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Hear O Israel

July 8, 2010 7 comments

Shema (image by Yaniv Ben-Arie used by Creative Commons)

Lately I’ve been thinking aloud about listening. I’ve been talking about the different forms of listening like empathic listening, active listening, ethnographic listening. Along the way, I’ve made a bunch of mental notes, and I’m having a hard time keeping up with them.

I remembered a story about listening while I took a shower this morning. It seems I always remember things while in the shower. Sometimes I wonder if I might find a lost set of keys by simply taking a shower. Anyway, back to the remembered story.

Shortly after Kelly and I were married, she noticed a peculiar habit of mine (one among many). I pointed at food during our meals. We would be talking about the day’s events when I would point at the bread. She handed me the bread, and then I’d point to the butter.

At my folks house, she noticed everyone pointed during the meal. After about a month, she asks me, “What’s with all this pointing during the meal times?” No one had ever asked me, so I never even thought about it before.

“Well, my dad likes to tell stories, and he doesn’t like to be interrupted. So in my family, we just started pointing at food instead of asking someone to pass it.”

I grew up listening to my dad’s stories. And in many ways, I’m a better storylistener than storyteller. People tell me their stories. And I like to listen.

But listening is not always easy.

I don’t like the telephone because it’s too easy for me to get distracted from listening. Without the person in front of me, my mind wanders so easily. A friend is talking on the phone. He is trying to remember a mutual acquaintance. “Old so and so. What was his name?”

As he continues talking, all I can hear is, “old so and so.” Only in my mind’s eye, I see the words, “sew and sew.” I see a big pair of scissors opening and closing. Then I see them up on an old Cas Walker building on Broadway. The neon scissors are opening and closing as they cut prices. I hear Cas say, “Shop at the sign of the shears.”

Sign of the shears. That sounds funny. What if the big scissors were atop the Sears building on Central? “Shop at the sign of the Sears.”

I’m slipping. I see a flashing neon light over a steakhouse, “At the Sign of the Steers.” I tumbling down into Alice’s Wonderland of Rhyme when suddenly me friends’ voice breaks the fall, “So what do you think?”

Think? Oh great. What was he talking about? I scramble. “Well, what do you think?” he starts up again. Whew, that was close. I must concentrate. Pay attention.

Like I said, listening can be hard.

Back in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were a bit hard of hearing as well. They kept misunderstanding what he said. When he told the story of Israel and God’s purposes for His people, He told it in a way that sounded different.

“What is he up to?,” some of them queried suspiciously. They didn’t trust him. Then again, they didn’t trust his Father either. Isaiah told Israel as much. He warned that they would become blind, deaf and lame like the idols they trusted.

One day a Pharisee asks Jesus what is the greatest of the commands. Jesus replies, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He responds by reciting the “Shema.”

Israel recited, prayed and even posted this command in the Mezuzah they placed in their doorways. Shema comes from the Hebrew word for prayer. First and foremost, the Israelite must hear.

As Jesus speaks, he is not simply repeating Moses’ age old command. He is the Word Made Flesh. And he is the Son of Man who truly obeys the command. He hears and obeys.

As Jesus speaks, it is with the same power and authority of God as He spoke at creation, “Let there be Light.” And there was light. Jesus says, “Hear O Israel.” Even as he speaks the power of God is present to heal deaf ears and mute tongues. When man can no longer hear the Word of God, he loses his power to speak as well. His words fall like powerless chatter.

As we read the story, Jesus’ word, “Hear O Israel” steps out from the page and breaks into our heart. He is speaking directly to us. We are the deaf ones. He is restoring our hearing, and He is engrafting us into Israel. When He says, “Hear O Israel,” we are included.

His Living Word breaks into upon our deaf ears, giving us ears to hear. For only in “Hearing” the Word can we believe. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom 10:17). Now oddly enough, this makes me think of a science fiction movie I recently watched called, Moon.

