Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

I had to spend a little time telling you about my Jewish friend M.J.'s Bar Mitzvah. M.J. is a longtime mentor of mine and has been an inspiration to many people both at the University of Missouri and to his community. He had visited Israel this summer with his daughter and his congregation. Upon his return, he was sitting in the living room with some of my friends and somehow in the course of the conversation, he had admitting that he had never been Bar Mitzvah'd because in his day, Reform Jews were trying so hard "not to be Orthodox" that they had temporarily scratched Bar Mitzvahs and had gotten "confirmed" in his synagogue.

Our friend Andy, who is Orthodox, started bringing up the possiblity that this was "doable",--that this was a step he needed to consider simply to affirm his spiritual life as a Jew. As our host (a Quaker turned Episcopalian) said, "Wow, is this a Quaker moment or what?????"

Well, on Saturday, M.J. got to do the "today I am a man" schtick--at age 77. It was quite the impressive affair. The synagogue was packed--both with his friends and fellow synagogue members in Columbia, and a group of about 8 people representing "the Kirksville contingent." His 3 nephews showed up from Colorado and Minnesota. His daughter came from NYC. I felt this was an important bonding day in their life because she, like her mother's side of the family, chose Christianity, and this forged a great spiritual bond in their lives that transcended two religions.

It is even more impressive when you realize M.J. is showing a lot of signs of early dementia, and is at the place in his life where he is at times, "discounted". People don't see who he used to be, they only see who is is now. Those of us close to him have already been grieving the parts of the guy we used to know, who doesn't show up much anymore.

I had been the one who had to be the supporting taskmaster in all this. I found myself having to learn "his lines" so to speak, to encourage him learning them. I was the one who had to pep talk him, yet focus him. His instructor, Mary, was an absolute jewel. She was patient and firm, supportive and tough. Perfect combination!

Oddly enough, Trinity Kirksville played a small role in this. We used Trinity for his practice sessions, and both our priests were great at encouraging him and being fully behind him in a spiritual sense. Both Wallace and Carrol offered plenty of support and often checked in with me on "how's he doing with his Bar Mitzvah stuff?"

I think my take on the day is best summed up in my e-mail to Wallace:

No matter which way my thoughts run about M.J.’s big day, it keeps circling back to that huge non-coincidence that our Old Testament reading for tomorrow, the day after his Bar Mitzvah, is Isaiah 60:1-6:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

From the moment it all came together in that living room, that night that M.J. was talking about his Israel trip, that crystallized into admitting his secret longing that he’d had ever since one of his friend's “retirement age Bar Mitzvah” about 10 years ago, I have felt all along I was witnessing a spiritual destiny deep within M.J. But with that sense came this huge fear on my part that I was too stupid to get out of the way of that destiny.

When I think about that “thick darkness” of the decline of M.J.’s cognition, it, at times, is simply a pit of despair. For at least a decade, but especially in the last 2 years, I’ve spent a good portion of my life protecting and tending that flickering light of M.J.’s brainpower, dealing with the constant reality of “who he is now”, simply out of respect for “the guy I used to know”. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve lain awake, fearing I had been tapped to be the bus driver on a bus that goes to nowhere...or worse yet, a bus destined to go off a cliff. I have been spending these many months watching the darkness starting to engulf that light that is M.J., and raging against the dying of the light, sometimes simply with my force of sheer will, realizing, at best, I am a terrier barking in the dark at a foe which I’m destined to concede defeat. I have feared that when that light finally flickers out, that it will never be seen again—that it simply gets swallowed up into the darkness—that darkness “wins” in the end.

What I got to see today was the absolute reality that this light never really goes away. If you could watch the DVD in my head from today, I would want you to have seen three things—the way his now unreliable brain clicks entirely into another mode when he was reading his Torah portion and his Haftorah portion, the sheer joy that filled the room when he did it, and the way he beamed when he was the center of all this attention! For that moment, he WAS the 13 year old Bar Mitzvah boy who was meant to do this. Even more amazing is the fact that, in some ways, at the time he was destined to do this, he had to do it with both hands tied behind his back. The things he had to learn, to contemplate, to fully understand, is hard enough with all of one’s faculties intact, and when his spiritual destiny tapped him for “his time” it was at a place in his life where he didn’t even have all the tools that used to be in his toolbox.

I have felt all along that it was my job to drive the bus, then stand aside. Yet merely to drive the bus, I had to know the map in my head. I think now about all that work I put into prayers I was never meant to utter, the study I put into what M.J. had to learn in order for him to be bold enough to learn it, for the sole purpose of helping him practice. I have wondered many times if I had lost my mind, spending all this time learning the route to a place where I was only taking him to where he needed to be dropped off. There were times driving this bus that I felt I could hardly get him ON the bus (wearing pants, no less!) let alone take him to his destination.

Even today, I made a point to be “two seats over.” His daughter sat on one side of him, and Andy sat on the other. I was too afraid that if I sat next to him, given his increasing dependence on me, that he would depend on me too much when this was HIS show, and fully capable of running it, to boot. He is just too prone these days to look towards me and capitulate to me on things with which he struggles. For instance, if he loses his glasses, instead of looking for them, he goes straight to me for ME to look for them. I have known all along that part of this destiny was for Andy to feel that he had helped to fulfill M.J.’s “life as a Jew” and for there to be a bond between him and Cathy that bridges two religions. That little voice in my head has told me all along, “Drive the bus, then step aside,” but I could never figure out why I was supposed to go through all this work, all this turmoil for a destination that was not mine.

Tonight, I know. It was to get a ringside seat to see the reality of just HOW the light of the glory of the Lord shines on “all the people”--to fully realize that the light still shines whether or not anyone chooses to look at it. It was for it to become real to me that, ultimately, darkness doesn’t win. The light of this dear man, that light which I have already mourned as “fading into the darkness”--reappeared, if only for a moment. When he read his Torah and Haftorah readings, it was “his old self”--the guy I’ve always known—the guy that spent his life teaching medical students—that did it. Yeah, that light WILL fade from this world—I’m sure of it—but it will still obey the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Energy is neither created, nor destroyed, but is transformed. The power of that transformation is real to me in a way now that I could not understand until today.

I don’t think I’ll ever look at Isaiah 60 quite the same ever again.

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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