20170424

Praying Beyond Ourselves

The focus of prayer is not the self. It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the act of prayer. Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God.

―Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: Psalm 35.1

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!

Reflection: Praying Beyond Ourselves
By Steven Dilla

Taken in isolation, the Psalmist’s brazen prayers for preservation of self can seem the opposite of healthy religion. Our default setting tends to be prayer for ourselves—yet religion is supposed to lead us into deeper levels of thought and care of those around us and the world we live in.

Those seeking to deepen their prayer lives today must note that the Psalmist isn’t rebuked for his prayer. While the level and extent to which God answered this prayer is unknown, we do know that this is far from the last prayer David penned in the Psalms.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann observes that David’s prayer life in the Psalms 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 explains, 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.

While the cries of Psalm 35 come early in David’s life—while he is still trying to project the outcomes of an idealistic faith onto the world in order to give it order—they are a key part step on his journey. As he grows in faith, David begins to love his neighbor as himself.

Perhaps this is why David isn’t rebuked in the first place. Idolatry of self is not defeated through low self esteem, but through exceeding esteem for others. It is rare I lose sleep over my neighbors struggles—a sign I’m still caught up with myself.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. —Psalm 31.24

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 1 (Listen – 6:21)
Psalm 35 (Listen – 3:21)

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20170421

Sacrificial Love

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

―Jesus

Scripture: Leviticus 25.35

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.”

Reflection: Sacrificial Love
By Steven Dilla

“There are two slightly different versions of the story,” notes religious historian Katell Berthelot of the cultural tradition behind Leviticus’ instruction to help one’s poor brother. Ancient Jews would have known one version from the Talmud and an earlier version from Sifra, a midrash on the book of Leviticus:

That your brother may live with you:
This is what Ben Peturi taught: The story of two persons who were traveling in a desert, and only one of them has a canteen of water. If only one of them drinks, he can reach civilization, but if both drink, both of them die.

Ben Petiri taught: Let them both drink and die, as it is said: That your brother may live with you.

[But,] Rabbi Aqiba told him: That your brother may live with you, means that your life takes precedence over the life of your companion.

Berhelot continues:

A possibility not taken into account in the dialogue between Ben Peturi and Rabbi Aqiba—that the one who owns the water voluntarily surrender it to the other person in order to save the latter’s life at the cost of his own.

However, a fourth case could indeed be thought of: the person who possesses the means of salvation could freely decide to sacrifice himself in order to save the other’s life, even if he legitimately owns the means of salvation, apart from considerations of personal worth or usefulness for the community….

At least in some cases, giving one’s life for a true friend or a revered teacher would probably be considered worthy of praise in both the Greco-Roman world and the rabbinic tradition, but it is never an obligation.

As affluent westerners we likely picture ourselves as the brother who has the means of salvation (how colonial of us). Yet the book of Leviticus, like the rest of the Pentateuch, reminds us that we are the ones hopelessly lost and in need of living with another.

We celebrate Christ because he was the brother who chose to lay down his life to live with us—pouring out all he had that we might find life. This reality forms not only the basis of salvation through Christ, but the foundation on which the Christian embrace refugees is built. For, Scripture reminds us, Christ will one day look upon those he gave himself for and say, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Prayer: The Cry of the Church

O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Leviticus 25 (Listen – 7:41)
Psalm 32 (Listen – 1:34)

This Weekend’s Readings
Leviticus 26 (Listen – 6:22) Psalm 33 (Listen – 2:08)
Leviticus 27 (Listen – 4:45) Psalm 34 (Listen – 2:14)

 

20170420

God’s Justice

The goal of pursuit of justice must not simply be that justice happens but that reconciliation also happens.

― Miroslav Volf

Scripture: Leviticus 24.19-20

[The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,] “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

Reflection: God’s Justice
By Miroslav Volf

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity?

In a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love.

Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

*Excerpt from Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. — Psalm 62:6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Leviticus 24 (Listen – 2:58)
Psalm 31 (Listen – 3:11)

 

20170419

Tasting Eternity

It must always be remembered that the Sabbath is not an occasion for diversion or frivolity; not a day to shoot fireworks or to turn somersaults, but an opportunity to mend our tattered lives; to collect rather than to dissipate time.

―Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: Leviticus 23.3

[The Lord spoke to Moses saying,] “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.

Reflection: Tasting Eternity
By Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.”

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.

Three acts of God denoted the seventh day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the seventh day. To the prohibition of labor is, therefore, added the blessing of delight and the accent of sanctity. Not only the hands of man celebrate the day; the tongue and the soul keep the Sabbath.

Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of an accord of body, mind, and imagination. To attain a degree of excellence in art, one must accept its discipline, one must adjure slothfulness. The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence. In its atmosphere, a discipline is a reminder of adjacency to eternity.

Prayer

Fear the Lord, you that are his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.

The young lions lack and suffer hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. —Psalm 34.9–10

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Leviticus 23 (Listen – 6:31)
Psalm 30 (Listen – 1:32)

 

20170418

God’s Care for Animals

If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.

―St. Francis of Assisi

Scripture: Leviticus 22.26-28

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. But you shall not kill an ox or a sheep and her young in one day.

Reflection: God’s Care for Animals
By Steven Dilla

The Bible’s attention to ethical treatment of animals is sometimes quickly dismissed in modern society. Yet, Dr. Ronald Eisenberg argues in The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, it is intricately linked to far greater things.

(Rabbi) Maimonides explained that one may not kill an animal and its young on the same day so that “people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals in such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living things.”

He added, “If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow man.” According to (his contemporary) Nachmanides, the purpose of this commandment was directed not toward the animal but toward humans, to purge them of callousness, cruelty, and savagery.

The reward for sparing the mother bird is so “that you may fare well and have a long life.” This is strikingly similar to the effect of observing the Fifth Commandment honoring parents—“that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you”—implying that God will treat human beings in accordance with how well they care for animals.

Ultimately, however, the issue is not just downstream from our treatments of animals, but upstream to our view of God. Those who honor God as creator take care of his world—they treat animals, the environment, and the global connection of humankind with thoughtfulness and care.

Our treatment of the small is not only the model for how we’ll treat greater things the but the first fruits that demonstrate our faith in the greatest thing.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. —Psalm 67:1–2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Leviticus 22 (Listen – 4:41)
Psalm 28-29 (Listen – 2:41)