Sunday, November 26, 2006

TorahBytes: Follow Your Dreams? (Va-yeze)

[Jacob] had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying." (Bereshit / Genesis 28:12,13)

A couple of weeks ago I heard Bruce Wilkenson, author of the book "Dream Giver" - a book I read a couple of years ago. His talk was a powerful reminder of some of the principles he explains in his book. Wilkinson's premise is that every single person has a dream or dreams in their heart. These dreams come to us from God. In order to live the life we were meant to live, we need to follow those dreams.

Before examining the Bible's perspective on this, we need to make clear that Wilkenson doesn’t mean "dream" in the technical sense. He is using it in the popular sense of heart desire. This is most likely what Martin Luther King Jr. meant in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He wasn't saying that he had a literal dream in which he saw the breaking down of racial barriers. He meant that he had a burning desire to bring racial equality into reality.

While this popular use of the term, "dream" is both common and clear, it does confuse the issue, since the Bible doesn't use these terms in this way. When the Bible refers to dreams, it means them literally, as is the case with Jacob in this week's Torah portion. This distinction between the popular use of these terms and how the Bible uses them is very important, especially if we are going to bring the God of the Bible into the discussion.

So does the Bible support the idea that everyone has a "dream" or heart desire from God? Are we responsible to discover that thing (whatever we call it) in order to live our lives the way God intends?

First, with regard to literal dreams, not all people ever receive them. While there are several examples of such things in the Scriptures, not everyone in the Bible has this kind of experience and nowhere are we told that dreams are a necessary aspect of a true life of faith. I do think that such things are more common than we might care to admit and that those of us who have been brought up within secular framework tend to filter out such phenomena, but that's a topic for another time. However, as common as such things may be, not everyone has them.

As for the dreams recorded in the Bible, they do not all have the sense of creating something hoped for in the individual, which is how we use "dream" in the popular sense. Therefore we should be careful when trying to apply the Bible's use of "dream" when referring to its popular use.

What then about the popular use of "dream," meaning desire? We read in the Psalms:

Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

It is possible that what David is saying is that when we delight in God, then the desires of our hearts are the very things God himself desires. And when we have God's desires in our hearts, then we can expect him to accomplish them. But this doesn't imply that every desire we have is necessarily from God and automatically becomes that which we were meant to pursue.

This is what is missing from what I have observed from Wilkinson's teaching. While his book is helpful to understand the dynamics of living out our God-given dreams (more correctly "desires"), we need to find out how to discern those things in our hearts that are actually from him.

There are two key things that will help us in this: First, we need to realize that the communication of God's plans and purposes in our lives are primarily his responsibility. We are not required to climb mountains or swim oceans in our attempt to figure out God's will for our lives. The Bible illustrates that when God wants to communicate to people, he does, as he did in Jacob's case.

The second thing is something we can do and that is to get to know him better. The better we know him, the better prepared we will be to receive special assignments as they come, whether they come through dreams or not.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

TorahBytes: Real Life (Toledot)

The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." (Bereshit / Genesis 25:23)

This week's Torah portion begins the story of Jacob. For the past little while I have been struck with how very far the writings of Scripture are from most of our religious experiences. I am not referring to the contrast of the Scriptures to any particular teaching or ceremony, but what amounts to a whole way of thinking. As I study the Bible, I get the impression that we seek to both know and communicate God in ways very different from how God did so through his written Word.

In the Bible God often time revealed himself through the real-life experiences of everyday people. These people struggled with many of the same things that you and I struggle with. Yes, we read of remarkable happenings, but those remarkable happenings happened to ordinary people living otherwise normal lives.

The reason why it is important to understand this is because I believe God wants to do the same remarkable things today that he did in the Scriptures. God wants us to know him in the midst of everything we do. He is not committed to meeting us only in the context of congregational and religious life. He desires to come to us and work through us in every area of life.

The life of Jacob is but one of a great many examples of someone who is just like we are - if we are honest about ourselves. Many people have had a hard time with him, sometimes doubting his place as a Bible hero, because of how he deals with life. However I suggest that if we have problems with Jacob, then perhaps we are not honest enough about ourselves and our own flaws. Then there are those of us who are that honest, but then we may think that as a result we are beyond God's help and grace. The story of Jacob demonstrates what God wants to do in and through real people like Jacob - real people like you and me.

