Sometimes It’s a Process

For the week of January 25, 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Businessman drawing flowcharts on chalkboard

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Originally posted the week of January 11, 2003 / 8 Shevat 5763 (revised)

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Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:6)

Israel had been serving the Egyptians as slaves for many, many years. They suffered terribly under cruel taskmasters. Over one particular period (the time in which Moses was born), Pharaoh, king of Egypt, sought to decimate them through the murder of all male babies.

The people cried out to God. God heard them. He decided that the time to deliver them had come. And so he sent Moses to them, who, in spite of opposition from Pharaoh and lack of support from the elders of Israel, persevered in his calling. But it wasn’t Moses’ persistence that wrested the people from Egypt’s grasp; it was the hand of God. God pummeled Egypt with destructive plagues until Pharaoh begrudgingly let Israel go.

Every time I think on these things, I find myself wondering if God wanted to free his people, then why didn’t he simply miraculously transport them from Egypt to the Promised Land. After all, isn’t he the all-powerful God of the universe? If he could send plagues (and stop them at will), not to mention the other miracles Israel would experience later on, couldn’t he have utilized a quicker method?

I don’t know how you deal with difficult situations, but one of the things I do is wish they didn’t exist. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I discussed the need to not be distracted by difficult and painful circumstances (see Don’t Get Distracted). Some problems to me are like nightmares that I wish I could wake up from. But I know that life doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that most problems don’t disappear through wishing or the snap of a finger. Most problems resolve over time through a process. This was so even when God was involved as he was in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Accepting this will help us have the kind of faith needed in order to deal with life’s difficulties. If we think that God will always provide instant solutions to all our problems, then when things don’t happen as quickly as we expect, we might think that either God doesn’t care or is unable to help us.

This is not to say that God won’t or can’t fix our problems in an instant. Sometimes he does. But when he doesn’t, we need to keep looking to him to guide us through the process as he works things out step by step in his time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Who Am I?

For the week of January 18, 2020 / 21 Tevet 5780

Man holding large paper with question marks on it in front of his faceShemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

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“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:10-11)

For many people, coming to grips with our identity is life’s greatest challenge. It doesn’t help that we live in what is perhaps the most meaningless time in history. If the world is made of nothing more than energy and matter plus chance, then we are the products of mindless randomization. Any semblance of meaning must therefore be a fantasy concocted by our imaginations. Without meaning, the concept of identity has no basis.

In spite of this, we long for a sense of purpose. We yearn to connect with others and with the world. But without being grounded in meaning, we remain confused. This confusion is one of the causes of relational difficulties and family breakdown. We dump our closest relationships because they don’t satisfy us. They don’t satisfy us because we don’t know why we are on this earth. The more fragmented our communities become, the more our identity crisis grows.

Moses had an identity crisis. God appears to him and gives him a mission, a mission that he sought to pursue forty years before. It didn’t go well back then. Now it was time. But not as far as Moses was concerned: he tries to get out of it. Note the first words out of his mouth as he responds to God’s directive: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:11). His issue was not with God – at least not on the surface – but with himself. Thinking he knew himself; this job was not for him.

Can you blame him? What a life he had up to this point! He lived in a day when the government sought to exterminate all the males of his people group. It’s nice that his parents tried to hang on to him as long as they could, but in the end, they put him in a basket in a river. Whether or not they hoped he’d be rescued is beside the point. But wasn’t he too young to be affected by this? Perhaps, yet he knew the story. But what choice did his parents have? Doesn’t matter, the people who were to protect him abandoned him. But wasn’t he miraculously saved by Pharaoh’s daughter? Moses’ mom even got paid to nurse him. Yes, both true, but adopted by the daughter of the evil emperor, who is out to destroy your entire people, while you retain a relationship with your birth mom who is functioning as a hireling? This would mess anyone up. The same with being raised among Egyptian royalty. Nice, but who wouldn’t feel guilty in palace luxury looking through their bedroom window at their people being abused as slaves?

There is every indication that Moses never forgot his Hebrew roots. He even sought to make a difference on their behalf but makes matters worse by killing an Egyptian in the process. Now Pharaoh, the head of his adopted family, wants him executed. So he becomes a fugitive, spending the next forty years among another foreign people, marrying one of them and raising a family in their midst.

No wonder Moses responds with “Who am I?” He is a nobody at best – an outcast and a criminal at worst. A person like this is chosen by the Master of the Universe to confront the planet’s superpower, demanding he release his vast workforce? In spite of God being God, he certainly has got the wrong guy – at least that’s what Moses thought.

