Sunday, July 28, 2013

TorahBytes: Culture Shock (Re'eh)

When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, "How did these nations serve their gods? - that I also may do the same." You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:29-31; ESV)

My wife and I are preparing for a teaching trip to Italy and Slovenia this fall. This will be the first time either of us will be in mainland Europe. Having lived in Canada's four largest cities we are used to interacting cross culturally. My wife especially, ever since she was a child, has had a keen interest in people of diverse backgrounds, combined with a love for languages. Yet apart from our teaching trip to Haiti early last year, we have done very little traveling outside of Canada and the US.

In preparation for the upcoming trip as well as for general interest, I have recently read a couple of books on understanding culture. "Survival Kit for Overseas Living" by L. Robert Kohls (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press Inc., 2001) is specifically designed to orient the American businessperson for working abroad for a period of time. As a Canadian, it was an interesting bonus to note the cultural differences between us and our American neighbors. Much in the book is helpful, including the need to know ourselves better before we can effectively understand others. It also explains how normal culture shock is due to the vast amount of differences when traveling to various parts of the world. The overwhelming effects of disorientation can be quite severe for some people, but in most cases, it is temporary. The book has some interesting examples of how different cultures do things, some of which made me question customs I take for granted. For example, according to Kohls, some cultures outside of North America think that it is very unhygienic to have a toilet in the same room in which we wash.

While there is much in the book I appreciate, I found myself questioning its basic premise, which is that cultural differences have nothing to do with right and wrong, they are just different. For Kohls, accepting this is key in overcoming culture shock. Removing right and wrong from how we regard cultural diversity enables us to view differences as personal preferences that we will get used to over time.

But is Kohls correct? Moses doesn't think so. He made it clear that the people of Israel were to develop a culture contrary to the customs of other peoples. I know we are not dealing with a true parallel here. We should not directly apply the principles governing Israel's conquest of Canaan with cross-cultural business endeavors in the 21st century. Still, Moses (and God) didn't regard culture as morally neutral. In fact Israel's culture was imposed upon them by God. Israel actually clashed more with God's cultural standards than with those of foreign nations.

In the New Covenant Writings we read how Yeshua's followers are called to export the God-imposed standards of ancient Israel beyond its borders. From almost the start, Yeshua's followers grappled with the need to differentiate between the standards applicable to everyone everywhere and those which are simply cultural preferences. This is where Kohls's advice is helpful. When we are visitors to a country, we should suspend judgment on their culture. Much harm has been caused by confusing our sense of right and wrong with what's neutral in a culture. But the arrogance of people in the past and the need for tolerance for cultural differences should not undermine the need to retain a sense of right and wrong. 

Where Kohls is certainly correct is that we need to better understand ourselves first before engaging other cultures. Like ancient Israel, the more important culture clash is not between us and others, but between us and God's ways. How much do we put up with in our lives just because it's our culture instead of truly submitting to God's Word? We might be shocked to find out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

TorahBytes: Credit Where Credit Is Due (Ekev)

You will think to yourself, "My own power and the strength of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:17; CJB)

Truly effective living is only possible as we develop a scriptural perspective on life. There is much that can be learned about the world through scientific investigation and experience. But wisdom, the skill of living effectively, is primarily derived from God's revelation through the Bible. I say "primarily", because this is not solely an academic exercise. Reading, even memorizing, the Bible without living out its teachings, won't produce anything worthwhile.

The Scriptures are more than a collection of wise sayings. Through its stories, laws, songs, prophecies and so on, it manages to direct us to know God and the need to trust in him and what he has provided for us in the Messiah. It expresses its instructions in such a way that causes the sensitive reader to really grapple with every aspect of life.

This week's parsha (Torah portion) includes an insightful warning, which, if heeded, will enable us to be truly productive in the long term. Yeshua said he wanted his followers to not only be fruitful, but that we would bear fruit that will endure, perhaps even beyond our own lifetime (see John 15:16). We live in a day where momentary success is so celebrated with hardly any regard for the future, while a biblical view of life is concerned about both today and beyond.

Moses envisioned a day where the people of Israel would know a level of prosperity. However, he describes a destructive frame of mind that would undermine their success. He warns them to make sure that they never credit themselves for their wealth. Does this mean that the Bible is asserting that people have nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome of their work? Far from it! The Bible is full of principles for living. Carefully living life according to God's Word will always be better than not. If how we live makes a difference, then what's the big deal about acknowledging our part in it?

The reason is given earlier in this passage. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, kept in servitude against their will. God set them free, provided for and protected them for years in the wilderness. If it wasn't for his intervention they would still be in bondage. If it wasn't for his constant care, they would have died. Every positive outcome of their lives post-Egypt is to God's credit, not theirs. But, after acknowledging one's eternal debt to God, how can it be so wrong to take even a little credit for ourselves?

This question exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of life that many of us have. We are creatures. Even atheists must accept that we did not bring ourselves into existence. Yet, there is something within each of us crying out for personal glory as if we deserve credit for the outcome of our lives. Again, I know how we live makes a difference, but think about it. If I produce good fruit from my labor, what is really happening? I, a creature of God, existing due to his determination, learns a skill that I didn't completely invent that somehow relates well to the physical and non-physical properties of the universe (something I also didn't create) to the extent there is a favorable outcome of my actions. Do you know how many tiny details of life have to cooperate to produce favorable results? Most of us don't stop and think about how astounding it is we made it today alive. Who's responsible for that? Without God, it's terrifying. We are the victims of complete randomization. It's all about getting lucky. No credit to take there. With God, we are subservient to his wishes. How can we take credit for that?

