Eagles’ Wings

For the week of January 22, 2022 / 20 Shevat 5782

Illustration of a flying eagle with mountains and rainbow in the background

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 (English: 18:1 – 20:26)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5
Originally posted the week of February 15, 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

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You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Shemot/Exodus 19:4)

This has to be one of the more beautiful metaphors in the entire Bible. Israel, oppressed from generations under Egyptian taskmasters, helpless to alleviate their plight, cry out to the God of their ancestors for deliverance. The years go by and things go from bad to worse. Then the day comes; God to the rescue! Despite all odds, the Master of the Universe swoops down seemingly out of nowhere and miraculously carries the nation on his back to freedom.

Beautiful metaphor indeed, but that’s not what happened. Miraculous, yes. However it was much more of a process and a difficult one at that. From Moses’ first being given the exodus mandate to getting support from the Hebrew elders to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to the ten plagues, culminating in the death of Egypt’s firstborn and their departure. Not completely free of their oppressors, they are then pursued by the Egyptian army that drowned in the parting of the Red Sea, while Israel made it safely to the other side. While this finally disconnected the liberated slaves from Egypt for good, the difficult process continued as they were learning to trust God for his miraculous provision and care in an uninhabitable wilderness on their way to Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

What is this about eagles’ wings then? I could imagine scholars musing over how such an image is nothing more than a mythic version of the exodus put into God’s mouth centuries after the fact. I am very aware how after a period of time the sting of hardship fades from memory and we just remember the good parts – and then the good parts are remembered so much better than they actually were. The problem with this train of thought is that the painful details weren’t forgotten. They have been well-documented and preserved from then until now.

How then could such an expression as “I bore you on eagles’ wings” be appropriate? Perhaps we picture riding on eagles differently from the Israelites of old. They wouldn’t share our Hollywood-influenced view of such an experience. In my mind I see the film version of Lord of the Rings, where near the end of this epic, Gandalf rescues Frodo and Sam with gigantic eagles that scoop them up with their talons, carrying them to safety as they blissfully soar through the sky. The Israelites, on the other hand, likely have related to “eagles’ wings” differently. Whether they pictured normal-sized eagles which would not be accustomed to carrying such loads or gigantic ones that are more the stuff of nightmares than what we see in Lord of the Rings, the image evoked may not have been a nice one. Instead, it might have included the precarious nature of the process they had to endure.

A more likely possibility is that the eagles’ wing picture of God’s rescue reflects the outcome and purpose of the exodus, not the process. This metaphor evokes an image of God’s intense and personal activity in bringing the people to Mt. Sinai where he would reveal his will to them, constitute them as a nation, and send them on a mission to establish themselves in the Promised Land. While the process was difficult, the outcome was never in question. He did whatever it took to accomplish his will. While the process was never forgotten, the impossibility and success of the exodus makes being carried through the sky an apt image after all.

No wonder many years later the prophet Isaiah would recall such a picture to encourage his generation of Israelites that their divine rescue was coming: “but they who wait (meaning “hope”) for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:1). In this case the people themselves become eagle-like as the power of God fills them with his powerful presence. But remember eagle-like doesn’t automatically mean easy or simple. Yet, however difficult the process may be, God will get you to where you need to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Go Forward

For the week of January 15, 2022 / 13 Shevat 5782

Beshalach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Updated version of message originally posted the week of January 23, 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776

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The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:15)

The people of Israel were between a rock and a hard place, metaphorically speaking. They were actually between an impassible body of water and the Egyptian army keen on dragging them back to Egypt. An interesting interchange ensues between Moses and God. Well, actually, it’s not an interchange. The people freak out, thinking that they are about to be slaughtered, Moses reassures them, but then God tells Moses what to do, contradicting him in the process. Let’s look at this more closely.

