Shema - thrive UMC Official Blog



Last week we read a text from the book of Deuteronomy, which has inspired what is arguably the most important prayer in the Jewish tradition; and Jesus identifies it as the most important thing a human being can do.  This prayer, in Judaism, is called the ‘Shema Y’Israel’ –or the ‘Shema’ for short; and its intended to be prayed every morning and every evening. It’s the prayer that’s recited at the climax of Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. It provides the words to offer with your final breath. That prayer opens with this revolutionary line:

“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

We find these words in Deuteronomy, chapter six, verse four.  In the Common English Bible translation, it reads this way: “Israel, listen!  Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD!” And then it goes on: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”

Within the Christian tradition, we tend to overlook the first line of the prayer, preferring to jump right to the call to action, where we actively respond with love toward God.  But the first line is incredibly important.  Contained therein is an entire ontological revolution, summarized in a beautifully profound sentence that’s changed the whole course of human history: here we find the announcement of the divine singularity. 

Last week we talked about the ancient cultic system that demanded people pay for their blessings –often with suffering. This was the nearly-universal way that people approached life and the mysteries of all power; and you can still see evidence of it almost anywhere you might look today. It’s a cruel system of competition and presumed rivalry that was, and is, in its worst forms, fueled by the blood of children and the weak. Take a look at all of the school and public shootings we’re seeing: it’s the same old economic scheme our species has been mutilating itself with since before the advent of history: it’s acting from the delusion that we can buy relief from our suffering with blood. But in this one line of ancient, brilliant revelation, found in Deuteronomy 6:4 & 5, that whole system is thrown down. Because the LORD is One/ the LORD is alone/ the LORD is singular!  We don’t need to –indeed we can’t buy blessings or favor because there aren’t enough distinct parties or entities for a legitimate exchange to take place.  When there is a singular Creator, a sole source of power and being, in the universe, everything already belongs to that singular entity.

Imagine a ten-year-old child who wants an I-Pad. This child is not capable of building such a device from scratch, and being underage, the kid cannot legally acquire the funds to purchase one, outside of their family.  So, to fulfill the desire, the child must go through Mom (dads, let’s not kid ourselves here).  No matter how the negotiations between Mom and child turn out, if an IPad is purchased, who does it belong to?  To the child?  No; make no mistake: it’s Mom’s IPad. I don’t care if there were conditions requiring extra chores, or good behavior, or a change in study habits, the kid is not buying the IPad.  And unless mom dies, they will not own it.  Whatever terms were agreed upon in the negotiations in the aisle of the Apple Store were just a sham, because the child takes possession of nothing.  Mom is only ever allowing access to the thing because she’s a good and generous Mom –or perhaps just a bit short on patience on that particular day.  So the kid can speak of the IPad is if it is theirs; but it will return to Mom whenever Mom deems it necessary. Should the kid be studying instead?  Is it too close to bedtime?  Has the child been playing Minecraft for six straight hours to the hypothetical threat of cerebral liquefaction?

‘Hand it over!  Now! Right now! No, I said now!

‘But Mom!’

‘Silence, spawn!  I didn’t spend 18 hours of agony passing your melon-head from my body only to have your brains go to mush over an 8-bit video game; so I’m going to tell you one. Last. Time.  Relinquish my Ipad!’

Therefore, if the child seeks to live a long life, and for things to go well for them where they dwell, they shall harken their mother, who is mom alone, and listen! And yes, you shall love your provider the Mom with all your heart, being, and strength, but I guarantee that love will not feel like love until we’ve got that listening piece down.  As a kid you must to come to know who your mom is, what she expects, and how the dynamic of your relationship functions before you can ever get your part of the loving right. And hopefully, if Mom has learned to love well, she will show you and share it with you. But you, as a child, also have to be open to receiving it and participating in it.  Otherwise being a child will only ever feel like being a slave, forever rediscovering, and being reminded of, all the things that are not possible for you.

This is why I think the invitation given in the Shema is so interesting. The first word it puts forth is ‘listen!’ And this is kind of a unique directive because most of the time hearing doesn’t feel much like a choice, does it?  Unlike our eyes, our ears don’t have little flaps that can open and close, censoring out what we do not want to hear.  Instead, the default-setting of our ear-holes is that they’re always open.  Every audible vibration of air-molecules in our proximity will be detected by our ears if they are healthy, whether we want them to or not.  We’re all reminded of this fact whenever we lay down to sleep and are awoken by clanging pots, or a clap of thunder, or a car-horn blaring three blocks away in the dead of night.  The only way to prevent the sound from penetrating you is to deliberately create obstructions for the noise, or by damaging our auditory organs.

