Sunday, October 28, 2012

How can I keep from singing

Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel (
I was reading Elie Weisel’s novel, The Gates of the Forest, in the summer of 1999, well before the terrorist attack on 9/11 that propelled America down the road of retaliation. That August I served as guest preacher at a Minneapolis church where I offered words that may be even more appropriate now than they were then. The sermon below, How can I keep from singing, was based on the following readings:

Paul's letter to the Romans  12: 21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Contemporary reading from The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel:

In Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Gates of the Forest, Gregor, a survivor of the Holocaust, is living in Paris.  A friend has persuaded him to visit the Rabbi.  After some intense discussion about God’s role in the Holocaust, the Rabbi asks Gregor what he expects from him.

“Rabbi,” he said, “you asked me what I expected of you, and I said I expected nothing.  I was mistaken.  Make me able to cry.”

The Rabbi shook his head, “That’s not enough.  I shall teach you to sing.  Grown people don’t cry; beggars don’t cry.”

The Rabbi added, “Crying is for children.  Are you still a child, and is your life a child’s dream?  No, crying’s no use. You must sing.”

“And you, Rabbi?  What do you expect of me?”


And when Gregor started to protest, the Rabbi added, “Jacob wrestled with the angel all night and overcame him.  But the angel implored him:  Let me go, dawn is approaching.  Jacob let him go; to show his gratitude, the angel brought him a ladder.  Bring me this ladder.”

“Which one of us is Jacob?” asked Gregor.  “And which the angel?”

“I don’t know,” said the Rabbi with a friendly wink.  “Do you?

Gregor got up and the Rabbi took him to the door.

“Promise to come back,” he said, holding out his hand.

“I’ll come back.”

“Will you come to our celebrations?”


How can I keep from singing

It may seem odd to bring together a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans about love and not returning evil for evil with a reading from holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Gates of the Forest. The holocaust is a symbol of evil that for most of us remains beyond our powers of comprehension. How can we ever hope to overcome such evil with good?

I read The Gates of the Forest for the first time a couple of weeks ago. For years I had avoided reading Wiesel’s works and other major holocaust literature because I was afraid. I feared I would be overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering and be swallowed up by despair. I was not. Out of the depth and breadth of his soul, Wiesel’s words overcome the evil of the holocaust. As someone else has remarked, The Gates of the Forest is “shot through with a strange humor of forgiveness.”

When the novel begins, Gregor, a young partisan has been left alone, hiding in a cave during the war. His father promised to return in three days, but three days have passed, and Gregor has stopped counting. I won’t forget Gregor’s thoughts as from his hiding place he sees the clouds hovering over the village below: “They were not clouds properly speaking, but Jews driven from their homes and transformed into clouds. In this disguise they were able to return to their homes where strangers now lived.”

To Gregor, on clear nights the stars in the heavens were Jewish children who had died in Hitler’s ovens.

It is true what they say about Elie Wiesel, also known as the Great Reminder: “He does not describe, he casts a spell.” I was caught in that spell as I read the effect on first Gregor and then his companions, when in their various hiding places, they gradually discovered it was the intent of their persecutors to completely annihilate the Jewish people.

The enormity of it.

If there has been a paradigm shift in theological understanding since the holocaust, it is the realization among a few at least that our perception of reality depends on where we stand. It seems obvious now, does it not, that those with power see reality differently from those without power?

Reading The Gates of the Forest altered my perception of reality in all experiences of time, backward, forward, and in this present moment. I’ve not yet integrated the force of the evil it reveals or the strength demonstrated by the survivors of the holocaust to continue to live with hope and love and miraculously, forgiveness.

We know in our own country, anti-Semitism continues to flare up here and there in hatred and vilification of innocent people. It did not end with the holocaust. What must it do to the children? Inevitably, they must learn about the holocaust- and then, too often, experience firsthand the cruelty of irrational hatred. In bewilderment, just as Gregor and his companions did, they must cry out, “What have we done that was so wrong?”

