Sunday, July 31, 2011

Torahbytes: Intersections (Devarim)

The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, "You have stayed long enough at this mountain." (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:6; ESV)

We recently bought our first GPS unit. As many of you are aware, a GPS is a pretty useful device. I like the way it gives you a real-time dynamic map as you drive. It's so nice to allow intersection after intersection to pass by without any worry that I will miss my turn. Then as I approach my intersection, the voice kindly, but firmly informs me that my turn is coming up. Then it repeats the prompt just before the turn itself.

I get a bit of a kick out of how the GPS recalculates whenever I don't listen to its directions. It has a destination in mind and its own way of determining how I should get there. Call me stubborn, but at times I really do think I know better. And at times I have. Other times, not so much. Sometimes I miss my turn because I didn't hear it properly. I may have been distracted or perhaps I misunderstood the prompt.

Trusting in the Messiah is like having a GPS. He has a direction for our lives in mind and has determined how best to get there. When we allow him to guide us, he doesn't shout incessantly in our ear that we are going the right way. The intersections of life - those things that can send our lives in a completely different direction - simply pass by. As they do, we needn't be concerned, because they are not for us. But from time to time, as we approach a turn we need to take, he whispers firmly that it's time to turn.

As God calls us to make these turns, we sometimes ignore his directions. Sometimes it's because we think we know better, other times we are distracted and don't hear him. Sometimes we are forced to turn as the circumstances of life block us from continuing on our preferred course. When we don't follow his directions, like the GPS, he recalculates our course and prompts us accordingly in order to takes us where he wants us to go.

The people of Israel were on a forty-year journey to the Promised Land. It should have been only two years, but because they wouldn't listen to God's instructions, they had a much longer journey to take. The destination was always the same, but the turns were different due to their stubborn lack of faith. They really didn't like the turn God was telling them to take the first time he directed them to enter the Promised Land. So he recalculated their trip, which added an additional 38 years. They still got there, but it was a lot more bother, plus the fact that the whole adult generation who thought they knew better died during that time.

I know that no matter how good my GPS might be, it's not perfect. In fact, because of that I need to be careful not to fully depend on it. But God is different. His sense of direction and his determined plan for our lives are without error. That said, I am not always careful to follow his every prompt as I should. Sometimes I think I know better. Other times, for one reason or another, I am distracted and I don't hear him as I should.

You might be uncomfortable with my comparing God to a GPS. I don't blame you. Besides his perfect accuracy, it can be a lot harder to hear his directions than those given by these little devices. At the same time, however, God is determined to direct us. He is constantly at work to take us in the direction that he knows is best for us. He also knows we don't hear him that well most of the time. But, thankfully, he has far more methods at his disposal to get us where he wants us to go than the best GPS units.

How he communicates those prompts is his business. The less stubborn we are regarding the direction of our lives and the more we pay attention to his leading the more likely we will hear them and the more our lives will be a blessing - both to ourselves and to others.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

TorahBytes: Changing Times (Masei)

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them. (Bemidbar / Numbers 34:55, 56; ESV)

Recently I saw a report from Israel about how a group of so-called ultra-orthodox were aggressively demonstrating against the presence of Messianic Jews in various towns. I refer to the ultra-orthodox as "so-called" because contrary to the popular understanding that they are more orthodox than the orthodox, many of their beliefs and practices are very different from those held by traditional orthodox Jewish people. The "ultra" descriptor actually emphasizes their tendency to be extreme, not their greater commitment to Judaism.

I think a lot of people would be shocked to hear of some of the things that they were saying against Jewish followers of Yeshua. It is one thing to disagree, to discuss, even to argue, but accusing Jewish Believers of being Hitlers and calling them infections that must leave Israel is extreme to say the least.

To give these religionists the benefit of the doubt, one might connect their stand to what is included in this week's Torah portion (parsha). Prior to entering the Land of Israel, God told the people through Moses that they must drive out the previous inhabitants. If not, then not only would these people be problematic to them, but God himself would bring the judgments that the previous inhabitants deserved on the people of Israel instead.

That's a pretty heavy duty directive and warning. Since the ultra-orthodox protesters regard Messianic Jews as apostates and idolaters, they lump them together with the wicked among the Gentiles, and just like the ancient inhabitants of the Land, they must be driven out.

Besides the fact that the ultra-orthodox don't represent mainstream Judaism - let alone a biblically derived Judaism, which even mainstream Judaism doesn't represent, I wonder if there are some people who respect their commitment to their understanding of truth and their lack of tolerance toward those who differ from them. Are they not being true to their understanding of God? In fact, is not their aggressive stance in keeping with the aggression of God himself against the ungodly?

