CLOSED EYES (Shema – Part 3)

Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

With its declaration of one all-powerful infinite God, Jewish tradition holds that the Shema’s first verse “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” is the most important and, as such, demands greater concentration so the eyes are closed or covered by the right hand during its recitation. The Talmud traces this practice back to Rabbi Judah the Prince (135 – 219 AD) who often interrupted his lectures to recite the Shema. Whenever he did so, the rabbi placed his hands over his eyes as a way of disconnecting from his surroundings.

Reading about covering eyes during Shema caused me to ponder why we usually close our eyes during prayer. Closing our eyes certainly helps us avoid distractions but I came across additional Talmudic explanations for this practice. Rather than closing his eyes as a way to shut out the world, 13th century Rabbi Yonah Gerondi rotated his eyes so he could see God in all directions. He only covered them during the Shema to ensure his spiritual privacy while rolling his eyes. In his explanation for shutting the eyes, 17th century Rabbi Ezekiel Landau said, “it would be difficult to express complete faith in God while looking at the pain in the world around us.” Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to express our faith in the midst of the suffering and ugliness in the world.

Another Talmudic explanation for closing the eyes while reciting the Shema is that its meaning goes beyond stating there is only one God—the Shema also means there is no existence outside of God. By closing one’s eyes during its recitation, a person briefly steps outside the physical reality of the world and into a reality centered only on God.

While there are times I pray with my eyes open (when walking in the morning, inspired by God’s glorious creation, witnessing something troubling, or saying a quick prayer for a stranger or passerby), I usually pray with my eyes closed (as I suspect most people do). Why? After all, when Jesus taught us to pray, He didn’t tell us to close our eyes before starting!

Perhaps we close our eyes during prayer for all of the reasons found in the Talmud—to avoid distraction, to see past the pain, to see God in all directions, and to acknowledge that nothing exists outside of Him. It could simply be that when we close our eyes all we can see is darkness. Nevertheless, even though we can’t see our surroundings, we know they haven’t disappeared because we also know that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Our closed eyes remind us that even though we can’t see God, His purpose, or His plan, He’s right beside us. Perhaps, we close our eyes because, as follower of Christ, we live by faith, not sight!

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

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NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER – 2021

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. [I Timothy 2:1-2 (NLT)]

Without God, there is no virtue because there’s no prompting of the conscience. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under. [Ronald Reagan]

In 1775, the Continental Congress proclaimed that “a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer” be created and, since then, a president has called for over 140 national days of prayer. In 1795, for example, George Washington declared a day of public thanksgiving and prayer and, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a resolution making April 30 a day of fasting and prayer. It was in 1952, during the Korean War, that Reverend Billy Graham challenged our nation’s leaders with these words: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril.”

In response to Graham’s challenge, a bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals” was unanimously passed by both houses of Congress. President Truman signed the bill requiring each subsequent president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer on the date of his choice. The original law was amended in 1988 when the first Thursday in May was designated as our nation’s National Day of Prayer.

The National Day of Prayer isn’t just a “Christian only” holiday and people of all faiths are encouraged to put aside their differences to pray for our nation. The day’s purpose is to unite people of all religions in prayer and to renew respect for God. Over 40,000 prayer gatherings at churches, parks, mosques, synagogues, temples, courthouses, and schools are held on this day every year. Of course, even though the law doesn’t establish or mandate a religion, its constitutionality has been challenged several times. The day has been found legal because it simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States and can be ignored if one so wishes.

”Lord, pour out your love, life, and liberty,” is this year’s prayer theme and, other than being sure to pray, there are no guidelines for the day’s observance. This past year has been an extremely challenging one for our nation—the lives and health taken by COVID-19, chaos in our capitol, political polarization, isolation from friends and family, on-line learning, business closures, working from home, immigration issues, a troubled economy, church services suspended, unemployment, and escalating racial tensions to name just a few. We could spend the entire day in prayer and not cover them all. Regardless of your politics, I think we all can agree that divine intervention is desperately needed if our nation is to heal. The president’s call to prayer on this day, however, is merely a symbolic gesture unless we collectively fall to our knees in heartfelt prayer! Let us pray, not just today but every day, for our nation.

