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The Beauty of Pentecost: the Tzitzit

Reflections from Dr. Howell

   When I was in graduate school, we were laboring one day over a prickly translation issue in “The Prayer of Manasseh,” a short book of just 15 verses that has been in the Bible, and then not in the Bible over the centuries. Manasseh was probably Israel’s most wicked king (2 Chronicles 33). Allegedly, late in life, he prayed this prayer of remorse, pleading for mercy.

What derailed me from comparing manuscripts and dictionaries was one phrase in his prayer: “Imprint on my heart the bend in my knees.” In other words, he knelt, he assumed the posture of prayer, and then hoped that humility would happen in his heart. We usually reverse this. We wait until we feel a certain way and then offer it to God. But perhaps God would have us engage in the discipline of prayer, and then the mood, the inner disposition, will inevitably follow.

If you read these emails, you know I’m learning much these days from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. When he pondered the spies scouting out the land (Numbers 13, which we looked at the other day), he points out an outright oddity: the word for the spies, latur, is the s ame as the word for fringe in Numbers 15:39, where the Israelites are told by God to wear a blue tassel on the corner of their garments. Have you ever seen Jews wearing these?

This tassel, the tzitzit, is a reminder not to be like the spies, who shrank in fear and missed out on the Promised Land, but instead to trust God and live boldly. Fascinating. We Christians wear whatever we want to wear, and hope we’ll think about and trust God. Jews have a habit, a practice, which you can’t miss.

Sacks suggests that laws, habits, disciplines are needed, not so you can strut before God and say I did all the right things! Rather, these habits, and reminders, are “training in responsiveness to God, an antidote to selfish tendencies, a defense against idolatry.” He presses further: “Ritual is behavior that bypasses the prefrontal cortex.” Athletes and artists have their little routines, daily rituals. These engrave into their instincts what they need to be great athletes and artists. You do things over and over. The feeling, the spontaneous embrace, follows.

Think about it. We wait to feel grateful before we give thanks. If we are feeling generous, we contribute. Sacks encourages the opposite approach: “Prayer engenders gratitude. Charitable giving makes us generous. The ‘thou shalt nots’ teach us self-control. Ritual changes the world by changing us.”

What are your rituals, daily, habitual things you do simply for God, to engrave into your prefrontal cortex a responsiveness to God, a reliance upon God? Is anything attached to your clothing, or your rearview mirror, or on the wall of your home, to remind you not to be chicken like the spies, but to live in bold trust in God?

Bend your knee. Bow your head. Ask God to change, over time, how you feel, who you are. Do your part. Build some habits into your day. Clutter your abode with little tassels or crosses or notes or whatever will remind you that you are God’s and you needn’t be afraid. You can be holy, prayerful, fruitful, even joyful. If the Prayer of Manasseh was real, if God could change a perverse, evil tyrant, God can probably do good work in you.

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