Tag Archives: love

In Defense of the Church

I know after today’s morning meditation, it probably seems like I’m becoming really “anti-Church,” but I want to correct that perception. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, February 16th after returning home from services. Actually, I started to mentally compose this blog post while in church, realizing that my last several missives were particularly critical of normative Christianity. After I’ve said all that, can I really be supportive of the Church?

I reminded myself earlier that, in spite of the Church’s imperfections, God is in church. I know He was there today (as I write this). Here’s one of the reasons I know:

Pastor Bill and his wife Joan: We visited Millie in her Life Care Center in Florida where she is receiving treatments for the neuropathy in her hands and feet brought on by the chemo/radiation cancer treatments — this condition is reversible, but it takes a long time — thanks for your prayers for Millie.

I can actually see Pastor Bill and Joan doing this. Pastor Bill is an older gentleman with a penchant for the old, traditional hymns. I can see him expressing compassion, warmth, and gentle humor as he was making this visit, offering care to the sick as Jesus has taught us.

I took the above quote from the Prayer Bulletin that’s included in the general Sunday bulletin handed out at the door when anyone enters for services. The bulletin contains all kinds of information. If you’ve ever visited a church on Sunday, you know what I’m talking about, but for me, the prayer bulletin is the most “Christ-like” piece of paper I anticipate. It tells me that the church cares, not just the entity of the local church, but the church that is made up of hundreds of individual believing human beings, each doing their best to walk with God and to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

Yes, as I’ve said before, the theology and doctrine needs some work, perhaps a lot of work in my humble opinion, but if I’m in a church where the people pray for one another, and where Pastors, members, and attendees visit the sick, donate food to the hungry, and ask God to help the needy (and who among us doesn’t need God?), then they obviously correctly understand some of the most important lessons the Bible teaches us.

Today (as I write this) we had a guest speaker, a young missionary to the Congo which this church sent out four years ago, and who is now back on furlough to give his report. He’s a farmer from the small town of Notus, Idaho, and yet he’s also a dynamic speaker (a little too dynamic sometimes) who has a passion for his work with the Congolese people. He had to hold himself back to an hour since he’s used to preaching anywhere between three to eight hours during any given service in the Congo.

CongoA lot of what Sparky (yes, that was the young missionary’s name) had to say reminded me of the message Conrad Mbewe presented during John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, how although about ninety percent of the people in the Congo are considered “Christian,” it’s a strange and bizarre form of Christianity that blends Christian beliefs with indigenous religion and superstition, combined with other Christian groups’ teachings of health and prosperity theology. It’s really mixed up stuff, driven by demonology and magic fetish objects.

Sparky’s message came from a number of Biblical sources and essentially said “Don’t be afraid.” The Congolese Christians are always afraid. They’re afraid of Satan, of demons, of magic, of curses, of all kinds of things. Sparky tries to counter that in his mission as he did in his message, by saying we are not given a spirit of fear but of love and courage when we become believers.

While Sparky was teaching, I thought of my own so-called “mission” into the Christian Church. Although I see the Church, and particularly people like Sparky as doing a tremendous amount of good, there’s still something missing that, when restored, will take the Church the final mile that leads to the return of the Messiah King. As I mentioned, that’s why I’m here, why I write, and why I strive to move forward and to not give up on the Church.

There’s a lot of good in the Church. It’s easy for me and those like me to just toss the Church aside because our theologies clash in the extreme in certain areas, but that’s not all the Church is. The Church is praying for people. The Church is visiting the sick. The Church is teaching courageous faith in God that never gives up and that is never defeated. The Church feeds the hungry. The Church shows compassion. The Church loves.

And even though the Church has flaws and labors under a lot of misunderstanding, God has not abandoned the Church and on any given Sunday, you will find God in Church.

From a Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots perspective, it’s easy to miss seeing God in Church, but that’s because we are looking at the Church’s imperfections and not her beauty. This is the same reason Christians often miss the fact that God (again, in my humble opinion) is also in the synagogue on any given Shabbat, any time a minyan is davening, whenever the Torah scroll is removed from the ark.

