Dynamics of Effective Living

For the week of November 3, 2018 / 25 Heshvan 5779

Illustration of a gauge showing maximum impact

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Prophets: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 1:1-31

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After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. (Bereshit/Genesis 23:19-20)

A survey of Abraham’s life apart from its eventual place in history is not that impressive. An old, childless man travels to a foreign land to live a nomadic existence in a hostile environment. Having the luxury of biblical narration clues us into his motives and hopes as well as the supernatural dynamic working behind the scenes. But what did he actually accomplish? That the three great monotheistic religions claim him as their primary ancestor has little to do with any sense of achievement he may have had. That he and his elderly wife had a miracle baby is more the stuff of tabloids than history books. Sure, leading the charge in the defeat of several kings is pretty impressive, but we know his motive was more for the sake of family than some great noble cause.

I wonder what he thought was going to happen when he first answered God’s call to go to the Land of Canaan. How keen he was is questionable given that his family settled in Haran, halfway between his birthplace and his destination, until his father died (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31-32). But when he finally resumed his journey, it was in response to God’s promising him greatness, peoplehood, and blessing for the world. Soon after arriving at his destination, he was also promised the land itself. As he waited for the pieces of his puzzle to fall into place, he almost lost his wife Sarah twice due to fearing for his own life. He tried to solve his childless problem via the scheme that produced Ishmael. Later he determined God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Thankfully he stopped at the last minute. He lived long enough to arrange a wife for Isaac who was already thirty and didn’t seem to be too keen to do much. I have often wondered what the psychological effects of his dad’s holding a knife over his heart had on him and subsequent generations, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

By the time Abraham breathed his last, what did he have to show for himself? He didn’t have any grandchildren yet, let alone have any semblance of becoming a great nation. And as for land, all he owned was burial plot. We know the rest of the story, but it would be hundreds of years and unbelievable circumstances before his descendants would become a significant nation and acquire the Promised Land. Good thing that Abraham kept on keeping on in spite of the lack of spectacular, earth-shattering events.

Obviously, it wasn’t fame or any great sense of accomplishment that kept Abraham going. However he understood the promise of greatness, peoplehood, land, and blessing, the lack of fulfilment didn’t prevent him from doing his part albeit with the occasional hiccup. He believed he heard God speak to him and acted accordingly. It didn’t matter to him that onlookers would be clued out as to why he was doing what he was doing no matter how bizarre it seemed. He knew God spoke to him. Perhaps he had second thoughts or thought he was crazy. Yet, he did what God called him to do and changed the world as a result.

Abraham is the Bible’s model of faith (see Romans 4:16). His life demonstrates to us how we can be in right relationship with God and how to live lives reflective of that relationship. Imagine if his goals were like those of so many today: building his personal profile as he strove for fame, selling out others to achieve his personal goals, and so on. Content to live a relatively quiet life, he stayed true to his convictions as he trusted in an invisible God among idol worshippers. The unusualness of Isaac’s birth spoke for itself, but he never leveraged that to his advantage. He was even willing to give him up at God’s request.

If Abraham is our example of how we are to live, what does that say about our social media generation of likes and views, where instant is hardly fast enough and satisfying desire is the highest value? Perhaps we need to listen more and be satisfied with less, to commit ourselves to fulfill God’s call, whatever that is, and leave the results to him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Reason to Laugh

For the week of October 27, 2018 / 18 Heshvan 5779

Four people laughing together

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 4:1-37

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God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. (Bereshit/Genesis 21:6)

Last spring a friend of mine was researching how best to conduct a Passover Seder for his Christian community. He came upon the suggestion that laughter was appropriate in such a gathering. He wrote me because some were concerned that including levity may undermine the Seder’s seriousness. My thoughts immediately went back to one of the first times I did a Seder for a Christian group. During the meal time, one of the leaders said to me: “I didn’t think this was going to be fun!” “Not fun?” I reacted. How could it not be fun? We’re celebrating our deliverance from Egypt!” Reflecting further upon the question, I thought about how the Jewish experience is such a fascinating combination of joy and sorrow. It isn’t simply that our history has had some good times and bad times. It’s that the good and the bad have been intermingled. Time and time again when it appears that darkness is about to overwhelm us forever, the tables surprisingly, even miraculously, turn, and light breaks through. Not only is the threat abated, but the result is often better than the original condition.

