Unsolicited Input

I'm always here for you. Indoor shot of warm-hearted young African American man showing compassion to unrecognizable male, patting him on shoulder while trying to comfort and reassure his best friendMany years ago, I was taking a course in Jewish studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Near the end of the term, we had a social. At some point one of the female students, an Israeli, whispered in my ear: “Your pants are open,” which translated means that the zipper of my trousers was down. Was I embarrassed? For sure. Was I grateful? Absolutely. What was most embarrassing for me at the time was not that this woman would inform me of my personal clothing mismanagement, but that others in the room may have already observed it. But would I have rather continued to remain unaware of the truth of the situation? No. Given the opportunity to resolve the situation (which I did as discretely as possible), while momentarily uncomfortable, was far better than possibly discovering the truth on my own later on.

Yet there seems to be a life value controlling most people that would prevent them from ever doing what my fellow student did that day. I can’t say with certainty what that is. Is it the value of personal autonomy? Do people think they lack the right to enter into what they might perceive as others’ personal bubbles? Do they think they are obeying an invisible “No trespassing” sign?

The lady Robin and I encountered in Manhattan last September didn’t see one. We had just arrived and were looking for a place for breakfast, standing outside one particular diner, reading their menu posted on their window. A complete stranger came up from behind us and started telling us why we shouldn’t eat there, referring to her cholesterol research. She then led us down the street to another restaurant before continuing on her way. We’ll likely never learn all the facts behind that situation, but we were delighted by her unsolicited input. We didn’t have to listen, but we’re glad she cared enough to speak up.

One of our favorite stories in this vein has to do with how our daughter Tikvah got her name. Before she was born, we decided that if the baby were a boy, his name would be Asher (from Hebrew, meaning blessed or happy). My wife, Robin, had seen in a baby name book that the feminine derivative is Asheyra. We liked the sound of that, and a friend who knew Hebrew said it was appropriate. When she was born, we announced her name to our friends and family. Everyone reacted positively, except for one Israeli-Canadian couple, who were very concerned about our choice of name. “You can’t call her that!” they said. “It sounds too much like the ancient fertility god Asherah. She could never go to Israel with a name like that.”

Why didn’t we think of that? So we switched her name to another of our favorites: Tikvah, meaning “hope.” Only God knew at the time how fitting that would be for her.

We were curious as to why no one else had said anything, especially since so many of our friends were biblically literate. Yet when Robin mentioned the switch to one such person they said that they had been similarly concerned. “So why didn’t you say anything,” Robin asked. “It’s your baby,” they said.

What does her being our baby have to do with the fact that we were attempting to inappropriately brand her? It’s one thing when we are oblivious to what’s going on; it’s another to think we lack the right, the permission, the responsibility, or whatever it is to speak into other people’s lives for their betterment.

We didn’t have to switch her name, but how arrogant it would have been to think: “How dare they tell us what we can’t name our baby!” They called us because they cared. But motive aside, they were right, and we did the right thing by listening.

The fact is our lives are dependent on the input of others. It’s often other people who see our needs far better than we can see them ourselves. Our hesitation to give input robs people of the betterment that God desires to provide to others through us. Certainly we might be the ones robbing ourselves when we don’t listen to helpful comments. And of course, some people are busybodies and meddlers, getting involved in the affairs of others when they shouldn’t. But it seems to me that in most, if not all, of the circles in which we currently live, the greatest problem is the hesitation to speak up, not giving others the opportunity to make needed adjustments in their lives.

You might be surprised to learn that the section of Yeshua’s teaching, Matthew 7:1-6, beginning with the oft quoted words,” Judge not, that you be not judged,” is more about speaking up than not. Here Yeshua calls people hypocrites who point out problems in others’ lives all the while having the same problems to a much greater extent themselves. He clearly criticizes those who attempt to take specks out of other people’s eyes, when they themselves have logs in their own eyes.

However, it was not Yeshua’s intent to shame these hypocrites into silence. Rather, he goes on: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, when we think we see issues in others, we need to examine ourselves and deal with our issues first. Then, we are in a position to address issues in other people. By using the “speck in the eye” metaphor, Yeshua implies that when we speak into other people’s lives, we should do so gently and carefully. Note that to leave specks in their eyes is to give them over to a much worse eye condition. Love demands we gently remove specks as we see them.