Thus, those who would persecute the innocent continue to inflict psychic wounds even on those too young to protect themselves.

I met such a psychically wounded child nearly 20 years ago on the campus of Mankato State University where he and I were both students;  I was a non-traditional student in my 30s, married, and the mother of two children. He was probably right out of high school. He was in some of my classes. He may have been drawn to me by comments I made in our class discussions - I don’t know. I was a Unitarian at the time, not nominally Christian, and I had a tendency to be outspoken, especially when the topic of bigotry arose. In any case, the young man began to follow me around as the weeks elapsed.

This was the 70s,and at Mankato, we were still feeling repercussions from the student revolution of the 60s. There were occasional bomb threats. Students wore outlandish costumes. But this young man stood out even in that setting. He favored military uniforms, often decorated with Nazi symbols. On one occasion, he confided that he was Jewish. He observed that the Jews had been the underdogs, and he added, “I choose to identify with the Nazis because they had power.”

On another occasion, he told me he had guns stockpiled in his small apartment. I can’t remember my earlier responses to his remarks. I do remember noticing the fineness and delicacy of his features. And that his eyes were clear, and he had a gentle face.

One afternoon, my young friend sat down across from me at my table in the student union. Once again, he began describing the arsenal he maintained in his apartment. I don’t know what prompted my words to him that day. It could’ve been the impatience of a mother who had heard about enough nonsense. I looked him in the eye, and said, “When are you going to stop trying to impress me and admit that you’re just a nice young man?”

He stood up, walked around the table and bent over to kiss me gently on the cheek. When I ran into him a few days later, he told me he got rid of his guns. I noticed as time passed that his style of clothing changed, and I even recall seeing him around campus in a neat blue suit, white shirt, and tie. One day he introduced me to the young woman who had become his fiancée.

Once in awhile over the years, I’ve had occasion to remember him, always with affection, as a bright young man with a sweet face, who only needed a brief acknowledgment of his humanity to be who he really was at heart.

I remembered him after the shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. My son Steve lived in Milwaukee at the time, and he and I were on the phone discussing the horror of the Columbine incident. It was one of those moments, when I said, “Son, did I ever tell you about...”

And I told him about the young Jewish student who had forever touched my life at Mankato.

There are many among us, I think, who would benefit from a brief acknowledgment of their humanity, an acknowledgment that opens the door for love to overcome the nightmare of alienation.

Several years after the incident in Mankato, where I majored in English, with a concentration in writing, I took a part-time job as a receptionist at an adult residential mental health facility; the job allowed me to contribute to the family income while trying my hand at freelance writing.  From my desk in the front lobby, I had the opportunity to visit with many of the residents and develop relationships of trust with them. My hours during the week were from 5-9 p.m. One evening as I walked through the front entrance I saw a drama unfolding. A young male resident with whom I had become friends and a male staff member were circling each other, fists drawn. The administrator stood helplessly by.

I walked over to the main desk and told the receptionist on duty to stay there. I picked up an empty coffee cup and walked to a spot where the young man could see me. I lifted the cup up high and called his name. When he glanced toward me, I said, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

In that moment, the trust he and I had established held. An expression of relief swept over his face. His arms went down. He glanced at his opponent as if to say, “I don’t have time for you.” And he and I walked together into the cafeteria.

On my way past her, the administrator whispered, “Thanks.”

At coffee that evening in the cafeteria, the young man confided what his therapist told him that day. She said that deep down in his heart, there was a rosebud, which was now tightly closed, but in time it would unfold, and he would be healed and whole. His face was radiant as he shared this with me.

I never learned what triggered the incident I interrupted that evening. I suspect the therapist’s words had so filled the young man with hope he became agitated and unable to maintain his self control. To be safe and healed and whole is what we all long for, I believe. Whether we are Jew or Christian, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, young or old; it matters not.

