Tag Archives: Pastor Saeed Abedini

The Meaning of Life for the Rest of Us

A few days ago, I published a blog post based on an article written by the late Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Since then, for some reason, I can’t get him off my mind, even though I know nothing about him.

So I decided to use Google to find out more about Rabbi Yisrael Noah Weinberg. I received an Amazon gift card recently and it’s been burning a hole in my pocket. I could use some new books.

Although R. Weinberg was not a prolific author of books, he did produce a lot of other material. The Meaning of Life got my attention.

Live For What You Are Willing To Die For

I once met a man who lived by this principle.

“Zev” lived in Israel when the British were still in power. He was a member of a Jewish underground movement which aimed to rout out the British by force.

During the four years that Zev was in the Jewish underground, he was completely cut off from his friends and family – forced to work as an itinerant laborer, with no place to call home. Every day he walked the streets, keeping a steady watch because the British were constantly stopping people and searching them. Any Jew found carrying a gun was guilty of a capital crime.

One day, the British made a sudden sweep, and Zev was arrested. The British realized he was from the Jewish underground and tortured him to obtain other names. Zev lost a leg from the maltreatment.

In 1948, when the British retreated, Zev was released. He went on to get married, build a business, and raise a large family.

He says:
“Looking back over my whole life, unquestionably the best period was being a member of the Jewish underground. True, much of it was a miserable existence. But every moment I was completely alive. I was living for something that I was willing to die for.”

1389.4 Holocaust AThat seems pretty extreme, but then again, I’ve never lived what you’d call an “extreme” sort of life, certainly not one where my health, safety, and very life were constantly at risk.

But then again, R. Weinberg also wrote:

Over the past 2,000 years in the Diaspora, Jews have had many opportunities to display their courage to stand up for Jewish beliefs.

I’m not Jewish. I don’t live in Israel. There’s very little to threaten my life here in my little corner of Idaho, so I’m not continually being challenged with what I’m willing to die for.

Of course Christians all over the world are being persecuted for their faith, so you don’t have to be a Jew to know what you’d die for.

And as Naomi Ragen recently wrote, the majority of liberal Jews in the U.S. are more concerned about the latest liberal causes than they are about the well-being of the state of Israel or how Israeli Jews are living in constant mortal danger from Arab terrorists (not to mention harassment from the governments and news media of the west).

We live in relative comfort here in the U.S., so we have to work harder to get to a state where we know what we’re living for. Yes, many an American Christian says that they’re “living for Christ,” but how far would that living (or dying) go if they were abruptly imprisoned for their faith in a Muslim country?

Many of you may know that a number of political prisoners were recently released by Iran, including Pastor Saeed Abedini whose family lives here in Idaho.

Pastor Abedini was in prison for three-and-a-half years, and although he suffered greatly in Iranian hands, his difficulties, now that he’s free, are far from over. The various news outlets don’t tell the whole story (and rightly so), but it seems the Pastor’s marriage and family relations are under considerable strain.

I gather from some of the stories I’ve read that Pastor Saeed is far from a perfect person, let alone a perfect Christian Pastor, but he has suffered for his faith and he could have died for it. I can only hope and pray that now that he knows what he’s willing to die for, he also knows what (and who) he’s willing to live for.

Rabbi Weinberg
Rabbi Noah Weinberg

But what about you and me?

The other day, I felt that another of Rabbi Weinberg’s articles could be adapted for service by Christians or those rarefied individuals I sometimes call Talmidei Yeshua. Is there something about dying and living for our faith we can learn from R. Weinberg as well?

Comfort is very nice, but it is not meaningful. An idiot is more than capable of leading a comfortable life. He doesn’t suffer much, he enjoys ice cream, insults fly right over his head, he always puts on a smile… The world is b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l.

But he doesn’t experience anything beyond his ice cream. He lacks the capacity to appreciate higher pleasures beyond the physical – relationships, meaning, and spirituality.

Living only for material pleasure and comfort is not really living. We also need to understand the deeper existential meaning of life. Sooner or later, every human being is faced with the cold, hard reality: “What’s my life all about?”

You might tend to see “comfort” and “pleasure” as being the same thing, but not so, says R. Weinberg. From a traditional observant Jew’s point of view, performing the mitzvot (commandments) is a pleasure given to them by God.