Moses said to the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Shemot/Exodus 14:13-14). Based on everything Moses knew about God up to that moment—his character, his power, and his methodology—this sounds so right. Moses knew how fundamentally misguided the people’s freak-out was. God didn’t bring them to this point only to abandon them. Moses knew that he was leading them to Sinai and on to the Promised Land. So, this couldn’t be the end. How God would rescue them, he didn’t know, but after all that had happened with the ten plagues and a reasonable analysis of the situation, Moses concluded that all Israel had to do was to do nothing, except stand. God would take care of the situation all by himself.

But with all due respect to Moses, he was wrong. They were not just to stand there; they were to “go forward.” I know Moses was also told: “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Shemot/Exodus 14:16), but the people were not to wait for the sea to part first, but rather they were to march toward the sea.

God was calling the people to readjust their orientation to the situation. He had called them to journey in a certain direction, which required getting to the other side of the water. But instead, they were frozen by fear. They needed to refocus and get with God’s program again.

Note that God was not calling them into the water before it parted. He might call people to do that from time to time, but not in this case. They simply had to move in its direction. He also didn’t order them to turn around and confront the enemy nipping at their heels. The day would come when Israel would engage in battle, but not now. In this situation they had to go forward.

I remember a situation I was in where I was called to go forward. It was nowhere near drastic as what the Israelites were facing. But for me at the time the dynamic was similar. I was at a large leaders’ conference, a pretty intense time of seeking God. I was privileged to be part of the core group tasked with discerning direction for the various meetings. I was new to such things and probably a little too excited about it all. In one of the core group meetings, I felt a real burden over something, but once I finally had a chance to speak out, I got the impression (right or wrong) that I was out of line. I felt absolutely terrible and embarrassed. I went to my hotel room, not wanting to show my face in public again (I am being only a little overdramatic!). As I called out to the Lord in my fear and confusion, I had the clear sense that I needed to go forward. That meant joining the others to face whatever might happen, whatever others might think of me, whatever reprimand I might receive, whatever. I had no guaranty of how God would deal with the scary elements ahead of me. I simply had to face them. And as I did, nothing I feared came to pass. My sea had parted as I went forward.

I am concerned that too many of us are frozen in place right now. We’ve have been disoriented by fear of sickness and death along with constantly changing restrictions. Waiting for it all to be over is not God’s will. What is God’s will for you right now, I can’t say. But I do know he wants you to keep moving forward in whatever direction he is calling you to.

We were not to be distracted by the threats and obstacles of life before and we are not to be distracted by them now. Perhaps we were too comfortable with the way things were before the current crisis. We are not used to our lives being so constricted. But God hasn’t changed. With him, there is always a way forward. We just need to find out what that is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Call the Midwives

For the week of December 25, 2021 / 21 Tevet 5782

Husband and midwives assisting woman in labor

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

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So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” (Shemot/Exodus 1:18)

The Bible teaches that godly people should respect authority as we read here:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2).

If this is so, then what’s with the midwives in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion)? To appreciate what’s going on here, let’s look at more of the context than my brief quote at the beginning:

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Shemot/Exodus 1:15-21)

The Hebrew midwives clearly disobeyed the governing authority in this case. The king’s edict was clear. They were to murder the male babies, but they didn’t. Not only did they not follow the law, they concocted a cover up, claiming the Hebrew women gave birth before they got there.

Disobeying government? Lying to the authorities? How terrible. Since when does the end justify the means? Who would defend such a thing? God would. He blessed the midwives for what they did. And why did they do what they did? They feared God. Because they put God ahead of human authority, they not only saved lives, God favored them.

Then what’s with Romans 13? Is this a case of some sort of superior New Testament morality? I myself would not normally assume such a thing, since the person who wrote Romans, also wrote:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

New Covenant morality and spirituality is built upon a strong Hebrew Scripture foundation. There are some developments that occur due to the coming of the Messiah, but general morality doesn’t change. Even if it did, it would be very difficult to contradict the clear positive assessment of the midwives’ actions.

