Deep Fun: Deeper Sharing by Taryn Strauss

In whom or in what do you put your trust?

As I frame this, I want to make it clear that I support a Palestinian state, and the Palestinian’s right to their land, and at the same time, I seek meaning and salvation in the theological definition of the word “Israel.”

The Old Testament tells of Jacob, a person with a lot of issues- a liar, thief, and manipulator who had cheated his brother out of his inheritance. As the story begins, Jacob is in trouble. On the lam from his brother and his community, he is wandering in the desert, and leaves his own family to go sleep alone. In the middle of the night, he is accosted by a large, strong stranger. They do battle in the darkness, and the desperate struggle continues hour and after hour. Finally, as the first glimmer of dawn comes onto the horizon, Jacob realizes he is beginning to gain the upper hand in the wrestling match. Just as he uses his final efforts to vanquish his muscular opponent, something extraordinary happens.

The being reaches out and lightly touches Jacob’s thigh, and the thigh is instantly pulled out of joint and broken. Now visibly wounded, Jacob then clings to the stranger. He does this not to continue the obviously futile battle-because he is utterly defeated, and now broken- but because he knew now he was in the presence of divinity. So in that first faint light of dawn he pleads with his adversary not to leave before giving him a blessing. The stranger agrees and blesses Jacob, telling him, “Henceforth you will be called Israel, meaning he who has struggled with God.” And Jacob limps off into his future.

There are three meanings of Israel, we know the first, a small area of the Earth’s surface with a brief, tortured history. The second meaning refers to the Jewish people dispersed the world over, with a long and tortured history. But this most basic theological meaning refers to all the people who have struggled with God. This includes people who do not know they are struggling with God, who are in the dark, before receiving their first breaking and their first blessing. It includes those who question whether to continue the struggle.

If you are a humanist who see evidence of God in humanity, well, welcome to the struggle.

Often, in the Bible, one word can be used multiple times, with a different translated meaning each time. One example of this is the word “trust.”

In English, the word “trust” is like the five senses, it is an abstract notion, not something concrete that can be felt or seen with your eyes. But Hebrew tends to be more oriented around concrete tools and objects that can be seen and utilized. And so I will give you each of the meanings when this word is put into use in the Torah, in the Psalms alone.

Trust: to lean onto someone or something.
Trust: “to cling”
Trust: “to know something will happen in the future”
Trust: “to be firm”
??? (chasah strong’s #2620)
Ps 18:2 The LORD [is] my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust. This word has the meaning of “to lean on someone or something”. If you are hiking with a group of your friends and you sprain your ankle, you are going to lean on one of your companions to help you out of the wilderness. God is the one that we lean on when things get tough. We can also lean on our friends and family for support as well.

??? (betach strong’s #982)
Ps 56:4 In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me. This word has the more concrete meaning of “to cling”. A related word, avatiyach (#20) is a melon which clings to the vine. Even though the melon is huge, just as our problems seem to be, the vine is very small. We may not see God but, his is our strength, the one who nourishes us just as the vine nourishes the melon.

???? (yachal strong’s #3176)
Isa 51:5 My righteousness [is] near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the people; the isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust.
This word is usually translated as hope but it does not mean to wonder if something will happen and “hope” it does but, to “know” that something will happen in the future. This passage is saying that the people will know that God’s strength will save them.

??? (aman strong’s #539)
Psa 78:22 Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation
The word aman means to “be firm”. When setting up a tent you always choose “firm” soil to drive in your tent pegs so that when the wind blows, the tent pegs will not be pulled out of the ground collapsing your tent. This word is the verb form of the word “amen”. When we say “amen”, we are literally saying I stand firm on this prayer.

In light of tangible definitions of trust,

I ask you, where do you place your trust? What do you lean on?

What if, what once felt like timeless firm ground, like a something you could really cling to, has become ephemeral, floating in the wind.

My preaching professor from New York, Barbara Lundblad, remembered how her young son had always looked at the twin towers to know what direction to walk. On that day in September when the bright, strikingly blue sky turned to ash Barbara’s wife picked him up from school. He asked his mom, “How will I find my way home now?” Many of us wondered the same thing.

I don’t know if you have noticed, but our old building at Cliff Valley is gone now. Not the memories that were made there, not the peak experiences of wonder, overflowing joy, not sense of a place to feel at home, and not the tears we shared. But where the building was, is now space.

