20160928

Conquering Evil

By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire? — Psalm 79.5

Many modern theologians have consistently maintained that the Bible stands for optimism, that pessimism is alien to its spirit! There is, however, very little evidence to support such a view. With the exception of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the rest of the Bible does not cease to refer to the sorrow, sins, and evils of this world.

More frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty, and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of the good, and that it can draw its nutriment from the life of the holy. In this world, it seems, the holy and the unholy do not exist apart but are mixed, interrelated, and confounded; it is a world where idols are at home, and where even the worship of God may be alloyed with the worship of idols.

What is our situation in trying to carry out the will of God? In addition to our being uncertain of whether our motivation—prior to the act—is pure, we are continually embarrassed during the act with “alien thoughts” which taint our consciousness with selfish intentions. And even following the act there is the danger of self-righteousness, vanity, and the sense of superiority, derived from what are supposed to be acts of dedication to God.

It is easier to discipline the body than to control the soul. The pious man knows that his inner life is full of pitfalls. The ego, the evil inclination, is constantly trying to enchant him. Should we, then, despair because of our being unable to attain perfect purity? We should if perfection were our goal.

The climax of our hopes is the establishment of the kingship of God, and a passion for its realization must permeate all our thoughts. For the ultimate concern of the Jew is not personal salvation but universal redemption. Redemption is not an event that will take place all at once at “the end of days” but a process that goes on all the time. Man’s good deeds are single acts in the long drama of redemption, and every deed counts. One must live as if the redemption of all men depended upon the devotion of one’s own life.

At the end of days, evil will be conquered by the One; in historic times evils must be conquered one by one.

*Abridged from Insecurity of Freedom.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 31 (Listen – 3:31)
Psalms 79  (Listen – 1:50)

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20160927

Living in Awe

By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

They did not remember his power… He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever…. With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand. — Psalm 78.42, 69, 72

Lift up your eyes and see. How does a man lift up his eyes to see a little higher than himself? The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute.

Awe precedes faith—it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a marketplace for you.

Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.

The perception of the glory is a rare occurrence in our lives. We fail to wonder, we fail to respond to the presence. This is the tragedy of every man: to dim all wonder by indifference. “Replete is the world in spiritual radiance, replete with sublime and marvelous secrets. But a small hand held against the eye hides it all,” said the Baal Shem. “Just as a small coin held over the face can block out the sight of a mountain, so can the vanities of living block out the sight of the infinite light.

God is a mystery, but the mystery is not God. He is a revealer of mysteries. We do not deify the mystery; we worship him who in his wisdom surpasses all mysteries. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to him who is beyond all things. It is an insight better conveyed in attitudes than in words. Something sacred is at stake in every event.

*Abridged and adapted from God in Search of Man and Between God and Man.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 30 (Listen – 4:07)
Psalms 78:40-72  (Listen – 7:12)

 

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)

 

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)