Friday, October 23, 2015


If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?
                                                               -- Rabbi Hillel

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Back when Jesus was learning his religion, the ideas of two great teachers dominated the theological landscape. Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel were the founders of two rival schools of Jewish morality. Shammai was a strict legalist while Hillel offered a more openhearted spirituality. Jesus formed his teachings in the context of their dispute. By and large, Jesus was in the Hillel camp. His arguments in the gospels with “the Pharisees” look like arguments with the House of Shammai, and we see Jesus leaning toward the views of Hillel. Jesus probably even learned the Golden Rule from Hillel’s disciples before he made it the centerpiece of Christian ethics.

One of Hillel’s most famous sayings is:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?

1.   The Individual

The text loses a lot in translation. “I” renders anochi, which means the core self, our deepest being, our very soul. It is the in-God’s-image center that we are apt to miss except in times of prayer and reflection.  “Myself” and “me” refer to the personality formed by all sorts of external factors such as heredity, cultural imprinting, social pressures, life experiences, etc.

Our soul (I) is always in God’s image. In the Christian terminology of Lady Julian of Norwich, our soul is forever one with Christ. This is perfectly in line with several schools of psychology, most particularly the psychosynthesis model of Roberto Assagioli. Assagioli says we each have a Personal Self (soul), which is inseparably one with the Cosmic Self of the universe (Christ).

Our personalities on the other hand are all over the place. They have strengths and virtues, but they are also flawed, broken, erratic, sometimes irritable, sometimes downright sinful. Hillel teaches that our soul is for our personality, even with all the personality’s foibles. Our soul mediates God’s unconditional love, for if it did not, it would have no reason to exist. That’s what a soul is for, what it was created to do.

But Hillel also reminds us that the soul’s loving appreciative support for the personality cannot be confined to the personality. If this love radiates at all, it radiates right out through our personalities to others. If our soul were not “for others,” it would not be a soul at all. Love is not an ego-project. It cannot be contained for our own use.

Authentic Christian – or Jewish obviously – spiritual practices are not just about getting in a zone or having an experience. They are about opening our selves to God’s love flowing through us into the world. “Lord make me a channel of your peace . . . “

2.   The Congregation

In my previous Epistle I wrote about a congregation’s temperament. I said:

By “temperament,” I mean a habitual mood, a pattern of acting, a spiritual default setting. Just as individuals have temperaments, so too do congregations. Congregations have lots of feelings running about in them and various people behave in various ways. But the group has a basic was of being. Individuals have a lot of feelings in any given day, sometimes several feelings at the same time. But the individual has a basic temperament. It is the same with a congregation.

This “temperament” of the congregation is equivalent to the personality (me, myself) of the individual in Hillel’s adage. Just as our individual personalities are formed by multiple external influences, so too is the temperament or personality of a congregation. This includes traumas, wounds, betrayals, fights won or lost, people who left or stayed. Even the new Church plant is born with scars because the founding members come bearing baggage from their previous church experiences.

So two questions arise: 1. How does the congregation as a whole find healing? 2. Is the church there to serve its members or to serve the world outside its walls?

These are two questions, but from Hillel, we get a single answer to both: it is God’s love mediated through the soul. We are called as individuals to love our quirky congregations and all their quirky members with God’s love, to see them through God’s eyes. We are called to live soulfully in our congregations. The beautiful effect of that practice is to bring to life and consciousness the soul of the congregation itself, the soul that is none other than Christ himself. Then we have a congregation that can truly change the world outside and in.

There are two ways of being Church that do not work so well for this spirituality. Unfortunately both are rather common.

First, there are inward looking congregations who essentially exist to have worship on Sunday morning, having superficial conversations with each other before and after. Such congregations get stale. For new people, it is hard to break into such a group. They come a few times, but then drift away. The inward looking Church is invariably declining. In some small towns where the Churches are inward looking, I will mention at my hotel or a restaurant that I am there to visit St. Swithens and the people will say, “Oh are they still open?”

Second, there are the outward looking congregations. Canon Catherine perfectly nailed the problem with the outward looking congregation in her presentation to this year’s convention.
Trying to fix people out there can be a way to avoid dealing with the sticky issues inside – in our selves individually and in our own congregational relationships. It is so much easier to deal for five minutes with the homeless person in need of a meal or even 15 minutes with a hospital patient than to actually work out our relationship with the problematic people we see week after week. “The more chaotic my personal life gets,” as Canon Catherine said, “the more I want to fix you,” The reason such Churches are not as effective as they might be is that people need more from the Body of Christ than social services. What they need most is a sense of belonging but if we are not in the process of healing ourselves – both individually and as a community – we have nothing helpful they can belong to.

So what’s the right approach for a congregation to take?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?

If we not for our congregation, who will be for it? If we are only for our congregation, then what are we? If not now, when?

Authentic Christian spirituality starts with Christ in our souls and our souls in Christ. It starts with setting our ego agendas aside long enough to find our true selves where they have always been hidden. In Christ our true selves, our souls, are never judging, jockeying for advantage, carping, criticizing, keeping score. Such shenanigans are utterly foreign to the soul. The soul is always caring, curious, compassionate, and patient. The soul looks like Jesus. We find ourselves when we fall in love with “him who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2: 20 I wrote about this from Turkey while studying the spiritual teachings of St. Paul.

In Christ, we have the grace and power to look at each other more generously, to see each other as Jesus sees us. We can look past the difficult personality traits to engage the other person, to see the wounds that need healing compassion or at least patience. This does not mean giving people their way. In the church we too often either react against bad behavior judgmentally or we enable it by giving way to tantrums and manipulations. Compassion and patience do neither. Compassion and patience stand still, responding with a kind sanity and a sane kindness.

That habit of seeing cannot be constrained by the walls of the Church. If we practice our spirituality of community relationships faithfully, it will follow as the night the day that we will serve the wider community outside our walls.

But there is another side to this process. A congregation cannot form properly just for each other. If a congregation is only for itself, what is it? It is not a Christian congregation anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and set the captive free. It is not an apostolic community going to all nations to baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Paradoxically we form sanctified friendships with each other while we work shoulder to shoulder for someone else.

So which comes first for a congregation, the inner work or the outer work? The answer is: yes. The great spiritual teacher Elizabeth O’Connell wrote about this process at as it was lived at The Church of the Savior, Washington, DC in Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

Quaker teacher Parker Palmer wrote of it in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring.

Clergy, if you want to learn how to better equip your congregations to form and deepen their own relationships while organizing to serve others, the go to source is Nevada’s own Arthur Gafke in Strong Ministry: Strengthening Your Pastoral Leadership.

We simply have to do both at once. Some congregations fund little or nothing for outreach. Others give huge percentages of their budgets to outreach but grossly underfund the worship, formation, fellowship, and pastoral care that sustain a congregation and equip it to actually do hands on outreach. A congregation can only grow strong and healthy with a balanced diet.

3.   Conclusion

So the basic point from Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying is it has to be both/and. We find our way into Christ though a spiritual discipline of relationship with each other – and that “other” includes both those inside and outside the church walls. This is clear in the New Testament and the theology of the Early Church. It is well supported by what we are learning from modern physics (Margaret Weatley, Leadership and the New Science

Seeing and serving each other as Christ would serve us is the challenge and the opportunity the Christian life affords. That opportunity leads us to Hillel’s final question: If not now, when?

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