God hasn’t given up on the Jewish people either, even though, at this time, they resist or do not recognize the face of Messiah, he who has come and he who will come again in power and glory as King.

first-baptist-churchIt’s for the sake of both those worlds and the hope that when Messiah returns, he will find faith among people, that I must remind myself the Church, even as she exists today, still contains God within her walls. God is with His people, Jews and Gentiles. God is waiting. God is patient. God has a plan. He has a plan in the Congo with Sparky. He has a plan for Jewish people in Virginia. He has a plan for Baptists in Idaho. We each have a different role to play in that plan. We are all unique in that plan. The plan requires tremendous diversity of roles and people but all to an identical goal…the goal of bringing glory to God and the coming of King Messiah.

Once again, God reminded me that I’m only one small part of the plan, but that I do have my role to play.

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work.

-Ethics of the Fathers 2:21

I don’t have to do everything. I don’t have to change everything. From my point of view, it may be that I don’t see me changing anything. But if I’m faithful to play out my role, God will do the changing.

Christianity’s Love for Israel and Other Pretty Lies

Christians love IsraelI just read a profound essay on the relations between Christians and Jews in America, Why Don’t Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them? by James Q. Wilson. It’s deep, thoughtful, intriguing and asks a very legitimate, even existential question.

Wilson, who passed away in 2012, was a favorite of American conservatives, especially since he is considered the father of the “broken windows theory.” On the unusual relationship between evangelicals and Jews he wrote:

Evangelical Christians have a high opinion not just of the Jewish state but of Jews as people. That Jewish voters are overwhelmingly liberal doesn’t seem to bother evangelicals, despite their own conservative politics. Yet Jews don’t return the favor: in one Pew survey, 42 percent of Jewish respondents expressed hostility to evangelicals and fundamentalists. As two scholars from Baruch College have shown, a much smaller fraction—about 16 percent—of the American public has similarly antagonistic feelings toward Christian fundamentalists.

While conceding that “it is quite possible that Orthodox Jews welcome evangelical support while Reform and secular ones oppose it,” Wilson nevertheless tries to explain this phenomenon from conservative eyes…

-Yori Hanover
“Must Jews Dislike the Christians who like Them?”
JewishPress.com, Originally published Jan. 7, 2014

I read this article with interest mixed with a dash of dismay. It’s the Jewish voice saying to evangelicals, “Yes, like us, love us, just keep your Christianity to yourselves.” That’s actually a reasonable request from a Jewish point of view. To punctuate that statement, here’s more of Hanover’s commentary:

As an observant Jew, I endorse all the facts in Wilson’s article, and offer an honest, heartfelt response. Accounting only for my own feelings, but certain they are common to many Jews like myself, I must tell Evangelicals: You annoy the goal post hockey stick hockey stick out of us.

For a Christian, to love someone is inseparable from sharing with that person (or group) the gospel message of Jesus Christ, the message of personal salvation, the invitation to convert to Christianity and to share the blessings of a risen Jesus.

But for nearly two thousand years, that invitation of Christians to Jews has been seen by Jewish populations as an extreme threat, in many cases resulting in pogroms, torture, maimings, and murder. While such violent means are not currently employed against Jews (and others) by “the Church,” the “racial memory” in Jewry is long and intransigent. Most Christians are so inured, so hopelessly devoted to the system of the “salvation plan” for everyone (especially Jews), that they can’t see why Jewish people feel so threatened by the “love” of Jesus Christ.

Hanover goes on to say:

I have no problem with your discovering Jesus and embracing Jesus and putting your faith in Jesus – I actually support that.

But why can’t you keep it to yourselves? Why must you insist that I, too, reject my grandfather’s Torah, stop praying the way my family has done since the minus fifteen hundreds, and accept your Jesus, and in my heart, no less?

I suppose I could invoke the modern Messianic Jewish movement and the Messianic Jewish luminaries of the 19th century, but it would still be difficult to break through the preconceptions most Jewish people have about Jews who actually have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, as Hanover describes:

The majority of you don’t speak Hebrew well enough to even understand my Bible, never mind assert foolish things about prophecies predicting Jesus. And those of you who do have a half decent command of Biblical Hebrew either lack the scholarship to understand why those “proofs” are idiotic, or are outright swindlers, looking to mislead innocent, ignorant Jews.

judeo-christianFrom necessity, normative religious Jews must believe that any Jewish person who has converted to Christianity is ignorant of the truth of the Jewish scriptures, and thus easily swayed by the inaccurate Christian interpretation of said-scriptures. Worse, some Christians are characterized as “outright swindlers,” wolves in sheep’s clothing, out to do what the Holocaust started, destroy Jews and Judaism, not by murdering Jewish people in gas chambers, but turning them from Jews into Goyishe Christians, effectively reducing or eliminating the remaining Jewish population of our planet.

