Hiding in the Shadows

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16; ESV)

The Great Showman Theatrical PosterI was doing my fatherly duty to my sixteen-year-old daughter during the holidays by taking her to see the movie “The Greatest Showman,” a musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Some time before, I had seen enough of the trailer to know I wasn’t interested. One of my older daughters told me she liked it, but didn’t say much else, except the music was contemporary, which I thought was pretty strange given that the story takes place in the mid-19th century. Strange or not, a dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do; so off to the movie we went.

I am not sure when it happened – it may have been during the third musical number (“Come Alive”) – I began to see the special something of this film. By the time it was over, I concluded I had just witnessed a leap in the evolution of movie entertainment for the 21st century. The makers of “The Greatest Showman” had accomplished the convergence of compelling story-telling and superb talent as expressed via extraordinary songs and choreography, all the while upholding family values, in such a way so as to instill hope and joy in the audience. And they did it at a time that may be the most cynical in all of history.

Regarded as the movie’s anthem, “This Is Me,” recently won the best original song at the Golden Globe Awards. It captures the fundamental theme of the film, which on the surface may be taken as the overdone “follow your dreams.” While the movie is laced with a good dose of the typical “you can be whatever you want to be as long as you want it badly enough,” it goes much deeper than that. It reaches out to the hearts of those who, for one reason or another, don’t allow themselves to have dreams in the first place.

There are two levels of human oppression. The first is typified by the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. Trapped against their will, they hold on to the great promises of the past as they cry out to their God for deliverance. In no way should we diminish the difficulty of such a state. Yet the second level of oppression is a lot worse. This is when we either do not know we are oppressed or if we do, we simply accept it. The power of this second level of oppression is chiefly derived from self. Without our cooperation, there would be hope for change. But hope can be too painful. It is a lot easier simply to accept our plight as it is, thinking we are making the best of an impossible situation.

Surprisingly, the second level isn’t often realized until sometime after being rescued from the first. We see this in Israel after the exodus. It isn’t until the people face the challenges of freedom that the depths of their internal oppression become clear. Even though they are no longer slaves to Pharaoh, it is evident they are still entrapped in their own fear and faithlessness. Unable to rise up to their high calling in God, they eventually yearn to return to their house of bondage in Egypt, where they feel more at home.

How many Yeshua followers experience something similar? Our initial encounter with the Lord is glorious as we discover freedom and a power to live beyond our wildest dreams. But it isn’t too long before “reality” sets in and we begin to wrestle with the specters of the past, not to mention new challenges and problems we never had before. That’s when we, like Israel of old, are tempted to return to our old predictable lives, preferring our former taskmasters to the scary unknown that’s ahead.

“This Is Me” is the refusal to give into that temptation. It is a call to embrace the reality of who we really are and not give in to the manipulative deception of shame designed to push us back into the shadows of disengagement. Having tasted freedom; we will not be enslaved again.

Reflecting on this song from a biblical perspective demands at least a couple of considerations. First, I am aware the film and this song in particular is being framed by many as a celebration of “diversity,” which in our day has come to take on a technical meaning in society, especially in relationship to individuals who embrace certain lifestyle choices. Tragically, more and more people regard all forms of shame as oppressive as if morality itself is the problem needing to be eradicated. But while there may be a tendency to leverage “The Greatest Showman” in this way, that’s a metaphorical stretch. The coming out of circus “freaks” Barnum provides is not a green light for the pursuit of unrestricted human desire, but a true celebration of the humanity intrinsic in the image of God embedded in all of us.

The second consideration is of particular concern to me personally. I understand the power of shame calling me into the shadows. That might surprise those of you who are only familiar with me as a speaker and writer, but for now just take my word for it. Because of my tendency to hide away, I love songs and stories that call us out to face our giants or climb the mountain – to be whatever it is we are meant to be against all odds. “This Is Me” is definitely one of those songs.