In the story, one man lives on a moon station with no other humans. He has been working there for almost three years and will soon finish his commitment and get to return to earth. But there is a problem. Everything his believes about his world is wrong. He is bind and deaf to what is real, and it will take another voice outside himself to reveal this.

We are like this man working alone on the moon. We have limited knowledge of our world. At any given moment, our perceptions are limited and distorted by our own feelings and responses to the events around us. We misunderstand ourselves and the people around us. We hold grudges; we struggle against bitterness; we remember too many sorrows and not enough joys. We are incapable loving perfectly.

Jesus calls out, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:29-31).

He breaks into our self-contained world with His Word of Truth, His Word of Life. He says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” And acknowledging our complete inability to obey the Father, He answers the command. Jesus, the Son of Man, responds to the call of God and He Loves the Father with all His heart, soul, mind and strength. He loves his neighbor as himself (see John 15:12).

So we rest in Him. We live in Him. We love in Him. By His Spirit, He heals our deaf ears, He anoints our blind eyes, He leads us step by step into a world of truth beyond our distorted perceptions. Through His healing touch, I learn to listen to people around me. I learn to hear them as He hears them. I learn to love as He loves.

He keeps speaking through His Word. He keeps transforming me in His Spirit. He keeps leading me into the love and glory and life of His life in the Father, Son and Spirit.

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)

Advent – Desert Dreams

December 11, 2008 Leave a comment

Amidst the palaces of Babylon, Daniel gazes out into the desert. He enjoys power and privilege and luxury as an exalted advisor in the world’s most powerful empire, yet his heart is drawn to desert places.

No matter how many fineries surround him, Daniel cannot stop thinking about his beloved Jerusalem, the city that became a desert. The once blessed city of peace became of a den of cursing and oppression.

God blessed the city with glory and wisdom and fruitfulness. Man cursed the city with rebellion and idolatry and oppression. In the mystery of His grace, God uncreated this world. He lifted His hand and the cruelties of man’s sin returned Jerusalem to the formless and void. The glorious city became a desert, a wilderness, a wasteland.

Three times a day, Daniel sets his face toward the city that became a desert and he cries out to the Lord. He cannot stop thinking about the city, the promise, the hope of God’s glory. So he gazes into the desert. He cries out in repentance, he cries out in hope, he cries out in joy.

For he knows the city will be rebuilt, that the kingdom of God will come, and a way will be prepared in the wilderness. So he watches and waits and longs for the coming of the Lord.

Daniel’s faithful watching challenges us to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord. We live amidst the luxuries of the world’s most powerful nation. Yet the treasures of this exalted land cannot quiet the desert of discontent.

In the midst of our many blessings, we still curse and betray. We violate and are violated. Everything good seems to crumble into decay as soon as humans touch it. We are surrounded by broken relationships, broken homes, broken dreams and broken hearts.

We must not fall for the illusions of Babylon. Like Daniel let us set our eyes on the desert. And may the relentless cry of the psalmist beat in our hearts:
O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1)

In the inner desert of our hearts, may we prepare a way for the Lord. May we cry out for the Savior of our souls, of our world. May we watch and wait with expectancy, with hope, with joy. For He is coming and even now His light is overcoming the darkness.

Categories: Advent Tags: , , , ,

Praying for President Obama

November 5, 2008 2 comments

The magnificent beauty of the day led me away from the quiet of lunchtime reading for a walk in the autumn sunlight. Gold and red and yellow leaves seemed to glow on the trees that lined the walkway and stood in bold contrast to the azure blue sky. The intensity of the changing season stirred my heart with expectation of something new. A new season. A new day. A new nation.

My heart overflows with thanksgiving to the God who exalts and humbles. To the Creator who orders all things in his perfect plan. I look forward to this new presidency with anticipation and hope.

My exclamations of praise might sound odd to those who know I cast my vote for another candidate. By personal conviction, I feel constrained to consistently cast my vote on behalf of the unborn innocents who have no voice. As I seek to be faithful in obedience to God, I want to respect others who may express their obedience and submission differently.

For I know that true change comes by God’s grace alone. So beseeching the covenant God on behalf of all who have no voice (born and unborn) must take precedence over all. So today, I celebrate God’s grace in this recent election.

My sister told me that she has been meditating upon Psalm 72 during this election. Her words leaped into my heart and I echo this prayer. In this prayer, Solomon gives voice to the great longing of his father David.

David was a man of war, but by God’s grace Solomon would reign as the prince of peace. The prayer asks for the Lord’s blessing upon this new rule that the king’s rule might bring justice to the poor and needy, judgment to the oppressor, righteousness to the land, dominion from sea to sea, and wise council for all the kings of the earth.

Only one king fully manifests this righteous rule: King Jesus. And yet, in spite of his failures Solomon will image this righteousness in a lesser degree. Would that all leaders would follow the rule of King Jesus and image his righteous acts in their rule.

So as I consider our new ruler, President Obama, my prayer is that Psalm 72 will be close to his heart and rule. May the fear of God characterize his steps. May the judgments of God be revealed in his decisions. And may he be a voice for the voiceless, fatherless, poor and needy who suffers under the hand of the oppressor.

The voiceless and fatherless throughout our nation and throughout the world rejoice today for they hope that Obama will take up their cause. Obama is uniquely positioned to lead the way in racial healing and reconciliation in our nation. My prayer is for wisdom in words and actions that will encourage the healing of the races in our nation and rippling across the world.

Even as I rejoice and am filled with hope, I am reminded that hope does not come from the strength of the horse (the power in the king’s rule). Rather, hope comes from the King who died to bring justice to this tear-stained world. He died and yet now lives as the King of all kings, reigning over all time and space.

Even as I anticipate and look forward to the full revelation of His rule, extending and fully expressed in a new heavens and new earth, I cry out that His rule might be reflected on this earth through our weak and failing bodies.

So may the rule of Great King shine forth in President Obama. May the fear of God rule his heart and the hearts of the people in this nation. May each of us follow in the path of the servant king who humbled himself (even unto death) to serve us and obey His Father.

May the wonder of this glorious autumn day be but the taste of a new season in our nation’s history when the weak will be lifted up and all the forgotten (including the unborn) be protected and rescued from the blows of oppression.

Thank You Hans Urs Von Balthasar

May 15, 2008 Leave a comment

I am grateful to Hans Urs Von Balthasar for writing about the riches of God in ways that both challenge my mind and stir my heart to worship. The Beauty of Jesus captured Von Balthasar soul, and his writing carries the sweetness of a beloved child entranced by the riches of his heavenly Father.

I first discovered Von Balthasar while ambling through a used bookstore in Knoxville. I found a small, stained book with only one word on the cover: Prayer. For three dollars I purchased his classic theological devotional that wounded me with God’s love. Since then I have been enriched and mentored by many books from this man who wrote with a heart to stir God’s people to prayer.

Here is a small excerpt from this rare treasure:

“We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to simply let go in him and gain new strength to go on living. But we fail to look for Him where He is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in His Son, who is His Word….we fail to listen where God speaks; where God’s Word rain out in the world once for all, sufficient for all ages, inexhaustible. Or else we think that God’s Word as been heard on earth for so long that by now it is almost used up, that it is about time for some new word, as if we had the right to demand one. We fail to see that it is we ourselves who are used up and alienated, whereas the Words resounds with the same vitality and freshness as ever; it is as near to us as it always was. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom 10:8). We do not understand that once God’s Word has run out in the midst of the world, in the fullness of time, it is so powerful that it applies to everyone, all with equal directness; no one is disadvantaged by distance in space or time. True, there were a few people who become Jesus’ earthly partners in dialogue, and we might envy them (in) their good fortune, but they were as clumsy and inarticulate in this dialogue as we and anyone else would have been. In terms of listening and responding to Jesus’ real concerns they had no advantage over us; on the contrary, they saw the earthly, external appearance of the Word, and it is largely concealed from them the divine interior.”