In other words, while I and my fellow faithful Jews like the fact that the next pogrom will not come from an Evangelical torch and pitchfork crowd, we still don’t trust you. You can’t say you love me for who I am, because who I am includes a thorough rejection of the essence of your ideology, all of it, completely, I hold that there’s no truth to it whatsoever.

I’m sure it must be painful for many Christians who authentically love Israel and the Jewish people to discover that you (we) are not trusted by the objects of your (our) love for the reasons I’ve stated above and for the reasons Hanover outlines.

And this is an amazing follow-up question:

Now do you love me? Do you love me in a future in which Jesus doesn’t come, and you continue to hold on to your faith, and I to mine?

Christianity, and I include the Hebrew Roots movement and all of its divisions here, loves the Jewish people only as long as the Jewish people are Christians/Messianics. We talk about love of Jews but those are only the Jewish people we know and who we imagine believe and think about God, Messiah, and the Bible the same way we do.

But what if they don’t or worse, what if Jewish people who were once Christians or Messianics leave the fold?

I previously wrote a blog post on this topic called Apostasy, Pentecostalism, and Other Things That Go “Bump” in the Night that took heavy criticism in multiple arenas of the “believing” world. One reason I was criticized was because the author of a blog significantly disapproving of Jewish “apostates” (from Christianity) said he was only looking “at several examples of apostasy among friends and family, and what steps we can take to strengthen faith.”

However, that can be taken as, “I love the Jewish people and Israel only as long as they profess faith in Jesus Christ, and the minute they undergo a crisis of faith, and for any reason whatsoever leave the faith (in Christ), I will publicly brand them with a scarlet letter ‘A’ and make an already agonizing personal and spiritual situation and decision more difficult and embarrassing for each and every one of them.”

I included commentary on John MacArthur and his Strange Fire conference in my previous blog post because I believe MacArthur’s approach to Charismatics/Pentecostals was in the same vein, as if he were saying, “I love you but if you fail to accept my interpretation of your religious practices, I will ‘demonize’ the whole lot of you as publicly as possible.”

I consider the conference and book, Gifts of the Spirit produced by First Fruits of Zion to be a much more measured and reasonable approach to the issues raised in an examination of those “gifts of the spirit,” but where is the more reasonable Christian/Hebrew Roots approach to the world of non-Messianic Jews?

Stuart DauermannDo we love those Jewish people and that Israel? Is our “love” so conditional that we automatically condemn and defame the majority of Jewish people living on the earth? Do we defame and humiliate their ancestors, from the great Rabbinic sages to the lowly Jewish farmers or shepherds who were struggling to barely support their families in some part of Eastern Europe or Russia while, Tevye-like, they all opened their hearts to the God of their fathers?

I previously reviewed Dr. Stuart Dauermann’s article “The Jewish People are Us — not Them,” written for the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal where part of this concern is addressed.

It’s tragic to imagine that Jews who have come to faith in Jesus within a traditional Evangelical or Pentecostal framework assign the identity of “otherness” to their Jewish brothers and sisters who are not Christian/Messianic. It’s as if, even from a believing Jewish perspective, faith in Jesus Christ separates a Jew from the larger Jewish community and Judaism rather than expressing the height of what it is to be a Jew.

Of course, Christianity and Judaism have traveled wildly differing trajectories over the past twenty centuries or so, but if Gentile and Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are ever to experience any unity before the throne of the King of the Jews in the Messianic Era, then those trajectories must be reunited.

In reading Hanover’s article, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the different spiritual trajectories traveled by me, a Christian husband, and my spouse, a Jewish wife. For her, like Hanover, any overt “Christianity” must “annoy the goal post hockey stick hockey stick out of” her.

If it were just a matter of me being “annoying” to Jewish people because I’m a Christian, I could cure that in an instant by withdrawing from any contact with the Jewish community (although I must say that currently, I am not involved in any sense), but this is personal and this is family.

To be fair, my wife accepts and shares my viewpoint on supporting Israel and sends me emails and even the occasional religious/rabbinic commentary if she thinks I’ll find it interesting. But I can’t get past the idea that she must think she’s “sleeping with the enemy,” so to speak.

I don’t know. My faith says that I must share the truth of the good news of the Messiah with everyone. Further, as I’ve stated many times on this blog, I believe the good news is actually good news to the Jews first, and then also to the Gentiles (though “the Church” has this completely backward).

