meaning home for me.
   Often we have to hear stories over and over before we grasp their true meaning in our lives. In the same way, we often come up against the same challenge or emotional ruts many times before we discover the most compassionate or appropriate way to respond. But I've realized that, like my Dad, God is a great raconteur. (And yes, I'm invoking the G-man here.)
   When there's an important lesson to be learned, you can bet God will keep feeding it to you in different ways until you're ready to accept it—until finally, you slap your forehead and say "Ohhhh! Now I get it!" He's good like that. And I've only learned this after being met with the same challenge over and over again with romantic relationships. This week, I finally got it. The lesson was finally delivered in Dolby Stereo, loud and clear. It only took me 30 years to get it, but what the hell—I've always been a late bloomer. But the bigger lesson is this: When themes in one's life recur, it's best to give them a closer look because chances are, it's something you need to learn. In Buddhist practice, that's part of karma. Not sure what term the Kabbalah has for this phenomenon, but I bet the Rabbi could explain it to me in words I'd understand.

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