It has been said that in our lifetimes we human beings move from the age of innocence to the age of experience when we can sometimes get lost in that too prevalent state of cynicism and despair where from one day to the next a primary motivation is to get even with those who have hurt us. We Minnesotans are yet in the developmental age of experience when, in reference to Gov. Jesse Ventura’s former life as a professional wrestler, we display bumper stickers that read, “My governor can beat up your governor.”

The third age to which human beings can aspire is the age of wisdom. It is the same wisdom that teaches us to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. I don’t think any of us progresses neatly from one stage to the next, rather we continue to visit each of the three from time to time and hopefully as we mature, we most often choose the way of wisdom.

In its concluding chapters, The Gates of the Forest draws us toward the age of wisdom. Gregor has come to see the Rabbi in search of answers. They engage in a prolonged and intense discussion in which Gregor wants the Rabbi to acknowledge that in the holocaust God has abandoned the Jewish people.

To a certain extent the Rabbi acknowledges this harsh reality but in his next words to Gregor, we know that he understands it was not God who abandoned the Jewish people, it was other human beings who abandoned them: “Who says, that power comes from a shout, an outcry rather than from a prayer? From anger rather than compassion? Where do you find certainties when you claim to have denied them? A song on the lips is worth a dagger in the hand...”

The Rabbi continues, “There is joy as well as fury in the Hasid’s dancing. It’s his way of proclaiming, ‘You don’t want me to dance; too bad, I’ll dance anyhow. You’ve taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing. I shall sing of the deceit that walks by day and the truth that walks by night, yes, and of the silence of dusk as well. You didn’t expect my joy, but here it is; yes, my joy will rise up; it will submerge you.’”

Thus, the Rabbi instructs Gregor in the art of standing for himself without standing against anyone else - one of the most difficult arts any of us ever has to learn.

That evening, the Hasidic Jews sang and danced, and Gregor saw “the joy roll in great waves over the hall; they shouted out their happiness, climbed invisible ladders, discarded them when they ceased to be of use.”

“Bring me that ladder,” the Rabbi told Gregor.

“Which of us is Jacob and which is the angel?” Gregor asked.

“I don’t know,” the Rabbi replied, “Do you?”

We never know, do we? It is best perhaps that we do not.

A few years ago, I organized a talent show and acted as the emcee for the residents of a long-term women’s shelter, long term meaning they could live there for a maximum of two years. Each woman had a personal history of immense pain and suffering and faced many obstacles toward getting back on her feet again and rejoining the mainstream.

The shelter was located on the grounds of a convent. The audience the night of the talent show included the shelter staff and the nuns from the convent. Both orders came, the active and the contemplative. I was told it was rare for the contemplative sisters to attend something like this.

We framed the talent show as a means of thanking God for the many gifts of the participants and celebrating those gifts. One woman sang the Ave Maria. Another played a whimsical flute solo. There was also a piano solo. A woman read a moving poem she had written. One gave a demonstration of pottery making; another demonstrated flower arranging. There was dancing and a couple of skits which poked gentle fun at the ways of the shelter. The child’s little red wagon, loaded down with hundreds of pages representing the shelter’s rule book, drew laughter from our audience as one of the women pulled it across the stage.

I’m here to tell you there were ladders passed back and forth the evening of the talent show. And no one there could have told who the angels were in that rather unique crowd. At the conclusion of the program, the participants and the audience stood and together sang the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing.

As I helped the women fold up the chairs and put them away that evening after the show was over and the audience had left, I heard many comments such as, “That was fun. We should do things like that more often.”

Their lingering joy was pleasant to witness.

“No, I will not teach you to cry,” the Rabbi said to Gregor, “I will teach you to sing.”

“And what do you expect from me,” Gregor asked the Rabbi.

“Everything,” the Rabbi replied.

I should guess that everything is expected of us, too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Let’s stand at this time and sing How can I keep from singing, number 25 in the New Century Hymnal:


Follow the link for the lyrics and to listen to How can I keep from singing:

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