Sunday, June 26, 2011

TorahBytes: Sing About It! (Hukkat / Rosh Hodesh)

Therefore the ballad singers say... (Bemidbar / Numbers 21:27; ESV)

The Bible has several examples of songs that were written to commemorate significant events in the lives of the people. The main purpose of singing such songs was to help the community remember the character and power of God. The retelling of the details of the event helps us to get in touch with very specific elements of God's character and power. It is one thing to proclaim that God is good and strong; it's another to recount specific good things he did and exactly how he did it. While it is good to be aware of God's characteristics in an abstract way, we connect with those abstract realities more effectively when we have examples to remember.

Retelling events through song has several other advantages over merely speaking or reading them. The process of writing the song provides the opportunity for the writer or writers to carefully ponder the details of the event and their significance to others. This results in more than the cold recalling of facts, but also allows for the retention of the meaning of the event for generations to come. Songs are a lot easier to remember and have the tendency to get passed on to future generations. The poetic nature of songs, especially well-written ones, give future generations the opportunity to not only relive the original event, but ponder its significance all over again and reflect upon how past lessons can be applied to the present. Due to the nature of song, some of this happens unconsciously.

In most cultures throughout history song has held a very important place. Our own day is no exception. In fact, there may have never been a time when song has been as prevalent as it is today. Radios, portable music players, and music in stores and other venues provide a constant stream of song. Never before have we had such easy access to a countless number of songs as we do today.

But when I think of the content of most songs, very few are of the nature of those which we find in the Scripture. Most songs (and there are exceptions) are about feelings and desires of the moment. These songs are highly emotional and subjective. This is not to say that there is no place for this kind of song - the Psalms include examples of such, though the perspective of the Psalms is very different from most contemporary songs. The tendency of much of today's songs reveals the current state of most people, which is obsessed with self and the pursuit of pleasure. This tendency has spilled over into much of what is considered as spiritually minded songs as well.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if we began to write and sing songs about the great works of God happening in our lives today? Have you, your family, or community gone through some significant event the recounting of which would benefit generations to come? Perhaps you or your loved ones have survived an ordeal of some kind? Did God see you through financial hardships, serious illness or accident? Maybe you are part of a congregation that almost dissolved but has seen a remarkable rejuvenation. Maybe your community is recuperating from a natural disaster. Maybe something terrible has happened to you or your loved ones, but there are some important lessons that should never be forgotten. Whatever it might be, it deserves a song. It might be sad or happy or both, but it needs to be sung.

Since it is always important to be true to one's own words, I thought I would take my own advice and write a song. You Broke Through expresses an aspect of the reality of God in my own life.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

TorahBytes: Go to God (Korah)

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?" When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. Then he said to Korah and all his followers: "In the morning the LORD will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him." (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:3-5).

Moses went through a lot. He didn't want this job in the first place. Sure – originally, years earlier he thought he would try to help his people and took matters into his own hands. But now that he was older and wiser, the desire to be the Great Deliverer had been purged from his soul. It was God's idea to send him back to Egypt, and although he resisted, God prevailed and Moses became a leader.

I have heard it said that part of Moses’ time, being a shepherd in the wilderness, was to prepare him for leading the people through there. That is probably true, but not in the way some people think. It wasn't his knowledge of the wilderness itself that made him adequate for the job. It wasn't the day in and day out of sheep herding that taught him the necessary group dynamics of how to lead two million ex-slaves from bondage to conquest. The primary lesson he learned during those forty years prior to God's call was one of dependency upon God.

Moses had gone from status in Pharaoh's palace to the life of a fugitive, running for his life. Cut off from everything he knew, at age forty he had to start life over so to speak, and work a menial job.

This week's portion shows us how he dealt with the predicaments he faced. When challenged by Korah and those with him, the Torah says, "When Moses heard this, he fell facedown" (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:4). Then he spoke to them. Over and over again whether Moses was confronting Pharaoh, speaking to the leaders of Israel, or dealing with the people's grumbling, he looked to God.

What a way to react to being confronted! He got on his face! I don't think this was his way of showing reverence to Korah, or that Moses was completely overwhelmed. This was Moses' leadership posture. He looked to God. Then he dealt with the situation.

We don't find Moses finding guidance based on his vast learning acquired in Pharaoh's court, or from his own years of wilderness wanderings. Whenever he faced a situation he went to God, who gave him the wisdom he needed.

Isn't this what we all should do?

