The Edge of Emptiness :: Readers’ Choice

So often we go to prayer with our shopping list and forget that God isn’t Walmart but Creator and Sovereign Lord. Trust is hard, but so worth the sacrifice.  — Sam

Readers’ Choice (Originally published January 18, 2017)
The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.

― Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Scripture: Genesis 18.32

Then [Abraham] said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” [The Lord] answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

Reflection: The Edge of Emptiness
By Steven Dilla

Abraham was a Father of the faith whose prayer for Sodom was overruled. Zechariah a priest who was ignored by God for the overwhelming majority of his career (only when he was an old man did God invite him into his presence). Even Jesus—the Son of God himself—did not receive what he earnestly begged for in prayer.

To be holy, it would seem, is something significant, but it is not to live a life of uninterrupted answers to prayer.

Typically at this point, when writing about prayer, you switch gears and redefine the nature of how we are to understand prayer. Kierkegaard once explained:

The earthly minded person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing, the thing he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what he is praying for. And yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse: the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for.

But changing the definition of prayer may let us off the hook too easily. There is a deeper step that we are afraid to speak of.

“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness,” observes rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Perhaps this is really why it is so difficult for the modern mind to find itself captivated in prayer—the cost of entry is our greatest fear.

Emptiness in a relationship only comes through trust. Emptiness forfeits its perceived future in order to discover a new reality in relationship. Emptiness never results in greater status, in admiration or accolade. But, while emptiness is the first step, it is not the end goal.

Abraham, Zechariah, and Christ were all filled with something greater than what they had before. Their unanswered prayers were not the end, but the beginning.

The Small Verse
My soul thirsts for the strong, living God and all that is within me cries out to him.

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 18-19 (Listen – 9:59)
Psalms 149-150 (Listen – 1:26)

Sacrificial Love :: Readers’ Choice

In “Sacrificial Love,” the story of Ben Petiri and Rabbi Aqiba shows “My Life for Me” or “Your Life for Me” – but I failed to see that Jesus lived “My Life for You.” Thanks for the stark reminder. — Steve

Readers’ Choice (Originally published April 21, 2017)
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.


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.”

The Request for Presence
Let those who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; let those who love your salvation say forever, “Great is the Lord!”

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 16-17 (Listen – 5:15)
Psalms 148 (Listen – 1:28)

What The Plagues Really Destroyed :: Readers’ Choice

How easy it is to forget that we worship in the shadow of idols when their names are so benign to us. — Jason

Readers’ Choice (Originally published February 24, 2017)
The only way we can avoid the true God is to fabricate a false god that’s controllable.

― Timothy Keller

Scripture: Exodus 7.14

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.

Reflection: What The Plagues Really Destroyed
By Steven Dilla

It is the job of the Holy Spirit to dismantle everything which we trust more than God. Anything less would be unloving if God is as good as the scriptures reveal him to be. The Egyptian plagues attest to this.

The Nile is Egypt’s most valuable natural resource. The ancients would have trembled when it turned to blood in the first plague. Hapi, the father of Egypt’s gods (and god of the Nile itself), would have been believed to have lost control.

Each plague systematically defeated another of ancient Egypt’s gods. The idols’ lack of control was exposed. Their efficacy to restore life was unveiled.

The gods Heka, Geb, and Khepfi were shamed by the plagues involving insects. Apis, Menvis, and Hathor were defeated by the plague of livestock. Thoth, the god of health, proved powerless while Egypt writhed in the pain of boils. Nut and Isis were revealed as impotent through the plagues of hail and locusts.

The plague of darkness was a fierce warning—Yahweh had overpowered Ra. Arguably at the top of Egypt’s gods, Ra was the god of the sun and a central figure in ancient Egyptian worship.

Even then, Pharaoh would not concede.

The final plague is an extension of the previous, a darker darkness. Each of Egypt’s firstborn would have been dedicated to Ra, and Pharaoh’s son was considered an incarnation of Ra himself. The death of the firstborn was a brutal and crushing end to the empty gods they placed their trust in.

Idolatry always destroys our greatest joy. Our commitment to our idols cuts away at the people and things which matter most in our lives. Each idol delivers a silhouette of the real experience—and their falsehood can be as difficult for us to see now as it was for Egypt to see then.

In comparison to Egypt’s gods, modern idols have names which sound normal—approval, pleasure, comfort, power, control—but they act the same. We draw our identity from them. We arrange our lives around them. And, at our time of greatest need, they abandon us.

The Refrain
Yours are the heavens, the earth is also yours; you laid the foundations of the world and all that is in it.

