Shema: Hear and Understand

My husband complained recently because I often ask “huh?” or “what?” when he speaks to me. I tried to blame it on age but I really can’t blame my habit on an inability to hear what he said. As he pointed out, after saying “huh” I will then respond to his question or comment. The problem is, my ears hear but my mind is not focused on his voice. It takes a moment for me to switch gears, focus on and digest what he said.

The Hebrew word shema was the sermon topic at my church today. My pastor broke down the meaning of each of the Hebrew letters of the word shema. The first letter resembles teeth biting down. The second letter stands for the unknown and the third means to see. Taken together, the word shema means press into + unknown + to see. Or put another way, bite down and understand.

Shema is more than hearing; it is listening and paying attention to the words so that you can understand and obey. It is active, not passive, listening.

The Shema is a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Jesus quoted from the Shema when he was asked to name the greatest commandment. I read that the Shema prayer is like a pledge of allegiance to God. It is hearing God and being fully committed to him. It is listening and writing his word on your heart.

Jesus knew that you can hear and not hear intelligently. He knew that just because you have ears to hear, does not mean that you will understand. You can hear God’s word and not act obediently.

Jesus knew that his words would be heard yet not take root in every heart (Matthew 13:19-21).

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

Jesus often spoke in parables because his words had a meaning that many people would not grasp.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

 

Whoever has ears to hear, let him understand. Let Jesus sow his word deep in your heart.

A Glimmer of Light

In the second week of the Living Deep sermon series at my church, the topic was a Deeper Walk. John wrote: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth (1 John 1:5-6). Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:6).

John described an “experiential test” of whether a person is truly a follower of Christ: the test is how you behave. If you have been born of God, you cannot keep on sinning as you did before (1 John 3:9). If you have fellowship with God, you will keep his commands. Just as light contrasts with darkness, a person who has been saved should be noticeably different from a person who hasn’t.

In no uncertain terms, John challenged believers to be honest about our sinfulness. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:8-10).

Pastor Brad said that we should admit our sins to ourselves, confess them to the Lord and to others, and replace the sin we are giving up with the word of God.

In the silent time of prayer, I confessed that I call people dirty, dehumanizing names when I am upset with them (though not to their faces). I am disrespectful like this when I’m driving and get annoyed with another driver or when I’m watching TV and hear someone lying. The other person can’t hear me but God can.

I know that it isn’t enough to control my tongue; my heart needs to change. Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).

John’s admonitions are humbling. While it is no fun to be called a liar or to be confronted with my sinfulness, it is good for me to be humiliated on a regular basis! I claim to have fellowship with Jesus yet I continue to walk in the darkness. I am too proud of my own spiritual maturity, telling myself that I’m not like “judgy” religious people, that I’m more loving and tolerant. But I fall so short of the example Jesus set!

What does the Lord require of me? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8).

John described the faith walk in very black and white terms; either you walk in the light or you walk in the darkness. I agree that Christians should take sin seriously. But even for those of strong faith, the spiritual journey is not without struggles. Richard Rohr wrote that we never get to spiritual maturity without engaging in “shadowboxing” and the struggle continues for the rest of your life.

When I go for a walk in the sun, I put sunglasses on to protect my eyes, which are pretty sensitive to bright light. As I walk under the trees and the light becomes dappled, my eyes struggle to adjust to the changing light. They can’t figure out whether to dilate or constrict. Sunglasses off. Sunglasses on. I adjust to the changing conditions the best way I know how.

I want to be a glimmer of light in the darkness. I want to have a heart radically changed by grace. I want to be proof that Jesus is who he says he is.

*****************

Selected verses from “Live Like That” (Sidewalk Prophets)
Am I proof
That You are who you say You are
That grace can really change a heart
Do I live like Your love is true
People pass
And even if they don’t know my name
Is there evidence that I’ve been changed
When they see me, do they see You
I want to live like that
And give it all I have
So that everything I say and do
Points to You

A Lonely Believer’s Story

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik summarized the dilemma of his faith in a three-word sentence: I am lonely. The kind of loneliness he wrote about does not come from being friendless or alone; it is the result of feeling “rejected and thrust away by everybody,” even by one’s most intimate friends. The Rabbi wrote that this experience of loneliness is a paradox: painful and frustrating but also stimulating and cathartic. I am only beginning to understand this loneliness myself.

Sometimes I feel like a stranger in this world. I am surrounded by people who are focused on the material world, striving for money and fame and success. I no longer share their ambitions. I don’t even understand the values of the millions of Christians who have a completely different take on the word of God. The lack of soul connection makes me feel lonely.

In Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,  he said that spiritual loneliness is the natural result of saying yes when all your friends say no.  They are defined by what they are against. I want to be defined by what I am for: the power of God’s redemptive love.

How can I explain my loneliness?

