Sunday, May 25, 2008

TorahBytes: Getting Right with the Environment (Bemidbar)

And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal (Hosea 2:10; English: 2:8, ESV).

What a world we live in! While I am well aware of the reality of suffering and tragedy, we live in a most marvelous place. I have heard that for many astronauts, their biggest thrill was not being thrust out into the darkness of space at unimaginable speeds, floating in zero gravity, or walking on the moon, but rather seeing the earth. When I take my daily walk, I can be so focused on my own thoughts that I miss what is around me. But every now and then I am struck by the beauty of nature: a magnolia tree in full bloom, a scarlet cardinal, or a pair of deer sitting on the forest floor. It takes my breath away to encounter nature's beauty and intricacy.

Aside from beauty, nature provides us with so much, including our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. It also enhances our lives through the pleasures of comfort and entertainment.

This might seem obvious, but we were made for this place. While the state that the earth is in is not what God intended, nor is it now what it will be one day, it is the sphere of our existence. I am aware that many people think that our destiny is in a heavenly, non-earthly sphere, but that is not actually what the Bible teaches. We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, and those who are right with God will be resurrected to live on the new earth. Maybe we will come back to this subject some other time. Suffice it to say for now that we were made to live on planet earth.

One of the things that God has sought to teach us is how to understand our place on this planet. Because of the rebellion of our first parents against God, everything about life on earth has been out of sorts. We are surrounded by such bountiful beauty provided by God for our good, yet due to the disruption of our relationship with him, we tend to abuse nature.

The prophet Hosea speaks of this in this week's Haftarah. God through his prophet says that Israel was ignorant of the fact that God was the provider of the good things of earth. The result of this ignorance is destructive. Having been blessed with precious metals, instead of using them appropriately, they became instruments of idolatry.

When we fail to acknowledge God as creator and provider of the good gifts he bestows upon us, we end up wrongly focusing on the very things he has graciously given us. God designed the elements of his creation for all sorts of good purposes, but when we fail to understand their true origins, they become destructive.

The only way to fully appreciate and properly relate to nature, therefore, is to know the God of creation. Once we are restored to him through Yeshua we can see this planet through his eyes, discover our God-given place here, and learn to utilize the things of his creation in the way he intended.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prince Caspian the Movie misses the mark

From the moment its release date was announced, one of my daughters was counting the days until the movie Prince Caspian (the second of the Chronicles of Narnia series) came out. That it was opening the day before her 17th birthday made the anticipation that much more exciting.

Our whole family loves the Narnia Chronicles, and were quite pleased with the movie version of the first of the series, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Though not perfect, it adequately captured the essence of the book, and thus brought to the society at large key elements of the Gospel.

After the success of the first movie, I had high hopes for Prince Caspian and its timely message. Prince Caspian takes place when the children from the first book return to Narnia a thousand years later, Narnia time. They discover that by this time the Narnia they knew - a land of talking beasts and other fanciful creatures, ruled by the Messiah-like lion, named Aslan - is now regarded as myth and fairy tale, except by a very few. The true Narnians live in hiding for fear of their lives. The rightful king, the boy Caspian, is secretly taught the Truth and eventually stumbles upon the Narnians. With the help of the four children from our world and Aslan, all is set right.

The state of affairs we encounter in Prince Caspian mirrors our own - a civilization that owes so much to the Scriptures, but regards it all as fanciful myth that only ignorant people believe. Very few people are left who take these stories seriously.

As my daughter kept abreast of the news about the movie, she tried to tell me that they had made some significant changes. I usually prefer not to know anything about a movie I have decided to see, so she kept the details to herself. I accept that movies adapt books in ways that I may or may not appreciate. Instead of hearing about this or that detail, I preferred to see it all in context upon watching it.

I was shocked to see that not only had they rearranged elements of the story, added some things, and left other things out - all of which is to be expected - they changed the essence of the story. Instead of portraying a time when the reality of Narnia had become regarded as myth, the supposed "extinction" of the old Narnians was due to oppression by the ruling class. Instead of being the spiritually relevant story that is so needed today, Prince Caspian has been transformed into yet another politically correct adventure movie. I don't recommend seeing it.

One of the things that make C.S. Lewis' writings as poignant as they are is that they effectively communicate God's truth within a society that has lost its spiritual moorings. As intellectuals redefined reality for the modern world, pushing it away from a biblical understanding of God and life, Lewis calls us back to the old stories.