If I were to follow the “apostasy police” model, I’d have to offer my wife a divorce since she refused to “convert to Christianity,” as well and embarrass her in as public a manner as possible, all for the sake of “love” and “strengthening the faith” of my fellow Gentile and Jewish believers.

But I’m not going to do that, not to Jewish friends and absolutely not to my Jewish family. I’ve already said that if the Apostle Paul never abandoned his unbelieving brothers and sisters, I certainly don’t think God left them in the dust either:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5 (NASB)

But intermarriage, just like an “interfaith” community, doesn’t come without strings attached, as Hanover concludes:

But you must keep your missionary urges to yourselves. You can even lie to me and say you don’t have them – I’ll accept it. I’ll lie to you in return and say that my tradition says your teachings have value. We can co-exist this way for generations, bettering our societies and contributing good to the world. (emph. mine)

Just do something about your impulse to convert me.

In 1970, singer Joni Mitchell wrote a song called The Last Time I Saw Richard which includes the lyrics:

You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies pretty lies

Joni MitchellI can’t stop being who I am and that’s a disciple of the Master, King of the Jews, and I can’t stop walking the path that the Master has set before me, but I won’t let that path take me into the fork in the road that leads to “crypto-anti-Semitism,” either. So what’s left? Unlike the person in Mitchell’s song, I can’t shut out reality and listen to “pretty lies” about the peaceful co-existence between Christians and Jews, and I do believe there will be a co-participation between Jews and Gentiles in the future Messianic Kingdom (and if it be Hashem’s will, before).

Maybe the modern Messianic Jewish movement is the “first fruits” of that “re-unity,” but I have to believe that, both personally and corporately, we still have a long way to go before the love of many Christian/Hebrew Roots folks for the Jewish people and Israel is more than just a “pretty lie” with strings attached.

I know this all sounds very cynical, but if you are a non-Jewish believer who says you love the Jewish people and Israel, remember that for the most part, those people and that nation may not love you in return and may never desire to hear the “good news of Jesus Christ.”

Tell me, do you still love them? Do you still accept them unconditionally as who they are, knowing they believe that Jesus could never, ever be the Messiah?

I didn’t plan on writing this “meditation.” I didn’t want to open up wounds that never seem to quite heal, especially in public. But the scabs keep getting picked at whether I want them to be or not.

Remembering Newtown: We Live to Love

9-11 Flag“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

Genesis 49:33

“How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily ‘Portraits of Grief’ has been compiling the fragments of eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation and by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing is left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime.”

-Ismar Schorsch
“Portraits of Grief,” pg 180 (December 29, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

As I write this, it is the anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, I recall reading earlier this morning that another school shooting has just taken place at a High School in Colorado, with the eighteen-year old shooter having killed himself and his fifteen-year old victim struggling for life in the hospital.

I have prayed for the victims in Newtown and I have grieved with their parents since I am both a parent and grandparent. The very idea of losing a child to a sudden and needless death is horrifying beyond imagination.

Schorsch’s commentary on the death of Jacob paints a portrait of a man who died with difficulty even as he lived. But he was also a man who had the time to prepare for death, to bless his children and grandchildren, and to be surrounded by a comforting family as he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.”

In Judaism, there is a halakhic requirement to sit shiva or to mourn in solitude and withdrawal from the world for seven days following the death of a loved one. And on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, it is customary to observe yahrzeit by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a candle, and remembering the person who has died.

But these are not my loved ones nor am I Jewish, so what am I to do?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Donne’s famous poem, which I learned forty years ago, reminds me that anyone’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity, because of my humanity and my mortality.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingAccording to Schorsch’s commentary (pp 170-172), second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir’s midrash on the Creation account in Genesis was so controversial that it saw limited circulation during his lifetime. His interpretation of Genesis 1:31 where it is declared “And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good,” Rabbi Meir relates the Hebrew word “me’od” which is translated as “very” to “mot,” which is the Hebrew word for “death”.

In Christian doctrine, we believe that God introduced death into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Rabbi Meir’s midrash…

…God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.

-Schorsch, pg 171

I’m sure this is little comfort to those who are mourning their children in this supposed season of joy. In abstract, we can philosophize that it is our mortality that defines our existence, and the shadow of death cast across our journey of life reminds us that every moment is precious.