I am aware that not everyone wants their weaknesses pointed out. Or what I perceive to be an issue may not be one to someone else. That’s why we need to ask ourselves the question, what’s the benefit in sharing? The final statement Yeshua makes in Matthew 7:1-6 is “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” When we know our input will be violently rebuffed, it might be better to not say anything. But this is a cautionary note to a culture that errs on the side of speaking inappropriately, not the situation in which we find ourselves today, where most of the time we keep too much needed information to ourselves.

The Lord’s teaching here assumes a societal default setting of speaking into others’ lives. I know that this tends to be a cultural thing. Some people need to take care to listen more and heed Yeshua’s instruction on how to patiently and gently relate to others. But we are not to just be quiet and keep all our opinions to ourselves, no matter what the prevailing culture expects. Because that’s not what the Lord expects.

Yeshua called his followers to be teachers of the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). This passage, commonly called “the Great Commission,” is not instructing us to simply “tell people about Jesus,” but rather an extensive God-ordained program to inform all people everywhere of everything Yeshua taught his early disciples (V. 20), in other words teach everyone the whole Bible from a messianic perspective.

Yet there is so much hesitation to speak God’s truth into people lives. I have heard over and over again, that we need to earn the right to be heard. But while we can lose the right to be heard through all sorts of bad behavior, we already have the right to be heard because we have been mandated by the Messiah himself to do exactly that.

But what do my stories of restaurants and baby names have to do with the Great Commission? Shouldn’t we reserve our unsolicited input for the loftier, more supposedly spiritual areas of life? But tell me, do you really think you will be able to effectively disciple the nations if you are too afraid to tell someone their pants are open?

A Clay Pot Nation

Western Wall and The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel

The Temple Mount captured by Israel on July 7, 1967 illustrates the complexity of the work of God in our in our lives.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Earlier this month, June 10, was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of one of the most world-changing events in human history – the Six Day War. I remember it, sort of. I was nine years old, living in Montreal, where we were consumed, not by the affairs of the Middle East, but by Canada’s biggest party ever! – Expo 67. It was the centennial year, commemorating one hundred years since “Confederation,” when we became a “self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederation#Canada). We like to think that’s when we became an “independent country,” but that’s another, pretty complicated, story.

Aerial view of Expos 67, Montreal

Expo 67, Montreal – mtlblog.com

All sorts of special events took place throughout the country in 1967, but nothing was like Expo. From April through October, Expo welcomed over 50 million visitors, including many heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and French president Charles de Gaulle. During his visit on May 25, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation commemorating the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 of one hundred and fifty years earlier, which was a disarmament agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, the governing power over what later became Canada. This treaty “created the world’s longest east-west boundary – 5527 miles, and the longest demilitarized border in the world” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rush%E2%80%93Bagot_Treaty). What the public didn’t know at the time is that the U.S. President and the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, had other border issues on their minds as they discussed the possibility of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While Canada was partying it up, the fledgling State of Israel was on the brink of destruction. While the one-hundred-year-old vast country was enjoying unprecedented peace with its neighbors, the nineteen-year-old one was about to engage in a fight for their survival.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. -GPO 06/07/1967 – http://www.sixdaywar.org/content/photos.asp

Fifty years later, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation Israel found itself in. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were intent on wiping Israel off the map. Ironically, Israel, instead, changed the map. Planning only to undermine their enemies’ ability to destroy them, Israel more than tripled its territory in only six days, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. There was no greater turn of events, however, than the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. Taken by the Jordanians nineteen years earlier in the War of Independence, the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City were either killed or expelled. Access to the Wailing Wall (now the Western Wall) was forbidden to Jews. The reunification of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, more than any aspect of the Six Day War, strengthened Israeli nationhood and reconnected the Jewish world to its ancient homeland. In Israeli hands the holy places of the world’s major religions are protected, something that was not the case before that day.

To Israel at the time, with a few exceptions, such as Jerusalem, the captured territories were regarded as bargaining chips for peace. But tragically the Arab world would not come to the table. Still, Israel’s victory of those days along with its commitment to get along with its neighbors eventually did lead to peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But despite whatever positives resulted from this astounding military event, they are obscured by a great ambivalence as the tension between Israel and its neighbors continues.

For many, the continuing difficulties faced by Israelis and Palestinians obscures one of the greatest military victories of all time. But what was the alternative? The armistice lines of 1949 were no long-term solution. Israel could not reasonably live within such indefensible borders. The new state wasn’t even recognized by the Arab world – a reality that continues in much of the world today. But since 1967, Israel has been in a much stronger position, allowing it to thrive in spite of ongoing tensions. Few nations could achieve what the Jewish nation has in such a short time under such circumstances. And to think that just prior to the establishment of the state, six million Jews were systematically murdered by an almost-successful genocidal plot.