A fundamental of Judaism is that there is nothing a human being can do for God. God has no needs. Yet at the same time He gives us everything – air, water, food, sun. And He gave us the Torah as instructions for deriving maximum pleasure from this world.

In the Shema, the Jewish pledge of allegiance, we are commanded to love God B’chol Nafshecha – “with all your soul.” You have to be willing to sacrifice your life rather than deny God.

If mitzvot are for our pleasure… how does this give us pleasure?!

This is the pleasure of clarity and commitment. If you can perceive something as so important that you will sacrifice your own life for it, then your life has weight and purpose and direction. Because until you know what you are willing to die for, you have not yet begun to live.

charity-tzedakahWhat is so important about you being a Christian (or a Talmid Yeshua or whatever you call yourself)? If your pleasure is all about Sunday (or Saturday) services, “fellowshipping” with your congregational friends, maybe taking a class on Wednesday nights, and otherwise living an ordinary human life, you may be confusing your comforts with your pleasures.

If performing the mitzvot, charitable acts, acts of kindness and compassion, praying individually or with a group, living a lifestyle morning, noon, and evening when you are constantly blessing God for everything from your food to your spouse to your home and even your sleep, is considered pleasurable for an observant Jewish person, why isn’t this considered pleasurable for the rest of us?

I know I’m probably being unfair. After all, there are lots of Christians who do all of that (but not in the manner of a Jewish person, kosher, Shabbat, davening with a minyan and such). who give glory to God, and who are sources of much charity and kindness to their family, friends, and even strangers.

Unless you live in a war zone or some other place where you are in danger just by being who you are, you may not always be confronted by what you’d live and die for.

God has done everything for us and yet there is nothing we can do for Him. But there is something we can do for ourselves that will benefit others around us. We can take our “pleasures,” if you will, in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

R. Weinberg wrote this article for a Jewish audience to describe why the self-sacrifice of the Jewish people is of a higher status than other people or groups who have also been willing to die for a cause:

Throughout the ages, the destiny and mission of the Jewish nation has been to teach monotheism. Jews are dying not for their own sake, but for the sake of humanity. By transmitting the message of monotheism and Love Your Neighbor, we continue to be a “Light unto the Nations” and thereby preserve the hope of world peace.

But isn’t that our mission too?

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16 (NASB)

MessiahGranted, Rav Yeshua (Jesus) was also addressing a Jewish audience, so we can’t automatically assume his commandment can be expanded to the Gentile Talmidim who would one day desire to walk in his footsteps. After all, being a light to the world is a Jewish mission, so maybe the impetus remains with the Jewish people and we non-Jewish disciples are meant to be mere “consumers” of that light.

I don’t believe that’s true, though.

The short definition of a disciple (as opposed to a follower) is to imitate your Master, your Rav in every detail of living. This doesn’t mean that we non-Jews are supposed to play “dress up” and start wearing kippot and tallit gadolim (yarmulkes and prayer shawls). It does mean we are to imitate our Rav in the weightier matters of his teachings: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

That’s what it is to be a light. If we profess a faith and then live that out in our daily lives, then we know what we are living for and what we are willing to die for.

Ki Tisa: The Doors of the Temple

moses-and-the-tabletsFraming the epic events of this week’s sedra are two objects—the two sets of tablets, the first given before, the second after, the sin of the golden calf. Of the first, we read:

The tablets were the work of G‑d; the writing was the writing of G‑d, engraved on the tablets.

These were perhaps the holiest objects in history: from beginning to end, the work of G‑d. Yet within hours they lay shattered, broken by Moses when he saw the calf and the Israelites dancing around it.

The second tablets, brought down by Moses on the tenth of Tishri, were the result of his prolonged plea to G‑d to forgive the people. This is the historic event that lies behind Yom Kippur (the tenth of Tishri), the day marked in perpetuity as a time of favor, forgiveness and reconciliation between G‑d and the Jewish people. The second tablets were different in one respect. They were not wholly the work of G‑d:

Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.

Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by G‑d, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of G‑d and Moses, did.

