Beating Bitterness

For the week of December 22, 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Scuffed up baseball

Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12
Originally posted January 3, 2015 / 12 Tevet 5775

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But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 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. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

Joseph was the object of his own brothers’ extreme jealousy, resulting in their selling him to slave traders and tricking their father into thinking he was killed by wild animals. While God gave him favor in the sight of his Egyptian master, his plight went from bad to worse. Even though he stayed true to God by resisting the advances of his master’s wife, she falsely accused him of abusing her, resulting in his spending years in a dungeon. Eventually his God-given gift of dream interpretation catapulted him to second in command in Egypt. While I think many, if not most of us, would have harbored bitterness in our hearts toward everyone who sought our harm, Joseph did not. Even when things work out well for people, good times don’t necessarily heal bitter hearts. Instead, bitterness has a way of skewing how we look at life – the good as well as the bad. The comfort that Joseph was able to experience is only possible for someone who refused to be bitter. We know this is the case with Joseph, because of how he dealt with his brothers later on, when they came to Egypt in the hope of buying food during the famine.

Joseph’s life vividly reminds us of how important it is to avoid bitterness. I have seen how destructive bitterness can be, including the control it has over people who allow it to grow inside them. Bitterness can lead to compulsive obsessive anger as well as to personal isolation. If Joseph had handled life differently, God would have used other means to preserve Israel in order to accomplish his purposes through them, but Joseph may not have been part of it.

I want to be like Joseph, but I haven’t been able to figure out how he did it. The ultimate answer is God’s “hesed,” his steadfast love. But that doesn’t mean that Joseph was carried along by God unconsciously. His relationship with God expressed itself in very specific ways. We have glimpses of his behavior, but that hasn’t been sufficient to enable me to understand what was really going on in his heart. But I have just read a book that may shed some light on this issue.

You may be surprised to learn that the book is called The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski. O’Neil was a most unusual man. He died in 2006 at the age of 94. He was a baseball player, manager, coach, and scout. He was also an African American whose career as a player occurred before Blacks were allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Due to the racial discrimination of those days, special “Negro Leagues” were created so people like O’Neil could play “The National Pastime,” as Baseball was called in the United States. Following retirement O’Neil became an ambassador for the Negro Leagues to ensure their place in history and to help raise out of obscurity some of the greatest ball players of all time.

Buck O'NeilIt is difficult for many of us to fully understand the injustices Buck O’Neil endured and witnessed. And yet, like Joseph, he didn’t allow bitterness to take hold. As I was completing the book, what helped him be that way became clear to me. It may have been the same thing that helped Joseph as well. First, Buck O’Neil didn’t let others define life for him. He would never accept how others justified their bitterness. More importantly, he didn’t let his own circumstances define his life. Instead of wallowing in disappointment and hurt, he determined that he would focus on the positive and seek to be a blessing. Even in the face of great difficulty, he decided that life was a good thing and should always be cherished as such. More than that, he purposely helped others to do the same. He wasn’t always successful, but often was. I can’t say for sure what made him this way, except that he recognized how destructive bitterness was and made a concerted effort to avoid it at all costs.

Buck O’Neil’s life helps me to see Joseph more clearly, who also rose above his circumstances, not allowing them to define his life. While not denying the ill intent of his brothers and others, he really believed that God retained ultimate control of his life.

Buck O’Neil puts me to shame as does Joseph. But I will continue to pray that God helps me to look at life with their perspective, because while I might feel the pull of bitterness at times, their example is the right one; one most worthy to follow.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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It’s Alright To Cry

For the week of December 15, 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779

Adult son crying on his father's shoulder

Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:2)

Sometime in my late teens I stopped crying. I don’t mean that up until then I was crying nonstop. It was as if I had lost the ability to cry. All children cry. It’s our automatic, God-given survival device. As we get older, most of us learn to control the tears and express our needs and disappointments in other ways. In many cultures, males are often discouraged from crying at all. “Big boys don’t cry,” we’re told; so they stop, but that’s not why I did. My parents didn’t teach me such a thing. I remember seeing my father cry on more than one occasion, and there was no shame in that. Despite that, I distinctly remember by the time I was eighteen years old, I could feel an incessant need to cry lodged in my throat. It was awful.

My life was awful. My father had abandoned me and my mother a few years before. By this time, my mother was not well enough to work, forcing us to turn to government assistance. I had no direction in life, I was very superstitious, I thought success was measured by degrees of pleasure, and I was becoming more and more afraid of dying.