Far from a sense of ambivalence, we should be awestruck by the Six Day War and its aftermath. Instead of the harsh judgement incessantly targeting Israel, we would do better to celebrate its fortitude and resilience in the midst of an intolerable pressure cooker. Most countries would either crumble or disappear in the face of much less. Not Israel. The pressure instead has created a jewel that should be the envy of the world.

Why should we insist that an endeavor be regarded in a positive light only if the results are 100% positive? Life doesn’t work like that. A life-saving surgery, for example, might result in a scar or a disability, but wouldn’t we still celebrate the surgery as long as it met its main objective, that of saving a life?

The fact is the whole world, not just the Middle East, is not what it should be. Injustice, disease, death, and every kind of evil is part of the human story everywhere. What Israel endures on a national scale is no different from the trials and tribulations we all face due to what the Bible calls sin. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from pretending otherwise.

On a personal level, I have been slow to accept the realities of living in a world so affected by sin. Even with the reality of God in my life and the lives of my loved ones, I am still learning to navigate the brokenness we all share. The Bible tells us that we are fragile, breakable vessels containing great treasure. Because of what the Messiah has done for us, even though the presence and power of God fills our lives to overflowing, the troubled aspects of our humanness are not eradicated. To expect perfection from ourselves and others is a dead-end. We will learn to thrive only as we accept the great number of ambiguities that continue in this age.

The challenges we face as individuals are so wonderfully demonstrated by Israel. God’s covenantal faithfulness to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vividly displayed through a long and troubled history; no less so in the events of June 1967 and following. The ongoing tensions certainly need to be addressed, just like the issues in our own lives. Let’s not be put off by the presence of problems. Rather, let’s look to God for his help in the midst of them.

What To Pray For

A man looking up with a wondering gesture

Don’t worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. Then God’s shalom, passing all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with the Messiah Yeshua. (Philippians 4:6-7; Complete Jewish Bible)

Have you ever wondered what to pray for? It can be overwhelming to think of all the important things we could be praying about. We may, at times, be tempted to simply offer up broad generalities. For certainly God doesn’t expect us to petition him about every person and every problem on the planet. Still, simply saying, “God bless everybody,” doesn’t seem to cut it.

Studying the prayers in the Bible is helpful. Doing so provides insightful perspective on both subject matter and the posture of the petitioner, but that doesn’t necessarily give us detailed instructions as to what particulars you and I should cover from day to day. Still, there may be some implications we can derive that are very practical.

The Bible demonstrates that our prayers should be directed to God the Father in the name of Yeshua. We should seek God’s will, not praying out of selfishness. Not that it’s wrong to pray for ourselves. We should pray for ourselves, but not from greed or envy. Our prayers should be expressed in confident trust (faith) in God, though he can handle our struggles with uncertainty (see Mark 9:23-24).

There is one essential ingredient that I have haven’t considered until recently. I don’t remember ever reading about it or hearing it preached. Yet it seems to me that this is what will not only guide us on what to pray, but may actually be the key to a truly effective prayer life. Yeshua quotes Isaiah on one of the occasions where he criticizes the religious leaders of his day for making humanly derived tradition a higher priority over matters of the heart (see Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13). The issue here isn’t prayer, but the principle is easily implied. Simply mouthing the right words is not highly esteemed by God. To insincerely petition the Almighty is nothing more than a religious show and a waste of time. On the other hand, God has regard for the genuine earnestness of his children. This is why the Messiah encourages us to pray and not give up (see Luke 18:1-8). In this story the persistent widow persists because she cares deeply about her concern. And that’s the key. We need to pray about what we care for.

I don’t know why it sometimes takes me so long to bring to God the things that burden my heart. I know I don’t need to impress him with overly religious sounding platitudes. I also know there is nothing too small or too big for him. Yet, I regularly find myself struggling over all sorts of things that I neglect to take to him.

We might think that our concerns are too petty to offer to the Master of the Universe. But if what we consider to be trivial is causing us considerable concern, why not take it to our Heavenly Father, and let him decide what to do with them? Perhaps we don’t think our concerns are spiritual enough. Again, why not let God make that determination? Misguided notions that separate the visible material world (that God created) and the invisible spiritual world (which God also created) prevent us from seeing God’s presence in every aspect of life. God wants to be involved in the world in which we live, and it’s our prayers that often open the doors to his presence.