Which brings us back to Romans 13. Does the injunction to “be subject to the governing authorities” contradict the actions taken by the midwives? Not if you read further in the chapter. First, God-given jurisdiction of governing authority is defined as “God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). But what is the obligation of people to government, when government goes beyond its God-given duties? Note the subtle: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7). While there is respect and honor due to government, what are we to do when its policies contravene those of God himself? Are we to respect and honor government over God? The midwives certainly didn’t think so.

What the midwives did is reflected well elsewhere in the New Covenant Writings: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:7). Yes, submit to governing authorities, but fear God. The midwives understood correctly that God and his ways must come first. As long as government doesn’t contravene God’s directives, go along.

Some think that the only time to ignore government is when a life is immediately at risk. That normally should be the case. But what do we do when human authority dictates harm in other ways, prevents us from speaking truth, or demands we uphold falsehood? Thankfully this kind of government overreach is historically rare. But when government attempts to take God’s place, it’s time to listen to the midwives.

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The Other Side of the Coin

For the week of December 18, 2021 / 14 Tevet 5782

Message information superimposed on the front and back of a 1980 Canadian 25-cent coin

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

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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)

What I attempt to share here is quite personal and sensitive. So, forgive its cryptic nature. I trust it’s clear enough to effectively communicate this important lesson from the life of Joseph.

I was trying to get perspective after a difficult week. A few days before, I got the shocking news that I was being released from a volunteer position that I absolutely loved. My performance was not in question. It seemed that there may have been some issues between me and leadership, but I was not given the whole story. I was rejected, I couldn’t figure out why, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As I took some focused time to pray about this, my mind turned to the story of Joseph and his words, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20). These are some of the most profound words in all of Scripture. That a human being could endure the amount of suffering that he did from his own family without resentment overwhelms me. His brothers were so jealous of him, they wanted to kill him. As it turned out, they sold him into slavery instead, which eventually resulted in his spending many years in an Egyptian dungeon after being falsely accused by his master’s wife. Even though it became obvious that God used his painful circumstance for good, few people would be immune to extreme bitterness. Yet somehow Joseph rose above it all. Not that he didn’t see his brothers’ wrong for the evil that it was, but at the same time he accepted God’s higher purpose.

“You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.”  One set of circumstances; two intentions. Like two sides of the same coin.

The image of turning over a coin to see the other side came to me some time before. It happened while I was mulling over another rejection; probably the most painful, I have ever experienced.  Another firing, this time directly related to my faith in Yeshua. Through the years I would often relive the experience. I can’t tell you the number of dreams I have had where I would find myself pleasantly back in that situation, broken relationships restored. Innumerable times I have wondered that if only this or that would have or would not have happened, then perhaps things would have worked out differently.

It was during one of those times that the coin flipped. It was probably thirty years after the event. All of a sudden, I realized how God used that painful event for my good, my best actually. I finally saw the other side of the most bitter coin that I have ever carried.

With that in mind I was trying to process the situation I mentioned at the start. Thinking of “you meant it for evil; God meant it for good,” I decided to go through my life and think of all my past unpleasant events (I’ve had several) and note how God used them for good. Some I had already previously processed. Still, it’s encouraging to remember how God works through painful circumstances, and I needed encouragement that day.

As I started my memory journey, I was not prepared for another coin to flip. I asked God to show me the other side of the coin of my father’s leaving me and my mother when I was fourteen. I had never taken the time to think that through in this way. I simply assumed that I needed God to heal the father-wound that I have carried around almost my entire life. But then the coin flipped! I was hoping to get insight on my latest disappointment, but instead I got clarity on something far more foundational.

Without getting into the details, I realized that my father’s leaving was also for my good. While I saw him for some months after his leaving. It wasn’t long before he was completely out of my life. As I prayed, I realized that a close relationship with him would have not been good for me, especially in regard to my development as a young man.