But in reality, most people rarely consider their death until something shakes them out of apathy, such as a doctor’s dire report or the murder of a child.

There is a tremendous temptation to either sink into depressive despair or to cry out in anger and pursue the path of vengeance. We want and even need to do something, to respond in some way, either by withdrawal or violent projection, because of the senseless outrage of these deaths.

In the end, neither reaction does much good. The former honors no one and the latter is manipulated by the politicians and the media pundits to achieve their own agendas.

The only thing that makes sense to me, particularly in a universe where I acknowledge a loving, involved, and creative God, is to take the only option that remains…to love those who are left to me here and now, not just because I know they can be taken away at any moment, but because life has to be more than mere existence, pursuit of money, pleasure, and the consumable products in the latest ad campaign on television. If life isn’t the expression of love, especially to those who depend upon us for their every need (even as we all depend on God for our every need), then why were we given life in the first place?

As I write this, I mourn the loss of the young innocents, not just in Connecticut and Colorado, but everywhere, and for every person, because like God, I must be involved in humanity. It is said that when Jacob and the seventy went down into Egypt, God went with them. How He must have grieved knowing just how far down Israel’s children would descend in the following years and decades. It is said that when millions of Jews and other “undesirables” entered the Nazi camps, God entered with them and was imprisoned with them. How He must have grieved as He witnessed each individual death of the six million of His chosen little ones.

The only thing we have to keep us going in the face of death and disaster is our faith in God, that there is something more to life than what we can detect with our five senses, and that there is a greater meaning to it all. When a child dies, even great faith is shaken, for how could a loving God allow such a heinous act to occur?

But where we have faith, God has certainty of perception and knowledge. God knows. He knows the placement of each individual soul in this life and beyond. We live in a universe that is broken and under slow repair. In that universe, death occurs, injustice occurs, tragedy occurs. Tears and grief occur.

landonBut there is also hope.

I took a few days off of work last week to spend time with my grandson. We played with legos, I made him pancakes, we had “sword fights” in my snowy backyard, we went to the playground and slid down slides covered with melting ice. I dropped him off at pre-school and had the wonderful privilege of picking him up again as he ran toward me grinning and gleefully yelling, “Grandpa!”

I can’t say anything that will comfort the grieving and the dying except that if you still have someone precious in your life who needs you and who loves you, then they are the difference, the hope, and the faith that makes life more than just living day-to-day. This is what God does to open our eyes. This is what God does to open our hearts, to turn stone into beating flesh. This is why we are alive. We live to love.

Snow and Shabbos

shoveling-snowMaimonidies explains our midrash by reference to the related instance of rabbinic religious psychology: “God’s presence is never felt in a state of sadness or lethargy or levity or conversation or distractedness, but only amid the joy of performing a mitzvah.”

-Ismar Schorsch
quoting Bavli Shabbat 30b.
“The Seedbed of Prophecy,” pg 165 (December 21, 1996)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I read this on Shabbat after shoveling snow off of my driveway and sidewalk. Actually, I also shoveled the snow off of the sidewalks of my two next door neighbors. It was a mitzvah of a sort. I try to do a little more than required because I know it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s something God built into me for some reason.

But I was performing one mitzvah (I don’t think the Bible says to specifically shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk, but it does say to love your neighbor, so I figure helping them with shoveling snow qualifies as “love”) but I was breaking another, well, sort of. It depends on whether or not you believe that non-Jewish believers are obligated to observe Shabbos in the manner of the Jews. I know that the Didache, an early document dated to the second or even first centuries and purportedly used to train new Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah entering the Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” states that even a Gentile may keep the entire “yoke of the Lord” (i.e. Torah commandments) if they (we) are able, but if not, to keep what we can, so keeping the Sabbath in some manner is on my radar screen as an option.

On the other hand, the two Jewish members of my household (and the other two Jewish family members who have their own households) don’t observe Shabbos, though I believe they are obligated to do so.

But I’m not the religious police. Each person must negotiate their own relationship with God. Past efforts of mine suggesting to my family that they take a more observant path have resulted in a rebuke and a reminder that they themselves must make those sorts of decisions.

And so they must. My remaining option for the sake of peace in the family is to pray and to rely on God to lead His own back to Him, even as Messiah will lead all the Jewish exiles back to redemption in the Land of Israel.

