Every family and community has its own particular traditions--its own family rituals. My family was no different. Growing up we would gather around the old bright yellow kitchen table for dinner holding hands and reciting the grace before the meal. It was always: God is good; God is Great; we thank you for our food. Amen. I liked it, simple and to the point. Besides having a family prayer, one would remember and share with guests so that they felt a part of the family. That was important.
When my grandmother came from Taiwan to stay with us, I remember watching her read the Bible silently to herself and then folding her hands and closing her eyes and proceed to pray. She did this almost as a ritual, lovingly and faithfully every day. I was amazed. No one could get me to sit still long enough to read the Bible, let alone pray. Then one day as my grandmother caught me peering from her bedroom door, she invited me to sit beside her as she began sharing stories (tale after tale) of her life--where she grew up, how she had met grandfather and how the family had survived the various atrocities of numerous wars.
Remember to love, laugh and live, my grandmother would say. "OK, grandma, sure thing," as I hurried out of the room to go out and play. Perhaps many of my grandmother's words did not sink in, but somehow her words to remember were poignant. These words were not that of a woman reminding her granddaughter to not forget to pick up after herself, or to finish her homework. On the contrary, these words to remember to love, laugh and live were said to me quite prayerfully as if they were to be interwoven into the very fabric of every day life.
Whether the family is aware of it or not, remembrance and ritual play a significant role in the life of the community. The prayers as said in the new community were no exception, and so the prayer goes:
Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and 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 door posts of your house and on your gates.
This was the prayer so important to the community that it was to be passed on to the children, the next generation, and to their children's children. "Hear O Israel," a sure sign to listen up and pay attention because what was to come you did not want to miss. "The Lord our God is one Lord," a reminder that the community of people were praying to God alone, one God, faithful, consistent, not divided, though mysterious and often hidden none the less.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord, also known as the Shema, was spoken loud, while the rest of the prayer was traditionally said in silence amidst the community.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. This was not a prayer to be said half-heartedly. Indeed it called the community not only to a personal, intimate and trusting, covenantal relationship with God and with each other, it required a total commitment; a loving with our whole being, mind, body and spirit. A love that would move people to do and to act as well as to feel--a love all encompassing.
"You shall love." It seems the prayer is stating the obvious, and it is, yet there are times in my own journey of faith when being called to love--genuinely love--I feel rather clueless. Perhaps this is so because I cannot get there on my own, nor try burying myself in my theological books nor try staying in my head. What do I know about love? Not much, only that which I have experienced through my grandparents, my parents, my family and friends and my community of faith. It's as if I am constantly reminded, as were the Hebrew people before me, that God sends other people from the community to you and to me to remind us not only that we are loved, but are called out of ourselves to love.
"For to love you have to climb out of the cradle, where everything is 'getting' and grow up to the maturity of giving, without concern for getting anything special in return." (Merton, Love and Living). Love is not about making a deal, it is a sacrifice. Love is not something that is packaged to be marketed. It is a form of worship. The people in the book of Deuteronomy, amidst their hardships and every day struggles, understood this, yet putting it into practice was a whole lot more complex.
For as the late Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton wrote, "Love is the revelation of our deepest personal meaning, value and identity. This revelation remains impossible as long as we are the prisoner of our own egoism. I cannot find myself in myself, but only in another. My true meaning and worth are shown to me not in my estimate of myself, but in the eyes of the one who loves me; and that one must love me as I am, with my faults and limitations, revealing to me the truth that these faults and limitations cannot destroy my worth in their eyes; and that I am therefore, valuable as a person, in spite of my short comings, in spite of the imperfections of my exterior "package".
Merton goes on--"the package is totally unimportant. What matters is this infinitely precious message which I can discover only in my love for another person. This message, this secret, is not fully revealed to me unless at the same time I am able to see and understand the mysterious and unique worth of the one I love."
Hear, O Israel--a prayer of the community calling forth not only to love God and to keep God's words in its heart, an action beyond an intellectual level, for more was required. The community of faith was to recite and talk about these words with the CHILDREN. Now that was going to be a challenge. For anything beyond the who, what, where, when and how would be no easy task, not to mention the why of it all. I can almost hear the children in the background; what do you mean you spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness after escaping bondage? Did not anyone think of stopping at the Mount Horeb AAA to ask for directions?
The children, the young people were to remember the past and to bring the past afresh into the present, creating a memory for the generations that would follow.
Along with loving with their whole being and passing on their experiences to their children and their children's children, the community was to bind God's words on their hand and forehead as a sign and symbol of their faithfulness. God's faithfulness. The tefilin was placed on the arm facing the heart and on the forehead, while the mezuzah (pronounced mezuhza, also boxes) containing scrolls inside were placed on the door posts so that the people would stop, observe and kiss it as they entered into the house, reiterating the importance of their ritual.
What will you and I leave our children and our children's children? What from the past needs to be brought anew into the present by our children, creating the memories, if not the hope, for the generations to come. For we are called to remember.
Recently Anthony B. Robinson, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Seattle, shared of how ritual and sacrament play an important role in our lives and faith today. In a forthcoming book which he co-authors with William Willimon and Martin Copenhaver entitled, Good news in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopeful Vision, Tony Robinson explores the ways that the rituals and sacraments of our faith shape and form a people, and more specifically the ways rituals and sacraments "particularize," or set a community of faith apart from the general culture.
How often are our own journeys of faith greatly blessed and sometimes radically changed by a deeper awareness and appreciation for that which is brought forward as a gift to the people.
So maybe my grandmother knew what she was doing after all, in her attempts to share with me, not only her experiences, but who she was. I will remember, grandmother. Yes, I do remember.