Have you been carrying a coin of pain and bitterness? Perhaps it’s time to flip it over and see what’s on the other side.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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It’s Alright To Cry

For the week of December 11, 2021 / 7 Tevet 5782

Vayigash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Originally posted the week of December 15, 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779

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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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Hanukkah & the Big Picture

For the week of December 4, 2021 / 30 Kislev 5782

Illustration of a hanukkiah on a globe

Miketz / 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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And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:38-40)

It’s Hanukkah this week! Hanukkah commemorates the triumph of the small Jewish army over the powerful Seleucids in the year 165 BC under the tyrannical reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon his diverse and expansive region, including the land of Israel. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by pagan worship, including the presence of a statue of Zeus and the sacrificing of a pig on the altar. The recapturing and cleansing of the temple along with the rededication of the altar was marked by a festival modelled after Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Battles against the Seleucids continued until independence for Israel was re-established for the first time since the Babylonian captivity.

A key component of the circumstances that led to the first Hanukkah is that Antiochus’s assimilation plan had been fairly successful in Israel. In First Maccabees, the primary historical source for Hanukkah, we read,

In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (1 Maccabees 1:11-15 [Jubilee Bible 2000]).

It is difficult to know exactly what “for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” is referring to, but it is likely a general critique, or should I say, rejection, of God’s choosing of the Jewish people. God established the people of Israel as a distinct nation. To ensure that distinction, he deemed it necessary to make them different from other nations.

It’s hard to be different. It creates suspicion. It makes interaction awkward, if not impossible. And, at times, it results in severe persecution and conflict. Eventually, a significant portion of the people couldn’t take it anymore. And so, they not only embraced the prevailing culture of their day, they also submitted to a medical procedure to hide their circumcision. All so that they would no longer be considered a separate people.

It is interesting that Hanukkah occurs in the midst of the story of Joseph in the weekly Torah readings. Much of Joseph’s suffering was due to his being different. It began with his father’s preferential treatment, followed by God’s unusual dream impartation. His brother’s hatred of him for these things thrust him into slavery and years of imprisonment. Yet, through it all, Joseph remained faithful to God, which kept him from the bitterness that would have undermined his calling.

The renegades, as they are called in First Maccabees, didn’t follow Joseph’s example. They lost sight of who they really were and were willing to give it all up. I in no way want to belittle their suffering. I don’t know what I would have done in their situation. But one thing I do know. They were not seeing the whole picture. Unlike Joseph, the only thing they took into account was their suffering. The “many disasters” had indeed happened to Israel, but they had neglected to remember their calling to be a blessing to the whole world (see Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:28). The failure to retain their higher purpose made them susceptible to assimilation. As a result, they could no longer see how deceptive the lure of the prevailing culture was. The short-term benefits may have seemed appealing, but the long-term results would be disastrous.

It’s only when we keep the big picture of God’s plan in mind that we can endure the difficulties along the way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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God the Stabilizer

For the week of November 27, 2021 / 23 Kislev 5782

Message title info with Hohenzollern Castle, Wurttemberg, Germany, as the background

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

And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:20-21)

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In my message two weeks ago (Say the Words), I shared one of my concerns about how I was first introduced to trusting in Yeshua as Messiah. At the time, it was framed as just say the words and my life would change. As it turned out, that’s what happened, though I have realized that there was much more going on than simply reciting a formula.

There was another aspect of that day’s interaction that I have struggled with. Before I continue, let me be clear that, again, there was far more right about what happened that day than these two questionable items. The second issue is I was promised that if I said those words, I would be happy for the rest of my life. The person who told me about Yeshua that day, whom I just met, had no idea the depths of depression and anxiety in which I was trapped. So, such an offer was most enticing.

Honestly, I wasn’t disappointed. Almost immediately after asking God to forgive my sins and inviting Yeshua into my life, I went on an emotional high that I had never had before and haven’t had since. I therefore assumed that this is what my newfound faith was going to be like forever.

I didn’t start reading the Bible for myself until about two weeks after praying to receive Yeshua. Even then, in my euphoria, I didn’t notice that the Bible doesn’t make such a promise. Rather, the actual truth is more along the lines of: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Tehillim/Psalms 46:1). I eventually learned that God’s security in the midst of life-threating disaster is far more meaningful and helpful than the superficiality of a permanent residence on cloud nine.