And yet there are sounds we fail to pick up on all the time.  Several years ago, I had a friend from seminary visit from out of state.  It was mid-spring and we were talking as I opened the sliding door to step onto my deck, when the friend stopped me to ask: ‘what is that?’

“What’s what?” I asked.

“That deafening, like, chirping sound,” he said. And then, in credulously, he asked me: ‘how can you not hear that?’

What to him was deafening, was –to me- completely inaudible.  At least, until I was given a reason to pause and listen.  Only then did I really hear what had completely immersed the theater of our home for weeks at that point: an incessant roar of cicadas.

So constant was their mating-call that I had completely tuned it out.  The sound was there, and it had reached my ears; and yet I did not hear it.

As an undergrad at Simpson, our psychology professor told us that what we call ‘selective hearing’ is actually our brain’s scientifically-verified way of trying to cope with an incredibly overload of data.  Apparently, our brains create sophisticated sensory-filters that can gauge a sound by its tone and rhythm, and if a particular sound or register is too constant or is too often associated with insignificant data, then that data will be blocked from our conscious mind. The effect is that it will be as if there is no sound there for us at all. It’s a kind of learned deafness.  And again, apparently, there was a study that demonstrated that this often happens precisely with couples who have been married for a long time: the unique pitches, rhythms and tones of their spouse’s voice get filtered out as a kind of ‘junk-mail-of-the-mind’ if they’re not paying close and focused attention to them. So the effect is the mind does not hear that particular voice of the person closest to them, as requests for chores or plans or complaints are made.  The sound is there.  The ears hear it.  But the mind does not.  It doesn’t penetrate to the deeper, intentional portion of our thought-process.

Now as a side-note –just so your marriage doesn’t go home in worse shape than when you had arrived here- a more recent article I looked up from Time Magazine suggests that couples in their sixties and beyond will often lose this tonal-filter with age.  Probably because the spouses subconsciously rediscover the importance of that voice and the impact it has on their own welfare. Therefore, married people, if your spouse frequently has problems hearing you, modern scientists suggest that it’s only because their verbal-filters have only reached their beta-phase by the time you’re in your forties. Your unconscious mind by that point has not reached the degree of wisdom where it can accurately filter through what is important and what is not. And the same could perhaps be said for our verbal filters.  So be patient with them, and with yourself: for we’re all still learning how to listen.

But I bring this up, because if we can tune out our spouses so effectively and so foolishly, then how much more likely are we to miss out on hearing the voice of God?  If our auditory filters are making their selections based primarily on the novelty and self-interested urgency of sounds, then won’t we also fail to hear God speak, almost by necessity?

I can remember reading through the Bible as a middle schooler and feeling so frustrated and so angry with God because here were all of these tales of God speaking to people like Moses out of burning bushes; and there were all these people, called the prophets, to whom God seemed to speak so regularly and plainly. And my nightly prayer always went something like: “God, just tell me what you want me to do.  Just tell me how to act! Tell me who I’m supposed to be!  Just speak to me.  Say something –say anything! Anything at all, I just want to hear your voice!” And my prayers went on like this for years until I was on the point of despair –because never in all the years since have I witnessed a bush burn like Moses did, and not once has a disembodied voice spoken to me in audible English while I sat in a lonely room. So where are you, God? Could You not see me, with all of the Jesus-swag I had sported? The cross necklace; and the W.W.J.D. bracelet; and the Pray Hard t-shirt, and the Jesus-fish hat? Couldn’t you hear the DC TALK cassettes blaring from my room until I wore them out?  Hadn’t I earned some Heavenly Facetime by being so publicly, and so loudly, and so stylishly Christian?   And through all of that, it never once crossed my mind that I had almost no idea how to hear God, or what to listen for.

“Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD!  Only the LORD!” (Literally, the LORD is one.)

This is the invitation I want to share with all of you this morning: to open your ears and to unclog or reset the auditory filters of your souls so that you can hear and rediscover the voice of God in your lives.  And from my own struggles to try and hear God speak, I think it’s absolutely essential that we ask again: what does God sound like? We need to examine our assumptions and presuppositions for how we imagine this listening-business is supposed to work. What’s the tenor and the rhythm of the divine Voice?  What language does God speak?  And where can we go to reliably hear in a deep way?

