Janet Hagberg was the first person who defined the experience for me. I had lived through it, but I didn’t know what to call it. In a book entitled, “The Critical Journey,” Janet called the experience, simply, “The Wall.” My summary goes like this. Many people begin their walk of faith, and everything goes as they expected. Out of genuine conviction, they attend church, learn from the Scriptures, volunteer, serve, give, and become “productive, committed, faithful, Christians” (whatever that exactly means, who knows?). But somewhere along the way things go wrong. Terribly wrong.The orderly, stalwart faith that used to “work” for these true believers becomes a muddled mess. Yes, they once taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, chaperoned the youth group, chaired the Stewardship Committee, and had bullet-proof answers to all questions of faith. But then, all at once or over an extension of time, their faith splintered into a million tiny pieces.The woman, who was taught that living a godly life would protect her marriage, goes through a divorce. The church to which a pastor gave his best years, his heart and soul, fires him because of some petty transgression or because he didn’t go visit a prominent church member who was in the hospital with the gout. A child falls deathly ill and heaven seems silent as a stone, all while the godly parents pray for a miracle. A husband/father dies, leaving behind a young wife and even younger children. An accident leaves the once healthy college student broken and mutilated, physically and spiritually.The circumstances come in variegated form, but the impact is the same. It is more than a crisis of faith, more than theological bump in the road; these are an unraveling that robs people of their confidence and comfort. The once unshakable believer descends downward into the blackness of doubt, what Saint John of the Cross called “the Dark Night of the Soul.” Adding insult to injury, sometimes the only thing the church or we ministerial types can say in those moments is, “Why don’t you pray more? Just believe. Let go and let God. Confess your sin. Try harder.” Not only is this insensitive, asinine advice, it simply won’t work. Those who have hit “The Wall” feel so lost and adrift, so dismantled at their very core, that to keep doing what they were doing – only with more enthusiastic dedication – is impossible.Like a bug striking a windshield, a sledgehammer falling on clods of dirt, or a ball sent through a bay window, “The Wall” breaks faith and people apart. I wish it were different. I wish such pain could be avoided. I wish there was a way to get over, under, or around these types of experiences, but if you live long enough, you will feel your faith being smashed and shattered. The only question left is, “What will come out of the splintered and scattered pieces?”Here is your choice: You can harden your heart and sweep the shards of your faith into the dustpan, giving up on faith and God completely; or you can pick up the broken pieces, with bloody hands and heart, and reassemble faith on the other side of doubt.
This is the first year of the official Sept. 11th Museum and Memorial. Located underground, on the foundation stones of the World Trade Center Towers, it contains more than 10,000 artifacts of the day, 23,000 pictures, and an archive of more than 500 hours of video.Within the collection of artifacts and archives there is also an assembly of audio recordings; final conversations of those in the towers as they called home, spouses, parents, partners, friends, and left voice mails. Rabbi Irwin Kula is responsible for collecting a good many of these conversations.In the days after 9/11 he began seeking out the last words and sentences of anyone he could find who was killed that day. He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. He thought it appropriate for the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.What he discovered was not only that the words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but also this: All the final conversations he had in his collection were about love. Not a single person used his or her last breathe to say, “Kill those bastards for what they have done … Be sure to get revenge … I hate them for what they did to me … Avenge my memory.” Every last word was an “I love you” of some variety.Here is what Rabbi Kula learned, “Then I recognized what the real Torah, the real wisdom…the real experience behind religion is … it is about love … and it’s no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, my community of rabbis, and I think priests, ministers, and monks — we’ve made it a lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is, you lose the experience.” Beautifully said.As I understand the Bible, particularly as I read it through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth, God isn’t much into religion. He’s not interested in carving up the world along tribal or cultic lines. He’s not officiating a spiritual contest, declaring winners and losers in who can most strongly declare how right they are. That’s all much too complicated. Rather, he works to put the world on the right path, on the road to redemption, on the way of love.