In the context of the film, the song challenges the notion of “You don’t belong here.” The temptation for many is to agree and go back into hiding. The song rejects that, asserting the opinions of others will no longer get in the way of one’s contribution to the world. But isn’t expressing this so aggressively as in “bursting through the barricades” or “gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out” arrogant? There’s a part of me that thinks so and would rather return to the shadows. In the film, however, these are metaphors to insist we be fully present in the situations we find ourselves in, not allowing others to diminish us. Yet many believers, including myself at times, think it is godly to be diminished as if that is the essence of true humility.

Some justify hiding away through an oft-misused Scripture which relates the words of John the Baptist as he neared the end of his public ministry (see John 3:22-30). When John’s disciples mentioned to him that people were beginning to flock to Yeshua, he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard people use this in prayer, asking God to demonstrate his power, while keeping themselves from being noticed. Sounds humble, I know. But that has nothing to do at all with what John the Baptist was saying or with true humility. John was explaining that his task of introducing the Messiah was nearing completion, which was why more people were going to Yeshua than to him at this stage. Now that his job was almost done, it was time for him to fade into the background, so to speak. Prior to this, he had an essential part to play in which taking center stage was required.

Hiding away is not humility, but fear due to shame. The aggressive posture of “This Is Me” is not really toward others, but toward ourselves. In spite of the freedom secured by Yeshua on our behalf, we remain our own brutal taskmaster, standing in the way of all God wants us to be both in and through us. We don’t oppress ourselves completely on our own. We leverage the impressions and opinions of others, past and present, to justify our continued imprisonment. But we are no longer slaves, we are fearless children of God (see John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6-7).

Far from hiding in the shadows, we are to let our light shine for the world to see. Yet many of us have been intimidated into the shadows, shamed into silence, agreeing that we don’t belong. But we do! The song declares “I’m not scared to be seen; I make no apologies.” Apologies are appropriate when we have wronged God or others. But we are not to apologize for being “me” as if we have no God-given place in the world. We have nothing to be ashamed of. How can we be when we have the very help the world is desperate for? That they don’t know it is beside the point. That we don’t know it undermines what God wants to do in the world.

God wants to do great things through his people, but he can’t use us if we are hiding away. Sure, we are weak and wounded. We make mistakes – sometimes big ones – but he can handle that, especially if we cooperate with him. Nothing is going to happen if we hide in the shadows. It’s time to come out and let ourselves be seen for who we really are.

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This early presentation of “This Is Me,” sung by  Keala Settle at a workshop session, illustrates the challenge of coming out of the shadows.

 

Why Hanukkah Matters

Large hanukiah in Jerusalem

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins this evening, Tuesday, December 12, and lasts eight days. It commemorates the Jewish victory over the occupying Seleucids in the second century before Yeshua. After the reign of Alexander the Great, his empire was split into four, with the Seleucid Empire encompassing much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories, including Israel. Antiochus Epiphanes was king of the Seleucid Empire from 174-164 BC and sought to consolidate his kingdom through assimilation, by forcing Hellenistic (Greek) culture and religion upon the diverse peoples of his domain, including the Jews.

Antiochus outlawed Judaism, erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, and defiled the Jewish altar by sacrificing pigs on it. Antiochus’s plan was working as many Jews acquiesced to his assimilation program. Things began to change, however, when a kohen (English: priest) named Mattityahu from the small town of Modi’in sparked a revolt when he killed both a fellow Jew who was willing to comply with the demand to sacrifice to Zeus and the Greek official who issued the demand. Leadership passed to Mattityahu’s son Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, the name also associated with those who joined the rebellion. The revolt soon led to the cleansing of the Temple and the rededication of the altar on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which coincides with late November/December. Hanukkah means “dedication,” and is a reference to the restoration of the altar.

The most popular feature of the festival is most likely based on legend. It is said that when the Temple was cleansed, there was found only a day’s worth of holy oil for the menorah (the seven-branched lampstand). Apparently it took eight days to make a new batch of oil, but a miracle happened, and the small amount of oil lasted eight days. This is commemorated by the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah (Hebrew: hanukiah) for eight nights. We also indulge in delicious items fried in oil: latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jellied donuts).

