September 8, 2002

Deuteronomy 6

For all of us, keeping our thoughts focused can be a real struggle at times. Our minds are often like trees full of monkeys, and various thoughts spring up and jump around in our mental branches, whether we want them to or not. Sometimes, such thoughts are particularly unwanted—perhaps nagging memories or recurring temptations or nasty ideas that catch us off guard_and they frustrate and even weary us. We want to be thinking about good things, but again, those seemingly uncontrollable monkeys keep jumping around in our heads.
Evelyn Underhill, one of the 20th century’s great spiritual writers, once offered advice to help combat these mental monkeys, and it is advice that has helped me a great deal. In effect, Underhill suggested that, when unwelcome thoughts and ideas and people enter our minds, we should “let them be a summons to pray.” When we battle a recurring thought or a painful memory, “let it be a summons to pray.” When we struggle again with a temptation that is hard to resist, “let it be a summons to pray.” When we encounter in our minds a person who just rubs us the wrong way, “let it be a summons to pray.” “Let it be a summons to pray.” I honestly say those words to myself countless times every day—“Let it be a summons to pray”—in order to keep my mind on track and to transform otherwise worthless thoughts into moments of prayer.
Deuteronomy, as Peter Craigie describes it, “is a book about a community being prepared for a new life.” The wandering through the wilderness lies in the past, and the promised land lies just ahead. “But in the present moment,” Craigie continues, “there is a call for a new commitment to God and a fresh understanding of the nature of the community of God’s people.” As the people of Israel move ahead, however, nagging memories will at times reappear and dangerous temptations will surface. They will need to remind themselves on a regular basis who they are called to be and what they are to do. They will need an ancient equivalent of Underhill’s “…let it be a summons to pray.” This 6th chapter of Deuteronomy addresses that need.
The people of Israel are gathered together—it must have been an overwhelming congregation—and Moses continues to speak to them. He has already rehearsed the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, and he here stresses the importance of loving and obeying the Lord. So important are these words that Moses tells the people to
recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home
and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them
as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write
them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
So important are these words that Israel is encouraged to repeat them over and over again and to make symbols of them.
It is interesting, by the way, to note that many Jews over the years have taken these suggestions quite literally. Some, for example, wear phylacteries around their foreheads—small containers enclosing a number of Bible verses written on parchment. Others attach a mezuzah on their doorposts—a small box with verses of Scripture inside. Such a mezuzah was situated on the doorpost of the apartment that Deb and I rented when we first lived in Jerusalem. The idea is simple. The mezuzah is to remind Jewish people when they walk through the door that their homes are in fact not their own, but a gift from God. A mezuzah, along with a phylactery, announces in a visual way—keep the commandments and live for God.
These words, Moses reminds the people of Israel, are fundamentally important. They will help keep you on track. “Bind them as a sign on your hand. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Use them to battle the mental monkeys that will inevitably jump around in your heads as you enter the land.
These words—these symbols—can fight off the monkeys of spiritual forgetfulness and help the Israelites keep their collective attention precisely where it belongs—on the Lord. As the Israelites stand ready to enter the land, the possibility of forgetting about God looms as a real danger (vv. 10-15). The threat, it seems, is actually a two-headed monkey. On the one hand, they might very well enter the land successfully and conclude that their own initiative and ingenuity brought it about. With the insecurity of the wilderness giving way to the stability of a new homeland, the people might very well say, “We did it.” “It was our skills, our resources, our creative capacities that made all of this possible.” In such moments, the symbols remind them, “You did not build these cities. You did not fill your houses with all of these goods. You did not hew your cisterns. You did not plant these vineyards and olive groves. The Lord gave them to you!”
On the other hand, the Israelites might enter the land and be enticed to serve the gods who supposedly reside there. The God of Israel, after all, is the god of the desert—the god of Mt. Sinai. Although he successfully led these people through the wilderness for several years, perhaps the land of Canaan will offer more attractive deities to follow. Gods who promise security and wealth. Gods who promise bigger and better things. Listen as the symbols respond, “Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are around you….”
