Climate Disaster

For the week of November 2, 2019 / 4 Heshvan 5780

Photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg

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

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And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:13)

A few years ago, I was at a family gathering, chatting with a relative who recently had his first child. I don’t remember how it came up, but he expressed great fear about his child’s future due to the looming climate crisis. That was the first time I had encountered such emotion over what has, since then, turned into a frenzy. As sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has said: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

My reaction to my relative’s panic years ago was along the lines of “Don’t worry; it’ll be okay.” How ironic, I thought. My immediate family are the only believers in our whole clan on both sides. Everyone else is somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum. It wasn’t that long ago that disaster predictions were the sole domain of religious folks. Remember images of prophetic wannabees waving placards blazoned with messages, like “Prepare to meet thy Maker” or “The world will end in forty days”? Back then it was secular materialists shrugging off such gloom and doom in the name of scientific knowhow and technological progress. No more! The roles are reversed. It is secularists who are predicting the end of the world as we know it; while many believers like me are calling for calm. But should we be calm?

Climate disaster is not new to our planet. Neither is it new to the Scriptures. This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) records history’s most destructive event, weather or otherwise, when God rebooted his creation through a flood that destroyed all air breathing creatures except for Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark.

This climate disaster reflects the biblical principle of the relationship between human behavior and the environment. Where I agree with the climate prophets is we can’t treat our world anyway we like and expect everything to always and forever be okay. Where we differ is that there is more to this, not less, than the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses. While as stewards of the planet (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-27), it’s essential to keep watch over what we put into the air, the effects of our lifestyles are the results, not of the cars and factories per se, but of the values behind how we live.

Activists and some political leaders claim if we would only adjust emissions, we may be able to avert climate disaster. But until we are willing to look seriously at what actually fuels (pun intended) our way of life, the coming disaster will not be averted. When will we take a serious look at the consumerism and greed that controls much of world economy today? I am not simply referring to billion-dollar corporations here. Big business cannot succeed without the everyday consumer. The rich can take great pride in their ability to purchase carbon offsets for their lavish lifestyles while the poor bear the burden of oppressive taxation. All the while the great polluting nations of the world continue to poison the atmosphere and water. The western world won’t get in the way of countries that have become manufacturing empires, because we want their inexpensive goods.

And that’s just one piece of a most troubling puzzle. The current obsession over climate is a convenient distraction from the grave issues plaguing the planet. It’s a lot easier to take off from work or school to attend a climate strike, than it is to effectively address destructive forces such as family breakdown, identity confusion, pornography, and abortion.

Perhaps changing climate will have disastrous effects on our planet, but it’s the social climate that should concern us the most. Not only is it something that you and I can address right now, the benefits are world changing.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Reality

For the week of October 26, 2019 / 27 Tishri 5780Boy looking at the earth with the universe in the backgroundBereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1)

As we restart the annual Torah reading cycle we are reminded of one of the core concepts of Scripture: God created the heavens and the earth. There is nothing that exists that hasn’t been made by God except for God himself. Understanding the current and complex troubled state of his creation is essential to know how to effectively navigate the world in which we live. But that issue can’t be properly addressed without first starting with the fact of our living in a intentionally and intelligently designed creation.

It might sound strange, but we need to stress that the existence that God created is the only thing that exists. Either something exists or it doesn’t. We may have differences over what exists and what doesn’t or have conflicting opinions over the nature of this or that. But whatever we think of the universe, there is only what exists. For most spiritually minded people, including those who embrace the Bible’s perspective of things, we accept there are in existence material and immaterial entities (I was going to say “visible” and “invisible,” but materialists believe in the existence of invisible things such as radio waves, for example. There was a time when such things were unknown even though they were part of God’s creation from the beginning).

Just as existence is what it is whether we are aware of it or not, the properties and potential of things are the way they are as well. Again, we may have differing opinions over how this or that is understood, but it is what it is. The way things are in so far as they actually exist is what we call reality. Reality is the universe as it really is. Our understanding of reality may be misinformed or confused, but that takes nothing away from genuine reality.

Truth is an accurate representation of reality. In Hebrew, there is no difference between the concepts of truth and reality; they are one and the same. This is clearly illustrated in modern Hebrew conversation. If someone makes a statement, and the hearer reacts with what in English would be “really?” in Hebrew it’s, “Emet?”, which is like saying “Truth?” In other words, they are asking for confirmation whether the statement matches reality.

This is all to say that the pursuit of truth is the search for how things really are. This is what the scientific method is supposed to be about: the search for truth (reality). Tragically, in my opinion, scientists often fail to accept they on a journey towards truth. Too often discoveries are expressed in terms of complete understanding instead of as working theories. Scientists of all people should be the first to acknowledge the complexities of the creation (whether they believe in a Creator or not) and be humble enough to admit that whatever their field of study is the complexity of design should drive them to be far more tentative about their claims.