In reading the quote from Schorsch (and Maimonidies), I tried to recall if I felt joy when shoveling snow and if I felt the Presence of God. I have to admit that I didn’t experience either state. There was a sense of satisfaction at the realization that I was exceeding my property lines and doing what wasn’t expected of me, but I can’t say I had any sort of religious revelation. I don’t think living a life before God or doing the right thing is magic. I think it’s just what we’re supposed to do.

I also believe that no one “does it” perfectly, and I’m a living example of that.

If anything, I have a greater sense of the presence of God when I reading the Bible, when I’m studying the Torah Portion, when I’m contemplating a Psalm, even when I’m writing a blog post about God and the mitzvot.

I know people (online) who do a much better job at observing Shabbos. Some of them live in places like Colorado and Wisconsin, places that get a lot of snow. What do they do on the Shabbat when it’s snowing, just let it sit on their driveways and sidewalks?

I live in a suburban neighborhood that has a homeowner’s association (whether I like it or not) and the association has a covenant which states that each homeowner is responsible for keeping the sidewalks in front of their homes free (reasonably) of snow. We are also legally responsible if we fail to do so and a pedestrian falls and is injured as a result. So I have a duty to protect my neighbors by keeping my sidewalks clean, even on the Shabbat.

I know some people who would be rather rigid and dictatorial about such a suggestion, saying God’s commandment to observe Shabbat trumps any law or other responsibility assigned by human beings, but let’s look at that. I have a duty to love my neighbors which could be interpreted as protecting them from harm. I know there’s a Torah commandment that specifies if you see someone drowning in a body of water and you do nothing to help save their life, you have sinned against that person and against God (Rabbinic interpretation does say however, that if you are a poor swimmer and would be likely to drown too, you are absolved of this responsibility).

So what’s the higher duty, to perform an act on the Shabbat that at least in potential, could prevent a neighbor from being harmed, or to observe the Shabbat and ignore my neighbors by playing the “I’m keeping the Shabbat, look at how holy I am” card?

It’s an interesting question.

Of course, returning to my lack of actual obligation to observe a strict Shabbat, at least in the present age, I am not in quite the same bind as a Jewish person. I also believe the commandment to love one’s neighbor is universal, particularly since we see it occurring not only in Leviticus 19:18, but issuing from the mouth of Jesus (see Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31).

I know there is a part of Shabbat observance that is also universal, since such observance acknowledges God’s Creative Sovereignty, but I will have to be satisfied with acknowledging God’s creation of human beings by doing something, even on Shabbat, that is of service to some of those “creations.”

I try to spend most of my Saturdays in prayer, in study, in recording my contemplations on God, but it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s very far from perfect. But what I desire and am unable to accomplish today, may God grant me a life in the world to come where I may observe His peace and His perfection.

And as I write this, it’s still snowing outside.

Vayigash: Are You Willing to Save Someone’s Life?

joseph-and-pharaoh“Now when the news was heard in Pharaoh’s house that Joseph’s brothers had come, it pleased Pharaoh and his servants.”

Genesis 45:16

Pharaoh was delighted when he heard that Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt. He immediately made provision to bring the entire family to Egypt so they could survive the famine in safety and comfort. He provided wagons for the move. He promised them the best of the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s warm welcome of Joseph’s brothers reveals an important detail about Joseph’s time in Egypt.

“What Pharaoh Heard”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This commentary from FFOZ comes with the following “Thought for the Week:”

When we are wronged by someone, it is natural to tell others about it. We want to tell others about how it happened to garner their sympathy and support. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that others are aware of the injustice committed against us. We seek out sympathy and commit a small act of retaliation.

It’s very human that when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone, to want to get even in some way. Usually, we get even by doing the same to them as we believe they’ve done to us (whether the damage the other person has done to us is real of just perceived makes no difference apparently).

I write periodically on something called Lashon Hara or the Jewish concept of wronging someone in speech (which can be spoken, written, or any other form of communication). I’ve even based the Comments Policy for this blog on that principle.

As the FFOZ commentator writes, what we say and how it is perceived can have hurtful and even dire consequences:

Joseph loved his brothers and his family so much that he could not bear the thought of having them defamed. He did not want Egyptians saying to one another, “Did you hear about the nasty thing that Joseph’s lowlife brothers did to him?” Joseph kept the entire episode to himself. The only thing he ever said about his past was the vague explanation, “I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). His love for his brothers compelled him to protect their reputation.