And yet, in spite of Moses’ identity crisis and his attempt to resist God’s call, Moses gives in. We are not told what changed in his psyche to make him willing to confront Pharaoh. All we know is that he goes. Perhaps God’s responses to his objections were sufficient to bring about a change of heart and will. Or he surmised he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Something must have happened inside him, because not only does he accept the mission, he perseveres in it against overwhelming obstacles. Whatever changed his perspective, his life going forward proved God’s response to his “Who am I?” question to be true.  For the most part, whatever the circumstances, Moses believed God when he said, “I will be with you” (Shemot/Exodus 3:12).

Once God clarified his relationship to Moses, he was able to emerge from being an outcast in the wilderness to a place of leadership among his people.  Moses’ identity crisis, however, was not resolved simply by his hearing God’s clarification, but by believing God’s word to be true and living accordingly.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Get Distracted

For the week of January 11, 2020 / 14 Tevet 5780

Cable wire bridge in a green forest

Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12

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As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20)

Joseph’s consolation of his brothers after their father, Jacob, died is one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible. What Joseph says to his brothers here, is the kind of thing that Canadian professor and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson likes to say when he encounters the deep things of Scripture: we could think about this for a very long time! Somehow Joseph, in this brief statement, captures the complex interplay between human activity and the work of God. While, in no way turning a blind eye toward his brothers’ wrong, he acknowledges God’s upper hand.

Joseph’s brothers’ murderous jealousy could not undermine the good plan of God. It would be wrong to say that God made the brothers do it, however, as if he manipulates human affairs. Instead, God is able to accomplish his purposes through the free agency of human beings. We often like to ask the question, could he not have done it some other way? But as C.S. Lewis asserts through the lion Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles: you never know what would have happened. In other words, there’s no such thing as the hypothetical past; we always only know what actually happened. Joseph experienced what he experienced because of his brothers’ jealousy, their misguided choices. At the same time, God was at work to fulfill his purposes in the world.

I have always wondered at Joseph’s ability to cope with the tension between his brother’s actions and God’s grand plan. Clearly, he must have regarded God’s goodness as being a more dominant force in his life in spite of the hardship. But on the morning of the day I was preparing this message, I realized that there must be something about how Joseph viewed hardship itself that enabled him to endure what he did without bitterness. The situation he had been in was terrible. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers. His master’s wife framed him when he wouldn’t give in to her seduction. He spent many years after that in a dungeon from which he longed to be released. Even though that day finally came, and he was exalted to second-in-command under Pharaoh, most people would resent such a long period of unjust suffering.

I had previously thought that which made Joseph so great was his ability to keep his focus on God in spite of his circumstances – and I still think that. But, to keep focus on God necessitates not focusing on his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I tend to find that suffering or even less-intense discomfort distracts me from other things, God included. In fact, my discomfort can easily become an obsession. And if you are at all like me, you are aware that we cannot function well while obsessing over our problems.

I don’t like suffering. I prefer it didn’t exist. When I face hardship, I try to wish it away hoping it would vanish as if I were  waking up from a bad dream. But, as you know , life doesn’t work that way. You probably also know that the Bible has a very different take on suffering. The New Covenant letter of Ya’acov (Jacob) or more commonly known as James states:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

It sounds very spiritual to think of Joseph as simply focusing on God in spite of difficulty. But what’s really difficult is “simply focusing on God” without changing our perspective on hardship itself. Until we believe that God is more powerful than hardship’s evil, suffering will control us, and we will become resentful. But once we grasp that God’s goodness is with us no matter how bad things get –more than that!– that God uses the terrible things in our lives to accomplish great good, both for us personally and for his grand purposes, then hardship will lose its power to distract us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Roots of Relational Difficulties

For the week of January 4, 2020 / 7 Tevet 5780

Father and son turned away from one another

Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Originally posted the week of January 3, 2009 / 7 Tevet 5769

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Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit/Genesis 44:33-34)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God’s providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don’t think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel’s two sons and had a special place in Jacob’s heart. We don’t need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob – something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph’s brothers hated him because of their father’s preferential treatment of him. Joseph’s dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn’t care less about their father’s feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt’s supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph’s servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah’s offer that touched Joseph’s heart? It could have been Judah’s willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin’s sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn’t bear what the news of Benjamin’s plight would do to his father. Could it be that what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart – not so much toward himself – but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don’t get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don’t know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don’t know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship to God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Something Worth Fighting For