Everything about my life was out of sorts. I had no clear vision of what it should be or could be. Wrapped in a shroud of confusion and fear, I was stuck just like the lump in my throat. Then a few days before my nineteenth birthday, my life was transformed by my first encounter with the truth of Yeshua as Messiah. As I reached out to God that day, I had no idea I was embarking on a truly Great Adventure. Yet, still no tears, just smiles.

In those early months, I experienced a happiness I never dreamt of. I was ecstatic, and people could see it all over me. The next few months were exhilarating even though there were also new tensions and relationship strains due to the unusual path I was on. Still no tears.

A year after coming to faith, I left home for biblical studies. Leaving home brought with it renewed anxiety as I began to face some of my entrenched insecurities and fears. As I woke up one morning in my dorm room, I was fiercely struggling with I don’t really know what. I was not doing well and didn’t know what to do. I was alone since I didn’t have an early morning class that day. My roommate had a small (for those days) stereo and a few Gospel albums. I didn’t listen to a lot of music back then, as music had been one of my gods during my Bad Old Days. I don’t know why I put the album on. Then something happened as the singing started. The faucet finally opened. I was shocked as for the first time in I don’t know how long, I cried and cried. It felt so good! And while the lump would return from time to time, eventually so would the tears as God has allowed me to express myself in this way.

It’s hard to say for sure what it was about that moment that released all that pent-up emotion. I can guess, because I have had similar experiences since. It hasn’t always been with a song, but when I get a glimpse of the essence of life’s reality, it’s as if in that moment I see things as they really are, that amidst the confusion and chaos of life – my life – God really is my security, and everything will be okay after all. When that truth hits me, I am undone as all the tension of the insecurity I feel from the instability and pressures around me is released in an emotional torrent.

Perhaps that is something akin to what Joseph experienced when he was finally reconciled with his brothers. We can’t overestimate the emotional turmoil he must have carried all those years. We shouldn’t assume his rise to power in Egypt completely soothed the confusion, anger, and sadness he carried for so long. The emotions must have built to volcanic proportions during the process of revealing himself. For his own reasons, he shrewdly dealt with them as they travelled back and forth to Egypt for food all the while not knowing he was their brother. Then when he deemed the time was right, all that pent-up emotion flowed so freely that everyone around knew he was weeping.

I am aware that there are many people, men included, who cry like freely flowing fountains. You probably have no trouble relating to Joseph. You might be crying right now. Then there’s the others. Maybe you have an incessant lump in your throat as I had. Perhaps you have buried your emotions for so long that you can’t feel them anymore. I don’t know what it will take to release all you have been carrying inside. I just wanted to tell you: it’s alright to cry.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Mountain Movers

For the week of December 8, 2018 / 30 Kislev 5779

Man facing mountain range

Mikez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 7:42-47; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” (Zechariah 4:7)

A key, if not the core, aspect of Hanukkah is captured in this special Haftarah reading for the Shabbat that coincides with the festival (Hanukkah this year began the evening of December 2). The time period in which the prophet Zechariah lived is not normally given that much attention. Yet, not only is it an important chapter of Israel’s history, it provides the background for the events to follow, including the Maccabean revolt and the coming of the Messiah.

The return from Babylon never lived up to expectations. The Hebrew prophets envisioned a grand reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel, with a joyful and fruitful population and a glorious temple to which the nations would stream. Not only that, it would coincide with God’s blessing overflowing from Israel to the uttermost parts of the globe. Instead, a majority never returned, the rebuilt temple was pale in comparison to the original, and the worst of it was that, except for a brief time following the Maccabean revolt, Israel was ruled by foreigners (the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans), a sure sign of God’s disfavor. The fulness of the prophetic expectation would have to wait.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah document aspects of the return. It was no easy time and very discouraging. Zechariah, along with the prophet Haggai, were tasked with helping the people to not give up and fulfill their priority mission, the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah had a particular word for Zerubbabel the governor.

I don’t know how aware the Maccabees were of Zechariah’s message to Zerubbabel, but somehow, they took it to heart. It’s a message that has been embraced by most courageous and faithful followers of Israel’s God. It’s what Yeshua told his disciples they would be able to do if they would possess even the most minuscule amount of genuine trust. Zechariah’s message is that when God is with us in what he gives us to do, no challenge is too difficult, no obstacle too great. Success is not dependent upon our physical capabilities, intelligence, or resources. When God is with us, he makes the impossible possible.