Instead of emulating Joseph, who was concerned about protecting the dignity of his loved ones, it seems we do just the opposite. A husband and wife are eating out at a restaurant when the husband drops his cup, spilling his beverage on the table. Embarrassed, the wife rolls her eyes and says to the stranger sitting at the next table, “He is such a klutz.” A man is out with his friends when they begin discussing the foils of marriage. All in good fun, the man complains to the guys about his wife’s bad habits. Everyone laughs. Why would we sell out the people we love like this? The wife shows more concern for the opinion of a stranger in a restaurant than she does for the dignity of her husband. The husband has higher regard for a few laughs from his buddies than he does for the reputation of his wife.

It’s one thing to read about a “Bible principle” and another thing entirely to behave out of that principle with unerring consistency. Reading about Joseph and his brothers makes a nice story, but most of the time, we don’t think to apply what we’ve learned to our day-to-day living. Reading the story of the wife casually defaming her husband in public brings the principle home. If anyone you’ve loved has embarrassed you in front of your friends, family, or strangers, even if what they said is true about you, then you know what I mean.

Here’s another example:

“The Torah ideal is to greet each and every person with a pleasant facial expression.” (Tomar Devorah, ch.2) When you greet someone in a friendly way, you never know what a positive effect you will have. A certain individual who greeted everyone with a smile and kind words was approached by someone and told, “You saved my life.” The person went on to tell how he’d suffered a number of serious setbacks and was contemplating suicide. He felt totally alone and depressed and felt that no one cared about him. Then this fellow greeted him with a sincere smile and a cheerful voice. This immediately lifted up his spirits and he was resolved to continue living.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Quoted from Gateway to Happiness, pg 26
Found at Aish.com

whispererI don’t know what Joseph felt about his brothers or why he didn’t “spill the beans” about their attempt to kill him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, or anyone else in his sphere of Egyptian companions. Maybe he really did continue to have love for them in his heart, in spite of how they felt about him. Perhaps he just didn’t want the Egyptians to harbor any more disdain for the Hebrews than they already did. Regardless of the reason, even though Joseph would have been telling the truth if he revealed the terrible acts of his brothers to Pharaoh, he chose not to do it, keeping the matter to himself, and even forgiving his brothers, though they hardly deserved it.

When a spouse says something to revealing about his or her “other half,” depending on what it is, the person being spoken of can at least feel embarrassed if not ashamed or humiliated. As we see from Rabbi Pliskin’s example, how we treat another person, even if it’s simply greeting a stranger with a smile, can make a tremendous impact.

There are more than enough “moral police officers” on the web and particularly in the blogosphere who choose to point accusing fingers at others rather than greeting them (virtually speaking) with a “smile.” Especially since we cannot actually face the people we address on the Internet, we have no idea what good or evil we are doing to them and how they will respond. Most of the time, all we know is that they remain silent or they “bark back” at us if we have insulted or embarrassed them in some way.

But like the man in Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary, we don’t know how far we can push someone, especially if they are already on an emotional brink. We can knock someone over or we can pull them back, just by how we speak to them or about them.

James, the brother of the Master, said (James 3:8) that the tongue is “a restless evil and full of deadly poison'” We have been given the gift of speech (and writing, and other forms of communication) to bless and not to curse. Paul said (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that believers should “encourage one another and build up one another”, and New Testament scholar and author Mark Nanos, in his book The Mystery of Romans said Paul expressed his heartfelt desire that believing Gentiles should support and encourage even the non-believing Jews in the synagogue, rather than denigrate them for being “weak” and “stumbling” in faith.

If it is true that we have a duty to support even unbelievers so that they should come to faith, then what we say and what we do becomes incredibly important. We can not only save someone’s life in this world by how we greet them, we can be an instrument to bless or curse their souls.

The FFOZ commentary for this week’s Torah portion ends this way:

A woman was having a hard time at the Messianic synagogue she attended in the southern United States. She was involved in a heated conflict with some other members. This went on for some time. Frustrated with her congregation, she told her unbelieving friend about the problems she was having. Eventually the leadership arbitrated the situation. She made peace with the people. Some time later, she invited her unbelieving friend to attend a service. Her friend said, “Are you crazy? After the way you talked about those people and that place, I wouldn’t set foot in there.”

Joseph never told the Egyptians about the incident with his brothers because it was none of their business. By maintaining discretion, he was protecting the name and reputation of God in Egypt. Had he told his sad story to everyone, the Egyptians would have had cause to say, “If that’s how the followers of your God behave, I want nothing to do with Him or your religion.”