For the week of December 28, 2019 / 30 Kislev 5780

Photo background: Lake Tekapo and the Mount John's Observatory in New-Zealand

Mi-Kez / Rosh Hodesh / Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7); Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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My favorite movie clip for Hanukkah is from Lord of the Rings. Frodo, the unlikely hero of this popular epic is becoming more and more overwhelmed by the evil power of the ring he is seeking to destroy. At this point he is about to be captured or killed by one of the Dark Lord’s emissaries, thus bringing his quest to a most disastrous end. At the last moment Frodo’s loyal companion, Sam, rescues him. But Frodo, having temporarily lost his senses, is ready to stab his friend. Here is the ensuing dialogue (I highly suggest listening to the audio version, which includes the clip from the film):

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

“There is some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” What a noble statement. But as I was getting ready to repost this for Hanukkah, I realized that there is an assumption behind Sam’s words. In order for there to be a good worth fighting for, there needs to be such a thing as good.

Good, as Sam understands it, is not about our side versus their side. Sam’s statement isn’t one of staying true to their team or their cause. The undergirding worldview of this humble character (in the mind of the author, of course) is there is such a thing as objective good and objective evil.

What is obvious in Lord of the Rings is quite fuzzy in our day. Many doubt that such objectivity exists while others who may suspect it does resist making any conclusive determinations about it. Good has become a matter of personal preference.

This version of good is actually an expression of the lure of the misguided influence that Tolkien exposes in his popular trilogy. Self, self-seeking, tribal loyalty for its own sake, blind commitment to ideology, groupthink, are all forms of the Shadow, the evil influence overtaking the world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings and overtaking our world today.

Thankfully, there is objective good, because the good and only God created the universe. Good isn’t good simply because God says so, but rather because he designed it that way.

The Maccabees were not fighting for a personal cause. They, as many were doing in their day, could have easily gone along with the crowd, keeping with the times in which they lived, one of progress and tolerance. But the Maccabees knew what was at stake—God’s plan for Israel—that would eventually culminate with the restoration of the entire creation—was in jeopardy and they were not going to just let it happen. Instead they knew that, in spite of the increasing shadow overtaking Israel, they would resist; they would fight. With God’s help, they won the miraculous victory we commemorate this week.

What was true for the Maccabees is no less true for us today: there is good in the world and it’s worth fighting for!

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Engage

For the week of December 21, 2019 / 23 Kislev 5780

Finger about to press a play button

Va-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

Sometimes I ponder the circumstances that led to two of my most important life experiences: my coming to know the Messiah and connecting with the young lady who would become my wife. What this has to do with Joseph and this week’s parsha will become clear eventually. So many unusual twists and turns brought me to hear about Yeshua for the first time in September 1976, including my parents’ breakup and my own issues with my father, which opened me to accept my mother’s desire to move to Florida from Montreal in tenth grade. But when the better life we sought didn’t pan out, we returned six months later. The instability of that time fueled by my own distraction led to my repeating my senior year of high school, which gave me a new circle of friends, one of whom would later have a boyfriend from California, who upon visiting Montreal shared Yeshua with me. All this helped set up my sort-of first-time meeting with Robin. I say “sort-of” because as children, we both had been in the same Yiddish school class, three days each week following public school. After coming to know the Lord, I happened to be in a Bible study where she was mentioned in a prayer request, which is how I found out she too was a new believer. A few months later her name came up again when I overheard her being invited to an event I was involved in, which led to our meeting as believers for the first time. We will be celebrating forty years married this May!

Some people of faith use stories like these to talk about God’s guiding hand in our lives. So many of the of circumstances of these crucial life changes were out of my control. Life can feel like the living out of a script at times. But this is not my point here; nor is it what I want to demonstrate from Joseph’s life. In each of my examples, there is an influence I left out: me. On the morning of the afternoon I received Yeshua, I was sitting in my room wondering what to do that day. I had become friends with another friend’s cousin who had been visiting from out of town and was returning home later in the afternoon. The friend was part of the new circle I mentioned earlier. I had already said “good-bye” to the cousin, but on a whim decided to phone to see if I could hang out with him before he left for the airport. I could have easily dismissed the thought of calling, not wanting to intrude. But I didn’t. I called. I went over, not knowing I would soon interact with the boyfriend from California who would share with me the message that would change my life forever.

