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A MIDRASH AND A FATHER, A PARTNER AND A SMILE


With my parents in New Carlisle, Ohio in the summer of 1976


alt=“a park in New Carlisle, Ohio, in the summer of 1976, families sitting or milling around. In the forefront, seated on lawn chairs, are my dad and mom, about 70 years old. My dad has white hair. They are smiling or laughing, looking to their left at me sitting on a folding chair. We are very engaged in conversation. I have long hair and wire-rimmed glasses and am wearing black and white Converse sneakers.”


Repeating from my fourth post: My [third] post was an exception to the plan that I had for my blogs and had no autobiographical portion. It was my passionate response to the horror of Uvalde. None of that is gone from my mind or heart. We each need to act, to do what we can.


I wrote this post for the Evolving Faith Community and am re-publishing it here.


How does a social-media-shy person new to Evolving Faith introduce them self to the community? I think that I have to start by just jumping in, introducing myself, but also with an offering, a Midrash. And an encouragement to those of you who have not written a Midrash to try it. (I explain Midrash below after my introduction)


How does one write about a spiritual journey of faith evolution that has lasted for 70 years and is still on-going? Clearly this is a major work of memory, grieving, reflection, self-examination, integration, and writing. And so much profound gratitude! It is one that I have been engaged in increasingly over the last twenty-eight years. So, as I read the Evolving Faith posts and try to understand who you others are, who, like me, have been drawn to this community, how do I best introduce myself? One post at a time, certainly, but where to start?


My journey has taken me from a small farm in the southern Ohio bible belt in the 1940's and 50’s, where we farmed with horses, had an outhouse, and took our summertime baths in the pond. Leaving the church when I went to college, then, after realizing that I was gay, not finding any way back. After college hitching to San Francisco and suddenly a very, very new world. Falling in love, the beginning of a 51 year love story; coming out to my loving Christian parents who, when my partner and I hitched back to the farm, knowing we were in love, took him into the family as their “sixth son.” Years of drugs and sometimes homelessness on the east coast, bad trips, near breakdown, back to San Francisco for a Year of Grace and transformation in 1971, life-changing meetings with teachers from India, food conspiracies, vegetarianism, learning about prayer, altars, and mantras. Three year of serious study of the Upanishads at the feet of one of modern India's greatest traditional teachers, the heartbreak of my partner’s battle with drugs. Thirty-five years without a church community, but I did not forget Jesus.


Then discovering progressive Christianity in an open and affirming church, being graced with the most awesome psychotherapist, finding more teachers and mentors like Anne Lamott and Pema Chodron, KPFA’s Bonnie Simmons, Wendell Berry, and so many, many more (see my gratitude list of “Teachers, Mentors, and Just Plain Saints” on my website). Being a social worker, two seminaries, in ministry which I loved as hard as it was, and was loved, caring for my partner in his final illness and then the grief of saying goodbye in 2016. A period of recuperation and new life, and now, growing older. Surprising myself by developing a silly sense of humor which delights me. Falling in love with a beautifully carved stone Buddha in my neighborhood, and through the shared grief of losing our spouses, reconnecting after 50 years on a so much deeper level with my youngest and conservative Christian brother. And in that shared grief, beginning to write our stories. Falling in love with Rachel Held Evans. Terrified of social media, but practicing Brené Brown-inspired courage by creating my first website and blog at the age of 80. And now, jumping into the healing waters of Evolving Faith!


So here is how I think that I will start, with a Midrash that I wrote in my first year of seminary, and making a connection with a moment in the summer of 1976 in Ohio with my parents, with whom, after I began to recover from my crazy youth, I had such a great relationship. And the most awesome blessing from my father.


For any of you are not familiar with the term Midrash, it is an ancient form of biblical interpretation in the Jewish faith, and one way of doing it is to use your imagination to enhance a biblical passage and add descriptive details, bringing it more alive to you, while still being true to the text. If you have never written a Midrash, please do!


The Midrash and introduction below were written for Introduction to Hebrew Scriptures Class at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. It is addressed to my professor, “Judith.” I am searching in my class work files and on the web for Judith’s last name, but have not found it yet.


