20160926

When Wonder is Lost

By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them. — Psalm 78.10-11

Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to God’s spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.

Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.

Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.

*Abridged and adapted from Between God and Man and God in Search of Man by Rabbi Hershel J. Matt.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 29 (Listen – 3:43)
Psalms 78:1-39  (Listen – 7:12)

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20160923

Our Culture’s Weakness :: Weekend Reading List

We love our screens. And we now spend more time each day staring into these glowing windows to the digital world than anything else, including sleep, according to a survey from the U.K.

For many people of faith technology has become a normal part part of our daily religious practice (online and email devotional, anyone?). Yet if we do not pause to examine what place technology commands in our lives, we can easily overlook what we lose by its incessant presence.

“For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either,” laments journalist Andrew Sullivan. In Biblical times we would have added a Selah after a statement like that—a pause to reflect on God, life, and how this idea should shape our souls. But that pause—the moment where nothing is clamoring for, or algorithmically abducting our attention—is exactly what technology has removed.

In his book Glow Kids, which explores the impact of technology on kids, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras calls technology “digital heroin.” Dr. Kardaras, who has worked with over 1,000 kids and is the executive director at The Dunes East Hampton rehab center, remarks, “I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.” He continues:

We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels—the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic—as much as sex.

Understanding the dangers of modern technology’s dominance in our lives helps us lay a pathway for the future, and for faith. Sullivan believes the Church could play a distinct role in this kind of culture:

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.

When it comes to our personal devotion, daily moments of meditation, reflection on Scripture, or time invested in lectio divina can refresh us in ways that one more scroll on our screens will never do. The core friction that prevents us from engaging in these pauses is not technology itself, but the amount of time we’ve forfeited to it. But, as Sullivan concludes, the stakes couldn’t be higher:

This new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 26 (Listen – 3:45)
Psalms 74  (Listen – 2:34)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezekiel 27 (Listen – 5:15) Psalms 75-76  (Listen – 2:33)
Ezekiel 28 (Listen – 4:32) Psalms 77  (Listen – 2:12)

 

20160922

Deepest Desire :: Throwback Thursday

By Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. — Psalm 73.25

The psalmist Asaph observes [earlier in Psalm 73]; “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.”

Yet, the psalmist takes notice how the saints are happy in God, both when they are in this world, and also when they are taken to another. They are blessed in God in this world, in that he guides them by his counsel; and when he takes them out of the world, they are still happy, in that then he receives them to glory.

A saint prefers God before anything else that he possesses in the world. Whatever temporal enjoyments he has, he prefers God to them all. If he is rich, he chiefly sets his heart on his heavenly riches. He prefers God before any earthly friend, and the divine favor before any respect shown him by his fellow creatures. Although inadvertently these have room in his heart—too much room—he reserves the throne for God.

Inquire, therefore, how it is with you—whether you prefer God before all other things. (It may sometimes be a difficulty for persons to determine this to their satisfaction)

If you could avoid death, would you choose to live always in this world without God, rather than in his time to leave the world, in order to be with him? If you might live here in earthly prosperity to all eternity—but destitute of the presence of God and communion with him, having no spiritual intercourse between him and your souls, God and you being strangers to each other for ever—would you choose this rather than to leave the world, in order to dwell in heaven, as the children of God: there to enjoy the glorious privileges of children, in a holy and perfect love to God, and enjoyment of him to all eternity?

He who sincerely prefers God to all other things in his heart, will do so it in his practice. Therefore there is no sign of sincerity so much insisted on in the Bible as this, that we deny ourselves, sell all, forsake the world, take up the cross, and follow Christ

*Abridged and language updated from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “God The Best Portion Of The Christian.”

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 25 (Listen – 2:50)
Psalms 73  (Listen – 2:56)

 

20160921

Prayers of a Dying King

The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended. — Psalm 72.20

The spectrum of David’s life is remarkable—from impoverished shepherd boy to king of his nation, from the security of God’s anointing to eking out each day as a political refugee. And here, in Psalm 72, we see his final song to God.

There are four themes worth noting in his concluding psalm: David’s longings for his son, kingdom, legacy, and God. Each word seems to be chosen as much with faith as with seasoned confidence:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!

May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!

May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.

It is here we see the completion of David’s spiritual transformation on earth. No longer does he simply sing of how things ought to be. Now David’s songs call forth a reality that shall be—even while fulling embracing the complexity and pain of what is.

This transformation, Walter Brueggemann argues, follows two transitions. The first is from a orientation around the principles of faith to the disorienting depths of seeing evil succeed against those principles in our world. In modern terms, this is the transition that happens when pain and suffering stretch us beyond the elementary answers and pleasantries of cultural faith.

It is impossible, Brueggemann writes, to return to the simplistic stage of orientation once life has fallen apart. The only two choices are to lose faith or grow into a new orientation—this second move brings a person to a more robust and nuanced way of understanding God and the world.

David’s weeping and longings in the Psalms, then, become the template for our own spiritual transformation—though transformation through pain is counter-cultural. Brueggemann concludes:

Where the worshipping community seriously articulates these two moves, it affirms an understanding of reality that knows that if we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and that when lost for the gospel, we will be given life. Such a practice of the Psalms cannot be taken for granted in our culture, but will be done only if there is resolved intentionality to live life in a more excellent way.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 24 (Listen – 4:13)
Psalms 72 (Listen – 2:21)

 

20160920

More than a Solution

May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. — Psalm 71.13-14

“There is a noble Christian tradition which takes evil so seriously that it warns against the temptation to ‘solve’ it in any obvious way,” N.T. Wright explains in his book Evil and the Justice of God. “We cannot and must not soften the blow; we cannot and must not pretend evil isn’t that bad after all. That is the way back to cheap modernism.” Wright believes modernism exchanged the Christian view of evil and justice for a straw man:

Classical Judaism and classical Christianity never held an immature or shallow view of evil, and it is one of the puzzles of the last few centuries who mainstream philosophers from Leibniz to Nietzsche could think and write about the problem of evil as though the Christian view could be marginalized or dismissed with cheap caricature.

How do we reclaim this nuanced view of evil and justice? We must be careful not to oversimplify what the authors of the Psalms sought as they cried out to God. “You will increase my greatness and comfort me again,” the prayer of Psalm 71, is not a longing for suburban tranquility. When confronted with the brutality of evil in his life, the psalmist joins the centuries-long ache of Scripture for God to restore the world for which humanity was created.

Some of this return, we must know, is a depth and severity of justice we are unable to dispense on our own—yet full restoration must go beyond this. The problem of evil isn’t solved until all that was lost has been returned. N.T. Wright concludes:

God’s justice is not simply a blind dispensing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 23 (Listen – 7:48)
Psalms 70-71 (Listen – 3:29)