The day I met Robin, I had overheard two girls hovering around the phone (which was on the wall in those days) and learned that they were trying to coax her to come to the event that night. Too tired, she said, “No.” I can’t remember how I found out it was she with whom they had been talking. But when I did, I asked them to get her back on the phone. She, being intrigued by the possibility of meeting another Jewish believer, came after all.

I don’t bring up my contribution to these events to take credit. Obviously, each are way too complex for that, but what would have happened if I wouldn’t have called the cousin or asked to the girls to call Robin back? We’ll never know, of course. Just like we’ll never know what would have happened if Joseph hadn’t told his dreams to his brothers.

I have been in two or more minds with regard to Joseph. Was he a purely innocent victim to his brothers’ murderous jealousy fueled by his father’s nearsighted favoritism? Was he a spoiled younger brother taking advantage of his father’s favor? Was he overly naïve, clueless of how his brothers would react to his dreams? His story doesn’t include the kind of commentary required to draw firm conclusions. All we know is that he was open about his dreams. Unlike my stories, Joseph’s involvement led to some very painful experiences. But in the end the fledgling nation of Israel and that whole region of the world were rescued through his superior administrative prowess in the Egyptian government. This all came through the remarkable twists and turns spurred by his sharing of his dreams.

I wonder how much life we are missing out on due to our lack of engagement. Are we paying sufficient attention to what’s going on around us? How many of us are far too tentative, much too passive, and too hesitant in responding to life’s circumstances. We don’t speak up or get involved, because we are too cautious. We can’t necessarily set up the events of our lives, but unless we engage the opportunities placed before us, we will never fully live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Tenacity

For the week of December 14, 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780

Two wrestlers about to engage (in silhouette)

Va-Yishlah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Originally posted the week of November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776 (revised)

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:26-28)

Upon Jacob’s return to the land of his birth, he heard that his twin brother Esau, along with four hundred men, were on their way to meet him. Jacob was pretty freaked out, for it was fear of his brother’s murderous threats that caused him to run away twenty years earlier. So true to his self-focused manipulative self, he devised a scheme in an attempt to placate Esau while also maximizing his personal security. While spending the night alone after placing his large family, entourage, and a river between himself and his dreaded brother, a mysterious individual who we eventually learn is God, begins to wrestle with him. How fitting for a person like Jacob who has been wrestling his whole life. From what we know about God from the rest of Scripture, this story makes no sense. Talk about unfair advantage! The God of the Bible is no humanly derived concept, whose characteristics are based on human traits, good or bad. He is the Creator God, the Master of the Universe, who knows no equal. And yet they wrestle all night. Eventually God, would you believe, requests that Jacob let him go, which he won’t do until God blesses him – O Jacob, you always need to get your way, don’t you? But God grants his demand, even while injuring his hip that leaves him with a limp. The result is a new humility in Jacob and a true personal relationship with the God of his fathers (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:20).

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of all this is what God said to Jacob in response to his demand of blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). Do you hear what God is saying? The blessing, summarized in his new name Israel, was due to his having striven and prevailed with people and God. Prevailed. Not just against people, but God. Not endured, which would be impressive, but prevailed. Not survived, which would be pretty good. But prevailed – as in he, a human being overcame God. God got through to Jacob, not by overcoming him, which he could have easily done by breaking him spiritually and physically – not in spite of his tenacity, but because of it.

One of my favorite spiritual illustrations in literature is the transformation of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the books in the Narnia series. Eustace is a brat, who ends up in the fantasy world of Narnia with two of his cousins. His arrogant and selfish behavior result eventually into his becoming a dragon, a dreadful state, which works to create in him a newfound humility. When he encounters the Messiah character, the lion Aslan, he is told to scrape off his dragon skin, only to discover that every layer he removes reveals another set of scales underneath. Eventually Aslan says that he himself would have to deal with Eustace’s condition. He tells him to lie down as he digs his claw deep into his dragon’s skin, thus restoring Eustace to newborn-like innocence. Such a beautiful portrayal of personal transformation at the hand of God, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. “Let go, and let God” as some may say.

What a beautiful picture and perhaps one that many may relate to, but not Jacob. Not that he transformed himself, but he was anything but passive in the process. Far from letting go, he held on for dear life. It wasn’t that God was finally able to bless him once he let God have his way. On the contrary, God blessed him because he insisted on his way. Jacob was no passive wimp who simply let people and God run over him. Never a victim under the control of others or a doormat for people to walk on, he had a deep sense of the important things in life, both earthly and heavenly, and went after them with everything he had. What made the difference for Jacob was that, while misguided and insecure, he was aiming for the right things. Somehow he knew his mysterious visitor had something he most desperately needed and held on until it was his own.