While the oil provides much of the symbol and fun of the festival, the actual miracle is wrapped up in the victory itself, as recounted in the traditional prayer, Al Hanissim which include these words:

You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.

The theme of God’s miraculous deliverance is certainly not unique in Israel’s history. Hanukkah’s recounting of great victory over the Seleucids joins earlier ones over the Egyptians at Passover and Persia at Purim, not to mention all sorts of other sensational victories recorded in Scripture. But at the same time each of these provides different aspects of the outworking of God’s faithfulness toward his ancient covenant people. The rescue from Egypt is about bondage, redemption, and the revelation of his Word. Purim demonstrates the providential work of God against the blind hatred of Israel’s enemies. Hanukkah is about the need to resist the insidious nature of the dominant culture and what a few faithful believers can accomplish if only they would take a stand.

While there is much to learn from everything that God has done for Israel in the past, the lessons of Hanukkah illumine some of today’s greatest challenges. Assimilation forces attempting to eradicate biblical faith will eventually fail. But Yeshua’s triumph over evil will not occur apart from his followers. He pledged to build a community against which the very gates of hell will not prevail (see Matthew 16:18). His kingdom will work through the world just as leaven permeates a clump of dough (Matthew 13:33). And the movement that began small in his day will grow into a gigantic tree (Matthew 13:31-32).

The growth of his everlasting kingdom (Daniel 2:44) was not and will never be dependent on the cultural climate. Yet it requires the tenacity of the Maccabees, willing to take a stand for God’s ways, no matter the cost. Unlike the Maccabees, this is not a military battle (Ephesians 6:12) but a life and death struggle nonetheless. One that will be opposed and criticized; its adherents misunderstood and ostracized (Matthew 10:22). Yet the victory is guaranteed (Revelation 11:15).

The Maccabean victory was not simply another win for God’s people. It was a necessary stand to ensure the ongoing nature of God’s plans and purposes. The divine destiny of Israel and Messiah depended on their sacrifice. Not alone as crucial players in God’s rescue operation of the creation rooted in Abraham, they certainly were true to God’s call on their lives.

May the same be said about us. It is time to stop giving in to the prevailing mood of moral and spiritual decline in our day and allow Yeshua’s kingdom power to be displayed through us. To do that requires, like the Maccabees of old, standing against the current cultural pressures to conform. But more than simply resist, we must also, like the Maccabees, engage the great powers of our day and demonstrate the superior nature of the earth’s true king.

Jerusalem the Beautiful

Jerusalem

With all the commotion in response to the U.S. President’s announcement last week regarding recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is easy to forget that real people’s lives are at stake. Personalizing political decisions should in no way diminish or distract from their national and international importance. If I read the Bible correctly, we are called to keep the Big Picture and the details in mind at all times, no matter how much they might appear to be in tension.

The Big Picture aspects of the President’s announcement are vast. So much has been said since Wednesday, but I am convinced that he did the right thing. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is unjust that until less than a week ago, the Middle East’s only true democracy was the only country in this troubled world whose capital was denied by all other nations.

I commend to you two items that are most helpful. The first is from Honest Reporting, an agency that seeks to correct anti-Israel bias in the media. This piece provides general historical and political context to last Wednesday’s announcement:

http://honestreporting.com/trumps-embassy-move-behind-the-hysteria/

The second is the speech by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, given at Friday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, where she clearly lays out the what the President said and what he did not say in his announcement two days’ prior.

https://youtu.be/wFumFNy7EgY

Whatever our viewpoint might be on this and related issues, let us take the time to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the people living there, Jews, Arabs, and others. I will never forget when I was there a couple of years ago. I was heading back to where I was staying from my first solo walk around the Old City. I happened upon an Armenian woman, who had been born there many years before. I can’t remember how or why we started talking, but she exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful city in the world!” She was right. There is a beauty that is intrinsic to Jerusalem that is incomparable. But it’s a beauty beyond its geographical landscape and architecture, ancient and modern. It’s the beauty of God that permeates its very existence.