Regardless of perspective, there is only reality. Too often I hear believers referring to the spiritual world as being more real than the material world, when there is only reality. We could discuss priorities and/or relationship of the two to each other, but we need to start with accepting if they exist, then they are equally real.

The Scriptures tell us that God is the author of reality because he brought the existence of everything into being. The Scriptures also provide us with an accurate understanding of reality. God’s perspective of the universe he made is not his opinion or preferences about life, it is the truth about life. We may have trouble correctly interpreting Scripture, but the Scriptures rightly understood is an encounter with reality as it really is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Nations Shall Know

For the week of October 19, 2019 / 20 Tishri 5780

Globe with a stethoscope on the Middle East

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

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And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the LORD, the Holy One in Israel. Behold, it is coming and it will be brought about, declares the Lord GOD. That is the day of which I have spoken. (Ezekiel 39:7-8)

The Haftarah for this special Shabbat coinciding with the sixth day of Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) is a favorite for those focused on the Bible’s predictive portions. Many of these have already been fulfilled. These include those that are concerned with the Messiah’s initial coming (see http://alangilman.ca/messianicprophecies/) and other past events such as the emergence of ancient empires (see Daniel 7) and the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (see Daniel 9:20-17; Matthew 24). Much of what we are still anticipating is derived from passages that appear to refer to cataclysmic events associated with the Messiah’s return and the final judgement.

Early on in my new-found faith in Yeshua, I encountered people who were nearly obsessed with the details of predictive passages. I found it curious at that time and continue to wonder about how people could be so convinced of details of future events when they are not fully spelled out in Scripture. I accept that they think they are, but I am personally not convinced. What’s worse is, in my opinion, the creation of ideological camps based on various end-of-the-world schemes.

Another concern about this is how certainty over the details of possible upcoming events can result in the unnecessary unsettling of people’s faith. When teachers are so adamant that the Bible’s trustworthiness hinges on their particular understanding of certain passages, then when their predictions don’t happen as promised, it’s easy for those following them to throw out the actual Word of God along with misguided interpretations.

I prefer to try as best I can to stick to what we can determine with certainty from the biblical text. Take this week’s Haftarah for example. On one hand I appreciate the desire to try to determine the identities of Gog and Magog. Asking who they might be is a reasonable question. But as far as I can tell, no one knows for sure. That takes nothing away from the main thrust of the passage, however.

What’s clear is that God is in complete control of the situation regarding the people of Israel in the land of Israel. As I write this, we are looking at a situation with the nations of Turkey, Syria, and Iran that is potentially catastrophic for the region including Israel. Might this be the setting up of the scene in this section of the prophet Ezekiel? Perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see. Thankfully, the purpose of predictive passages isn’t the identification of all the details, but rather to heed the message.

God’s message through Ezekiel here is that he will use the coming events against Israel to make himself known to both Israel and the rest of the world. His commitment to his Word stemming back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remains certain regardless of appearances. The reality of the God of Israel and the truth of his Word will be established in the world and there will be no denying it. In spite of whoever may seem to have the upper hand in the latest plot or plan, it’s God’s purposes that will eventually come to pass.

I wonder if we think that the more we have a handle on the details of coming events, the more secure our lives might be. It can be comforting to wax eloquent over supposedly fascinating insights of which others are so clued out. But such a handle is illusionary. If we were honest, we would admit that such certainty is based on nothing other than guesses. Making up truth blurs reality and prevents us from facing the unknowns of not only the Bible but of life in general. This kind of dogmatic guessing is not the exclusive domain of Bible readers but is common to human beings in all sorts of realms of supposed knowledge.

If we would receive Ezekiel’s message, we would learn to accept the unknowns of both Bible and life and learn to find security in the One who will work out all things according to his will.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Geography Is More than Scenery

For the week of October 12, 2019 / 13 Tishri 5780

Ein Gedi National Park. Israel

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/ 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:2-4)

I recently got back from my third trip to Israel. While there it struck me as never before how much the land itself is a key aspect of God’s revelation. The circumstances recorded in his Word took place in real time in a real place. That real place has unique geographical characteristics that provide more than just the scenery for its stories but help mold the divinely inspired experiences of its characters.

I am on a search for the perfect three-dimensional topographical map of Israel that I want to make an integral part of my Bible teaching. The dramatic geographical diversity within this relatively small country is breathtaking. It astounds me that in just over an hour you can drive from Jerusalem, which is about 750 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at about 400 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level. So much of the land north to south is mountainous, with exquisite, fertile valleys between. Israel is beautifully framed by the fertile Jordan Valley to the east, snow-capped Mt. Hermon to the north, the beaches of Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea to the south.