I wonder how many blessings we have missed out on because we have given up too soon. We confuse humility with passivity, and tenacity with arrogance. We may fear making mistakes along the way as if God is looking for perfection instead of faith. What Eustace learned is still true: unless God transforms us we will remain dragon-like. But perhaps the key to personal transformation requires a lot more tenacity on our part than we might think.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

 

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Get the Point?

For the week of December 7, 2019 / 9 Kislev 5780

Large 3D question mark standing on a hardwood floor, leaning against a wall

Va-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

I love how genuine biblical characters are. The so-called “heroes” of Scripture are presented to us with all their normal human imperfections and idiosyncrasies well intact. This is in keeping with the Bible as a reflection of reality. Through it we encounter God’s only authorized written insight into the universe as it really is.

One of my favorite Bible characters is Jacob. Like most people, he is not easy to understand. Son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, he was destined by God to be a key link in the chain of God’s plans and purposes. One of the things that I love about him is that faith in the God of his father and grandfather didn’t come easy to him. While he certainly accepted God’s existence, he didn’t want anything to do with him personally.

What he did want was first place in his relatively small family. Perhaps it was all for the double portion of inheritance that would customarily be the right of the firstborn, which he was not, having been the younger twin. He may not have understood the full ramifications of this given God’s promise of blessings given years earlier to Abraham.

Whatever he understood, his competition with his older brother, Esau, eventually got him into big trouble. At his mother’s urging, he took off for her hometown of Haran in Mesopotamia to avoid his brother’s murderous threats. As he began his journey, while still within the region of the Promised Land, he had a dream in which God confirmed that he would indeed be the bearer of the covenant. God also assured him that he would be with him and bring him back to the land. Jacob’s response implied that he had not yet committed his life to God (see Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-21)

His personal ambivalence towards the Creator in no way undermines the experience he had that day. Note that while he had no difficulty accepting God’s existence, he held off deciding whether to submit to him as master of his life.

Still, upon waking up, Jacob exclaimed: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” He goes on to say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:17). He seems to have believed he had come upon some sort of portal, a special access point between heaven and earth. From my reading of the whole Bible, I don’t have any reason to conclude that such portals existed. What Jacob experienced was real in so far as God truly spoke to him, but whether what he saw was actually there is improbable. This is different from the story of Elisha the prophet and his servant where in answer to Elisha’s prayer the servant was able to see the present, though invisible, heavenly army that was supporting them (2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 6:8-19).

Jacob was more taken by the phenomenon than apprehending God’s intent through this experience. He made a fuss about the location but missed the point. God was pledging his presence and faithfulness to Jacob that he had first communicated to his father and grandfather. And yet Jacob put off entrusting himself to God until and only if God came through for him.

I wonder how often God does things in our lives, but we don’t get the message. We tell stories about unusual situations and strange coincidences which may convince us of God’s existence, but we don’t necessarily accept what it is that he is seeking to do through them. The way he shows up at times is often designed to teach us that he is with us even when we aren’t so aware of his presence. How much does he need to do before we get the point?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Strange Links

For the week of November 30, 2019 / 2 Kislev 5780

Two metal chain connected by a knotted cord

Toledot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7

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Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. (Bereshit/Genesis 26:3)

Two weeks ago we looked at how Isaac may have been traumatized by his father Abraham’s divinely inspired attempt on his life. While Abraham was commended for his great faith, Isaac had to live out his days with the memory of the knife over his heart. The aftermath of “the knife” was not Isaac’s only challenge. While he is remembered as one of Israel’s forefathers, his name forever associated with the God of the Bible, who referred to himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, his life functions more as a link between two more significant characters. Abraham started it all, leaving family and the familiar to go into the great unknown. It is his faith, trusting against all odds that God would make him a great nation that would bless the whole world, that is the foundation of the faithful ever since. His son Jacob’s life was filled with drama, much of which was his own making, misguidedly striving after the promised blessing until God worked great change in his heart. He was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and was part of the major transition to Egypt where the small clan would become a full-fledged nation. Isaac’s life was much more passive. He is best known for lying on the wood while his father prepared to sacrifice him. As far as we know he never received accolades for his submission. Later, in his old age, he was deceived by his own son Jacob who stole his older twin brother Esau’s blessing.