It’s no wonder that the President’s announcement caused so much reaction. Jerusalem is no run-of-the-mill city. The Maccabees (it’s Hanukkah this week!) knew that over 2000 years ago, and we have celebrated their victory ever since. The Armenian woman knew that. The President knows it. And in some way, millions of others know it too. But could you imagine what would happen if we used even a small portion of our reactions to Jerusalem news to offer up a prayer for help and blessing to Almighty God?

Please pray for the men, women, boys, and girls for whom this is far more than a news story. Pray that world leaders would make wise decisions, putting the welfare of their people ahead of national interests. At the same time may justice prevail for all. May God’s will be done!

Just Released: The Between-the-Lines Bible (KJV)

Note: The following is satire. References to organizations and individuals are fictitious.

Genesis 1:1-8 (KJV) with lots of space between each lineSpeculative Publishers Inc. (SPI) just announced its latest Bible resource designed especially for readers who are not satisfied with just the plain text. For the very first time, the “Between-the-Lines” Bible (BTL) gives you all the room you need to expand upon the revelation of Scripture. Instead of the usual cramped line spacing of regular Bibles, the BTL Bible provides ample space for your imaginative and fictitious additions and comments. Instead of having to jot your thoughts in the margin, you can now add your ideas right into the words of the Bible itself.

Pastors and teachers alike are delighted with the BTL. “I always found traditional Bibles cramped my style,” remarked Rev. Bernie Clarke, founder of End Times Now Times Ministries. The BTL Bible is like opening a window to infinite interpretive possibilities.

SPI is so proud of its first edition. President Bartholomew Eisegesis exclaims: “We are confident that our readers will appreciate the BTL’s beautiful print and layout as well as the extra line spacing in the books of Daniel and Revelation.”

SPI is working on a digital version in which users can expand the lines in between the text as much as they like.

Do You Know the Messiah’s Name?

Names of Jesus in Hebrew, Greek, and EnglishOne of the challenges for my wife and I in having ten children was names. Besides the fact that my wife wanted to have their names in hand from the moment we knew of their conception, while I tended toward leaving that important decision much closer to their birth, we shared pretty high standards. We preferred characters from the Hebrew Bible, but only those of noble character and they had to be sufficiently easy for English speakers to pronounce. It helped that we didn’t feel the need to provide more than one name per child, though three did get middle names. All in all, we wanted to give our children names that would be meaningful to both to us and to them.

God takes naming seriously. The Bible tells us he invented it, when he called the light “day” and the darkness “night” (see Genesis 5:1). While he would pass on the naming of animals and most people to humans, he would from time to time intervene, providing names to particular individuals either before birth as in the case of Ishmael and Solomon or change them afterwards, as in Abraham and Jacob.

Tragically, the meaning of the most important name God has ever given anyone has been lost to most people, partly due to the English translation tradition. In the great majority of English versions of the New Testament, we read the angel’s words to Joseph the betrothed of Mary as “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

To most the name “Jesus” is exclusively associated with the Messiah, which is fine. But the name actually given by the angel was common at that time. The name “Jesus” is an attempt to provide an anglicized version of what is actually recorded in the New Testament. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it itself translates most of the dialogue and speeches in the Gospels and the Book of Acts from the original Hebrew or Aramaic. The name normally translated in English as Jesus is the Greek Iesous (pronounced yay-soos). But that is not exactly what Joseph heard from the angel. Nor is it what people in his day called him. What God named him was more along the line of Yeshua, a proper name derived from the Hebrew word for “salvation.”

Yeshua is certainly a fitting name for the Savior, and associating his name with the concept of rescue (which is what salvation in the Scriptures means) is most likely intended. But connecting with the concept of salvation is not the first thing that the people of his day would have thought of upon hearing his name. Whether a person regarded him as Messiah or not, Yeshua was and is the common short form of Yehoshua, the Hebrew name normally rendered in English as Joshua – the same name given to the son of Nun, the successor of Moses and the military leader who led the conquest of the Promised Land. It is still common in Hebrew today to refer to people named Yehoshua as Yeshua. That said, it is almost certain that the New Testament Greek derivation Iesous may not be representing the short form, Yeshua, after all. That’s because the name Iesous is used in passages referring to Joshua the son of Nun, thereby following the lead of the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Joshua is translated as Iesous.