We read about miracles and the wondrous exploits of biblical characters, and don’t always catch how they must have felt standing before insurmountable challenges. When faced with difficulties, we may see ourselves as failures: “If only I do better or work harder, then maybe I can do it. And if I can’t certainly someone somewhere can.” But then there’s the truly impossible. That’s what Zerubbabel was facing. He wasn’t called to climb a mountain, he had to remove it. That’s the impossible. And that’s overwhelmingly discouraging. And that’s why he needed God’s word through the prophet: It’s coming down!

As Yeshua said: “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you’” (Matthew 17:20). From Abraham, called to be a great nation in spite of being old and childless; to Moses, mandated to confront the world power of his day; to David, standing before the giant; to the small Maccabean army taking on the mighty Greeks; to Yeshua, conquering death itself, mountains have been moving.

I wonder how many impossible situations we have allowed to remain in our lives when God wants them gone. I am not saying we have superhuman ability to do the impossible at will. But when God calls us to face great intimidating challenges, perhaps we often give up too quickly.

Think of the mountains in your life right now. Make a list if necessary. Ask God to speak to you as you offer them one by one to him. You may just sense a tiny spark of faith with regard to one or more. If so, speak to the mountain and watch what happens.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


For more Hanukkah reflections, a children’s story, and activities, see the TorahBytes Hanukkah section.

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Mental Blocks

For the week of December 1, 2018 / 23 Kislev 5779

Illustration depicting mental obstacles

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

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But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:4)

A mental block is when you find yourself stuck in a psychological rut you can’t get out of. You have likely heard of writer’s block, when a normally prolific writer can’t seem to get their thoughts on paper (or screen). In the moment (or much longer) all creativity comes to a complete halt. What makes this so frustrating is the sense that the ability to write should be there. Of course, for the accomplished writer, it has been there until the block has the writer’s mind in its vice-like grip.

What makes something a mental block as opposed to normal inability is the reasonable expectation that we should be able to do the thing. If not for the presence of the known or unknown obstacle, the ability would manifest. Have you heard of “the yips”? It’s a real thing from the world of sports. An athlete has the yips when he or she can’t perform a normal (to them) routine or function. All-star pitcher Jon Lester had the yips. In baseball, when a runner is on first base, pitchers regularly throw to first base between pitches to prevent the runner from getting too much of a lead (a head start) should they attempt to run to second base (that’s called “stealing”) or if the batter hits the ball. This is a lot easier for left-handed pitchers, such as Lester, since in these situations they prepare to pitch facing the runner at first as opposed to right-handed pitchers who face the opposite way. The point is for an elite athlete who is paid many millions of dollars to throw a ball, this is one of the easiest things to do. But at some point, Lester stopped throwing to first. Something happened that so undermined his confidence in his ability to do this, that he could no longer do it. Eventually everyone knew he had the yips. But because Lester was such a good pitcher, his overall performance compensated for the unusually long leads runners were taking.

For Lester, being aware of what was going on inside his head was a huge help. Knowing he had a problem was the first step towards resolving it, whether by compensating for it or learning to overcome it completely. I wonder how many mental blocks we have that we don’t know about, where we have abilities that we are prevented from using because of a psychological obstacle.

Joseph’s brothers had a serious mental block, whereby they were not capable of speaking peaceably with him. This was not just a case of refusing to talk nicely to him; they didn’t have the ability to do so. We should be careful to distinguish between ability and will. We tend to refer to “we can’t do something” when the fact is we won’t do it, thus skirting personal responsibility for our actions. That said, there are indeed times we truly can’t, when the ability is not there or a legitimate obstacle within us or outside of us prevents us from doing whatever it might be. This was what was happening with Joseph’s brothers.

Their hatred didn’t come out of nowhere. It started with their resenting their father’s preferential treatment of Joseph, made worse by Joseph himself. Instead of dealing with their family dysfunction constructively they let their resentment fester until it boiled over. The resulting hatred was a mental block that controlled their behavior.

Their bad behavior was the symptom of their mental block. Since symptoms are the only things visible, we understandably focus on them. But the only way to change bad behavior is to get to the controlling factor. In their case, it was their resentment-fueled hatred.

