Devotionals/Spiritual

Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement: Rabbi Heschel and Prayer

Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement
Last week I discovered a document I never knew existed: the manifesto signed by 80 Protestant ministers in Atlanta in November 1957 in response to President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops into Little Rock to allow Black children to go to schools in their own neighborhoods (See  http://rccapilgrims.ning.com/profiles/blogs/80-atlanta-pastors-sign). Later in the week, and completely coincidentally, I began reading the work of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, whose name kept appearing in my research on curriculum and ethics. I’m not talking about a few citations. I mean every time, his well-placed words were used by non-theological scholars to knock their points out of the ballpark. Sometimes God knocks me over the head with stuff.
Rabbi Heschel was born in Poland in 1907, to an Orthodox Jewish family. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin while also studying for rabbinic ordination. When the Nazis took over, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and after a great deal of struggle, he came to the U.S. in 1940. After several years he ended up at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Although he escaped, his mother and three sisters were murdered by the Nazis. He never returned to Germany or Poland because, as he put it, “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.” In the 1960s he worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King for civil rights and to stop the war in Vietnam. When they marched together in Selma, he said, I felt my legs were praying (Essential Writings, p. 36). On March 25, 1968, Dr. King gave a keynote address at Rabbi Heschel’s birthday celebration. Rabbi Heschel invited the King family to join his family for the Passover Seder later in the spring, but we know what happened. Reverend King was assassinated on April 4, just days before Passover. Rabbi Heschel spoke at his funeral and walked in the procession in Atlanta. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we could stop with his biography and consider his life as we stand in amazement. But for Rabbi Heschel, amazement was not sufficient for working toward justice in the world. He called for radical amazement, and to get there, he called for us to pray.
In September 1963 (the month and year I was born) he offered a prayer for Soviet Jews who were not being allowed to practice their religion or even study Hebrew freely. Many years later his daughter found the unpublished prayer on a scrap of paper in his files. It includes these words: Prayer has meaning: the beginning of commitment, the starting point of personal involvement (EW, p. 81). The times, he said, call for radical action (EW, p. 74). In protest to American involvement in Vietnam he wrote, Some are guilty; all are responsible. Prayer is our greatest privilege. Prayer…is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God (EW, p. 85). Prayer is radical and it is dangerous. This makes me want to pray, and I need to learn how to pray radically and dangerously. The times still call for radical action. The times call for prayer.
Last month an old friend from high school asked me about prayer, and I confessed to her that I had trouble praying. She replied, Well, isn’t that a problem, since you’re in seminary and all? Uh, yeah, it is. I’d say the words, and try to reach up to God with them, but it felt more rote—like a wish list. Another friend once wrote that when he was a kid God was like Santa Claus. I longed for my prayers to have depth—beyond thank you and please—beyond Santa. I wanted to draw nigh unto God (James 4:8). Rabbi Heschel knew the connection between prayer and justice, and I am grateful that he took the time to explain it to us. I think I’m getting it now.
In his book The Insecurity of Freedom, published in 1966, he wrote about prayer. He begins with the premise of God’s immediate and personal concern for the world and us. He is eminently quotable, and I will cite from him liberally by compiling a kind of Letterman Top Ten List of Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer.
10. Prayer is more than a cry for the mercy of God. It is more than a spiritual improvisation. Prayer is a condensation of the soul.
9. For prayer to live in humans, humans must live in prayer.
8. You cannot analyze the act of prayer while praying. To worship God means to forget the self, and extremely difficult, though possible, act.
7. I am not ready to accept [the idea of prayer] as a dialogue. Who are we to enter a dialogue with God? The better metaphor would be to describe prayer as an act of immersion…
6. Prayer is a moment when humility is a reality. Humility is not a virtue. Humility is truth. Everything else is an illusion.
5. [Prayer] begins with praise because praise is the prerequisite and essence of prayer. To praise means to make God present, to make present not only God’s power and splendor but also God’s mercy. God’s mercy and God’s power are one.
4. How does a human become a person, an “I”? By becoming a thought of God. This is the goal of the pious human: to become worthy to be remembered by God.
3. Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to God’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by God….What we long for [in prayer] is not to know God but to be known by God….
2. [Prayer] is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God’s mercy. That is prayer.
And the number one on Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer:
1. The way to prayer leads to acts of wonder and radical amazement.
One thing I notice about Rabbi Heschel, he used the word radicala lot throughout his writing. The word has several meanings. Although we usually think of it as meaning extreme, it also means fundamental and existing inherently in a thing or person. Radical action, radical amazement, and radical commitment—those “doing somethings” to which he referred, are fundamental to us as humans. They exist in us, and to get to them, we ask to be known by God. We pray.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Essential Writings (2013). Susannah Heschel, Ed. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Bonhoeffer and Psalms

**Note: This post is a devotional written for a congregational newsletter. I’m putting it here as a repository. So if this kind of writing isn’t particularly your thing, hang around, I’ll be back as the reprobate soon.
 