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“Two Types of Religious Encounter”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tisa

I don’t know if this seems so mysterious to me, even if I hadn’t read the rest of Rabbi Sacks’ article. I’ve always imagined that many of the acts of God were really committed through a “partnership” between Him and humanity. Certainly (in my opinion) the Bible is less of a document dictated by God into the ears of its passive writers and more of God stirring the spirit within each of the authors, allowing those people to pour out their witness, their drive, their passion onto the rest of us. God didn’t tell Paul word for word what to put in his letters, nor do I suspect that He personally crafted the Psalms or the Proverbs. Humanity must have a stake in what is holy or we can’t be part of it at all.

Hence Moses and God at Sinai with the tablets.

Hence Liu Zhenying, also known as Brother Yun, in China.

My mother had never learned to read or write, but she became the first preacher in our village. She led a small church in our house. Although my mum couldn’t remember much of God’s Word, she always exhorted us to focus on Jesus. As we cried out to him, Jesus helped us in his great mercy. As I look back on those early days, I’m amazed at how God used my mother despite her illiteracy and ignorance. The direction of her heart was totally surrendered to Jesus. Some of today’s great house church leaders in China first met the Lord through my mother’s ministry.

At first, I didn’t really know who Jesus was, but I’d seen him heal my father and liberate our family. I confidently committed myself to the God who had healed my father and saved us. During that time I frequently asked my mother who Jesus truly was. She told me, “Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for us, taking our sins and sicknesses. He recorded all his teachings in the Bible.”

I asked if there were any words of Jesus left that I could read for myself. She replied, “No. All his words are gone. There is nothing left of his teaching.” This was during the Cultural Revolution when Bibles could not be found.

-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway)
Chapter 2: A Hunger Fulfilled, pg 26
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

brother-yunIt seems as if God leaves “gaps” in his plan for humanity that only human beings can fill. There would be no stone tablets without Moses, and there would not have been many of “today’s great house church leaders in China” without Brother Yun’s mother. Brother Yun first came to faith at the age of 16 in 1974. As mentioned above, this was during the Communist “Cultural Revolution” and Christianity was illegal in China. If a person were found to be a Christian and particularly to possess a Bible (they were almost non-existent in China in the 1970s), the Bible would be burned and the person imprisoned and tortured, the Government demanding that the Christian renounce his faith. Often prisoners died under torture or through some other means while in captivity. Nevertheless there were courageous souls in China, including in impoverished Henan Province, who knowing next to nothing of who Jesus is and anything that was written in the Bible, still believed, and prayed, and had faith.

I’ve only just started this book, but as I tore into the opening pages, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the early churches that Paul had started and nurtured. In one sense, having visits from Paul and reading his letters for support, the former pagan believers and God-fearers turned disciples seem much better off than 16-year-old Liu Zhenying and his family. His mother had come to faith as a young woman thanks to Christian missionaries, but this was before the Communists came to power. The Christian missionaries…all Christian missionaries had either been put in prison or forced out of China by 1950, so whatever faith and learning Brother Yun’s mother possessed, atrophied and finally died…or almost.

Still the “early church” in the first century may not have experienced too much more of an advantage than the church in China in the mid-1970s. If there was a Jewish synagogue in the community that welcomed or at least tolerated the Gentile disciples of “the Way,” they could sit and hear the Torah and the Prophets being read and taught, daven the traditional prayers, and share some fellowship with the Jewish community. If not, such as with Lydia and the devout women in Philippi (see Acts 16:11-15), the Gentile believers would have to meet together without such support or encouragement and carry on as best they could. Full knowledge of the scriptures would probably not be available, and worship of God would be a matter of what could be remembered from the synagogue. But worship would be much more about the faith and endurance each of the worshipers could summon by the grace and Spirit of God.

God and man in partnership, meeting somewhere in between life, death, and infinity, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to earth one day at a time.

The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of divine-human encounter. They called them it’aruta de-l’eyla and it’aruta de-l’tata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G‑d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human, all too human.

-Rabbi Sacks

On 1 September 1901, a large ship docked in Shanghai Port. A young single lady from Norway walked off the gangplank onto Chinese soil for the first time. Marie Morsen was one of a new wave of missionaries who, inspired by the martyrdoms of the previous year, had dedicated themselves to full-time missionary service in China.

Monsen stayed in China for more than thirty years. For a time she lived in my county, Nanyang, where she encouraged and trained a small group of Chinese believers that had sprung up.