This is all to say that when God named the Messiah it was clear that he would be associated with Israel’s prototype military leader who led the conquest of the Promised Land. As people came to consider the possibility that this Joshua might be the Messiah, it fueled their expectation that he had come to engage in a new conquest of the Land. Instead of overcoming “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 3:8), this time it would be the vanquishing of the Romans.

For most of the time since returning from Babylon centuries earlier, the Israelites were under foreign domination, a certain sign that they were the objects of God’s disfavor. Messianic expectation became associated with the restoration of God’s favor and the end of foreign oppression. By God naming the Messiah “Joshua,” he affirmed their expectations.

Yet the last thing we think of Jesus is his being a conqueror of the likes of Joshua son of Nun. What is often taught is that the messianic expectation of the first century Jewish world was wrong. Jesus didn’t come to conquer in that way, rescuing the people from military and political oppression. Rather, he came to save in a spiritual, nonphysical sense.

Obviously Jesus did not aspire to or fulfill the role of a military conqueror. There was much about his methodology that was contrary to expectation. We see this in Peter’s reaction to Jesus’s announcement to his closest disciples of his imminent arrest and death (see Matthew 16:21-23). That Jesus also mentioned resurrection seemed to go over Peter’s head, since suffering and death was so counter to the Jewish messianic concept. However, just because the Messiah’s methods were contrary to expectation doesn’t mean he is any less the conqueror. God didn’t stamp his Chosen One with the name Joshua only to dash the people’s hopes and dreams that he himself gave them through their prophets.

Some see the misunderstanding solely in terms of timing. Much of what was expected two thousand years ago will happen when Jesus returns. In the meantime, God is patient with humankind as he gives us the opportunity to turn to him. But one day, the Messiah will return to judge (see Acts 17:31). The problem with shifting the Joshua concept to later is that it neglects the power of everything he has done until now.

Calling him Joshua is not a shout out to a future time, it’s the Messiah’s God-given identity marker. It’s not that he will one day be a Joshua, who will conquer evil’s minions and establish God’s rule on earth forever. He will indeed do that fully and completely upon his return, but he has been the conqueror all along. As the greater Joshua, he has conquered far more powerful threats than the earlier Joshua ever faced.

The Jewish world, Jesus’s followers included, thought he would beat off the Romans, but instead he beat off sin and death. This is not a spiritual-only victory. It’s spiritually based, but not spiritual only. This Joshua may have not removed the Roman presence from ancient Israel. He did something far more effective. By defeating death, he broke Caesar’s power, thus freeing God’s people to conquer the effects of sin throughout the world.

Coming to grips with the essence of his God-given name is essential to effectively follow him today. His followers are increasingly relegated to society’s fringes. The aggressive tone of our culture’s influencers can be overly intimidating. But it is the people of the messianic Joshua who have been mandated by God to teach the nations the Truth about himself and his ways. This is not a time to shrink back. Instead, we need, like his early followers, to pray for boldness and the demonstration of his power (see Acts 4: 23-31). As he answers this prayer, let us step out in confidence, knowing he will prevail.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Escaping the Fun House

Illustration of a fun house mirror

When my wife and I were recently in Vancouver, we visited the world-famous Stanley Park for the first time in years. As a treat we took our two youngest children on the miniature train. In the waiting area they had something I hadn’t seen in years: two fun-house mirrors. Not exactly the place where I would expect to see them, as they are normally found in a traditional amusement park attraction called a “Fun House”. Fun house mirrors are designed to provide (hopefully) humorous reflections, by skewing the mirrored image, thus making the subject and others look extremely tall, short, fat, or even upside down. The intended humor is found in how nonsensically people are represented. While the fun of fun house mirrors is related to how preposterous these reflections are, I don’t think most people would find them funny at all if they represented any semblance of reality, especially since they are actually very grotesque.