I wonder if Jacob’s son Joseph went through a similar shift in things as I. I am not claiming for one moment that our lives are in direct parallel. The only point of connection between my story and his is we both share an original misinformed positive expectation. Joseph, like myself, underestimated the positive. All he had was a glimpse of his eventual leadership role in relation to his family. He didn’t know that would be only one aspect of his role in saving the entire region from starvation as Prime Minister of Egypt. While there’s no comparison between my impact and Joseph’s, I too underestimated the positive as God’s faithfulness has proven itself in my life over and over again.

Joseph and I don’t only share misinformed positive outlooks, we didn’t foresee the hardships either. Here too, I in no way compare my life challenges to Joseph’s. But that takes nothing away from the lesson to be learned.

All through Scripture we see people of God go through exceedingly difficult times. Sometimes due to their own foolishness, other times simply because they are doing exactly what God wanted them to do. Joseph was a victim of his brothers’ jealousy, not that he did much to alleviate that. But through it all, God was accomplishing his purpose in and through him. Torah doesn’t comment on how Joseph managed to not break under unjust circumstances. But he didn’t. God sustained him all those years as he prepared him to become the leader he was destined to be.

People love to quote Yeshua’s promise of abundant life (see John 10:10), but fail, as in my experience years ago, to mention that he also said, “In the world you will have tribulation (a fancy word for trouble)” (John 16:33). That’s not the last word, of course. The Messiah continues in that same verse: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

I may have been surprised to learn that I wasn’t going to be happy all the time. Instead, I received something much better. Knowing that God is with us in trouble, working to fulfill his purposes, is the greatest stabilizing force in the universe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Holy Discontentment

For the week of November 20, 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

Young child with an earnest pained expression

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

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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)

This is one of the most, if not the most, profound moments in the entire Bible. How could anyone strive with God and prevail? But Jacob did, and it resulted, not only in he himself becoming known as “Israel,” the one who strives with God, but his people as well. The Chosen People of God would continue this striving (and sometimes prevailing) from then until now.

For many striving with God appears to be contrary to what a life of faith should be. We have images of serene saints disconnected from their passions and cares, humbly and unquestioningly receiving divine directions, submissively doing his bidding no matter how difficult it might be. We may have such images, but they are not derived from the Bible. Instead, Scripture paints a picture of struggle, doubt, fear, hope, failure, and lots of questions.

Our failure to grasp the struggle we are called to often results in a false version of contentment. Contentment is a good thing when it comes to our possessions and other worldly markers of success. But, on the other hand, we are not to be content. The Messiah himself taught his disciples to pray, saying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We are to pray that the world would coming into alignment with God’s will. This demands we not accept things the way they are, but rather to seek God for radical change. This necessitates a holy discontentment.

Holy discontentment doesn’t automatically direct us to constructive solutions. Too often our solutions are worse than the problems. This is why we are called to pray for change before we seek to implement it. Only God’s will in God’s way will extend his kingdom on earth.

Prayer as our response to holy discontentment should not take us back to those images of pious serenity. Instead, we should remember Jacob. I am aware that he was not concerned about what was wrong with the world. In his case, he was overwhelmed with terror as he anticipated encountering his brother. He was worried about what Esau might do to him after being ripped off by Jacob twenty or so years before. Still, his approach to God illustrates for us the struggle in prayer that God values.

Too often prayer is a thought-toss to the sky, slighted dusted with the hope that perhaps God Almighty may deem us worthy of his attention and, if we are lucky, things will go our way. I know most people would never think of prayer exactly like that, but I wonder. How many, like Jacob, won’t let go of God until he blesses them, despite being injured in the process?

Jacob isn’t alone in such an earnest approach to God. When Hannah prays for a son, who ended up being the great prophet Samuel, we read “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). King David prays prayers such as “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Tehillim/Psalms 13:1). Jeremiah cries out: “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 8:23; English 9:1). The Messiah himself “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). Some think this is a reference to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is more likely a description of his general posture in prayer.