In literary terms this is called irony. It’s the story of the bad guy digging a pit only to fall into it himself, while his unsuspecting victim helps himself to the now abandoned lunch. While some may feel bad for the bad guy, the sudden act of justice at his own hand, creates an overwhelming emotional response of delight that often exhibits itself through laughter.

Passover isn’t the only holiday that features irony, of course. At Purim, we commemorate Haman’s parading Mordechai through the Persian capital before being hanged from the very gallows he prepared for him. At Hanukkah, we remember the victory of the small Maccabean army over the great assimilating powers of their day. Besides these formal celebrations, let’s not forget Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers being his circuitous route to the Egyptian palace; the mercenary and false prophet Balaam opening his mouth to curse Israel but pronouncing nothing but blessing instead; the impenetrable walls of Jericho falling down in response to a Jewish parade complete with the sounds of shouting and shofars (English; ram’s horns); scaredy-cat Gideon leading Israel in victory against the oppressive Midianites; and the modern State of Israel emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Irony provokes laughter, but I wouldn’t call most of these stories funny. Each and every one of these were difficult and dangerous. They include great suffering and loss. But they didn’t end that way. While in no way diminishing great hardships, there was reason to celebrate eventually. What I believe my friend was struggling with in his Passover research was a tendency by some that either the event should be serious or fun, but not both. However, life is both. Especially a life that is wrapped up in the God of the Bible, the God of Israel.

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, understood this. After going childless for almost her entire life and being far beyond her childbearing years, she finally had a son. That is remarkable on its own and more than enough reason to celebrate, but this is not any son. Sarah’s son is the heir to the greatest of all God’s promises. For through him will “all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:4). Through his descendants, evil and its deadly fruit would be destroyed forever. God’s plans and purposes rested on this child, yet the tension and turmoil leading up to his birth made the delight of his arrival so great that he would be forever marked by his name, Yitzhak, which is derived from the Hebrew word for “laughter.”

The ironic complexity of Jewish history reflects the reality of the universe in which we live. Life is difficult and painful and yet, when we are in relationship with the Master of this universe, we can catch the delightfulness, even the humor, of life’s goings on. This is why the New Covenant letter of James (actually Ya’acov or Jacob, reminiscent of the son of Isaac), begins with the encouragement to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The Greek word for “joy” here, “chara,” is no disconnected, quasi-spiritual, unemotional sense of contentment. It is full-out celebratory happiness.

Are we really to be that happy in the face of “trials of various kinds”? We’re not talking the “coffee drive-through is busy” type of trial here. It’s the painful kind of threats, unjust loss of employment, family betrayal, beatings, imprisonment, and death. I have a hard-enough time sustaining any semblance of a good mood during times of minimal discomfort. But pure joy? Celebratory happiness? Laughter perhaps?

James understood the irony of life. He not only knew the ancient stories of his people, but also the most ironic of all: The one where Death thought it could hold the Messiah in its grip, only to be defeated once and for all, thus fulfilling the laughter child’s destiny. Maybe James knew that not only would God’s goodness forever have the upper hand in the lives of Yeshua’s followers, but even great trials would be leveraged by God for our good. Realizing this doesn’t belittle the seriousness of our hardships, though if we think about it long enough, it might give us a good laugh.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Friends

For the week of October 20, 2018 / 11 Heshvan 5779

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:8-10)

Like Abraham of old, I am on a journey into the unknown. And like Abraham the unknown isn’t completely unknown. It’s that I am only now truly grappling with what I have known all along. Let me explain. The New Covenant Book of Hebrews states: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). This is in spite of the fact that the Land of Canaan, as the Land of Israel was then called, was clearly his intended destination (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31; 12:5). He knew exactly where he was going geographically, but he didn’t know what going there would fully mean. Even though God gave him some inkling of purpose in that this would result in blessing for himself and the world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), he was clueless as to the actual details and their implications.

Thankfully the unknowns didn’t prevent him from fulfilling his call. He knew enough to trust God for the things he didn’t know. It’s like that with friends. This week’s Haftarah reading (excerpt from the Prophets that accompanies the weekly Torah portion), includes the remarkable statement that Abraham was God’s friend. In all of Scripture, Abraham is the only individual to be called such (see also 2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). Real friends are comfortable in each other’s presence. They don’t require full disclosure and don’t suspect ulterior motives or hidden agendas. Abraham trusted God; God entrusted himself to Abraham.