It is our prayer today and throughout 2021 that the Spirit of the Lord, pour out, pour through us across America, to fill our lives, families, churches, workplace, education, military, government, arts, entertainment and media, with Biblical, not cultural, not worldly, but Spirit-empowered, Spirit-filled LOVE, LIFE and LIBERTY as designed and defined by our Creator and Savior. [Kathy Branzell, President, National Day of Prayer Task Force]

What joy for the nation whose God is the Lord, whose people he has chosen as his inheritance. … We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. [Psalm 33:12,20-22 (NLT)]

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SAINT OR SINNER?

Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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CASTING CARES

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. [Psalm 55:22 (NIV)]

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)]

yampa river fishingEven though I’m not an angler, whenever I read about casting my cares, I picture using a fly rod and casting my concerns out into the river so the fast moving water can carry them away to God. When we lived in the mountains, one of our favorite walking trails ran alongside the Yampa River and we often paused to watch as the fishermen (and women) cast their lines into the water. Fly fishing is all about the art of casting and a bit like poetry in motion. It was fascinating to watch an angler flick the rod back and forth, gradually increasing the speed of the motion, before finally casting the line forward so the fly would land in the perfect spot. Masquerading as a water insect, the fly is made of things like fur, feathers, fabric and tinsel and secured to a hook. Rather than purchasing flies, many fishermen spend hours tying their own flies. Not wanting to lose either fly or fish in the river, anglers use at least five different knots to securely connect the reel to the backing, fly line, leader, and tippet before finally tying on the fly.

There is an art to fly casting and fly fishermen spend years perfecting their technique, especially since no one cast is ideal for every situation. Christians, however, aren’t casting flies—they’re casting things like fear, problems, anxiety, and worry—the cares every believer faces in this fallen world. While there’s no special technique to casting those cares, like fly fishing, it’s often easier said than done. Just as a fly fisherman may labor over tying his flies and fret about choosing the perfect ones for the day’s conditions, we often spend a great deal of time focusing on our worries rather than casting them into God’s river. Just as the fisherman ties those five knots to keep from losing his fly, we tie ourselves up in knots when we’re reluctant to give up our cares to God!

The anglers casting their lines in the river want to catch and land a fish but, when we cast our cares, we want to bring in an empty line. They catch, we release! Our cares are not for God to take away from us but for us to release to Him. Because the flies on the end of a fishing line are nearly weightless and our cares often seem as heavy as boulders, casting cares seems harder than casting a fly in the river. Nevertheless, it can be done and is far more rewarding than a trophy-sized trout.

Fishermen go to the river with an empty creel and hope to return home with a full one but we go to God with a creel full of cares so we’ll end up with an empty one. Our creels may be empty but we’ll be filled with the peace of God!

He that takes his cares on himself loads himself in vain with an uneasy burden. I will cast my cares on God; he has bidden me; they cannot burden him. [Joseph Hall]

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. [John 14:27 (NIV)]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)] 

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FIRM FOOTING

Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my plea! Answer me because you are faithful and righteous. … Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:1,8b,10 (NLT)]

sign on schilthornMany years ago, I was facing a difficult decision about a project. In spite of praying, pondering, searching Scripture for direction, and consulting with wise advisors, I was still in a quandary. Nothing brought me closer to a clear answer to my dilemma. Although it seemed like a good idea (at least in theory) and I felt like I should want to be part of it, doubts kept nagging at me. Wanting God to make known His will, I prayed the words of Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”