Marie Monsen was different from most other missionaries. She didn’t seem to be too concerned with making a good impression on the Chinese church leaders. She often told them, “You are all hypocrites! You confess Jesus Christ with your lips while your hearts are not fully committed to him! Repent before it is too late to escape God’s judgment!” She brought fire from the altar of God.

-Yun/Hattaway, pg 19

christian-devotionI’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog lately talking about Jewish identity, Torah obligation, healing the rift between the different shredded bits of flesh that, if put back together, would become the body of Christ, but sometimes it’s just good to “get back to basics.” What if you didn’t know what you know? What if you had never even seen the Bible? What if you only knew just little bits and pieces about who Jesus is and what he’s supposed to mean in your life…and yet you still possessed a dynamic, consuming, passionate faith that could lead you anywhere God called you to go?

So far, that’s what I’m finding in Brother Yun’s book. Maybe that’s what was taking place in the lives of many of the former pagan Gentiles who had come to faith but who, unlike the God-fearing Gentiles, had never spent much time in a synagogue, never seen a Torah scroll, and who had only bits and pieces of information about the foreign “Messiah” who died, not just for the Jews, but for the Greeks, the Romans, and everyone else in the world.

Brother Yun’s story also reminded me of another prisoner.

“[A]fter all of these pressures, after all of the nails they have pressed against my hands and feet, they are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ.”

Pastor Saeed Abedini
from a letter he wrote as a prisoner in Iran

People are put in prison for their faith and we believers on the blogosphere argue about theological minutiae. Men and women are beaten and tortured just because they’re Christians, and you and I complain at each other about whether or not a Gentile Christian should wear a kippah or pray with a siddur. What we consider “problems” and what we “whine” about on our blogs is nothing. There are real men and women of faith out there who know what it is to encounter God who really don’t care if they get a Shabbat rest as long as they are called to serve the Lord.

I’m not saying that many of the topics of our various debates are not worth the zeros and ones they’re printed with on the web, but I am saying that we tend to take those topics (and ourselves) way too seriously. Rabbi Sacks says:

An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not in and of itself change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.

temple-prayersEven if God chooses to “awaken us from above,” it probably wouldn’t last. I suspect that’s why we don’t see grand and astonishing miracles performed right before our amazed eyes. Miracles wouldn’t matter. In a day or a week, we’d be complaining about the same old stuff again. Only when we are open to being “awakened from below,” when we become willing partners with God, even a God we know almost nothing about, will we see miracles that will make a difference within us and more…miracles that will make a difference in the world. Am I being too dramatic?

About a week and a half ago, a friend of mine gave me Brother Yun’s book as a gift. In the western countries, we tend to take our faith for granted. We don’t have to fight for it. We’re not persecuted. Going to church isn’t a crime punishable by being sentenced to prison. Having a Bible and reading it in public won’t get us dragged off of the streets by the police and tortured in some government office.

God could accomplish everything He wants to do all by Himself. He needs nothing from us. But if He did it that way, we would have no ownership of Him, His plan, and His purpose in our lives. He acts only for our own sake, not for His. But we too must act, for a passive faith in a vain one. It is said that Messiah will build every part of the next Temple in Holy Jerusalem and construct it…all but the doors. It is said that one who puts up the doors of a house, even if he has built no other part of it, becomes owner of the house. We are expected to pull our weight, to take our part, to help repair our broken world. We are also expected to participate and be involved in what God is building, in raising David’s fallen sukkah.

We will put the doors on the Temple, and then it will be a house of prayer for all the peoples. If we didn’t, it would be God’s house, but we would be strangers in it. We are not called to be strangers, but sons and daughters of the Most High.

Everything can be done with joy. Even remorse can be with joy.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

Purim: Death in the Presence of the King

hadassahWho [but Moses] ascended to heaven and descended? Who else gathered the wind in his palm? Who else tied the waters in a cloak? Who established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name if you know?

Proverbs 30:4 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

On that day at the turning of evening he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the sea.” They left the crowd of people and took him in the boat that he was in, but other boats followed him. A great, stormy wind arose, and the waves were flooding inside the boat to the point where it was almost full. He was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, so they woke him up and said to him, “Rabbi, are you not worried about us? We are perishing!” He woke up and reprimanded the wind, and he said to the sea, “Hush and be silent!” The wind calmed down, and there was a great silence. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Why are you lacking faith?” They feared with a great fear and said to each other, “Who is he, then, that both the wind and the sea listen to him?”