I can easily imagine our purpose statement serving a similar role here in the Grantham Church. As we—you and I—prayerfully crafted this statement, we felt compelled to ensure that God stands at the center. While all of us must contribute our time and energy and resources in building the church here in this area—God asks for our participation—we never want to assume that the health of this church ultimately rests on our shoulders. Nor do we want to be enticed by the wide range of American deities that continually call for our allegiance. Look at our symbol. We seek to be “Spirit-empowered.” We seek to “Worship God.” We seek to “Follow Jesus.” We want always to give God his rightful place as Lord of this church.
Further, these words—these symbols—can tame the monkeys of conflicting goals and dreams and help the Israelites stay focused on their purpose and mission. Here in Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites clearly face a task, and they are called to “stay on track.” After years of aimless wandering, they are now to inhabit this piece of real estate that God had promised to their ancestors a long time before. The task was somewhat formidable and daunting, and one can easily imagine the Israelites losing their focus. They might succumb to the temptations of their new surroundings. They might grow paralyzed at the wide range of new possibilities. At such times, the symbols—hanging from their foreheads and attached to their doorposts—cry out, “Stay on task. Do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord, so that it will go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you,…”
I have noticed over the years an increasing insecurity among many people who are in the ordained ministry. It is really an identity crisis of sorts. Pastors often wonder if they are primarily public speakers, administrators, counselors, long-range planners, or fund raisers. In worst-case scenarios, they often feel as though they should fill all of those roles, and such expectations typically leave them weary and eventually disheartened. It is important, I think, for pastors to know their strengths and weaknesses, and to be in touch with their particular responsibilities and passions. No one can do everything.
My sense is that congregations often experience a similar identity crisis. Why really does the church exist, anyway? There are certain people, perhaps some of you here today, who have extremely low expectations. The church is essentially a civic organization or a club that people casually join and attend when it is convenient. The primary role of the church, for such people, is to provide a place for people to “hang out” together. Others, however, often experience a sort of spiritual paralysis because they think a church should be involved in everything. Like a pastor who constantly thinks to herself, “I should be doing this or I should be doing that,” so congregations can stumble under the weight of overly scattered and unrealistic expectations. “We should be, we should be, we should be….”
I think our new statement—our new symbol—can help us here as well. It can keep us focused and on track. We have prayed and studied and talked together over the last several months, and we believe that these are the areas God wants us to pay careful attention to. We are called to worship God joyfully, follow Jesus faithfully, care for one another graciously, welcome all people warmly, and share God’s reconciling love and peace globally. This new symbol can remind us over and over again who we are to be and what we are called to do. I can assure you that I will keep one of these bookmarks on my desk, and the pastoral staff and the board will be carefully discussing in the coming weeks how to best use this statement in shaping the life of our congregation.
Finally, these words—these symbols—can weaken the monkeys of declining commitments and help the people of Israel pass on the faith to the next generation. All educators know the importance of using visuals in effectively passing on information and traditions. Certainly few things are more important to communities and parents than ensuring that their children know and understand their values. To that end, the Bible is full of symbols and monuments that repeatedly point inquisitive eyes and inquiring minds to things that are centrally important. One can easily imagine children in Israel asking questions about “those things hanging from so and so’s forehead” or “that little box fastened to the doorpost.” “What do they mean?” little Ibrahaim might ask of his grandfather. Can you tell me the story again?
Hopefully we have had similar experiences, although I fear that we have often made Christianity a symbol-less faith supported almost entirely by a set of abstract beliefs and ideas. Our symbols and visuals are simply too few. This statement with its accompanying images can help us, I think, to communicate more effectively with our children and with others outside of our walls. We are going to hang it in our sanctuary, post it on our web site, and attach it to our news letters. We are going to include it in our public greetings and talk about it in our commission meetings. Why don’t each of you plan to do the same at home? Put it in your Bibles and hang it on your refrigerators. Talk about it in the car and around the dinner table. Commit it to memory, and make it a common subject of conversation wherever you are.
Our minds are often full of monkeys, aren’t they? Mine certainly is. Evelyn Underhill’s advice has served me well. Tame the monkeys by letting them “be a summons to pray.” As a congregation, we will certainly encounter enough monkeys of our own as we move into the future—monkeys of spiritual forgetfulness, monkeys of conflicting goals and dreams, and monkeys of declining commitments. With God’s help, we can tame them. We can stay on track. We can remain faithful and effective. My prayer this morning is that our new statement—our new symbol—will serve as a constant reminder of who we are to be and what we are to do.