Is this intensity in prayer necessary? Doesn’t God know the desires of our hearts, not to mention his awareness of his own plans and purposes. If we think about it enough, we may be tempted to conclude that prayer shouldn’t be necessary, let alone require the effort we see in these examples. However, I don’t think it is an issue of necessity. Jacob and the others weren’t concerned about the theology of prayer. They were only concerned about two things, their need and the only one who could meet that need. Their intensity was a result of their desperation connecting with an understanding of God’s power and generosity.

This cannot be put on. Such intensity can’t be faked. But, at the same time, taking these and other biblical examples seriously can encourage us to get honest about our deepest needs and our lack of faith with regard to God’s response to our prayers. I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to strive with him, to hold on to him until he blesses us (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:26).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Say the Words

For the week of November 13, 2021 / 9 Kislev 5782

Two men, sitting on some stairs, talking

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-32:3 (English 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

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Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity” (Micah 14:3; English: 14:2)

There’s something that has always bothered me about the day I came to know Yeshua as the Messiah (check out my faith story here). Over forty-five years later, I am still impressed by the compelling godly presentation given to me by this person whom I just met that afternoon. God used an hour and a half intense conversation to completely transform my life. Still, there was something about what I was asked to do I have wondered about since then. This is the first time I am seriously working through it.

After providing a convincing case for the validity of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, sharing the prophecies about the Messiah, and explaining the need for forgiveness as provided by Yeshua’s death, I was invited to say a prayer. The prayer was to include my admitting I had sinned against God, acknowledging that Yeshua (we called him “Jesus” back then) died for my sins and that he had risen from the dead. Then I was to ask Yeshua to take over my life (or something like that). Based on everything I was told that day, I felt I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. So, I prayed the prayer. I remember how I had a sense that something special had happened, though I was not fully prepared for the wonderful transformation I was going to experience over the next few days and weeks.

However, despite the great positive change I experienced that day, you may be surprised to learn that I have wondered how legitimate it is to ask someone to pray a prayer that he or she has next to no real grasp of. While I accepted the possibility of my being a sinner as it was explained to me (breaking a commandment of God is a sin; people who sin are sinners), did I actually believe that when I said this prayer? I knew next to nothing about Yeshua before that day, yet I was praying to ask him into my life. Did I mean it? How could I? It was all completely new to me.

Despite whatever level of understanding I had in the moment, the words given to me to say were true. They were true about me; they were true about God. There’s something about the power of words apart from our full understanding of them.

Up until now, I have assumed that for our words to be legitimate, they have to be authentic. To be authentic, I have to honestly mean them, which necessarily includes fully understanding them. But is that really the case? From when our children were very young, we taught them to apologize to each other. The offending party needed to say, “Please forgive me for” – and then name the offense. Then the offended party was to say, “I forgive you.” I am well aware that neither party had a full grasp of the interchange, including the probability that they were just mouthing the words. But apart from learning the importance of apologizing, forgiving, and being forgiven, the words of regret and forgiveness effectively served to preserve relationship. Another example is in the promises we make. We often have little grasp of the implications of those promises, but they carry weight regardless. Further, kind words, such as compliments, have a strong positive effect on people, regardless of how sincere they may be.

You might think, “But God sees through our insincerity. What good is parroting what someone else tells us to say especially when God knows all?” I would agree in the case of complete hypocrisy. But how much sincerity and understanding is necessary before God responds to our words? Apparently, not much. This brings to mind the oft-mentioned parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). What did it take to provoke his father’s generous response? After not caring about his father at all and exploiting his resources, the son’s return was more about himself and his own suffering than a true change of heart. And yet, as soon as the father saw his wayward son approaching, he ran to him and enthusiastically restored him to the household with great celebration.

So, as we read in this week’s Haftarah (reading portion from the Hebrew prophets), it doesn’t take much to return to the Lord. Restoration to God just starts with a simple prayer. He will take over from there.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Divine Inquiries

Toledot

Young woman praying expectantly
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

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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 VersionFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail