“I can’t go.”
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“I just can’t go, that’s all.” Channa, my wife, held my eye.
I was dressed up, and the children were, too. The children hovered near the door. It was Rosh Hashanah—as Jews, our New Year’s Day. We needed to drive to Portland, Maine, for services, one hour distant, and, as sometimes was the case, we were running late.
Channa hadn’t dressed; she was still in her robe.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“It’s not that. I just can’t….”
“Talk to me a minute.”
She turned and strode from the play room, where we were grouped, back into the living room. Watching her retreat, I knew the posture of that walk. Whatever the trouble was, it was big.
“Children, you get in the car. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Rosalind, our youngest, wanted to know.
“I don’t know. I’m sure everything will be all right.” I smiled at them. “Now you go.” James, our second oldest, took over and herded his siblings out the door.
When I reached the living room, Channa’s face was pinched. “I can’t do it. I really can’t bear to be there.”
“Well, all right.”
“I can’t go, Dikkon. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t.”
“Channa, it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
“But I don’t want to leave you….”
“You go. I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure?”
“You go. You want to go, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“And the children want to go.”
“Not without their mother.”
Her stiffness disappeared, she slumped. “I’m so confused.”
I held her shoulders, looked into her eyes, which skittered back to mine and away. “Are you really all right? What is it? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know!” It came out as wail. “I don’t know what’s happening, Dikkon. All I know is that I can’t go. You go. You and the children go.”
“What will you do? If I go with the children, will you be all right?”
She took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ll take the Siddur down to our beach, and I’ll read the service. I’ll—I don’t know—I’ll pray.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
Now she looked in my eyes. “Yes.” She made a hesitant smile. “Yes. At least the beach will be the way God made it.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” I said this more as a question than as a statement.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Is it terrible for you?”
“I like being at services, and I’ll miss you. But, no, not terrible. You’re certain this is what you want?”
“I can’t explain it better. I just can’t bear to go.”
“I love you. I’m going.”
“Have a…I guess, a good time on the beach.”
We hesitated to part, kissed, and I left.
The children and I made our peace with Channa’s absence while we drove. We learned how to respond when commiserated by our Jewish friends about Channa’s absence during the service.
Our Reform congregation was trying that year to perfect an ideal introduced one year before, also at Rosh Hashanah service. Some in our congregation had grown sensitive about male pronouns for God, and our rabbi was hell-bent on addressing their concern.
So, whenever we came to God’s name during prayers, the rabbi had instructed that we should, each one of us, merely say out loud the name that meant the most to us personally, and then go on with the prayer.
Jewish prayers are beautiful. The Hebrew is fine-tuned almost to musical exactitude, and our tunefulness and cadence is precise. It is a lovely experience, particularly at High Holy Day services (of which Rosh Hashanah is one), to be swept along on the prayers. However, this year, as had been the case the previous year, our prayers were Babel.
The name of God is often invoked during prayers—they are, after all, addressed to Him—but each time His name came up, we heard a babble of –
Holy One…all at the same time.
…and then the prayer continued in Hebrew.
I was glad Channa wasn’t there.
When we humans built the Tower of Babel to challenge the Lord, empowered by our own self-importance, the Lord slapped us down by separating our unified speech into languages. We could no longer communicate. Our words became jabber.
Later, when we Jews saw Peter and the apostles emerge from the Upper Room at Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord gave us grace. Though we had different languages, to our amazement, suddenly we could understand one another. We could communicate.
Our godly words were shared.
During the 2,000 years since, those who have had ears to hear have gloried at the Lord’s gift to us. The Lord’s gift to us is truth, for us to hear.
If you missed Part One, please click on the image below before reading Part Two.
The salesman repeated his question to the lawyer, a question about receiving an answer to prayer. “But how do you know?”
“You don’t, by intellect. If you stick with intellect, there’s never any real knowing, really. Secularists do that. They’re all about statutes. Christians are case law. For us, it’s not what does the law say, it’s what does it mean? What is its impact in my life?”
“How do you figure it out?”
The lawyer thought for a minute. He sat back in his chair and looked at the portrait of the man who baptized Jesus. Then he told a story.
“Once, for my sins, I was elected as a delegate to a national Catholic brotherhood convention, and we had some very weighty matters to discuss and to resolve.” He watched the salesman. The salesman nodded.
“You’ve got to know that today there is much debate within the church concerning how to make the monastic life more relevant to the modern day. We’re not getting recruits like we used to. And not just monasticism, the church in general. The priestly life. I’m a layman, of course, but I had been outspoken about my opinion, and that’s why I was elected. We went to Texas. It was winter up here, but it was dry and warm in Texas. We were in Texas for a week.”
