Any journey in faith is always an embracing of a very big "what if...". Many of the "what ifs" of the world's religions suggest answers to questions about meaning and purpose within the cycle of life. What if we were created with a purpose? What if the only moment is this moment? What if we will be resurrected when we die? What if we loved all people as if they were our sisters and brothers? What if we spent our energy throughout our lives building the kingdom of heaven on earth?
The High Holy Days changed how I understand the cycle of life forever. I was in seminary. I was learning Hebrew. I was NOT calling the Hebrew Scriptures the Old Testament and so I was feeling a bit out of place among my Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist classmates. I began attending sabbath services at synagogues wherever I could find them. And then came the High Holy Days. I had a fresh brain full of a beautiful new language and I went to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services (after some serious work to get tickets, but that is another story.) The services were so intensely meaningful to me that they changed how I saw ministry, faith, life and death. So year after year I kept going, and if I couldn't go because I was a minister of a congregation I hosted a UU variation on the services.
I think back on all the High Holy Day services I have attended and the variations on them which I have led, and they each serve as a beacon to my better understanding of the intricacies of the phases of life. The High Holy Days are the time for us to look back on what has become of our lives including that which we could control and that which was beyond our control. To borrow from a different tradition, the High Holy Days are a great time for learning the lessons of serenity: accepting the things we can't change, courageously working to change what we can, and becoming wise to the difference between the two. What if we can do it better next year?
I consider this some powerful philosophical and spiritual stuff and I believe it stands in stark contrast to the New Year's observances of December 31 and January 1. When the celebration of a new year is removed from spiritual concerns we seem to find a way to make it about ourselves and not our better selves.
A new year becomes about my house being de-cluttered, about my weight, about my goals, my stuff, my vanity, more of my my my crap. But when the new year is part of a spiritual belief, part of ritual, part of an understanding of oneself in relation to others the focus becomes something beyond my self-interest and my control issues. For me the High Holy Days are about how life works and how it changes depending on where we stand on our lifeline and with whom we stand.
As a young woman, the prayers, rituals, and readings of the High Holy Days taught me the humility to face my own responsibility in relationships needing reconciliation. As a mother who lost a child in pregnancy I learned to think of the cycle of death as a natural part of life and to be observed solemnly but hopefully every year keeping the love for those we have lost alive. As a woman of a unique faith journey (raised Unitarian Universalist by an atheist and a Methodist, attended Presbyterian seminary, being spiritually Jewish and denominationally UU) I was reminded annually that we are all responsible for our own convictions, hopes, and disappointments and how we will allow them to shape what we understand as Truth.
The past three years have been, without exaggeration or maudlin pouting, the worst of my life. But the lessons of Rosh Hashanah are that some years are just like that. Ever notice how the iPod shuffle seems to favor some albums over others? Ever hit five red lights in a row on a stretch when you normally just get one or two? It happens. Life is benign. There will be tragedy. There will be wild success. We have control over some of it but almost always less than we think. What we do have control over year in and out is how we will be with others. How we will get up and brush ourselves off. How we will honor those we have loved and lost. How we will forgive and ask for forgiveness.
We begin Rosh Hashanah again today. I am not going to any services this year. The Unitarian Universalist churches in town chose not to observe it and it has been too emotional a year in the Book of Life for me to trust myself to be surrounded by strangers in a Jewish community, even though they are always welcoming. I prefer not to sob on strangers. So I am asking my New Year's "what ifs" here.
The year I look back on - I lived in 28 places in the past 395 days. I have not said "Thank You" enough. I have said "I'm sorry" at the wrong times. I have worked for reconciliation in the wrong ways and sometimes for the wrong reasons. I have some tears to shed as I reflect on the past but what if I can do it better? What if I can receive love more willingly? What if I can hear a person's heart in spite of their garbled words? What if I have the power to make a difference in spite of my vast limitations?
This year has been abundant in blessings and signs of hope. I have been written in the Book of Life day after day. I have seen beautiful people begin their lives. I have been able to say goodbye to those who lived full lives and rest peacefully. I have watched my children blossom. I have had the blessings of living parents. I have been embraced by wondrous friends and loved by a huge extended family. I now have a place to live for a more extended stay. What if that is more than enough?
Three years of loss but this is the beginning of a fourth year. My Florida relatives swear the bad streak always ends at three and they have known more tragedy than can be numbered. What if they are right?
I stand in this place - mid-life, going back to school, mom of kids who are growing in independence and wisdom, daughter of parents finding their way into senior years, a divorcing woman - and I wait for the sun to set and the New Year to start, I am content. I am at peace. I have reconciliation to build and dreams to pursue and I am grateful for the days of life in which I get the opportunity to move forward in my journey.
But I didn't write this for me. As the New Year begins, I was also thinking of you because that is what all those High Holy Days services taught me to do: stand on your spot in the life cycle and pay attention to everyone around you. They might need a hand. If your last year has been peachy, maybe you could send this along to someone who has been tripping along with me in the briar patch. (We often can't see each other in there, you know?)
A blessing for Rosh Hashanah:
May your new year be sweet, my friend.
May your pain be brief and may it have a purpose you can grasp.
May your healing come with smiles and wisdom.
May your opportunities be well-marked so you do not pass them by.
May your shame fade in the dusk of every day.
May the love you give and the love you encounter be abundant.
May you learn how to build bridges of reconciliation and hope.
May you trust and be trusted.
May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life so that we may meet on the path this year
Happy New Year or l'shana tova.