This past week, one of my heroes, Rabbi Harold Kushner died at the age of 88. I’m guessing that years ago, when he started his spiritual journey, he had no idea the profound impact he would have on the lives of millions of people who would hear his words and read his books. I like to think that he started out with a simple desire to make a difference in the lives of a few. He made a difference in the lives of many.

For me, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, is a life-changing book and came at a time when I truly needed it. 

I wrote previously about his powerful words regarding forgiveness.

Rabbi Kushner was critical in my journey to see God in a new light. The early stages of belief and faith are simple, even black and white, often placing God into a neatly packaged box. What I seen in the world today is that the earlier stages of faith don’t hold up to the intense pressure of the world. I love Rabbi Kushner for his willingness to confront the difficult questions in life head on, his ability to wade deep into the gray areas and help people living real lives with really difficult challenges. He recognized that “the inevitable disappointments of life cost us that simple faith of our childhood.”

I loved this quote about those in his congregation who challenged him with the difficult questions:

They have found that religion as it has been presented to them throughout their lives is unworthy of either their intellectual respect or their emotional attachment. Their implicit deal with me is that they will take their religion more seriously if I can show them not how old and time-tested it is, but where it can answer their most profound questions, questions about relationships, about life’s unfairness, about right and wrong, about revenge and forgiveness, and about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Nobody at school told me that this would be my challenge, but hardly a day has passed since the without may confronting it. That was the flaw in my rabbinic education. When I was ordained a rabbi at age twenty-five, they told me I was ready to go forth and teach. The truth was, I was at best ready to go forth and learn.”

I love Rabbi Kushner’s humility and honesty, his ability to go forth and learn. I love his willingness to meet people in their circumstances and validate their lived experiences. He recounted working with members of his congregation who had lost their faith, even questioning their belief in God. They shared their frustrations, their broken dreams, and often the idea that a just God wouldn’t allow for the suffering that exists in our world. I’ve been there personally. Sometimes it just feels like it’s too much to reconcile.

Early in his rabbinic career he tried to convince members of God’s existence, rarely with success. As he matured in his service he changed his approach, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in. There are a lot of Gods I don’t believe in. Maybe we’ll discover that we both reject the same notion of God, and then maybe we can find an understanding of God that we can both accept.”

If you’ve spent your life in one faith tradition, this can be a challenging question to ask. But in doing so it’s possible that your belief in God can be more expansive. More inclusive. It’s possible that that this approach may help you not to give up on God all together, if you feel that’s your only option.

“The God who is with us in our struggles, the God who is with us in our grieving, the God who is with us when we reach insider ourselves to try to find the capacity for forgiveness, the God who answers our prayers not by giving us what we ask for but by helping us realize that we already have it, is a God I have often met in my own life and in the experiences of many of my congregants. That God is a God I can believe in.”

With so many leaving organized religion today, I can’t help but wonder if our expectations of God are unrealistic. As though it has become harder and harder to find God in our lives. Do you struggle to find God in you life? Consider this last quote from the good rabbi:

“Where, then, do I find God? I find God in the quiet heroism of Winslow Homer’s fisherman, stretching to the limits of human strength and endurance to do what life calls on him to do. I find God in the willingness of so many people to do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult, expensive, or unappreciated, and to reject the wrong thing no matter how tempting or profitable.

Where does an ordinary person find that willpower unless God is present, motivating that person to surpass himself? I find God not in the tests that life imposes on us but in the ability o ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them. God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away when we find the right words and rituals with which to beseech him. Rather, God sends us strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.”

Rest in peace, Rabbi Kushner. Thank you for the life you lived.