The movie version of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe gave us hope that Lewis' legacy was being preserved for a new generation, that the biblical world view would at least be part of the contemporary discussion. The movie version of Prince Caspian, on the other hand, reminds us that Hollywood cannot be trusted with that legacy. While the movie may lead many to read Narnia who have never read it before, it will not have the impact it once had if it is filtered through the lens of the film. The old stories have been forgotten. Not only do people regard the Bible as myth, an ever increasing number of people are not even familiar with it. It never was Hollywood's responsibility to preserve the ancient stories of God. May God help us to preserve his legacy in our day.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

TorahBytes: God Our Refuge (Be-Hukkotai)

O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble (Jeremiah 16:19; ESV).

One of my sons asked me the other day if troubles are on the increase. The recent disasters in Burma and China may make it feel that way. He wanted to know if I thought that tragedies such as these are signs of the soon return of the Messiah. I mentioned that if the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Plague, and the Holocaust, not to mention the other innumerable natural and man-made catastrophes did not usher in the end, I don't know if we could be certain that these more recent events do either. He said it seemed to him that such terrible things are on the rise, but then he said that since the increase of trouble coincides with his becoming older (he just turned 20), and thus more aware, then perhaps it may simply appear to him as if disasters are on the increase.

Whether disasters are actually on the increase or not and whether or not the return of the Messiah is as near as some claim, trouble is still trouble. I don't think those who are suffering spend too much time in speculation.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in troubled times. He was not speculating when he asserted

O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble (Jeremiah 16:19; ESV).

Jeremiah paints a vivid word picture. To Jeremiah God was like a strong high tower during a flood or a fortified building in the midst of war. God was his place of safety and protection in very dangerous circumstances.

What does God being our refuge mean? Some may think that it refers to having a secure future in God. Waiting in hope for better times can help us endure trouble, but while this was likely true for Jeremiah, hope itself is not a refuge. There is something about the here and now that is being expressed.

Others may think that Jeremiah learned how not to be overly affected by difficult circumstances. Yet he says that God is a refuge in the day of trouble. He is not engaging in psychological or spiritual escapism. Trouble is real and it is troubling. Jeremiah knows that. Still, he claims that there is very real help available to him at the same time.

Jeremiah is also not implying that he is confident that God will quickly change his circumstances. His emphasis is on refuge, not deliverance. His need for refuge may be necessary for a considerable amount of time - a need that he believes will be met in God.

In order to understand what it means for God to be a refuge in times of trouble, we need to first understand the true threat of the danger that Jeremiah faced. His purpose in life was to be God's spokesman. The dangers he faced threatened to undermine and prevent his fulfilling his God-given task. But God was his refuge. His relationship with God enabled him to be what God called him to be and to do what God called him to do in spite of every force designed to neutralize him.

No matter how difficult things got, no matter how painful - in spite of the confusion, the betrayals, the intimidation, the fears, the discouragement, the closeness of death - God protected the essence of Jeremiah. As the flood of circumstances dragged the society of his day towards the depths of despair and ungodliness, Jeremiah was kept safe in God. Because of God, his refuge, he was able to live each day, staying true to who he was called to be.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

TorahBytes: A Great Way To Start the Day (Be-Har)

If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:35-38; ESV)

This past week I sent an email to my provincial Premier. I do that sort of thing every now and then. I write letters to my provincial and federal representatives as well as to the editor of this or that newspaper. I am told it makes a difference. I do believe it makes a difference. I think I may still do it whether or not it makes a difference, since I believe God wants us to speak out. While it is a good idea to be strategic in how we deal with societal matters, we can get so hung up on strategy that we fail to speak out.

The issue I wrote to our Premier about is one that, according to news sources, thousands of people are writing him about to the point that the government server recently crashed. At this point, he is refusing to listen. He thinks that the issue is such that it is his responsibility as leader to take this issue in a direction opposite to that of so many citizens.

The issue? The opening of the legislature's daily proceedings with the Lord's Prayer. Currently there is a committee studying alternatives to this tradition.

I think dropping, altering, or adding to the Lord's Prayer is a bad idea.

Some years ago, I don't think I would have written to the Premier on this. I don't think I would have commented on the issue at all. The Lord's Prayer is the prayer the Messiah taught to his disciples. It was not intended for the halls of government. It is for the hearts and lips of believers. However good it may be in and of itself, should we condone what appears to amount to meaningless traditions?