Jacob was a man of destiny. From before he was born, God had determined that he would be given a special place (25:23). Yet he believed, as did his mother, that he needed to strive after that place. To believe that God could and would act on his behalf to accomplish things that were contrary to his current circumstances was very difficult for him. He really believed that if he didn't protect his own interests and do whatever it took to succeed, then even those things that God himself promised to him would not happen.

Interestingly Jacob's mismanagement of his life did not disqualify him from those things that God destined him for. This does not in any way excuse his bad behavior. His manipulation of others would come back to haunt him time and time again. But God still had plans for him - good plans, including dealing with the very core of his being. The day would come when he would come to the end of his own resources and face God head on.

Jacob was real. He possessed none of the kind of fake spirituality that gives religion a bad name. While he tried to manipulate his circumstances for his benefit, when God brought him to the end of his own resources, he clung to God for dear life, which ended up being the thing that changed his life forever.

For us to grapple with the life of Jacob in order to understand the reality of God through him is no academic exercise. Nor is it a mystical experience detached from understanding. It is a journey into the real. Through Jacob we have the opportunity to also face our own limited resources and learn that real life is found in encountering God.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

TorahBytes: Giving Up our Isaacs (Va-yera)

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:12)

For many, the Binding of Isaac is one of the most troubling of all stories in the Scriptures. That God would ask anyone to sacrifice his offspring is indeed troubling. However, I believe that Abraham knew that God would intervene. We have a hint of that when he informs his servants that both he and Isaac would return from worshipping God (see 22:5).

Whatever we think about the troubling aspect of this story, we need to be careful not to miss what is really going on here. Abraham's dreams were wrapped up in the life of this child. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had been childless into old age. Yet God told Abraham that he would make him a great nation - a promise that Abraham accepted. Finally the child of promise was born, but then several years later, God called Abraham to give him up as a sacrifice, which created a most serious dilemma. How could Isaac be fully given over to God and at the same time be the channel of God's promises to Abraham and eventually to the entire world (See Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3; 17:19)?

Abraham’s understanding of God was such that he was able to face this dilemma head on. He knew that he could trust God to do what he said he would do through Isaac, even if it meant bringing him back from the dead (see Hebrews 11:19). As it turned out, God stopped Abraham at the last minute, providing a lamb in Isaac's place.

What we see about Abraham is that he was able to completely entrust God with what God promised him. He knew that if the promises he received years before were really true, nothing could prevent them from coming to pass. This demonstrated that God was truly first in Abraham's life. Nothing, not even his beloved son, would ever be an idol to him.

This story illustrates our need to keep our dreams in perspective. God may give us an Isaac - a hope, a dream, or an expectation. When such things fill our hearts it is easy to lose perspective. We can begin to focus on them instead upon God who gave them to us. Unless we offer our Isaacs back to God, the dreams he gives us will eventually hurt us and others instead of being the blessings they are intended to be. It is not until we can demonstrate an Abraham-like heart that we are able to effectively steward those things that God has entrusted to us.

While we may not all be tested in this way, Abraham's experience should prepare us for when it does happen. Facing the loss of our dreams is not the end when it is God who is asking us to give them over to him. We can trust him just as Abraham did.

Of course our lives may be filled with dreams that are not from God. Just because we have an aspiration or a hope does not necessarily mean that they have been given to us by God. Whether or not you have a God-given dream is something that you yourself need to discern. Others may be able help you with this. But in the end it is you yourself who will need to know from God what is truly from him. If we are seeking to follow and please him, we shouldn't be surprised when he removes things, even good things from us. That is not the same as Abraham's experience. Giving anything up to God can be a challenge and requires faith, but this is not what we are talking about here.

But regarding those true Isaacs in our lives, note that once God saw Abraham's willingness to offer up his son, that was the end of it. I get the impression that some people think, even after we have fully given over our God-given dreams to him, we have to do it again and again. While it is necessary to be careful not to allow our Isaacs to become idols in our lives, God doesn't expect us to keep trying to kill them, as if they should never become reality. It's okay if your God-given dreams are important to you. It's good if your God-given dreams make you excited. It's godly to find pleasure in your God-given dreams. Handle your Isaacs with care, but don't keep trying to kill them, when God himself is keeping them alive.

Finally, when God calls you to give your Isaacs over to him, be assured that you can do it with confidence. You can have faith like Abraham that if God gives you a promise, he will bring it to pass, even when it looks as if it is about to die.