 
Psalms 27:6-7
Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Prayerbook of the Bible
In 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an 84-page meditation on the Psalms called Prayerbook of the Bible, in which he explains the importance of the Psalms for Christian prayer. I can’t think of Psalms now without thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote concerning them, “Along these lines the Holy Scriptures tell us that the first thought and the first word of the day belong to God.” Actually, I’ve revised it a bit and say it as a prayer: “Lord, the first word and the last word of the day belong to You.” Saying this helps me re-focus—sometimes find focus because sometimes, left to my own devices, my thoughts go immediately every day to myself, my life, my plans, my trouble, my happiness. When the first and last thoughts of the day belong to God, my life—my day—is given context and perspective. This little phrase is a comforting guidepost for me. It really should have been all along, but it was not—until I met Bonhoeffer.
Maybe you have heard of him. If not, you can access documentaries and a movie about his life on YouTube or Netflix. Documentary fanatic that I am, I was browsing them in Netflix one Sunday afternoon and came upon one about him by accident. I would like to say that I discovered this fellow through theological study, but no. I had run out of historical documentaries about Nazi Germany to watch. I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer ever since. His life is an example of how an ordinary human is capable of extraordinary acts in the face of oppression. That sounds trite as I write it, like a bumper sticker, so let me give you a brief biographical sketch. His life adds depth to his writing for me, just as his writing gives deeper meaning to his life, and between the two, I realize that we can be called upon at any time and place to do that which is right. I do not know how I would meet that challenge.
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived in any other place and time, he would have still been known as a brilliant theologian. His book Discipleshipexplains who Christians are; Life Together explains how we live. He was born in 1907 to a life of privilege. His father was a professor, and his mother came from an old and respected family. By the time he was 23 years old, he had written TWO dissertations In 1931 at the age of 25 he was a professor at the University of Berlin. Wow. He wanted very badly travel to India and study with Gandhi, but he never did. In 1932 Hitler happened instead. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had taught and preached and turned a blind eye to the Nazis, he would likely have lived, married, had children, traveled, written great theological works, and died like old professors do. That is not what happened. Instead he took a stand that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was the head of the Church. It was his call of disciplieship.
He came to the U.S. twice. The first time was in 1930 on a teaching fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where he first met African American Christians. He began teaching Sunday School at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, and was moved by the “rapturous passion and vision” of the Black church. It is here that he found connections between religion and social justice and developed a love for Black spirituals—both of which he carried back with him to Germany. He shared both with the young seminarians he taught from 1935-1937.  I am glad Bonhoeffer has a U.S. connection.
He returned here in June 1939 again at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary, as Hitler began invading Europe. But he soon regretted his decision, as he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.
From 1940 to 1943 he worked as part of the German resistance, helping Jewish people obtain papers to escape. He even knew about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler (My quaker friends cringe a little at this part). He was arrested in 1943 because of conflict between the SS and the Military Intelligence organization for which he worked. When the Nazis discovered his connections with the assassination conspirators—who had also worked where Bonhoeffer worked—he was hanged on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American troops liberated the camp where he was imprisoned.
Bonhoeffer continued his writing—and his ministry—from prison, living and talking Christ to prison guards. His friend, student, and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, recounted the words of the prison doctor who attended his execution, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Where did he get this strength? Bonhoeffer knew that God heard his prayers because he prayed the Psalms regularly.
From prison he had written his parents, “Before I go to sleep I repeat to myself the verses that I have learned during the day, and at 6 a.m. I like to read psalms and hymns, think of you all, and know that you are thinking of me.” The Psalms were central to his theology—and to his daily life. He began Prayerbook of the Bible with the disciples asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Then he goes on, “At the request of the disciples, Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer… It is a great grace that God tells us how we can pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” He sums up a very important point about the Psalms: Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips (Ps 22:2, Ps 31:6). Bonhoeffer considered Psalms significant because in them we have an example of how God wishes us to approach God in prayer, praise, and professions of faith and trust. This significance is confirmed by Jesus—as His model to the disciples and in his final words on the Cross. I can’t help thinking they were among Bonhoeffer’s final words too.
Try this: read our verses above while thinking about the young preacher’s life, and his death, and his utter conviction that the Psalms are God’s words and when we pray them, we pray them with Jesus.

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