The phrase “firm footing” reminded me of a sign I’d seen at the top of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps. Warning that high-heeled shoes shouldn’t be worn while hiking the mountain, the caution seemed to demonstrate a firm grasp of what seemed obvious. The steep slope was covered with scree and would prove precarious even for a properly equipped and skilled hiker! I realized the footing on this particular project felt anything but firm. In spite of its good intentions, it was as ill-considered as wearing a pair of strappy high heels while hiking the Schilthorn. While there’d been no cautions about prohibited footwear, I’d seen plenty of other warning signs about the venture; I just hadn’t wanted to heed them. It’s easy to confuse what we want to do with what God intends for us or to think we’re hearing God’s voice when it is only ours speaking louder than His!

Had I been reading any other Bible translation, rather than “firm footing,” the verse would have read level ground, land of uprightness, level pastureland, or good paths. Whether those words would have resonated with me the way “firm footing” did, I don’t know. But, as God would have it, I was using my NLT Bible and I finally understood the project was not right for me.

God has challenged, admonished, cautioned, and tested me but He has never steered me wrong. Even when I haven’t especially liked God’s task for me, He’s always given me a sense of peace along with His mission, even when it meant stepping into unknown territory. Admittedly, obedience often has upset my plans, meant more work, pushed me out of my comfort zone, or challenged my capabilities, but it always has led to peace. The sense of peace I had as soon as I declined this undertaking told me that I’d finally found and followed God’s will.

If we don’t have peace about a choice we’ve made, if we don’t feel confident in our walk, it’s time to stop, reconsider, and pray. We’ll only know we’re on firm footing and following His plan when God gives us peace about our decision.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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FILL THE TANK

Hungry and thirsty, they nearly died. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he rescued them from their distress. … Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:5-6,8-9 (NLT)]

Trumbull cemetery - OhioMy father had what’s often described as a Type-A personality. An impatient workaholic, he always took on more than he could handle. Life, for him, was one crucial task after another, none of which anyone else could do, at least not correctly. Always in a hurry, he never wanted to stop for anything, even when his gas gauge read precariously close to empty. Something more pressing always took precedence over a brief stop for gas. As a result, his car was often left on the roadside while he trudged off with a gas can to find the nearest service station. Instead of saving time, his refusal to stop cost him time. Living that way actually cost him his life; he died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. It’s often been said that your in-box still will be full when you die and, indeed, his was. None of us can accomplish everything on our to-do list and we may well destroy both our relationships and ourselves while trying.

Unlike my father, most of us will stop at a gas station when our cars need fuel. Having spent hours stranded on country roads waiting for my father to return with a can of gasoline, my gas tank is never less than half full. But, like my father, I’m not always so careful about keeping my spiritual tank full. No matter how organized I try to be, my to-do list seems to get longer while the days remaining get shorter. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just running on fumes and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Unfortunately, just as my father ignored his gas gauge, we often ignore signs like anger, worry, sadness, impatience, and temper that tell us our supply of spiritual fruit is dangerously low. It often takes a squabble, blow-up or crisis before we finally stop and refuel with God. Of course, the wiser choice is to top off our tanks with daily prayer and meditation so we never run low!

When asked about his plans for the following day, it’s been said that theologian, professor, author, Bible translator, reformer, pastor, husband and father Martin Luther replied: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If we’re too busy to stop for gas, we’re busier than we should be. Martin Luther knew that, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re busier than God wants us to be.

Heavenly Father, sometimes we allow the challenges of everyday life to keep us from spending time with you and we run precariously low of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control your Spirit so graciously provides. Help us accept that we can’t do it all and that there will always be another task waiting right around the corner. Guide our priorities, Lord so that you’re on the top of our to-do list every day. Remind us that you are all we really need and help us see a brighter tomorrow in your promises. Lead us to that peaceful place of your presence. Refresh and renew us and let your Holy Spirit fill us up again.

No one ever said at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful with my soul. [J.C. Ryle]

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. [Psalm 23:1-3 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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