About a third of the surahs in the Qur’an start with one to five Arabic letters (i.e., “Alif Lam Mim,” 2:1).  There are many theories on these and many think they are largely some sort of memory device.  This new surah, the twentieth, starts with “Ta Ha,” two letters again but also the way one would say “O man!” as if to get the reader’s attention.  This chapter is largely a retelling of the stories of Moses and Adam.

Memory is the major theme that runs through the first section of this surah.  The Qur’an describes itself here as a “reminder” to a world that has forgotten (20:3).  The implication here is a connection with what has come before, in this case the Bible.  To be a reminder, the stories of Moses and Adam would have had to be well-known. 

Three further points are made about memory.  First, prayer is intended to help the worshiper remember God (20:14).  How can one pray genuinely and not bring God and His good deeds to the front of their minds?  Second, Muhammad is warned to be mindful of how closely allied he allows himself to get with unbelievers (20:16).  They will become “distractions” and turn his mind from remembering God.  Third, one of the benefits to having Aaron alongside him as a partner will be that they together will be able to remember God better (20:34).  Community helps with memory. 

As today’s section ends, God gives Moses a dual mission: go to Pharaoh but also remember Me.  This is very interesting.  It was not enough for Moses to go.  His mission was not simply one of obedience.  God does not frame Moses’ mission simply in terms of the task he is to do.  Every bit as important was the internal reality that Moses was going to have to keep firmly in mind if he were to have success in his mission.  The internal memory was every bit as important as the external actions.      

This reminds me of a description of the effective spiritual life Henri Nouwen has given in several of his books (the same thoughts can be found in this online article).  Nouwen encourages us to picture the ideal spiritual life like an old wagon wheel.  We must start at the center or hub of the wheel.  This is our internal, personal devotional life, what Nouwen calls “solitude.”  This is us and God.  This is the domain of prayer and Scripture and fasting.  Like the wheel, this is what holds everything  together.  This is where we hear we are loved and accepted by God, where we gather the strength to face whatever else may come and to do so with virtue.  This would be Moses’ prayer life. 

Nouwen then proceeds out to the spokes.  This is “community,” those like-minded believers we surround ourselves with.  They give our external life structure and move us out into the world in many different directions.  They are connected to the center of the wheel in that they too are experiencing private “hub-moments” with God, but they are also connected to the tire tread as these friends deliver us into the unbelieving world, where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak.  This is Moses’ companionship with Aaron. 

Finally, Nouwen describes the tire tread as “ministry,” those places where we interact with an unbelieving world in an attempt to connect them with both the community and God we have found.  Ministry is the real purpose for solitude and community.  We are here to shape our world.  Just like a tire, this is where the stress and pressure is.  Tires pop and have slow leaks.  Maybe this is the “distress” 20:2 was talking about.  This is Moses’ mission to face Pharaoh.

The greatest point today is this: a successful spiritual life cannot be lived on auto-pilot.  It takes intentional effort to remember and let those memories guide us.

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