FallingI’ve heard it said that “you can’t unring a bell.” Once you have said or done something harsh or hurtful to another human being, you can never take it back. Just imagine all of the regret buried within you for all of the things you’ve said and done to sin against other people and against God over the years.

Fortunately, God is in the business of forgiving, but it’s not certain that all of the people you and I have hurt in our lifetimes will be willing or able to forgive us. But while we can’t change the past, we can make a new future starting right now. Have a care what you say and what you do. Greet others with a smile. Withhold a harsh criticism, even if what you could say is factual. Consider that God loves even the sinner and the apostate.

You may never know whose life you may save by either speaking a good word or withholding one that is evil. One day we will all have to give an accounting for how we’ve lived our lives and every action we have committed. What will you say to the King when it’s your turn? Will you attempt to justify hurting others, or be blessed by him for your kindness and compassion?

God’s Shadow

love-in-lightsGod is your shadow at your right hand.

Psalms 121:5

The Baal Shem Tov taught that God acts toward individuals accordingly as they act toward other people. Thus, if people are willing to forgive those who have offended them, God will similarly overlook their misdeeds. If a person is very judgmental and reacts with anger to any offense, God will be equally strict. The meaning of, God is your shadow, is that a person’s shadow mimics his or her every action.

At a therapy session for family members of recovering alcoholics, one woman told the group that she had experienced frustration from many years of infertility and tremendous joy when she finally conceived. Her many expectations were shattered, however, when the child was born with Down’s syndrome.

“I came to love that child dearly,” she said, “but the greatest thing that child has done for me is to make me realize that if I can love him so in spite of his imperfections, then God can love me in spite of my many imperfections.”

If we wish to know how God will relate to us, the answer is simple: exactly in the same way we relate to others. If we demand perfection from others, He will demand it of us. If we can love others even though they do not measure up to our standards and expectations, then He will love us in spite of our shortcomings.

Today I shall…

…try to relate to people in the same manner I would wish God to relate to me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 3”

I just reviewed the First Fruits of Zion television program episode The Golden Rule, which illustrates that principle of “do unto others” from a first century Jewish perspective.

I’ve also been reviewing a series of blog posts written by Pastor Tim Challies recording his impressions of John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, which is MacArthur’s commentary and warning about Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.

In reading the concluding summary (yes, I read ahead), it wasn’t the information or the scriptures presented by MacArthur and company that bothered me. I didn’t feel the real argument was about whether Pentecostalism was better or Reformed theology was better. For me, the issue was whether or not God would have handled the situation the same way MacArthur did.

Who knows, maybe He would have (and you may also believe that MacArthur is God’s tool to do just that).

Then I read messages like the one I quoted from Rabbi Twerski. I guess I’m just a soft and “mushy” inspirational Christian as opposed to one who sees God as perpetually wielding a club and who is ready to bludgeon us the minute we get out of line.

God knows we’re imperfect. God knows we’re messed up. God knows that, all things being equal, we’d mess up a free lunch…which is what most of us have done with the blessings and gifts He’s provided us.

“I came to love that child dearly,” she said, “but the greatest thing that child has done for me is to make me realize that if I can love him so in spite of his imperfections, then God can love me in spite of my many imperfections.”

I know the hardcore “justice” fans on the blogosphere will say that’s no excuse for not standing up to error and proceeding forward with the sword of truth to smite everyone who has drifted from the “true” path…uh, but doing it in “love,” of course.

If all you are as a person of faith is someone who has to fix the mistakes or others, the errors in theology and doctrine (or at least those things you perceive as errors), then you’re basically a mechanic who is always using a wrench and a hammer to hunt down that funny noise the car’s engine makes periodically.

Or, like the woman Rabbi Twerski talks about, we can be like a mother of a child who will always be imperfect, but not beyond improving. We don’t beat such a child, we shouldn’t beat any child, just because they’re imperfect. We influence and promote change by loving, not condemning.

Before we relate to any other human being regardless of the experience, if we could imagine how we would want God to relate to us under similar circumstances, maybe we’d be better people of faith. If we want God’s love and forgiveness, we have to be loving and forgiving. If we are harsh and judgmental, even if we’re being technically and scripturally correct, how will God judge us? How will God treat us?

Forgive us as we forgive others.

Matthew 6:12 (God’s Word Translation)

By the standard we use to treat others…that is the standard God will use on us.