Mark 4:35-41 (DHE Gospels)

Faith in the face of certain disaster is at least “difficult” for most of us. We struggle to maintain our faith in God when “ordinary” trials and troubles confront us, but when the difficulty is extreme and death or severe hardship seems absolutely unavoidable, where is our faith then? Moments like those are times of extreme testing and most of us, myself included, hope and pray we will never have our faith tested like that.

And yet, at this time of Purim, we see before us that faith is tested and tested harshly. Yes, the story of Esther is known and realizing that it has a happy ending takes some of the tension out of her situation, but that’s not how life works for us. That God knows the ending of our life of troubles before it begins does nothing to comfort us when we are in the midst of terror, injury, disease, and grief.

Only Esther could save her people from the evil decree of Haman, but to approach the King when he has not summoned you could lead to death. Could Esther risk her own life for the sake of the Jewish nation in exile as they rapidly approached extermination?

Then Mordechai said to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine in your soul that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position!”

Esther 4:13-14 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

While in the Jewish world, Purim is a time of joy and frivolity, a time of wearing costumes, children’s plays, candy, cakes, and a little of the “hard stuff” (for the adults), what lessons can we learn, Jews and Christians alike, from Esther’s example?

How should we understand this give-and-take? Was it simply a matter of Esther fearing for her life, while Mordechai urged her to put the plight of her people first?

Their argument, explains the Nesivos Shalom, was much more fundamental. Esther had accepted the fate of her people. She argued that they had reached such a spiritual low that they were undeserving of Divine deliverance from Haman’s decree. The Al-mighty has rules, and the people had broken them and were sealed for extinction. Mordechai countered that the situation is never hopeless. We will be saved “some other way,” one that defies all rules. G-d has a profound love for us and will break the rules of His kingdom, even if we don’t deserve it. If we reach beyond our limits for Him, He will go beyond His limits for us. Go into the palace against the rules, he said, and demonstrate how our love for Him also transcends all limits.

Purim encourages us to live in this plain that overlooks our natural limitations. Walled in by physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries, we often fall short of our potential for greatness, accepting that some things are just impossible to achieve. Some things are indeed impossible, but never are they hopeless. The Al-mighty has limitless love and help waiting for us, and with Him all is possible. With that in mind, we can have the strength to attempt and hopefully achieve the impossible.

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Beyond the Law”
Commentary on Esther and Purim
Project Genesis

symmes_chapel_churchIt is said that we should maintain our hope in God, even when our death seems certain, “even if a sharp sword is resting on [our] neck” and the decree against us is final, that through prayer, the mercy of God may still be aroused. We read the story of Esther at Purim. We dress in silly, brightly colored costumes and participate in plays where, when Mordechai’s name is said, we cheer, and when Haman’s name (may it be blotted out forever) is mentioned, we boo. We eat and drink as if we had been a prisoner on death row who, in the final seconds before the fatal injection was to be given to us, we were miraculously pardoned and set free.

But we must always be mindful that there are still prisoners.

“[A]fter all of these pressures, after all of the nails they have pressed against my hands and feet, they are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ.”

Pastor Saeed Abedini
from a letter he wrote as a prisoner in Iran

Pastor Abedini is still a captive in Iran and his jailers continually demand that he deny his faith in Christ and “return to Islam.” I don’t normally “get political” on this blog nor was I intending on writing a commentary on Purim or for that matter, on Pastor Abedini, but I think God had other plans. In faith, we pray for deliverance when times are difficult. But it is trust and hope that drives us to pray when the sword is in motion, falling toward the back of our necks, and death is certain.

I raise my eyes upon the mountains; whence will come my help? My help is from Hashem, Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Who is it who has gathered the wind in his palm? Who is He and what is the name of his Son? Who is he, then, that both the wind and the sea listen to him?

Pray that the God who created us all liberate Pastor Abedini soon and that his faith and hope does not falter. Pray that none of us will be put to a similar testing, but if we are, pray that we are strengthened and can endure.

Pray that the King finds favor with us and welcomes us into His Presence.