Because from my own experience, and from all of the stories I’ve heard from all of the many, many great and faithful people I know, what I’ve come to see is that God’s primary language is not ‘human.’  Maybe God does speak English, but that’s not the principle tongue.  So if you’re expecting God to sound like Morgan Freeman or Alanis Morissett like in the movies then, buddy, be ready to keep waiting!   Because the language God speaks is creation!  Creativity!

Look at the very opening of the Bible, it says right there in chapter one, the language God speaks is being itself!  The space between water and the void; the existence of the sun and the earth, and the countless stars.  Life! Plants and animals of every kind –everything that is and procreates.  People. Fertility. Possibility itself!  All of those are among the vocabulary of God!  And brothers and sisters, God has SO MUCH to say!  And less than a speech or a lecture, the voice of God has the tone of an eternal song. Instead of starts and stop and dramatic pauses, the divine intonation flows seamlessly like an ongoing, eternal breath.  Each new moment is itself a divine incantation.  Because God is one. There is no competition or alternative sources in the language of being.  All of this –the whole thing- is a divine proclamation.  All of it is filled with meaning, and loaded with significance.

So if you want to hear God, go listen to the cicadas as they trill for their mates to make a future. Sway on a sandy beach as the ocean whispers its subtle globe-rippling undulations. Sit on a bench along a noisy highway or traffic-clogged street, staccatoed by car-horns, rumbling with a dozen mismatched stereos heard through lowered windows.  Go to a synagogue or cathedral or temple and listen to the myriad sages intone the wisdom of their tradition, however limited and incomplete.  Search for and seek out an auditorium of silence to discover that there is no place for soundlessness in all of God’s world… for even your heartbeat and the vibrations of your breathing, and the very electricity of your atoms murmur the tidings of God.

You see, it isn’t ever the case that God is ever truly silent –but instead it’s only that our ears are so full and so constantly overwhelmed by the incessant flood of divine significance that we ourselves are sometimes carried away.  We’re so immersed in God’s singing, and the voice is so familiar, that we fail to recognize the song.  It’s become like elevator music to us.  It’s there, and we live with it –for it is life itself- but we’ve tuned out in favor of devoting our attention to the sporadic and spectacular. We turn away from the beauty of flowers and children to become an audience for violence and radical selfishness because they’re inconstant.  Or we try to chop the overflowing voice into digestible, manageable chucks to glorify our own ears, while we deem everything that’s not the portion we hold on to as ‘unholy.’  But the LORD God is one.  God is singular.  There is no rival.  All that is is God-breathed.

“Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD!  The LORD is one.”

This profound mystery is worthy of our attention. If you reflect upon it, bearing it as often as you can in your heart, and being and power, it will change you. As it’s changed me.  For it means that everything that has being was desired by God. It has already been judged as being worthy of a place in time. It’s as true of orchids and of mountains as it is of us.  And mosquitos.  As Catholic Theologian Richard Rohr writes: if God is one, then “Everything belongs.” This is a truth that will humble us.  But it will also bring us joy, because it invites us more deeply and immersively into love with God.  Not as something that we’re forced to do, under coercion; but because it’s better that way.  For us, and for God, and for the whole of creation.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel adds: “There is no dichotomy between the happiness of [people] and the designs of God. To discover the absence of that dichotomy, to live that identity, is the true reward of religious living.” (God In Search of Man, p.357)

This is the gift of listening: the more we do it, and the wiser our listening becomes, the more at home we’ll be in who and where we are.  In the same way that listening to creation will give us clues about the identity of God, so it will also give us clues about our own identity.  If we can grow in the way we listen to our lives then we will we will be able to approach our true identity.  And there, when we learn how to be ourselves in our own lives, we’ll possess a great and everlasting joy.  For that is the result of loving constantly and deeply and wisely.

So this week, and for the rest of your life, be devoted to listening.  As you tend the garden of your life, listen to the soil and the seeds and the weather that comes your way.  Let them teach you about what can grow, and what might have its place in other fields.  Observe the sproutings you’ve hastily termed weeds.  Perhaps they won’t give you the produce you need or seek, but they have a powerful song to sing about heartiness and persistence.  If you listen.  And as you attend to the things of the earth, and to your own spirit, you’ll eventually start to notice the constant hum and flow that runs through all things. You’ll begin to catch the patterns of vitality and creativity, in the blips of your radar which maybe you might come to recognize as God –or maybe not. Perhaps even your unrecognition has it’s place.  Perhaps even unbelief belongs. For creation is yet unfolding.  For the call to listen has not yet closed, since God still speaks.

May we be open to receive, and to love, what is. And in this way we’ll be drawn closer to the One who gives life.  Let’s pray.