Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TorahBytes: The Stages of Life (Masei)

These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1; ESV)

Every now and then I think back on the stages of my life. I have lived in several cities and have had various occupations. With marriage and having children has come new experiences, challenges, and blessings. In the midst of this, God has been taking me from one stage of life to the next - teaching me and changing me.

There are great lessons to be learned as we look back on the stages of our lives. What we are today is not the same as what we were years ago. This is true for individuals, for families, communities, nations, and the world. People were made to develop over time. We don't stay the same from year to year. We move from stage to stage.

Perhaps you haven't experienced the amount of change that I have. This could be because you are much younger than I am and time has not yet run its course. Maybe your circumstances have been more stable than mine. While this has become less typical than in the past, some people live, work, and die in pretty much the same surroundings and circumstances their whole life. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean that your life has not gone through various stages. Normal physical development alone means that you have had stages of life.

As important as our physical development is, more important is our spiritual development. The people of Israel were on a journey. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt they were on their way to the land of promise. As Moses details in this week's Torah portion, each stop along the way represents a stage in their journey. Each place was an opportunity to be better prepared for life in the Promised Land.

The stages of life are more than just the things that happen to us. As our life circumstances change or we develop as human beings, we have opportunities to learn, to allow change to occur in our inner selves. The people of Israel saw first hand the power of God in so many ways, but if they didn't learn from those experiences, they would have moved from stage to stage in their journey, but not from stage to stage in life.

One of the books in the New Covenant writings was written by the Jewish believer Yakov (English: Jacob or James). He may have been the natural brother of Yeshua. He writes:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4; ESV)

Yakov urges the followers of Yeshua to see their difficult circumstances in a positive light, since these are the things which produce good character. I don't think he is saying that difficult circumstances automatically have positive effects on our lives. On the contrary, some people become bitter over difficulties. But if we allow God to teach us what he wants us to learn through difficulties, then we can be changed for the better.

The stages of life are opportunities for us to be the people God wants us to be. As we anticipate the stages of life, let's not just try to get through them, but let's be prepared to learn what God wants us to learn. Also, as we look back as Moses did, we may be encouraged to see the things that God has done and the lessons we have learned, but there may be some lessons to be learned from the stages of life that we may have missed. Perhaps it is not too late.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

TorahBytes: You Can Do It! (Mattot)

Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 1:6-8; ESV)

A saying I have heard many times is "You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it." This is something that only works when it does; otherwise, it doesn't. The purpose of this saying is usually to motivate someone to do something they really want to do, but may fear they can't. Fear is certainly an obstacle to accomplishment, and difficult tasks require that we determine as best we can to see them through to the end. But it is ridiculous to think that setting one's mind on something is in itself a guaranty of success.

The prophet Jeremiah faced the difficult task of being God's spokesman at a crucial time in the nation's history. When God called him to this task, we don't know if he understood the implications of his vocation, but what we do know is that he didn't feel up to the job.

God's response to him was not in the form of the kind of motivational speeches common in our day. God didn't tell Jeremiah that if he would set his mind on being a prophet, he would be a prophet. Nor did God challenge him to visualize success and strive for greatness.

What God did do was first, he told him not to put himself down. Jeremiah felt that his youth somehow undermined his ability to accomplish the task at hand. This may sound like a "don't be negative" pep talk, but it is deeper than that. It wasn't as if a positive frame of mind would automatically enable him to do what God was calling him to do. It was simply that when God calls us to do something it doesn't matter how old we are. Young people can be prophets too, if God so calls them.

Second, God said that Jeremiah would go where God would tell him to go and he would speak to those whom God would command him to speak. That may sound like, "You are going to do it, because you're going to do it." But that's not really what God said to him. God said that Jeremiah would go where God sends him and speak what God commands. God determined that he would take charge of Jeremiah's life, directing him and inspiring him. There is nothing we can't do when God takes charge like that.

Third, God told him not to be afraid. But this wasn't God just telling him to calm down as if he had no reason to be afraid. What God was telling him to do was truly intimidating. The reason Jeremiah was not to be afraid, was because God promised to personally take care of him.

God was not challenging Jeremiah to find power within himself to overcome the obstacles to his personal dream. Rather because God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God would also enable him to do it.

Whenever God calls us to do something, he enables us to do it. That doesn't mean that everything God calls us to do will be easy, as we can see from the rest of Jeremiah's life. Still, no matter how difficult a God-given task may be, we can do it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

TorahBytes: Knowing God in the Darkest Times (Pinhas)

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers." (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 19:4; ESV)

I have the impression that many people equate true spirituality with serenity. To know God therefore would include not only a deep sense of contentment, but also intellectual peace and emotional stability. This kind of spirituality values statements such as "Nothing bothers me anymore." People who say this are either dishonest or spiritually dead - at least according to the Bible's understanding of spirituality.

This week's Haftarah includes a most difficult period in the life of the great prophet Eliyahu (Elijah). Coming off of a dramatic encounter with the forces of evil in the society of his day, he was exhausted and depressed to the point of wanting to die. Thankfully God meets him in that place, provides refreshment, rest, and gets him going again.

There are two ways that we can look at Eliyahu's depression. Some may say that he was losing touch with the reality he had known earlier. Call it a lapse of faith perhaps. The greater his faith, the nearer he was to God and the more genuine his spirituality.