The lawyer shifted in his chair. He seemed to wonder how much detail to present. He continued, “My thought was—still is—that you don’t gain recruits by trying to make the church fit the world. It’s the other way round. You stand on the principles that have brought you here, and you attract recruits by your rectitude, not by your accommodation.”
Any sign of conservative thinking, religious or otherwise, suited the salesman, and he calmed. He smiled at the lawyer to show that they were brothers.
“That was my position,” the lawyer continued, “and there were others who supported me, but we were a minority. I hadn’t wanted to go to Texas for a week to be a minority. One of my failings is pride. I was angry about our status and the lack of any prospect that my idea would prevail. And what was worse, I saw that it had been that way from the beginning of the meeting. So I went one day near the end of our stay out into the Texas desert, which was all around us at that retreat center, and I remained out there all day. I missed meetings. I prayed.”
“There’s something about the desert and prayer….”
“Well, yes, but this was just me.” The lawyer held the salesman’s eye. “We were all tired by this time. We had worked very hard and for very long hours, and I particularly was tired and frustrated and angry. I prayed to God, ‘Why did you bring me here just to be defeated? What’s the use? They’re going to do it their way anyway.’ I prayed very hard in this way. I was in an area that was dry and scrubby with tall trees around its edges, and I was alone, and the sun was warm, and I was tired. I had found a place where I could sit comfortably, and I prayed as hard as I could to understand why I was there in Texas at that meeting. And then, you know, I fell asleep.”
The salesman remained silent.
“There was this very beautiful green bird at the top of one of the trees surrounding me. In my dream. The bird was absolutely the most beautiful bird I had ever seen, and I was fascinated by his being green, which is a color I had never seen on a bird. In my dream, I was riveted on that bird. And a voice came from the bird and explained to me that he had wanted me in Texas for our meeting for the very purpose of expressing a minority view.”
“The bird said that?”
“Yes, and I was so fascinated by the bird I realized I should wake up and see him with my waking eyes…you know how it is when you’re dreaming and you know it.”
“Well…so I did open my eyes, and I saw the bird as I was opening them, just for a second, and then he vanished.”
The salesman didn’t know what to say, so he concentrated on the external. “A green bird? I didn’t know birds can be green.”
“I don’t think they can.”
Between the lawyer and the salesman there descended a long silence. It was the lawyer who broke it.
“It was God. He responded to my prayer.”
The salesman bowed his head as one who beholds the Law and the Prophets. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Then you’ll know.” The lawyer spoke quietly. “Not that you’ll know. It’s that everything else—all the other choices—will be eliminated…that’s what will happen. And whatever’s left will be the right course. That’s how you’ll know.”
“No green bird for me?”
The lawyer smiled. “Only I get the green bird. I’ve never heard of him else. But the thing is this. God doesn’t lay it all out, step by step; He wants us to work at it. But what He does is—here is what He does—He eliminates the byways which are dead ends.”
“And then the green bird flies by.”
“I can see him still, you know. Quite beautiful.”
There was silence in the room.
The salesman said, “I suppose we are not given challenges beyond our capacity to endure.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe it because St. Paul said it. But do I believe it? I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re going ahead with our plan, my wife and I. It’s the right thing to do.”
“So your prayer was answered?”
Suddenly, the salesman laughed and stood up to go. “Tweet, tweet.”
The lawyer followed the salesman outside to his car. The man enjoyed getting outside for a moment, seeing the sky, feeling the weather. The salesman opened the driver’s door and stood with his arms crossed on its top. He allowed his trouble to show on his face.
“God does provide, you know,” the lawyer offered, comfortingly. “He’s always watching. Up there somewhere.”
“Supposing you were wrong about this office, opening it?”
“Then I didn’t understand what He was telling me.”
“I’m afraid to know. If I ask Him for help, and I don’t like the answer, what then?”
“Is it better not to ask?”
“Well….” The salesman smiled. “But it’s better to get the answer I want.”
“Here’s what I’ve learned in my life. Life isn’t about us. That’s pretty simple. I’ve seen a whole lot of problems in my days, and quite a few of the problems would not have occurred in the first place if the people had just known that one little thing. Life isn’t about us.”
“Thanks for being here.” The salesman sat in the car and started his engine.
“I’ll pray for you,” the lawyer said through the driver’s window.
“Wait. I never told you what our trouble is about.”
“Doesn’t matter. I used to pray about the details. Now I don’t, so much. I pray to be visited by the Holy Spirit. That’s what I’ll pray for you and your wife.”
As the salesman drove away, he understood he was grateful for that extra prayer assist that would come his way. So he prayed too: “Thank you, Lord. I won’t interrogate. You tell me. You steered me here for this talk. Steer me otherwise too.”
The lawyer went back into his office to attempt solutions for men and women who were, frequently, unprayerful.
Overhead, the green bird turned in flight and set off on a different mission.