Saturday, June 18, 2011

A little - all there is, and all you need

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, memoirs

A rabbi and a pastor came into Mitch's life, and, no joke, he was more profoundly changed than if he'd known only one of them. In Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith, we find that the rabbi "came into" his life at birth, and retained a place in his heart even as he drifted from his faith. But when eighty-two-year-old Rabbi Albert Lewis asked Mitch, "Will you do my eulogy?", he "came in" in a much deeper way. They agreed to meet periodically so Mitch could get to know the rabbi on a more human level. Mitch figured on a few months, a few meetings. The meetings went on for eight years.

In the middle of those eight years, Mitch, involved with a charity for the homeless, met a Christian pastor named Henry Covington. He visited him and his ministry to the homeless regularly, trying to figure out if Henry was on the level. If you wanted to find someone the exact opposite of Albert Lewis, Henry Covington is about as close as you could come: black, tall, enormously overweight, a former criminal and drug dealer, a champion commandment-breaker.

I once read that some people come to faith in extreme crisis, and are changed overnight. They have a traumatic birth. For others, finding God is as smooth as putting on a well-fitting glove. I think you can guess which man had which experience. Thinking of Henry, I am reminded of George Müller, a 19th Century leader of the "open brethren", who started out life as a thief. Once he'd had his own jackhammer experience with God, he became one entrusted with millions as he built a series of orphanages in and around Bristol, England. His diary is great reading.

Albert, by contrast, had a more comfortable relationship with God, and like any couple that ages together, he sometimes stormed at the Deity, but they always reconciled. When Mitch was a child, the rabbi seemed like God himself, awesome and imperturbable. Once when asked to speak to the children at a Christian church, a young boy plucked up the boldness to ask, "Where are your horns? I thought all Jews had horns." He invited the boy to come forward and examine his head, removing his yarmulke. After a while, the boy lapsed into embarrassed silence, and he asked, "Yes?" The boy said, "No horns." "Ah."

I have often been troubled at the way we deify our men of God. There seems to be a natural inclination to look, first to a father, then to other authorities, as infallible guides. To discover that nobody is perfect is a frightening blow, and leads to our first life crisis, in the preteen or teen years. Why do kids rebel? They find out that Dad and Mom are not God, and it typically happens just when they've grown to have some confidence in their own opinions. Of course, as Ben Franklin said, "Nature keeps a hard school." Unless we are utter fools, we learn that we are not infallible either. Most of us are lucky enough to reconcile with our parents by then.

Having spent half a life or more running from God, Mitch is drawn back, by the example of these two Men of God, their simple faith, and the comfort and steadiness he learns accompany a life of ordinary faith. Faith may be what we believe, but to others, the only clue is, faith is what we do. To a Jew in particular, faith is worked out in ritual. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition!" To a faithful Christian, ritual takes a back seat to service.

One time, I was trying to comfort a suicidal woman, and she said, "You're just being nice because it is your job." I replied, "It isn't my job, it is what I am, and not because I am some kind of pastor, but because of God in me." I wasn't really a pastor, but she thought I was, and was blind to remonstrance. But when I said, "I care because God cares," she took comfort in that. I'd do miracles for people if I could, but I've discovered that I don't have any miraculous gift. But each of us has the gift of a listening heart, if we're patient enough to use it.

Pastor or rabbi, whether a good speaker or not (Albert and Henry were/are champion sermonizers), it is when they listen that they change lives. Listening is how each of us can change lives. Mitch learned that as he listened to the both of them, and then to a few others who had things to say about both their lives.

Without Henry, Mitch could not have completed the eulogy. We need contrast to see clearly. But the end came, as the end must, when Albert was ninety years old. Mitch buckled down, in a room filled with his notes and recordings and research materials, and wrote without touching any of them. He saw that both these men had, not the great faith we imagine a man of God has to have, but just a little faith. A little faith, well and persistently used, accomplishes much.

No comments: