Category Archives: Prayer

The Most Important Prayer in the Old Testament

Shema Yisrael is the most important and central prayer in the Hebrew Bible.

·      Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 

·      (Or, The Lord our God is one Lord; or, The Lord our God, the Lord is one; or, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one)

·      Hebrew: YHWH ‘elohenu YHWH ekhad

·      English: Lord our God, Lord one.

There is no verb “is” in the original. It must be supplied by the context.

Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Leviticus 19:18b: you shall love your neighbor as yourself

Which commandment is the most important, the one that ties together all others?

Mark 12:29-31: Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love YHWH our God with all your:

·      Heart = kardia = center of being, that which controls everything, the drive behind all thoughts, feelings, and actions

·      Soul = psyche = breath, life-force

·      Mind = dianoias = thinking, reasoning, logic

·      Strength = ischuos = anything that gives us agency, free-will, power, choice, such as physical ability, talent, position, privilege, reputation

In other words, love in four directions:

1.     Love the God of Israel with your whole being

2.     Love others, all others

3.     Love yourself

4.     And, from Genesis 1, Love creation

Love is cruciform, self-sacrificial, altruistic. It involves loyalty, justice, doing what is right and best for others. It looks like Jesus on the cross forgiving his enemies as they were torturing him to death. 

I came across a sermon recently in which the preacher was giving examples of loving. Among them, mow your lawn, go to church, be on a church committee, use whatever skills you have in a church.

That kind of preaching makes me want to scream. There were no church buildings for the first 300 years of church history. Christians loved God and others by taking in orphans, tending to the sick, visiting and advocating for the incarcerated, refusing military service, eschewing weaponry and violence, and forgiving their enemies. 

As a result of their cruciform love, multitudes were attracted to Jesus, and through Jesus they came to know and love YHWH, the God of Israel. They loved God with all their beings. They loved others – all others, no exceptions – with self-sacrificial love. They loved themselves, not egotistically, but by recognizing their belovedness to God. They loved creation by caring for natural world.

There are a lot of such folks around today. You can find them in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice in-patient units, prisons, among the homeless, in soup kitchens, shelters, mental health agencies, visiting the sick, frail, elderly, and broken. You can find them standing firmly against racism, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny. You find them adopting babies, welcoming immigrants into their homes, and disobeying unjust laws. 

You’ll find them caring for the environment, never exploiting it.

These people come from all backgrounds, are of all nationalities, and speak every language. They identify as citizens of the Kingdom of God, not any particular earthly nation or kingdom. They are pro-life, opposing war and capital punishment. They fight poverty, disease, and addiction. They see every person as created in God’s image and deeply loved by God.

There’s a lot of good in church history. Christians invented hospitals, science, charity, hospice programs, care for widows, orphans, poor, the marginalized and displaced, etc.

There’s a lot of bad in church history (empire-embracing nationalism, violence, wars, crusades, inquisitions, support for despots, greed, etc.)

I choose to identify with those, then and now, whose lives reflect the self-sacrificial, cruciform love of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, ethnicity, culture, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Historically, they were the Christians persecuted by other “Christians.”

We Need to Doubt

Based on my reading of scripture, I’m convinced that God doesn’t mind doubt. In fact, I think doubt is an essential part of faith. The opposite of faith is fear, not doubt. That’s why perfect love casts out fear. Almost everybody in the Bible doubted. Eve doubted God’s goodness. Abraham doubted God’s ability to protect him, so he threw his wife under the proverbial bus (twice, no less). Job, David, Peter, Jesus’ mother Mary, Peter – they all had times of major doubt. Even Jesus himself expressed doubt on the cross.

It seems that every dedicated follower of Christ doubted. St. John of the Cross had his dark nights of the soul. Mother Theresa (now St. Theresa of Calcutta) had extended periods of doubting even the existence of God.

I’ll go a step further – doubt is essential for spiritual growth. The person who never doubts is thinking very superficially, living on the surface. The thundering, self-confident preacher who exudes certainty does us no favors. Arrogant certitude is the opposite of humility. Certitude is judgmental and unteachable. Humility admits I don’t know it all. I can learn from everyone and every circumstance. I may be wrong about things I believe. Honest doubt is a part of being poor of spirit. Honest doubt makes me teachable. 

Yet, we’re attracted to certitude. We like the feeling of having all the right answers, of having life and God figured out. We enjoy the self-satisfaction of believing that me and my tribe are right and the other guys are wrong. We are attracted to certitude in our houses of worship, in politics, and in the world of business. Certitude feels very American. Certitude is essential for the fundamentalist and the patriot.

The way of Messiah Jesus requires us to jettison certitude along with the pride, arrogance, and judgmentalism that comes with it. Jesus leads us by way of Gethsemani and Calvary. Rather than dismiss doubts by plugging our ears to alternative ideas, an unpretentious disciple brings her doubts honestly to God and others. The genuine apprentice of the Master complains in prayer like a psalmist.

A Radical Christ: an audio teaching on Mark 9:2-41

A Divine Intimate Touch: an audio teaching on Mark 7:1-8:9

Making all things new: An audio study in Acts 27 & 28

Angels of Light: Religion & Empire. An audio study of Acts chapters 21-26

A Few More Thoughts on Evil & Suffering

Bad stuff happens – cancer, war, floods, fires, racism, betrayal, poverty …

Two questions are often intertwined in the problem of evil. 

Why is there evil? 

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

The first is answerable. There is a kind of freedom in all of creation. Humans (and, according to the Bible, angelic beings) have the ability to consciously make choices. We (and they) at times make bad choices. Some bad choices are malicious, like invading a peaceful country, designing red-lining laws, or separating children from their immigrant parents. 

Other decisions inadvertently cause harm. George Washington’s physicians honestly thought they were helping by bleeding him regularly. Some missionaries sincerely thought they were doing God’s will by replacing indigenous culture with occidental ideals. 

Whether accidental or intentional, we humans have created quite a mess. We destroy the environment, produce disease-producing processed foods, oppress women and people of color, alter the climate, create wars, and build injustice into our systems of government, education, and commerce. 

In another realm, some angelic beings chose to become forces of evil, the powers and principalities that lie behind much of the greed, selfishness, and hatred in the world.

There is also a form of unconscious freedom built into nature. Viruses are not living – they have no ability to reproduce on their own – but they are life forms that mutate in astonishingly complex ways. Most viruses are beneficial – without them bacteria would take over all life – but others cause pandemics and kill millions. They are not sentient, but make choices to survive. 

Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Choice. Freewill. Evolutionary freedom.

The deeper question concerns God. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, all powerful and all loving, why doesn’t God step in and keep babies from getting cancer, send some rain to put out the forest fire, or stop the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots?

That question came to prominence in the 17th century. The Enlightenment brought Deism, the belief that while God exists, God does not intervene. Deists propose an absent God. God created everything like a watchmaker creates a watch, then left it to run on its own. 

Enlightenment philosophy maintains that that the Creator has left humans in charge. It is our responsibility to make a better world. The most influential founding fathers of the United States were deists heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. 

Deism cuts Jesus out of the picture. Thomas Jefferson took a scissors to the Bible and created his own version, sans anything miraculous. For a deist, Jesus becomes a wise teacher, on the level of Socrates or Confucius, but nothing more. Without realizing it, most Americans operate in an Enlightenment-Deistic mindset. We tend to be steeped in individualism, all about the freedom to do whatever we want to do, and trusting in human advancement to solve problems. Our common view of God is of a God who is “up there,” or “out there” someplace. We pray to a distant deity to zap our loved ones well. Then God can go back to God’s business.

I do not disparage the Enlightenment – it gave us science, medicine, information technology, a deeper understanding of human nature, universal education, and liberal democracy. But it also pushed Jesus aside.

A biblical worldview puts Jesus and the Cross at the center. Everything in the cosmos changed on Good Friday. God in human flesh absorbed all evil into himself. Evil imploded and killed him. In the process, evil destroyed itself, death died, and Jesus rose from the dead. He subsequently poured out the Holy Spirit on all humanity. 

By that Spirit, God lives among us, with us, in us. God is here now. Emmanuel. God is not distant, off sitting on a throne in a remote place called heaven. God is with us, which means God is suffering with us. 

Where is God when the hospitalized child or the elderly nursing home resident cries in pain? Where is God when the floods sweep away houses and people? Where is God when a powerful nation invades its neighbor? 

The answer is that God is right there crying with the one in pain, drowning with the flood victim, grieving with the bereft, sheltering in the subway with the bombed. When we are in pain, God feels it. When we suffer, God suffers. One day, as I was standing at my son’s graveside sobbing, I felt the divine presence. With his arm figuratively around my shoulder, Jesus wept with me. Elliott’s death hurt Jesus as much (perhaps more) than it hurt me.

Jesus is the perfect reflection of God. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. God weeps with those who weep, is incarcerated with the prisoner, sleeps under the bridge with the homeless, wails with the bereaved parent, feels the same pains as the patient, aches with the hungry. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”

The question is not, “Why doesn’t God fix this?” The question is, “Will we join God in making all things new?” Evil in the world is our invitation to do something about it. It is our call to activism, to justice. 

That activism can take many forms. I think of the sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy HeightMalcom X, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Joan Baez, Bayard Rustin, and Mary McLeod Bethune. I think of Jimmy Carter building houses with Habitat for Humanity and Shane Clayborne forging weapons into garden tools. But I also think of James Baldwin and Thomas Merton. We can join God in many ways. We can enter solidarity with those who are suffering by using our individual gifts and talents. Prayer and writing fit me better than marches and vigils, although I applaud both.

Rather than cutting Jesus out of the picture and wondering why an all-power distant God doesn’t fix stuff, we’re invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering and use our personalities and abilities to stand on the side of peace and righteousness against injustice. 

Evil is our invitation to do good.

LRT

23 August 2022

Following Jesus into the Broken Heart of God. An audio teaching on Acts 17:24-21:16

Challenging the Stats Quo: An Audio Teaching on Acts 16-18

God removes hindrances to faith in Christ. An audio teaching on Acts 12-15

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