Monday, March 26, 2012

Torahbytes: Just Wait (Zav)

Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, "How have we spoken against you?" You have said, "It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape." (Malachi 3:13-15; ESV)

Have you ever felt that it is useless to serve God? You may have never said such a thing (or maybe you have), but I think this is something that even the most committed believers have thought. We compare our lives to that of those who couldn't care less about God and it seems that they have it pretty good. They flaunt their unbelief and their immorality and get away with it, while those who trust God and seek to do the right thing seem to have no end of trouble.

First, it is presumptuous to think we know for certain what the cause of someone's circumstances are. Unless God clearly reveals the reason for something all we have to go on is our best guesses. It's easy to create false impressions based on how we view circumstances. What constitutes good or bad anyway? Hardships are some of our best teachers, while successes, though they may be enjoyable for a time, can set us up for great trouble down the road.

Maybe this isn't enough to relieve your grief. It is easy, when we are going through hard times to look at those who are apparently doing well, and get discouraged. Why go through the bother of hardship when it appears that it makes no difference, except perhaps a negative difference? But what does a person's current situation have to do with making an accurate assessment of his or her life? Circumstances so quickly change. Nothing in this age is permanent. One never knows what fortune or trouble is waiting for us around the corner.

But what about when our hard times go on and on? We need to grasp the bigger picture. The more we understand that life is more than what happens to us personally moment by moment, the more we will be free from the effects of daily difficulties.

Life is an investment. Based on what we put into it, so we will eventually derive benefits. The current economic situation doesn't help us to grasp this. The credit crisis gripping much of the world today demands short-term solutions with little regard for their long-term effects. God's perspective is the exact opposite. From his perspective, it is worth it for us to go through whatever pain is necessary now, so that we can enjoy a wonderful future forever. As we read in the New Covenant writings, "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17; ESV).

God responds to those who question the value of serving him by saying, "Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him" (Malachi 3:18; ESV) The way things are now are not the way they will always be. Just wait.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Torahbytes: Cycles of Life (Vayikra & Hahodesh)

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, "This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you." (Shemot / Exodus 12:1, 2; ESV)

Often when people read these verses they wonder why it speaks about the Jewish month of Nisan, which occurs at this time of year, as the beginning of months, while Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year is in the Fall. Judaism regards several new years for different occasions. Rosh Hashanah (literally "head of the year", meaning "new year") is regarded as the civil new year and traditionally marks the anniversary of creation, though this is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. According to the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is actually Yom Truah (the day of blowing [of the shofar]), a remembrance feast ten days before Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement) and two weeks before Sukkot (English: Feast of Tabernacles). The first of Nisan, as referenced by the verse we read, is regarded as the beginning of the religious year.

The Torah doesn't prescribe a special New Year observance except that this is the month in which Pesach (English: Passover) occurs. Acknowledging this as the "beginning of months" just as I read certainly makes sense, since Pesach is the birth or more accurately the rebirth of the nation of Israel.

It also makes sense that ancient cultures understood the year as a cycle. However people understood the earth's annual journey around the sun, it was obvious that there was a pattern of months and years that was repeated over and over again. It is this pattern which perhaps led some cultures to develop the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation is part of an extreme cyclical world view whereby all the stuff of the universe goes through an unending process of birth, death, and rebirth.

The Bible doesn't view the annual cycle in this way, however. While it acknowledges that life does have a definite cycle in that it marks such things as the beginning of months and harvest festivals, it sees the annual cycle as only the environment within which history develops over time. That God has established predictable and repeatable aspects of life doesn't mean that everything about life is predictable and repeatable. God, through the Scriptures, doesn't call us to simply learn the cycles of life with the aim of keeping in step with the way things are. Far from it! The very event which this time of year marks stands in opposition to any philosophy or religion that claims that the pathway to peace and liberation is to be derived from accepting life as it is. The oppressive situation that Israel found itself in Egypt was not acceptable as far as God was concerned. So he came to rescue them from it.

Not all cycles of life are acceptable. God wants to break the cycles of evil and its consequences in all its many forms. You don't need to resign yourself to cycles of destructive habits or victimization. Like the Israelites in Egypt, God wants to rescue you.

There are cycles of life that we would be advised to accept such as the changing seasons. There are annual events such as Passover, which are good to commemorate. But, there are other cycles, however, that we need to break once and for all. With God's help may this be the time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Torahbytes: Preparation (Va-Yakhel & Pekudei)

You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day. (Shemot / Exodus 35:3; ESV)

One of the explicit prohibitions with regard to Israel's Sabbath was that the people were not to make a fire. That this in no way forbids having a premade fire in one's home is no legal loophole. God was not insisting that his covenant people freeze on cold days or that they must only eat cold food; it was that there was something about the making of the fire that God, due to his love for Israel and his infinite wisdom, thought best to direct them away from.

