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The Gap Between Theory and Practice – Day #6

I do not remember much about Western Civilization II in High School (my school’s fancy title for ‘History’ class).  I do remember more than I do about Tooth Fairy visits.  (See Day #14)  I do not remember much about Western Civilization, but I do remember my charismatic and idiosyncratic teacher and former Major League pitcher, Mr. Seelbach.  I do not remember much of the facts and dates that may have been part of that curriculum, but I do remember a concept he taught us – one that I have found transcends any one historical moment or era.  Mr. Seelbach felt it important to teach about about the ‘gap between theory and practice.’  He explained it in the context of political science theories or social constructs – instructing us on the value of such theories and of the complexities of practice.   I have found the ‘gap between theory and practice’ practically in every corner of life.

I experienced this gap between theory and practice just this past Wednesday as I prepared for Erev Rosh Hashanah services.  There I was, on the precipice of one of the biggest days of my personal and professional career.  I was getting ready lead and hopefully inspire my community during a time in which all would hopefully reflect on the ways that we might act to make our world a better place.  I was taking the very private time that I need before I play an important role in a very public time.  And so goes the ‘theory’ that was in place for this Erev Rosh Hashanah day.  The practice was the gentleman who wandered in off of the street.  The front door was open – as is the Church’s practice to do when their office is open – and he wandered into the church looking for money and/or food. Except, no one was in the church office, and so when we wandered down the hall … he wandered into my nicely kept ritual.  He told me his story and he looked the part of the story he told me … he just wanted money to get some food.

And then I stumbled in the widening gap between theory and practice. I wanted to help.  I was also perturbed that he would ‘bother’ me on this day of all days during ‘my’ time.  I looked for some grocery coupons, which I could not find.  I know from experience that we cannot give out money to people who just show up.  We (the synagogue, and the church for that matter) are all about helping people, but giving people money off the street creates a culture in which people continue to come back looking for this kind of support, which we are not set up to give in any long-term fashion.  I considered, again, the irony of him showing up on this day in this place with our banner that reads ‘Do Justly, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly’ and my reaction being fuzzy on all three of Micah’s guidelines.  That thought led my mind went down the suspicious direction – wondering if his story was a true one, if it was actually food that he sought to obtain with any money I might give him.  I looked him in the eye, told him that I could not help him today … and he went on his way.  I felt the gap between theory and practice, slowly but surely, sucking me down into its deep, dark innards.

The exchange was unsatisfying at best, depressing at worst.  The man left with nothing, because I had nothing that I would give him.  I am pretty sure my ‘theory’ would have me give him something, but the actual ‘practice’ left him empty-handed.  I put the encounter out of mind enough for me to do what I needed to do, but here I am still a bit haunted, embarrassed and even puzzled by how I could have narrowed the gap, even slightly.

Was it a sin? It does not feel like a sin to me, in the sense of dramatic, ten-commandment, soap-opera-worthy kind of sin.  However, if I think of the translation of the Hebrew word for sin – chayt – which means ‘missing the mark’ – I sure feel like I missed the mark in that moment.   For me, I have many more moments like this one that cause me consternation.  Moments like this one are the ones from which I keenly I wish to learn and grow.  I find myself in moments in which I have an ideal that names the spirit of how I want to act, but in the moment as I try to translate that spirit to real action or words – I, well, just miss the mark.   Sure, there are many factors that contribute to the gap between my theory and practice – as Mr. Seelbach taught me, there is great complexity in actual practice.  Yet, I feel that in the midst of those complexities that I could be better about executing the part over which I have control.

In a few days when I formally and informally spend time in vidui-confession, it will be these kinds of moments, these kinds of ‘missing the mark’ that will occupy my thoughts and feelings.  And in the year ahead,  I will be trying to – even if ever so slightly – reduce that gap between theory and practice.

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