While it is true that God commanded Israel of old to drive out the inhabitants of the land, we are under a very different mandate today. It's not that God has changed or that our understanding of God has changed. It is that the time of preparation, of which the conquest of the land was one aspect, ended long ago. The days of Moses and Joshua are not the same as the days of David and Solomon, or as the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, or as the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, or as the days of the Maccabees and Herod's Temple, or as the days of Yeshua and the apostles, which are the days we are in today. While God himself doesn't change and there is much of what he has decreed that is also unchanging, there is much that has changed. The protesters don't understand that.

While we live among people of differing viewpoints and faith, some of which we may even regard as dangerous and destructive, whether we live in Israel or anywhere else, we are under no directive to drive them out. Far from it! Instead, we are called to teach God's truth to all nations, including Israel. Yeshua through his followers fulfill the prophet Isaiah's words: "From Zion will go forth Torah and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3; see Matthew 28:18-20).

This is not a day of conquest, but the day of salvation for not only the people of Israel, but for all nations through the proclaiming of the good news of the Messiah's coming. Sadly the ultra-orthodox want to rid the Land of the very source of their own salvation, healing and help.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

TorahBytes: Are You a Deist? (Mattot)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5; ESV)

Years ago, I was sitting in the lunch room at my place of work, and my colleague, who claimed to be a believer in God, was eating an apple. For a reason I can't remember I said that God made that apple. I was surprised at how he didn't share my perspective. He believed that while God created the original apple tree, all apple trees and apples since then were only the result of the natural processes that God put in place at creation.

That viewpoint is called "deism." Deism affirms the existence of God and his role as Creator, but denies his direct ongoing involvement with the laws of nature he established. God, according to deists, is likened to a watchmaker who, having set the creation in motion at the beginning has simply let it run on its own since then.

A deist doesn't necessary believe that God is irrelevant as far as our day-to-day lives are concerned. As the Master Watchmaker, deists may accept that he knows best as to how his invention should be handled and maintained. Therefore we would do well to follow his instructions. Deists may feel pretty close to God as they study and obey the Scriptures and derive great benefit in following God's moral code as defined by the Bible. This would include experiencing his blessings and curses, since they are the God-ordained results of adhering to or neglecting his instructions. Deists have a lot in common with true Bible believers, but they're not.

Jeremiah, for example, was no deist. He claimed that God personally formed him in his mother's womb. Some, like my colleague with the apple, may respond with a "yes, but," saying that this is a metaphorical way to refer to God as the first cause in creation. He therefore can be credited as the creator of all humans without personally forming each and every human being.

The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn't take into account everything that Jeremiah says in the verse I quoted. Not only did God form him, God personally knew him and set him apart for a particular purpose from before he was born. This kind of intentional purposeful language which fills the pages of Scripture contradicts any notion that God might simply be an impersonal first cause. Our existence and the outworking of our lives are not like dominoes tipping over in sequence based on a single act of God at the beginning of human history. Rather, God has been actively and personally involved with his creation and people all this time.

There may be people who agree with this last statement and yet still be deists. You may have agreed with me about my friend's apple and yet not fully accept how much God is intimately involved in your life. Your sense of loneliness, your lack of direction, your fear and anxiety, or your bitterness may be symptomatic of your being a deist. You may believe in God and acknowledge him in many ways. You might love him and seek to obey him. You might believe that he is involved in his creation and even with people. And yet you fail to recognize his presence and involvement in your own life. Your deism might be evident in how you make decisions or your refusal to submit your lifestyle to God. You might think that God and business shouldn't mix. You might think that your addiction is beyond God's ability to help you. If that's so, you're a deist.

We are all deists to some extent as we need to grow in our understanding of how intimately God is involved in our lives and how much more involved he wants to be. The sooner we realize and accept this truth the better.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

TorahBytes: When You're Right You're Right (Pinhas)

Moses brought their case before the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, "The daughters of Zelophehad are right." (Bemidbar / Numbers 27:5-7; ESV)

This week's parsha (Torah reading portion) contains an incident where the orphaned daughters of a man by the name of Zelophehad came to Moses and other leaders to make a claim on their father's estate. It appeared that up to that time God's directives regarding inheritances did not include their particular situation. When Moses brought their case to God, God said that they were right and established a precedent for future generations.

Before we deal with the issue of God's response itself, I want to point out that these women had a voice. It seems to me that many people think that women in biblical times were allotted no respect whatsoever to the extent that the leaders would not have given them the time of day let alone consider their legal claim. The biblical record indicates something very different from the picture of complete repression that is commonly painted of the past.