I grew up in a fun house, but there was nothing funny about it! No, I wasn’t raised in an amusement park. Rather, throughout my childhood and adolescence, everywhere I turned so to speak, I saw skewed, grotesque reflections. The problem was I didn’t know that what I was seeing was anything but normal.

Almost nothing was an image of reality. I had a father and a mother, plus three older brothers. But my family life was extremely dysfunctional. My parents bickered all the time. My brothers hated my parents, and left home as soon as they could. Being as young as I was while chaos reigned, I was helpless to do anything about it, except suffer. What furthered my distortions were words of love and demonstrations of affection that were part of my everyday life. My mother would dote over me and my father would take me out with him quite regularly. But I didn’t realize then that my mother’s love was more about satisfying her needs than mine, while my father’s desire for my presence was a ruse towards my mother as a way for him to get out of the house. My mother worried all the time and feared almost everything, demonstrating to me that the world was a very scary place. Both parents played the victim instead of looking for ways to constructively resolve issues. When he was young, my father determined that might means right, and became a body builder, so that he could beat people up when necessary. He was ashamed that my brothers and I didn’t share his physique, teaching me that my lack of strength meant I was helpless facing life’s problems. Along with that he taught me: “Money makes the world go ‘round,” and did he ever believe it! Almost every blow up was about money and, according to him, the lack thereof prevented us from enjoying life.

After years of skewed reflections, I was full of fear and could no longer cope. I was living in a world of lies, caught in a web of illusion in a nightmarish fun house that was anything but fun. No wonder I had a nervous breakdown at age eleven and panic attacks at eighteen.

Then one day I was given an opportunity to escape my fun house. A Friday afternoon in the Cote St. Luc suburb of Montreal, talking to a friend of a friend, I was presented with a whole new set of reflections. Could it really be that I was living in a crazy fun house; that the skewed reflections I had always thought were real had deceived me? As I was hearing a biblical case for Jesus’ being the Messiah for the first time, I was being presented with reflections of a clarity and sharpness that shone of a goodness and truth that I had never encountered before.

I stepped out of my fun house that day and discovered the real world for the first time. I cannot overstate that transition I experienced as God through Yeshua transformed my life. But what I didn’t know at the time is that I would carry with me many of the skewed reflections of my former residence. While God has wiped away many of the old images from my mind, others have stayed with me. Some of the ways my mind interprets circumstances and interpersonal interactions is still via old skewed reflections – old fun house mirrors that still need to be broken.

The thing that works to preserve my remaining skewed reflections is what made them so effective in the first place: I think they are genuinely accurate reflections of the way things are. Instead of perceiving the real world, one that is saturated by the presence and power of a loving God, I see myself alone under the threat of danger in an unsafe world.

The recent events in Edmonton, Alberta or Las Vegas, Nevada, not to mention the devastating weather disasters that took place before them, plus all sorts of personal and large-scale tragedies the world over may support the skewed reflections of my old fun house. But these circumstances, terrible as they are, do not reflect the whole story of the world in which we live. The world is extremely complex. The daily happenings of our individual lives are complicated; how much more are global events? Yet whether from the media, be it main-stream or social, or a chit chat over coffee. we are continually confronted by skewed reflections of today’s world. No wonder we see so much personal and societal breakdown. Our increasing inability to cope is largely due, not to the problems of life themselves, however real and serious they may be, but to the great amount of skewed reflections that distort reality all around us.

It’s not enough to exit the fun house. We have to also smash the mirrors wherever they may be.

That’s what Paul told the first century believers in Rome, when he wrote:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2; ESV).

It’s not good enough to exit the fun house of your old life. It’s starts there for sure. Our journey to reality must begin with being in right relationship with the God of reality by trusting in his Son, the Messiah, who gave his life for our sins. But it doesn’t stop there. Unless we smash our mirrors of skewed reflections, we will never be able to discern God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. Instead we will continue in our dysfunction of distorted reality, unable to accurately interpret the personal and societal events of life.

But if we have the courage to smash the lying mirrors that continue to haunt our lives, not only will we discover ever-increasing freedom and goodness in our own lives, we will become reflections of reality to others, helping them to see how skewed their mirrors really are.

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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