We could go deeper. Their resentment was actually toward their father, who set this up in the first place by playing favorites. And ultimately their issue was with God, who allowed (or purposed) such a thing. The controlling of all controlling factors for any and all mental blocks is the state of our relationship with God. As long as we are alienated from him, we will be overcome with innumerable mental blocks constraining us from living the abundant life we were made for. Once that alienation is resolved through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, we have new potential to overcome our mental blocks. That’s just the beginning, however. It’s only as we cooperate with the light of God’s truth and learn to apply God’s power to our lives that we can be fully free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Being Earnest

For the week of November 24, 2018 / 15 Kislev 5779

Hand with the inscription HELP above it on gray background

Vayishlach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:12; English: 32:11) 

A couple of weeks ago, I shared how praying with expectancy makes a difference (see Divine Inquiries). We shouldn’t be surprised when God doesn’t answer our half-hearted requests. In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), we see this again but from a different angle.

It’s been about twenty years since Jacob ran away to Mesopotamia to escape the murderous threats of his twin brother, Esau. As he returns home, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by his personal army. Understandably, Jacob is terrified. So he prays that God would deliver him. I can’t gauge his expectancy level, since it doesn’t appear that he even believes in God at this point. Praying to a God he doesn’t believe in? How can that be? Note how he begins his prayer. He addresses God by saying: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:10; English: 32:9). There is no question that he is speaking to the one true God. He also acknowledges the earlier interaction God had with him. However, he claims no personal connection to him. He refers to him as the God of his father and grandfather. It won’t be until later that he clearly attests to his own relationship to him (see Bereshit/Genesis 33:20). Yet his lack of connection to God doesn’t keep him from praying an earnest prayer.

In spite of Jacob’s lack of spiritual commitment, God answered his prayer. Esau was friendly; Jacob and company continued in safety. One might say that he had nothing to fear. Nowhere do we read that Esau was still out to get him and thus required a heavenly visitation of some sort to thwart his intentions. Even though God didn’t intercept Esau in the way Jacob was asking for, he answered his prayer nonetheless. He did so by engaging Jacob as he wrestled with him through the night. The transformed Jacob, now graced with the name Israel (“he who has striven with God”), may have made all the difference in the strife between him and his brother. Before encountering God, he was terrified, hiding behind droves of animals and his family on the other side of a river. Afterwards, he high tailed it to the front of the line and faced Esau directly, bowing to him seven times. Never before had Jacob faced a problem or an opportunity with such humility. We can’t say for sure, but this new heart attitude may have saved his life.

Regardless, God protected him as requested. Why would God answer a prayer of someone who wasn’t ready to be associated with him; when Jacob wasn’t yet willing to say, “my God”? Some may claim that it was because he was chosen from birth. But this makes a mockery out of the story and the prayer. Fatalistic interpretations of Scripture undermine the dynamics of the Bible stories. There is no explicate mention here or elsewhere that what was going to happen was simply going to happen.  No angel appears to Jacob or anyone else, saying, “Everything is destined to happen as planned. So, chill.”

It’s not that Jacob’s chosenness was irrelevant. Everything Jacob had done in life to this point was setting him up for this. God was after him, and Jacob had nowhere else to run. But why did God answer his prayer? Because it was the honest desperate plea of a man who had come to the end of himself.

His mother prayed expectantly. Jacob prayed desperately. Each of these two cried out with their whole hearts to the universe’s only true source of help. Each of these two had serious issues in their lives. But their earnest prayers made all the difference when it counted most.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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A Promise Is a Promise

For the week of November 17, 2018 / 9 Kislev 5779

Sunset over Jezreel, Israel with Bible verse: The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring." (Bereshit/Genesis 28:13)

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

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:13)

I prepared this message on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-inspired riot that occurred on November 9 and 10, 1938, which has come to mark the beginning of the Holocaust. During these two days, hundreds of Jewish people were killed, synagogues and Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men sent to concentration camps.

The Holocaust was the climax of almost two thousand years of anti-Jewish sentiment. While the European Jewish experience did have some bright spots, they were overshadowed by oppressive church laws, discriminatory social structures, forced conversions, suspicion, bizarre superstitious tales, expulsion, and death. Nazi policy towards the Jewish people, though bereft of any semblance of authentic Christianity, implemented the vile anti-Semitism that permeated Christendom for almost two thousand years.

While the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Holocaust had precedence in prior centuries, its violent expression via the systematic killing of millions of men, women, and children had never been seen before. It’s no coincidence that it occurred on the precipice of one of history’s greatest wonders, the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. The Jewish people struggled for survival ever since being exiled following the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in the year 70. For almost twenty centuries the prospect of a grand scale return to the Land of Israel was nothing more than a dream and a prayer. By the nineteenth century the dream was just about forgotten, and few believed the prayer would be answered, if they were praying it all. Then unexpected changes in the world and people’s hearts (Jewish and non-Jewish) made the possibility of the prayer being answered to be more than a dream.

