Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TorahBytes: Hold On (Va-era)

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. (Shemot / Exodus 6:9)

Moses didn't have an easy job. God called him to stand before a powerful leader of a powerful nation to demand that they give up their slave labor force. It was not surprising that Pharaoh, King of Egypt, didn't listen to him. That was to be expected, but the very people whom he was to lead didn't listen to him either.

When Moses first presented God's plan to the leaders of his people, they received him enthusiastically. But it wasn't too long after Moses' first confrontation with Pharaoh that their plight turned from bad to worse. After so many years of cruel bondage, Moses, who was actually a fugitive, burst on the scene, saying God had sent him to deliver them. One would assume that if the all powerful God of the universe sends someone to save them that it would just happen. But instead Pharaoh decreed that their labor be made more intense.

I don't think we can blame them for their discouragement. There is no indication that God was critical of their reaction. It would be some time before God would strive with the people over their grumbling and unbelief, but at this point, he took their reaction in stride.

What a challenge this must have been for Moses, however. He knew he had encountered God. Not only had God told him he would deliver the people, he also told him that Pharaoh would not listen. It must have been encouraging to him to see his own people's initial positive response, but then he had to stand alone except for the companionship of his brother Aaron.

It is one thing to read this as a story, but if we stopped to think about it, I wonder how many of us would be willing to be involved in such an undertaking: confronting a political tyrant on one hand, and leading a downtrodden people who had lost all hope on the other.

Yet Moses did it. As God continued to tell him what to say, Moses continued to do it.

Some may think that if they would have such an encounter with God, they would be just like Moses, but I don't think so. We might be surprised at how we can have deeply rooted convictions, yet still give up under pressure. The Bible has many examples of people who dramatically encountered God, yet were not up to the task, or did well for a while, but failed in the end.

It's not the encounter that makes the difference. There is something much deeper that must happen inside a person to enable them to stick to their calling against all obstacles. Somehow Moses was able to keep perspective in spite of the difficulties before him. Somehow he knew that what God was saying was right in spite of the circumstances he faced. The people of Israel had every indication that their situation was not going to get better. Moses had performed some signs for them, which seemed to impress them, but their increased suffering proved to have greater influence upon their outlook than anything Moses said or did. But Moses' response was different. Moses continued to believe God.

This is the challenge that is before each one of us today. Whatever our life situation, will we base our outlook on life on our circumstances, good or bad, or will we base it on what God is saying to us? And God is speaking to us - whether we have had a dramatic encounter like that of Moses or we read his clear directives in the Scriptures. Either way, as we seek to live out what God says, we will be confronted by situations that will try to intimidate us by giving us the impression that we will not be able to succeed in fulfilling God's will in our lives.

It is only when we refuse to be dragged down by these threats of intimidation that we will be able to fulfill God's call. Again, that call may not include the same level of responsibility that Moses was given, or be as critical. Still, whatever our God-given responsibilities are, as we face similar challenges, we must continue to hold on to whatever it is God has said to us.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

TorahBytes: The Bible - Life's Mirror (Shemot)

When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. (Shemot / Exodus 2:3,4; ESV)

Both Judaism and Christianity claim to be based on the Bible - Judaism on the Tenach (Old Testament), Christianity on both the Tenach and the New Covenant writings (New Testament). But what I encounter in the Bible is often lacking in these religions. This probably doesn't matter to those who claim to be part of either of these groups, yet view the Bible as an old-fashioned book of myths. But there are others who think their faith is in keeping with the teachings of the Bible, when nothing could be further from the truth. What would happen if we would take the time to compare our so-called biblical faith with what the Bible actually teaches.

One of the New Covenant books states,

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

What a transformation we would experience if we would allow ourselves to honestly face the scrutiny of the Scriptures!

The Bible is not a book primarily about synagogue and church. It is not about associations and agencies. It is not about religious symbols and rituals. It is certainly not about personalities and showmanship. The Bible is about real people who encounter the true God in the midst of real life. It is a book that demonstrates the destructive nature of sin and the marvelous power of God's love. It is a book that clearly reflects the hideousness of human nature and the blinding glory of God. It speaks of God's anger towards our wickedness and his yearning for our honest attention.

The Bible exposes us to the nitty-gritty of life through the circumstances of people just like us. In its pages we read of marital strife, sickness, death and fear. We read of hope, courage, faith, and sacrifice. We meet hypocrites and liars, the betrayers and the betrayed. We find bitterness and forgiveness, hate and love, despair and hope. All this and more are found within the blood, sweat, and tears of human experience.

However, it seems to me that many people don't want to face the reality of real life, let alone that reality as found in the Bible. Even while claiming to respect and honor the words of Scripture, they manipulate those words according to the world as they want it to be instead of what it really is.

But if we would honestly read the Bible, we would read about real situations such as Moses and his family as found in this week's Torah portion. The same jealousy that drove Pharaoh to oppress God's people back then is alive and well today. But so is the power and presence of God working on behalf of his faithful ones just as it did for Moses and his mother.