Obviously I feel differently today or else I wouldn't have written my letter of protest (polite and respectful protest, of course).

My hearing about the Premier's refusal to listen to his constituents (not only the thousands of unknown citizens, by the way, but apparently his own mother is quite displeased about his stand), has coincided with my giving further thought to the demise of Western Civilization - something that I am convinced has already happened to a large extent. Few people are willing to accept that the Western nations' rejection of their historical and cultural roots are leading us to the brink of destruction. These roots, which are derived from the Bible, have been the driving force of most of the good we have enjoyed in recent history.

Did you notice what the excerpt that I read from the Torah said? It speaks about how God commanded Israel to care for the poor. It is directives such as these that have lead the cultures of Europe and the Americas to care for the needy, the poor, and the sick. The Bible teaches us to take responsibility for the less fortunate among us. To cut our society free from its traditional roots undermines it completely. For our leaders to treat the Lord's Prayer with contempt shows a complete lack of understanding for the foundation it represents.

The reciting of the Lord's Prayer is a reminder to our governmental leaders that our society has roots in the God of Israel and his Word. The regular reading of the Messiah's model prayer is an encouragement to our leaders and to the society at large to take note of his reality and of his availability to all of us.

For some the exclusive use of such a prayer no longer fits in a pluralistic society such as ours. But I wonder if those who have such a concern have ever read it. I mean have really read it. I know that it is a prayer that is associated with traditional Christianity and all its trappings, but actually it is a prayer with deep Judaic roots that emphasizes that the God of Israel is the Father of all who call upon him. It is a prayer of humility, of reliance, of forgiveness, of protection, and deliverance. I can't think of anything better with which to start the day.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

TorahBytes: Israel: 60 Years (Emor)

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD. (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:31-33; ESV)

This Thursday (May 8, 2008) is Yom Ha'atzmaut, the commemoration of the declaration of the state of Israel by David ben-Gurion on the Jewish date of 5 Iyar 5708 (May 14, 1948. Note that the Gregorian equivalent changes year by year. The day is also adjusted to avoid the Sabbath - for more information see'atzmaut).

This year marks 60 years since the modern state of Israel was established. That's 60 most remarkable, difficult, controversial, miraculous, confusing, distressful, profound, intense years. Israel is the world's youngest ancient country. No other nation has ever risen from the dust of history like this. From the ashes of the Holocaust it rose as from the dead to become an advanced modern democratic society. Living under the continued threat of annihilation, it has continued to not only survive, but thrive.

Readers of the Bible understand that the existence of Israel in our day is more than an interesting fact of history. It is a testimony to the faithfulness of God to his covenant people and a witness to the truth of the Scriptures. The reality of Israel's existence takes what could be an intangible spirituality and brings it to the domain of the real - the here and now of everyday existence.

To say that Israel evokes emotion and controversy is an understatement. Few if any countries top the news as much as Israel does. Yet it ranks 96th by population and 152nd by land mass. People who read the Bible shouldn't be surprised. We might say that once God planted his flag in that tiny land centuries ago, all hell let loose. The events of the last 60 years as significant as they are, represent only one chapter in a most complex and difficult history for that location.

Whatever anyone thinks of the Land of Israel, ancient or modern, readers of the Bible should understand that behind all the political maneuverings and media postulations lie the plans and purposes of God. I am aware that the details of this as expressed by preachers and scholars are as diverse as the political musings. But at this 60th anniversary, it would be most beneficial to get as close to the core of the issue as possible. Whichever "end times" scenario proves right, whatever theological perspective is most accurate, however the current political situation plays out, the real controversy over the land of Israel is that God made it holy.

I think for most Jewish people, Israel represents survival - a place to call home after almost 2000 years of dispersion. But God's intent for the Jewish homeland has always been for it to be that and so much more. The land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be home to a nation of priests, serving the Master of the Universe in his holy dwelling. Its destiny was that it would be the place out of which his Word would go forth to the rest of the world.

This is a destiny that has been realized, yet is still awaiting its fullness. For it was in this land that Yeshua prepared his followers to proclaim the reality of the One True God to all the nations of the world. Yet we still await the day when all the nations will gather in this land to worship the One True God as he reigns in peace over all the earth.

Until that time Israel remains in turmoil, having survived against all odds, not understanding its continued call to be priests to the nations. But that day is coming.

Happy birthday Israel! May you come to your destiny soon.