Whatever the psychology or theology that gets in the way of expressing our cares to God, is there anything not included in Paul’s “Don’t worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.” (Philippians 4:6)? Note he doesn’t say that the antidote to worry is to simply stop worrying, but rather to take our worries to God in prayer. If something is worthy of our concern, it’s worth praying about.

As we pray about what we really care about, we might be surprised to discover that God cares about these exact same things. We might even be more surprised to find out that the burdens we bear came from him in the first place.

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) 5777/2017

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Hebrew: Yom HaShoah) observed each year on the 27th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar. I was looking for a way to help us pause to honor the memory of the 6,000,000 men, women, and children who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War 2 for no other reason than they were Jewish. So I am providing a small Magen David (Star of David) for each person who died. Please scroll down in order to sense the magnitude to this atrocity.

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Is the Bible the Word of God to Me?

Man reading a bible isolated on black

Perhaps you have heard the story of the young man who was desperate to hear from God. So he prayed a quick prayer of guidance and opened his Bible at random. Looking down at the page, the words he read were: “And he (Judas) went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). He shuddered, slammed the Bible shut, and quickly dismissed any connection to himself. Then he said another, more earnest, prayer; tightly shut his eyes; opened his Bible again; and read: “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). “No!” he thought to himself, briefly doubting this guidance methodology. Giving it one more try, he prayed even more earnestly, took a deep breath, and paused as if to give divinity greater access to his trembling fingers. Once again he opened the sacred book and glanced down to see the words: “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). I never did find out what happened to him.

However humorous or tragic you may find this story; this method is fairly common. You may have used it yourself. Your life may have taken a significant turn based on this method. But is it a legitimate form of Bible reading? My guess is that most who would claim such a thing as a legitimate experience would not prescribe it as the normal every day way to read the Bible. Instead they regard it as a special moment in which God led them this way.

Whatever you think of this, it seems to me that many people approach the Bible in exactly this way without realizing it. Not the random part, but in the way we extract verses and apply them to our lives. Do we not read the Bible, hoping that God might speak to us from it? That’s reasonable. It is his written Word after all. But how does he speak to us from his Word? We happen to be going through a particularly difficult time, when that day’s reading includes the words: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). Tears roll down our cheeks as if God had stepped into our room and personally spoken to us that everything will be okay. But those words were not spoken to us in the 21st century. They were given to the ancient Kingdom of Judah hundreds of years before Yeshua came about a time when the nation would be under Babylonian oppression. Is applying these words to our personal current problems really that different from the young man who randomly read, “You go, and do likewise”?

It doesn’t take much of a reading of Scripture to see that it wasn’t written directly to you and me. The bulk of Hebrew Scripture was written to ancient Israel and the New Testament to various audiences in the first century. Whatever the audience, the vast majority of what was written was not in the form of timeless sayings, but within particular contexts (there are a few exceptions, such as the Book of Proverbs). Yet this doesn’t stop us from treating the words of Scripture as if they were written directly to us today.

One of the times I was personally given a Bible verse by someone ended up being very instructive with regard to this subject. I was at a conference many years ago in Vancouver. During the lunch break on the last day, a few people were praying for me. It went longer than I would have liked and it got pretty intense (they meant well). It was getting near the time for the afternoon session to begin, when a woman I didn’t know was trying to take her seat in our row. Soon after, she spoke up, saying: “Pardon me, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I believe the Lord has something for you” (meaning me). It was Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Since then I have learned that many people have been given this verse, and I can understand why. If you’re going to take a verse out of context to encourage some struggling soul, it’s hard to find a better one. What can be better than to know that God’s plans for me are good and not bad? But in that moment, when I heard those words, the thought dropped in my mind: There is more to this than just the verse. So I made a mental note to look up the passage when I got the chance.

Around five that afternoon, when I was home trying to get some rest before supper and the conference’s final session, I remembered to look up the passage. It turns out it is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon. Much of his book is pretty negative as it addresses the terrible consequences of the people of Judah’s rebellion against God near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The twenty-ninth chapter is one of the few positives in all of Jeremiah. Here the exiles are encouraged by God through the prophet to get on with their lives in a foreign land, because their situation is only temporary. The Jewish nation will be able to return to their homeland in seventy years. There is even a hint of a future greater restoration apart from the return from Babylon. As I read the chapter, I realized for the very first time, that God’s plans and purposes for my people, the people of Israel, were still in effect. Until then, I thought of Paul’s reference to the Gospel as being “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16) as simply historical (the Gospel was presented to the Jews first and then after to the Gentiles). With the inclusion of non-Jews as part of God’s family, Israel, I thought, retained no special role in God’s plan. But in that moment, I realized I was wrong. As Paul writes elsewhere in Romans: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). God’s promises to my people were yet to be fulfilled.

