To many people in the modern world, God seems remote and unconcerned, living light years away in another dimension called “Heaven.” Does God, the Creator of the entire universe, honestly care about our infinitesimally small problems? Most of us would say yes because we know that’s the way we should answer the question. But we ache for a deeper, more immediate sense of God’s nearness. We want rock-solid assurance of His faithful care.
Why is it sometimes so difficult to believe God cares about us? Many of us have been shaped not so much by a biblical worldview as by a secular one. Our Western world has been heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers who pictured God as a “divine watchmaker” — a being who set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch it tick. But the Bible says the opposite. It pictures God not far away but intimately close, speaking to people like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. He actively intervened on behalf of His people, leading them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Years later God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And now His Spirit is alive in those who believe.
Scripture reveals a God neither distant nor uncaring but one intensely interested in the world He has made.
But Western philosophy has made us doubt the biblical picture.
To remind people of God’s active presence in the world, some synagogues have inscribed the words Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed, meaning, “Know Before Whom You Stand,” above the ornate Torah scroll cabinet at the front of the synagogue. These words inspire a sense of awe, perhaps even a little terror, because they are saying: Don’t forget that you are standing in the presence of God Himself.
The idea that we are continually in the presence of God is greatly emphasized in some branches of Judaism. The reason many Jewish men wear yarmulkes is to remind themselves to be humbly in awe of God’s presence all around them.1 The writer Annie Dillard has a memorable way of highlighting Christians’ relative nakedness before God, emphasizing how cavalierly we treat the privilege of standing in God’s presence Sunday after Sunday:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?… Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets.2
In a sense, that’s what Jewish head coverings are — little “crash helmets” reminding them of the God who is infinitely powerful, but yet so near.
Is it possible to cultivate a sense of God’s presence, particularly during prayer? There is a Hebrew word that deals with the question: kavanah, which means “intention” or “direction.” The word conveys the idea of being profoundly aware of the One to whom you are speaking as you direct your heart toward Heaven. “A prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” say the rabbis. It’s a lifeless, dead corpse. Because so many Jewish prayers are repeated, the rabbis emphasized the need for kavanah, so that each time a person prays, the words are fresh and full of passion, with a sense of reverence for the awesome God who is their focus.
Ann remembers standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in midsummer during the hottest part of the day. Called the “Wailing Wall,” it is part of the ancient retaining wall of the Temple Mount and Judaism’s most sacred site. Though the heat was excruciating, she thinks of that day as the highlight of her time in Israel. “It is hard to describe the awe I felt,” she explains, “not because of the ancient stones, but because of the sense I had of being in the presence of the Father. If I could choose only two words to describe the experience, they would be these: immense and love. I had been to the Western Wall on a previous trip and felt nothing out of the ordinary. But now, here in this place, all the devotion and the reverence I had witnessed since I boarded my flight in New York seemed to coalesce. I sensed the greatness of God as never before.”
At the Feet of the Rabbi
- This week try to find a way to increase your kavanah, your attentiveness to God’s presence, when you are at work. Whether digging a ditch, baking a soufflé, writing a sermon, or chairing a meeting, pray for the grace to realize that no matter where you are, you are in the presence of the Lord. To remind yourself, consider printing the word kavanah on an index card. Place it where it will catch your attention throughout the day.
- Pray the following blessings from the Amidah over the next few days. If one of them particularly strikes you, try memorizing it:
a) Lead us back, our Father, to Your Torah; bring us near, our King, to Your service, and cause us to return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are You, O Lord, who accepts repentance.
b) Heal us and we shall be healed, help us and we shall be helped, for You are our joy. Grant full healing for all our wounds, for You, O God and King, are a true and merciful physician. Blessed are You, O Lord, who heals the sick of His people Israel.
c) Bless for us, O Lord our God, this year and all of its yield for good, and shower down a blessing upon the face of the earth. Fill us with Your bounty and bless our year, that it be as the good years. Blessed are You, O Lord, who blesses the years.
d) We acknowledge to You, O Lord, that You are our God as You were the God of our fathers, forever and ever. Rock of our life, Shield of our salvation, You are unchanging from age to age. We thank You and declare Your praise, for our lives that are in Your hands and for our souls that are entrusted to You. Your miracles are with us every day, and Your benefits are with us at all times, evening and morning and midday. You are good, for Your mercies are endless; You are merciful, for Your kindnesses are never complete; from everlasting we have hoped in You. And for all these things may Your name be blessed and exalted, always and forevermore. Let every living thing give thanks to You and praise Your name in truth, O God, our salvation and our help. Blessed are You, O Lord, Your name is good, and to You it is right to give thanks.
- Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 165b.
- Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40.
Excerpted with permission from Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, copyright Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.
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Kavanah literally means intention or concentration. It has to do with turning our hearts deliberately towards Jesus throughout our regular day as an act of worship. We can be doing normal chores, business work, balancing the budget, or in worship in a church service and be practicing kavanah. Let’s choose today to remain in that mode of facing Jesus no matter what we are doing. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you about sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus! ~ Devotionals Daily