Isaac’s drama was more in what happened to him than by him. Yet God did give him some specific directions, as quoted at the beginning. Here it is again with a bit more context:

And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:2-3).

These words were given at a time when Isaac was likely considering leaving the Promised Land for Egypt due to famine. We cannot overemphasize how difficult it would have been to remain there with the prospect of no food and the challenge of finding water, some of which is documented for us in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). But the harsh environment was not his biggest challenge. It was his cultural isolation. For God to tell him to “sojourn in the land,” is to acknowledge his alienation from the rest of the population.

The Hebrew word translated as “sojourn” here is the verb “gur” and is related to the noun for “stranger” or “alien.” It reflects a sense of not belonging. Later on Israel would be directed by God to treat sojourners well because they had been sojourners in Egypt: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Shemot/Exodus 23:9).

It was Isaac’s task to live his life without a sense of belonging, to stay within prescribed boundaries in spite of whatever difficulties he might face there. God assured him that he would be with him, to bless him and his offspring, to whom he would give the Land just as he promised to his father Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 26:3-4).

Living life with a sense of not belonging can be very difficult. Isaac was called to stay faithful to God in a society that would always regard him as an outsider. But he needed to stay put and live one day at a time. And so do we.

In the New Covenant Writings, Peter writes: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). As God’s people, we are like aliens on this planet as we are not to become absorbed into the prevailing culture. This can be very uncomfortable at times, especially when, like Isaac, our immediate circumstances may not be that exciting. Yet, there is no telling how significant our link in the chain may be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Intelligent Faith

For the week of November 23, 2019 / 25 Heshvan 5780

Hands adjusting gears against a sunset sky

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

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Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (Bereshit/Genesis 23:12-13)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) provides a look-see into trading customs of ancient Canaan many hundreds of years before Joshua and the people of Israel acquired it. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had died, and needed a place for burial. We can assume that others among Abraham’s entourage would have passed away beforehand, but only now do we read of a need to purchase property for this purpose. It could be that public burial grounds were appropriate for Abraham’s servants, but not for his own family. The cave of Machpelah was suitable for more than just Sarah. Abraham himself, plus Isaac and his wife Rebecca, as well as Jacob and his wife Leah were eventually buried there.

When Abraham inquired after this piece of property, its owner offered the cave as a burial place at no charge. Yet Abraham insisted upon paying for not only the cave but the field it was part of. Clearly Abraham had the foresight to secure a family burial place that could be still used after Sarah’s death. But there may have been something else going on. Abraham’s need to bury his wife set up a situation whereby his family would have a claim, albeit small, upon the land. God had promised Canaan to his descendants, but as of yet, Abraham had made no acquisition of any portion whatsoever. Sarah’s death provided such an opportunity.

This wise move on Abraham’s part forever established his and his family’s presence in what would become a most contentious region of the world. Perhaps all he wanted was a family burial plot. Regardless, his thinking beyond the immediate need he faced for his wife resulted in a legal foundation to retain the Promised Land through innumerable challenges in the subsequent centuries.

People of faith may tend to downplay human strategy in the fulfilment of God’s purposes. We might assume that the more detached we are from practicalities and human effort, the better. Certainly God has accomplished amazing things through extraordinary happenings. Yet, the extraordinary often works in concert with the ordinary. The person of faith understands that reliance upon God, his guidance and power, is absolutely essential to a legitimate and meaningful relationship with him. But reliance upon God doesn’t negate appropriately using the vast array of tools God has given us to live effective godly lives. One of those tools is intelligence.

Intelligence is the utilization of thought to effectively engage the world around us. It requires an awareness of one’s environment, an understanding of how life works (both in the general and the specific), and the ability to interact with others in order to achieve a desired result. As a tool, intelligence can be used for good or evil. For the person of faith, loyalty to God and his ways is first and foremost the platform upon which life is to be lived. But to live an effective godly life is more than possessing moral fiber and basic spirituality; it also demands well-informed smarts.

Too often we accept the false premise that understanding the world in which we live undermines faith. Disciplines such as science are only problematic not when they inform us too much, but not enough. True intelligence is able to take supposed discoveries and understand how best to integrate them within the world we live. True intelligence accepts that we live in a complex world and requires patience and insight such as with Abraham here.

We shouldn’t be afraid to think, to ponder, to plan, to strategize. God has given his human creatures the gift of intelligence as a key tool to engage the world he made. True faith is an intelligent faith; one that effectively and successfully engages life to further God’s purposes.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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