The Hebrew word for friend in this passage is “ahav,” which is the word for “love.” Similar to English, ahav has a very broad range of usage, denoting affection or desire. At the most basic level to love someone or something is to give ourselves to that person or thing. It is context that determines love’s nature and intent. For God to call Abraham his beloved or friend is to is to speak of giving himself and his resources to Abraham.

Even though Abraham is the only individual referred to this way, he isn’t the only friend of God. The Abrahamic friendship motif is echoed in Yeshua’s words to his disciples during their last Passover together when he said: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Similar to the Hebrew, the word for friends here is derived from one of the Greek words for love, “phileo.”

This pronouncement bridges the unique relationship of Abraham to you and me via Yeshua’s original friendship circle. The intimate, loving relationship with God experienced by Abraham is available to any and all who trust in Yeshua as Messiah, which finally brings us back to my journey into the known unknown. From the early beginnings of my coming to know God through Yeshua many years ago, I have been aware of the centrality of love in any genuine relationship to God. Perhaps it was due to my perception that many believers overstated or sentimentalized God’s love, or more likely it was my personal woundedness that prevented me from opening my heart to him as I ought. Whatever the cause, I am finally realizing that in spite of my passion for biblical truth, I have been paying lip service to this most essential of all biblical realities. While I have been aware of the importance of God’s love, I have resisted allowing myself to embrace it or more accurately be embraced by it, until now.

I normally like to have things figured out, to know what’s going on, to be in control. What I really didn’t understand, however, was how much of a barrier all this is to fully experiencing God’s love. I am so glad that the basis of our friendship is not my psychology and behavior, but rather that Yeshua “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). What a friend!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Global Mosaic

For the week of October 13, 2018 / 4 Heshvan 5779

Concept art of satellite earth image with people of different races superimposed

 

No’ah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 11:8-9)

According to this story, which takes place early within the Torah’s timeline, the people of the earth originally lived in the same geographical vicinity. The motive behind the Babel project was not what I was told when I was a child back in the days when Bible stories were still read in public school. I was led to believe that the people wanted a high tower to keep them safe in case another flood similar to Noah’s would occur. The biblical text records nothing of the sort. The actual reason is clearly stated: “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:4). This was in direct opposition to God’s earlier directive to do just that (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28).

The people were also looking for identity in their building project’s goal of corporate security. What they thought was to their benefit God regarded as inevitably destructive. And so, he deemed it necessary to intervene for their good and that of future generations. He disrupted their ability to communicate. Until then all people of the earth spoke the same language. The resulting confusion led to the people gathering in separate communities that eventually migrated to different geographical regions. Thus the people groups of the world came to be.

The circumstances behind the development of nationalities may lead some to conclude that language and cultural differences between peoples is a negative thing. That the steps to this disparity began with disobedience to God is clear. Moreover, since then until now, language and cultural differences have certainly contributed to conflict between peoples. But is peoplehood diversity in and of itself bad? Let’s consider what would have happened if people would have “filled the earth” without the God-imposed confusion. Is it reasonable to assume that the people of the world would have retained the one original language forever? As distinct communities formed in various regions of the earth, accents and dialects would have quickly developed. Also, diverse geographical regions demand unique vocabularies. For example, sea-faring people create tools unknown to mountain folk and vice versa. Clothing common to one climate is often unheard of in another. Differences in language emerging from such contrasting needs and challenges are foundational to the formalization of culture and distinct peoplehood. Therefore, the development of diverse people groups would have happened even without the Babel project.

The complex mosaic of cultures was destined to occur under God’s providence with or without our ancestors’ initial cooperation. That the development of people groups over time is of God is not to imply that everything about every culture is always good. The curse has tainted the creation including culture. But in spite of the ways culture has been corrupted, the fact of national diversity is by God’s design.

False notions about what the Bible calls the “age to come” (see Mark 10:30, Hebrews 6:5) have also tended to undermine our appreciation of the global mosaic. Imagining the human story as moving toward the re-establishment of a unified nation of one language and culture creates an ideal that is contrary to God’s expressed purpose for humankind. In the Bible’s version of the age to come, following the Messiah’s return, the resurrection, and the final judgement, when sin and death are no more and global peace is permanently established, nationalities continue. The description of the New Jerusalem includes: “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24). These are not individuals formerly of people groups or kings who used to be of distinct nations. The development of nationalities as overseen by God in history is retained.