Whatever this incident reveals about women in biblical times, note that God had no issue with accepting that their situation was not fully covered by his earlier stipulations. What they said was right, so God was fine with acknowledging that and making it a statute for future generations.

If God has no problem acknowledging that someone else was right, how much more should we be open to the input of others? If the God of the Universe - the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, self-sufficient God - is humble enough to admit that his directives required input from others, then should not we - imperfect, finite, limited human beings - be more then glad when people point out gaps in our thinking.

It is instructive that Moses knew the difference between a legitimate issue that required going to God for clarification as opposed to dealing with yet another rebellious complaint. Perhaps he was able to pick up something in the attitude of the women or, more likely, he was quick to understand that this was an issue that needed to be addressed. We would do well to follow Moses' example. Not every concern is legitimate, but some are. We need God's wisdom and to have a thorough understanding of his Word to know when people are bringing legitimate concerns to us that might require going to God for clarification. We shouldn't feel threatened by legitimate issues that expose gaps in our thinking.

We should also be encouraged to go to God with legitimate concerns ourselves. Whether we simply haven't discovered what God's Word already says about a certain issue or we have encountered a life situation that is not directly addressed by the Scriptures, God is glad to hear us and will clarify our issues.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

TorahBytes: Requirements (Balak)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8; ESV)

For the past several years I have been fulfilling various roles for a high-tech firm. More recently I have been working in the area of software testing. An essential aspect of software development is the establishment of requirements. Without requirements it is impossible to determine if the finished product is what was truly desired by the company. This is especially evident at the testing phase, since in order to determine whether something passes or fails necessarily implies that the item is sufficiently defined. One cannot claim something works or doesn't work if requirements were never clarified.

One of the interesting elements about this issue is that regardless of whether or not a project has clearly defined requirements, requirements always exist. They may be few; they may be many. They may be reasonably achievable or not. However difficult it might be for the initiators of a project to articulate their requirements, they will have - however vague they may be - expectations for that project. Expectations are requirements.

What's true in business is also true in every other aspect of life. All of us live each day with a sense of requirements. From determining what to wear, the route we take to work or school, how we interact with family, friends, colleagues, and the public - even though we do so unconsciously most of the time - we are constantly fulfilling requirements.

For some reason many of us - both in our personal and business lives - hesitate to determine requirements. Even though the clarification of requirements is key to successful business and living, we tend to prefer them to be vague. Perhaps this is due to the desire to keep every option open in case something better comes along. Or sometimes we so fear failure that we think that as long as we don't define our requirements, we cannot be held accountable for failure. I think it is evident that the fear of failure is, therefore, one of the greatest causes of lack of success. Unless we clarify requirements, we will never know if we are truly successful.

Thankfully, God, through the Scriptures, has provided us with clearly defined requirements. This week's Haftarah includes a high-level requirements statement. This statement is not designed to be understood as a simplistic list as if God expects us to only do these few things. Rather it is a summary that embodies the detail of God's extensive requirements.

The prophet Micah summaries God's requirements as, "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." If we are careful to fulfill these requirements, we can be confident that we are living life exactly the way God designed it. Any other agenda, goal, or desire is contrary to God's requirements. Even those of us who claim to be keen to do God's will have a tendency to ignore his requirements in favor of our own. We may imagine that God wants us to fill our lives with religious rituals, money, or grand projects, but if our efforts fail to stay within the confines of Micah's words, we will fail to meet God's requirements.

It is remarkable how much is covered by this requirement statement. God calls us "to do justice." This means we must be careful to always do what God has determined is right - both in our personal lives and unto others. We are "to love kindness." The word for kindness can also be translated "mercy". It's a way to speak of God-inspired love. As we strive to always do right, we must do so with an attitude of kindness, mercy and love. Justice and mercy are not contradictory. It's that neither are ever fully achieved unless they are held in balance. The final statement, "to walk humbly with your God," gives us proper context within which we do justice and mercy. The justice and mercy we are called to do is not a humanistic one which we determine on our own. Rather it must be that which has been defined by the God of Israel. This includes both our need to be in right relationship with him through trusting in the Messiah and to adhere to the abundant practical life directives we read throughout the Scriptures.

God in his graciousness has not left us with vague, undefined requirements. Rather he has told us what is good and what he requires of us. Therefore, let us be sure to pay close attention to his requirements and live.

In last week's TorahBytes message I got out of my comfort zone and posted an original song on YouTube. This week, I would like to share with you a song by Steven Curtis Chapman on this week's theme. It's a well-produced live version of his song The Walk. He is backed up by his two sons.