A GOD WHO JOURNEYS WITH US


COPYRIGHT 2001, 2021, 2022 by John Cahall


A MIDRASH


John Cahall STMM 526 Orange Paper #1: Creative Work October 19, 2000

Exodus 24. 9-11, 25.81 Class discussions and exposure to midrsahim


In the summer of 1976, I left San Francisco and went to Ohio to spend five months with my parents. They were around seventy years old then, and I was concerned about how long they would be with us and wanted to spend some time with them. They were living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment over a donut shop in a suburban shopping center. It was a wonderful summer. We had a great time together. My father is a very compassionate and non-judgmental Christian. His theology is what I would call traditional, centered on John 3.16. He was a farmer most of his life, living in a conservative rural community and only made it through the 10th grade in school. His thinking though is very enlightened. I feel unconditional love from him and no dogmatism. I was very much into the teachers of India at that time, and my father would read my books and we would talk about them.


alt=”an elderly Indian Swami in white clothing with a bald head and a toothless, beatific, laughing smile. The photo of the Swami is surrounded by a circular frame with flowers, which was created by John’s partner Bry.”


Left: Papa Ramdas. Photo courtesy of Anandashram, Kanhangad, Kerala, India


Later that summer, my mother and father and I went on a camping trip to the Smokey Mountains. As we were packing to go, I looked on the credenza in the living room of the little apartment at a picture there of one of my most beloved Indian teachers, Swami (Papa) Ramdas. In the picture Papa Ramdas was bald and with the most beatific, laughing, toothless smile. Being sort of playful, I said, “Bye, Papa.” My father said, “No, John, Papa is going with us.” He understood that, to me, Papa represented the divine presence in everything, just as Jesus does to him. I have this great feeling of love for my father and pride in him whenever I tell this story. (Note 2)


{Addressing my professor] Judith, before I took your class (or actually, before I took Kathryn Rickert’s very helpful pre-requisite class on “Introduction to Scripture Study”), I had little interest in the Hebrew Scriptures. I just knew it was a required study. And, of course, I also knew that in entering into Christian ministry, I would need to become much more familiar with both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and that my relationship with those texts would change. Fortunately, I believed that expressing my resistances would help me go beyond them. After a couple of classes, I could see my interest level rising. I began to appreciate the richness that could come from “close reading” and engaging with the text. My interest has continued to rise in your class, and took a big leap when I read my first Midrash.


In our October 5th class, you drew a picture of the mountain and were talking about the three zones. You then went on to talk about how amazing it must have been to the Israelites to realize that even though Moses their leader had been visiting YHWH on Mt. Sinai, YHWH was not limited to the mountain. That, unlike the cultural or tribal deities with which the Israelites were familiar or had heard about, YHWH had a power that knew no boundaries. That YHWH was a god who could go with them on their journey wherever it took them. What a revelation that must have been!


In the same class, you pointed out something perhaps even more amazing. Moses and the elders saw God (Exodus 24.10-11). They didn't just see God in a burning bush or a pillar of cloud or fire. The verse said they saw God. I began to think, what could that mean? How could one see God? How can that which is limitless be seen? And, I asked myself, was there any connection between seeing God and knowing that God could go with them?

My father’s statement about “Papa going with us” comes out of his understanding of Christ and his ability to see truth without prejudice wherever it appears. In the course description, you ask us, “Did Christianity start with Jesus? Did he come out of the blue or did he belong to an established religious tradition?” You pointed out that we would be studying “Jesus’ Bible.” Here we are looking into that Bible to see the day when the Israelites said, “YHWH goes with us.” Clearly I can use this story in ministry. Writing it opened my heart. It helps me to identify with the early Israelites in a way I never imagined. It traces a path back from the words of my father all the way to that day thousands of years ago on the mountaintop.


The Midrash, based upon Exodus 24. 9-11, 25.8


I will tell my story in the form of a dream, as if I am relating a dream I experienced. It’s not a dream I really had, at least not in my sleep. Maybe it is a dream I am having. Maybe it is a dream I want to have. For now, let’s just call it a dream. In the dream I was with Abihu on an ascent up Mt. Sinai. In great strides Moses led the way up the mountain, as all the elders followed. Abihu and I paused at a large rock so he could remove his sandal. He laid down a bag of food, and I realized I was carrying one also and a bag made of skin with some liquid in it. “I am frightened,” Abihu said, “This is the mountain of YHWH, and I don’t know if it is all right for us to be here. But Moses said we must come and he has been right about a lot lately, so we came. But really, I am terrified.” He took a small stone out of his sandal. “Look”, he said, and handed me the stone. It was translucent and a very deep blue. “I wonder how it got here,” he pondered, as I handed it back to him silently. He dropped it in the pocket of his multi-colored robe. “I will carry it with me, and perhaps somehow it will help me to be less afraid.”