Here is an excerpt from another stunning classic, The Heart of the World.

Prayers of the Fathers

April 11, 2008 1 comment

Most of my great insights that come after hours of study and meditation, turn out to be new articulations of wisdom I learned from living with my parents. Day after day, week after week, year after year, they patterned their faith. I learned about the riches of the gospel from the mundane atmosphere of every day living with parents who were trying to live out their faith.

In the early 90s, I began studying the Celtic Christians, hoping to mine new wisdom for living today. This study led to a series of Celtic retreats, which were really excuses for me to study and read more about them. While preparing for one retreat, I was overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude that shines out in their poems and prayers. This insight changed my prayer habits, and I found myself praying more slowly and more thankfully.

Prayers over meals shifted from some kind of magic rite to gain God’s blessing to a fresh opportunity to offer thanksgiving for God for His overwhelming goodness. I had discovered the riches of thanksgiving to God.

But then one day as I listened to my dad prayer, I noticed a long litany of thanksgivings. Everything you could imagine: good health, our house, our nation, our family, and the thanksgivings continued to rise. As I listened, I realized that this was the way he always prayed.

My new discovery in prayer emerged while I was studying the Celts, but now I realize this was simply an awakening to a pattern deeply ingrained in my consciousness. Now I realize that the pattern of my father’s continual stream of thanksgiving shaped me long before I was aware of it.

Advent and the Justice of God

December 12, 2007 Leave a comment

“Truly God is good to Israel,
To such that are pure in heart.
But as for me,
My step had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
(Psalm 73:1-2)

In his confusion, the psalmist cries out to God. The great high God of Israel seems to turn a blind eye to those who mock his name. The people of God falter while the wicked appear to be exalted.

The psalmist’s anguished question still rings in the hearts of God’s people. From businesses to families to nations, we watch evil people prosper. We see the people who take shortcuts move ahead. And it seems like those who try to walk right often fail.

Then the psalmist beholds the coming judgment, and he realizes that a day of accounting is coming. He rests in the fact that God will make things right.

The Christian Celts anticipated judgment day. In St. Patrick’s Breastplate they pray that they might be clothed “with the power of His descent to pronounce judgment of Doomsday.” In their manuscripts and crosses, Jesus is sometimes depicted at the “dread judge” coming to hold all men accountable for their evil deeds.

During Advent, we actually look to the coming Judgment Day. We expect a righting of wrongs, a day of rectitude. We may look toward this day, like ancient Israel, as a day when we will be proved right and those who opposed us will be exposed as in the wrong. We may expect this as a time when we will finally be vindicated.

As we look toward the coming day of days, we behold a day that came. The great day of woe was realized when the baby born in a manger grew up to be the man who bore the weight of sin and death. Jesus entered into the final judgment. He bore the crushing weight of woe upon himself.

This act of absolute justice strikes to the heart of evil. The cross heals my blinded eyes to see that I am not on the side of the righteous but on the side of the oppressors. While I cried out for justice, my own evil betrayed me as the offender. While I longed for my enemies to be exposed and humiliated and conquered, I was exposed as the one clothed in filthy rags.

Only then can I realize that what appears to be God’s blindness to evil is actually his longsuffering mercy. While some people think the God of the Old Testament is the God of vengeance, they are mistaken. The story actually reveals a God who is longsuffering, who continues to show mercy to evildoers, who withholds judgment again and again and again. Finally when he does bring judgment, He also brings a hope of restoration and redemption.

In the midst of revealing God’s judgment upon the evil in Israel, Zephaniah pictures a God who restores in gentle, lovingkindess.

The Lord your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save:
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

As I look to the final unveiling of God’s justice, I no longer look with a fist of anger at those who cheated me, betrayed me, hurt me. Rather, I anticipate the complete unveiling of God’s glory with humility, realizing my own failures, my own tendency to hurt and cheat and betray. During this season of Advent, I look toward the end of all things and cry out with the publican, “Lord have mercy.”

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