The Bible is a reflection of life the way it really is, but we too often mar that refection with our perceptions, preferences, and traditions. It is only as we allow the messages of the Scriptures to speak for themselves that its transforming power can be truly effective in our lives.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

TorahBytes: God's Compass (Va-yehi)

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; ESV)

The number one movie in North America last weekend (December 7-9) was "The Golden Compass," based on the book by Phillip Pullman. According to his web site, Mr. Pullman is a committed atheist. Having not read his books themselves and having no interest in seeing this movie, I will make no further comment on him or the film. But what is interesting to me is that the title of this film, written by a man who claims God doesn't exist, is a reminder of God's compass.

The benefit of a compass is that it directs us to a fixed point. Wherever you are (with the exception of being very close to either of the north or south poles), it will always point north. However good or bad your personal sense of direction might be, a compass will tell you where to go. The compass itself isn't the fixed point, but by pointing to it, it can accurately and effectively guide you.

Compasses function as they do because of certain laws of physics that God has put in place. Due to God's design we can find the fixed point through which we can get our bearings. In the same way God has provided a spiritual compass - the Scriptures - through which we can find our spiritual bearings. Just like a compass points to a fixed point on earth as established by God, so the Bible points us to the fixed moral and spiritual points in life that God has established.

When using a compass, it is essential to not allow our own perceptions and feelings to get in the way of what it is telling us. In the same way, when we read the Bible, it is necessary to not allow our own perceptions and feelings to get in the way of what God is telling us.

Some people who believe the Bible don't believe it is a compass. They don't believe God has established fixed points to which the Bible directs us, or if there are fixed points, what they are is hidden from us. For them the Bible has become a book of spiritual experiences that encourage us in our own spiritual experiences and that's all. The legitimacy of any given experience is dependant on ourselves, not on objective standards established by God. As a result they go through life without a compass, striving to be content in their lost-ness.

This is not how Joseph saw life with God. Even though Joseph lived before most of the Bible was written, he understood God's ways as fixed points. His understanding of God that he inherited from his father, grandfather, and great grandfather was a compass directing him according to those fixed points. By accepting that God was whom he revealed himself to be and by adhering to God's standards, Joseph was able to be the man God called him to be. Knowing God as he did enabled him to keep his bearings through all the confusion he endured for so many years. By allowing himself to stay focused on God, his difficulties never did him in. Instead, his difficult circumstances prepared him for the great things he was called to accomplish.

Joseph's understanding of God had nothing to do with his personal perceptions, feelings, or preferences. Rather it was a compass enabling him to arrive at the right destination through the storms of life. Through the Bible we too have a compass, which reveals God's fixed points and through which we can be accurately and effectively directed in life. The more we give ourselves to its direction, the better equipped we will be to traverse the path of life.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

TorahBytes: The Power of Hunger (Va-yiggash)

And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3; ESV)

Near the end of Moses' life he recounted to the people of Israel the significant details of their years living in the wilderness. According to Moses, one of the lessons that God sought to teach them during that time was that they needed to rely upon God for everything. In order to learn that lesson God had to humble them by leading them into a most desperate situation in which they had no food. Moses said to them:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

This is one of the most important lessons that human beings must learn. While God has created us to be innovative and resourceful, and while he expects us to provide for ourselves and others, we are not to rely on ourselves, but upon him for all things. Whatever we do must be under his guidance along with a sincere acknowledgement that all we have comes from him.

This is a difficult lesson for us to learn. God has endowed us with great ability, but it is not our ability that is the real problem. The real problem is that we all come into the world with a messed up perspective on life. Our sinful human nature with its natural rebellious bent warps our understanding of who we really are in relationship to God, to others, and to ourselves. Humbly relying on God is a great challenge for us.

That is why the people of Israel had to be driven to such depths. It was only by being without food for a considerable amount of time that they had any hope whatsoever of learning so crucial a lesson.

Perhaps this sounds cruel to you, but God in his love can be pretty harsh sometimes. It is not because he finds pleasure in making life difficult for us, but rather he does what he must so that we will learn what we need to learn.

Hunger is a great motivator. We also see this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Remember that Joseph's brothers hated him to the point of wanting to kill him. Their jealously of him prevented them from accepting the special role for which God was preparing him. They had no idea that after so many years he would be a high official of Egypt and be the one used by God to administer food throughout that part of the world during the severe famine.

It was their hunger that drove them to Egypt in search of food. It was ongoing hunger that took them there the second time even though they feared what Joseph (although they didn't know it was him yet) might do to them. But it was this same hunger that was driving them to be reconciled with their brother who would provide for them in the long term. If the famine had not been so severe, they likely never would have gone.

About a billion people in the world today are undernourished. I expect that most of the people reading (or listening to) this are not in that category. The type of hunger experienced by Joseph's brothers and the people of Israel is not something that most people have ever known. But there are other types of hunger besides hunger for food that God uses to lead us to the point of desperation.

At times God uses our desperation to provide us the opportunity to make radical adjustments in our lives, specifically to bring about a change of heart towards him. Sadly, not everyone who gets this opportunity makes the right choices. It doesn't help if we think that our times of hunger are simply challenges that we need to resolve ourselves. Instead, let us learn to rely on God to meet us in our place of need.