This is not to say that there is no room for the mingling of nations. From economic trade and cooperation to intermarriage, there is no indication in Scripture that national distinctions are to be closed and outsiders kept out. At the same time, cooperative ventures should show respect for cultural differences of all parties.

Beware therefore, of noble sounding global unity movements. Any attempt by church or state to homogenize people groups is to undermine the will of God and robs the complex and diverse human family of our distinct and unique histories and the special contributions we have to share with the rest of the world.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Avoiding the Devil’s Trap

For the week of October 6, 2018 / 27 Tishri 5779

The words "It's a trap" in the center of a bear trap

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Bereshit /Genesis 3:6)

When many fans of the Bible read the early chapters of Genesis, it is often to establish little more than a theological framework. Our first parents’ act of disobedience is viewed as simply the basis of the human predicament from which we require deliverance. While the happenings in the Garden of Eden certainly set up the unfolding of God’s salvation plan, there is much more to be gained by noting the details of this tragic tale.

The text provides us with insight as to Eve’s internal process as she pondered the serpent’s crafty suggestion. First, we are told she “saw that the tree was good for food.” As someone who was just born yesterday (I know she wasn’t “born,” and the event timeline isn’t clear), how did she so quickly become such a pomologist (fruit expert)? While Eve, like Adam, was created innocent, she didn’t possess all knowledge. As a human being made in God’s image, she was graced with great intelligence potential, but at this point, she was still quite naïve. Remember their lack of shame was not due to their being comfortable with their unclothed state, as much as their not knowing they were naked (compare Bereshit/Genesis 2:25 with 3:7 & 11). Over time, God would mature the human family. Be that as it may, Eve thought she knew better.

Not only did she confidently determine the goodness of the fruit, she found it to be “a delight to the eyes.” Looking at it evoked a sensation of pleasure. It made her feel good and excited her. Nothing like powerful positive vibes to entice someone.

Finally, she also saw that it “was to be desired to make one wise.” In other words, she felt that it was just the thing to enhance her life. Wisdom is more than knowledge or experience. It is the ability to harness knowledge and experience to fully and effectively engage the world around us. Eve was sufficiently conscious of the fact that there was much for her to learn and concluded that consuming the fruit would enable her to live a wonderful life.

It’s hard to miss that Eve was subject to the same tactics that propagandists and advertisers have always used. The serpent set her up to be vulnerable to the lure of the fruit. It was both beautiful and powerful. And perhaps there would be a time to engage it, but not for Eve nor Adam, not yet, if ever.

Where did Eve go wrong? She shouldn’t have listened to the serpent, I know. But there’s more to this dark tale than that. It might surprise you that Evil had a voice in the Garden at all. But it did, and it has been speaking ever since. Like Eve, we can’t completely ignore Satan’s temptations. Are we then doomed to succumb? It would be nice if “getting saved” would inoculate us from the devil’s schemes, but too many genuine Yeshua followers have been entangled by his trickery to claim such a thing.

Taking note of the dynamics of Eve’s own entrapment can help guard us when facing temptation. Her biggest mistake, replicated by millions since then, was to entertain the possibility that God could not be trusted. She opened herself to the possibility that God was not only lying, but that he was purposely and selfishly keeping her from what was truly best. The result was that her heart was twisted away from God her creator to herself, the creature. Transitioning from being God-focused to self-focused, she became her own god. Thinking she could accurately assess her environment and make her own life determinations didn’t liberate her from God’s apparent arbitrary limits as expected, but instead imprisoned her under her own mastery.

Such has been the condition of all since then. While turning to God in Yeshua breaks the chains of self-focus, it doesn’t automatically prevent us from returning to its trap. Whenever we prefer our own perceptions, desires, and feelings over and against God’s word, we play out the first sin all over again. The devastating effect of our first parents’ misguided actions should remind us to resist the lure of our perceptions, the deception of our desires, and the untrustworthiness of our feelings. Rather by fueling our lives with the truth of God through the Scriptures and nurturing an intimate relationship with him in the Messiah, we give ourselves the best opportunity to avoid the devil’s devices.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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