I don’t know what the woman who gave me the verse was thinking, but receiving Jeremiah 29:11 that day forever changed my life. Not only did it change my understanding of God’s relationship to our people, I also learned that I could personally count on God’s goodness, because of his ongoing commitment to us. My understanding of the context enabled me to not only grasp what God was saying through Jeremiah at the time, but it helped me to know God better and properly understand the implications of these words to myself in my own day.

Maybe Jeremiah 29:11 has been given to you too. For years it has been a source of encouragement as it convinced you that God has good plans for you. I am not saying he doesn’t. He does. Not because Jeremiah 29:11 was written directly to you, but because the faithfulness of God as expressed to Israel in Jeremiah’s day is the same faithfulness of God that has been extended to you because of your relationship to him through Yeshua.

The genius of Biblical narrative is that God’s truth is given to us within concrete examples. We don’t simply read about God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and so on as abstract concepts. Rather, we read about him and his attributes in practical terms. So instead of just reading “God has good plans for his people” as a universal timeless saying, we encounter these and other such words in the context of God’s goodness toward Israel, the activities of Yeshua and his early followers, and in letters to real communities of believers in actual places and situations. We see a people failing miserably at times (that’s Old and New Testament, by the way!), yet unable to divest themselves of God’s love and goodness. We can observe instances such as God’s encouraging of the exiles and derive encouragement for ourselves when we are in the most difficult situations. For if God’s plans were good for the Jewish exiles in Babylon, how much better plans must he have for those who have experienced his forgiveness and acceptance in Yeshua! Therefore, it isn’t illegitimate for you to claim Jeremiah 29:11 or other verses for your own. It’s that we need to understand how the power of these verses get from their original contexts to you and me.

Let’s return to my opening story about the young man’s attempt to hear from God by randomly opening the Bible. Can God ever use such a method? Of course he can, and I believe he has. But he does so in the same way that he might use anything else to get your attention about something. That doesn’t imply that this is the appropriate way to read and study Scripture. In fact, I suggest the more we learn the Bible within its context, the more, not less, God will speak to us through his Word. If reading it out of context has made a difference in your life, how much more difference will it make when you understand what God is really saying through it!

The Most Important Thing

Stamp confirm on important text

For followers of the Messiah the question over life’s priorities is perhaps both the easiest and most difficult question there is. I guess many would consider the most important thing: “being faithful to God,” and perhaps quote Paul: “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthian 4:2). Don’t we all long to hear Yeshua say to us one day: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)? Life isn’t about money, success, or recognition, but rather being faithful to God. Easy answer, right? But is it, really? Doesn’t this answer beg for clarification? What use is such an answer if we don’t know what “faithful to God” entails? That’s what makes the question so difficult.

We resolve this difficulty in various ways. Some, maybe most, don’t think about it. They do what they do because they do what they do. Subconsciously, there is likely much more going on, since such people may not realize they are fulfilling an unspecified set of expectations, which may be derived from their upbringing or due to the influence of one or more peer groups. Going along with whatever crowd we are a part of may not be a problem unless it conflicts with what it means to be faithful to God, which we wouldn’t know until we have adequately worked through this question.

Another way to resolve the difficulty is to limit faithfulness to God to one’s sense of calling. If you are able to satisfactorily answer the question, “To what prime role has God called you?”, then as long as you put significant time and energy into that role, you may be at peace with the question. But is our service to God limited to some prime role we have? That’s besides most people not having have a strong sense of calling to begin with. But even if you do, how do you know you are being adequately faithful?

Maybe faithfulness to God is not wrapped up with the roles we play after all, but rather in the spiritual and personal aspects of life. For some serving God is limited to the moral realm: staying out of trouble; being honest; staying away from sin, especially sexual sin. It’s not so much the roles we play, but how we play the game (of life) that counts. As long as we behave ourselves, God is happy with us. For some faithfulness has nothing to do with behavior at all. All we need to do is “believe.” They think as long as we have faith in Yeshua, nothing else matters.

