Practicing The Shema

Practicing The Shema

After delivering the Shema, the greatest commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), to the Israelites, Moses immediately follows it up by saying, “Keep these words in your heart. 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.” Moses knows that our calling to love God with everything in us is not something we’ll figure it out overnight. It’s going to take practice. If you’re truly going to love God with this much of yourselves, Moses is saying, these words and this love will have to find a way to invade your routines and rhythms and personal space.

Recite these words coming and going. Recite these words morning and evening. Find a way to get these words on your hands and foreheads and doorposts. Israel did not take these instructions as metaphorical. They began to recite the Shema morning and evening. They found literal ways to get the Shema on their hands, foreheads and doorposts (look up what a tefillin and mezuzah are to see just how they implemented the command). What ideas might we have? How might we get the greatest commandment as close to us as the skin on our hands and foreheads? What might it look like to prayerfully make a statement of love and devotion every time we walked in and out of our front doors? How might these words invade our routines and rhythms and personal space?

When we read the Gospels, we see Jesus living his life in rhythms. For every packed room where he teaches and heals, he also sneaks out the back door and flees to the wilderness or up a mountain to create space for solitude and prayer. His disciples are curious how to live in the same rhythms he does, so one day they request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1) He responds with his signature prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, which bears a striking resemblance to the Shema, expressing love for both God (hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come and thy will be done) and neighbor (give us our daily bread; forgive us as we forgive each other). Then it’s no surprise he follows up his signature prayer (as Moses does after The Shema) with instructions to pray with persistence, like knocking on a door and patiently waiting for an answer, because “for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” The life built on the rhythm of persistent, routine prayer will bear fruit, Jesus promises.

We’re not formed and remade in the image of Christ simply by mustering up sincerity and intense feelings of affection for God as often as possible. And our lives do not bear the fruit of the Spirit simply because we grasp the correct ideas. Our lives bear fruit when God gets us into a rhythm. We’re formed by habits, by what we put into practice, by what we repeatedly do. We become what we repeatedly do. We become what we practice. Practicing the Shema, practicing the Lord’s Prayer, makes us people who love with all our heart, soul, and strength. Knowledge and sincerity will carry us a good distance, but only so far. Practice will take us further. Habit will take us further. Rhythm will take us further.

Hear, O Israel. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you mind, and with all your strength, and with all your daily routine, and with all your sleeping and waking, and with all your coming and going. All of it.


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