Imagine a four-story building. There is a beautiful chapel on the ground floor where believers gather every week. Many are good, righteous people who come to worship and learn about God. Some of them are here to be entertained and some of them are here to be seen. Although most of the congregants call themselves Christians, many cling to the laws of the Old Testament. They insist that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed both here and outside the building. Others call themselves Evangelicals, but never share the Good News. If you spend any time looking around, you’ll see that modern-day Pharisees have put locks on the doors and bars on the windows to keep undesirables out. They don’t understand that this is God’s house and the doors are open to everyone.

On the second floor, joyous believers gather, grateful for God’s love and forgiveness. They are eager to tell everyone how Jesus changed their lives. You’ll find reformed sinners of all kinds here, people who once had no hope, people who once felt imprisoned by their sins. It’s as if they have been born again! The people on this floor readily share the reason for their hope. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).

On the third floor, mature believers sit in groups of two or three having deep conversations about spiritual matters. You’ll also find individuals sitting in quiet, contemplative solitude – people like me. These believers have been humbled by life’s experiences. The concerns of the first half of life no longer have any appeal. They no longer feel the need to prove that they are worthy. They see the world with grace-filled eyes because they have experienced God’s mercy firsthand and know that we’re all flawed and in need of grace. Look around, and you’ll see the Jesus Creed prominently displayed: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

The fourth floor is a very busy place. Here, you’ll find servants and activists, people who were called to put their faith into action. Some are busy caring for refugees, or the sick, or the homeless, or the imprisoned. Others are advocates for social justice. They are the hands and feet of Jesus. In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. (Luke 22:25-26).

There are no elevators in this building. There is no easy way to climb from one floor to the next. It is a painful climb. The stairs are steep and unevenly spaced. Those who ascend do so stumbling and falling upward.

Visualizing the dilemma of my faith in this way helps me to understand the confusion and despair I’ve been feeling over the past year or so. I expected other Christians to see things the way I do because we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Now I see that even if we share some common beliefs, we are not on the same plane spiritually and perhaps never will be.

When I gather with a small group of friends from my church, the difference in thinking is abundantly clear. My Christian friends are stuck on the first floor, building walls to keep other people out. They say ‘no’ to anyone who is not like them – gays, Muslims, immigrants, liberals. But I am on a different journey and my capacity for loving other people is growing. As Rohr says, “if your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”

Changing Expectations

Richard Rohr has some good advice for people like me. “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. ” Groups are often not receptive to change because they are focused on protecting the group’s identity and preserving the status quo. Rohr’s book reminded me of the parable of the soils. Seeds don’t grow on a busy path or in rocky soil. If the soil is not receptive, seeds won’t grow. I used to tell myself that I could influence my friends by sharing my perspective. But now I see, that if their hearts aren’t ready, I might as well be chasing the wind.

Embracing Solitude

Soloveitchik found something positive and stimulating about this loneliness. Rohr would agree. He said that the confusing feelings of spiritual loneliness are far outweighed by the happiness that comes from spending time alone. Soulful people like me need alone time to “unpack” all the stuff that life gives and takes away. I am naturally contemplative and thoroughly enjoy time spent alone reflecting. At the same time, I find myself wishing I had a spiritual mentor or a small group of friends who are at the same place in their spiritual journey.

*******

Image credit, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art:

Joseph Pennell
The Times Building, 1904

Standing My Ground

2017 was emotionally exhausting. Everyday the news brought concerns about what would happen to immigrants or refugees or the poor or the environment or democracy or freedom of the press. It is no wonder that I ended the year feeling sad and depressed. But as discouraging as the year was, I learned some important spiritual lessons.

Live like there’s no tomorrow. My brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly last year. He was only two years older than me. His death reminded me that not one day is promised to any of us. Time and chance happen to all. There’s nothing like losing someone to remind you that you should not take this life or the people you care about for granted.

Trust that God is on the side of truth and justice. Sometimes it seems like people will get away with lying or covering up the truth. I find hope in what Jesus said: For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open (Luke 8:17). Jesus said that we will be held accountable for every careless word we have spoken (Matthew 12:34-36).

Trust that the good news is still the good news. No matter how many bad things happen in this world, the good news is still the good news. Jesus still loves and forgives sinners. He still comforts those who mourn. He still offers a path to salvation. He is still the most powerful example of love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, and humility that I know.

I will stand my ground where hope can be found. Lauren Daigle’s song O’ Lord reminds me that “until this race is won, I will stand my ground where hope can be found.”  I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I know that he will take all that is wrong and make it right. I will not be discouraged.

Lauren Daigle
Though times it seems
Like I’m coming undone
This walk can often feel lonely
No matter what until this race is won
I will stand my ground where hope can be found
I will stand my ground where hope can be found

Oh, O’Lord O’Lord I know You hear my cry
Your love is lifting me above all the lies
No matter what I face this I know in time
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right