But limiting spirituality to the confines of morality alone or disconnecting it entirely from the everyday details of life in the name of faith is completely unbiblical. People of faith are called to be faithful to God in all sorts of ways in every area of life. The verses quoted at the beginning are a small taste of the overwhelming testimony of Scripture on this topic. Yeshua said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Yeshua came to accomplish a task. That included living a perfectly moral life, but also doing the teaching he did, the signs he performed, and the death he died. His faithfulness to God included everything. The same is true for the long list of other exemplary Bible characters throughout the entire Scriptures. While faith in God and the Messiah is key, they were commended for their faithfulness.

We still haven’t resolved the difficulty. I will offer two guidelines that I believe are indispensable in answering this question. There is no formulaic one-size-fits-all answer for this very important question. However, these two guidelines will provide you with an essential foundation to help you live a life of faithfulness to God.

First, you need to see yourself within God’s overarching narrative. That’s fancy talk for finding your place within God’s story. The prevailing mood today is meaninglessness. For many, human life is nothing more than power and desire. Many Yeshua followers, knowing this is untrue, opt to disengage from life, trying to live in an alternate spiritual reality. But this is not what following Yeshua is all about. He calls us to be part of his rescue operation of the creation. An operation in which everyone has a unique complex role to fulfil, work that is the “food” (essential life nutrients) Yeshua speaks about.

When we begin to understand the overarching story revealed in Scripture, we will better perceive the grand vista of God’s purpose for life. This opens vast possibilities for the gifts and talents God has bestowed upon us as well as provides the necessary definition and limitations for those almost infinite possibilities.

But even with definition and limits, how do we know what we should be doing, so that we can be genuinely faithful to God? This is where faith, the second guideline, comes in, but not in the irresponsible detached way I discussed above. Faith doesn’t simply make life better. Nor it is a free pass, dismissing us from all responsibility. On the contrary! Faith is our intimate and personal connection with God. The context in which Yeshua speaks about his work as food is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, and which begins with “And [Yeshua] had to pass through Samaria.” (John 4:3). Note we read, “Had to pass.” What was the basis of the necessity to go into that region? Knowing how it turns out, we know God had a special assignment for his Son to do that day. That’s why he took the normally avoided road into Samaria. Yeshua’s faithfulness to his Father led him to go off the beaten track in order to fulfill an unusual assignment.

No formula could ever result in what Yeshua did that day. “But that’s Yeshua,” you might say; he is the Son of God! True, but are we not to follow his example as did so many others in the Bible, who through various means discerned (not guessed!) God’s will? Their faithfulness was derived from their intimate relationship with God.

How do we get to that place where we too have such discernment? That’s something that God is more keen to give us than we will ever be ourselves. Yeshua said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Following Yeshua is not just another way to describe a passive so-called faith, that is nothing more than mental agreement over his identity and history. It’s an intense relationship of purposeful attention to his promptings via the Holy Spirit. It’s something nurtured through an honest and intentional pursuit of Yeshua and his ways through the Scriptures, prayer, godly community, along with a willingness to obey him whatever the cost.

It is as we lovingly respond to his desires in every area of life, both big and small, that we can anticipate hearing the words one day: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Did God Make Himself?

AskMeABibleQuestion01_600

A key feature of my booth at Missions Fest in Vancouver last month was a simple sign that read, “Ask me a Bible question!” This resulted in many interesting, sometimes challenging, discussions. My favorite question of the weekend was from a young girl, about ten years old, who asked me, “Did God Make Himself?” I was very touched by her sincerity and interest. I assumed that the inquiry stemmed from her correct understanding that God created everything that exists. Therefore, it is logical that since God exists, he must have created himself.

First, I told her that God simply exists. Since he wasn’t created, no one, included himself, created him. I referred her to the interaction between God and Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asked God what he should say to the people of Israel if they would ask him God’s name (see Exodus 3:13-15). God responded with “I am who I am” and that Moses should say, “’I am’ has sent me to you.” This use of the verb “to be” (Hebrew: “hayah”) is the basis of the most common name for God in the Bible, spelled out in Hebrew as, yod-hey-vav-hey (YHVH), and is represented in most English translations as LORD in all capitals. God’s name, therefore, establishes him as “The Being.” I like how French translations use, “L’Eternel” (the Eternal One), emphasizing the idea of “he who has and always will exist.”