Still in my dream, I felt a tug at my back. To my surprise, there was a small black goat, tugging at my clothing. Abihu, looking just as surprised, explained that this was his daughter Leah’s kid goat, Shaba. She had followed us all this way. I bent and gave Shaba a hug. Then we all had to scramble to catch up, with Shaba scrambling best, in spite of a strange gait which no one else seemed to notice. Abihu was looking ahead at Moses. “Moses, my uncle, is shorter than I am,” he marveled. “My father and Simeon and many others are taller, but when Moses strides like this he looks like a giant. Why do you think that is?” I didn’t answer.


In my dream we reached the top of the mountain just as the sun broke through the clouds. The temperature was mild and the air soft on my skin. A veil of rain fell in the distance and before us, like the arms of one holding us, a great arch of colors appeared, and we stood there in a moment of awe. “This is indeed the mountain of YHWH”, said Abihu, seeming to calm, “the god who brought us out of Egypt. We smiled at each other in wonderment and embraced.


When everyone reached the top, Moses led us all in prayer, asking YHWH to bless us. Then we rested from the climb. Abihu and I sat side by side. It seemed as if we all sat there for a very long time, Abihu and I and Shaba and all the elders, while Moses walked off a little ways by himself. It was very serene with Abihu’s cousin, Jemuel, playing a stringed instrument softly and we were all being very quiet, without trying to be quiet. Then something happened, something that, dream or no dream, I can’t forget. I had gotten up and very peacefully, unconcerned, was walking around behind the band of elders toward Shaba, who was lying down quietly across from me. In that moment, like between two steps, except I can’t say it was in a moment, something happened. I can’t describe it. There is no name for it. It’s as if suddenly I knew everything. And everything was resolved, everything that I had ever dreamed or ever loved or ever feared; it was all resolved. In that moment, if it was a moment, there were no problems whatsoever; there was absolutely nothing to figure out. And in that moment, if it was a moment, I know that I was seeing, and what my eyes were seeing was not any different than what I had been seeing a moment before. But it was different; I wasn’t in a place. I was complete. It was all perfect. And I felt this incredible peace. There really are no words to explain what it was like. I don’t know how long it lasted. It’s like I wasn’t in time. (Note 3)


I knelt down beside Shaba and touched her. She looked at me as if she knew. I laid my cheek on her coat. She made a little sound as if to acknowledge. After a moment I looked around. The elders were looking at each other in wonder. Some were kneeling; some were crying. And the light was doing this strange and wondrous thing. It was shining somehow on the stony surface of the mountaintop and it all glowed with a most wondrous blue, almost translucent, just like the stone Abihu found on the path. Then I looked up and there was Abihu next to me. “John”, he said, “Something happened”. “I know,” I said. “It happened to me too.” “I saw YHWH”, he said, so very quietly. “I know; Abihu, so did I, so did I”. We shed tears and held each other.


Later, we all sat and ate together, breaking and sharing hard bread and goat cheese and olives and water and a little wine. Moses led us in prayer again, and spoke to us. “We came here,” he said, “because this is the mountain of YHWH, the one who brought us out of slavery in Egypt. We knew that YHWH is very powerful. But now we know in our hearts that YHWH is not like other gods. All the other gods are nothing. They all fight over kingdoms and who is to rule where. They are described in their seats of power and images are made of them. Each has his place and they all have powers. But not like the power of YHWH. YHWH is not limited to any place or appearance. We know that now. Gather your things. Abihu, get Shaba. We must go down the mountain. We must tell the people, ‘YHWH goes with us.’”


Endnotes


Note 1: This story is written as a dream, and in a dream events aren’t always in the order we would expect. I took the license of having Moses prepare to tell the Israelites after the elders saw God that YHWH will live among them. The text doesn’t say that Moses did so at that time. I made a leap a few verses further on, to Exodus 25.8, where YHWH expresses the intention to dwell among the Israelites as, according to Yahweh’s plan indicated earlier (as early as Genesis 17.8), they continue to the land YHWH has promised will be theirs.


Note 2: My father, Robert Bliss Cahall, is now 94, and I still feel unconditional love from him. [Note, August 2022: My father left us in 2001. I still feel that love.]


Note 3:Once in my life in the night, waking or sleeping I don’t know, I had this moment in the night of incredible relief. I don’t know why it happened or even what happened. I just know that at that moment everything was perfect; there were no more cares. Maybe this dream is connected to that. I have also read a lot of descriptions of experiences of the divine. But, specifically in this story, I have drawn on an experience once described to me by a friend.


alt=”a side view of a young man in a plaid shirt looking slightly upward in a contemplative mood.”


Note, August 2022: The friend was my partner, Bry Ewan Hovey, Jr,, who passed away in 2016. This is his photo about a year after the “non-experience” which he described to me, as well as he could describe it.


For those of you who have not written a Midrash, try it! I don’t think that you will be disappointed.



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