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

So the next time you are in a situation you cannot handle, maybe you should do what Moses did.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

TorahBytes: Enter In (Shela Lekha)

...The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land... (Bemidbar / Numbers 13:7-9; ESV)

Last week I mentioned how the people of Israel missed their original opportunity to enter the Promised Land, then called Canaan, later called the Land of Israel. The failure of the people to trust God resulted in a delay of 38 years in which they wandered in the wilderness while almost that entire generation died out. While in the long run God's purposes were not thwarted and Israel eventually acquired the land promised to their forefathers, the generation that was delivered from slavery in Egypt failed to enter into God's purposes for their own lives.

This incident is referred to centuries later in Psalm 95, where the writer warns the people of his day to not be like the people who, in his words, hardened their hearts and failed to enter God's rest (see Tehillim / Psalm 95:7-11).

The mention of "rest" is interesting, since the conquest of Canaan was anything but restful. This leads us to see that rest is being used here, not in its most common sense of, in Webster's words, "a bodily state characterized by minimal functional and metabolic activities", but instead it is referring to the arrival to their destination, the receiving of their God-given inheritance.

This portion of Psalm 95 is quoted by the author of the New Covenant book of Hebrews, which is a letter written to a community of Jewish followers of Yeshua living most likely a short time before the destruction of the temple in the year 70 (see Hebrews 3:7-19). The reason for Hebrews was that this community was beginning to succumb to societal pressure and pull back from a clear, public expression of their messianic faith. As a result they were in danger of a plight similar to the people of Israel on the border of Canaan.

But what were they really in danger of? The Israelites in our Torah portion were standing at the border of the Promised Land and had to turn away from realizing their dream of acquiring their God-given home. What were the recipients of the book of Hebrews in danger of missing out on? They were at risk of losing their grasp of the greater inheritance of Israel found only in the Messiah. According to the book of Hebrews this included unrestricted access to God and participation in God's messianic mandate.

With both groups, the thing that threatened to prevent the people from entering into God's fullness for them was the fear of suffering and death. In both cases the pursuit of God's purposes would necessarily entail the encountering of great trouble and hardship. Acquiring the Promised Land meant war. Truly following Yeshua meant persecution and possible death. In both cases the intimidation of these hardships was sufficient to dissuade the majority of people from experiencing, each in their own day, the blessing and reality of God.

However, to be intimidated by these hardships reveals a great lack of understanding with regard to the reality of God. That is why Joshua and Caleb tried to persuade the people to not give into their fear. Because they truly knew God, they could trust him to take care of them even in the face of mortal challenges.

No different for the Messianic Jews centuries later and no different for all who follow Yeshua today. God has so much for his people to enter into, but it requires a confident trust in him in spite of the possible dangers.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

TorahBytes: Delay (Be-Ha'alotkha)

In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony, and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran. (Bemidbar / Numbers 10:11, 12; ESV)

About 13 months after Israel left Egypt, they broke camp at Mt. Sinai and began the next stage of their journey to the Promised Land. The time spent at Sinai was one of the most essential periods in the history of Israel as God established his covenant and its directives with them. The Sinai covenant was the greatest revelation of God to this point and was necessary in the life of Israel for subsequent centuries until the time of the coming of the Messiah.

It would be about another year before God would lead the nation to the border of Canaan. They would then have the opportunity to acquire it, an opportunity they would lose as a result of unbelief. This is described in next week's Torah portion. The point I want make here is that it was God's will that Israel not acquire the Promised Land immediately. He designed a particular two-year process before there was any possibility of entering Canaan.

There are many good things that God wants us to experience, but he not only desires to bless us in this way, he knows the best process through which to bring us into these blessings. When I stop to think about it, why would I want to rush the Master of the Universe when he knows what is best for me and everyone else? Yet, so often I presume to be a better expert on timing than he is. It would be far better if I would accept his sense of timing and submit to his leading.

God's timing is not always due to his preferred process for us, however. We can actually delay what God wants to accomplish in our lives and the lives of those close to us. I already referred to how Israel's unbelief delayed their acquiring Canaan - a delay of thirty-eight years. In this week's portion we read of another, though shorter, delay that took place due to Aaron and Miriam's (Moses' brother and sister) challenge to Moses' leadership (12:1-16).

It may be difficult to understand how our actions could disrupt God's processes in our lives. But we can. The mismanagement of our lives can undermine God's will and set us back in our growth in God. Attempting to comfort ourselves with "God is in control" fails to grasp our God-given need to lovingly submit to his will. God doesn't overlook our disobedience. Through the Messiah we are forgiven, but actions still have consequences.

Miriam didn't have to be arrogant towards Moses and hold up the whole nation for a week. And we don't have to be like Miriam, holding up the plan of God in our own lives either.

If you have a sense that God's process in your life is taking too long, it would be good to see if it might just be your fault. It does no good to think that God will do whatever he will do regardless of how we live. On the other hand, you may be going through a God-designed process that will take as long as it takes. The sooner you recognize that, the more beneficial that process will be to you.