The subject of Sabbath deserves a much fuller treatment than what I can provide in this short message. God's directive to refrain from work on the seventh day each week needs to be revisited in our 24/7, never-stop culture. Disregarding the rhythm of life that God gave ancient Israel is not doing us any good. How exactly to implement Sabbath in our lives is one question; that we need to reincorporate it shouldn't even be a question.

Whatever you think about the Sabbath question, there is something in this short directive from God to Israel that reveals a most important principle. Since the kindling of fire was prohibited on the Sabbath day, while the presence of fire and its benefits (heat and light) were not, the only way to ensure that one's home had a fire was to prepare it beforehand.

This challenges our 24/7, never-stop culture. For many us, our lives are overloaded with activity as we run from thing to thing, from the sounding of our alarms in the morning to collapsing from exhaustion at the end of the day. Actually we don't go from thing to thing, most of us are juggling several things at once. We call this multitasking, except that this term implies that we are successfully doing all the things we are trying to do at once. Personally I think we are deceiving ourselves. With less and less things to which we give our full attention, the quality of our output is severely threatened.

Multitasking is one of several factors that contribute to our growing neglect to prepare for any of the tasks we attempt to do. We are just too busy to prepare for anything anymore. Anything of quality requires forethought and good planning. For many years now, my wife and I have tried to have a date one night each week. While there have been times when we do something spontaneous and it has gone well, our dates tend to be a lot better if we plan ahead. In fact that which ensures that we have regular dates at all is that we have planned ahead for the long term by committing to having them. This causes us to make sure that other activities must occur at other times and unless there is something we both agree is more important than our date, we won't schedule anything else at that time. If we do have to miss our regularly scheduled date, we immediately try to find another night in the week to have it. We are prepared.

Preparing for the truly important things of life is the only way to ensure that they happen and that they are done well. We are fooling ourselves to think that the important things will naturally happen on their own. Without preparation they cannot compete with the ever growing pile of seemingly urgent things that incessantly demand our attention.

It is most likely that if we prepare well, we will have some difficult choices to make as to how we use our time. But in the end, I am sure that those things that get left undone were not as important as we first thought.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Torahbytes: Designed on Purpose (Ki Tissa)

And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you. (Shemot / Exodus 31:6; ESV)

Last week ( I mentioned that God intentionally designed the universe. Everything exists for a purpose given to it by God. It is essential, therefore, to discern what that purpose is. Just because we can do something, doesn't automatically mean we should do it. God, through the Scriptures, has revealed how life is to be lived and calls us to stay within the bounds of his design. I concluded my message with a reminder that God's intentional design no less applies to each one of us and that we need to be true to his purposes for us.

It is not always easy to discover God's purpose for our lives. Beware of teachings with claims of supposed "guaranteed" formulas, promising you "keys" to finding out who you are and what you are about. Teachers truly representing the God of the Bible will encourage you to seek him in order to answer that question. That is something that is done through prayer, the study of Scripture, sensitivity to God's Spirit, and considering godly advice within loving community, including your family, wise leaders and other believers. Learning to take action based on how you discern God's leading in your life will also help you discover what is truly of God. God will even teach you through your mistakes, especially if your heart is geared toward wanting to do his will.

As mentioned, Scripture gives us an understanding of boundaries within which God has called us to live. While the Bible will not tell you what you should be when you grow up, it is clear on so many general topics. As we are keen to keep God's ways of faith, morality, truth, diligence, and responsibility in every sphere of life, be it personal, family, congregation, community, education, business, financial, political, or leisure, we place ourselves within God's general will and can be assured of his blessing upon our lives, regardless of what our more specific purpose may be.

One of the ways we may discover our specific purpose is by discerning the talents that God has given us. Talents are abilities entrusted to us by God. How we come by our talents is not relevant to this discussion. For now, it is sufficient to acknowledge that God is the one who gives them to us.

I have tried to explain that it is wrong to assume that the presence of ability automatically dictates what our abilities are for. Just as in everything else in life, God has given us principles to act as boundaries within which we live. Therefore, first and foremost, using our talents according to God's will requires we remain within those boundaries.

That said, the existence of boundaries doesn't necessarily mean narrow boundaries. God's boundaries are as narrow and wide as he has determined. Some things, such as marriage fidelity, are very narrow. But other things such as architecture and music are wide. Not as wide as some people may think, but there is a lot of room for creativity within many of God's specified boundaries.

This is evident in this week's Torah portion. The Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) was a major building project requiring God-given talent to construct. It demanded the involvement of highly skilled creative artisans. While these men were given clear and specific plans as to the design of the various aspects of the Mishkan, they were not given detailed step-by-step instructions of how to do their jobs. They were called upon to use their abilities based on the wisdom God had given them. This would have required all sorts of big and small decisions in order to get the job done.

The way the verse I read is translated gives the impression that all ability comes from God. In the context of the verse, this may only apply to the men being referred to. But even if this particular statement was intended for only these men, it nonetheless expresses a general truth. That truth is that our abilities come from God and are designed by him in order that we might use them to fulfill his purposes. Let's put our talents to good use.