I have heard many of you share how you put your trust into that place, trust as though you were leaning on something grounded, and it held you. I’ve even been noticing other churches logos, and realizing how many of their logos are simply a photo of their building. But not us, not this community. Our logo is our chalice flame, with a phoenix rising out of the flame. Our symbol of this place is not the place itself, not the building, it is a dynamic movement, ready to fly. We just need to establish trust, and find ourselves on firm ground once again.

The Jewish ritual of repentance, turning back, and atonement offers us a path toward trust, towards that firm ground. Back toward not merely hoping but knowing we will be there for each other. But we have to remember our ultimate commitments as a covenanted community.

You know that meme that goes around the internet sometimes, “everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s true, yet
We forget this when we are in conflict, and we just know we are are going to vanquish our opponent with our justified point, our upper hand.
We forget this when someone behaves badly and we feel personally offended.
We forget this when we choose to fight, or make mean jokes, rather than reveal our deepest fears or our shame to each other.
We forget this when we isolate ourselves.

Shame researcher Brene Brown discusses the way we insulate ourselves as a result of our own shame. We are often raised with stories of “us and them,” and told who we can play with and who we cannot. As we age into adults we are already hard-wired emotionally and physically wall ourselves off from “the others.” Brown says, “the truth is, we are the others. Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being “those people” our parents warned us against.”

If you or your family members have never experienced any one of the following issues, this may not apply to you:

-Any mental health diagnosis
-Any stigmatized illness
-domestic violence
-sexual assault
-child abuse
-violent death
-criminal activity or incarceration
-serious debt or bankruptcy
-nonmainstream religious beliefs
-low educational attainment

Statistically, we should all fit in somewhere here. This is not to rank or compare our experiences, but to understand that we are all vulnerable to being judged, and to feeling shame about our life experiences. And, sometimes because we still smart from the pain of being judged, we are all vulnerable to judging and shaming others about their experiences.

Brown’s research on shame generates one major conclusion: That by exercising the empathy muscle, we can build up our shame resilience.

I once took a group of teenagers on a heritage pilgrimage to that Eastward Unitarian Mecca, Boston. There was one 14-year-old boy who had become troubled over the past year. He had transformed from a loving, supportive, hyper boy into a moody, silent teenager who avoided eye contact with every single person, most of all his parents, who had divorced and were facing mental health and financial struggles. His grades had plummeted. Admittedly, I had designed much of the trip to help him feel safe enough to come out of his protective shell, and to come alive again. Each night, we held vespers in the Historic Eliot-Pickett house, an old-colonial style boarding house for UUs.

We lit contraband candles and turned all the lights out, and we asked each other deep questions, like, what is your greatest desire for your life? What is your disappointment? We sang songs in the darkness, and each night, this particular boy stayed quiet.

By the third day of our trip, I was becoming angry with him, just like his parents and teachers had become. His lackluster participation was so frustrating! He was sabotaging our experience, darnit he was making it less safe for others to share! So on the third night, I removed the option to “pass.” I said everyone had to say something. The question that night was, what are you afraid of? Everyone shared their answer. Some people cried, and hugged, and then it came time for his turn.

We waited. The moments ticked by. It was already 10:30pm, and we were tired after a long day. I was determined to wait him out, no matter what it took.
I don’t even know how much time passed, and finally, he spoke, mumbling. “People seem to want me to do things, to say things, and to know things. And I never know what to say. I don’t know what to do. And I don’t know anything.” He was crying, silently. That was all.

But the entire group changed. There had been a breaking, and a blessing. He leaned on them, and they held him. That night, I had to check up on his room multiple times, because all the kids had piled into it. I walked in at midnight and he was on the floor, laughing, while the rest of the kids were sprawled around the room like octopi, all arms and legs, talking too loud and giggling into the night.

I’m not saying we should lay all our shame bare for each other, but I am saying you find a few people with whom you can. Receive their empathy, and give it freely. You will miss opportunities to do this right, we all will. And you can try again.

Like any strong foundation, trust is built carefully, brick by brick, when we push through selfishness and stay for a few minutes in the discomfort of someone else’s pain. It becomes the vine we cling to, nourishing us when we don’t know where else to go, or where to begin. Maybe you, like Jacob, are struggling in the darkness, and just like that, something in you breaks. And instead of giving up or running away, you lean in, and ask for a blessing. The blessing you receive is the gift of empathy, of truly sharing your life and affirming someone else’s journey.

Stand firm on this prayer that we will not turn from someone’s pain, and we will stay true to our own pain, that though we will fail by the gift of our imperfection, when something breaks in us, we will look to each other to receive our blessing.