The stories of the Bible take on greater depth as we understand them within their geographical context. For example, seeing the environment in which King David spent much of his time shows us that the way he describes God in some of his closing words is not the product of abstract spiritual musings disconnected from everyday life. On the contrary. David’s referring to God as his rock, his fortress, his stronghold is reflective of the very terrain in which he sought protection from his enemies.

On more than one occasion David fled to the Judean Hills for refuge. These hills are rugged, difficult to traverse with steep ravines. They contain caves perfect for hiding. Now nearing the end of David’s life, having experienced God’s protection and faithfulness through a great deal of trouble, he extols the protection God provided him in such places. He describes his experience of God in terms of the geography in which he sought safety. The vividness of these metaphors for God and what he did for David is fueled by the actual terrain. When David sought protection, he didn’t stand in an open field with his enemies encircling him as he called upon God’s angels to protect him or make him invisible. Rather he purposely went to the most secure locations he knew of. Yet in the end he didn’t give credit to the interesting geography, nor did he thank God for providing it. He rightly understood that the effectiveness of the natural lay of the land was from God. If God hadn’t guided him and protected him, then the highest mountain and most complex cave would not have helped him.

David had a deep understanding of God as creator. To know God was to know him within the world he made. At the same time, he never confused the creation with the creator. While serving God was something to be lived out in the physical world, life’s meaning and purpose could not be derived from what God had made, but from God himself. Yet to know God as David did, allowed him to stand within the creation in such a way that it vividly reflected the character and power of God without ever taking his place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Recipe for Life

For the week of October 5, 2019 / 6 Tishri 5780

Recipe book with vegetables on wooden table and the words "God's recipe for life" superimposed.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity…” (Hosea 14:2-3; English 14:1-2)

I like to remind people that life has no formulas, but that’s an overstatement. The world as God made it certainly includes effective standard procedures that the vast majority of the cases result in expected outcomes. Baking recipes are a good example of such a formula. If you follow the instructions, including the listed ingredients and the specified quantities, mixing as described, and baking at the right temperature for the precise amount of time, the result should be a good one.

The problem with formulas for life, unlike recipes, is that there are too many variables at play. Even the most complicated baking recipes are simplistic compared to the lives of human beings. That’s why I am cautious about presentations that claim to provide ten steps to whatever. While such content may include some timeless and practical wisdom that may be beneficial, there is no way that someone who doesn’t know me personally can guarantee outcome.

Years ago, a friend recommended a doctor who had developed a treatment for general malaise. So I thought it would be a good idea to check him out. After a while I realized that his treatment of certain vitamins in relatively large quantities and avoiding certain foods worked extremely well for some people, but not for others. This didn’t stop him, however, from thinking that he had come up with a perfect diet for a large portion of the population. Even though I was not seeing the near-to-miraculous results others had experienced, he encouraged me to stick with it. In fact, he told me that if it didn’t work for me, then I was doing it wrong.

I have seen this in other areas of life. People who have gotten help via a formula, be it a special diet, a health product, a business idea, or particular advice, often think that if it worked for them, it’s going to work for everyone else. It might work for some others, but not for everyone.

I delight in how the wisdom of Scripture is not formulaic. It somehow captures the complexities of life in such a way that allows people to engage an intricate dynamic that is highly relational and very profound. While understanding the common makeup of human nature, the Bible makes room for individual differences, levels of maturity, and cultural contexts.

Yet, through the prophet Hosea, we are introduced to a basic formula through which we can experience a right relationship with God. Hosea served during the demise of what was known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel that split away from the south under the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. As it turned out, the people didn’t listen to Hosea’s words and were overcome by the Assyrian empire.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s recipe for life is no reflection on its effectiveness, however. Unlike the claims of other supposed life formulas God’s recipe through Hosea includes core elements that if followed with sincerity will result in the promised outcome of restoration with the Creator. God’s recipe is found in chapter fourteen, verses three and four (English: verses two and three) and can be summed up as follows. (The following is a condensed summary; for a fuller explanation, you can listen to my sermon on this passage that I presented a few weeks ago.).

Decide to stop living life your own way and turn to the God of Israel. Speak to him out loud, asking him to help you be free from all that is controlling you and from which you cannot free yourself. Renounce all dependencies on earthly powers and man-made inventions. Also renounce all loyalties to false gods and powers that control your life. Acknowledge that God is merciful to the oppressed and be willing to reflect this same mercy to others. Finally, ask God to accept you on the basis of what he has done for you. Hosea states this in terms of “accept what is good.” What is good and acceptable to God is the sacrificial offering of the Messiah. Our failure to live up to God’s standards alienates us from him. Saying the words in themselves isn’t sufficient to re-engage God. But because of Yeshua’s death and resurrection we can turn back to him and have the kind of loving relationship with him for which humans were originally designed.

As we are in the midst of the Jewish high holy days, there is no better time to follow God’s recipe for life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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