Advice to a Young Minister

A meeting between two ministers, one the descendant of the other's spiritual ancestor.

 

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So if someone says, "Are you saved?" what do you say?

I think being a Christian is a position of aspiration, not a fixed position. When you say you’re not sure where you’re going in the ministry, I say "Thank God." Avoid premature closure. I think becoming a Christian is the best that we could hope for. And if I’m saved it’s because there’s more mercy in God than sin in me.

I hope to have the humility to recognize that guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness from you, for me to accept it, is for me to allow you to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Likewise, God’s forgiveness is for God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. That’s a central point of all religious life. We have to get strength beyond our own, a capacity to love beyond our own.

What about heaven and hell?
They’re both very powerful symbols of life with God and life alienated from God. In that sense, heaven and hell begin right now on earth. I do believe in an afterlife, not with intellectual certainty, but with a kind of psychological certitude or spiritual certitude, because I believe that God goes from God, in God, to God again. Having caught on a little to what love is all about, it would be too bad not to go on with that kind of relationship and knowledge. But basically that’s in God’s hands. If I know who’s there I don’t have to know what’s there.

Do you believe everyone’s there?
That’s a mystery. Do I know where Saddam Hussein is going? That would be presumptuous, just like it’s presumptuous to say, after the terrible train wreck, God saved my life. Well, why didn’t God save her life, his life, that kid...

You preached a sermon to that effect when your son died...
After my son Alex was killed in Boston, a very nice woman came with arms full of cheeses or something, very thoughtful, but as she started off to the kitchen, she said, "I never could understand God’s will." I set off in pursuit of her and said, "Listen, lady, what makes you think it's worth the will of God? Nobody knows enough to say that." I said in the sermon, "My solace lies not in the fact that it was the will of God, but because I believe God’s heart was the first of all the hearts to break."

That was the core of the sermon that has meant so much to a lot of people. They realize that God’s will is not that somebody die, that God doesn't go around with his finger on triggers, or his hands on the controls of airplanes.

What is your relationship to Jesus?
Jesus is two things to me. One, he’s a mirror to our humanity, showing us what really good human beings should be. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Jesus is my human being fully alive.

And Jesus is also a window to divinity. When we see Jesus scorning the powerful, empowering the weak, healing various hurts, we have seen transparently the power of God at work. When we pray to God asking for mercy beyond our own powers of forgiveness, we're asking God for strength beyond our own strength. How can we do that? How do we know that’s possible? Through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s why our prayers end up that way.

But to say that God is most essentially defined by Christ is not to say that God is confined to Christ. And therefore people like Rabbi Heschel--whom I consider a much more profoundly religious person than I could ever aspire to be--he has a route to the same kind of God through his own paths of Torah and Talmud as I follow through Jesus.

'Guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness ... allows you to do for me what I can’t do for myself'

In your prayer life do you tend to direct your prayer life to Jesus or God?
To me, that's not crucial, except when people say you can only pray to Jesus and therefore Muslims and Jews can’t pray right.

At Riverside, the profession of faith is "Jesus is Lord." Can you explain what that means for you?
Yeah. Many people would be willing to say that Jesus is a prophet. One of the greatest prophets in the world. Many people would be willing to say Jesus is indeed a mirror to our humanity—showing us what human beings should be like. Jesus said that the more we love the greater …our souls. But to say Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus is not only a mirror to our humanity but also the window for me, to divinity.

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