But then as if awakened in the middle of the night, the reality of Hitler’s “Final Solution” threatened to destroy the dream once and for all. Not only would Zionist hopes be dashed, the end of the Jewish people themselves was at hand. But thankfully, it was not to be. In fact, it is reasonable to think that what was meant for evil was used by God for good in the establishment of the State of Israel in less than three years after the war’s end.

In spite of such great devastation, from the onset the Nazis were doomed to fail. Without in any way diminishing the pain of this tragedy that continues to linger in the hearts and minds of so many, it was only a matter of time before these latest of Israel’s enemies would suffer defeat. While honoring all those who gave themselves in the fight against this evil, many paying with their very lives, the Nazis and their allies were doomed to fail. They would fail because of the word of God.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) is one of several places where God declared to the Jewish people through their earliest ancestors his intention to give them what would eventually become known as “Eretz Yisrael,” the Land of Israel. Prior to 1948 many thought, as many still do today, that the Jews are unworthy of the Promised Land. Readers of the Bible should know better than to even entertain such a notion. When Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, received this promise, he hadn’t yet committed himself to the God of his father Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. He was running for his life after stealing his father’s blessing away from his now vengeful twin brother. Where Jacob was at spiritually did not nullify God’s promise, however. This is what God had determined, and that was that.

Some Bible readers point to the conditional aspects of the Sinai covenant as given through Moses as the basis of Israel’s loss of their land claim. But you need to read the whole book before making conclusions. For example, Paul in the New Covenant Writings states:

The law (i.e. “Torah”), which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise (Galatians 3:17-18).

The conditions of Sinai do not nullify the earlier promise to Abraham, which were reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. And a promise is a promise, especially when it is from the mouth of God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Divine Inquiries

For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

Man with open arms imploring God

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

The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22)

Something wasn’t right. Rebekah was in physical turmoil. After being married for twenty years without conceiving, she finally got pregnant. As the Torah tells it this was an answer to her husband’s prayers. Miracle pregnancies were becoming a tradition in this family as her mother-in-law had Isaac when she was ninety. Still, most mothers-to-be would get anxious when the rumbly-tumblies in their tummies are harsher than normal, not to mention that, for Rebekah, getting pregnant was no easy feat. Whether it was the discomfort alone or that she was afraid she was miscarrying, it was sufficient to send her to inquire of the Master of the Universe.

The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is “darash,” and it paints a picture of her going to God with the expectation of getting an answer. I wonder if that’s how most people think of prayer. You judge if I am wrongly judging, but my guess is that the vast majority of prayers prayed involve zero expectation. Most prayers are prayed out of obligation: obligation to religious duty, obligation to parents, obligation to peers, even obligation to self. A smaller percentage arises from sincere desire from people who for one reason or other truly want to pray. They may really want to take the time to talk to God. But do we expect him to respond? Some prayers, of course, aren’t requests, including expressions of worship or thanks. But many prayers are. And yet, how often do we throw up our requests to heaven, more or less satisfied with our utterances, and move on with life?

Access to information today has never been easier. Instant search results are so common that it’s difficult to remember what it was like before broadband Internet and Google. Now almost anything we need to know is at our fingertips or in response to our voice. I once successfully used Google to help me find my car in a very large parking lot when I was out of town. Whether it’s how to get a stain out of a particular material or finding the facts about a strange skin rash, we search the Net with the can-do attitude of “It’s got to be here somewhere!” And yet when we “inquire of the Lord,” we don’t expect much.

Not to be glib, but Rebekah related to God a lot more like today’s Internet. She went to him expecting answers. While the Bible in no way implies that there’s a push-button dynamic to prayer, it expects us to expect answers from God. Here’s what the Messiah taught. Familiar words to many, but listen to what he is saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).

Don’t get distracted by the important sub-topic of unanswered prayer. However you grapple with that, any conclusion that contradicts the Messiah’s teaching here is wrong. Which is why later on we read: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). James accepted Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. James knew the story of Rebekah. The Master of the Universe delights to answer our inquiries.

Now for the big question: How much of our lack of hearing from God is due to lack of expectancy? What are we not hearing because we are not being earnest enough? Why should he respond to half-hearted disinterest? This is not to say that we can manipulate our Father in Heaven into answering prayer. What I am saying is let’s at least start by accepting that he “gives generously to all without reproach.” Praying believing that he answers will certainly result in far more answers than praying believing that he won’t.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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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