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 14-15 (Listen – 9:20)
Psalms 146-147 (Listen – 3:09)

Unsettled by Faith :: Readers’ Choice

This post pierced my heart. The Lord has been working on my heart about what REAL Christianity looks like in this hurting world…and He’s telling me that it means getting out of my comfort zone in order to allow others to be in theirs. When I think about your comment (“The invitation of faith is unnerving. Anything received without merit demands we leave the moorings we have always relied upon in order to discover a world yet unknown.”), I know that I’m not unmoored and unsettled enough to really allow God to work through me. I saved this post to re-read often to remind myself that feeling uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing. — Suzanne

Readers’ Choice (Originally published January 23, 2017)
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Scripture: Genesis 24.40

But [Abraham] said to me, “The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way. You shall take a wife for my son from my clan and from my father’s house.”

Reflection: Unsettled by Faith
By Steven Dilla

The closer Abraham drew to God, the more unsettled his life became. All of the fathers of faith were wandering creatures—their minds, souls, and bodies sojourning as the spirit led. And yet, time and again we read of the people of God trying to leverage God’s grace to create stability, comfort, and earthly benefit.

The great people of faith, like Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi, among many others, purposefully held their lives in liminality—for this is where God moves. Richard Rohr explains:

We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.

There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way.

The invitation of faith is unnerving. Anything received without merit demands we leave the moorings we have always relied upon in order to discover a world yet unknown. Rohr concludes:

Because we have avoided liminal space, we have created a very smug and middle class kind of Christianity that has little wisdom or compassion to offer the world today. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new….

Most of us cannot run off to the wilderness or the hermitage forever. But spiritual traditions offer temporary and partial liminality in experiences like pilgrimages, urban plunges into different levels of society, silent retreats, extended periods of fasting, solitude in nature, and sacred times like Lent and Ramadan. There has to be something different and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive cultural trance. Mere piety will never do it.

The Request for Presence
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 12-13 (Listen – 8:18)
Psalms 145 (Listen – 2:19)

Finding Words to Pray :: Readers’ Choice

I advocate prayer. I often forget to pray. I set times to pray. When those times come, I’m often perturbed that prayer is interrupting “something more important.” This post encouraged me again in prayer. — Steve

Readers’ Choice (Originally published June 22, 2017)
The edifices are growing. Yet prayer is decaying.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: Psalm 119.14-15

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.

Reflection: Finding Words to Pray
By Steven Dilla

“The true source of prayer is not an emotion but an insight,” observes Abraham Joshua Heschel in Man’s Quest for God. Yet our sources for insight often prove inconsistent or even unreliable. Cultures wax and wane, emotions churn, even our personal perspectives evolve. Nothing can eviscerate a prayer life more quickly than locating our sole source for insight inside ourselves.

“It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray,” says Heschel. So too, the psalmist who composed the longest chapter in scripture, Psalm 119. The overtone of the psalm is the confession of God’s word as the source of vitality, joy, and meaning in life. The undertone is the way meaningful prayer is sparked and fueled by insights found in his transcendent word.

The remedy for spiritual dryness is prayer saturated with scripture. When we pray the words of scripture they enliven our prayers by allowing God’s word to blossom inside our heart, mind, and soul. In An Exposition on Prayer in the Bible Jim Rosscup identified the psalmist’s record of this experience, verse-by-verse, in Psalm 119.

In regards to our daily experience, God’s words in prayer are, “purifying (verse 9), a treasure (11, 72), joy-inspiring (14), delighting (16), replete with wonderful things (18), counselors (24), enlivening (25), strengthening (28). They are freeing (45, 133), comforting (52), stimulating for melody (54), perfecting (80), life-encompassing (96), sweet dessert (103), light (105), an inheritance (111), and worth waiting for (114). Not only these, but they are protecting (117), provocative of hate toward evil (128), truthful (142), righteous (144), everlasting (160), awe-inspiring (161), peace-promoting (165), and love-kindling (167).”

To experience this first-hand, Rosscup suggest taking one eight-verse section of Psalm 119 and praying through it each day. “God saturates all the psalmist’s thoughts as he prays, and rekindles one’s passion for God just to pray the very verses as one’s own thoughts.”

The Call to Prayer
Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and worship him upon his holy hill; for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 9 (Listen – 3:46)
Psalms 140-141 (Listen – 2:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
Joshua 10 (Listen – 7:23) Psalms 142-143 (Listen – 2:35)
Joshua 11 (Listen – 3:52) Psalms 144 (Listen – 1:56)

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