Monday, July 15, 2013

TorahBytes: Rules Are Good (Va-Ethannan)

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:1; ESV)

I tend to overreact. It's not good. I was thinking about this the other day and realized that this is something that I learned in my childhood. My mother overreacted a lot. I don't know why, but she had a lot of fears and they manifested through her tendency to immediately panic over a great many things, that I now know (in my head at least), are really no big deal. I don't overreact to everything, mind you. I think of my friends that totally freak out over spiders. I don't. But I don't put down those who do, since I know what it is like to overreact over nothing. Yes, spiders are nothing to freak out about. We once had a plumber who wouldn't do needed work on our house until we got rid of (what he thought was) the black widow spider in our crawl space. He was certain that it was a black widow because of the documentary he saw on television; in spite of the fact the no such spiders inhabited our region of the world. But don't worry; we don't live in that house any more anyway.

My bit of insight the other day about my own tendency to inappropriately overreact helps me to understand a particular common overreaction among Bible believers. It's an overreaction to rules. It seems to me that "rule" is the latest four-letter-word for a lot of people. Bad used to be defined by sin, which is the breaking of God's rules, now it's the rules themselves that are the cause of every evil thing. It's as if we got rid of all rules, then we can finally be free to be all that God wants us to be. Nothing can be further from the truth.

To be fair, there is a thread of truth woven through such a misunderstanding. God's rules in the Scripture do expose our inability to live the quality of life God demands, graphically demonstrating our need for his salvation. One of the main purposes for the coming of the Messiah was to resolve the guilt incurred by the breaking of God's rules. The death of Yeshua makes forgiveness before God possible for those who truly trust in him, thus removing the condemning effect of our sins. But does that mean every single rule God has ever spoken is now null and void?

We don't have the time here to get into a whole discussion about how to determine which of God's rules apply to our era and why, but to claim that under the New Covenant inaugurated by the Messiah God's rules  are irrelevant is an overreaction of the worst kind.

There's no way that I can speak for everyone who adheres to "rules are bad", but it seems to me that many people who were raised in supposed Bible-believing homes, were abused by rules, contrary to a correct representation of the Bible's teaching on this matter. Too often rules, whether the ones truly spoken by God or humanly created ones, have been misused as standards of acceptance - acceptance by God, acceptance by family, acceptance by the religious community. But this was not God's intention - ever. A lot of Christians are surprised to learn that even in the early days of the people of Israel, God gave his rules to them, not as a test of acceptance, but as a gift to a people already accepted. God rescued the people from bondage first and then gave him his Word to direct them on how to be his people, not as a way to become his people.

Rules indeed are bad when misused. When used as indicators of relationship with God and others they can be highly destructive. But when we stand in the security of knowing we are God's children due to trusting in what Yeshua has done for us, God's rules bring life.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

TorahBytes: Judging (Devarim)

Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27; ESV)

I have heard that the most popular Bible verse today is Yeshua's words, "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1; ESV). I can believe this is the most popular verse today due to how often even among people who know nothing about the Bible say either "Don't judge me!" or "I am not judging you." I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and I don't remember ever talking about judging back then. It wasn't an issue. I don't think I judged others. If I did, no one complained about it. But now it's one of society's most treasured values. Everyone is supposed to be free to be who they are and do what they want without fear of being judged.

But from what I can tell, what people are concerned about is not really judging; it's being criticized. The judging that Yeshua refers to has to do with making negative determinations about another person's standing with God; condemning them, in other words. This is God's prerogative and it's the height of arrogance to presume that we can sit in the place of that kind of judgment. I don't think this is what most people who are concerned about being judged are worried about. It's that they don't want any value statements placed on their opinions and actions. They want to say and do whatever they say and do without any negative reactions at all from anyone else. It is difficult to fathom the depths of insecurity required to produce such a resistance to other people's opinions. I wonder if at least some of this is due to more and more people having no clue as to why they do what they do.

It is tragic that even people who claim to value the Bible would be among those upholding these false notions of what judging is all about. Such a perspective creates insurmountable obstacles to understanding much of the Bible, for the majority of its teaching calls into question a good deal of what we might call normal human behavior.

One reason to read the Scriptures is to adjust my thinking and behavior. Paul wrote, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2; ESV). This statement assumes that the reader (including you and me) requires transformation and renewal. That must mean we need adjusting, which means there are things in our lives that needs correcting.

Isaiah and the prophets understood this. Almost everything they said was a critique of some kind. Sure, they also provide all sorts of wonderful descriptions of God, designed to truly know him, but such passages also exist to correct common false and destructive notions about God. The constant prophetic call to repent, which means "turn" is a call to change: change direction, change your life.

For some reason many think this kind of critique is contra-love. But nothing is more loving than to help others see the destructive nature of their thoughts and behavior and point them in the right direction. Simply leaving people to themselves and their unhealthy desires when we know better is hatred of the worst kind.

But who are we to claim we know better? That's a good question. I may think that because I have a good understanding of Scripture, I am well equipped to critique your life. But why should you believe me? Maybe you know better than I do. Maybe I am blind to my own selfishness, hurting myself and others as I arrogantly pursue a reckless path. If that is the case, I hope someone tells me before it's too late!