If this is true, then the story doesn't make sense. God actually was never as intimate with Eliyahu as in his darkest time. Yes, prior to this he proclaimed God's Word, pronouncing both the beginning and the end of an extended drought and calling down fire from heaven. God's power was very present in those times, but it was in his depression that God's intimacy was most evident.

The other way to look at Eliyahu's depression, (and no surprise that this is what I think is the correct way) is to see that it is a normal experience for those who truly know God.

The book of Job deals with the issue of why the righteous suffer. Serenity was not part of Job's experience during his intense suffering. Some people like to sing Job's words, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21; ESV). While this is an exemplary response to the loss he experienced, to think of this in terms of "Nothing bothers me anymore," is to mock Job's suffering. Job struggled greatly and rightly so. He didn't deserve it. It was confusing - more than that - it was unjust and he told God so. It wasn't until God himself responded to Job's complaining that Job found a place of resolve. Are we going to say that if Job had been truly spiritual he would have silently accepted his suffering? I don't think Eliyahu thought so.

And neither would the Messiah. Prior to his arrest, as Yeshua went to pray, he said to his disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Mark 14:34; ESV). Serenity? I think not.

In the same letter that Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4; ESV), he also speaks of how the preservation of the life of one of his friends prevented him from having "sorrow upon sorrow" (Philippians 2:27). Elsewhere he writes of being "perplexed" (2 Corinthians 4:8). Perplexed is not serene. Being perplexed is a sign of honest grappling with the realities of life.

Intense inner struggles are normal for people who truly know God. Knowing God in the midst of a world in rebellion against him will break your heart. This is not to say that following God doesn't include joy, gladness, and peace. Of course it does, but at the same time, we find ourselves being challenged by his reality in a world that by and large denies him. Sometimes this tension overwhelms us as it did for Eliyahu. But it is at these times that we need God the most. It is in these times that God often draws most closely to us. Thinking that depression is necessarily a sign of a lack in our relationship with God may prevent us from the kind of intimacy he longs for us to have with him in our darkest times.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

TorahBytes: Lethal Connections (Balak)

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them. (Bemidbar/ Numbers 25:1-3)

It is interesting the way some spiritually minded people use the word secular. Webster's defines this word as "of or relating to the worldly or temporal; not overtly or specifically religious ; or not ecclesiastical or clerical". In other words that which is disconnected from or not related to spiritual or religious things. People use the term "secular job" to mean an occupation that is not directly related to religious activities. Or "secular music" to refer to songs that don't contain overt religious or spiritual content. While a person's personal philosophy may separate activities along these lines, the biblical view of life does not create such independent unrelated categories.

The Torah understands the natural world as an expression of the spiritual. God created the physical world and remains intimately involved with it. Everything in the world is under his care. The primary responsibility of human beings is to care for the planet - a responsibility for which one day we will all give an account to God.

A biblical world view, therefore, makes no separation between the spiritual and the secular. This is why, for example, the word "vocation" is used for one's occupation. Vocation means "calling." There is a sense that our occupation is actually, or at least should be, a response to God's call in our lives. A vocation doesn't necessarily entail religious work. Whatever we do in life should be a means through which we honor and serve God.

The idea that there is such a thing as secular activities as separate from religious and spiritual ones has affected the way many societies view morality. For most of human history the way we relate and treat one another has had close connection to various forms of spirituality. The formation of so-called secular societies has become the basis for rejecting spiritual and religious concepts as having any basis for morality. It isn't clear, however, what secularists depend on for understanding morality. In fact, it is apparent that secularism has no basis for morality at all. Whatever morality is still upheld in our various societies are remnants of days gone by when spiritually minded people made laws based on scriptural principles.

The rejection of traditional morality in the name of secularization is not a rejection of spirituality however. In reality it is the rejection of one kind of spirituality in favor of another. The sexual revolution with all of its so called freedoms is no different from what the people of Israel did in this week's Torah portion. The men of Israel were lured into having relations with pagan women. Part and parcel with this illicit activity was the worship of the false gods of these women.

Secularists would insist that contemporary sexual freedom has nothing to do with ancient religion. I accept that many of the people today who reject traditional morality don't bow to idols and burn incense to false gods. Yet we should note that parallel to the rejection of traditional morality is the emergence of all kinds of ancient philosophies and religions re-branded for our generation. The forces behind the Moabite women of long ago continue to lure people into all kinds of sexual immorality in order to take control of their lives. Just as thousands of people died as a result of the incident recorded in the Torah, so today sexual immorality continues to lead to devastating and, at times, lethal outcomes.

This is one of the reasons why sexual sin is so dangerous. While it should be enough for us that God says, "Don't!", and realizing the damage such activity does to our relationships should cause us to avoid it at all costs, sexual immorality is deeply connected to lethal spiritual forces. There is something about this particular behavior that puts us under the control of deadly evil.

We should not be intimidated when secular people seek to delegitimize the warnings made by those of us who know the seriousness of such things. We are too easily brushed aside because we are told that our viewpoint is a religious one. This is a matter of life and death based on Truth. Secularists disregard God's Word to their own peril. But so do we, if we fail to recognize immorality's lethal connection.