This is all to say that God is self-existing, the only being in the universe who is uncreated, self-sustaining, and self-dependent. Our problem with biblical God concepts such as this is that they are so utterly different from our own experience of life. But it’s this vast difference between the nature of God and ours that is key to understanding the God of the Bible. We need to remember that he is not like us. This is central to what his holiness means. Proclaiming God as holy is to acknowledge he is so very different from ourselves. We must constantly guard against reducing him to our level of existence and explaining him on our terms. While he has graciously made himself accessible to us, he is nevertheless completely different from us. Although it is impossible for dependent creatures such as ourselves to fully comprehend such a being as the God of Israel, we do have the ability to accept his self-existence as valid, as I sensed this young girl was doing.

Do you have a bible question?

Meaning in a Meaningless World

Abstract concept of young woman on a tiny floating island depicting loneliness

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Believers often feel like Moses did during his time in Midian—“a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22; KJV). Moses never did fit in wherever he was. Destined to die as an infant along with all the Hebrew males of his day, he is rescued by the daughter of the King who had decreed his death sentence. Returned briefly to be nursed (for pay) by his own mother, he is then raised in Pharaoh’s household. After his attempt to alleviate his people’s suffering resulted in rejection by them and another death sentence by Pharaoh, he went into a self-imposed exile in Midian where he worked as a shepherd and started a family, naming his son “Gershom” (“stranger there”) to memorialize his sense of alienation. When God eventually called him to his true identity, he resisted. But God persisted and Moses becomes one of the greatest leaders of all time. Yet, despite the remarkable service he showed to his native people, he lived as a man apart, never truly belonging.

This sense of alienation from the world around us is normal for God’s people. The world as we know it doesn’t seem like home. Like those listed in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, we are “strangers and exiles on earth” (11:13), “seeking a homeland” (11:14), “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16).

At the current time, the discord we sense is exacerbated by an increasing sense of meaninglessness. Generations have been told that we are nothing more than the product of energy and matter plus chance. The masses seek to fill this void of meaninglessness with all sorts of distractions to mask growing despair. Unsatisfied with the pursuit of pleasure, some invent meaning for themselves through work, family, or various causes. Deep down they don’t really know why they do what they do, since they don’t believe there is a “why” to know.

Yeshua’s followers assert they know the “why,” that through the Messiah and the Scriptures we have meaning and purpose. But we regard that meaning and purpose as the antidote to a meaningless world. Agreeing with the world’s perspective of itself that it is meaningless, purposeless, and hopeless, we find meaning, purpose, and hope in an alternate existence in the future. This enables us to endure as “strangers in a strange land.”

While this may sound biblical, there is a subtle error in this way of looking at life. And this error undermines our calling to effectively serve God in an apparently meaningless world. It is appealing to turn our thoughts away from the perceived void of this life to visions of another world in order to cope with this one. But is that what authentic biblical spirituality is all about? Is this what it means to “desire a better country”? Were the ancient heroes of faith motivated by their desire for earth’s inevitable destruction and their transference to an immaterial existence? Did they suffer through a black hole of nothingness in the hope of being granted access to a distant otherly land of meaning and purpose?

That’s an interesting story, but not a biblical one. The world in which we live is not meaningless. It was created by God on purpose and for his purposes. He specially designed human beings and appointed us to steward Plant Earth, a responsibility he never rescinded. The alienation from the creation we experience Is not due to anything intrinsic, whether it be lack of meaning or anything else. We are strangers, not because we don’t belong on this planet, but because God’s plans and purposes for the planet were hijacked through our first parents’ collusion with Satan. God’s intention from that moment was to realign the creation with its designed purpose, where human beings fully and freely serve him under his reign through his Son, his chosen King.

Therefore, while true meaning is foreign to our current existence, God’s revelation through the Scriptures is not intended to provide us a disconnected state of mind to help us cope with an otherwise futile existence. The futility we struggle with is based on deep layers of misunderstanding due to the consequences of sin. Through the Bible, God gives us the opportunity to discover what life is really all about, the meaning and purpose of his creation.

All heroes of the faith whether it be Moses or those listed in the book of Hebrews or from any time in history yearn for the restoration of all things in the new heavens and the new earth when the plans and purposes of God will be in full synch with its inhabitants. Until then we have the opportunity in the name of Yeshua with the help of the Holy Spirit to not only to understand the true meaning of life, but to rescue others from the desperation of meaninglessness.

A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

Do You Know What You Are Singing?

Four carolers singing with questions marks and snow

It’s that time of year again when almost everywhere you go you hear Christmas music. Why songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow” don’t get airplay all winter long, I don’t know, but some things are just the way they are.

Christmas carols, a subset of Christmas music, are not all created equal. I accept that one’s preferences are their own and often have to do with sentimental associations rooted in childhood. Growing up in a Jewish milieu, I nonetheless enjoyed the sounds of Christmas. But that’s more to do with its general joyous mood rather than anything to do with the content. To me, at that time, “Hark the Herald” and “Rudolph” had more in common with each other than not. They were both happy and festive even though the festive aspects had little to do with me, my family, and our community. But how I loved going to downtown Montreal in December. The decorations, the sounds, and (unless it was my imagination) the unusual general happiness of the crowds and merchants was a delight.

After coming to know the Lord at age 19, my relationship to Christmas carols understandably changed. “Their” songs had now become “my” songs, or at least they were supposed to. No longer simply a cultural expression of holidays and happiness held at arm’s length due to my naturally acquired Jewish apprehension, the content of these age-old songs was now being validated as legitimate expressions of biblical truth in my newly embraced Gentile-dominated faith community.

The theological perspective of the crowd I was first a part of claimed to be strongly biblical. It would take some time for me to realize that simply claiming biblical authenticity doesn’t automatically inoculate anyone from the influence and control of tradition. Ironically, the stronger the claim to biblical accuracy, the greater the tendency to confuse tradition with what is authentically biblical. This becomes more and more difficult to see when biblical concepts have been obscured through redefinition and misapplication over a long period of time.

Such is the case with the great carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Few songs, Christmas or otherwise, possess such a high level of biblical referencing. Dating back as perhaps as early as the 5th century, it is most likely derived from “O Antiphons” a series of antiphonies (responsive singing) used during Vespers (evening services) on the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition.

I get very emotional every time I hear, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I want to both weep and scream at the same time! I want to cry because it so vividly captures the hope of ancient Israel, longing for Messiah’s coming. As a member of remnant Israel myself, my heart resonates with these well-crafted divine words set to a beautifully haunting melody and it also breaks for my people who continue in alienation from our King:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the other hand, I want to scream, because when this song is sung, I am most often among those, who, for the most part, completely skew its meaning.

The four remaining verses of the original version continues in a similar vein, using Old Testament references to pray for Israel’s salvation:

  • That the Rod of Jesse would free Israel from Satan’s control and break the power of death.
  • That the Dayspring would bring joy, dispersing the cloudy gloom of death’s shadow.
  • That the Key of David would secure our access to heaven and end all misery.
  • That (in a verse rarely sung) Adonai (the traditional Jewish reference to God in prayer) who gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai would come to Israel again.

But who is Israel? When you sing this song, who are you singing about?

Historically, “O Antiphons” may have been written for Advent as a retelling of the period of anticipation for Messiah’s coming. The carol then should teleport you back in time to feel the hearts of those such as Anna and Simeon who longed for God’s day of redemption (Luke 2:21-38). But the redemption of whom? Certainly, Anna and Simeon didn’t foresee the full extent of Abrahamic fulfilment of the Gospel – the blessing to the nations that the early followers of Yeshua had to grapple with and eventually implement. To them and other faithful Israelites, Messiah’s coming was primarily for Israel.

Yet how many people around the world singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” see it solely fulfilled in themselves as if the redemption of Israel is equivalent to the Church? Certainly, the nations can relate to concepts expressed in the song, as they too were in a state of darkness in desperate need of Emmanuel’s rescue. But while the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises to Israel are the foundation of salvation for all peoples, the biblical specifics of the anticipatory cry expressed through this song is Israel’s alone. For not only are they the original objects of these promises, the anticipation continues until they are fully realized in them.

But how can the revelation of Emmanuel dawn upon the people to whom these promises were given, when the great majority of his followers today intentionally or unintentionally obscure the meaning of the song by continuing to misappropriate God’s promise’s by claiming to be Israel? Sure, God can do it himself, but he has chosen to bring messianic mercy to Israel through non-Jewish believers (Romans 11:31). The ongoing arrogance of treating the church as a new Israel not only puts a wedge between Abraham’s descendants and their God-given inheritance, it prevents believers of other nationalities from experiencing their unique place in God’s plan and purposes, one of which is to be God’s conduit of restoration to Israel. You can begin to do that this month by singing an old song in a new way – as a prayer for Israel’s redemption.